Yet Another Month of Horror 2015 – Chapter 5

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Wrapping up the month with: The Serpent And The Rainbow, The Majorettes, The Flesh Eaters and The Ghoul.

 

The Serpent And The Rainbow (1988 – Wes Craven)
Thanks in part to Matt Price and his podcast “Let’s Scare Matthew Price To Death”, I’ve finally closed a huge gap in my horror knowledge by seeing – on screen no less – Craven’s enormously entertaining film. This past week Matt helped present Craven’s The Serpent And The Rainbow at The Royal cinema here in Toronto and then did a live on stage podcast directly after the film (inviting several other local podcasters to join him). I had started watching the film years ago, got 10 minutes in, tuned out and promised I’d get back to it one day – and thank goodness I did. I must’ve been in some weird zombi-fied state lo-those-many-years-ago not to have jumped head first into this movie. Granted, Bill Pullman is Bill Pullman in it and occasionally distracts from the more serious moments, but fortunately the film allows itself to play in that surreal middle ground between reality and dream and have a ball with it (that coffin scene is one for the ages). There’s also a wider view of how Haiti itself woke from their own political slumber (which is done surprisingly subtly) and a couple of proper jump scares – build-up, payoff and well-deserved audience reaction. That voodoo is gonna get ya!

Would you like to know more…?

Friday One Sheet: Frankenstein Three Sheet

Got a spare $225000 burning a hole in your pocket? This ultra-rare 3-panel (2 meter long, 1 meter wide) “3-Sheet” poster for the Universal Monster classic, 1931s Frankenstein, is up for auction. It is a ultra-large sized variant of the original one-sheeet design which was only printed in small supply for promotion of the film upon its original release, and all were though lost or destroyed until this one was discovered in the 1970s in an abandoned movie house on Long Island. I’m confident that this is the most expensive “floaty head” poster in existence.

The Daily Mail has more.

Blindspotting #4 – The Mummy and The Wolf Man

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One of the keys to coming to older horror movies (particularly those of the 30s and 40s) is not to go in to them expecting to be “scared”. I don’t mean this as a way of belittling those movies – in particular my two blind spots this month The Mummy and The Wolf Man – but simply to state that if you are coming to them this late, you’ve likely had experience with other more intense movies with a different purpose in mind. Many of the more recent movies are designed to ramp up your adrenalin and make you feel unease. The older ones typically want nothing more than to entertain…Personally, I like both types.

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That’s also not to say that the older movies can’t bring some creepiness to bear since they certainly can. It’s a different and less unrelenting type, though, but it can still linger for awhile…Take for instance 1932’s The Mummy – it’s hard to get a creepier still than the great one of Boris Karloff that leads off this post. The lighting emphasizes those sunken eyes and the close-up gives all manner of detail to the ridges and deep valleys of his (its?) craggy face. The first sight of this face from this vantage point is indeed quite disconcerting. It also helps you put two and two together to realize that this man (named Ardath Bay) is actually the reincarnation of Im-Ho-Tep. A decade earlier, Im-Ho-Tep’s mummified remains had been awakened by British archaeologists and now that a new British team is on site, Ardath is helping them to uncover another tomb – this time the one belonging to his ill-fated lover Princess Anck-es-en-Amon. Im-Ho-Tep was sentenced to die after trying to bring his love back to life, but several thousand years later he was brought back by a reading from The Scroll Of Thoth. The new team of archaeologists is actually led by the son of the leader of the first team, a man who said he would never return due to what happened (the man who read the scroll who was part of his team went insane after witnessing the mummy come to life and shuffle out into the desert). By using the most recent team, Ardath (ie. Im-Ho-Tep) plans to find his princess and then reanimate her using the body of another woman – in this case the pretty Helen Grosvenor – who just happens to look very much like her. Of course, the expedition’s leader (Frank Whemple) has just fallen for Helen too…

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Oddly – at least given the expectations I had coming in – there is not a single scene of a mummy shuffling forward with his arms outstretched. Not one! We see his eyes open, a wrapped hand move into shot and a trailing unraveling bandage dragged off screen as the mummy leaves. This is fine, of course, since the movie doesn’t need those shots, but it was still surprising. The Wolfman similarly doesn’t overdo too many shots of its titular character – though we do get a wolf attack early on and then the actual wolfman towards the end. That wolfman (and I’m not really giving anything away as it is pretty obvious what the throughline of the story is) is Larry Talbot, recently returned from the United States after his brother’s death in order to take over as the heir of his father’s estate (located in Wales). Things start out well enough, but as he escorts a pretty shopgirl and her friend one night, he gets bitten by a wolf. Turns out it was one of the gypsies who set up camp (the other stalworth of Universal monster pictures – Bela Lugosi) and his mother warns Larry that he too will turn once the moon goes full again. Larry (played by the lumbering and not overly smooth Lon Chaney Jr.) tries to tell his father, but it’s not the easiest thing to explain to someone.

