Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Green Glow on the Wicked Regula

There's a 1967 West German horror film streaming on Amazon Prime now under the unassuming title of The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism. But according to Wikipedia it also goes by the similarly understated titles The Blood Demon, Castle of the Walking Dead, or its German title of Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel ("The Snake Pit and the Pendulum"). It looks like it's a straight transfer from the VHS and it's dubbed in English but it's well worth watching not just because star Christopher Lee does his own English voice over.

After torturing to death twelve virgins, a sinister nobleman (Lee) is forced to wear a weird smiling mask and is sentenced to be quartered, his body pulled apart by four horses. His name is Count Regula, and he's a "regula" fiend, this guy. I'm just kidding, it's a perfectly regula name. I guess this is how you can tell the story wasn't originally written in English.

Before his death, Regula vows a decidedly irregula revenge on the families of the magistrate who condemned him and the woman who escaped him. Thirty-five years later and a man and woman played by the same actors, Lex Barker and Karin Dor, respectively, have been summoned by Count Regula. They know nothing of their families or their relationship to the Count and are surprised when the nearby villagers are horrified that they intend to visit the Count's castle.

The film has fantastic visuals hidden behind the VHS haze. The town at the beginning used the beautifully preserved medieval town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. The rest of the film is crammed with extravagant fantasy horror mise-en-scene, my favourite being trees ornamented with random human body parts.

Only the coachman sees this and he only tells the people riding in the coach that he hears screams. We're left to wonder if the body parts are products of his imagination or if they're just too horrible for him to mention.

Accompanying the group is a Falstaffian robber/monk named Fabian (Vladimir Medar), a nice addition to the group with the fairly ordinary hero and his love interest. He's one of the elements that clearly distinguish the film from a British production. The interior of Regula's castle also has lighting and design that recall the more lush, high fantasy films of Germany and Eastern Europe of the time.

The credits claim this film is based on "The Pit and the Pendulum" but, like most other movies that make that claim, it bears almost no resemblance to Poe's story beyond having one scene where a character is tied up while a pendulum swings over his belly. The film never reaches Poe's heights of psychological horror but if you're looking for some over the top, Halloween-ish, slightly campy vibes the good Dr. Sadism has what you need.

Twitter Sonnet #1170

Infected limbs assemble, walking straight.
Attending stars descend beneath the gloom.
A fatal coin contaminates the bait.
A razor thread has cut the wild loom.
An errant fly composed the helpless dough.
Repulsive cakes emerge in blackened pans.
The knife begins to scream and strangely glow.
The vittles thus prepared not beast's or man's.
Revived among the verdant slimes it rose.
A wretched claw, a shadow, former hand.
The bony finger still decisive chose.
Relentless wheels are turning on command.
A sea of howling dead condemn the hull.
To swirling depths the damned consign a skull.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Poles are for Vampires

Just imagine what vampires could do if the sun didn't go down. Well, you don't have to, because 2007's 30 Days of Night shows us what might happen; it turns out to be an exciting horror film having also the quality of a western, the vampires functioning sort of like marauding Apaches in a John Ford film of the 40s or 50s. Director David Slade shows his usual flair for action editing and I really appreciated Josh Hartnett for the first time in the lead.

Set in the town of Barrow, Alaska--which was reverted to its Inuit name of Utqiagvik in 2016--the film begins on the last day of sun before the titular thirty days set in. Slade takes the opportunity to give us some dark, ominous clouds.

The film is unfortunately an example of the late 00s trend of orange and teal colour correcting but Slade's compositions still work well in several scenes. I like this moment after Eben (Harnett) first manages to kill a vampire, one that had formerly been a friend.

Eben was apparently Inuit in the source comic but Harnett does such a good job in the role I'm sure no-one minds the change (who would complain about that?). It might've been interesting having an Inuit in the role but Harnett gives a good mixture of steely and vulnerable. Eben's forced into hiding with a handful of other survivors of the vampire pillagers. Among the group of humans is Stella (Melissa George), Eben's ex-wife.

I like that the film doesn't spend time giving us exposition about their relationship, just giving us enough to explain why the two are particularly important to each other. Both are police, so they have to balance that with the care they owe everyone else.

