Category Archives: Horror

SIFF 2017: Zoology **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 3, 2017)

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This oddity from Russian writer-director Ivan Tverdosky answers the question: What would happen if David Cronenberg directed a film with a script by Lena Dunham? A middle-aged, socially phobic woman who lives with her mother and works in a zoo administration office, appears to be at her happiest when she’s hanging out with the animals who are housed there. That’s because her supervisor and co-workers cruelly belittle her, on a daily basis. But when a doctor’s exam reveals a tail growing from the base of her spine, she is overwhelmed by a sudden feeling of empowerment and begins to gain confidence, perhaps even a sense of defiance about her “otherness”. This does not go unnoticed by a strapping young x-ray tech, who becomes hopelessly smitten as this ugly duckling turns into a beautiful swan…a beautiful swan with a freakishly long tensile tail.

Beauty is the beast: The Lure **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 18, 2017)

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As far as retro 1980s New Wave-flavored horror musicals about sexy flesh-eating mermaids go, I suppose you could do worse than Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure (at the SIFF Film Center in Seattle March 24-26; check your local listings for possible limited engagements in your area). Needless to say…it is not for kids (this is a tale that would make Hans Christian Andersen plotz).

Near as I was able to discern the plot (thin enough to dissolve into sea foam at the slightest suggestion of an impending gale), two sultry sister-sirens are slithering about in the Baltic surf one evening, when they espy a Polish new wave band hanging around on the beach. As we all know, no man, be he a sailor or synth-popper, can resist the clarion call of a sexy Baltic Sea siren.

The band members have no option but to stash the sisters backstage at the strip club they gig at, until they can figure out their next move. Before long, the sleazy house manager discovers them and sees dollar signs. He unceremoniously demands that Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska) show him their wares; however he quickly discerns certain elements of the mermaid’s human form to be, shall we say, un-formed…and incompatible with job requirements.

But before the manager can boot the freeloaders out, the band’s lead singer (Kinga Preis) intervenes on the sisters’ behalf. Feeling a maternal tug, she offers to take the young women under her wing, convincing the manager to begrudgingly hire them on as part of the band’s act. Naturally, the lovely sirens beguile the audiences and become an instant hit (A Starfish is Born?).

But alas, every Silver has a cloudy lining. Or in this case, sister Silver has a propensity for being a real man-eater. Literally. For now, Golden’s more feral instincts are being kept in check, because she finds herself falling in love with the bass player (it’s always the goddam bass player). As we’ve learned from many mermaid tales, bassists and mermaids are always star-crossed as lovers.

To label this film as “over the top” is an understatement. I’m not sure what to tell you. If you’re expecting something along the lines of The Rocky Horror Picture Show…this one’s several leagues below (no pun intended). There are a couple of jaunty numbers, and the splashes of bold color are suitably garish in a 80s retro kind of way, but for a film being billed as a “new wave rock musical”, I found the production lackadaisical in both music and choreography departments.

Still, those who lean toward midnight movies might find more to love. With its deadpan performances, 1980s vibe, cheesy horror elements and overall weirdness, I found the film reminiscent of Slava Tsukerman’s 1982 punk rock sci-fi horror cult item, Liquid Sky (only in passing; Tskerman’s film is a genuine underground classic). Feel free to jump in at your own risk.

Hitch by ten best

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 13, 2016)

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Today is Alfred Hitchcock’s 117th birthday (well, would have been). It’s a good enough excuse for me to share my picks for the top 10 from the Master’s catalogue of 50+ films:

The Lady Vanishes – This 1938 gem is my favorite Hitchcock film from his “British period”. A young Englishwoman (Margaret Lockwood) boards a train in the fictitious European country of Bandrika. She strikes up a friendly conversation with a kindly older woman seated next to her named Mrs. Froy, who invites her to tea in the dining car. The young woman takes a nap, and when she awakes, Mrs. Froy has strangely disappeared. Oddly, the other people in her compartment deny ever having seen anyone matching Mrs. Froy’s description. The mystery is afoot, with only one fellow passenger (Michael Redgrave) volunteering to help the young woman sort it out. Full of great twists and turns, and the Master keeps you guessing until the very end. The production design may be creaky, but it’s clever, witty and suspenseful, with delightful performances all around.

