December 19, 2007

Gabrielle (Chéreau, 2005)


In Joseph Conrad's short story The Return (of which the author himself remarked "I hate it"), Patrice Cheréau finds the basis for this potent chamber drama, an outwardly staid, inwardly powerful tale of marital strife. There is much to savor here; in the note perfect performances of Huppert as the titular Gabrielle, and especially Pascal Greggory as the confused cuckold; in Cheréau's carefully stylized direction; in Eric Gautier's stunningly polished images; in a score by Fabio Vacchi that manages to be both melodramatic and elegant. On top of all of these things, Gabrielle also manages to illuminate the communicative space between cinema and the theater. Cheréau's film is a masterpiece in a minor key.

November 14, 2007

The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (Gilliam, 1988)


Terry Gilliam's fantastically baroque visual sense and his childlike playfulness are on full display in this oft overlooked film, a surprisingly potent examination of the creative soul and its place in an exceedingly rational world. It is rather unfortunate that a regime change at Columbia Pictures, the film's backer and distributor, and the ensuing behind the scenes power struggles, kept this film from reaching a larger audience and the acclaim it most certainly deserves. One of Gilliam's finest. IMDb listing.

October 31, 2007

All The Colors Of The Dark (Martino, 1972)


"They exist. They bear the mark of the devil inside them. They may be your neighbors. They may be your wife, husband, sweetheart. They may even be your children. Their time has come."

Sergio Martino's dizzyingly stylistic film - deeply influenced by Rosemary's Baby - with its mounting, omnipresent paranoia and its evil cult, belongs near the top of the giallo heap. Gialli have always been about style and aesthetics first and foremost, and not only does All the Colors of the Dark have ample amounts of both - including one of the most stunningly audacious opening scenes I have ever seen - it also fares admirably in a department which is usually lacking in this sub-genre (acting), with Edwige Fenech giving a committed performance as the film's troubled protagonist.

Film Rating: B+/A-
Scare Factor: C

View Date: 10/31
Shocktober Horrorfest View Date: #31

31 Flicks That Give You The Willies!!!


Ed Hardy, Jr., of the fantastic film blog Shoot the Projectionist, had the brilliant idea to query bloggers and readers regarding the films that scared them the most. Well, the response was huge, and 183 films were nominated, many of which one wouldn't typically see on most "best-of-horror" lists. A second round of voting whittled that unwieldy list down to 31 films, one for each day of October. The end result is the first ever "Willies" list, something that I am sure will become an annual tradition.

I think the idea of a "communal" list is a wonderful spin on list making, and though I certainly disagree with some of the films that made the cut, I have absolutely no problem with the film that sits proudly at #1. I won't give it away here, so as not to spoil the fun of reading the list yourself, suffice it to say that I share Ed's high opinion of it completely. So if you're looking for another source of horror filled inspiration on Halloween, head on over to Shoot the Projectionist and check out:

31 Flicks That Give You The Willies!

Day Of The Dead (Romero, 1985)


"The darkest day of horror the world has ever known."

I was simply unprepared for just how good Day of the Dead is. It was the only "Dead" film I hadn't seen before, and its reputation lagged far behind that of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, so i had always written it off as the least of Romero's "Dead" trilogy. But watching it immediately following a repeat viewing of Dawn... If this film isn't the equal of those first two masterpieces, it isn't that far behind. Since its disastrous release in 1985, Day of the Dead has been picking up steam, and a strong critical following. Let me assure you, this isn't simply wishful revisionism, it is happening for a reason.

Film Rating: A-
Scare Factor: C+

View Date: 10/30
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #30

Dawn Of The Dead (Romero, 1978)


"When there's no more room in HELL, the dead will walk the EARTH."

Dawn of the Dead, the second, and certainly most popular installment in Romero's "Dead" series is another masterpiece of horror, every bit the equal of Night of the Living Dead. There's something about the aesthetics of the film, the late 70's style evidenced in the Monroeville mall's cavernous interior (both vast and claustrophobic at the same time), that I really love. And amidst the horror and sadness, there is a playful quality to Romero's film that is absent in every other "Dead" film. Another enduring classic.

Film Rating: A+
Scare Factor: C

View Date: 10/30
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #29

October 30, 2007

The Eye (Pang Brothers, 2002)


"Some things are better left unseen."

The Pang Brothers' film, a sensation in Asia upon its release, and the recipient of quite a bit of praise here in the States, doesn't live up to its hefty reputation. Quite scary and atmospheric at times, but the brothers Pang have neither the control, nor the refinement to keep The Eye on the rails for its duration.

Film Rating: C+/B-
Scare Factor: B

View Date: 10/29
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #28

The Masque Of The Red Death (Corman, 1964)


"SHUDDER... at the blood-stained dance of the Red Death! TREMBLE... to the hideous tortures of the catacombs of Kali! GASP... at the sacrifice of the innocent virgin to the vengeance of Baal!"

Corman's adaptation of Poe's classic macabre tale The Masque of the Red Death is a pleasure to behold, though much of the credit for this must go to director of photography Nicolas Roeg. The story is intelligently adapted and economically told, and Vincent Price delivers another trademark performance as the devil worshiping Prince Prospero, but it is Roeg's sumptuous, beautifully saturated images and his gliding camera work, that lend the film an air of elegance and sophistication belying its modest budget.

Film Rating: B+/A-
Scare Factor: D

View Date: 10/29
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #27

October 29, 2007

The Woman In Black (Wise, 1989)


"A spine-chilling ghost story."

Herbert Wise's The Woman in Black may not have a significant reputation, but to consider its obscurity as an indication of its power to scare would be a terrible mistake. I'm in the thick of trying to cram as many horror films into the last few days of Shocktober as possible, so I don't have the time to write a more elaborate review, but I will say this, there is a scene in this film that frightened me more than any scene in any horror film I have seen in a long, long time. More thoughts coming soon...

