Monthly Archives: June 2014

They Came From Within (1975)

*. This movie is also well known under the title Shivers. As with most movies with alternate titles, neither is any good. The original working title, Orgy of the Blood Parasites, was more accurate but made it sound too much like an exploitation film. Which it is, but still.
*. God the Starliner apartment building looks like a dump. Even things that were new – nay, “ultra-modern”! – in the 1970s seem tatty and old to our eyes. I mean, they even have that fake wood paneling in the elevators!
*. A specially designed parasite is blamed for all the trouble. I think the residents of the Starliner were just pissed off that even after having made it as young urban professionals, this is all they had to show for it: an ugly apartment block in the middle of nowhere with a crappy pool, a nine-hole golf course, a grungy laundry in the basement, and a security guard played by one of the SCTV cast (or is that Winston from Cabin Fever?). It would drive anyone into a homicidal fury, or rounds of alternative sex.
*. David Cronenberg’s name comes up on the credits as writer-director just as the slideshow presentation tells us of the in-house medical clinic at the Starliner. Coincidence? I think not.
*. J. G. Ballard’s High Rise was published in 1975. Coincidence? Yes. Cronenberg isn’t interested in the class-warfare angle of Ballard’s novel, and the movie was shot in 1974 anyway. But it’s an interesting connection.
*. Rochdale (a high-rise, student-run housing co-op in Toronto that became associated with free love, the counterculture, and lots of drugs and crime), was finally shut down in 1975. Coincidence? Well, Cronenberg’s previous movie (Crimes of the Future) had been partially set at Massey College, which was only a five minute walk away from Rochdale.
*. A director’s early work usually gives you a pretty good idea where they’re going. That’s certainly the case here, witness the trademark fascination with grotesque medical conditions leading to strange bodily eruptions, the merging of sex with horror, and the ambiguously dark ending. As for a guiding philosophy, you couldn’t do much better than Lynn Lowry’s description of her dream of the eroticization of disease and dying. That’s pretty much early Cronenberg in a nutshell.
*. How odd is it that Lynn Lowry is in both this movie and the movie it is most often compared to, George Romero’s viral-horror thriller The Crazies? Maybe not that odd. She fit the material.
*. Cronenberg is fascinated with blood stains. He likes to paint with them (finger painting, most often). Even his wounds are only blood stains a lot of the time. Nicer than looking at that hideous ’70s wallpaper anyway.
*. Related to the blood paintings are the rooms that get tossed. Cronenberg is also very fond of this. There is something of the delinquent about our Dave: graffiti and vandalism are serial indulgences. And he also likes to wreck cars.
*. Speaking of which, look at the crappy paint jobs on the yellow and blue cars that collide in the parking lot. True story: my one day working on a film set I painted a crash car. It was not a professional job. It came out looking like these cars. Basically what happens on extreme low-budget productions is you buy a wreck and just slap a coat of paint on it, no detailing, so that it looks kinda-sorta like a car that’s still roadworthy. As you can tell from this film, the results are rarely convincing. It looks like they may have even painted the windshield wipers on the yellow car, though I can’t tell for sure.
*. The under-the-skin bulging effects, which I assume were done by bladders, were actually quite cutting edge at the time, and are still pretty impressive. The parasites bubbling out of the one victim’s belly scooped Alien by several years.
*. I have to say, the turd in the bathtub scene really is disgusting. Turd or cock. Kim Newman says the parasites look like “phallic turds,” which splits the difference.
*. Wow. Susan Petrie fends off an unwanted advance from her husband by saying she needs to put her contacts in before they make love. And then when she escapes she goes . . . to put her contacts in. I wasn’t expecting that. Finally, the sight of the parasite crawling out of her husband’s mouth is enough to make her reconsider.
*. There are some signs of a sense of humour: the bloody vomit falling on the umbrella, the old lady who is “hungry for love,” the security guard who reads nurse novels. This is surprising given that Cronenberg rarely indulges in comic relief. He is not a funny guy (at least professionally).
*. I really like the way we move among different characters in the building. They are all more or less interesting, and work well together.
*. The sound is pretty bad throughout, but in the second half in particular it seems to get much worse. There are a number of scenes where you hear the characters’ dialogue over shots where they’re clearly not speaking. But that’s low budget filmmaking. Good sound recording and dubbing is a lot more expensive than most people realize.
*. I guess the parasites are reproducing like crazy, but this is never explained. Do they breed intestinally?
*. The parasite releases the id, turning people into creatures driven by a drive for sex and violence. But they are not zombies. Are they maniacs? How intelligent and purposeful are they? It’s hard to tell. Sometimes they seem like packs of mad animals, and at other times they are quite Machiavellian.
*. When it came out, Canadian cultural maven Robert Fulford wrote an infamous magazine article attacking it, titled “You should know how bad this movie is. After all, you paid for it.” Humbug. You – that is, the taxpayer – pay for almost every movie that gets made, and not just the ones that get direct public funding. Even big Hollywood productions receive massive tax breaks in most jurisdictions. You also pay for almost every book that gets published in Canada, and every magazine, and every song that gets released, and so on.

