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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

THIRST: AN UNUSUAL SPIN ON THE VAMPIRE


(Kate considers the offer of an hors d'oeuvre in Thirst)

Anybody else remember this 1979 Australian movie? Directed by Rod Hardy, it's one of my favorites.

Kate, a beautiful English career woman (Chantal Contouri) is kidnapped from her home. She's taken to a spa for rich folks in the countryside, where a handsome doctor (David Hemmings) and various other people try to convince her to accept and embrace her "artistocratic heritage." The problem is, the heritage is drinking blood. Though she didn’t know it, Kate is a descendant of the infamous real-life vampire Elizabeth Bathory, a Hungarian Countess (1560-1614) who bathed in the blood of young girls to preserve her youth.

Her hosts -- an organization called The Hyma Brotherhood -- want her in their ranks so she can marry one of their kind, to join two great vampire families together. The wedding will highlight a festvial to be attended by vampires from all over the world. These bloodsuckers are polite, articulate, and surprisingly human – they lounge outdoors in the sun all day. But Kate isn’t buying it, and eventually one faction in the vampire camp decides to play hardball with her, while Hemmings’s character appoints himself as her protector. But though he treats her reverently, his mentality is so different from hers that some of his efforts on her behalf horrify her even more.

The film is big on dialogue, and while the vampires are chatting by the pool, these frail, pale, bandaged "donors" in hospital gowns wander by. There's a "dairy" where "donors" are hooked up by the throat to a big gurgling machine that drains and "pasteurizes" their blood; the scene where the visiting vampire dignitaries tour the dairy, led by a perky female guide while Muzak plays in the background, is darkly funny. There is some action, suspense, and violence, but it's a very different kind of horror film -- more like a drama. The really creepy thing about it is how plausible it seems.

The whole cast is perfect, but my favorite performance is Shilrey Cameron's as the haughty Mrs. Barker, who runs the dairy and her fellow vampire's lives. BTW, crime film vet Henry Silva is also one of the bad guys, and the film’s most shocking moment involves him. (Pardon the pun – you’ll get what I mean when you see it!)

This smart and original film is pretty much to vampires what “The Howling” is to werewolves – and it was released two years earlier (1979). Well worth seeing, especially if you're up for a real change of pace.

The running time is 98 minutes, and it is available as a DVD.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

THE GAY BED AND BREAKFAST OF TERROR




The Gay Bed And Breakfast Of Terror, which had a limited 2007 theatrical release, is a spoof of “setting” slasher movies like Sleepaway Camp. This time the setting is a “gay friendly” bed and breakfast run by lunatic Helen (Mari Marks) and her spastic nerd daughter Louella (Georgia Jean). For the first forty minutes we meet their victims, five gay and lesbian couples going to attend a big commercial party who couldn’t find accommodations any closer or better. They don’t know Helen is a fanatical fundamentalist who intends to convert or kill them – and to imprison one of their men as a husband for Louella. Or that Helen has another offspring she keeps hidden – cannibal mutant Manfred (Noah Taylor), the “love child” resulting from her once being gang-banged by delegates at the Republican Convention.

Once the killings start, the film becomes a lot funnier (and quite gory). The dialogue is full of catty one-liners, and the plot is full of outrageous twists and revelations that have you thinking, “don’t tell me they’re going to go there” (and then, of course, they do). The gore effects aren’t bad, but Manfred’s “monster suit” is intentionally laughable; he’s supposed to be half man, half maggot, but he looks like he’s just swaddled from the waist down in shiny trash bags.

Sadly, intentionally bad doesn’t have the amusingly na├»ve charm of sincerely bad. If the flick worked better, I’d say, “Imagine John Waters making a horror film.” But John Waters has the instincts and energy these folks lack, though they do seem to take the same perverse glee in their work.

One big problem is that the film has no sense of pace at all; it ambles, lurches and drags. The acting ranges from wooden to competent with an occasional inspired moment. Director/writer Jaymes Thompson really needs to go to film school (or to go to a better film school).

