Friday, October 31, 2014

Hail, Mahakala--Especially In the Form of a Bombshell Witch

Before discussing 1988's Veerana, my final horror film of Halloween, I want to take a cue from the opening title cards and caution everyone reading that I will be discussing a work of fiction. The film deals with "evil powers, spirits, and witches . . . none of which have any place in our modern world." We are advised to "watch this film as entertainment only."

And it is entertaining, a rather schlocky but captivating string of songs, overdramatic lighting and music, cheesy action sequences, and very beautiful women.

When it's brought to the attention of the men of the Pratap family that a witch, Nakita (Kamal Roy), has been seducing and killing men in the woods, Sameer Pratap (Vijayendra Ghatge) decides to confront the sorceress. He tracks her down to her enormous haunted manor and when she offers him alcohol he asks for a bath instead. It is of course in the bath where the tables will be turned and he will be seducing her.

What can she do when she sees this but take off all her clothes and get in with him? Allowing him to take her bat medallion, the source of all her powers, killing her. But she has a powerful cult behind her that worships Mahakala and they plot a revenge. The leader, Baba (Rajesh Vivek), organises his group of weird stone headed guys and concocts a plan to kidnap Sameer's daughter and use her body as a vessel for Nakita's resurrection.

The girl grows up to be the beautiful Jasmin Pratap (Jasmin). The Mahakala cultists have cut a piece of her hair and keep it in a doll buried with Nakita in what turns out to be part of a series of oddly oblique references to the story of Samson and Delilah that really don't become clear until the hero, Hemant (Hemant), actually beats up a bunch of guys in the climax with the skull of an ass (minus the jaw).

But don't worry, this film isn't Christian, it's Hindu and it's the Om, not the cross, that drives back the evil.

Like most Bollywood movies, Veerana varies wildly in tone, including bits with a comic relief character named Hitchcock (Satish Shah) who styles himself after Alfred Hitchcock and wishes to be a horror film director. In one scene, he splits his pants while attempting to remove boulders from the road for the film's other beautiful female lead, Sahila Chadha as Sahila Pratap.

We also get to see Hitchcock in the bath in one scene and the hero, Hemant, takes a shower and is walked in on by Sahila. There's an inordinate amount of bathing in this movie. The best is the first of Jasmin's musical numbers which are all the best parts of the film, in my opinion.

Know Your Vampire

Two American college students visit their Romanian friend in her home country to study history and somehow they don't anticipate meeting vampires. It turns out, there's a long history of humans and vampires existing together in 1991's Subspecies, the fun first film in a direct to video fantasy series.

This pale guy with the big hair (Angus Scrimm) is king of the vampires in Romania where centuries ago vampires bit the necks off a whole army of Turks threatening the people. Now, whatever the three young women might believe of what the old gypsy woman tells them, the vampires are allowed to live in the ruins of a nearby castle. They haven't attacked a human in centuries because of a stone they stole from the Vatican that continually produces blood.

At least, I think that's what the stone does. Maybe it grants extra strength, I'm not sure. Anyway, the king's killed in the first scene by his son, Radu (Anders Hove), whose makeup and costume make him look almost identical to Klaus Kinski in Herzog's remake of Nosferatu from twelve years earlier.

Except for the rock star hair. The film was shot in Romania using several actual ruins which gives the film a nice look. It clashes somewhat with the distinctly early 90s/late 80s synthesiser soundtrack but on the other hand, that's part of its charm, too. Radu's brother, Stefan (Michael Watson), is a good guy with a fuzzy black pompadour and he falls for Michele (Laura Tate), who, with the shortest, darkest, and most utilitarian hair is implicitly the most virtuous of the three women.

Though they all have the same taste in sweaters.

The two blondes are much more susceptible to Radu's charms. The Romanian woman, Mara (Irina Movila), has her clothes shredded to ribbons when she's captured while Michele is merely chained up. Mara is terrorised by the little demon creatures that Radu creates by cutting off his fingers.

They're the only genuinely weird part of the movie and I think they're kind of cool. They're created by stop motion is some shots and puppetry in others. They kind of remind me of the Master's creepy Auton doll from the Doctor Who story Terror of the Autons.

There are a few plot points that don't make sense--like why one character is buried among the ruins where Radu lives or why no-one killed Radu sooner when they knew where he slept--but mostly it's a nice fantasy adventure film.

The Zombies Between Us

As one generation finally concedes defeat in achieving a loving, normal family, a younger generation finds itself embarking on the same endeavour with only the failure as an example to follow and surrounded by zombies. Michael (Michael Fuith) finds himself caught in his ex-girlfriend's apartment with a young plumber's assistant when the zombie apocalypse hits Berlin in 2010's Rammbock. An effective enough zombie film but the subtext on dysfunctional relationships is more interesting, the gloomy film being more about resignation to doom than a fight for survival.

The zombies in this film are closer to the fast moving, 28 Days Later variety, people apparently infected by a disease rather than actually undead. It's slightly less severe than the 28 Days Later variety, allowing those bitten to remain normal so long as their adrenaline levels don't rise, leading to tragic scenes like a man caring for and speaking soothing lies to a bitten wife bedridden by sedatives.

Almost the entire movie takes place within a single apartment complex with a courtyard in the middle across which people barricaded in their apartments can talk to each other while the infected rampage below.

But there are zombies within the building, too, and Michael finds himself trapped with the personal effects of the woman with whom he had a failed relationship, whom he still loves. With him is Harper (Theo Trebs), who doesn't quite comprehend Michael's need to rescue his cell phone from the room where they've locked a zombie in just for the dim hope that Gabi (Anka Graczyk) may have called.

One of the people across the courtyard is a young woman Harper's age, Anita (Emily Cox), who immediately takes a liking to him when they meet after she sees Harper's figured out that the zombies are repelled by camera flashes.

Before this, Michael and Harper break out of Gabi's apartment by bashing through a wall into the next apartment. Michael discovers that Gabi isn't much better off than him and the ending of the film nicely ties the widespread nature of relationship dysfunction with the spread of the zombie disease.

A Deceptive Flavour

A young woman, the only child of an immensely wealthy man, returns home after ten years to find her father mysteriously absent and the house occupied by her unpleasant stepmother and frequented by a sinister doctor played by Christopher Lee. If you think the real story behind this veneer is too easy to guess, you're wrong. 1961's Taste of Fear is labyrinth of greed and murder that fits together tight as a drum. Shot in gorgeous black and white by Douglas Slocombe, it's one of the best Hammer movies I've seen.

Susan Strasberg plays the young woman, very small and pretty, confined to a wheelchair and often wearing enormous, dark sunglasses. Her father's chauffeur, Bob (Ronald Lewis), the only seemingly friendly occupant of the house, observes it's as though she's trying to protect herself with the glasses, to put a wall between herself and others.

Almost the entire movie is from her point of view and we follow her as she explores the large, lonely house filled with brilliant shadows by Slocombe. And as she seems to encounter the corpse of her father in various locations, propped up in chairs, only to find him gone when she brings anyone else into the room to see.

Her small size and her paralysed legs make the atmosphere around her all the more threatening, like Audrey Hepburn's blindness in Wait Until Dark.

It wouldn't be nice of me to say much about the plot beyond that but I think this is definitely a film that would reward at least a second viewing.

Commencing Halloween

Happy Halloween, everyone. This is only the prelude to multiple posts I intend to make throughout the day covering horror films. For now, a warning:

Twitter Sonnet #681

Clocks afoul of bookless classrooms collapse.
Slip'ry relics repaint the halls at dawn.
A curling parchment proclaimed a relapse.
Fire attacks the too long dead and gone.
Dry hooves cut withered leaves of dusk clapped eyes.
A rotten grip rendered the brain sugar.
Untimely skeletons strangle the flies.
The jelly dark is eating with rigour.
Black clutching edges burnt the eye sockets.
Exiled femurs clot the bony pit.
Old marshmallow fingers stay in pockets.
The candy corn teeth crumble on the bit.
The zombie cage inverts on immortals.
White plastic wheels carry the dead portals.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Veins of Fear so Subtle In the Snow

Now here's an example of just how a bomb ticking under the table is more effective than the explosion--1957's The Abominable Snowman, which features very little of that titular creature. Which is the right idea because instead of a man in a suit, the movie menaces us with ominous atmosphere and anxious characters.

Released two years before the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, the movie begins with a group of three English scientists staying in a monastery in the Himalayas ostensibly to study local plant life. Though one of them, Dr. Rollason (Peter Cushing), is also secretly motivated by a lifelong interest in discovering a yeti.

This is one of the best roles of Cushing's career. He's the central character and we see things from his point of view in almost every scene. It's a Hammer film but the screenplay by Nigel Kneale, creator of The Quatermass Experiment (and to whom John Carpenter made numerous references in Prince of Darkness), gives Cushing a character more complex than Hammer's version of Van Helsing and more solidly written than Hammer's version of Dr. Frankenstein. The Lama (Arnold Marle) warns Rollason that the search for the yeti is really a dangerous path towards confrontation with himself--something that Rollason doesn't understand since, of course, the statement doesn't make a lot of sense on the surface. But the Lama doesn't warn him emphatically like the villagers in Dracula. The more hands off approach of the Buddhist monk to free will nonetheless assists in creating a sense of spiritual danger.

For physical danger, there's Rollason's wife, Helen (Maureen Connell), who begs her husband not to accompany a small American expedition that shows up, intent on tracking down the yeti in the winter snows when the creature is forced to come to lower altitudes for food. Although Rollason's an experienced climber, his wife is worried because of an injury he'd sustained on a previous expedition and she feels great hostility towards her husband's obsession with the yeti legend. When he agrees to join the Americans, it feels like he's betraying her. Added to the disapproval of the local spiritual authority, and the fact that the Americans seem like a rather untrustworthy bunch, there's already a heavy weight of wrongness about Rollason's quest.

Cushing's the perfect actor for it, too, coming off as both sensitive and vulnerable but steely.

Shot in black and white, the Himalayas rendered with indoor sets, matte paintings, and some location shots not featuring the actors nonetheless come together effectively creating the sense of treacherous mountains and people. There's a sense that the yeti, or the act of pursuing the yeti, may be influencing the situation in some way beyond human comprehension, an almost Lovecraftian dread not unlike that portrayed in At the Mountains of Madness as a scientific expedition confronts the snows of Antarctica.

Everyone, Cushing in particular, works so well we only need a little bit from the yeti to seal the deal on this movie and that little bit is impressive. A shining example of minimalist special effects and creating impressions through characters describing things to other characters and then having those impressions influence partly obscured shots of the creatures themselves. A really nice movie.

Well, to-morrow's Halloween and I have eighteen more movies to watch. I may do a marathon to-morrow, blogging reviews in between each movie. I could think of worse ways to spend Halloween.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

While Strolling Through the Park One Day In the Merry Mouth of Madness

William S. Burroughs famously said there's one mark you can't beat, the mark inside. Perhaps he also ought to have included hellbeasts and horror writers whose books alter reality. A canny insurance investigator played by Sam Neill in 1995's In the Mouth of Madness finds himself up against just such an opponent and his years sniffing out dubious insurance claims are of no help. The third and final film in John Carpenter's Apocalypse Trilogy, it's the most superficially Lovecraftian though it doesn't as effectively tap Lovecraftian horror as the first film in the trilogy, The Thing. In the Mouth of Madness is the weakest of the trilogy but it is not without charms.

We're introduced to Sam Neill's John Trent in an asylum where he's locked away, raving, getting a lot of mileage out of one black crayon, before David Warner shows up to interview him. Trent tells his story and he's introduced again, decimating a phoney insurance claim. He seems like he's modelled a bit on Walter Neff in Double Indemnity and the oddly 1940s hairstyles of some of the women in the film and some of the banter he has with Styles (Julie Carmen) pleasantly recall classic films noir, an interesting shift in tone from the first two films of the trilogy.

Styles is an editor for Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) who publishes the works of author Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow). Cane seems to be a cross between Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft, his books about tentacle monsters and Old Ones being obvious Lovecraft references but he has the vast commercial success and celebrity of a Stephen King.

Trent is brought in apparently to track down Cane, who's gone missing. Harglow is submitting an insurance claim worth millions of dollars to recoup costs from merchandising and sold overseas rights to a book Cane didn't deliver before disappearing. Trent thinks he smells a rat, he thinks it's a publicity stunt, though I'm not sure why he thinks a major publisher would commit such obvious insurance fraud for a publicity stunt.

He eventually realises there's a map of New Hampshire hidden in the covers of Cane's books leading to his frequently used and perhaps not so fictional town, Hobb's End. Harglow sends Styles with him to investigate.

Hobb's End, with its variety of weirdness, feels actually more like Stephen King's Castle Rock than any of Lovecraft's towns but there are several clear references to Lovecraft, including a hotel called Pickman with a painting inside. And there's a church somewhat resembling the one from "The Haunter of the Dark".

I rather wish the film had played around more with Trent's cleverness, playing up the Walter Neff inspiration and have his schemes and insights deployed throughout the story but once the supernatural stuff is set in motion he doesn't have much to do except insist he doesn't believe in the supernatural and no-one pulls his strings.

But the real flaw in this movie is that Cane's writing seems to be coming to life. I almost always find this kind of story a bit tedious and redundant. So the story within a story just turns out to be a story. It's all still fiction to me. Though it wouldn't be so bad if the concept were a springboard for something. I think this device is one of the weaker points of the Doctor Who serial The Mind Robber but at least that story uses it as fodder for something else. In In the Mouth of Madness, it basically takes away Trent's distinguishing characteristics and brings everything to a stop except the running around, which feels pretty pointless once we realise Trent is dealing with omnipotent forces.

It's true, Lovecraft's work very effectively uses some godlike beings, but even Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep are bound by rules that give a main character a chance for escape, even if those boundaries happen only to be disinterest or distance. Like Alfred Hitchcock said, it's the bomb ticking under the table that puts the audience on edge, not the actual explosion.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Prince of Something Vague and Important

One of the biggest mistakes made by religious people who attack or deny science is to treat science as another religion, like a belief system. Horror fiction about scientists who "lose their faith" when confronted with evidence of God or the Devil suggests this point of view. Though, in reality, science is more methodology than belief system and if the existence of God were confirmed by evidence there would be nothing unscientific about it, very much the opposite. John Carpenter's 1987 film Prince of Darkness seems half aware of this. The second in Carpenter's Apocalypse Trilogy, which began with The Thing, is much more muddled than the first instalment which was a clear tale of extraterrestrial menace. I found Prince of Darkness to be an enjoyable film but its story about a Satan of perhaps extraterrestrial origin slides a little more into the camp camp than its brilliant predecessor.

Donald Pleasence, who plays "the priest", gets top billing and he's the best actor in the film but most of the screen time goes to the very cheesy Brian (Jameson Parker).

Not exactly Kurt Russell, is he? Before things get rolling, we witness him wooing the female lead, Catherine (Lisa Blount) who is offended by a sexist joke he tells before he apologises, ask that they start over, and there's a jump cut to them waking up in bed together, a period of impressive charisma on his part apparently being taken as read.