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The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

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*. Here’s David Thomson on Basil Rathbone playing Holmes: “Too familiar as the maestro detective, he was cut off from the Moriarties he was made for.” A nice insight, noting a quality that should have helped Rathbone in playing a character with a pronounced dark side. Sadly, that angle was never explored in these films. Only a hint remains in the final line here (which was even censored out in some versions).
*. The running time, which struggles to make 80 minutes, keeps it light on its feet. This helps when dealing with “classic” material.
*. I like the script, even though it doesn’t make a lot of sense and is  a very free adaptation of the book. There are new characters, invented scenes, and a very un-Holmesian speech by Holmes about the importance of “imagination” in solving mysteries.

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*. The eponymous beast was a 140 lb. Great Dane credited as “Chief” (real name Blitzen, but Hollywood at the time didn’t like the “Teutonic taint” of a German name). That’s not so impressive today. Dog breeds just keep getting bigger. I think 140 lbs. would be considered a small Great Dane by twenty-first century standards. As I write these words I have a Newfoundland dog weighing just under 200 lbs. lying next to me.

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*. I love the studio set of the moor, all canvas skies and drifting fog, with boulders and blasted trees as furniture for the foreground. There are anecdotes of the actors even getting lost in it.
*. Could Fox have found any actors with longer, narrower faces than Basil Rathbone, John Carradine and Eily Malyon? With so much angularity on display, they needed Nigel Bruce as Watson to round things out a bit.

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Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985)

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*. What a stupid title. Though I suppose it’s better than what they had originally planned: Howling II: Stirba – Werewolf Bitch.
*. What a terrible pre-credit sequence. Christopher Lee alone in the starry sky reciting Revelation. It made me think of Dune, and who wants to be reminded of that?
*. I remember the only reason I went to this movie in 1985 was to see Sybil Danning’s tits. I was not disappointed. And you can tell from the closing credits that the producers knew damn well what they were selling. Elsewhere, I have to say she looks sensational in her biker/dominatrix outfit. The furry three-way, on the other hand, deserves recognition on some short list of the worst couplings ever filmed.
*. Poor Christopher Lee. Such a long, undistinguished career for such a distinguished actor. What did he think when he read the script for this one? I wonder if he cared.

