"Vampyres" follows a young English couple who decide to camp out in their caravan next to a dilapidated manor. They notice two women live there who, unbeknownst to them, are in fact lovers who were murdered in the home years before, only to be resurrected as vampires. The two women feed on local passersby, luring travelers back to their manor.
As is the case with most all of director José Ramón-Larraz's films, "Vampyres" is an effort that is dripping with atmosphere, which is perhaps its greatest tenet. It's a dreary, dour film full of haunting imagery. Larraz pays great attention to detail here: the wind sweeping through the woods, the dimmed lights emanating from the manor's windows, and the two vampire leads stalking the woods in flowing capes. The imagery evoked here is impressive and legitimately creepy throughout.
While the film is loaded with such chilling visuals, it doesn't always narratively make the most sense (also a tenet of European horror films of this era), and there is a fair amount of sex and nudity that at times is purely exploitative. No less, the film propels itself toward a grim conclusion as the bumbling young English couple becomes too curious for their own good, and a businessman lured off the beaten path falls in love with one of the vampires. The bloodletting here is not "fangs in the neck," and instead the vampires feast on slit wrists and gushing wounds, which results in a number of perturbing sequences. The film's conclusion is dark and disturbingly-executed, marking a harsh end to the nightmarish proceedings.
Overall, "Vampyres" is a dour, creepy film that works effectively as an exercise in atmospher and dread. While it is about vampires, it is far from your stereotypical vampire flick. The film's surreal feeling is remarkable, and it is successful in utterly absorbing you into its Gothic world. 9/10.
"The Premonition" follows a mother who begins experiencing bizarre visions after her daughter's biological mother (who is clinically insane) tracks them down, along with the help of her unstable circus clown boyfriend.
Released in 1976, this supernatural thriller is something of the progenitor of the modern supernatural-themed horror/thriller films of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Though branded as a horror film, my impression of this film is that it's perhaps more of a thriller with added melodrama. Shot in the southern U.S., the film has a dreary and almost dreamlike sensibility, and does boast some rather frightening nightmare sequences in which the mother (played by Sharon Farrell) has disturbing premonitory visions.
The main fault of "The Premonition" is the way in which the supernatural element is shoehorned into the plot; we never really get a solid explanation as to why these visions manifest, and Farrell's character's husband is conveniently a professor whose colleague studies the supernatural. This quasi-scientific side of the film is a bit dull (and perhaps inspired by "The Exorcist"), whereas the plot involving the child's insane biological mother and boyfriend (the latter played nefariously by Richard Lynch)--and their pursuit of the girl--is much more intriguing.
The film concludes with a rather grand sequence that seems a bit absurd, but Farrell and the other performers all commit to the material, rendering it passable. All in all, "The Premonition" is a fairly well-made supernatural thriller, though one that is not entirely the sum of its parts. The film does steep itself in too much melodrama for its own good at times, but in the end, there is enough dreamlike atmosphere and intrigue to keep the audience committed until the end. 6/10.
"Saint Maud" follows the titular Maud, a young hospice nurse in a small, dreary English seaside village who takes a job caring for Amanda, a famous middle-aged American dancer and bon vivant living in a secluded mansion on the hillside. Maud, a recent Catholic convert prone to her own bizarre visions, comes to believe that caring for the freewheeling Amanda is her mission and purpose--a soul to save. But at what price?
This insular and occasionally shocking feature debut by director Rose Glass is, though marketed as a horror film, really more a psychological examination of abject loneliness and descent into madness. In some ways, it feels like it could have been written first as a novel, and that's part of what makes the film unique. The largest achievement the film makes is that is successfully operates on a number of levels, functioning as a meditation on loneliness, a portrait of a nervous breakdown, a hagiographic tragedy, as well as (possibly) a demonic possession story.
Ultimately, the film at its base level is a character study that comes into focus as it is reflected between the two dichotomous central characters--Maud, the lonely, psychologically-fragile nurse obsessed with matters of the spirit; and Amanda, a woman who has lived for the pleasures of the flesh (the fact that her career--that of a dancer--is wholly concerned with the body, is no symbolic coincidence). Their philosophical clashing of perspectives ultimately shatters Maud, though she manages to rebuild her absolution in a terrifying way. Both characters are delicately portrayed by Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle, respectively, and the film would not work without the strength they bring to each.
All in all, this film is a dour portrait of both mental decline and spiritual ecstasy, depending on how one wants to look at it. Glass puts forth her own take in the film's final moments, which almost veer too far into hokey territory, but in the end, "Saint Maud" manages to be a potent (and depressing) examination of one person's tragic search for purpose. 8/10.
Lush, watchable hybrid of '50s monster movies and '70s Eurotrash
"Blood Tide" follows an American couple (Martin Kove and Mary Louise Weller) who go searching for the husband's missing artist sister (Deborah Shelton) on a remote Greek island. They eventually find her there, accompanied by an odd middle-aged man (James Earl Jones) who is searching for treasures in offshore underwater caves. Soon enough, the couple find the island is being terrorized by an ancient serpent with occult connections.
Given that I am not typically a fan of monster movies, I was hesitant about this one, but found myself pleasantly surprised by how watchable it is. I would describe it as something of a mashup of 1950s creature features and late-'70s European occult horror, plus a small dash of nunsploitation (a convent plays into the narrative somewhat, though its presence feels shoehorned).
What primarily makes "Blood Tide" so watchable is the lush, sun-soaked cinematography--for a horror film, it's uncharacteristically bright, and really a visual treat. Even the underwater cave sequences are well-filmed and atmospheric. The film also doesn't overexpose its monster, only giving brief shots of the serpentine creature on a handful of occasions; the special effects are silly in that regard, but because they are few and far between, it ultimately doesn't detract from the rest of the film.
