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Suspiria (2018) | Luca Guadagnino

Dario Argento’s technicolor nightmares-upon-nightmares has enthralled us for 43 years. It took me numerous viewings to become fully enamored with the urban-folk-horror phantasmagoria of Suspiria 1977. For a while, the oddness, the dubbed acting, the loose abrupt storytelling were all barriers, but I eventually came to appreciate its storybook macabre. The stained glass and spellbinding neon, the sequences unraveling like terrifying dreams witnessed in real-time, that music-box Goblin score howling and haunting.

However, more than time and repeat viewings, what I think finally allowed me to embrace Argento’s lurid classic was having Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 film as a narrative-focused complement. I adore that with Suspiria’s bewitching madness, one can enjoy the version overflowing with unreal nightmare mood or this bold reimagining that roots the nightmare in naturalism and subtle lore and stark grisliness. 

In hindsight, the presence of ballet and witches in Suspiria was practically incidental: the former confining its cast in a singular unusual location, the latter contextualizing otherworldly happenings. The existence of a coven was maintained as a mystery until the end. Guadagnino’s chilly reimagining of Suspiria does not play coy with such elements. Instead he embraces their narrative power to craft a tale of sinister rebirth amidst Cold War tension. Where Argento was excessive and stylistically surreal, Guadagnino is cold, brutalist, unnerving. In every way that the original was bombastic and unmoored, this is subdued and tangible. What was clunky exposition in 1977, becomes its own sad organic subplot tied to the Tanz academy and the period. What once felt like a setting drawn at random, is the provocative core of the plot: the dancer’s expressive performance given power as ritualistic contortions. The shocking giallo-hex killings of ‘70s Italian horror is reenvisioned as skin-crawling defilement and gory cruelty. Then, a dream-like surge of weird imagery, discordant music, and swaths of color. Now, a slow-burn swell of dread and unease (well, at least until the finale where, with a monstrous shriek, Guadagnino unleashes a finale erupting with viscera and beautifully deranged imagery).

There’s a heavy purposeful momentum to Suspiria 2018. As every dance movement has its purpose, every scene has its intent. Ancient rites and coven hierarchy camouflaged among modernity as a dance academy’s artistic ambitions. The mother-mentor bonding between American newcomer Susie Bannon and Tilda Swinton’s keen instructor Madam Blanc, both fiercely passionate in their ambitions. Occult grounded in meticulous process; the search for a vessel and for truth grounded among the grey volatile streets of 1970s Berlin.

There’s a humanity to its characters that makes the disturbing and the arcane so very real. Its troupe truly feels like an amicable sisterhood, appreciative of their protected haven and autonomy among the city’s instability. In that regard, what greatly elevates this version over the original in my eyes is its portrayal of the coven. Far from a nebulous evil scheming unseen, Blanc, Tanner, and the rest are quickly established as survivors, a community, a family, a functional cabal of distinct personalities and steeped in tradition. They govern, they laugh, they gleefully bewitch, they bicker and clash. While the world seethes with political violence and oppression, the coven endures. When outside authorities enter their domain, the moment is one of fearless amusement. These witches are characters, not just a lurking menace, and their improved depiction fundamentally transforms the dynamic of the academy compared to Argento’s film. Rather than a ballet school where weird occurrences happen, the Tanz comes across as a facade, a masquerading sanctum intended to groom its inhabitants for dark fates.

While the original’s inclusion of ballet seemed like a convenience, 2018’s version thrusts choreography to the forefront of the story, as hypnotic rituals in motion. Within these halls, to dance is to surrender one’s self to instinct and energy…and other forces. The gracefully-distressing contortions of Susie and others bring to mind the puppeteered bodies of the possessed. There’s power in their exotic prostration: bodies broken, unworldly attention drawn, unhallowed ceremony performed, all through serpentine movement.

Themes of motherhood weave through Suspiria’s multi-act nightmare: Blanc’s maternal guidance of Susie, the hushed whispers of the Three Mothers’ antediluvian existence, memories of home and “death to any other mother”. But with the role of a parent comes the responsibility to reward and punish, and Suspiria’s final judgment is a display of rapturous crimson-drenched excess that would make Argento proud.

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31 Days of Horror 2020: Week Four

After 31 movies, this Halloween month comes to a close with a handful of bizarre, bloody, and brutal horror. You can find the rest of the month’s impressions at the below links:

Week One | Two | Three

Necronomicon | Christophe Gans, Brian Yuzna, & Shusuke Kaneko , 1993

An eldritch-horror anthology from a dream team of Jeffrey Combs, Brian Yuzna, Screaming Mad George, Tom Savini, John Carl Buechler, writer Brent Friedman (Ticks, The Resurrected), director Shusuke Kaneko (Gamera trilogy), and Christophe Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf).

Combs as Lovecraft himself, sneaking through a cult’s library to read from the titular book, is our wraparound; it’s a pretty decent one too, basic but fun thanks to Combs’ performance. The stories themselves are bite-sized escalations of gruesome practical effects and nasty consequences. The Drowned is relatively tame and the weakest segment of the film, even with its tentacled resurrections. The Cold’s mad science builds towards a gross body-melt showpiece better than anything in the actual Body Melt. And the final story Whispers starts with unassuming police thrills before becoming a nightmarish descent into hell as only Brian Yuzna would envision: a crimson-hued cascade of body parts, brain devouring, ancient temple, and grisly fates.

Nasty, campy, fast-paced, overflowing with disgusting effects from a team of masters, Necronomicon delivers the gory gooey Lovecraftian goods.

Wishmaster | Robert Kurtzman, 1997

Everything in Wishmaster that’s not Andrew Divoff or gonzo gore special effects is passably average for a slasher and a supernatural horror film. Everything in Wishmaster that is Andrew Divoff or gonzo gore special effects offers such hammy delights that the rest of the film becomes easier to sit though in anticipation.

The opening and finale of Wishmaster are exuberant displays of practical effects, beginning with a snakeman and ending with living statues slaughtering museum guards. Starting your film with a skeleton extracting itself from a man’s body is going to be a hard act to follow, and Wishmaster never does top that moment. But the gory chaos is presented with such relish that we’re rooting more for the evil Djinn than his victims. Every twisted wish is such a fun little set-piece, propelled by devilish dialogue and capped by some inventively ghoulish fate. Every line uttered from behind Divoff’s viperous grin is slick with delicious evil. You watch Wishmaster to watch him (and the fantastic effects).