Would you like to know more…?

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: Targets (1968)

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Slight spoilers for the end of the film.

This isn’t on the “official” film list I put together for the Easy Riders Raging Bulls marathon, but I watched it on a whim the other day and was quite taken with it, so decided to slip in a post about it anyway. Targets is the first feature from director Peter Bogdanovich, likely the most obviously cinephiliac New Hollywood filmmaker, and though his love of and dependence on cinema history is evident in just about all of his films, nowhere is it more pronounced than here.

Boris Karloff, in one of his final film roles, plays aging horror actor Byron Orlock, a cultured Brit typecast in monster movie roles just like Karloff himself was for just about his whole career. Orlock decides out of the blue to retire, much to the consternation of up-and-coming writer/director Sammy Michaels (played by Bogdanovich), who has just written a serious role specifically for him that Michaels believes would be worthy of his talents. The fact that Michaels is dating Orlock’s assistant (who would presumably return to England with him upon his retirement) is also a factor. Meanwhile, a parallel plot thread follows Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly), a clean-cut young man who seems perfectly normal except perhaps a slight obsession with guns and an indefinable sense of ennui about his home life with his wife and parents – until he calmly takes a sniper rifle up on a water tower and starts picking off targets at random on the freeway.

Would you like to know more…?

Hidden Treasures – Week of August 24th

Here’s the latest installment of Hidden Treasures.

Black Sabbath (1963)
Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath is a horror trilogy, telling three separate, yet equally effective stories. In “The Telephone”, Rosy (Michèle Mercier), a prostitute, is receiving threatening phone calls from pimp, Frank (Milo Queseda), who’s just escaped from prison. Alone and frightened, she turns to her former lover, Mary (Lidia Alfonsi), for comfort. But as it turns out, Mary is hiding a secret from Rosy, one that could prove quite deadly. “The Wurdulak” is the story of a Russian peasant named Gorka (Boris Karloff) who, after ridding the countryside of a menacing vampire, returns home as little more than a creature himself, a Wurdulak who is damned to drink the blood of those he loves. Vladimir (Mark Damon), a stranger to the area, refuses to believe such stories are true, yet becomes a first-hand witness to the horror when he falls in love with Gorka’s daughter, Sdenka (Susy Anderson). In the third and final tale, “Drops of Water”, Nurse Helen Chester (Jacqueline Pierreux) is preparing the body of a recently deceased fortune teller for burial. Noticing a diamond ring on the dead woman’s finger, Nurse Chester gently slips the ring off and puts it in her pocket, an act that initiates a night of horror when the dead woman returns from the grave looking to reclaim that which was stolen from her.

Before finally taking his seat in the director’s chair, Mario Bava had followed in the footsteps of his father, Eugenia, a well-respected cinematographer in the early days of Italian cinema, by working as a cameraman on several films. Watching Black Sabbath, it becomes obvious that his various experiences looking through the viewfinder served him very well. Aside from his clever use of framing (In “The Telephone”, the various shots of the phone itself, whether in close-up or positioned in the background, add a level of terror to an everyday item), Bava also allows his camera to seemingly glide along, in bold, smooth motions, throughout the film. In the opening sequence of “The Wurdulak”, we follow along with Vladimir as he rides to the house of Gorka’s family, then continue on past him when he stops, realizing someone has been watching his every move. Despite the fact that Black Sabbath tells three very distinctive horror stories, the overall style and composition of each remains somewhat consistent. In presenting the action with such eye-catching flair, Bava ensures that his audience will scream in all the right places.