Lifeboat – This taut, suspenseful 1944 Hitchcock classic (adapted from a John Steinbeck story by screenwriter Jo Swerling) is essentially a chamber piece at sea, centering on a small group of passengers who survive the sinking of their vessel by a German U-boat, which also goes down in the skirmish. A floundering survivor who is later pulled aboard the already overcrowded lifeboat turns out to be a member of the U-boat crew, which profoundly shifts the dynamics of the group. A sharply observed microcosm of the human condition, with superb direction, great cinematography (by Glen MacWilliams), imaginative staging (especially considering the claustrophobic setting) and outstanding performances by the entire ensemble, which includes Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, Walter Slezak, John Hodiak, Mary Anderson,  Canada Lee, and Hume Cronyn.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog – Mrs. Bunting is a pleasant landlady, but we’re not so sure about her latest boarder. There’s a possibility he’s “The Avenger”, a brutal serial killer who is stalking London. Ivor Novello plays the gentleman in question, an intense, brooding fellow with a vaguely menacing demeanor. Is he or isn’t he? This suspense thriller has been remade umpteen times over the last eight decades, but for my money, none of them can touch this 1927 Hitchcock silent for atmosphere and mood. Novello later reprised the role of the mysterious lodger in Maurice Elvey’s 1932 version.

Marnie – I know it’s de rigueur to tout the (dizzyingly overpraised) Vertigo as Hitchcock’s best “psychological thriller”, but my vote goes to this  underappreciated 1964 entry, which I view as a slightly ahead-of-it’s-time pre-cursor to dark, psychosexual character studies along the lines of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park. Tippi Hedren plays the eponymous character, an oddly insular young woman who appears to suffer from kleptomania (which turns out to be the least of her “issues”). Sean Connery plays a well-to-do widower who hires Marnie to work for his company, despite his prior knowledge (by pure chance) of her tendency to steal from her employers. Okay, he’s not blind to the fact that she happens to be a knockout, but he also finds himself drawn to her as a kind of clinical study, due to her bizarre behavioral tics. His own behaviors begin to slip as he tries to maintain roles as Marnie’s employer, friend, lover, and armchair psychoanalyst all at once. One of Hitchcock’s most unusual entries, bolstered by Jay Presson Allen’s intelligent screenplay.

North by Northwest – I’m hard-pressed to name a more perfect blend of suspense, intrigue, romance, action, comedy and visual artifice than Hitchcock’s 1959 masterpiece. Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason and Martin Landau head a great cast in this outstanding “wrong man” thriller (a Hitchcock specialty). Almost every set piece in the film has become iconic (and emulated again and again by Hitchcock wannabes). Although I never tire of the exciting crop dusting sequence or the (literally) cliff-hanging chase up Mt. Rushmore, I’d have to say my hands down favorite is the dining car seduction scene. Armed solely with Ernest Lehman’s clever repartee and their acting chemistry, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint engage in the most erotic sex scene ever filmed wherein the participants remain fully clothed (and keep hands where we can see them!). Frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann’s score is one of his finest.

Notorious – It’s a tough call to name my “favorite” Hitchcock movie (it’s like being forced to pick your favorite child). I would narrow it down to three: North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, and this superb 1946 espionage thriller (no, I don’t have a man-crush on Cary Grant…not that there would be anything wrong with that). To be sure, Grant makes for a suave American agent, and Claude Rains a fabulous villain you love to hate, but it’s Ingrid Bergman who really, erm, holds my interest in this story of love, betrayal and international intrigue, set in exotic Rio. Bergman plays her character with a worldly cynicism and sexy vulnerability that to this day, few actors would be able to sell so well.

Psycho – Bad, bad Norman. Such a disappointment to his mother. “MOTHERRRR!!!” Poor, poor Janet Leigh. No sooner had she recovered from her bad motel experience in Touch of Evil than she found herself checking in to the Bates and having a late dinner in a dimly lit office, surrounded by Norman’s unsettling taxidermy collection. And this is only the warm up to what Alfred Hitchcock has in store for her later that evening. This brilliant thriller from the Master has spawned so many imitations, I long ago lost count. While tame by today’s standards, several key scenes still have the power to shock. Twitchy Tony Perkins sets the bar for future movie psycho killers. Anyone for a shower?

