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Horror

Blu-ray: James Whale’s ‘The Old Dark House’

James Whale followed up his iconic horror classic Frankenstein (1931) with the strange, sly, and sardonic The Old Dark House (1932), part haunted house terror and part spoof executed with baroque style.

Cohen Film Collection

Boris Karloff (fresh from his star-making turn in Frankenstein) takes top billing in the supporting role of Morgan, the scarred, mute butler with a penchant for drink and a vicious mean streak, but the film is really an ensemble piece. Melvin Douglas is the wisecracking romantic lead caught in a raging thunderstorm in the Welsh mountains with bickering couple and traveling companions Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart. They take refuge in the creepy old manor of the title, lorded over by the gloriously flamboyant Ernest Thesiger and his dotty, fanatical sister Eva Moore, when a landslide wipes out the goat-trail of a mountain road, and are later joined by more stranded passengers: a hearty Charles Laughton, whose Lancashire working class accent and blunt manners sets him apart from the social graces of his companions, and his “friend” Lillian Bond, a chorus girl with a chirpy sunniness in the gloomy situation.

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Blu-ray: Mario Bava’s ‘Kill, Baby… Kill!’

The title may sound like a serial killer thriller but Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby… Kill (Italy, 1966) is a Gothic ghost story with haunting images, grotesque edges, and glorious style. Think of it as Bava’s answer to a Hammer horror, with hysterical superstition and suspicion of outsiders replacing the lurid sexuality of Hammer’s Victorian horrors and Bava’s rich palette setting an altogether more expressionist atmosphere.

Kino Classics

Shooting exteriors on location in rural mountain villages of picture-postcard medieval stone dwellings and labyrinthine streets, Bava creates a fairy tale world of an oppressively provincial 19th century village in the grip of a curse. At least that’s the explanation of the townspeople who dismiss the scientific investigation of Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi Stuart), a coroner from the city called into determine if Irena (Mirella Pamphili), a young woman whose death by impaling opens the film, was murdered or committed suicide. The villagers know—she is the latest victim of a curse upon the village—and do everything they can to drive the coroner and Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli), the city investigator, from their insular little village. With the help of Monica (Erika Blanc), who was born in the village but sent away to school and has recently returned, Paul is determined to find the true cause of the inexplicable deaths plaguing the village.

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Review: Friend Request

Friend Request is all about the dangers of Facebook and social media, so maybe it could have gotten a pass in 2011. The alarm—which has nothing to do with Facebook’s controversial algorithms or alleged biases—seems a little outdated now. Do college students still use Facebook? If so, they will find the sorts of lessons here that a 1959 movie might have noted about the barbaric allure of rock and roll.

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Blu-ray: It Comes at Night

The title of It Comes at Night (2017) sets certain expectations. What exactly comes at night? But the survival thriller from writer/director Trey Edward Shults, set sometime after the ravages of an unnamed and unexplained plague have ripped through the cities and sent survivors into the isolation of the wilderness, isn’t about monsters (human or otherwise) who hunt in the dark. It’s more insidious than that, which is what makes it so unsettling and unnerving.

Lionsgate

Our first image is of man, diseased and unable to speak, expiring as figures hidden behind gas masks try to comfort his passing. It’s both tender and alienating, a teary farewell turned mercy killing by terse, protective Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their 17-year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and Shults continues directing in that vein. Everything is off-balance, the familiar always on edge. Their country home in the lush green forest has been boarded up and turned into a fortress, the gentle days are under constant threat of pillager and armed invaders, and the nights are plunged in isolation where every sound is a potential attack. So when they catch a man breaking into their home (which, to anyone on the outside, appears abandoned), they have to make a choice whether to believe Will (Christopher Abbott) when he says he’s just trying to find water and shelter for his wife and young son.

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Blu-ray: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s ‘Pulse’

“Do you want to meet a ghost?”

Arrow

The meditative and metaphysical horror cinema of Kiyoshi Kurosawa made him one of the masters of Japanese horror during its amazing cycle of surreal and nightmarish horror films of the 1990s and 2000s, but his films never really crossed over to the general audience in the U.S. His insidiously unsettling films were too slow and cerebral for traditional horror audiences while the “horror” tag kept away the kinds of viewers that would be in tune with his eerie tales of guilt and alienation. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was never recruited by Hollywood, and so he remains known mostly to those viewers with a passion for Asian horror. Among those fans (and I count myself as one), Pulse (Japan, 2001) is embraced as one of his greatest works, perhaps his best.

