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)

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


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)

Monday, September 15, 2014

THE SACRAMENT (Ti West, 2013, USA)

1. A rite believed to be a means of or visible form of grace, especially.

From one addiction to another, a group of lost souls build a Commune deep within a South American jungle to escape the violent world. There they fall under the godspell of Father whose secret ambitions may be worse. Director Ti West uses the “found footage” genre to re-create a modern version of the Jonestown Massacre, where those failing to understand the past are destined to repeat it. Ti West’s film becomes a warning about the corrupting influence of religion especially when focused through one charismatic figure, with ethics as ethereal as light separated by a multifaceted prism.

The film begins with talking heads on the VICE Channel, a peripheral news network seemingly more concerned with entertainment than actual facts and supporting evidence, who are speaking directly to the camera . We are quickly introduced to the main characters Patrick (the fashion photographer), Sam (the interviewer) and Jake (the cameraman). These three decide to travel together to interview Patrick’s troubled sister Caroline who has joined a Commune and written a letter asking her brother to visit. The directions are vague and cryptic and the three soon decide it would make a great story. Ti West uses the setup of an entertainment channel (think Entertainment Tonight) to propel the subjectivity of the “found footage” viewpoint to reveal much of the narrative. However, he soon rips that POV apart and edits it within the parameters of a standard subjective viewpoint of a horror film. It works fairly well and the viewer quickly forgets who is filming what, or why we are seeing medium close-ups perfectly framed while Jake’s camera is shooting another angle or is turned off.

Though it’s not hard to guess what happens (as we all know the Jonestown Massacre, right?) Ti West takes his time and builds the suspense step by step in a realistic and believable manner. As they set down in a clearing after flying for presumably hours over impenetrable jungle, Patrick, Sam and Jake’s first sign of trouble is the men wielding machine guns who are to take them to Eden Parish. Why would a peaceful commune need weapons? Here it becomes obvious that the three “reporters” have not been honest because only Patrick requested a visit with his sister and not the whole crew. A tense argument erupts and one doesn’t argue with an armed guide! However they are allowed to proceed and meet Caroline at the entrance.

Now the tension slowly builds as Patrick is separated from them and Sam and Jake roam the compound trying to interview members. Most people hide their faces and shuffle uncomfortably away. A mute little girl tries to make contact but she is quickly called away by her mother. On the surface everything seems fine as a few people spout mundane accomplishments and even the hospital seems well stocked and antiseptic. But Sam wonders how a small field hospital can care for so many elderly residents and support the newborn babies. Here it is revealed that Sam is awaiting his own first child back in the world which sets up more tension as he eventually fights for his life.

Soon an interview with Father before the whole congregation is granted and Sam and Jake prepare rather mundane questions. Though they both have a slight feeling of being led astray or lied to, Father is an engaging and charismatic man. He is also excellently portrayed by Gene Jones (any relation to Jim?) and really carries the whole weight of the film: if he’s not believable then the structure crumbles and the story doesn’t work. But Jones is up to the task and is wonderful and forthright as the spiritual center of the compound. He expounds upon the members who have given up everything to build this new beginning, away from the negativity and violence that Sam and Jake are still blinded by. Though Father speaks with a hypnotically loving voice and has kind mannerisms, he can also be understood to speak in masked threats. Sam is shaken up and overwhelmed and almost comes under his spell. Soon things all over the compound are shaken up!

The outsiders soon bring the promise of corruption to Eden Parish and Father now flexes his religious and spiritual muscle. An inebriated Caroline reveals that father is trying to seduce her brother into staying so their wealthy parents will send money. Father realizes that when this story breaks to the world that his vision is doomed. So Father has them all gather and offer their very lives to the Lord: it’s not suicide, it’s a Sacrament. Some resist but most drink the blood-colored Kool-Aid and those who don’t are shot. Meanwhile the three protagonists are struggling to survive by hiding from gunmen all night and trying to reach the helicopter which will return at daybreak. In one brutally realistic scene Caroline injects her brother with poison as he’s tied to a chair. He struggles and screams and fights against the onrushing darkness as his body jumps and convulses. Ti West is not masking the physical horror in this religious fanaticism: we see a child’s throat slit, brains and clumps of hair, vomiting and slow death. The path to their god is littered with violent intentions.

