Wednesday, November 30, 2022

ROSEMARY'S BABY (Roman Polanski, 1968, USA)

 

Rosemary births a malignant tumor: dominated by a Coven who have stolen her body for their own diabolical purpose and planted an inhuman seed. An absonant child’s lullaby underscores the opening shot across the rooftops of New York City until it settles upon Rosemary and Guy, as they decide to rent an apartment in the archaic Bramford. This omniscient perspective seems to peer down at the world like an absentee creator pondering its tiny subjects.

Director Roman Polanski is careful to feed us the ungodliness in slow bites and not gorge us with cliché: most of the film plays like a failing marriage, as Guy concentrates more on his career than his pregnant wife. In this cold emotional territory Rosemary becomes lost, isolated from friends and family by an egocentric husband and creepily adoring neighbors. Soon, she can’t differentiate dream from reality, questioning her own judgment, relying on the “kindness” of intrusive strangers. The drug-induced visual sequences are eerily surreal as Rosemary’s perceptions trip the light fantastic, dancing upon madness and hellishness as she is violently penetrated. This is a film of modern paranoia, reflecting our lovely perfect lives into a dark mirror, where the mundane is not quite what it seems, and fearing the monsters that lurk in the abyss of our primal dreams…or next door.

Polanski has made an unbelievable premise plausible and therein lays the true horror. A perverse ironic humor dominates the film. Rosemary’s very name harkens the divine mother except here, she expels virulent afterbirth. Or the exaggerated mannerism of her elderly neighbors, clownish enough to not be taken seriously and nosy enough to be dangerous. Witness the daemon’s conception during the Pope’s visit to New York and its expulsion on the 6th month of the year 1966 Anno Domini.

As Rosemary tries to escape her fate, the whole world seems involved in the conspiracy to take her baby, to seek its destruction, a cabal of Witches. Rosemary finally discovers the dreadful truth when the tiny beast, shrouded in a black bassinet, reveals its inhuman eyes. But a mother’s gentle touch rocks the crying daemon to sleep, while the Coven gleefully celebrates our world’s new successor.

Final Grade: (A)

Monday, November 14, 2022

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez, 1999, USA)

 

Three filmmakers in search of malignant history behind a local myth discover that the supernatural still walks the woods: and whatever walks there, walks alone. The visceral power behind the film lies in its faux documentary structure, shot on handheld cameras from a point-of-view perspective without music, minimal editing, or other conventional cinematic cues to remove the audience from the horror: it’s a slow descent into hellish nightmare without over-the-top graphics, relying on the pure adrenaline rush of hysteria.

The film’s advertising was crucial in fooling many viewers into believing this was an actual documentary, creating a detailed legend of the Blair Witch and its environment saturating the internet and airwaves, with seemingly genuine police reports and interviews to substantiate the claims. Wonderful! Even now, with the film an obvious gimmick, it still holds up very well and is still highly entertaining.

The film follows three film students on a mission to document the legend of the Blair Witch, as the camera captures them behind the scenes as opposed to acting before the camera. Heather, Joshua, and Michael eschew Hollywood stereotype and become easy (if sometimes annoying) characters in whom the audience can easily sympathize. As they become lost and aggressively erratic, their plight seems ridiculous because it is deadly, their demeanor changes and they begin to blame each other, possessed by true human emotion so lacking in most horror films. Strange symbols woven together with sticks and string hanging in the trees, eerie howling and children’s voices at night, and the ever-increasing tension that they’re walking in circles is impossibly creepy. When Joshua disappears, the suspense becomes chaotic and bloody teeth depict the seriousness of their predicament: this is no fucking joke. By showing little blood (the teeth wrapped in cloth), no rubbery monsters or misshapen makeup, or revealing the Witch itself are strokes of genius (and budget) that don’t sell the story short.

The ending is ripe with paranoia and thick with fear, as a dilapidated house looms from the darkness like some Cyclopean monolith (I can imagine the frightful oozing Cthulhu lurking in the basement), and a shock ending that keeps its secrets…and takes it to the grave.