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George Romero Surveys the Dead

[I conducted this phone interview with George Romero on October 5, 2005, in anticipation of the DVD release of Land of the Dead. It was originally published on GreenCine on October 18, 2005.]

36 years after shocking audiences with the unprecedented Night of the Living Dead and changing the face of American horror for good, and 20 years after his ambitious but budget-starved third installment Day of the Dead, George A. Romero returned to the genre with the fourth film in his epic series of society as we know it devoured by the hungry dead: Land of the Dead.

Though Night of the Living Dead and the sequel Dawn of the Dead are best know for pushing the boundaries of onscreen gore and reducing the body human into so much meat, gristle, and blood to be devoured by the hungry hordes, Night also connected with audiences when the horrors of Vietnam were first being seen on TV and Dawn evolved into a biting satire of consumer culture. In other hands, a zombie movie is just a zombie movie, but Land of the Dead, a horror film laced with rife with social commentary, political satire, and black humor, is not just a return to the genre he practically single-handedly created (or at least definitively redefined), but a return to form.

Romero’s commentary is pointed, to say the least. He sets the film in a literal gated community called Fiddler’s Green, a veritable feudal kingdom where class structure is strictly enforced and businessman warlord Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) rules. Brutal games and circuses are provided to distract the disenfranchised in the slums around the glowing glass tower where the rich and powerful live in luxury, and a militia keeps the poor contained as well as the city protected from the stenches. You can only take the metaphors so far, but loaded dialogue like “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” (bellowed by Kaufman when he’s extorted by a former thug that he’s just fired for daring to step up in class) keeps the satirical edge front and center. It may not be subtle, but how then how subtle can you be in a film that features scenes of mankind devouring itself?

In an all-too-brief phone interview, arranged in conjunction with the DVD release of Land of the Dead, we discussed his new film, the origins of his epic zombie series, and the marriage of horror and political commentary.

What’s different about the new “Director’s Cut” of Land of the Dead on DVD?

It’s not that remarkable, I’d have to see. I think the fans will be pleased because there are obviously a couple of gore effects that Greg [Nicotero] threw in there that I wouldn’t even have tried to get past the MPAA with an R. But mostly it’s the same film. I think that what’s the most fun about it are the extras. The guys from Shaun of the Dead came and shot a little film while they were on the set and Leguizamo made a little film of his own while he was on the set. I think that’s really the most fun, getting a glimpse behind the scenes. The intention of the film itself hasn’t changed. There are a couple of scenes that run a little longer, a couple of gore effects that we had to trim to get the R—the MPAA will never tell you to cut a scene, they’ll only say to cut some framage—and there are couple of scenes that we didn’t even try to put in the R because we knew they would never get through. But the intention of the film hasn’t changed. I was actually very happy. I keep saying I think I got away with murder. We defied the MPAA this time. The film was pretty much what I wanted it to be even in the theatrical release.

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Review: Dawn of the Dead

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Part Two of George Romero’s projected Dead trilogy begins almost literally where Night of the Living Dead left off, though it is stylistically closer to the comic-book look of The Crazies. This time Romero’s plunging in media res is even more violent and merciless than before, the fast-paced editing pulling us into shock after bloody shock before we quite understand what’s going on. We’re grateful for the first breathing spell, about ten minutes into the film. A SWAT team has just wiped out a basement full of cannibal zombies in an urban apartment building, the result of residents’ defiance of orders to deliver their dead up for burning to help authorities stomp out the plague of zombie ghouls that began in Night of the Living Dead. “Why did they put them in there like that?” someone asks, and gets the bitter reply, “They still believe there’s respect in dying.” Later, up country, where clean-up teams roam the fields picking off zombies as if in a shooting gallery, there’s a telling moment when one of the SWAT guys lines up his riflesight on an approaching zombie. As he takes aim, a quick rack-focus reveals another rifleman lining up to shoot the same zombie from 180 degrees opposite. The first guy ducks away just in time to avoid getting shot by his comrade-in-arms. There is, at this point in the film, still a difference between shooting the dead and shooting the living.

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The Light That Failed: George Romero’s “Dead” Rock On

[Originally published in Queen Anne News, July 5, 2005]15

“Send some flowers to the cemetery,” growls the head honcho of a zombie-killing expedition at the beginning of George Romero’s Land of the Dead.