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*. This wasn’t really a sequel to The Howling, though they do make a very feeble gesture in that direction. It is, at least, where they indirectly picked up the stupid subtitle.
*. Despite Roger Ebert’s dubbing the original as one of the silliest movies ever made, this one is much sillier.
*. And tackier. You don’t even get any decent werewolf transformation effects, but only a repetitive series of cutaways.
*. What is with those cutaways? Not only are they repetitive, many of them don’t make any sense. It’s like time and then space have dissolved. I mean, has the new wave band been transported to Transylvania at the end? Or is that a flashback?
*. Speaking of the band (their name was Babel), you have to love/hate how the club scene was presented in such a generic way in the movies of this time. It’s like they just smushed punk and new wave and metal and everything else together and then threw it on stage with a bunch of flashing disco lights. If that was the ’80s then I must have missed it.
*. Speaking of the ’80s, if there was anything worse than the porn of that era then it was the pseudo-porn of that era. The orgies here are ghastly. Still, I like the idea of horny werewolves. It seems like a nice life – all they do is eat and fuck.
*. Jenny, by the way, would fit right in with their pack. She practically throws herself on Ben’s cock the first chance she gets. Which comes quickly after she suggests they share a room at the hotel.
*. I’m not sure why Lee gives Ben and Jenny a picture of Mariana. So they they will be able to identify her? She must be the only black woman in the village, and it’s not like she dresses down so as not to attract attention.
*. The business with the killer dwarf has to be a nod to Don’t Look Now, doesn’t it?
*. As with a lot of so-bad-they’re-almost-good movies, it’s hard to tell how seriously anyone involved took it. According to director Philippe Mora (as reported by Michael Adams in his book Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies) “you couldn’t do it seriously.” And indeed most of it seems to have been a joke. But then most of the jokes don’t work. I mean, what about the ending? I can’t make any sense out of it at all.
*. I did enjoy the full slate of silly wipe effects. Somebody was having fun.
*. So that’s where they got that crazy horned helmet Jay Hernandez briefly dons in Hostel! It must have been kicking around a prop room for twenty years.
*. Could the dialogue have been any more stilted? It’s like the characters are robots. And then at the end they turn into aliens, what with the mumbo-jumbo they’re reciting and the lasers beaming all around them (or are they back in the dance club?). Apparently pieces of a Wicca chant are used. In any event, none of it seems remotely Christian.
*. Maybe not quite in the running for the “best worst movie ever,” but it’s close. I do recommend it to aficionados of the bizarre. The transgressive sex, campy outfits, bizarre editing, over-the-top script (silver bullets won’t cut it against these werewolves, they have to be titanium!), gratuitous and dated “special” effects, wonky narrative hiccups, and overall incoherence give what should have been a complete piece of garbage a hint of the joyfully surreal.

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The Howling (1981)

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*. A movie that holds an awkward place in horror film history. Along with An American Werewolf in London, which came out just after, it pretty much revived the werewolf genre from a long recession, largely thanks to some remarkable special effects. And it did so on a very modest budget of just a little over a million dollars.
*. That both this film and American Werewolf were horror-comedies should also tell you something about where the genre was at. Even with the startling new effects on display it was hard to take werewolves seriously. Enter a pair of jokers (Joe Dante and John Landis).
*. The effects are good, but the subversive humour seems tame by today’s standards. It was a funnier movie at the time, and hasn’t aged that well.

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*. James Whale thought of his Universal horrors as a lark too, but they’ve stood up better.
*. Of course there’s no shame in being upstaged by the effects in a movie like this. You expect it. The real problem here is that the leads (Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone, and Dennis Dugan) are so much less interesting than the supporting cast (Patrick Macnee, Slim Pickens, John Carradine, Kevin McCarthy, Dick Miller). It’s hard to care about such bland main characters. They don’t command our attention or evoke much sympathy.

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*. Will Rob Bottin be remembered as the last of the great in-camera horror effects men? Perhaps. I like his work here, and the distinctive new werewolf “look.” Even the bunny ears seem a bit sinister.
*. I wonder if the extending snout of the werewolf was inspired by the similar effect of the projecting mouth-within-a-mouth of the Alien creature. I’ve always thought there was something sexual about these slimy, dripping erections, sticking in your face like a threatening penis dentata.
*. Bob Burns’s set design for the cabin just seem like a retread of his Texas Chain Saw Massacre house. I think he mailed this one in.
*. Pauline Kael: “The director, Joe Dante, seems a mixture – in just about equal parts – of talent, amateurishness, style, and flake.” Style? Dante’s a film buff and that leads to a certain wry sensibility (not to mention lots of in-jokes). But that’s not really a style.
*. Was Dr. Waggner a werewolf? I don’t think the movie ever says.

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Battleship Potemkin (1925)

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*. Roger Ebert: “The Battleship Potemkin has been so famous for so long that it is almost impossible to come to it with a fresh eye.” Or to say anything new about it. Ebert’s essay spends a lot of time talking about how the experience of seeing it with musical accompaniment by a modern rock band let him see something fresh in it. I’ve only ever seen it on a small screen.
*. Ebert also makes a point of saying that the film’s impact depends very much on its cultural context. It is, after all, a self-conscious propaganda film, promoting an out-of-date ideology. How much does that influence our response to it today? Do Lenin’s words appearing as an epigraph put you off? Note that as late as 1972 Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker! had to lose its revolutionary epigraph from Mao Zedong.
*. Originally the movie had an introduction by the more quotable Trotsky, but this was removed at Stalin’s request.

