December 25, 2015

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS



THE FORCE AWAKENS is to the STAR WARS franchise what SCREAM 4 was to the SCREAM franchise, a half remake/half continuation of the series that hits all the expected notes. But while SCREAM 4 felt like a desperate attempt to wring whatever cash was left from a dead franchise, THE FORCE AWAKENS is the real deal, a heartfelt love letter to the original trilogy of films that is so wonderfully, gloriously and sloppily in love with itself and the universe from which it was birthed that you can’t help but marvel at its nearly crushing self-absorption. Yes, spoiler alert, I was swept away by its lovelorn adoration for the original trilogy, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t bother me at times. There’s a level of narcissistic self-love that’s acceptable, even laudable, but at a certain point, it gets to be a bit much, like watching someone masturbate to their own sex tape.

THE FORCE AWAKENS, in many ways, had it easy. All it had to do was be more Original Trilogy than Prequel Trilogy. Personally, I never saw the point of the Prequel Trilogy. I mean, I know the reasons Lucas stated for making these films, that they will somehow complete the story told in the Original Trilogy, that they will expand upon the mythology, give us new and interesting characters, and wonderful fresh vistas and experiences. But once the dust settled and all three installments were released, it became clear to all watching that those pre-release promises were not quite fulfilled. Sure, we now knew the step-by-step process Anakin Skywalker underwent on his voyage from promising young Jedi to Darth Vader, but something just felt off about the whole thing. 

For me, it was “the tone”.

See, this expansion of the mythology only damaged the sense of wonder the Original Trilogy provoked. Remember when the Jedi were mythical pious warrior monks? Now they’re a paramilitary/bureaucratic group of stoic blowhards unpermitted to feel any emotion other than self-righteousness. Remember the mystery and dread invoked by Emperor Palpatine? Now he’s a self-aggrandizing politician who becomes a cackling lunatic. Try to hold on to your respect for wise old Yoda as he screeches and yelps, bouncing around the room like a homicidal wad of Flubber. The oft-whispered about Clone Wars? Well, we see the start of the conflict and the end of the conflict, but everything else is just left for the animated series to detail. And Anakin Skywalker?

Dear lord.

The Anakin Skywalker of the Prequel Trilogy is damn near intolerable. He’s a self-absorbed, petulant little shit that bitches and moans for nearly half his total on-screen time. We’re supposed to be invested in this character on an emotional level, but he is so poorly constructed and insufferably petty that it is literally impossible to identify with him. The Prequel Trilogy is so dead set on painting Anakin as your typical disillusioned, damaged teenager that Lucas actually has him walk into a school and start killing kids. There are attempts to humanize him, like when his mother dies in his arms and Little Orphan Annie goes nuts, cutting down a whole pack of Sand People. It gives him a secret pregnant wife who is destined to die and uses that as the final motivation for his descent into evil, but nothing Lucas can muster up manages to escape the personality vacuum that is Anakin Skywalker.

And this is what I mean by “the tone”. If the Original Trilogy was watching three films to see good triumph over evil, the Prequel Trilogy was watching three films just to see some asshole get his limbs chopped off. The Prequel Trilogy sucked all the fun out of the franchise, replacing it with vagaries of intergalactic politics, trade route disputes, an inside job war dreamt up and executed by a man wanting to expand his executive power (9/11 Truthers would be proud), black and white moral arguments about personal responsibilities, explanations of why sand sucks, and pathetic philosophical deepities like “why is Padme so beautiful? Is it because she’s so in love with Anakin? Or is it because Anakin is so in love with her?”

Worse, it complicates the narrative of the original trilogy, almost to the point of distraction. Obi-Wan tells Luke that he hasn’t gone by the name Obi-Wan since well before Luke’s father died, which isn’t true. Despite spending a lot of time with R2-D2, Obi-Wan doesn’t remember ever owning a droid. Little moments like that stand out as a reminder that no matter what Lucas says about having this all planned out in advance, nothing really was. If it were, we most definitely wouldn’t have nearly as many cringe-worthy incest scenes in the Original Trilogy. How much does this all screw with continuity? Just ask yourself this: if you really wanted to hide Anakin’s children from him, would you leave Luke, Anakin Skywalker’s son, with Owen Lars, Anakin Skywalker’s relative, on Tatooine, Anakin Skywalker’s home frickin’ planet?

But now we’re free from all of that. For the first time, the franchise can look forwards instead of looking back. Lucas is out, his role as franchise lead stripped away from him. In steps J.J. Abrams, man whose entire career has been informed by Lucas and his New Hollywood cohorts, Spielberg and Coppola. In an attempt to add gravitas to the proceedings, Lawrence Kasdan, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACKS screenwriter, makes a return to the franchise. Fresh faces, many of them out of the mainstream, are hired to play leading roles. Practical effects and gorgeous sets are built, replacing some of the plastic unreality of the Prequel Trilogy. Everything is set to move forward, everyone is excited, the movie comes out and what do we get?

