Friday, December 20, 2013

Chilling at Christmas: A Six Pack of Christmas Chillers

Despite a recent sustained procrastination binge on the part of yours truly, I can still assure you, constant reader, that I haven't forgotten about gialli and promise you (and you can hold me to this one) that I'll be heading back to Italy early in the New Year...

In the meantime, seeing as it's the season, I figured I'd spend the remainder of 2013's blogging time looking at some creepy Christmas movies, and other assorted goodies. 

To kick off the Yuletide shenanigans, here's some quick capsule reviews of some festive flicks I've checked out recently, the majority of them for the first time... 

Silent Night, Bloody Night (Theodore Gershuny, 1973)

The first of four movies I saw for the first time recently, this was also undoubtedly the best of them. It's got unsung classic written all over it, and I'm kicking myself for not checking it out sooner... thanks are definitely due, as always, to Brad of Yellow Razor for giving me the heads up. I don't want to get too deep into it right now, as I'm currently waiting until I've had chance to check out the recently released 40th anniversary restored DVD of the film, but I'd say it felt almost as though Lucio Fulci somehow snuck into the early 70s American indie movie scene and then proceeded to make a proto-slasher/giallo, with a vibe not dissimilar in parts to both Let's Scare Jessica to Death and Messiah of Evil (it also shares somewhat similar uses of voiceover and flashback framing to both). It's frankly crazy to think this film pre-dates both Halloween and Black Christmas and yet is somehow so seemingly obscure... though I suppose the fact that it's less neatly and simply plotted than either of those better known films may have something to do with it. I'll be returning to this one in the none too distant, when said DVD arrives (which was today as it happens, full review coming soon)... all I'll say for now is this is an absolute must for fans of slashers and gialli.

Silent Night (Steven C. Miller, 2012) 

An extremely loose "remake" of Silent Night, Deadly Night (more on that one very soon...), Silent Night  is at least similar to its progenitor in so far as both have a tone that varies from tongue in cheek to cynical to sombre... something which admittedly makes for an occasionally odd viewing experience, and frankly, it may put off some entirely. Also, I'll admit I'm still a little unclear on some of the finer details of the plot, even after seeing it twice now... but honestly, this is not the sort of movie one should be reading into deeply anyway... just a bit of silly, trashy fun really, but delivers pretty much everything you'd expect from a Yuletide slasher circa 2012 co-starring Malcolm McDowell sort-of channelling Dr. Loomis Mark-II (as in Rob Zombie's Halloween II) and generally giving all that tasty looking multi-coloured scenery a good chewing... and I mean that in the best way possible. 

Silent Night, Deadly Night (Charles E. Sellier, Jr. 1984)

Undoubtedly the most controversial movie on this list, Silent Night, Deadly Night pissed off parents and politicians aplenty when it first appeared. Now, while this movie is far from PC to be fair, and pretty trashy at times (not a criticism of course) if we're honest, one wonders how the hell anyone could ever take this seriously. After watching it a few times now I'd say this is probably a must for fans of slashers and generally off-beat horror flicks, but personally, it's not one I've found to stand up to repeat viewings so well. I can't particularly find many specific faults with it as it's all fairly serviceable really, but as I suggested with the "remake", and even more so here, it's hard to get a proper handle on what kind of tone the makers were going for... that is, sometimes it's transparent when their tongue is in their collective cheek, and other times it's harder to call... though as I also said about the new Silent Night, it'd probably be somewhat foolish to think too long and hard about this one anyway.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Jalmari Helander, 2010)

A feature-length remake of some shorts (which apparently attracted a bit of attention online when they appeared) made by a Finnish advertising firm, Rare Exports is another one that's hard to sum up, as yet again the tone veers sufficiently at times to keep one on their toes, so to speak. If I had to attempt a comparison for the uninitiated, I guess I'd say it's sort of like if you took John Carpenter's The Thing and Home Alone (and probably some other elements too), smashed the scripts together and then shot the results in Finland... as always, I realise that's an absurdly reductive (and somewhat inaccurate) comparison, but it'll suffice for now. At any rate, it's certainly unique and worth checking out at least once... and with its lean running time it never overstays its welcome.

