Monthly Archives: October 2017

The House of Fear (1945)

*. By this point the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes series was humming along nicely. They were, however, losing altitude. After a string of successes — Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, The Spider Woman, The Scarlet Claw, and The Pearl of DeathThe House of Fear is a bit of a let down.
*. It’s “based on” the Arthur Conan Doyle story “The Five Orange Pips.” At least that’s what it says in the credits. But it has absolutely nothing to do with that story aside from the business of orange seeds being sent to the victims just before they die. They don’t even keep the number of seeds the same since we start off with seven pips. And I couldn’t figure out why they were bothering sending such a warning in the first place.
*. I suppose few people today even know that a pip is a seed. It may have been a more widely used word in 1945, but The House of Fear was still a catchier title.
*. The actual plot is hard to follow. Something about an insurance scam. It seemed like a lot of trouble to go through without a major payoff. But for sheer gruesomeness it’s pretty startling. The ghoulish way the killers cover their tracks must have raised a few eyebrows in 1945. Or maybe audiences back then weren’t shocked by the thought of people being blown to pieces, to the point where the only way of identifying them was by way of upper class dog tags like cufflinks and rings. There’s no direct mention of the war in this film, but it’s there all the same.
*. Speaking of gruesomeness, there’s a cut in this film that caught my attention. Right after discussion of the mutilated body found on the beach — one that has had its head, arms, and legs removed — and the observation that these limbs had been removed cleanly, as though by a surgeon, we cut immediately to a close-up shot of the suspicious Dr. Merrivale slicing the leg off a turkey.
*. That’s a cut (no pun intended, I’m talking about the edit) that has become a cliché, especially in horror films. You’ll see a gleaming knife held aloft, a woman screaming . . . and then there’s an immediate cut to another knife slicing into a birthday cake or a hunk of roast beef. It’s a clever little joke and seeing it done here made me wonder who did it first.
*. The House of Fear is a light bit of fun, but it doesn’t have a strong villain and the plot is confusing. There is a lot of familiar banter between the leads. The problem-solving involves following footprints in the sand and the discovery of a secret passageway. You can’t go wrong with the classics. Bruce’s Watson is played a little thicker than usual for comic effect. Lestrade shows up and (as usual) doesn’t help much, but he’s really part of the furniture now. You might as well just sit back and get comfortable here.

Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970)

*. Mario Bava considered Five Dolls for an August Moon to be his least favourite (or worst) movie, which, given his prodigious output, is quite a badge of bad merit.
*. I don’t think it’s anywhere near his worst work, and indeed I find most of it quite watchable. To be sure it was done on the cheap and in a mad rush, but so were most of Bava’s films. And as I’ve said before, I think these constraints actually inspired him.
*. I’m pretty sure no one understands the plot of this movie on a first viewing. The twist ending is both (a) ludicrous; and (b) thrown at the audience so quickly that it’s hard to follow. I certainly couldn’t figure it out until someone explained it to me. Sodium pentothal bullets? What?
*. Perhaps it makes more sense in Italian. I watched the English language version, where at least I got to enjoy lines like: “I can’t figure out whether you’re dangerous or just stupid.” “You forget: I like men but I like them to be alive.” “A cheque in my brassiere? I hope you find it.” “It looks like we’ll all end up in this damn freezer. Am I right?” and “When my father shoots animals with sodium pentothal they never talk, they just lie there and sleep.”

*. I’ve heard some suggestion that Bava deliberately sabotaged a project he was a late replacement on and didn’t feel any personal investment in. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is true that he pulls back on the violence, preferring to present the victims more as objets d’art. This starts right at the beginning with the reveal of Edwige Fenech as an erotic statue. The bouncing glass balls lead us to a tableau of a woman dead in a jacuzzi. Another body is revealed on the beach, with painting paraphernalia scattered about as though it was about to become the subject of a still life.
*. Most remarkable of all in this regard is the shot of Jack lying among assorted fruit and vegetables (including a very strategically placed carrot). The arrangement here is quite obviously meant to recall nature morte, to use the more suggestive French way of referring to these things.