Narratively, the film does not make much sense, and the primary curio is Shelton's character (the artist sister), who behaves bizarrely (dousing herself in an entire bottle of perfume, staring blankly at odd times) and seems to be in a daze half of the time. The connections between her, the island's history, and the unleashing of the monster are vaguely drawn and don't fully converge in a satisfying way, but this is something of a hallmark for Euro-horror of the era--take the images for what you will, and forget about the story making total sense. All in all, I found this film shockingly watchable. If some sunny Greek beaches, underwater caves, and a serpent eating people sounds like a good time, "Blood Tide" will deliver. 7/10.
Mean-spirited template of Larraz's early stylistic and thematic touchstones
"Whirlpool" follows a British model who is lured to an older woman's picturesque country estate where a young male photographer, whom she refers to as her nephew (and she, his aunt), reside. Things seem odd at first, but they only get worse and worse.
The first feature from José Ramón Larraz, "Whirlpool" contains many of the director's early stylistic hallmarks: dreary woods, picturesque country homes, sexual repression galore, clueless fashion models, and a mean-spirited edge as blunt as a dull knife. His more well-known early feature, "Symptoms", would further expound on ideas and themes present in "Whirlpool", and perhaps more elegantly; and his third feature, "The House That Vanished", boasts a similar setting and premise. That being said, there is no less a grisly allure to this film that is unmistakable.
Narratively speaking, one has to suspend disbelief on occasion for this film to really work (for example, the protagonist, Tulia, accepts the invitation to the country house despite the fact that one of her model cohorts disappeared after visiting some weeks before). That being said, one could view the film as something of a cautionary tale warning against the dangers of naiveté, where the Tulia character becomes something of a Hansel & Gretel figure, drawn into this web by her own imperviousness. The film is slow-going early on and tends to drag in the middle, as the perverse relationship between the "nephew" and "aunt" characters comes into clearer view. In the end, though, it all hurtles toward a nasty conclusion that feels inspired by Ingmar Bergman's "The Virgin Spring", and strangely predicts the type of violence in Wes Craven's reimagining of that film, "The Last House on the Left", which was released two years after "Whirlpool".
All in all, this is a moody and bitter film that, despite its fairly single-note story, manages to pack a few knives to the gut. If nothing else, "Whirlpool" serves as the stylistic template for which Larraz would base his subsequent features. 7/10.
Set in the 1930s, "The Child" follows a nanny hired to care for a young girl in the rural, dilapidated mansion she resides in with her father and adult brother. The disposition of the young girl, who is apparently difficult to care for, is much more incredible than one might expect, as it becomes evident that her powers are beyond the natural world.
With its singular title and general premise, it's easy to make a lot of assumptions about "The Child"; my preconceived notion was that this was something along the lines of an "Omen" rip-off. Color me surprised by the fact that it's not. This obscure effort seemed to have a life in the drive-in circuit of the late 1970s before being relegated to video store shelves. It's an odd film that, like many of the features Arrow Video has released as part of their "American Horror Project" sets over the last few years, seems to exist in a different world.
The film opens with the young governess crashing her car in the woods before proceeding on-foot to the rundown mansion where she is to live and work. After a brief detour to an elderly neighbor's house, she proceeds through the fog-drenched forest. It is apparent something else is lurking about, and she knows it--there are flashes of a clawed hand scraping behind a tree, which she witnesses after stumbling upon an abandoned cemetery. She is frightened, but makes no mention of it when she enters the dingy manor up the hill. It's sequences like this that really make "The Child" stand out; there is not a coherent logic to how they progress, but the images are at times truly terrifying. The entire film has a dark appearance that is drained of color, and the interiors of the mansion are so cool and shadowy that you can almost smell the must and mildew coming off the screen.
In the beginning, the film strongly takes its cues from features such as "The Bad Seed" or "Kill, Baby... Kill!", boasting strong similarities to both films. As things progress, however, there is a revelation of sorts in the last act where the film suddenly turns into something completely unexpected, morphing into a totally different horror subgenre. It's an odd tonal shift, but it still manages to be effective. The finale is a bit drawn out, but is accentuated by extreme camera angles (which also populate the former portion of the film), and, as a whole, the film leaves the impression of a fever dream that one might have after a long night of watching TV horror flicks during Halloween time as a child. All in all, an imperfect but potent, strangely transfixing composite of horror subgenres. 9/10.
Alice in Wonderland, on acid, at the carnival (with cannibals)
"Malatesta's Carnival of Blood" follows a husband, wife, and their young adult daughter who visit a rundown amusement park posing as potential new employees; they are actually there to locate their missing son, who worked at the carnival. To their horror, however, the park's mysterious proprietor, Malatesta, is hiding a gaggle of cannibals in caverns beneath the rides.
This little-seen horror flick plays like "Alice in Wonderland" on bad acid, but in a good way. It is remarkably low-budget, with sets that often appear to be vinyl-lined tents standing in as limestone caves (unconvincing, to say the least), but the shortcomings oddly don't seem to matter because they are obscured by the stylish cinematography and general atmosphere of complete and utter weirdness.
In similar fashion, the screenplay for "Malatesta's Carnival of Blood" is also a slipshod effort, with little connective tissue to make sense of what exactly is going on (even the main characters' arrival at the carnival is barely elucidated, making it somewhat confusing as to why they are there in the first place)--and yet again, it doesn't really matter, because the film is more a mood piece than anything. Surreal visuals reign supreme, with creepy carnival props, underground halls of mirrors, silent movie theaters where the cannibal ghouls congregate to watch movies(!?)--the weirdness never ceases.
