Sunday, June 12, 2011

Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things (1973)

Everybody remembers those first few movies that ever really got under your skin.  At first it was vampires that scared me, and other Universal monsters, but then along came zombies.  "Night of the Living Dead" particularly, which properly warped my eight-year-old brain when they broadcast it on television to celebrate the upcoming theatrical premiere of "Dawn of the Dead".  Everything about that movie was different, although I was too young to realize it at the time.  Previously monsters stalked castles and deserted moors, but in that movie, the most realistic monsters ever--dead people--invaded the real world.  The protagonists even watched breaking news about the zombie crisis on TELEVISION, no less!  "NOTLD" was a game-changer, but not too long afterwards there was "Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things", a morbid little piece I caught when it made the rounds on late night television.  The two movies are very similar, both featuring a small group of people who are isolated by flesh-eating zombies and beseiged while they try to barricade themselves inside of a house.  But aside from that--oh, and I don't know, the fact that there's a freaked out girl who spouts gibberish, total infighting among the survivors, a failed escape attempt that results in cannibalism, and a nihilistic ending that finds everybody dead--they're two TOTALLY different movies.
Gather round, children, and I will tell you why you shouldn't play with dead things.  OK, so imagine it's 1972.  You're really worried about the unemployment rate, there's this thing about Vietnam that's been bummin you out, and you're an actor working for this stupid dandyman who wears striped trousers and spouts pseudo-Shakespearean gibberish in an attempt to constantly belittle you.  He's got you and a bunch of other fellow actors--apparently you all work for his small theater troupe--and he takes you to this small island off the mainland of what looks like Florida.  The island holds a decrepit graveyard, apparently there were a lot of unpleasant people buried there, like rapists, murderers, and members of the official Rebecca Black fan club.
Stop smiling.  You're about to be eaten alive by rotting corpses.
OK, so like, he takes you into this graveyard and tells you you're going to perform a Satanic necromantic ritual to raise the dead.  He makes you dig up a grave so you can use a body for the ritual, but his ritual doesn't work.  A snarky actress has her hand at it, and she does well enough to get a few thunderclaps, but even she can't make the dead rise.  So you all go back to the island cottage to party, and you take the corpse with you.  You continue to mock and defile the body, until finally the ritual seems to have worked: corpses start climbing out of their graves and converge on the cottage.  What do you do?

Well, you fight with each other and become zombie chow, that's what you do.  This is a movie from the early 70s, after all.  In case you didn't know, it was directed by Bob Clark, director of "Black Christmas", "Porky's", and yes, "A Christmas Story".  "Children", however, is a low budget freak out of the highest order.  It doesn't have the apocalyptic implications of "Night of the Living Dead", but it does add a few new features to Romero's blueprint, including a ghoulish color scheme that perfectly captures the look of EC horror comics.  It's also one of the earliest post-NOTLD zombie movies I can think of.  Let's face it, any movie that shows zombies eating people is an imitation of NOTLD, but "Children" does it really well.  It's not quite as graphic--this movie actually is rated PG!--but that doesn't really matter much to me. 

But there's a nasty, cruel edge to the human characters as well.  The leader of the morbid gang, Alan, bullies the rest of the people the entire time, belittling them and constantly threatening to fire them if they don't go along with his ridiculous whims. Apparently these people think nothing of kidnapping the cemetery's caretaker and tying him to a tree outside in the dead of night.  They also don't mind digging up a corpse and desecrating it.  At one point, Alan climbs in bed with "Orville" (the corpse) and insinuates that he's going to have sex with the body.  Later, after the zombie attack happens, Alan hurls his wife Anya into a crowd of ghouls to save his own ass.  Something tells me Alan would have made a fabulous politician, if Orville hadn't bitten him to death.

When people bitch about "Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things", it's usually because of the pacing.  Modern audiences will definitely have a hard time dealing with the movie's limited pace and action, as it takes quite a while to get cranking.  There's no real zombie action until the final third of the film, where big things start poppin' all over.  It goes from talky and spooky to relentless and vicious; when zombies invade the cottage at the film's conclusion, even one of the dead actors is attacked and (presumably) devoured.  The doomy aspects of the film really make this a favorite for me, with nobody getting out alive.  The final scene of the film shows the zombies, having now killed off all the interlopers, wandering onto the deserted boat, which drifts away from shore toward Miami, full of rotting corpses waiting to chow down on the living.  Perhaps this qualifies "Children" as an unofficial prequel to NOTLD!
Can you wait? I'm eating my lunch.
Clark uses a few camera tricks to fill in the blanks left by the lack of budget, including slow-motion during the more frightening moments. The lighting is undeniably creepy, as is the graveyard set. The scene where the zombies come out of their graves is one of the best of its type, with numerous zombies emerging all at once from holes in the ground. It's both cartoonish and nightmarish at the same time. There's a great scene where, during the resurrection of the ghouls, one of the human characters (who happens to be dressed as a ghoul himself) is confronted in a shadowy grove by a real zombie, and the way it's filmed is pure spooky movie nirvana. The cemetery's real caretaker, whom the nasty theater people have gagged & tied to a tree, finds himself surrounded by ghouls, and there's this great moment where one of them slowly notices him, turns, and starts lumbering at him followed by others. Bound and helpless, he's total zombie bait. The ghouls in "Children" have more in common with Lamberto Bava's "Demons", with garishly discolored faces and demonic features. One zombie girl in particular gives me nightmares every time I see her.