Final Grade: (B+)

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

DUEL (Steven Spielberg, 1971, USA)

 

One Mann’s Valiant struggle against a mechanical murderer: a parable concerning diminishing manhood in this modern world of repressed anxiety and changing cultural mores. Dennis Weaver wonderfully portrays David Mann: a businessman whose identity is at stake, a man who feels tiny and insignificant in his tiny red Plymouth Valiant, his under-powered engine barely able to climb steep hills and get him safely to his destination.

Mann’s spiritual crossroads collides with a bullying truck driver, whose grimy and angry steel weapon dwarfs his own, a demon on wheels that pursues him through the hills and valleys pushing Mann to his very limits, until the final duel on the fiery ledge of the abyss where only one will survive. Director Steven Spielberg films in tight close-up, which reveals the sweaty anxiety of our hero while never showing the driver of the truck: he’s just a faceless monster in cowboy boots. This allows a suspenseful interlude at a diner where Mann must confront this unidentified killer and we are allowed access to his inner thoughts as he reasons his way towards hysteria. Spielberg gives us subtle clues and quick edits to lead us astray and build suspense, so when the truth is revealed, we reel in shock.

Soon the diesel stench of fear permeates the air and we become claustrophobic, enclosed in the coffin-like interior of Mann’s car, while the temperature gauge and speedometer both slowly crawl towards their deadly nadir. The sparse music adds an element of suspense and dread as wicked strings and grinding metal punctuate the drama. Richard Matheson’s slender script is devoid of excess, allowing Spielberg to rely on frisson of visual momentum.

David Mann finally regains his manhood, and his wild victory dance soon turns towards a languid glowing sunset, physically and emotionally spent from the ordeal. DUEL is one of Spielberg’s best films since it doesn't rely on the typical “happy ending” melodrama where the family reunites, and everything is OK. Here, on this dismal precipice, David Mann’s future remains uncertain.

Final Grade: (A)

Thursday, November 3, 2022

GOJIRA (Ishiro Honda, 1954, Japan)

 

Caveat: This is the original uncut Japanese version. To fully appreciate this film, you must understand it on its own terms; you must put to rest the campy films spawned by this classic. GODZILLA is a parable of the atomic age, a monster awakened by science tainted with moral lassitude; a destructive and dire warning that mankind stalks the nightmare’s abyss. 

The giant Jurassic creature stirs from its millennial slumber because the United States is testing atomic bombs in the Pacific Ocean: this beast the rises from the murky depths and ravages Odo Island before advancing upon mainland Japan…and laying Tokyo to ruin. It is also a metaphor concerning science run amok: Dr. Serizawa fears that his volatile creation the Oxygen Destroyer, though it will kill Godzilla, will be used as a weapon to escalate the arms race and obliterate mankind, he laments “Bombs versus bombs, missiles versus missiles, and now a new superweapon to throw upon us all. As a scientist-no, as a human being-I cannot allow that to happen”. 

Dr. Yamane (superbly portrayed by Takashi Shimura!) believes that this creature should be captured alive and studied, even at the risk of total catastrophe: knowledge is more important that human life. While the debate rages, so does Godzilla as millions die in the ensuing firestorm of Tokyo, eerily reminiscent of the Allied firebombing of Japan only a few years earlier. When one woman on a train compares this war with her survival at Nagasaki, the chilling catharsis is finally revealed. 

The film is deftly directed by Ishiro Honda and focuses upon the characters and their moral dilemmas…not a rubber-suited monster amid crushed dioramas. When Godzilla is filmed in medium and long shot, the towering silhouette is reminiscent of a rising mushroom cloud as the cities fiery tendrils rake the darkening sky. The creature’s nightmarish roar is like Munch’s scream, a discordant reverberation as nature fights back to reclaim the world. But science does not fail us: Dr. Serizawa burns his research and utilizes his desperate weapon to kill the Beast and makes the ultimate sacrifice for Japan…and the whole damned human race. He takes his secrets to his watery grave. But if these nuclear tests continue, Dr. Yamane asks, will another Godzilla awaken? Or something worse? 

