Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Marilyn Burns (1950-2014)

I will never forget the way Marilyn Burns drew me into the terrifying heart of "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre". After obsessing over it for years--a 1981 re-release played local theaters and no sensible adult would take an 11-year-old me to see it--I watched it alone in the late 1980s on VHS. I wasn't prepared for how the movie made me feel. It unsettled me in a way I had never experienced up to that point. As a kid, I had seen "Halloween" on TV in 1979, and "ALIEN" the year after. Somewhere in there I had also seen "Night of the Living Dead". All of those films stuck with me because of the way they shocked me, but "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" was so brutal to me, it truly shook me and upset me.

It took me a long time to realize that the reason the movie works so well is because of how Marilyn Burns connects with the audience. The rest of the movie is brilliant, but her performance is so crucial that if she hadn't risen to the occasion, the movie might not have been as great. She's in a sustained state of absolute terror in the final third of the film, and she just does not let up for one second. The movie works so well because it looks so real, and she seemed like a real person pushed to the brink of anything she had ever experienced in her life. It blew my fucking mind.

Somewhere in the 80s, slasher movies had become totally boring and passe. A lot of them had great effects, or an interesting gimmick, but I usually compared their final girls to Jamie Lee Curtis. When I see them now, I realize what most of the lesser films really needed was a performance on the level of Marilyn Burns.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Farewell to H.R. Giger.

"My paintings seem to make the strongest impression on people who are, well, who are crazy. A good many people think as I do. If they like my work they are creative...or they are crazy."
                                                                                       - H.R. Giger, 1979

Giger's dark legacy can't be overestimated. Although his most well-known accomplishment was his crucial art design in 1979's "ALIEN", his lengthy career as a multimedia artist was so much more than just that. His bizarre, beautiful, disturbing genius will be missed.

Monday, April 28, 2014

April Ghouls 2014 roundup!

I don't know how you spent your weekend, but I spent mine staying up all night watching movies with a bunch of fellow horror geeks at the second annual April Ghouls Drive-In Monsterama at the Riverside Drive-In in Vandergrift, PA. This year's lineup was extremely inspired and classic, with classics like "Carrie" and "Suspiria" to lower budget films like "The Beast Within" and "Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things".

Friday night's lineup began with "The Town That Dreaded Sundown", a 1976 flick that's about as "drive-in exploitation" as you can possibly get, even though it was easily the most expendable movie on the program. It seems to have been made to entertain distracted drive-in patrons who were partying in their cars and not paying much attention, as the faux documentary format of the film really drags. The movie is really nothing more than a series of murder scenes strung together by snore-inducing investigative scenes, although the presence of Andrew Prine ("Grizzly", "Hannah, Queen of the Vampires") helps liven the interest for a while. The movie also features a memorable image of its killer, who wears a white cloth sack over his head much like Jason Voorhees did years later in "Friday the 13th Part 2".

Another 1976 film followed, one that is a little more well-known and widely seen: Brian DePalma's "Carrie". I never was a huge fan of this movie, despite the fact that it seems to be so beloved as an iconic horror film, but it played great on this bill and I admired it a little more for its excellent pacing. "Carrie" never lags for too long, especially considering the movie that came before it. Also, camp is king in "Carrie", from Piper Laurie's almost comedic turn as Carrie's zealot mother to the almost ridiculous interaction between John Travolta and Nancy Allen as the film's villainous teenagers. It's an abbreviated take on Stephen King's novel, and definitely not DePalma's best film, but it's pretty good for what it is.

"Suspiria" came third, and this movie never disappoints me when I see it on a big screen. I wasn't even bitter about the fact that our print was the standard US version, with the worst violence snipped out of it and an entire subplot removed--most scenes with the blind piano player Daniel have been removed, making the reason for his death an even greater mystery to anybody who has never seen the uncut film.  However, the cuts are not fatal to the movie, as Argento's stunning vision still showed through.

The final Friday flick was Wes Craven's original 1977 "The Hills Have Eyes", which has a little more plot than his debut "Last House on the Left", but retains that earlier film's confrontational approach to its violence. I dare anybody to have a problem with any movie that features Dee Wallace! I just dare you. OK, wait, she was in Rob Zombie's "Halloween", so it's OK if you have a problem with that one.

Speaking of "Halloween", the one and only 1978 original was the lead-off film on Saturday night's program, and although I've seen it in a theater a number of times, seeing it at the drive-in seemed almost too perfect. After all, drive-ins were undoubtedly important to that movie's original success in 1978, as they were still a large part of the moviegoing experience, especially among young people. Like everyone else on the planet, I know the movie inside out by this time, but the older I get, the more I notice how young Jamie Lee Curtis was when she made this big screen debut as babysitting warrior Laurie Strode. 

