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Friday, August 14, 2020

The Medium is the Message and You’re Not Going to Like It


John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987) is bookended by two similar but slightly different segments. Both segments are a dream, in particular a message transmitted as a dream. Both are grainy video images of a church door open, light spilling out, with someone or something standing at the threshold. The first segment is a warning. In the second that threshold is breached both narratively and in actuality, the threat has become a reality.

There is a particular subgenre of horror films in which the subject is a film itself that can destroy, in this case, it is the medium that can not only harm the characters in the story but there is an implication that the film itself could harm the real-life viewer as well. This narrative thread could be traced back to its most popular source, Robert W. Chamber’s "King in Yellow", which describes a play when read or performed that can cause madness and even death. From there we get such things as The Ring (1998) with its malevolent videotape, John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns (2005) with a film, when viewed, drives its observers to suicide, and the more recent Antrum (2018) which poses as a documentary about a lost film that has claimed lives.

This idea that horror can reach out from its medium, that it possesses the power to not only frighten or revolt but the ability to do actual physical harm has been applied from everything from comics to teleconferencing, but it hasn't taken hold there like it has for the haunted film subgenre. Viewing a film in the optimal fashion lulls the viewer into a trance-like state where the brain does not differentiate between the dream world of the film and the real-world of the person sitting there viewing it. Horror's core is about the violation of autonomy. A film already strips you of that autonomy, you are a passive viewer to its events and in a theater setting, you can’t even stop that. The most control you have is to leave and even if you do the events of the film still occur out of your sight.

Prince of Darkness – IFC Center

There’s another element that harkens back to horror movies as an endurance test. A lot of horror fans, especially when young, look to horror films as a right of passage. If you can sit through this or that film you’ve earned bragging rights. As a kid, I was always looking for the most dangerous film, the one that could scare me so badly that I couldn’t sleep, the one so gross I’d gag while watching it. Even though I discovered most films fall far short of the expectations that have been set-up for them, I enjoyed the journey enough to keep going. Ultimately you learn that a film might disturb you. but in the end, it is largely harmless. The film is just a shadow on the wall.

We come back around to that notion of violation of autonomy. Horror says, “But… what if those shadows had substance? What if they can and do reach out from the screen to touch you? What will you do then?”

In Prince of Darkness, there a moment where the Anti-God while speaking through an animated corpse tells the scientists, "I've got a message for you and you're not going to like it." The medium is the message and horror is foundational enough to the human experience that even the medium is not free from horror's clutches.


Friday, August 7, 2020

The Blue Monkey



Blue Monkey
1987
William Fruet

A man injures himself on a strange exotic and plant is taken to the hospital. He goes into cardiac arrest in the ER and a giant white larva grows from his throat. At that same time, a cop brings in his injured partner. The larva is removed and accidentally exposed to a chemical by some kids messing around in a lab. The larva matures into a bug and starts to grow huge. Everyone is trapped in the hospital as the military arrives to ensure that the biohazard within does not escape.

The Blue Monkey is out to evoke an updated take on 1950s horror. It brings along elements of the giant atomic bug craze heralded by Them (1954) and the infectious horror of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Since this is a late 1980s production it makes sure to include plenty of slime and a little gore. The late 1980s saw the rise of the horror-comedy, and while The Blue Monkey does have some broad comedy moments, the horror is never played for laughs. When the film brings all its influences together, it is a fun mix of monsters and medical horror. The problem is that it takes a long time to get there.

"Don't panic, but I think we're Canada."

The human cast is unfortunately bland. We are given a stereotypical cop played by Steve Railsback and an ER Doctor played by Gwynyth Walsh. Perhaps it is an ode to 1950s SF to make these characters so flat but it doesn’t make for engaging storytelling. Couple this fact with a sagging middle section and several uninteresting side characters and you can see why the bulk of this film can be such an endurance test.

The Blue Monkey’s most glaring issue is its pacing. I can understand why a small budget film with elaborate special effects would want to save most of its spectacle for the 3rd act, but The Blue Monkey never brings across the rising tension of everyone being trapped in the hospital with the army outside and the bugs inside. Things feel too spread out and there are too many characters of little consequence. We have various lab technicians who just want to smoke weed or have sex, we have an overly prepared pregnant couple, and we have the irritating kids who only exist to be cute/make the whole problem even worse than it is. Tightening up the entire middle portion of the film and eliminating many of these characters would help the pacing considerably.