The soundtrack is full of bizarre synthesizer noises and riffs instead of proper scoring, and it helps set the film apart from others.  Although the synths are dated, actual scoring would have been even more dated (such as the library music in NOTLD).  The otherworldly noises go perfectly with the action, particularly the scene where the graveyard starts spitting out the ghouls.  The trilling synths add a claustrophobic element, with multiple sound effects and swirling audio patterns.  It's disorienting; it works especially well with the slow motion moments.  I think Bob and the crew must have been doing a little acid.  It WAS the 70s, after all!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Bay Of Blood, aka Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971)

**Final Girl Film Club update, 8/27/13**

Check out Final Girl for her take on Bava's classic, as well as links to other Film Club reviews for total Bava Immersion Therapy! Tune in, Twitch on, Geek out!

I know I already wrote about this here once, but please allow me to officially geek out about one of my favorite movies of all time, familiar in English-speaking markets under the titles "Twitch of the Death Nerve" and "A Bay of Blood". Possibly my favorite of Mario Bava films, it's not perfect; it goes a little too far over the top, both in its plotting and in its visuals. The zoom lens is active as ever, shots wallow out of focus for lengthy periods before resolving themselves into discernable images, and Bava lingers on shots that simply show characters doing things that do nothing to further the plot. Like his masterpiece "Lisa and the Devil", "A Bay of Blood" is self-indulgent almost to the point of absurdity. But it's this self indulgence that makes me want to keep watching it over and over.
Look, even ALIEN stole from this movie!
There is a plot so convoluted that it may not be entirely decipherable upon first viewing: a wealthy Countess owns a piece of prime bayside real estate. She can't bear to sell it to the land developer who wants to turn the area into a profitable resort, so he engineers her murder by sending his slutty girlfriend to seduce the Countess's philandering husband. Things spiral rapidly out of control: the Countess's illegitimate son witnesses her murder and immediately kills the husband. He then kills four random teenagers behaving badly in the area after one of them uncovers a clue to the murder scheme. The Countess's daughter shows up and starts killing anybody that stands between her and her inheritance. The body count grows.

What I love about the film is its strange combination of elements. The setting appears to be a lush, leafy, isolated seaside village where a few ultramodern houses are connected by scenic pathways. The furniture alone is enough to give me a heart attack, with its Eames-era atomic look. A lot of the action takes place in one man's cottage, where colored lighting adds a beautiful but ominous tone. Characters burn incense while reading Tarot cards, drink brandy out of fancy decanters, and occupy homes furnished with interesting European design. It's a space I'd love to occupy myself, minus the bloody murders.

And yes, the murders are very bloody. Despite the fact that it was made in 1971, this film was repackaged in the late 70s by American distributors and shopped around to drive-ins under the ridiculous title "Last House on the Left Part II"--not only does it have nothing to do with "Last House on the Left", it was made the year before.  But the fact that it had 13 murders in it--yes, 13--made it a great exploitation film nonetheless.  A few of those 13 murders are brutal even by today's standards, and one in particular is one of the most shocking death blows I've ever seen committed to film: when a character suddenly and realistically gets a machete deeply embedded in his face. The effect was ripped off in both "Dawn of the Dead" and "Friday the 13th Part 2", but neither one of those scenes matches this one's sudden, ferocious intensity. I'll resist the urge to list the rest of the murders here like trophies, because their ability to startle the viewer should be as undiminished as possible before viewing the film. Yet, Mario Bava obviously isn't the "Saw" generation. His gory murders are best as punctuation after long, drawn-out suspense that gradually ratchets up until violence erupts. One death scene features ripples on the surface of the bay as a precursor to the victim's murder, surrounding her with a busy but lonely backdrop as she swims nude. When she leaves the water, discovering the danger too late, the imagery shifts to a whirling chase scenario that ends with the character's abrupt slashing. In this film, the death scenes are orgasmic (in one case, quite literally).

There are a few flaws, first and foremost being the complicated plot. It took me a few viewings to really understand what was going on, and there are so damn many characters in this movie it's almost like a Robert Altman ensemble cast. The ending is nothing more than a silly gag, although truthfully it doesn't ruin anything about the movie, since the tone is not ultra serious up to that point anyway. The best thing you can do with this film is just think of it as a visual experience. Much has been written about the film's influence on the slasher genre, and you can find direct visual references between this film and the first two "Friday the 13th" films, as well as "Halloween" and several others. Perhaps Bava's overpopulated cast contributed to this, since many of the characters are fleeting and nearly nameless, which is something the entire slasher genre was accused of by its critics. It's easy to see Bava's film as being merely about the murders, but I don't feel that way about "A Bay of Blood."  If he connects with you, Bava's visual language is all you really need to let his films work their magic; the words don't really matter all that much.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tourist Trap (1979): Shut yer trap, dummy!