It had been a good while since the last time I saw 1982's "The Beast Within", a film I remember mostly because of all the coverage it got in Fangoria and Famous Monsters. When I finally saw it on HBO a few years after its theatrical release, I remember thinking it was awful. Indeed, it's a low budget experience, and the much-heralded special effects are now extremely dated. However, in spite of a few shots that don't work (such as a really fake-looking dummy shot involving a startlingly long tongue), the monster FX in "Beast" are actually pretty effective. The unpleasant story involves a teenager who is transforming into a hideous creature due to his unfortunate lineage, and it gets right to the action, not even giving us any images of Michael before shit starts to go haywire with him. A little like his counterpart Carrie, Michael finds that adolescence is a scary time when you can easily be embarrassed in front of girls--especially when you're turning into a cicada monster.

Yet another scary parable for those difficult teenage years, "Phantasm" is one of those movies that really makes no sense the first time you see it, with a plot as bizarre and random as anything you're likely to see. Told from the point of view of a young teenage boy whose close family members are all being taken from him in death, the movie is almost European in the way it asks you to draw your own conclusions about what is actually happening on screen at any given moment. The movie is literally a nightmare, with dreamlike plotting and elliptical pacing, but somehow the film successfully brings together outlandish elements of interdimensional travel, zombie dwarf slaves, teleportation, brain-draining silver sentry spheres, and shape-shifting creatures. Angus Scrimm is, of course, unforgettable as the movie's villain The Tall Man, and director Don Coscarelli fills the movie with bizarre images that are somehow never too ambitious for the movie's obviously tiny budget.

The crowning jewel of this year's April Ghouls was "Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things", a film I'd never seen on a big screen before, and there couldn't have been a better choice for the final movie. "Children" began around 3:15am, and although I've ranted about my deep love for this film before, suffice it to say that this movie's cheap and effective thrills looked even more cheap and effective at a misty late night drive in theater. Ask around, and you'll find that this movie's fans are wild about the scene where an entire cemetery full of rotting corpses comes alive with activity, zombies being ejected from the ground in a fantastic sequence that seems almost like ballet at times. Although any movie where dead people come back to life is asking a lot for your suspension of disbelief, "Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things" rewards you for your efforts with tons of cartoonishly grisly zombies. And while the film's violence isn't as gory or explicit as many other flicks in the genre, it's got some indelible images within its reels.

In between films, vintage exploitation trailers ran amok, and I saw so many classic drive-in films represented here I lost count. Some I recall are "Folks at Red Wolf Inn", "Dracula's Dog", "Embryo", "Futureworld", "Piranha", "The Car", "The Manitou", "The Sentinel", "Burnt Offerings", "Tentacles"...the list goes on and on. 

Sometimes it's hard to remember that there even was a time when we couldn't own films for viewing in our own homes whenever we wanted. We had to gather in places like a drive-in to experience them, and oftentimes it was impossible to see them again unless they came around a second time. Of course home video changed all that, and no film fan could resist the allure of being able to see your favorite films whenever you want. But when we gained that possibility, we lost a little of the magic, too. I can't say enough about how much I love these yearly events, and how lucky I feel that I don't have to drive too far to get there, as some patrons drive hundreds of miles to take part in the kind of time travel the Monsterama festivals represent. The love I have for a lot of these films doesn't come entirely from my enjoyment of the films themselves--if this was the only reason, a lot of us wouldn't be so compelled to watch these movies over and over like we do. Equally important is the cultural reference these movies represent for us. When I see them at the drive-in like this, it takes me back to where my love for horror films came from in the first place: my own youth, and a time when it seemed like this kind of imagination and creativity would just go on and on. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Horror Express (1972)

If you watched scary movies on TV in the 70s and early 80s, "Horror Express" was inescapable--if you don't recognize the title, you probably thought of it the same way I did, as "that movie with the white eyes bleeding from the head". I always caught it late at night, long after I should have been in bed, and it's one of those rare films that is just as good whether you're an adult or a kid. The plot finds two British men of science aboard the Trans Siberian Express fighting a shape shifting evil presence that one of them has freed from a cave during an expedition in Manchuria. The fact that the two leads are none other than Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing immediately gives "Horror Express" all the cred it would ever need, and even though it wasn't made by Hammer Films, the fact that they're in the movie makes it seem that way.
"Dude...I've been sleeping for a couple million years, what time is it?"