Well, it’s basically A NEW HOPE with a little bit of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK tossed in for good measure. No shit. This is quite literally A NEW HOPE, beat for beat. From the bored desert planet dwelling hero-in-waiting whose run-in with a droid leads to adventure, to a beloved figure meeting their maker as their friends watch on, to the attack on a planet destroying weapon of mass destruction at the films end… You’ve seen this before. It’s STAR WARS. Comfortable, old STAR WARS.

This is where the critical part of my brain runs headlong into the film spectator part of my brain. I know that this was lazy on the part of the filmmakers. I know that this film could have done something different. The critical part of my brain wants to dismiss everything in this film as redundant fan service. In fact, I would be justified in doing exactly that, but the fan in me won’t allow it, because the part of my brain that watches STAR WARS for the experience, for the fun and the wonder of it all, was incredibly satisfied by the film. This is what I wanted. This is what everyone wanted. We wanted more STAR WARS. We wanted the sharp-witted banter, the lovable droids, the watering holes on far away planets filled with alien faces, the thrilling dogfights, the overcoming of personal insecurities in the face of inevitable death. We wanted more of that and THE FORCE AWAKENS delivers everything the Original Trilogy delivered.

In the same way a cover of a great song can reveal depths hidden behind comfortable familiarity, THE FORCE AWAKENS demonstrates the universal appeal of the STAR WARS franchise while still being its own entity. It gives us memorable characters in Rey, the tough, scrappy heroine abandoned to a desert planet by unknown parents who longs for both grand adventure and a quiet, peaceful life, and in Finn, the Stormtrooper-turned-Resistance fighter. Rounding out the newcomers are Poe, the ace pilot of the Resistance and near-instant hetero-lifemate of Finn (their bromance was a highlight of the film) and BB-8, a glorious little droid that immediately invokes the kind of amused adoration one normally feels for a dog. The Dark Side here is represented by Kylo Ren, the troubled young Sith with a bad case of Darth Vader fanboyism. One of the more interesting villains the STAR WARS franchise has ever offered up, Ren is the kind of guy who wears Sepultura t-shirts to church in an attempt to appear hardcore. He can manage to throw people through the air, stop laser blasts in their tracks and is handy with a lightsaber, but he is unfinished, caught in-between the light and the dark sides of the Force. The most interesting bit of his characterization is that he is more Anakin than Vader and he knows it all too well.

And there is (of course) Leia, the ex-princess-turned-battle hardened Resistance general, and Han Solo, the smuggler-turned-war hero-turned smuggler. One of the best things about THE FORCE AWAKENS is how it handles the introduction of these old characters. There is no dramatic build-up, no moment when they subtly break the fourth wall to recognize their own importance to the franchise, no royal fanfares. They just exist in the universe. They’re a part of it and Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher relax back into their roles as if time stood still and waited for them to be on screen again. Unfortunately, I wish we spent more time with them together. It’s revealed somewhat early on in the film that Kylo Ren is actually Ben Solo, Han and Leia’s son. There’s a very interesting thread of story line between Han and Leia that never really gets its due. This is a couple that has, for all intents and purposes, lost a child and that loss drove them apart. We get the impression that these people have not seen each other in a very long time. I would have liked more time with them together, more time to see them side by side, talking to one another. But this isn’t really their film. They’re merely a part of it.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a STAR WARS film that has left me anxiously awaiting the next installment. THE FORCE AWAKENS definitely has me excited for what comes next because this film, unlike A NEW HOPE, will definitely have a sequel. When Lucas made his original film way back in 1977, its box office success was not a guarantee. Lucas made a film that worked as a singular entity and then was granted the opportunity to build a larger story from its foundations. With THE FORCE AWAKENS, there was never any doubt that we would be getting two more films. As a result, Abrams and Kasdan filled this film with tantalizing hints of larger mysteries yet to be solved. From Rey’s Force-fueled visions and her sudden growth in power near the films end to the look she receives from a long-lost hero on a planet far, far away... this film gives us a taste of a story yet to come and this time we don’t know how it ends. We aren’t counting down to a rendezvous on Mustafar. My hope is that THE FORCE AWAKENS is where the callbacks end and the real journey into uncharted territory begins, but if it isn’t, if we still tread on comfortable ground and revel in the memories of our childhood, I think I could live with that, especially if it is done with this level of love and care.

I am a believer in STAR WARS once again and man, that feels great to say.

December 23, 2015

TO ALL A GOODNIGHT


Within the first 30 seconds of David Hess’ directorial debut TO ALL A GOODNIGHT, some random girl takes a tumble off a balcony after being playfully chased by her schoolmates at the Calvin Finishing School for Girls. An indeterminate amount of time later, we meet our group of heroines, a half dozen ditzes planning on a hot night of debauchery with some hunky out-of-towners. They give the den mother a glass of warm milk and send her off to bed before settling down for a little skin-on-skin action with the boys. Once everyone has had an orgasm and the Final Girl has had her fifth or sixth run-in with a slow-witted, Bible-thumping, Messenger of Doom gardener named Ralph, the real action starts. A killer dressed as Santa Claus shows up and starts plowing through the cast. Could this have anything to do with the Prank Gone Awry from earlier in the film?