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*. In my comments on Cabiria I remarked on how I thought spectacle was perhaps the defining characteristic of the new art of film. The usual textbook answer to what made film different than anything that had come before is editing. Fair enough, even if that wouldn’t be my answer. Advances in editing came later than spectacle, and I think the quick cutting from different points of view is something shared by modern painting and literature as well. I know this isn’t a fashionable position to take and that there are counterarguments, but anyway.
*. Cinema was growing up very fast in the 1920s, laying down new rules while advancing technically by leaps and bounds. But much of this movie remains fresh. The scene of the soldier breaking the plate I still find striking (it must have been electrifying in 1925!), and several of the faces remain unforgettable.

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*. I’m always impressed by the tracking shots on the Odessa steps. Indeed, the fact that the camera was smoothly following the action down the steps impressed me more the first time I saw the movie than the montage editing (as impressive as that is). Fifty years later the Steadicam would follow Rocky up the Philadelphia Art Museum’s flight of steps, marking another significant moment in film history (or at least technology, if there is a difference).
*. David Thomson: “in seeing cinema as a matter of so many angled compositions or ‘shock shots,’ he [Eisenstein] was locking himself into an editing style that was always cutting away and that would never appreciate real time or space.” A fair observation. But. Think of today’s rapid-fire, music-video editing. Does it appreciate real time or space? With the ubiquity of CGI and percussive montage has film gone down another “dead end”? One from which there is no backing out of? Something to ponder.

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Runaway Train (1985)

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*. Golan-Globus was never a production label associated with high-quality, award-winning movies. In fact, they were responsible for an inordinate quantity of shit in the 1980s, including much of the oeuvre of Chuck Norris. And so the credits for this one are at the very least interesting: a script courtesy of Akira Kurosawa (more on that later), directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, and starring a pair of respected leads who both got surprising Oscar nominations (Jon Voight and Eric Roberts).
*. Should we count this one then as a hidden gem? Not quite. I find the story improbable in a bad way, and highly melodramatic. The performances are strained to the point of caricature, and the actors are not helped by the dialogue. Many of the characters are clichés. The action sequences are decently photographed and cut, but conventional in their operation. And finally the moral of the story is simplistic and overstated. The operatic, cowboy-style train ride to the strains of Vivaldi, and pan across the faces of the imprisoned cons at the end, are particularly trite moments. It’s hard for a movie to be both intellectually pretentious and cartoonish at the same time, but here you go.
*. That said, I do think this is a decent film, and I suppose there must be something here for so many people to think so highly of it. Roger Ebert gave it four stars!
*. The scenes of the train roaring through the wintry landscape (complete with moose in one shot) are nice, if a bit repetitive. Indeed, if I’m not mistaken they are repeated. Surely the train is going in and out of the same tunnel several times.
*. I had a little crush on Rebecca De Mornay after Risky Business and later with The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. And she’s awfully cute here playing Sara, without a lot of make-up, mousy brown hair, and all bundled up in a snowsuit. But what’s with her instant bonding with the convicts? That’s a bit quick for Stockholm Syndrome to be setting in.
*. John P. Ryan’s Rankin is just laughable. From his speech to the inmates (“You’re all punks, hiding there yelling in the dark . Let me tell you where you assholes stand. First there’s God, then the warden, then my guards, then the dogs out there in the kennels, and finally you! Pieces of human waste!”), to all the rest of his ridiculous crazed-lawman routine (“Please God don’t kill them. Let me do it.”). Nothing seems too over the top for him. I mean, not only does he assault a civilian just trying to do his job, but his tirade makes no sense. “If I don’t get my convicts back the prison will be out of control. Do you know what a riot in a maximum security prison looks like?” Probably not, but that’s your job, Jack. So get on it. And by the way, I’ll be suing your ass for this bullshit brutality.
*. Based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, but I wonder how closely. Three screenwriters are credited, and still the best they could come up with (in addition to all of the crap coming out of Rankin’s mouth) is stuff like Manny saying: “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” and “You’ll never take me back, Rankin! You’ll never get me alive, sucker!” And of course the deathless exchange with Sara: “You’re an animal!” “No, worse! Human.”
*. This final sentiment is repeated in the closing epigraph from Richard III, which is somewhat hard to interpret in context. Seeing as Manny has just performed a heroically altruistic action, the insensitive beast can only be a reference to Rankin, a comic minor character.
*. Yes, that’s Daniel (Danny) Trejo in his big screen debut as the boxer Eric Roberts is in the ring with in the prison fight. You can tell that tattoo anywhere.