The typical pre-Anne Rice vampire was a metaphor for aristocracy and sometimes foreigners, particularly foreign, unProtestant sexuality, as in Dracula. The vampires in 30 Days of Night function a little more like zombies--the strange, unwashed hordes, the physical threat they represent perhaps working as a metaphor for guilt and anxiety about an increasing homeless problem. The vampire as foreigner fear is also in play, though, because a vampire language was created for the film and they mostly speak in only that weird tongue. It's subtitled for us but I think it would've been better if it wasn't--I think making the viewer feel excluded might've been unnerving, but it's effective as it is.

I also liked how particularly strange looking actors were cast as the vampires, generally actors with a peculiarly elfin look. Danny Huston plays the leader and former Uruk Hai, Andrew Stehlin, plays a big vamp named Arvin. My favourite, though, is a lady named Iris played by Megan Franich.

It's a good movie with a really effective ending that's surprisingly bittersweet.

Monday, October 29, 2018

An "Alien" Movie

Star Wars and Alien inspired many filmmakers who produced films with varying degrees of success. On the lower end of the spectrum is 1981's Galaxy of Terror, directed by Bruce D. Clark and produced by Roger Corman, who supposedly directed an infamous scene where a woman is raped by a giant worm. To call this film schlocky would be something of an understatement but its production design, partly by a young James Cameron, is surprisingly good, if pretty liberally derivative of Alien, and there are some nice performances from Grace Zabriskie and Sid Haig, though all the actors are sabotaged a bit by an incredibly bad script and editing job.

In the future, humanity is ruled by a man with a glowing red blob for a head. He sends out a rescue ship to a planet where another ship has crash landed. Grace Zabriskie, who was forty at the time, commands the rescue vessel with her hair dyed grey.

Even when she was young, it seems, she was cast as an older woman. The rest of the crew seems vaguely patterned off the Nostromo crew. Erin Moran plays Alluma, "the ship's empath" according to Wikipedia. She seems a bit like a prototype for Deanna Troi, even more than the Deltan in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Her ability isn't really talked about much, which feels odd, as does Sid Haig's apparently religious attachment to a pair of crystal shurikens he carries.

I guess Star Wars had given people the idea it could be really effective if you introduced a lot of alien concepts without explaining them. But where George Lucas effectively created the sense of a strange place and collection of cultures that way, Galaxy of Terror just feels like it's missing a lot of scenes. This feeling gets even stronger when some characters die and it takes a while for the other characters to get around to noticing.

There are small roles for Robert Englund and Ray Walston. Taaffe O'Connell plays Dameia, the woman assaulted by the worm, a scene that takes the movie into remarkably hentai-esque territory. The lighting and the creature effects for the scene, which amounts to a guy in a suit with floppy proboscises, are noticeably of lower quality. Despite O'Connell and her body double's admirable commitment to the scene, it's not likely to convince even the most sensitive viewer that a genuine molestation is taking place. It lacks the sincerity of the Erato from the Doctor Who serial The Creature from the Pit.

Other challenges the crew encounter in a remarkably H.R. Giger-ish structure include evil doppelgangers and giant, insect aliens who clamp onto people and crush them. What links all these together? Apparently the concept is that the characters are facing their deepest fears. There's sure nothing organic about that extrapolation but I guess that's par for the course. This movie did make me smile.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Weaving a Web Without Connecting Strands

I love Doctor Who and I love spiders so I should've enjoyed to-day's new episode, "Arachnids in the UK", a lot more. I do like the title, I guess a play on "Anarchy in the UK". It could've used some anarchy, at least a little loosening up of what felt like another stiff plot forced onto the narrow track of messaging. But I did feel like the characters were allowed to breathe a little more.

Spoilers after the screenshot

I found myself liking Yasmin (Mandip Gill) a little more in this episode and I like the idea of meeting her family. But the old shtick of a family who are so comfortable with one another they say hilariously insulting things to each other in front of strangers fell a little flat. It would've been better if there were no attempt to make them funny, maybe just have them talk over tea.

