Groovy & Wild Films from Around the World

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Cannibal Double-Shot – Jess Franco-style.

Taking on Eurocine's cannibalistic double-feature initially seemed like a momentary impulse in midnight lunacy, however, I came away with the three-hour-and-ten-minute experience with a smile. Serevin Films brought the two Eurocine features, “Devil Hunter” (Jess Franco, 1980) and “Cannibal Terror” (Alain Deruelle, 1981) to a double-feature bu-ray for fans of the cannibals-in-the-jungle (or “gut-muncher”) Euro-horror subgenre. Of course, “Devil Hunter” has the added attractions of A) being a Jess Franco movie, and, B) being miles better than “Cannibal Terror”, although the latter does boast some entertaining exploitation aspects, as well as some familiar in-front-of-the-camera talent from Franco's movies – not surprising as both of these movies were produced by Eurocine in the same time period.

Franco's “Devil Hunter”, however, was also surprising in several regards: firstly through the clever and humourous use of match-cutting in opening sequence between a female victim of the head cannibal in the jungle with the introduction of a young movie starlet somewhere off the jungle island. Of course, very quickly the starlet finds herself on the island and embroiled in danger from the cannibals and a group of kidnappers. But soon, a pair of fellas get themselves to the island via a helicopter and armed with guns and a bag of fake money (the ransom fake-out) in order to lure out the kidnappers and rescue the starlet. And of course, everything goes totally wrong. The second surprise here being that this is the second Jess Franco film in a row that I've had the good pleasure of experiencing that features a helicopter action set-piece and a resulting shoot-out. Once the helicopter goes down in a ball of flames, the two fellas get back to the island only to leave again, get to a boat manned only by one topless woman, knock her out, then enlist her (naked) help, get back to the island once again and re-attempt the initial (and hitherto unsuccessful) rescue mission. By this time, of course, our starlet has had several opportunities to appear is many states of undress, from a torn pink dress to full-out nudity as she's continually attacked and dragged across the jungle island in order to fulfill a final cannibalistic ceremony held by the island natives to appease the bizarre devil-cannibal. Franco criss-crosses these crazy genre plots with stunning ease in his own special exploitation style, making for one of his far more entertaining efforts, especially from this post-seventies time period.

The second feature, “Cannibal Terror” appears to somewhat lack its own panache, and with the handful of slightly despicable and slightly annoying characters presented to us in the first half hour, I found myself hoping for a good, decent cannibal attack after a slightly meandering and somewhat lengthy set-up centered around some failed attempt at financial extortion. At any rate, our protagonists aren't exactly the types of characters we'd find ourselves rooting for. Almost more annoyingly, it's the least-annoying character that is the fist victim of the movie's cannibals. Following this there is (thankfully) more lurid exploitation, which goes on for a little while before starting to peter out past the halfway mark, until the film brings us back into its promised cannibal territory, and things gleefully proceed into some downright weird mayhem. Director Alain Deruelle and the entire cast made the film with such a charming exuberance that it's nearly impossible to dislike this almost inept exercise in low-budget exploitation, which keeps the film trucking right along. The plots of both “Cannibal Terror” and Franco's “Devil Hunter” are essentially the same thing, and when it was all over it occurred to me that Eurocine may have actually hired Franco just to remake Deruelle's slightly flaccid cannibal flick in his own style, which definitely turned out to be wildly better.

At the end of the night, even the more-than-three-hour session of the bizarre flesh-eating double feature, the films never actually left me worn out at any point in time, their zeal and energy more than enough to keep my eyes stuck on the screen and they unfurled before me, releasing their own special kind of cinematic insanity and charm. 



Sunday, February 18, 2018

Vertigo/DePalma - I

Sometime circa 2016, I'd heard that the top spot in the American Film Institute's top-100-movies list had been suddenly replaced by Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 masterpiece Vertigo. Later that same year (2016, not 1958) my wife and I attended a dynamic night at The Orpheum featuring Vancouver's Symphony Orchestra – or rather, the orchestra's entire strings section – performing live Bernard Hermann's soundtrack to the classic horror film Psycho, while Hitchock's film played on a huge screen suspended over the orchestra's stage. It was an amazing October night. So thrilled from the experience, when my wife and I returned home, we immediately went online to order a 13-film Blu-ray box set of Hitchock's films.

