Friday, June 18, 2010

Summer of Slash: Capsule Reviews, Part 3

Here are some more capsule reviews as I am continuing to blitz through a giant to-do list in preparation for the Wonders in the Dark horror countdown. This week I didn't focus on the slasher as I visited and re-visited four "different" horror movies (specifically I re-visited three films and finally got around to watching one that's been on my list since its highly anticipated release, but more on that later). I decided to re-visit one of the worst versions of Frankenstein in a moment of stupidity, but hey it was on Starz in HD so I thought I would give it another chance. I also decided to re-watch Dario Argento's Inferno, a film that is definitely better than its negative reputation. It's odd: at one point I remember liking Inferno more than Suspiria, but upon further review I can safely say that isn't the case. I also decided to re-visit the fun and harmless From Dusk till Dawn, a clear sign that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino were thinking about Grindhouse long before its release. Finally, I worked up the nerve to finish the Three Mothers trilogy by watching Mother of Tears. Reviews come after the jump…

From Dusk till Dawn Before Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino had a whole slew of fun with their double-bill homage to the exploitation film, Grindhouse, they made this entertaining-as-hell vampire movie that is actually funnier and more exciting than the first installment of Grindhouse, Planet Terror. The first half of the film – written by Tarantino – is the least interesting as we are introduced to Richie (Tarantino) and Seth (a fresh-from-the-ER George Clooney) fresh from prison and having just robbed a bank. They kidnap the family of a former priest (Harvey Keitel) and take their RV down to Mexico for sweet, sweet freedom. The best thing about this first, non-vampire part of the film is the opening interaction between a sheriff (wonderfully played by grindhouse stalwart Michael Parks) and a liquor store clerk (played by the always likable John Hawkes). After this opening (where we're initially shocked that yes, this is George Clooney all foul-mouthed and tattooed, in front of us) the film slows down into some decent – but ultimately uninspired – Tarantino dialogue as the brothers and the preacher's family make their way across the border. Once the group makes their way to a sleazy strip club called The Titty Twister, the film turns into one of those drive-in exploitation classics where the dialogue is hilariously (and appropriately) self-reflexive. A lot of scenes about vampires get explained away in a cheesy way by such exploitation icons as Fred Williamson and Tom Savini (not to mention a cameo from the John Saxon at the beginning of the film), and these moments are performed with such gusto – and most importantly without a smirk on their face – that make the last half of the film not just a pretty decent horror film (the violence and the vampire effects are pretty good at evoking the appropriate horror tone), but a loving homage to the types of films that Rodriguez and Tarantino no doubt spent the better days of their youth watching and re-watching. As a straight horror movie of the vampire variety I don't think the film as fun as say John Carpenter's Vampires (which had a tremendous performance from James Woods at its center), but it's still great to see Clooney in this pre-Hollywood icon role where he's clearly having a hell of a time hamming it up and spouting as many "f bombs" as possible so the audience knows for sure that he's serious about this not acting on TV thing. From Dusk till Dawn is an interesting precursor to Grindhouse and succeeds in pretty much the same way that esoteric film did: if you find cheesy, bloody, exploitation films entertaining then this film is definitely for you. It probably seems like nothing more than silly fun for others. It's always been one of my favorite horror movies.