Marebito | Takashi Shimizu, 2004

As an example of Lovecraftian/cosmic horror, this surprisingly didn’t really work for me. Those aspects seemed somewhat tacked on, as if the disturbing voyeurism and utilitarian labyrinth of underground tunnels weren’t creepy enough But as psychological horror, an unreliable visualization of a man lost in his own delusions and madness, Marebito was very uneasy and uncomfortable. Once what might be the truth begins to clash with vampiric ferals, mysterious watchers, hollow-earth subterranea, and an obsession with fear…then Shimizu’s film becomes horrific. Shinya Tsukamoto is unsettlingly underplayed in the lead role.

Pontypool | Bruce McDonald, 2008

Pontypool is a thrilling performance-driven chamber-piece for half its runtime. Like a zombie outbreak precursor to this year’s The Vast of Night, Pontypool is all about the performances, the interactions, the tinny distortion of incoming calls and an isolated perspective of an unnatural disaster. Then Doctor Exposition literally crawls through the window, and Pontypool becomes an absurd (satirical?) siege with real-time rapid-fire commentary. Any unknown mystery or tension instantly dissipates; the bewildering oddness of the first half is replaced by nonsensical rules that seem to be improvised on the fly. When the film immerses us in bizarre details coming over the air and eerie unexplained behaviors, Pontypool’s verbal viral infection is a vector for unsettling zombie horror. When the film tries to glean a message from its weirdness, tries to apply logic and survival tactics, Pontypool deflates, ending in a laughable whimper of a final act.

Thirst | Park Chan-wook, 2009

Thirst is an ambitious funnel of blood and sex: a wide net of characters and set-up condensing into a visceral intimate finale. The first act is a lengthy slow-simmer, the pace takes awhile before getting really twisted, but by the end, there’s no doubt that you just watched a lurid vampiric horror-romance from the man behind The Handmaiden. A slow start escalating to bloody mayhem has been something of a Park Chan-wook specialty, but Thirst feels downright meandering during its early scenes. Thankfully, Song Kang-ho is our guide; his charisma and nuance ensures that the gradual shift from doubting priest to tortured bloodsucker is a compelling journey. 

Once Kim Ok-bin (The Villainess) and her circle enters the film, Thirst begins to rapidly snowball into Hitchcockian schemes and bizarre love. Ok-bin practically steals the show with her femme-fatale descent into hungry depravity; her presence drags the film into the realm of psychological horror and grisly suspense. Thirst’s second half becomes a rush of nerve-wracking confrontations, gory chaos, and demented nightmares, all captured through cinematography as slick, stylish, sharp as Oldboy or Lady Vengeance.

Excision | Richard Bates Jr., 2012

Evey moment of Excision exudes an uncomfortable awkwardness: a jarring intertwining of disturbed teenage dysphoria with risqué blood-drenched fantasy, exacerbated by family offishness and an uneasy lack of support. Its domestic drama straddles banal coldness and bizarre personality, the kind of tonal oddness that seems like caricature yet almost too real in its characters’ quirks. The supporting cast of characters actors is uniformly great, but the dynamic between a convincingly chameleonic AnnaLynne McCord and her mother (an equally fantastic Traci Lords) acts as the film’s emotionally-jagged core. Most of my time watching Excision was spent wondering where this was all leading, is this supposed to be funny or weird or cringe or disturbing. 

In hindsight, Excision is all the above. In hindsight, so many aspects that seemed confusingly stylistic, or superfluous, crystallize as piecemeal set-up for the film’s gut-punch mouth-agape pit-in-stomach finale. With its unforgettable conclusion, all of Excision’s where-is-this-going threads are pulled taut, to reveal that Richard Bates Jr. was stitching a tapestry of monumental, tragic, and horrific pay-off all along.

November | Rainer Sarnet, 2017

At the crossroad, the Devil trades souls for souls. Con him at your peril. From across the river, Plague arrives in beguiling forms. Be wary of fooling it twice. Curmudgeonly farm-tool automatons steals cows and beg for work…or else. The dead while away in the sauna. The witch offers advice and trinkets.

To watch November is be immersed in the most entrancing, confounding, fully-realized otherworld I’ve experienced since Hard To Be A God. This gnarled land of Estonian folk-fairytale, where fey and folk exist in ritualistic harmony, all myth and superstition as everyday as blood and bread. I only followed the gist of its surreal dark romance – this is certainly one to rewatch for clarity – but I didn’t mind losing the specifics when I was lost in the rules and rituals of this grey-shaded wonderland. The story is broad, choppy, often a slog, heavy with bizarre detours. But I wonder how much of that confusion came from unfamiliarity with the fables. This is folk-horror oddness as cultural representation, evocatively bringing a people’s legends to life in all their unique unadulterated glory.

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31 Days of Horror 2020: Week Three

Continuing this month of scares and spookiness. This week covers horrors both well-established and obscure, a mixture of creeping dread, carnival bizarre, existential mayhem, and deranged oddities.

Sole Survivor | Thom Eberhardt, 1984

The Final Destination Follows, essentially. Actually that’s unfair. Sole Survivor does recall those two films (a lot) but its atmosphere settles more for unreliable psycho-horror, like the universe self-correcting in uncanny fashion as opposed to the malevolent forces of those other movies. A decently effective slice of moody dread, better than its Final descendants, but not as unnerving as It Follows.