Later, in 2017 (April 23rd, 2017, to be exact), on what was a rainy afternoon (or, a torrentially downpouring afternoon, to be more accurate), I decided out-of-the-blue to put on the Vertigo Blu-ray from that set. After having watched and re-watched the films of Brian DePalma and Dario Argento for over twenty-five years, both of them absolute favourite film directors of mine, this would be the first time I'd have ever watched Hitchcock's Vertigo...

* * *

I was sixteen years old in 1991 when my mother came home from grocery shopping, carrying two rental VHS videotapes she'd picked up from Super Video on her way back for me. My best friend at that time, Kirk, was hanging out with me that Saturday evening in the downstairs living room when my mom brought the tapes in – Roman Polanski's Frantic, and Brian DePalma's Blow Out. The first film starred Harrison Ford, whom we both knew better as Indiana Jones at that time, and the second film, Blow Out, was about a b-movie sound-effects designer who, while out one night recordings sounds for his catalogue of studio sound-tapes, accidentally records the tire blow-out and subsequent car crash that kills a prominent senator. DePalma's film starred – “John Travolta?” I asked my mother with a severe you've-gotta-be-kidding-me look plastered across my face. Firstly, we hadn't requested these videotapes, my mom was just trying to be nice and bring us a little something she'd though we'd like. Okay, Harrison Ford I could understand, but in 1991 we knew John Travolta as the guy who was starring in those Look Who's Talking movies – in 1991, John Travolta was not a cool movie star. “You'll like it,” my mother insisted. “It's good.”
“Fine,” I said. “Thank you.” “Thanks, mom!” Kirk yelled from the couch. I rolled my eyes. We watched the Harrison Ford movie first.

* * *

I was now forty-two as I was experiencing, for the first time, Hitchcock's Vertigo. Also, Vertigo did not take the top spot on the AFI's top-100 list – what had actually happened was that the AFI had created a series of new top-10 lists that were categorized by genre. Hitchock's movie had thusly ended up in the number 1 spot on the top-10 mysteries list. Okay, misunderstanding solved. I placed the Blu-ray disc into the player and sat down. As the disc spun to life in the player, I could hear the rain smashing down outside the apartment's sliding glass door. It was hitting the porch and the ground below with such force I'd thought it had started hailing. And then the film started...

The opening visuals grabbed my attention immediately as the beginning credits played over the closeup of a woman's face, and the camera moves so that it becomes as single close-up of her left eye. Things begin to spin inside the iris. Before I can see that this opening sequence had been designed by Saul Bass, who had also designed the opening credits for Psycho, I heard the opening music that immediately brought my mind to a film I was far more familiar with, although it had been made fifteen years after the film I was currently experiencing – Brian DePalma's Sisters...

After obsessing over Brian DePalma's and Dario Argento's movies for nearly twenty-six years, I was honestly, if not understandably, stunned at how much these filmmakers, and specifically Brian DePalma, had used and re-used and re-cycled from this one single film. I was even more stunned that I had never seen Hitchcock's influential film before.

* * *

My mom had been right – both my friend Kirk and I came away loving DePalma's Blow-Out. Kirk had been enthralled with the story having been told through the idea of sound and movie sound-effects – he was (and still is) an experimental musician who loved sound more than he loved music – and in 1991, our Junior year in high school, both of us loved music. Not only were we obsessed with the music of the day as well as classic rock albums of the 60sand 70s, but both of us played several instruments in the high school bands and extracurricular jazz sections, as well as singing in several jazz and a capella groups, and (of course) our own garage band, with Kirk on lead guitar and myself on bass guitar, taking turns singing lead on the single microphone we had (it was Kirk's) and with our other best friend Marty pounding on the drums. Actually, Marty was a very good drummer, he had a natural gift for timekeeping. And strangely, he look a lot like Lars Ulrich from Metallica. I always secretly though that this was why girls were interested in him, as he wasn't particularly good looking otherwise. Anyway, Blow Out became an instant favourite of mine and has remained in my mental top-ten list since that time. Becoming more obsessed with the cinematic aspects and the ironic storytelling of DePalma's film, rather than the more specific background-sound aspects of it as Kirk had connected with, I later approached my mother to ask if she'd known of any other films DePalma had done. She then told me about one that she had seen in the cinema in 1980... DePalma's Dressed to Kill.