In today's climate of remakes and sequels that serve as the latest servings from time-tested franchises, it's great to look back on a movie like "Tourist Trap" and experience something unique and interesting.  Even if it's not a particularly stunning movie, "Tourist Trap" has imagination going for it, as well as a strong sense of that 70s Doom that I love so much.
Chuck Connors as Mr. Slausen, who one day was shootin' at some food, when up from the ground come a-bubblin' crude.  Mannequins, that is.  Wax dummies.  Robot ladies.

The plot follows five young friends who find their road trip is derailed by car trouble.  They stumble upon "Slausen's Lost Oasis", a swimming hole/museum type place that's just full of lifelike mannequins.  Mr. Slausen seems kindly and helpful at first, but the kids have a habit of wandering into situations where they're alone, and whenever they do, they're promptly murdered by a man in a weird doll mask, who uses telekinesis to attack his victims in horrible ways.  The "lifelike mannequins" actually do seem to have lives of their own, aiding and abetting Plasterface in his attacks on the kids, who wind up as mannequins themselves.  The kids are typical slasher types: there's Becky the sexpot, Eileen the wisecracker, Jeff the lunkhead, Woody the "first one to get it", and classic final girl Molly.  Molly is the nice girl, the one who must endure the fact that her friends are being slashed and turned into mannequins powered by telekinesis. 

No thanks, I'm a Pepsi gal myself.

The mechanism of the dolls and dummies is what really gets under my skin in "Tourist Trap".  They're built so that their mouths do this hideous thing where they drop open obscenely and either scream or sigh.  Sometimes they're clearly actors underneath costumes, and other times they're distinctly inhuman.  I'm not sure which ones bother me more.  The first kid to get dummy-ized is Woody, who arrives at the classic deserted gas station and is lured into a back room, where he finds a figure sleeping on a cot.  When he approaches it, it whirls on him and is only a puppet.  Then the room starts freaking out in telekinetic activity as the film's yet-unseen villain, "Davey", thrusts more mannequins at the kid before immobilizing him and sending a metal pole flying across the room to impale him against a door.  In a gruesome touch, his blood starts gently running out of the hollow pole as he dies, a gag often used by horror flicks, but done extremely well here.  Woody's appearance in the film is brief, but there's a moment when Davey suddenly appears in front of Molly, dressed in a bizarre female mask and clutching Woody's disembodied mannequin head.  Its mouth suddenly drops open and it starts screaming at her in Woody's voice, as if he's actually still IN there somehow, aware of what's happening.

There are also some really sick kills in the movie, considering it was originally rated PG.  Aside from the vicious impalement in the beginning, there's a scene where a wild west diorama comes to life and a character is attacked by a cowboy Sheriff and an Indian.  The Sheriff shoots at her with a real gun, but the Indian hurls a tomahawk and a knife at her.  The knife gets her in the back of the head and she just slowly....collapses.  Someone also gets an axe in the neck in a scene that's more disturbing for its realism than its outright gore.

There is plenty of interesting lighting on hand, and the sets are otherworldly and bizarre.  The only DVD transfer that seems to be around features a lot of film grain during the reel changes, which I actually loved and was glad about; it's the kind of thing they did deliberately in "Grindhouse", man!  There are spooky attics and basements, as well as the freaky museum set itself, but I was also bothered by the ordinary looking house where Mr. Slausen and "Davey" apparently live.  The scale is all wrong on it, like it's a stage instead of a real house, and considering it's home to a bunch of robot mannequins, that's the point. 

It's a shame it's not better acted. Most of the actors are competent, but other than Chuck Connors, only Jocelyn Jones as Molly is truly memorable. She has a number of scenes where she has to be terrified, and when she has to go over the top she's really insane. The final shot of the film, with Molly "escaping" with her friends, gives me the chills every time I see it. Future Charlies Angels star Tanya Roberts does pretty good here, too, although it seems like she's only in the movie because she was hot. The weakest link is Eileen, who has the most ridiculous death scene in the whole movie. The scene is actually really scary until she has to act like she's being strangled to death, which she botches and kinda ruins it. The guys in the movie are miscellaneous, except of course for Chuck Connors as Mr. Slausen.  He brings a presence and authenticity to his role that most actors probably would have felt the film did not deserve, and his scenes with Jocelyn Jones are often the best things about the movie.

Although it was filmed and released amid the slasher craze after "Halloween", "Tourist Trap" is something even more rare: a film that borrows from other movies, yet manages to seem unique and original on its own. But all gruesome murders aside, the dummy stuff is what will either sell or sink "Tourist Trap" for you.  If you're creeped out by them, then it's possible that you may love this doomy little movie.  Let's face it, horror flicks are usually about making a ridiculous idea seem very real and very scary.  The killer funhouse atmosphere of "Tourist Trap" makes it one of my favorite films.

PS: Remember Vera, the mean girl who busted Christina making out with a boy in a stable in "Mommie Dearest", and said "I'm going to TELL"?  That's her, Dawn Jeffory!  Only, poor her, because in "Tourist Trap" she's introduced late in the movie, killed one scene later, and nobody remembers her name. I guess that's what happens to SNITCHES!