Don't Open Till Christmas (Edmund Purdom, 1984)

This was another new one to me this year... as in I'd never heard of it until last month some time... and holy shit, where has this movie been all my life? Most of the titles we've looked at so far have concerned killer or deadly Santas... but this time around, anyone dressed as the jolly red fat man better watch out themselves! Something of a giallo/slasher hybrid, it's hard to believe this was made both in Britain and by a respected Thespian (though I figure he was a long way from the days of Royal Shakespeare stuff by then, having also appeared in the similarly and wonderfully lurid Pieces a couple of years before). This is by no means a "good" movie, but I give it my highest recommendation nonetheless, especially to slasher fans. I don't really wanna say anymore than that for now though, lest I ruin any of the delightful surprises contained within.

Santa's Slay (David Steiman, 2005)

Ever wondered about the curious fact than Santa is an anagram of Satan? Then this is the movie for you! Though to be fair we could probably say that about a few films on this list... At any rate, this is another, like Don't Open Till Christmas, that's ripe for watching over the festive period with a few friends and a few beers. And more so than any movie I've discussed so far, I'd say you could probably show this to non-horror fans and they'd still get a kick out of it. Furthermore, it'd be a good gateway one for those in their early teens looking to get into some of these "alternative" holiday flicks... i.e. this isn't Gremlins or anything and while it's got its share of gore and carnage, it's never particularly graphic or gruelling. To keep things brief, all I'll say for now is that though I only just watched this for the first time last night, I frankly can't wait to watch it again... like many of these movies it provided a much needed antidote to all the saccharine and sanctimony that's going around this time of year. 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

First Impressions: Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012)

Apologies for the lack of recent updates people... free time and more importantly energy have been in short supply these past few weeks. I haven't forgotten about the yellow stuff and will be getting back to all that in due course, but in the mean time I just wanted to share some of my initial thoughts about a recent British movie I watched for the first time last week, and it just so happens to be heavily concerned with Italian horror cinema...

Sometime during the 1970s, Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a soft-spoken, seemingly sheltered English sound engineer travels to Italy to work on a curiously titled film, The Equestrian Vortex. Upon arriving, he is immediately made to feel ill-at-ease thanks to a chilly reception from the eponymous studio's secretary and an overly warm one (to this rather reserved chap) from his producer and, a bit later on, the director. All this social anxiety and travel-induced discomfort is just a prelude though, as Gilderoy soon discovers when he finally lays eyes on some footage of the film he will be working on. We don't see any of this ourselves, but from the scene descriptions delivered to the performers before each session and the sound effects the Foley artists are creating, it's fairly obvious what sort of movie this is. To offer an admittedly reductive and frankly somewhat inaccurate comparison, it seems like it would be something akin to the crazed, bastard offspring of an unholy union between Dario Argento's Suspiria and Ken Russell's The Devils. 

I really don't know where to begin with this one, and to be honest I'll need to re-watch it before I can start to get a proper handle on it... but nevertheless, I'll attempt to give you my current thoughts. To cut to the chase, I think it's probably a stretch to call this a tribute to Italian horror and gialli. Now don't get me wrong, Strickland and company certainly demonstrate an awareness of and perhaps even a slight appreciation for these movies, but there seems to be much more going on here than mere genre riffing, and one wonders if the makers actually like the films they're referencing or not...

A fairly apt label that has come up quite a few times in reference to Berberian Sound Studio (and one that might even have been banded around it its PR material, if memory serves) is "anti-horror film"... and while that doesn't fully sum up the film either, it certainly strikes at the heart of what I found somewhat troubling about it. In short, it seems to suggest that for the right or wrong people (depending which way you look at it), certain types of films can be potentially destabilising and perhaps even poisonous (a proposition that will no doubt strike a particular nerve with horror fans). Writing these words I realise that sounds potentially hyperbolic, but when you look at what happens to Gilderoy throughout the narrative, this is pretty much exactly what occurs... although past the half-way point and into the third act, the movie seems to go somewhere else entirely... 

