Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Visit (2015)


*. This is a movie I liked more than I thought I would. I still didn’t love it, but I found it worth watching.
*. I was initially put off at the discovery that it was going to be yet another shaky-cam, found-footage, amateur-documentary horror film. I thought these things were finally dying out, like the latest go-round of 3-D.
*. I suppose the popularity (though not the origin) of this form of storytelling goes back to the success of The Blair Witch Project. Since then we’ve had the Rec franchise, the Paranormal Activity franchise, Cloverfield, and what seem to have been dozens of others.
*. The drawbacks to the found-footage films are obvious: despite making an appeal to a kind of raw verisimilitude they’re actually quite artificial and (especially in their final minutes) unconvincing. They also put a real cramp on a filmmaker’s sense of style, limiting them in what they can do (quite often, for example, they have no score at all).
*. On the plus side, however, you gain a vital sense of immediacy and it allows you to film on the cheap. The Visit was shot on a shoestring $5 million budget (with Shyamalan picking up the tab himself) and would go on to do nearly $100 million in box office. That’s not a Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity return on investment (the two most profitable films ever made), but it’s not too bad. So we probably will see still more of these.
*. Of course by now the name of M. Night Shyamalan is synonymous with a twist ending, which has become a self-defeating brand. Once you’re alert to this, the twist here is pretty obvious, and I had clued into it before the kids even arrived at the farmhouse. The initial set-up is suspicious enough.
*. Shyamalan thought he’d have problems finding the right tone, variously describing his efforts at cutting the film as walking the line between art house and comedy and pure horror and pure comedy. Mark Kermode, for one, didn’t think he found a balance, and was unable to figure out if it was a horror film or a comedy.
*. I didn’t see this as a problem. Yes, there are some lame attempts at comic relief (mostly Tyler’s awful rapping), and some black humour (like the children being forced to play Yahtzee), but I always thought of it as a thriller, and for the most part it was quite effective in building suspense and dread.


*. The reason it’s so effective, but also part of its problem, is that old people really are scary. There’s nothing good you can say about physical and mental decline. It’s not politically correct to admit it, but the elderly scare the hell out of us just by being old, reminding us of our own inevitable mortality.
*. I say this is also part of the problem the film has because I’m not sure what we’re to make of Nana and Pop Pop at the end. On the one hand they are clearly villains. Of course they’re murderers, and they threaten the lives of the two children. So they are the source of the film’s horror.
*. On the other hand, the kids aren’t that sympathetic. Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould (a pair of Australian actors, by coincidence) are fine, but the parts aren’t very well written. They are neither likeable nor believable, which is a bad combination. Kermode found them “incandescently irritating.” Meanwhile, I think we do sympathize with Nana and Pop Pop. Sure they’re scary people, but they mainly need help. They need to go back to the hospital and get back on their meds. They’re not psychopaths, they’re just old and have dementia.
*. So how do we feel when they both get killed? Sure it was self defence, but has justice been done? The ending seems very weak to me. In the first place it makes no sense the kids don’t both run away when they have the chance. This would be both the obvious and easy thing to do. Instead they even go back in the house and keep up the subterfuge of their not being alert to anything being wrong. Then there is the matter, already noted, of having to believe that both final battles are captured on film, in ways that provide psychological closure for the kids (Becca kills Nana with a mirror while Tyler, in a truly ridiculous moment, overcomes his football phobia and tackles Pop Pop).
*. The message? You really oughta stay in touch with family. This is the original sin, but despite it everything still works out for the best. All of the old people are dead, as they should be. Mom is back from her sleazy singles cruise. Becca can doll herself up in her mirror like a normal teen and Tyler can bust his terrible rhymes about what shit tastes like. Maybe this is a comedy, after all. It sure looks like a happy ending.


Horror Express (1972)


*. A curiosity. But irresistible.
*. In the spirit of those film pitches that reduce every movie to a combination of two other movies, it’s The Thing meets Murder on the Orient Express. And who could resist that?
*. More specifically it’s a return to John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella “Who Goes There?”, which was the basis for a couple of better-known (and better) movies: The Thing from Another World and The Thing. Basically an alien creature with the power to inhabit human hosts is dug up in the mountains of Manchuria but escapes from its box and starts killing and body-hopping its way through a train filled with European eccentrics. Whodunit, and is still doing it, is the mystery to be solved.
*. Now I have to begin by saying that this is not a well made movie at all. Despite having some capable stars and making the small budget go a long way, director Eugenio (“Gene”) Martin clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he rushes through any attempt at building suspense, while the frightening scenes when the monster attacks are repetitive bursts of rapid editing, presumably meant to conceal the poor effects. The sound (all added in post-production) is awful. And they didn’t even spell Christopher Lee’s name right in the opening credits!
*. And yet so much of the resulting craziness is endearing. Take the matter of geography. The creature is apparently dug up in Manchuria but a title card tells us we’re in Szechuan. The train leaves Peking for Siberia, but goes by way of Shanghai. Did anyone look at a map of China?
*. I already mentioned the cast of eccentrics. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are united again, this time nicely working together as a pair of British archaeologists. They might be Holmes and Watson, or Charters and Caldicott. There’s also a sexy international spy, a Polish count and countess (she’s also very sexy), a mad Russian monk patterned after Rasputin, and Telly Savalas as a hammy Cossack detective in a red, fur-trimmed overcoat.
*. Best of all is the way these characters deliver some of the funniest dialogue you’ll ever hear in a Eurotrash horror film. And that is really saying something. I can’t resist a sampler.
*. The mad monk: “There is the stink of hell on this train. Even the dog knows it.” And: “You think evil can be killed with bullets? Satan lives! The evil one is among us!”
*. An angry passenger to Savalas: “I’ll have you sent to Siberia.” Savalas: “I am in Siberia.”
*. A detective on the train: “I am only a policeman, I don’t have much education.”
*. The detective again, confronting Lee and Cushing: “What if one of you is the monster?” Cushing: “Monster? We’re British, you know.”
*. There’s a lot more like this. Indeed the whole texture of the script is woven of comic material. It gets to the point that the appearances of the monster become an annoying distraction, taking us away from all the dry and ridiculous banter.
*. The alien is another bit of craziness. For the most part I could buy into the back story, but the business with the brains of its victims being wiped and their memories absorbed into the creature’s eyeball, to be later viewed through a microscope as images appearing in its blood, is incredibly bizarre.
*. The alien’s behaviour doesn’t make much sense either. Why does it keep its hominid hand when it takes over the detective? What does it have against the sign of the cross? Why does it have to ask the engineer if gravity can be overcome? Surely it would know. And if it’s a being of pure energy capable of taking any form down to protozoa, why is it making things so difficult for itself? It could just turn itself into the countess’s poodle and get carried around by her until it got to wherever it was going.
*. This is actually a well known movie, but it hasn’t been much written about. That’s a shame. I think it’s a title that every fan of the horror movies of this period should love. Science fiction and the supernatural usually make for strange bedfellows, but here they fit with the rococo plot. Lee and Cushing of course put us in mind of their Hammer work, and even the train full of zombies at the end may make us think of Tombs of the Blind Dead (by coincidence filmed around the same time, also in Spain). It all adds up to something irresistible, so you may as well give in and enjoy the ride.


