Sunday, March 23, 2014

Rock n' Roll Nightmare (1987)

The Movie: At an isolated Canadian farmhouse; mysterious, demonic forces suddenly appear and slaughter a family of three. After standing unused for ten years, some new occupants arrive. John Triton (body builder, b-movie actor and front man for various heavy metal groups John-Mikl Thor), and his hair metal group the Tritonz, have come for an extended stay to create material for a new album and hopefully get themselves out of the slump they’ve found themselves in. Triton’s reasoning is that they’re away from all the distractions of civilization; although apparently Toronto, a center of culture, is just down the road. The rest of the group isn’t so enthusiastic. They include: Stig (Jim Cirile), is the asshole drummer, who has brought his uber-bitch girlfriend Lou Anne (Jillian Peri). Lead guitarist Roger Eburt (Frank Dietz) has brought his new wife Mary (Liane Abel), and they are using this as their honeymoon. Nerdy bassist Max (David Lane) and Dee Dee (Denise Dicandia), the only female band member, have been making eyes at each other, but so far been too shy to do anything about it. Rounding out the group are Randy (Teresa Simpson), Triton’s seemingly perpetually unsatisfied girlfriend, and Phil (Adam Fried, uncredited), the geeky, nebbish manager for the band. You know, I’m no musician, but I already see two or three problems with this setup; and they have nothing to do with the demonic forces infesting the house. Nevertheless, we’ll go with it for now.

The Tritonz settle in, but almost immediately get set upon by the demons. One by one, unnoticed by anyone else until it’s too late, the Tritonz and their paramours get killed and/or possessed. However, not all is what it appears to be, and John Triton has a few surprises of his own…

The Review:

Yes… that’s where I’ve seen that nerdy bass player."

I’m not going to sugar coat this, Rock ‘n Roll Nightmare is a terrible movie in almost every particular. Written and produced by, not to mention starring, John-Mikl Thor; this movie is obviously an amateur project with a microscopic budget, with everything that entails. However, it is also a movie that I get a lot of enjoyment from; and that I make a point of rewatching every so often.

The script is full of horror movie clichés, inconsistencies, and plot holes you could drive a truck through. For example, the farmhouse and grounds look rather well maintained after ten years of abandonment; and if it was abandoned that long, how the hell was a recording studio set up in the barn, much less one where people like Alice Cooper have worked? The characters, like any group of slasher movie meat, are completely oblivious to what’s going on around them until it’s too late. In fact, also like in the majority of slasher movies since 1980, for the most part they seem to mainly be motivated by the goal of getting into each other’s pants.

Added to this is the typical amateur lack of pacing. Just after the beginning credits we get an overly long scene of the band’s van driving to the farmhouse. Seriously, we just see the van driving while music plays. And speaking of music, this was actually Thor’s band at the time, and there are at least two or three full performances of some of their songs. It’s definitely not great music, to say the least. Having said that, I’m not ashamed to admit that I got a hold of the movie’s soundtrack when I found that it was available, and that I still can’t get enough of the song played over the final battle. Take that, good taste!

The effects are obviously very low budget, consisting of rubbery monster masks, the kind of makeup you can buy around Halloween, and some crude puppetry. One of my personal favorite parts of this movie is the extremely phallic, demonic sock puppets (that’s honestly the best way I can describe them) that seem to make up the majority of the minions of darkness, and that I, personally, find way too cute to be in any way scary or threatening. The question of the gore effects can be answered with the question ‘what gore effects?’ Nearly all the deaths are off-screen, and even the one or two that we do see make it clear that this project didn’t have the money for a proper horror movie death scene.

The acting talents on display range from slim to none. There are a (very) few exceptions, which I will get to shortly, but overall these really aren’t actors. Rock ‘n Roll Nightmare tries to compensate with everybody’s favorite exploitation movie fallback; gratuitous nudity. Unfortunately, these are, overall, people you really don’t want to see naked. I’m sure there are quite a few women, and even some men, who would greatly appreciate some of the scenes of Thor. However, as a straight male with very definite aesthetic preferences, it doesn’t do anything for me.

So why do I get so much enjoyment out of this movie if it’s so terrible? Two reasons. The first is the ending. I am not going to spoil it for you, but the climax of the movie makes the rest of it worthwhile. The big surprise twist is just weird, inspired, and batshit enough to make up for all the crap leading up to it; and it actually provides a logical (within the plot) explanation for all the overused horror movie tropes and a number (though by no means all) of the plot holes and discrepancies. The climactic battle that follows pulls out all the stops on the crappy special effects. There are a lot of reviews online that will spoil the twist for you, that happened to me before I saw it, but they really won’t do a thing. This is one of those things that has to be seen to be believed, and being told beforehand won’t prepare you for it.

The other major element that Rock n’ Roll Nightmare has going for it, despite all of its shortcomings, is John-Mikl Thor himself. He’s not a great actor by any stretch, but his unfeigned enthusiasm for the project shines through whenever he’s on screen. I learned young that when an artist of any kind is truly enjoying his work, that, more often than not, goes a long way toward covering for any deficiencies said work might otherwise have. I would argue that Rock n’ Roll Nightmare serves as concrete proof of that simple fact.

Alongside Thor’s enthusiasm, a look at the time in which this movie was made puts it in a very different light. The U.S. in the late 1980s saw something which many people know as ‘the Satanic Panic’. Basically, Right-wing extremism combined with residual Cold War paranoia, irresponsible shock journalism, and no doubt some other elements as well, to give way too many people the idea that a conspiracy (or more) of literal devil worshippers was working to subvert and destroy our society. As is always the case in these matters, just about every form of youthful nonconformity became a target of zealous moral crusaders.

I was in second grade come 1990, so I only had any personal experience with the tail end of the Panic. My own experiences were moving out to a small town in rural Idaho and discovering that my beloved hobby of Dungeons and Dragons was considered by many to be a form of Satanism. I spent much of my early adolescence looking for that one role-playing game I kept hearing about that would lead me to practicing black magic, devil worship, and deviant sex acts. Not for the first time in my life, or the last, my hopes were raised up only to be cruelly dashed. Now, in my early 30s, I remain an enthusiastic tabletop RPG geek (although contrary to popular stereotype, I do have a place of my own and a social life outside of gaming); but I have long had to accept the fact that, as with so many other important issues, the Right lied to me.

However, the main target for these moral crusaders was probably the music genre of heavy metal. From the very beginning the rock genre, and more blatantly so, its heavy metal offshoot, has been all about rebellion and tweaking those in authority. However, when the moral panic hit way too many people decided that heavy metal was, quite literally, the Devil’s music. The late ‘80s saw community record burnings, rumors about subliminal messages hidden in the albums, and Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest actually getting sued for their music causing fans to commit suicide (I’ve been a Judas Priest fan for roughly a decade, nothing yet). It culminated in Tipper Gore, the wife of former vice-president and president elect, Al Gore, actually holding senate hearings to control this “dangerous” music. Among other things, she’s the reason albums always have those ridiculous parental advisory stickers these days.

Looked at within the framework of its time period, it’s clear that Rock ‘n Roll Nightmare was made with the specific purpose of refuting all these accusations the genre faced. Just look at our heavy metal protagonists: We have a married couple who’s trying to balance their new married life with his job in the band. We have a pair of band-mates who obviously have a thing for each other, but thus far have been too shy to do anything about it. One gets the impression that the manager specifically became a manger because he’s always been a fan and wanted to be involved in the action despite his personal lack of musical talent. Yeah, Stig and Lou Anne are assholes; but they’re the exact kind of asshole you’re going to encounter no matter what social circle you’re a part of. Lack of acting talent gets in the way somewhat, but this is still the impression the movie gets across to us. I know it’s boring compared to the popular fantasies involving drug-fueled orgies with groupies, but it’s probably a lot more realistic. Finally, we are given a front man who’s enthusiasm, despite his limited acting talent, requires no suspension of disbelief whatsoever, for the very simple reason that it’s not acting. Add to this the fact that Satan himself is the villain behind the horrors (that’s not a spoiler), and that the climactic final battle pits him against a heavy metal front man, and you get a clear idea of the argument this movie was trying to make.