*. There’s quite an interesting genealogy to follow. The main source is Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, with its story of a group of people being killed off one by one on an island they’ve been invited to. Bava seems to have been not much interested in all that, and in his next film, A Bay of Blood, he took things in a different direction: away from the well-constructed plot and toward shocks and thrills. The next step would be Friday the 13th and the slasher film with bodies piling up around the remote cabin in the woods. So . . . Friday the 13th is Agatha Christie’s great-grandchild.

*. The sixties flavour is a lot of fun. I don’t usually think of Bava’s crazy zooms as being part of that whole psychedelic-a-go-go style, and I don’t think that’s what it originally came out of, but it fits in perfectly here.
*. The impression I get is that the whole thing was treated more or less as a joke. Those bodies hanging in the freezer can’t be taken seriously, and you just have to throw your hands up and laugh at the ending. Still, it’s nicely shot and Bava arranges all the pieces nicely. There’s even a touch of Morel-like surrealism in the visit of the sailors to the mysteriously empty beach house. The killers are directors too, and not without a sense of humour. Maybe Bava thought none of it was any good, but I can’t believe he wasn’t having fun.

Alleluia (2014)

*. A nurse. The most terrifying figure in all of modern life. A bureaucratic guardian at the gates of life and death. A dark fetish stereotype, invasive and maternal. Helpless in our hospital beds, they have us at their mercy. As the film begins she moves her hands over a male corpse, the camera not sparing us the puddle of pubic hair and terminal flacidity. Then she looks at the camera. At us. With a look that says . . . what? You see what I have done? To this end you must come. You’re next. I’m not fucking around.
*. I really like Alleluia, a French-Belgian co-production directed by Fabrice Du Welz. It’s based on the true crime story of the 1940s Lonely Hearts Killers Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, which was most famously filmed as The Honeymoon Killers (1960). But it is so bold a reimagining of the events that it made me all but forget its earlier treatments.
*. It’s a harsher tale than The Honeymoon Killers. For starters, it’s closer to the events it’s based on in a couple of uncomfortable ways. The Martha character (named Gloria here) is a divorced woman with a daughter (Martha Beck had two children). Also, the real Martha Beck did start her career as an undertaker’s assistant, preparing bodies for funeral.
*. But what really sets it apart from The Honeymoon Killers, at least for me, is the absence of any campy humour.
*. This is a point that I think I have to expand on. I was surprised when reading reviews of Alleluia to find so many references to it as a horror comedy full of black humour. Did I miss something? The Honeymoon Killers is a horror comedy. Martha eating her bon-bons in bed and Ray swishing his ass in our face make them into comic stereotypes as much as they are real people. Their victims are also quite deliberately sent up. The miserly lady taking them to dinner at the cafeteria is only the funniest example. Piety and patriotism both get the satiric boots put to them.
*. Where is there any of this in Alleluia? I find it telling that the only scene that people seem to agree on finding funny is the one where Gloria can’t stop herself from laughing at how Michel is stringing along the Catholic lady, but she (the Catholic lady) isn’t a comic figure is she? The grasping priest is, a bit, but he’s only a one-liner.
*. There’s a bizarre operatic interlude where Gloria sings over a victim’s corpse that has a Sweeney Todd sort of air to it, but I found it more weird than funny. It seems a bit like the bizarre dance at the pub in Calvaire, and in any event it’s a one-off.
*. You might just convince me that there’s something comic about Gloria’s rapid degradation from introverted professional woman to an almost pre-verbal idiot sibling on a hair trigger for hormonal meltdowns. But even here I thought the presentation more disturbing and realistic than comic, even with Pedro Almodóvar regular Lola Dueñas in the role.
*. I wonder if, given the times we live in, some people look at any sort of extreme cruelty and laugh at it to show either how tough they are or how they’re in on whatever the joke is supposed to be. But I also grant that I may be missing something.
*. The cinematography by Manuel Dacosse received a lot of praise, but I have reservations about the film’s look. It has a gritty documentary feel akin to The Honeymoon Killers, albeit achieved through different techniques (grainy film, jarring editing, uncomfortable close-ups), but Dacosse, who also shot the stylish Amer, sometimes seems to be trying too hard. In particular I don’t understand the fascination with shooting through various obstructions, like a dirty window, a curtain, or a partially closed door. This is rarely a good idea, and yet people keep doing it.

