Archive for the 2009 Category

Halloween Endurance Test: the Cave (2005)

Posted in 2009, Halloween Endurance Tests with tags , , , , , on December 17, 2011 by shenanitim

You know, for a cheap movie about people in caves, the Cave’s cinematographer (Ross Emery) is sure going all out with this opening sequence. Upward shots looking through a valley, the bird’s eye view of military convoys, rolling wheel shots from said convoy. I’m guessing Ross either: a.) worked on some Beastie Boys’ videos, or b.) grew up watching Beastie Boys videos. Either way it works.

Though I guess once you realize most of your shots are going to be on sets replicating the claustrophobic tightness of a cave network, you get your artistry in early. Good looking out to script supervisor Sophie Fabbri Jackson too, since who would’ve thought her cheesy script(s) would end up so influential? Sure, this is no Citizen Kane, but it did birth a horror sub-genre centered solely around caves (with the Descent and the Cavern being prime examples).

Shame on Ms. Jackson for everything else though. The script is the epitome of convoluted, mixing a spelunking misadventure with deep-sea diving, possession (via bacterial infection), makeshift piranhas, killer moles, all on top of the prerequisite baddie. Are we supposed to be worried about our protagonists drowning, being lost underground forever, or being eaten alive? I only have so much “care” to dole out, and I can’t possibly be giving it all to characters this needy.

(Though, in hindsight, the fact the film credits a “script supervisor” but not a “script writer” is telling. Probably explaining how the film turned out into such a mishmash of genres.)

Take back all that I said previously about the caves being small and claustrophobic. As this one is quite spacious, with the first base-camp clearly being inspired by Willie Wonka. I’m tempted to call “foul,” but then I realize that if you’re going to spend your time exploring caves, you’d probably be inclined to investigate the nicer looking ones. While the Cavern had a documentary attached that showed just how small some the crevices cave-divers have to crawl through, I’ve also seen pictures of some pretty gorgeous caves.

So what this film really needs are less scenes with people arguing over what to name the cave, and more with these same characters explaining cave-diving to the audience. Maybe make one of the scientists in the party a normal civilian scientist, and thus ignorant to the spelunking ways.

One of the only things the film does do well is its possession angle. Apparently there’s a parasite that been living in the cave for ages, and it infects you through the bloodstream. Naturally, it doesn’t kill you, but makes you a rampaging psycho. Who then proceeds to kill everyone else. It might, given enough time, also transform you into a giant rapist bat.

Climbing...

Unless you’re a fish or mole, in which case your teeth just grow larger.

Assaulted by bat. It happens that fast folks.

The good part of this is that while all this is happening, you still follow the actors. Everyone knows the expedition’s leader is infected, but somehow the film still manages to maintain the belief that he might not be that infected yet. The old “our buddy’s turning into a zombie, but we’ll keep him around for just a few more minutes” disbelief never really kicks in.

(The cynic in me just realized this whole metamorphosis angle could just be a way for the filmmakers to cover-up Cole Hauser’s wooden acting.)

Don't bring a "mapping gun" to a "giant bat" fight.

Your “oh my God, what the fuck?” sense will kick in, however, when you see the climatic showdown between a giant 50 year-old human/bat hybrid and caver Kim (Daniel Dae Kim); who comes to the fight wielding a “mapping gun.” Yes, a electronic gun that shoots out sonic pulses to map caves. Which is used, and sounds like, a cut-rate Star Trek knockoff.

If this review doesn’t seem to make much sense, that’s largely due to the fact that this movie may be one of the toughest ones that I’ve ever forced myself to sit through. Don’t believe imdb’s generous rating of 4.9. I suspect that the decimal point is misplaced.

Halloween Endurance Test: Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

Posted in 2009, Halloween Endurance Tests, Zombies with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 8, 2011 by shenanitim

We caught the infamous, “worst movie of all time,” Plan 9 from Outer Space during a special Rifftrax performance. Rifftrax are the guys behind the Mystery Science Theater 3000 robots, still riffing on the horrible films they watch. Years after the show’s demise, their hit-to-miss ratio of good jokes to bad hasn’t changed a bit, though it is weird to see a grown man talking in Tom Servo’s voice rather than Tom Servo himself.