Film Rating: B
Scare Factor: A-

View Date: 10/28
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #26

A Warning To The Curious (Clark, 1972)


Lawrence Gordon Clark's A Warning to the Curious, an adaptation of M.R. James's ghost story, is a subtly effective, artfully rendered chiller that works on its audience slowly but surely. Clark has a wonderful eye and ear for the coastal town of Seaburgh (where the film's action takes place), allowing us to feel what it's like to be in a place where it's hard to discern where the beach ends and the sky and sea begin. The grainy, degraded video sourced images certainly help, evoking an ethereally creepy, old world atmosphere. There is hardly any gore and the film is resolutely un-explicit, but it is precisely because of these factors that Clark's film has aged as wonderfully as it has.

Film Rating: B
Scare Factor: B-

View Date: 10/28
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #25

October 28, 2007

Society (Yuzna, 1989)


"It is a matter of good breeding. Really."

Certainly not the cult sleeper many seem to think it is, Society fails to live up to the potential of it's premise (an examination of the dark underbelly of upper class Beverly Hills society) simply because director Brian Yuzna and company think their film is far more clever than it actually is. The satire isn't quite as scathing, intelligent, or witty as it could have been, and the infamous special effects, while certainly still repugnant, are quite obvious. Still, it is an interesting and disturbing film, though it isn't hard to see why it has remained an "unknown" film in the genre.

Film Rating: C+
Scare Factor: C

View Date: 10/27
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #24

October 27, 2007

Rosemary's Baby (Polanski, 1968)


"Pray for Rosemary's Baby."

What can be said about Rosemary's Baby that hasn't already been said? Not much really. Everything you've heard is true. Polanski's film is one of the few perfect horror films ever made.

Film Rating: A+
Scare Factor: B

View Date: 10/26
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #23

Season Of The Witch (Romero, 1972)


"Caviar in the kitchen, nothing in the bedroom."

Released under a host of titles - Hungry Wives, Jack's Wife (Romero's preferred title), and finally Season of the Witch - Romero's "lost" film, made in between Night of the Living Dead and The Crazies, is a stunner. More sociological examination than pure horror film, it is both a fascinating time capsule and an interesting comment on marital relations and the suburban female psyche.

Film Rating: B+/B
Scare Factor: C-

View Date: 10/26
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #22

Lisa And The Devil (Bava, 1972)


I can confidently guarantee one thing about Lisa And The Devil*. Watching it for the first time, no matter how intelligent you are, or how well versed in Euro-horror you are, you will be confused. You will struggle to decipher the film's nonsensical narrative, and in your attempts, you will feel like you are grasping at straws. You will also get the sense that the film is the perfect approximation of a waking dream. Mario Bava's much maligned "art horror" masterpiece is a surreal hallucination put directly to celluloid. Sure, it might not make much sense at all upon first viewing, but give the film time (and a couple more viewings) and suddenly all the puzzle pieces fall beautifully into place.

*There are two extant versions of the film. Lisa And The Devil is Bava's preferred version. The other version is titled The House Of Exorcism, and it is a completely re-edited version, made to cash in on the success of The Exorcist.

Film Rating: A-
Scare Factor: D

View Date: 10/25
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #21

The Legend Of Boggy Creek (Pierce, 1972)


"A true story."

thoughts coming soon...

Film Rating: C
Scare Factor: D

View Date: 10/25
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #20

October 25, 2007

Anthropophagus (D'Amato, 1980)


"It's not fear that tears you apart...it's him!"

Anthropophagus is my introduction to the exploitation cinema of Joe D'Amato, and I can't say that I'm impressed. In an interview on the DVD, George Eastman, star and co-writer of the film says, "the film was made in order to make money, there wasn't any other artistic purpose." This statement sums up the reason for the ultimate failure of Joe D'Amato's amateurish gore flick perfectly. It can't really be seen as a proper film. With such threadbare characterizations and plotting, it is more like a rather a crudely assembled collection of scenes of shocking violence. And though there are some effective, atmospheric bits and pieces, they are so few and far between that they are more likely the product of luck rather than any real skill. Watching this on the heels of Let's Scare Jessica To Death further illuminates the vast divide between quality low-budget filmmaking, and work done fast and cheap, simply to turn a buck. Considering its reputation, there is nothing really commendable about D'Amato's cult shocker, and that is quite a disappointment.

Film Rating: D+
Scare Factor: C

View Date: 10/24
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #19

October 24, 2007

Let's Scare Jessica To Death (Hancock, 1971)


"Something is after Jessica. Something very cold, very wet... and very dead..."

That John D. Hancock's Let's Scare Jessica To Death isn't more commonly known and discussed is a real shame. I can't believe a film this finely tuned has escaped the general consciousness for so long. Perhaps it's simply too refined, too subtle a creature (the film certainly belies its sensationalist title) to appeal to more than just a niche audience, but whatever the case may be, do yourself a favor and discover this film now.

Film Rating: A-/B+
Scare Factor: B-

View Date: 10/23
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #18

October 23, 2007

The Entity (Furie, 1981)


"A story so shocking, so threatening, it will frighten you beyond all imagination."

The Entity certainly lends credence to the notion that the unseen is far scarier than the seen. Though Sidney J. Furie's direction is by and large pedestrian, the film is overlong, and the rambling narrative takes some unfortunate turns, Barbara Hershey's brave performance and a truly scary central premise make up for much of the film's faults.

Film Rating: B-
Scare Factor: B

View Date: 10/22
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #17

October 22, 2007

The Descent (Marshall, 2005)


"Scream your last breath."

Bloody brilliant. One of the best horror films of the decade.

