Tuesday, December 31, 2013

John Frankenheimer: The Manchurian Candidate

One of the driving forces behind this retrospective was the urge to revisit The Manchurian Candidate. I hadn’t seen the film since high school film class, but Frankenheimer’s film — the last of three released in 1962 — is one that I’ve always had the urge to revisit but just have never gotten around to. It’s a classic thriller containing classic performances (Frank Sinatra was never better), sure, but as Roger Ebert stated in his Great Movies essay: "The Manchurian Candidate" is inventive and frisky, takes enormous chances with the audience, and plays not like a "classic" but as a work as alive and smart as when it was first released.” I love the use of the word “frisky” and “alive” because The Manchurian Candidate has an energy that not one of Frankenheimer’s films to this point in the retrospective have had. It not only was, to that point, the best showcase for Frankenheimer’s style, melding brilliantly his experience with live television and aesthetic flourishes (deep focus, handheld, tilts, et al.) that he had been fine-tuning on those previous films, but it was also his most efficient and effective and popular film, and it arguably remains so to this day.

The Manchurian Candidate is exhilarating and darkly funny and emotionally exhausting; it’s also endlessly fascinating — as both paranoid thriller and political satire (the fact that we can’t trust politics at face value is nothing new in the era of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” constantly lampooning our inept government, but it is nevertheless relevant and effective still as satire even if it may not seem as effective as it once was). It’s not just the film’s narrative that is enthralling, though. The mythos surrounding the film’s production and whether or not it presaged the assassination of John F. Kennedy, as well as the subsequent snags the film’s distribution faced because of what the film may or may not have presaged, is ingrained in popular culture.

For the one or two that may not know what the film is about: The Manchurian Candidate concerns itself with Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), who during the Korean War, is credited with saving the lives of two of his men, who have been reported missing, in combat. The platoon's commander, Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), suggests that Raymond be awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism. When Marco returns to the states, he suffers from a terrifying, recurring nightmare in which Shaw is hypnotized during a demonstration before military higher ups from different Communist nations. During the demonstration, Shaw is ordered to murder the two missing soldiers. Something about this nightmare keeps gnawing at Marco, and he wants to investigate further but has nothing but his gut to back up his claims of a massive government brainwashing conspiracy. However, Marco learns that another soldier from the same platoon has had the same nightmare, and when Marco get him to identify some of the men in the dream, Army Intelligence agrees to help Marco investigate his claims.

Raymond Shaw's mother, Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury in a movie-stealing performance), is the puppet master behind the political career of her husband, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory). The senator is essentially a McCarthy clone, claiming that a number of communists work within the Department of Defense. Raymond wants nothing to do with his stepfather or his mother, who is parading him around for photo ops and the like. Unbeknownst to Raymond, his mother is a communist agent with a secret plan to supplant her husband as vice president and then have her brainwashed son kill the president so that Senator Iselin can become the new (Communist) president. The catalyst: a playing card. And when Raymond goes into his trances, it is due to the emergence of the Queen of Diamonds during a game of solitaire.

Okay, enough of that. Like I said, The Manchurian Candidate is so ingrained in popular culture that one doesn’t really need a detailed plot synopsis do know what the film is about (the image of the Queen of Diamonds is synonymous with the film’s primary theme). There are so many things that amaze me about the film, and the performances are right near the top of that list. Arguably the best performance Sinatra ever gave (I know many prefer The Man with the Golden Arm), his portrayal as the haunted Marco is great stuff. Notorious for just wanting to do one take (this bit Sinatra in the form of a broken finger during the film’s famous, claustrophobic fight scene with Henry Silva), Sinatra plays Marco’s desperation to figure out the conspiracy brilliantly. Especially in the scene near the end where he plays solitaire with rigged deck in order to get Shaw to tell the truth about the conspiracy.

Lawrence Harvey is quite great, too, although it’s a more subdued performance. The way he acts with his eyes is one of the most memorable things in The Manchurian Candidate. During the aforementioned scene of solitaire, where Marco is playing with the rigged deck, Frankenheimer films Harvey in extreme close up so that we feel his despair (and the paranoia that underlines the scene) — as if we could walk up to the screen and wipe the beads of sweat off of Harvey’s face — and his sad, sad eye say so much. It’s a helluva bit of acting on Harvey’s part, and it all seems so effortless. The way he plays Shaw as the hapless pawn who has serious women issues (established early during the film’s opening scene in a Korean bordello and hammered home by his awkward interactions with his overbearing mother) is just one of the reasons why the film is so unforgettable.

The real show-stealer, though, is Lansbury as Iselin. Already having played a similar character in Frankenheimer’s All Fall Down (which was the reason for her being hired as Sinatra insisted on Lucile Ball for the role, but once Frankenheimer showed him Lansbury’s performance as Warren Beatty’s overbearing mother in All Fall Down, Sinatra was all-in), Lansbury plays Shaw’s mother as the proper doting, overbearing — she’s also maniacally evil in her civility. She knows just when to bring moments from Raymond’s tortured past (a forbidden romance with a girl on a summer vacation) to needle him and remind him how much he needs her.

And in one of the film’s most terrifying scenes, she sits with her son and tells him what he’s going to do (“you are to shoot the presidential nominee in the head” – the matter of fact way she says that is chilling), laying out the plan for her husband to take the reins of the country after the presidential nominee has been killed by Raymond (“the speech is short, but it is the most rousing speech that I have ever read”). The whole thing is chilling because of how Lansbury plays it low-key. She could have easily shouted these lines or made them more menacing by implementing hokey acting tricks like some kind of silent movie villain twirling their mustache; however, she very plainly, very confidently lays out the plan for poor, hapless Raymond as if it’s just another conversation.

Apparently the character was toned down considerably from the source material. In the book, Iselin uses the brainwashing techniques to have sex with her son. Wisely thinking that audiences in 1962 wouldn’t go for such a plot point, Frankenheimer had Lansbury play that part of the role very minor (the only hint is the scene near the end where she kisses her son on the lips — I believe this was the compromise). Her portrayal of Iselin as the puppet master vicariously living through the two weak-willed men in her life is one of the legendary performances in all of cinema.

The Manchurian Candidate is also notable for being the film that stands above all others in Frankenheimer’s oeuvre. Only his fifth film, Frankenheimer peppers The Manchurian Candidate with all kinds of signature visuals (a two shot where one character is in focus in the foreground and the other, in focus as well, is in the background is his favorite), and the surreal images and vérité style were not that common to American film at the time. Obviously Frankenheimer is influenced by these styles, but he also implements the documentary he loves to use to evoke that things are really happening at that moment. This is found at the end during the convention and the press conference earlier in the film.

Frankenheimer, like he does in a lot of his film, uses his experience (and techniques he helped innovate) in live television to evoke a sense that the things we’re watching are real/are really happening at that moment. It’s really quite something (the fantastic opening to his follow-up film, Seven Days in May, is even more indebted to this style), especially in those final moments in the convention hall. But for those final moments in the convention hall, Frankenheimer couldn’t figure out how to stage the setpiece where Marco identifies Shaw’s location logically, so he decided to use something out of Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent where a lone light in a window would locate where the assassin was hiding out. Frankenheimer even joked that was would be seen as plagiarism during the ‘60s would seen as homage today.

I like what Stephen Bowie on Frankenheimer’s Senses of Cinema page has to say about this style in The Manchurian Candidate:

“Amidst this documentary-styled mise en scène Frankenheimer plants a series of Buñuelian images and draws so little attention to them that the effect is, literally, hallucinatory. The ingenue turns up dressed as a gigantic playing card. One character is shot through a milk carton so that he “bleeds” white. And then there’s the rifle toting assassin with the Medal of Honor pinned directly beneath his priest’s collar. Frankenheimer places each of these moments in an utterly realistic context, never winking at the spectator to acknowledge their out-of-context absurdity. The tone that dominates by a fifth or a sixth viewing may be black comedy.”

