Tuesday, September 27, 2011

European Horror Month Part 5: Lucio Fulci's Zombie

Episode 5: In which Marvin the Macabre finally fills a gaping hole in his horror viewership.

That's right folks, embarrassed as I am to admit it, I've never seen Fulci's legendary Zombie. What's worse, as far as I know, I've never seen a Lucio Fulci film. I aim to correct this tonight as I do a lo-fi version of live-blogging, one in which I blog as I watch (unfortunately I'm not tech savvy enough to let y'all read along in real time). I decided to do it this way because I realized I've only got three days left in September, and my total European Horror Month posts equal a pitiful foursome.

Let the games begin:

First thing's first: the title menu is rad!  Worms slithering from a badly decomposed zombie's eye-socket.

Next thing's next: had to turn on a light because I'm too lame to type in the dark.

I knew there were a lot of Italians in New York but damn, You'd think the police would at least speak English on duty. (Oops, I had the Italian dubbing on, my bad).

Some pretty inventive gore here. Can you imagine if the twisted mind of Fulci had gotten to works with some next-level FX wizards like Berger and Nicotero?

Wow, the sync is so bad they might as well be speaking Italian.

James the coroner's assistant should kick the coroner's patronizing ass.

(13:31) - Wow, they had techno in 1979?  It must have sounded space-age back then. Too bad they continued to rehash that same damned song for three more decades.

(17:00) - Pace is beginning to slow. Right now, the biggest threat is the reporter and daughter of the boat-owner being caught snooping around the crime scene after dark. Hopefully this will end in dismemberment.

(18:00) - A cunning ruse. Lots of couples break into boats being actively guarded as a crime scene by the police. There's no more convenient place to make out.

(26:00) - Note to Dr. Maynard's wife: If you're trying to get off an island while being dominated by your mad scientist husband, maybe you shouldn't threaten to tell the world his secrets. You can still blab once you get back to civilization, but while you're powerless, maybe use more guile. Just a thought.

(27:00) - First mention of "zombies." I'm glad this film incorporates voodoo, making the creatures proper zombies. Romero's version were "the living dead."  There are similarities, but despite popular usage of the term "zombie," they're not the same thing. Not that I'm really peeved about the broadened definition of "zombie"--it's just nice to see the original zombie myth now and again.

(34:00) - Not to sound like a pig or anything, but... SHARK and BOOBIES in the same shot!!!

(36:00) - OMG! Underwater Zombie vs. Underwater Boobies!

(37:00) - That zombie-playing dude is actually (mock-)biting that shark. This is truly impressive. I've heard about the famous shark vs. zombie sequence, and I'm digging it. It's not the most exciting piece of cinema ever, and these days they'd undoubtedly go with a CGI shark to enhance the action, but back in the day they didn't have a choice. While it kind of takes your mind out of the film and into the "making of" featurette, this is quite an accomplishment.

(40:00) - The treatment of the villagers (and any non-white, really) by whiteys in this movie is pretty atrocious. Look at the shame in this man's face as Dr. Maynard accuses him of being (rightfully) afraid. Then again, who turns out to be right? Can't say that Fulci's a racist just because his idiotic white characters are.

(46:00) - The infamous eyeball gouging scene. I was not disappointed. Although it doesn't look totally realistic, it doesn't diminish the horror of the scene (much). Who doesn't dread eyeball trauma? Not to mention that it was the best-looking girl in the film and the one I really wanted to see survive her captivity.

(1:02:00) - Zombanquet - The way this scene is edited, it gives the impression that they see Mrs. Maynard's body first, and don't notice the four zombies gnawing on it until a few seconds later. I know it's just to surprise the audience, but it makes the scene play kind of weird. Also, they're using real entrails, you can tell. My friend Shannon once chewed real deer entrails for a film. Don't think I could stomach it. Very revolting scene.

(1:02:33) - While shambling zombies can be just as scary as running zombies, they need to at least be shambling with purpose. Just look at these two shamefully lazy zombies. They're not even looking at the four juicy morsels before them. I don't know, maybe they're full.

(1:09:00) - The middle of a zombie attack is the perfect time to lay down in an old graveyard and start a little romancin'.  If either of these dipshits survive, I'm going to feel ripped off.