Film Rating: A-
Scare Factor: B+

View Date: 10/21
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #16

Creep (Smith, 2004)


"Your journey terminates here."

Atmosphere and an interesting locale can only take a film so far if it doesn't have a solid enough script to fall back on. Unfortunately, Christopher Smith's Creep hasn't a solid base, nor enough atmosphere to sustain the film for even half of its runtime before we start to realize that there isn't really anything there. This isn't to say Smith's film is a failure, far from it. It is simply a film that doesn't stand up well to repeated viewings.

Film Rating: C
Scare Factor: B-

View Date: 10/20
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #15

Night Of The Living Dead (Romero, 1968)


"They keep coming back in a bloodthirsty lust for HUMAN FLESH!..."

It's important to revisit George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead - fast approaching its 40th anniversary - every now and then, if only to be reminded of the limitless potential of the horror genre. A stunning marriage of brute, unflinching violence and potent allegory, Romero's film doesn't seem to have aged one bit. If anything, for me it is one of those films that keeps getting better with each subsequent viewing. The father of the modern zombie film for sure, but also a father of astute, socially conscious horror cinema.

Film Rating: A+
Scare Factor: C

View Date: 10/19
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #14

October 19, 2007

The Trailer Compendium: Vol. 11

I have made mention before on this blog of my love for the cinema of Nicolas Roeg. He is a true visionary, one of the few filmmakers who seems to understand completely the immense visual power of cinema. For the second installment of the Shocktober edition of the Trailer Compendium, I present his stunning, impressionistic exercise in terror, Don't Look Now, quite simply one of the best horror films ever made and possibly the most hauntingly beautiful one. If you haven't seen it yet, do so as soon as possible.

Don't Look Now (1973):


Alice, Sweet Alice (Sole, 1976)


"If you survive this night... Nothing will scare you again."

The rust around the edges of Alfred Sole's Alice, Sweet Alice (no doubt a function of its low budget) does nothing to hinder its power to disturb. If anything, Sole's 1976 oddity benefits from the lack of polish. Every element - the characters (both good and bad), the sets, the overcast New Jersey environs, the subversive employment of Catholic iconography - feels covered in an imperishable patina of grime and depravity. By the time the film arrives at its unsettling conclusion, you'll probably feel that way too.

Film Rating: B/B-
Scare Factor: B-

View Date: 10/18
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #13

April Fool's Day (Walton, 1986)


"Guess who's going to be the life of the party?"

A loose and playful take on Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (a.k.a. Ten Little Indians), Fred Walton's April Fool's Day is quite a fun little anomaly in the slasher sub-genre. With the emphasis placed refreshingly upon mystery rather than explicit violence, this is horror that doesn't leave a sour taste in the mouth, and there is certainly a place for this type of facile, diverting entertainment amongst the genre's more exploitative offerings.

Film Rating: B-
Scare Factor: C+

View Date: 10/18
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #12

October 18, 2007

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (Argento, 1970)


"If you think you are being followed home from this movie, keep telling yourself that it's all in your mind."

What surprises most about Dario Argento's first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, is the sheer control Argento displays over the medium. In his first directorial outing, his visual style already seems mature and fully formed. The film is flush with beautiful compositions and stylish, inventive camera movement, and if it sometimes falls prey to meandering exposition and the occasional clumsy scene, it is still never less than enthralling. And Ennio Morricone's jazz inflected score is wonderful, the perfect aural compliment to the film's stylized aesthetic.

Film Rating: A-/B+
Scare Factor: C-

View Date: 10/17
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #11

October 16, 2007

Friday The 13th (Cunningham, 1980)


"They were warned... They are doomed... And on Friday the 13th, nothing will save them."

It has spawned countless imitators and one of the longest running horror franchises of all-time, but there is no getting around the fact that Sean S. Cunningham’s influential Friday the 13th remains the least accomplished of the proto-slashers (Bob Clark's Black Christmas and John Carpenter's Halloween included). This is plain-Jane filmmaking, an obvious, workmanlike stab at entertainment first and foremost, lacking a distinct visual style and populated by stock characters and situations. It is also unpretentious, nostalgic fun, possessing a handful of genuine scares, still fantastic gore f/x, and a terrific score. In retrospect, iconic status and a killer ending can do quite a lot to cloud the memory, and though Cunningham’s film is a classic more through influence and reputation than through virtuosity, its place amongst the most beloved and perennial of horror films is more than guaranteed.

Film Rating: B-
Scare Factor: C+

View Date: 10/15
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #10

October 15, 2007

The Other (Mulligan, 1972)


"Holland, where is the baby?"

Robert Mulligan’s bucolic, sunlit chiller The Other exhibits none of the symptoms of the violent disease plaguing contemporary horror, which is to say it is a subtle, contemplative work as far removed from the “Sturm und Drang” graphic excesses of the genre as is cinematically possible. Adapted by Tom Tryon from his eponymous novel, it is an ambiguous, atypical work in a genre oft-characterized by typicality, one that unearths a horror far more affecting, far more difficult to grasp, and thus far more disturbing than anything that can be achieved with buckets of blood.

In a choice unusual for a horror film, Mulligan and cinematographer Robert Surtees bathe the film in almost constant golden light. Set on a Connecticut farm during summer, the beautiful environs seem to suggest a film with little potential to scare. Yet, one soon realizes that these sun-soaked surroundings serve as a foil for the site of the film’s horror. Mulligan locates his horror in interiors, in the places where light must strain to reach – the barn, the cellar and the well – and ultimately in a place where light cannot go – the mind. For such a bright film, The Other is interminably dark.

Film Rating: A-/A
Scare Factor: B+

View Date: 10/10
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #9

October 10, 2007

Lady In White (LaLoggia, 1988)


"The year is 1962. The place is Willowpoint Falls. Nobody talks about what happened in the school cloakroom 10 years ago. Now, in the dead of night, Frankie Scarlatti is going to find out why."