The most memorable of these hallucinatory moments is the opening brainwashing sequence. Frankenheimer and his editor, Farris Webster (who also does a great job of cutting the fight scene between Sinatra and Silva), move seamlessly from subjective point of view to objective point of view in one virtuoso 360 degree pan. The scene begins with the objective point of view of Marco’s platoon sitting in a communist seminar to a subjective point of view of the soldiers attending a harmless and quite banal meeting of the Ladies’ Garden Society.

What makes the staging of Marco’s dream sequence so memorable and haunting is that it steers clear of the clichéd dream imagery found in most films (even though I like Spellbound’s Dali-designed dream sequences, they aren’t as unnerving as the unflinching presentation Frankenheimer goes with here). Instead, Frankenheimer slowly metes out the information in a single shot — drawing a nice comparison to the way the characters slowly draw card after card during their games of solitaire throughout the film — so that we go from the safe location and boring garden club seminar (the soldiers even yawn and look totally disengaged with their far-off stares) to a stage where the stuffiness of the garden club is replaced with the starkness of the Communist seminar backed by portraits of Stalin and Mao. It’s really quite something, and does a tremendous job — since it shows up so early in the film — of displacing the viewer in a manner that makes everything that follows all the more intriguing because of how Marco’s dream makes us think everything in this world is askew.

I also love what Frankenheimer and his production designer, Richard Sylbert, do with the blocking. Most shots are just one take (typical Frankenheimer two shot), but they both blanket the screen in political (mainly Lincoln) iconography. There’s a shot where Lansbury sits in the foreground and Harvey enters the scene in the background, but Frankenheimer stages the scene to almost make this a three shot by having a bust of Abraham Lincoln on the desk where Lansbury is sitting, staring at her. He also positions a lamp in a manner that makes the lampshade looks like Lincoln’s iconic hat. There are other scenes, too, for example where Senator Iselin sees his reflection in a portrait of Lincoln or when Frankenheimer has him dress up as Lincoln during the scene where the Iselin’s are at a Halloween party, which also includes the famous shot of Lansbury standing over the Queen of Diamonds costume (just as important an image as Lincoln).

Frankenheimer’s aesthetics often steal the show (and rightly so in many cases), but it shouldn’t ignored that his approach to the film’s narrative (aided by screenwriter George Axelrod) is what also makes it memorable as a dark satire. Like Bowie says in the quote above, it is certainly Frankenheimer’s straight-ahead approach to the material that allows the viewer to see it as a black comedy. The film never preaches its politics, and that’s because that wasn’t Frankenheimer’s intent — he set out to adapt the source material, and that’s it. They weren’t trying to make any grand political statement. And that’s why despite the film’s Cold War setting, The Manchurian Candidate doesn’t feel dated in the least. I also think that detachment from the material — that straight-ahead approach — helps Frankenheimer and Axelrod create the appropriate tone for the film, which Jonathan Rosenbaum called, “conceivably the only American film that deserves to be linked to the French New Wave, full of visual and verbal wit that recalls Orson Welles.” 

I can’t speak for this since I haven’t seen Axelrod’s films post-The Manchurian Candidate, but Stephen Bowie does make a point to mention that the reason the narrative works as satire on repeated viewings is solely attributed to Frankenheimer as Axelrod’s own attempts at directing satire (Lord Love a Duck and The Secret Life of an American Wife) were apparently the types of comedies that constantly wink at the camera and italicize every joke.

As we look at The Manchurian Candidate today, we think of it as being a presage to what occurred a year later with the assassination of President Kennedy and the subsequent assassination of the man accused of killing Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald (who many claimed was nothing more than a “Manchurian candidate”). Unfortunately a lot of the film’s provocative elements now seem common place in the political realm, and so seen through the lens of 2013 politics and the farce that American congress has become, The Manchurian Candidate's satirizing of politicians may possibly feel dated to some. But as a film — as a piece of brilliantly executed paranoid cinema — it’s of the highest order...timeless, I dare say. Frankenheimer was not yet a major filmmaker at this point, but he would cement himself within Hollywood as a major talent known for blending realism with visual metaphor and a kind of “What can I get away with?” mentality. William Friedkin called him “the best, most important, and most innovative filmmaker of his era.” I’ve yet to see enough that makes me think Friedkin is correct, but judging solely on The Manchurian Candidate, I can definitely see where he’s coming from.

Frankenheimer’s next film was another political thriller, Seven Days in May, which was unfairly criticized for being just another version of The Manchurian Candidate. It’s better than those criticisms suggest, but it lacks the darkly wry undercurrent of this film (it’s also really talky) and plays more like a Very Serious Message Movie than something that gets under your skin and continues to work on you. But really, what could have Frankenheimer done to follow up The Manchurian Candidate? It’s a career defining film, and it’s one of the great pieces of cinema from the 1960s.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Catching up with 2013: The Lords of Salem

The Lords of Salem is something special. The type of outré experience found in the best European horror films — a film that made me giddy with anticipation for each scene. I haven’t felt that way in a long, long time in regards to a horror film, and I could easily see myself slotting The Lords of Salem into my regular Halloween viewing rotation. Rob Zombie’s latest isn’t going to be for every horror fan — it’s far too much of a slow burn for it to appeal to the masses — but it’s so visually and aurally on-point, I cannot fathom how some are calling the film boring. Despite the film’s old chestnut of a narrative (Satanism/witches) suggesting that the whole thing may be old hat, and despite the film being slower than most horror films (there’s a surprising amount attention paid to characters, and Zombie gets some good performances from his leads), The Lords of Salem is never boring. It reminded me of some of my favorite Italian horror films (especially Fulci’s City of the Living Dead) and some of John Carpenter’s early work.

Perhaps those that didn’t care for the movie were merely unengaged in the story of Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), a recovering drug addict turned popular late night DJ. Her co-workers, Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman (Ken Foree) help round out the popular trio known as “The Big H Radio Team.” Like all DJs, they have their bits and their shticks, and one night while doing their show a mysterious wooden box appears for Heidi from an unheard of band calling themselves The Lords of Salem. Once the record is played on the show, all sorts of odd goings-on occur. The music is a huge hit in Salem, and really strikes a nerve with on-air guest Francis Matthias (Bruce Davidson, giving a great performance) who is writing a book about the Salem witch trials. However, Heidi seems to be hearing something completely different than the masses, for every time the needle drops on the LP, she begins hallucinating.

Or so we’re led to believe.It’s never explicitly laid out whether this is all in the mind of a recovering drug addict who has relapsed, or if this is a straight-up horror film. So, I guess I can see why some threw up their hands in frustration with Zombie’s film or shook their head in disbelief over people like me drooling over the film. It’s a tricky, different kind of horror film. And for that, I am grateful.

The film’s intentions are elusive, which adds to the dread that underlines every scene; it may not be obvious and explicit dread, but there’s something unsettling about The Lords of Salem that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and I love it when a horror film displaces me in that fashion than just trying to scare me with schlocky jump scares and cheap looking gore effects.

I hate when people qualify aspects of filmmaking simply because it is found in a “lesser” genre film, but I’m going to do it here (forgive me): the acting is pretty damn good. Not just for a horror film, but for a Rob Zombie movie, too. Zombie is no different than Tarantino in that he likes to pay homage to the films he grew up with by casting actors from the B-Movies he grew up watching. Here, he casts Foree (Dawn of the Dead), Dee Wallace (The Howling), and Meg Foster (They Live) in various roles to great effect. His wife, Moon Zombie, as the film’s lead plays Heidi to great effect. Her recovering drug addict actually elicits some poignant moment, a rare thing indeed for a horror film.

One thing I have been noticing more and more with Zombie’s films: he’s pretty good at directing actors. But perhaps nothing prepared me for how well he paced the film. There are some moments where Zombie really slows things to down to develop characters, and for that I was grateful; it makes the ambiance and dread resonate all the more.

