Monday, June 26, 2017

AUDITION (Takashi Miike, 2000, Japan)



A widower begins to surreptitiously audition attractive young women for a new role: potential spouse. But who is interviewing whom? Director Takashi Miike turns the horror convention upside down by delivering a deliberately paced psychological drama that walks the razor wire’s edge.
Shigeharu is a successful businessman and a lonely single dad who loves his teenage son; both are well-adjusted and bright individuals. Miike begins his masterpiece of sadistic horror by developing our protagonist as an empathetic and complex person; he refuses to allow clichéd melodrama to intrude upon the narrative. Though Shigeharu’s methods are morally questionable, his intentions are quite sincere. His mistake is in wanting to be a savior instead of seeking an equal partner, falling victim to his own male egocentrism which becomes a violent condemnation of Patriarchal mores.  He is intrigued by one specific applicant because of her honesty about her traumatic past, her triumph over adversity, and he focuses his attention upon the beautiful and seemingly delicate Asami. But he is being manipulated from the very first word, being reeled in like a prize-catch by a tormented young lady who is victim…and victimizer.
Miike holds our suspense hostage in a burlap sack while revealing subtle clues that question our heroine’s virtue. He utilizes flashbacks and flash-forwards to startling effect, not as a slick gimmick but to engulf us in existential dread, to feel the dark chill of the abyss nipping at our nose…and under our eyes…and tongue…fingers, ears, and feet. Asami plays her role perfectly as Shigeharu becomes the final act and the bloody stage her world. Yet, through the sadism, this cruel confusion of love and pain, we sense her victimization and can connect on some primal level to her suffering, a deep spiritual malaise that has habilitated her into a gruesome torturer. This should not alleviate Asami’s guilt but Miike isn’t concerned with questioning her motives; he wants us to experience her pain vicariously through Shigeharu, to confuse our emotional loyalties and discard easy personal judgments.
AUDITION is about power and control, the absolute authority that one human being can wield over another. Asami’s final breath exhales the delicate and fermenting vapor of the tomb, a genial acquittal, an unburdening of all responsibility, and we wonder if Shigeharu can ever bring himself to hate her. 
FINAL GRADE: (A)

Sunday, March 13, 2016

THIRST (Park Chan-wook, 2009, South Korea)


Sang-hyun has fled the flaming light of religiosity and discarded his anemic beliefs, victim of a desire that burns deep in his veins. He is a priest who tires of the vapid ritual of death, a man who wishes to help others who suffer needlessly: he trades the invisible Sacraments for physical sacrifice. He offers his body as a tool to cure the dreaded Emmanuel Virus: a tongue-in-cheek name evoking the lascivious soft-core film, as the pleasures of the body will lead to his downfall. 

Sang-hyun suffers the torment of the damned and dies with righteous intentions but is mysteriously resurrected. He is the only survivor out of 500 patients and is anointed savior, as true believers flock to his side awaiting his healing touch. Director Park Chan-wook finally does to Catholic, Inc. what the Church has repeatedly done to its own congregation. Park purposely plays with the standard vampire conventions by showing Sang-hyun reflected in mirrors and not averse to the cross, but then shows him hanging like a bat, peeping into the human world of lust, searching for his own garden of Eden. The film is darkly humorous, depicting a man without faith and a woman who never acquired it, and their mutual decline into an egocentric world of violence and ever-thirsting passion. 

THIRST is a morality tale, as the seductive Tae-ju pretends to be abused by her husband and convinces Sang-hyun to murder him: the road to heaven is paved with bad intentions. When he learns of the deceit, he again murders but this time reanimates their affair, as she imbibes his bloody Communion. Tae-ju sees a world full of sheep to quench her appetite but a final vestige of morality still infuses Sang-hyun and he fights these urges, promising never to kill for sustenance…but he’s already a killer. The ex-Priest must extinguish this mortal craving for a flesh and blood redeemer so he molests a young girl, destroying the misplaced hope of his followers: it is both a grim and perverted scene. Tae-ju’s nihilism versus his lapsed Catholicism leads them to a lonely cliff, the ocean beating its own life affirming rhythm against the rocks, and all becomes ashes to ashes, dust to dust. 