The film's main character, Vena, leads the audience through the proceedings as she spends a hellish night in the amusement park searching for her missing brother, and the proceedings have an "Alice in Wonderland" sensibility about them. The actual nature of the villains here is also not totally explained, but their ghoulish appearance in slathered-on grey makeup manages to be effectively captured in the claustrophobic cinematography. In the end, the film doesn't really register as a narrative piece, but it succeeds magnificently as an otherworldly, nightmarish adventure that resembles a bad trip. 7/10.
"Daughters of Darkness" follows a honeymooning couple in Belgium who encounter a Hungarian countess while staying alone at a palatial hotel. The countess and her female assistant/lover swiftly ingratiate themselves, exposing the trouble within the couple's relationship, as well as setting forth a series of violent events.
Considered a touchstone of the lesbian vampire horror flicks that emerged from Europe in the 1970s, the Dutch-filmed, English-language "Daughters of Darkness" is a slow-going, off-putting, quiet mood piece that is more an art film than it is mere sexploitation trash. It shares many similarities with Spain's "The Blood Spattered Bride", which was released the following year, though "Daughters of Darkness" is much more subtle than outright surreal (which "The Blood Spattered Bride" absolutely is). José Larraz would further explore this subgenre in 1974's "Vampyres", which ups the sapphic overtones even more.
As far as "Daughters of Darkness" is concerned, this is a downbeat film that is admittedly not particularly thrilling, but it is transfixing because it manages to keep the audience on their toes, unaware of where it's going. Even by the final act, it's hard to tell exactly where the story is going to land. Along the way, there is some implicit commentary on the relationships between men and women, interwoven with the vampire subplot (which also in and of itself is vaguely drawn). The photography of the fog-drenched streets of Ostend and the lush hotel adds a quasi-gothic ambiance that is sumptuous.
Delphine Seyrig, no stranger to the vague (check out "Last Year at Marienbad") turns in an enigmatic performance as the Hungarian countess who presents herself as an ancestor of Elizabeth Báthory (is she really an ancestor, or Bathory incarnate?), while Danielle Ouimet provides a solid performance as the doe-eyed woman who has married a man whose apparent fascination with murder and sadism emerges on their honeymoon. John Karlen plays the husband, and is equally enigmatic in the role, while Andrea Rau portrays Seyrig's submissive "assistant".
All in all, "Daughters of Darkness" is a true enigma of a film that I think likely benefits from repeat viewings. There is a lot going on merely in the subtext, but the film also warrants repeat viewings simply by the way it is structured. It is a film where little happens on the surface comparative to what's brewing just beneath it, and the narrative draws the viewer in like a spider to its web--you never quite know what is happening, but you can't stop watching. 9/10.
"Dark August" follows a New Yorker living in rural Vermont who becomes a small-town pariah after killing a young girl in a car accident. Even worse, the girl's grandfather seems to have set a curse against him, unraveling his life and sending an ominous hooded demon to stalk the woods outside his house.
Released to apparently little fanfare and unearthed by Arrow Video last year in their volume 2 "American Horror Project" Blu-ray box set, "Dark August" is an odd duck. While watching the film, I consistently had the sense that I was watching something that should have been mildly revered amongst genre fans had it received an adequate release. The film, despite its low budget, is slickly made and looks like a professional studio endeavor, at least so far as low-budget horror is concerned.
To some degree, "Dark August" embodies the neo-genre of "folk horror," a signifier that has grown more common in recent years. For a film about witchcraft and the occult, it has a very down-to-earth sensibility, but this also makes the scares feel almost too close to home for comfort. It's a moody and atmospheric affair that has a lot in common (both tonally and stylistically) with its New England-set peer "Let's Scare Jessica to Death," albeit with less narrative nuance. In "Dark August", the audience knows indubitably that supernatural goings-on are at work, and the source is clear from the outset.
The demonic presence that taunts the protagonist appears as a cloaked, faceless figure that meanders through the woods, and the presentation of it is bone-chilling. Director Martin Goldman sets these scenes in pure silence, and uses clever cutting techniques to give the audience the sense that this figure is lurking behind every tree. For extra measure, there are abundant shots of the leafy Vermont hills illuminated at dusk, and the inherent unease of the landscape only magnifies the sense of dread. It's truly the stuff of nightmares.
Acting-wise, the film is also fairly solid, with J. J. Barry and Carolyne Barry (a real-life couple who co-wrote the screenplay) as the leads. Their performances feel grounded, ostensibly helped by their deep involvement in the project. The film's real "star" is Kim Hunter, who appears as a clairvoyant white witch figure who attempts to help the protagonist rid himself of the demonic energy that has been thrust on him; her acting is very naturalistic here, and Hunter never lets the character devolve into archetype, which could easily happen in a film like this.
The only real pitfall for me in "Dark August" was the conclusion, which felt a bit hamfisted and abrupt, but I ultimately think that everything else outweighs this minor shortcoming. For fans of regional, downbeat supernatural horror (bordering more on psychological), I cannot recommend "Dark August" enough. It is a thoughtfully-made effort that manages to evoke a sense of true disquiet--the kind of horror that feels like a bad dream. 8/10.
"Bad Timing" follows Alex, an American psychology professor in Vienna who meets and swiftly falls in love with Milena, a twenty something sophisticated military brat, also from the United States. Their romance is a whirlwind, but Milena's free-spirited way of life soon ignited resentment and jealousy in Alex, who starts to obsessively stalk her. When Milena is rushed to the hospital following an apparent suicide attempt, a detective attempts to unravel the narrative of their relationship.