(1:10:38) - Now that's some whip-ass zombie make-up. Of course, the film suggests that this is supposed to be the 400-year-old remains of a conquistador, which I believe would be reduced to a skeleton by now. His clothes are still in pretty good shape too, considering he was buried directly in the ground rather than encased in a coffin. So, it took the worms 400 years to discover his eye socket? But who am I to argue with whip-ass zombie make-up?

(1:20:56) - I've got to wonder just how hard it would be to bite a big chunk out of someone. In zombie movies, the meat always just tears away like a piece of pork roast that's been slow-cooking in the crock pot overnight. This zombie just ripped out a piece of arm flesh like an inch deep, and I'm thinking it wouldn't be as easy as he made it look.  Kind of like how in most vampire films, the vampire apparently don't have rib cages, just loose flesh covering the heart that can be easily pierced with any convenient wooden implement, sharpened or not.

(1:23:00) - The world's shittiest Molotov cocktails. They make a big fireball, but then go out immediately.

(1:30:43) - Clever ending. Hopeless and wonderful.

Well that was a cool little zombie flick. The gore was well-done, the zombies looked great, I loved the island location, and it really had a Dawn of the Dead vibe to it. The acting was subpar pretty much all around, the characters had no depth whatsoever, and it wasn't the least bit scary, but as a showcase for bodily destruction and mayhem, it served its purpose admirably.

At this point, I'm kind of zombied-out. The market is saturated with zombie films of every budget, and it's hard to find a zombie film that has anything new to add. But I did enjoy this one quite a bit, even if I have seen it all before. There's just something about the tone and atmosphere of Zombie that makes it feel like one of the definitive zombie films, and I suppose it is.

P.S. - I'm going to try to get in one more post before European Horror Month is over. I really wanted to get more films watched, but my damned life got in the way. Stupid life. Doesn't it know that movies are better? 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

European Horror Month Part 4: Frontiere(s)

Nazi Dinner Party

I'm getting jaded, I'll admit. When I first become a father, I laid off of horror movies for a long while-the better part of a decade, in fact. After years of worshipping Stephen King and Clive Barker, and witnessing all manner of deviant violence and terror, there was something about having a tiny life to protect that made screen violence too disturbing. Now that I often want to kill my children myself, with my bare hands, I've returned to horror in a big way. I've been thrilled with the direction horror has taken, and through a bunch of awesome horror bloggers, I have been introduced to the finest films the genre has to offer. Upon my initial return to horror, I watched so many great, genuinely scary movies that I kind of forgot that there are, and have always been, so many bad or just plain forgettable horror flicks out there. While I end up liking most of the horror movies I watch, it's becoming rare to find one that makes me so much as cringe.

Of course, all of this is to say that Xavier Gens's Frontiere(s) is something pretty special. This was my second viewing of the film, and I found that it didn't lose any of its potency the second time around. In fact, I liked it better and found myself cringing, shouting, groaning, and laughing in the face of extreme violence every couple of minutes. Despite the film's serious tone, it is a bloody good time.
 I should offer the disclaimer that Frontiere(s) isn't a particularly original film. Instead it wears its influences on its proverbial sleeve. You've got dashes of Hostel and The Descent sprinkled atop a huge platter of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. What makes this movie work is the way all the influences are synthesized into a cohesive and compelling whole.

The plot centers around 5 twenty-somethings from the Paris slums who take advantage of a riot sparked by the election of an extreme right government, pulling off some offscreen heist and fleeing town. As can be expected with any trip into the boonies, they encounter a family of weirdos who put them up for the night, then begin to kill them one by one. Pretty standard stuff, but standard stuff done extremely well.

Being hoodlums, most of the characters aren't immediately likable. There's Yasmine, who is the narrator and main character. She is 3 months pregnant with a baby she doesn't plan to keep. When we meet her, she is fleeing the crime scene with her brother, Sami, who has been shot and will die within the first ten minutes of the film. We sympathize with Yasmine because she's a pretty girl, she's pregnant, and she's just lost a brother. Other than that, we never learn much about her.

Another forced haircut. Must be a French thing.
 The other sympathetic character is Farid, a soft-spoken Muslim who plans to give up his life of crime and be a responsible adult for his mother's sake. He also refuses sex with local whores out of love for his girlfriend. He seems a little too nice to be caught up with this crew, but then, I can understand his wanting to rebel against society. He's lives in the slums and is Muslim, who are basically treated like shit in France (not claiming the U.S. is any better, BTW).  