You also have to wonder whether they were setting themselves up to fail here, as Plan 9… already has a considerable pop culture reputation. The Misfits’ record label in the 80s was called Plan 9, and as late as ’96-’98 Filmfax magazine was selling Tor Johnson t-shirts. I know because I had one, along with a special Ed Wood box set that came wrapped in faux pink agora. Not to mention Tor Johnson Records itself. Tim Burton had already made his award-winning biopic, Ed Wood.

The story behind the film is already well known. Wood, never the most capable director, knew aging, drug-addled star Bela Lugosi (of Dracula fame) didn’t have long to live. So he shot as much footage of Lugosi he could; mainly of Lugosi walking in and out of his house. After Lugosi’s death, Wood then cast his own chiropractor to finish out the part, with his cape-draped arm held in front of his face to fool the audience.

Continuity doesn’t exist in the film. Scenes switch back and forth from daytime to nighttime depending on what set or location they were shooting on.

After Lugosi, original television scream queen Vampira is the film’s other marketable star. She plays a zombie here, as part of her agreement to make the film involved the stipulation that she wouldn’t talk. (An amusing stipulation that would be used again by Christopher Lee years later, in Hammer’s Vengeance of Dracula.)

Wood was well known for being able to come up with inventive shorelines (here, space aliens plan to invade Earth using an army of zombies), and, after his film career petered out, he would end up surviving by penning cheap, sex books (an early one, Orgy of the Dead, was made into a film). Unfortunately he had no such skill with dialogue.

“It’s tough to find something when you don’t know what you’re looking for.”

“And remember my friends, future events such as these will affect you in the future.”

“Stronger? You see? You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! STUPID!”

Even inconsequential lines get screwed up, as when the army officer says “One thing more…” Perhaps the alien’s rays also screw up our grammar! An story angle that Wood somehow missed!

“You speak of ‘solarinite,’ but just what is it?” asks the officer.

“Take a can of your gasoline, say this can of gasoline is the sun. Now, you spread a thin line of it to a ball representing the Earth. Now, the gasoline represents the sunlight, the sun’s particles. Here we saturate the ball with the gasoline, the sunlight, then we put a flame to the ball. The flame will speedily travel around the Earth, back along the line of gasoline back to the can, or the Sun itself. It will explode this source, and spread to every place that gasoline, our sunlight, touches.

Explode the sunlight here gentlemen, you explode the universe. Explode the sunlight here, and a chain reaction will occur direct to the sun itself, and to all the planets that sunlight touches; all the planets in the universe.”

To think, the Day the Earth Stood Still managed to reduce that unweildy monologue to less than a line, merely embodying it into the character of Gort.

Even the film’s title is a mistake. Running out of funds halfway through the project, Wood turned to a Baptist investor for assistance. Said investor was interested, but only on two conditions: 1.) the cast and crew would be baptized (Wrestler/actor Tor Johnson being so huge that they had to use a swimming pool!), and 2.) the words “Grave Robbers” couldn’t be used in the title; as it was felt to be sacrilegious. Thus Plan 9 was born!

Unfortunately Wood had already filmed psychic/friend Criswell’s introductory speech, one where he asks if the audience can handle “the shocking facts about Grave Robbers from Outer Space?” One minute into the film and we’ve already hit the first mistake!

Halloween Endurance Test: Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)

Posted in 2009, Halloween Endurance Tests with tags , , , , on September 4, 2011 by shenanitim

Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is more widely known than its inspiration, Gojira, as it was the version released in America. Faced with the challenge of making a “Welcome to the Nuclear Age!” film palatable to the same audience that unleashed the bomb, Embassy Pictures and TransWorld Releasing did what any distributor(s) would do: excise any footage that could be offensive, and insert new footage with Raymond Burr; still fresh off his success in Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

Amazingly, the gamble worked, leaving Godzilla, King of the Monsters! and Gojira as big hits around the world. The added footage certainly isn’t seamless, but the resultant popularity the extra market(s) allowed the film(s) to reinvent the “giant monster” genre. Claymation was suddenly out, and stunt men wearing suffocating monster suits were in.