A refreshingly old fashioned ghost story, and a charming coming-of-age tale tinged with nostalgia and wonderfully told from a child's eye view. Much of the film's success must be credited to the empathy and respect LaLoggia displays towards his child actors, which in turn elicits honest, heartfelt performances, especially from Lukas Haas in the film's lead role. Blessed with an earnestness that makes it a pleasure to experience, Lady in White is a hard film to dislike.

Film Rating: B/B+
Scare Factor: C-

View Date: 10/9
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #8

October 8, 2007

Tourist Trap (Schmoeller, 1979)


“Every year young people disappear.”

As is so often the case with horror cinema, a good horror film doesn’t necessarily equate with a good film. In a phenomenon particular to the horror genre – a phenomenon ensconced in the genre’s extreme valuation of a “bottom line” – good acting, narrative coherence, and refined direction are rather dispensable qualities. In the end, a horror film’s reputation, its standing, if you will, depends on its ability to scare, its capacity to disturb the mind and set the heart racing. For this reason, it isn’t hard to comprehend why David Schmoeller’s Tourist Trap remains a fairly well regarded work (within the horror community) in spite of its numerous ineptitudes.

Tourist Trap seems a familiar film when discussed in broad terms. It depicts a group of college-age kids trapped in a strange place, terrorized by a masked man, and killed one by one. Released in 1979, sandwiched between John Carpenter’s archetypal Halloween (1978) and Sean S. Cunningham’s influential Friday the 13th (1980), it is rather enticing to lump Schmoeller’s film in with these exemplars as part of the 80’s slasher cycle. However, such comparisons remain apt only at a surface level, for although Tourist Trap’s narrative template suggests a strong relation to slasher cinema, Schmoeller has created a film that operates far outside the precise and restrictive boundaries of that much loved sub-genre.

In place of the brazen sexuality, gruesome violence, and formulaic predictability that have come to define the slasher film, an unmistakable surfeit of bizarreness marks every inch of Tourist Trap. Everything from Pino Donaggio’s eclectic, effectively creepy score (a strange amalgamation of instruments and dissonant vocal fragments), to Chuck Connors’s unhinged performance (an audacious attempt at late-stage career redefinition), to the disturbingly rigid (and later on not so rigid) mannequins, to Schmoeller’s willful, baffling commingling of incongruous horror references (Carrie, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, House of Wax), suggests Schmoeller’s attempt to root audience fear in the film’s connective tissue, its eerie atmosphere, rather than in increasingly extravagant murder set pieces.

Unsurprisingly, it is in these peculiarities that the film’s true value is located. Schmoeller generates fear with his environment, through an unsettling collage of disembodied sounds and grotesque facades that stay with you long after the film ends. Importance is placed upon the process by which we arrive at the film’s relatively few deaths, rather than upon the deaths themselves, forcing us to pay attention to the pervasive, distressing details of the environment. Collectively they generate an eerie, macabre ambiance so thick and unyielding that Tourist Trap remains frightening and at times even threatening despite the absence of any real gore and the low body count. Partially obscured by the heavy fog of terror are the elements that conspire to sink the film, namely the amateurish acting (save, of course, for Connors) and the many ridiculous logical inconsistencies. And though the film is a crude, flawed, easily ridiculed mechanism with all the subtlety of a jackhammer, it is certainly unique and strangely effective. Not to mention it’s got a killer final shot.

Film Rating: C+/B-
Scare Factor: B

View Date: 10/7
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #7

October 6, 2007

The Trailer Compendium: Vol. 10

In keeping with the first annual Shocktober Horrorfest, every Trailer Compendium this month will showcase a different horror film (or two, or three) ranging from horror staples to lesser known sleepers. Also, in a first for the Trailer Compendium series, I thought it would be fun to run each film's original theatrical poster along with it's trailer. So without further ado, I present to you one of my favorite "haunted house" chillers of all time, featuring a screenplay by the great Richard Matheson, John Hough's The Legend Of Hell House. Enjoy!

The Legend of Hell House (1973):


October 5, 2007

Carrie (De Palma, 1976)


"If only they knew she had the power."

Brian De Palma’s screen adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Carrie is a rare film that looses none of its considerable poignancy or visceral power from viewing to viewing and thus, is probably as effective a film as it was 31 years ago. A stunningly orchestrated, stylistically audacious study of female adolescence, teenage insecurity, and religious hysteria, this is without a doubt one of the best horror films ever made. Simply transcendent.

Film Rating: A+
Scare Factor: A-

View Date: 10/5
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #6

Poltergeist (Hooper, 1982)


"They're here."

Seeing Poltergeist in theaters (at a special screening celebrating the film's 25th anniversary) was a complete blast, and Hooper's film feels like the same piece of effective, light (and "Spielbergian") entertainment it must have been back in 1982. A clunky, endearing haunted house ride that efficaciously blends humor with horror.

Film Rating: A-/B+
Scare Factor: B-

View Date: 10/4
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #5

October 4, 2007

Freaks (Browning, 1932)


"Can a full grown woman truly love a MIDGET?"

Though its power to shock and repulse (it was banned in the U.K. for 30 years) has no doubt waned significantly over the 75 years since its release, Tod Browning’s Freaks, one of the pillars of American horror cinema, remains a seminal genre text. It’s a shame that Browning’s film, saddled with one of cinema’s most enduring reputations, continues to be remembered predominantly for its shock value, for it is a film of considerable depth and surprising modernity.