So in conclusion, Rock n’ Roll Nightmare is a pretty terrible movie in nearly all particulars, and definitely not for everyone. However, there are some us who really like terrible movies; I wouldn’t have been inspired to write this blog if that wasn’t the case. Finally, Thor’s genuine and clearly visible enthusiasm for the project and that innovatively batshit twist and climax at the end raise this movie from being merely forgettably terrible into something memorably terrible; and even, for some of us, well worth watching.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Girly (1970)

The Movie: Mumsy (Ursula Howells), Nanny (Pat Heywood), Sonny (Howard Trevor) and Girly (Vanessa Howard) are a happy family who live in a large manor house in the countryside. However, they get lonely for outside company, so oftentimes Sonny and Girly go out to more populated areas to pick up ‘New Friends’ and bring them home. Once they get them home, the men are given the “proper” outfit (a school uniform, Sonny and Girly also wear them), and compelled to play the Game.

And what is ‘the Game?’ you ask. Well, it’s never satisfactorily defined; but overall it seems to involve playing along with the charade of being an actual new friend to the children of a Happy Family. Much of this involves actual children’s games, albeit often with a nasty twist to them. Also, there are Rules. If you break a Rule, you are punished. If you break too many; or worse, try to escape, you are “sent to the angels.”

Our real story begins when Sonny and Girly find their newest New Friend (Michael Bryant) leaving a party with a female “friend” (Imogen Hassall). New Friend is drunk off his gourd, and after one look at Girly he is more than happy to follow her and her brother to the local playground for games. Sonny and Girly arrange for the lady’s death; and when New Friend wakes up, hung over, they convince him that he killed her. Having something extra to hold over his head, the family inducts him into the Game.

However, once he’s gotten the lay of the land, New Friend starts to speculate on how he might escape. It starts when we discover that Mumsy has another use for some of the men brought in, and New Friend finds that Nanny is jealous of the arrangement. When he seduces Girly, that brings her jealousies into the mix; and New Friend sees a way that he can play the women against each other. Then Sonny, left out of the sexual politics, sees what’s going on and decides that this New Friend has to go…

The Review:

Nasty Nanny is no good! Chop her up for firewood! When she’s dead, boil her head, make it into gingerbread!

If you, dear reader, are unfortunate enough to have grown up thinking a real horror movie means splatters of blood and graphic scenes of torture and dismemberment, than I am afraid you will find the movie Girly rather dull. The usual features craved by your contemporary gorehound are nowhere in evidence here. While horrible things do happen, most of the violence is off-screen; and what we do see is not very graphic at all. The sex is mostly just hinted at, and we really don’t get to see much of Girly beyond her pretty face and lovely legs. In short, this is not just a crude exploitation flick.

However, Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly, as it was originally released in its native Britain, quickly became very controversial with the critics. In all honesty it’s fairly obvious to see why, especially if you consider the moral panic of the time; Girly is an extremely disturbing movie on multiple levels. Just the basic setup, which takes a societal ideal and turns it into something nightmarishly twisted, is enough to make you cringe and probably to send most moral crusaders into a lather.

Sonny and Girly, who we are introduced to right off the bat, are just plain wrong. They’re obviously in their twenties; but they look, talk, and act exactly like children. And it doesn’t seem at all like mockery or façade; they very convincingly have the mentalities of children as well. When we are shown their home life, the impression is that of a young family that has been artificially, and imperfectly, frozen in a single place of development while the rest of the world moves on around them.

In the pecking order of this group Mumsy is the top of the heap, and she is a particularly petty tyrant about it. Mumsy always gets her way; ‘I’m the Mumsy’ is how she ends all arguments and disagreements. Nobody is allowed to outdo Mumsy at anything; there are scenes where she is crocheting with Nanny or Girly, and she reminds them that they aren’t allowed to work faster or do more work than her. Mumsy is also very obviously one of those authority figures who feel that the rules apply to everyone but her; as shown in some of her arguments with Nanny.

To my mind, the best scene of disturbing foreshadowing for what is to come is when we are shown the house’s second floor, where the New Friends are kept, for the first time. It’s very subtly and effectively done; there’s nothing the characters or the camera do that actively draws attention to it, but if you look you’ll notice in the background that all the doors are boarded up. It’s unsettling, and provides a great build-up for later when we see what happens to New Friends who fail to live up to their ‘hosts’’ expectations. There is one particular scene in all this that I’m sure was what inspired the most famous scene in Stanly Kubrick’s the Shining. I’m not going to say what it is, as it’s been copied and parodied so many times in pop culture that you most likely know it even if you’ve never seen that particular movie.

Vanessa Howard steals the movie as the titular Girly. In fact, it is for that reason that when the movie was released in the United States, the ad campaign focused entirely on her. Girly is such a delightfully twisted character; a complex mixture of seductiveness, innocent childishness, and dangerous psychosis all rolled into one. Howard does an impressive juggling act with the character, making her at times sympathetic, at times desirable, and at times downright terrifying.

There is one aspect of her character that I find particularly intriguing. That aspect is her sexuality; and no, it’s not what you’re thinking. From the very beginning Girly shows a deep understanding of how to make men salivate. When the movie first came out the British censors latched onto one scene early in the film in particular, where Sonny gives Girly a piece of candy that she sucks aggressively, which suggests an incestual relationship between the two of them. However, the scenes where New Friend seduces her, and her subsequent reaction to it, suggests something completely different.

In short, when it finally comes down to it, Girly gives the impression of having no real first-hand (or maybe even second-hand) knowledge of sex at all. I, personally, find this an even more disturbing implication than the one earlier in the movie. The suggestion that a young woman of this age is almost completely ignorant of this pivotal element of life further drives home the point of just how broken this individual really is. It also suggests a vulnerability that’s a bit surprising after all we’ve seen so far. However, it contrasts in a rather frightening way with the rest of her established characteristics. Girly may be vulnerable to this New Friend’s seductions, but the fact that she really doesn’t understand any kind of healthy human interaction means that it’s going to produce some extremely unhealthy reactions. This is borne out by the extreme ways she starts reacting the threats members of her family pose to her new relationship.

And that brings us to our protagonist, the latest New Friend. I hesitate to call him a hero, for reasons that make him, for me, among the most fascinating elements of this movie. In all honesty, once he gets over being a victim and starts making his own plans to deal with his situation, I find him to be every bit as repulsive and amoral, in his own way, as his captors. However, the thing that makes him so fascinating for me is that it is exactly these undesirable qualities that he needs to survive. He has to be manipulative and amoral to be able to survive playing his captors at their own game, and then dragging them into a game of his devising where he has the advantage. If he was in any way moral or ethical, there’s no way he’d survive for very long.

I have to wonder if this is what really bothered the censors, if only on an unconscious level. While horror of any kind was never popular among them; up until only a few years before Girly came out it was always the innocent, the virtuous, and the morally upright who were able to survive and defeat the horror. If you’re used to that kind of atmosphere a movie like Girly, where the only way to survive is to become every bit as bad as the villains, if not worse, is bound to be shocking. I’m not saying Girly was in any way a first or a game-changer, I don’t know enough to make that claim; but it was definitely a sign of the changes in mindset of the younger generation. The ambiguous ending, where we’re left with no clear winner and only a few suggestive hints of who might come out on top, was probably particularly frustrating for those who wanted a neat, tidy conclusion to their movies.

