Watching another culture’s horror movies can provide a fascinating glimpse into what makes them collectively tick. The Polish Demon offers an intriguing, deceptively comedic spin on the dybbuk legend, while also exploring an unthinkable whopper of a party foul. While the second half’s tendency towards small-scale conversations may occasionally betray the script’s origin on the stage, late director/co-writer Marcin Wrona’s talent for whipping up barely contained group hysteria is really something special.
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.
The 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.
Raising Cain: Collector’s Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray) – Jenny (Lolita Davidovich, all soft curves and dreamy smiles) is married to “the perfect man,” says her best friend Sarah (Mel Harris). At first glance Carter (John Lithgow) seems exactly that: a thoughtful husband, a doting father, a child psychiatrist who put his practice on hold to stay home and raise their daughter while she, an oncologist, worked as the family professional and breadwinner. So what’s she thinking when she slips off with Jack (Steven Bauer), a handsome widower of a former patient she hasn’t seen in years, and makes love in the park where her daughter plays? Okay, that’s no secret. The first shot of the Raising Cain: Director’s Cut (1992/2012) puts a Valentine’s heart around her entrance, a cheesy video effect in an upscale boutique that taps right into romantic dreams that her “perfect” husband is failing to satisfy. When this dreamboat sails back into her life and Carter spies their affair, we have a pretty good idea where this is headed. And we couldn’t be more wrong.
What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) is celebrated by fans and genre historians alike as one of the masterpieces of giallo. An Italian-German coproduction shot largely in England, it’s directed by Massimo Dallamano, who visualized the stark intensity of Sergio Leone’s arid anti-hero epics as cinematographer of A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965), and directed salacious adaptations of Devil in the Flesh (1969) and The Secret of Dorian Gray (1970) before turning to giallo.
The international cast includes hunky Italian Fabio Testi (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis), German stars Karin Baal (Fassbinder‘s Lili Marleen) as his wife, krimi veteran Joachim Fuchsberger (Dead Eyes of London) as the police detective, Spanish beauty Cristina Galbó (The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue) as Testi’s schoolgirl mistress, and American model-turned-actress Camille Keaton (I Spit on Your Grave) as Solange. The lovely and tender score by legendary composer Ennio Morricone adds an eerie elegance and haunting edge to film. All told, it’s one of the most disturbing examples of the genre, and not for the reasons you might assume.
YouTube is bursting at the seams with horror shorts, the vast majority of which traffic in the same old jump scares and photoshopped demon faces. David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out, however, managed to distinguish itself from the lurching masses, brilliantly capitalizing on its limitations to present one indelibly shivery concept: namely, a silhouette that creeps closer whenever the lights go off. The James Wan-produced feature-length expansion can’t match the compressed primal frisson of the original, but it contains more than enough flickeringly lit yelps to justify its existence. How many variations can be successfully run on the same gag? Quite a few, as it turns out.
[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
by Gregory Dean Way
Two priests chant “The power of Christ compels you!” as the possessed child floats in the air above her bed. The shot is a static one, both visually and behaviorally, one of the few inert moments in a film full of forward energy: The child remains rigid, resistant to the droning incantation. Paradoxically, it is at this most static moment that The Exorcist hints at truly coming alive as a worthwhile experience, by suggesting the agony of endurance that its symbolic battle of good against evil requires. However, one’s hopeful expectations go unfulfilled: The child gravitates downward far too soon; the potential for truly subjective, protracted participation by the viewer in the elemental confrontation of this two-hour picture is cast aside (one suspects because of the filmmakers’ fear of an impatient, negative viewer response to unfamiliar, nonlinear film experience). That The Exorcist should cast aside (i.e., spend so little time developing) one of its thematically most significant moments, yet sum to overkill its moments of more cretinously comprehensible shock, is a telling comment on the locus of Friedkin and Blatty’s concerns.
Death walks twice in Luciano Ercoli’s giallo match set Death Walks on High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972), a pair of films connected not by story or character but by genre, style and creative collaborators. Both films are written by Ernesto Gastaldi and Mahnahjn (a.k.a May) Velasco and star Spanish actress Nieves Navarro (under the screen name Susan Scott) and leading man Simón Andreu, a team first brought together for Ercoli’s directorial debut, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970). Navarro’s history stretches back even further, appearing in spaghetti westerns, spy movies and even a Toto comedy produced by Ercoli and his partner Alberto Pugliese in the sixties. High Heels was only Ercoli’s second film as director. He proved to be a quick study.
In classic giallo style, it opens on an attention-grabbing set piece: a masked figure with a big knife stalks and stabs a man on a train, but the real object of his hunt is missing. The victim is—or rather, was—a notorious jewel thief, and the police immediately pay a call on the dead man’s daughter Nicole, a celebrity stripper in Paris. So does the killer, who terrorizes her with a knife and the threat of brutal sexual violence unless she hands over the jewels from a recent heist. She hadn’t a clue as to where her estranged father stashed his loot, but neither the police nor the killer believe her. As for her hot-tempered boyfriend Michel, we’re not exactly sure what he believes. He’s an opportunist kept in high style by Nicole, a situation that tends to bring out the resentment of the ne’er-do-well. The setting may be France but his attitude is pure Italian machismo, slapping Nicole around to establish alpha-male dominance while also living off her earnings. That makes him the prime suspect but certainly not the only one.