Professor Saxton (Christopher Lee) is an anthropologist who discovers what appears to be the fossilized remains of a prehistoric humanoid creature. With the creature's body packed in a crate, he boards the Trans-Siberian Express in China, along with fellow British scientist Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing). The two are rival colleagues, and Saxton is originally intent on keeping his discovery a secret until he can return to England. Before they even leave China, a local thief is found dead on the train platform next to the crate, his eyes bleeding and now completely white. A Polish Count and his wife encounter the scene while boarding, and their spiritual advisor, a crazed monk (Alberto de Mendoza), insists the contents of the crate are evil.  Wells becomes suspicious of Saxton's "fossil", and pays the baggage man to look inside the crate once everyone has boarded. When the man looks into the crate, the creature reanimates and kills him with its glowing red eye, which causes the man's eyes to go white. The creature then picks the lock and escapes, hiding on the train and claiming other passengers as victims, all of them found with white, bleeding eyes. Finally it is gunned down by a police inspector, Mirov (Julio Pena), but before it dies it locks eyes with him, somehow transferring itself to his own body.
"You call THIS vodka?"
Wells and his assistant perform an autopsy on one of the victims, deducing that the creature has drained its victims brains of all memories and knowledge. By extracting fluid from the dead fossil's eye, they are able to see images in the liquid that reveal a prehistoric Earth, as well as the planet as seen from space. The evil presence is an alien form of intelligent energy that is able to jump from body to body, and has survived on the planet for millions of years, transferring hosts until it became trapped in the body of the apelike creature that Saxton discovered. It is intent on absorbing enough knowledge to escape the planet and return to its own galaxy, with only Saxton and Wells in a position to stop it.
"Siberia..!? I thought we were headed for Ibiza!"
Most of the action in the film is contained to the cars of the train, which is pretty amazing when you realize that the filmmakers only had one train set that was redressed several times to simulate different cars. Legend has it that Cushing arrived on the set for this film mourning the recent death of his wife, and he informed the director that he couldn't do the film because he was too distraught. Christopher Lee intervened by simply reminiscing about old times with Cushing, who fortunately forgot all about quitting the picture and did the job after all. Just having the two of them together in the movie would have been enough, but we also get none other than Telly Savalas in a brief but juicy role as a Cossack officer who boards the train with a group of his men and roughs up the passengers in an attempt to find the "murderer"--of course his eyeballs end up like hard boiled eggs like all the other victims in the film. Another familiar face is Helga Line, who had an extensive film career in Spanish movies and appeared in several genre films, including "Vampire's Night Orgy". "Horror Express" doesn't have the budget of a Hammer film, but it's so efficient that you'd never know it. The exterior shots of the train are miniatures, but extremely well done miniatures. The glowing eyeball effects are excellent too, especially since they were probably very difficult to pull off in 1972.

An image harvested from fluid in the creature's eyeball reveals...a child's dinosaur book?
Alberto de Mendoza really steals the show as Pujardov, the mad monk whose character ends up taking center stage by the end of the film. Pujardov starts the movie by ominously warning the others that Saxton's crate contains "pure evil", melodramatically warning the others about the presence of "Satan". After it has migrated to Inspector Mirov's body, Pujardov becomes awed by it and offers to do its bidding. Instead it says to him "Fool, there's nothing worth taking in your brain." But when it is gunned down while using Mirov's body, the creature is forced to migrate into Pujardov anyway. Saxton himself declares earlier in the film that religion is superstition when one of the other characters refers to Darwin's Theory of Evolution as immoral, but at one point the creature confronts him and tempts him like the devil; faced with the fact that Saxton could kill it, it instead offers to teach him the secrets of science that it has absorbed over the millions of years it has survived. Both Saxton and the monk could be right about the creature, as it could both prove and disprove the human concept of Satan and evil in general. I love that this movie has such a great concept behind it, which makes it all the more interesting once the visual shocks are diluted by years of viewing.

"Horror Express" is definitely one of the greatest movies to feature Cushing and Lee, and they deliver a lot of the best lines as well. At one point Mirov (actually the creature) suggests that one of them could actually be the monster, to which a shocked Cushing responds "Monster? We're British, you know!" Telly Savalas is a total anachronism in this film and it's brilliant; he basically shows up, acts like Kojak for a few scenes, then turns into a white-eyed zombie. 