In bed, Catherine stops him from saying something, perhaps "I love you." "How do you know what I'm going to say?" he asks and she says, "If you're not going to say it, I don't want to know." This references back to a discussion she'd had with another student about Schrodinger's Cat and the movie begins with a lot of discussion of realities that occur because they are witnessed, discussions of quantum physics where observing the data actually influences it.

Some credit ought to go to Carpenter perhaps for bringing this up well before 1990s and 2000s New Age gurus bogarted the concept. It's a shame it's not used to summon Satan more often.

I'm not sure if any real connexion is made between quantum physics and the main story about Pleasence keeping a mysterious, swirling green cloud in a capsule in a church basement and taking the time to keep a whole lot of candles lit around it.

Victor Wong plays Professor Black who teaches at the university attended by Brian and Catherine. Black is old friends with the Priest who begs his assistance. Black gathers a bunch of students of a variety of specialities to sleep over in the church and analyse the capsule.

Black is the secular authority counterpart to the Priest and over the course of the movie both are forced to admit that what they believed was wrong and that a sinister truth somewhere in the middle is the reality. Black postulates that we all really live in a sort of antimatter universe, that while God may be real, he exists in another universe. The influence of Lovecraft's Old Ones is apparent in the film as Black and the Priest realise that all knowledge of God and Satan originated from an extraterrestrial source.

There is something effectively frightening, and Lovecraftian, in the sense of a universe without order or benevolent influence.

And homeless people outside, including Alice Cooper, get possessed, so do some of the students, there are a lot of unexplained insects and worms and murder and general mayhem. And some of it really is effectively creepy. I had two favourite bits:

One student who's possessed seems horrified by her altered appearance glimpsed in a mirror but then reaches through the mirror calling "Father!".

My other favourite thing was a dream everyone has that seems to be a transmission from the future bearing some ominous warning but is always gets cut off. It's left largely unexplained and something about the ambiguity is really effectively scary.

Mostly the conceptual ambiguity of the film renders it an inferior version of The Thing. But it's not bad.

Twitter Sonnet #680

The luminous liquorice house sees all.
Turquoise stripes survey the red feline's tail.
Jelly fish ears drift into the late ball.
New candy grows on the sugary whale.
Corn ear lotuses buttress the hushed tree.
Tin cubes ask for a street fightin' jump jack.
Dancing hilltop plague doctors cannot see.
The space between ceilings grows a floor slack.
Searching for the cinnamon pants ends night.
The sun shining with strength becomes too real.
Ideas espoused by pasta ads were right.
There is no lawyer named Ally McBeal.
Privileged leaves steal the iron table.
Castrate kings break Ace's bat when able.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Gentleman's Vivisection

On an island filled with animals altered through brutal surgery to walk upright and speak like human beings, a perfectly ordinary human being is the monster. Well, "perfectly ordinary" isn't accurate, Charles Laughton in 1932's Island of Lost Souls as Dr. Moreau is absolutely extraordinary. The epitome of men who value their own ingenuity above compassion, simultaneously evocative of a very common sort of man as well as the Nazi and the big game hunter. The first American adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, it diverges significantly from the source material in some ways but is, largely for Laughton and for Kathleen Burke as "the Panther Woman", a surprising and enjoyable film.

Burke is unnamed in the opening, credited as just "the Panther Woman" as though the filmmakers had actually cast a woman who was half woman, half panther. An amusing piece of carnival mentality influencing the production. Burke does do a nice job of capturing something essentially panther like in her movements and in her face. Certainly the makeup helps.

Lantern jawed Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) rebuffs her when he notices she still has panther claws. I don't think that would have stopped most sane people in the audience watching the film. She really is great.

Bela Lugosi is in the film as well, barely recognisable under thick facial hair, but Laughton, as I've said, is the main event. He gives a remarkably naturalistic performance for 1932, lounging about his fortress like home and "House of Pain" laboratory. His believe in his absolute control over the island is so great, though, he readily hands Parker his gun just to put his mind at ease.

All he needs, he believes, to hold back the "natives" is a whip and gong. And he seems to be right.