Strangers on a Train – There’s something that Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, Rene Clement’s Purple Noon (and Anthony Minghella’s 1999 remake, The Talented Mr. Ripley) all share in common with this 1951 Hitchcock entry (aside from all being memorable thrillers). They are all based on novels by the late Patricia Highsmith. If I had to choose the best of the aforementioned quartet, it would be Strangers on a Train. Robert Walker gives his finest performance as tortured, creepy stalker Bruno Antony, who “just happens” to bump into his sports idol, ex-tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) on a commuter train. For a “stranger”, Bruno has a lot of knowledge regarding Guy’s spiraling career; and most significantly, his acrimonious marriage. As for Bruno, well, he kind of hates his father. A lot. The sociopathic yet silver-tongued Bruno is soon regaling Guy with a hypothetical scenario demonstrating how simple it would be for two “strangers” with nearly identical “problems” to make those problems vanish…by swapping murders. The perfect crime! Of course, the louder you yell at your screen for Guy to get as far away from Bruno as possible, the more inexorably Bruno pulls him in. It’s full of great twists and turns, with one of Hitchcock’s most heart-pounding finales.

The 39 Steps – Many of the tropes that would come to be so identifiably “Hitchcockian” are fomenting in this 1935 entry: an icy blonde love interest, a meticulously constructed, edge-of-your-seat finale, and most notably, the “wrong man” scenario. Robert Donat stars as a Canadian tourist in London who is approached by a jittery woman after a music hall show. She begs refuge in his flat for the night, but won’t tell him why. Intrigued, he offers her his hospitality. He awakens the next morning, just in time to watch her collapse on the floor, with a knife in her back and a map in her hand. Before he knows it, he’s on the run from the police and embroiled with shady assassins, foreign spies and people who are not who they seem to be. Fate and circumstance throw him in with a reluctant female “accomplice” (Madeleine Carroll). A suspenseful, funny, and rapid-paced entertainment.

To Catch a Thief – This is one of the Hitchcock films that are more about the romance, scenery and clever repartee than the chills and thrills, but that makes it no less entertaining. Cary Grant is “retired” cat burglar John Robie, an American ex-pat and former Resistance fighter living on the French Riviera. A string of high-end jewel thefts (resembling his M.O.) put the police on Robie’s back and raise the ire of some of his old war buddies. As Robie tries to clear his name and find the real culprit, a love interest enters the picture to further complicate his situation (an achingly beautiful Grace Kelly). To be sure, it’s fairly lightweight Hitchcock, but holds up well to repeated viewings, thanks to the  chemistry between Grant and Kelly, intoxicating location filming (courtesy of Robert Burks’ colorful, Oscar-winning cinematography), and the delightful supporting performances (particularly Jessie Royce Landis, as Kelly’s mother). The witty, urbane screenplay is by John Michael Hayes (he also scripted Hitchcock’s Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, and the director’s 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much).

SIFF 2016: Alone **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

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This extremely weird Korean thriller (is that redundant?) from director Park Hong-min centers on a young photographer who inadvertently documents a woman’s rooftop murder while taking pictures from his balcony, setting off a chain of nightmarish events. What ensues is kind of like Groundhog Day meets Carnival of Souls…in Seoul. Good use of that city’s back alley labyrinths to create a claustrophobic mood (recalling Duvivier’s use of Algiers’ Casbah quarter locales in his 1937 crime drama Pepe le Moko). It gets less involving (and more gruesome) as it chugs along; genre fans may like it more.

Frightfully amusing: 10 horror comedies for Halloween

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 31, 2015)

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The nightly news is horrifying enough…so here’s ten funny ones. Alphabetically:

Bubba Ho-Tep – This 2002 tongue-in-cheek shocker from director Don “Phantasm” Coscarelli could have been “ripped from the headlines”…that is, if those headlines were from The Weekly World News. In order to properly enjoy this romp, you must first unlearn what you have learned. For example, JFK (Ossie Davis) is still alive (long story)…and he’s now an elderly African-American gentleman (even longer story). He currently resides at a decrepit nursing home in Texas, along with our hero, Elvis Presley (midnight movie icon Bruce Campbell). The King and the President join wheelchairs to rid the facility of its rather formidable pest…a reanimated Egyptian mummy (with a ten-gallon hat) who’s been lurking about waiting for residents to pass on so he can suck out their souls. Lots of laughs, yet despite the over-the-top premise, Campbell’s portrayal of “Elvis” remains respectful; even poignant. Davis also nails that sweet spot; he embraces the inherent campiness of his “JFK”, yet he somehow retains the dignity of its namesake.

Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter – “What he doesn’t know about vampires wouldn’t even fill a flea’s codpiece!” This unusually droll Hammer entry from 1974 benefits from assured direction and a clever script by Brian Clemens, one of the creators behind The Avengers TV show. Captain Kronos (Horst Janson) and his stalwart consultant, Professor Hieronymus Grost (John Cater) are called upon by a physician to investigate a mysterious malady befalling residents of a sleepy hamlet…rapidly accelerating aging. The professor suspects a youth-sucking vampire may be involved…and the game is afoot. Along the way, the Captain finds romance with the village babe, played by lovely Caroline Munro (*sigh*). The film was released toward the tail end of Hammer’s classic period; possibly explaining why at times, Clemens appears like he is doing a parody of “a Hammer film”.

Delicatessen– Love is in the air…along with the butcher’s cleaver in this seriocomic vision of a food-scarce, dystopian “near-future” along the lines of Soylent Green, directed with trademark surrealist touches by co-directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (The City of Lost Children). The pair’s favorite leading man, Dominique Pinon (sort of a sawed-off Robin Williams) plays a circus performer who moves into an apartment building with a butcher shop downstairs. The shop’s proprietor seems to be appraising the new tenant with a “professional” eye. In Jeunet and Caro’s bizarre universe, it’s all par for the course (and just wait ‘til you get a load of the vegan “troglodytes” who live under the city). One particularly memorable and hilarious sequence, an imaginatively choreographed lovemaking scene, stands as a mini-masterpiece of film and sound editing.

Eating Raoul– The late great Paul Bartel directed and co-wrote this twisted and hilarious social satire. Bartel and his frequent screen partner Mary Waronov play Paul and Mary Bland, a prudish, buttoned-down couple who are horrified to discover that their apartment complex is home to an enclave of “swingers”. Paul is even more shocked when he comes home from his wine store job one day and discovers Mary struggling to escape the clutches of a swinger’s party guest who has mistakenly strayed into the Bland’s apartment. Paul beans him with a frying pan, inadvertently killing Mary’s overeager groper. When the couple discovers a sizable wad of money on the body, a light bulb goes off-and the Blands come up with a unique plan for financing the restaurant that they have always dreamed of opening (and helping rid the world of those icky swingers!). Things get complicated, however when a burglar (Robert Beltran) ingratiates himself into their scheme. Yes, it’s sick…but in a good way. Just wait until you meet Doris the Dominatrix.

Ed Wood– Director Tim Burton and his favorite leading man Johnny Depp have worked together on so many films over the last 20-odd years that they must be joined at the hip. For my money, this affectionate 1994 biopic about the man who directed “the worst film of all time” remains their best collaboration. It’s also unique in Burton’s canon in that it is somewhat grounded in reality. Depp gives a brilliant performance as Edward D. Wood, Jr., who unleashed the infamously inept yet 100% certified camp classic, Plan 9 from Outer Space on an unsuspecting movie-going public back in the late 1950s. While there are lots of belly laughs, none of them are at the expense of the off-beat characters. There’s no mean-spirited agenda here; that’s what makes the film so endearing. Martin Landau nearly steals the film with his droll Oscar-winning turn as Bela Lugosi. Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette and Jeffrey Jones also shine in their roles.

I Married a Witch– Clocking in at 77 minutes, Rene Clair’s breezy 1942 romantic fantasy packs in more wit, sophistication and fun than any ten modern “comedies” you’d care to name put together. I’ll tell you what else holds up pretty well after 70 years…Veronica Lake’s allure and pixie charm. Lake is a riot as a witch who re-materializes 300 years after putting a curse on all male descendants of a Puritan who sent her to the stake. She and her equally mischievous father (Cecil Kellaway) wreak havoc on the most recent descendant (Fredric March), a politician considering a run for governor. Lake decides to muck up his relationship with his fiancé (Susan Hayward) by making him fall in love with his tormentor. All she needs to do is slip him a little love potion, but her plan fizzes after she accidentally ingests it herself. And yes, hilarity ensues.

J-Men Forever!– Woody Allen may have done it first (What’s Up, Tiger Lily?) and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 troupe has since run the concept into the ground, but Firesign Theater veterans Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman did it best with J-Men Forever. I am referring to the concept of re-appropriating footage from corny, no-budget B-films and re-dubbing the soundtrack with comic dialogue. I’ve been a devotee of this film since it aired on the USA Network’s after hours cult show Night Flight back in the 80s (alright, raise your bong if you remember that one). The creators had a sizable archive from the old Republic serials to cull from, so they were not restricted by the narrative structure of one specific film. As a result, Proctor and Bergman’s wonderfully silly concoction about saving Earth from a nefarious alien mastermind called “The Lightning Bug” benefits from quick-cut editing, perfectly synced with their trademark barrage of one-liners, puns and double-entendres, all set to a rock‘n’roll soundtrack. “Schtay high!”

