Occultober – Day 15 – Suspiria

Suspiria
When most people think of Dario Argento’s delirious candy-coloured 1977 masterpiece, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t normally the occult. It isn’t the witches hiding within the European dance school, the specific powers held by The Mother Of Sighs (aka Mater Suspiriorum) or even the possibility that those powers were assumed by the young American student who defeats the coven leader in the end.

No, what most people immediately bring to mind is the gorgeous style of the film: the Lite-Brite infused cinematography, the tension of the great prog-rock soundtrack by Goblin (essentially Argento’s “house band” for several films) and the onset of a slow burn of an LSD trip. It’s the kind of movie that is praised for each of its film frames possessing the ability to be framed separately as a piece of art. People rhapsodize about its numerous set pieces – like the early hanging that crashes through a glass ceiling or the discovery of the coven towards the end of the film – as well as its many finely crafted images that stick with you (a set of eyes at the window, an invisible shape framed by lightning, etc.). None of it seems to make much sense, but it doesn’t have to…

First of all, the nonsensical nature of the movie just adds to the creep factor. From that first blast of wind as the American student leaves the airport all the way to the last burning embers of the school, there’s an unsettling feeling to this movie. Each new Skittles coloured scene and every “why is there a room filled with barbed wire?” moment just adds to that sense that something is obviously askew here. Which gets us back to that coven of witches…

The supernatural is at play throughout the whole film – it controls the students, commands guide dogs and allows just about anything to happen. And that’s what a good supernatural/occult thriller should do – make you slightly uncomfortable and unsure about everything around you. The genius of Suspiria isn’t its narrative or tale of sorceresses. It’s the ability to make you look at those still frames and, even if just for a second, worry that The Mother Of Sighs might come right out and get you.

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Toronto After Dark 2014 – A Preview

 

As I’ve mentioned before, the Toronto After Dark film festival is quite close to my heart…I was there at its birth in 2006 and have attended every single one of its birthday parties since – whether it was in the old or new Bloor Cinemas, the Toronto Underground or in its recent digs at the Scotiabank. Every year has had its share of great and good films (and yes, a few not so great ones too) as well as memorable moments like the Funky Forest screening, the storm that blew out a projector, the Black Dynamite screening, the after after-parties, closing down Pauper’s Pub every night, and some damn fine Q&As by directors who are genuinely excited to be there.

Even though just about every film festival that has ever existed says “this will be our biggest year ever!”, all signs certainly point to this being a big one in the history of Toronto After Dark. With just a few days to go before the festival kicks off (it runs from Oct. 16-24 and screens 19 feature length films and 28 shorts), there are already 3 sell-outs and, according to their web site, apparently another 3 about to sell out. Good news for the fest to be sure, but not too surprising when you look at their lineup (all trailers can be viewed from the festival’s schedule page):

 

Thursday October 16th

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Housebound – This opening night film from New Zealand promises a haunted house set of thrills. Apparently it can back up that claim with an award from another festival as well as numerous good reviews floating around. I haven’t seen a really good haunted house movie in a while, so I’m pretty psyched for this opener and expect the fest will kick off with a rollicking crowd pleaser.

Suburban Gothic – Described as a “ghost-hunting horror comedy”, this could go either way – specifically because of the two words “horror” and “comedy” being put together. Oh sure there have been plenty of good ones, but if the director and cast can’t hit the proper tones, it can all fall apart. The cast looks pretty solid, and since TAD has been pretty good at kicking their festival off strongly, I’ll stay on the optimistic side for this evening.

 

Friday October 17th

Hellmouth – A portal to hell horror starring Stephen McHattie? Sign me up! Written by Tony Burgess of Pontypool fame? I’m doubly excited! Wait…Didn’t Burgess also write last year’s abysmal (at least in my opinion) Septic Man? OK, let’s call it even and just say I’m singly excited…

 

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ABCs Of Death 2 – I’m a big fan of horror anthology films, so the first ABCs Of Death sounded like manna from heaven. Turned out to be a mixed bag of Halloween treats – mostly of that crappy candy corn variety. To be fair, there were several really strong stories and rumour has it that this second installment has much more quality control on it and an even more interesting list of directors.