Still less menacing than the roaches in my first apartment.

The killer bugs themselves are great. A combination of puppetry and costuming brings them to life and thankfully they very insect-like as opposed to being humanoid, which would have been the far easier produce. The creatures aren’t entirely successful often coming across as rather stiff but there is real care and craftsmanship behind their realization and it gives them an old school charm. Some of the body horror is effective with larva bubbling out of mouths and heads being torn off, but I did find myself wishing they would push the gore and slime just a bit more after such a long wait to get to the monster action.

The Blue Monkey is deeply flawed with some serious pacing and tonal issues but if you’re a big fan of big bugs the third act does deliver some fun horror action and creepy insects. 

Friday, July 31, 2020

The Blood Rose


The Blood Rose aka La Rose Écorchée
1970
Claude Mulot

A man named Frederick Lansac (Philippe Lemaire) is a botanist and painter who falls in love with a woman, Anne (Anny Duperey), at a costume party. Their romance hits a roadblock when a jealous partygoer pushes Anne’s face into a fire, scarring her horribly. Frederick fakes her death and Anne remains isolated in his castle. One day Frederick discovers Dr. Römer (Howard Vernon) a disgraced plastic surgeon and concocts a plan to get Anne a new face, even if he must kill for it.

Every movie party I host looks exactly like this.

The Blood Rose lifts the core of its story from Eyes Without a Face (1960) with men employing unethical means to preserve a woman’s beauty and thus her "true" value. The Blood Rose subverts a few tropes of this sub-sub-genre of horror while at the same time cranking up the sexuality and misogyny. Perhaps the most interesting change is that we never get to the actual face stealing. A number of things occur that prevent it from happening, from a deadly plant to murderous dwarves (one of whom is dressed as a caveman for some reason), and Anne’s own unstable mind. The Blood Rose also ups the sleaze considerably. There is plenty of nudity and curvy European ladies lounging around the castle. The film also gives us some ugly violence to contrast it, and a lengthy sexual assault scene involving a victim and the two dwarf henchmen It isn’t explicit per se but goes on for far too long, the camera lingering on the woman’s naked body as she is attacked over and over again. 

The biggest strength of European horror films from this era is often the atmosphere and locations. While The Blood Rose never reaches the poetic heights of Eyes Without a Face, it does offer some wonderful shots of a creepy castle complete with mysterious fog and a vast overgrown greenhouse. In that respect, The Blood Rose is a gothic delight. There is also some weirdness in the shape of a bizarre shop that seems to be made from an organic-looking structure covered in stucco. It has many winding claustrophobic rooms and a red floor that evokes a sense of unease.

"Can I offer you some pants in this trying time?"

The Blood Rose is very casually paced, although things do pick-up speed by the climax, this is a story that asks you to sit and drink in it pleasantries and its horrors. If you are familiar with the structure of these kinds of medical horror tales then the pace might prove just a little bit too slow, but the film throws in a few changes to the typical narrative to keep the overall effect from becoming too much of a slog. 

If you like Euro horror, especially of this vintage, The Blood Rose offers some mild pleasures. There are prettier films, there are more perverted films, and there are more horrific films out there but this one offers enough slight chills and sex to be engaging.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Monstrosity



Monstrosity (aka The Atomic Brain)
1963
Joseph V. Mascelli

Three women, Nina Rhodes (Erika Peters), Beatrice Mullins (Judy Bamber), and Anita Gonzales (Lisa Lang) are hired to work as domestic servants for the elderly Mrs. March (Marjorie Eaton). Mrs. March, of course, has a hidden agenda. With the aid of Dr. Frank (Frank Gerstle), she is auditioning these women to be the future home of her consciousness. The three women begin to realize something is amiss when March and Frank find a lab under the house. The feral dog-man lurking in the forest nearby doesn’t help matters either.
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Monstrosity is another film that falls in the 'scientists preying on women to preserve another woman' subgenre that saw a brief rise after the release of Eyes Without a Face (1960). In this case, Monstrosity crossbreeds itself with poverty row old dark house films. Our three heroines find themselves isolated in a creaky old mansion where they must uncover the mystery that is closing in around them. There is also a veneer of sleaze, these three potential victims are objectified and ogled throughout the movie. The film spices up things just a little by throwing in some atomic flavored mad-science, creating a film that is unique if never exactly competent.

"I want you to know this is the worst bed and breakfast I've even been to."