Contrary to conventional opinion, Freaks is exceptional not for its shock value (though its climax remains horrifying), but rather for the economical sprawl of Browning’s direction (though it runs a scant 62 minutes, behind the veneer of its genre storyline, Freaks reveals itself as a condensed tableaux of circus life, intermingling many separate lives) and for its deeply felt pathos. A tragic chronicle of misplaced love, betrayal and revenge, it is quite an affecting experience.

Perhaps the true value of revisiting Browning’s notorious tale is the opportunity to approach such an established film (and the established critical notions that come with it) with fresh eyes, to perceive it with a fresh mind, and to see what many audiences have failed to see.

Film Rating: A
Scare Factor: C+

View Date: 10/3
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #4

October 3, 2007

Lemora: A Child's Tale Of The Supernatural (Blackburn, 1973)


“We are one and the same, and until you realize that, you can never be happy.”

The Vampire mythos has served as one of the foundations of cinematic horror from its very beginnings. Since his debut in F.W. Murnau’s seminal horror masterpiece Nosferatu, the most famous screen vampire, Count Dracula, has appeared in countless film and television productions. Despite the incredible proliferation of vampirism in cinema, I am certain that there has never been a Vampire film quite like Richard Blackburn’s Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural.

An undeniable cult item – the film received only a limited theatrical release in 1975, two years after its completion, was banned by the Catholic League of Decency, and languished in obscurity for nearly two decades until it was released on video in the mid-90’s – Lemora thrills in the way that only a cult item can. An initial viewing of Blackburn’s film, bathed in ethereal midnight blues and inky blacks (punctuated occasionally by blasts of blood red), is invariably accompanied by a sense of discovery, the feeling of unearthing cinematic “buried treasure.”

A vampire film with a stark lesbian undercurrent, steeped in Catholicism, and filtered through the prisms of Freudian & Lacanian psychology, Lemora is a startlingly original creation. Set in the prohibition era, the film follows the virginal 13-year-old “singing angel” Lila Lee (Cheryl Smith) on a macabre odyssey to see her dying gangster father in the mysterious town of Asteroth (one of the film’s highlights is the sinister bus ride to the aforementioned town). A strange, Southern Gothic fever dream (the film has been aptly described as an adult fairytale) and a sly, potent allegory of sexual repression and awakening (not to mention gender politics), Blackburn’s film (his only directorial effort) is a truly singular, visionary work of horror cinema.

Now, before I go too far, or indulge myself in hyperbole, a bit of honesty is in order. Those of you lacking a fair bit of experience with horror cinema, and probably more pertinently low-budget filmmaking, may not appreciate Lemora to the same degree as I do. It is, without a doubt, a cheaply made film, as evidenced by the shoddy (though strangely creepy) make-up effects. And excepting Smith, who, as the protagonist Lila, glides through the film with a hypnotizing somnambulant grace, concessions must be made for the crude performances.

It is a testament then to the strength and persistence of Blackburn’s vision, that in the face of these noticeable shortcomings, Lemora still emerges as an exceptional film, one that only engenders greater esteem in retrospect. Budgetary constraints never seem to get in the way of the film’s lofty aspirations, and though Blackburn only rarely taps directly into our fear nerve, the bizarre and pervasive ambiance he orchestrates floats like a spectre in the mind. The world he creates generates a brilliant sense of unease and uncertainty, and this is the film’s true accomplishment. In the final analysis, Lemora remains as ambitious and unusual an entry into the horror pantheon as you are ever likely to find.

Film: A-/B+
Scare Factor: C-

View Date: 10/2
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #3

October 2, 2007

The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane (Gessner, 1976)


"Ask Her No Questions And Nobody Dies."

Nicholas Gessner’s The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is a peculiar film, the type of unclassifiable genre effort – is it horror? suspense? a love story? – that simply isn’t made anymore, which is a real shame. Despite its schizophrenia, or perhaps because of it, 31 years after its release, the film remains interesting and compulsively watchable.

Of course, instantly, the most noteworthy aspect of the film is the presence of Jodie Foster, who plays the titular “girl” Rynn, a young girl hiding a dark secret, living in a small town with her curiously and conveniently absent poet father (“he’s translating in his office and doesn’t want to be disturbed,” “he’s off to New York to see his publisher”). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Foster delivers a fantastic and layered performance, channeling emotions not many 13-year-old actors can, in a role perfectly tailored to the precocious persona that characterized her early acting work.

Yet, it is Foster that I was least enamored with, for as strong as she is in her role, she is simply part of a greater, infinitely more interesting whole. What truly caught me off balance was the idiosyncratic nature of the film, specifically Gessner’s decision to play against any preconceived notions the audience might have. Distributed under the American International Pictures banner, Roger Corman’s legendary cheapie film label, the film’s storyline is ripe for exploitation - a young girl, alone in a house where the doors seem to be perpetually unlocked – yet none of the situations are exploited, and one can sense the respect Gessner has for his young characters. Though there are certainly subversive and taboo elements at play (pedophilia and underage sex) they are handled in a serious manner atypical of AIP’s usually gratuitous offerings. Forgoing camp, the film handles its adult themes subtly and seriously. Martin Sheen taps into deeply unsettling territory in his menacing portrayal of the pedophile Frank Hallet. On the other hand, the underage romance of Foster and Scott Jacoby, who plays a crippled teenager, is touching and heartfelt.

Admittedly, The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane occupies the fringes of the horror genre, though you shouldn’t take this statement as a criticism. Although it frightens more conceptually, upon reflection, than it does in an immediate sense, with this film, Gessner has crafted a rare, low-budget gem, a film far removed from what its origins, title, and subject matter might suggest. Where others would go for sensationalism, Gessner has crafted an intriguing, subtly frightening character study, so unusual in its pacing, tone and narrative choices that I am surprised the film was made even back in 1976.

Film: B+/B
Scare Factor: D-

View Date: 10/2
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #2

The Serpent And The Rainbow (Craven, 1988)


"Don't bury me...I'm not dead!"