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Silver Lode (1954)
Directed by Allen Dwan in 1954, Silver Lode is a western that has all but slipped into obscurity. Dan Ballard (John Payne), a well-respected citizen of the town of Silver Lode, was in the process of marrying his fiancée, Rose Evans (Lizabeth Scott), when their wedding was interrupted by a U.S. Marshal bearing a warrant for Ballard’s arrest. The Marshal, a shifty character named Ned McCarty (Dan Duryea), personally accuses Ballard of murder and the theft of $20,000. Ballard denies the charges, and is convinced McCarty isn’t who he claims to be. However, with McCarty telling more and more people in town about Ballard’s ‘history’, Dan Ballard soon finds that he’s not only fighting McCarty, but the good citizens of Silver Lode as well.

Aside from being a well-crafted western, Silver Lode is also a thinly-veiled take on the McCarthy blacklist era of the 1950’s, when U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy ruined the careers of many in the Hollywood community for their supposed ‘un-American’ affiliations. When McCarty (a not-so-subtle play on names) arrives in town and publicly charges Ballard, the townsfolk of Silver Lode begin to question whether or not this man they’ve come to admire is, in fact, a wanted murderer. After all, Dan Ballard only arrived in Silver Lode two short years ago. Who really knew anything about his life before then? Before long, as coincidences build and gossip spreads, McCarty has the entire town believing Ballard is a cold-blooded killer. In the span of only a few short hours, Dan Ballard has become an outsider in the community he once called home, an obvious parallel to those in Hollywood who were shunned by former friends and colleagues on account of their ‘questionable‘ political affiliations. Much like Ballard, these entertainers were condemned with rhetoric, with little or no actual proof to back it up.

Allan Dwan directed well over 300 feature-length and short films throughout his career, a career that dated back to the days of the silents. By the time he made Silver Lode, Dwan had already established himself as an extremely gifted filmmaker, one who could tell a great story with very limited resources at his disposal. With Silver Lode, however, Dwan did more than merely tell a story; he held a mirror up to his friends and colleagues, challenging them to take a long, hard look at what it was they had become.

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How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass (2003)
Next, we have what is easily director Mario van Peebles’s most personal film, a movie in which his father, noted filmmaker Melvin van Peebles, is the central character.

Melvin Van Peebles was the first African-American filmmaker to take on the system, and his 1971 independent movie, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, literally broke the Hollywood mold. Up to that time, African Americans were depicted in films as little more than background characters, happily existing in an all-white environment. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song took its audience into the ghetto, focusing on an entirely different black experience. Thanks in part to a mobilization of the Black Panthers, which urged all of its members to get out and support the film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song went on to become the top grossing independent movie of 1971.

How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass is a dramatized account of the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, taking us from the creative beginnings; the writing of the script, up to the film’s historic premiere in a small theater in Detroit. The journey would prove to be a difficult one for Melvin Van Peebles (played here by his son, Mario). To begin with, the studios wouldn’t touch Sweet Sweetback, fearing it was far too radical for a mainstream audience, and even Melvin’s agent, Howie (Saul Rubinek), strongly advised his client to drop the idea of a film about a black revolutionary. Melvin ignores this advice, deciding instead to make the film independently. Yet still more problems would persist. When the original financiers pulled out, Melvin had little choice but to invest his own money to complete the project. Along with the financial burdens, Melvin also had to edit the film himself, a task made all the more difficult by the fact that he was rapidly losing vision in one eye. If all this wasn’t bad enough, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was saddled with the dreaded X rating by the ratings board, and as a result, only two theaters in the entire country would display the film. Melvin Van Peebles had invested everything he had in this movie, and its reception would determine whether or not he was now financially bankrupt as a result. The rest, as they say, is history.

In How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass, Mario Van Peebles captures the creative energy and rabid determination of his famous father, and yet, because Mario tells this story from an eyewitness’s point of view (as a child, Mario was on set for much of the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song), he avoids the usual biographical pitfalls while doing so. Mario does not paint Melvin as a larger than life individual, allowing instead for his father’s true personality to explode on screen. Melvin Van Peebles, it seems, could be nasty, determined, and overbearing. Yet, despite his shortcomings, we ultimately recognize that Melvin was a true cinematic pioneer. Melvin Van Peebles may have had a short fuse, and perhaps he was not the most loving father in the world, but he did have a vision, and possessed the drive and determination to make that vision a reality.

There was power in Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and that power is successfully recaptured in How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass by his son, Mario. All these years later, the Van Peebles touch is still strong, still powerful…and it didn’t even skip a generation!