Anguish | Bigas Luna, 1987

Rarely does a film leave me in detached stunned silence, halfway between racing thoughts and wanting to applaud. The only way I can conceive this movie existing was Bigas Luna being Clockwork-Oranged a hallucinatory onslaught of Psycho and Bava’s Demons and giallos and Uzumaki spirals, before proclaiming “hold my beer” with a devilish grin and making the slasher-thriller meta-mindfuck that is Anguish. I’m torn between wanting to gush about how unconventional, disorienting, unnerving, and suspenseful this was, versus wanting to say nothing, to tell you to read nothing and just watch this, to experience this blind like I did.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space | Stephen Chiodo, 1988

Killer Klowns From Outer Space is ‘50s small-town sci-fi horror given a dose of ‘80s horror-comedy. With their debut (and only feature), the Chiodo brothers crafted a b-movie carnival of terror overflowing with cheesy sincerity. The gags come fast, the townspeople’s dooms are zany, the characters are lovably hammy, and the pace is sugar-rush swift. The titular invaders are the stars though and the Chiodos are well aware of that fact. Among killer clown canon, these guffawing garish ghouls were creepier than Pennywise, nicer than Art, and more entertaining than either. They achieve a knowingly balance of Bugs-Bunny cartoonish and uncannily creepy, incongruously hilarious yet uncomfortably misshapen. Killer Klowns From Outer Space radiates affectionate passion as bright and bold as its monsters’ outfits.

The Nest | Terence H. Winkless, 1988

For most of its runtime, The Nest was boring and far too serious for its killer roach horror. Never has a creature feature desperately needed some Slugs-esque absurdity. But then the final twenty minutes realize what kind of movie this is and suddenly The Nest is a film with a cat-roach hybrid, a roach-man body-horror transformation, and fused-corpse-super-roach marvel of gruesome practical effects. If only the rest of The Nest had been as fun or gross as its finale!

The Exorcist III | William Peter Blatty, 1990

I’ve heard a lot of good things about The Exorcist 3, but I never realized that it was a supernatural detective thriller, like a proto-Seven plagued by an evil even creepier and darker than the earthly John Doe. William Peter Batty directs this with a workmanlike simplicity that could be seen as inexperience, yet coalesces well with Exorcist 3’s stage-like focus on intense dialogues. An incredibly compelling George C Scott as Lieutenant Kinderman grounds the film in secular shrewdness and shaken faith. For about 75% of its runtime, this sequel is a riveting tale of a good man struggling to comprehend evil, of a genuinely endearing odd-couple friendship between Scott’s lieutenant and Ed Flanders’ Father Dyer. Of disturbing fates left mostly unseen, but made chilling through their cold-sweat impact on Kinderman’s stony resolve. 

When Brad Dourif enters the film as the Gemini Killer, 3’s play-esque approach reaches its zenith. The scenes between Scott and Dourif are almost entirely closeups and static shots of the two face-to-face in that light-streaked cell. Yet their confrontations are mesmerizingly intense; it’s a career-best showcase for Dourif, his every word cutting like slow razors.

Then the final act happens, and suddenly this deliberately-paced coldly-unsettling thriller becomes an Italian horror flick, awash in showy effects, whiplash editing, gross gore, and fantastical hallucinatory imagery.  I’m still reeling from the audacious and out-of-nowhere tonal shift.

Hiruko The Goblin | Shinya Tsukamoto, 1991

What happens when you mix a cursed high-school, J-horror comedy, Shinya Tsukamoto’s gonzo style, and The Thing’s headcrab? You get Hiruko The Goblin, that’s what. When its goblin spiders are rampaging, this is a bonkers blast; Tsukamoto mines the creepy-cheesy imagery of decapitated heads skittering around on hairy bug legs for all its eerie and comic worth. It’s silly-scary fun, with impressive effects for the creeping main attraction. Between those monster sequences and crawling heads: a lot of slapstick, mugging for the camera, overlong exposition and basic characters whose only personalities exist as repetitive gags. Hiruko is Tsukamoto at his most mainstream, but his eccentric style is only slightly dulled.

The Burning Moon | Olaf Ittenbach, 1992

My introduction to Olaf Ittenbach is this splatter-trash anthology that doesn’t do anything well outside of holy-fuck gore…which it does exceptionally! A drug-fueled bedtime story wraparound leads into two tales. The first is a simple escaped-psycho slasher that fast-forwards through the boring parts and overloads on the grisly excess. The second laughs at that first story’s excess and leaps into a tale of depravity, rape, murder, human sacrifice, and a SOV Jigoku-style trip to hell. That finale is Burning Moon’s shining achievement, a flood of devoured guts and drilled teeth and flayed faces and gimp executioner and an elaborate fate that gives Bone Tomahawk a run for its money.

Dark Waters | Mariano Baino, 1993

The best Lovecraftian movie that Argento never made. Mariano Baino’s candlelit convent does indeed feel like an unearthed relic of ‘80s Italian horror, cloaked in the same nightmare haze as films like Suspiria or The Church. The flickering catacombs, the silent unease of nuns in surfside formation and flaming crosses in hand, the near-perpetual deluge and folk-horror otherworldliness that surrounds Elizabeth: Dark Waters’ horror exudes an ethereal dread. The opening fifteen minutes are practically wordless, allowing witching-hour sacraments and stormy arrival to tell their story through evocative images alone.

The film proceeds with a languid pace, laden more with atmosphere, disorienting score, and pagan rituals than with plot or logic. The acting is often stilted, but that aspect ends up complementing the film’s bizarre mood. Dark Waters unravels gradually into a phantasmal vision of dead-fish feasts and habit-clad executioners stalking the coast. Baino’s film is Old Ones-eldritch to its bloody core, replete with cursed madness and prophetic paintings, arcane texts and primeval effigies, the blind that can yet see and the heathen nuns whose unholy rites sate their true God. The final act delivers exactly the gruesome unearthly payoff this kind of film deserves.

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Next week will close out this month of horror with even more Lovecraftian grotesqueries, an unorthodox zombie apocalypse, a vampiric fate, and some weird folk horror.

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31 Days of Horror 2020: Week Two

Continuing my spooky month horror marathon. Week one saw a invasion of blind dead and ghostly doom, and this week invites you to witness even more gruesome fates from within, below, and from beyond reality.

Phase IV | Saul Bass, 1974

Rather than traditional creature feature, Phase IV is trippy eco-horror reminiscent of Michael Crichton’s Prey or Sue Burke’s Semiosis. This story of scientists studying weirdly-behaving ants unfolds more like a surreal first contact: interlopers at war with an alien intelligence on some distant world. Gorgeous ultra-closeup footage of ant activity is imbued with cold clinical sentience through editing and atmosphere. Saul Bass finds unease in symmetry – earthen obelisks, insects assembled and acting with rigid purpose – turning a swarm of ants into a cosmic-horror hive-entity. The irregularity of nature evolving into a force of mathematical precision and cunning adaptation. A battle between men and insects becomes a languidly unsettling collision between mankind and a calculating primal other, cloaked by a hazy miasma of inevitable existential doom. Planet Earth this is not. 