*. One place, however, where I think this obstructed view really does work, because it means something, is in the scenes where we go back and forth between Gloria and Michel in the restaurant during their first date, and then later in bed. In both scenes we only see half of the face of either, the other half being blocked as though in eclipse by the other’s head in the foreground.
*. This works because it makes a point. Gloria and Michel complete each other, as the old saying goes. They are two halves of the same being. They each have a bright, smiling side and a dark, mysterious interior. We never see all of either of them.
*. In praise of great sound effects: note the wet thunk as the axe strikes Solange’s arm. That’s so good you don’t mind that you don’t actually see the axe striking her.
*. Is the violence what makes it so raw? No, it’s the sex. In particular, it’s middle-aged women who don’t all look like models and who are horny. How often do you see that? Even in The Honeymoon Killers the women were caricatures, and their loneliness didn’t have much of a sexual component to it.
*. Most of all, however, what drives this movie are the two lead performances by Laurent Lucas and Lola Dueñas. They both manage to be weird without being cartoonish psycho stereotypes. It’s not often such characters have depth and come across as real people, but here they do. I don’t find them sympathetic, but they do come across as individuals being driven by urges they don’t understand and can’t control. That’s all on them, as it isn’t so much something in the script as it is in their faces.
*. There have been a lot of movies that have explored the folie à deux theme, from Gun Crazy through The Honeymoon Killers and Badlands up to the present day. I think Alleluia can take its place with all of these. Despite taking as inspiration a vintage crime it still manages to be contemporary: explosive, direct, and disturbingly gritty. There’s life in these old bones yet.

The Honeymoon Killers (1970)

*. The true story of a pair of serial killers, a classic folie à deux. But is it terrifying, funny, or sad?
*. That’s always the sense of unease that attends black comedy. Are we just making fun of these people (and their victims)? Are we horrified at their behaviour? Or do we find them sympathetic?
*. I think it’s to The Honeymoon Killers‘ credit that it balances all three responses. It has moments of shock and horror, some very funny scenes, and finally permits us some feelings of sadness, especially for Martha, the lonely heart till the end.
*. Well, everyone loves a lover. And whatever else you may think of them, Ray and Martha have the real thing. Their love, in Leonard Kastle’s words, was “their one redeeming feature,” and it counts for something.
*. They are also that familiar comic duo of the mismatched odd couple: the thin and sexy Latin playboy Ray (Tony Lo Bianco) wedded to the solid and threatening Venus of Willendorf (Shirley Stoler). They’re made for each other.

*. Of course they’re caricatures. We have to laugh at Ray shaking his ass in our face, or Martha lying in bed eating chocolate bon-bons. She will, in fact, always be stuffing her face: with pretzels, slices of toast dripping with jam, cookies. They seem to have been found waiting together for a casting call to a John Waters movie.
*. But while caricatures, are we meant to see these two, and Martha in particular, as evil or disgusting? As noted, she’s always eating. The camera doesn’t shy away from revealing her fleshiness. She’s not shot in a flattering way, usually presented in harsh lighting with little make-up. And yet look at what she has to endure. Being taken advantage of by Ray. Having to play the sexless third wheel to his string of worthless new lovers. Aren’t we rooting for her, at least a bit? As Stoler said of her character, she was “a hungry, lonely woman, who only wanted a very ordinary life with a man she loved.” Ray’s financial conquests were, to her, only obstacles to be overcome.
*. It’s a movie that’s sometimes compared to John McNaughton’s Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer. I don’t see much of a connection beyond the obvious. Henry is a film unrelieved by any sense of humour and doesn’t make us feel anything for its pair of unredeemable killers.
*. I’ve also heard it described as being shot in a documentary style, but I think that’s misleading as well. Aside from the use of caricature and satire, it’s actually filmed in a very stylish way. I love the delayed pan around the room to reveal Ray and Martha listening to the Lincoln story being told, the repeated use of a three-shot, and the incredible close-up on the eyes of the final victim as Ray and Martha discuss her murder (was this something Tobe Hooper was taking notes on?).