The violence is gross, but not scary, because we don’t like any of the characters – we share their cynical, sarcastic view of each other, just as we would if they were snotty teenagers in a summer camp massacre flick, and we want to see them “get it.” There’s some gratuitous nudity and very mild softcore “sex” scenes (again, at about the same level of those in slasher flicks). The movie has its moments, but the script’s ideas are often a lot more entertaining than their (pardon the expression) execution.

Friday, March 26, 2010

I WAS A TEENAGE DRACULA? The "hidden" film in Herman Cohen's Trilogy


(Sandra Harrison after history's worst makeover in "Blood Of Dracula")


American International released a trilogy of teen-oriented horror films from producer Herman Cohen in 1957. All involved teens being turned into monsters by trusted authority figures secretly conducting “mad scientist” experiments. Two, including this one, were directed by Herbert L. Strock. This last film in the trilogy, for some reason, didn’t have a title beginning with the words “I Was A Teenage…”, and that may in part be why it’s much less well-known than the others, though it’s by far the campiest of the three.

Like “I Was A Teenage Werewolf,” “Blood Of Dracula” focuses on a particularly alienated teen – the hot–tempered Nancy Perkins, ably played by Sandra Harrison. Nancy is placed in boarding school because she won’t warm up to her father’s brassy new wife (married only 6 weeks after her mother’s untimely death). The degree of her anger is apparent in the opening sequence, when she grabs the steering wheel while being driven to the school and almost causes a fatal crash.

Shortly after her arrival she gets into a hair-pulling match with one of the girls who sneak into her room to “greet” her, but despite this she’s welcomed into “The Birds of Paradise,” the group of “cool” girls at the school. Unfortunately, the “Birds” aren’t the only people interested in taking her under their wing.

Teacher Miss Branding (Louise Louis) hypnotizes her – supposedly to calm her down after a second fight breaks out in the chemistry lab – using a rather large medallion “from the Carpathian mountains.” Pretty soon Branding is using the talisman long distance to turn Nancy into an animalistic killer that strangles various other girls. Branding supposedly wants to prove a theory that will put an end to war when the world discovers that she can “unleash a power in a single human being that will make the split atom look like a blessing.” The fact that the transformed Nancy has two absurd frontal fangs that make her look like a beaver in a Bride Of Frankenstein wig doesn’t help to make the attacks scary, though one – set in a supply closet – beat “Psycho” to the use of the swinging light bulb effect by three years.

But the movie has other charms going for it: the girls speak in self-conscious jive lingo that makes much of the dialogue unintentionally funny, and a boy they sneak into their room performs a sinister-sounding rock ‘n’ roll song (accompanied by a 45 RPM they play ) called “Puppy Love” -- complete with a suspiciously well-choreographed “impromptu” dance involving couch cushions.

Harrison also invests her character with enough “Rebel Without A Cause” angst to make you care what happens to her, and there’s a certain intriguing unacknowledged sexual chemistry between her and Louise Louis’s Miss Branding, who’s awfully preoccupied with proving herself as competent as any man. It remains fun to watch till the inevitable showdown, proving again that those who dabble in things better left alone “only work out their own destruction.”

BAGHEAD: ANOTHER DIFFERENT HORROR FILM


(The poster is reminiscent of "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," no?)


I saw this 2008 "horror/comedy" last night, and it was an interesting change of pace from the usual commercial horror flick.

It's a low budget indie fim that looks like a documentary -- but, unlike the "Blair Witch Project," it looks like a professionally shot one. The camera is handheld but the camera operator is competent, and the movie looks the way it does on purpose. The story concerns four friends who implusively go to a cabin in the woods to write and shoot a film, having just seen a film by an acquaintance that they're convinced they could top. Unfortunately, they spend more time drinking and obsessing about their relationships with each other than they do working on the film. There are two guys and two girls -- one guy has a crush on one girl, who just wants to be friends; the other guy, the studly ringleader of the group, has a romantic history with one girl and an escalating flirtation with the other. Naturally, complications ensue, including strain on the deep “buddy” relationship between the two guys, which is a major subplot in itself.

One unexpected complication is that the concept for the film -- that a man with a bag over his head is stalking the group -- begins to manifest itself in reality. At first it looks as though group members are playing mind games with each other -- the "baghead" scares individuals one at a time, the car is mysteriously disabled, etc. -- but when all four of them face off with the intruder at the same time, things get scary (and then scarier still).