Farid realizes he left his wallet in El Segundo.
The other two hoodlums are Alex and Tom. When we first meet Alex, he is stopped by a cop at gunpoint, but doesn't back down. He takes the cop's gun and beats him with it. He's a total badass, but you have to question his sanity, because you can tell he really wanted to kill that cop. He's also Yasmine's ex and the one who knocked her up. And while he's half-crazy and comes off as pretty heartless, he's a confident, take-charge kind of guy, and he's good-looking and charismatic guy, so you have to like him a little bit. By the end of the movie, he's actually pretty sympathetic.

Alex in Chains
Tom is a douche. No getting around it. But again, he's good-looking and charismatic so you end up liking him just a little bit, and may even feel a bit of sympathy when he's paralyzed with claustrophobia or being tortured by deranged remnant Nazis.

Tom Auditioning for The Descent 3
The thing about Frontiere(s) that makes me giggle with delight is its stomach-turning violence. While it might not be enough to impress the hardcore gore-hounds, it is certainly too much for the squeamish, and just about right for me. While you've got your Hostel-style Achilles tendon-cutting, you've also got stuff I haven't seen before, like a major character getting steamed to death. Anyone who's suffered a steam burn will squirm through this scene.

The steam room, but not the relaxing kind.
The other impressive accomplishment of the film is that in addition to being a showcase for gore, there is an emotional core to the film. Imagine if The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had a character who wasn't completely bat-shit insane on account of having been adopted. They have been raised in an insane environment and taken part in casual slaughter, but become aware that their actions are wrong when they identify with one of the potential victims. That is basically the character of Eva in Frontier(s).

God, my family is so embarrassing!
Beyond that, there is a complex relationship between Yasmine and Alex, and when the shit starts raining down from heaven, they discover their true feelings for one another. Yeah, it sounds cheesy, but it works in this film.

 Frontiere(s) is certainly the best film put out under the After Dark Horrorfest brand, and if I were writing my Top Ten Horror Movies of the Past Ten Years today, I'd probably bump something to make room.

Hey, I think I see what your foot is caught on.

Monday, September 19, 2011

European Horror Month Part 3 - Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht (1979)

...with these goddamned rat-teeth?

I've been wanting to rewatch this one for years. I first saw it back in High School when they had a special midnight showing during Halloween weekend at the old Babcock Theater. Anyone from Billings, Montana can tell you all about the Babcock's reputation for being haunted, which had everyone in a creepy mood long before frame one flickered. What I remember most vividly was the opening scene with the dessicated bodies of plague victims, particularly the children.

European horror and dead children go together like bullets and guns.

At the time, I had no real knowledge of film history, and very limited experience with foreign films. I remember being disappointed that the movie wasn't scarier. This time around, however, watching Klaus Kinski's Dracula eyeballing Harker like a thick, juicy porterhouse unnerved me in all the right ways. Kinski is the real reason to see this movie. It is well known that the man was genuinely unhinged, and you feel like he might do any manner of insane shit at any given moment. He does his best to live up to Max Shreck's immortal performance, but can we blame him if he falls slightly short? After all, Max Shreck could scare the crap out of you with his looks alone, while Kinski, being a good-looking man, had to rely only on the insanity pouring forth from his eyes.

Mein Gott, you look juicy!
The film moves at a languid pace, and features a never-ending walking sequence that puts The Two Towers to shame. When the villagers refused to take Harker to Dracula's castle in a carriage, I had to wonder whether that was an artistic choice, or the German Film Commission was leaning on Herzog to include as much landscape as possible in a bid to increase tourism. Joking aside, the endless walk to Dracula's castle does serve a purpose: to give the audience a sense for the remoteness of the castle and show just how far from civilization Harker must journey. This is Dracula's realm, and Harker will be wholly his prisoner. My main problem with the sequence wasn't it's length, but the music. Wagner is used extensively throughout the film, and it never seems appropriate. Rather than forboding, it comes off as triumphant and kills the mood. I'd gladly take a creepy synth score over this.

