Archive for 70s

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: LISA AND THE DEVIL

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

I’ve talked about Mario Bava a few times on this blog, but it’s time I gave special attention to one of his lesser-known and more poetic creations. Colorful, chaotic, and the epitome of liminal, this is the story of LISA AND THE DEVIL.

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One thing to know about Bava films: disregard the title, the American distributors don’t know what they’re doing. This film has little to do with the devil. (Though the film was re-shot and re-edited to contain some half-assed exorcism scenes after the success of “The Exorcist.” DO NOT watch that version.) It feels more like a ghostly fairy tale, about a woman on vacation who stumbles on a mysterious villa… where the inhabitants begin experiencing bizarre, hallucinatory deaths. She’s caught in the middle of a nightmare, one that becomes supernatural, watched over by the butler (played by a pre-Kojak Telly Savalas) who may be more than he seems.

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Confusing? Yeah. In great Italian horror tradition, Bava does not pay particular attention to a plot. Regardless, the events unfold eerily and intoxicatingly, filmed in gorgeous Gothic Technicolor. Their lack of clarity adds to the spectral atmosphere of the film, in which everything seems like a hallucination. It’s a ghost story with notes of reincarnation – a tragedy acting itself out during a night of horror – but the story itself is not what gives the film its weight.

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Like all Bava films, the environment – production design, lighting, camera movement – is the real star. The villa in this film is stunning, full of secret rooms and vaulted ceilings, mist-covered grounds that resemble a graveyard. The uncanny images contained within echo the best of Lynch and Bunuel; along with Lisa, we run through corridors filled with lifelike mannequins, premature burials, and skeleton brides, haunted by the sense that all of this has happened before. Bava evokes the nature of a recurring dream in a deeply impactful way. It is nothing short of atmospheric genius.

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The attention to image and tone is elevated in this film by the presence of an underlying theme, something that usually goes missing in Bava’s films. The ghostly villa and its inhabitants, even the main character, pervade a sense of loneliness and desperation – something all the best ghost stories manifest. It’s a lyrical but disturbing hymn to crushing fate and the death of the soul.

The sensory beauty of the film may vanish from memory after the credits roll, but because of this melancholy undercurrent, one will remember the images for a long time – even if they can’t recall where they came from.

Films That Haunt Me (Halloween edition): THE SENTINEL

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Halloween with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2015 by smuckyproductions

This hasn’t come up too often on this site yet, but I have a particular obsession with occult thrillers from the 60’s and 70’s. Due to the success of films like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist,” along with a real-world paranoia of cult figures (Manson and clan), this subgenre was booming. While most offerings are not worth remembering, I was struck by a lesser-known thriller from the later 70’s, eerily titled THE SENTINEL.

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The plot is, by now, pretty familiar: a young woman moves into a spooky, low-priced apartment building that has a sinister secret. Plagued by bizarre visions and neighbors who seem more than a bit off, the woman hurries to get to the bottom of the forces surrounding her – but she doesn’t know that she has already been chosen to fulfill a destiny that determines the fate of the world.

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It’s clear to see how much this film influenced others of its time. The depiction of Hell and its inhabitants is shocking, even by today’s standards, and has been copied more times than we realize. Unique, surreal visuals and sequences permeate the film and give it an artistic quality that elevate the fear from run-of-the-mill Devil-chills to a more psychological dread. And the twists, in my opinion, are brilliantly done. The supernatural events lead up to a reveal that is, if not surprising, intensely disturbing.

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What really draws me to “The Sentinel” is its distinct 70’s atmosphere. I swear, there was something about the celluloid that makes the aura so different from any other era in film. The camera itself presents the quality of looking into a dream, which lends itself to the horrific aspect of the story and heightens it. Films like this one, along with “The Omen” and “Halloween” (amongst dozens of others), carry something incomparable in the very fact that they used this type of celluloid. This, in part, is what makes me fall in love with these types of films. And this one has everything – Catholic guilt, midnight rites, and an entrance to Hell.

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For atmosphere, visuals and a good ol’ Satanic ghost story, it’s hard to find a better offering than “The Sentinel.” It’s a celebration of all that was great about 1970s horror.

