Archive for films that haunt me

Films That Haunt Me: THE IRON ROSE

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2016 by smuckyproductions

For some years now I’ve been a fan of Eurohorror, but I always stayed away Jean Rollins – though I saw his name pop up around every corner – because of his reputation. Thankfully, having gone through most of the horror canon already, I had no other option but to try him out. And I am ashamed to have waited so long. At his best, Rollins is a Gothic master – and we have a fine example of this in THE IRON ROSE.

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The plot is so simple, it surprises me that it hasn’t been done a hundred times: a couple gets lost in a cemetery after having sex in one of the crypts. It could have been a Tales from the Crypt episode, or a good zombie movie – but Rollins takes a more interesting approach. Certainly, it starts out like a good ol’ B movie… until the psychological effects kick in.

The cinematography trapped my attention from the beginning. Rollins finds the most fascinating locations and the camera knows how to showcase them. Whether it be the beach, an abandoned train yard, or the cemetery itself, each image is enthralling. This is good, because most of the film crawls along at a snail’s pace. One of my favorite attributes of Eurohorror is its patience. This will be an instant turn-off for many viewers, but for those who can withstand it, the slowness becomes hypnotic. With a gorgeous (and seldom-used) score to back up his images, Rollins creates a delicious Gothic atmosphere.

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It is the atmosphere that allows for the psychological fear to come through. Unlike most films of its kind, “The Iron Rose” features fairly decent acting and dialogue, and no violence. Good thing, too, because the two characters carry almost the entire film. You might expect zombies or ghouls to come into play at some point – but Rollins opts for a more truly Gothic story. The only supernatural element is the graveyard itself, which goes on forever like a labyrinth. Everything else come from the characters.

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Once the plot kicked in and I realized there would be no traditional horrific elements, I was pleasantly surprised to still find myself afraid. It is the mental degeneration of these characters that is so unsettling. Rollins pulls this off without subtlety, but the effect is strong. His images emphasize the morbid trap that these people have fallen into. They are innocent for the most part, and yet they are dealt a disturbing punishment. It plays out like a realistic nightmare – who isn’t afraid of being lost in such an awful place? And the ending, while not as climactic as some might like, is genius to me – and haunts me still.

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While I am sure that most of Rollins’ work will not reach these heights for me, I am thrilled to have unlocked a new corridor of Gothic cinema for myself. The emphasis on image and mood, pertaining to psychological chills, is an art that I hope will not be lost. If patience is one of your virtues, indulge in this moody piece of the grotesque – you might get lost, too.

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Films That Haunt Me: ANGEL HEART

Posted in Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2016 by smuckyproductions

 

What happens when the director of “The Wall” takes a walk with Satan? Throw in voodoo motifs, grimy noir atmosphere and a strikingly subdued Robert DeNiro, and you have a small idea of what this film promises. Just a small one, though. Today we discuss one of horror’s unsung classics, Alan Parker’s ANGEL HEART.

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Set mainly in 50s New York, this nasty piece of work follows a private detective on his latest assignment – to track down a man who has evaded fulfilling a contract with the client, one Louie Cypher (think about it). As the detective follows the trail, he finds himself chasing corpses, all while assaulted by nightmarish images of gushing blood, desecrated churches and screaming people. Someone is murdering all of his leads. But as the danger increases and he goes further from home, he approaches a truth that he could not imagine – nor does he want to.

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The atmosphere and imagery of this film are masterful Its New York and New Orleans are equally visceral, with vivid color palettes and gorgeous production design. The world is gloomy, spooky, and dangerous. It seems perfectly plausible that Satan would be stalking behind the scenes. New York is filled with grey snow, brown steam and blue shadows; New Orleans with green jungle, dark skies and, naturally, bright blood.

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By contrasting the two locations so clearly, Parker creates almost two separate films – one a noir mystery, the other an experimental thriller with strong voodoo threads. But the surrealism remains present throughout both halves. The horror here is fantastical, dream-like, and the imagery reflects this. Parker creates a hybrid between Argento and Lynch, then fills it with Satanic undertones. (If only Lynch would make a movie with the devil, too.)

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This potent combination gives birth to a film that totally throws off expectations. You might see the ending come a mile away, but the way it unfolds, and the things you see in the process, are unbelievable. That is the greatness of this dark dream – the disparate elements congeal into something that has not been seen in horror since. It leaves one wishing that more directors were so bold with their vision, and so wide-reaching in their influences. There are issues with it, of course – mainly the questionable treatment of Lisa Bonet’s character, who is sexualized to a gross degree – but it is worth watching for its originality alone.

For those who want a fresh gust of graveyard air into their horror viewing routine, ANGEL HEART offers a great promise. Its mystery reaches deep into the psyche and comes back with an evil revelation. Follow the clues if you dare.