There are obvious parallels to "The Thing", or more specifically "Who Goes There?", the short story that inspired "The Thing", but the script is original enough that it stands on its own. The wackiest scene is when Cushing and Lee examine the liquid contents of the creature's eyeball and find that they can see images of the things the creature has seen in its lifetime, including dinosaurs (which are textbook illustrations). "Horror Express" is completely dubbed and was almost surely shot silent, with the entire audio track created in post-production. The result is a claustrophobic sound design that really enhances the atmosphere of a cramped, moving train. The gory elements are very effective, too, like one scene where Cushing uses a nasty looking saw to cut open the head of the dead porter's corpse during the autopsy. Those bleeding eyes, though...those will stick with you. I remember the sick feeling it used to give me when I watched it as a kid, with a combination of dread, excitement, and mystery.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Flesh For Frankenstein (1973), aka Andy Warhol's Frankenstein

Whenever I think of the most disturbing films I've ever seen, "Flesh For Frankenstein" (1973) has got to be near the top of the list. The concept of Frankenstein and his experiments is something that pop culture tends to gloss over; those cartoonishly square-headed green-skinned monsters we see at Halloween are so far removed from Mary Shelley's original creation that it's easy to forget the "monster" is a corpse, and not even an entire corpse. It's pieced together from numerous dead bodies, as if body parts could be interchangeable and human beings could be little more than elaborate dolls. Filmed in Serbia back to back with "Blood for Dracula" and utilizing many of the same cast members, "Flesh for Frankenstein" was marketed in the United States as "Andy Warhol's Frankenstein", just like its sibling was retitled "Andy Warhol's Dracula". Both films were directed by Paul Morrissey, veteran of the Warhol-produced films "Heat", "Trash", and "Flesh".  Like those films, "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" both feature Warhol personality Joe Dallesandro. While both films are identical in tone and style, only "Frankenstein" ended up being so over the top gory, nihilistic, and absolutely bizarre. It also has the distinction of being the only film of the two that was filmed in 3D. While it is technically a spoof of Frankenstein films, it is played straight and has a serious side that goes right alongside the ridiculous elements. It can be read both ways, often simultaneously.

"Ve vill find ze perfect...nasum."
The one and only Udo Kier stars as Baron Frankenstein, seemingly obsessed not only with the reanimation of dead bodies, but with the creation of a master Serbian race. Frankenstein lives in the family castle with a woman who appears to be his wife and the mother of his two children, who we see in the opening scene prowling Frankenstein's lab and dissecting a doll.  Later we come to realize that the Baroness is not only Frankenstein's wife, but also his sister. Whether or not the two are really the parents of the children is unclear, but incest is the least of the sexual perversions going on in the Frankenstein castle.  The Baroness (Monique van Mooren) suffers from her lack of a sex life with her "husband" and starts to set her sights on local stud peasant Nicholas (Joe Dallesandro), who is constantly found in sexual situations with various young maidens in the village. Aided by the required bizarre assistant Otto (Arno Juerging), the Baron presides over his two monsters in his laboratory. Before bringing them to life, he removes the female zombie from its holding tank and cuts it open, fondling its insides in an orgasmic way, then having sex with it, after which he delivers one of the movie's most unforgettable lines: "To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life in the gall bladder!"

Frankenstein is determined to find the ideal head for his male monster, one that has the perfect Serbian nose (referred to here as a "nasum"). The Baron and Otto find the right head on local peasant Sacha (Srdjan Zelenovic), a mild mannered man who has aspirations to become a monk.  The bawdy Nicholas is his friend and takes him to a whorehouse, but Sacha isn't interested in sex. The Baron and Otto don't know this, and wait for him to emerge with the now-drunken Nicholas. They knock Nicholas unconscious and decapitate Sacha then and there, the Baron holding his head triumphantly. Whatever Frankenstein's methods are, they're pretty amazing because they don't even pack it in ice. Little does he know that Sacha's disinterest in sex makes him an unlikely candidate as the father of a master race, and when he attaches the head to the male monster, everyone is disappointed when he fails to respond to the beautiful female creature.

Meanwhile, Nicholas seeks shelter at the castle after the locals find him next to Sacha's decapitated body and suspect him of murder. Flustered by his studliness, the icy Baroness takes him in and hires him to...tend to her stables, if you know what I mean. When the Baron decides to bring his two creations to the dinner table that night, Nicholas recognizes his former friend and begins to investigate, uncovering Frankenstein's experiments. The two children also are aware of the experiments, lurking in the hidden passageways of the castle and spying on their mother's and father's perverted sex lives. At one point they sneak into the laboratory and gaze silently at the horrors on display there, including a set of disembodied lungs and a heart, attached to wires and tubes and breathing on their own. Frankenstein  himself spies on the Baroness when she's with Nicholas, yet seems to be completely uninterested in her otherwise.

