Monday, September 18, 2023

THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (Christian Nyby, 1951, USA)

 

Cold War paranoia as a foreign invader attacks a small research facility, a minor conflict indicative of a growing menace whose malignant seeds could take root and destroy the World. A frightening metaphor concerning the Korean War, as this tiny plot of land becomes the battleground where the future of our world hangs precariously in the balance. 

Though Christian Nyby is credited as Director, this has the pulse of a Howard Hawks film with overlapping dialogue, quick-witted sarcasm and a strong feminist romance. Ben Hecht is uncredited as a screenwriter; his innuendo and double entendre adds spice and flavor to the characters, helping to define each minor participant as an individual. The film begins with a wink and a nudge as Captain Hendry must re-supply an isolated research outpost and confront Nikki, a brief encounter (Re: one night stand) who drank him under the table a few weeks prior. But the joking quickly turns towards fear as the soldiers discover a crashed spaceship and its frozen occupant. Science and morality quickly clash, and the military’s bumbling orders puts the entire crew at risk. Though very little violence is shown, the allusions to butchered men hanging from the rafters, their blood feeding the spawns of this alien creature is truly gruesome. 

Nyby films mostly indoors and in medium close-up, packing each frame with multiple characters creating a claustrophobic sense of fear, as the narrow corridors and tight spaces are now prison walls while the creature walks free. The Geiger counter’s clicking alerts reminds me of the device used in ALIENS to heighten the tension as death stalks the base; their brief lives ticking quickly away. The vegetative alien is far more advanced than we are, but it still shambles about like a Frankenstein’s monster and acts rashly rather than intelligently…even though it does turn off the heat. Dr. Carrington attempts to communicate with the beast, but he is violently ignored while the resourceful soldiers ultimately save the day with lightening quick ingenuity. The story ends with a blossoming romance and a fried vegetable…and this dire warning: Watch the skies, everywhere, keep watching the skies! 

Final Grade: (B+)

Saturday, September 9, 2023

THE THING (John Carpenter, 1982, USA)


A Cold War is fought in the Antarctic by an American research team who must battle a shape-shifting invader, a gruesome horror that absorbs its victims, both physically and mentally, and subverts the social structure from within. This classic film begins with a helicopter rising over stark jagged mountains chasing a seemingly innocuous Husky; then almost subliminally, Ennio Morricone’s eerie synthesizer score creeps into our subconscious and we realize that all is not what is seems. When the alien finally reveals itself in an awesome display of slime, blood, tentacles, and gore, the infiltration has already begun.

John Carpenter has created a sublime terror, an emotional tremor more powerful than any alien monstrosity because the enemy is unseen: it could be your best friend…or even yourself. As the death toll rises, accusations begin to undermine their fraternity, and MacReady must discover a way to distinguish the human from the inhuman. In this truly fascinating and complex scene, blood samples are drawn and tested with a hot needle. Each character, especially the ones who are human, shows absolute relief as if expecting themselves to be revealed as monsters: how devastating to be unsure of your own identity.

The true power of the film is in the disintegration of Authority reflective of Reagan Era America, where the proletariat can no longer trust those in control; we’re still suffering the consequences from Oakland to Wall Street. Here, in the cold charnel house of Antarctica, it is MacReady the helicopter pilot and Childs the mechanic who potentially saves the human race, not the fierce leader with his “pop” gun. Carpenter’s nihilistic social commentary is perfectly revealed in the ambiguous conclusion, as MacReady and Childs confront one another, they futilely wonder, “Who goes there?” The only answer is a slow fade to black.

Final Grade: (A+)

Sunday, July 23, 2023

HORROR EXPRESS (Eugenio Martin, 1973, Spain)

 

From the mountains a madness is recovered and released, a vitreous humour on the Trans-Siberian Express. That sentence is actually more interesting than the film itself, as director Eugenio Martin’s debacle assaults and insults with a barely cohesive script and unintelligible internal logic.