While "Bad Timing" is one of the more notorious works in Nicolas Roeg's filmography, it does not seem to have necessarily gotten the credit it deserves, with an emphasis on "notorious" taking center stage. As far as I am concerned, "Bad Timing" is tied with Roeg's "Don't Look Now" for his best work, and in some ways, "Bad Timing" is more accessible purely based on theme alone.
Set against dreary Cold War-era Vienna and unfurled through narrative flashbacks that range from poignant to painful to outright disturbing, "Bad Timing" is, at its core, a character study of young, mad love gone seriously sideways. In some ways, it is an unsung predecessor to the neo-noir renaissance of the late 1980s. Alex, the obsessive psychoanalytic professor, fixates on the impervious Milena, who does not anticipate the depths of her lover's obsession. When she finally does, it's too late for her, as she's been drawn into the whirlpool herself. The characters, played by Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russell, respectively, engage in an exhausting dance of sorts which, as Rogue develops it, paints a portrait of obsessive romance, resentment, jealousy, and every other unfortunate side effect of love that one could think of. If you have not been in a relationship like this, you know someone who has, and that's where the film really plays with its audience's nerves. Garfunkel gives a somewhat wooden performance here, which, intended or not, serves the character's detached analytic perspective; Russell, who gives the performance of her career as Milena, is by turns coquettish, forthright, and completely vulnerable to a fault.
Of course, we as the audience know this is headed nowhere good, and the revelation at the end--calculated by a shrewd, steely detective (played by Harvey Keitel) investigating Milena's apparent suicide attempt--is repulsive. And it is also, unfortunately, human--and that's what makes the film so haunting. If there is a better filmic representation of mad love pushed to its most sickening, ruinous limits, I haven't seen it. 10/10.
Though one of Carol Reed's lesser-known films (both eclipsed and bookended by "The Third Man" and "Odd Man Out"), "The Fallen Idol"--which recounts the story of a young child who suspects his diplomat father's butler has committed a murder--is perhaps one of his most underrated. It is also an unusual entry in his filmography in that its main character is a young child.
The lead character, young Philippe, has a quasi-paternal relationship with his butler, Baines, who tells tall tales of fighting lions in Africa and killing men with his bare hands. These are, of course, lies, and Philippe comes to learn that there is another woman in Baines's life--the younger Julie--with whom he is having an affair. Baines's wife, also a housekeeper in Philippe's home, is by contrast stern and cold toward the child. Philippe, it seems, is impervious to the fact that Julie is not actually the "niece" that Baines presents her as.
What's most interesting about the film is that it plays with the dramatic irony between two different worlds--that of adults, and that of children--in a way that elicits sympathy for both. The young, lonely Philippe exists in a complicated, interior world inhabited by fantasy, while Baines and the other adult characters live exterior lives where the interiors are buried. The adults, who are largely unhappy with their lives, use the young Philippe as an emotional outlet, while Philippe, apparently impervious to such manipulations, is loyal a fault, idolizing Baines and fearing Baines's icy wife, who constantly dismisses or chastises him.
The film is beautifully shot and well-acted, with Bobby Henrey playing Philippe with a genuine childlike curiosity, while Ralph Richardson and Michele Morgan portray the secret lovers in such a way that elicits genuine sympathy, even when one of the parties comes under suspicion of murder. Despite their flaws, each of the characters in some way contain a potent human truth. In the end, Reed constructs a rich and poignant study of child-adult relationships, and dresses it as a murder-mystery suspense thriller. You can cut it either way, and each side is flawlessly executed. 10/10.
"Demonlover" has Diane de Monx taking the reigns of a French corporation attempting to wrest control over a revolutionary 3-D hentai company from a vying American company, Demonlover. Diane's assistant, Elise, despises her, while her boss, Hervé, expresses admiration for Diane's ambitiousness. But when Diane uncovers that Demonlover is really a front for an extreme S&M dark web site, everything--including all characters' motives--come into question.
This divisive offering from Olivier Assayas is probably one of his lesser-admired films, with critics citing its narrative incoherences as an essential issue. While the film does become somewhat formless in structure in the last half, what Assays ultimately offers here is a bleak and disturbing vision of the world crumbling in on itself, largely facilitated by interactive media. The corporate underpinnings of said media is the audience's channel into the story, but the film is more concerned with humans' relationships to technology than it is with cutthroat office politics. In some ways, it shares parallels with something like David Cronenberg's "Crash", but is set on a global stage.
The film is unnervingly photographed and well-acted, with Connie Nielsen portraying the steely businesswoman, and Chloë Sevigny as her insouciant assistant. Gina Gershon appears as the American representative for the titular Demonlover website, which turns out to be something more. Around the midway point, the film transforms itself from corporate thriller into an almost poststructuralist experiment, ultimately revealing the fates of the characters.
While the film's narrative does fumble on occasion, "Demonlover" is worthwhile for its offering an unsettling perspective on 21st-century life, where technology facilitates the individual to experience their own "subjective" reality--a world where no objective meaning truly exists, because it is all merely bent toward our own desires. In some ways, it is a terrifying film, and one that is even more portentous now than when it was first released. 8/10.
"The Night Porter" follows Lucia, a young woman who as a teenager was interred in a concentration in camp in WWII Germany due to her father's socialist political associations. There, she developed a sadomasochistic relationship with Theo Aldorfer, a Nazi SS officer. Over a decade later, Lucia, who was freed from the camp by Theo, is now married to an American composer. While touring with him through Europe, Lucia has a chance meeting with Theo, now the night porter at a Vienna hotel. They quickly rekindle their romance, but soon find it narrowing in on them as Theo's former SS associates learn of their meeting, and begin stalking them.