And how this new era was ushered in! Rather than being plain-jane Gojira, here Godzilla has a bona-fide title: King of the Monsters!. Not the Crawling Eye[s], nor the giant octopus from either It Came From Beneath the Sea or Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster stood any chance at challenging Japan’s giant lizard. Ray Harryhausen’s brilliant stop-motion animatronics giving way to stilted acting so bad it could be mistaken as stop-motion.

One must marvel at the audacity in making two different films, with two distinctly different messages, out of one rather political source film. (A feat still rarely seen. It wouldn’t be until Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman doubled his take selling the foreign distribution rights to the Toxic Avenger II by splitting it into two films. Unfortunately for Troma, neither was a hit.) Bringing in a new era, not just of rubber monster suits, but of horrendously overdubbed dialogue!

While many hold that the footage of atomic testing and now-homeless families was removed make this film more digestible to American audiences. After all, no one wants to go to the movies Friday night to be reminded of some of your country’s more shameful behavior.

The missing footage seems more innocent though. As if Gojira’s social message was diluted not to diminish the US’ on-screen involvement, but rather to bring the film back in line with all the other “giant monster” films. Besides the Day the Earth Stood Still, it’s hard to name another sci-fi film of the 50s that had much of a social message.

Raymond B(l)urring the line between “psuedo-documentary” and “serious sci-fi film with a social message” until all that is left is 20-30 odd minutes of “giant, rampaging monster action flick.”

Halloween Endurance Test: Gojira (1954)

Posted in 2009, Halloween Endurance Tests with tags , , , , on September 3, 2011 by shenanitim

It seemed only fitting to follow up last year’s King Kong with the other important gargantuan monster movie, Gojira. Unfortunately, I don’t have any books conjecturing about the size of Gojira’s penis, unlike our simian forerunner. Any change in size for Gojira is easily explainable, unlike with Kong, since Gojira is a product of the atomic bomb. Thus any changes in stature/size can easily be attributed to radiation fluctuations.

A big Halloween Endurance Testthank you!” goes out to my brother here; for hooking me up with both the Japanese and American versions of the film. It turns out everyone I know is an enabler, not just my sister and my ex-girlfriend.

[Oops! In hindsight I’ve remembered that Craig also hooked me up with the Host. I know, right? Gojira and the Host, yet he claims to not be an Asiaphile?]

The version you watch plays a large part in the film; much larger than just determining how much Raymond Burr screen-time you have to sit through. In Gojira, the monster isn’t just a leftover dinosaur irradiated to preternatural size. Instead Gojira is an anthropomorphized nuclear blast, let loose once again in Japan, a mere nine years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

[Think about it. To steal a point made by Little Black Starin his review, as of my writing this eight years had passed since 9/11. And that involved two buildings being destroyed, instead of two cities.]

The Japanese film is filled with these reminders. Opening with a fishing expedition that accidentally runs into a mushroom cloud; the crew soon dies from their injuries. (This scene mirrors the real-life Lucky Dragon No. 5 incident; a ship that unknowingly became the first victims in what would become a nuclear arms race.)

During Gojira’s attack, we see what’s left of a family trying to take shelter in the burning city. As the buildings around them blaze, the children cry, as the mother knowingly reassures them to not worry, as they’ll be reunited with their father soon. A scene that obviously wouldn’t play well in America.

Going further, Gojira’s protagonists symbolize the ideas behind the nuclear arms race. The paleontologist, Dr. Yaname, wants Gojira to be allowed to live, even as it burns Tokyo down, so that they can learn from it. His daughter’s suitor, the eye-patch wearing/Oxygen Destroyer-creating, Daisuke Serizawa, believes that the beast should be destroyed for the sake of mankind.