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Spider Baby (1964)

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*. It looks like it’s going to be a rough ride as Quinn Redeker’s Peter introduces the story. He can’t read his lines properly. The timing is way off.
*. A gothic nightmare, with the old family house standing in for the castle. But it isn’t Southern or New England/Lovecraftian gothic. This is California and those are palm trees. Does that make a difference? Is it harder to take seriously?
*. It wouldn’t be right for Lon Chaney (by this time he had dropped the Jr.) to get through a movie without turning on the waterworks. He really liked to cry on screen. That said, he’s very good here in a completely ridiculous part.
*. The odd final acts of horror stars. Lugosi, Karloff, Chaney . . .
*. A movie that you would expect to find in the canons of cult film, and yet it makes it onto very few such lists. I think because it didn’t have much of a theatrical run and basically disappeared for a long time. As Joe Dante remarks, “it was a very elusive movie.” It’s certainly cult material, but never had much of a cult, at least until recently.
*. Family horrors. I think Hill is on to something in his commentary where he says that one of the things that makes the film so popular is the idea that no matter how sick and depraved the family members are, they still love one another and look out for each other. This is the dark side of “unconditional love.” Meanwhile, it is the more “normal” people who are cast as intruders who have to be gotten rid of.

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*. The family that eats together . . . is ghastly. There’s a great tradition of these grotesque dining scenes, beginning with The Old Dark House. Nothing more immediately highlights the disruption or inversion of convention and normalcy than a dinner with crazies. Of course The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was coming up. But also think of the sit-down dinner in Craven’s The Last House on the Left, which is where the “bad family” give themselves away because of their atrocious table manners.
*. It’s odd that a film that seems to stand at the start of so much was actually a parody of earlier films (the great tradition of Universal horror is directly invoked over the dinner table). You just have to tweak a genre very slightly to make it a satire, and you just have to tweak a satire very slightly to turn it back into something shocking.

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*. Or, to give things another turn of the screw, how much funnier would the movie have been if they had played the material straight?

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*. What do you think is going on between Ralph and his Aunt Emily (Carol Ohmart)? Has she been raped?  Her clothes are still intact, after all, and Ralph has by this time presumably regressed to a pre-pubescent state (in a bit of dialogue that was cut he even refers to her as “mommy”). My first impression on seeing her call for him when she revives is that she’d somehow fallen in love with him, but later she attacks him. Is she out for revenge? Or does she feel jilted?
*. Lots of obvious nods to Psycho (the peeping in on Carol Ohmart in her lingerie, the stuffed birds, the similar-looking house on the hill). In his commentary Hill admits that this is the only film that was any influence on him.
*. I’m glad that Carol Ohmart had fun with the part, running around in the woods in her lingerie and pearls. If her role as the garishly-garbed chatelaine of the House on Haunted Hill is any indication, she probably liked the chance to play dress-up. Though Hill and Haig are cruel in saying she “must have been in her 40s” when she made the picture, and Haig a bit condescending in referring to her as, “for a mature woman, very sexy.” Come on. In fact, by my reckoning she was in her mid-30s, and she looks sensational.
*. According to Hill, the kid at the end was just the niece of one of the producers, but does she ever look creepy! That’s one of the most memorable final close-ups in film.

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JCVD (2008)

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*. It’s not quite true that there are no second acts in American life. We all like comeback stories, and who likes to come back more than aging athletes and movie stars?
*. Still, if you were trying to come up with some names of action stars from the ’80 and ’90s you thought you wouldn’t be seeing much of in the twenty-first century, I suspect Jean-Claude Van Damme would be near the top of the list.
*. JCVD belongs in that select group of action stars, most of them former athletes, and most of them former martial artists, who are not very good actors. Granted, he is better than the non-actors. The non-actors are not bad actors, they are people who really don’t know anything about acting at all. Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal are a couple of examples. I find them downright painful to watch.
*. Put in a limited enough role, Van Damme is usually capable of doing a passable job (he has Bloodsport and Timecop to his credit). But you do have to keep your expectations low. Plus he has never worked with great material, and has had other personal problems to deal with (some of them confessed to here in his monologue).