Derided by some as "Nazisploitation" and heralded by others as an artistic masterwork, "The Night Porter" is one of a group of films whose reputation precedes it. The synopsis alone is enough to deter a fair number of would-be viewers, though I think the impulse to write this film off is misguided. This is not a film that promotes anti-Semitism, nor is it really a film about anti-Semitism at all. Furthermore, the film was marketed as a pornographic film upon its original release, trivializing the rife underlying subject matter--the reality is that this film is no playful, perverse S&M kink-fest--it is a dour, disturbing drama that edges into psychological thriller territory.
When you parse the narrative apart, what you find is that, at its core, the film is a macabre love story about two people who met in the most sickening of circumstances. While Lucia and Theo attempt to rekindle their "romance," they soon fall into the same patterns of the past, but there is still manages to be strand of purity at the core of it all. As dysfunctional as their relationship is, it becomes clear throughout the film--which is brilliantly unfurled in flashbacks--that the two characters do truly love one another.
Thematics aside, "The Night Porter" is visually gobsmacking, benefiting from pallid, dreary cinematography that leaves both the characters and their environs feeling drained of color. There is a grimness to the way Vienna is captured, even more dour than what we see in Carol Reed's "The Third Man." A film like this would be nothing without capable actors, and we get that in Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde, each of whom turn in poignant performances. Rampling is especially vulnerable here, and expresses a lifetime's worth of emotions with her eyes alone. Both performances are haunting.
No less, "The Night Porter" is bound to alienate, posing questions that are too uncomfortable for some to want to examine. The film forces its audience to ponder where love ends and sickness begins, and vice-versa; it also highlights the way that the past inflects our lives, repeating itself until we eventually--or hopefully--learn from it. In some cases, the lesson comes too late. 9/10.
A self-reflexive, semi-autobiographical reflection on choreographer/director Bob Fosse's own life and career, "All That Jazz" follows middle-aged Broadway and film director Joe Gideon, who attempts to juggle a new stage production, the editing of a feature film, and his relationships with his daughter, ex-wife, and girlfriend, all amidst his own ailing health after years of excess.
It's a common sentiment that, though a lush and at times upbeat quasi-musical, "All That Jazz" is ultimately a depressing film. While this is an understandable position, I would argue the exact opposite: that it is really an affirmation of life in its purest form. What makes "All That Jazz" so unique is Fosse's storytelling mode, which blends hyper-editing and insightful vignettes from Joe's life, with musical numbers interspersed at varying moments for heightened effect. The storytelling is unconscious and plays out through suggestion; this is not to say that there is no linearity, because there is, but the back-and-forth between objective moments in Joe's life and the dramatized, stylized musical sequences ultimately renders a kaleidoscopic view of him, really getting to the heart of the character.
The musical numbers themselves are, unsurprisingly, extraordinarily designed and a pure joy to watch. Roy Scheider turns in a career-defining performance as Joe, while Ann Reinking and Leland Palmer--playing Joe's girlfriend and ex-wife, respectively--offer poignant performances in addition to impressive footwork. Jessica Lange also appears as Angelique, an "angel of death" manifestation whom Joe occasionally commiserates with throughout the course of the film.
While the lyrics to the film's climactic musical number are almost head-scratchingly macabre on paper, "All That Jazz" nevertheless proves itself as a heartfelt celebration of life, death, art, and love--and it has enough emotional intelligence to know that none of those things can exist without the other. As someone who tends to dislike musicals as a rule, this is one of my favorite movies--a rare cinematic tapestry that transcends genre. 10/10.
Like all the Tourneur-Lewton collaborations, dripping with atmosphere
"The Leopard Man" follows a series of murders occurring in a sleepy New Mexico town after a wild leopard escapes from a nightclub during a publicity stunt. The killings are initially pinned on the animal, though it soon begins to appear that they are in fact the works of man, not beast.
One of the lesser-known efforts produced by Val Lewton, "The Leopard Man" ranks up there with his greatest features of the '40s, alongside "Cat People" and "The Seventh Victim" (the former of which was also directed by Tourneur). Given the title, one may expect an animal shapeshifting horror movie, but what we get here is quite the opposite. If anything, "The Leopard Man" plays out like a downbeat serial killer film. In Tourneur's signature style, the threat remains offscreen, always hidden in the shadows--there is a constant sense of menace leading up to the death scenes, in which characters come to realize they are being watched, and Tourneur plays these moments to the hilt. One particularly dread-filled sequence occurs in a walled-in cemetery, in which a young woman is stalked by the killer.
It goes without saying that this film is atmospheric--all of the Lewton-produced horror pics from this era are--but "The Leopard Man" is unique in that its desert setting allows for a Mexican/Native American cultural backdrop infusion, giving the film a different sort of flavor than if it had been set in something like small-town New England. The performances here are solid, with Dennis O'Keefe in the lead, and Jean Brooks (also of "The Seventh Victim") as one of the nightclub dancers who accidentally unleashes the leopard in the first place.
The film builds to a crescendo with a religious procession sequence in the small town, and the big reveal fittingly (and unsurprisingly) occurs in a darkened museum. All in all, this is a solid, thoroughly entertaining effort from Tourneur and Lewton, and one of the more underrated of their collaborations. 9/10.
"Blood Simple" follows Ray (Jon Getz), a bartender in sleepy Texas who is having an affair with Abby (Frances McDormand), the wife of the bar's owner, Julian (Dan Hedaya). Aware of the tryst, Julian hires a private investigator (M. Emmet Walsh) who eventually becomes Julian's hitman. Unfortunately, things don't go as planned.
The now-infamous Coen brothers' first feature film, "Blood Simple" is a twisty and narratively straightforward neo-noir that wears on the nerves as it lurches along. The film is, in some ways, predictable, though there is a constant sense that things are going to go off the rails at any moment. You have all the elements of a typical crime epic or film noir: An affair, a hitman, and a jealous husband--but they are stripped down here to their bare essences, and the result is a surprisingly potent vision.