Do I really need to answer that question?

At the 45 minute mark, I began to notice a few things. One, I didn’t know a single character’s name. Two, the movie never really explained the central plot set-up, that these girls were staying behind on Christmas break. Three, that this film was even supposed to be set at Christmas time. The first bit of Christmas decoration doesn’t show up until about an hour in and the movie appears to be happening in the spring. Four, I still didn’t know who knew who, from where and for how long. I’m pretty sure one of the girls mentioned the lead guy by name before he arrived, but I might have just imagined that and I sure as fuck wasn’t going to start the movie over again to check. And five, why exactly did the guys arrive in a plane? Where exactly is this finishing school located? 

That’s when I realized that it doesn’t matter. None of this mattered to me. I’ve seen so damn many of these movies that the details of the set up simply don’t interest me anymore. In fact, I would prefer to just skip all that junk and get straight to the bloodletting. Every minute the movie spends explaining the minutiae of the narrative just drags out my suffering.

And suffer I did. Even by early 1980s slasher film standards, this was pretty abysmal. While I would be lying if I said that the film doesn’t offer up some strikingly good gore effects from time to time, the build up to virtually every murder set piece is nonexistent. Characters just… well, die. There’s no real attempt to build suspense or even mild intrigue. I mean, this is ostensibly a murder mystery, right? So shouldn’t we, ya know, spend a little time trying to figure out the murderer’s identity? Shouldn’t we have a moment or two where the characters actively try to survive instead of just standing around while the killer sllooooowly approaches? What we have here is a film so damn lazy that it doesn’t even offer up a single red herring, content to just kill everything in sight as recompense for its own lack of imagination. Worse, the killer turns out to be someone everyone in the house knows. So why even bother dressing up in a creepy Santa Claus outfit? And why doesn’t anyone in the house know the relationship between the girl they accidentally killed and her… you know what? I’m not even spoiling it. It’s the only thing this movie has going for it. Admittedly, that’s not saying much.

Now yes, I know I just said that I don’t care about the details, but there’s a difference between the set-up and the pay off. The set-up for these films literally doesn’t matter. Just take an isolated location, toss in some eye candy, chuck in a hulking dude with a sharp object and let him go to town. But there needs to be something to sustain the blood and guts parade, some reason to keep watching, otherwise the stretches of film between the murders become unbearably boring. There just isn’t anything going on in this film. It is an empty experience in every way.

December 18, 2015

KILLER


KILLER belongs to that kind of low budget horror film where the budgetary limitations placed upon the narrative work heavily in its favor. You know that kind of film. HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER belongs to that kind of film. Leif Jonker’s DARKNESS belongs to that kind of film. Peter Jackson’s BAD TASTE belongs to that kind of film. These are films with immediacy and a sort of desperate creativity. They know full well that they cannot buy their way out of it. They have to earn their place at the table through sheer force of conviction or through wild, unbridled energy.

It’s entirely through presentation that these films work. Both Jonker and McNaughton turned their entirely workaday stories into something special through, respectively, rapid fire pacing and gooey effects, and cynical, almost clinical attention to gruesome detail. KILLER, the debut feature from Tony Elwood, substitutes slapdash, borderline cartoonish violence for a serious tone, turning his otherwise ordinary tale of a spree killing nutjob, warped by childhood trauma, terrorizing a small group of 20somethings into a giddy, wildly entertaining geekshow. In terms of substance, this film has none. In terms of minute-by-minute gleeful excursions into absurd blood pornography, this film has aplenty.

It also has a great sense of genre awareness to it. Every stab or gunshot is accompanied by a sound effect three times louder than everything else on the soundtrack (a soundtrack which constantly throbs away in the background and ironically seems to rise to unheard of levels of creepiness during the more mundane scenes). Every wound, no matter how slight, sends a gluttonous, impossibly large spray of blood across the scenery. You have a killer who was driven to madness by finding his mom servicing a cop. This unnamed killer wears sunglasses, devouring each scene with buffoonish relish, like Arnold Friend reimagined as a Looney Tunes character, constantly undone by his inability to control his bloodlust, leading him to be caught several times in the act of murder because he’s soooo insane that he simply cannot resist killing people outdoors in broad daylight. The killer claims he cannot die, a claim the movie backs up several times even though it makes no logical sense. It’s just how things are in these kinds of movies. The hero is a largely ineffective git named Ash who just so happens to get his ass throttled over and over again as the movie barrels towards its climax.