Sam and Jake eventually make it back to the helicopter but they are far from safe. The pilot has been shot and as they take off and circle the compound, we get one last long look at the cruelty and violence that was supposedly left behind in the real world. Here, condensed in microcosm, is a reflection of that world.

Final Grade: (B) 

Friday, September 12, 2014

GENOCIDE (Kazui Nihonmatsu, 1968, Japan)

“The insects are singing about destroying humanity.” 

GODZILLA spawned the Kaiju genre which is literally translated as “Giant Beast” and the monsters quickly grew taller, nastier, campier and rubberier. Director Kazui Nihonmatsu shrinks the genre to the size of the insect world to complete the destruction of the human race.

I would like to write a short plot description but the narrative makes little sense and seems to be pieced together from disparate films. Or the story was remade each day before shooting and Nihonmatsu just shot whatever the fuck he felt like; presumably after ingesting hallucinatory drugs or Kaiju-ish amounts of alcohol. But this isn’t necessarily a criticism as much as it is a caveat lector so one doesn’t wander into this warped celluloid reality unprepared!

The film begins with a stark pronouncement (all in capital letters): THE MOMENT MANKIND HARNESSED THE POWER OF THE ATOM, HE IMMEDIATELY BEGAN TO FEAR IT. In the background mushroom clouds blossom and fold their fiery entrails inwards as if devouring themselves, harnessing their own energy as they grow taller and consume the heavens. Then the title and opening credits are shown over close-ups of insects, making these tiny creatures seem disarmingly creepy and savagely beautiful. The camera then slowly zooms earthward from the heavens and focuses upon a couple sunning themselves on a rocky shore. Nihonmatsu exploits the bikini blonde as he begins the point-of-view shot at her feet while it crawls slowly up her shapely legs, tight skinny waist and buxom chest until it reveals her full sensuous lips and dark mascara eyes. When the man turns over to embrace her she pushes him away and turns over on her back. It’s a bit surprising to see a bi-racial couple especially in a late 60’s Japanese film but the metaphor becomes exhibition by the final act: the American girl leads the Japanese protagonist astray in order to destroy the human race! Now the story gets weird.

The man looks skyward and we see from his POV a contrail from a jet plane. The camera slowly zooms in (this quickly becomes the director’s primary visual trait) to a model of a B-52 Stratofortress. Cut to the interior and five American airmen in orange jumpsuits and their payload: an H-Bomb. Suddenly, the black airman who sits at the controls directly in front of the bomb starts acting strangely. As he begins sweating profusely and rubbing his face and neck, he swats at an insect and looks towards the porthole: a wasp crawls sluggishly across the thick glass. Then he violently grabs his head and screams while WWII scenes are cut into the narrative as hallucinatory flashbacks. As his cohorts attempt to calm him he screams that he won’t go back to the Front and accidentally hits the bomb-bay door switch so it opens. Charley, the addled airman, is the only black man among the crew of five. He begs for drugs because he won’t return to the Front to fight anymore: he’s obviously lost his mind somehow. One crew-member gives him an injection (of what?) which he carries in his sleeve (huh?). Soon a black cloud of swarming insects attacks the plane, their buzzing mass causing the engines to flame-out and forcing the crew to abandon their airship. The Stratofortress bursts into flames and explodes in cool miniature effect and we see four parachutes descending to the island. The Japanese man forgets his blonde girlfriend and jumps up to investigate…which he will soon regret.

