Tuesday, August 27, 2013

SALO OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975, Italy)

SALO is an allegory for Mussolini’s rape of his own country and through the humorless debasing violence and sadism whispers a prescient warning for all of humanity, everywhere, anytime.
The film is set in an isolated Italian villa which is ruled by four depraved men who usher in the age of the spiritual apocalypse: the repression of religious acts is not what makes this ordeal immoral…it’s the debauchery that erases the victim’s essence, that voids their humanity, their suffering no more important than that of a crawling insect, recognized for only the physiological thrill it imparts upon their anatomy. These men are the little gods of their own world, recruiting a chosen few who help to control and pervert their young and delicate prey. This villa is haunted by the spirit of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, et al, where absolute power is wielded by criminals who torture and taunt helpless victims for pleasure, where the laws are changed without notice, the punishment swift, brutal, inescapable, where the inmates have no chance to survive intact…if at all.
Director Pier Paolo Pasolini films mostly in medium and long shots that helps to emotionally subtract the viewer from the narrative turpitude; otherwise it would be too much. When he does film in close-up we are shocked: a mouthful of feces, a young girl’s slit throat, and a woman’s laughing visage while off-screen a young boy is molested. There is no humor here in Pasolini’s film; there is only the rank stench of shit and decay, like the open pits at Ohdruff full of bloated corpses. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack is composed of foreground music; a redheaded woman plays the piano during the depraved storytelling sessions, or a radio that blares some asynchronous tune beyond the frame’s border. These storytelling sessions imprint their violent fantasies upon our minds in a way that actually showing the act cannot. Indeed, imagination can be a cruel weakness.
The rumble of Allied bombers counts down the days of this tyrannical regime and they rush to fulfill every insane desire. Eventually, even one of the cruel participants is overwhelmed and destroys herself; she is the musician: it’s as if Pasolini is saying that even Art has its limits, which can be a malignant internal metaphor for SALO itself. The torture scenes that end the film are viewed from a distance through binoculars, each of the four rulers taking turns as witness and master. The acts are unspeakable. The pain is unbearable. The smiling faces of the torturers are contorted by this animal cruelty and yet they remain human. And the most frightening aspect of SALO is that these abuses are perpetuated, not by faceless monsters, but human beings.

Final Cut: (A)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

DOG SOLDIERS (Neil Marshall, 2002, UK)

A platoon of soldiers is welcomed to dinner by a family of Lycanthropes where it’s bared fangs versus big bangs. Neil Marshall writes and directs this canine incised debacle whose bite is as dull as its bark.
The setup is barely interesting: a group of bored soldiers spends a weekend on a training mission in the Scottish Highlands and are stalked by a pack of werewolves. This macho infected film wears its bloody heart on its sleeve, ripe with inane dialogue, colorless caricatures, and poor scripting. Marshall’s fast cutting during low key scenes is very distracting and neither builds suspense nor creates emotional tension. The special-effects look awkward and riotously pathetic, more unimaginative than low budget. The plot becomes boilerplate with the arrival of the chic in a tank top, and the suspension of disbelief crumbles with the abeyance of narrative logic. For example, the werewolves tear apart a vehicle (without making a sound, by the way) but can’t bust down latched doors or thin walls. The creatures are also immune to bullets but retreat from the blaring weapons, and they seem to have some aversion to light, but it’s an interesting point that is never improved upon. Megan’s character is also of little interest, somehow a bitch in this Working Group that doesn’t metastasize during the full moon, another fact that could spice this stale concoction but remains unexplained.
DOG SOLDIERS is too serious to be parody and attempts an overabundance of homage and cannot be taken as a serious horror film. The story descends into the prosaic even for a tired genre though I’ll give it points for the Antonioni reference.

Final Grade: (D-)

Monday, August 19, 2013

AND SOON THE DARKNESS (Robert Fuest, 1970, UK)