Funny Games (1997)


*. Cynicism and nihilism are near allied, and the artistic form they produce is parody, the mockery of meaning.
*. You could call Funny Games a parody of a home-invasion horror film, and Michael Haneke has said that the point of what the preppy killers are up to is that there is no point aside from its entertainment value. It’s a form of art for art’s sake. But I don’t think Haneke has the same attitude.
*. The reason I say this is because Haneke is an angry guy, and anger takes the form of polemic, not parody. Haneke is not a nihilist. He has a mission, and something to say.
*. Nevertheless, Funny Games was attacked by a lot of critics, I think mainly for its cynicism. It was a movie that pushed a lot of people’s buttons, but it’s worth asking why and how.
*. David Edelstein, for one, took the DVD, snapped it in two and then cut it up into pieces before throwing it away. Now that’s a reaction! Exactly the sort of thing Haneke was aiming for.
*. What upset Edelstein was that he found Funny Games to be “little more than high-toned torture porn.” Seeing as Edelstein is often credited with coining the term torture porn, one thinks this should mean something. But it doesn’t. Nor does A. O. Scott’s likening Funny Games (the 2007 edition, but for all intents and purposes the same as this film) to Hostel in its reveling in the “pornography of blood and pain,” an appetite which Haneke hypocritically feeds while managing to express his own “mandarin distaste for it.”
*. “Mandarin distaste,” by the way, is offensive because it’s the preserve of critics like Scott. I don’t think he likes Haneke jumping the queue.
*. I think complaints like these are nonsense. The fact is, Funny Games is not a graphically violent movie. The murders, even of the dog, take place off screen (except for that of Peter, who is immediately brought back to life). There’s plenty of potential here for nastiness, but we don’t see it. The other chief act of violence, where Anna is made to strip, only shows her from the neck up. There’s nothing prurient or porny about it.
*. If this is a violent movie, it’s one where you have to imagine the violence. Isn’t the powerful, hard-to-watch effect the film has, that it manages to shock and disturb without being graphic, to Haneke’s credit? That perhaps the most frightening scene in it is Peter’s quietly persistent asking for eggs?
*. The other thing that seems to have really bothered critics is the breaking of the fourth wall.
*. Innocent or naive critics thought this unfair, or in breach of the rules. That Haneke was deliberately setting out to draw attention to and mock those rules (the need for such a story to still respect a basic sense of justice and narrative decorum, for example) seems to me, again, to only draw attention to his success.
*. More advanced critics understood what Haneke was doing, but thought it was too obvious and old hat. In his review of the 2007 remake (also directed by Haneke) A. O. Scott makes reference to “techniques that might have seemed audacious to an undergraduate literary theory class in 1985 or so.” Get that? Undergrad. Yes, horror movies make us all into voyeurs, adopting the point of view of the killer, etc., etc. We know all that. Psycho had said the same thing and done it with more intelligence and style. We don’t need the actors winking at us or being able to magically rewind the film. Apparently Haneke’s drawing attention to the film’s artificial status makes him a “fraud” (Scott). Why?
*. If it was such a tired point to be making, and in such an obvious manner, why did it upset so many people so much? Would they have liked it more if it had just been a traditional home-invasion, family-terror film? With a happy ending?
*. I don’t want to make the claim that I think Funny Games is an incredible breakthrough or particularly bold or original in its form or message, but I do find most of the complaints about it not just unfair but downright bizarre.
*. Kim Newman, for example, finds both versions of Funny Games to be “effective horror,” but finds Haneke’s “smugness” unbearable. According to Newman, Haneke “is ashamed of cinema and only embarks on genre movies with contempt.” I don’t believe that, and can’t see any evidence for it here.
*. Most critics do grant that the film is well made, but then immediately go on the attack with both barrels. Newman again: “Most of his [Haneke’s] films are rewarding, stimulating and affecting, but the only way to get people to watch them more than once is to remake them in different languages.”
*. I’ve watched Funny Games more than once. It has an interesting look, builds suspense very well, and the actors are all fun to watch. It’s hard to take your eyes off of any of the main four, and if the father is presented as too much of a wimp (he should be able to get around better than that even with a broken arm and leg), that’s the only criticism I can make in the premise.