Final Grade: (B+)

Monday, February 22, 2016

DYING ROOM ONLY (Philip Leacock, 1973, USA)

A married couple separated from the world (and each other) by a lost highway and endless dark sands, stalked by strangers in a strange land. Director Philip Leacock projects Richard Matheson’s domestic trauma upon the fragile tapestry of nightmare, weaving an infernal mystery that soon descends like a funeral shroud.
Jean and Bob Mitchell bicker and argue their way across the burning sands of Arizona towards their home in Los Angeles, their vacation now firmly in the cracked rearview mirror. Hostility broils between them like the desert heat but underneath is still the love and affection that hints at a happy marriage, buried by the shifting sands of time only to resurface like an artifact of some ancient ritual. As the sun bleeds upon the horizon and the road to home stretches like a long shadow, they stop at a tiny Diner and Motel that sits alone amid the wastelands of sage brush and cactus. This dilapidated haunt sticks out from the earth like a jagged bone, a compound fracture breaking dead skin. Within, two sweaty men ignore their requests for food and drink, good old boys up to a bad old time.
And here Matheson begins to create this dreaded frisson between our fears and our sense of a just world, turning reality upside down within a momentary lapse of unreason. Jean uses the restroom and in those few moments when she returns, her husband is gone. Her impatience soon turns to a surreal anxiety as the two men ignore her pleas for help or information, their smirks and winks an infuriating pretense that conceals the truth. These two men belittle Jean and make her feel like a stupid woman, their machismo a miasma that attempts to suffocate her femininity. In these neck of the woods (or desert, I should say) men rule with an iron fist and gut.  
Matheson’s tight script focuses upon Jean and her reactions to this taunting ridicule, as she tries to convince someone to help her find her husband. This complete desperation subtracts her humanity almost to the point of animal cunning, and it’s painfully slow to watch. Cloris Leachman as Jean delivers a powerhouse performance that is totally believable as she devolves from wife to victim….to survivor. Ned Beatty as the wretched antagonist is chilling in the desert heat, and this time he’s making someone else squeal and squirm. His eyes seem evilly playful like a child torturing a kitten only to deny this very fact when caught blood-red handed. Magnificent.
The final act races towards a gruesome climax as the secret is revealed in the heat of the night, as Jean and Bob fight not to become permanent residents of this motel Arizona. They stab it with their steely knives and hope to kill the beast. 
Final Grade: (A)

Saturday, February 6, 2016

TALES FROM THE CRYPT (Freddie Francis, 1972, UK)


“Heh, heh. Welcome, boils and ghouls! This is the Crypt Keeper, your host of horrors, and your gruesome guide through the Crypt Of Terror. Our film involves five foul fiends and their cadaverous cavortings. Sit back on your bed of nails and prepare for my nauseating novelettes!”

Freddie Francis, the cinematographer on THE INNOCENTS (1961), which is perhaps one of the most beautifully photographed ghost stories ever, directs this hodgepodge of EC Comics tales, only two of which actually come from the bloody fabric of the Crypt Keepers rag. EC Comics are considered the apex of horror genre with their O’Henry flavored twist endings, pugnacious puns, and outstanding artwork by legends such as Johnny Craig, Wally Wood, and Ghastly Graham Ingels! These stories are bound together as the characters wander a labyrinthine tomb with little memory or specific knowledge of their arrival. They stumble upon a dark chamber haunted by a omniscient monk (That putrid puss filled persona is not me!!-CK) who delves deep into their despicable past and divulges their deadly deeds. 

The best adaptation is the Christmas jingle AND ALL THROUGH THE HOUSE: On Christmas eve, Joanne Clayton murders her husband then hears an emergency broadcast concerning an escaped lunatic (an EC tradition) dressed as Santa. The story is layered with sappy holiday music and bright over-saturated visuals while the moribund suspense is deliberately unwrapped. REFLECTIONS OF DEATH concerns Carl Maitland, a husband who abandons his family for his paramour. Fate intervenes and a fiery crash leaves him wandering the darkness searching for home. POETIC JUSTICE is a neighborly valentine card written in blood; it really makes your heart skip a beat. Forever. WISH YOU WERE HERE is a slightly askew take on the Monkey’s Paw story that leaves us burning for more. And BLIND ALLEYS just wouldn't be complete without the razor wit in this dog-eat-dog tale.
 