In my experience (namely through personal conversations, message boards, and reading criticism), amongst those enamored with horror cinema there seem to be two prevailing opinions regarding Wes Craven. He is either a modern master of the genre, or an overrated hack and mediocre craftsman who has managed a couple of good films. Although I must admit to not having seen all of Craven's films, if my own opinion of the man falls somewhere in between those two admittedly extreme positions (albeit tending more towards the former), then his 1988 film The Serpent and the Rainbow certainly reinforces my sentiment.

Craven once again returns to the territory of dreams, a theme quite central to his best work to date (A Nightmare On Elm Street), this time situating his story in Haiti's strife-torn voodoo landscape. Adapted from Wade Davis's eponymous novel (reputedly a true story), the film tells of an American anthropologist (played by Bill Pullman) sent to Haiti by a pharmaceutical company to investigate the existence of a drug that has the ability to bring people back from the dead, to create "zombies."

The Serpent and the Rainbow is a resolutely mature horror film, a slower, story oriented exercise that succeeds precisely because of Craven's refusal to rely on cheap scare tactics. Instead, the horror is derived from Haiti itself. Craven wrings a palpable atmosphere of escalating dread from the foreignness of the Haitian culture and locale. The brilliance of this understated work is that the natural aspects of the story (the brutality of the secret police) are as horrifying, if not more so, than the fantastical, supernatural aspects. This certainly stands as one of Craven's stronger films, a mature work that does not, for the most part, pander to more simplistic horror tastes. It is all the more unfortunate then that the films climactic scenes lapse into cliché, but on the strength of everything that comes before, this can be forgiven.

Film: B/B+
Scare Factor: B+

View Date: 10/1
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #1

The 1st Annual Shocktober Horrorfest!!!


Hello again! First off, I have to apologize for my incredibly long and unannounced absence from Direct Cinema. My last post was over one month ago on August 23 (wow, has it really been that long?!) and I sincerely apologize once again for leaving you all out in the cold so to speak. I have had quite a full plate apart from running this blog, and my other duties have kept me away from posting regularly. But fear not (bad pun I know, though quite intended), beginning today I am resuming my post at Direct Cinema, which means the return of regular, daily (and hopefully even more frequently than that) posting. And to kick things off, for the entire month of October, I, like many of my online colleagues, will be doing a Horrorthon. The title I have bestowed upon my marathon is the Shocktober Horrorfest. The concept is a simple one. Every day, from today until Halloween, I will watch and subsequently review a new horror film. These reviews will range anywhere from short capsule reviews to longer, in-depth studies, depending on how the film strikes me. I'll also be putting up a Horrorfest sidebar with easy access to every review in the series. I have been doing an annual October horror marathon for three years now (this will be the third) but this marks the first time I have ever blogged about it. It is my hope that those of you who read my blog will discover hidden gems, rediscover and revisit old classics, and if you don't already, come to appreciate horror films.

Now, just a few more words about myself before we begin. I have been a horror fanatic since the day I started watching film. It seems to run in my blood. My father enjoys the genre tremendously, whereas my mom abhors the genre, so I guess I know whose genes I inherited. There is something about horror, beyond its visceral, primal appeal, that separates it from every other genre. It is such a limitless genre. A genre with an intrinsically limitless potential to tell so many different stories, the potential to carry so many layers of subtextual, metaphorical and allegorical meaning. Yet, horror can also succeed without any of those things, with just a simple, uncomplicated heaping of blood and nudity. Horror is truly an onion, with so many different layers, and I invite you to come along with me as I attempt to peel away at it. So be sure to check in frequently for your daily dose of horror, and most importantly... Enjoy!

PS. Please feel free to comment on my reviews and get a discussion going. Also I will be taking any suggestions, so if you have a horror film you'd like to see reviewed, send it my way!

Shocktober Horrorfest '07
10/1:
The Serpent and the Rainbow
10/2:
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane
Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural
10/3:
Freaks
10/4:
Poltergeist
10/5:
Carrie
10/7:
Tourist Trap
10/9:
Lady in White
10/10:
The Other
10/15:
Friday the 13th
10/17:
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
10/18:
April Fool's Day
Alice, Sweet Alice
10/19:
Night of the Living Dead
10/20:
Creep
10/21:
The Descent

August 23, 2007

Pitt's Jesse James Gets A Full Trailer In HD

A new, high-definition trailer for Andrew Dominik's gloriously titled western The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford recently went up at Moviefone.com and it is a real thing of beauty. The film stars Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck in the titular roles, and some who have seen the film in its myriad early forms have touted this film as a real breakthrough for Affleck, considering his performance Oscar worthy.


More interesting though, are the reports of the post-production difficulties Warner Brothers has had with Dominik's film, which was first slated for a winter 2006 release, pushed back to an early 2007 release, and pushed back once more to it's current winter 2007 release. The initial cut reportedly ran over three hours long, with Dominik attempting a more languidly paced, visually poetic, Terrence Malick styled western. Since then, the film has gone through various permutations, with some preview screening cuts running around two hours long. According to the official website of the 64th Venice Film Festival, where the film is slated to play in competition, the final run time is 155 minutes. Hopefully Dominik and Warner Brothers were able to find a happy medium between the extreme variations in runtime that have been reported. The film opens in limited release on September 21.

August 20, 2007

Miike Goes Sci-Fi With "God's Puzzle"

Variety Asia is reporting that the prolific Takashi Miike will make God's Puzzle (Kamisama No Puzzle) his next project. The film, based on a bestselling novel by Shinji Kimoto, centers on twin brothers, one an industrious student, the other an aimless drifter, who join forces with a beautiful, brilliant dropout and attempt "to unlock the secrets of the universe and build one of their own." The project is described as a sci-fi romantic comedy. Though Miike will undoubtedly bring his unique touch to the film, I'm still hoping that he eventually tries his hand at pure science fiction. Filming on God's Puzzle is set to start on August 22 in Tokyo with a summer 2008 release planned.