*. Also very effective is the way the two sets of characters (the family and the intruders) seem to inhabit two different fictive worlds. Haneke thought that Peter and Paul were essentially clowns, figures belonging to a comedy, while the family are tragic characters. This makes sense as Peter and Paul stand outside of the action, controlling it in a god-like (or director-like) fashion, while the fate of the family is to suffer. But is it cynical to draw attention to how we empathize with them? Do we really enjoy their suffering? I don’t think the audience is meant to identify with Peter and Paul, who are just after sensation and entertainment.
*. Haneke describes Peter and Paul as anarchic figures who “make fun of all the rules that exist to keep society running.” In much the same way, they make fun of the rules that exist to keep us believing in the film. There may not be anything profound in that equation of the rules of artistic convention with good manners (which the intruders are careful to insist on), both of which Haneke seems to despise, but I think it’s a perfectly valid point to make. Good manners can be not just absurd but disgusting. Hannibal Lecter always insists on them too.
*. It’s not Haneke who is the smug undergrad but Peter and Paul, and I don’t see them as the auteur’s avatars. They seem typical students, and in their final conversation on the boat they even get into an undergrad rap session about postmodern fiction of the kind they enact. Paul’s loud, horsey laugh after he throws Anna overboard gives the game away. He is an ivy-league jock, a privileged boor with a smattering of learning and nothing else.
*. The basic critique of the portrayal of violence in film is, I’ll admit, nothing new. But I think it’s presented in a powerful and original way. My own reading of the film is that it’s about the tragedy of entitlement. The family are living an affluent fairy tale of a life. We don’t like them right from their opera guessing-game in the car, and a gated cottage will probably strike us all as more than a little much (the cottage itself being as big as a barn).
*. Of course we’ve seen our share of zombie movies and films like The Purge, so we know that civilization, however privileged and pretty, is a tissue-thin layer that just barely conceals our desire to rape and murder our neighbours. So we want to see the family taken down. Their lives seem a little too perfect, even if what they have are all the things that we in the audience aspire to. Maybe they didn’t earn it, but they’re entitled to their lifestyle. It may not be fair, but that’s the way the world works.
*. Values like these are not to be trifled with. Having paid for our ticket, we feel we’re entitled to the same thing as the family: entertainment, fun and games. Perhaps more violent and shocking than what they’re in the market for, but still entertainment that plays by the rules, that has good manners. Maybe some partner-swapping with the other couples around the lake. But Haneke has cheated us. He is, in Scott’s telling final judgement, a “fraud.”
*. A fraud! Do these critics want their money back? Talk about entitlement! They didn’t even pay in the first place! What more do they want?
*. Whatever it is, Haneke isn’t interested in providing it. He’s less interested in criticizing our atavistic desire to be entertained by pointless violence than our faith in a transaction that will faithfully give us what we pay for. If you think art has to play by the rules then you’re no better than the dull, bourgeois family. Which means you’re in real need of a wake-up call.


The Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971)


*. On the cover of the Blue Underground DVD of this film there’s a blurb that calls this “the best giallo ever made!” This opinion is credited to a website called Horrorview. I actually went there to read the full review, which was written by someone called “Monkeyman.” Note to self: Do not trust Monkeyman.
*. This may not be the worst giallo ever made, but it’s a long, long way from the best.
*. You expect a giallo to have a complex story with lots of red herrings and kinky twists, but this film is just a mess. It’s not even clear what the title is referring to. There’s a nature documentary insert where a bug doctor tells us of how a certain type of wasp kills a tarantula and lays its eggs in the spider’s belly without killing it, sort of Alien style. It makes for a gruesome premise, but it’s never clear why the killer is choosing to dispatch his victims in such a complicated and cruel way. And the spider being killed by the wasp isn’t even a tarantula. The only tarantula we see is the one being used to guard the cocaine. As for the black belly part, I don’t know what this is getting at.
*. It’s no surprise that the killer is the one person the movie wants you to believe it can’t be. But then he’s so improbable a killer you’re still left mystified. His only way to get back at women (because of his impotence) is to pose as a blind man at a spa? And why such a bizarre modus operandi? The obligatory psychological explanation at the end is rushed and pathetic: he is “a psychopathic personality who’s developed paranoia.” But this tells us nothing we didn’t already know.
*. I wasn’t even sure what the connection was, or if there was a connection, between the killer and the blackmail scheme. Was he in on it? Or were the two plots completely independent?
*. Usually you can at least count on these films to be stylish, but this one just looks sleazy. We begin with an erotic massage scene that has no function in the plot at all. It may, however, have had some influence on Ennio Morricone’s score, which is full of blissful sighs inappropriate for the rest of the picture. I wonder if Morricone even bothered watching any more after this opening scene. The giallo genre, whatever its excesses, was rarely exploitative in this way and it sets a wrong note.
*. Most of the rest of the movie is filled with style fails. Director Paolo Cavara seems out of his depth. In the first murder we see a wine bottle knocked over and emptying on the carpet as the woman is disembowelled. This isn’t clever. In the next murder the victim runs into a room full of mannequins (someone had been watching their Bava) and goes crazy tearing about. The camera goes crazy with her, which makes everything very confusing without any good reason. Then the scene ends with a bunch of blood splashed all over one of the mannequins. Well, give Cavara points for trying. We’re still giving those out, aren’t we?
*. The special effects aren’t that great. There are no creative or explicit (read: “good”) kills. The man falling from the roof is just a dummy, and those contacts shouldn’t have fooled anyone much less a police detective.
*. One of the film’s main claims to fame today is the presence of no less than three — count ’em three! — Bond girls. These are Barbara Bouchet (from the first Casino Royale), Claudine Auger (Thunderball), and Barbara Bach (The Spy Who Loved Me). As an added Bond bonus even Giancarlo Giannini would appear as Rene Mathis in the Daniel Craig vehicles Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.
*. I like the idea of models/actresses getting to live in Italy and finding work in such fare. There are worse ways to make a living in film. Though I recall Claudine Auger saying that she has no recollection of making A Bay of Blood, released the same year. I wonder if she’s even more embarrassed by this outing.
*. In any event, none of the actors are any good. Giannini may be the worst, over-emoting like a madman. The final fight between him and the killer is typical. Why on earth does he throw his gun away and just run at the killer, to take him on hand-to-hand? And why does he turn on the waterworks full blast, crying over his wife body, when she’s only been paralyzed? Shouldn’t he be trying to revive her or call an ambulance?
*. I love gialli, but this is a real stinker. The writing, directing, and acting are terrible. The plot was confused as hell, I wasn’t even remotely interested in the killer or what he was up to, and there’s no suspense at all. Even fans might want to take a pass.