Needless to say, the following weekend I found myself at Super Video renting a VHS tape of Dressed to Kill. Excited to watch it, I told my mom that I'd picked it up for myself and was about to immerse myself once again into DePalma's world. At this point in my life, still four years away from my twenties, I was still a couple of years away from discovering the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and specifically, Psycho.

* * *

One of the most beautifully experimental things about DePalma's and Argento's films are the long sequences that move the action and plot forward with subtle music and underlying sound, intricate cutting, and a complete absence of dialogue. These wordless, visually lush sequences are so engaging that for me, it took several viewings before I even realized that there were lengthy segments of these directors' films that were telling the story without relying on any dialogue. The imagery was telling the story, and that imagery, as in the film Blow Out, was so engaging because it provided to us (and allowed us, the audience, to see), a character working, thinking, being inspired, and cleverly solving tricky problems, as John Travolta's character was doing, in the quietness of his own montage-scene, when he was snipping a series of photographs of the car accident from a news magazine that a photographer had happened to shoot with a new high-speed camera. We watch while Travolta puts each rectangular cut-out photo under the lens of an animation camera and re-shoots these magazine photos into a short piece of animated film, and then sets this film to the soundtrack that he himself recorded. There is no other characters in this scene to bounce dialogue off of, to tell us what he's up to, only DePalma's visuals are telling us the story. There is no narration, that would only ruin the graceful cutting of imagery that DePalma and his editor have pieced together for us, letting us see the pieces of the puzzle while John Travolta is trying to solve his own narrative puzzle within the film we're watching. Explanation is far from elusive, as the imagery says it all and with DePalma's perfect timing of a symphony conductor.

DePalma more noticeably had used this wordlessly visual storytelling technique in the museum sequence in his film Dressed to Kill, where Angie Dickinson and a handsome sunglassed stranger are playing an elaborate game of sexual flirtation with each other. The sequence is shot with long stedicam shots and elegantly punctuated with split-screens and flashbacks that are used with a sense of fluidity and never over-used; never detracting from the scene itself, only adding to it, fleshing it out, creating a depth beyond the scope of the stedicam.

I was very surprised to see this visual and wordless technique applied to early scenes in Hitchcock's Vertigo, as we become pulled into the film by its visuals and score-only soundtrack while James Stewart follows the object of his obsession and desire: the lovely Kim Novak. We become wrapped up in the dance these characters are performing for us in the scenes on the screen, Kim Novak leading while James Stewart follows through one set-piece to the next, including a graveyard that has been lit to inspire the future films of Dario Argento specifically, slashed with greens and underlying reds, hankering back to the colours of the opening-credit sequence of Vertigo. And like Blow Out and Dressed to Kill, we become not only engaged by this style of visual storytelling, but the style allows us to quietly ponder and experience our lead characters' actions and decisions, to become involved in the things that they are doing that are mysteriously and gracefully moving the plot forward.

Traditionally, my experience with Hitchcock's films up until this point had been of his wordy, sometimes over-expositional dialogued approach to his cinematic thrillers; and rightfully so, as was the style of the time to have the attractive leads and protagonists/antagonists duelling in a battle of wits over love and murder. Where Hitchcock began experimenting photographically with his thrillers in his celebrated Rope, which was entirely comprised of eight single long takes of films, he culminated this technique into the beautiful flowing camerawork that graces Vertigo and Psycho – although the techniques would influence heavily Dario Argento and become perfected by DePalma in his three masterworks: Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, and Body Double, to which this trio of films was preceded by the nearly as important early work in Sisters.