August 8, 2007

Hot Fuzz (Wright, 2007)


The decision of director Edgar Wright and star/co-writer Simon Pegg to save the most prominent and overt instances of parody for the hilarious climax of Hot Fuzz is revealing of their intentions for the film, and is also the key to understanding the film’s success as a comedy. Of course, Hot Fuzz is a witty, often times laugh out loud funny, comedic primer on action cinema, densely peppered throughout with references to everything from (most blatantly) modern American action films, to Italian Poliziotteschi, to Hong Kong action films. However, it is more than this. The real pleasure of the film, the reason it succeeds in a manner above and beyond films of this ilk, is that the hilarity stems from a true knowledge and appreciation of the action film, but it doesn’t depend on it. Wright and Pegg play with their references intelligently, weaving them seamlessly into a coherent, freestanding narrative, utilizing them not to carry the film, but rather to enrich it. Thus, Hot Fuzz succeeds in its own right and never degenerates into a patchwork assemblage of parody and homage.

August 3, 2007

Rescue Dawn (Herzog, 2006)


Many have called Rescue Dawn Werner Herzog's attempt at making a Hollywood film, and though it hems closer to the conventional Hollywood formula than any previous Herzog film, that statement is tinged by a bitter sense of reductivism. Herzog isn't simply aping Hollywood techniques, but rather slyly subverting them. The established three-act story arc is thrown out in favor of a more stream of events structure, and though they may be employed more sparingly, the Herzogian touches are still present, namely in the rhapsodic opening scene and the film's second half, which touches upon the theme of man versus nature, a theme Herzog knows all too well. This is an exceptional film, one of the best of the summer, and possibly even the year. Once again, Christian Bale is spectacular as Dieter Dengler, showcasing maybe his finest performance yet and Steve Zahn's performance is a revelation, especially considering his past body of work.

July 31, 2007

Michelangelo Antonioni, 1912-2007


Not yet another day, and already another lion of the cinema has left us. The news is almost too sad to bear. Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni, one of the true cinematic artists, died Monday at his home in Rome according to various Italian news media outlets. This news hits me particularly hard, as Antonioni is a filmmaker whose work, whose visual style, has influenced my own creative process and aesthetic taste immeasurably. There are many who consider the films of Antonioni cold, vague exercises. Pure examples of art house pretension. I strongly disagree. Of course, his films are works of true beauty. Blow-Up, L'Avventura, L'Eclisse, The Passenger, each of these I would rank as amongst the most hauntingly beautiful, meticulously composed films ever made, and also amongst my personal favorite films of all time.

Yet Antonioni, for all who would condemn him as a simple aesthete, truly understood, more so than any other filmmaker, human alienation. It courses, like a haunted, disembodied soul, through his films. I will write no more, as I am truly at a loss for words. I need some more time to come to terms with this. In the meantime, if you have never seen an Antonioni film, what better time than now to introduce yourself to one of the most pure artist of the film form. Antonioni, you will be deeply missed.

Obituary @ New York Times
An Analysis of Antonioni's Career (Senses Of Cinema)
Critical Analysis of Selected Film Works (Strictly Film School)

July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007

Ingmar Bergman, one of the true pillars of cinema, passed away today at his home on the Swedish island of Faro. He was 89 years old. There is an extensive obituary over at the New York Times. Although Bergman certainly lived a long and full life, this is still extremely saddening news. One of the true giants, a pillar of the cinema, has left us, and I believe I am safe in proclaiming that there will never be another filmmaker quite like Ingmar Bergman. One glimpse at the Swedish auteur's filmography is enough to confirm both that statement and his indisputable genius. Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring, Cries and Whispers, Autumn Sonata, Fanny and Alexander, and my personal favorite, the metaphysical, enigmatic Persona, the list goes on and on. In his work, he combined an intense intellectual, formalist rigor with a passionate, probing religiosity (though he denounced religion in his own life). In the hands of a lesser talent, such a combination could have easily resulted in works dramatically stale and overwrought. In the hands of Bergman, the cinematic landscape was forever altered. Bergman will be missed dearly, but thankfully, he has left behind a tremendous body of work that can continue to be explored and discovered.

"Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls."*
-Ingmar Bergman

*as quoted in "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" by John Berger, Sight and Sound (June 1991)

Obituary @ The Washington Post
The Radical Intimacy Of Bergman (Senses Of Cinema)
An Analysis of Selected Film Works (Strictly Film School)

July 27, 2007

Haneke's Next Is Teacher's Tale

Michael Haneke, the Austrian auteur behind the brutal, confrontational Funny Games (he just recently wrapped work on the English language remake starring Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), and Caché, my second favorite film of 2005, has announced his next film. According to Variety, Haneke will film The White Tape or the Teacher's Tale, a film to be set just before World War I in a Northern German village. The Variety story doesn't go into any more detail regarding the film's plot, but a search of the IMDb boards sheds a bit more light on the film, describing it as being "story centered in a school in a little village around [the] beginning of World War I."

July 25, 2007

M (Lang, 1931)


Only the second Lang film I have seen (the other being Lang's equally masterful though completely different Metropolis), thus my limited knowledge of Lang's particular themes and motivations precludes me from undertaking a more extratextual analysis. In this case however, the film's 117 minutes are so dense (with symbolism, cinematic technique, aesthetics, meaning) a more hermetic analysis doesn't seem restricting in the least. Upon first viewing, I am struck by the incredibly modern sensibility that runs throughout, and the deft combination of procedural, social message and ironically least of all thriller. It is amazing that this was Lang's first sound film. A work that surely stands the test of time, and worthy of every bit of effusive praise it has received. Easily one of the greatest films of all time. A masterpiece. IMDb listing. Detailed thoughts soon...