Professor Saxton transports a well-preserved hominid fossil upon the isolated railway. The gangly fossil is corrupted by an alien intelligence, and it comes to life, murdering by absorbing thoughts through its eyes, leeching the life force from any living creature. The victims bleed from their orifices and are left vacant, their cranial convolutions now eroded like a smooth river stone. The entity jumps from victim to victim and the passengers become paranoid, unable to discern a human from the inhuman. But the story becomes frighteningly illogical as the Detective, when possessed, sports the withered hand of the fossil; or those killed by the being can now be reanimated as zombies; or the monk who suddenly casts aside his faith to follow “Satan”; or the ability to see images of the past in a creature’s eye (not the alien’s eye mind you, but the fossil’s...how could fragile tissue remain preserved even in the Russian cold for two million years?); or the final transmission to derail the train; or the fact that the Russians would build a railroad that ended on the edge of a cliff (as absurd as a self-destruct mechanism in a spaceship).

Though there are some neat ideas, the film stutters and stalls in every scene, muting tension and suspense by showing the audience the mystery before allowing it to unfold dramatically. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are respectable (as always) but Telly Savalas is as incoherent as his accent, detracting from the ensemble. HORROR EXPRESS is derailed by its director’s incompetence.

Final Grade: (D)

Sunday, July 2, 2023

THE VAULT OF HORROR (Roy Ward Baker, 1973, UK)

 

“Heh. Heh. Ready for another fiendish feast? Then welcome to my Blooditarian restaurant; hope the atmosphere doesn't  err…suck! Looks like a seeping serving of supernatural is the soup de jour. What? You’ve already eaten? No matter, you just happen to be on the menu this evening. Fangs for the tap!”

This Amicus produced companion to their first EC adaptation TALES FROM THE CRYPT is just as darkly humorous and enjoyable. Roy Ward Baker takes the helm this time; director of one of my favorite science fiction flicks QUATERMASS AND THE PIT. He competently sews together the five various extremities into a coherent whole, tapping the vein of the delicious corpus delicti. 

The story involves five strangers on a mysterious elevator ride who find themselves in a fully furnished sub-basement. They each begin to talk about their insane dreams, which seem so real and convincing. The first story MIDNIGHT MESS (Tales from the Crypt #35) has been altered from the original to make the brother a more despicable and deserving late night snack. Upon reflection, he probably regrets his choice of fine dining establishments because he is served as a just dessert! THE NEAT JOB (Shock SuspenStories #1) finds the wife of an obsessive-compulsive domineering husband finally organizing their cluttered marriage. THIS TRICK’LL KILL YOU (Tales from the Crypt #3) concerns a vacationing magician and his wife who get all tied up over a magic trick…but the husband just can’t overcome his hang-ups. An insurance scam goes awry in BARGAIN IN DEATH (Tales from the Crypt #28). The scammer gets more than he bargained for and digs himself deeper into a hole he can’t escape from. The artist in DRAWN AND QUARTERED (Tales from the Crypt #26) draws a self-preserving portrait…but he should have used permanent ink. 

The film ends as four characters wander through the doorway (once the elevator shaft) and into a ghostly graveyard. They each fade away like a bad memory as the final character proclaims their punishment: to meet unknowingly each night and profess their ghastly crimes. For all eternity. 

Final Grade: (B-)

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

WITCHFINDER GENERAL (Michael Reeves, 1968, UK)

 

Two men swear blood oaths to a violent god, seeking deific approval for their murderous acts, intentions tainted by toxic orthodoxy. Michael Reeves' anachronistic tale of witch trials and revenge is a slow burn towards soul consuming conflagration where enlightenment is reduced to ashes and dust.

Two wars rage in England: a Civil War to depose the divine right of Kings, and a religious war that elects murderers and charlatans as Messianic authority. Each preys upon the common man, trapped between biblical verse and Rule of Law sanctioned by the conqueror. Matthew Hopkins, a fine understated performance by Vincent Price, is the harbinger of a dreadful faith where an ethereal god writes human law into coded text. He walks the English countryside, a specter of Death, punishing those accused of witchcraft by scared and jealous magistrates. Blood money courses through his course veins, a grim reaper who extracts lies by torture and names it Truth: he's not saving souls...he's damning his. He rapes a young woman and torture her uncle and must face the Earthly judgment of cold steel and gunpowder. Hopkins is cruel and egocentric, but it's his assistant John Stearne who revels in sadistic pleasure.