One of the best things about the film is one of the best things about the horror genre in general: the element of surprise. In The Lords of Salem, lots of weird shit happens, yes, but horror films don’t require a fool-proof narrative in order to be successful — sometimes weird shit happens “just because.” And that’s okay and the best kind of surprise a horror film can deliver depending on the context of your horror film. Lucio Fulci (post-Zombi 2) was only ever interested in the image and the displacement of the viewer via the succession of his images. Zombie seems to be cribbing from the same playbook here. But that’s not a dig; no, Zombie is showing himself to be a better director with each film he releases, and similar to Tarantino, he is more and more interested in making a much broader, varied pastiche, which I think gives his films more energy.

Rather than just making his version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (House of 1000 Corpses, Devil’s Rejects) or just making his version of the slasher (Halloween and Halloween II, which was much better than his first attempt at being something more than just a remake), here the breadth of Zombie’s influences is greater as he seems to be making his version of The Shining, yes (the hallways of the apartment Heidi lives are like a more drab version of the hallways of  The Overlook Hotel), but also a Ken Russell film (in fact, Zombie stated that The Lords of Salem was conceived with the idea of being as if Ken Russell directed The Shining), and an Argento/Fulci type Italian horror film. And I don’t know about all of you, but out of that bunch, that last type of horror film is the most interesting to me.

Zombie and his cinematographer, Brandon Trost, are indebted to outré nature of Argento’s baroque horror films like Suspiria and Inferno, but even more so they seem to be heavily influenced by Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (the mummified priests that pop up reminded me of another Fulci creation: Dr. Freudstein from The House by the Cemetery, which got me thinking: if anyone were qualified to remake a popular Fulci film, it would be Zombie). The way Zombie and Trost shoot the Salem exteriors is eerily reminiscent of the way Fulci and his cinematographer, the great Sergio Salvati, evoked dread with those great tracking shots through the doomed city of Dunwich.

So, yeah, visually, the film evokes the great Italian masters like Argento and Fulci, but I also saw a bit of Michele Soavi in there. I can’t be sure that Zombie is a fan of Soavi’s La Setta (The Sect), but there sure were parts of this film, especially the ending, that reminded me of Soavi’s own take on the whole women-as-vessel-for-demon-child subgenre. And about the film’s ending: man, is that quite the setpiece. Some disliked the ending, and even though I agree in that I found the lead-up (very Argento) to the film’s coda more intriguing than the payoff, I still loved what Zombie was doing with that ending. I know that final montage isn’t for everyone, but I loved it — it reminded me of one of those gonzo montages Ken Russell would put in one of his films (more specifically Altered States).

The Lords of Salem has a very Euro Horror rhythm to it, too. Zombie and his editor, Glenn Garland, take a page out of Kubrick’s book by building dread by marking days of the week with title cards, each coming on the heels of a key scene that introduces each day of the week with more dread than the previous (my favorite being when Heidi walks by a grotesque figure in her bathroom...and then it cuts to the title card for the next day). It’s similar to what John Carpenter did in his great Euro Horror-influenced film Prince of Darkness. And it’s a great way to build tension despite very little actually happening on screen.

I think it is in the editing — the pacing — of the film that I was most appreciative of. I’ve already re-visited the film, and it’s one of those horror films that has a way of getting under your skin — its effects sustaining for days after — and it’s why I think it is one of those films that I could see slotting into my regular rotation of must-see movies on Halloween. It got to me in a way that is very similar to City of the Living Dead: the film has flaws to be sure, but there’s just something about it that gets me, and I think the editing and the way Zombie just lets his atmosphere do all of the talking.

Aurally, the film is a masterpiece. Zombie collaborates with his guitarist, John 5, to create a truly unsettling score (especially once the needle drops on The Lords of Salem record that drives Heidi crazy). I love that Zombie understands how to use sound to his advantage, which is so crucial for horror film (this should come as no surprise since he is a musician). The music stings are sometimes so subtle—the opposite of what modern horror tells us is scary—that we barely notice there’s music there; however, like the Heidi’s downward spiral thanks to the bizarre record she plays, I felt a similar displacement every time that musical would hum or thump in the background. It seriously unnerved me, which is exactly what I wanted it to do.

Zombie has claimed that he is done with horror. That’s too bad since The Lords of Salem is just gorgeous to look at. Cliché “Satanism horror film” iconography aside, it's just a pleasure to bask in the imagery on screen. However, it makes me glad that he’s so willing to step outside of the genre he is associated with. I like that he’s willing to go outside of his comfort zone. In fact, The Lords of Salem is so well made and so damn gorgeous to look at and such an affecting experience, that Zombie could be a seriously great director, not just a good genre filmmaker.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

John Frankenheimer: The Birdman of Alcatraz

Here’s what I know about The Birdman of Alcatraz: I hadn’t seen it since the summer when I started this retrospective, and I looking around for my notes, I could only scrounge up, “At 143 minutes, the film is way too long.” Insightful, I know. So, seeing how the film is on Amazon Prime at the moment, I decided to re-watch it since I honestly could remember nothing about it, and my notes weren’t offering any help. Well, I can confirm: at 143 minutes, the film is way too long. Like 43 minutes too long. The Birdman of Alcatraz seems to be a popular entry in Franklin’s oeuvre, but I cannot understand why this is. It has little-to-none of the aesthetic flourishes one would associate with Frankenheimer’s later work (as in later that year with the much, much better The Manchurian Candidate), and it boasts one of the most prosaic performances of Burt Lancaster’s (who I am admittedly not a huge fan of) career. The parts of the film that do work are buoyed by some great supporting performances by Karl Malden and Telly Savalas, and an impressive setpiece when the prisoners riots. Other than that, it’s a totally skippable film.

The well-known story is as follows: Robert Stroud (Lancaster) is imprisoned at a young age for a murder he committed in Alaska. He is taken to Leavenworth Prison where he has some run-ins with the  warden (Malden). While in prison, he learns of a situation where his mother was denied the right to see him. Angered by this, Stroud kills a guard and is sentenced to death; however, his mother stages a successful campaign to change the death sentence to life in prison, and the judge agrees so long as the terms include that Stroud spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement.

While in solitary, Stroud adopts a pet sparrow, which acts as the catalyst for him collecting different types of birds and cages. When the birds fall ill, Stroud experiments with a cure, and as the film’s story moves forward in time, we see Stroud not as a homicidal killer but as an expert on bird diseases (even publishing a book about the subject). Stroud eventually marries (much to the chagrin of his mother) and begins selling his remedies. However, he is transferred to Alcatraz — which was new at the time — where he is not allowed to keep his birds. And it is there where perhaps Stroud’s legend grew largest.

The rest of the film concerns itself with an again Stroud who is mostly shown as the reluctant rabble-rouser rather than the rebellious and ruthless inmate he supposedly was. Lancaster’s decision to play Stroud’s rebellious attitude as doing what’s best for his fellow inmates in the name of cruel treatment by the prison system is one of the film’s major flaws.

The Birdman of Alcatraz was Lancaster’s pet project. It’s far too serious, subjective, and self-serving to be an effective piece of filmmaking. Lancaster was inspired by Thomas Gaddis’ profile on the convict’s life and rehabilitation. It is said that it touched Lancaster deeply, and this is, I think, the film’s ultimate undoing. Lancaster is too much in the business of idealizing Stroud (again, known to be a prickly customer, even during his “Birdman” phase) that totally removes any intrigue from the film — handcuffing Frankenheimer and the writers so that it is impossible to view Stroud as anything but an angel. A much more interesting film could have been made about a conflicted, complex, and (yes) even dickish Stroud — who, despite being a convicted murder, does some good. But I didn’t feel like that was the person I got to see.

But, the dulling of Stroud’s rough edges was intentional. Lancaster made Stroud into more of an existential character — doing good despite the warden and other’s disapproval. This is a character type not uncommon to Frankenheimer films, but again, this version of Stroud (who Lancaster thought was more of a victim of the system than a cold-blooded killer) is nothing more than an avatar for Lancaster’s message: we need to rethink our prison system. A noble intent, indeed, but one that is too sugary-sweet  in its portrayal of a known psychopath to support a 143 minute prison drama. The film’s best scenes are when Stroud’s intentions are challenged, specifically in the scene between Lancaster and Malden. But moments like that are few and far between.