Two young women fall victim to a stranger in a strange land as they cycle through rural France for a little rest and relaxation. Director Robert Fuest deftly captures the crowded isolation of the protagonists who are separated by language and protocol from the local population, unaware of the danger until it is too late. Though set amid the fertile fields and archaic villages of France (refreshingly eschewing traditional locations!), this could be any small town on Earth where tourists intrude upon the privacy of the locals. Jane and Cathy both sense a veneer of contempt shellacked over every encounter: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!
Pamela Franklin as Jane steals the movie with a bravura performance as the strong willed and independent survivor who makes believable decisions and reacts with proactive violence when confronted by the killer. Fuest doesn’t allow for too many genre conventions to distract from Franklin’s solid characterization. Michele Dotrice portrays Michelle, the best friend, but she isn't around long enough for much character development. However, the contentiously petty interaction between the two women lends veracity to the story by introducing a complex human relationship instead of mere avatars that are nothing more than fodder for fear. Fuest also imbues the audience with the same ambiguous fears by purposely redacting subtitles so we feel a constant separation between characters.
The plot itself is fairly straightforward but Fuest is concerned with creating narrative momentum with suspense by insinuation and elision and not superficial sadism. The murder scene itself relies on moments of suspended observation or tricks of the imagination by Michelle, allowing the viewer to experience the tense scene from her perspective (of course, we have the foreknowledge that she will be killed; after all, we’re watching a horror film). So when she reaches for her panties drying on a branch and they’re missing but her bra and other undergarments are still there, we know some unidentified person took them but Michelle is just beginning to get suspicious. She looks on the ground as a close-up reveals her expression: maybe the panties are still in her saddlebag. A few branches scrape together and she hesitates alone, Jane miles down the road after an argument, and we feel her sudden recognition of isolation. Fuest doesn’t show the viewer a dark shadow or evil eyes peering from the bushes: he wants us to feel what the character feels. Her bicycle suddenly falls over and she jumps but again, it could just be the wind. She sighs in relief until she picks up her bike…and sees the mangled spokes. Now she knows absolutely that someone is lurking nearby and her dread is palpable, a fight or flight reaction that becomes overwhelming. Fuest shoots from a low–angle framing her reaction-shot through the broken spokes and twisted rim. This is a powerful scene that is the crux of the story as the killer’s identity is kept hidden. The remaining story becomes Jane’s fear for her missing friend and discovering who is responsible.
AND SOON THE DARKNESS is a nice little thriller that I understand was remade in 2010 utilizing the same title but to seemingly different results. Relying on allusion over contusion, Fuest’s film exploits that undiscovered country between our perceptions and our paranoias.
Final Cut: (B-) 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (John Newland, 1973, USA)

Sally is haunted by more than a trilogy of terrors: a diminished housewife under the spell of patriarchal authority, she seeks fulfillment by decorating the empty spaces of her life. One of the creepiest made-for-TV movies ever produced, director John Newland transmutes a woman’s struggle for liberation into an existential supernatural thriller.
The plot is basic enough for a familial melodrama, as stay-at-home wife Sally and her upwardly mobile husband Alex inherit an old decaying house. This demesne becomes a status symbol, a show piece to suggest to Alex’s superiors that he deserves membership into the “old boys” club, where a promotion means a spiritual demotion for his lovely spouse because his career is more important than his wife. Sally begins to disappear at home, to become an echo in some vast conspiracy of ghosts…or something worse. Sally’s independence leads her to self-destruction when she looks behind the earthly fa├žade and into the abyss, releasing three tiny trolls that torment her but ultimately want to subsume her very soul.
The film is chock-full of scary moments: shrill taunting whispers, tiny bug-like creatures scurrying just out of sight, dark shadows with things bumping in the night, an old man and his dire (though ambiguous) warning and an ancient door bolted closed for no apparent reason. A great setup for a haunted house flick! But it’s the subtext that becomes chilling, as Sally begins to question her status quo in the marriage; the rude beginnings to an uncivil war. She has become a trophy to Alex, a thing that represents his achievements and not hers, a union of one. Her friend is the ultimate Beverly Hills housewife, married to a successful businessman who deals in synthetics, a superficial and plastic sham where her womanhood, her very humanity, is molded by another’s desire and sacrificed for creature comfort. But Sally’s creatures only offer fear and murder, and the immortal darkness as reward.
The marriage bleeds with normalcy as the story begins but soon dissolves with only the slightest instigation. Alex is often angry and controlling as Sally begins to question her surroundings and seek answers on her own. Her independent actions lead to punishment, both by the little trolls and her controlling husband. The creatures become a metaphor for children, released from the black womb and into a marriage that is already beginning to decompose. Though Sally and Alex never talk of children it is naturally the next step in the progression. And Sally, if she stays in the marriage, will be devoured by the burden, becoming invisible to Alex and a stranger in her own strange land of identity. She wants out but cannot escape, trapped in a prison of marital remiss. But the “children” finally capture her and drag her back into the ashes and dust, while Alex is lost in misunderstanding. Finally, Sally becomes victim to a patriarchal altruism: a woman’s place is in the home. Forever.

Final Cut: (B)

Saturday, August 10, 2013

TARGETS (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968 USA)

