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Sean Axmaker

Blu-ray: Giallo! Restored Italian horrors on Arrow, Synapse and more

bloodblackBlood and Black Lace (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
What Have You Done to Solange? (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats: Two Adaptations by Sergio Martino & Lucio Fulci (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Tenebrae (Synapse, Blu-ray, DVD)
Manhattan Baby (Blue Underground, Blu-ray)

A mysterious stranger stalks a beautiful woman as the camera creeps in like a voyeuristic partner in crime. Black gloved hands reach for the lovely neck of a young maiden. The faceless killer strangles, stabs, slashes, or otherwise horribly murders her in front of our eyes, the camera recording every perverse detail. This description of the giallo could fit the hundreds of slasher films but the true giallo—a distinctive Italian brand of horror film that was born in the 1960s and flourished in the 1970s and 1980s—combines a poetic, haunting beauty with Grand Guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity. You could call it “spaghetti horror,” though it hardly captures what makes the genre so unique and, at its best, so delicious.

Italian horror did not begin and end with giallo, which is the Italian word for “yellow” and refers to a series of cheap paperback mysteries and thrillers that sported yellow covers, but it certainly put the genre on the map and influenced the direction of Italian horror (as well as, among others, Spanish and French horror) for decades. The cinematic roots include Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (with its elaborately choreographed murder scenes), Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and the krimi, a distinctly German genre of murder mystery based on the British thrillers of Edgar Wallace and his son, Bryan Wallace. These films generally featured a mysterious, usually masked killer, an eccentric investigator, and a roll call of suspects that usually ended up systematically murdered in creatively gruesome ways.

Death Walks at Midnight - image courtesy of DVD Beaver

Death Walks at Midnight – image courtesy of DVD Beaver

Mario Bava and Dario Argento are the king and crown prince (respectively) of the genre that was born in the sixties, bloomed in the seventies, and celebrated a resurgence in the late nineties as scores of gialli rolled out on videotape and DVD in restored and uncut versions. I devoured these releases but, like so many other fans, I also discovered that the pool of Italian horror was, just as with the spaghetti westerns in the 1960s, huge and filled with copycats and knock-offs cashing in on the current trends. The excitement waned as the pool of classics was quickly drained and I worked my way through lesser and lesser horrors just waiting for moments of inspiration. That’s not to say anyone gave up on the genre, only that for a few years the hits were fewer and farther between.

Labels like Blue Underground, Kino Lorber, Synapse, and Mondo Macabro kept the genre alive during these fallow years. Now Arrow, a British label that recently launched an American line of Blu-ray and DVD releases (through distributor MVD), has injected new blood into the genre with some of the best editions of classic, notorious, and outrageous giallo titles in the past couple of years. Most (if not all) of these films have previously been released on DVD, some of them satisfactory, others not so much. They make their respective Blu-ray debuts in impressive deluxe editions. Here are a few stand-out releases from the past 12 months or so, as well as a few choice releases from other labels. And where better to start than…

Blood and Black Lace (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD), Mario Bava’s 1964 giallo landmark. Many experts of the genre have cited The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) as the birth of the giallo, but I say this elegant slasher picture and its mix of poetic, haunting beauty with Grand Guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity is where it really began. If Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch turns violence into a ballet, then Blood and Black Lace is murder as ballroom dance. Bava sets the atmosphere with a beautiful yet eerie credits sequence that gives each star his or her own moving fashion still and then jumps into a stormy night, where the winds lash and snap the chains of the hanging sign and twist the streams of the elegant fountain until it resembles the spray of a disaster. Order becomes chaos.

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Seattle Screens Halloween weekend: ‘The Hunger,’ ‘The Pit,’ ‘Rocky Horror,’ and Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’

Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden, a con artist scheme by way of a steamy erotic thriller, opens at multiple theaters this week, including SIFF Cinema Uptown and Guild 45.

The Canadian coming of age comedy Closet Monster plays for a week at SIFF Cinema Egyptian.

Miss Hokusai, an animated Japanese feature from director Keiichi Hara and the creators of Ghost in the Shell, opens for a week at SIFF Cinema Uptown.