Frankenheimer does his best to light scenes in a manner that suggests as much space as possible — even though Stroud spent 43 years in solitary confinement, you’d never know by the way the film’s mise-en-scene. But this isn’t one of Frankenheimer’s more stylized efforts. In fact, this is more “A Burt Lancaster film” than a “John Frankenheimer film,” and even though the filmmaker was proud of the final product, he did voice regret over the chance to make the film he could have made out of the subject material. But since Frankenheimer came to the film incredibly late (he was honestly shocked that Lancaster wanted to work with him again after their not-so-great experience working together on The Young Savages), and Lancaster insisted on controlling every aspect of the process, it’s no surprise that outside of the prison riot, we don’t see a lot of what we associate with Frankenheimer.

So as it is, The Birdman of Alcatraz is a too-long drama with some decent supporting performances. But it can’t truly be considered a Frankenheimer film, and even if we were to consider it so, it’s not a very good one. It’s far too impressed with its own sense of moral duty and far, far too languid in its pacing (and not in a good, contemplative way) to elicit any kind of response beyond, “that was a professionally made movie.” No, the real show-stealer of Frankenheimer’s prolific year in film would be his third and final film of 1962, the brilliant (and still exhilarating and relevant) The Manchurian Candidate.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Catching up with 2013: The Way, Way Back

Tonally, Nat Faxon and Jim Rush’s The Way, Way Back reminded me a bit of Greg Motolla’s wonderful coming of age story Adventureland. Even though The Way, Way Back deals with younger characters, here we have a young male protagonist, Duncan (Liam James), using an amusement park to help him navigate the murky waters of his life that await him post-summer vacation. Those murky waters: which parent he’ll end up living with, each residing on opposite coasts. On the west coast is Duncan’s father, who always seems to have something going on and keeps his son perpetually hoping that he’ll be invited to stay with him. On the east coast — where the film takes place — Duncan’s divorced mother, Pam (the always great Toni Collette), is dragging him along to a beach house with her new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). There, all of the usual coming of age/Summer that Defined My Life stuff happens, with all of the usual characters that inhabit these type of indies (Allison Janney as the acid-tongued drunk and Sam Rockwell as freewheeling guru).

That’s not to say The Way, Way Back isn’t effective in parts. Rockwell and James are great together (especially their last two scenes, which trend more towards the dramatic), and Anna Sophia Robb’s performance as Susanna, the girl that (mostly) quietly observes Duncan’s behavior, finding him fascinating in the process. Janney and Carell seem mostly superfluous, though, and even though Janney does elicit laughs and Carell elicits cringes, they’re both just kind of going through the motions.

Superfluous and familiar character types aside, I appreciated Faxon and Rash’s reluctance to use narration or spell out some kind of usual coming of age epiphany via exposition at the end. The Oscar winners do a good job of keeping things humming and refraining from doing any kind radical character makeovers (in fact, I would say I liked this film more than the film they won their Oscar for, The Descendants, because this one is more earnest in that regard). Collette is always brilliant and worth watching, and Sam Rockwell puts a lot of energy into his role, yet he wisely knows when to dial down his shtick as Owen — the immature man-child that shows Duncan how to follow his own path (their introduction to each other, using Pac-Man as an obvious metaphor, is a great scene, but it tips its hand early in regards to what we’re getting with Owen).

But  it feels minor for the subgenre; The Way, Way Back is not as smart about young male life or as funny as something like the aforementioned summertime coming of age tale Adventureland, but it goes down just as smoothly. It’s a totally watchable and smile-inducing experience that is nothing memorable or note-worthy, but it’s perfect for a lazy afternoon/evening.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Catching up with 2013: All is Lost

J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost is a mesmerizing experience. One of the very best pictures of the year. Much of this, no doubt, is owed to the film’s lead — and only — performance. “Tour de force,” that oft-used cliché when describing an award worthy performance, comes to mind when describing Robert Redford’s performance as Our Man (the fact that he remains nameless and, for the most part, history-less is one of the many things I admired about the movie). And that is an appropriate way to describe Redford since all 105 minutes of the film is all Redford all the time, so the performance better engage the viewer, and it better be something that keeps the viewer always wondering what’s going to happen next. Redford is nothing short of phenomenal here. Redford’s face says it all: the look he gives when he knows he’s in some shit, the devastating look he gives his ship as he watches it sink, and the heartbreaking way he lets go of the tether to his life raft — fully aware that things are about to get even more bleak. There is also moment of realization on that life raft that is so frustrating, so deflating, that Our Man simply cannot hold it in anymore and yells out the most anguished “Fuck!” I’ve heard in quite some time. Is it to God (doubtful since he doesn’t add a “you” to the end of it)? To himself for being so careless? To the life he knows he will not return to? This little moment is just one of many where Redford says so much by doing so little.

Yet, as crucial as the lead performance is to the film’s success, All is Lost would merely be a “good” film and not a great and memorable film were it not for Chandor’s attention to details (there are so many moments where I found myself on the edge of my seat wondering what he was doing and why he was doing it, watching this character think and process and survive) and the film’s tremendous use of sound (in addition to the great storm scenes, there is a moment where Our Man goes back onto his sinking boat to retrieve some items, and the creaking and cracking and deep moans that emanate from the doomed ship are downright terrifying). The ending will no doubt be a point of contention for some (this will be one of those movies that I recommend to people, and they’ll probably wonder what the hell is wrong with me), but like all great works of existentialism, the ending can mean whatever you want it to mean depending on how you view the world — similarly, like all great existential works, it has the ability to make us inventory on our lives and think about the world in which we inhabit a little differently.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


As many of you know, the esteemed Dennis Cozzalio throws out these quizzes (about) every holiday. The one exam that I almost always supply answers for is the Christmas quiz. It comes at just the right time for me: I have had about enough of lull in blogging post-Italian Horror Blogathon, and I just about finish grading for the term when these things go live on Dennis’ blog. These quizzes always act as the perfect remedy to my blogging malaise. I look forward to getting back to it these next three weeks (I’ll be seeing All is Lost tomorrow), filling the blog with all kinds of nonsensical ramblings. Anyway, thanks to Dennis for another fine quiz. Here are my answers ...
1) Favorite unsung holiday film

I really like The Ref, but since I saw that answer somewhere else, I’ll go with Harold Ramis’ underrated black comedy The Ice Harvest

2) Name a movie you were surprised to have liked/loved

My mind is only going towards recent viewing experiences, so I’ll go with the totally surprising In Bruges—one of my favorite films of 2008—which, thanks to some truly awful trailers, was being marketed as nothing more than one of those awful pithy, self-aware post-Pulp Fiction comedies about criminals a la 2 Days in the Valley and Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead. In Bruges is so much more than that though. Anchored by a great Collin Farrell performance (and Ralph Fiennes doing his best impersonation of Ben Kingsley’s performance from Sexy Beast) and the always gorgeous scenery of Bruges, In Bruges is beautiful and funny and sad and violent and vulgar—and it’s all of those things brilliantly.

3) Ned Sparks or Edward Everett Horton?


4) Sam Peckinpah's Convoy-- yes or no?

YES! Just look at Kris Kristofferson in that picture!

5) What contemporary actor would best fit into a popular, established genre of the past?

Michael Shannon…in every genre, for the man can do no wrong.

6) Favorite non-disaster movie in which bad weather is a memorable element of the film’s atmosphere

Dean Treadway had a great answer for this one (A Simple Plan, one of my very favorite movies of the ‘90s), and I’m really tempted to just echo what he said…but I guess I’ll go with John Carpenter’s The Thing.

7) Second favorite Luchino Visconti movie

I’ve only seen one Visconti (The Leopard). Boo to me, I know.

8) What was the last movie you saw theatrically? On DVD/Blu-ray?

Theatrically: The Wolverine (yeah, I don’t get out much, but as I mentioned, I will be seeing All is Lost tomorrow)
DVD/Blu-ray: The Lords of Salem

9) Explain your reaction when someone eloquently or not-so-eloquently attacks one of your favorite movies (Question courtesy of Patrick Robbins)

My reaction is to listen.