The Ghost Galleon | Amando de Ossorio, 1974

When The Ghost Galleon is soaking in the atmosphere of its phantom pirate ship – creaking rotted wood, tattered sails and fog-swept decks, lanterns swinging in ocean gusts – you remember that Armando de Ossorio has indeed made Blind Dead films steeped in Gothic eeriness. When its infamous skeletal Templars emerge from caskets and prowl through sea fog, you remember that these hooded undead can be terrifying. But those moments are few and far between in what amounts to the weakest entry of the series, instead spending more time with its hapless characters arguing about nonsensical melodrama ripped from a dreadfully dull giallo. Even the dead lack their usual creeping terror.

Night of the Seagulls | Amando de Ossorio, 1975

De Ossorio’s fourth and final Blind Dead is an eldritch folk horror rebound from the subpar Ghost Galleon. The film very much feels like a greatest hits encore. Tombs’ misty Gothic ruins become the rural crags of a seaside hamlet. Galleon’s ocean terror comes ashore with Lovecraftian ritual sacrifices among the crushing surf. Return’s town siege is compressed to a besieged-house finale. Night of the Seagulls isn’t as eerie as the original or as gory and intense as Return, but commits to a hazy slow-burn of dark dreams, haunting omens, and whispering locals. As a last hurrah for the silent creeping dread of the Blind Dead, this is a success.

The Burning | Tony Maylam, 1981

The Burning wields its significant chunk of fun and sexy summer-camp leisure as a lulling diversion. It’s not boring though, thanks to camp life‘s lively authenticity and the rich natural splendor of its lakeside grounds. The counselors seem genuinely caring – well most of them anyway – while the campers are boisterous and mischievous but not psychotically mean or porn-camp promiscuous like some slashers. Just a good time in the forest and even then, campfire tale omens loom over the forest activities like a poised blade.

When the few kills finally erupt into Savini carnage, the butchery hits like a goddamn speeding semi. The mood whiplash from innocent adventure to enraged bloodbath has to rank among the best sequences in slasher history. From then till credits, the tension and savagery don’t let up. Savini flexes hard with the gore, and the killer heightens the viciousness through a physicality that radiates fury. Splendid camp atmosphere, stark savagery, and a confidence in pacing that stands out from the formula that would follow. The Burning isn’t my favorite slasher of the ‘80s, but it’s an undeniable high point of the genre.

The Beast Within | Philippe Mora, 1982

Boggy were-cicada creature horror and small-town conspiracy from the director of Howling 3 and the writer of Fright Night. The Beast Within is as weird, gross, and schlocky as that combination sounds. The film needed to follow in its insect’s footsteps and shed some narrative fat, evolve into something gorier or anchored by a less dull protagonist. The swampy atmosphere, the unexpected King-esque scope of town troubles and personalities, the bizarre mix of buggy body horror and unearthly possession: it all amounts to a creature-slasher mystery with grisly peaks amid weaker material. Surprisingly, the much lauded transformation was kind of underwhelming. A weirdly grotesque yet hilariously budget sequence; I guess that sums up the whole film.

The Boxer’s Omen | Kuei Chih-Hung, 1983

By about minute twenty, I forget there was another world of kickboxing fights, rival gangs, and family to avenge in The Boxer’s Omen. Kuei Chih-Hung’s black-magic body-horror assault on the senses is an engulfing experience, like something refracted and reconstituted through a prism of unearthly logic. Its innumerable unnatural facets are so dazzling that one can only be immersed in its strangeness rather than try to understand. There is a bizarre beauty to The Boxer’s Omen: a boldness of color and composition, a confidence in dialogue-free visual sequences, that grounds its pandemonium in the knowledge that technical craft authored such relentless occult delirium. A cranium pestle oozing viscera, a siege of resurrected bats and snapping gator skulls, a sorcerer’s attack of bulbous boils and wormy eye sockets, regurgitative rebirth and mummified master. Rituals of slime and flesh and arcane sacrifices, resulting in grotesque fates and mind-bending hexes. A singular and supreme spectacle of mesmerizing insanity.

Eyes of Fire | Avery Crounse, 1983

A folk horror-western where Old World witchcraft and colonial arrogance battle against Native American mysticism and the antediluvian devils that haunt the untamed forest. Eyes of Fire is a dark-fantasy story of frontier survival with ethereal vibes and ambitious scope. Its fascinating vision constantly pushes against the seams of its budget. Editing tricks and negative frames are often the trippy yet cheap attempts at visualizing the dark magic of the forest; the mediocre acting, along with over-used narration, consistently clashes with a bizarre folkloric atmosphere rich in mottling soil and misty woods. While the premise and atmosphere echo Robert Eggers’ “The Witch”, Eyes of Fire is very much its own beast: a damned valley even the pursuing Shawnee know not to enter, devil-witch of the woods, fairy magic wards, power in the roots and dirt, tree-bound souls. Unlike any other pagan folk horror I’ve seen, an unsung gem of the horror-western canon.

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Next week will see the grim reaper seeking to balance the scales, killer roaches, bonkers horror from the director of Tetsuo: The Iron Man, a beloved sequel to a classic, and more

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31 Days of Horror 2020: Week One

It’s October and that means a spooky month horror marathon. For the entire month, I’ll be diving into the weird, obscure, terrifying depths of the genre, each week reviewing another batch of frightening cinema. Week one begins and ends with ethereal nightmares, with all manner of unnatural terrors in between.

Eyes Without a Face | Georges Franju, 1960

Sixty years later, Les Yeux Sans Visage (aka Eyes Without A Face) is still uniquely uncomfortable: Hammer Horror by way of French New Wave, a Gothic nightmare executed with a mad scientist’s clinical coldness. An initially confusing and disquieting opening draws us into a story of twisted love, medical madness, and grotesque acts in secret chambers. This is a deliberately-paced descent into tragedy and unsettling terror, teasing out mystery, letting victims and villains soak in the consequences of their actions. I was also completely taken aback by how graphic this was; we witness a face peeled off with surgical precision and the camera does not look away.

Carnival of Souls | Herk Harvey, 1962

Carnival of Souls’ plot may echo decades of Twilight Zone, Repulsion, Images, countless films of psychological horror and ghostly uncertainty, but its waking nightmare logic and gorgeous black-&-white cinematography has not diminished. Disharmonious editing and long shadows create a sense of transient unreality, a Midwestern limbo that teeters between manifested trauma and otherworldliness seeping from the fringes. Pallid figures lurk, grasping in rictus silence, rising from shallow surf and swirling in danse macabre. Carnival of Souls’ unnatural vibe and disorienting atmosphere lingers.

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul | José Mojica Marins, 1964

That title is magnificently evocative but this really should be called the Coffin Joe Show. José Mojica Marins‘ iconic presence counterbalances a film of repetitive melodramatic evil. Clad in coat and tophat, nails grown to taloned points, Coffin Joe’s boisterous sins and lecherous perversions are performed with such operatic confidence that one can’t look away from his rants against God, his daring taunts against Satan, his grinning torment of peasants. His terrorizing ways are met with some wonderful spooky-ghost comeuppance too.

This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse | José Mojica Marins, 1967

A stylistic upgrade over its predecessor, adopting a vibe akin to Gothic western mixed with Hammer Horror. José Mojica Marins once again plays our black-hatted devil returning home to preach demented philosophy and exact Faustian plans only he can comprehend. Secret laboratory and hidden chambers, a humpbacked assistant, devious torture devices, cunning schemes, a swampy reversal of fortune, a trip to a Grand Guignol hell that recalls Jigoku and Bava: Marins takes Coffin Joe to weirder, more complex, more twisted depths.

Kuroneko | Kaneto Shindō, 1968

A tragic ghost story shrouded in whispering fog, where the specters are our vengeful protagonists and lustful samurai are the monsters that emerge from the shadows. ‪An act of wordless savagery leaves two women left to rot, until the arrival of a black cat delivers dark purpose. Now cloaked sirens lure ignorable warriors to their woodland doom. Kuroneko touches upon bushido’s hypocritical honor, the myth and violent reality of the samurai, women as victims empowered against cruelty. But the sumptuous shadow-&-mist atmosphere, the placid eeriness and subtly uneasy effects, speaks louder than any character. Kuroneko’s horror externalizes its spectral justice, the land as incorporeal and otherworldly as its phantoms.

The Devils | Ken Russell, 1971

Ken Russell constructs an immaculately-crafted orgy of mesmerizing production and delirious exploitation. A mad infectious excess spreads from perverted plague doctors with their remedies and vain nobles until swallowing the entire walled-city of Loudun. Russell’s direction and Derek Jarman’s designs creates an askew atmosphere that allows vivid anachronisms to bled into the grisly grimy period setting. The fervent performances match the film’s aggressively distinct aesthetic. In particular, Oliver Reed captivates as the deeply flawed Father Grandier, whose convictions allow his enemies to accuse him of witchcraft. Those vile machinations entrap, terrorize, exacerbate a town of plague fears and sexual repression into shocking carnivalesque chaos.

The Devils’ overwhelming delirium and unfettered carnal depravity escalates with sledgehammer impact. Such heightened extravagance may seem rooted in exploitation shock, but Russell firmly maintains his thematic grip to deliver an act of cinematic provocation exposing the hideous truths of abusive authority and religious fanaticism.

Tombs of the Blind Dead | Amando de Ossorio, 1972

When its titular entities are onscreen, Tombs of The Blind Dead is exactly what I wanted since first learning of this series. A creeping skeletal scourge, a medieval doom arisen to terrorize modernity. Very strong “The Fog” vibes as the cursed warriors emerge among night and mist, grey robes in tatters over grey rotting bones, delivering death in cruel silence. They approach with the placid gait of the inevitable. The very long middle stretch when there are no blind dead, and this becomes the Spanish equivalent of a Fulci flick without the gore, is not unexpected but still unfolds in sluggish flat fashion. That final act delivers the bloody goods though. Lesson learned: passenger trains and zombie skeleton Templars don’t mix.

Return of the Blind Dead | Amando de Ossorio, 1973

Return of The Blind Dead loses much of the original’s hazy eeriness, but balances out that dip in atmosphere by being a one-night siege thriller. Forget the first film’s doomed train; now, 500 years after executing those unholy Templars, an entire village faces the threat of the skeletal undead and…well, most aren’t going to survive till dawn. This is everything I hoped to see from a sequel to Tombs of The Blind Dead: bloodier, faster paced, more intense, better (but still textbook-bland) characters. If you wanted more creeping cloaked guttings, wanted survivors to use sound and silence to outmaneuver the dead, just wanted to see more of those tattered-rag revenants, “Return” will satisfy.

Messiah of Evil | Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz, 1973

Glad I watched Carnival of Souls already this month, because the parallels were pronounced. Messiah of Evil erodes that film’s phantasmal haze into something more jagged and arcane, a nightmare splinter akin to Fulci’s brand of disorienting weird. This is a superbly unnatural slow-burn; a Lovecraftian fever dream of seaside town secrets, sinister narration, and blood moon madness. While Herk Harvey brought an expressionist touch to the Midwest, Huyck and Katz deal in murky coastal disquiet and ghost-town unease. Odd fragments of terror fall into cryptic place: the roar of the crashing surf, watchers on the shore, a missing father, whispers of century-old oaths, the all-too-quiet aisles of a supermarket, dark figures in a darkened theatre. Messiah of Evil is a ‘70s art-horror oddness echoing the likes of Carpenter, Fulci, Lovecraft, and Romero; its consuming dread as gradual and inexorable as the creeping tide.

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Next week will see more Blind Dead reckonings, some Savini slasher gore, an infamous slice of Shaw Brother horror, and more!

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Favorite Movies of September 2020: Part Two

Continuing my September viewings with an collection including a youth sleuth, a kung-fu superhero, an odd-couple caper, and a mischievous mischief of rats:

Enola Holmes | Harry Bradbeer, 2020

Nothing earthshaking, just a brisk bouncy mystery-adventure with an exuberantly charismatic performance from Millie Bobby Brown (her career is going to be long and vast) and a solid turn from Henry Cavill as a Sherlock with more warmth than most. Definitely too long for what it is, but Enola is the kind of endearing protagonist that makes the time worthwhile. The themes certainly aren’t subtle, but an excess of hopeful heart-on-sleeve fun is welcome nowadays. I’m down for more sleuthing misadventures with the witty, resourceful, butt-kicking Enola Holmes.

Fear Is The Key | Michael Tuchner, 1972

The first half hour of Michael Tuchner‘s thriller transitions from enigmatic opening to action-packed rhythm, escalating in minutes from a drink in Nowhere, Louisiana to a fifteen-minute suspension-rattling car chase. Talbot, played with hard-edged ruthlessness by Barry Newman, is our hero? Anti-hero? A man with nothing to lose on a suicide crime spree? Tuchner has all the answers, unspooling a riveting surge of game-changing twists and shifting plot. Infused with a blue-collar ruggedness, Fear Is The Key is ‘70s crime thrills as a many-headed hydra; just when you think you have the plot figured out, it reveals another facet, a new suspenseful angle. Read nothing online before watching, because nearly every synopsis spoils the entire plot.

Gambit | Ronald Neame, 1966

A comedy caper as thrilling as a serious one and with all the bubbly chemistry of a fun one. Gambit’s first act is an impressively clever feint, daringly dull in its heist’s planned perfection, only to play its hand and blossom into something great. Michael Caine pitch-perfectly plays the asshole thief who’s infinitely less smart than he thinks he is. Shirley MacLaine shines even brighter, imbuing her imagined pawn with bold charisma and quick-witted attitude; Caine’s master criminal can only hope to play catch-up as she constantly saves his master plan. Their dynamic is such a fun push-&-pull of naive confidence and natural canniness. All the while, director Ronald Neame gleefully introduces obstacles that rely on our knowledge of how the plan was supposed to go: every trip-up a delightful subversion, every course-correction a sly improvisation. 

The Heroic Trio | Johnnie To, 1993

Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung, Anthony Wong, Damian Lau, and Anita Mui in a blast of modern-day superhero wuxia that has space for invisible kung-fu, babies stolen for mystical sacrifice, a motorcycle flying through the air like a shuriken, and a flesh Terminator puppeteering an unwilling host. The chemistry between Yeoh, Cheung, and Mui supports an impossibly fun film powered by panels-come-to-life dynamism and anything-can-happen creativity.

Intruder | Scott Spiegel, 1989

Going 33 minutes before the first kill in your 87-minute slasher might be a red flag for other films but Intruder makes the decision work splendidly. Most of the cast is so personable and attuned to the self-aware tone that the half-hour hangout is rewarding fun by its own merits. Director Scott Spiegel doesn’t waste that time, ingratiating us with this late-night supermarket crew while establishing the building’s nooks and crannies. Once kills start piling up, Intruder’s gnarly show-stopping gore speaks to a Raimi influence behind the camera. Every death in Intruder is an event, a set-up-pay-off ride where visual gags and creepy suspense build to a visceral bang.

Iron Monkey | Yuen Woo-ping, 1993

Never knew that I wanted to see a wuxia Zorro doubling as a Once Upon A Time In China prequel, but Yuen Woo-ping made just that in Iron Monkey. Part Robin Hood, part martial-world superheroics and folk mythmaking, all wire-fu awesome: Iron Monkey finds masterful equilibrium between Woo-ping’s jaw-dropping action, kooky comedy, and tonal shifts. Upon that foundation of great characters and committed performances, the director constructs a succinctly-paced adventure crammed with rapid-fire gags and breathtaking choreography. Clashes of staff and chain, sleeve and sword, of fluid stances versus wire-enhanced wuxia powers. Evil Shaolin monks and kung-fu assassins, each bringing unique styles to bare against Iron Monkey’s fists and tricks or Donnie Yen’s lightning strikes. A magnificent final act that keeps upping the stakes, evolving the climactic confrontation, until we can only gape in awe at a pole-teetering duel above a sea of raging flames.

Raising Arizona | Joel Coen, 1987

An utterly zany and sweet crime farce. Being the follow-up to Blood Simple makes Raising Arizona seem like a directorial statement: all of the Coens’ comedy, none of the grit, delicately constructed but delightfully loose in a Chuck-Jones fashion. Everyone’s working as a part of the Coen Brothers’ uproarious whole. Baby-snatching unorthodox-family comedy of errors unspooling with snappy Looney Tunes energy, gags upon blunders snowballing into gleeful chaos. Restocking on Huggies has never been so memorably deliriously kinetic.

The Small World of Sammy Lee | Ken Hughes, 1963

The ‘60s London noir-hustle ancestor to Uncut Gems, Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Take Out. A strip-club host has five hours to pay off his debts, five hours before bookie fists come hammering down. Anthony Newley gives a performance of cornered desperation as he jogs and fast-talks his way across a seedy Soho, a city snapshot preserved in black-&-white amber. Ticking-clock pressure mounts as Lee assembles a teetering stack of favors and deals, all while sprinting back to the stage on the hour. He’s a working man of course

That Man From Rio | Philippe de Broca, 1964

This movie does not stop and neither does that man. In That Man From Rio, Jean-Paul Belmondo is the Energizer Bugs Bunny, a ‘60s French Harold Lloyd, the missing link between those silent era madmen and Jackie Chan. Spielberg noted this film as an inspiration for Indiana Jones, and Belmondo’s soldier-in-a-bind is the embodiment of “making this up as I go.” A madcap comic actioner from Paris to Rio, as jam-packed with snappy banter and situational vignettes as it is with Belmondo sprinting, accelerating, jumping, climbing, swinging from one exciting stunt-heavy sequence to the next. Philippe De Broca has a silent-comedy eye for visual gags delivered with lightning-fast set-up and pay-off, and Belmondo is game for all of it. 