Mary Shelly's Frankenstein Wow. Does this movie stink. Clearly trying to cash in on the success of 1992's Bram Stoker's Dracula (a horribly overrated Coppola effort), Kenneth Branagh – Shakespeare producer extraordinaire – decided to try his hand at Mary Shelly's classic Gothic Horror novel about science and the downfall of man's obsession with knowledge. Yes. Kenneth Branagh tried his hand at horror, and failed miserably. Of course he had little chance of making the film any good, because even James Whale's classics couldn't possibly visualize what Shelly does in her brilliant novel, and Branagh takes the most interesting parts of the novel (you know, the cerebral elements), filters them through his hammy eye, and creates a film that not only fails as a horror film, but as a period piece as well. Branagh seems to be in over his head as every "big" scene of the film is clumsily blocked and framed, and strains too much for Effect (case in point: the moment where Dr. Frankenstein's wife has her heart ripped out by the Monster). Robert De Niro's great performance as the Monster is completely wasted because of Branagh's inability to make a coherent film. His direction is so clumsy; in fact, we're even treated to one of those awful period piece candle-lit sex scenes where the camera swirls around the bed while classical music plays over the "passionate" love making of the two main characters. There's nothing remotely scary, creepy, atmospheric, or gothic about this movie. It turns completely laughable by the end as Frankenstein tries to stitch up his dead wife and proceeds to dance with her. The movie was a huge failure in the States, struggling to make half of its 45 million dollar budget; however, it made nearly 90 million globally. I don't care how much money a movie makes because that is irrelevant when discussing whether a movie is good or not, but I don't want to say only bad things about this movie…so there ya go.

Inferno More ethereal and baroque than Dario Argento's first entry in his Three Mother's trilogy (and surprise hit) Suspiria, this sequel actually feels more like one of the entries of Lucio Fulci's early 80's output (City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and House by the Cemetery) as we have harshly lit and colored sets, bizarre camera angles, extreme close-ups and jump cuts, and nonsensical storytelling at its finest…all taking place in what appears to be an otherworldly apartment complex in Rome. In fact, Inferno indeed feels more like City of the Living Dead as characters enter and depart without any explanation while weird shit occurs over and over again (yes, this is the one with rats) to the random people who inhabit the plot. The story is really inconsequential here as Argento really strains to connect this plot with the story of Suspiria. However, it's really irrelevant because this was the beginning of the nonsensical, supernatural Italian horror film that Fulci made famous with his own unofficial Gates of Hell trilogy. There are some impressive sequences throughout Inferno, though, and they make the film an enjoyable horror ride filled with countless haunted house moments (none more so then the impressive ballroom scene at the end). Perhaps the film's most famous moment comes at the beginning where a young woman exploring the depths of her apartment complex finds the aforementioned ballroom immersed in water with some bizarre inscriptions on the walls that match those of a book she's been reading about the three mothers. The scene is a tautly drawn 15+ minutes as we are privy to all kinds of bizarre lighting and set constructions that tip us off immediately that this film is going to be different than Suspiria (for as ethereal as that film was it had a more concrete story for its more nightmarish-aesthetic to swirl around). It's no surprise to any fan of Italian horror that the master himself, Mario Bava, was in charge of directing a lot of the film's most famous – and best looking – moments (Mario's son, Lamberto, was AD on the film). In total Inferno is not as bad as its reputation, and it certainly fits the early 80's Italian horror aesthetic to a tee; however, Argento followed Inferno up with three more interesting film, two gialli that were considerably more interesting in their violence than Inferno (most of the film's gore scenes fade to black before we see anything, and Keith Emerson's annoying rock-opera score gives the death scenes the wrong feel) and another supernatural film, Phenomena, that was far more interesting story-wise. Inferno is an interesting pre-cursor to what Fulci did so well with his classic trilogy of the early 80's. It's filled with some beautifully constructed non-sequiturs and evokes a great mood that makes one nostalgic for 1980's Italian horror; however, it really fails to enrapture the viewer and elicit any real terror.