What is perhaps most ingenious about "Blood Simple" is that it takes copious advantage of character perspective, which allows for many of the scenarios to have a larger-than-life feel. What the characters don't know is as important as what they do know, and the film does the bulk of its storytelling with images and moments that are loaded with meaning even without a word being spoken. In order for this kind of storytelling to work, you need two things: apt direction and good actors. Fortunately, "Blood Simple" has both. Jon Getz plays the downtrodden everyman to the hilt, while Frances McDormand is appropriately doe-eyed as his impervious lover. Dan Hedaya and M. Emmet Walsh portray the ostensible villains, though the morals of all involved are real turned on their heads.
The film ramps up to its climax in the last twenty minutes or so, and, true to form, again manages to take a simple set-up and expand it into something grand and almost theatrical. And yet, in every instance in which it does this, "Blood Simple" never manages to err on the side of pretentiousness or self-congratulatory artiness. In a true Texas spirit, "Blood Simple" manages to stay down-to-earth, even when it's not. 9/10.
"The Red House" follows a young woman (Allene Roberts) who has been raised by adoptive parents (Edward G. Robinson and Judith Anderson) on a rural farm in the woods. When a classmate of hers (Lon McCallister) comes to work on their property, it is uncovered that there is an abandoned red house hidden in a section of woods on the property, and it holds an ominous secret.
This mid-century horror offering is one of the weirder and more offbeat genre films of its era, boasting a number of tropes and stylistic flourishes that would come into deeper focus as the decades drew on. Made in 1947, the film is something of a connective tissue between the old-Hollywood style horror, and the darker, grittier approach that filmmakers would begin to take in the late 1950s and 1960s--in other words, it's a bit more dour in tone and edgier in theme than many of its peers.
What makes "The Red House" work so well largely has to do with its cinematography and score, which work together to weave an almost dreamlike atmosphere that is at times truly ominous. The theremin score creates an otherworldly feel, which is furthered by the shadowy cinematography and abundant overhead shots--the film is populated with the latter, which leaves the characters appearing in an almost alien landscape, lost among the rocky forests. The nighttime sequences in the woods are especially compelling, and remain suspenseful by today's standards.
The acting here is top-notch, with Edward G. Robinson playing the paranoid father, and Judith Anderson as the caring mother. Allene Roberts gives a sympathetic portrayal of the adopted teen girl, and Lon McCallister is likable as the farmhand who begins to unravel the mystery surrounding the property. Rory Calhoun makes a memorable appearance as a drunkard invested in the land, and a young Julie London plays a sultry peer of the teen characters.
The film's ultimate revelation is fairly routine by today's standards, though the truth behind the mystery is quite grim. All in all, "The Red House" is an absorbing and effective horror film. It manages to carry what made pre-1950s horror films work, while also making mild stylistic innovations that were, for the time, unusual. Despite some lighter moments, "The Red House" seems to exist in an ominous world of its own. 9/10.
Nicholas Ray's "In a Lonely Place" follows Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a downtrodden Hollywood screenwriter who becomes pinned as a murder suspect after a woman he allows into his apartment is found butchered. His neighbor, Laurel (Gloria Grahame), unknowingly strikes a romance with him--but soon comes to regret it as she suspects her new beau may be a potential serial killer.
One of Ray's lesser-known efforts, "In a Lonely Place" is a moody and downbeat noir that is perfectly cooked. The plot is fairly straightforward, and the device from which virtually all of the suspense flows (whether or not Bogart's character is a devious murderer) is simplistic; however, Ray manages to wring every last drop of tension and discomfort possible. The claustrophobic cinematography adds to this amicably, and the audience's sympathies (and fears) for Grahame's character only compound with each passing minute. Though set in sunny Los Angeles, the film manages to be devoid of sunshine, taking place almost exclusively at night--Sunset Boulevard and even the picturesque beaches are shown only in darkness.
Bogart is appropriately ambiguous as the dour screenwriter, and gives a pitch perfect performance, though this is ultimately Grahame's film, as her character becomes the center of it all--a role which she manages to portray with empathy and guilelessness. While the narrative is rather uncomplicated, there are some self-reflexive elements at play in regards to Dixon's character--that of a film writer--who we can infer may or may not draw inspiration from his murders for those he commits to paper. There are several chilling moments in which Grahame's character, while listening to Bogart's bounce off dialogue from his forthcoming screenplay, realizes he may be writing out a previous murder--or perhaps even her own.
The film's downbeat conclusion is fittingly tragic, though not for the reasons the audience might expect, and functions as a final twisting of a knife in the gut. Though more of a straightforward noir than some of its peers, "In a Lonely Place" is a flawless exercise in dread. 10/10.
'White Dog" follows Julie, a young actress in Los Angeles who hits a runaway German Shepherd with her car while driving home in the Hollywood Hills. Riddled with guilt, she decides to keep the dog after it regains its health, but is horrified to learn after a number of disturbing incidents that the dog has been trained to attack and kill at the sight of black people. With the help of Keys, a black animal trainer, they hope to retrain the dog from committing acts of violence.
Notoriously "put down" (pun intended) by Paramount Pictures in the 1980s out of fears of bad publicity, this late Samuel Fuller film suffered greatly through a variety of miscontruances about what it exactly was. "White Dog" is a subversive film about racism that uses the analog of man's best friend to ponder the origins of racism. It's in many ways a classic nature vs. nurture story, shot through with the stylistic flair of an ABC "Afterschool Special." Kristy McNichol gives a relatable performance as the lead, and Paul Winfield is equally absorbing as the determined trainer.