Now the film gets convoluted and very very strange. We soon learn that Joji, the Japanese man seen in the opening act, is married to a kindly Japanese girl who is being molested by an Innkeeper while he is out searching for poisonous insects to send back to his boss in Tokyo. Of course he’s having an affair with Annabelle, the voluptuous American blonde seen sunbathing with him. Three American airmen including Charley survive the crash and make their way to a mysterious cave where someone has been secretly trapping insects in bottles. There are some skulls and other human detritus cast about. Joji goes looking for the airmen but Charley goes berserk and stumbles off a cliff. Joji is arrested for murdering the other two Americans and injuring Charley since Joji was discovered trying to sell a watch belonging to one of them. As Joji is held in custody his wife and boss come to visit vowing to find evidence to free him. And it soon learned that Annabelle is a Russian agent who sells her poisonous venom (hence the bottles in the cave) to the Eastern Block but is also much more: she is a survivor of Auschwitz and seeks the destruction of the entire human race!!

Let us think about this for a moment. It’s bad enough that Charley is a WWII veteran with a drug habit as he looks to be in his thirties and still in the Air Force (which didn’t exist during WWII). The story is set in 1968 and the War ended in 1945 which is 23 years prior: Charley would have been a teenager during the War! Annabelle curses all humanity because she suffered terrible abuses while a prisoner of the Nazi Death Camp Auschwitz. She even shows her ID number which is tattooed…on her breast. Now that seems strange but Soviet prisoners were indeed tattooed on the upper part of their left breast in Auschwitz (a new fact I just learned researching this review!). But Annabelle is obviously American (blonde, dark eyes, curvaceous like an American movie star) but could she possibly be Russian? She is working for the Eastern Block. Well, the film never explains and she is out to betray mankind anyway! If Annabelle was indeed in the Death Camp 23 years prior she must have been a little child…but it’s possible. So because she is full of hate she is on the side of the insects and orders them to destroy the world. She must be some kind of Insect Whisperer because it’s never explained how the insects know this! And her proclamation comes out of left field as we’re only expecting her to be the “other girl” Joji is seeing. And the thought of casually using the Holocaust as a plot device in a cheapo horror movie is quite interesting because that would never be written off so easily in an American or European production. Even to this day it is not a topic for minor genre films.

In one of the strangest scenes in cinematic history, as Charley lays recuperating in the hospital he is interrogated by Joji’s boss who is looking for answers as to who (or what) really killed the other airmen to prove Joji’s innocence. And he does this by showing films of insects devouring one another! It’s fucking bizarre but played perfectly straight, as if this type of questioning is within normal parameters of any interrogation protocol. Poor Charley is mentally unbalanced and suffering greatly to begin with but he is able to remember that they were attacked in the cave by a buzzing mass of insects! Joji’s Boss leaves to search the cave for further clues and the American Officers, who have been hanging around looking confused, then slap and assault Charley because he doesn’t know where the bomb landed! How’s that for Patriotism.

So the bomb is discovered and the insects are taking control of it by crawling over its surface. To scare the creepy crawlies away, one of the guys fires his gun at the H-bomb! Yes, the story just gets more insane. Joji’s boss also injects himself with a small amount of the venom because he was working on a cure at the time of this disaster, and can suddenly understand all of the insects chanting GENOCIDE! at the top of their…ummm…little crickety legs (since they don’t have lungs). He survives and they track down Annabelle and her gang (whom she also betrayed) as the Americans wander around in a somnambulist daze totally incompetent, and want to drop a bomb on the island to kill the intelligent insects. We are occasionally shown stock footage of insects chewing on what looks like human flesh with their clacking mandibles. Joji’s wife jumps in a boat and rows out to sea to save herself and, yes you guessed it, her unborn baby belonging to Joji! The Japanese argue against the use of the bomb (again) because the fallout will destroy Tokyo but too late: the H-bomb is detonated by the Americans. We see a growing mushroom cloud reflective of the opening credits as the island is annihilated…and supposedly the insects too. The film ends with a white hot sun rising in a blood red sky; the inverse of the Japanese flag.

Director Nihonmatsu has made an anti-war, anti-American, anti-Capitalist, anti-human and eco-terrorist diatribe against the World that we have razed and spoiled in our quest for atomic fire. It’s an interesting concoction of seemingly disparate elements that creates a sometimes enjoyable but altogether insane science fiction film with faux-political sentiments. We end up feeling more sorry for the insects than the human race.