No Such Thing– Director Hal Hartley’s arch, deadpan observations on the human condition either grab you or leave you cold, and this modern Beauty and the Beast tale is no exception. TV news intern Beatrice (Sarah Polley) is sent to Iceland to get an exclusive on a real-life “monster” (Robert Burke), an immortal nihilist who kills boredom by drinking heavily and terrorizing whomsoever is handy. After her plane goes down en route, her cynical boss (Helen Mirren) smells an even bigger story when Beatrice becomes the “miracle survivor” of the crash. The Monster agrees to come back to N.Y.C. if Beatrice helps him track down the one scientist in the world who can put him out of his misery. The pacing in the first half is leisurely; dominated by the Monster’s morose, raving monologues, set against the stark, moody Icelandic backdrop (I was reminded of David Thewlis’ raging, darkly funny harangues in Naked). Once the story heads for New York, however, the movie turns into a satire of the art world (a la Pecker), as the couple quickly become celebrities du jour with the trendy Downtown crowd. Obscure, but worth a look.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show– 40 years have not diminished the cult status of Jim Sharman’s film adaptation of Richard O’Brien’s original stage musical about a hapless young couple (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who have the misfortune of stumbling into the lair of one Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) one dark and stormy night. O’Brien co-stars as the mad doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, Riff-Raff. Much singing, dancing, cross-dressing, axe-murdering, cannibalism and hot sex ensues-with broad theatrical nods to everything from Metropolis, King Kong and Frankenstein to cheesy 1950s sci-fi, Bob Fosse musicals, 70s glam-rock and everything in between. Runs out of steam a bit in the third act, but the knockout musical numbers in the first hour or so makes it worth repeated viewings. And at the risk of losing my “street cred”, I admit that I have never attended one of the “audience participation” midnight showings. I now fully anticipate being zapped with squirt guns and pelted with handfuls of uncooked rice (ow!).

Young Frankenstein– Writer-director Mel Brooks’ 1974 film transgresses the limitations of the “spoof” genre to create something wholly original. Brooks kills two birds with one parody, goofing on James Whale’s original 1931 version of Frankenstein, as well as his 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. Gene Wilder heads a marvelous cast as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced, “Franken-schteen”) the grandson of the “infamous” mad scientist who liked to play around with dead things. Despite his propensity for distancing himself from that legacy, a notice of inheritance precipitates a visit to the family estate in Transylvania, where the discovery of his grandfather’s “secret” laboratory awakens his dark side. Wilder is quite funny (as always), but he plays it relatively straight, making a perfect foil for the comedic juggernaut of Madeline Khan, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Cloris Leachman (“Blucher!”), Terri Garr and Kenneth Mars, who are all at the top of their game. The scene featuring an unbilled cameo by Gene Hackman is a classic. This is also Brooks’ most technically accomplished film; the meticulous replication of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory (utilizing props from the 1931 original), Gerald Hirschfeld’s gorgeous B & W photography and Dale Hennesy’s production design all combine to create an effective (and affectionate) homage to the heyday of Universal monster movies.

Fright night at the art house: A top 10 list for Halloween

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 25, 2014)

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Since Halloween is coming up before my next weekly post, I thought I would do a little early trick-or-treating tonight (wait…you don’t think 58 is too old to trick-or-treat…is it?). Now, I enjoy a good old fashioned creature feature as much as the next person, but tonight’s recommendations largely eschew the vampires, werewolves, axe-murderers and chainsaw-wielders. Okay, we’ve got a few aliens, and (possibly) the odd zombie or ghost; but these are films where the volume knob on the sense of dread is left up the viewer’s discretion. The “horror” is in the eye of the beholder. Alphabetically:

 Blue Velvet– Any film that begins with the discovery of a severed human ear, roiling with ants amid a dreamy, idealized milieu beneath the blue suburban skies instantly commands your full attention. Writer-director David Lynch not only grabs you with this 1986 mystery thriller, but practically pushes you face-first into the dark and seedy mulch that lurks under all those verdant, freshly mowed lawns and happy smiling faces. The detached appendage in question is found by an all-American “boy next door” (Kyle MacLachlan), who is about to get a crash course in the evil that men do. He is joined in his sleuthing caper by a Nancy Drew-ish Laura Dern. But they’re not the most interesting characters in this piece. That honor goes to the troubled young woman at the center of the mystery (Isabella Rossellini) and her boyfriend (Dennis Hopper). Rossellini is convincing enough as someone whose elevator doesn’t go to the top floor, but Hopper is 100% pure batshit crazy, squared as Frank Booth,  one of the all-time greatest screen heavies.