*. So instead of “documentary” we might say “realism” (a contemporary review even called it “super-realist”) but even here I think the label is a stretch. Yes, there is a kitchen sink and it’s clear these people don’t live elegant lives, but the story itself is a dramatic heightening of the everyday.
*. Here’s another label: American. Francois Truffaut famously declared it his favourite American film, and I wonder how much emphasis he wanted to put on the adjective. Ray and Martha are romantic entrepreneurs, struggling upwards (or outwards, to a cozy suburb). Theirs is an American dream, a pursuit of happiness that either makes them (and everyone around them) miserable, or kills them.
*. But America also comes in for a good deal of satiric needling: from the lady in the bath singing “America” while Ray and Martha rob her, to the Lincoln bedtime story. The ideal America is being undercut, but in 1970 there was a lot of that.
*. “You’re the hottest bitch I’ve ever seen.” That was still an insult in 1970. Probably not for much longer though.

*. I think Gary Giddins makes an interesting point about the latent misogyny on display: “Filmmakers almost always treat these predators with humor, as though rich elderly women who search for love deserve a sorry fate.” He points to Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt and Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux as early examples of the same type. What makes The Honeymoon Killers different is that Martha is both predator and prey. She was Ray’s victim before she took on the role of co-predator, and at the end she is back living in a True Romance dream world. So I don’t think it’s really misogyny so much as it’s an attack on romance itself as something phony. Phony and dangerous.

*. I don’t think it’s a sleeper, in the sense of an accidentally good film. And I say that despite the fact that Kastle was a newbie (a composer by trade) who never went on to make another movie (at least that I’m aware of), or that Tony Lo Bianco or Shirley Stoler, who were both stage actors, ever did anything else as good (though Lo Bianco did land some other memorable roles). The thing is, despite it’s low budget this is a very well made movie. Lo Bianco thought most of the credit went to cinematographer Oliver Wood and editor Stan Warnow, and there’s no question they did a great job. But as with any successful movie, everyone seems to have pitched in.
*. Though initially marketed as an exploitation flick, it’s far better than that. I wouldn’t call it my favourite American movie, but I do believe it’s a great one, and a landmark in its own right.

The Night of the Devils (1972)

*. The Night of the Devils comes to us courtesy of the same Tolstoy story (“The Family of the Vourdalak”) that served as the source for the second tale in Bava’s Black Sabbath, where the family patriarch was played by Boris Karloff. I think that may be the most interesting thing to note about it though.
*. I don’t mean that it’s a bad movie, only that it’s very much what you’d expect from a low-budget (were there any other kind?) Italian horror film of this period.
*. The director, Giorgio Ferroni, had been active in the 1930s and ’40s and this was one of the last movies he made. I don’t think he was averse to this kind of material, but you still have to wonder how it would make someone feel to end their career on such a note.
*. As with most of its kind, you feel an odd disjunction in nearly every aspect of the production. It’s a classic story, but presented in a lurid, exploitive manner (including full nudity and gouts of red paint). The score, by Giorgio Gaslini, is beautiful but soars above the material (in a way that reminded me of Riz Ortolani’s work on Cannibal Holocaust). The effects, by Carlo Rambaldi (who went on to work on Alien, E.T., and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) are crude but occasionally effective. The melting face actually looks pretty good. There are moments of real visual art, revealing an almost painterly eye, even when relating the most gruesome events.