Murder by Contract (1958)


*. How much of a cue is the score giving us? The lights come up on a typical noir setting: the hood wearing a wifebeater shaving in front of a mirror in his dour apartment. But Perry Botkin’s plucking of those electric guitar strings recalls the jaunty zither music from The Third Man. Is this a noir comedy?
*. I think it’s very funny, but I can’t be sure how intentional this was. Could it have been meant as a satire?
*. Take the character of Claude, the philosopher-psychopath hit man. He’s always ready with a lecture on what it takes to be a perfect killing machine, and these are delivered with such intensity that it helps to mask his near total incompetence. But at least he has George fooled. And boy is he cool. Look at the quiet scene where he kills the man at the barbershop, the way his own nodding head echoes that of his victim. It’s like they’re both ready to fall asleep.
*. His lectures, in turn, are sheer nonsense. They impress the hell out of George, but then George admits to only having made it to the third grade. Most of what Claude says just boils down to killing being a business. He browbeats both the waiter and the call girl over the need to focus more on the bottom line. And in case we could possibly miss the point, the script keeps hammering us. Contract work is business: “You murder the competition. Instead of price-cutting, throat cutting.” We start to feel as though Claude is just a little too full of himself, even bragging about his supposed lack of empathy: “I wasn’t born this way. I trained myself. I eliminate personal feeling.”
*. But Claude’s best speeches are the ones where he tries to explain why women always make a mess of things. They are unpredictable. You can’t plan for them. Then, contradicting this, both of his first two plans to kill Billie rely on her behaving in entirely predictable ways. The second one, for example, is based on the scientific premise that “The human female is descended from the monkey, and monkeys are about the most curious animal in the world. If anything goes on, it just can’t stand it not to know about it. Same thing with a woman.” Nobody could have written that with a straight face, even in 1958.
*. Shot in just eight days by Irving Lerner, it’s a movie most often praised for its “economy of style” (Martin Scorsese) and “lean, purposeful” approach (Jonathan Rosenbaum). I guess this is fair enough, bu the stylistic sparseness makes an odd, comic juxtaposition with the wild absurdity of Claude’s Wile E. Coyote murder schemes.
*. In the first of these, Claude somehow fixes the power lines going into Billie’s house so that when she turns on her television it will explode. No, really. That’s his genius plan. The guy, George declares, has a brain like Einstein’s! Alas, when Billie switches her TV on with a remote, her life is spared. Drat! Foiled again! Back to the old drawing board . . .
*. His next brilliant plan involves all three hoods working together to trick Billie into coming to her front door. How can they possibly do that? Hm. Well, spend the day training George how to shoot with a bow so that he can fire a flaming arrow into some dry grass near Billie’s house. Then have Marc call up the fire department. You see, when Billie hears the sirens of the fire engines, she will (being a woman descended from the monkey and thus about the most curious animal in the world) open the door and then KABLAMMO! Contract fulfilled! What could possibly go wrong with a plan like that? It’s genius, I tells ya.
*. Unfortunately Billie is not the one who opens the door so somebody else (another curious woman, naturally) ends up getting shot. Grrrrr! If only Claude had actually got that artillery piece that he told George about!
*. Marc and George must be meant as comic relief: bickering villainous lightweights providing a foil for Claude. There’s no way the shot of the three of them lined up together in the convertible taking in the sights of L.A. wasn’t meant to be funny, is there? The score here helps too. I’ve heard it compared to the theme music for The Beverly Hillbillies, which Botkin also composed.
*. Billie Williams is funny too. She reciprocates Claude’s sexism, hating all men because she thinks they’re “sex crazy” (something she tells us apropos of nothing). She also wears a leopard-print dress and carries a teddy bear around when she isn’t watching TV or playing the piano.
*. Finally, the plot is filled with inconsistencies and absurdities. A call girl is introduced who just happens to be in possession of secret inside information from the D.A.’s office that she relays unwittingly to Claude. That’s her whole reason for being in the movie. Marc and George take Claude to a film set to whack him, and George doesn’t even bring a gun. And why does the Chief even give these two idiots the job in the first place, when it’s already been established that neither of them have killed a man before? Finally, after refusing to save his life by fulfilling the contract on Billie, Claude kills Marc and George and then proceeds to try, once again, to kill Billie. Why? I mean, seeing as she’d already testified, why even bother? Was the Chief really going to pay him?
*. I hope all of this lets you know how enjoyable a movie Murder by Contract is. It’s easily one of the silliest, most singular, and bizarre noirs ever made. Was that what they wanted? I think not. But there’s nothing wrong with happy accidents.

Sinister 2 (2015)