Final Grade: (B-)

Thursday, September 4, 2014


George is an antiques dealer who discovers a new axiom: those who unearth the past are doomed to be devoured by it. Writer/Director Jorge Grau evokes the spirit of both George Romero and Michelangelo Antonioni in this classic horror film, creating drama from the sludge piles and belching factories of RED DESERT, sporting an ultra-cool and suave protagonist whose motorcycle rockets through the arteries of London, a reincarnation of David Hemmings in BLOW-UP, and the mystery of the rising dead and cultural clash that was so well defined by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

A chance encounter propels George and Edna upon a diabolical journey into the unknown, where they become trapped in a vault of horror. Grau devises a scientific premise for the reanimation of the recently dead as a local farmer is using ultrasonic radiation to destroy the simple nervous systems of insects: it seems to be less toxic than pesticide. But this has an effect on both newborns and the newly deceased causing psychotic violence and cannibalism. A unique and interesting major plot point is in the deduction that these zombies can use their own irradiated blood to create a brotherhood of corpses.

The use of heart-thumping sound precedes an attack and creates a crescendo of fear which is utilized to great effect. One chilling scene in particular has our protagonists and a police officer trapped in a basement while the dead begin to push aside their caskets: Tobe Hooper’s homage is evident in the Marsten House basement scenario from SALEM’S LOT. The police investigate these series of murders blaming the deaths on Edna’s drug addled sister and corrupting youth culture represented by George in his leather jacket and shaggy good looks. As in classic science fiction films, the young hero discovers the source of the apocalypse but his pleas fall upon the deaf ears of his elders, so he must take matters into his own hands.

These zombies think and move quickly, the core of some basic reasoning still existent in their gray matter, and the disease can be passed by blood: again we see another influence that haunts Danny Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER. George fights his way through a demented hell to save Edna, who was a stranger only hours before, and the nihilistic vengeful finale is reflective of the culture and social temperament of its time: the dead shall indeed inherit the Earth.

Final Grade: (B)

Saturday, August 9, 2014

THE BORDERLANDS (Elliot Goldner, 2013, UK)

A Vatican research team walks the twilight realm between modern faith and pagan superstition, attempting a skeptical analysis of religious miracles and paranormal activity. Director Elliot Goldner’s “found footage” narrative posits an interesting idea: hardcore Catholic apologists who seek to deny belief in the supernatural and expose frauds and magical thinking, yet hold fast to their 21st century faith. It soon becomes ironic that Deacon and Mark, ordained by the Catholic Church are the non-believers while Gray, the hired help, easily includes the supernatural into his worldview! 

Goldner utilizes the trite and now overcooked “found footage” style of photography by using mounted cameras at each location and POV shaky-cam headsets. He also limits the scope of the film and uses only two major locations: the church and a small rented house occupied by our three protagonists. At each of these sites the characters assemble and mount cameras in multiple corners to catch and hopefully expose the paranormal or trickery of the priest or townsfolk. It’s never explained why they would mount cameras in their cottage but it does serve a narrative function for exposition. The other locations are captured only through their POV headsets (with microphones) and this links together the narrative. Though obviously edited together to tell a story, it still realistically depicts some frightful and interesting events. 

Gray and Deacon arrive at a small cottage somewhere in rural England to investigate a miracle at a tiny and remote church. They meet with the young Priest and are allowed to view this miracle which was captured on video. It looks like an earthquake with a deep rumbling and items vibrating across the altar. Not impressed, they begin to examine the church’s historical archives for any other clues. Deacon discovers an ancient tome (shades of Abdul Alhazred perhaps?) and begins immersing himself in this grimoire. Gray continues to examine sound recordings. Soon, a burning sheep in their backyard reminds them that they’re outsiders in a small community and these villagers may be more hostile than they first seemed. As the Priest begins acting strangely, events at the church begin to peak until he throws himself from the church tower. Now it is a matter of life and death. 