Michael Reeves allows the story time to unfold dramatically instead of rushing from one exploitive scene to the next. He places the tale firmly in a historical context, even frames a scene between the protagonist Richard Marshall and the legendary Oliver Cromwell. Though his narrative short-cut redacts the trials of those accused of witchcraft, the point is directly made that petty squabbles and arguments lead from finger pointing to neck stretching verdicts, and the townsfolk who cheer have each escaped their fate, for now. The methods of extracting a confession are steeped in historicity; from stabbing into birthmarks, throwing weakened victims into rivers, and burning at the stake, Reeves shows the brutality in deep red.

Hopkins finally eats his just desserts but here, on the cusp of the Age of Enlightenment, even the victors become victims to despicable violence, where Law is twisted not to serve mankind but powerful men, those touched by the wicked spell of Christianity are left to shout their pain to the heart of an uncaring world.

Final Grade: (B)

Thursday, March 16, 2023

INFERNO (Dario Argento, 1980, Italy)


A mysterious tome shines the light of revelation upon a maternal shadow, leading to a conflagration that eclipses a diabolical darkness. Dario Argento’s sequel to SUSPIRIA is style over substance, a patchwork of events that operates outside the confines of traditional narrative but are woven together to create an enigma, ripe with anxiety and desperation.

Rose is strangely gifted a book, detailing an architecture of superstition and fear, the building blocks of a metaphysical reality that transcends and transforms rationality. She follows the clues until she descends into the subterranean sepulcher buried in the very foundation of her home, a threat under her very feet. Rose discovers a key but forfeits her life, a long-distance connection that beckons her brother to her eerie domicile that is now her tomb. This first act is brilliant as Argento makes this fluid world burst with surface tension, as Rose dives into a watery hole to retrieve her keychain, molested by a rotting corpse, an inverted world of elemental mystery. Unfortunately, Argento fails to revisit (or explain) this set piece and the remainder of the narrative becomes mere flotsam and jetsam.

The film's structure becomes tangential vignettes drenched in primary colors and surrealistic fury, an atmosphere of confounding narrative but extraordinary design. The characters are merely beings who stumble through the story as Argento doesn't care to forge an empathetic link to the viewer, fodder for the visual hijinks.

Final Grade: (B-)

Saturday, February 11, 2023

SUPERNATURAL (Victor Halperin, 1933)

 

Dr. Houston, we have a problem. And the problem is the abeyance of reason, logic and critical thinking skills as leaden hypothesis is transmuted into golden theory without application of the scientific method...or any method! Here, a medical doctor proclaims ultraviolet radiation (RE: soul) transfers personality after death and can possess another person, like a virus from a host’s infection. Though the premise is absurd, we can suspend our disbelief if the thesis remains consistent, yet the final act contains a brief contradiction. However, Victor Halperin’s solid direction sustains the suspense and DP Arthur Martinelli raises the spook-factor with subtle low-key lighting and wonderful compositions. 

Serial killer Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne) is sentenced to death and Dr. Houston (H. B. Warner) is allowed to experiment on the corpse in his art deco high-rise apartment. Unfortunately, his friend Roma (Carol Lombard) stumbles by his place one evening while the experiment is reaching its electrifying climax and Rogen’s ultraviolent spirit enters Roma’s body. Seems Roma and her fiancĂ© Grant (Randolph Scott) are being hoodwinked by Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart), a fraud spiritualist (is there any other kind?) and were seeking the good doctor for advice. Now Roma is the vessel for vengeance against Bavian, the man who scorned Rogen and somehow led to her arrest for her three brutal murders by strangulation. Cool! 

Some thoughts of the film: the film begins with quotes from the Koran, the Bible and Confucius while lightning flashes, ancient text superimposed over the modern New York City skyline, as if to proclaim the mysteries of the past still remain embedded in our modernity, the industrial age advancing our knowledge of matter but not the spirit. Then a montage of Rogen’s murder trial revealing her laughing, scornful face while being sentenced to death. In Tod Browning fashion, we get insight into the parlor tricks of the circus-like profession of spiritualist, see the inner mechanism of the fraud even though some are rather obtuse. How in the world does Bavian make a plaster death mask without being caught? He just mixes some plaster while the body lies in repose and no one notices? And Bavian is a cold-blooded murderer himself, killing his blackmailing landlady and Roma’s cohort by a poison needle hidden in his ring. We also get a wonderful performance from Carol Lombard who must play the good rich girl, mourning the loss of her brother and also the killer possessed by Rogen, and she does so with subtlety of expression and body language. And lighting. When she lures Bavian to Rogen’s repo’d apartment, we see a life size portrait of Ruth Rogen holding an apple. WTF? It’s fucking awesome, I guess serial killers have always been extremely narcissistic. Poison apple or fruit of forbidden knowledge? When the climax comes, the nexus of circumstances instigated from the netherworld, we see the spirit of Rogen finally leave her host while Bavian escapes. Here’s the contradiction: it is clearly evident by the editing that Rogen manipulates the rope that wraps around Bavian’s neck and leads to his strangulation. Poetic Justice. But she didn’t need a host to do that, so why all this possession stuff to complicate things? Why didn’t her spirit just manipulate things, like make his ring malfunction or his razor slip while shaving? I mean, her spirit obviously didn’t need another person's hands to complete its final task. Very good ending though, reminiscent of the EC Comics (Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt) much later in the early 1950s. Until censorship took that away too, sadly. 