The acting is where Monstrosity has its biggest failing, a large part of this due to the voices being added separately after filming. It doesn’t help that we are treated to some of the most incompressible bad fake accents in a film. Nina and Anita are supposed to be Mexican and Australian respectively but neither of the actors seems to have heard anyone with those accents speak before. Why give characters accents at all if you don’t have actors who already have them or are unable to perform them. Their nationalities have very little to do with plot aside from a passing remark that Mrs. March could have them deported for failing her. 

There aren’t many special effects in the film, but it does manage to show-off just a little bit of gore, still not a common element in horror films from this period and mostly relegated to low-budget independent films like this that would show in small theaters and drive-ins. The salacious moments are even more reserved choosing to merely hint at sex and nudity, but I think with its short runtime it makes the best of what it has. 

"I'm not touching you. Does this bother you? I'm not touching you."

The biggest strength of Monstrosity is that it is well aware of its true intentions and doesn’t hide them. The film’s narrator seems to take glee in the objectification and eventual doom of these women. Watching Mrs. March size them up adds a sapphic flavor to the proceedings. The end raises the stakes to the level of an exploding house and a pissed of a housecat with the mind of a human. If any movie can get there in barely over an hour with a dog-man attack, gouged out eyeballs, and skeleton it is worth at least cursory viewing.




Friday, July 17, 2020

Corruption

1968
Robert Hartford-Davis

Following in the footsteps of Eyes Without a Face (1960), Corruption is another film centered around a doctor who is in the habit of murdering women in order to preserve someone close to him. In this case, it is his fiancée, a model who has suffered severe burns during a photoshoot. By using the human pineal gland from a recent corpse and a laser in the treatment, Dr. John Rowan (Peter Cushing) is able to achieve remarkable results. The problem is that it doesn’t last, and he must secure a fresher pineal gland.

Aesthetically Corruption feels like the opposite of Eyes Without a Face.  Whereas the later carries a quiet chill set in a stark black and white environment, Corruption is a riot of color, fish-eye lenses, and shouting. Eyes Without a Face ends with a character walking into the woods with a dove in a final moment of poetic horror, Corruption climaxes with lots of people shoving and screaming while a laser scalpel blasts wildly around the room. Corruption begins as a look into the slow descent of madness and cruelty of one person, but it nosedives into chaos very quickly.

"Is it the hat? Look at me when I'm talking to you."

Aside from its colorful sleaze, I found the most interesting element was that Dr. Rowan’s ultimate corruption doesn’t come from his own selfish desires to keep his fiancée, Lynn (Sue Lloyd), looking beautiful, but it comes from her own vanity and needs to be accepted and worshipped by the hipster scumbags that she associates with. She is the primary driver for Rowan’s eventual madness, but even she loses control of him by the end when everything in the film goes off the rails. This effectively makes Rowan victim and perpetrator. I also expected the film to linger on its female victims far more that it does. This isn’t a demure film by any stretch, but it isn’t quite the lurid story that its promotion suggests either.

Ultimately Corruption is undone by its own silliness. The hippie elements have not aged well at all and feel like they were hopelessly cartoonish even in 1968. Seeing Peter Cushing at 55 rubbing shoulders with these goofy hippies deflates most of the menace that the film bothers to build. Seeing him sitting around mod clothes obliterates it. As a viewer, if you can lean into the over-the-top antics, Corruption ends up being very fun. If you are here for a grimy medical horror film, I would consider looking elsewhere because this isn’t it.

What Peter Cushing's first cup of coffee in the morning sees.

I would recommend this film to Peter Cushing fans, though. Normally his roles are very reserved. He’s often a stalwart hero that the viewer can depend on. Here he’s unhinged and often flailing about. His thinning hair is mussed and standing on end as he jams his sweaty face into a fisheye lens close-up. It’s quite unlike any other roles I’ve seen him and almost worth viewing for that alone. 

Friday, July 10, 2020

Eyes Without a Face


Eyes Without a Face (aka Les Yeux sans Visage)
1960
Georges Franju

Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) is driven to extreme measures to fix his daughter Christiane’s (Édith Scob) scarred face, going even so far as to kidnap women in hopes of grafting their skin to Christiane’s own. The constant isolation and failure of their lives begin to take its toll, and as the police and Christiane’s fiancé realize something is amiss, tragedy befalls everyone.