The monk finally reveals that he is not warning them; they are condemned to an eternity of Hellfire. I still think that’s a bit harsh for Carl Maitland; after all, he was only an adulterer. By modern standards, TALES is not viscerally shocking but an amusingly ingenious and jugularly jocund cryptic collection. 

Final Grade: (B-)

Saturday, November 8, 2014

WILLOW CREEK (Bobcat Goldthwait, 2014, USA)


A couple follow in the large footsteps of Gimli and Patterson and hike their way towards Bluff Creek, the location of the most famous Bigfoot footage ever captured on film in 1967. Writer and Director Bobcat Goldthwait’s “found footage” narrative may not be groundbreakingly original but it is effective in terrorizing it protagonists (and audience). Goldthwait also winks subtly at the true believers with a bestial sense of humor.
The plot is simple: Jim and Kelly travel to the Bigfoot capital of the world at Willow Creek to trace the steps of Roger Patterson and Robert Gimli in hopes of capturing evidence of the enigmatic and mythical creature. Jim is a true believer and Kelly the critical thinker and this causes some friction in their relationship which adds to their credibility as “real” and not “reel” people. Goldthwait smartly sets the parameters of this narratively constrictive point-of-view and doesn’t deviate from these rules. The film is shot with their single camera and depicts only what they decide to film and narrate; the audience is not shown anything outside of this context. Goldthwait also uses natural sound and eschews any score or musical soundtrack. Though the footage is obviously edited for the final presentation we are watching, there are no transitions that we expect in narrative film.
The characters are making their own documentary so a few stops by famous landmarks like the Bluff Creek sign or the Bigfoot statue in Willow Creek are filmed with Jim narrating. They often wisecrack on camera so this leads one to believe (from their perspective) that this was meant to be a personal film and not an assignment or job. And even though they may make jokes or have fun while on camera this is not at the expense of any of the locals they interview. In short, our protagonists don’t come across as assholes but with the foibles and sense of humor of people like us: it’s easy to forget they are actors but I couldn’t help but notice that Kelly was practically skin and bones, almost to the point of being unhealthy. To add to the verite of the spectacle, they interview locals who range from the non-believing skeptic to the local who gets a bit angry when Jim pokes fun at the Bigfoot statue. It gets downright nasty in the final act when they drive down the pothole damaged dirt road towards Bluff Creek and are met by a local who warns them to go home. He doesn’t need to say “or else” for Jim and Kelly to get the message.
We soon get the sense of how far out in the wild they truly are as the huge ancient trees blot out the sun and the thick underbrush is a living mass of thorns and briars blocking their path. They have driven for hours and hike all day until they set up their little tent. We get a nice surprise as Jim turns on the camera and proposes to Kelly and she responds with a very honest answer. Townsfolk have warned them to be prepared because they are in the middle of nowhere and they seem well set. But deep into the night they are awakened by strange knocks. In one ten minute unbroken sequence, with the camera on (and light briefly turned off) we are terrorized along with them. Grunts, howls, knocking, and a women’s crying haunt the dark. It’s unsettling and their responses are realistic. Kelly begins by believing it’s most likely the angry guy at the statue or a group from town, but soon the sounds become inhuman. And they are getting closer. Huddled together, footsteps crunch through the underbrush until someone(thing) shakes the tent and growls as if squatting a few inches away. The sequence is brilliantly acted and becomes practically unbearable if the viewer has fallen into the story thus far. When morning comes Jim still wants to find evidence and Kelly is hiking quickly back to the car. Even in daylight the people or creatures hoot and knock out of sight and throw rocks. In their fear they become lost and the film’s finale seems to happen in seconds. Night comes and they have no protection. Crouched together with a stick for a weapon, the unknown creatures close in. As they run for their lives the camera catches giant footprints in the mud and suddenly a naked woman, crying and dirty, looms from the darkness. The camera drops and we hear the gurgling last breath of Jim as he’s being murdered. Then Kelly’s scream pierce the dark. Jim must have the camera in his death grip because he’s dragged backward quickly and the camera is broken or turns off. Now the audience is left in their own blackness.
Bobcat Goldthwait has a wicked sense of humor. The film works on a superficial level and leaves one scared and perplexed as a good horror film. No needless explanations or epilogue required to detail how the film was discovered or edited together. We get just the story like a punch in the gut. But when we piece together some fragments it begins to make sense. RE: The poster of the missing girl in the Bigfoot diner in Willow Creek; The sexual jokes Kelly makes about Bigfoot’s dick; The joke about them copulating in the tent with the camera on; The fact that Jim is obviously murdered but Kelly left alive (as far as we know); And the fact that in two scenes the growling heard could not have been made by a person. Yes, one can believe it was entirely locals fucking with them but they went through an awful lot of trouble especially being naked in thorny underbrush. Here’s the joke: Bigfoot kills the males but keeps the women for sexual partners!
WILLOW CREEK plays straight by its own rules and is a successful horror film in that it delivers the scares if not the answers. The ending can be defined by the individual viewer which is often the case with cryptozoological evidence. For now, Bigfoot still remains a mystery for us. But Jim and Kelly know the naked truth.
Final Grade: (B)