Mother of Tears The less said about the third (and final) entry in Dario Argento's Three Mother's trilogy the better as Mother of Tears is a prime example of what's wrong with modern, digital horror. First, one of the major issues I've had with modern Argento is his reliance on DV cameras. Sure it's probably cheaper and easier for the maestro to move around and shoot the scenes he wants, but I've seen other films shot on digital that don't look as cheap as some of his films do. They look no better than the countless straight-to-DVD gore fests that any number of hack filmmaker can make. Second, digital violence is annoying as hell. I'm not such a purist – or even a gorehound – where I need to see "realistic" violence, but one of the things that made the Italian subgenre of horror so great was its shocking violence and gore effects that were often given just as much thought and care as the blocking or lighting of a scene. The famous (and really well done) gore effects of early Argento and Lucio Fulci are usually the reasons people so fervently sought out a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a VHS back in the 90's. Now, anyone can do violence with the push of a button and usually they do it in such excess that it becomes boring because it's so stale. It's not even that the violence isn't "realistic"; it's the fact that it's not as tangible…so, for instance, when a woman gets a giant spear shoved through her babymaker (as is the case with Mother of Tears) it just looks stupid and sadistic. Oh, Argento tries to tidy-up the trilogy here, but he's slowly moving into hack mode as Mother of Tears plays more like those bad German ultra-violent horror rip-offs (they call them "homages") that go straight to DVD these days with its gratuitous nudity, lesbian cannibalism, pornographic violence (which makes pisses me off because it lumps Argento in with idiots like Eli Roth), and countless scenes of sadism and unnecessary brutality. Mother of Tears doesn't just put one in a bad mood because of how ugly its violence is, but also because –maybe more so than any other Argento picture – its aesthetic is so incredibly boring. The digital doesn't help (he's not using it the same way Michael Mann uses it to pick up bright colors), but I think it's a deeper issue than that: I just don't think Argento cares anymore. The last time the man has truly been interesting was with his 1986 giallo, Opera (even that film was hampered by an AWFUL heavy metal soundtrack).

I don't know if Mother of Tears marks the end for Argento (he even cribs better moments from his own films like a scene near the end where Asia Argento struggles to get out of a pit of bone and mud and body parts a la Jennifer Connelly's character in Phenomena), but it's certainly disheartening to see such an auteur result to the hack tendencies found in countless torture porn these days (the amount of blood is amazing in this film and made me think of all those shitty looking horror movies from France like High Tension), and continue to have such a horribly uninteresting output the last 20+ years. I realize I haven't uttered a single word about what the film was about, how it wraps-up the series, and what some of the standout scenes were…well that's because I was just too damn depressed to consider doing a full review of the film. It saddened me to see one of my favorite director's make such an awful movie, and really I don't know if I could tell you what was going on with the story (except that a group of cannibal witches try to resurrect the last remaining "mother") because the film was all over the place, which isn't abnormal with Italian horror, and I'm more than willing to give the story a pass if the aesthetic is arresting enough (like Inferno for example). But everything – and I mean every damn thing – about this film is so depressing and forgettable. It's sad that I'm looking forward to Argento's Giallo starring Adrian Brody solely because Argento has stated his displeasure with the producers cut of the film, essentially disowning the film because it isn't what he envisioned. Based on his recent output that's the most positive review the film (yet to be released in the states as it has been delayed almost a year now, much like Mother of Tears was) could possibly receive.


  1. I, too, have always had a great fondness towards From Dusk til Dawn. What I love so much is how relentlessly comical it is; from the first scene - which we both agree is one of the best things in the movie - that has Parks spouting off a bevy of memorable one liners (he would sort of reprise this role in Kill Bill 2), to the scenes with Savini trying to hind his transformation in a vampire, as well as countless other little moments and snatches of dialogue, the movie never takes itself too seriously and benefits tremendously from it. And I love the unpredictable descent into the wildly entertaining second half. This movie pulsates with the kind of contagious energy that many movies could benefit from.

    Full Tilt Boogie, the documentary about the production of From Dusk til Dawn, is very entertaining and informative, and well worth watching for any fan of the movie. And of the two sequels filmed, the second (actually a prequel), starring Michael Parks as Ambrose Bierce, is pretty good (the other is rubbish.)

    I've never seen the Branagh Frankenstein, but your capsule here reminded me exactly why I've put this one off for so long. And I'm a pretty big admirer of Argento's, but haven't seen the ones you discuss here.

  2. INFERNO is a hard one to rate, as it has some amazing setpieces (that opener, plus the scene in the library, plus the ending where the villain is revealed), but as you say, it's just a mess of a story, more so than even most Italian horror.