The small church seems to be very old. It’s interesting that unexplained occurrences happen at random times in broad daylight: children weeping, ground shaking, or the guttural acoustics of some beast. Each event can be explained within the diegetics of the story and gives Mark reason to disbelieve this weak evidence.  Deacon comes to believe that something ancient may be haunting the church, and his behavior becomes more and more skewed and “sinful”. Gray realizes he is in over his head! When a Father Calvino is called in to exorcise the church in the final act, the truth is finally summoned. 

The investigators soon find themselves chasing one another through tunnels under the church, catacombs that predate not only the church but probably the village itself. They discover the gruesome sacrifice to this Elder god and the reason why an orphanage was built so close to the church (mentioned in the book): a large pile of children's bones.  As the tunnels close in (and we only see via POV cameras) Deacon and Gray chase Mark who always seems to be just around the next corner. The strange ceremony performed by Father Calvino now seems like it may have been a summoning ritual, bringing forth some dreaded demon instead of banishing it! Finally, they are crawling through rubble until the walls become a strange gluttonous mass and the tunnel closes behind them. They have crawled into the bowels of the Beast! As they are digested by this Lovecraftian horror we see their final images as they scream in pain in despair. For Deacon and Gray, Jesus may be fiction but the Elder god remains all too real. 

Final Grade: (C+) 

Friday, August 1, 2014

THX-1138 (George Lucas, 1971, revised 2004, USA)

In this backwards world, flesh and blood creatures that were once human, who felt deep love invade their very marrow, now willingly assemble their blank-faced Nazi superiors, their own emotions reduced to binary code in the great master computer circit-ulatory system. 

Like prisoners of the Nazi Death camps, this macro-society has no identity, their humanity wiped away: heads shaved and names replaced by the cruel indifference of numbers, the value of life discounted and discarded…the dead easily replaced by other soma modified drones. These physical beings have become simulacra, clacking away pre-programmed and disposable, their consciousness drugged and monitored by the State. But one woman breaks this chemical bondage and frees her mate, THX-1138: they revolt and begin to think on their own; they fall in love and resist reassignment: they have become the very essence of anarchy…. human beings. And they must be destroyed. 

Unfortunately, George Lucas redacted the original film and inserted new CGI effects that stand out in stark contrast to the minimalist nature of the film. There are some sublime visual compositions: the men lost in the white cell, tiny and insignificant as they become swallowed by nothingness; a crowded bustling corridor, a violent crushing sea of bodies; the point-of-view as the characters open their medicine cabinets, the ubiquitous overseers always watching; the automatic confessional where a docile voice repeats the same inane suggestions, the plastic Jesus frozen and expressionless; a pickled fetus, reassigned the number of his dead lover; or the Police Robots, reminiscent of the indestructible Gort, stalking the corridors with kind words and killing dissenters with their nightsticks. 

Lalo Schifrin’s score hits the right notes of subtly and mystery; it doesn’t overpower the narrative but accentuates the tension with perfect timing. Alas, the State must be kept in the red; THX-1138 is allowed to escape because the pursuit has put the project over-budget. As he climbs to the surface he is silhouetted against a setting sun, alive, free, and alone. 

Final Grade: (B)

Friday, April 25, 2014

GOD TOLD ME TO (Larry Cohen, 1976, USA)

“Reveal the dragon thro’ the human; coursing swift as fire, To the close hall of counsel, where his Angel form renews.” -America A Prophecy by William Blake