(Through the magic of modern motion pictures, we, the audience, get both. Gojira is eventually destroyed, but would return shortly (a/k/a only six months) in the sequel Godzilla Raids Again!)

Leading us to the differences in the Japanese original and American version . As the Americans were already used to seeing giant-sized creatures terrorize the world (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Them!, Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman), Gojira changed from a cautionary tale to an exploitative one when it crossed the ocean. Serving only to remind us of other life forms (in this case ancient lizards) that we wouldn’t necessarily want to see exaggerated to fantastic proportions.

Art imitating life, never again would Gojira play so fearsome. With each subsequent incarnation the underlying subject matter would be further removed from its hellish origins. Where once we were reminded of men caught in a heat wave so intense that it vaporized their bodies and left their shadows burnt into brick, eventually we had Gojira’s son, Minilla, as well as other monsters such as Gamera, and Mothra crowding the theaters. The Japanese equivalent of the US’ atomic monsters Toho originally managed to avoid creating.

Halloween Endurance Test: the Ring (2002)

Posted in 2009, Halloween Endurance Tests with tags , , , , , , on September 2, 2011 by shenanitim

The Ring might be one of the only horror films effective at being creepy while also being PG-13. Not through the Reaganomics-esque claim that “what you don’t see is scarier than what you do,” but through its general ambiance. Dreary and grey, fitting right into its Washington locale.

(This is not to say that Seattle is as dreary as is normally claimed. I’ve been there on vacation, and it didn’t rain nearly as much as I expected, or numerous Frasier reruns led me to believe. It did, however, have a used bookstore that sold shirts praising the rats that brought the bubonic plague, so I guess not everything is peachy there.)

Also of note is how this film works best during a rainy day. While most horror movies are only effective when watched at night, this one works best when its overcast. (Really, who would watch a horror movie during the day? Besides the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which, as it’s set during daytime, is always effective.)

Based off a Japanese film (Ringu), the Ring was one of the glut of adapted Asian horror films flooding the States in the early aughts. Naomi Watts plays Rachel, an investigative reporter who’s trying to unravel the mystery behind her nieces’s death.

The death centers around a seemingly abstract video that leaves its viewer with seven days to live. Naturally, Rachel watches the tape and is cursed. She then takes the tape with her, and has all her friends watch it! (A bit of unethical business that would be brilliantly played up in the sequel.) To no one surprise, her son watches the tape too; leaving her just 48 hours to solve the mystery before she dies.

(One thing the film doesn’t do is reverse the curse of children in horror movies. If there’s a kid in your horror flick, you’re guaranteed a PG-13 rating (CHECK!) and that false suspense of will the child die? False because everyone knows he won’t.)

Luckily Rachel’s ex, who’s also her son’s father, is aN A/V expert who’s also cursed. They break the film down shot by shot, discover a diseased horse farm that’s somehow a piece of the puzzle, and break into the records of a mental health facility.

How the city of Seattle ever gave this movie permission to film there is yet another mystery. I can’t imagine any of this would be viewed favorably by the Board of Tourism.

I won’t give away how they stop the curse, as, without gore, that secret is this film’s only asset. I will warn you that you’ll probably fall asleep mid-film. It starts with a bang, dispenses some curses, and then, during the investigation phase, it will bore you to tears.

This may not be its fault though, as the investigation doesn’t really pick up steam until the fifth day; by which point you’re already used to the days moving by fast. So the slow down as Rachel interviews the populace of Horse Farm Island, and her baby daddy undergoes a pointless quest to the aforementioned psych ward, does come as a shock.

The payoff of finding out just what the Ring actually refers to is totally worth it though.

Halloween Endurance Test: the Descent (2005)

Posted in 2009, Halloween Endurance Tests with tags , , on August 31, 2011 by shenanitim

Every year I try to make my Halloween Endurance Tests a bit more contemporary by watching a few recent films. Generally this has turned out well, with the Resident Evil and Saw franchises keeping hope alive. Sometimes things don’t turn out so well, as my viewing the Ring and the Cavern have illustrated. And sometimes it stops just short of amazing, as it did with the Descent.