Final Grade: (A+)

Monday, October 31, 2022

EYES WITHOUT A FACE (Georges Franju, 1960, France)

 

A father's omnipotence is challenged by a defiant daughter, her vacuous visage an effigy of his failure, two identities defined and transfigured by a murderous obsession: hers hidden behind a masquerade of plastic beauty, his eclipsed by a surgical mask. Director Georges Franju confounds genre expectations as this classic horror bromide wonderfully mutates into an Expressionist melodrama, ripe with patriarchal abuse and feminine fatale.

The opening scene is wickedly mysterious as a car races through the thick night, trees like skeletal hands silhouetted against the sky, and a shadowy figure slumped in the back seat. Maurice Jarre’s skewed carnival music overlaps the onrushing images painting a frightening emotional texture upon the narrative. A handsome woman grips the steering wheel with determination, glancing quickly towards her “sleeping” passenger. From a low angle, we see her stop the car and pull the figure from the backseat...and throw it in the river. This opening begins a gruesome and exciting experiment in tension and domestic turbulence, where a mad doctor commits murder, his Hippocratic Oath now hypocritical.

Dr. Genessier is responsible for the disfigurement of his lovely daughter Christiane whom he keeps like a bird in a cage; a slight thing of beauty, to be cared for and under his control. With the help of his assistant Louise, she kidnaps blue eyed women, and he cuts off their faces to transplant upon his daughter’s scarred visage. The doctor is both compassionate and unsympathetic, helping sick children one moment and applying his precision skills to the supple flesh of helpless victims the next. He is more concerned with proving his procedure a success than desiring its superficial outcome: to save his daughter’s life. Christiane is revolted when she discovers that innocents are being harmed and rebels against her father but is kept prisoner by her injury.

Franju films the first operation with surgical precision, showing the scalpel slice into the skin and the fleshy mask lifted off the victim, a stolen identity to be born again. The cinematography has a New Wave appeal as the camera travels around the house, a cinema verity excursion that depicts a life-like location and not a soundstage. The baying of hounds often breaks the tense silences, and Dr. Genessier is often visually linked with the dogs while his fragile daughter is equated with birds; even her thin curvaceous neck and delicate eyes evoke an avian nature. Christiane finally succeeds in a poetic gesture that frees her from imprisonment while her father becomes food of the dogs.

Final Grade: (B+)

Saturday, October 29, 2022

THE SEVENTH VICTIM (Mark Robson, 1943)

 

A virgin Mary leaves Highcliffe and descends into the shadow world Greenwich Village, searching for her missing sister Jaqueline who has seemingly disappeared into the dark ether. Director Mark Robson and DP Nicholas Musuraca combine to create a cloying horror film of paranoia and claustrophobic darkness clinging like a funeral shroud to our ingenue. Skewed compositions and key-lighting fuse with the wonderful pacing and acting to make this one of the best in Producer Val Lewton’s filmography. 

The basic plot seems simple enough: Mary is kicked out of Highcliffe because her sister Jaqueline, who owns a successful cosmetic business in NYC, has failed to pay the tuition for months. Instead of staying on as staff for room and board, our naïve yet resourceful protagonist goes out on her own to find her big sister. But the search becomes convoluted as Jaqueline has sold her business to a colleague and remains at the periphery, as coworkers and witnesses refuse to cooperate in revealing her whereabouts. Turns out, she has joined a pacifistic Satanic Cult who have named themselves the Palladists and has betrayed them by exposing their existence to a renowned psychiatrist. Though the cult doesn’t believe in outright murder (at least as the first option), they try to convince Jaqueline to kill herself, even renting her a room with only a chair and a hangman’s noose. Mary discovers Jaqueline’s husband, a poet, an Italian Restaurant, and the beguiling Truth of nihilistic dread that Jaqueline breathes in like oxygen and exhales only as the stench of the sepulcher. Neither romantic adoration nor familial love can save Jaqueline from torment. 