Archival and revival screenings:

Grand Illusion presents two contemporary twists of the vampire film on 35mm this weekend and on Halloween night: The Hunger (1983), the feature debut of director Tony Scott featuring Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie, and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) with Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston.

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Review: The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (South Korea) leaves behind the austerity and cool tone of his superb but unheralded American debut Stoker to return to the intense imagery, twisting narratives, perverse subcultures, and elevated emotions of his Sympathy trilogy. The story of con artists in 1930s Korea, adapted from the British novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters (also made into a British TV miniseries), has the look of a lavish period drama, the elegance of an arthouse picture, the complex plotting of an ingenious caper that only the movies could sustain, and the sex of a classy softcore picture. Park shifts the setting from Victorian England to Korea under Japanese colonial occupation, which adds national tensions to drama already roiling with class division and sexual exploitation.

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Blu-ray/DVD: Robert Altman’s ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’

mccabeMcCabe & Mrs. Miller (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Robert Altman’s third film since staking out his claim on 1970s cinema with M*A*S*H (1970), turns the western myth into a metaphor for the fantasy of the American Dream colliding with the power of big business.

Warren Beatty is John McCabe, a drifting gambler who rides into the mining camp town of Presbyterian Church (named after a building that has yet to open for business), surveys the possibilities of the muddy streets and rough-hewn buildings carved out of the Oregon wilderness (Vancouver, Canada, stands in for Oregon), and stakes his claim as the slick sophisticate to give these hicks the delights of civilization, namely a whorehouse and a well-lit bar with clean floors and fancy furniture. Julie Christie is Constance Miller, a veteran hooker who hitches a ride on a steam-powered tractor and pitches McCabe a partnership. She comes on strong and knowledgeable, a professional with plenty of management experience, but look carefully in the scene where McCabe negotiates for a handful of haggard prostitutes and you’ll catch her through a doorway, just another bordello working girl taking a break. Altman does nothing to draw our attention to her but it’s the only backstory we get and you can just imagine her hatching a scheme to escape her dead-end trajectory and roll the dice on this flashy backwoods businessman who has more ambition than talent. McCabe plays the would-be frontier tycoon for the miners, striding the camp in his fox-red fur coat and Eastern bowler hat, but Mrs. Miller is the brains behind his success. That’s clear when the corporate mining concern sends in it negotiators (Michael Murphy and Antony Holland) to buy up the town and McCabe plays the hard-sell dealmaker in an ultimatum dressed up in polite ritual.

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Blu-ray/DVD: Takeshi Kitano’s ‘Violent Cop’ and ‘Boiling Point’

violentcopViolent Cop (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD)
Boiling Point (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD)

Takeshi Kitano has a way of making stillness into tension in his crime films.

In the opening shot of Violent Cop, Kitano’s 1990 directorial debut, the camera holds on the smiling face of a toothless derelict. Like a pebble dropping into a pond the calm is shattered when a soccer ball knocks his dinner from his hand and a swarm of teens rushes him. The violence erupts out of nowhere as they relentlessly beat and kick him, and as the homeless man lies dead on the ground the feckless kids hop on their bikes and nonchalantly peddle away as if leaving the playground.

Into this cruel, uncaring world strolls Azuma (Takeshi), the police detective who earns the film its title many times over. In his first scene he beats a suspect, one of the teenage boys, in the kid’s own room. Azuma has a reputation for making up his own rules and he maintains a precarious position in the department that looks away as the lone wolf gets results at the price of unbridled police brutality. “Behave yourself for a year while I’m chief,” demands his new superior. He looks on like he hasn’t heard a thing, and before long he’s back to his usual tricks, running down suspects, beating drug dealers, planting evidence, even slugging a pimp standing in the stationhouse hall. Once in a while he cracks a smile, but mostly he wears a deadpan mask. Kitano has an amazing face, calm and bemused, at times almost blank, with big teddy bear eyes and soft features that suggest a gentle nature denied in his every action. Even when the battle becomes personal and the hair-trigger cop goes on his rogue rampage, he maintains that serenity, hardening just a bit, his crook of smile straightening out to a taut determination, perhaps suggesting a touch of bitterness and sadness.