Temptress of a Thousand Faces | Jeong Chang-hwa, 1969

76 minutes of Shaw Brothers supervillain fun. Jeong Chang-hwa’s crime adventure is indebted to the super-criminal shenanigans of Fantomas/Diabolik/pulp serials, but given wonderful Shaw Bros theatricality and a Bava-vibrant coat of ‘60s Bond camp. Instead of city-wide chaos, the premise focuses on the battle of wits between Tina Chin Fei’s headstrong reporter (Lois Lane vibes) and Hong Kong’s face-stealing mistress. And by “battle of wits”, I mean high-tech torture, stolen identities, rooftop chases, knife fights, gun-fu, kung-fu, bold threats boasted within lavish cavern lair while henchwomen dance. A relentless delight of action and aesthetic.

Trespass | Walter Hill, 1992

Trespass is a lean genre exercise, Walter Hill doing “Sierra Madre” as a ‘90s-energy urban siege. There’s stolen gold in an abandoned building. Two rogue firemen (Bill Paxton and William Sadler) are searching for the loot when they witness Ice-T’s gang execute a rival. Now Ice-T, Ice Cube, and a who’s who of black character actors are gunning for them. Trespass doesn’t quite reach Southern Comfort heights of everything-falls-apart; its selfish morass is tempered by sympathy for Bill Paxton’s anti-hero and suffering junkie “Lucky.” But the fallout certainly doesn’t lack in guns-blazing mayhem. Our frantic protagonists spend most of the film barricaded in a room, yet Hill still turns this confined clusterfuck into a rollicking chess game of shifting dynamics, corrupting greed, and tense action. 

Willard | Glen Morgan, 2003

I expected rat-revenge-horror; I got Psycho as a Tim Burton-esque dark Freudian dramedy. Glen Morgan directs the hell out of this movie, filling it with lush palettes, Hitchcock homages, striking imagery, inspired sequences, and playful meaningful edits. But Willard is the Crispin Glover show, his performance wringing every ounce of tragic oddness and sympathy from this tale about a lonely man, his mom, and his horde of rats. 

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Favorite Movies of September 2020: Part One

Kicking off the fall season with a mix of genres , tones, and decades, from wuxia brutality and crime conundrums to ’60s hitman surrealism and ’80s vigilante insanity. Woo, Raimi, De Palma, and more:

A Better Tomorrow | John Woo, 1986

Chang Cheh may have prefigured the subgenre with films like The Duel and New One-Armed Swordsman, but John Woo’s The Better Tomorrow is heroic bloodshed’s explosive debut, emerging full-formed with sleek style, brotherhood melodrama, and dual pistols blazing. The angst, redemption, and honorable strife are laid on thick, but the strong performances from Ti Lung and a fantastically charismatic Chow Yun-Fat keep the melodrama impactful rather than sappy. Woo’s action is infused with slick cool and dynamic staging; the set-pieces in the restaurant, garage, and docks form a lead-&-gunmetal Rosetta Stone for an entire decade of Hong Kong action and beyond.

A Colt Is My Passport | Takashi Nomura, 1967

The jazz-accented whistling over the opening credits instantly sets the mood of this Yakuza noir-western. Outnumbered and outgunned but never outplanned, Jo Shishido’s hitman Kamimura provides the film with its cunning thrills and calculated maneuvers. Colt’s monochrome suspense hinges on a wealth of detail, those oft-overlooked intricacies sharpened by the film’s economical construction. Kamimura’s underworld gambits unfold with a measured ease, outfoxing Yakuza assassins and planning escape under moody neon and shadows. Nomura gradually brings the conflict to a boil, the final act blossoming into a grand echo of John Woo, John Wick, Predator, the Dollars trilogy

A Simple Plan | Sam Raimi, 1998

Raimi’s thriller is a film of tension by degrees, unraveling through small tugs of family bonds and tarnished innocence until all is in tatters. A Simple Plan’s moral erosion comes from within rather than machinations without, a Midwestern Macbeth where the stakes arrive through pangs of guilt and close-knit communal woes. Even when the final act expands to include more traditional dangers, the threat always remains a crucible for our characters’ souls. If Fargo is a dark comedy of criminal error, a cosmic joke of cruel ironies, then A Simple Plan is such errors and cruel consequences laid bare as stark moral decay.

Band of the Hand | Paul Michael Glaser, 1986

You’ve seen this movie before. Misfit delinquents and wayward street kids, working with an intense mentor that tames their wild behavior and draws out their strengths. Oh wait, those misfit kids are left to survive in the Everglades, the mentor is a gravely Stephen Lang doing Rambo, and the kids become a vigilante fireteam fighting Miami gangsters? Maybe you haven’t seen this before. The whole thing is absurd and absurdly entertaining: Lord of the Flies rituals in the marsh, Lang decapitating a rattlesnake, a young Fishburne with loud hair, helping out the neighborhood first with purest intentions and then with lead, a drug fortress siege interrupted by minigun surprise.

The Blade | Tsui Hark, 1995

Tsui Hark’s take on The One-Armed Swordsman sandblasts the wuxia until the elegance and grace are in tatters, leaving behind a rotting world of dirt, blood, piles of corpses, and suffering. A dog is baited into a bear trap in the first minutes, seemingly for entertainment in this grimy lawless wasteland. Hark pummels the screen with movement and flailing weapon in The Blade’s full-bodied limb-severing brawls. Flashes of brutality and twirling blades form a storm of primal savagery. 

Blow Out | Brian De Palma, 1981

Blow Out is a movie whose anxiety amasses at the fringes of its narrative, growing by measured degrees with each act. Paranoid unease seeps among Jack Terry’s righteous crusade, before crashing down with bleak exuberance to deliver a final-reel twisting of the knife.  Thread by thread, De Palma unspools spiraling suspense that draws Travolta’s foley recordist into the coils of a political conspiracy, gradually revealing that those threads were forming an inescapable net. The best train chase this side of The French Connection, fireworks and parade rendered as avenues of nerve-wracking tension, John Lithgow as an unsettling sociopath looming over all with calculated menace. 

Branded To Kill | Seijun Suzuki, 1967

Disorienting and challenging us to play catch-up from frame one, Branded To Kill is ostensibly a hitman thriller. And it’s a tremendous one too, with furious guns-blazing action and masterfully inventive assassinations. But those hitman trappings are wrapped in a heightened surrealist underworld of ranked assassin legends. Faceless hitman overlords deciding fates through esoteric rules and suffocating reach. Editing and aesthetic that lingers like a half-remembered dream. Apartment plastered with pinned butterflies, hot-air balloon escape, hallucinatory flashes slicing the screen with painterly moths and birds and torrents. A riptide of fetishistic passions and cruel violence sweeps this hitman noir into a realm of dark comedy, psychosexual paranoia, nightmare unreality and descent into madness.