While a film of this nature could easily drift into syrupy melodrama, Fuller holds the reins tightly and, for the most part, maintains a steady focus. The dialogue is occasionally clunky, but the film's overall structure is tight. The dog attack sequences, most of which are played out in slow motion, are somewhat disturbing, but the most chilling (and vital) moment in the film is when Julie comes face-to-face with the dog's previous owner who groomed it to be what it is. This particular sequence makes clear that Fuller knows--just as the audience should--that this is not really a film about a dog at all. 8/10.
"The Curse of the Cat People" follows Amy, the daughter of engineer Oliver Reed, who was previously married to Irena Dubrovna, a woman who may or may not have been a cat woman. The introverted Amy finds herself invoking an imaginary friend in the form of Irena--but is she real?
An overlooked sequel to the 1943 Jacques Tourneur/Val Lewton classic "Cat People," this semi-continuation of the story has virtually nothing to do with cats or cat people, as the title suggests--instead, "The Curse of the Cat People" functions more as a quasi-ghost story mixed with a childhood-themed chamber drama. The focus here is the psychological inner world of the young girl, Amy, her loneliness, and the nature of her new "imaginary friend," Irena. Much of the tension abounds from Amy's parents disbelieving her, though there is a subplot featuring the family's neighbors, an eccentric aging actress who dismisses her own adult daughter and instead favors spending time with the young Amy.
The film, which introduces Robert Wise in his first directorial credit, showcases his eye for visuals; virtually every frame is beautifully rendered, and the film is efficiently plotted and edited. The acting is also strong, with Ann Carter giving a poignant performance as the child protagonist. Simone Simon offers a maternal presence here as Irena, portraying her in a way that is tonally different from that in the film's predecessor, where she was essentially an unsheathed sword. Here, she is overtly maternal.
All in all, "The Curse of the Cat People" is a very well-made film that suffers largely due to its relationship to its predecessor. If you are expecting a straight-laced horror film like the original, you will be disappointed--what you will get with this sequel is a tangentially-related psychological drama with shades of a thriller. In its own way, the film is a unique, dark fairytale of its own. 9/10.
Lommel's character study of two women(?)--and two bridges
"Olivia," also known under a variety of other salacious titles, such as "Prozzie" and "A Taste of Sin," follows Michael Grant, an American engineer in London who is helping dismantle the London Bridge. He meets and falls in love with Olivia, a woman haunted by her prostitute mother's murder, and who herself is in an abusive relationship. When Michael attempts to fight off Olivia's husband one night, it ends in tragedy. Four years later, in Lake Havasu, Arizona, where the London Bridge has been relocated, Michael encounters Olivia's apparent doppelgänger, a local tourism ambassador named Jenny, who claims she has never met him.
This offbeat entry in Ulli Lommel's early filmography is certainly an anomaly--it is not so much a horror film as it is a psychological thriller, though it is, as is the case with most of Lommel's work, preoccupied with themes of childhood trauma, particularly children's exposure to their parents' sex lives. The titular character, Olivia, is haunted by her mother's death, and begins slipping between identities, at times living out a secret life as a prostitute--just like her mom. The film toys with Olivia's psychological state, suggesting early on that she may be a Norman Bates-like character prone to dispatching men, but she remains no less sympathetically portrayed by Suzanna Love.
The second half of the film marks a major tonal shift, moving the setting from dreary London to the sunny Arizona desert, where Olivia--or at least someone who resembles her--resurfaces to haunt Michael. In a way, the extreme contrast between the two locales makes the film feel like two different movies, though this is perhaps part of the point. In any case, both sections of the film have their own stark atmospheres, and there are a number of haunting visuals throughout.
While the plot is at times rather ridiculous, there is still something oddly charming and entertaining about "Olivia." The film teeters between character study and full-blown psychological thriller, only occasionally dipping its toe into the horror pool. It is really more a meditation on childhood trauma than anything else, and it ultimately unravels into a perverse but engrossing love story-turned-tragedy. It is worthwhile for its visuals and at times otherworldly atmosphere, as well as its astute representation of a broken woman. 7/10.
A dreamy, dreary blend of an art film and a made-for-TV horror movie
"Lemora" follows Lila Lee, a young girl in early-20th-century America who seeks out her father, a gangster on his deathbed who has been taken in by the mysterious Lemora in the small town of Astaroth. After her bus is overrun by a band of dead-eyed civilians (who appear vampiric), Lila Lee is soon taken in by Lemora as well--but it becomes apparent Lemora has sinister intentions.
This offbeat low-budget supernatural horror film lives somewhere between "Lady Dracula" and "Valerie and Her Week of Wonders" (mixed with references to H. P. Lovecraft) as it charts a young girl's odyssey through a bizarre, sometimes fairytale-like landscape. Controversial upon its original release, "Lemora" still contains thematically unsettling subtext (mainly regarding Lemora's quasi-sexual interest in the young Lila Lee) and religious overtones, but the main attraction--and the wellspring from which the film expels its eeriness--is the rich and atmospheric cinematography.
Though not always entirely narratively satisfying, the film is lush and vivid, walking the line between an art film and a made-for-TV movie. Deep purples and blues abound throughout, and there is hardly ever a dull frame. This lends an otherworldly quality that meshes nicely with the film's dark fairytale sensibility. The performances are also strong (albeit offbeat), with Cheryl Smith playing the doe-eyed protagonist with a quiet whimsy, and Lesley Gilb portraying the terrifying-looking title character.
The film concludes on an ambiguous note that leaves the viewer ponderous of where the story actually ends, but it's a fitting conclusion. Overall, I found "Lemora" to be mildly spellbinding. It is not the most thrilling or plot-driven of horror films, but it still succeeds among a handful of similarly downbeat horror films from the early 1970s. 8/10.
A pedestrian, albeit well-made entry into the series
"Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes" follows a widowed mother (Patty Duke) and her three children who, due to financial struggle, are forced to move into her icy mother's Victorian home in northern California. Unfortunately, grandma has recently been gifted a bizarre antique lamp that was formerly stored in the famed Amityville house across the country--and it just happens to be a beacon of evil.
This made-for-television installment in the "Amityville Horror" film series marks a significant departure from the others, taking the action from Long Island to California (where most of the subsequent sequels would take place) by way of a demonically-possessed lamp. The premise here is admittedly ridiculous, but "Amityville 4" is a lot more watchable than you may expect.
Sandor Stern, who wrote the screenplay for the original film, directs, and though the film feels like an ugly stepchild to the first installment, it is admittedly well-made, with production values that exceed your standard television film. Slick cinematography elevate the proceedings significantly, as does the atmospheric, spacious mansion perched atop a cliff in which the action takes place. Patty Duke is also a welcome presence here, and gives a solid performance as the widowed mother facing off with the supernatural events.
The scares here are rather pedestrian, which is expected given the film was made to air on television, but there are a few effective moments, and the wicked lamp in question is slightly sinister-looking. The last thirty minutes really goes the route of "little girl under the influence of demons," a plot trajectory that has only grown more popular in the genre in the intervening years. In any event, though, the film is a lot better and classier than it has any right to be. 7/10.
"The Outing" follows a teenaged girl who plans to spend the night in a local science museum where her father is a curator. Unfortunately, the museum has recently acquired an ancient Arabian lamp among their artifacts, which contains a malevolent genie. Mayhem, unsurprisingly, ensues.
The cover art for this film (and even the title) might lead one to believe they're in for a backwoods slasher flick, but "The Outing" is much more along the lines of "Night at the Museum" than it is any slice-and-dice flick. The film opens with an Arabian woman being murdered in her house by a gang of robbers, which is the catalyst for the lamp making its way to the museum (and wreaking havoc on our teen characters).
The premise is silly, but the film offers enough thrills and spills in great late-'80s fashion that it may be worth a watch. The acting is ho-hum and the characters here are pretty disposable, though the murder sequences are at times grisly. The film is also shot through with a number of bizarre moments, including a scene in which the protagonist's racist ex-boyfriend starts hurling epithets at a black classmate; and later, a rape scene that materializes almost out of nowhere. These moments may have been intended for some sort of social commentary, but in the context of the film, they feel utterly out of place.
Things kick into high gear about midway through, when the teens arrive at the museum, and ramps up for an insane and absurd finale in which the monstrous genie is stalking the protagonist through the halls. The special effects here are admittedly ridiculous, and the film ends in a rather abrupt manner, though it's hardly surprising. All in all, "The Outing" gets points for creativity, as there are few films remotely like it. Where it fails is that it lacks any real suspense, and it is structured in a way that leaves the midsection only chugging along. For a low-budget effort, however, it is a moderately amusing, cheesy '80s supernatural romp. 6/10.
Alicia is an introverted video store clerk in early-1980s Waterbury, Connecticut suffering from insecurities spurred by her glamorous twin sister, Barbara Ann, whom Alicia believes is stealing her boyfriend, Mike. Meanwhile, a series of murders is occurring in town. Alicia's troubles grow worse when she breaks up with Mike and begins dating Franklin, a shy local who has pursued her, after which she begins receiving horrifying phone calls emitting unearthly noises. Is Alicia going mad? Is it Mike--or Franklin? Is her phone evil?
The first feature of Gorman Bechard, this low-budget but arty debut is a strange cross between Brian De Palma's "Sisters" and Roman Polanski's "Repulsion," shot through with a possibly supernatural weirdness that renders the whole thing almost unforgettable. If you are looking for a narrative that makes sense and can be logically followed, this is not the film for you--though fairly straightforward, "Disconnected" has just enough weirdness about it that will leave viewers scratching their heads, with the most levelheaded inevitably frustrated.
Rather, this is the kind of film for audiences who want to be whisked away by atmosphere, into a world of wood-paneling, suburban video stores circa 1983, and autumnal leafy New England streets populated by dive bars. Despite its narrative shortcomings, "Disconnected" is a profoundly atmospheric film with a number of visual touches that are surprisingly elegant; it's also punctuated by a haunting sound design, with frequent attention to ambient noises like ticking clocks (ala "Repulsion") and unearthly, almost alien-like screeching that the protagonist is tormented by with each phone call. Bloodied hands grasp at picture frames, the camera pans to crucifixes hanging above beds inhabited by a corpse, and time passes in the form of black-and-white still frames like a 1910s hand-cranked nickelodeon. Some of these odd touches feel purposeful, others merely incidental (such as several bizarre scenes in which a detective discusses his investigation into the string of murders, facing the camera interview-style in a Hawaiian shirt), but, all together, they weave a web of utter strangeness that will either draw you in or completely deter you.
The acting here is generally lackluster, though the lanky, doe-eyed Frances Raines makes for a formidable lead in the dual roles of the twin sisters. Her acting is at times shaky but overall decent, and she spends much of the film chain-smoking and lounging around her home, illustrating a bleak existence. What is perhaps most surprising about the film is that it really throws a curveball in the last scene, which ties together the film's bizarrely brief, episodic opening sequence, and leaves the audience with a quite different view of everything they've just watched. The final scene, which ends in a freeze frame, is unexpectedly haunting, and suggests the most logical explanation is not at all correct. All in all, this cheapjack horror effort weaves a spell. 8/10.