To watch KILLER is to watch the low budget horror film in a constant state of equal revelry and semi-contempt. It encapsulates pretty much every quality you and I love about low budget slasher films, from the cheap and convenient plots to the overabundant gore. But when the credits roll, the undeniable feeling sets in that while you had a decent amount of fun, you’re still hungry, because what you just watched was as insubstantial as a handful of marshmallows. But to complain about a lack of any meaningful substance in a movie like KILLER is to miss the point of a movie like KILLER. Sometimes it’s nice to just shove some candy down your throat and enjoy the teeth-melting sweetness, even if you know those empty calories aren’t going to do much to keep you alive. I enjoyed this movie for all the right reasons, even if my brain bitched and moaned once it was all said and done.

December 13, 2015

HAVE A NICE WEEKEND


HAVE A NICE WEEKEND begins innocently enough with a melodic score playing over out-of-focus footage of two middle school football teams smacking the hell out of one another on an empty field. Just as I was getting invested in the downtrodden underdog Team in Blue Shorts, who would have won the game had idiot Davey not fumbled the ball (fuck you, Davey), the movie decides to forever dash my dreams of a middle school slasher film and focuses instead on Frank, the middle aged football coach, and his dwindling love life with his girlfriend. Wouldn’t you know it, just as I was getting invested in whether or not Frank would ever get his mojo back, the film decides to give me Chris, a Vietnam War vet fresh off the plane home. Chris calls his parents and informs them of his wishes to have a reunion at the old family vacation home conveniently located on an island in the middle of nowhere.  And I don’t need to tell you why that’s a bad idea. This is a horror movie from 1975 and anyone who has ever seen a mid-70s horror film knows better than to ever go some place secluded with a Vietnam War vet, especially one that is having flashbacks of dead children and suspiciously rushes off to shave in a train station bathroom before burning his uniform behind the building. That sort of thing never leads to having a nice weekend.

So off to the vacation home we go with Frank, Chris, Chris’s sister Muffy (yes, that’s her name) and Muffy’s college roommate, Ellen. Also on board for the weekend trip are Chris’s parents, Paul and Laura, and Joan and Donald Kraft, friends of the family. It becomes apparent rather quick that every one of these individuals has problems. Paul has a knife fetish, Laura is depressed by her ageing, Muffy recently attacked Ellen over some dude, Joan is flirtatious with the younger guys and her husband knows it. They’re only at the home for about 24 hours before Frank is viciously stabbed to death out in the woods.  Because this is a horror movie, the phone lines aren’t working so calling the police isn’t an option. Maybe they could build a fire big enough to see from the mainland? Maybe they should… whoa, never mind all of that. Chris freaks out and goes into full blown armchair general mode, dividing the island into separate areas for each individual to check. And that isn’t good because now Chris can bump them off one-by-one without anyone oh wait Chris is dead, his skull split with a garden hoe. Huh. Kind of unexpected.

You would think the discovery of two dead bodies would drive the rest of the group into hysterics but nope. No one seems all that bothered by it. They quickly sink into calm, rational detective mode, sitting around the house, quietly questioning each others' motives and alibis. We learn a bit more back story through flashbacks and rumors. Frank and Laura were having an affair. Paul was a strict, borderline abusive father and is now seeing a shrink. Muffy has a pretty strong attraction to her roommate. Ellen’s older brother is in an asylum. The film begins to pile up insinuations and incriminating angles, but does absolutely nothing with them for the next 20 minutes, choosing instead to just end with a sudden reveal of the killer. Worse, after the film ends proper, we get a near five minute long epilogue where a psychologist explains the murderer’s state of mind, a kind of halfhearted attempt to add some last minute intellectual depth. 

But you know what the real twist in the story is? 

It’s not an altogether bad film. In fact, it’s one of those films that have really grown on me over the years. It has this kind of strange atmosphere to it, a weird vibe where everything is skewed just enough to be bizarrely fascinating. This isn’t an empty headed thriller. It’s a strange statement about social confines within family units, about personal tragedies that go unnoticed, about a war abroad that paralleled social unrest back home. The killer in HAVE A NICE WEEKEND is an oddly tragic figure, a victim of circumstances beyond their control. The epilogue goes to great pains to explain all that and ends up coming across as more than a bit pedantic and almost condescending in tone, ruining what I feel is the films single best moment, the brief monologue given by the killer that spells out, stream of consciousness style, all the subtext lying behind the subterfuge of drab, by-the-book thriller surface images the film offers up. In those final moments, HAVE A NICE WEEKEND becomes something more than the previous 70 or so minutes combined.

There is also the beautiful autumnal scenery, the sweeping and slightly ironic score, the acting that feels like impressions rather than performances… all of this adds up to create a film that works on a strange sort of level. It’s an anti-thriller thriller, a movie that is just slightly arthouse and just marginally grindhouse, a weird fever dream where every passing moment ladles just a bit more absurdity into the mix. It isn’t high class entertainment, nor is it bottom of the barrel trash. HAVE A NICE WEEKEND is a genuine oddity with its own insular kind of charm, a proto-slasher that deserves a second chance at an audience.