July 19, 2007

The Trailer Compendium: Vol. 9

Two of the finest films based upon the tale of King Arthur and his knights, Robert Bresson's Lancelot du Lac and John Boorman's Excalibur exemplify one of the most pleasurable qualities of cinema, the ability for a single subject to be approached and examined in vastly divergent ways. Bresson's film is a spare and brutal dismantling of the Arthurian legend, while Boorman's film is an epic, fantastical exaltation of it. And though these two films surely occupy opposite ends of the cinematic spectrum, they are, odd as it may seem, wonderful companion pieces, illuminating both each other and the vast communicative space of cinema. Enjoy!

Lancelot du Lac (1974):


Excalibur (1981):

July 9, 2007

The Rapture (Tolkin, 1991)


I must admit I'm not quite sure what to make of Tolkin's challenging, unsettling film. Overly ambitious in intent, it straddles the line between underappreciated masterpiece and esoteric curio. But despite the schizophrenic response it engenders, it is also an undeniably singular filmic experience, at once starkly inaccessible and fascinating. As a study of religious extremism through the lens of born-again Christianity, Tolkin's film excavates powerful questions, reminding of the spiritual/corporeal contradictions and struggles evident in not just Christianity, but all religion. Ultimately, the film buckles somewhat under its immense aspirations. And though it isn't a horror film in the traditional sense, I must say that parts of The Rapture lingered with me long after viewing and scared me more than any horror film I have seen in a long time.

52 Pick-Up (Frankenheimer, 1986)


52 Pick-Up isn't quite the hidden gem I was hoping it would be. In my estimation it is more like 1/3rd of a hidden gem, which is almost worst than if it had been completely, irredeemably bad. The film starts off promisingly. Frankenheimer seems in complete control of Elmore Leonard's lurid, sleazy prose, and Jost Vacano's cinematography is captivating in its fluidity. There is a certain unsophisticated pleasure to be found in the brooding atmospherics of this infidelity cum revenge tale. Unfortunately, nearly all of the lurid ambiance and pulpy style Frankenheimer and Leonard build up in the film's opening third are squandered by the time we reach the film's ridiculous climax, and we are left with a film completely detached from its initial self, a film inhabiting that strange 80's action film netherworld where every nonsensical move must be punctuated by over the top theatricality and cartoon violence. The best thing about the film is John Glover's turn as bad guy Alan Raimy. He speaks with a wonderfully strange cadence and articulation perfectly suited to Leonard's seedy dialogue.

July 2, 2007

Edward Yang, 1947-2007

Filmmaker Edward Yang, one of Asian cinema's true auteurs and the father of New Taiwanese Cinema, died Friday at the age of 59 from colon cancer. There is a nice piece in remembrance of Yang over at the Village Voice. At the time of his death, Yang was working on an animated film budgeted at $25 million called The Wind, which would have curiously pared him with Jackie Chan. Many have noted that Yang was severely underrepresented here in the West. If one considers the gulf between talent and recognition, then he might be the most unjustly underrepresented filmmaker of all time. Though I have not had the chance to see all of Yang's films, I have seen what I believe to be his undisputed masterpiece, A Brighter Summer Day. A staggering, honest and beautiful work, an intimate epic, it is one of the best films of all time. If ever you get the chance to see it (most likely at a film festival) do not hesitate. One of the great tragedies in cinema is that this film, along with much of Yang's work, isn't widely available on any home video format. Fortunately, his final film Yi Yi, which won the Best Director prize at the 2000 Cannes film festival, is available on a fantastic DVD from Criterion. If you haven't seen this film, and even if you have, I urge you to go watch it.

Obituary @ New York Times
Obituary @ Variety Asia
A Fantastic Analysis of Yang's Work (Senses Of Cinema)
An Analysis of A Brighter Summer Day (Strictly Film School)

June 29, 2007

Kill Me Again (Dahl, 1988)


The first film in Dahl's loose trilogy of modern noir, Kill Me Again is minor noir to be sure, but it is far more intelligent than it might initially seem, predominantly due to Dahl's acute awareness and playful manipulation of noir conventions. It is quite obvious that Dahl has a love for the genre, and though the plot is nothing new, at times quite threadbare, the enjoyably absurd internal logic and lack of pretension are quite refreshing. The cast is uniformly game, with an able Kilmer as the put-upon private eye, but it is Whalley (then Whalley-Kilmer) who steals the show as the hard-boiled femme fatale. Further evidence that the Midwestern United States is aptly suited to film noir.

June 28, 2007

Wes Anderson's "The Darjeeling Limited" To Open 45th New York Film Festival


The Film Society of Lincoln Center announced today an interesting quartet of films that will be playing at this years New York Film Festival. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Wes Anderson's latest comedy The Darjeeling Limited will open the 45th NYFF. I have attended the festival for the past three years, and unlike many festivals, which tend to open with good albeit less challenging films, the NYFF always seems to reserve the opening-night slot for something special. Previous opening-night films at the fest include Mystic River, Good Night, and Good Luck, and most recently The Queen. Commenting on Anderson's film, Richard Pena, president of the NYFF selection committee said, "It represents a big step for Wes. I hate to use the word 'matured,' but the humor and whimsy he uses is sharper, better focused and used more effectively."

The selection committee also announced that Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country For Old Men, a sensation at this years Cannes Film Festival, will be the festival's Centerpiece film, and that Cannes Palme D'Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and Secret Sunshine (winner of the best actress award at Cannes) will also be featured. The full lineup will be announced in early August, and the festival will run from Sept. 28 to Oct. 14.