Archive for 60s

Review: THE LOVE WITCH

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 11, 2016 by smuckyproductions

(This is one film to watch post-election, because of its empowerment, brilliance and social intelligence.)

Stylistic homage in horror is nothing new in 2016. So many of the greatest genre offerings in the past few years have been throwbacks to past decades, usually the 70s or the 80s. It’s an interesting reaction to the “horror is dead” statement that keeps throwing itself around – filmmakers respond to this by returning to their roots, the eras during which so many horror classics were produced. Few of these films go beyond homage, though, to comment on the eras that they are meant to inhabit. THE LOVE WITCH is one such film.

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Anna Biller’s sophomore feature is, like her debut VIVA, created in the style of 60s and 70s sexploitation cinema.She achieves this homage with an incredible attention to detail – everything from the film grain and the harsh lighting to the vivid production design and celestial soundtrack fits the era impossibly well. Had I been told I was watching a 60s film, I wouldn’t have questioned it (aside from a few important moments that I can’t reveal here).

This world exists around the titular witch, Elaine, who joins a Wiccan cult and uses her practices for one thing: seducing men. Hence, her name. But Elaine runs into some trouble when her love spells backfire. Soon, the locals become wary and a handsome police officer begins following her trail. Will Elaine finally find love, or will she fall victim to her own desires?

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The plot, like the film’s aesthetic and atmosphere, is pure exploitation. Its occult elements and sexually ‘liberated’ characters provide plenty of excuses for trippy visuals and copious sex scenes. Biller’s script is full of cheesy one-liners and flirtations straight out of a dating how-to; but it’s aware of itself enough that the audience can laugh without mocking the film. These moments constructed to be funny, but they aren’t farcical – Biller takes her world seriously, too. That’s where the brilliance comes in.

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What begins as an exercise in homage evolves into a political exploration of themes found throughout 60s and 70s cinema – where does sex-positivity end and delusion begin? Had this film been directed by a man, perhaps these questions would not be asked. That is why Biller’s scrutinizing voice is essential to the film’s success. Early on, as Elaine explains what men want in a woman (a maternal figure who satisfies sexually, more or less), her friend shuts her down – how can she say such demeaning things? Of course, at first, Elaine seems an expert in seduction. Until people start ending up dead.

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This is where Biller’s genius shows through. She isn’t content to perpetuate the sexualization of her predecessors – she displays that, while these films are attractive, they also contain some demoralizing ideas. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that Elaine’s story is not all bright colors and sex scenes. THE LOVE WITCH earns its place in the horror genre through its dissection, and destruction, of the demeaning elements.

Apart from being a lush and charming homage, Anna Biller’s THE LOVE WITCH manages to be a rich commentary. It exists in two eras, eventually bringing them together until the lines blur – have things really changed? For cinephiles and social psychologists alike, this is a hefty, essential film. It will take you under its spell, and won’t let you leave without a little bloodletting.

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Films That Haunt Me (Halloween edition): HORROR HOTEL

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Halloween with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2015 by smuckyproductions

The second time Christopher Lee has made it into a Film That Haunts Me, and certainly not the last. In the days when Hammer was dominating the market, there were still smaller horror films being produced, and this is one of the most striking examples. Once again delving into the world of witches, today we check into the HORROR HOTEL.

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(Not the most accurate title, but its alternative is a big spoiler.) This low-budget chiller follows a young college student as she travels to a mysterious colonial village to research witchcraft. She picked the right place – the witches who were burned at the stake centuries ago have decided it’s high time to get revenge. When the student goes missing, it’s up to her boyfriend and her brother to find her, but the witches are more powerful than they realize.

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While lesser known than similar films of the time, this one is notable for two reasons. (SPOILERS!) One, it pulled a “Psycho” – surprise-killing of your protagonist – halfway into the film. Two, its atmosphere is so overwhelmingly unnatural that the events, while familiar, become more disturbing than they should be. Disembodied chants, smothering fog, suspicious townspeople who stare too long – it’s all there, working to suffocate the audience in unnamed dread. It won’t catch everyone, but it certainly got me. Sure, it’s cheesy 60’s horror, but there are a few scenes that are so sudden and brutal that I was legitimately shocked.

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There is a lot to appreciate here, namely the classic plot and the ever-terrific presence of Christopher Lee – but the craft of the film is also remarkable. The soundtrack is full of weird chants and shrieks, the lighting is surreal, and the set design is brilliant – the fog-filled streets and creeping secret corridors are both beautiful and very, very eerie. For such a low budget and an unceremonious release, “Horror Hotel” presents a delicately-crafted piece of cinema, detailed and measured. That is why it stands above the other double-billed B movies of the time.

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As an example of low-budget genius, and a generally entertaining occult thriller, “Horror Hotel” (or “City of the Dead”) is equal to its contemporaries like “Carnival of Souls” and even “Night of the Living Dead.” It’s a creeping, dreadful, dark film that chills just beyond the surface. And hopefully you won’t hear the Candlemass chants as they come for you.

Films That Haunt Me (Halloween edition): THE DEVIL RIDES OUT

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Halloween with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Hammer Horror films are mostly known for their lush Technicolor remakes of the classic Universal monster movies in the 50s and early 60s. They existed for some time after those fell out of fashion, though – they knew how to follow the trends of their day, and when the horror scene turned to the occult in the late 60s, Hammer followed. The most well-known of this turnout is the Dennis Wheatley adaptation, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT.

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Now, I’m a sucker for anything that was made in the 60s or 70s and involves the devil. There’s something about the atmosphere and storylines of those films that satisfies like no other. So, this film is a dream come true for me. Featuring Christopher Lee (as a good guy!!) and famed Rocky Horror criminologist Charles Gray, the story follows two aristocrats as they hurry to stop their young friend from pledging his soul to devil worshippers. But when they disrupt an important ritual, their group is hunted by a series of demonic spirits who will do anything to get their members back.

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Directed by Hammer maestro Terence Fisher, this film is shameless in its Satanic themes. There is no trope left out – we have Bacchanal robed worshippers, yellow-eyed demons, candlelit chants, and even a goat-like appearance of the Devil himself. Yet, the film manages to cohere into a simple but strongly-paced plot, and at times I found it to be pretty unsettling (in particular a scene involving a giant spider and a young girl). The whole thing harkens back to the best stories of M.R. James, in which smart people come up against an ancient, occult evil, and use their wits to escape with their lives.

For atmosphere, no one can top Hammer. The opulent production design and mist-filled set pieces, populated by all manner of ghoulish beings, is glorious to watch. Matched with the fabulousness of Christopher Lee (and a surprisingly solid cast of supporting actors), these elements are an absolute Godsend – or a gift from the Devil – for a horror fan. It’s a blast, pure and simple.

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“The Devil Rides Out” belongs to a series of Devil flicks exported by Hammer in the wake of “Rosemary’s Baby” – others being “To the Devil a Daughter,” and “The Witches.” What is remarkable about this trend, and all the others that Hammer portrays, is the ease with which we can track the changing horror market through this company alone. What began as a series of science fiction films (“Quartermass,” etc.) turned, alongside the Gothic monster movies, into a collection of low-budget psychological thrillers in the vein of “Psycho,” eventually becoming the occult films and sexual Euro-trash flicks as the industry adopted the rating system. It’s fascinating to watch how much the horror genre changes, always spurned on by a specific film that becomes the blueprint for all others.

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But, business tactics aside, Hammer produced some of the purest, most entertaining horror films of the 60s and 70s. “The Devil Rides Out” represents the best of them. It’s perfect for the approaching Halloween season, when the demons are watching just over our shoulders.