    But comparing it to much of Argento's 90's/00's work, it's positively masterful. The guy just doesn't seem to have the eye he once had or is just tired of making movies like he used to.

    As for the DV complaint, I agree. A lot of it probably has to do with nothing more than the cheapness and easiness of shooting movies now. But some of it is surely that there is a difference between the aesthetics of film stock and of digital and too few directors have been able to that work with horror, though the possibilities are surely there. I'm probably a bit of a classicist with my horror, but it seems that old-Argento, Bava, Fulci, et al knew just how to film and light the gore scenes to make them almost have a beauty to them - they made it part of the color palette. Having just watched TENEBRE, there's the scene at the end where blood spurts from a dismembered arm for as over the top as it is, Argento frames it like artwork as the blood sprays against a white wall. Fulci in THE BEYOND has a couple scenes that I'm convinced would be more laughable if filmed in digital (the tongue, the head explosion, the throat, etc).

    Now, it seems like all blood just looks like oil sprayed from a geyser, with, splattering here and there.

    I'm just rambling off the top of my head here -- surely there is a decent conversation to be had on this (and if Jamie stops by, he may have some different thoughts, as I know he likes the new French horror films more than we do).

    Good reviews as always!

  3. Love me some FROM DUSK TILL DAWN also and good call on how it is essentially a warmup for GRINDHOUSE. And like PLANE TERROR, Rodriguez populates FROM DUSK with a lot of genre vets and characters. Still my fave line from the film, "Now let's kill that fucking band!" heh!

  4. hay..... thanks this blog.. soo now i can stay up to date about movies...... my favorite movie category is horror.............well done....

  5. I don't quite rate INFERNO as high as SUSPIRIA, but I definitely can see that regard. Yeah that FRANKENSTEIN is the worst of the any with that title, and I can definitely see the humor in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. It's trying amazing how musch enthusiasm you are passing on for the upcoming horror poll. It's rubbing off on me too, as just earlier today I start to write down some titles! Great round-up here!

  6. I think I'm in agreement 4 for 4 with you...Love the design and cinematography of Inferno, but the rest is a bit of a blur (I should revisit). Enjoyed the heck out of From Dusk Till Dawn. I remember many people saying how great it was until the vampires showed up, but I thought it was all good. Branagh's Frankenstein - dullsville. And Mother Of Tears? Oh my goodness...Ugly, needlessly cruel, boring, way too serious and I might even say misogynistic. Simply not a drop of fun to be had.

  7. I thought I had never seen any of these Argento's, but I have seen INFERNO. Some of his other recent releases have been pretty bad so it appears I won't be seeing the other two (as I think our opinions are the same in this regard). I do think Argento's Masters of Horror entry was pretty good though. I've been debating seeing his OPERA for the horror countdown as I've never seen it? Can anyone state a review?

    I remember liking FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, at least as much as I can like a Rodriguez. I didn't like PLANET TERROR at all--and I saw GRINDHOUSE multiple times at the theater.

    Speaking of gore, and Tarantino buds I got around to HOSTEL 2 finally. What a poor film, Roth is such a freaking hack. But he does have great taste in the films he cites, which makes his inability to make a good film so strange.

    Speaking of Savini, I was thinking we need to have a 'top 10' savini films in the countdown. He's such a titan in horror circles, and rightfully so. That exploded head in THE PROWLER, or his own in MANIAC! really are something to behold.

  8. Jamie -- With Argento, don't take the time with anything post-OPERA. A couple of them have some moments, but they are mostly terrible.

    However I (and Kevin is the same on this) am a fan of pretty much everything up to and including OPERA (with CAT OF NINE TAILS being the one dud of this period). SUSPIRIA is the go to one, for sure, but I'd give TENEBRE and DEEP RED a go to see his brand of giallo, and PHENOMENA and OPERA can provide some fun as well.