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A Month of Horror 2014 – Chapter 3

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Let’s dig into a few more tasty horror treats…In this post: Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, Monster Club, The Town That Dreaded Sundown and Gurozuka.

 

Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (Bob Clark – 1973)
I’m not sure how this “let’s get our friends together and make a movie” movie didn’t completely collapse into itself, but it somehow stayed afloat even if about 70% of the frame at any given time seems to be complete blackness. Fortunately director Bob Clark (Black Christmas and a c.v. of films almost as diverse as Robert Wise) wisely decided to clad his group of friends in brightly coloured clothing for their night time adventure through an island cemetery for fun & games and inspiration for their play. None of them seem to like each other, so calling them “friends” might be a stretch, but they all seem to follow the egotistical and nasty director who performs a number of rituals over the graveyard. Without really meaning to, he ends up accidentally waking a whole assortment of dead folks. The last 20 minutes of the movie actually work quite decently with the troupe trying to battle and escape the zombies, but it’s a bit of a challenge to get there.

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A Month of Horror 2014 – Chapter 2

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I‘m behind in my viewing, so I’m feeling a bit under the gun…After this batch it’ll be time to pick up the pace again. In this post: Dr. Terror’s House of Horror, Trouble Every Day, Night Of The Eagle and I Married A Witch.

 

Dr. Terror’s House Of Horror (Freddie Francis – 1965)
I’m a big fan of the old Amicus horror anthology films – titles like The House That Dripped Blood, Tales From The Crypt, Torture Garden and Asylum would give you 4-5 short horror stories with a variety of actors (as well as a bonus wrap-around framing device) and bring forth a great 90 minutes of entertainment. The tales weren’t really overly gory or jump-out-of-your-seat scary, but they excelled in bringing horrific ideas into 15-20 minute long stories with dashes of black comedy. Dr. Terror’s grab bag was the only remaining one of the Amicus omnibus films that had eluded me, so I finally caught up with it and it didn’t disappoint. With Peter Cushing dolling out the fates to 5 men he meets on a train (via tarot card readings) and Christopher Lee and Donald Sutherland amongst the leads of the individual scenarios, the film breezes by at a fast pace and introduces you to plants with their own brains, voodoo jazz, an artist’s disembodied hand, and a couple of different spins on vampires and werewolves. Great stuff.

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Occultober – Day 9 – The ‘Burbs

The ‘Burbs
Ah The ‘Burbs…A film that leaves some unmoved, but (after repeated exposure) settles comfortably into many people’s personal Top 20 lists. My own first encounter with it 25 years ago left me unconvinced. Fortunately, I felt a pull back to it years later…

When the film was released, Tom Hanks was already a “star” comedy name and had a few big hits under his belt (most notably Splash and Big), but also a few klunkers. Name recognition still got people to the theatres in 1989, but then they weren’t sure about what they found there – the comedy in The ‘Burbs was both subtle and broad, it had action, horror & satire and it warned us of the hidden evil that lurked in the bedroom communities of our major cities (not the first to do so, but one of the more clever attempts). Director Joe Dante certainly liked using the suburbs as his playground of choice and in this case even reduced his focus to mostly just one particular block.

New neighbours (as typically happens) get the tongues wagging and curiosity turns to suspicion turns to obsession. Outside influences and out of the ordinary behaviour in the cozy suburbs can be considered potential malevolent forces to be reckoned with, so Ray (Hanks) and his neighbours begin to track the movements of The Klopeks. There’s something amiss about them, so of course they must be piling up the bodies in the basement for some kind of cult-like activities. Whether or not there are indeed occult happenings on the same street where kids ride their bikes, six packs of beer get guzzled and newspapers are the only obvious signs of the corrupt big cities is almost besides the point – the movie revels in the paranoid actions of its trio of husbands trying to “protect” their environment.

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A Month of Horror 2014 – Chapter 1

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Skeptical about yet another set of October horror reviews? Can’t says I blame you, but I’m doing it anyway…My first 4 of the month: The Comedy Of Terrors, Pieces, Society and A Page Of Madness.