The Baron eventually loses control of the morbid situation he's set in motion. The dangerously disturbed Otto goes haywire with jealousy and sexual frustration, first by attacking the castle maid and killing her when he attempts to fondle her insides the way Frankenstein does to the female zombie. One of the film's weirdest scenes is when he chases her through the laboratory until he has her cornered. He attacks her in a sexual manner, and there is a loud ripping sound on the soundtrack of the film, then she falls over a grating, her internal organs falling out of her body and dangling in 3D at the camera.

Later, Otto attempts to do the same to the female zombie and destroys her in the process, too, infuriating the Baron to the point where he strangles Otto to death. Nicholas, whom the Baron has tied up and held captive in the laboratory, watches as the Baroness forces herself into the equation by demanding that her brother let her take the male monster back to her bedroom for his sexual services. The Baron reluctantly agrees, but the male creature possesses brute strength and crushes her during the sex act, her ribs and back cracking loudly as he kills her. The monster carries her back to the lab, where the Baron has just killed Otto. The Baron goes berserk at seeing his sister dead, and orders the monster to kill Nicholas. Instead it goes after Frankenstein himself, leading to the Grand Guignol bloodbath finale: the monster shears off Frankenstein's hand with an iron gate door. After the Baron sprays blood all over the lab, the creature impales him with a spiked pole, the Baron's liver dangling off the end of it as it's thrust into the camera. The Baron delivers (de-livers?) a hilariously long dying speech, then expires in a kneeling position. Nicholas asks the creature to free him, but instead it commits suicide by ripping its own guts out, preferring to die rather than go on living. With the rest of the cast dead, the film ends as the children enter the lab and regard Nicholas curiously, then make preparations to re-enact the opening dissection, this time using Nicholas instead of the doll.

No mad scientist's lab is complete without one of these.
The movie has a strong atmosphere of doom and horror, even without the fantastic gore, but the gore is a large part of the movie's experience. Never has the true horror of Frankenstein's bodily invasions been so explicitly portrayed in a movie. Although the Hammer "Frankenstein" films came close, none of them paired their gore with such a strong sense of sexuality, and none of them would have dared tackle such pervasive themes of both necrophilia and incest. The actual sex scenes in the film are not pornographic, although the overall tone is way stronger than a typical R rated film. They're also a little unusual, shall we say, and more than a little ridiculous, like when the Baroness ecstatically licks Nicholas's armpit. While there is a lot of female nudity, Dallesandro also appears full frontal in the film, which even in 2013 still seems to push the envelope of what is and isn't acceptable in onscreen sex scenes. Indeed, "Andy Warhol's Frankenstein" was shown in the US with an "X" rating upon its release, and I'd advise against watching the edited R-rated version that circulates (the version on Netflix is listed as unrated, but is actually the R rated cut that removes most of the gore and sex scenes by either cutting them out entirely or destroying the film composition by zooming awkwardly onto less-offensive parts of the frame). The nudity and graphic violence are very much essential to the movie's effect.

Something seems to be wrong down there...
Although the movie is clearly not meant to be taken seriously, it's also hard not to get drawn into its strange world, which has a lot to do with the quality of the production. The sets are truly amazing, especially Frankenstein's lab, a nightmarish space containing antiquated tile, stone, and of course the essential mad scientist tubes and gadgets. The cinematography is engrossing and always artful, capturing the visual details of the sets and outlining their depth and character. The presence of Joe Dallesandro seems completely nonsensical, since everything about the movie is European except for him and his displaced New York personality, complete with a strong Brooklyn accent. Udo Kier's overwrought performance as the Baron is both absurd and strangely compelling, such as the scene where he desperately tries to get the male zombie to become sexually aroused by the female, shrieking over and over to the female zombie "Kiss him! What are you waiting for, KISS HIM!" Kier plays Baron Frankenstein much like a caricature of Hitler, which seems logical considering he is a sociopath obsessed with creating a 'master race'.

Although Dallesandro's performance is typically wooden, he does have a presence that's hard to deny. Monique van Mooren hits all the right notes as the snobby Baroness, and she even has one of the film's best lines when Dallesandro tries to warn her she's in danger and she shouts at him "How dare you wake me up in the middle of the day when you know I have insomnia!"  The children are especially creepy, as they are silent throughout the entire film and have no lines of dialogue. We see them learning the decadent ways of their parents, even spying on them from the secret passageways when they're having sex, and after the Shakespearean climax of the film they silently approach Nicholas with scalpels, suggesting that Frankenstein's bizarre experiments will continue. While on one hand "Flesh for Frankenstein" is completely absurd and even laughable (and the filmmakers do want you to laugh), its nightmarish world of bodily degradation and sexual excess starts to take on a life of its own.