*. This is one of the least welcome sequels I’ve seen in a long while. Not because the first Sinister was particularly bad — though I didn’t care for it — but because that movie didn’t leave much room for further development of its main conceit, which had the demon Bughuul snatching children away to a Neverland of family snuff films. It’s a bizarre premise, and the more you find out about how it works, the less interesting and more ridiculous it seems. So no need for a sequel then.
*. But the first film was made on a budget of $3 million and took in nearly $80 million at the box office, so here we go again.
*. It’s not just more of the same, though what makes it different doesn’t make it any better. Deputy So-and-so (James Ransone, still with no name and technically no longer a deputy) is on the case of Bughuul and has tracked the demon down to a young mother with twin sons who has run away from her abusive husband. Now both her husband and Bughuul are after custody of the kids.
*. Apparently director Ciaran Foy was concerned about the character of the husband, Clint, being a cartoon. He got what he was afraid of, as Clint really is a caricature heel. I didn’t believe him for a minute.
*. What makes this movie different is that it’s mainly told from the point of view of the children who are being recruited to the dark side, and the way the victims are made out to be more than deserving of their miserable fates. Both of these changes have the effect of watering down the suspense, as we’re privy to everything that’s going on from the beginning and we basically want to see the bad people go to hell.
*. Despite a story line that should be more involving I wasn’t buying any of it. The acting struck me as very bad. Tate Ellington as Dr. Stomberg stood out as particularly unconvincing playing an unhinged academic, though apparently Foy told him to ham it up and I did get a smile out of his description of the snuff films as the “aesthetic observance of violence.” That makes it a valid field of research, you see.
*. If you have a fondness for really bad horror movies from the ’80s you may be reminded in several places of Children of the Corn. This is not entirely an accident, though in the original script the farm was to be set amid wheat fields. It appears as though an homage was intended to that earlier work, which is something that the ending goes all-in with — much more so than the “slight allusions” to Children of the Corn that Foy mentions on the commentary
*. That’s right, an homage to Children of the Corn. Think about it. That’s where we’re at.
*. I don’t want to say a lot more. There was nothing interesting, suspenseful, or scary about this one. On the commentary track Foy talks about having to find a balance between the horrific and the comic scenes but I’ll be damned if I can see anything funny in it. The snuff films struck me as downright deplorable, aside from the jumping alligators. Bughuul wasn’t developed at all, leading me to suspect there’s nobody home in that cheap suit. Thematically one senses a strange and sad anger directed at the nuclear family, as opposed to the more traditional anxiety over threats to its security. I wonder what that says about us. Nothing flattering, I’m sure.
*. I really hope we’ve seen the last of these, but I wouldn’t want to bet on it. In any event, I think I’m done.


Sinister (2012)


*. I mentioned in my notes on Ringu that a movie about a haunted VHS tape was about the stupidest idea for a horror film you could imagine, making Ringu all the more remarkable for being as good as it was.
*. I hadn’t yet seen Sinister, which has a whole collection of haunted Super 8 home movies. At least we can be thankful that Ellison’s kids didn’t decide to make their own documentary of the whole experience. All that’s missing from Sinister is a shaky cam. Oh, wait . . .
*. Ringu, or The Ring, was apparently the direct inspiration for the film, as the screenwriter C. Robert Cargill had a nightmare after watching The Ring that gave him the basic idea. Which doesn’t mean that it’s a rip-off but does suggest a certain lack of originality.
*. Even before we get to the discovery of the film canisters in the attic (something that should have been tripping all kinds of alarms in Ellison’s head, by the way), the premise is pretty far-fetched. A true-crime author with writer’s block decides to move his family to the very house where a terrible group murder has just taken place in order to draw on the location for inspiration? And he doesn’t bother telling anyone in his family about it, despite the fact that they’re bound to find out within 24 hours of moving in? Or would be bound to find out if this wasn’t a movie.
*. The sense I had of this being a generic thriller was compounded by other borrowings and repetitions. The demon Bughuul, for example, recalls a whole bunch of iconic baddies, though his look was apparently most directly inspired by so-called black-metal band corpse-paint make-up. I thought he might be one of the hulking baddies from a Rob Zombie flick, but I guess that comes to the same thing. The resulting figure is like a fuzzy composite, and was reportedly discovered by the filmmakers after browsing half a million images on the Internet to find one they liked. This seemed weird to me. Couldn’t they have just come up with their own design? Would that have been too expensive? Too much work?
*. Of course any movie is made out of other movies, and this is particularly the case when working in genre. On the commentaries the following titles are mentioned as sources/inspiration: The Shining (for the script), Devil Times Five (a,k.a. Peopletoys or The Horrible House on the Hill) for the gang of killer kids, Manhunter for the home video of the family being killed in their beds. Once you start noticing these borrowings there’s no end to them.


*. I thought it interesting, however, that no one mentions Blow-Up on either of the commentaries, though it seems a clear source for Ellison’s piecing together the different films and printing out stills, enlarging them, and pinning them to his wall to study. Instead, Blow Out is referred to as the influence for this sequence. This puzzled me, as Blow Out is itself taken from Blow-Up and is a far less obvious source. I don’t think there’s any chance Derrickson hadn’t seen Blow-Up, is there? One thing you can say about most directors, no matter how young, is that they’ve seen a lot of movies.
*. I might have missed where they said when it was the previous family had been hanged in the backyard. It couldn’t have been all that long before Ellison moves in, because the date on the new film canister is 2012 and — even more tellingly — the branch that had to be sawn through in order to hang the family is still there! It hasn’t been cleared away! Wouldn’t the police have wanted to take it for inspection? Wouldn’t the real estate agent have had it removed?
*. Just what is a pagan Babylonian deity doing in Pennsylvania anyway? Child-eating tourism? I had the same problem with Pazuzu and Regan. Don’t these powerful evil entities have better things to get on with? I also don’t know why Bughuul goes through such elaborate dramatics to scare the heck out of his victims first, which was also something I wondered about with the Paranormal Activity films.
*. I love how there’s always a prof at “the university” who’s an expert on this stuff. Is that Miskatonic U?
*. The past tense of “hang” when referring to a method of execution is “hanged” not “hung.” As a writer, Ellison should have known that. But then, co-writer Derrickson also gets it wrong on the director’s commentary track so maybe it’s no longer common knowledge.
*. Do many kids who have trouble with nightmares and sleepwalking hide themselves in cardboard boxes and then spring out backwards in order to scare people, all without waking up? Derrickson says it’s shocking but it really happens and he’s experienced it. What he means, however, is that his son would just start screaming in his sleep. Not that he had a habit of jumping out of cardboard boxes.


*. The family’s economic situation had me concerned. It seems that Ellison is the sole breadwinner but hasn’t had a hit book for a while. He says they’re in desperate straits and have moved in to the new home (which is actually quite modest) because it was available at a knockdown price. Which I can understand. But by moving back to their previous home (which looks like a multi-million dollar mansion and is meant to show the heights from which the family has fallen), basically writing off the haunted death-house, haven’t they committed financial suicide? Oh well. I guess they’re all dead at the end anyway.
*. Only writers are allowed to wear sweaters like Ellison’s. It’s how you know they’re writers. It even has elbow patches! Underneath, he wears a t-shirt from a liberal arts college in Vermont. The lanyard and college were Ethan Hawke’s idea. He’s a writer too, you know.
*. Derrickson: “I don’t have a sweater like that, but I have my own writing sweater that I wear all the time . . . it’s just a writer-type thing to do.” I wonder if he keeps his glasses on a lanyard.
*. As a true-crime writer Ellison may be the tops, but as a researcher? Why does he need Deputy So-and-so to look up stuff that he could have found out for himself in about two minutes using Google?
*. Again we have a guy looking for the source of whatever’s going bump in the night with the aid of a flashlight instead of just turning on the lights. Admittedly, in one scene it’s because the power has mysteriously gone out, but this is easy to miss. Meanwhile, Derrickson says on the commentary that he doesn’t think there are any other scenes where Ellison would have turned on the lights. Well, that’s his opinion. I counted at least two other scenes where Ellison wanders through the house in the dark looking for intruders without turning the lights on, including the one where all the kids are running around behind him. The charge that Ethan Hawke doesn’t know how to operate a light switch isn’t a bum rap in this film.
*. Derrickson: “I wanted the movie to be exceedingly dark. I wanted it to be one of the darkest films people would see in a theatre in their life.” Apparently Klute was the “biggest visual influence” in this respect and the aim was to make a low-budget film look bigger by invoking the spirit of Caravaggio. Which I think maybe it did, even as it threw probability out the window. I’m also not sure making the movie look big was the way to go in such a thriller since a feeling of claustrophobia would have worked well too. Still, if dark is what he wanted, dark is sure as hell what he got.


*. There are worse implausibilities than the lighting. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why Ellison didn’t take the snuff films directly to the police as soon as he found them. I suppose they would have magically disappeared or turned blank, but he wouldn’t have known that in advance.
*. Both Derrickson and Cargill describe this not handing the movies over the police as the key turning point in the plot and I’m sorry to say it doesn’t make sense. Derrickson says that Ellison’s decision is part of a “Faustian bargain” he makes. I don’t see it. Is the idea that if he calls the police and gives them the films then he won’t have a book? That seems a thin rationalization, and gets increasingly thinner as things progress.
*. It’s a very minor thing, but that’s a really fake looking rain storm outside the window of the mansion at the end. And the shots of it don’t match up because in one shot the rain isn’t hitting the window and in the next it’s pouring down the glass.
*. Derrickson: “I like the fact that this movie ends bad, I like the fact that it ends dark, I think there’s too much of an impulse in Hollywood to end horror films on an up note.” Really? I found the downbeat ending typical of the horror films of this period, from The Blair Witch Project through all the Paranormal Activity movies. In any event the conclusion feels a bit rushed. We all know where this is going and it’s wound up quickly without much in the way of suspense or horror.
*. The business with the kids hushing with their fingers to their lips doesn’t work at all and the destruction of the family isn’t so much scary as it is simply depressing and unpleasant, with Mr. Boogie as a Hallowe’en-store Peter Pan taking the little girl off to Neverland.
*. The first time I saw Sinister I thought it was a reasonably effective thriller up till the end, and this may be the only judgment that really counts. The second time I watched it I found it uninteresting and a bit ridiculous. Bughuul has no real aura about him, and the conceit of a scary movie about a guy watching scary movies doesn’t work that well after a while since the Super 8s aren’t nearly as threatening as the video in Ringu. I don’t think it’s a movie that’s going to wear well, but it did good box office (it was very cheaply made) and there was a sequel.

Turistas (2006)


*. This is a slightly odd, but mostly in a good way, little horror film.
*. It’s not that odd. Eli Roth was apparently approached to direct but he was already working on Hostel, a film it closely resembles in terms of both structure and plot. Both films are prime examples of the tourist-terror sub-genre, whose precise origins I’m not sure of. The white people in Cannibal Holocaust aren’t really tourists, but it’s a similar idea. The Beach isn’t a horror film, but it’s very close in many ways to this film and others like it: paradise turning into hell when the natives fight back (Paradise Lost was the totally uninspired U.K. title for Turistas).
*. The business with the underwater caves may have been taken from The Beach as well. Not the film, but the novel, where they play an important role.
*. Then there’s the matter of politics. This is an area where the connection to Hostel is particularly strong.
*. Here’s Kim Newman with one take on the political message: “The implication, more or less foreign policy during George W. Bush’s War on Terror, is that torture is an unforgivable atrocity when perpetrated on Americans, but justified — and worth cheering — when used by Americans against foreigners. After all, they started it. . . . This pattern, raising a mythical American vice as spurious justification for a sadistic foreign overreaction which is then righteously punished, recurs in the Hostel-influenced Turistas/Paradise Lost.”
*. Well, maybe. But the thing is, Roth was very much against the U.S. involvement in Iraq and the use of torture, and Hostel was meant as an indictment of all that. I don’t think we can see him as a Bush apologist.
*. Turistas is also a little different, in that it doesn’t deal with torture. Even the victims are drugged before surgery, which is a sort of kindness. Instead of being about torture, it’s about reversing a history of exploitation.
*. Is that a spurious excuse for Zamora’s crimes? Yes. And I don’t think John Stockwell is concerned one bit with the politics of the situation (unlike Roth). On the commentary he refers to Zamora’s claim to be working for a “good cause” as a “quasi-Marxist-socialist” philosophy and that’s all he has to say about it.
*. Nevertheless, the class argument is there, as it is, increasingly, in all the Hostel films. This is what I think really lies behind the tourist-terror genre. It’s not so much that the tourists are American as they are white and rich (note how there are always token Europeans included in the mix).
*. We know the rich eat us alive every day. The revenge of the Third World is thus a kind of social or class revolution, much the same thing as the revenge of the country against the city (a traditional theme in American horror films), only conceived globally. Brazil is flyover country. It’s not just that the tourists get off the main highway and find themselves in a primitive and poor backwater, but that they shouldn’t have been driving through Brazil in the first place. Next time take the plane, gringos!