  9. And yes, Savini does a damn good exploding head (I remember when Kevin and I watched BOTH of those movies we had to rewind and rewatch the exploding head scenes...).

    I'm all for a tribute to Savini's gore effects.

  10. Troy:

    I too am a HUGE fan of Savini's work, both as a makeup genius and as an actor. He and Rob Bottin are legends in the field.


    I also wanted to add that I just bestowed the Versatile Blogger Award for all the great work you do on your blog:

  11. To everyone:

    Thanks for the comments. I'm just now getting caught up with stuff after slipping away for a little mini-vacation. I'll respond to specific comments later today. Thanks again!

  12. yeah Troy I've seen all those except for OPERA. My three 'masterpieces' I count to Argento are BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, DEEP RED, and SUSPIRIA (probably in that order). So it appears we have similar feelings about him.

  13. Jamie I would agree that those three are the greatest Argentos, though I would have SUSPIRIA first. But CRYSTAL PLUMAGE has a place in my heart as I vividly remember seeing this as a teenager in the movie theatre. It scared the beejesus out of me. I know some feel it's flawed and dated, but it still works!

  14. Drew:

    I've seen Full Tilt Boogie and remember really liking it. It was at that point that I knew I was going to like Clooney as an actor on the big screen.

    You're right, too, about Parks essentially revising his role here in Kill Bill. He's a great, chew-the-scenery type of actor...kind of like John Saxon, who also briefly appears in From Dusk till Dawn.

    Don't water your time with Frankenstein. It's horribly overblown. Oh, and Inferno is definitely worth a look...even if it is ultimately flawed.

  15. Now, it seems like all blood just looks like oil sprayed from a geyser, with, splattering here and there.

    And there we have it. Yeah, Troy, that's my biggest beef with modern horror, and it's one of the reasons why Mother of Tears bothered me so much. It was so vile in its excess, instead of being gleefully maniacal. Inferno has some really great moments, some that make me think it is -- at times -- better than Suspiria...but man does that Emerson soundtrack ruin a lot of great scenes. What was Argento's deal with bad prog/metal? Opera was the same way.

  16. J.D.:

    First, thanks for the award mention. It means a lot. It's humbling to know that people out there like what you do. Second, I love that line, too! Although, my favorite would have to be: "C'mon Sex Machine!"

  17. Sam:

    Thanks for stopping by and for linking this in the latest Monday morning diary. You guys make it easy to be enthusiastic with what you do over there.

  18. Bob:

    You say -- And Mother Of Tears? Oh my goodness...Ugly, needlessly cruel, boring, way too serious and I might even say misogynistic. Simply not a drop of fun to be had.

    Yup. That about sums it up. Horror films are supposed to be viscerally entertaining. Mother of Tears just plodded along towards its inevitably cruel and ultra violent ending. I agree that this is the most misogynistic an Italian horror film has been in quite some time. Michele Soavi...we need you back!

    Thanks for stopping by, Bob, and for leaving a comment.

  19. Jamie:

    I like the idea, too, of a Savini top 10. Also, you should really check out Opera. Along with Soavi's Stagefright it's the best example of Italian horror melding with the American slasher in the late 80's when the subgenre was pretty much fresh out of ideas, and creating something exciting and exhilarating. Although be warned: Opera has a horrendous heavy metal soundtrack throughout, so a lot of the horror and terror of the moments and the set pieces (which are great and memorable) are kind of lost because of the annoying soundtrack that doesn't fit the mood AT ALL.

    Still, it's worth checking out (although Soavi was doing much better work than Argento at this point).

  20. My favorite Argento's:

    Deep Red, followed by Suspiria, followed by The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and then something like Opera or Phenomena or Tenebre rounding out the five...depending on my mood.

    Deep Red is without a doubt his masterpiece, though. It takes all of the great ideas and wonderful aesthetic touches found in Bird and amplifies them to a level that became so effective that the film became the template for the insane experience that was synonymous with Italian horror.

  21. Quick FYI Kev, I put you up for the Versatile blogger award.