So to sum it up, Girly is a very well made and immersive character study of a truly screwed-up situation. It’s not in any way graphic; but I found the psychological games and torture far more disquieting than I probably would have found graphic depictions of mutilation. If nothing else, this is a movie that I found gave me something to think about, which is something I always treasure.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

They Live (1988)

The Movie: A drifter from Colorado (wrestler Roddy Piper of Hell Comes to Frogtown), who we never actually hear the name of but whom the movie credits call “Nada”, wanders into Los Angeles looking for work. As he explains to the lady at the unemployment office, construction in his neck of the woods dried up with the economic problems, and he has a family to support. Unfortunately, even here work is incredibly hard to find. However, he eventually finds a construction site willing to take on new employees.

It says a lot about the economy that Nada is far from the only homeless worker on the site. Fortunately for him, however, he is quickly befriended by Frank (Keith David of the Thing and Pitch Black), another worker, who leads him to a shantytown run by a community activist named Gilbert (Peter Jason of In the Mouth of Madness). However, once he’s there he starts to notice some strange things. There’s a blind preacher (Raymond St. Jacques) in the park exhorting the locals to wake up to the evil in their midst; but the way he speaks makes it sound like far more than just your typical theological evils. Later at the campsite, when the residents are trying to watch television, the broadcast is hacked by a man (John Lawrence) speaking dire warnings about mind control and those in power. His warnings aren’t too different from those given by the blind preacher Nada saw; in fact, Nada notices said preacher standing in back and talking along with the broadcast word for word.

Nada has also noticed that Gilbert and his associates spend a lot of time at an old church across from the shantytown; and among other things, choir practice seems to go on until the wee hours of the morning. Curious, he investigates and finds that something’s not quite right. The choir is actually just a recording being played over speakers, and the rest of the church’s interior is given over to equipment to send pirate broadcasts and make, something. Nada doesn’t have enough time to check the contents of all the boxes, but he manages to hide one away for later. It’s a good thing that he does; the church’s inhabitants seem to have attracted some kind of official attention and that night a horde of policeman raid the area. They strip the church bare, level the shantytown, and beat the living snot out of everyone they can get their hands on; terminally in the case of most of those associated with the church.

The next day Nada retrieves the box he stashed and looks inside. He’s puzzled to find nothing but sunglasses. However, it’s when he puts the glasses on that he’s really stepped in it. The glasses drain all color out of the world and show that a lot is going on that Nada has never even suspected. Everywhere there are subliminal messages like “work, marry, reproduce,” “no free thought,” and “stay asleep.” Devices for further enforcing said messages, as well as general observation, are also everywhere. Worst of all, Nada notices that certain people, namely the ones with obvious wealth and power, aren’t actually people, but hideous, ghoulish looking beings. Unfortunately, Nada lets slip that he can see what’s really going on, and winds up on the run for mass murder. He manages to get Frank to see it as well, and the two men go looking for answers and a way to fight back.

The Review:

They're free-enterprisers. The earth is just another developing planet. Their third world.”

For some reason, lately I’ve been wanting to see some really good 1980s satire that does feel dated. Unfortunately for that ambition, this movie ain’t it. Even now, over twenty years after it was made, They Live feels entirely current and relevant; the only exceptions to this being a few hair and fashion styles that we see.

John Carpenter made They Live to show his disgust at the political and economic results of the Reagan Era, results that have only grown worse as time goes on. The aliens present a metaphor for the relatively small handful of the uber-rich who have been working since that time, all too successfully, to dismantle the middle class and claim everything for themselves. And, through near complete control of the media, they’re able to essentially keep everyone “asleep” while they do it.

The economic hard times the characters are dealing with are the recession that came at the end of the 1980s due to the popping of the latest financial bubble. Sound familiar? These things are far from uncommon in our history, and always end up the same way. Another thing that rings true is how the desperation of the times serves those in power. Note how our heroes start out so desperate to get by that they do their best to ignore what’s going on even when it’s blatantly suspicious. Nada’s “I still believe in America” speech, Frank’s insistence that Nada “let it alone” whenever he points out something peculiar; these are people who’ve lost so much already, that they’re willing to do just about anything to hold on to what little they’ve got.

Another aspect of the movie that should seem all too familiar if you pay attention is the subliminal messages our hero notices. With the exception of one message lifted from the original short story (“Work 8 Hours, Sleep 8 Hours, Play 8 Hours”), one of the few aspects of They Live that does feel dated, the subliminal message our hero notices are all message that are constantly being thrown at us, even if we don’t notice them consciously; and even in the contexts through which Carpenter depicts them. “Conform” and “Obey”; everyone, from politicians to corporations, is constantly urging us to go along with the crowd and preying on our insecurities about fitting in. Also, it’s come to my attention that ever since 2001 American flags have been a lamentable inevitability in just about any kind of advertisement; the point, of course, playing upon one’s sense of patriotism and suggesting that buying said project, whether it be a politician or an insurance plan, is aiding the country (and that if you don’t buy it you’re a Bolshevik weenie). “Buy Stuff”; that’s the message all advertisements send. I can’t even go on line anymore without a buttload of popups telling me I need to shell out my money for something because I cannot possibly live without it. “Stay Asleep”; so much of our “news” is actually propaganda or distraction. I guess “Watch Television” falls under that as well.

Then there’s the part where Nada looks at some cash through the sunglasses and sees the message “This is Your God.” In a nutshell, I think this sums up the issues that Carpenter is putting on display here, and so much of what is wrong with America in general. If the U.S. does have a state religion, it would have to be the worship of Mammon. Think about it, money is pretty much the be-all and end-all of all the goals we are supposed to set for ourselves; and the basis by which we are taught to judge people. It’s also the basis of all our wars, whatever the official justification is. Seriously, read some history, nearly all of our wars in the past century or so have been fought because of some financial interest or other. And worst of all, having an obscene amount of money ensures that you can get away with just about anything. I’d get arrested for trying to bribe a politician, but these large corporations can get away with giving them large amounts of money to vote a certain way and calling them “campaign contributions.” Likewise, there’s something very wrong with major financial institutions being able to commit capital crimes, hurt a lot of people, nearly destroy the economy, and yet still successfully demand handouts and tax cuts from the government. A while back I came to the conclusion that Nine Inch Nails’ Head Like a Hole is a far more appropriate national anthem than the Star-Spangled Banner; and I don’t think I’ll be changing my opinion on that anytime soon.

Finally, there are several scenes that just look prescient; although it’s probably more due to the fact that history goes in cycles and the human race keeps making the same damn mistakes over and over again. The scene where the police are leveling the camp bears a very strong resemblance to stories I’ve seen on the news about the police dealing with the Occupy movement. When Nada and Frank stumble upon a fancy dinner where one of the aliens is addressing all the wealthy human collaborators, it could be a fundraiser given by the Koch Brothers, Mitch Romney, or any one of the all too many demagogues for the Cult of the Free Market. And when Nada sees a politician on T.V. who’s actually one of the aliens, the speech he gives sounds way too familiar.

There is one major flaw in They Live. Halfway through, the movie changes tone completely and suddenly becomes another big, dumb action movie. This puzzled me the first time I saw it, but in a recent review from El Santo of the site 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting he points out that it’s John Carpenter’s satirizing of the action films of the period. After reading that, it made more sense when I saw it again; and I will confess that some of it is very clever. Unfortunately, the action elements go against the tone set by the first half of the film. The aliens fall too easily, and the conclusion feels forced. This undercuts much of the sense of creepy paranoia the movie builds up on at the start.