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*. I think he’s borderline very good here, albeit the role (essentially playing himself) isn’t a big stretch.
*. Where the movie falls down, it seems to me, is with the script. It’s a meta-action film, which is a genre that has become mainstream because the predicate genres are so worn out, but the script isn’t fast or clever or original enough to carry the concept along. The only line here I really loved was the agent’s response to being asked directly if he’s read the script of the next project he’s pitching to his star: “I don’t know.” That’s wonderful low-key surrealism.
*. I can just barely understand why our hero is accused of extortion at the end (because he was asking for more money than he was being forced to ask for), but I still don’t think he’d be formally charged, given all of the circumstances. How on earth such a charge could have resulted in a conviction and prison sentence is beyond me.

The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972)

*. A lot of reviews, by which I mean a lot of online reviews since this movie is rarely discussed much in print, refer to The Legend of Boggy Creek as a piece of shit. I can understand that as an initial reaction — it looks grim, with the sound and picture quality as muddy as Boggy Creek itself — but I think it’s an unfair and ill-considered judgment.
*. What it is, is a very cheaply made independent film. That doesn’t excuse everything. Romero did a lot better with even less in Night of the Living Dead, and Tobe Hooper did more on a comparable budget in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. But still, Charles B. Pierce made a little go a long way here, not working with professional actors and even building the camera the movie was shot with himself. The creature is, of course, a man in an ape suit.
*. “This is a true story.” Not “based on a true story” or “based on true events.” This is a true story. Which is kind of an odd claim given that the title refers to the story as a “legend.”
*. It’s hard to believe today, but there was actually a whole sub-sub-genre of Bigfoot movies that came out around this time. All forgotten, even by me.
*. “I doubt that you could find a lonelier, spookier place in this country than down around Boggy Creek.” The emphasis falls on the loneliness. The creature, after all never hurts anyone. The fellow at the end is hospitalized for shock, and quickly recovers, while even the dead kitten is found “completely unmarked, apparently she had simply been scared to death.”
*. The Arkansan Bigfoot is sadder and lonelier even than Frankenstein’s monster. This is underlined by the lyrics to his mournful ballad: “”there’s no other such as I / to touch or love before I die.” It’s also heard in his “terrible, lonesome cry,” and is given as the justification for his erratic behaviour (born of the “lonely frustration where he is the only one of his kind”).
*. And the creature isn’t the only lonely one. Travis Crabtree sings of his loneliness (“nobody sees the flowers bloom but me”) while on his way to visit Herb Jones (“a man who likes a lot of privacy” and who has been “living alone in these bottoms for twenty years”). Just look at all the lonely people.
*. A movie that’s often linked to The Blair Witch Project, in part because the makers of Blair Witch cited it as a major influence. But I don’t see much connection. This movie is not found footage, it is a documentary, and doesn’t attempt to tell any kind of linear narrative involving a particular set of characters. In addition, its monster is something out of nature (the film seems at times to be a nature documentary), not a supernatural bogeywoman.
*. The laid-back voice of the narrator might seem at first to be an odd fit with a horror film, but this is a very laid-back horror film. From the opening shots of the boy gamboling through the fields, through the numerous shots of branches and wildlife, it’s clear Pierce has some time to kill and is in no rush to tell a story. And yet this relaxed pace doesn’t work against the movie. The suspense scenes are nicely placed, economically introduced, and quite capably edited (note the number of cuts in the dog hunt episode). Not much happens in this movie, but it isn’t dull. Ugly and cheap, but not dull.
*. And while I’m on the subject of the narrator, hats off to Vern Stierman. His voice really carries the film, and suits the dominant note of melancholy: a much older man looking back at childhood events.
*. The eleventh highest-grossing movie of 1972, on a budget of $160,000. Astounding. It’s hard to imagine anything like that happening today (Blair Witch isn’t really comparable, for various reasons). But then, 1972 was a different world. It was, for one thing, the year of porn chic. Number four on the box office list was Behind the Green Door. Number six was Deep Throat. Tied for number ten was Fritz the Cat. So yes, a very, very different world. I miss it.