 

The Comedy Of Terrors (Jacques Tourneur – 1963)
A less than auspicious start. You would think that with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff all being directed by Jacques Tourneur (Jacques freakin’ Tourneur!) that you might end up with a bit more than warmed over gags, broad dull humour and an uninteresting story with staid visuals. But that’s exactly what you get here. Price and Lorre are occasionally entertaining just by their sheer presence as undertakers that need to create a market for their services, but it all becomes old pretty quickly. The musical score is possibly the worst part of the whole affair – it’s overbearing as it continually tries to tell you what’s funny with little whistles, blorps, xylophone runs and all manner of recycled generic bad kiddie TV show music. Painful at times.

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TIFF 2014 Review: A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence

 


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How do you review or even talk about a movie that you’ve eagerly (very eagerly) been waiting to see for 7 years? A movie that brings deadpan to new levels of dead? A movie that packs in little bits and pieces into carefully constructed frames with long shots and no camera movement? A movie that closes a trilogy on the “human condition”? I’m not sure, but I do know that I loved it. Every single static shot, every single pasty white face, every single line delivery, every single bit of marvelous set design and every single surprising image that helps build up Roy Andersson’s thesis about our species.

My affair with Andersson’s set of masterpieces (I truly do not bandy that word around easily) began with his 2000 film Songs From The Second Floor which seemed to gives us a singular view of purgatory. Operatic singers on subways, constant traffic jams and people laying in wait in fields make up a world that seems disconnected from the rest of humanity. The colour has been drained away from the walls, the clothing, people’s faces and life itself. No one cracks a smile, but there’s plenty of humour throughout (a lot of it dark) and moments of simply glorious cinema. Andersson followed this up seven years later with 2007’s You The Living – a film that almost made me burst out in tears at the simple beauty that was right in front of its characters but being missed on a daily basis. It’s a movie that excoriates those who choose to complain and whine about things they don’t have, pine for things they can’t have and ignore what they already have. Again, the static scenes force your eyes to roam the landscape of these constructed sets and rooms and pick up on Andersson’s themes while also laughing at the intrinsic head-slapping obliviousness of humanity. It’s punctuated by a set of scenes near the end that moves from a funeral to a honeymoon train trip to a woman in a bathtub singing that remains one of my favourite stretches in all of film.

So what about A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence? The third and last installment follows the same style as the previous two (thou there’s less pastel blues and greens this time out) while it works its way through what are essentially sketches that are loosely tied via characters – in particular a pair of entertainment gadget salesmen (the “classic” laugh bags are a popular product) who simply want to bring fun to other people even though they seem to take no joy in it whatsoever. There seems to be little fun for any of the inhabitants here though. They all seem to be chasing something with little regard for other people or wallowing in their own self-pity – instead of occasionally reflecting on their lives and the possibilities (like we presume the pigeon is doing as it pops up on the soundtrack occasionally).

Two key brilliant (and completely different) scenes cement this film for me…Firstly, a bar scene set in 1943 as the owner/bartender Limping Lotte croons a sales pitch to her customers about dollar shots to the tune of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah”. The military men at the bar sing back (using the same tune) that they would like a drink but have no money so what are they to do? This sets up a back and forth as Linda smilingly sings back that all she requires is a kiss if they are willing…And they are willing…It’s such a wonderful depiction of how humans can interact, can be kind to each other and can create these moments of wonder that I grinned like an idiot throughout it. Contrast this with the section “Home Sapiens” from late in the film – it starts with a monkey receiving electro shocks from an uncaring technician and follows it with a human rotisserie for slaves that, as it roasts them inside, creates music for the pleasure of the aristocracy. It’s a moment that sucked the air straight out of the audience’s lungs. An almost paralyzing silence came over the crowd as we were shocked and disgusted at this ridiculous concept – while also knowing that things equally as pointless and horrific have occurred in reality.

Which is the beauty of Andersson’s films – through absurdity, humour and the occasional stunning image, he brings you both the warmth and the horror of humanity. And leaves it up to you what to take away. There’s nothing else like it.

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TIFF 2014 Review: Whiplash

 


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Whiplash ends with possibly the most bracing cinematic moment of the year. A concert, some drumming and one helluva great resolution to the battle between the film’s two main characters. The music, the editing, the performances of Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons and the entire rhythm of the scene results in a glorious and almost breathless conclusion – one that made me, at scene’s end, let out a pent up “Yeah!”. I never do that, but simply couldn’t help myself.