Films That Haunt Me (Halloween edition): VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Halloween with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 4, 2015 by smuckyproductions

A companion piece to yesterday’s post about “The Bloody Chamber,” today’s film from the Czech Republic unearths old tales and weaves them into something fresh – something deeply sensual. In our efforts to modernize and darken fairy tales, we often forget what they were truly about: adolescence, immorality, and sexuality. This is epitomized in celluloid by VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS.

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This film plays out like a half-remembered dream, lifting elements from disparate fables to tell the story of young blossoming Valerie. When a mysterious and vampiric cloaked constable arrives in her town, bewitching those around her, Valerie begins a strange quest to free her town of this demon – awakening new things within herself along the way. With the help of a young man named Eagle (who loves her but is also her brother, don’t ask me), she sets out to defeat the man.

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Surreal and visual, this film does not rely on its plot – there is more focus placed on the imagery and themes. Valerie is caught in a bizarre environment where everyone is trying to seduce her. Her innocence is ours, and thus the world of the film is very confusing. But it’s completely entrancing as well. The scenes are filled with dazzling shots of water and leaves, dark castles and rich velvet, soft light and vivid colors. The horror comes in part from these visuals – the film is full of vampires, fangs and ghostly skin and all, lurking in shadowy recesses, prowling after young girls who are forced to outwit them.

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Trying to write about this film is like trying to bottle smoke. It dances in and out of memory, impossible to pin down. That’s partly what gives it its magic. Even within the story, it’s difficult to distinguish dream-time from actual event. Almost as if the film never actually played. That, in my opinion, is the true definition of a fantasy – and somehow, this film manages to transcend its medium to achieve that effect.

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Of course, this is arthouse – it won’t be for everyone. But for a purely visual, sensory fantasy, where nothing is real but everything is beautiful, nothing can beat “Valerie and her Week of Wonders.” Dazzled in sunshine and shadow, you will become a part of its dream.

Films That Haunt Me: PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2015 by smuckyproductions

As summer comes to an end, I’ll use our last days of heat to discuss a film that holds all the dreaminess – and infernal horror – of that season. Most horror stories tend to be set firmly in the atmosphere of autumn or winter, but there’s a haziness to summer that lends itself to dreams, and nightmares. No film portrays this more successfully than the intangible dread of PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK.

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The film begins innocently enough, following the students of a Victorian girls’ school as they embark on a special picnic at the mysterious and sublime Hanging Rock. (This is, scarily enough, a real landmark in Australia, and the film’s crew said they felt uneasy while shooting there.) Everything is going beautifully… until several students and a teacher vanish without a trace. As the area is searched and the surviving students begin to panic, it becomes clear that a greater mystery is unfolding, one rooted not in reality but in the mind.

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Horror aside, this is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Peter Weir constructs a serene and eerie atmosphere of a dream, and his cinematographer Russell Boyd ingeniously placed a stocking over his lens to make the images misty. The brilliance and sensuality of the visuals only heightens the dread of Hanging Rock. Like many films on this list, nothing is shown, and there is no real reason to be afraid – but yet I found myself feeling sick to my stomach with unease at times. The atmosphere is like a spider web, delicate and gorgeous but entrapping and inescapable. Like a pleasant daydream turned nightmare.

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This isn’t a story of a haunted landmark or a murderer, either. It’s a subtle musing on sexual awakening in a time when sexual anything was seen as sin. Like some of the best horror stories (“Dracula” and any werewolf tale come to mind), this one explores the terror of discovering your own sexuality. The sensuous visuals support this theme, along with the music – a riff on the Pipes of Pan, echoing the Greek demigods that were known for being devilish lechers. The girls that vanish seem to have discovered something in those strange hills that lures them, like Pan’s hypnotizing song, into a world from which they cannot return. But, Weir does not speak to this too directly. The mystery is one we are meant to unfold for ourselves.

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I keep saying this for these films, but I say it again – this is not traditionally scary. It is content to ooze atmosphere and suffocate you slowly, but not completely. “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is more thoughtful than that, and it leaves you thinking, rather than trembling. That doesn’t make it any less of a horror film. It is sublimely crafted and uncannily disturbing while also being beautiful. And, as this review probably communicates in its confusion, impossible to pin down.

For any fan of cinema, this is a must-see for its visuals and atmosphere. For fans of horror who want something a bit more subtle and creeping, this is a perfect choice. In the last days of dreamy warmth, “Picnic at Hanging Rock” reminds us that dark things can be lurking behind the peaceful shimmer of sun. The Pipes of Pan are calling.