December 8, 2015

DISCONNECTED



Gluttony. It’s the first word to come to mind when I sit and think of the 1980s. I ate too much, slept too much, played too many video games and I most certainly watched too many movies. But who could blame me? It seemed like everyone watched too many movies in the 1980s. It was, for the first time, a simple and remarkably cheap thing to do. The VHS revolution was in full swing. Demand was so high that self distribution became a legitimate enterprise. Small distributors were in fashion and stores were positively flooded with mainstream blockbusters, classics finding their first home video release and… well, let’s just say that a noticeable percentage of films hitting home video were less than classic.

For every one highly regarded horror film sitting on the rental store shelves, there were a dozen horrible movies, usually low budget affairs shot on video by some enterprising film school drop-out and his pals over the course of a weekend or two. Some of these films would have never seen the light of day were it not for cheap acquisitions and fast sell outs to stores desperate to fill their aisles. Honestly, most of those films should have stayed obscure or unseen. A nice chunk of my early teenage years were spent watching films that had no business being available for rental, let alone made in the first place.

DISCONNECTED somehow escaped my VCR. I remember the box art. I vaguely even remember picking it up from time to time, always putting it down in favor of some hyper-violent European film or whatever box cover promised me a quick glimpse at bare breasts. Having now watched the film, I can say without hesitation that my early teenage self might have found some kind of enjoyment in it. After all, it does contain that sought after glimpse of female nudity. My demands were easily met in those days.

DISCONNECTED is an apt title. Here is a movie about a young woman named Alicia who spends her days working at a video rental store and her nights being harassed by creepy phone calls. She meets a nice guy named Franklin and accepts an invitation to a quiet night out. They get along rather well and their friendship turns physical. Unfortunately for Alicia, Franklin is a maniac serial killer wanted by the police. To make matters worse, her identical twin, Barbara Ann, is the vindictive sort, the kind of chick who just loves to steal her sister’s boyfriends. This puts Barbara Ann directly in the line of fire and sure enough, she ends up dead.

At this point, with nearly 30 minutes left in the film, DISCONNECTED becomes a different sort of movie. See, Franklin has some terrible luck. Running a tad bit late with his body disposal, Alicia shows up unannounced and finds her sister’s corpse. Franklin attacks her and the film cuts to the two detectives charged with finding the murderer busting into his home as they conveniently walk down his street at just the right time. Franklin is shot dead (off-screen, of course) and the case is solved. But if the murderer is really dead, why are there new reports of dead women? Why is Alicia still receiving creepy phone calls? Alicia begins to descend into madness and a new film begins, but then, after only 30 minutes of Plot B unspooling in lazy fashion across the screen, the movie simply ends. No closure. No explanation. It just ends.

The reason DISCONNECTED is such an appropriate title for this film is that every single plot element (the phone calls, the jealous sister, the creepy pornography hound that shows up a couple of times during the film, Alicia’s tumble into madness) feels disconnected from the underlying narrative, which is a plain and simple case of Serial Murderer meets Cute Video Store Clerk. Take, for example, the two detective (I don’t remember them even being named). They are the first two characters we meet. The film sets up a whole strand of plot where we watch these men track down a killer. But writer/director Gorman Bechard relegates these characters to little more than one-on-one conversations between the detectives and an off-screen investigator, most probably a superior or a police psychologist. These scenes are filmed in empty rooms with white walls, the person off-screen asking questions that the detectives answer, their vague replies hinting at a police investigation we never get to see, even though it is diegetically going on at the same time as everything else and will be, we imagine, important as the film plays out.

The phone calls hint at something deeper. The voices on the other end of the line aren’t voices at all. They’re loud, almost demonic wails. The first time we meet Alicia, she’s inviting an old man into her home. He takes the phone off the hook and disappears while Alicia is in the kitchen making tea. He shows up again as the film ends, again hinting that something more sinister is going on. The film is full of insinuations that go nowhere and plot threads that are potentially more interesting than what is onscreen, but are dropped for reasons probably budget related.

DISCONNECTED, if it does anything interesting at all, has a level of self awareness that I found refreshing. It knows it’s cheap. It knows it cannot possibly do what it sets out to do. During the scenes with the detective, the clear lack of budget to buy appropriate character costumes is brought up and explained. Our Hawaiian shirt wearing copper simply states that he feels the place could use more color, hence the shirt. He acknowledges the routine narrative set-up, the cheapness of the visuals and obviousness of the film as a whole (the opening title literally reads “Generic Film presents”) by stating “I feel like I’m stuck in some low budget horror movie”. As Alicia succumbs to madness, Bechard pulls out all the stops he possibly can on a shoestring budget, mixing close-ups of Alicia binge drinking and chain smoking with still photographs, random shots of dolls and windows, a mixed bag of imagery usually seen in cheap horror movies. He constantly references Hitchcock, hoping desperately that his slight nods to films like PSYCHO and SHADOW OF A DOUBT will lend weight to his film, like by bringing up those films we the audience will fill in the gaps in his narrative with the splendor of Hitchcock’s tightly wound masterpieces. These references, these moments of self awareness, come off as half apology/half appeal to be kind, to overlook the cheapness of the film. It asks us to take it for what it is and not dismiss it for what it isn’t.