But I’m getting ahead of things…Damien Chazelle’s Sundance jury winning film (which won the audience award too) delves into the freshman year of Andrew Neyman (Teller) as he enters the renowned Schaefer Music school to study drumming – specifically jazz drumming. Based at least somewhat on Chazelle’s own personal experiences with the drive to be the best and the constant pushing by teachers and rival students, the film focuses on Andrew’s unhealthy relationship with his teacher Terence Fletcher (Simmons). Andrew is desperate to please him as it would be a sign that he’s the best. He dreams of one day joining the legions of jazz greats and leaving behind a legacy. Fletcher, for his part, recognizes immediately that Andrew is a talent and brings him into the main performance band, but is relentless in his verbal abuse, intimidation and belittlement. Fletcher believes this to be the proper tactic to find the gems, but the relationship starts taking its toll…

Simmons is a powerhouse here. It’s a surprise to no one of course, but he is on fire in just about every scene with his eyes burning, insults spewing and his physical presence filling up the frame. Those insults thrown mostly at students have their own rhythm and almost feel like improvised drum fills with pauses and staccato punches. Teller is terrific too (he obviously has drumming talent to go with the acting chops) as he descends into obsession. The music throughout the film is tremendous and comes in fits and starts, sharp bursts and long workouts. The title tune is a standout and gets replayed several times as the band practice it and Fletcher has them redo parts over and over and over (he doesn’t discriminate who he tortures). The drums drive the film forward with a distinct pulse through raucous periods, through tension filled moments and even through a few of the quieter sections. It feels like the perfect vehicle to represent the insistent drive for perfection that consumes these characters. They may never reach it, but it’s possible the film itself did.

TIFF 2014 Review: Nightcrawler

 


 

Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler is essentially a perfectly crafted film. As it tells the story of naive scammer/thief Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), the film never once seems to hit a sour note or lag its pace. Through our initial intro to Lou, some fleshing out of his character, his discovery of a new possible career path and the film’s gradual shift to action and cynicism, there aren’t any dead spots or moments where you might question the film’s direction. It’s not due to any attempt to dull the audience’s senses through too many fast paced cuts or loud obnoxious songs, but simply because the damn thing is so incredibly engaging from start to finish.

Lou is a con man and thief who seems to get most of his ideas and conversation points from Internet education videos. After a few of his failed attempts at getting work (using his “selling skills”), he stumbles one night on a car accident scene and witnesses some freelance videographers taking footage of the wreckage and carnage. He learns that you can make money doing this by selling the videos to TV stations. He asks the videographer Joe (Bill Paxton) for a job and is rebuked. Being the “hard working individual” that he is, he decides to go it alone and buys himself a cheap camera (from the proceeds of a theft). Of course he makes a mess of it initially, but Lou has a unique skill – he learns from his failures and builds on them. After getting a sale with one of the stations, he starts to develop a relationship with the news producer Nina (Rene Russo) and becomes more aggressive at getting the kind of footage she wants. Knowing that “if it bleeds, it leads”, he gets a police scanner, an assistant named Rick (a great and very entertaining turn by Riz Ahmed) and aims for success.

As he gets better at it and even beats Joe at his own game, the confidence begins to build and the film picks up steam. He turns Joe down flat when he’s offered a partnership with him, spouts corporate platitudes to Rick (of particular note is his “performance review” to Rick which is both hysterical and depressing because of how accurate it mimics a corporate training seminar) and gets himself a bright red Mustang. When he manages to get to a crime scene at a private residence ahead of the police, he doesn’t hesitate to enter the house and get fresh footage of the victims lying in their own pools of blood. He also happens to get the criminals on tape as they flee, but he holds on to that video for his own purposes and doesn’t even share it with the police. One might say that his moral fibre is of the flexible variety. Things escalate at this point and the film has numerous scenes of delicious tension and one major set piece of action so perfectly created that the audience at my screening deservedly broke into spontaneous applause at its conclusion (it’s so good that you don’t realize you’ve been gripping your chair the whole ride). The film has little good to say about U.S. TV journalism, but does so in a manner that still manages to find an inciteful point of view. It’s not a happy one, but what news story is these days?