A Celluloid Hero confronts a gun wielding villain as imaginary horror becomes maniacal modernity; an empty life in red typeface. Peter Bogdanovich directs and stars in his debut feature, homage to the legendary Boris Karloff and an insider’s view of the bitter realities of Hollywood filmmaking while creating a well-paced thriller whose violent nexus strikes back from the silver screen.
 The story involves Byron Orlok an aging B-movie actor, exceptionally portrayed with dignity and class by Karloff, and his desire to retire from the rigors of a vapid business. Orlok is courted by a young hotshot director (played by Bogdanovich himself) to star in one last film while Bogdanovich cross-cuts with another story of an ordinary middle-class family and a clean cut son with an erotic fascination with firearms. The two seemingly disparate stories finally come together at a drive-in where the audience becomes victim, and the horrors of life prove more frightening than art. Bogdanovich uses clips from Roger Corman’s classic THE TERROR which stars Karloff as a fictional template for Orlok’s latest creation. He provides an often funny and caustic insight into the cutthroat movie-making business, as producers, advertisers and accountants become the butt of many jokes. Meanwhile, Bobby is a good looking All American guy, with a loving family and beautiful wife, showing no emotional warning signs on his suicidal road to nowhere. In one spooky sequence, Bobby is at the rifle range with his father, making small talk and cracking jokes. When his father goes down range to set up the targets, Bobby aims his rifle to find him in the cross-hairs…for no damn reason at all. When Bobby finally types his note and murders his family, it is done methodically and without emotion, actually taking the time to place the bodies in a comfortable position. Bogdanovich tracks his camera slowly across the floor, over the bloodstains, and climbs ever so deliberately towards the desk in a continuous shot until he focuses upon the typewritten letter, hacked out in red, the last testament of a madman.
 Laszlo Kovacks’ wonderful cinematography captures both timelines with a claustrophobic tension, as Orlok the horror actor is brightly lit while bobby the average guy (whose acts are horror) is isolated in darkness, both cramped in the tiny worlds of vehicles and apartments. When Bobby climbs the refinery towers, Kovacks shoots with quick zoom like a bullet striking its target, a fatal frisson that brings a heightened and believable reality. The night sequence at the drive-in is equally compelling, as the oblique lighting provides cover from the deadly sniper.
 The power of the story is that no reason is given, no flashback to some imagined provocation is offered, only the callous disregard for human life reduced to tin cans. Fortunately, Orlok may have made a career from being the villain but in his last appearance he proves to be the hero.

Final Cut: (B+)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

NIGHT OF THE DEMON (Jacques Tourneur, 1957, UK)

A scientist's reason battles superstition, his life as fragile as parchment, his rock solid skepticism soon broken like the jagged teeth of Stonehenge. Jacques Tourneur deftly directs this demonic dramaturgy where the supernatural coincides with the Thomas Theorem.
In the thrilling prologue, a nervous professor is apologetic to an austere Dr. Karswell, promising to end an investigation because the professor now believes in the mysterious Power. But it’s too late for the good professor as his fate lurches from the bubbling mist in the form of a fiery Balrog descending from the trees, his former obloquy now a formal obituary. Enter: an American scientist Dr. John Holden as he falls in love with the victim’s niece Joanna Harrington, and together they must race against devilish time to investigate her uncle’s violent death while attempting to decipher an ancient tome of forbidden and forgotten knowledge.
Tourneur utilizes shadows and tense pacing as the film races towards it finale, their fate laid down like train tracks in the cold hard earth, as unchanging and hardened as steel, as tasteless as fear. Karswell is presented as a reasonable fellow and not some satanic nut, lending an unsettling credibility to the story. Each coincidence can be explained psychologically, as Holden rationalizes, or considered preternaturally, as the film supposes.
Though the winged demon is revealed in the first act and it can be argued that fear of the unknown is the greater fear, there is an anxious shadowy satisfaction to awaiting the creature’s return...and guessing who it shall feast upon. The denouement is a rush of clacking wheels on steel tracks, where modernity meets druidic orthodoxy.

Final Cut: (B+)

Saturday, August 3, 2013

THESE ARE THE DAMNED (Joseph Losey, 1963, UK)

Our future contained in a stone prison, the progeny not of dividing cells but splitting atoms. Director Joseph Losey’s science fiction film is anathema of a future age, where black leather is no protection from deadly radiation. Losey’s bipolar narrative begins like contemptuous proclamation against the wicked and bored youth before splicing into a cautionary tale about cold war ethics.

The title creates a false expectation that the motorcycle gang, led by the charismatic King (an exemplary performance by Oliver Reed, perhaps a future echo of Kubrick’s bratchny protagonist), are the generation cursed. Contrasted with a girl on the cusp of womanhood coupled to an older man, and her incestuous brother dressed in cruel black leather, the roaring engines become the scream of predators looking for their next victim. Losey’s art house style is a cross between Godard and Brando, allowing the camera to linger upon sculptures, twisted like bodies pulverized by radiation, while Reed ruptures with hipster rebellion.

Suddenly, the story takes a turn for the surreal as the characters inadvertently stumble into a covert government compound and discover a terrible secret: children, isolated from the world since birth, are part of some mysterious experiment. These children thirst for physical contact, never having known their parents, their only contact with adults through closed circuit TV. But their love kills the very ones who desire to save them, their touch venomous, their fate unkind.

The group attempts to escape and lead the children from their prison, but these mutants are bred to survive a nuclear holocaust, to carry on the English Way through an irradiated winter…and beyond. This secret devours all who become tainted with the knowledge, gunshots the epitaph for the unlucky. And as the film fades to black, a child begs for help from within stone, screaming for release. But their time will come only when the world is dead. 

Final Cut: (B)