Hostel (2005)

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*. “Like it or not,” Kim Newman tells us, Hostel was “the most significant horror film of 2005.” But in what way?
*. More than any other film, this is the one that launched the genre, real or imagined, of “torture porn,” which is itself a subject worthy of a brief digression.
*. “Torture porn” comes to us from a New York Magazine piece by David Edelstein It’s not a great essay, mixing bloody chunks of various disparate films (including The Passion of the Christ) and reaching no real conclusion. (It also never uses the words “torture porn,” which may have been the invention of a headline writer.) But the label has stuck.
*. I can see where Edelstein was coming from, but much can be said in defence of Hostel and (a movie it is frequently paired with in this regard) Saw. Saw in particular is not a gory film (they couldn’t afford the effects), and is actually quite an intelligent low-budget thriller. Hostel does a bit less with more (I think) but is still an effective flick that makes the most out of its creepy premise.
*. As for the franchises these two films spawned I will, for the moment, reserve comment.
*. Where I think the “torture porn” label sticks is with Roth’s leering penchant for merging sex and violence, something already abundantly evident in Cabin Fever.
*. Now some of this is clever, like the way the hallway in the factory mirrors the one in the brothel, with the close echo of the two scenes where the S&M “action” gets interrupted. In other places, however, the linkage is more conventional. The nubile Natashas, for example, are a breed of honey trap with a long pedigree. And the sex is also, at times, clumsily introduced as a throwaway, like when the guard is watching a porno on his small screen TV. . . and the scene actually cuts back to show us more of this movie. Granted this is an in-joke (the movie is Sex Fever, a take-off of Cabin Fever), but it’s not a very interesting one.

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*. Unlike with real porn, however, the violence here has a purpose beyond mere sensation. But it still raises the question, old and familiar now, of why we watch such horrible things, and if there’s a connection between our fascination with blood and the prurience of voyeurism. What does it mean to “like” or “enjoy” horror films?
*. It’s also interesting how both Hostel and Saw employ violence as a way of exploring the theme of the value (or as Roth puts it) the “price” of life. While torture porn reduces the human body to meat, these two movies challenge that assumption. What value do we put on life, either our own or the lives of others? This seems to be a very contemporary anxiety in a hypercapitalist age, and one that clearly struck a chord with audiences.

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*. Speaking of contemporary anxieties, in this movie, as with The Ruins and Turistas, we have Americans visiting foreign countries they don’t understand and taking with them feelings of superiority and invulnerability that will be sorely tested. The world is no longer a safe place.
*. Relating to that same point, in all of these movies the value of knowing a foreign language (or, conversely, the cost of not knowing a foreign language) is emphasized. His facility with German is what, indirectly, saves Paxton’s life. So there you go: a public service announcement slipped in with your entertainment.
*. The political angle isn’t very profound, but is perhaps a bit more complex than it’s given credit for. I don’t see how Abu Ghraib is really in play, but I like the obnoxious Americans who are seen by the Europeans they meet as naive and obnoxious because they really are. If this movie had been made in Europe one can only imagine the howls of protest. And yet when it came out the only howls we heard came from Slovakia.
*. Flag that word “obnoxious.” Are there any reviews of this film that don’t mention the obnoxiousness of the leads? To some extent the early presentation of Paxton and Oli (who isn’t American) works against the film, frustrating our sympathy. But then a lot of the “meat” in most dead-teenager movies (and that’s still essentially where we are here) is like this. It’s a sort of splatter existentialism that takes for granted the fact that hell is other people. From here it’s just a short step to the zombie genre.
*. On a first viewing the early material seems a drag, but on repeated viewings I find the whole film pretty well structured, and the escape sequences manage to be both quick and suspenseful. But I was also wondering if I just wanted it to end. This kind of movie does have that effect.
*. Wow. Amazing enough that the DVD comes with four full-length audio commentaries, but all four of them include Eli Roth! Introducing himself on his solo effort he says “It’s hard to shut me up.” No kidding. He barely takes a breath. Plus the featurettes all have him in the leading role. Bit of ego there? Well, it’s his movie.
*. For the record, I didn’t listen to all of the commentaries. Our culture suffers from information overload and while I appreciate all the extras DVDs have given us you do have to draw the line somewhere.
*. I don’t think the bubblegum gang stuff works. Perhaps the kids are just too cute (which was apparently a concern Roth had). I think they need to be more threatening and sinister from the get go. Here, even when they’re crushing heads they come off as comic relief.
*. Is Josh gay? On one of the commentaries he’s described as being “presented as really sensitive but not quite gay.” Hm. Not sure I like the sound of that. And not that it matters much, but it does cast his relationship with the Dutch businessman into a strange psychological light. Is this then how we kill the ones we love?

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