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‘Memento Mori’ and the Terrible Melancholy of Korean Horror

The rise of Asian horror in the late nineties was built on a different recipe than the Freddy and Jason knock-offs and post-Blair Witch found-footage horrors of American movies. After the cycle of gore films of the eighties ran its course in both Japan and Hong Kong, horror was relegated to the made-for-video industry (known as v-cinema), where younger talents found ways to create eerie thrills on limited budgets and resources. A 1991 novel by Koji Suzuki laid the groundwork for the coming boom: Ringu (a.k.a. The Ring) was made into a TV film, a TV series, a smash 1998 movie by Hideo Nakata, and a string of sequels and remakes (including a Korean version). Along with the eerie madness and supernatural forces of Kiyoshi Kurosawa‘s movies (Cure, Pulse) and the vengeful ghosts of Ju-on(a.k.a. The Grudge) and its many sequels and remakes, a new genre was born. J-Horror underplayed the on-screen violence, creating shivery moments of malevolence seeping into the material world from beyond, killing and corrupting everything it touches, with stories built on the vengeance of spirits unable to move on. The conventions of American ghost stories—discover the secret keeping the dead trapped on Earth to send them on their way—no longer applied. The truth will set neither the living nor the dead free.

Where the Japanese industry largely recycled the creepy imagery and angry supernatural killers of those trend-setting films, South Korean directors took the same elements in a different direction. K-Horror also focused on unsettled spirits, but rather than anger and vengeance, they explored regret, anguish, loss, and betrayal; the most resonant films offered spirits more damaged than malevolent, prevented from moving on by unfinished business or unfulfilled yearnings. The Asian horror revival coincided with the sudden relaxation of film censorship rules in South Korea, which helped fuel the rise in Korean action cinema. But even as action thrillers became more visceral and violent, horror cinema was closer to the teen and young-adult serial melodramas that still dominate Korean TV—more focused on the emotional than the physical.

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VIFF 2016: Con artists, poets, and life on the streets

viff_signature-01I still marvel at how the Vancouver International Film Festival seems to be one of the best-kept secrets on the West Coast. Opening a few weeks after Toronto, it is almost concurrent with the New York Film Festival, which makes headlines with the official American premieres of some of the season’s most anticipated films. Many of those very same films are screening across the country in Vancouver, often a day or two before NYFF, and it is a mere 2 ½ hours away from my Seattle domicile. It’s one of the quirks of the festival circuit: the films that made their respective North American premieres in Toronto (after a possible “unofficial” screening at Telluride) vie for a spot at NYFF, where it gets the media spotlight, while Vancouver quietly slips somewhere around half of those into their line-up.

Here are a few titles snagged by VIFF this year: Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl, Hong Sang-soo’s Yourself and Yours, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, Pablo Larraín’s Neruda, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada, Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle…. There are other films playing both fests, and plenty of films screening at Vancouver that are nowhere to be seen on the NYFF schedule, but that should give you a taste of a few of the delights that Vancouver offers over 16 days and eight venues (seven of them within walking distance of one another). It’s why I go every year that I am able.

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Godzilla Evolution

Shin Godzilla, the first new Japanese Godzilla film in twelve years, stomped into the record books as Japan’s top moneymaking live-action film of 2016, and the highest grossing Godzilla film ever, but it practically snuck into American theaters last week, staking out one or two showings a day in urban multiplexes with practically no advertising and no advance screenings. American audiences sought it out and sold out showings nonetheless, inspiring stateside distributor Funimation to expand its release to more screens and showtimes.

What makes this all the more surprising is that it’s counter to everything we associate with a classic Godzilla movie. And I don’t mean the inevitable shift from suitmation (the man in a suit stomping through elaborate miniature cityscapes) to motion capture and CGI. The third Japanese reboot of the series opens with an echo of the original 1954 Godzilla, on the mystery of an abandoned boat in open water, but otherwise it wipes the slate clean and treats this as the first ever encounter with a giant creature on a tear through Tokyo. Not what you expect from a film whose title translates roughly to New Godzilla—according to the film’s executive producer Akihiro Yamauchi, “Shin” can stand for “new,” “true,” and “god”—and alternately has been called Godzilla Resurgence by Toho. As far as this film is concerned, it isn’t a return. This is first contact.

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Seattle Screens: Japanese horror in 35mm and ‘The Battle of Algiers’ restored

The Japanese horror classic Kuroneko (Black Cat) (1968), directed by Kaneto Shindo, is both an eerie ghost story and a ferocious horror tale of righteous revenge. Set in feudal Japan, in a bamboo forest perpetually shrouded in fog and shadow as ethereal as the ghosts that seem to float through it, the film chronicles the spirits of two women, raped and murdered by scruffy samurai who are more like feral bandits, driven to revenge themselves on all samurai, which they lure to their ghost house, itself a spirit that moves through the forest like a supernatural creature. It’s one of the greatest of Japanese ghost stories, a horror film of elemental drive, feminist rage and visual grace. It plays three shows at Grand Illusion this week from a 35mm print.

Also at Grand Illusion in 35mm is Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1965), a quartet of ancient ghost stories. It may not be strictly speaking a horror film—it’s not scary or particularly unsettling apart for a few exquisitely created images—but it is breathtakingly lovely, visually composed like a painting, scored and sound designed by Toru Takemitsu with a spareness that leans on silence, and suffused in sadness, regret, and loss. The 160-minute film plays twice this week.

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Blu-ray: The original ‘Cat People’

catpeopleThe original 1942 Cat People (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) was made on a low budget for RKO’s B-movie unit, the first in an amazing series of B-horror films from producer Val Lewton that transcended its origins. It’s a masterpiece of mood and psychological ambiguity masquerading as a cheap exploitation knock-off. Cheap it is, but Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur create mood not out of what is seen, but what isn’t.

Simone Simon is a kittenish young artist from a rural Siberian village who has moved to urban America but still believes in the legends and superstitions of her homeland. Kent Smith is the generically charming American engineer who meets her in the zoo, where she obsessively sketches the black panther prowling its small cage, and they marry, but her fears prevent her from consummating the marriage. She believes that she comes from a cursed bloodline of the devil-worshippers and that any form of romantic passion will transform her into a jungle cat. That’s not exactly how the film frames it—she won’t even allow a passionate kiss out of her fear—but the film slyly makes the connection between sex (both repressed and unleashed) and horror. Smith sounds more parental than partner as he dismisses her superstitions and fears with a superiority that comes off as insensitive as best and arrogant at worst. The only transformation we see is in the character of the suddenly aggressive Simon when she becomes jealous of her husband’s coworker (Jane Randolph). Everything else is left to suggestion and imagination, using feline snarls and shadows on the wall and ingenious art direction (her apartment is filled with art featuring cats) to hint at transformation. Tom Conway is both slickly sophisticated and a little sleazy as a psychiatrist who becomes too interested in his troubled patient.

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Have a Freudian Field Day with ‘Spider Baby’

Spider Baby (1967), more formally known as Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told, is a magnificent film maudit of exploitation cinema, a true American independent vision, and an eccentric triumph unappreciated (and in fact largely unseen) in its own time. Think of Lord of the Flies by way of Freaks, a mix of horror and comedy with a nod to Psycho and a dash of Freud. It’s one of the greatest blasts of B-movie creativity to get dumped into American drive-ins and grindhouses—and get rediscovered decades later in the era of home video by genre-movie mavens. (That’s how I first stumbled upon the film and fell in love with its invention and inspiration.)

This was the official directorial debut of Jack Hill, who apprenticed under Roger Corman (shooting uncredited scenes for Dementia 13 and The Terror), and went on to make his name in cult-movie circles with films including Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), both starring Pam Grier, and Switchblade Sisters (1975), a girl-gang picture that Quentin Tarantino rereleased under his Rolling Thunder banner in the late 1990s.

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Seattle Screens: Festival season – Twist, South Asian, Polish Film Festivals

Twist 2016, the Seattle Queer film festival, has its opening night at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian on Thursday, October 13 with the world premiere of Seattle artist Clyde Petersen’ debut feature Torrey Pines and continues through Sunday, October 23 with screenings and events at the Egyptian, NWFF, 12 Ave Arts Building, Pacific Place, and other venues. The closing night film The Pass screens at Cinerama on Sunday, October 23. Complete schedule and other details at the website here.

The 11th Annual Seattle South Asian Film Festival opens on Friday, October 14 with a screening of Aynabaji (India) at Seattle Art Museum, moves to SIFF Film Center for a weekend of screenings, and screens films at Thompson Hall at the UW, Carco Theater in Renton, and other venues through Sunday, October 23. It closes with Waiting, a Hindi-language film from India. Complete schedule and other details at the website here.

The Seattle Polish Film Festival plays at SIFF Cinema Uptown this weekend with screenings of Cellin Gluck’s Persona Non Grata, Tomasz Wasilewski’s The United States of Love, Jerzy Skolimowski’s 11 Minutes, and revivals of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing (1988) and The Double Life of Veronique (1991) among other films. It plays through Sunday, October 23. Complete schedule and other details at the website here.

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Seattle Screens: Kinofest and Irish Reels

Kinofest Seattle, a collaboration between The Portland German Film Festival and Northwest Film Forum, opens on Friday, October 7 with Margarethe von Trotta’s The Displaced World and continues through Sunday, October 9 at NWFF, screening seven German language features and a collection of shorts over three days. Among the featured films: Windstorm 2 by Katja von Garnier, the documentary Then Is it the End? from Dominik Graf, and the American premiere of Exit Oerlikon from director Paul Riniker. Complete schedule and ticket information here.

The Irish Reels Film Festival opens Friday, October 7 at SIFF Film Center with the coming of age drama My Name is Emily and ends on Sunday with You’re Too Ugly. Complete schedule here.

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Blu-ray/DVD: Olive Signature editions of ‘Johnny Guitar’ and ‘High Noon’

johnnyguitarJohnny Guitar: Olive Signature (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – Joan Crawford’s Vienna is the most masculine of women western heroes. A former saloon girl who earned her way to owning her own gambling house, she’s a mature woman with a history and she’s not ashamed of what she did to carve out her claim for a future.

Directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge as frontier entrepreneurs in a war of wills, the 1954 Johnny Guitar is one of the most unusual westerns of its era, or any era for that matter. It’s dense with psychological thickets and political reverberations (including a not-so-veiled allegory for the McCarthy witch-hunts in Hollywood), designed with color both expressive and explosive, and directed with the grace of a symphony and the drama of an opera.

Sterling Hayden plays the title character, a lanky, affable cowboy who wanders into Vienna’s saloon in the opening minutes and serves as witness to the dramas bubbling up in this frontier community in the hills. But his acts of heroism aside, he’s the equivalent of the stalwart girlfriend watching the showdown between Vienna and the Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). She’s the town banker and moral arbiter whose power is threatened by Vienna (her saloon is built on the site of the railway line) and whose shameful desire for a bad boy miner (Scott Brady) flares up into vengeance against Crawford, the object of his desire.

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Blu-ray/DVD: ‘The Dekalog’ from Criterion

dekalogThe Dekalog (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

Krzysztof Kieslowski is best known for his lush, plush art-house Three Colors trilogy, a celebration of grand emotions from beautiful people, but the The Dekalog (1989), an ambitions ten-part project made for Polish TV, is arguably his masterwork: a delicate, intimate epic of tragedy and triumph among the emotionally battered proletariat of a dreary brutalist apartment complex in Warsaw. The ten stories inspired by the Ten Commandments and loosely connected by place and time are not Sunday School fables illustrating simplistic moral lessons—the connections to the individual Commandments are not always obvious—but powerful, profound stories of love and loss, faith and fear. Each hour long drama, which Kieslowski wrote with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, stands on its own as a fully conceived film

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