Friday, October 31, 2014

Ten Days of Terror!: The Devil's Backbone

Film: The Devil’s Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo)
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

The Devil’s Backbone is one of those rare movies that appears on all three of my horror movie lists. It’s also a film I’ve avoided reviewing for some time. The reason for that is simple: I love The Devil’s Backbone like it is one of my own children. From the first time I saw it, this film rocketed into my all-time top-5 and has stayed put. What the hell do I say about it more than it’s damn close to perfect and everybody should watch it? Glowing, effusive, ridiculously positive reviews aren’t that much fun to write or read, but that’s what we’re in for here. I love everything about this movie.

For those who have seen Pan’s Labyrinth but not this one, we’re in similar territory. Pan’s Labyrinth is, in many ways, the younger sister of this film. Change the girl to a boy and change the fantasy aspects to a ghost story and you’ve got the basic idea. We’re still in the Spanish Civil War and we’re still in a film where the story works as a metaphor for the war and the war works as a metaphor for the story.

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1990

The Contenders:
Kevin Costner: Dances with Wolves (winner)
Francis Ford Coppola: The Godfather Part III
Martin Scorsese: Goodfellas
Stephen Frears: The Grifters
Barbet Schroeder: Reversal of Fortune

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ten Days of Terror!: Brain Damage

Film: Brain Damage
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Sometimes, I just don’t know where to begin. With a film like Brain Damage, there are a lot of places I could go, but I have no idea if any of them are the right place to begin. Is this a horror movie? Yes. Is it a comedy? Yes. Is it an attempt at a psychedelic freakout? Yeah, it’s that, too. Brain Damage manages to be funny, stupid, and incredibly offensive all at the same time. It honestly feels a bit like this film was created, at least in one part, to up the ante on the oral sex gag from Re-Animator. I’ll do my best to make sense of this film, but I’m not entirely sure it’s possible.

We begin with an older couple who seem pleasant enough despite the fact that the husband (Theo Barnes) has just brought back a large collection of brains from a butcher. His wife (Lucille Saint-Peter) places one of the raw brains on a plate with a sprig of parsley and walks into the bathroom and suddenly begins freaking out. Something, obviously the something that was soon to be snacking on brains, is missing. The couple panics and starts ransacking their apartment in search of whatever it is.

Ten Days of Terror!: Dead of Night

Film: Dead of Night
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

As a horror fan, I’d heard of Dead of Night before today, but had never had an opportunity to see it. Looking at films of this vintage, it’s easy to talk about influence, and Dead of Night certainly has had a great deal of influence on horror movies in general and on horror anthologies in particular that have followed it. For all of its cinematic heft, Dead of Night is probably the only horror movie to ever advance science, however temporarily. The story goes that Fred Hoyle, Thomas Gold, and Hermann Bondi developed the Steady State idea of the universe as an alternative to the Big Bang model after seeing this film, and specifically due to the ultimate nature of the framing story presented here.

Like any anthology, we start with a framing story that pops in regularly between the stories of the film. There are five internal stories put together smartly—rising tension through the first three, a comedic spin on the fourth and then the hammer drop of scares in the fifth, only to wrap up the frame. Anthology films don’t always work because they don’t give their shorter tales enough room to breathe. Dead of Night solves this by putting most of its effort into both the frame and the fifth and scariest story. The first three tales are appetizers; the fourth is a palate cleanser, while the fifth and the frame are the main course.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Ten Days of Terror!: The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Film: The Abominable Dr. Phibes
Format: Internet video on laptop.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a film I know only by reputation. For whatever reason, this film is incredibly difficult to find, but the sequel is surprisingly easy to locate. Anyway, when I found this online, I knew it was one I would watch right away. Part of this was from fear of the film vanishing and part because this was a film I very much wanted to see. I tend to like Vincent Price. Even if the movie is crap, Price is always worth watching.

Like plenty of horror movies of the era, The Abominable Dr. Phibes doesn’t waste lot of precious time with a convoluted plot. No, this is as simple as they come. Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) was allegedly killed in a car accident. No such luck, as it turns out. Instead he’s just incredibly disfigured. Phibes is powered by revenge, not for himself but for his dead wife. He is convinced that his wife was taken from him too soon by the incompetence of a cadre of doctors and a nurse. Now, working in the shadows, Phibes plans to enact his revenge by killing each of the doctors in turn, each on killed by a murder themed as reminiscent of one of the plagues of Egypt. Sort of—there are a few that are more tangential to the actual plagues.

Ten Days of Terror!: Humanoids from the Deep

Film: Humanoids from the Deep (Monster)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Ah, Roger Corman brings such joy to the movie screen, doesn’t he? You pretty much know what you’re going to get with a film that Corman either directed or produced. You’re going to get some monsters, lots of nudity, and a running time under 90 minutes. With Humanoids from the Deep, also released under the title Monster, that’s what you’re getting. It’s Corman-style rapey sea creatures in a film that is either a highly-sexed version of The Creature from the Black Lagoon or a nudity-laden version of The Horror of Party Beach. There’s even social commentary, ham-handed as only Corman can do it.

Let’s keep this really simple. In Noyo, California, the main industry is salmon fishing, but the salmon are going away. A canning company called Canco (points for originality in the name) has plans to put a new facility into Noyo and also promises to increase the salmon catch dramatically. There are a few people in the town opposed to Canco, primarily Johnny Eagle (Anthony Pena), the local Indian guy and our unofficial stand-in for biological and ecological sanity. There’s a great deal of tension between Johnny Eagle and many of the drunk redneck locals, primarily Hank Slattery (Vic Goddam Morrow).

Monday, October 27, 2014

Ten Days of Terror!: The Innocents

Film: The Innocents
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

As with any genre, there are various grades and styles of horror films. Many of them go for the straight gross out; they’re horror movies because they present something disgusting or horrible to see. In general, these are the horror movies that interest me the least. I don’t mind gore when it’s warranted, but disgusting things for the sake of showing people disgusting things doesn’t interest me. Others go for the scare, getting the audience to jump at shadows and maybe spend a night or two sleeping with the lights on. And then there are those that go for something deeper, something that makes us question our reality, to not jump at shadows, but to consider those shadows and what they might contain carefully. The Innocents is this sort of film.

The goal of a film like The Innocents isn’t to make us sleep with the light on, but to occupy our thoughts at odd moments. It’s not to make us too scared to close our eyes, but to force our eyes open with thoughts that come unbidden and unwanted. The Innocents, and I include films like The Haunting and The Others in this same category, aim for that existential horror that keeps us staring at the ceiling. It doesn’t go for the gross out or the boo, but seeks to dig deep into our psyches, to question the reality that we experience.