Final Grade: (B)

Friday, February 10, 2023

SVENGALI (Archie Mayo, 1931)

 


Trilby is a victim of patriarchy, indebted to two men: one has taken her soul and the other her heart. Director Archie Mayo deftly balances on the tightrope between comedy and horror, a precarious stunt as one-misstep transforms shock and suspense into unintentional laughter.

John Barrymore is excellent in his characterization as he is able to imbue Svengali with human pathos while never minimizing his abusive pathology. It’s not often a villain is depicted as wholly human, a self-deprecating beggar who can own-up to his shortcomings and laugh at his dire circumstances. His sidekick and servant Gecko is even treated more fairly than most, benefiting from Svengali’s circumstances as opposed to obeying from fear: cruel overlords never seem to learn this! Gecko remains loyal until the end. Bramwell Fletcher is Billee, the opposing love interest but he remains sketchily portrayed (literally, he’s an Artist). That is, he’s rather undefined and just expected to be the forthright knight in shining armor. He does little but proclaim his love and stalks the pair through the second and third Act. But it’s Marion Marsh as Trilby who shines in every scene, her exuberant laughter, bright eyes and uncommon beauty in such a humble girl make it so easy to accept that these two men would fall instantly in love (or lust) with her.

If the eyes are the mirror to the soul, then Svengali sees the world through a glass darkly. His gaze hypnotizes women into compliance whether it be suicide or unconditional devotion. His first interaction is with a woman who leaves her husband for him but doesn’t accept a financial settlement. His apoplectic stare leads to her deluged demise and a slab in the morgue. When coincidence leads him to cross paths with Trilby, he is smitten with her beauty and angelic voice. With Demonic dominance, eyes circled in black, and irises bled of color, he purges her migraine and secretly invokes her spirit into complete compliance with his wishes. This leads to her apparent suicide and his disappearance: in actuality they run off together to tour Europe as Mr. & Mrs. Svengali a dynamic duo of operetta and symphony performance. Another chance encounter has Billee identifying his lost love after a show and then stalks them to the ends of the earth (or end of the film).

The film is wonderfully photographed by Barney McGill with set designs that reflect German Expressionism such as the work of DP Karl Freund or Director Robert Wiene. From the apartments house of the first act to the rooftops of the supposedly French city, our perspectives are skewed just a bit, the camera often titled slightly or placed at a very low angle, that this vertiginous effect is psychologically unsettling. We end up feeling somewhat disjointed without being aware, much like poor Trilby throughout most of the film. There is one superlative camera movement as the film transitions from comedy (of sorts) to a much darker palette: McGill pulls his camera slowly away from an extreme closeup of Svengali’s eyes as he summons Trilby on that virgin night, and the shot tracks backwards through the window to the outside second story of the house. But now we’re above a model city! The camera then creeps towards another window and dissolves into Trilby’s room where she awakens disorganized and confused. Wow.

The finale is tragic, unbelievably bleak yet elevates the film another notch in its brutal intensity. As Svengali’s psychological grip tightens his body weakens until, stalked by Billee from Opera Houses in Europe to a dive bar in Cairo, he and Trilby close their final act. Svengali’s parting gift to Billee is not admitting defeat but embracing it by destroying his hope and desire with one last gasp of breath: as he collapses and dies, his stranglehold on Trilby chokes out her last sputtering words: Svengali. Even in death he wins as Billee holds her now lifeless corpse in his frantic grip.

Final Grade: (A)