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-)