10) Joan Blondell or Glenda Farrell?


11) Movie star of any era you’d most like to take camping

The juvenile male in me wants to say something like Keira Knightley…but since I’m a happily married man, I’ll go with Orson Welles…because it would be fun to eat S’mores and listen to his stories around a campfire.

12) Second favorite George Cukor movie

Adam’s Rib

13) Your top 10 of 2013 (feel free to elaborate!)

I usually don’t watch recent movies until I’m on Winter break. Since that just started, I haven’t seen enough titles to make a full list. The only 2013 films that I’ve seen that I like enough to put on an end of the year list would be Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem and Michael Bay’s (yes) Pain and Gain. The former is likely to make the cut once I’ve seen more films, the latter (I suspect) will probably fall into the “runner’s up” category.

14) Name a movie you loved (or hated) upon first viewing, to which you eventually returned and had more or less the opposite reaction

I remember not liking Blade Runner all that much when I first saw it in high school, but I love it now. I also remember loving The Last Boy Scout when I was in middle school. In college, however, I revisited it and found it abhorrent. I can only watch it now through a snarky lens. It truly epitomizes all that is awful about the Bruckheimer/Simpson action film of the ‘80s/’90s. I honestly have no idea why my mind went to Ridley Scott and Tony Scott movies right then…

15) Movie most in need of a deluxe Blu-ray makeover

I’ve been sayin’ it for years: Criterion needs to rescue Peter Weir’s Fearless. My full frame, snapcase copy mocks me from across the room. Peter Nellhaus just informed me via Facebook that Weir's film has finally been released on Blu-ray. So, I'll go with Francesco Barilli's masterpiece The Perfume of the Lady in Black, a little-seen Italian horror film that deserves a much larger following.


16) Alain Delon or Marcello Mastroianni?


17) Your favorite opening sequence, credits or no credits (provide link to clip if possible)

I’ve always loved Argento’s way of opening films. Of course there’s his most famous opening (and rightfully so) in Suspiria, and the opening to Deep Red is something else, too (thanks in large part to Goblin’s fantastic score), but I’ll go with the showiness of the opening (the reflection in the raven’s eye, the subjective steadicam walking out of the opera rehearsal) in his underappreciated Opera (arguably his best looking film).

18) Director with the strongest run of great movies

Recently, it’s been Tarantino. I love pretty much anything the Dardenne’s do. Bergman had some amazing runs, but they were interrupted by some not-so-amazing attempts at comedy. Out of all the choices (and there are many), I’ll go with the obvious pick of Hitchcock and his decade long run in the ‘50s of good (Stage Fright, I Confess) to great (Strangers on a Train, The Wrong Man, North by Northwest) to outstanding (Rear Window, Vertigo) films. Also, some of my very favorite Hitch films are found in the ‘50s (Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, The Man who Knew Too Much, The Trouble with Harry).

19) Is elitism a good/bad/necessary/inevitable aspect of being a cineaste?

On the right side of my blog, there is a quote from Tim Brayton that I think applies here:

"Clearly, this does not mean that Friday the 13th is more "valuable" than Jeanne Dielman [...] But, given the great many people who have seen Friday the 13th, where is the intellectual dignity in saying, "it's crap", and being done with it? Anything that has become an iconic part of popular culture is therefore inherently worthy of exploration if not automatic respect [...] If we simply throw it out with the bathwater, on the grounds that it isn't "artistic", we also throw out the possibility of ever finding out."

20) Second favorite Tony Scott film

Man on Fire


21) Favorite movie made before you were born that you only discovered this year. Where and how did you discover it?

A tie: 99 and 44/100% Dead and The French Connection II. I watched both on DVD for the Frankenheimer retrospective (which I will be starting up again after a looong layoff) I’m doing. Anyway, I’m glad I finally got to see The French Connection II because the rumors were true: it is better than the original.

22) Actor/actress you would most want to see in a Santa suit, traditional or skimpy

Can I use my Keira Knightley answer here?

23) Video store or streaming?

Video store, of course. Sadly, there aren’t any more in Salem. Some of my fondest memories are riding my bike after school to the local Mom and Pop and wandering through the Horror aisles, studying the images on those oversized clamshells.

24) Best/favorite final film by a noted director or screenwriter

It’s likely most will name John Huston’s wonderful The Dead here, so in the interest of mixing things up let’s go with Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. I also have a soft spot for melodramatic maestro Douglas Sirk’s final film, Imitation of Life.

25) Monica Vitti or Anna Karina?


26) Name a worthy movie indulgence you’ve had to most strenuously talk friends into experiencing with you. What was the result?

I don’t know how to really answer this one.

27) The movie made by your favorite filmmaker (writer, director, et al) that you either have yet to see or are least familiar with among all the rest

I adore Bergman, but I have yet to see Persona all the way through (I have seen the opening and other clips).


28) Favorite horror movie that is either Christmas-oriented or has some element relating to the winter holiday season in it

I could get wacky here and go with the so-bad-it’s-good classic Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 with its infamous “Garbage Day!” line making it an all-time favorite for me. But the only answer here is Black Christmas.

29) Name a prop or other piece of movie memorabilia you’d most like to find with your name on it under the Christmas tree

I want whatever is in that damn briefcase from Pulp Fiction!

30) Best holiday gift the movies could give to you to carry into 2014

Keep on truckin’

Friday, November 1, 2013

Italian Horror Blogathon: Postscript

Well, another blogathon is in the books. I’ve tried to get around to everyone’s blog to thank you personally, but if I haven’t yet, let me just take a moment to thank everyone that participated this year. I’ve said it in previous years, but I’m always blown away by how many of you are as interested in Italian horror as I am, and I’m doubly blown away by the amount of quality found in the contributions I receive.

So, thanks to Tim, James, Neil, Simon, Erich, Stacia, Hans, Lee, Dick, Brennan, Aaron, and Peter for your contributions this year. As I always, thanks to the readers. Let’s do this again next year (I’ve already created my watchlist). So thanks again, all! I appreciate your help in making this so much fun to do every year.

In case you missed anything, here are the links to the pieces written by the names mentioned above.

Also, here is what I covered for this year’s blogathon:

- What Have You Done to Solange?
- Spasmo
- Killer Crocodile
- Zombi 3
- Shock
- The House by the Cemetery
- Torso

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Italian Horror Blogathon: Links (UPDATED 10/31)

Hello, all!

Use the comments section to link to your pieces. Keep checking this space for updates. I’ll keep this post on top throughout the blogathon for convenience; my daily posts will appear beneath the daily link update. I look forward to reading everyone’s entries! And remember, you have until Halloween night to contribute something.

UPDATE (4:45): I will be out of the house for most of the night (which means I'll be away from my computer), but continue sending those links if ya got 'em. I'll try to post them from my phone. There's still time! Thanks so much for the contributions, all!

Happy Halloween, everyone! Sadly, today is the last day of the blogathon. I'll be updating the links page throughout the day; I'll also be posting my contributions for today a little bit later. 


- Simon sneaks one more review in...and it's an Umberto Lenzi TV movie, to boot. Consider me intrigued.

- Tim wraps up his contributions to this year's 'thon with a look at one of my personal favorites (obviously saving the best for last!).

- As I continue to read  Simon's blog, Creatures of Light and Darkness, I found more Italian horror related goodness that he covered in September.

- Goregirl covered her 10 favorite Lucio Fulci movies.

- Tim is back with his look at Lucio Fulci's A Lizard in a Woman's Skin.

- Simon finishes his three part look a greats and gems of Italian horror with a look at two of my favorites, Shock and The House by the Cemetery.

- James is back with a look Fulci's 8 1/2-esque A Cat in the Brain.

- Hans A., of the fantastic blog Quiet Cool, takes a look at  Lamberto Bava's oddball Deliria: Photos of Gioia.