Overall, though, They Live is still worth seeing. Excepting the tone change it is very well made. More so, it has a very important message that has only become more relevant in twenty-something years since it came out. So do yourself a favor and watch this movie; then put on the sunglasses and take a good, hard look at the world.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)

The Movie: Virginia (Maria Elena Arpon, credited here as Helen Harp) is out swimming one day when she runs into Betty (Lone Fleming), who she was friends with at school. Virginia introduces Betty to Roger (Cesar Burner), the man she has recently started seeing, and the troubles begin. Betty and Roger are obviously attracted to each other from the beginning, and his relationship with Virginia is still in the early stages. In fact, Roger insists to Betty that he doesn’t have anything serious with Virginia and invites her to join them the next day on the weekend they’ll be taking in the countryside. This, of course, makes Virginia even more uncomfortable. On the train, while Virginia is thinking about her time in school with Betty, a flashback reveals to us in the audience that the two girls have a more than platonic history. So, is Virginia jealous of Betty for Roger? Roger for Betty? Both? Does she even know? If this were a different movie Roger would have a ménage a trois in his future; but instead, probably more realistically, Virginia decides she can’t handle the sexual tension anymore. She hops the train and starts walking toward the creepy ruined monastery in the distance that the conductor told her was the closest thing to civilization for miles around.

The engineer’s argument with his son (who stokes the engine) over whether to stop and get her back, and his insistence that she’s as good as dead, does not bode well for Virginia. Neither does the place itself. The ruins have this real sinister vibe; and even though this is supposed to be a monastery, those aren’t Christian crosses on the graves, they’re Egyptian ankhs. Nevertheless, figuring she doesn’t have much of a choice, Virginia settles in.

That night, as darkness falls and Virginia is bedding down, a mysterious bell rings. That is the signal for those strangely marked graves to open up and their inhabitants to emerge. Said inhabitants are hideous, skeletal figures dressed in the remains of medieval knight armor. They home in on the sound of Virginia’s radio and attack. It quickly becomes apparent that they move fairly aimlessly; until Virginia screams. Whenever she does that, they automatically become more focused. Somehow, Virginia manages to escape the room and steal one of their horses. Unfortunately, they prove to be much better equestrians. The skeletal knights knock Virginia off her horse and descend on her en mass.

At the end of the weekend, Betty and Roger are a little worried about not having heard from Virginia. They ask the hotel staff about Berzano, the ruins they last saw Virginia headed towards; but all they are able to learn is that the locals are terrified of the place, believing it to be haunted by some evil, and that the hotel staff aren’t supposed to talk about it. However, they rent some horses and ride out to the ruins. It’s not a good sign when the horses run off in terror. Once there, Betty and Roger discover Virginia’s things, and two police officers. Virginia’s body was discovered a little way from the railroad tracks, drained of blood and covered in bite marks. Human bite marks. The cops take the couple back to town for questioning, and to identify the body.

When Betty returns to work at the small mannequin factory that she owns, she learns a little bit more about Berzano from her assistant, Nina (Veronica Llimera), who grew up in a nearby village. Nina explains that the place was owned by the Knights Templar, and that they are supposed to haunt the place after nightfall. However, the full story is learned when Betty and Roger consult Professor Candal (Francisco Sanz) a noted medieval historian.

Professor Candal explains that the Knights Templar came back from the Holy Lands with, among other things, knowledge of a blood ritual that granted immortality. They terrorized the area for a while, but the locals finally had enough of their virgins disappearing and rose up. The Templers were executed for heresy and strung up where the birds could peck out their eyes. Unfortunately, their immortality ritual worked, and so they continue to haunt the region in search of blood to keep on living.

After this is explained, a cop appears to tell the professor that his son, Pedro (Jose Thelman, credited as Joseph Thelman) has become a suspect in Virginia’s death. He leads a group of smugglers in the area, and the cop’s suspect that stunts like Virginia’s murder are performed to scare people away. Our couple seeks Pedro out, and determine that odious human being though he might be, he isn’t a killer. They convince him and his girlfriend, Maria (Maria Silva), to join them on an expedition to see what really happens at Berzano at night. That night, Virginia’s body rises from the slab, kills the morgue attendant, and then heads over to Bette’s factory (which happens to be right next door to the morgue) to stalk Nina. Meanwhile, our little expedition is on hand to witness the Templers rise from their graves…

The Review: Tombs of the Blind Dead was among my very first real introductions to the eurohorror of the 1970s. I had read about it online, and was eager to see it for myself. I will admit that at my first view, I really wasn’t sure what I thought of it. By that time I had seen plenty of American style horror movies, and this was something very different. While a bit more streamlined and coherent than its brethren, Tombs still tends to work more on style and atmosphere than it does on plot or characters. That can turn viewers of the more conventional, Hollywood-style movies off; and judging by his reaction I know it has at least one friend I loaned my copy to.

First of all, if you’re used to the near constant adrenalin fueled jump-scares Hollywood uses in all its recent movies, then Tombs is going to feel really slow for you. It creeps along and builds up to its few big scares. Also, while there is blood, there is none of the elaborate gore most people associate with horror these days.

Likewise, the plot, as in so many films of this subgenre, tends to be full of holes you could drive a semi through. Getting the characters over to Berzano often takes having them act in blatantly stupid ways. Okay, the first time around Virginia is definitely upset, and strong emotion prompts everyone to do really stupid things sometimes. When Betty and Roger arrive for the first time they have legitimate reason; they’re worried about Virginia, they feel guilty about their part in her turmoil, and as of yet they have no real reason to suspect there’s anything wrong out there. However, the final trip out to the Berzano for the movie’s climax, really? Your friend died in a truly horrible way, so that even if you don’t actually believe the stories about the undead Templers, you know for sure that something awful has happened there; and you’re still going out there at night without any real backup or telling anybody where you’ve gone? And to top it off, you’re doing it with a man you’ve just met, but who you know is a criminal.

That last part leads to the movie’s most tasteless and objectionable scene. In short, Pedro talks Betty into taking a walk with him, and then comes on to her. When she tells him she’s a lesbian, he rapes her. Firstly there’s just the horrible crassness of the setup; I’m firmly of the opinion that if the only way you can think of to show some bare boobs in your movie is to shoehorn in a rape scene, you really have a problem. However, on top of that I’ve seen several of Amondo de Ossorio’s movies, and this is not the only one of them that features the theme of lesbians being raped by men. Obviously, the guy had some major issues. Fortunately, it’s a very small part of the movie.

The final major plot issue in Tombs that I’d like to address is Virginia’s resurrection. Based on the back-story we’re given, it really doesn’t make much sense. Also, it only comes up in Virginia’s case, and is never addressed again. I’ve read some other web reviews that have summed up the issue by addressing it from the Templers’ point of view: “So, I spent all this time and effort learning the secrets of immortality, and lost my sight in the process, and now everybody I bite is equally immortal? What a rip-off!”

Where Tombs of the Blind Dead does work, however, is in the horror scenes themselves. Despite all its flaws, Tombs ultimately works, like the majority of the best eurohorror, as the triumph of style over substance. The ruined castle used for Berzano, for example is a great place to start. Europe is full of abandoned castles, and as such European directors, particularly low budget ones, have often utilized them as set pieces. As I believe I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, the atmosphere of these places is such that even the most incompetent of moviemakers seem unable to completely take away from them. However, Ossorio displays a talent for aptly employing the inherent creepiness of the ruins. The camera shots of Berzano convey to the viewers that this is, indeed, a very bad place for mere mortals.

Likewise, the soundtrack is amazingly effective. The background theme is a deceptively simple Gregorian chant, played at an unsettling tone, and interspaced with screams. Along with that are Ossorio’s use of sound effects throughout; the doleful tolling of the unseen bell that announces the Templers’ rise from their graves, the clack of the train on the tracks, to name but two examples.

The scene where Virginia stalks Nina at the mannequin factory, while problematic plot-wise, is extremely effective in and of itself. First of all, early on Betty’s factory is established as an unsettling place. First of all, there’s just something unsettling about mannequins and their resemblance to living people (or dismembered body parts as the case may be); and Ossorio takes full advantage of that. On top of it, the lighting is established to be screwy; early on Betty explains to Roger that on the floor above is a place that makes and tests neon signs. The actual stalking sequence is very well done, and combined with the unsettling location it produces a scene straight out of a nightmare.

But the most effective element of the movie is the blind Templers themselves. First of all they just look nightmarish; they’re basically rotting skeletons, with just enough skin to retain the remains of facial hair, dressed in rotting chainmail and moldering cloaks. The way they move is also disturbing; a slow, shuffling gait, but one with a definite intelligent menace. On top of that is their obvious blindness; and how any noise, even the smallest, causes them to descend upon the source with a determined and obvious purpose. Even the scenes where they’re riding horseback, though shot in slow motion, come across as disturbingly majestic.

And the Templers don’t just look terrifying, either. Watching them in action, it’s clear just how outmatched the human characters are. Even their most glaring weakness, their blindness, is shown to not be a major hurdle for them. After all, what good is being still and quiet when they can still hear the beating of your terror-stricken heart? And the climax and denouement, where this horror that’s been festering in an out of the way location for so long is inadvertently brought back to civilization; it’s something that really sticks in your mind.

So in conclusion, Tombs of the Blind Dead is nothing like the Hollywood horror films you’re probably used to. Also, it does have its flaws. However, overall, there is a reason many people consider it a classic of the genre.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Curse of the Undead (1959)

The Movie: In a town in the Old West, there is some strange sickness going around that has already killed several girls. Dr. John Carter (John Hoyt) has been doing his best to save the victims, but thus far to no avail. However, Preacher Dan Young (Eric Fleming) has spent the night praying over her, and it looks like that’s done the trick. Then again, the family seems to have celebrated too soon. As soon as everyone leaves the room, the girl screams, and everyone runs back in to find her dead. Dan notices the window open and the window shade flapping. When he kneels down to pray over her body, he also notices two small, bleeding puncture wounds in her throat.

Dan and Dr. Carter head back to Doc Carter’s home and two children; Tim (Jimmy Murphy) and Dolores (Kathleen Crowley), who we later find out is also Dan’s girlfriend. There they have to deal with the latest results of Doc Carter’s other major problem. The Doc’s ranch is next door to a wealthy man named Buffer (Bruce Gordon). Buffer, entrepreneuring capitalist that he is, wants Doc Carter’s land and has been harassing him and his family in various ways to drive them off it. It doesn’t help matters that Tim is a hot-headed teenager who feels he has something to prove. Doc heads back into town to discuss it with the local Sheriff (Edward Binns), but the Sheriff isn’t able to do much. Worse, as Doc is riding home a black-clad figure attacks him, bites his throat and drinks his blood.

When the buckboard arrives home with their father’s corpse, Tim and Dolores are beside themselves with grief. Convinced Buffer did it; Tim gets drunk and goes to the local bar to confront him. The Sheriff tries to intervene, and Buffer even tries to walk away, but nothing will stand in the way of the hot-headed youth. When Tim pulls his pistol on Buffer, Buffer shoots him down. Dolores is now doubly upset; and despite Dan and the Sheriff’s attempts to talk her down, reacts to this latest outrage by putting up posters offering “$100 for the death of a murderer”. A mysterious, black-clad gunslinger takes an interest in the posters.

Buffer finds out how much trouble he’s in when he runs into said gunslinger, one Drake Robey (Michael Pate), at the saloon. Robey tells Buffer, very confidently, that he will kill him if he takes the job. When one of Buffer’s goons pulls his gun on Robey, Robey casually shoots it out of his hand even though the goon shot first. The goon protests to Buffer that he shot Robey dead center, but Buffer doesn’t believe it. After all, no man could survive a gunshot that close, and Robey was obviously very much still alive.

Dan and the Sheriff both try to convince Dolores that Robey is bad news and she should get rid of him. However, Dan discovers that Robey’s an even bigger problem while going through Doc Carter’s papers for her. He finds the journal of the man who sold the land to Carter; one Don Miguel Robles (Edward Colmans). Don Robles writes about how his son, Drago, came back from a long business trip to Madrid to find that his new bride, Isabella (Jeanna Cross) had taken up an affair with his brother, Roberto. In a fit of rage Drago killed Roberto; but was overcome with guilt and eventually wound up committing suicide on his brother’s grave. Soon after, many of the local girls, including Isabella, became afflicted by a strange ailment. Hearing Isabella’s scream one night, Don Robles rushed to her room and found her dead. Standing over her was an evil fiend who had once been Drago. Don Robles tried to put Drago to rest once and for all, but just wound up driving him into hiding.

Now Dan knows that he’s got a vampire on his hands, but Dolores refuses to believe him. More and more she’s falling under Robey’s influence, and growing weaker as he feeds on her. Worse, Robey is well aware that Dan is on to him. But how can Dan defeat a monster who shrugs off bullets?

The Review: I first watched Curse of the Undead in college, when I found it among the movies at the local town library. I looked to rewatch it ever since, but unfortunately it never seems to have been released on DVD. Now, about a year ago I discovered a website called Trash Palace that does DVD-R transfers of rare, hard to find and out of print movies. My first purchases were a pair of obscure French movies I’d been seeking for a long time. Admittedly, they weren’t quite what I was after; what Trash Palace had were the American releases, which meant English dubbing instead of French with subtitles. However, overall they did a good job, and I highly recommend them if you’re looking for something and haven’t been able to find it through the more mainstream sources. Anyway, a few weeks back I was looking through their catalogue; and imagine my surprise and delight when I found that this little gem was being offered.

Curse of the Undead is a movie that employs two familiar sets of tropes; western and gothic horror. However, it is not afraid to play with those tropes and do something different with them. For example, on the horror side, the vampire himself is a far cry from the example set by Bela Lugosi. Now, for those of you who don’t know who Bela Lugosi was (and shame on you if that’s the case), he played Dracula in the 1930s Universal Pictures movie of that name, and pretty much established the public image of the vampire. The long capes, the goofy accents, mirrors, death by daylight, coffins, turning into a bat or a wolf, all of it goes back to Lugosi. Now, I’m aware that these days we’re seeing a new generation who hears “vampire” and thinks sparkly, centuries old cradle robbers and majorly unhealthy relationships that are somehow supposed to be romantic. However, for the sake of this review I’m going to pretend that we live in a better world that was never submitted to Stephanie Meyer’s vision of the genre.

Anyway, Drake Robey is far more akin to the vampires of traditional European folklore than he is to Dracula. For example, his condition comes from his committing suicide, and there’s no indication that he can spread it to anyone else. There have been many cultures, particularly in Catholic Europe, who believed that suicide was such a horrible sin that those who committed it would return to plague the living. In fact, people were burying suicides at crossroads as late as the 19th century to keep them from coming back. Robey’s evil is linked entirely to that unforgivable sin he committed. There are even some indications that he doesn’t like his condition and isn’t truly evil by nature. However, that one act has driven him beyond the pale.