“Land of the Dead” zombie squad: John Leguizamo, Simon Baker and Robert Joy

Then scarlet fireworks bloom in the sky and every shambling corpse in what used to be a Smalltown, USA—complete with rotting park bandstand and picket fences—turns his/her/its milky eyes upward, mesmerized by … what? Images that trigger a half-remembered Independence Day, when American history and holiday pleasures were surely celebrated in that very park? Or do those bursts of light simply mirror the random, involuntary firing of synapses that so mysteriously reanimate the dead in Romero’s cemetery movies (previously, Night of the Living Dead, 1968; Dawn of the Dead, 1978; Day of the Dead, 1985)?

The zombie-maker’s movies have always operated as a kind of termite art, chewing away at the surface fictions that make it easy for us to coast happily through our July 4th, secure in Fortress America, full of faith in family values and the belief that the disenfranchised can always be “rendered” harmless. Romero flays our pretty pictures to the bone, exposing nasty stuff like racism, class warfare, Darwinian appetite, unbridled materialism. And on the spiritual front, Romero’s erasure of death as an ending or transition undermines the promise of something more than solitary, eternal confinement in flesh, perpetually driven by the need to consume.

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Review: Martin

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

“All aboard!” cries a voice at the opening of Martin and, as in The Crazies, George Romero’s fast cutting draws us in and pushes us forward on this crazy train ride. In Martin Romero uses closeup detail—more of objects than of people—to create a pattern of images, seemingly disparate but forming (as in Nicolas Roeg’s films) a unified impression of a single mythic event. This jarring joining-together of apparently incidental details creates a disorienting, genuinely threatening atmosphere, even while Romero’s modern vampire tale unfolds with tongue firmly in cheek. Martin demonstrates once again that Romero is a comic-book film stylist of the first order, with a riveting command of color and a knack for the comic juxtaposition of Old World Gothic horror with 20th-century American plasticity. The first thing we see teenaged Martin Matthias (John Amplas) do is murder a woman and drink her blood; yet Romero manages to get us on the boy’s side and keep us there throughout his battle with an elderly relation intent on destroying the nosferatu that has come to live in his house. In the train murder Romero puts us off guard with his emphasis on Martin’s clinical procedure: a hypodermic syringe of sedative, to keep the victim calm; a sterile razor blade, not teeth, to open the veins; the sexual aspect of a process we at first take to be rape heightened by the boy’s nudity, which is more utilitarian than sensual, a safeguard against bloodstained clothes.

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Review: The Crazies

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

A hand unscrews a series of lightbulbs. A switch is flicked on and the room stays dark. Shadows and forms dart out of vision before they can be made out. A pretty little girl clutching a stuffed toy protests, “Billy, you’re trying to scare me!” Then there appears on the wall the shadow of a man lifting a tire iron, about to strike, and we are suddenly back in that riveting, unpredictable world of Night of the Living Dead, where make-believe horrors quickly give way to unspeakably real ones. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. For the first couple reels George A. Romero’s The Crazies builds overwhelming suspense, and teeters its audience breathlessly on the brink of the kind of shock orgy that made Night of the Living Dead so memorable. But what is threatened never actually materializes—at least not in any way that makes The Crazies a successfully affecting horror movie.

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Blu-ray: ‘Death Line’ (aka ‘Raw Meat’) on Blue Underground

Death Line (aka Raw Meat) (1972) – Gary Sherman directs this underrated (and for years largely unseen) British horror film about the last survivor of a literal underground clan (trapped in a subway construction cave in a century before) who emerges from his cave to hunt for food on the London Underground. Yes, it’s a cannibal film, but it’s also a startlingly tender film about a literal underclass abandoned by the world above, a story that roils in class division. It takes the death of an OBE to get the police looking into the spate of disappearances on the London Underground.

Blue Underground

The killer, an unspeaking, primitive figure called the “Man” in the credits (Hugh Armstrong), is also in some ways the protagonist. Drooling and diseased, suffering from plague and malnutrition, he hunts the tunnels of the Underground for food for his dying mate (June Turner). Donald Pleasance steals the film as the unconventional, sarcastic Inspector assigned to the case and then meets his match in a single scene with Christopher Lee as an arrogant high class MI-5 agent. Not so David Ladd (son of Alan Ladd and brother of co-producer Alan Ladd Jr.) as an American in London and Sharon Gurney as his girlfriend and soon-to-be captive of the Man. Their self-involved manner and disdain for the lower classes stands in contrast to the purity of the underground couple but the film stumbles over their scenes together.