Films That Haunt Me: HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE

Posted in Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 19, 2015 by smuckyproductions

A little break from the snow and ice – let’s travel down to Louisiana, for Robert Aldrich’s follow-up to the Grand Guignol classic “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” After the success of that film, Aldrich teamed up with Bette Davis again – this tim excluding Joan Crawford, who dropped out for ‘health reasons’ – to create this classic Southern Gothic nightmare called HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE.

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This film starts, like “Baby Jane,” with a bang: the first thing we see (in shockingly graphic detail for the 60’s) is a man getting decapitated. It’s the climax of a love affair between the man and the young daughter of a plantation giant. But who committed the crime? Forty years later, the daughter has grown into an old woman (Bette Davis), trapped in her decaying plantation mansion by the guilt of what she did or did not do. It is far from over, though – when Charlotte’s long-estranged cousin comes to visit, Charlotte begins to deteriorate into hallucinations, hinting at a sinister plot going on in the shadows.

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It isn’t as original of a plot as “Baby Jane,” but it is made unique by the manner of its telling. This film drips with dark atmosphere that is special to the South – sprawling swamps, drifting moss, and thick shadows. The images that populate this setting are equally bizarre. As Charlotte falls into madness, we see what she does – phantasmal shadows crossing the windows; ghostly balls with faceless dancers; and the spectre of her lover, headless, reaching for her. Is any of it real? The film doesn’t give up its secrets easily. And that’s the fun of it. This type of psychological horror yields the most fascinating imagery and tone, because it is allowed to access the subconscious and all its mysteries.

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For the most part, this film plays like a moody thriller – but there are definite moments of pure horror. The shadow-crossed house and Bette Davis’s wafting, nightgown-clad Charlotte provide the perfect platform on which to launch some legitimate scares. Like “Baby Jane” as well, the film is adept at putting the viewer inside a character’s mind, so every fictional experience becomes utterly visceral. It’s a creeping, dread-filled piece of surreal cinema.

And, at the same time, it manages to speak heartbreakingly to a life lived in the past, drowned in guilt. Bette Davis plays her character so tenderly  – chewing scenery, of course, but with palpable sincerity. There is a beating heart to this chiller, even if that heart gushes blood. Charlotte is a woman whose ideals were shattered by violence – to see where that leads her is truly disturbing. The characters around her, too, all seem to have ulterior motives – speaking to secrets kept and deception maintained in the name of greed. The people in this film are drawn boldly and convincingly, yielding most of the terror from their own actions.

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It may not be the masterpiece that “Baby Jane” is, but this film stands on its own, for its revolutionary surrealism and its mastery of Gothic tone. A story of guilt and the capacity of human evil, it is sure to warp your mind – and in spite of its sunny Southern climes, it will chill you like the winter wind.

Films That Haunt Me: RAVENOUS

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 30, 2015 by smuckyproductions

As December approaches and the air grows cold, it’s time to start talking about those chilly horror classics best consumed in front of a fire while the wind howls outside. What better time to talk about the Wendigo? This elusive and freakish beast is little scene in film, which is unfortunate – it appears to great effect in one of the more unique horror offerings of the last 20 years, Antonia Bird’s RAVENOUS.

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Like an unfortunate number of 90s films, this one got misrepresented by its marketing team. While trailers make it look like an action-packed gore-fest, Bird has actually created a bizarre but terrific mix of pitch-black comedy and ruthless horror. The film follows a U.S. soldier who, disgraced during the Spanish-American war, is sent to a remote California post where nothing happens… until an unknown man stumbles in from the wilderness, half-frozen to death and terrified. He claims that his traveling group got lost in the mountains and had to resort to cannibalism – an act that possesses the eater with an ancient vampiric evil. When the soldiers go to search for the man’s crew, they realize the story is truer than they expected… and far more hideous.

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There is a veritable melting pot of genres in “Ravenous.” It’s a war epic, a vampire movie, a bloody slapstick routine, and a grand horror story straight out of Blackwood. This may have been what drove many critics and audience members away – but for those who are open to the originality, Bird mixes the genres amazingly well. It’s one of the most original films to come out of that era of horror – and possibly one of the bloodiest. When it isn’t busy being a riotous satire, it actually gets pretty frightening – there were more than a few scenes that unsettled me to my core.

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It’s fascinating, too, for its brilliant evocation of American legend. The images of the army fort and its ragtag team of soldiers are straight out of “Dances with Wolves,” but far more interesting, as Bird soaks them in gallons of guts. The Wendigo myth – something pilfered from Native American culture as a symbol of starvation and desperation – is used to comment on the nature of the American Dream: devour before they devour you.