Made by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass, the film is really more like a drama than anything else -- the group's intense relationships are the real subject. I don't know who decided to call it a comedy, but the label doesn't fit, though the characters do wisecrack a bit. There is suspense, violence, and enough slasher film tropes that it does qualify as a horror film, albeit a mild one.

The cast and script are excellent. The camera movement is not a problem. The soundtrack is minimal, so the action and dialogue have to involve you, which is refreshing. Everything that happens is plausible.

It's only 80 minutes long, and while I won't say it doesn't drag at all -- the direction largely works, but isn't masterful -- the story never failed to hold my interest. If you're up for something really different, check it out.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

GODZILLA BEFORE RAYMOND BURR




Everyone has seen the first “Godzilla” film with Raymond Burr, but many people don’t realize it wasn’t really the first. Twenty minutes were eliminated from the original film to accommodate inserts with Burr that added nothing to the story but got a big American name into the credits. It had a little more pathos than your average big-city-gets-stomped-by-bigger-monster flick that came out in the 1950s, but a lot of fans would have been hard pressed to explain exactly why.

The original film, in Japanese but with English subtitles, is a totally different experience.

Considerably scarier but also somber and sad, the original “Gojira” makes the movie’s connection to the bombing of Hiroshima a lot clearer, lingering a lot more on the disaster the monster inflicts on Japan and the suffering of the devastated survivors. It also spends a lot more time on the Japanese characters whose story this really is, and makes it clear what wonderful actors are playing them (no awkward dubbing here). In fact, veteran actor Takashi Simura, who plays Paleontologist Dr. Yamane, had just recently appeared in another famous Japanese film – Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai.”

Much more time is spent in this version on what is just a subplot in the Burr adaptation – the romantic triangle between Yamane’s daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi), hero/scientist Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) and salvage worker Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada). Emiko is obligated by an arranged marriage to the scientist, who she respects and admires but does not love – she really loves Hideto. Serizawa has invented a device that can stop Godzilla from ravaging Japan, but resists using it because he fears it will be later appropriated as a military weapon (a nod to the film’s persistent anti-war message). Ultimately, he gives in – but lets the device destroy him, too, so its secret will die with him, freeing Emiko to follow her heart. It’s much clearer in this version how much his sacrifice reflects principles of honor in Japanese culture.

The monster here is also nothing like the amusingly silly rubber-suited wrestler of so many sequels aimed at a child audience. Filmed mostly at night, he is an ambulatory but shadowy tower of destruction relentlessly advancing on the fleeing population – death incarnate. The fact that his searing breath looks like steam here makes it creepier, more intimate somehow. Eiji Tsuburaya's special effects were very realistic for their time, and the night shooting added greatly to the film's atmosphere of menace.

“Gojira” will in no way detract from your continued enjoyment of the more familiar version, but seeing it for the first time is a revelation. There’s more to the myth of Godzilla than a lot of us who grew up with him ever knew. "Godzilla" with Raymond Burr is an exciting 50s monster flick; "Gojira" without him is an affecting, haunting work of art whose monster is a metaphor for issues that still rear larger than his 40-story frame.

Plenty Lurid, Little Karloff in SNAKE PEOPLE


(Chickens need a stronger union on Korbai in The Snake People)

Director Juan Ibanez’s curious 90-minute Mexican flick The Snake People (1975), starred, among other folks, Boris Karloff and the dwarf Santanon. It had suggestive snake dances, zombies, lesbian makeout action, gangs of cannibal women rampaging in the streets, voodoo ceremonies, surreal Freudian dream sequences, and two scenes of necrophilia interruptus -- not to mention wild avante-garde music and hallucinatory camera angles. It sure wasn't boring. It kind of reminded me of the Brazilian Coffin Joe movies.

Karloff plays a plantation owner on a South Seas island called Korbai, which is governed by France. His niece Anabella (one-name actress Julissa), a Prohibitionist, comes to stay with him. She quickly falls for hedonist army officer Wilhelm (hairy chested Charles East), who works for Captain Pierre Labiche (Ralph Bertram), a pompous ass determined to repress native voodoo practices by identifying and capturing the local religion’s “ringleader,” Damballah. (Damballah is actually the name of a snake god in Voudun, but it seems like script writer Jack Hill doesn’t know that). Girls are being killed in order to be brought back as zombie sex slaves, but then they get crazed and run around the streets in mobs killing and eating luckless pedestrians (especially soldiers).