Blindspotting: Ride The High Country and Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid

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The Wild Bunch is not my favourite Sam Peckinpah film. There, I’ve said it. Even worse, though, is that I don’t particularly like it. The stylized violence in the opening and closing battles is everything I expected and more, but it’s all the stuff in between (if memory serves that is) that was thoroughly disappointing. The “characters” and their attempts at manly bonding felt forced and hurt the whole experience of the movie for me. Granted, it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen it and I owe it a rewatch, but I found that two other views of the Old West by Peckinpah – Ride The High Country and Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid – provided much stronger and more interesting characters while still splashing the blood around a bit. But they did it in very different ways…

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Ride The High Country is, for the most part, a classic Western. Told mainly via interactions between its male characters, its straightforward story reveals its themes of good, evil and redemption fairly early on and builds on them. Steve Judd (Joel McRae) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) are two former partners who reconnect in their later years to help bring back a deposit of gold to the bank. With the Gold Rush winding down, many questionable characters are trying to get a final crack at a stake and the bank doesn’t believe their gold will be safe without some protection. What Judd doesn’t know is that his old friend Gil and his young impetuous associate (named Heck) plan to keep the gold for themselves – whether Judd wants them to or not. Along the way up to the mining town, they stop for a rest at a ranch run by a strict religious man and his daughter Elsa (an impossibly young Mariette Hartley). She’s looking for a way out of the restrictive setting of the ranch she’s never been allowed to leave, so she tags along with the men when they leave the next day. She’s decided to go to the mining town to marry her fiancee who works there with his brothers. Somewhat predictably, all doesn’t go as planned…Elsa’s fiancee and his progressively creepier brothers see her presence as being useful for only so many purposes – mostly sex and cooking – and to be shared by all. On the way to the mining town, Heck and Elsa flirt a bit and Heck makes a pass at her. She rebuffs him, but he insists and she needs Judd to pull him off. Judd knocks Heck to the ground and is followed by Gil giving him the same treatment. Though it shows the goodness in these two old timers (both saving the poor “defenseless” woman), it creates an awkward follow-up scene when Elsa actually apologizes to Heck (I guess for not allowing him to fully take advantage of her) and he seems to be sulking. It is quite jarring from a modern day perspective to see Elsa do this, but it almost makes sense given the obvious hierarchy of man over woman in this early part of the 20th century and her desperation to keep moving away from her father’s ranch. It also establishes firmly where Heck’s morality is based and how he can only crawl up from there.

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Blindspotting: The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin and Five Deadly Venoms

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You may notice a distinct difference in the quality of the screen caps contained within this post. 36th Chamber Of Shaolin has a proper widescreen aspect ratio and clear image (straight from the Dragon Dynasty DVD) while Five Deadly Venoms has a poorly cropped 4:3 image that was obviously recorded years ago off TV to well-worn VHS (and then transferred to YouTube where I found it). Was I desperate to catch that second film and willing to watch anything I could source? No. It was actually a bit of a design point.

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Several months ago when I first mentioned this pairing of Shaw Brothers Kung Fu films for my Blindspot, it was suggested to me that I should swing on down to Chinatown and get my viewing copies there. After all, crappy, English-dubbed copies are how most people get introduced to Kung Fu in the first place. Though I completely saw the merit in the idea, I was against it for two reasons…First and foremost, I really can’t handle cropped films and bad dubbing – hell, even Fellini films dubbed afterwards back into their own language (as Fellini intended) drive me a bit crazy since things like intonation never quite match up quite properly when dubbed. I’ve been a stickler for proper aspect ratios since realizing what they were (somewhere during the mid-point of the VHS years) and mostly seethe if I come across a film on TV or DVD in a bastardized form. Secondly, I already had that copy of 36th Chamber on DVD sitting at home on my stack of unwatched films. But the idea of watching at least one of the films in the format in which I would’ve seen my first taste of Kung Fu was still somewhat appealing. My knowledge of Kung Fu is not extensive (loads of Jackie Chan, the more serious Come Drink With Me, the much less serious Mad Monkey Kung Fu and all sorts of clips and scenes from Sunday afternoons long ago), but when I think of it, I do indeed think of desaturated videotape stock, people being cut out of the frame and halting English dubbed in an attempt to match with the characters’ mouths. Oh, and enough whooshing and whacking sounds to make a foley artist break into a sweat.

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