But while I understand the plea to look past the shortcomings, I just cannot give the film that grand a pass. It is, despite all the other flaws on display, an exceedingly boring film. I could only liken it to a drunk sitting at a bar. The drunk is telling a story, a story he has only half figured out. He moves from character to character, moment to moment, without really knowing where he’s going. He contradicts himself repeatedly, sometimes dropping characters entirely, sometimes only bringing them back into the action when someone across the bar pipes up asking “what about the cops? What are they doing?”As the drunk rambles on, the story begins to loop back on itself. His eyes grow heavy and his shoulders begin to slouch as he gets himself stuck in a loop of repeated action, desperate to crawl out of his narrative hole, each word forming slower, each loop becoming more and more drawn out. And just as we’re reaching the end, just as the action is set to resolve and we learn, finally learn, what this is all about, the drunk rests his head against the bar, his rambling turned to gibberish, all lucidity lost, just before his eyes close and he bids adieu to consciousness. Meanwhile, we, the people sitting there at the bar, just shrug our shoulders and go back to our drinks, slightly annoyed that we’ll never really learn the ending to this story, but deep down not really bothered by the fact at all.

November 18, 2015

FUNERAL HOME


The most notable thing about FUNERAL HOME is its title, an achingly obvious horror movie title if there ever was one. You’d be forgiven for thinking that you have seen a half a dozen movies bearing that name. How it was that by 1980 we managed to have THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE but not FUNERAL HOME is beyond my comprehension. It really, truly is a no-brainer title. Like PSYCHO or HALLOWEEN, the title FUNERAL HOME immediately tells you everything you need to know about the film. You instantaneously form an idea of the horrors contained within. Decay, embalming fluids, pasty faced corpses laid out in gaudy pine boxes… it’s both a perfect title and an underwhelming title. Nothing too flashy, nothing too original, everything is obvious, everything is routine.

That perfectly summarizes the film itself too. This was early 1980, well before the attractive, horny teenager became the de facto standard for slasher movie characters. Sure, we have Heather, the lovely, busty protagonist and Rick, her hunky boyfriend, but we’re mostly stuck with a bunch of chubby, nondescript schlubs, all of whom have their own individual plot threads, for the majority of the movie. Amid all the comings and goings of our hideous 40-somethings is Maude Chalmers, Heather’s grandmother. Left alone after her mortician husband ran off with another woman, Maude has decided to turn her home, the titular funeral home, into a bed and breakfast. This of course raises the very valid question of why anyone in their right mind would choose to spend their weekend vacations in a largely rundown, ultra creepy home in the middle of a field but hey, it’s their money and they can waste it as they wish.

Maude is your typical bitter, conservative prude, a real cantankerous old crow that is as likely to berate her customers (in particular, a sleazy traveling salesman and his horribly downmarket mistress) as she is to fix them breakfast. But of larger concern than the service is the way Maude sneaks down into the basement to have arguments with a mysterious man whom we never see. There’s also the mentally challenged handyman lurking about and because this is a 1980s horror movie, that can’t be good for anyone at the property. It doesn’t take too long before people start dying and the truth about Maude’s more anti-social tendencies come to light. Anyone paying attention to the near constant Hitchcock references will figure out the twist ending pretty quick and honestly, this is about the only thing FUNERAL HOME does really well. Unfortunately, when the best I can say about your movie is that it very cleverly references a much better movie… well, that might not be much of a compliment.

At little more than 90 minutes, FUNERAL HOME absolutely blows by. This is a film I actually watched twice in a row to see if I could figure out why a movie in which nothing much happens feels like a movie half its length. After those two viewings, I still have no idea. I don’t want to give the impression that the movie is totally without merit though. William Fruet, the director of the much more satisfying DEATH WEEKEND and the incredible KILLER PARTY, does have a considerable amount of skill. When the film decides it wants to be a slasher instead of just a low rent Hitchcock knock-off, it contains a surprising amount of punch, with more than a few stalking scenes done quite well. There’s some genuinely effective stuff in here, but it is surrounded by endless stretches of unlikable characters doing uninteresting things. Had the film been a bit more focused and a lot less obvious, it would have achieved what it set out to do. As it stands, it is just an alright, middling little horror film that doesn’t quite stand out from the pack.