First things first, this is the second cave-based horror movie I’ve watched that deals with murderous cavemen. You’d think setting a movie in a cave would open up all of the horrific possibilities. Cave-ins, isolation, starvation, hell, you could have possessed tree roots attacking the spelunkers! Day of the Triffids meets the Cave. But no, we’re again stuck with cavemen.

Scary cavemen, it’s true, but cavemen nonetheless.

The story deals with a group of young, thrill-seeking women. Every year they get together to do something to make them feel alive: whitewater rafting, or, obviously, cave exploration. Two of the friends are bigger thrill-seekers than the rest, and trick the group into entering an uncharted cave system.

See? Right there, without anything supernatural or extraordinary, you have a compelling plot. Friends get trapped, discord goes. Will they remain friends by the end?

Factor in the bad blood between the two main characters, Sarah and Juno, and it’s almost a Lifetime movie! Juno having had an affair with Sarah’s husband. This revenge subplot could’ve just been the plot. Instead it’s practically invisible due to poor direction. According to the director commentary, one errant, second-long glance clues us in to Sarah’s husband’s infidelity.

Except said glance happens three minutes into the movie, before we know who the major characters are, and are thus unable to detect anything inappropriate amongst them.

Nitpicking aside, it’s a solid idea. Caves quickly becoming this generation’s haunted house for low-budget filmmakers. The Evil Dead and Cabin Fever) being a huge successes because they were set secluded from civilization in a cheap locale that the filmmakers could destroy. Here all they had to do was dress up a couple of walls to look like rock, and then recycle them throughout the movie. Rotate them a bit, change the lighting, and no one can tell the difference! Low budget filmmaking at its finest.

Plus, it’s one of the few films I can think of who’s double meaning actually pays off. Its title, the Descent, playing on both exploring the cave as well as Sarah’s growing madness. When Sarah starts her climatic fight with the last of the cavemen, she’s fighting just as savage and feral as they are. The film ending with Sarah dreaming about murdering Juno, before waking up to find herself still trapped on the cave’s bottom.

Leaving us to wonder if the cavemen were real, or just a characterization of an revenge fantasy.

Halloween Endurance Test: Kill Baby… Kill! (1966)

Posted in 2009, Halloween Endurance Tests, Mario Bava with tags , on August 26, 2011 by shenanitim

Five minutes into Mario Bava’s Kill Baby… Kill! and we’ve already reached our first Dracula crib. A doctor traveling to a village, via stagecoach, and the driver won’t actually enter the town. Leaving the doctor on the outskirts, a la Dracula‘s Borgo Pass scene. This is the third film in this Bava box set draw from vampire lore. (The other two being Black Sunday and Black Sabbath.)

Hell, the pre-title sequence borrows pretty liberally from Hitchcock’s Vertigo as well. Only Bava does the smart thing, and not only has the girl leap from a tower, but then shows her being pierced by the iron fencing. Misogyny, another Hitchcock-ian mainstay used here!

So the doctor is sent to the village to investigate the girl’s death. The villagers live in fear of who, or what, murdered her, and don’t want an autopsy done. Unfortunately, the lighting spoils the mood of the autopsy freak-out scene, as everything’s too well lit to be creepy. The graveyard set is obviously a graveyard set.

After finishing with the autopsy, the doctor is beset by thugs. Where the doctor meets another of Bava’s muses: tall, domineering, brunettes. This one is the Eastern European equivalent of a Haitian voodoo priest; only mysterious in a attractive way.

We find that the village is being terrorized by the blond ghost of a little girl. Who will curse you to die. The only way to break the curse? Whippings from the high priestess of pain.

As all this is going on in the village, the doctor is also being warned away from the Villa Graps; where no one ever returns. As if any place would be played up to be scarier than the village we’re currently watching.