As a slight side note, the film reminds me of an equally disturbing book I read a few years back, Flicker by Theodore Roszak, which treads some similar territory. Both are highly recommended to cinephiles and horror fans, but be warned... you'll never be able to watch a film (and especially a horror one) in quite the same way ever again.

As I've suggested, I'm still chewing on and digesting the intellectual/philosophical meat of this film, and I'll most definitely be returning to it when I've had chance to dig a bit deeper. But all this aside, I have to say I think it's undeniably well crafted and acted. Hats off especially to Toby Jones (son of Freddie) for a compelling, believable and highly affecting performance. The man is an extremely prolific character actor and more often seen in supporting roles, but he gets a real chance to shine here... and for me, the sheer strength of his performance really made the movie, though credit is certainly due to all the other artists and technicians who worked on it as well... every element, from direction, through sound design and music to cinematography and production design (and so on) is superlatively handled.

I'm looking forward to revisiting Berberian Sound Studio in the none too distant future so I can hopefully gain some further clarity on the issues I raised earlier. At any rate, film buffs, and especially Italian horror and giallo aficionados should definitely give this a shot, but I'm not sure I'd really recommend it to anyone else. If anyone reading this has seen it, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Halloween Hootenanny - Belated Postscript & Coming Attractions...

Just a quick post to both make sure I can still operate a computer keyboard and also to assure anyone who's checking this blog periodically that I haven't died/been shanghaied etc. 

As with last year's October blogathon, the month just gone was a highly enjoyable ride but also somewhat exhausting (especially by the end), so after Halloween I frankly needed a bit of a break.

Many thanks to everyone who stopped by and read anything/commented etc. And special thanks are especially due to two particularly generous gentlemen. Firstly, to Brad Hogue of Yellow Razor... I am truly in your debt sir; last month's 'thon would have been vastly different and no doubt much less interesting without your assistance. And secondly to Kevin J. Olson of Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies for organising the Italian Horror Blogathon (click here to find links to all of Kevin's own contributions)... I had a blast tagging along and am looking forward to next year's already, so thank you for taking the time to oversee the proceedings again. If y'all haven't already, head on over to Kevin's site and check out the veritable cornucopia of Italian horror goodness posted by him, yours truly and many other fine bloggers. 

I'll be returning with a proper post sometime in the next few days, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it looks like I'll be staying in Italy for another couple of weeks. I went on a complete giallo bender for the best part of a week at the beginning of this month (which is one of the other reasons I haven't posted), so I've got quite a few notes that now need writing up. But before I get to those, yet on the same subject, I'll finally be covering the second part of my Italian Horror/Giallo Double Dayer moviethon (click here for part one).

So to get us all in the mood, here's some random pictures of some good ole' genre staples... and for all the J&B pictures I'm indebted to the J&B in the Movies webpage... I swear, this stuff probably has even more screen credits than most prolific actors and actresses!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Hootenanny/Italian Horror Blogathon: First Impressions - The House of Witchcraft (Umberto Lenzi, 1989)

For the final post of this Halloween Hootenanny and also my last impromptu contribution to the Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies 4th Annual Italian Horror Blog-a-thon, here's some initial thoughts on this late 80's TV movie from Lenzi, which I've literally just finished watching for the first time. A slight disclaimer though... I am fooking knackered people!... so I'll be making this as short and sweet as humanly possible... 