The film spends lot of time gawking at lurid ceremonies presided over by a half-naked priestess (exotic Yolanda Montes), who rubs big live snakes on her breasts and even sucks on their heads. Snaggle-toothed dwarf Santanon sacrifices chickens and laughs maniacally for no apparent reason.

The story makes little sense and the dubbing is awful, but the camera movement and music are involving, and the action is more than weird enough to hold one’s interest. It’s interesting that there are some substantially long sequences without dialogue, where the story is told purely visually. There’s a good bit of nudity and some gore (mild by today’s standards). Karloff, sadly, doesn’t have much screen time and is mostly in the film for his name and for the sake of one implausible plot twist. But I got caught up in it, and found some of its imagery haunting.

SHANKS: WILLIAM CASTLE'S LAST, AND ODDEST, FILM


(Marceau as Shanks in the renimation lab)


Director William Castle’s last film, “Shanks” (1974) is practically unknown today, and with good reason. For one thing, it stars Marcel Marceau (as the Oz character in TV’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer once solemnly said, “nobody deserves mime, Buffy.”) For another, it aims for a childlike mentality and calls itself “a Grim Fairy Tale” – and like a fairytale, it doesn’t concern itself with even trying to be plausible. It’s very odd, not at all like any other film this writer has ever seen, and it was probably a hard movie to promote.

Marceau plays two characters – a deaf mute puppeteer, Malcolm Shanks, and an aging eccentric scientist, Mr. Walker, who employs him as his assistant in secret experiments. Shanks enjoys entertaining the children in his small town, but is exploited by his shrewish sister and drunken brother-in-law (fellow mimes Tsilla Chelton and Philippe Clay), who spend all his money and bully him.

Walker’s experiments involve reanimating dead animals with electricity and then directing their movements with a small push-button remote control box. When he dies suddenly, Shanks reanimates him. Soon Shanks kills off the mean couple who are sponging off him and reanimates them too. Then he uses them as birthday party entertainment for Celia, a teenage girl on whom he seems to have a crush, sort of a Marcia Brady type (Cindy Eilbacher). She’s supposed to be a sweet innocent, but has no problem with laughing as the corpses stagger around to amuse her, sometimes making little faux pas like -- whoops! – cutting off their own fingers with a slice of cake.

This is all very amusing till a group of bikers show up and invade Walker’s mansion, dragging the corpse of a comrade killed in a crash. They tie up Shanks and terrorize Marcia – er, Celia. A zombies-vs.-bikers battle is inevitable, of course, followed by an ending that makes absolutely no sense.

Since the main character and reanimated dead don’t speak, long sequences have no dialogue. These are sometimes prefaced by title cards that strain to remind us of silent movies, as does the hokey, heavy-handed “old-fashioned” music that comments heavy- handedly on the action, especially when the film is trying to be funny. What works during the wordless sequences is that the mimes give the zombies grotesque movements, like dead bodies awkwardly jerked around by remote control would indeed have – pretty much the only believable element in the film. The scene where Shanks first reanimates Walker and makes him stand up, agonizingly wrenching himself from one impossible position to another with his limbs loudly crunching from rigor mortis, is amazing to watch.

Sadly, the absurd plot is just too dumb to accept, and the SPEAKING parts are mostly way hammy (mimes have to overdo it to get their message across without words, and it seems to bleed over into their acting). The lack of logic and believability would be okay in a movie for kids, but this is trying to be a violent horror flick – and if you can’t take it seriously, it’s not scary. And the ambiguous relationship between Shanks and Celia, frankly, isn’t cute and charming – it’s the creepiest thing in the film.

Castle himself, by the way, appears briefly as a grocer. He should have stuck to wiring theater seats and hanging skeletons from the ceiling, because his famous gimmick films all worked way better than this bizarre but unsatisfying swan song -- though if you’re a fan, it’s a must-see curiosity.