NYC Detective Peter Nicholas is drawn into a murderous nexus of religious barbarism and alien intrigue. He must accept the fallacy of his own past while confronting the last vestiges of his archaic and crumbling Catholic upbringing, and enter into the final apocryphal battle with his own brimstone doppelganger.
The film’s startling violent first shots are reminiscent of Charles Whitman’s rampage; ten years earlier, he killed 15 innocent bystanders from the top of a tower at the University of Texas before being gunned down by police. Director Larry Cohen uses this traumatic event as a template for his intriguing narrative; but here the killer talks happily with Detective Nicholas and he jubilantly responds, “God told me to kill those people” before leaping to his death. Cohen then jump-cuts (literally) to the Detective awakening from a nightmare, revealing his inner vision to be haunted by this ordeal. As the unrelated murders and the soft spoken excuses continue, Nicholas begins to investigate a common thread: each killer had contact with a strange blonde haired (blue-eyed?) guru.
Cohen is best when he alludes to the violent act, such as the father who shot his wife and two children to death, and lets the killer sit in a gentle repose, describing the act as meditatively as a transcendent joy: truly chilling and realistic. As Nicholas searches for this mystical demagogue (demongogue) he discovers the secret to his own mysterious past. He must dissolve the malignant and pervasive tendrils of his own faith and accept the Truth. Nicholas must ride the Chariots of the Gods to his own fiery salvation and face his greatest enemy; he must destroy that beautiful creature of light whose incandescence rules through fear and loathing, a monster that is actually the shadow race Homo Superior. Peter Nicholas carries the burden of guilt for all humanity; he accepts his punishment and smiles to the camera. His body displays Christ’s stigmata and his hollow words echo nihilism; “God told me to”.
Final Cut: (C+)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

PHASE IV (Saul Bass, 1974, USA)

Like Kubrick’s Australopithecus and its evolutionary push from some undefined alien source, disparate subfamilies of ants have become imbued with intelligence by some epic cosmic event. Director Saul Bass, best known for his title designs on PSYCHO, VERTIGO, and ANATOMY OF A MURDER, tells a fascinating story depicting the next stage of natural evolution where two scientists engage in a battle with tiny insects for world domination. 

Dr. Hubbs and mathematician James Lesko build their own chrome mausoleum in the scorching desert, relying on computers and observations to solve the enigma. As the budget tightens and Dr. Hubbs fears the project will be shut down, he destroys the ant’s beautifully designed dirt and mud towers, the architecture of a new world order. This sparks Armageddon: the battle is not fought on Tel Megiddo but in the arid Arizona desert. Dr. Hubbs rekindles the fiery spirit of Professor Bernard Quatermass with his adventurous physicality and grenade launching hubris, out to save the world once again, while his partner attempts communication instead of retaliation. Add Kendra, a beautiful young woman to the mix and the film veers close to parody but thankfully doesn’t resort to romance or melodrama. 

Dick Bush’s cinematography is outstanding as the ants are dramatically filmed in close-up, capturing poses and gestures that seem to convey some malign ulterior motive, their actions an eerie premeditation. Many scenes are saturated with striking primary colors adding a surreal texture and suspense to the film. The electronic score reverberates with the uncanny hive language of this new society and becomes nature’s raw pulse. The universal language of mathematics is shared, its geometry processed as the two species attain intelligent contact. But the humans misunderstand the patterns and as Hubbs walks to his gruesome death, Lesko and Kendra rise together, like Lazarus from a sandy grave, to face the world anew: reborn and forever changed.

Final Cut: (B-)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (Peter Weir, 1975, Australia)

British colonialism fades into obscurity like three schoolgirls, their flesh and blood evaporating like the scintillation of a daydream. Peter Weir’s oblique narrative becomes transcendental and dangerous in its mystic rhythms, a magnetic force of frenetic urgency that subsumes all living creatures.

Appleyard College is an English boarding school on the boundary of the Australian Outback, a bastion of civilization taming the primitive wild, where the future meets the rock of ageless past. Apropos for a country whose empire spread like an infection, destroying and converting that which it didn't understand into tempestuous Victorian principles. But Hanging Rock’s basalt pillars are guardians of time, sentinels that have withstood a million storms and will outlast the invaders…and the human race. On Valentine’s Day, a picnic at this monolith turns seemingly to tragedy when three students and a teacher disappear and only one is found alive, her elusive memory a figment of trauma where truth and imagination become inseparable. Though the film invokes police procedural, the story is not about the facts concerning the disappearances but in the aftermath, the effects upon Mrs. Applegate and her students, the police, the witnesses, and the community at large.