- Tim is back with his Masters of Italian Horror series, he's already done entries for Argento and Bava, this time looking at Riccardo Freda's The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hichcock.

- Simon continues his Halloween Hootenanny with part two in a series that looks at greats and gems of Italian horror, this time it's Lady Frankenstein and Baron Blood.


- Erich Kuersten, author of one my favorite daily stops Acidemic, chimes in with a look at one of my favorite Italian horror films, Michel Soavi's StageFright: Aquarius (aka Deliria).

- Tim returns with a review of the Mario Bava classic Black Sunday.

- Simon's Halloween Hootenanny continues with what looks to be the first in a series of posts covering Italian horror.

- And Dick returns with another review, this time with a look at the The Embalmer.


- Aaron Fenwick, of the blog Tomorrow's Sound for Today's Swinging Generation, checks in with a review of one of Argentio's more popular efforts, Phenomena.

- Brennan, of the blog Popcorn Culture, offers up his first contribution to the blogathon with a look at Argento's first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

- Finally, James returns with two more capsule reviews. First, a surprisingly good Joe D'Amato film, and then he looks at one of my favorite so-bad-it's-good zombie movies.


- James returns with a look at the disappointing Baby Yaga and the late-era Bava Lisa and the Devil/The House of Exorcism, covering both versions of the much maligned film extremely well.

- Neil Fulwood returns with a look at Massimo Dallamano’s What Have They Done to Your Daughters?; a sequel to the great giallo What Have You Done to Solange?


- One of the things I love about hosting this blogathon every year is that it gives me a chance to be introduced to new blogs that I get to add to my daily reading list. Dick's The Oak Drive-In is just such a blog. His contribution is on 1971's Lady Frankenstein (which has one of my favorite posters with its line, "only the monster she made could satisfy her strange desires!").

- Neil Fulwood has always been a big supporter of this blogathon, and if you aren't reading his blog The Agitation of the Mind on a regular basis...well I just feel bad for you. Neil stops by this year with a look at Michel Soavi's Dellamorte Dellamore (aka Cemetery Man).

- Simon Wright returns with a look at Dario Argento's cut of Dawn of the Dead.


- Stacia, of the great blog She Blogged By Night, has been a longtime supporter of this blogathon and has promised to do an entry on Umberto Lenzi's Orgasmo for two years running now. However, the fates conspired against her every time she'd tried to watch the film, but in year four she finally checks in with a fantastic essay on Lenzi's 1969 film. Thanks, Stacia!

- Lee, of the Hougly Film Journal, has been commenting around here for a couple of years, but now offers up his first contribution to the blogathon with a look at Argento's first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

- James, of The Cameraman's Revenge, was quite prolific during last year's blogathon, and he's off and running once again this year with a look at the film that started it all, I Vampiri, and the film that is considered one of Bava's least interesting efforts (although he makes a case for it), Baron Blood.

- Peter, who authors one of my very favorite blogs Coffee, Coffee, and More Coffee, has contributed from the onset of this humble project. And this year, he doesn't disappoint with a look at the 1971 giallo Slaughter Hotel...wait, you're telling me there's a giallo starring Klaus Kinski! I'm there.

- How fortuitous, Tim, proprietor of my favorite blog on the interwebs, Antagony & Ecstasy, has a review of Dario Argento's Dracula 3D, which was recently screened at the Chicago International Film Festival (which Tim has been reporting on here) and conveniently coincides with the first day of this-here blogathon.

- Simon Wright, author of the blog Creatures of Light and Darkness, checks in with a look at two of my favorite zombie movies: Burial Ground (aka The Nights of Terror) and Cemetery Man; the former because it's so wacky, and the latter because it's just really damn nice to look at. He also checked out a few Italian horror flicks prior to the blogathon, so explore Simon's blog and check those out.

Italian Horror Blogathon: Torso (aka I Corpi Presentano Tracce di Violenza Carnale, aka The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence)

Sergio Martino’s Torso is one of the exploitation masters more popular movies. And that’ probably because it falls somewhere in-between the traditional giallo and the slasher film that would become popular seven years after its release. It’s not the best Sergio Martino film out there, but it’s an interesting look at a director that straddles the fine line between exploitative trash and legitimately good psychological thriller.

The primary question that swirls around Torso is whether one should consider it a proto-slasher or a traditional giallo. The answer to that question all depends on how one views the two female characters in the film: There’s Jane (Suzy Kendall, who for you Martino fans is essentially the Edwige Fenech of the film) and there’s Dani (Tina Aumont). Both are students at a rather quiet University for international students; however, the school and the community is rocked by when two of the students are found brutally murdered. Dani is a gorgeous art student who gets a strange feeling when she recognizes a red and black scarf that was left on one of the victims. A manhunt begins for the killer (who strikes a couple of more times), and Dani, fearing for her life, leaves the city with Jane and some fellow girlfriends, retreating to a country villa. To the surprise of absolutely no one that is familiar with the slasher subgenre, the killer stalks the girls, turning their vacation from the city into a nightmare.

So how do we answer the question above? Are we watching a proto-slasher or a giallo? The answer lies in the film’s two halves, two female characters, and its different titles. If we follow Dani throughout the first half of the film, then we’re watching I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale (The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence), a giallo with a literal title (that is indeed what happens to the victims) that leaves nothing to nuance. The first half of the film is very much a giallo in that classic sense: a foreigner involved in a murder mystery, black-gloved killer (although unlike most gialli, the killer, albeit masked, is not kept offscreen), sexualized murders, and a killer that has a few psychosexual quirks. So if we think we’re watching a giallo, then we probably think that Dani is the protagonist because it really feels like the film is going to settle in and focus on her since she holds the key (identifying the scarf) to solving the murder.

However, during the second half of the film when the girls get to the villa,  the film’s tone shifts. Here, Martino amps up both the titillation and the gore, and it is here that we realize that if we see Jane as the protagonist, then we feel like we’re watching a slasher, for Jane is thrust into a circumstance at the end that can be interpreted as a Final Girl sequence (although there is one moment that makes it a mix of both slasher and giallo). The film’s brusque American title, Torso, is a more apt moniker that gets right to what the second half of this movie is all about: a killer dispatches their victims with a bow saw in an extremely cruel and gruesome fashion.

It was around this time (1973) that the giallo was starting to establish itself as something more than just your basic “Krimi” inspired horror film. Sex = Death trope that became well-worn after only a few years during the ‘80s slasher boom is on full display here, replacing the more languid procedural elements of the giallo. Martino fills the villa with what looks like — with the benefit of ‘80s slasher knowledge — nothing but disposable characters that will be picked off one by one by the killer in a lurid manner (similar to what Bava did a few years earlier in Twitch of the Death Nerve). However, in a stroke of inspiration, Martino shockingly throws us for a loop by playing  off those expectations — giving it a different feel than Bava’s film and disposing of every girl in the villa, with the exception of Jane, in one off-camera moment. The subsequent scene where Jane discovers her friends’ bloody bodies splayed throughout the downstairs of the villa (something we would see in both Black Christmas and Halloween) is played wonderfully by Kendall (her wide-eyed, “holy shit what is happening” look reminded me of Marilyn Burns). The scenes at the villa are more visceral with a final 30 minutes that is essentially an extended (maybe the longest I’ve ever seen) Final Girl sequence that is incredibly tense and one of the best things Martino ever filmed.

A lot of the interest in Torso does indeed stem from it being a precursor to the slasher, which will no doubt pique the interest of hardcore horror fans. But Martino — an unfairly marginalized director, certainly not one of the “big three” of Italian horror but he deserves to be in the conversation in regards to the top five — seems to be up to something more than just mere titillation, and there is definitely more going on in Torso than it simply being a curiosity solely because it can claim “firsties.”  As is evident in his other gialli (The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, The Scorpian’s Tail, and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key), Martino was always interested in going for a psychological effect with his films, no matter how rooted they were in exploitation. With Torso, he does give us some wonderfully eerie and ominous shots of the killer (in particular a long shot of the killer in the foggy woods), but the killer is primarily left off screen during the murders.