There are some great set pieces. The Satanic Cult having a Victorian tea party that could be from Welles’ THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS…yet discussing their code about killing those who betray them. This is where the meaning behind the film’s title is revealed: six others have been assassinated before Jaqueline thus making her the next in line. There is also one lady who is missing an arm, yet it’s never discussed or explained in context which makes it extra creepy. And we also witness a homosexual subtext in one of the younger women who defends Jaqueline and votes against her death sentence. She becomes more boisterous in the later scene where her desire for the raven-haired beauty Jaqueline is thinly veiled. There is also a great shower sequence that must have inspired Hitchcock, as we are shown a POV from Mary as she is in her apartment showering, and the bathroom door clicks, and an ominous shadow materializes through the shower curtain. The camera remains just behind Mary inside of the cramped shower, and the silhouette looks like a demon with horns, yet it speaks softly in a woman’s voice warning Mary to go back to Highcliffe. Fucking great!! Another scene depicts Mary’s cohorts confronting the Satanic Cult and berating them, calling them a joke, and softly, one man stands up and approaches, Musuraca’ s low-key lighting making him seem sinister. He speaks, “What proof can you give me to prove that good is greater than evil?” and the answer given is anemic and uninspired. This statement remains unrefuted in the film. We also get another menacing chase through haloed streetlamps reminiscent of THE CAT PEOPLE, where Jaqueline runs not from a supernatural entity but a switchblade wielding hitman! 

The film and story are contemporaneous so imagine this film during the height of World War II, where victory for the Allies is uncertain. Tens of thousands of innocent deaths haunt the newsreels on a weekly basis, and it must have seemed as if evil were the greater power. But both are a matter of perspective, right? The Axis didn’t consider themselves evil and felt justified in their actions. In this context, one can consider Jaqueline’s decision to subjugate herself to her death impulse, to end her suffering, while another woman dying slowly of Tuberculosis chooses to have a last fling before succumbing to the shadow of death. And it’s here in the nexus between philosophies that the cosmetic becomes cosmic. 

Final Grade: (B+)

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (Tod Browning, 1935)

 

The bright light of reason and critical thinking skills diminish the darkness that threatens to consume this demon haunted world. Tod Browning perfects the vampire tropes he created four years earlier with his film DRACULA and utilizes another legendary DP in James Wong Howe who creates such a thick, ghostly atmosphere of dread and surreal disharmony with looming shadows, low-key lighting, creeping tendril of fog and allowing darkness, like a smothering living presence, which often fills the compositions with negative space. Though approximately 20 minutes is now lost (the violent backstory which explains the “vampires”), this quickens the pacing and propels the story to its nonsensical climax, and combined with the photography this creates the Form, the structure or skeleton of the film, that elevates this to classic status. Lionel Barrymore’s overwrought performance is just icing on the cake! 

The plot makes little sense but maybe the fun is just experiencing the film, living it scene by scene as it unravels. Browning thrills in revealing the trick behind the magic, but here it seems false and disappointing. So, let me get this straight: A wealthy guy named Sir Borotyn (Holmes Herbert) is murdered shortly before his daughter’s marriage to her milquetoast fiancée Fedor (Henry Wadsworth). His best friend and Guardian of his daughter Irena (Elizabeth Allen), the Baron Otto von Zinden (Jean Hersholt), discovers Borotyn’s corpse slumped over his desk. The local Doctor declares the cause of death as vampires, due to the fact of two puncture wounds to the neck and the body being drained of blood. Inspector Neumann (Lionel Atwill) is summoned to investigate and criticizes the local superstition and demands a reality check from the bumpkin doctor. 