The mystery is never explained so Weir is able to focus upon the people: Mrs. Appleyard and her inability to cope with change, Sara and her lesbian infatuation with Miranda (one of the girls who never returns), and Michael an innocent witness who becomes obsessed with visions of the beautiful Miranda. This event has profoundly altered their lives while it’s just another sensationalist exercise in journalistic fashion for the rest of the world, human lives reprinted in ink and cheap paper. The story could be a masquerade of the young woman’s role in Victorian society, their sexuality repressed beneath binding corsets, behavior redacted to exclude natural impulses. Weir shows the girls shedding shoes and clothing, possibly morphing into or merging with the world around them, leaving behind a static life of disregard. It is also a tragedy of class distinction leading to self-destruction, as Sara jumps to her death because her benefactor fails to pay the required fee for the school, already suffering the loss of her best friend.

Mrs. Appleyard’s biological clock stops ticking at Hanging Rock, not from some strange magnetic pulse but from blunt force trauma.

Final Cut: (A)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

THREE...EXTREMES (Fruit Chan, Park Chan-wook, Takashi Miike, 2004, Asia)

A trinity of terror, a grimoire of grotesqueries, and revelry of repulsion makes this association of agony a delectable danse macabre. Three Asian filmmakers contribute short fiction, sharing a common vein of horror and visceral dread that is a contagion of subversive delight.

DUMPLINGS (Fruit Chan): Christopher Doyle’s gorgeous cinematography captures an apathetic actress who is past her prime: though carrying the stolid dignity of middle age, Mei is relegated to the doldrums of a listless marriage and spent career. She visits a seemingly young woman whose recipe for eternal youth is impregnated in her supple dumplings. Chan is able to create tension with a nervous zeal as Mei becomes trapped by her own desires, and obsessed by her own temporary beauty. The narrative’s hook is engaging and fulfilling, imbued with a delicious fancy of aborted treats. When Mei’s addictive umbilicus is terminated…she must devour her own. Final Cut: (B+)

CUT (Park Chan-wook): A young and successful film director becomes part of a psychopathic parable, now the main character in a gruesome novelty act as an invisible extra now has final cut. Park blurs the line between cinema and reality, showing the fictional set and director’s home as host to this horror, subverting structural perspectives by pulling focus from narrative conventions. A mixture of the four humours and humor, the director is punished for being a good and humble man, rich and celebrated for his work, while the vile actor is a cold-blooded murderer who blames the world for his woes, and finds cold comfort in corrupting this honest man. The set design is lavish, imaginative, and graphically revealing as minute by minute the director’s wife, a pianist, has her fingers chopped off until he (the director) chokes a small child to death. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men…and women. Final Cut: (B+)

BOX (Takashi Miike): Kyoko is a lonely writer who hides away in a dilapidated apartment, suffering a recurring nightmare of being buried alive in a small box. Miike builds intensity by conjuring forth an atmosphere of ghostly visuals and haunting childhood echoes, as Kyoko is burdened with a fiery guilt and fatherly penitence. With allusions to incest and sibling rivalry, Miike’s complex story doesn’t offer up any obstinate answers but lets the mystery deepen while gravel taps nervously upon a box…being slowly buried in the cold hard ground. Final Cut: (B)

Monday, January 27, 2014

THE VISITORS (Elia Kazan, 1972, USA)