As for lesser tropes, daylight doesn’t seem to be a huge issue for Robey. He’s obviously much stronger at night, and tends to stick to the shadows, but he can walk around at high noon just fine. He does seem to need some coffin time, every so often he holes up in Doc Carter’s coffin, but it only appears to be every once in a while. The cross does have an effect on Robey, but that is tied to the body of folklore he comes out of. Finally, he can be destroyed by a wooden stake through the heart, but that isn’t how it’s eventually done.

I find the character of Dan equally interesting. He is decent, honest, brave and upright; but what else would you expect of a western hero from this era? He’s also devout, but somehow I don’t find any of that as cloying or unrealistic as I otherwise might. Somehow, the scene of him making out with his girlfriend established him as human for me. Likewise, he does have his doubts. In all, I found him a likable character and was cheering him on.

From the horror end, I found one trope that the movie diverged from interesting. In these vampire stories you usually have two particular types among the heroes. One is a Van Helsing type; usually an older man who knows all about vampire lore and who spurs the rest of the heroes on to fight the monster. The other is the dashing young hero who stands at the front, usually the true love of the heroine the vampire has designs on. Dan fits into both categories. On the one hand, he’s the one who first notices the signs and puts all the pieces together to figure out he’s up against a vampire. On the other, he’s also the one who carries the fight to Robey. And, I might add, it’s also his girlfriend who Dan is fighting for.

That’s it for the horror tropes. The western ones are just as interesting. For one, everybody seems determined to try and stay on the right side of the law. Dan never decides that his fight with Robey supersedes the law, and he’s one of the two major individuals trying to talk Dolores down from taking revenge on Buffer. Buffer himself visibly makes an effort to stay on the right side of the sheriff, and he only shoots Time when the boy pulls his gun. Even Robey provokes Buffer into drawing before he shoots, so that he can then legally claim self defense. In fact, only Tim, the hotheaded teenager, and ostensibly one of the good guys, lives by the philosophy of shoot first and shoot often that we tend to associate with western settings.

Curse of the Undead may move kind of slow for the adrenalin junkies of this generation, but I think it does a good job of building up its plot and establishing its characters. There are a few effective scenes; my favorite being an incredibly creepy one where Robey stalks Dan through the town streets at night. And finally, when Dan defeats Robey at the end, it’s in a way that I, for one, think is rather ingenious; and yet it flows organically from both genres.

In conclusion, I think that Curse of the Undead is a fun, well done little movie that shakes up the tropes of both genres that it covers. I, personally, think that it’s a mortal sin that it’s so hard to get a hold of. If you like westerns, horror, or just clever takes on familiar tropes, this one’s worth a watch if you can find it.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Shrek (2001)

The Movie: Shrek (voice of Mike Meyers, the star of Austin Powers and Wayne’s World), is an ogre who lives all alone in his swamp. This is how he prefers it; and his only real contact with the outside world is to scare off the occasional band of torch-wielding villagers who decide to come after him. Unfortunately for Shrek, his simple life is about to be upended. Lord Farquaad (the venerable and prolific John Lithgow), the local ruler, probably has the worst case of short man syndrome you could ever encounter. He is determined to be the Perfect King of the Perfect Kingdom; and the various fairy-tale entities who inhabit it have no place in the perfect world he envisions. As such, he’s been busy rounding them up for banishment; and Shrek’s swamp is where all the exiles wind up. To Shrek’s dismay, his neighborhood suddenly becomes awfully crowded.

Angrily, Shrek sets out to confront Lord Farquaad and demand his swamp back; accompanied by an annoying talking donkey (Eddie Murphy, last seen here in Bowfinger) who offers to show him the way. Fortunately, when Shrek arrives at Duloc, Farquaad’s kingdom, the tiny tyrant is in a mood to bargain. Having been told by a magic mirror that he isn’t technically a king, and that to become one he needs to marry a princess, Farquaad has fixated on the lovely Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz, last seen here in the Mask). The one catch is that Fiona is currently locked in the tallest tower of a ruined castle, which is surrounded by a moat of lava and guarded by a fire-breathing dragon. If Shrek agrees to rescue Princess Fiona and bring her back to marry Farquaad, then Farquaad promises to return Shrek’s swamp to him, with all the squatters packed off elsewhere. Not really having a choice, Shrek and Donkey set out to rescue the princess.

However, it turns out that getting Fiona away from the dragon, difficult and nerve-wracking as the incident is, is just the easiest part of the adventure. Fiona is nothing like Shrek has expected a princess to be, and against his will he finds himself taking to her. Fiona, meanwhile, while initially disappointed that her rescuer wasn’t Prince Charming, finds herself warming up to the ogre. You see, unknown to Shrek, Donkey, and Farquaad, Fiona has a major secret. It’s why she was locked in the tower in the first place, and it’s definitely going to have a major impact on how things turn out…

The Review:

Shrek:Oh, you were expecting Prince Charming?

Fiona:Well, yes, actually. Oh... this is wrong. This is all wrong! It's not supposed to be an ogre!

I was in the mood for something different. Ever since I first saw Shrek in the theatre, it’s been one of my all-time favorite movies. In fact, I saw it in the theatre probably at least three times; something of a record for me. Admittedly, this movie has suffered a lot over the years due to Disney’s attempts to wring as much cash out of it as possible; repetition, over exposure, and three unneeded and increasingly inferior sequels. But if you can put all that aside, the original Shrek is extremely clever, well made, funny; something that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike.

Probably the aspect of this movie that caught and held me from the beginning was the message. Shrek is a message movie; but unlike most message movies it doesn’t attempt the bludgeon its audience with said message sledgehammer-style. Instead, the message is woven intrinsically into the script, the plot, and the characters’ motivations. Said message is one that we all need reminded of on a fairly regular basis: life never turns out the way it’s “supposed” to, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The setting of the movie, a world where all the fairy-tale characters we’ve known from childhood live, is perfect for showcasing this message. After all, thanks to Walt Disney fairy tales as we know them are extremely codified and formulized. I’m sure that the moment you read “fairy tale”, a very specific set of tropes immediately came to your mind: beautiful princess in danger, handsome prince to the rescue, monster, true love, marriage, happily ever after. If you grew up watching Disney movies (and let’s be honest here, who of us hasn’t?), these tropes immediately come to us without any conscious thought, because they’re what we’re conditioned to expect.

The genius of Shrek is that it presents us with these tropes, priming our expectations, and then turns them on their heads. Pay attention; all throughout the movie, whenever a character expresses how something is “supposed” to happen, we see it come about in a very different fashion. However, ultimately the outcome is all the better for it.

Lord Farquaad is probably our best example of this. He is a control freak who is determined to create the Perfect World; and he has a very specific picture of how such a perfect world looks. Everything in his kingdom is very carefully scripted. Whatever doesn’t fit the script is quickly disposed of.

However, as is always the case, perfection is beyond Farquaad because he, himself, is imperfect. Farquaad doesn’t fit his own script at all. The script calls for a king who is tall, handsome, dashing, brave and noble. The reality is a short, insecure, weaselly coward. When Shrek first lays eyes on Farquaad’s castle, his observation is “do you think he’s compensating for something?” And that, in a nutshell, sums up Lord Farquaad. A truly great man lets his actions speak for themselves and accepts the respect that is given; he doesn’t demand and script it. Farquaad wants to be seen as brave, wants to be seen as the man who makes the hard decisions, wants all the reward and glory that would come with rescuing and marrying Fiona; but he wants somebody else to make the sacrifices and take the risks it entails. When Shrek and Donkey arrive at Duloc, Farquaad is holding a tournament to pick a suitable champion to rescue Fiona. “Some of you may die,” he tells the aspiring champions, “but that is a risk I am willing to take.” Personally, that line always brings to mind a certain former president when he was trying to drum up support for a disastrous and unnecessary war; one waged for very similar reasons.

Fiona’s motives are, ironically, very similar to Farquaad’s; she is trying to compensate for a perceived imperfection in her life. When we start to get to know Fiona, it quickly becomes obvious that she’s anything but helpless. She’s more than capable of taking matters into her own hands when it’s needed. When the princesses takes on a whole pack of forest bandits single handedly, and beats the living snot out of them without taking a scratch; it’s clear that she has no problems defending herself. In short, Fiona never needed “rescuing” at all; she would have left that tower a long time ago if she wanted to. She was there entirely because she felt she had to be.

After a little over a decade (has it really been that long? Yep, feeling old.), and plenty of media overexposure; I don’t think it’s a spoiler at this point to reveal Fiona’s curse: she turns into an ogre at night, and will continue to do so until “True Love’s first kiss” will lock her into the form she’s supposed to take. Now, Fiona has been raised with some definite ideas of what a princess is supposed to be. As she tells Donkey when he finds out about her curse; “princesses and ugly don’t belong together.” She’s got everything about her rescue and the removal of her curse planned out to the smallest detail; so of course, none of it goes as expected. However, you have to admit she’s much better off with the outcome she gets than she would have been with the outcome she was expecting.

Shrek’s motivations are the exact opposite. Beaten down by society at large, he’s long given up on any kind of perfection. All Shrek wants is a place of his own where he can be alone and avoid all the abuse that others direct his way. However, despite his social problems and the expectations of others, he’s not a monster. The scene with the lynch mob at the beginning shows that. Lynch mobs are obviously not an uncommon thing for Shrek, the resigned little eye roll he gives upon noticing this latest mob makes that very clear. However, while he very observably has the villagers outgunned, he settles for scaring them off instead of actually hurting them. Unfortunately, a lifetime of derision has made Shrek feel on some level that he isn’t worthy of any kind of positive feeling. This makes him insecure, and all too ready to believe the worst.

That brings us to Donkey, who, while at times seeming like odious comedy relief, is actually a very important character who is absolutely necessary for Shrek and Fiona’s Happily Ever After. Donkey is actually an archetypal character. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, an archetype is a concept; a principal, ideal or fear presented in the form of an individual. Donkey embodies one of the fairly universal archetypes; that of the Fool.

In brief, the Fool notices what everyone else misses, which is the source of his power; but is oblivious to what’s blatantly obvious to everybody else, which is why everybody considers him a fool. He succeeds by approaching the problem from a direction that never would have occurred to anyone else. Longtime readers and anybody who knows me in person can probably guess why I so identify with the Fool.

Anyway, Donkey approaches everything ass-backwards (pun not intended); but since he lives in an ass-backwards world, this in absolutely necessary. His obliviousness to social expectations can make him extremely irritating; but it also means he’s not blinded by them, either. He’s willing to try things other people aren’t, and this brings about some unexpected, but needed, outcomes. For example, he is obviously the first individual to extend the hand (or hoof, in this case) of friendship to Shrek. Shrek initially finds Donkey obnoxious, but even more so Donkey confuses him. For some reason, Donkey doesn’t seem to notice or care about the fact that Shrek’s an ogre, and Shrek obviously doesn’t know how to handle it. Fear and hatred Shrek is used to, but genuine friendship and positive regard is an alien experience for him. Something similar happens, for the same reasons, when Donkey meets the dragon guarding Fiona. However, being that the dragon turns out to be female, she reacts by falling for him. While this does produce some extra unexpected consequences in the short term; in the long term it provides the heroes with a needed ally for the climactic showdown with Farquaad.

Likewise, Donkey’s inability to be blinded by social expectations means he’s usually aware of what’s really going on, even when everyone else isn’t. And, it also means that he’s the one who always says what needs to be said, even (especially) when it’s not the “appropriate” thing to say. In short, Donkey is the one who lights a fire under Shrek’s ass when he lets his insecurities get the best of him, and who always ensures that Shrek goes in the direction he needs to go.

The animation in Shrek is marvelous; and ultimately you get the sense throughout of a genuine, living, breathing world of which the characters are but a part. While there are, admittedly, some pretty awful lines, there are a lot more great ones and exchanges of dialogue. Finally, there is a truly witty sense of humor throughout; both for children and adults. Along with this, Shrek has this really dark, nasty edge just below the surface at times. It’s subtle, but it’s there. Most notable, though it took me a while to add it all up, are the presentation of the Three Bears among the exiled fairy-tale creatures. When we first see them, they are all three locked in cages. Later, we just see Father and Baby Bear in Shrek’s swamp. Finally, when the camera pans across Lord Farquaad’s bedchamber, if you look you’ll notice that his bearskin rug has Mama’s bow. Disturbing stuff, and I have to wonder how younger kids who’ve noticed this have reacted.

In the end, Shrek is a true classic of a movie. Unfortunately, this has been overshadowed by the sequels. Shrek never needed a sequel; it’s perfect as a self-contained story on its own. Unfortunately, artistic in integrity (or any integrity, really) has rarely been able to truly get in the way of somebody making obscene amounts of money. Worst of all, to my mind, is that the first sequel comes very close in the first two-thirds of the movie to overcoming that. However, that’s a discussion for another review.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Night of Death (1980)

The Movie: Martine (Isabelle Goguey), after months of unemployment, goes to start the job her fiancé got her: a caretaker position at Deadlock House, a nursing home. She arrives a day early, and for some reason that seems to be a major problem. The stern director, Helene (Betty Beckers), initially claims that they don’t have the facilities for her yet; but she’s able to throw something together rather quickly. Even more surprised is Nicole (Charlotte de Turckheim), the woman who currently holds Martine’s position. Nicole’s not happy about Martine, because, despite Helen’s attempts to explain that she’s there to assist Nicole, Nicole’s convinced Martine’s her replacement.

Still, in spite of the rough start, Martine and Nicole wind up getting along and Martine starts learning the ropes of her new job. She has her work cut out for her, because there are all sorts or weird rules and restrictions: the new employee is not allowed to leave the grounds for the first two months, for one; or the fact that all the inmates are vegetarian, and the staff is expected to follow suit. And speaking of the inmates, they generally seem more suited for an insane asylum than a nursing home.

It turns out that Nicole was more right than she knew about Martine being her replacement. That night, while Martine is on a date with her fiancé (Helen declares that since Martine doesn’t officially start work until the next day, she’s not yet subject to the not leaving the institution rule), the inmates gather in a solemn processional and meet with the creepy, limping groundskeeper, Flavien (Michel Flavius). The procession troops into Nicole’s room, where they grab her from her bed and drag her to a secret basement under the kitchen. There, they lay her across a slab, slit her throat, and cut open her nubile chest and belly. Then Helene, Flavien, and the inmates reach in, pull out organs, and have a ghoulish feast.

