Cancer continues to reap a harvest of cinema auteurs. We learn today that Polish auteur Andrzej Żuławski has passed on. The director is best known for his controversial and violent art-house allegories such as and The Devil, Szamanka, and Possession (we covered the latter at The Movie Club Podcast a couple of years ago.) His long fight with the big C ended recently, just as his final film, Cosmos was picked up by Kino Lorber for distribution.
A film that has stood the test of time better than most, Roman Polanski’s second film focusing on a woman slowly devolving into hysteria (the first being Repulsion), the success of Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 is paramount in the rise of the modern incarnation occult film in the 1970s. This is patient, if not entirely subtle filmmaking that also mark the vibe of the decade to follow.
In the first few moments of the film, there are enough portent signs and signifiers and waiting for the eventual reveal is a painful kind of bliss with only the soothing balm of Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer’s performances, both goofy and slick (respectfully). I find it difficult to find fault with this rather unique approach, and the whole proceedings have a hell of a capstone.
But really, the first 15 minutes of the film is where it is at. That ‘seeking’ pan across the New York City skyline set to an off-kilter lullaby version of Que Sera Sera. Score rather than song is absent the lyrics and inspires dread rather than hope, but the question is nevertheless, “when I was just a little girl, I asked my mother what I would be…” The answer, is apparently the mother of Satan. If Doris Day can belt that song out in Hitchcock’s , surely it can be subverted here as an anthem for the woman who knew too little, too late.
I took a huge amount of pleasure in noir-staple character actor Elisha Cook Jr. fastidiously showing off the grand old apartment (of spook central) to the young married couple. His question – and the first actual line of dialogue in the film – is whether John Cassavetes’ character is a Doctor or an Actor. The film will feature many doctors (and more than a few midwives) who are indeed more actors than doctors. A stray scrap of paper is shown belonging to the former, quite deceased, owner of the apartment whose last act was to block a closet door on the thin shared wall of her creepy and nosy neighbors with a heavy wardrobe. It reads “I can no longer associate myself.” Perhaps a hint of Mia Farrow’s soon-to-be overwhelming paranoia and powerlessness. A magazine cover will later query, “Is God Dead?” Never has a film so front-loaded its purpose only to then draw out and tease the audience for nearly two hours as surely as Farrow’s body (and hairdo) slowly withers away. But then that kicker of a climax is as surprising as it is inevitable. This is Cinema of Masochism made with exquisite craft – and so many great Polanski films would follow.
The Amityville Horror
There’s something about those 70s horror films – the steady creep, the look and feel of their surroundings and, as exemplified by the original The Amityville Horror, the pace. This particular film grabs you early and then ever so gradually reels you in with only a very few slow spots (e.g. that sex scene between James Brolin and Margot Kidder went on a bit longer than I was comfortable with…). And to be honest, not much happens for most of the movie…But it still manages to keep you just a little bit nervous throughout and always waiting for the next incident. It’s that compounded and built-up dread that is almost its own reward and forces an engagement with the story and characters. It also hopefully pays off towards the end…In this case, the ending sort of gets away from the film a bit and it sputters just when it should be vrooming, but when a movie can build the tension this well (and throw in a bleeding stairway too), that can be forgiven.
After its release, the movie became the largest grossing independent film ever and held the record for a good 4-5 years afterwards. Short of the lovely job it does in building up that fear throughout, the reasons are pretty obvious. The film (and its book) purport to be about a “true story” of a family living in a possessed house which tries to make them leave (“GET OUT!!”). The occult was certainly a trendy thing at the time and with a storyline that feels so relatable (big rambling old houses do seem rather spooky…), you can understand how word of mouth spread as many people wondered if their own house’s bumps and creaks during the night may be similarly attributable to restless spirits and demons.