Writers and critics have likened the experience of watching movies to dreaming with your eyes open for almost as long as moving images have been projected in front of audiences in dark rooms. But in reality the dreams that movies show are more like the stories we tell ourselves or the fantasies we imagine in our waking lives. When filmmakers attempt to actually recreate the nocturnal odysseys churned up from anxieties and obsessions and the residual thoughts and images scattered through our unconscious minds, they are more like expressionist theater pieces or symbol-laden action paintings. Think of Spellbound, with its Dali-designed sets and loaded Freudian symbolism representing the unprocessed issues of our troubled hero. These films satisfy our idea of “dream” or “nightmare” but don’t actually capture the experience or texture of those twilight journeys which seem to make sense in the moment as they slip from one idea to another but confound us as we try to piece them together when we awaken. If movies are dreams, they have been tamed and rewritten to fit the demands of narrative storytelling.
That’s one reason why I love David Lynch’s waking nightmare Eraserhead and Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s haunted-house fantasia House (a.k.a. Hausu). They recreate dream logic in ways that almost no other films do. Is it coincidence that both films first saw the light of a theater screen in 1977? Creative serendipity or primeval synchronicity? Lynch might appreciate the idea of some sort of Jungian breakthrough in such different cultures. They are, after all, the feature debuts of two filmmakers who learned to express themselves cinematically in the world of experimental film. The similarities end there, however. Each of these films spins its own unique dream in its own crazily weird way.
[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
Kris Kristofferson seems to be about the only recent folk rock star to have come to films with any degree of dramatic acumen and at least some feel for what is involved in establishing a credible screen presence. Others—Dylan, for example, in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid—seem always to be somehow looking at themselves in a mirror of selfconsciousness. While this may have something to do with writing good songs, it is disastrous in front of a camera. James Taylor, in Two Lane Blacktop, comes to mind as another screen casualty; he had to be given short, heavy “message” lines because he apparently couldn’t handle normal dialogue. But at least Taylor didn’t come on with selections from his greatest hits at every lull, which is more than can be said for Harry Nilsson in Son of Dracula.
Some movies let you know you’re in good hands with the very first shot. The latest mystery wrapped in an enigma from producer J.J. Abrams, 10 Cloverfield Lane takes an instantly fraught premise and never stops stripping the screws. Within its narrow self-imposed parameters, it’s just about perfect.
Related to the original Cloverfield by mood and background references only (check your nearest message board for exhaustive details), the film follows a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who suffers a horrendous car accident. When she comes to, she finds herself locked down in an underground shelter…
“In the early modern period,” begins Robert Eggers, writer and director of the deeply unsettling The Witch, “the real world and the fairy tale world were the same thing.” It’s an appropriately Once Upon a Time preamble for discussing the film, in which a devouter-than-thou family of New England Puritans venture past the outskirts of civilization, only to attract the attention of a primal—and terrifyingly implacable—force. “These days, the evil witch is more of a Halloween decoration,” Eggers says, “so we have to go back to the 17th century and be in that mindset to believe again. In that time, the idea of an evil witch was a given, like, a tree is a tree, a rock is a rock.”
Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD) has been described, incorrectly, as Gothic horror. This is Gothic romance with notes of horror, bathed in the unreal and magical colors of a giallo and brought to life by Guillermo Del Toro’s beating heart of compassion in the face of evil.
As lush and atmospheric a film as the American cinema has created in years, Crimson Peak stars Mia Wasikowska (whose wide eyes and open face evokes the gothic heroine incarnate) as a smart, passionate American heiress, the daughter of a self-made man (Jim Beaver as the model of paternal affection and American responsibility) and a writer with a romantic streak and an unsullied innocence, and Tom Hiddleston as the dashing suitor from overseas, a handsome aristocrat with a haunted soul whose mystery captures the American’s heart. His calculating sister (Jessica Chastain), however, who dresses in blood red and death black gowns that give her the spiky presence of a predatory insect, has all the warmth of vampire. Suddenly orphaned and swept away to the desolate hinterlands of rural England, she moves into the most haunted manor you’ve ever seen in the movies, a rotting mansion that lets the snow and rain and bitter cold in through the collapsed spire of the roof and literally bleeds red through the floorboards and down the walls. That it is explained away as a geological phenomenon, the churning red clay of hill seeping into the house as it sinks into the hill, doesn’t make it any less ominous. It’s the seeping of that same clay into the winter snows that gives the hill its name.
Mississippi Grind (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD) plays like a seventies character drama, a meandering road movie through the byways of American characters who populate the card rooms and dice tables and racetracks, and an oddball buddy movie built on a chance encounter and an instant kinship between two losers gambling their lives away. Ryan Reynolds is Curtis, a good looking guy who has all the outward suggestions of a charming hustler, and Ben Mendelsohn is the self-destructive Gerry, killing his nights and his income at cards and sports bookies, betting everything on the fantasy of instant success on a single good night.
These guys are buddies by chance—they meet over a hand of cards and bond over top-shelf whiskey—and travelling companions by impulse when Gerry decides to follow Curtis to a big tournament in New Orleans. Curtis is generous and trusting to a fault, or maybe to a need, and a storyteller whose tales may or may not be in the orbit of reality. He runs in gambling circles for the charge of the action, not just the cards but the byplay, the people, that cardroom culture of oddball personalities. Gerry is a gambling addict and a pathological liar whose past is a wrecking yard of ruined relationships and failed promises and impulsive long shots and whose future is already in hawk to a loan shark (Alfre Woodard in a single scene-stealing appearance).
The name still has mileage: Toss Frankenstein into a title and you’re promising a modicum of chills, plus at least one creation scene in a laboratory. But ever since Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein loosened the stitches from Mary Shelley’s monster, moviemakers have had a hard time finding a fresh take on the mythology. Victor Frankenstein suffers this fate as well. Handsomely mounted and energetically acted, the film is far more bearable than the inane Van Helsing and other recent monster reboots. Yet it doesn’t seem to fulfill any particular need, except nostalgia.
The script by Max Landis (Chronicle) takes the perspective of Igor (Daniel Radcliffe), a circus hunchback drafted into apprenticeship by Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy).