Tuesday, 7 July 2020

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: Onibaba


Dir: Kaneto Shindo. Cast: Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Satō, Taiji Tonoyama. 1964.

When I first saw Onibaba, I was instantly taken by how unsentimental and adult it is in terms of its attitude and presentation. Its nudity is casual. The nature of its characters is unapologetically brutal and self-serving. Their actions reveal humans with the hearts and morals of insects. Artistically, its imagery is striking, pulling the viewer into its simple story that, at its core, reveals human nature at its most raw and mercenary.

Set during a 14th century civil war in Japan, Onibaba tells of an old woman and her daughter-in-law who await the return from battle of their son/husband, and in the meantime, make do by killing soldiers and selling their armour and possessions. While the object of their attention remains AWOL, another soldier returns to his home nearby, which causes tension between the two women. There is more, but this is where anyone intent on not eroding a first-time viewing for others should stop, and so I will. 

Onibaba is a hag-demon from Japanese folklore. Director William Friedkin says that its representation here contributed to the look of the demon Pazuzu in Father Karass’ dream within The Exorcist. Aside from any common physical characteristics, these two horror classic share something bigger — an exploration of the human condition under extraordinary conditions. Onibaba is arguably the best Japanese horror movie ever made. 

Monday, 15 June 2020

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: Night of the Demon

Night of the Demon (aka Curse of the Demon) 

Dir: Jacques Tourneur. Cast: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis. 1957.

"It's in the trees! It's coming!"

It’s hard to write anything new about this movie, but here goes. 

Based on Casting the Runes by M.R. James, director Jacques Tourneur showcases all the shadowy skills he developed under the tutelage of Val Lewton on Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man back in the 1940s. A contemporary tale of witchcraft and how not believing puts us at risk, the studio insisted that Tourneur insert shots of a demon against the director’s wishes. The look of the demon is terrific, but it’s hard to argue that the rubber demon suit is more effective than the creature’s presence would have been if simply suggested. In support of this, feel how the film raises the hair on your neck through the conjuring of a wind storm with nothing but the breeze to suggest the power of black magic. 

The plot in a nutshell concerns an American professor (Andrews) attending a parapsychology conference in London where an infamous Alister Crowly-like warlock (MacGinnis) is to be discredited. The professor is handed a rune which preordains his death unless he can pass it back. There’s much more to it, of course, but that’s the ten cent plot tour. 

Night/Curse is eerie, entertaining, smart and effective. There are scenes that recall Hitchcock without seeming derivative, and MacGinnis’ performance itself deserves a place in the Rogue’s Gallery of the best of Hitchcock’s villains. Kate Bush fans will recognize some of the film’s dialogue at the beginning of the Hounds of Love track from the album of the same name.  

Thursday, 14 May 2020

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: Let’s Scare Jessica to Death

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death
Dir: John Hancock. Cast: Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Mariclare Costello, Kevin O’Connor, Gretchen Corbett. 1971.

This movie is about being haunted. Thing is, it will also haunt you. If you let it. 

That’s what it did/does to me. I saw it on, I believe, the ABC Movie of the Week, back in the 70’s when I was a kid. I liked this movie. A few years later, I revisited it on VHS, and I liked it even more. Then I picked up the DVD and I began to love it. Now, I have the blu-ray…

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is built around an astounding performance from Zohra Lampert. She’s Jessica, recently released from a mental hospital, and moving with her husband, played by Barton Heyman (Dr, Klein in The Exorcist), and their friend Woody (O’Connor) to an apple farm in rural New York State. It will be good for Jessica. 

Arriving in the community, the trio stops at a cemetery so that Jessica can take rubbings from tombstones. They also discover that the locals don’t like hippie types moving into their neck of the woods. It’s against this background of barely sustained sanity, graveyard mementos, and outsider status that Emily (Costello) enters the picture and changes the delicate dynamic amongst the three newcomers. 

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is the kind of movie that can get under your skin, deeply, but only if you’re willing. Its characters, atmosphere and ambiguity are key to its success. If that sounds dull to you, chances are you won’t connect with this flick. For me, this is a movie that has followed me for years. I truly love it. 

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: Island of Lost Souls

Island of Lost Souls

Dir: Erle C. Kenton. Cast: Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams, Bela Lugosi, Katheleen Burke. 1932.

I can only recall twice considering something obscene because its uncanniness nauseated me. The first was while reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, specifically while Stoker describes the count scaling the exterior walls of Castle Dracula with his bare hands. It struck me as so wrong that it turned my stomach. 

Spoilers follow.

The second time was while watching the classic pre-code horror movie Island of Lost Souls. Here, Dr. Moreau is all too anxious to see what happens when a man mates with a woman who is for all intents and purposes a panther. That made me feel more than a little queasy too, especially as it plays out here. 

Key to the movie’s lurid success are the performances of Charles Laughton as Moreau (so leering, so perverted) and Kathleen Burke as Lota, “the Panther Woman” (so catlike, so needing of affection). Also adding to the so-wrong-it’s-right atmosphere is the village of Moreau’s failed experiments, half-animal, half-men grotesqueries, led by an unforgettable Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law. These unfortunates, stuck between their reality as animals and their nightmares as humans, fear The House of Pain, where they are tortured, experimented upon, but mostly die. 

H.G. Wells was reportedly outraged by Paramount Studios’ adaptation of his novel, but it’s a classic that demands to take its place along with the great films of the era. 

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Going to See Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood … Again

This movie, man. I just don't know what to make of it. I like Quinten Tarantino’s movies a lot, but I've had no desire to go back and watch them, no matter how much I've enjoyed them at the time of original release. I'm not quite sure I know what that says... I don't believe in the "do they hold up?" school of thought, so it's not that. Perhaps it's just that they are so connected to periods of time in my life and so familiar that revisiting them seems pointless. 

I wish, too, that I'd been introduced to Ringo Lam's 1987 Hong Kong action film City on Fire when I first saw Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs back in 1992. The story goes that Dogs is a rip off of City, but never having seen the latter, I can't judge for myself. I think, though, this would have informed my reaction to Tarantino and his flicks, given it some additional context beyond the hype.

Jump to 2018. Word is that Tarantino's upcoming Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is going to be about the Manson Family. My initial reaction was that I’d see it, but with trepidation. Watching Tex Watson and Susan Atkins make wise cracks while butchering celebrities just sounded like a bad time to me. 

Turns out, like a lot of click bait pieces, most of the advance online writing I’d read about OUATIH took the Manson angle out of context. This was a fairy tale about a changing Hollywood. The Manson Family, they were more of a facilitator than a focus.

And now, for the rest of this piece, we're in spoiler territory.

When the movie was eventually released, I went to see it with a group of friends. We all seemed to leave with a spectrum of reactions. It was messy (not necessarily a bad thing), but I was bothered by the ending in particular. Due to its title, I’d entered the theatre expecting a Spaghetti Western set in late 1960s Hollywood, ignoring the fact that the Once Upon a Time westerns and gangster flicks were fairy tales themselves. My bad. Tarantino’s ending here is most definitely meant as fairy tale ending, a point that was lost on me — or maybe more accurately didn’t work for me — especially during my first viewing. 

This was a movie I wanted to discuss with people. I needed to work out my reaction to it, and more importantly, my reading (or misreading) of it. I felt my reaction was out of step with everyone around me, so I went online to try to start a conversation. What I learned was that, in the cult of Tarantino, you don't question his stuff, even if it's not coming from a negative place. Unfortunately, this reaction had the effect of shutting down what I wanted to talk about. So I discussed it separately with a couple of friends who gave me their perspectives. That was useful. What I knew for certain was that I needed to see the movie again, and so I did.

The things I'd liked about the movie were still there. I loved Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Sharon Tate, the way she’s the spirit of the entire movie and of the era it portrays. It’s hard not to enjoy every second Brad Pitt is onscreen. There are some truly great scenes, like DiCaprio and Julia Butters’ exchange and their scene on Lancer; Pitt giving Margaret Qualley a ride; the Spahn Ranch sequence; Tate going to a screening of The Wrecking Crew (but putting your feet up on a theatre seat is fucked up)

Then there were some elements that all of a sudden began to work for me — the extended shots and scenes of people just driving, driving, driving, the celebration of mediocre movies and music. It was an era when people thought they had time to spare, and even movies that fail to hit their marks like Three on a Couch can be appreciated for their performances or craftsmanship. Without the expectation of a first viewing, I could sit back and let the movie play out as it was meant to. Still, there was that ending. I don't think I'll ever find it bittersweet as intended. 

For some reason, the Tate Murders have always held a horrible dark place in my psyche. They are unfathomable to me. Sitting through Tarantino’s revisionist ending the first time had left a terrible taste in my mouth. It felt somehow disingenuous, a slap in the face to Tate, her unborn baby, the others slaughtered that night. Clearly, that was not Tarantino’s point, but it was the effect it had had on me. Sitting through it a second time, I experienced the ending as it was intended. But I still found it distasteful. You don't have to, but I did. 

Still too, the elements that hadn't worked for me during that first screening still didn't work for me. Tarantino's recreations of era TV shows seem too cinematic to be believable; the silly “cute” pitbull reaction shots seem better suited to another kind of movie; there are a couple of truly embarrassing and childish jokes — Brad Pitt carrying Leonardo DiCaprio’s load, We love pussy; just what was with that Bruce Lee scene, what did the possibility that Brad Pitt's character killed his wife add to the movie; Tarantino's over the top killing of Tex, Sadie and Katie seems like Tarantino parodying himself, and if I were Tarantino’s editor, I probably would have suggested that the movie start with the meeting between DiCaprio and Al Pacino with the earlier stuff left on the editing room floor. My take.

Still, it's that ending that I keep coming back to. In Little Red Riding Hood, Grandma may have gotten cut out of the big bad wolf's stomach, but in Hollywood, Sharon Tate and her friends are still dead. 

Monday, 19 August 2019

Hey PEI! We've Got an Arts Scene!

While reading John Waters’ latest book, Mr. Know-It-All (Pub: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), he hit upon something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately:

“Nowadays you don’t have to leave where you were born. Actually, you shouldn’t leave.  Stay where you are and make it better! There’s no new youth movement happening in New York or L.A. that you are missing. It’s too expensive there for any revolutionary ideas to even breath.”

As everything is not so much location as it is timing when it’s not a coffee shop you’re running, a friend’s show recently completed its 6-show run - Meanwhile in Ward 16. This friend, Rob MacDonald, has been creating local theatre for what… more than 30 years now. Together, he and I have made short films, worked on a published book, and released a CD as Chimp (aka Chimp CA), among other realized and unrealized projects. 

Over the years, as both Rob and I have worked professionally as copywriters and honed our craft as writers of other material, I’ve gotten to know a lot of others in Prince Edward Island who are of similar talent and circumstance, and I’ve come to realize that we’ve all helped to create a scene here in PEI. 

We are our own local versions of John Waters, of Diane Arbus, of Debbie Harry. The thing is, we will never achieve the level of renown that these people have, but locally, we create something essential, and something that artists from other places can’t create for those of us who live here. 

That’s not to say that there’s not a lot of local garbage. Of course there is, there is everywhere. And who’s to say that I haven’t created some of that garbage myself? 

There are also those who dub themselves this or that type of creative person without the experience, talent or understanding of what it takes to actually earn that title. You can’t just call yourself a heart surgeon and go out and perform open-heart surgery, you know. 

And on the other end of the spectrum, there are Islanders who actually achieve success and/or recognition beyond our shores; painters, musicians, writers. And many of them remain here while helping to build the reputation of the Island’s cultural scene elsewhere. 

On that note, I think the Island’s film scene is genuinely exciting right now and we’re going to see more and more growth there, maybe even a few breakthroughs beyond what we’ve already experienced. 

The kismet of reading the above mentioned section of Waters’ book and the wrap of Rob’s show created my come-to-Jesus moment; realizing just how exciting PEI’s creative scene is, realizing that I’m a part of it, and understanding that its value is something I think we all ought to recognize and nurture. When work deserves it, that is. 

More than anything, I think, people who write, act, paint, shoot or sing crave a response. The arts are a conversation, and if you’re not responding, that conversation doesn’t take place. 

To make sure that it does take place, first and foremost, we’ve got to get out there and engage with local cultural experiences. And when we do, we’ve got to let the people behind them know that we saw their show, read their book, listened to their music. Congratulate them if you don’t have anything positive to say — all creation takes work, and a “congratulations” is wonderfully noncommittal. Criticism is welcome only if you know how to give it and you are invited to give it. Otherwise, silence is king. 

We're always birthing new people here who have something new to add to the cultural landscape, and technology has been making it easier and easier to share that work. We’ve got a pretty amazing thing going here, but I fear we don’t always know it. Or maybe it’s just that it’s something we don't notice because it’s always been around us, or worse, because of the misconception that local means no good. Whatever the case, I’m just glad that I had my epiphany. I’m ready to be ordained. 

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: I Drink Your Blood

I Drink Your Blood
Dir: David Durston. Cast: Bhaskar, Lynn Lowry, Tyde Kierney, Jadin Wong, Iris Brooks, George Patterson, Elizabeth Marner-Brooks, Alex Mann, Arlene Farber, John Damon, Rhonda Fultz, Riley Mills, Arlene Farber and Richard Bowler. 1970

Created to cash in on the surprise box office success of George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead, I Drink Your Blood is more of a day-glo affair, with a pinch of Manson Family grotesquerie thrown in for topicality. 

Horace Bones and his Satanic cult wander into Small Town, USA. After dosing the elderly Doc Banner with LSD, Doc’s pre-teen grandson Pete slips the hippie cultists meat pies laced with rabies, and rabid pandemonium ensues. 

I Drink Your Blood is a ridiculous film, but it tries so hard in all the right ways that it fits the bill exactly when you’re in the mood for a sick, comic book-style splatter flick. The tone is set by Horace Bones himself during the opening black mass, wherein he intones the oft quoted: 

“Let it be known, sons and daughters, that Satan was an acid head. Drink from his cup; pledge yourselves. And together, we'll all freak out.”

Do it.