I've never been fond of the device where a dead loved one appears as a manifestation of a character's thoughts about them but in between those moments Graham's (Bradley Walsh) grief was kind of effective. I felt like Chibnall was trying to channel what made the first episodes of Broadchurch so effective. Though maybe we have Twin Peaks, as the prototype for Broadchurch, to thank more than Chibnall.

It's weird how much more effective the Doctor's anti-gun stance was before it became a seemingly mandatory message. This episode seemed in particularly bad taste in light of yesterday's synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. We're introduced to a thin Donald Trump parody named Robertson (Chris Noth) whose insistence that they shoot the spiders that've been attacking and killing people is presented as cartoonish, derided out of hand by the Doctor and her companions, who favour a vague plan involving luring the spiders with music. A giant mother spider is suffocating--when this revelation comes, the soundtrack actually gives us violins. That's only been a cliché for two, maybe three hundred years. But I did feel bad for the creature. When Robertson shot it, we were clearly meant to think he was a psycho, but as far as I can see he was right, it was a mercy killing.

Mind you, I'm speaking as a vegetarian. I'm all for sparing animal lives whenever possible but giant spiders that are hunting humans? If you're not going to use guns you need a good reason. Chibnall didn't supply it which ironically gave me the feeling that he doesn't actually understand the gun issue.

I did think Jodie Whittaker was good in the episode. My favourite part was the beginning where she was getting ready to leave, very reluctantly, and immediately jumped at Yasmin's offer of tea.

Twitter Sonnet #1169

The clouds in orbit blot the foundered moon.
At peril's edge a pair of houses drop.
The servant crew's compelled to promptly swoon.
The splintered floor occasioned songs to stop.
Machines surprise the moss from off the stones.
A creaking fate emerges round the wheel.
A cracking step discovers trodden bones.
A quiet host await a final meal.
A silent gust deprived the ground of grass.
A forest never grown obstructs the thought.
Conducting little flames the candles pass.
The cloven hill denies the answer sought.
The busy things've spun a webbing clock.
A swarm of ghosts invest the buried rock.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Witches Tempt a One Time Wizard

If you're in the mood for Shakespeare on Halloween, the obvious choice is Macbeth. And there's no shortage of screen adaptations; I like Orson Welles' version and Roman Polanski's. The best is probably the one with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, and it is brilliantly performed, though I dislike the minimalist set and the 20th century clothes. I recently watched the 1983 production for the BBC Television Shakespeare featuring Nicol Williamson in the title role. Williamson is best known now for playing Merlin in John Boorman's Excalibur but he'd been a respected Shakespearean actor since the 60s. I wasn't really pleased with this version of Macbeth at first; it seemed a little flat to me, particularly in Jane Lapotaire's performance as Lady Macbeth which comes off as a simplistic Disney villain. But I warmed to the production as it went on and it seemed to me a version particularly suited for Halloween.

Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
Whiles night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.

Williamson was an actor whose genius was in the creative vocal choices he made in delivering his lines. Shifting from deep and full to thin and almost raspy he played his vocal chords like a piano, finding weird and, at the best of times, evocative choices for the text. At first he seemed oddly subdued in this production but his performance picks up a lot after the murder of the King, as though he made a choice that it was in this act that Macbeth first comes to life.

He shifts from quick and perfunctory to broodingly slow and desperate in the middle of lines. His "to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow" starts casual, like he would sprint past the news of Lady Macbeth and then becomes fearfully aware of the impact it's having on him as it relates to his future.

It seems like a lot of productions want to go for minimalism. It fits with the psychological position of Macbeth and his wife as their lives seem to become more and more narrowly defined by the witches' prophecy until Macbeth's soliloquies seem largely devoted to parsing their words, even before he realises they're treacherous.

As it looks like we'll be seeing in an upcoming episode of Doctor Who, James I, Shakespeare's sovereign at the time Macbeth premièred, had a particular preoccupation with witches. Shakespeare ably provides a stark example of just why one shouldn't cast their lot entirely with even fair sounding prophecy, though it's worth noting the witches never tell Macbeth to kill anyone.

The horror presented in this production has a mildly saturated, painted feel, like a Hammer film, particularly with the indoor set and fog. In this context, a simplistically villainous Lady Macbeth starts to make sense. But Shakespeare has insight into very real horror in this play which inevitably confronts the viewer in Lady Macduff's only scene, played oddly cool by Jill Baker in this production. The horrible weight of truth is still in her lines after she's been warned to flee because men are coming to murder her and her child.

Whither should I fly?
I have done no harm. But I remember now
I am in this earthly world, where, to do harm
Is often laudable, to do good sometime
Accounted dangerous folly; why then, alas!
Do I put up that womanly defence,
To say I have done no harm?

The 1983 production isn't especially minimalist for most of its run time, featuring an impressive 360 degree backdrop indoor set with painted clouds, but the last portion of the play pares things off oddly so Macbeth has his duels with Young Siward and Macduff in complete isolation. Disappointingly, we never see any trees or even branches so when Malcolm tells his allies, "your leafy screens throw down," everyone's awkwardly already empty handed. I don't know why they couldn't at least have some simple branches. Otherwise, this is a really nice looking production and Williamson is magnetic.

Friday, October 26, 2018

A New Old Hollow

The beautiful shots composed for the opening credits alone would be reason enough to watch 1999's Sleepy Hollow but there are more reasons than that. It's not my favourite adaptation of Washington Irving's famous story but it's so fundamentally different that it doesn't seem right to call it an adaptation at all, more like a wildly divergent pastiche. Taken on its own merits, it's a prime example of Tim Burton in the best era of his career; its art direction, set design, costumes, and cinematography are gorgeous and perfectly suit the story; and it has one of Danny Elfman's best scores. It's also a good action film and sits beside Aliens as a great blend of action and horror.

One of the biggest differences between the film and the story is in Ichabod Crane himself. Unlike the odd, physically unattractive man Crane is described as being in Irving's story, this fellow is Johnny Depp when that name belonged to a beautiful man whose mannerisms onscreen evoked vulnerability and sensitivity. This Crane is a proto-forensics pathologist, there to solve murders with brilliantly progressive scientific method and philosophy, his abundance of gifts and accomplishments tempered just enough by a natural cowardice that of course only makes him more charming. Crane in Irving's story is unusual but not extraordinary--he's a school teacher from a different part of the country, from a community with different roots than the provincial Dutch inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow, these differences proving crucial to the events of the story. And instead of being motived by duty and altruism, the Crane of the short story is driven by greed.

I've always felt Irving based Crane on Falstaff, particularly on Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, where he had similar thirsts for women and wealth. But, of course, the itinerant schoolmaster can hardly be blamed for wanting a stable home instead of being forced to impose on the hospitality of his pupils' parents. Is this a motive people are no longer able to identify with or is it too close to home?

Burton shifts all the greed over to a conspiracy among the inhabitants of the town, an impressive collection of actors that includes Michael Gambon as Baltus, Jeffrey Jones, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gough, and Ian McDiarmid.

And Christina Ricci plays Katrina, now a witch to help make her the thematic counterbalance to Crane's devotion to reason. Depp and Ricci look terrific together, especially in those costumes. Ricci's style of performance is appropriately more ethereal than Depp's, her thoughts not easy to read on her face while his seems to communicate everything.

The film could have done without some of the plot obstacles placed between them. I like the boy (Marc Pickering) who becomes Crane's assistant but I would've really liked to have seen Ichabod and Katrina spend more time working together. But maybe her absence makes the viewer's heart grow fonder. In any case, the pacing works really well and the Headless Horseman is a really menacing figure, the movie remains a more than worthy Halloween watch.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Tangled Voices in the Empty School

After suffering a nervous breakdown, a young woman is attacked by a man with a prosthetic arm at the beginning of the 1972's Hammer horror film Fear in the Night. The assailant isn't caught--and her friends seem to harbour doubts he even existed--but her new husband encourages her not to worry because they're moving to a remote country school house to live with Headmaster Peter Cushing and his game hunter wife Joan Collins. What follows is as about as juicy and delightful as you might imagine a psychological horror movie with that premise could be.