Did I mention the name of the village inspector is ‘Kruger?’ This film’s overflowing with imaginary symbolism!

Finally making his way to the Villa Graps, the doctor meets Mrs. Graps; a character lifted lock, stock and barrel out of Black Sabbath’s the Drop of Water story. A sickly older woman who stares at herself in the mirror, seeing a ghoulish self-reflection. We also meet the younger, harbinger of death, little girl too, who we find is a younger, more murderous, Mrs. Graps.

They’re almost too much happening in this film. An investigation, a cursed girl, a ghost girl, a girl about to be cursed, all angles are covered! As the movie itself attempts to explain, the village “suffers from the memory of a curse.” Good luck warding that off, let alone just explaining it!

Something about the Graps’ daughter being killed by drunken villagers; and she’s now enacting revenge. Don’t let the convoluted story throw you off though, there’s plenty of visual goodness to keep you occupied.

Take, for instance, the scene where the doctor runs through the same room 10-15 times. Each time he runs through, he picks up some speed. Soon he’s moving fast enough to spy someone leaving just as he’s entering. So he runs faster, eventually catching up to the man, who’s identified as the doctor! He caught himself in some sort of time trap. This is straight out of Something Weird!

What? Not strange enough for you? Well, after catching himself, the doctor backs up into a wall adorned with a painting of the Villa Graps, gets caught in the spider web, and ends up transported, half-dead, outside the Villa Graps. All done with the best special effects 1966 had to offer!

Halloween Endurance Test: Black Sabbath (1963)

Posted in 2009, Halloween Endurance Tests, Mario Bava, Vampires with tags , , , on August 23, 2011 by shenanitim

Not intent to make the only watchable Barbara Steele film, Mario Bava then topped himself with the most important movie in heavy metal: Black Sabbath. Curated by Frankenstein’s monster himself, Boris Karloff, Black Sabbath is an early incarnation of the popular “horror trilogy.” Three otherwise disconnected horror-themed short stories tied (usually) together by a famous narrator. George Romero and Steven King did one with Creep Show. Snoop Dogg has his Hood of Horrors. So Bava has his own Black Sabbath, a film so iconic that it caused Bill Ward, drummer from the “heavy blues” band Earth, to sit up, take notice, and start penning songs about Satan falling in love.

The first story here is the Telephone. Which, as far as horror stereotypes go, would be classified as a “psychological thriller;” had that term existed at the time. A young woman comes home at night, and gets a call from an unknown assailant who warns that he’s coming for her. He can see everything she does (as she puts on her robe, calls her friend for help), and warns her that it will be no use.

What’s great here is the pacing. There’s never a “down” moment. The victim, Rosy, calls her friend, and right after she hangs up the phone, her assailant is calling her. An assailant Bava then immediately identifies! Whereas in a modern trilogy the director would keep you guessing about who the assailant is, here you know from the start, and thus have to watch the film tortured by the knowledge.

Taking things over the top, there’s also the obligatory twist ending. Bava wasn’t known as Italy’s top exploitation filmmaker for nothing!

The second story is the Wurdalak, Black Sabbath‘s centerpiece. Starring Boris Karloff as the titular monster, this story looks to be Bava’s version of a Hammer film. Taking place in an abandoned Medieval village, Bava makes use of his back-lit, fog-draped sets once again. Riding along the riverside, a lone traveller finds a corpse with a ceremonial dagger sticking out of its back.

Bringing the body to the nearest town, the traveler learns that it was an infamous Turk, and that the world’s a better place now that he’s dead. He also learns what a wurdalak is: “a bloodthirsty corpse; [yearning] for the blood of those they loved most when they were alive.” The Turk was one, and the missing village patriarch is well on his way of becoming one.

“Wurdalak” is clearly villager for “vampire,” as both drink your blood, and pass on their affliction by doing so. Both can only be destroyed by being stabbed through the heart. This adds a layer of interest onto the story. As the wurdalak is obviously a regional variant to a vampire; one has to wonder if it’s a true variant. Did some Europeans believe in wurdalaks instead of vampires?