I put off seeing this box office winner until just recently as I had always assumed it would be a fairly tedious affair with much mumbo-jumbo. Instead it’s quite intriguing…And though there certainly is a bunch of mumbo-jumbo spewed (with a whole lot of gusto from both Rod Steiger and Helen Shaver), just like many of the occult practices and beliefs, it’s all in service of tightening its grip on its audience. Not so great if that’s done to suck in unsuspecting people to believe in demonic acts, but perfect for a horror movie.
The Movie Club is back for Halloween. This time, Kurt Halfyard moderates the show and is joined by Tom Clift from Movie Mezzanine, Row Three’s Bob Turnbull (who is also caretaker for Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind) and the Mamo! Podcasts’s Matthew Price discuss the pair of unhinged moral, political and personal horror films that push the limits on lack of any restraint: The Devils and Possession.
The streaming conversation as well as the downloadable audio podcast can be found at:
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The Movie Club Podcast page.
Almost halfway through the month and I’m still transfixed on all manner of freaky films.
Amityville II: The Possession (1982 – Damiano Damiani)
Though this sequel (or prequel depending on what you want to believe about the background of the stories) plays out its devil possession story little by little, it’s quite amazing how it reaches a major crescendo around the 20 minute mark and then another at an hour before its final inevitable fiery showdown. In between these peaks, it plays out the haunted/cursed house tale mostly via sound, camera point of view shots and character reactions – and it’s far more effective than you might expect. The dialogue and acting are average (though you have to love Burt Young for diving full tilt into the Dad-who-can-snap-at-a-moment’s-notice character), but it builds the transformation of the eldest son a step at a time as the family moves into the house. Along with Mom, Dad and the devil-in-training, there are three others in the family – two youngsters (who keep getting blamed for things the house is doing – e.g. writing on walls, destroying furniture, etc.) and a teenage daughter who is distressingly close with the oldest boy. On top of that, Mom’s just spitting distance away from serious religious fanaticism, so this family has been teetering on the edge before they even pulled up to the front door. And so the house is more than willing to give them that extra push…Even the priest who eventually gets sucked in to the family’s woes may have his own secrets. There are intimations that he may like young girls or maybe that he’s gay or that he’s losing faith. The way this film plays out, he could well be all three.
The Reflecting Skin (1990 – Philip Ridley)
The first of two films in this batch that approach horror from a child’s point of view. If the themes aren’t horrific initially, by the time they’ve been filtered through the eyes of the children they’ve certainly become horror. In this particular film, a young boy named Seth Dove is in the middle of growing up around the wheat fields of Idaho in the 1950s. With his brother off in the Pacific islands working on nuclear test ranges, his mother getting more angry and bitter by the day and his weak-willed father escaping into his vampire books, Seth has lots of time to create his own stories and ideas. As some of his friends begin disappearing, his father’s past gets dug up and tragic consequences ensue – but Seth seems remarkably detached and focused on the single thought that the black-clad widow in a neighbouring house is an actual vampire and has stolen his friends. This is amplified when his brother Cameron comes home and falls in love with the widow. Young Seth sees them together as they disrobe, but is she sucking his blood or are they actually in an amorous clutch? Ridley doesn’t focus on spooky, but still manages to create a disturbing environment – the loneliness is all around them, palpable and it’s all that’s in store for Seth. Cameron and the widow seem to be the only ones with a hope of finding some actual happiness, so is Seth really afraid of vampires, or is he afraid of being left alone yet again? Or maybe he just can’t stand to see others be happy when he knows what his own lot is going to be. A truly odd movie – slow and occasionally uncomfortable, but filled to the brim with allusions to a child’s worries.
Take a moment and consider this image. Note the usual ‘based on a true story’ tag associated with these low-budget demon-possession horror movies (this one literally called, The Possession) and now take a look at that image again. It’s OK to laugh, I think the poster designers were, even if they craft a pretty iconic image, that delightfully sways very far from ‘true story.’ MovieLine, recently started up an irregular column (One-Sheet-Wonder) by Dante A. Ciampaglia and he has a lot more to say about this design, here.
(It appears I will have to step up my game with this weekly column!)