Brotherhood of the Wolf– If I told you that the best martial arts film of the 1990s features an 18th-century French libertine/naturalist/philosopher and his enigmatic “blood-brother” (an Iroquois mystic) who are on the prowl for a supernaturally huge, man-eating lupine creature terrorizing the countryside-would you avoid eye contact and scurry to the other side of the street? Christophe Gans’ film defies category; Dangerous Liaisons meets Captain Kronos-Vampire Hunter by way of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the best I can do. Artfully photographed, handsomely mounted and surprising at every turn.

Don’t Look Now– This is a tough film to describe without risking spoilers, so I’ll be brief. Based on a Daphne du Maurier story, this one-of-a-kind, 1974 psychological thriller from the great Nicholas Roeg stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a couple coming to grips with the tragic death of their little girl. Roeg subtly builds an increasingly unsettling sense of impending doom, drenched in the Gothic atmosphere of Venice. See it now!

In the Realms of the Unreal– Artist Henry Darger is not usually mentioned in the same breath as Picasso, but he makes for a fascinating study. Darger was a nondescript recluse who worked as a janitor for his entire adult life. He had no significant relationships of record and died in obscurity in 1973. While sorting out the contents of the small Chicago apartment he had lived in for years, his landlady discovered a treasury of artwork and writings, including over 300 paintings. The centerpiece was an epic, 15,000-page illustrated novel, which Darger had meticulously scribed in long hand over a period of decades (it was literally his life’s work). The subject at hand: An entire mythic alternate universe populated mostly by young, naked hermaphrodites (the “Vivian Girls”). Although it’s tempting to dismiss Darger as a filthy old perv, until you have actually seen the astounding breadth of Darger’s imaginary world, spilled out over so many pages and so much canvas, it’s hard to convey how weirdly mesmerizing it all is (especially if you view an actual exhibit, which I had the chance to catch). The doc mixes Darger’s bio with animation of his work (actors read excerpts from the tome). Truth is stranger than fiction.

Liquid Sky– A diminutive, parasitic alien (who seems to have a particular delectation for NYC club kids, models and performance artists) lands on an East Village rooftop and starts mainlining off the limbic systems of junkies and sex addicts…right at the moment that they, you know…reach the maximum peak of pleasure center stimulation (I suppose that makes the alien a dopamine junkie?). Just don’t think about the science too hard. The main attraction here is the inventive photography and the fascinatingly bizarre performance (or non-performance) by (co-screen writer) Anne Carlisle, who tackles two roles-a female fashion model who becomes the alien’s primary host, and a gay male model. Director Slava Zsukerman helped compose the compelling electronic music score.

Mystery Train-Elvis’ ghost shakes, rattles and rolls (literally and figuratively) all throughout Jim Jarmusch’s culture clash dramedy/love letter to the “Memphis Sound”. In his typically droll and deadpan manner, Jarmusch constructs a series of episodic vignettes that loosely intersect at a seedy hotel. You’ve gotta love any movie that has Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as a night clerk. Also be on the lookout for music legends Rufus Thomas and Joe Strummer, and you will hear the mellifluous voice of Tom Waits on the radio (undoubtedly a call back to his DJ character in Jarmusch’s previous film, Down by Law).

The Night Porter– Director Liliana Cavani uses a depiction of sadomasochism and sexual politics as an allusion to the horrors of Hitler’s Germany. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are broodingly decadent as a former SS officer and a concentration camp survivor, respectively, who become entwined in a twisted, doomed relationship years after WW2. You’d have to search high and low to find two braver performances than Bogarde and Rampling give here. I think the film has been unfairly maligned and misunderstood over the years; frequently getting lumped together with exploitative Nazi kitsch like Ilsa, SheWolf of the SS or Salon Kitty. Disturbing, repulsive…yet compelling.

Upstream Color– Not that my original take on Shane Carruth’s 2013 film was negative (it leaned toward ambivalent), but apparently this is one of those films that grows on you; the more time I’ve had to ponder it, the more I have come to appreciate it (most films I see nowadays are forgotten by the time I get back to my car). To say it’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma is understatement. To say that it redefines the meaning of “Wha?!” is more apt. A woman (Amy Seimitz) is abducted and forced to ingest a creepy-crawly whatsit (in its larval stage) that puts her into a docile and suggestible state. Her kidnapper however turns out to be not so much Buffalo Bill, but more Terence McKenna. Long story short, next thing she knows, she’s back behind the wheel of her car, parked near a cornfield, and spends the rest of the movie retrieving memories of her bizarre experience in bits and pieces. As do we. You have been warned.

Venus in Furs (aka Paroxismus)– Jess Franco’s 1969 gothic horror-psychedelic sexploitation fest was allegedly inspired by a conversation the director once had with trumpeter Chet Baker. Maria Rohm portrays a mysterious siren who pops into a nightclub one foggy night, and stirs the loins of a brooding jazz trumpeter (played with a perpetually puzzled expression by James “Moondoggie” Darren). Darren follows Rohm to the back room of a mansion, just in time to witness her ritualistic demise at the hands of a decadent playboy (Klaus Kinski) and several of his kinky socialite friends. Sometime later, Darren is playing his trumpet on the beach, where Rohm’s body is seen washing ashore (you following this so far?). Next thing we know, she has “revived” and sets out to wreak revenge on her tormentors, in between torrid love scenes with Darren. Does she (or her “killers”) actually exist, outside of Darren’s mind? This visually arresting mash-up of Carnival of Souls and Blow-up is a bit dubious as to narrative, but heavy on atmosphere.

Wake in Fright– Considered one of the great “lost” entries from Australia’s own “new wave” movement back in the 70s, Ted Kotcheff’s unique psychological thriller concerns a burned-out teacher (Gary Bond) who works in a one-room schoolhouse somewhere in the Outback. Headed back to Sydney to visit his girlfriend over the school holiday, he takes the train to Bundanyabba, where he will need to lodge for one night. At least that’s his plan. “The Yabba” is one of those burgs where the clannish regulars at the local pub take an unhealthy interest in strangers, starting with the (too) friendly town cop (Chips Rafferty) who subtly bullies the teacher into getting blotto. This kick starts a “lost weekend” that lasts for five days. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that the ensuing booze-soaked debaucheries have to be seen to be believed; particularly an unnerving and surreal sequence involving a drunken nocturnal kangaroo hunt (a lengthy disclaimer in the end credits may not assuage animal lovers’ worst fears, but at least acknowledges their potential sensitivities). The general atmosphere of dread is tempered by blackly comic dialog (Evan Jones adapted from Kenneth Cook’s novel). Splendid performances abound, especially from (the ubiquitous) Donald Pleasance as a boozy MD.

Blu-ray reissue: Twin Peaks: the Entire Mystery ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 9, 2014)

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Twin Peaks: the Entire Mystery – Paramount Blu-ray (box set)

Who killed Laura Palmer? Who cares? The key to binge-watching David Lynch’s short-lived early 90s cult TV series about the denizens of a sleepy Northwestern lumber town and their twisted secrets is to unlearn all that you have learned about neatly wrapped story arcs and to just embrace the wonderfully warped weirdness. The real “mystery” is how the creator of avant-garde films like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet managed to snag a prime time network TV slot in the first place…and got away with it for two seasons! Paramount’s Blu-ray box set sports vibrant transfers and crisply re-mastered audio tracks. Extras include the “international” cut of the pilot episode, and the “prequel” feature film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. All  extras from the DVD “gold box” are ported over, with new bonus material.

Vampire weekend: Byzantium **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 13, 2013)

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Stop! Or my Mom will bite: Arterton and Ronan share quality time.

In my 2010 review of The Wolfman, I pondered why people continue to be so fascinated by human “monster” characters like vampires and werewolves in literature and film:

I suppose it’s something to do with those primal impulses that we all (well, most of us-thank the Goddess) keep safely locked in our  lizard brain. Both of these “monsters” are  predatory in nature, but with some significant differences. With vampires, it’s the psycho-sexual subtext; always on the hunt for someone to penetrate with those (Canines? Molars? I’m not a dentist). There is a certain amount of seduction (or foreplay, if you will) involved as well. But once consummated, it’s off to  the next victim (no rest for the anemic).

And there’s certainly no rest for world-weary single vampire mom Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her teenage vampire daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan). In fact, both women at the center of Neil Jordan’s neo-gothic fantasy Byzantium are looking pretty bone-tired. You would too, if you were 200+ years old.

Having to pack up and move to a new town every few months can also be quite draining; Clara’s “job” as a streetwalker, while providing a handy conduit to lure her victims, is not the ideal career choice for anyone to wants to keep a low profile. Also not helping is Mom’s unreserved tendency to leave Grand Guignol crime scenes in her wake for the local constabulary to contemplate. In stark contrast, the more demure and contemplative Eleanor employs a relatively compassionate feeding method (be advised that it’s no less unpleasant to watch).

Eleanor’s sensitivity hints at a poetic soul; telegraphed from the opening scene where a discarded page from her private journal flutters from a high window and is picked up and read by a passing stranger. Eleanor’s wistful voice over assures us that she knows that we know that she realizes the havoc she and her mother have been wreaking for two centuries is evil and wrong. She yearns to tell someone her story; she’s a serial killer that wants to get caught.

Mother and daughter settle in to a new coastal town (the windswept Hastings locale lends itself well to the sense of melancholy and foreboding). Clara, ever the opportunist, finds a pushover-a lonely, kindly bachelor named Noel (Daniel Mays) who has inherited a run-down hotel called The Byzantium. Clara soon converts the vintage inn into a brothel (giving unsuspecting Noel a stay of execution). In the meantime, Eleanor’s ever growing compulsion to share her dark family secrets comes to the fore when she meets a young man (Caleb Landry Jones) and begins to fall in love.

The director, best-known for character-driven noirs (Angel, Mona Lisa, The Crying Game) and emotionally shattering dramas (The Butcher Boy, The End of the Affair) is actually no stranger to the supernatural, beginning with his 1984 sophomore effort (and one of my Jordan favorites) The Company of Wolves. He graduated from werewolves to vampires a decade later with one of his bigger box office successes, Interview with the Vampire (although critics were more divided). He even gave horror comedy a shot in his uncharacteristically limp 1988 offering High Spirits. And his 2009 drama Ondine weaved in a few elements from  Irish fairy tales.

Even discounting the fact that I am not particularly enamored with post-modern vampire flicks to begin with, Byzantium still left me feeling ambivalent. On the plus side, Jordan wrests compelling performances from his cast (consistently one of this strongest suits). Arterton exudes a volatile intensity and earthy sexiness that’s hard to ignore, and Ronan’s offbeat moon-faced loveliness and expressive, incandescent eyes give her tragic character an appropriately haunted, ethereal quality.

The problem, I think may be with Moira Buffini’s uneven script (adapted from her own play). While it remained focused on the mother-daughter dynamic, it held my attention. But whenever it veered into the somewhat incoherent backstory involving a cabal of male vampires who have been shadowing the women since the early 19th Century, they lost me. Then there’s the raging river o’ blood sequence (c’mon…how many times must we rip off The Shining?!) and the Bat Cave of Destiny (my name for it)…at any rate, it all becomes needlessly busy and muddled. Maybe I’m ol’skool, but just give me Bela Lugosi in a chintz cape, and I’ll bite.

SIFF 2013: Cockneys vs. Zombies **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2013)

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“Oi! Zombies!” This may be “damning with faint praise” but Matthias Hoene’s “splatter comedy” Cockneys vs. Zombies pretty much delivers all that its title implies. In a setup reminiscent of the British sci-fi classic Quatermass and the Pit (although any similarities abruptly end there) London construction workers inadvertently stir up an ancient crypt best left undisturbed…sparking a zombie apocalypse in the East End. Although I liked this much more when it was called Shaun of the Dead, it does have its moments. The funniest bit has an old gent with a walker handily outdistancing a zombie pursuer.

Blu-ray reissue: Forbidden Zone ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 30, 2012)

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Forbidden Zone – Arrow Video Blu-ray

Picture if you will: an artistic marriage between John Waters, Max Fleischer, Busby Berkeley and Peter Greenaway. Now, imagine the wedding night (I’ll give you a sec). As for the “plot”, well, it’s about this indescribably twisty family who discovers a portal to a pan-dimensional…oh, never mind. Suffice it to say, any film that features Herve Villechaize as the King of the Sixth Dimension, Susan Tyrrell as his Queen and soundtrack composer Danny Elfman channeling Cab Calloway (via Satan), is a dream for some; a nightmare for others. Directed by Danny’s brother Richard. Arrow Videos’s Blu-ray includes an absorbing “making of” feature, plus a choice of seeing the film it its original B&W or colorized version (although be warned that either way you look at it, it’s over the top).