The wurdalak returns, creeps everyone out, and orders that his howling dog be shot. Foreshadowing a theme (animal cruelty) that Italian exploitation cinema would become famed for in years to come. There’s also a familiar thematic tie to zombie films after a child is murdered by the wurdalak. The mother does not want her son stabbed through the heart, even though everyone knows that he’ll then return, thirsty for her blood.

I was going to make a quip here about how I felt this segment moves too fast. A mere 20 minutes after meeting the Sdenka at in the village, the traveler already professing his love for her. Too much, too soon? Then I realized that wurdalaks only prey on those they love. So the love had to be established early, to explain post-transformation Sdenka coming back around for the traveler later.

Black Sabbath‘s final story is the Drop of Water, a cinematographers dream. The colors in this segment are amazingly done. One minute in, the protagonist, a nurse, answers a late night phone call. It’s a stormy night, so when the lightning crashes she’s bathed in green, only to be painted red when the sky blacks back out; leaving only her reading lamp as a light.

Clearly inspired by Poe’s “A Tell Tale Heart,” “the Drop of Water” deals with the aforementioned nurse preparing her recently deceased charge for burial. While dressing the corpse, a ring falls off its finger. The nurse pilfers the ring, only to find a fly having replaced it on the finger.

Every time the buzzing fly is chased away, dripping water starts to dominate the soundtrack; setting the nurse on edge. Imagine Ennio Morricone’s minimalist, amplify the floorboards, soundtrack to Once Upon a Time in the West and you’ll have an idea of what Bava composer Roberto Nicolosi was going for here.

Flies, rumbling thunder, water drops, cat meows, and the nurse’s own frantic breathing makes up the majority of the soundtrack. You’re already creeped out before the corpse reanimates to take its ring back.

Stick around after the story, though, for one of the most inexplicable endings ever used in cinema. Karloff, still dressed as the wurdalak, wishes the viewers a safe trip home, and then Bava pulls the camera back; destroying the scene. You see that Karloff is riding a mechanical horse, and can see the crew-members holding trees in front of the camera and running by; thus creating the illusion of movement. Your guess is as good as mine as to why Bava decided to break down the 4th wall here.

Halloween Endurance Test: Black Sunday (1960)

Posted in 2009, Halloween Endurance Tests, Mario Bava, Vampires with tags , , on August 21, 2011 by shenanitim

It’s amazing the effect one director can have. Tonight I watched Mario Bava’s Black Sunday a/k/a the Mask of Satan, a viewing that caused me to become a major Bava fanboy. The same fanboy-dom is what caused me to gush so much over The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace. More significantly, it also shows what a director can do with his cast. As here, in Bava’s hands, horror movie starlet Barbara Steele’s fame is somewhat explained.

Now, when we last saw Ms. Steele, she was starring in Roger Corman’s horrid Nightmare Castle. A film I couldn’t stand when I was 12, and, almost two decades later, one I still can’t stand. From what I remember (having blocked most of it out), Steele played a double-role, same as she does here. Only here, clearly sensing my indifference/antagonism towards Steele, Bava starts the film by burning her at the stake. After locking some kind of iron maiden mask on her. (The titular “mask of Satan.”)

Why a mask with inverted spikes, along with flames? Well, the spikes play an important part in the plot when her tomb is later defiled. The grave-digging doctor cuts his hand on one of the spikes, and his blood resurrects the surprisingly well preserved witch.

(Funny, as the doctor is knowledgable about witch-lore, so you’d think he’d take appropriate safety precautions against resurrecting her.)

This movie’s a lot more fun than it should be. It’s a traditional haunting story, transposed over the sets of Dracula. (Watch for the first time Steele’s tomb is visited. The intruders are attacked by a horrible, giant bat! A “(d)effect” that’s so bad it could’ve been directed by Todd Browning!) The vampire connection runs deep throughout the movie, as we’ll find out these witches are vulnerable to crucifixes (also tying in the “Satan” connection), and can only be killed with a wooden stake driven through the heart into the eye socket.