Thursday, October 30, 2014

SHIVERS (David Cronenberg, 1975, Canada)


SHIVERS or THE 120 HOURS OF SODOM
A nasty parasite infects the residents of an upscale apartment complex and spreads its carnal disease by physical contact. David Cronenberg’s first feature film is a modernist rendering of Pasolini’s SALO as human beings are defiled and degraded, reduced to nothing less than insect-like impulses.
The plot concerns Dr. Emil Hobbes (that’s Devil in Old English) who is experimenting with parasites to replace diseased organs in transplant patients. He soon discovers an unusual side effect in that the patient develops an insatiable sexual craving that dominates their every physical action. Soon the entire population of an upscale apartment complex is infected and the resident doctor and his nurse must fight for their own survival.
SHIVERS is definitely rough around the edges in form and function though it begins to reveal Cronenberg’s early fascination with body-horror in both its physical and philosophical implications. The film begins as a slide show to prospective renters of an upscale condominium block that has its own on-call Doctor, convenience store, and 9-hole golf course. We’re then presented with a young couple who is supposed to meet with Dr. Hobbes before signing the rental agreement. It’s obvious that Cronenberg had trouble with the first act of the story and strengthened this weak narrative pace with cross-cutting during the editing process. As the couple sits down to talk with the manager we are shown a Doctor (presumably Hobbes) struggling with a teenage girl (presumably in an apartment somewhere upstairs). The couple’s vapid dialogue and standard questions are cut between Dr. Hobbes strangling the girl and cutting open her abdomen before he pours acid into her body. He then slits his own throat. The couple’s meeting is never resolved as Cronenberg then edits rather clumsily to a police investigation of the murdered girl: a detective is interviewing Dr. St. Luc (a cohort and the resident Doctor) in the room as both bodies are being removed. The narrative’s perspective now belongs to Dr. St. Luc and his nurse Ms. Forsythe and their discoveries and reactions in this violent microcosm.
Cronenberg is strongly influenced by SALO and even depicts two girls tethered to dog leashes, an iconic image from Pasolini’s classic film. In SALO, the victims are held against their will and degraded and tortured into submission for the thrill of powerful men. It makes a volatile political statement against Italy’s Fascist history and the rape of its citizens by men who held absolute power. But Cronenberg shifts the blame squarely upon Dr. Hobbes and his corrupt medical ethics as his experiment results in a social disease spread by bodily contact. Many people are infected against their will and become slave to the intent of the parasitic host. The idea is very interesting but Cronenberg loses focus on the narrative details to depict some gruesome special effects. It soon becomes maddening that the there is no cohesiveness or consistency attributed to the parasites or their effects. Some infected victims “turn” immediately and others take hours for the parasite to control. Other times the creature burns the skin of the victim and other times it just slithers into an available orifice without affect. This inconsistency seems to be under the Director’s control as he just decides what looks grossest for that particular shot. Cronenberg fails to investigate the morality that he originally presents via exposition in an earlier dialogue and submits to the “gross-out”.
Other problems plague the film which can be attributed to a Director who is learning his craft. The acting of the two leads is rather bland and undefined. Paul Hampton portrays Dr. St. Luc and he is anything but convincing as a Doctor of Medicine. He doesn’t speak or act like a Doctor especially when he must treat an injured victim. Hampton is too withdrawn and almost invisible in his performance and should at least use a few medical terms to show that he is indeed competent. Lynn Lowry as Nurse Forsythe is much worse as she even looks disgusted when faced with a serious burn injury and begins to wrap the wound clumsily. Cronenberg should have had the actors do some research into trauma response before principle photography began so this fault is shared with the Director. The gruesome special effects may be low budget but get high grades for the creepiness and gross-out realism! The problem in SHIVERS is that Cronenberg sacrifices story continuity for the shocking effect. What’s frustrating is that with better writing he could have had the best of both worlds.
SHIVERS ends with the good Dr. being chased down and drowned in an orgy of copulation. It’s an eerie image of groping and frenzied people of all ages engaging in bi-sexuality to satiate their sexual appetites, stalking their prey like wild animals. The final scene of the infected driving away from the underground garage and into the Montreal night is chilling as this deadly venereal disease in unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. Sex does indeed become violence.
Final Grade: (C)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW (Frank De Filetta, 1981, TV-USA)



Four men seek Justice outside the Rule of Law but soon learn they must pay restitution with their own flesh, blood and bone. Director Frank De Filetta proposes a simple tale of lex talionis but imbues this made-for-TV with a vicious energy and subtext while framing compositions as if this was meant for the big screen.
The plot concerns Bubba a mentally handicapped man who has befriended Marylee, a bright and intelligent little girl. When she is attacked and mauled by a dog, four men jump to the conclusion that Bubba has molested her and hunt him down. Bubba tries to escape but is found dressed as a scarecrow hiding in plain sight. The four men murder him as he hangs upon the “cross” in the rags with a sack over his head. When the men are cleared of charges, they meet their demise one by one. But who is behind this retributive Justice? Is it Bubba’s elderly mother? The county DA who believes in their guilt even though he can’t prove it? Is it the little girl?
Though the film wears its heart on its sleeve, so to speak, there is a nasty undercurrent for those who listen carefully and look for metaphor: some things just cannot be said on network TV! The first scene shows Bubba and Marylee sitting in a field playing a game. Bubba crushes a flower by mistake and almost cries. He carefully finds another and presents it to her. This act will bookend the film and is touching and endearing, holding some scintilla of beauty in a dirty desperate world of adults. Marylee has made a Hawaiian necklace of flowers, or Lei as she rightly calls it. She puts it over Bubba’s head and wants to kiss him on the cheek. He’s shy but finally allows her, and she gives him an innocent peck on the cheek which is all very childish and friendly.
Cut to: the Postman, who vehemently complains that Bubba has been seen with a child again, and exclaims “what are we gonna do about it”. This sets the story up nicely since TV narratives must be told in fifteen minute increments. But we’re already feeling the anxiety of the townsfolk. The little girl and Bubba playing with a “Lei” can be read phonetically: lay, as in sexual intercourse. The kiss on the cheek denotes a sexual attraction. Why is the Postman so angry? Has Bubba ever harmed another child? As the story unfolds and it is discovered that Bubba was benign, we begin to wonder about this Postman and his accusations. Bubba’s mother even mentions as much in a heated argument with the Postman. Even his scene with Marylee in the school corridor with her dressed up as an adult with lipstick and makeup sexualizes her and ends in her being chased by him. The specter of Pedophilia haunts this story as much as the ghostly scarecrow. How’s that for early 80’s Prime Time entertainment!
Director Frank De Filetta films in a decidedly cinematic style with crane shots, slow zooms and tracking shots without relying too much upon close-ups and quick editing. Since the story must break every 15 minutes or so for commercials, De Filetta paces the story with extraordinary patience by building suspense and leaving a cliffhanger which often remains unresolved after the intermission. His sense of humor is blackly beautiful as he utilizes one of the greatest match-cuts in TV history: after one of the victims is ground-up in a wood chipper he cuts from the spinning blades to a dollop of cherry jam on a breakfast platter. It’s laugh-out-loud wonderful and makes one a bit queasy at the same time!
I cannot praise the acting enough as it fits the narrative perfectly and balances the suspense and empathetic link towards the violent resolution. Though the characters are not delineated with backstories, each must be quickly understood within the paradigm of the story. This often leads to leaden caricature or campy and cartoonish overacting. Not so in this film. The acting is top notch from the humble mentally challenged victim to the virulent antagonist in the local Post Master. Charles Durning steals the film as the bigoted Otis Hazelrigg and tears through his scenes with fury and professional competence. He is despicable but fully human as Durning never allows his character to fall into debased stereotype. The other actors in the conspiracy are also strong and believable which makes their murder even worse: these are real people who have made a fatal decision and must live with it. Only they need not worry too much as they won’t live long!
DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW keeps one guessing even as each conspirator is murdered in a grisly fashion. Well, grisly enough for TV as little blood is actually shown. Surprisingly, when Bubba is shot we do get a look in medium shot at the leaking bullet holes torn through his costume. A mundane or Earth-bound explanation could explain each and every killing up until the very end. Even as Hazelrigg looks into the black shadowy recesses of his killer’s mask he cannot believe in the supernatural. It’s when the little girl is offered a pretty flower, this time not accidently smooshed that the final answer is delivered with a new promise: she’ll teach her friend a new trick called “the hiding game”. And that’s the most chilling treat of all!
Final Grade: (A)       