The influence of Vertigo on Sisters (1973) is not quite as explicit, but there are scenes leading into the third act of Vertigo that appear deceivingly mundane on their own, should one not perceive the deft photographic handling of framing, depth, and the space between the action taking place, in this instance, on opposite side of the street. Where James Stewart recognizes Kim Novak in the street in front of a shop, Hitchcock's film cuts to an exhilarating medium close-up of Novak before we see her running across the street and up into a hotel halfway down the block. The camera shot follows, but the camera itself does not. Nor does our victim/protagonist Stewart – he hangs back and simply watches, and waits until he can see her through the window of her hotel room, a few floor up above street level. While there were voyeuristic scenes in both Sisters and Body Double whose influences in spacing and mis-en-scene have been attributed to Hitchcock's Rear Window, after seeing this seen in Vertigo I would say that the influence lay far more cemented in the latter film. The spacing from street level to the apartment window in DePalma's Sisters when news reporter Jennifer Salt sees what she thinks in a murder in the upper apartment across the street, the context and content would understandably make any audience member think back to Rear Window, when in fact compared to the decidedly un-bloody voyeur-from-across-the-street scene between Stewart an Novak in Vertigo, it's that film that fits into DePalma's template for the crucial scene in Sisters more firmly.

(To be continued...)

Sunday, February 11, 2018

50 Pages a Night – Vol. 3 (Postmortem readings)

Without one word of a joke, I purchased Patrick Billing's TOR horror paperback “The Quiet” in 1994 – to finally read it twenty-three years later. This novel survived 10 moves, one of the cross-country and one of them completely off of the continent. It not onlhy survived, but remained in very good condition, as would most of the paperbacks in my collection, nearly fifty percent of them sitting in the same scenario “The Quiet” had been in – loved yet unread for years. Some, like “The Quiet”, for decades.

Patrick Billings' horror novel is a whip-snap tale set in the wilds of Yosemite National Park and concerns a park ranger protagonist who tries to figure out why the park's bears are suddenly killing the tourists. And brutally killing, at that – it seems that the bears are almost acting like serial killers. And this is where the story goes into the bizarre, because it looks like there is in fact a serial killer at work here. This novel was such the page-burner that I was suddenly overwhelmed with the idea of consuming all things in the nature-horror sub-genre, and so I immediately called one of the last video stores in Vancouver – Videomatica – and requested that they order a very rare blu-ray edition of William Girdler's cult film Grizzly for me, which I had thoroughly enjoyed when I was in my early twenties.

In the meantime, since 1994, Patrick Billings had passed away. Billings being the author's pseudonym, it was hard for me to track down information about him right away, but eventually I discovered that his real name was Earl Patrick Murray, a prolific crime and western novelist who had also written three horror books, “The Quiet” seemingly the only one under the Billings pen name. Earl Patrick Murray died “suddenly”, according to online obits, in 2003 at the age of 52.

Prior to relieving “The Quiet” from its dust-gathering spot on the bookshelf, I had also freed the late Robert “Psycho” Bloch's 1989 novel “Lori” (purchased by me in 1992 from the discount bin in a U.S. bookstore). Robert Bloch passed away two years after I first purchased his paperback, and again this book moved around with me, unread, for decades. When I finally did crack open this outrageous supernatural mystery-thriller, I became hooked on Bloch and immediately found myself in a used bookstore with a handful of his old TOR paperbacks (some of which I'll talk about in later blog posts on the subject). “Lori”, though, is one of his best, I think, at almost a breakneck pace Bloch takes us through his dark world where doppelgangers, murders, deceit, and nightmare misconceptions abound.

Most recently, I came across a novel titled “The Devouring” in a second-hand bookstore. Again the force of a horror novel consumed my imagination and I proceeded to zealously research the author F.W. Armstrong – only to find out the “The Devouring” was actually the middle book in a short horror series, and that Armstrong was actually a pseudonym for author T.M. Wright, whose cult novel “Strange Seed” is perhaps his best known work. I was a little saddened to see that T.M. Wright had passed away in 2015.

Horror and surreal crime author Tom Piccirlli, who had published several mind-bending experimental horror novels with Leisure Horror, had also passed away from a brutal battle with cancer in 2015 (he was 50). I'd been a big fan of Piccirilli's, having read a lot of his earlier works and horror shorts; and he'd also been the screenwriter, very early in his career, of the underground-independent direct-to-VHS vampire film Addicted to Murder. However, the short novel that had been released four years before his death, “Every Shallow Cut”, was one of his best and most memorable works; the still-experimental narrative now more defined and refined as Piccirlli takes us through an emotionally wrought journey via an emotionally wrought protagonist; almost as if Bukouski had inadvertently wandered into Piccirilli's world of nightmarish noir. “Every Shallow Cut” was the last book I'd read of Piccirilli's, although there is still one more of his on my bookshelf, purchased roughly ten years ago. Maybe I should go and check the dust level on it. 