To cut straight to the chase... I enjoyed this shit out of this. This is sort of a cross between Fulci's underrated House of Clocks from both the same TV series and same year, and Lenzi's own Ghosthouse from the previous. By invoking the former, I mean it has that same occasionally dreamlike, late 80s, suffused-with-soft-focus vibe, and by the latter I mean that Italian horror fans will be spotting riffs to other movies from the genre practically every other second. To give you an example of the latter, I'll just quickly quote a handful of these taken randomly from my notes...
  • There's an amazing opening nightmare sequence that's highly reminiscent, in one part (that recurs periodically throughout), of a famous scene from Argento's Inferno. 
  • Paul Muller makes an appearance, sort-of playing the role of Emily from The Beyond.. i.e. he's a blind dude, with a faithful German Shepherd dog.
  • Black cats... need I say more... and woah, that's fucking weird! literally the second I started writing this sentence, one jumped out for a cheeky scare on the TV (I'm currently re-watching Halloween II in the background).
  • Cursed (?) Egyptian medallions, a la Manhattan Baby and The Night Child. 
  • And finally, there's suggestions of some Bavaesque possession/reincarnation shenanigans.
Aside from being atmospheric as hell, I also found this pretty funny at times, thanks to some frequently cheese-tastic cornball dialogue... though like I said with Fulci's The House by the Cemetery, this also somehow simultaneously maintains a sense of foreboding seriousness... which is something that I really appreciate... that is, I can both take it seriously and also don't have to, in equal measure, but at varying times... sort of keeps me on my toes, in a sense. At any rate, I thoroughly recommend this to anyone who has a taste for mid-to-late-80s Italian horror and fans of Fulci and Lenzi.

Oh, and Happy Halloween folks!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Halloween Hootenanny/Italian Horror Blogathon: Greats and Gems from the Golden Age - A Moviethon - Part III

This post will be both the final part of my moviethon write-up and my last contribution to this year's Italian Horror Blogathon... and completely coincidentally, the following two films were also the subject of our ever hospitable host's last two posts. Mr. Kevin J. Olson, I tip my hat to you sir, firstly for organising this 'thon for the 4th year in a row now, and also for your superlative analysis of these two movies... I'm glad to know there are other people out there who find plenty to appreciate within these two titles. However, it's with a certain amount of trepidation that I approach the following post, as this is both my favourite Italian horror double feature (I've watched these two in tandem at least four times now) and the two films themselves are both high up in my top ten list of spaghetti nightmares. And, as anyone who read my top ten horror films list at the beginning of this month will know, The House by the Cemetery is currently my favourite horror movie, period. 

Saturday 19th October 2013

00:31 - Shock (Mario Bava, 1977)

As with the last movie we looked at for this 'thon (Baron Blood), we begin with some uncharacteristically contemporary imagery, with Bava's directorial credit appearing over a shot of a kitchen sink, of all things. Furthermore, the first shot following the title sequence could be read as something of a statement of intent in this regard, showing some cobwebs being cleared away, very much signalling a move away from the old world of the gothics and into a much more modern arena. Much of the credit for this change of setting belongs to Mario's son Lamberto (who should probably be credited as co-director from what he says during his interview on the Blue Underground DVD of the film) and prolific Italian horror screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti (who will come up again in the course of this post), who both intended this to be a more contemporary picture than was typical for the elder Bava, citing the influence of Stephen King (who will also come up again later) upon the writing of the script. 

The story centres around Dora Baldini (Daria Nicolodi, on top form as always) as she returns to the home she formally inhabited before suffering a complete mental breakdown precipitated by the suicide of her abusive husband. Also joining her are new husband Bruno (John Steiner) and her son (from her previous marriage) Marco (David Colin Jr.). Almost immediately, Dora begins to sense something is not quite right here... and it doesn't help that her son apparently has some issues of his own. Aside from having a predilection for surprising and generally scaring the shit out of his poor mother (which on its own seems like innocent child's play), Marco soon steps up his game, so to speak, cutting up her underwear while she's in the shower, and also telling her (in the middle of a party, where a J&B crate (!) has a cameo) that he must kill her. And as if all this wasn't enough, Dora is also experiencing some downright freaky hallucinations from time to time... though I won't spoil the specifics regarding this latter point. All I'll say concerning the remainder of the plot is this... it seems Dora and Marco are both still very much troubled by the tragic events that occurred within the house. As the former says to her son during one of the film's stand-out scenes, where the two are discussing death: "We'll keep daddy alive within us".

Despite the resounding success of Baron Blood, the following few years would be far from kind to Mario Bava. I won't go into the details here, but suffice to say, the great man would have two of his films (Lisa and the Devil and Rabid Dogs) taken away from him and re-edited into new, bastardised forms. Adding further insult to all this, it seems that as with Lisa, this (i.e. Shock), his final feature film would also be released as an Exorcist knock-off, though I think in this case his original cut may also have had a theatrical release at least (I'll confess I need to look into this matter further). Apparently, the director also worked on a TV movie (also part directed by Lamberto Bava and featuring Daria Nicolodi) before his death in 1980, which is supposed to be worth tracking down, if you can find a copy that is. At any rate, I personally consider this to be a worthy and poignant coda to an astonishing career, even if it isn't purely a Mario Bava film...

As I suggested earlier, this is perhaps as much a Lamberto Bava movie as it is a Mario Bava one, and in that aforementioned interview, the former recalls how his father would often let him shoot whole scenes, sometimes under the pretence that he was tired, but the son suspects that dad was doing this to help shepherd him into the directing game, essentially paying forward the opportunity that Riccardo Freda gave to Mario all those years ago. This is perhaps something of a mixed blessing, as there are arguably one or two elements (and one in particular) that don't exactly work, but generally speaking, I love the fact that this is a passing the torch movie and that it features the fingerprints of both father and son... if nothing else, it gives the film a vibe that is unique within Mario Bava's entire filmography. And to give credit where credit's due, Lamberto does have a couple tricks up his own sleeve, supplying at least one stand-out, startling sequence that is practically guaranteed to make you jump out of your skin. 

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't briefly mention the soundtrack by I Libra (featuring a former Goblin member on drums)... it's easily one of my favourite Italian horror scores... in fact it may be tied with the one from the next movie as my current number one. There's just something about it's combination of creepy, oddly timed funkiness and melancholic synth/piano pieces (with some sublime lead guitar work thrown in during the end credits theme) that does me right every time. Oh, and apart from that aforementioned J&B crate (seriously, how many frickin' friends do the Baldini's have!?), supplying another connection the wonderful world of gialli is one Ivan Rassimov, playing a psychiatrist (?!?). If you're already sold on Italian horror and have checked out most of the canon, then I'd say give this a shot. It's currently one of my top three Bava films (as heretical as that might sound to some) and I'm praying to the home video gods for a Blu-Ray release as we speak.

02:18 - Intermission....

Despite the hour already being pretty damn late, I decide to take a bit of a break at this point to rest my eyes, stretch my legs, and as regular readers will have guessed, fill my lungs and brain with some mind altering chemicals... which is probably somewhat superfluous seeing that, as others have observed, when you spend an extended period of time watching a shit ton of movies, you really don't need drugs to feel deranged. Anyway, onwards to the final film!

03:09 - The House by the Cemetery (Lucio Fulci, 1981)

This is it folks, the final movie of the marathon and (as already mentioned) my favourite horror film of all time, Italian or otherwise. As a result, this may end up being less of a traditional review/analysis and more of a love letter to Fulci's flick.... you have been warned!

This is a superlative example of a no-nonsense horror movie, as from the opening frames onwards we're instantly bombarded with an onslaught of after-midnight atmosphere and an acute sense of "they're coming to get you" encroaching doom. The first character we encounter is a young lady who should really know better than to be buggering about in the wee hours in an old dark house... and she's played by Daniela Doria (above), who should also really know better than to appear in a Fulci movie... at all... as yep, you guessed it, she's not long for this world.

This scene of pre-credits slaughter is followed (after a suitably evocative title sequence showcasing Walter Rizzati's sublime, organ infused theme music) by a shot that always astonishes me for some reason. We open on a still (seen above) of a little girl seemingly trapped in the eponymous house... and from this we track back (or zoom out, I forget which... hell maybe it's a bit of both) and eventually pan round to see another young 'un gazing curiously at what turns out to be a framed photograph. And it's here that we're introduced to the character who proves to be the make or break element for many people with this movie... Bob Boyle (Giovanni Frezza, dubbed by a grown woman pretending to be a young boy) stand up and take a bow! How can one character be somehow simultaneously both irritating and endearing (I'm also looking at you Marco!)? Such paradoxes abound within The House by the Cemetery...

As in Shock, the film follows a family who move to a house with something of a troubled history, to say the least... and yet again their settling in is somewhat prohibited by the knowledge that a now previous tenant had committed suicide (though at least this time he apparently had the courtesy to do it away from the house!). Aside from the aforementioned blond-haired moppet, we find ourselves in the company of Norman and Lucy Boyle (Paolo Malco and Catriona MacColl), and you can pretty much blame the former for all that's to follow... well, I suppose Lucy doesn't exactly listen to Bob's Cassandra like warnings "not to go there" (delivered to him via the mysterious girl in the photo, played by Silvia Collatina) either, so it's perhaps somewhat poetic justice when her husband ignores her own initial pleas to leave the bad place. And who sends the Boyle family off on this trip of terror? Yup, you guessed it, it's that cheeky chap Lucio Fulci, making an obligatory cameo... and his pipe also makes a guest appearance of course!

And that's all you really need to know regarding the plot... and to be honest, you probably didn't even need to know that much as the pre and post credits sequences set everything up perfectly. Besides, as is often the case with Fulci, and especially with his gothic films of this period, this is less about narrative and more about generating mood and a visceral reaction from the audience. Assisting the director in this department are a whole host of usual suspects, such as Sergio Salvati, who supervises the absolutely stunning scope cinematography (the Blue Underground Blu-Ray is a must if you're a fan of the film), make-up wizard Giannetto De Rossi (who is assisted by others such as Maurizio Trani) who supplies the memorable gore effects and one hell of an iconic movie monster in the form of the fearsome Dr. Freudstein, and Shock co-writer Dardano Sacchetti (who again collaborates with several other writers). Composer Fabio Frizzi is conspicuously absent this time around, but ably taking his place is Walter Rizzati, who turns in what is probably my current favourite horror score, despite and heck, probably because of it's occasional creakiness... there's just something about it that hits my gothic movie music sweet spot.

And the principal performers are also ably supported by such Italian horror favourites as Dagmar Lassander, Carlo De Mejo and the strange yet striking Ania Pieroni (seen above, she made an equally memorable appearance in Argento's Inferno the previous year), who plays Ann, the world's weirdest babysitter. Oh, and obviously it wouldn't be a proper Italian gothic film (even if, like Shock it has a contemporary setting) without a good old bat attack! Incidentally, it always cracks me up how Paolo Malco runs out of the basement with his hand held out almost in a salute, said night creature still attached... he looks like he's heading for take off or something!

There's still loads more one could say about this film, but alas it's getting towards that silly time of the morning that I actually watched the movie, so I best start wrapping this up. It's hard to articulate exactly what it is that makes me love this film so much... admittedly there's some occasionally daft stuff here that I can't really launch a serious defence of (which would be besides the point anyway), but it's nothing that unbalances the film to the point where all the underlying melancholy and gravitas (the latter created largely, but certainly not wholly, by the principal players, and especially Catriona MacColl, who completes her Fulci hat trick here) are lost. In fact it's that sense of solemn sadness (a mood familiar to many Fulci films) that arguably makes the movie so damn haunting. Like many people who first approached The House by the Cemetery, I was initially somewhat underwhelmed by it, but I tell you what, even after this first viewing (several years back now, caught late on TV when I had no idea what it was, which is really the absolute ideal way to discover this) I couldn't get the film out of my head. And now, countless viewings later, it still manages to grow more compelling with every re-visit. As I've said to a few people recently, when you sit and watch it, keep your eyes peeled during that early scene where little Mae Freudstein is trapped in that old photo a la Jack Torrance in The Shining (an undeniable influence on this film)... who knows, you may soon see me there frozen in time next to her.

Finally, I'll leave you with this photo taken from a relatively recent reunion of the film's cast at a horror convention... it may mean nothing to those unfamiliar with the The House by the Cemetery but it just warms my heart for some reason!