We get it Herzog; Germany's a beautiful country. Can we get back to the story now?
Similar to the misstep with the music, the film suffers from an inconsistent atmosphere. At times, the film is dark and creepy, with dank, decaying underground crypts and white nightgowns billowing in the moonlight. But at other times, the movie is just too bright. For example, take the interior of Dracula's castle:

Call me a slave to the Universal Monsters aesthetic, but doesn't this place seem a little too bright and cheerful to house the King of the Undead?

These stylistic missteps aside, I really like the twists Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht puts on the classic Dracula story. In this version, Dracula doesn't just come to town and decimate the population one throat at a time, he brings the plague with him. Some of the most haunting scenes from the film are the ones in which the villagers left alive throw a festival, choosing to party the rest of their lives away since hope has fled. And the shots of literally thousands of rats make my skin crawl, and I normally love the little buggers.

Fine dining amongst the plague rats.
 The film ends in a stereotypically depressing German fashion, the details of which I'll leave to you to discover. When the credits rolled, I wasn't precisely sure whether I'd enjoyed the film or not. It's a far cry from Hollywood's Dracula film from the same year (which I unreservedly love, warts and all). I'm sure there's much more meaning in Herzog's version, and I wish the copy I watched was my own, because I'm sure the film would improve upon repeat viewings. Regardless, the movie is an interesting viewing experience with lots of flaws, lots of unforgettable imagery, and a enough intense Klaus Kinski brooding to choke a coffin full of plague rats. Why not give it a try?

He was born to play this role. Why else would his mother have named him Klaws? Wa wah wah waaah...

Sunday, September 11, 2011

European Horror Month Part 2: Calvaire (The Ordeal)

Let's go ahead and file Calvaire under "Not at all what I expected." This head-scratcher of a Belgian horror flick is one of those films you think about for a week and still don't know if you liked it.

The film gets off to a strange start. You get a really long take of the protagonist, Marc, sitting in front of a mirror, putting on stage make-up. The shot lasts unnecessarily long, but it serves the purpose of preparing the audience for a film chock-full of unnecessarily long takes. In fact, Calvaire is basically of horror flick with art film pacing, which sometimes works, but usually doesn't.

From there, things take a turn for the hilarious as we see the performance Marc has been preparing for. He sings love songs at nursing homes while wearing a shiny cape.

The performance is laugh-out-loud funny, especially the cheesy, electronic backing music. But the old folks love him. Literally. After the show, one of his octagenerian fams clumsily tries to seduce him backstage. Then when he's leaving for his next gig, the older lady who booked him at the nursing home comes onto him. At this point, I knew I was not in for the film I had been expecting--the one I had been putting off watching for the better part of a year because it looked so bleak and disturbing. It was starting to look like a low-budget rip-off of The Wedding Singer.  Little did I know the silliest was yet to come.

The next part of the film follows a boilerplate horror formula: Marc's van breaks down in the middle of nowhere, he encounters a strangely-behaving man who leads him to a nearby inn that has seen better days, and everyone gets their psycho on. The formula can be tired as hell, but here, the strength of the performances sell it and elevate it.

I suppose I'd better throw up a SPOILER ALERT for the rest of the discussion, although I'm not sure anyone would be surprised to learn that the Innkeeper, Bartel, is the film's resident psychotic. The great thing about Bartel as a villian is that he is such a vulnerable character. He has a fully-formed backstory, and as he relates stories from his past to Marc, and frequently breaks down in tears. His performance is pretty much the reason to watch the film. He's not only emotionally damaged, but he's witty and charming. You like him, but you don't trust him, and you can't wait to see what he does next.  Of course, what he does next is pretty damn twisted.

It seems old Bartel's wife done runn oft some years ago, and he's looking for a replacement. She used to be a singer, so our friend Marc is clearly a dead-ringer for her. Bartel torches his van, knocks him out with its battery, and proceeds to remake him in the image of his lost love.

Someday I'll compile a list of the top five haircuts in horror, but so far, I've only come up with Calvaire and Martyrs. It sounds dumb, in light of all the other atrocities in these films, but the haircut scenes always get to me. I guess it's the humiliation, the insult on top of injury, but they arouse more sympathy in me than any number of ankle-cutting scenes combined.

So Bartel puts a dress on Marc, gives him the worst haircut this side of Justin Bieber, and (we can assume) makes sweet, sweet anal-rape to him. While the film only hints at it, that's quite enough to turn your stomach.

So, now you expect that Calvaire will turn into a pretty straightforward survival-horror flick. What you don't expect is that all of Bartel's pig-raping neighbors were also in love with Bartel's wife, and pretty much take it for granted that Marc is, in fact, that wife. Hilarity ensues. It seems everyone is this movie wants to fuck the protagonist.

By far, the most bizarre scene in the movie, and one that serves no apparent purpose except to explicitly illustrate the freakishness of the townsfolk, is the bar dance scene. A couple of townies spot Bartel with his new wife, so Bartel takes his shotgun for a walk down to the tavern to lay down the law.  He tells all the men in town that they just want to be left alone, and anyone who messes with his recently returned wife will feel the wrath of the buckshot. So naturally, when he leaves, they take the opportunity to indulge in some avant-garde piano and to do the retarded zombie dance. If I knew how to extract and embed video, I'd show you, because it really must be seen to be believed.

So, yeah...

Calvaire alternated between silly and harrowing, despair and ridiculousness. In the special features, director Fabrice du Welz enumerates his many influences and the films he paid homage to in Calvaire. I think therein lies the source of the film's problems. He seems to have added touches that really had no place in this movie, rendering it disjointed and giving it a wildly uneven tone. There is much to admire in Calvaire, particularly the performances, but overall I'd have to chalk it up as a noble, though failed, experiment.

Monday, September 5, 2011

European Horror Month Part 1: SL8 N8 (or Slaughter Night)

I'm pretty sure that when Thomas Edison invented cinema, he had SL8 N8 in mind. And although he tried his damnedest, going so far as to electrocute an elephant on film, it would take more than a century of cinematic progress before SL8 N8 would be possible. This film has it all: child murder, "voodoo" rituals, ouija boards, tarot reading, an adandoned mine, demonic possession, and loads and loads of sweet, sweet murder.

Kristol - Impossibly Adorable

Hailing from the Netherlands/Belgium, SL8 N8 tells the story of an impossibly adorable Dutch girl (Kristol) and her college-age friends who journey to exotic Belgium to fetch her deceased father's final book manuscript, only to take an ill-fated tour through a mine that became the final resting place for notorius serial child-murderer, Andries Martiens. When the group inevitably gets trapped underground, they sensibly pop ecstacy tablets and use the ouija board that was among Kristel's father's possessions. The spirit of Martien (or the demonic forces loosed into the world by him, I was never quite sure) possesses the attractive twenty-somethings one-by-one, turning them into Evil Dead-style hellspawns who do cool stuff like decapitation and ripping apart people's limbs with their teeth.

The movie opens with a flashback in which we see, in graphic detail, the severed heads of six children impaled on pikes, with two living children tied to chairs, awaiting their inevitable slaughter. The first child has her head cut off and impaled while another does her best not to watch. And that's just the first three minutes.

From there we meet the main characters, a bunch of college kids at a rave. While some might accuse the characters of douchiness, I found them all relatable and fairly appealing. While there are definite hints of douchedom, they all seem like people you wouldn't mind hanging out with. However, when things start to go bad, all of that changes. The douches spray their douchedom hither and yon, while the more level-headed charcters remain level-headed. Just once I'd like to see the "slut" character turn out to be the one who takes charge and gets everyone one alive. But no such luck here.

Arfter fooling around with an ouija board and such, the kids start getting possessed and devouring each other, which is, of course, all great fun, and after awhile, the movie ends. Do you really need to know any more?

How many Dutch does it take to operate a ouija board?

In all seriousness, SL8 N8 is a pretty silly movie, but an infinitely enjoyable one. So if you're the type to go looking for plot holes and such, you're going to find SL8 N8 ripe for the picking. But if you're just out for a fun, scary time, you could do much worse. And last I checked, Slaughter Night was available via Netflix Streaming.

While the sheer fact of it being European lends it a sense of credibility, I see SL8 N8 as being on par with the Friday the 13th sequels (which is not a knock). It is fun,  it serves its purpose without demanding too much original thought, and it killed 90 or so minutes of my life (okay, 270 mintues, as I've watched it 3 times now). But enough about me. Has anyone else seen this? And did you have as much of a blast as I did?