Apart from that, however, Death Line is a remarkable horror film.

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Blu-ray: Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’

The Stepford Wives meets Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in Get Out (2017), the directorial debut of writer / comedian Jordan Peele, a tricky and successful mix of social satire, modern horror, and savvy commentary on race as experienced by a person of color in a largely white society.

Universal Home Video

Daniel Kaluuya stars as Chris Washington, a photographer with a promising career and a gorgeous, supportive girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), and after months of dating, he’s finally meeting the parents for a weekend stay. Her parents are white, liberal, and affluent, and on the drive over he finds out that she hasn’t told them that he’s black, which makes him a little uneasy. No worries, they are warm and welcoming, perhaps a little too overeager to make him welcome. Dad (Bradley Whitford) is a chatty hugger who launches into his spiel of how he would have eagerly voted Obama in for a third term. Mom (Catherine Keener) is a therapist who seems to be sizing up all those suppressed feelings, a suburban Earth Mother who seems just a little too eager to hypnotize him. They make a point of just how much they don’t see color, which of course only accentuates how much he stands out in this upstate social pocket where the only other black faces are groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel). They have been with the family so long they have become part of the family, explains Mom. Just maybe not quite in the way you assume.

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Review: Raw Meat

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

I must confess to being one of those horror film addicts who occasionally even resort to the ozoners in search of the one sleeper that will justify all those wasted hours spent in the scurrilous company of Aztec mummies, moth-eaten werewolves, and green slime. Which is how I came to see Raw Meat—despite its title and the American-International imprimatur. Actually, the presence of Donald Pleasence and Christopher Lee, not to mention obvious parallels—in what little I knew of the plot—to the notorious Night of the Living Dead, did nothing to shore up what little resistance I manage to maintain against a seemingly insatiable appetite for the usually tasteless additions to this genre.

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Review: Raw

The last time I had a barf bag handed to me at a movie theater was for a University of Washington screening of George Romero’s Martin, probably in 1979. I didn’t use it, but I appreciated the publicity gimmick. This kind of ploy has an old tradition; when a few audience members fainted at screenings of Frankenstein in 1931, Universal Pictures sent ambulances to stand by outside theaters in order to collect the ailing and garner press interest. John Waters used to like to say, “If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation,” a line that says as much about Waters as a marketer as it does about his status as a subversive moviemaker and shock-value specialist. Waters knew that even one report of viewers becoming physically sick at his movie would ratchet up interest for the subset audience that seeks out the edgiest thing.

The gimmick still works, as the pre-release chatter around Raw demonstrates. Viewers at film festivals rushed to the restrooms in mid-screening, and suddenly, this blood-soaked tale of collegiate cannibalism became a must-see. Sure enough, when the movie opened in L.A. last week, the Nuart Theater handed out air-sickness bags to attendees. A charming touch, but it somewhat overshadows the film itself, which is quite serious in its ambitions.

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Of Staircases and Potato Trucks: Fear and Fatness and Alfred Hitchcock

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

In film criticism, as in any form of arts criticism, the Biographical Fallacy is to be scrupulously avoided. But in the case of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, the Master of Suspense has himself given us precedence for a biographical interpretation of the themes and images which permeate the body of his work that seems far from fallacious.

In interviews, most notably those conducted by Chabrol, Truffaut, and—much later—Dick Cavett, Hitchcock has repeatedly explained how a shot or a story idea arose from something he himself thought, saw, read or experienced. Already legendary is his fear of the police, manifest in nearly all his films, which began (he frequently explains) when as a boy he was jailed by the police at his father’s request, as a preventive disciplinary measure.

But Hitchcock is probably too close to himself to have recognized another biographical origin of the themes and images which recur throughout his oeuvre: his own physical size and shape. After seeing some twenty Hitchcock films in a comparatively short period of time recently, I found myself asking questions like, Why is there always a staircase? Why the repeated use of heights and falling? Why the frequent and deliberate juxtaposition of food images with the discussion or occurrence of violent death? It finally occurred to me that all these images reflect experiences that are more intense in the lives of fat persons than they are to the person of average build. And Alfred Hitchcock is a fat person.

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