It’s a tricky balancing act, too, since so much of Torso feels like Martino’s greatest hits. The structure is a bit all over the place (similar to his other films), and there are some scenes that feel out of place considering the more serious turn the second half of the film takes. I’m thinking specifically of the bizarre ménage à trois — set to an even more bizarrely displacing score by the De Angelis brothers that totally removes any sexuality from the scene — that opens the film, or the hippie party where a couple of groooovy pot-smokin’ college students try to get into the pants of the same girl, only to a get a cigarette butt put out on them for their troubles. Or the gratuitous bits of nudity that would be followed by said nude girls being murdered because...well because they had the audacity to be naked, I suppose. Make no mistake, though, Martino clearly wants us to notice all of the nude college girls, but the film doesn't take the point of view of the killer. It doesn't linger on the violence (the camera lingers very much on their alive bodies, though, with close-ups that are designed to disorientate rather than titillate).

The best example of this is during the film’s brilliant and horrifying Final Girl setpiece: As Jane crouches and hides, she must do everything she can to keep herself from screaming (and in one horrifying scene retching) while having to watch one of her friends get cut up with a bow saw. Martino wisely keeps things uncomfortably quiet during the scene (throughout most of those final 30 minutes, really) as she watches wide-eyed at the horrifying acts being done to her friends taking place right in front of her. The blocking of the scene (the dead body obscured by furniture) and the framing of these shots is quite ingenious in how it suggests the brutality.

One would expect Martino to rub the audience’s nose in the ugliness — to linger on the lurid nature of the violence — however it’s possible to interpret Martino's lingering as a means to implicate the audience in the act of watching. I guarantee had Torso been released in the middle of the slasher glut, people would be talking about what a brilliant postmodern attack it is on the subgenre. I don’t know if a director as well-versed in exploitation cinema as Martino is deliberately rubbing the audience's blood lust in their faces, but it certainly feels like something is going on a more psychological level here, which is a common current running through all of Martino’s films.

Torso is a typical Martino mélange of giallo, exploitation film, and psychological thriller. The first half of the film is the least interesting — mostly because it contains a slog of a mystery and the typical, albeit hilarious, exploitation bits found in other Martino films. It all feels like “been there done that” territory for those familiar with Martino’s work. However, once the film suddenly switches settings to the isolated villa, Torso becomes one of the best and most interesting of Martino’s films. Sure Martino was known as somewhat of a trashy filmmaker, but he was no hack as the the last half of Torso (and his other gialli) proves.  If you’re new to Italian horror, I don’t know that Torso is good enough to be in the same league as some of the best gateway gialli by Bava and Argento and Fulci, but for the seasoned fan of the subgenre, the last 30 minutes alone make it essential viewing.

Note: Formatting issues delayed this entry. I don't know why the text in these last two paragraph  isn't uniform with the rest of the post, but I couldn't figure out how to fix it. Obviously the screengrabs did something to the text. Oh well. Enjoy the awesome, albeit NSFW, trailer below. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Italian Horror Blogathon: The House by the Cemetery (aka Quella villa accanto al cimitero)

Lucio Fulci was on something of a roll when The House by the Cemetery was being filmed. Coming off what was his most creative stretch of films, Fulci was definitely establishing himself as the maestro of a particular brand of otherworldly horror. Aided by screenwriter Dardono Sacchetti and longtime partner cinematographer Sergio Salvati, this third entry in Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” series (which also includes City of the Living Dead and The Beyond) is the most neglected of the three films that make up the unofficial trilogy. Even though it doesn’t have the more memorable moments of visceral gore a la City or outré ambiance a la The Beyond, it is certainly one of the Italian horror master’s best films — with an emphasis, more than most of his non-giallo films, on character development and a slow burn, Gothic mood — sadly overshadowed by the films that came before and, more infamously, the films that followed. I was floored by my recent revisit of the film; I had seen House by the Cemetery three times prior to this viewing, and I have to say, my admiration has grown exponentially for a film that I initially didn’t think much of.

The film opens with a girl and her boyfriend sneaking into an abandoned house for a quick cuddle. The boyfriend wanders off, and as the girl looks for him, she stumbles upon his dead body and lets out a scream before a hand wielding a knife enters the frame. The knife then proceeds to go through the girls head, and in one of Fulci’s more famous effects (seen in the trailer below), the end of the blade comes out of her mouth. The girl’s body is then dragged away by the unknown assailant into a dark doorway just as the camera pans up from the floor to the (creaking) door closing, leaving the viewer without an answer. The film then cuts to the exterior of the house while the credits role. The opening feels very much like an American slasher (the tagline to the American poster is even quite slasher-y with its tagline: “Read the fine print: you may have just mortgaged your life,” which is an amazingly awesome tagline) and not at all like what follows, which is Fulci’s take on American favorites The Shining, The Amityville Horror, and Frankenstein.

The story proper begins on the same exterior shot of the house, only as the camera zooms in, we see a little girl peering through the curtains, mouth agape, looking out the window in an horrified fashion. Fulci freezes the frame and then zooms out to reveal that the girl is in a portrait that young Bob (Giovanni Frezzi) is starring at. Bob — who we will learn is an obvious takeoff of the Danny Torrance character — is the son to Norman and Lucy Boyle (Paolo Malco and Catriona MacColl), who live in New York but move to Boston for six months so he can take over his colleague’s (who killed his mistress and himself) research. Bob asks his mother who the little girl is, confusing Lucy. He tells her, “the girl in the picture.” Of course when Lucy looks at the picture, the girl is not there. However, when she leaves the room after telling Bob to quite joking around with her and pack the rest of his toys up, Bob looks at the picture again to once again find the little girl staring out the window.

This opening few minutes is atmospheric and intriguing (especially thanks to Walter Rizzati’s score), but the minute we hear the dubbing for Bob, it immediately takes us out of the movie whenever Bob is on screen; it’s that bad (there is a special feature on the DVD where Frezzi acknowledges the awful dubbing, good naturedly attributing this monstrosity that was out of his control to his popularity among horror fans). Thankfully, Fulci and his crew calibrate, making the awful dubbing (a staple of Italian horror, sure, but Bob’s voice is beyond even the most egregious Italian dubbing) an afterthought.

Back to the plot: as the Boyle’s move to Boston, they come to find that the house they were initially supposed to stay in is no longer available. However, one of the real estate agents, Harold, suggests “the Freudstein place” much to the chagrin Harold’s real estate partner Mrs. Gittelson (Dagmar Lassander), who takes Harold to task for not referring to it as “Oak Mansion,” which immediately causes Lucy to feel apprehensive about moving into this house. But Norman is so eager to get into his colleague’s aborted research that he agrees to take the keys belonging to the Freudstein house.

Bob, sitting in the car waiting for his parents to come out of the real estate office, sees the girl from the photo and shares a conversation with her from a distance, hinting that the two have the same kind of psychic/supernatural connection. As soon as Bob moves into his new house, she begins playing with him on a regular basis, warning him and his family of imminent doom if they stay in the house. One afternoon she shows Bob the tombstone belonging to one Mary Freudstein — located outside of the house they’re stating in — informing him that she isn’t really dead.

Meanwhile, Norman begins to hear strange noises coming from the basement, people in the town keep insisting that they’ve seen him before despite his claims that he’s never been there, and Lucy finds the tombstone — in a great reveal — for one Jacob Freudstein under a rug while she sweeps up around the house. Norman eventually finds out that Freudstein was an experimental Victorian surgeon who conducted illegal experiments in his basement. Hmmm. This knowledge seems to unlock a flurry of unfortunate circumstances (signaled by blood flowing from Freudstein’s tombstone) where people connected to the Boyle’s are being murdered by the mysterious killer from the opening of the film, who then drags them away to an unknown location.