Written and directed by Jimmy Sangster, the plot is a little convoluted--Wikipedia quotes one critic as saying the film's little more than a retread of Taste of Fear, a Hammer film from eleven years earlier, also written by Jimmy Sangster. While Taste of Fear is a much better film, Fear in the Night has a plot that resembles Taste of Fear on only a few superficial points.

Judy Geeson plays the protagonist, Peggy Heller, with the right amount of vulnerability and perpetual nervousness. We're led to wonder along with her if the attacks she suffers from a mysterious one armed man are the products of her imagination but the film doesn't stick exclusively with her point of view. Point of view is complicated in a subtle, intriguing way in the film's best scene, when Peggy meets the headmaster, Michael (Cushing), in the deserted school where she inexplicably hears the voices of boys learning lessons.

Cushing takes full advantage of the fact that the audience is keenly watching him along with Peggy to determine what his character's role might be. He does so in a way that plays brilliantly off of what we do eventually learn about him in what turns out to be a highly improbable plot. But it works because he clearly accepts the reality of it and you can see in the way his eyes stay on her that he has an agenda of his own as well as a painful restraint he must exercise.

Somewhat less complicated but also very entertaining is Joan Collins' introduction, armed with a shotgun she's just used to murder a rabbit Peggy had been trying to make friends with. It's immediately clear there's nothing innocent about her on any level.

Peggy's husband is played well enough by Ralph Bates and the film features some lovely very autumnal location footage.

Twitter Sonnet #1168

Enormous plants would tilt to hear the song.
The radio produced sustaining cries.
The theremin persists the evening long.
As morning breaks the water sprinkler sighs.
The collared stars were fain to serve the beach.
Transitioned drapes admit the dawning fish.
The speckled life of whales revealed the breach.
A growing branch fulfilled the sapling wish.
A line of yarn connects the panelled wall.
Inside the paper, lives were kept to watch.
In time with shining steps it built the hall.
A hour's arm would stick upon the notch.
The misty clues dissolve in thinning fog.
Saluting chorus sang from near the log.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Take Phibes

So you thought you'd seen the last of Dr. Phibes. 1972's Dr. Phibes Rises Again compels you to reassess that presumption. Gloriously campy with even less reservation than its predecessor, this sequel features Vincent Price again in the title role, now lusting for eternal life in an Egypt composed of flashy sound stages and second unit footage from Spain. The film is just as fun as it sounds.

I thought I'd watched the first movie a year, maybe two years ago, but consulting my blog I see it was in fact five years ago. Most of the cast who survived the first film return for the second with the notable exception of Joseph Cotten who, I'm guessing for legal reasons, is absent even from the recap at the beginning of the sequel.

Now instead of killing off the surgeons Phibes blames for his wife being stuck in suspended animation in a glass coffin he's murdering the associates of Darius Biederbeck (Robert Quarry). The already centuries old Biederbeck seeks to prolong his life with an elixir hidden beneath a mountain in Egypt. Phibes seeks the water to revive his wife, played once again by Caroline Munro, who actually has lines and moves around in other films--those who watched the revived season of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 will remember her from the Star Wars knock off Starcrash.

Phibes is once again assisted by his mute, beautiful, robot assistant Vulnavia, now played by Valli Kemp, and he carries around with him a house band of robots, though there are fewer musical numbers in this film. The improbability of Phibes carting around all this stuff is matched again by the flamboyant intricacy of his murders. One man is beset by a harmless mechanical snake (that looks perfectly lifelike) to lull him into a false sense of security for the real snake before he's speared to death through the skull by a mechanism Vulnavia installed in his phone. Another gets caught in a golden scorpion statue and that's just the beginning of his troubles.

There are very brief cameos from Peter Cushing and Terry-Thomas (who played a different character in the first film) and a larger role for Hugh Griffith whose delivery of the one word line "Pity" when he discovers a giant bottle of gin is empty in itself justifies his presence. The police inspectors from the first film are back but with cornier jokes and Darius has a strikingly beautiful lover named Diana (Fiona Lewis) who's constantly pleading with him to give up this mad pursuit of she knows not what.

It's a good film, more relaxed than the first, though the first one had more exteriors. I kind of liked the minimal exteriors in the second film, though, it helps the thing feel all of a piece, a complete love letter to artifice.