Sunday, February 04, 2018

Their Later Films Vol. 3 – Wes Craven.

The late horror-meister Wes Craven's 2010 horror-thriller My Soul to Take gets a bad rap. I remember reading a fan's tweet to Wes Craven, after its initial release, saying “It's okay, Wes, we still love you”. Clearly this film failed to strike a chord with horror audiences and with Craven's die-hard fans alike – originally titled 25/8, the film then sat on the shelf for over a year and a half after its completion, only to then be renamed, and then to be post-converted into 3D, which was all the rage in 2010, even though the film had not been shot with that in mind. Already the studio was worried about its reception and preemptively created the 3D theatrical release hoping to lure in the teenage audiences. Oh, yes, and his film was cut, too – some of the bloody horror toned down to get it from an “R” rating to a “PG-13” for its theatrical release. Really, from any aspect, it looks like Craven's film had gone through hell and back, and it did not come out unscathed, not it the least.

I never did see My Soul to Take in its theatrical 3D, PG-13 incarnation; instead I found a used (uncut and non-3D) blu-ray for three dollars at a store that was closing down. To be honest, I would have grabbed it if it was thirteen dollars; I was also a die-hard Wes Craven fan and I'd actually been looking forward to his film for a while, though at that time I was intentionally avoiding all things 3D at the movie theatres. After giving Craven's film a spin, I was immediately left wondering what the hell all of the negative feedback had been about. Okay, before I get too far ahead of myself, let's go back to the storyline for a quick moment here –

My Soul to Take concerns a group of high school kids (like Scream) who have been selected to die at the hands of a supernatural serial killer – or maybe not, maybe this killer is just out for vengeance, in a plot that vaguely echoes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street. Craven then throws more secondary horror themes into the mix, including the spirit of the killer who is able to body-jump from person to person (as in Craven's film Shocker), and the film's story starts to go down a not-entirely-necessary, yet weirdly exciting labyrinth of horror sub-plots and backstory; and Craven is impressively able to handle off this within his story without it fleeing into convoluted territory. The thing is, this is one of the trademarks of Craven's horror style, right out of his earlier films that had become part of his cult-hit cannon. So, why, then, I wondered, did My Soul to Take not hit it with his intended audience? Was Craven's signature style of storytelling no longer relevant? I find that even seven years later, I can't figure that one out. My only though on this is that perhaps, with time gone by, it might be time for fans to revisit My Soul to Take along side of his classics Shocker, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and his epitomic mind-bending meta-horror A New Nightmare (or, “Wes Craven's A New Nightmare”).

That being said, Wes Craven, ever the horror meister, was able to rebound with a vengeance (well, overseas, anyway) merely a year after-the-fact when his cinematic swan sang, Scream 4, was released into cinemas. A commercial hit overseas, and a moderate hit in North America, Scream 4, which this time concerned a grown-up Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and newcomer Emma Roberts (Scream Queens), was able to overcome the bad publicity and criticisms of My Soul to Take as well as the previous and dreadful Scream 3 (which had featured the ill-advised cameos of Jay and Silent Bob). Not quite as good as the first and hugely original (for its time) Scream, this fourth entry – fifteen years after-the-fact – was still just as good as Scream 2, despite the awkwardness from the internal jokes which couldn't make out if Scream 4 was supposed to be an actual sequel or a Hollywood reboot, and despite the trendy but unfortunate miscasting of Alison Brie and Marley Shelton. Still, Hayden Panettiere and Emma Roberts were a blast to watch, and Craven's last high school slasher film prevailed and subsequently spawned a new television series based on his work.

I still feel now, in the wake of his sad passing near the end of the first season of the Scream television series, that Wes Craven had another horror film in him. This could certainly be chalked up to wishful thinking on my part, but judging from the creativeness of My Soul to Take and Scream 4, there might've been something else that went untapped.

RIP, Wes Craven, 1939-2015.