*. While it’s an interesting political message, it’s also a stretch. If you were going to set up an organ harvesting clinic would you first think of locating it in the middle of the jungle, in a spot accessible only by helicopter or a ten-hour hike? It seems to me the bad doctors in Coma had a slightly better system in place.
*. Heaven knows where the helicopter is landing. I didn’t see any open areas near the house. In fact there weren’t any, which is why you don’t actually see a helicopter in the movie, just a light at the end of a crane.
*. What happens to Liam? He is shot in the leg and then butt-stroked by one of the guards and dragged back into the house. Are his organs taken? Why would they be, since obviously the schedule for harvesting them is now out the window and Zamora has other, more pressing, priorities.
*. It seems odd that this is left as a loose end, but then Pru was supposed to die in the first version of the script and her ghost character is sort of there and not there during most of the escape and ending. Apparently she spent several hours alone in one of the caves, which would have killed her, but whatever.
*. The whole end of the movie after the cave diving sequence kind of fizzles out. Why the hell does Bea stop Alex from bashing Zamora’s head in? He’s trying to kill you, girl! And why would Zamora provoke his hired gun (I believe his name is Jamoru) so crudely? Was he trying to get shot?
*. There was an alternate ending (available on the DVD) that made more sense. Zamora accidently shoots Jamoru and then Alex kills Zamora with the rock. Though I thought we still needed to see Zamora’s head being turned into jelly, like that of the gangster being brained by a fire extinguisher at the beginning of Irreversible.
*. How do the survivors manage to make their way back to an airport without money, cellphones, or passports? Did they bother to report to the authorities or the American embassy what happened to them? Maybe they could have saved Liam! But as the movie ends they seem kind of quiet about everything. Has this just been a vacation from hell that they’d like to forget?
*. Not surprisingly, Brazil’s tourism industry was not happy with the film. The story was originally set in Guatemala but was changed to Brazil. I’m not sure why. If the natives had all been speaking Spanish the producers wouldn’t have had to say what country they were in.
*. As with a lot of notorious “torture porn” horror films, the label doesn’t really fit and the film isn’t even that gory. It is, however, creepy. The thing is, I think surgery scares more people than zombies or serial killers anyway. If Zamora had been working out of a hospital it might have been even scarier.


*. The final thing that makes Turistas a little odd is the amount of time given over to the underwater stuff. I thought this was effective, if totally unbelievable, in the way most such sequences are. It’s dark down there, people! You can’t see a damn thing, even if you have a flashlight!
*. Stockwell comes from a background in board shorts-and-bikini movies (nice wardrobe double standard there!), so the amount of time spent in the water wasn’t too surprising. And such scenes work in a horror film, as the audience holds its breath along with the people on screen. The low ceilings in the caves add to the claustrophobia and the way the divers breath up the air bubbles is a really neat effect (though Stockwell notes on the commentary track that this is totally unrealistic too).
*. So even though they have no thematic relevance to the rest of the film, the underwater caves do provide a nice twist and the photography is very well done. I suspect Stockwell was more interested in this part of the movie, and his lack of interest in what comes after is what led to the lazy denouement already discussed.
*. In the tourist-terror genre I’d rate this movie below Hostel, about the same as Hostel II and slightly better than The Ruins. It did poor box office, for reasons that I’m not sure I understand. Had a reaction begun to set in? Was it too real, at least as opposed to fantasies like Hostel and The Ruins? Even a bad vacation should provide more of an escape.


Arrière Saison (1950)


*. The title is correctly translated on the Kino Avant-Garde 2 disc as “late autumn.” Looking for more information online I was surprised to find it more generally translated as “backward season,” which is not just incorrect but meaningless. Did Google do this to us?
*. Does the season have any special significance? The most obvious response would be that it refers to the time of life of the two protagonists, the woodcutter and his wife Jeanne, but they look a little young for that. This may, however, be the effect of our own elongated sense of age and we need to think ourselves back to a time when 40 was the old 60.


*. Their age means something. In the first place, this is a film about routine. Jeanne and her husband have settled into a routine that has him coming home for lunch and then again for dinner. Their lives are arranged around mealtimes. They could probably set their clocks by their stomachs, but it looks like they don’t even need clocks any more.
*. You could smile (I did) at the Frenchman not even taking off his beret to eat his lunch of stew with a baguette and a glass of wine, but for me this was less a nod to a stereotype than an affirmation of the value of routine. It’s not just the same dull round that the stir-crazy dog does in its pen but something that orders and gives some meaning to what would otherwise be meaningless lives.
*. Has the routine become something automatic? Yes. Note how Jeanne actually leaves a pot cooking on the stove when she leaves. She isn’t being careless or deliberately leaving a mess though. Instead, she’s being conscientious. It’s a sign that while she’s bored with her life, she still cares about her husband.
*. Things are not happy on the home front. There are no kids, and if we take it that the late-autumn age of the couple means something then it’s unlikely there are going to be any.
*. That poor dog. I felt worse for it than I did for Jeanne. The obvious parallel between them (she is trapped behind glass, it is stuck behind chicken wire) leads one to think the worst of her situation.
*. Didn’t they have chainsaws in 1950? Actually . . . it’s complicated. But portable, one-man chainsaws didn’t come into mass production until after WW2, so it’s not surprising that everyone is still using axes here.