The House by the Cemetery applies more of a slow burn approach to its story and setpieces. The idea that the townspeople seem to think Norman has visited the town before and that he has a daughter and not a son are admittedly little things, but they add enough intrigue to keep one watching. Fulci really lets things develop, and even though there isn’t that sense of dread that pervades every moment like his previous two “Gates of Hell” films, the attention to character detail here (that isn’t really found in his other two films of the trilogy) adds some dramatic weight to those tense final moments. Perhaps more than any other film he made, it really felt like Fulci was going for a Gothic horror atmosphere with this one.

This committed approach to make a Gothic horror really gives Fulci’s DP, Sergio Salvati, a chance to create some memorable, Gothic images (big empty mansions, cobwebs, shadowy corners, et al) that are evocative of Bava. Unfortunately, this would be the last time Fulci worked with Salvati, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s the last time a Fulci film had this kind of atmosphere in it. Perhaps more important than any other director/cinematographer collaboration in Italian horror, Fulci and Salvati really brought out the best in each other (Salvati was just as responsible for what made the likes of Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes, Zombi 2, City of the Living Dead, and The Beyond so memorable). Just a cursory glance at both of their IMDB pages suggests they were creatively stunted after they stopped working together. 

One of my favorite touches of Salvati’s is in the way he switches his aesthetic approach throughout the film, flipping back and forth between a sweeping camera and handheld. In one of the film’s best scenes — it’s both a great setpiece and tremendous moment that moves the narrative forward, something Fulci became increasingly less concerned with in subsequent films — we watch as Norman listens to his colleagues notes over a tape recorder. The camera cuts away from Norman in the library listening to the recording, but we can still hear the message from the recorder  (the use of diegetic sound from the tape recorder playing over this scene portends doom in a way that reminded me of The Evil Dead) as the camera zooms in on Norman’s eyes and then cuts to the cemetery outside of the house, switching to an handheld approach, walking the viewer through the cemetery, into the house, and up the stairs before we hear the word, “blood” echo from the tape recorder, triggering blood to poor out from Freudstein’s tombstone.

At this moment, the camera continues with its handheld aesthetic as it makes its way down the stairs of the basement — crudely gliding over the tables of dripping blood and severed limbs — before zooming in on the image of a corpse with an eviscerated stomach. This handheld approach makes the reveal of what’s been going on in that basement (apparently Freudstein has been collecting body parts and using his victims’ organs to regenerate himself) resonate more viscerally than the more deliberate, Bava-inspired camera dollies used throughout most of the film. Salvati employs the same tactic when Freudstein finally appears onscreen (more on that in a bit) as the shooting style is switched  to add more immediacy and menace to Freudstein’s presence.

It isn’t just an atmospheric horror film, though. Don’t fret hardcore Fulci fans, there are still plenty of those classic Lucio Fulci moments throughout The House by the Cemetery: completely arbitrary moments that displace the viewer (a mannequin in a store window has its head fall off, spilling blood everywhere in a scene that rivals the “What the fuck!?” moment from The Beyond where a random vial of acid falls on a woman’s face); extremely deliberate, “I dare you to look at this” moments of gore; an animal attack (this go-round it’s a bat in what is one of Fulci’s least inspired moments — flesh-eating spiders from Hell it is not); and a loose dream logic narrative structure that plays more like a nightmare (again, though, really toned down compared to the other two films of this series).

It should be noted that the palpable detachment found in later Fulci’s films is not evident here. In addition to the Gothic atmosphere he tries to establish, the other thing Fulci still seems to be invested in is the visceral nature of the film (although to be fair, even if I hate the movie, he did seem invested in that regard with The New York Ripper). The gore here doesn’t occur as often as it does in his previous films, but it is still really gory. The film’s most gruesome setpiece — Mrs. Gittelson being fireplace-pokered to death — was supposed to be even more brutal than it already is. In the scene, Mrs. Gittelson enters the house to tell the Boyle’s that she’s found a new house for them. However, she is approached by someone/something (okay, it’s Freudstein, who Fulci wisely leaves off camera until the end of the film) and gets a fireplace poker in the jugular for her troubles.

The scene plays out like a lot of Fulci gore setpieces with its overtly languid approach in regards to the moment the fireplace poker penetrates the woman’s skin. This is typical Fulci “I dare you to watch this” filmmaking, and it was intended to be the most graphic scene of Fulci’s oeuvre. When her body is being dragged away (this is one gory image), the remnants of what’s left are much more gruesome than initially implied by the fireplace-poker-in-the-neck scene that precedes it. There was supposed to be a scene where the caretaker’s head was brutalized by the poker as well, but they couldn’t execute it to Fulci’s standards, so the scene was cut (it was, it should be noted, not a scene that the censors cut and therefore has never been restored; I doubt the footage was ever kept). So if one looks closely at the woman’s body being dragged away, they’ll notice the poor woman’s face has holes in it. I don’t know what got into Fulci with this particular scene, but Jesus Christ is it brutal.

Oh, but just like the best Fulci films, The House by the Cemetery has so much more going for it than simple gore. Despite what the description of that previous setpiece suggests, Fulci is amazingly subdued here. The restraint he shows in saving the reveal of his monster until the very end is refreshing, and it pays off big time, for not only does Dr. Freudstein lay claim to one of the very best names I’ve ever heard in a horror film, but he is also quite simply one of the very best movie monsters I’ve ever seen. The ending comes off as doubly effective because of Fulci’s decision to withhold Freudstein for the whole film. All we have seen of Fredustein to that point is a hand here or foot there — always accompanied by a subjective point of view compete with creepy heavy breathing. This synecdochical approach to Freudstein’s reveal seems appropriate since his MO is to take body parts from others to restore his own body. So the ending is that much more meaningful because the reveal of the monster (who is only screen for maybe 5-10 minutes at the very end) is treated as something special.

About that ending: it is as good a setpiece that Fulci filmed, containing an ending with a twist that has the appropriate  “what the fuck just happened?” tone to it for an Italian horror film. And because we know that Italian horror films tend to favor nightmarish (il)logic more than narrative coherence, I was kind of on board for that ending. The logistics of the final scene made me think of The Beyond in the way it plays with time and space. It’s not as confounding as that weird freeze frame/cracked lens effect Fulci uses at the of City of the Living Dead, and it’s not quite as eerie and unsettling as the ending of The Beyond (where our characters are surrounded by a vast sea of nothingness), but it evokes a tone that falls safely somewhere in the middle of those two endings.

And really, a lot of The House by the Cemetery will feel that way to people: safe. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this piece, House doesn’t have teleporting zombies and a ghost priest that makes people regurgitate their innards, nor is it an ethereal horror masterpiece and one of the greatest horror films ever made. Even though the productions of the “Gates of Hell” trilogy all overlapped, and are very much of a piece (notice the similarity in settings that act as gateways: the bowels of the hotel in The Beyond, the catacombs in City, and the basement in House), they each offer something different. The House by the Cemetery is certainly the most subdued of the three.

“[T]here’s no logic to it, just a succession of images” is the way Fulci described this loose trilogy, and for the first time I started to notice that all three films, to quote Stephen Thrower, “haunt each other.” Fulci overlaps design (the inside of Freudstein's house looks like the inside of the Seven Doors Hotel), actors (MacColl, specifically), music, and cinematography (although Salvati went for look that's just a touch different with this one, they all definitely feel like some kind of eerie continuum, working together to fuck with the viewer) that give all three films a sense of déjà vu.

As I watched The House by the Cemetery again, I really began to notice how it shares a lot of the same eerie and atmospheric exterior shots as City of the Living Dead, or how it shares the kind of “I dare you to look at this” mentality of drawn-out gore scenes that are downright sadistic and nightmarish in how slowly they play out found in The Beyond. Scenes from each film become more intense and resonate more deeply because of our knowledge of the other films in the series. Because of this, I was able to appreciate House on a much different level than I had in the past; it unnerved me more because I was able to see how it worked in conjunction with the other films in the series, which gives it this kind of cross-tension that is unsettling because even though we aren’t watching the other films, they’re still affecting us. Prior to this viewing, I was always indifferent towards The House by the Cemetery; now, however, I think it rivals Don’t Torture a Duckling, Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes, and Zombi 2 as a candidate for Fulci’s second best film.