When Martine discovers that Nicole has disappeared the next morning, Helene tells her that Nicole threw a fit about her being hired to the point of being unbearable, and was subsequently dismissed. The story doesn’t ring true with Martine, however; as it doesn’t jibe with the extremely friendly and conciliatory note Nicole left her. Martine discovers more clues that Nicole’s disappearance wasn’t as Helene would have her believe. Her life becomes a major balancing act between trying to figure out what’s really happening at Deadlock House on one hand, and coping with its inhabitants’ increasingly disturbing behavior on the other. And meanwhile, time ticks by; two months pass rather quickly, and said inhabitants all eagerly look forward to the coming of the 28th…

The Review: By this time, while it’s probably stereotyping, I’ve come to expect a certain pattern for end of the ‘70s European horror films: Style and mood over a coherent storyline. Copious nudity. Killings that tend to be more dramatically shocking or mean-spirited than graphically gory. Weirdness for weirdness’ sake. I was expecting all this with Night of Death, but it’s not what I got. Not that I’m complaining, I was just a little surprised.

Exploitation-wise there was gore, and one or two scenes of it were more graphic than expected. However, it still wasn’t gratuitous; used only when it was needed. Likewise, there wasn’t all that much nudity (I will admit to being a little disappointed about that); and what there was served the plot. As for the plot itself, it was extremely straightforward and coherent. There were some definite moments of weirdness, mood and style; but the plot took precedent.

The core of the plot is revealed very quickly; Helene, Flavien and the inmates of Deadlock House are all members of a cannibal cult, and the need for caretakers and ridiculous rules are a ruse to get a prospective meal in and then fatten her up before they eat her. However, there are a few genuine twists. What’s more, they’re very well woven into the main plot. None of them feel like the scriptwriter just pulled them out of his ass when he felt he needed a certain outcome; there is always a significant build-up and legitimate hint beforehand. Even the inevitable kicker ending doesn’t come out of nowhere; there are hints about it almost to the very beginning. They’re just presented as side-notes and throwaway details, however, so it’s possible to miss the significance of them until you think back on the movie once the end credits start to roll.

But what really got me were the heroine and her situation. Her situation struck a chord with me because it was all too familiar; this is my job. Admittedly, I deal with individuals with disabilities instead of geriatrics, and I babysit them at their jobs instead of taking care of them at home. Still, there are more than a few similarities. Ultimately both are the same field, taking care of people who, for whatever reason, are unable to take care of themselves. Also, I’ve had some experience at nursing homes in my life; and the inmates of Deadlock House are far more my clients than they are those of nursing home staff.

Here’s the main thing about working in healthcare, particularly this specific corner of it: it could drive a saint to commit murder. I’m not exaggerating. Healthcare has one of the highest turnover rates, largely due to stress and burnout. I’ve known no end to coworkers who’ve left because they couldn’t take it anymore. Martine’s experiences working at Deadlock House (not counting the cannibalism) resonate with my own work experiences far more than any other movie I’ve seen.

The first major issue lies in dealing with the clients (that’s what we officially call our charges at my job). The first thing to remember is that these are individuals who are even more blatantly dysfunctional than your average human being; otherwise they wouldn’t need the care in the first place. This can make even seemingly everyday interactions infinitely more complex. Now, lest readers think I’m being too harsh, let me point out that I have a lot of experience in this from both ends. On the one hand I have been gifted with Asperger's, A.D.D., mild Tourette’s, cancer, and various other conditions that the gods, in their infinite sadism, decided I was worthy to have bestowed upon me. I’m very high functioning, but I understand intimately the need for accommodation and being unable to comprehend “proper” social interactions.

On the other hand; no matter what your problems, there is a limit as to how much of your actions you can blame on your handicaps. No matter how much of the short end of the stick you got, at a certain point it all comes down to your choices and actions. One thing never fails to amaze me is my society’s tendency toward overcompensation. I concur that we have treated those with disabilities horribly in the past; and that they are human beings fully deserving of the dignity that comes with that. Hell, I firmly believe that just being human automatically entitles you to handicaps and disabilities; some are just more obvious or socially acceptable than others. However, people have a habit of forgetting that it is entirely possible to have a disability, and still be an asshole.

One of my best and dearest friends, who has worked in this field far longer than I have, comments on one incident early in our relationship where I was appalled about how she was venting about a client, even saying “that’s a horrible thing to say about your clients.” She points out that ever since I started this job, she’s never heard me say anything like that again. I’ve had my own experiences with that; once my brother told me, shocked, “Nathan, that’s a horrible thing to say about retarded people!” However, whenever I’ve expressed those exact same sentiments to individuals who’ve actually worked in the field, the response I’ve always gotten was some variant of “yep, welcome to the club.”

So to repeat, I know Martine’s charges all too well. And I find the way the movie depicts them extremely believable. At first they just seem amusing. For example, one of the patients (as per usual I can’t recall his name) is always knitting a red something or other. When Martine asks, he explains that he is “knitting Revolution.” Later in the movie, when he has been punished by the cult for misbehavior, Martine finds him knitting in black instead. When she asks, he responds that “the Revolution is in mourning.”

However, as the movie goes on their behavior toward Martine gets more and more inappropriate. For example, blatantly looking in her window while she undresses. One patient in particular exemplifies this; Mr. Leon (Jean Ludow), an old man who’s usually in a wheelchair even though he can walk perfectly, and who’s always playing with a variety of toys and magic tricks. He revels in using them to be obnoxious. At first he’s amusing, but very quickly it’s obvious that Leon is a major asshole. And it should also be noted that while Martine shows a patience throughout the movie that would shame most saints, by the end she’s getting very fed up with all the crap.

It’s extremely difficult already figuring out the line between where to accommodate for disabilities and where to hold someone accountable for their actions. It’s so much more so when the line is drawn for you. Watching Nichole deal with her charges, I couldn’t help but feel a little envious. She tells them exactly what needs to be said, and doesn’t sugar coat it. She even slaps Leon at one point when he crosses a line. I’d get in so much trouble for doing that, and I’ve had clients who need far more than a slap.

The second major issue is dealing with the bureaucracy of the job. One of the most notable things I’ve obtained in the last 5+ years is a deep and utter loathing for the word “professional” and all its derivatives. From the context it always seems to be used in in contemporary society, my definition for professional is “appearance for appearance’s sake, whatever the cost.” I’m sure plenty will argue that, but I have yet to see any evidence to the contrary. I understand the need for some focus on appearances, considering that we are taking care of vulnerable members of society, but at a certain point it just becomes ridiculous. Except for the fact that this was in the context of a horror movie, I really didn’t see anything suspicious of the rules Martine is expected to follow. Considering all the ludicrous expectations I’ve had to deal with in the name of “professionalism”, not to mention all the ones women have had to deal with throughout history due to their gender, it just seemed like business as usual. The only real difference is that professionalism is usually implemented in spite of potential harms; in this case it’s used to hide them.

Something that surprised me halfway through the movie was when I realized that I was actively hoping for Martine to survive. Now, partly, as I lay it out above, I identified with her situation. I will also admit that I was in love from the moment that I saw she was a French-speaking redhead. However, there was a bit more to it. Through her actions, Martine reveals herself to be a genuinely nice and good-natured person, who’s only mistake is winding up in a nasty situation. Following that, watching how she handled the situation further endeared her to me. Martine behaves in a truly competent manner; and even when she’s caught (which she is several times), she coolly provides a rational excuse for what she is doing. She only truly freaks out once, and it’s a situation that I’m sure would cause any of us to freak out. Even then, she is able to do what needs to be done.

Finally, I would just like to add that Night of Death has a few truly scary and beautiful set-pieces. The stand-out for me is the scenes where the inmates gather for their ghoulish feasts. They walk out into the hall in a column, all dressed up, moving quietly by implacably while an eerie song plays on the soundtrack.

So in conclusion, Night of Death is a decent and enjoyable little horror movie. Well made, eerie and atmospheric, but with a definite plot, it’s worth watching. I just wish that certain elements of it didn’t feel so familiar; but I have personal issue to blame for that more than the movie.