October 31, 2015

MARIO BAVA'S 2 1/3: THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE GIALLO FILM


The film begins with a pretty young blonde named Nora aboard a plane set to arrive in Italy. In her hands is a book, a dime-store murder mystery thriller with the words The Knife emblazoned upon its cover in ghastly lettering. Voice over narration informs us that Nora has been sent to Italy to stay with a family friend, Ethel, by her mother, the hope being that a trip abroad will break Nora from her murder mystery novel obsession. A man offers her a cigarette, which she accepts. He will later be arrested by the police in the airport. The cigarettes he’s carrying are laced with marijuana. Arriving at Ethel’s home, she meets Marcello, a doctor, who informs her that Ethel is ill, suffering from a high heart rate. Later that night, during a loud thunderstorm, Ethel dies of a heart attack and Nora leaves the house in a panic to get help, the phone lines knocked out as a result of the storm.

As she navigates the darkness near Piazza di Spagna, she is attacked and knocked unconscious by a mugger. When she comes to, Nora hears a scream in the distance. Before her very eyes, a woman staggers into a courtyard and falls over, dead with a knife in her back. As she cowers behind cover, Nora sees a bearded man approach the corpse, pulling the knife from her back and dragging her away. Dazed from the head injury she received during the attack on the steps, Nora passes out. In the early morning, she is found by a man. He pours liquor in her mouth, trying to revive her, but bolts when a police officer approaches. The police officer, thinking she is drunk, takes Nora to the hospital. Even though Nora is adamant that she witnessed a murder last night, no one believes her, writing her off as a drunk with a head injury, but it soon becomes apparent to Nora that she needs to figure out the truth of what happened that night at Piazza di Spagna because someone is coming to kill her.

Another film, this time in color. A woman named Rosy arrives home at night. From her clothing and late arrival, we can assume that she is a call girl. As she readies a bath, the phone in her home rings. Rosy answers but no one is on the other line. The phone rings again. It’s a man’s voice, hushed, almost a whisper. He is going to kill her. Rosy is understandably bothered by the call, even more so when the mysterious man phones her up again and again, each time revealing that he can see what she’s wearing, where she hid her jewelry and what room of the home she’s in. After hearing a noise at the front door, Rosy discovers an envelope lying on the floor. Inside is a newspaper clipping featuring a picture of a man’s face with a caption telling us that his name is Frank Rainer and that Frank has just recently escaped from jail.

Rosy picks up the phone, calling a woman named Mary. They are ex-lovers and we can tell from Mary’s tone that she was not the one who broke up the relationship. Rosy tells Mary that Frank has escaped, that he knows she was the one who turned him in, leading to his arrest, and that Frank is coming to kill her. She wants Mary to come over and spend the night and Mary, clearly amused by all this, accepts the offer. Rosy hangs up the phone only for it to ring again. The man’s voice on the other line chides Rosy for inviting her friend over, reiterating that she will die by his hand before dawn. What Rosy doesn’t know and what we now see for ourselves, is that Mary is the one making these calls, a vicious and vindictive bit of mind game meant to ingratiate herself back into Rosy’s life. Mary arrives at Rosy’s home to spend the night. A little later, as Rosy sleeps, Mary sits in front of a desk in the darkened room, writing a confessional to her ex-lover, explaining why she pulled the prank on her, not knowing that Frank really has come back to kill the woman who betrayed him.

The two films described above are, respectively, THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and THE TELEPHONE, the first segment in the horror anthology movie BLACK SABBATH. They were both directed by the same man, Mario Bava, in 1963 and both mark first steps for the giallo film. The murder mystery thriller genre of film was at that time largely non-existent in Italy, with most examples of that kind of film being imports, like the Krimi films from Germany, many of them murder mysteries, most of them adaptations of novels and short stories written by Edgar Wallace, one of the most popular post-war pulp novelists at the time. Bava’s THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH deviated from the more serious minded (though no less campy) Krimi in being a self-aware, self-reflexive piece of work, a pastiche of sorts built from Hitchcock, Expressionism, pop art and well worn detective fiction tropes. It’s relatively simple story of a young girl forced into taking on the role of amateur detective to solve a crime (and thereby save her life) is a breezy, romanticized treat, filled with suspenseful moments, but lacking in the more cynical, nasty details that pervaded the much darker American crime thrillers and Krimis. 

THE TELEPHONE is a much different beast. While Nora is a woman assailed from without, Rosy is a woman assailed from within. This shift from a danger "out there somewhere" to a danger coming from within her past (or circle of acquaintances) makes this all together less encompassing film into an exercise of tightly wound suspense. Depending on the version you watch, the lesbian subtext either exists or is replaced with something far less offensive to the often puritanical film censors of the 1960s (at that time, lesbianism, like all other forms of non-heteronormative behavior, was considered deviant). In the Italian version, the lesbianism feeds into the more typical damsel in distress tropes on display, revealing a film that is as much about a man wanting to punish a woman for betraying him to the police as it is about a kind of dubious moral consciousness that wants to punish a woman for rejecting heteronormative sexuality.