Cut To: a year later and Irena and her fiancée have abandoned her father’s castle and live nearby at the Baron’s Estate. Soon, there are walking corpses, hovering bats, and things going bump in the night. Professor Zelan (Lionel Barrymore), A Vampire Expert, is summoned to protect Irena from being continually savaged by the undead predators and he, together with Inspector Neumann track these creatures to their castle lair for a final conflict between good and evil. But it’s all phony. The “vampires” are vaudeville actors hired by Neumann and Zelan, with Irena included in the deception. This elaborate scheme is to get the killer to confess his motive and specific details of the crime (for example, how he drained the blood) by traumatizing him when Borotyn (another actor who, by chance, looks exactly like the dead guy!) seems to materialize as a voracious vampire. A little mesmerism helps too. Which makes little sense in retrospect. Such as, Fedor isn’t part of the plot, yet he’s attacked and “bitten” by the undead and suffers ill effects. I suppose if he believes enough, he could bring about a hysterical reaction. But we get multiple scenes of a giant hovering bat turning into human form: how did these vaudeville actors fake this? This wasn’t staged at the castle; this happens many times at Zinden’s Estate. And why do the actors and Irena continue with the charade when no one else is around? To deceive the audience, of course. The abandoned castle is also slathered with cobwebs in one scene, we get a close-up of the organ woven with spiderwebs, but in short time all the detritus disappears. Also, the crime itself once reenacted isn’t believable: the perpetrator drains an entire corpse with a small drinking glass? And leaves not a drop behind as evidence? Huh? 

Bela Lugosi depicts Count Mora, the local legendary (yet imaginary) vampire and sports an obvious bullet-hole in his temple. The explanation seems to have been excised from the release print due to the nefarious Hays Code enforcement. He only has one line of dialogue which closes the film and spends his screen time glaring in close-up and looking menacing. Luna (Carroll Borland) is the other undead-in-arms (or fangs) and wanders in the fog as the alluring Meta modernist Goth Girl.  

Final Grade: (B-)

Sunday, October 23, 2022

TOURIST TRAP (David Schmoeller, 1979)

 

Five young travelers surrender their freedom and identity to a masked god-like vigilante but not without a fight. Director David Schmoeller and DP Nicholas von Sternberg (yes, son of that von Sternberg!) create a classic horror film thick with atmosphere that wastes little time putting our five protagonists in harm's way, with little need for character building or explanation. Utilizing genre tropes, we already “know” this group of innocents that will soon be victimized by some maniac: the tension is in their torture and will to live, their fight for survival against a seemingly omnipotent abuser. Yet this leads me to an interesting analysis if the film. 

Though the film expects us to believe that sheer chance brought the victims to the abandoned roadside property after their car breaks down, I believe another explanation can be gleaned from the tale. Maybe it wasn’t fate or coincidence? Where these five summoned back by their creator by some supernatural or elemental power? In Salem’s Lot, the Marsten House is a beacon for evil, its very bedrock summoning the wicked and depraved to haunt its corridors. Here, the attacker has obvious supernatural abilities utilizing telekinesis to move and create objects and give them life. Where these five just mannequin creations who escaped out into the world without realizing what they actually were? Like the classic Twilight Zone episode, THE AFTER HOURS, where a mannequin assumes the identity of a human being for a short time but must return to the department store in order that its cohorts have their chance at life too, however briefly. But she forgets and becomes haunted by terror and angst, her plastic friends now oppressors stealing her life away. Is Slausen turning flesh and blood into plastic, stealing their lives away, or his he cruelly revealing to them their true identity? 

The film is ripe with tension and terror, as DP von Sternberg allows darkness to dominate compositions, devouring the victims one-by-one like a sentient and malignant enemy. The score by Pino Donaggio keeps things slightly askew, to expect the unexpected, and ratchets the fear factor up a few notches. Mr. Slausen (Chuck Connors) is a truly inhuman antagonist (though he may be the only human in the story), because he takes pleasure from the sufferings of his creations. His grinning and weathered visage combined with a gentle voice are offset by his barbarity. He is a clockwork god of flesh and blood, chopped down by his own creation: a woman not formed from his rib, but from his workshop. The five escape back into the world, ageless plastic people in a plastic world. 

Final Grade: (B)