Beautiful lighting, however, (courtesy of [look up cinematographers name]), as well as clever editing (love the part where, as we’re watching the witches eyes slowly reform in her skull, Bava jump cuts into the camera pulling out of the circular opening of a tuba) keeps the film from becoming too derivative.

Foreshadowing his classic Planet of the Vampires, Bava breaks out what would become his otherworldly graveyard set here. Just a normal graveyard set, really, with a backlit, grayish/blank backdrop giving the set an asteroid/outer space feel. A feel that’s then multiplied when the cursed warlock rises from the grave.

For when he arises. the Prince/warlock is wearing (obviously) a mask of satan and a shirt bearing an unusual dragon crest on it. A dragon crest that makes him look like a (Francis Ford Coppola) Dracula stand-in, while the mask makes him look more like an illithid. Creating an overall effect of a mind flayer patrolling the moon.

Again, the genius of Bava. No one will ever know exactly what the reasoning behind the dress was, and, at this point, it doesn’t matter. England, Transylvania, the Moon, it won’t matter to you, the viewer. All you’ll care about is that wherever it is, it’s clearly haunted.

Similarly, the story itself might not make much, if any, sense, but you won’t even notice it. Every shot is either beautiful, or so well staged that it’s already been incorporated in the cinema of your mind by modern directors who have ripped it off in their own movies.

Halloween Endurance Test (2009): The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Posted in 2009 with tags , , on March 3, 2011 by shenanitim

[Another Halloween Endurance Test entry, this one circa 2009. A year where I watched one film a day, but gave up typing the reviews when the roller derby season dominated all my time.]

This review is about the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, not the Keanu Reeves remake. I’ll save that one for when we’re a couple weeks into this Endurance Test and I desperately want to stop. It’s way too early to start torturing myself so soon. [Fortunately for me, I never sank that low.]

Now I’m going to stop with all the usual stuff that gets talked about when discussing this classic. Everyone knows how far its influence stretches. How Klaatu’s name was “borrowed” for a Simpson’s alien character. How Sam Raimi re-immortalized the password “klaatu barata nikto” in Army of Darkness. Or about how the film preached against the ’50s nuclear arms race; serving as the ultimate sci-fi peace-nik statement during the Cold War. ‘Cuz while all that’s true, there is a seedier, underlying plot running through it.

This seedy underbelly is, of course, being pro-nuclear power. An agenda that steals much of this film’s alleged majesty for me. Klaatu does want the Earth to disarm, but he also promotes nuclear energy as a powerful and limitless resource that’s just waiting to be taken.

A powerful, limitless, and literally in-disposable resource. As in “there’s no way to get rid of it.” Klaatu conveniently leaves that part out. He offers no suggestions on where to store our spent nuclear waste. Not to sound like John Stauber and/or Sheldon Rampton but I know toxic sludge isn’t good for me!

Maybe it’s more of my modern cynicism clashing with its ’50s optimism, but am I the only one shocked by the mother in this movie? There’s an alien on the loose, a UFO parked front and center in Washington, D.C., and a mysterious stranger shows up at this lady’s boarding house with absolutely no concept of money. No idea for what money’s used for, but with a handful of flawless diamonds nonetheless.

So what does this woman do? Well, she needs a baby-sitter, so a mere six hours after meeting this mysterious stranger, she takes him up on his offer to watch her son. I mean, just like that, with no concern that this stranger might be the alien, a drug dealer, or a nuclear lobbyist.

We were so innocent back then. Nowadays people get scared whenever the President wants to address our school children. Back then, we didn’t care if Martians did it!

(Also of note is this film’s unsung hero, the Moog. Since no ’50s sci-fi/propaganda flick is complete without the Moog’s eerie synth-sounds.)

If you thought I could possibly write about the Day… without mentioning the murderous, rampage-prone robot Gort, you sir, are gravely mistaken! Gort rules, as all harbingers of doom should: silent and deadly.

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