These two strands of narrative threads (the amateur detective narrative and the poisoned past narrative) would become the de facto narratives for virtually every giallo film that followed in the 1960s and 1970s. They would sometimes cross-pollinate with the amateur detective discovering the killer to be their friend, relative or spouse. Even as the lines between the police thriller and the giallo blurred with films like THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA and WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS?, narrative elements of one (or both) of the foundational narrative types bled through. But what was missing in 1963 was the look and feel of the giallo.

In 1964, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE was released. Again directed by Bava, this tale of murder and mayhem at a haute couture fashion house brought forward most of the visual elements that would go on to define the giallo look. It would also define the attitude, that implacable bit of cynical venom that ran through the veins of the 1970s gialli. This is a movie concerned with fashion models, a haughty Countess and her arrogant lover, drug addicts and thieves all under the assault of a masked killer determined to render flesh and sever arteries. The opening shot of a sign above the front gate to the fashion house being blown off its chains by the forceful winds of a storm is the perfect visual metaphor for the corrupt and corrosive attitudes inside the building. This is a movie all about surface appearances, evidenced by its opening credits, a series of tableau shots of characters standing in front of mannequins and ornate bric-a-brac. Each one of these characters is a mess of secrets and deceptions lurking behind a veneer of respectability. The faceless killer could be any one of them and that’s the point. Remove the outer shell of humanity from any of them and all you’re left with is something inhuman. 

BLOOD AND BLACK LACE gives us the typical giallo killer disguise, a black rain or trench coat, a black fedora, a bavaclava and black gloves. It gives us the obsession with style, the outward appearance that marks the characters as showpieces. It gives us the murder fetish where instruments of destruction are given pornographic attention and the scenes of bodily destruction have an immediate, almost sexual feel to them. It gives us the purposefully obtuse camera angles, the roving shots of ornate architecture, the close-ups of suspicious glances and ever-watching, unblinking eyes. But most importantly, it gives us the set piece.

The original Italian title of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is SEI DONNE PER L’ASSASSINO, literally translated to SIX WOMEN FOR THE MURDERER. Typical in giallo films, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is a movie where the narrative halts almost entirely to devote running time to the stalking, terrorizing and murder of women. Perhaps the first body count movie ever made, the narrative here borrows a bit from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None in that each murder doesn’t so much propel the narrative forward as simply compacts it down (like a game of Guess Who?, only here you don’t simply fold the plastic pieces down after they’re eliminated, you slit their throats). Like Christie’s story and the dozens of movies based off of it, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is only ostensibly a murder mystery. Characters are not worried about the identity of the killer. They’re worried about whatever personal private information is contained within the diary of Isabella, the killer’s first victim. Everyone in the film is concerned with self-preservation, but not the kind you would expect in a movie where a killer is running around strangling people. They’re more worried about having their dirty laundry aired which would certainly be their death, not physically but socially.

But in all honesty, this film doesn’t care about telling a compelling whodunit story. After all, this is a film whose original title was SIX WOMEN FOR THE MURDERER. Bava is only concerned with one thing here and that’s the creation of tense, self-contained bits of thriller cinema. In a way, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE prefigures the slasher film much more solidly than Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. The inclusion of a police investigator into the mix only serves as a launching pad for the films sadistically ironic finale. Where BLOOD AND BLACK LACE differs from the simplistic breasts and blood slasher film is in the way Bava presents his story visually.

Perhaps the single most interesting thing about BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is the painterly, hyper-stylized look of the film. Awash in gelled lights, this is a Crayola nightmare of a film, a watercolor chiaroscuro fever dream positively dripping with menace and constructed with deliberate, almost obsessive attention to detail. Bava’s history as cinematographer comes to the forefront here with every single scene containing a jaw dropping amount of visual power. Much of the irony derived from the films narrative is the juxtaposition of beautiful imagery with graphic grue and violence. The first murder of the film is set in a wonderfully Gothic outdoors arena. A beautifully lit room, walls touched with hints of pink and baby blue, gives way to a scene of a woman having a spiked glove rammed into her carefully made up, glamour magazine perfect face.

It’s difficult to put into words the sheer beauty of Bava’s film just as it’s difficult to describe its deliberate attempt to discard verisimilitude for atmosphere. If SUSPIRIA is Alice and Wonderland as written by a madman and photographed by Jack Cardiff, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is FRIDAY THE 13TH as written by a pretentious leftist pundit and art directed by Henri Matisse. The collision of staggering beauty with stomach churning violence (unlike most movies of the time, the violence here actually hurts to watch, so much so that I hope the actresses earned hazard pay) is just another irony in a movie full of them.

By the time the credits roll on BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, the giallo film has been birthed, albeit fragmented. It would be another five years before the pieces were all put together by Dario Argento in THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, a film which found the success Bava never did. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE was a flop, like THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH before it. Today, Bava is remembered as a master of suspense, a man whose influence can be seen throughout modern cinema. Had BLOOD AND BLACK LACE achieved mainstream success at the time, I wonder what the course of the giallo film would have looked like.