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Sure, this theme is drawn a bit too boldly in the film – they say various versions of the above about twenty times – but it pairs the overt message so powerfully with brutal images of man eating man. The film is so ironically masculine, loud and proud about its violence, that it ends up tearing down those ideas in the same way that characters rip each other apart. Whatever patriotism the film might have had is mauled, slaughtered without mercy. It may be one of the more honest depictions of the pioneer myth. These soldiers are animalistic, and they kill like animals.

If this all sounds too crazy, then this film isn’t for you. But its gory humor and horrific statements about Americana are worth exploring. Especially as the winter sets in and the snow seems to call out, scratching hungrily at the window, begging to be fed.

Films That Haunt Me: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?

Posted in Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford: two notorious queens of screen melodrama who absolutely hated each other. The Hollywood rivalry. It doesn’t make sense that they would do a film together, but lo and behold, it happened. No surprise that it’s a horror film, either, and one of the most powerful ever made. This is WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?

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The film pits Davis and Crawford against each other as sisters, one a forgotten child star and the other a fading Hollywood actress, locked together in their decaying Los Angeles mansion. The former hates the latter because of her long-lasting success; the latter hates the former because, rumor has it, she caused a car crash that landed her sister in a wheelchair. In their old age, their hatred has only grown. And it’s about to explode into some violence.

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“Baby Jane” is a very special film. It was born from the actual conflict between these actresses, and the energy of this conflict is present throughout every scene. But what makes it truly remarkable are the characters. The boiling, unrequited hatred between them resembles something from Shirley Jackson or Flannery O’Connor – pure human grotesqueness.

There is no monster or murderer in this film other than their rivalry, but that proves to be a greater villain than any other. The vicious nature of the sister’s attacks on each other (mainly Davis, as the bitter child star, on wheelchair-bound Crawford) is utterly shocking. Particularly because there is deep emotion behind it, the undeniable bond of sisters.

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The film’s imagery is a necessity to discuss as well. Davis is ingenious as the forgotten Baby Jane, dolled up in a terrible amount of makeup, prancing around like a little girl – or exploding in murderous rages. Watching her prowl through the decayed mansion is a chilling as any screen demon. And the progression of her vengeance on her sister – starting with sisterly pranks, escalating into acts of brutality – is absolutely chilling, even more so because she isn’t doing it fully out of spite. But I won’t give too much away.

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Here we have a perfect example of film alchemy: so many elements gelling almost by luck into a piece of cinema that defies effort. Grand Guignol sets, neo-Gothic imagery (creepy dolls included), two grotesque characters… and a deeply unhealthy sibling relationship, bolstered by the actual animosity between the stars. All of this igniting into a single work of horrific, beautiful film. For that reason it is special, and a must-see – if the viewer is content with having their mind warped for two hours.

 

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: NOROI (THE CURSE)

Posted in Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Found footage is, and has always been, a point of contention. It tends to opt for cheap frights and frustrating characters, hiding behind the conceit of “being real.” But sometimes, there is a film that uses the found footage format for good, capitalizing on the horror implicit in the raw and unseen. One of these films is NOROI (THE CURSE).

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It’s maddeningly hard to find, but if one gets a hold of a copy, they are in for a nightmare. The film is played off as a paranormal investigator’s final documentary, looking into the disappearance of two unrelated children and the supernatural occurrences surrounding an actress who disturbed a mysterious altar. But the investigator finds that the disparate events are all caused by the same force, a powerful demon that is hell-bent on getting its tribute. And that’s when the real terror starts.

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There is something about this film that sets it apart from others of its kind. Perhaps it is the complicated nature of its plot, and the authenticity lent by the documentary format. While most films of this subgenre settle for a small set of characters and one location, this film involves a wide range of people, all touched by the same force. The variety of the characters gives the story a sense of reality – I always find it more chilling when a pattern is widespread, taking root in many places, because it means that the evil has no bounds.

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With a villain straight out of Lovecraft – the kind of ancient, omnipresent, but invisible evil that drives people mad – and a format that echoes the epistolary nature of those classic stories, “Noroi” instills itself with a suffocating dread. Few found footage movies have been able to achieve this, though they all try. (The only others that I can think of are ‘Marble Hornets’ (not a film, but so good, it counts) and ‘The Blair Witch Project,’ though that one is controversial.) This one stands, for me, as the pinnacle of what the genre can accomplish.

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Found footage in general has its roots in classic horror stories – “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” and much of Lovecraft’s work, just to name a few, are set up as ‘found documents’ that relay a very real horror. Of course we know it’s fiction, but that format suspends disbelief just enough to convince us, while we’re immersed in the story, that we are witnessing something transgressive. If it’s well done. Which, unfortunately, most found footage is not. But there is immense potential in that underdeveloped format.

“Noroi” realizes that potential and, though it’s too slow and complex for some, reaches points of incredible terror. I still think of this film as a far-off nightmare that I tried to forget. Watch it, and see if it haunts you, too.