*. The title cards announce this as a “poetic essay.” Was French Impressionism the nearest film ever came to poetry? And if so, why? What was the zeitgeist?
*. The title cards also tell us that this will be a short film without dialogue because words would add nothing. Which is true, since no one in the film speaks. Routine means they don’t have to. The woodcutters know their jobs. Jeanne and her husband don’t exchange even the briefest of pleasantries. He says nothing to her when he comes home, and nothing when he leaves.
*. Their silence leaves everything open to interpretation. Are they tired of each other? No longer communicating? After she leaves, does spend his feeling on the unimportant wood? Or does he take for granted that she’ll return (because she’s done this before)? He does leave the key for her in the flowerpot.


*. Dimitri Kirsanoff had done Ménilmontant almost a quarter-century earlier. I don’t think this film is an advance, but it does show an artist who stuck to his aesthetic guns.
*. It’s a difficult film to interpret, in part because I think the way we look at it today is probably different than how it would have been viewed or was meant to be viewed at the time. Does Jeanne’s return make her a failed feminist, unequal to Ibsen’s Nora? Or is she affirming something about her marriage? Today, of course, we come to these questions with different feelings. As Pearl Jam put it, in a song about domestic violence, “She feeds him. That’s why she’ll be back again.”


Devil Times Five (1974)


*. Watching a movie like Devil Times Five is a bit like dumpster diving. You know everything in the dumpster is garbage, and smells bad, and you’re going to get a lot of stink on you for going in there, but every now and then you find something totally unexpected.
*. Devil Times Five is an interesting, at times delightful movie. It’s also total garbage. It was a major influence on Sinister, and the director of that film, Scott Derrickson, apparently told his co-writer that he had to watch it because “It’s not a good movie, but it’s a great movie.”
*. There’s scarcely the suggestion of competence in any department. It’s a cheap exploitation flick that looks like hell and gives the impression of falling apart at the narrative seams. And yet . . .
*. The original director was fired (or quit) part way through filming. Later scenes didn’t always match up, and you get the sense no one really cared. Leif Garrett’s hair was shorter for the stuff that was filmed later so he had to wear a wig. The wig didn’t match his longer hair from the earlier material and in one scene you even see him picking the wig up and pulling it on. It’s that kind of movie. Other crazy continuity errors abound, like switching from day to night and back again without any consistency. It gets to the point where you really don’t care any more.
*. Complementing this patchwork texture are the various odd titles it was released under. Devil Times Five because there are five murderous monsters running loose. It was also known as Peopletoys, which is a weird conjunction that actually fits the bizarre story. The Horrible House on the Hill is the most generic title, and also the least descriptive. The U.K. release title was Tantrums, which isn’t a very accurate description of anything in the movie, but which is kind of funny.
*. The theatrical release poster specifically references Village of the Damned as a landmark: “Not since Village of the Damned has death become so savage . . . or survival so hopeless.” This is a stretch. Personally, I see less Village of the Damned here than Lord of the Flies: a fable about kids going feral and savage in an isolated setting.
*. The basic premise is a lot of fun: a van full of five mentally disturbed children tumbles down a cliff in a remote, snowy, mountainous region. The kids survive the crash and make their way to a house (the “horrible house on the hill”) where a family has gathered, which they then proceed to murder.
*. It’s pretty terrible in all respects, but there are three things that I think make it quite interesting.
*. In the first place, the dysfunctional family plays like a parody of some Southern Gothic plantation drama, complete with that big house on the hill. The irascible patriarch is a Big Daddy figure named Papa Doc. I guess he thought taking the nickname of a Haitian dictator was more original than stealing from Tennessee Williams. Papa Doc’s wife, “Lovely,” is a nymphomaniac. His son is a doctor married to an alcoholic. His semi-normal daughter is married to a slightly-less normal guy who has, by the way, “balled” Lovely at some point in the past. The other member of the household is a hulking dolt named Ralph (embarrassingly played by co-writer John Durren) who is just Lennie from Of Mice and Men transplanted to the mountaintop. When Lovely tries to seduce him all he can talk about is petting his rabbits.
*. The second interesting point is the rag-tag troop of killer kids. These include a pyromaniac, moody girl, a black militant boy with a toy (and later a real) gun, an albino nun, and the aforementioned teen heartthrob Leif Garrett as a wannabe teen heartthrob, already living a fantasy life where he’s really someone famous and crying out in anger after spearing one of his victims in the throat and suffering a minor blow to the head: “My face! Look what you did to my beautiful face!”
*. Adding to the overall sense of familial perversity, the boob-baring Lovely is played by Carolyn Stellar (Leif Garrett’s mother) and the pyro girl by Dawn Lyn (Garrett’s sister).
*. Finally, what gives the movie a place in cinema history, undistinguished but significant, is that it’s a clear forerunner of the late-’70s body-count film. Though crudely rendered, almost all of the ingredients are here, beginning with the isolated house full of victims being picked off one-by-one in inventive ways (throwing a bucket of piranhas in the bathtub was the best). Given how silly it all is, it’s almost like a pre-parody of the form, and when Lovely announces “fine, you all just sit here, but I’m going to take a bath and relax because if I don’t I’m never going to make it till morning!” we have to smile. Talk about famous last words!
*. All of this combines to make Devil Times Five quite a lot of fun for its target audience. It gets off to a slow start, and never even bothers to create suspense, but even its failures have an inept charm. The first murder goes on forever and is done in slow motion, which makes it laughable. There’s also the use of freeze-frame at the moment of death that is (inadvertently?) hilarious.
*. You have to enjoy all of these bizarre elements and epic fails. There’s one moment, easy to miss, when the kids first arrive at the house and Papa Doc literally shoves his wife at them to check them out and see if they’re sick. This despite the fact that he’s a doctor and his son, another doctor, is standing right next to him! These are kids, after all, and taking care of kids is woman’s work!
*. Sleazy and cheap, bizarre and notable, this is a must-see for horror fans. Great trash movies are a happy accident, and we should not be ashamed to rubberneck.