'Art Horror' is a term thrown around usually by people who want to dismiss a film as ‘not real horror.’ or 'not real art' Horror has always been a marginalized genre. Those who dismiss it outright view it as base and lurid, which it often is, but those are features, not bugs. For those enmeshed in horror as not only a genre but a subculture, there is often the fear of ‘respectable’ elements taking things away. You need to look no further than how the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs (1991) was lifted out of the ghetto of horror and called a ‘psychological thriller’ as a way to show that it was a serious film and not some silly blood and guts horror movie.  A24’s recent popular run of films such as Midsommar (2019) carry with them a dedication to craft and attention to the interpersonal drama that turns off some horror fans as an intrusion of respectability.

"You only like me because my face looks like it is made out Beggin' Strips."

Eyes Without a Face is considered art-horror, due to its extreme attention to characters, mood, and a poetic approach to its themes. It doesn’t ignore the horror, both the psychological as we watch the sanity of Christiane crumble, and the physical as we watch Dr.  Génessier do his bloody work. Eyes Without a Face touches on the notion of patriarchy imposing a standard of beauty on women and how that impacts everybody. It would be easy for this discussion to become heavy-handed, but the narrative handles it with a deft touch by not only keeping the focus on its prime victim but also by rendering everyone’s motives as sympathetic, at least to a point.

The visuals of Eyes Without a Face are rendered in sharp black and white with large formal compositions. Much of the film takes place in a single sprawling mansion that begins to feel both more restrictive and more labyrinthine as the consequences for the Génessiers collapse in on them. The most striking image in the film is Christiane’s strange blank mask that she is forced to wear to cover her twisted face. Like much of the film it is simple, understated, and chilling. 

If the evil doctor can wear a facemask, so can you.

Eyes without a Face was not well received at its initial release but it did a spawn a subgenre of films about evil doctors killing other women to cure one that is meaningful to them, The Brain the Wouldn’t Die (1962), Atom Age Vampire (1960), Monstrosity (1963), and Corruption (1968) to name a few. It was only thirty years later that this film was reexamined and gained a considerably better reputation. 

Friday, July 3, 2020

Mr. Freedom



1968
William Klein

Mr. Freedom (John Abbey) is an All-American superhero sent to France to battle Moujik Man and Red Dragon Man, two agents of the insidious threat of communism. Thanks to his predilection for all-out violence, Mr. Freedom isn’t very popular in France but that’s probably just the communist rays being beamed at his brain. Perhaps killing dozens of more people will fix everything.

Mr. Freedom doesn’t have an ounce of subtlety to it, but when it comes to critiquing how American foreign policy impacts the world, that is a feature and not a bug. This acidic satire might be a little too on the nose at times, but it is impossible to deny the anger underneath all the absurdity. When viewing Mr. Freedom in 2020 the saddest part is realizing that nothing has really changed and the violently cartoonish buffoon that is Mr. Freedom is just as accurate a caricature now as it was in 1968.

"Would you like some Freedom Fries with that?"

Mr. Freedom is sent to France by a company called American Freedom Inc., another faceless corporation in building filled with them. He's not sent to actually liberate anything, he’s there to establish cultural dominance. In his civilian guise, Mr. Freedom wears a cowboy hat and bolo tie. He’s unrepentantly cruel, sexist, and racist. His superhero gear is a weaponized sports equipment, a merger of the two most iconic American costumes, and his only response to any threat is complete and utter murder of everyone around him.

As brutal as the comedy of Mr. Freedom can be, it comes across as one-note. This is a single joke stretched out to feature-length, and although it is a joke that needs to be told, it becomes exhausting and numbing by the finale where even seeing Mr. Freedom getting a comeuppance of sorts offers no catharsis. This maybe be entirely by design, the joke of America’s violent boorishness visited on the world isn’t funny at its core, but by failing to offer anything human in the film to for the viewer to connect with, the point becomes easy to miss.

"I'm so American I poop bald eagles!"

The look of Mr. Freedom is garish and bright. It mimics the look of the 1960s Batman television series. The screen is often filled with silly background jokes making the whole thing feel like a Mad Magazine parody albeit with significantly more bloodletting and sex. There is an artificial look to everything, exaggerated costuming and exaggerated sets that match the broadly played characters. 

Mr. Freedom isn’t the easiest of films to sit through but the fact that it is still such a relevant piece of satire makes it just as vicious as it was in 1968. I wish I could say that was a good thing. Definitely worth a view for the modern era even if it takes a little work.