Monday, October 6, 2014

Q (Larry Cohen, 1982, USA)


Jimmy Quinn, a small time crook discovers that in order to make easy money one must break a few eggs. Larry Cohen’s giant monster movie places an Aztec god in the center of New York City and structures the story as a police procedural. It’s an interesting concept as Detective Shepard (David Carradine) develops a duel investigation because he links a serial killer who commits ritual sacrifices to the winged serpent who is devouring innocent victims. Of course, Shepard falls victim to politics as the mayor is only concerned with finding the monster and killing it and fails to consider the ritual motive.
Director Larry Cohen is used to working with small budgets and here it is effectively on display. He often shoots from the monster’s POV so he doesn’t have to reveal the creature. Cohen also allows only a quick glimpse into its open mouth or its shadow upon a skyscraper. After one attack which we barely glimpse, he shows pedestrians walking below being showered with blood from the corpse as it is carried away. These effects are rather affective but when the payoff comes it is rather disappointing as it looks like a poorly sculpted foam & rubber figure: believe me, this is not Ray Harryhausen! He films on location throughout the city and this gives the story a certain gravitas. It certainly was the right decision because the faux-reality of studio filming would have made this film unwatchable. Cohen is able to generate some suspense and a few jump-scares but suspends it all after revealing the monster’s location. It then focuses upon Jimmy Quinn and his get-rich-quick scheme and the story becomes shrill and overbearing.
Michael Moriarity really steals the film out from under the latex creation and is the star of the film. As Jimmy Quinn, he twists and turns with nervous energy and grins like a shark. The problem with his performance is that he becomes annoying and unlikable. While anti-heroes can be the focal point of a story they must adhere to one rule only: they must be interesting. Quinn starts out as interesting but falls into stereotype. Meanwhile David Carradine sleepwalks through the movie and is not only uninteresting but even more sinful: boring. Aside from Moriarity, the entire cast phoned in their performances!
Cohen tries to jump-start the final act with a machine-gun battle from the top of the Chrysler building (alluding to the grand finale of KING KONG) but the SPFX aren’t up to the task. The final shot of an undiscovered nest with egg in another part of town is the final payoff and as it cracks open the camera zooms into its inky blackness. 
Q is good for a few scares and laughs but is not one of Cohen’s more imaginative endeavors...but it does have its charm.
Final Grade: (C)