*. Of course the most obvious disjunction is in the sound. That’s to be expected with a lot of European movies of this type. I’m not even talking about the poor dubbing here, but bizarre effects like the boiing! sound when the father picks up the statue in the witch’s lair, or the way one person climbing a flight of stairs is accompanied by what sound like at least two sets of footsteps, or the way a car pulling to a stop in a leafy forest clearing makes the sound of tires squealing on pavement. Our senses seem to inhabit different dimensions.

*. So the bottom line is that if you like this kind of thing, this is exactly the kind of thing you’re going to get. You get zooms. Lots of zooms. You get eyes peering through cracks. In the opening dream montage you even get a skull covered in maggots, a note of pure Fulci that comes out of nowhere.
*. Since I do like this kind of thing, I enjoyed it. The pair of kids are a real treat, going from adorable cherubs sitting in a window to giggling demons. The twist at the end is pretty good. The story itself is a tight little package, and works itself out in the familiar but effective manner of a folk tale. As I say, it doesn’t stand out from a lot of similar Italian genre work of the time, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Suicide Squad (2016)

*. Suicide Squad was widely hailed (if that’s the word) as one of the worst movies of 2016. It’s actually not that bad. It’s not good, and it’s very disappointing given all it had going for it, but it’s nowhere near the pinnacle of badness it was made out to be.
*. It’s not easy saying what exactly went wrong. There’s nothing original about it at all, but these superhero movies are nothing if not formulaic. So when we get a quick series of potted bios to introduce us to Task Force X, highlighting all of their superpowers (and human weaknesses), followed by a mission that’s ripped straight out of Escape from New York (I assume that downed jet in the street was an homage), and a finale that plays like the end of Ghostbusters, with a ring of trash in the sky that might be from the end of The Avengers or Doctor Strange, with a demon-haunted lover going all goddess-on-the-mountaintop (is that Sigourney Weaver, or Famke Janssen?) . . . well, who cares? You didn’t come here expecting to be surprised, did you?
*. The leads are also pretty good. Will Smith is more than comfortable as Deadshot and Margot Robbie steals every scene she’s in as Harley Quinn, despite it not being a particularly well written part. They really hit a home run with her. Also decent is Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flag.
*. Among the supporting characters, however, there are some real stinkers. I applaud Jared Leto for trying to do something different with the Joker, but he’s just awful. How can he be so dull? And Waller (Viola Davis) . . . what were they thinking? Are we supposed to like her? Respect her? What? I guess she’s playing the Nick Fury role here, but Fury is fun and underneath the hard-ass exterior he’s one of the good guys. Waller is evil, isn’t she? Or is she supposed to be a role model as a fully empowered black woman in authority, capable of being as cold-hearted as any male CEO? That is, any male CEO who kills his own employees because what they know might make their CEO look bad.
*. Why is the end such a major bummer? I don’t get it. The team seem to me to have gotten royally screwed. It’s weird to end a popcorn movie on such a down note. Aside, of course, from the obligatory bit at the end to open the door for a sequel. But that was disappointing too, since the Joker and Harley have absolutely zero chemistry. I wanted to see her making out with Deadshot.
*. I can understand people hating Suicide Squad. There’s a lot of noise, but not much new or interesting. It’s poorly written. There are some epic fails in the character department. But the superhero genre doesn’t have very high standards. I don’t think this was a disaster so much as it was par for the course.

Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995)

*. Under Siege made a lot of money. It was jokingly referred to as “Die Hard on a battleship.” So what next? Die Hard on a train! Make it happen!
*. The French titles make the formula even more obvious. Cuirassé en Péril. Express en Péril.
*. There’s not much to care about here. The fights and stunts are better than in the first film. There are more explosions. The plot, however, is identical. A pair of bad guys hijack a train, taking control of a powerful James Bond-style weapon in the process that they plan to auction to the highest bidder. Only one man stands in their way . . .
*. There is a climactic explosion. There is a final fight between our hero and the villain that they insist on performing mano a mano. The evil plot is foiled. Everybody cheers.
*. Today a movie like this is just barely watchable. A little more so though than Under Siege. Surprisingly, Everett McGill and Eric Bogosian stand up pretty well alongside Gary Busey and Tommy Lee Jones. Katherine Heigl doesn’t jump naked out of a cake, but she’s cute as a button and her role as Ryback’s niece is a little meatier than Erika Eleniak’s stripper. Comic relief is provided by a black porter. It was 1995 and we were just starting to get offended by things like that.

*. The only thing I found interesting this time around was the nice sexual tension between McGill’s Penn and Heigl’s Sarah. Heigl was 17 at the time and McGill 50, but it’s clear he’s attracted to her in a way beyond his appreciation of her training. It made me think of the similar taboo heat between Robert De Niro and Juliette Lewis in Cape Fear (1993). And I don’t think this is just because I have a dirty mind.
*. I wonder when the first portrayal of the villainous nerd/hacker was. Bogosian is good in the part here, though perhaps a little too goofy. He really needs McGill to back him up. And of course that CD-ROM of Death is funny now. There are young people today who don’t even know what CD-ROMs were.
*. I watched a lot of movies like this in the ’80s and ’90s. I don’t remember many of them now. This one I had almost completely forgotten except for the little bit with the pepper spray. In any event, after peaking with these two films it was all downhill for Seagal. You wouldn’t have thought he had a long way to fall, but in that you would have been mistaken.

Under Siege (1992)

*. There was a time when Steven Seagal wasn’t a joke. His career got off to a good start, and he seemed like something a bit different from the usual run of ’80s action stars. Maybe it was because he was a big guy but not totally buff like Stallone or Van Damme. Maybe it was the quiet voice. In any event, he was fun to watch.
*. Under Siege would prove to be his biggest hit, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s actually a pretty good action flick. Formulaic as all hell, but not too badly done.
*. Did I say formula? As soon as it came out it was labeled, not without reason, “Die Hard on a battleship.” And indeed its release actually threw a monkey wrench into the Die Hard franchise because the next Die Hard movie was going to be set on a cruise ship so they had to change the script.
*. The characters are familiar. Gary Busey had the part of obnoxious heel down pat, after having just played similar parts in Lethal Weapon and Predator 2. Tommy Lee Jones was in a groove as the threatening and not quite balanced villain. Erika Eleniak, the real-life Playboy Playmate for July 1989, was typecast.
*. Of course Eleniak is best known for her turn bursting out of the birthday cake. You couldn’t rent this movie on VHS in the ’90s without the tape being damaged at this point from the number of times people had been trying to freeze it and advance it frame by frame. I mean, everybody did this.
*. Aside from this star turn, her part is terribly written, even for comic relief. The way she has to behave and the lines she has to deliver are cringe inducing. In fact, her character had not been included in the original screenplay and Seagal says that he made the suggestion to add her only because he thought he needed a sidekick.
*. The politics are the usual boo-yah stuff. Notice how the one bad guy dresses up like a rocker and the other like a woman. The heroes, meanwhile, are squares. Seagal’s Casey Ryback even had to lose his ponytail. Men are soldiers and women are strippers and villains are psycho punks. That’s all you need to know.
*. I sure as hell wouldn’t call this one of the best action films of the period. Jones is dispatched far too quickly at the end, and when you get down to it there really aren’t any good fights at all. The idea that Ryback is communicating with the Dr. Strangelove gathering of the joint chiefs of staff via satellite uplink the whole time is awkward to say the least. I don’t think the plot throws us a single surprise or moment of originality. But it moves along at a snappy pace and I was impressed at how well it’s managed to hold up lo these many years later.
*. For Seagal, however, it was all downhill from this modest elevation. All aboard for Under Siege 2: Dark Territory!