Bill thought he left Vietnam behind him, a distance measured in years and miles and blood. But the past is like a shadow, always attached to the present and sometimes eclipsing the moment. THE VISITORS was Elia Kazan’s last film and one that seems to defy his traditional big budget Hollywood style by being rather amateurishly made. But that is only a superficial criticism because the context of this film’s cinematography is as much a part of the story as the characters themselves. The story concerns people trapped in a morass of ambiguous morality, of people scared of doing the “right thing”…whatever this “right thing” is. I would suggest that this is a common theme throughout Kazan’s oeuvre from ON THE WATERFRONT to A FACE IN THE CROWD as he struggled with his own moral turpitude over naming names to the House Committee on Un-American Activity (HUACC). Thus THE VISITORS is once again allegory with its creator as victim.
Here in his final film Kazan films on location in a farmhouse using a hand held camera, focusing intently upon character interaction in cramped medium close-ups with minimal editing. This Cinema Verite style moves the camera’s point-of-view directly into the situation (seemingly) without stagey blocking or gimmicky set-ups. The actors don’t exaggerate or emote their inner-feelings so often times there are long stretches of silence…just like in real life. The disheveled environment appears not only authentic but documentary which lends a gritty realism to the film. There is a scene of animal violence that is so believable that one wonder’s how it was achieved. This is a brutal and fatalistic story that doesn’t have the requisite starting point or ending, other than the film itself begins and finally stops.
The story takes place in less than 24 hours. The visit isn’t the starting point as we wake up with Bill and Martha and follow their routine throughout the morning. When Mike and Tony show up Bill fails to communicate his anxiety to his wife (or the audience). If one doesn’t know the premise of the film it would seem like a friendly reunion. We learn through exposition that Bill (James Woods) while serving in the Army in Vietnam witnessed a brutal rape on a Vietnamese civilian by his sergeant Mike (James Railsback) and comrade Tony (Chico Martinez). Mike testified at a court-martial and the two men ended up serving time in a military prison. Their return seems of little concern to Mike who becomes very difficult to read thanks to an inspiringly subtle performance from Woods. He invites them into his home and while Mike takes a nap on his sofa, he and Tony take a walk around the farmhouse. He asks Tony if everything is square between them but again doesn’t seem scared or surprised by their appearance: he’s obviously not expecting any problems. It’s as if that violent act in a foreign country happened not only in another time…but by other people. Mike has distanced himself psychologically from the rape and it soon becomes evident that he never told his girlfriend Martha about the experience. The visitors Mike and Tony also do not display any predilection to revenge or violence and at one point clearly state that they don’t know why they returned. It seems as if the “message” of the film is that there is no message or moral at all; that life happens, people react and often don’t understand their own motivations or desires.
As the characters putter around the house they meet Martha’s father Harry, a WW2 vet who now writes pulp Western paperbacks, stories of violence and machismo. As Harry gets drunk he revels in his own war stories and tales of killing and asks Mike and Tony about their experiences. He is unable to understand why they don’t want to talk about Vietnam and often calls Bill’s manhood into question because he is gentle and withdrawn, traits that Harry sees as a weakness in Bill (and all men) instead of strength. In one drunken scene they watch a football game together and Harry exhorts about the virility of the men who play this rugged game as he begins tossing a football around with them. Bill doesn’t participate and we clearly see the battle of the Alpha male with strength dominating the quartet. Martha is relegated to the periphery and one who seems to instigate the final act: an act of brutality and masochistic violence that is difficult to understand. Maybe we’re not meant to understand it.
As the evening turns dark and supper is finished, Harry staggering drunkenly to his guesthouse, Martha becomes closer and closer to Mike, berating him for his past and yet drawing him physically closer, as if she attempts empathy by becoming one, joining together in a union. Confused, Mike pushes back but then reacts tenderly to her kindness. Bill however cannot face his girlfriend’s infidelity and stalks off, failing to confront Mike. When Martha does spurn Mike’s advances he decides to take what he wants by force, evoking the rape for which he was punished. He even allows Tony to take his turn and here their humanity stops and the two become callous, animalistic, as if acting on instinct alone. But who made them that way? Are they solely to blame? Is Martha to blame for her own victimization? Is the Army to blame for making these young men murderers before they’re old enough to drink legally?
Bill is finally driven to violence in the final act as he and Mike beat the shit out of each other. The rifle that was presented earlier when they killed the neighbor’s dog now appears for seemingly its original purpose. But Kazan drives the story into another direction and there are no deaths, just men struggling in the snow and mud. As the two visitors drive away after raping Martha, Bill stumbles into the dank room and asks Martha, “Are you all right?” But he could be speaking to the audience. In this dark and lonely domestic conflict they’re all casualties of war.

Final Cut: (B)