Burning Paradise | Ringo Lam, 1994

The first twenty minutes of Burning Paradise is a desert pursuit that leaves bisected corpses and decapitated horses in the sand, as Shaolin monks flee from evil Manchu forces. But getting captured and taken to the dungeon hell known as Red Lotus Temple transforms Burning Paradise into a thrill-ride that’s part Gothic wuxia, part prison exploitation thriller, part Temple of Doom. A martial-world rollercoaster of torch-lit Gothic eeriness, dark comedy, escalating wuxia absurdity, and furious gore-soaked choreography. Every fight is an intricately-constructed confrontation, often splashed with crimson but always creative, kinetic, and full of surprises

Children of the Corn 3: Urban Harvest | James D.R. Hickox, 1995

Folk horror comes to the Windy City, and takes root as only Screaming Mad George effects and unfettered ‘90s horror can. A cross-breeding of The Omen, Season of the Witch, and Children of the Corn germinates a bonkers spooky cheese offshoot that’s very gory and very of its decade. Inner-city school troubles pacified by corn cult, verdant rows behind the row house, corporate interest in mysterious miracle maize. Vermin-bursted heads, stalk-skewered faces. A spine extraction that dethrones the Predator’s technique. A pagan god‘s reaping by way of sickle and bloodthirsty root.

China Girl | Abel Ferrara, 1987

Abel Ferrara brings Romero & Juliet to the gritty underbelly of ‘80s New York, positioning the doomed romance between warring gangs of Chinatown and Little Italy. The love at the story’s core feels innocently sincere, thanks to the performances of Richard Panebianco and Sari Chang. But it’s everything around the romance that makes China Girl stand out: the shadow-&-neon stylized theatricality of its time and place, the hard frenetic violence that constantly makes victims of its ethnic communities, the communal atmosphere that surrounds the gang posturing and tenuous peace with a lived-in working-class world. When the foregone tragedy finally comes, the impact is palpable: a snuffed spark of hopefulness lighting the fuse of endless violence.

Dillinger | John Milius, 1973

Michael Mann’s Heat-lite gangster thriller Public Enemies comes in second place compared to Milius’ intense Tommygun barrage of bullets, blood, and outlaw grit. A magnificent and sorely underseen action film loaded with a killer cast including Harry Dean Stanton, Richard Dreyfuss, Ben Johnson as cigar-chomping Purvis, and a roguish rugged Warren Oates as the eponymous gangster.  The crooks are deluded and ruthless, the cops are executioners with badges, and Purvis versus Dillinger are two faces of gangster cruelty slaughtering eachother. It’s visceral thousand-rounds mayhem: roaring kinetic gun battles shredding bodies and buildings with lead, filling the air with gun smoke and screams of pain.

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Review

Alone (2020) | John Hyams

If you’re a modern action fan, you likely know the name John Hyams, and if you don’t, you most definitely heard of his gonzo-gory DTV masterwork Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. That 2012 genre-blender revitalized the still-kicking ‘90s franchise with ample doses of Scott Adkins, ultraviolent carnage, and existential hallucinatory paranoia. Where would Hyams go next? Bigger, crazier, gorier? Well, first he’d do a baseball dramedy, but then he’d gift 2020 with the leanest thriller of the year. 

With only a few months left before year’s end, it is hard to imagine that there’ll be another survival thriller in 2020 as lean and mean as John Hyams’ Alone. His latest film holds no tricks up genre-twisting sleeves, no high concept to grasp, no jump scares to jolt attention. Just 98 minutes of suspense served stark and stripped-to-the-bone, fueled purely through direction and performance.

The simple premise is refreshingly stock and unadorned. Jessica (Jules Willcox) is on the road, fresh memories of a tragedy packed in a U-Haul but still exposed and painful. On the winding backroads of the Pacific Northwest, a driver hounds her, lurking at rest stops and approaching with innocent questions that nevertheless impart the dread of a lone woman fearing the danger inherent to a stalking creep. Echoes of Duel and Breakdown ripple through the first act, a sustained intensity about as blunt as Marc Menchaca’s vintage-serial-killer appearance yet unfolding with rain-blurred peripheral unease.

It’s not long till Jessica finds herself locked in a cabin basement. Again, stock, predictable even: Hyams doesn’t rewrite expectations, he executes them with no-frills flair. On the mustachioed surface, Marc Menchaca’s nameless predator is about as textbook as cinematic killers can get – lies to a loving family, chameleonic guile, misogynistic cruelty. A smug “Do you think you’re the first one to say that” to Jessica’s pleas tells us everything about his monster in ten words.

Hyams finds terror in the mundane; a scene of cutting cheese while Jessica watches unseen is rife with a tense proximity as sharp as his hunting knife and elevated by Menchaca’s performance of sociopathic calm. But Jules Willcox matches his evil with a cunning desperation that always feels believably intense and smart. The thrill of smart decisions and quick-witted resourcefulness builds to a heart-pounding flight into the wilderness, but the needle drop in that moment is the equivalent of Hyams firing a starter pistol.

What ensues is a tightly-coiled set-piece rollercoaster, grounded in the landscape’s earthy hurdles (this and The Beach House make 2020 the year of wincing foot trauma). An intertwined barbed-wire knot of obstacles both natural and very human, each new threat stacking upon the next in a breathless surge of confrontation and consequences. Even a welcome appearance from Dr. Chilton – I mean, Anthony Heald – only wields the respite as an avenue for more bristling tension. Willcox radiates a nervous strength that enhances that white-knuckle momentum, a badass survivor fierceness tempered by an imbalance in power that Hyams never lets us forget. Taut direction and Jessica’s bloody battered endurance also ensures we never forget the tenor of his prior works; the jabs and bursts of bruising suspense crescendo towards a primal finale where Hyams’ inner action director is unleashed in savage mud-choked fashion.

Alone is to serial-killer cat-&-mouse action what The Shallows and Crawl are to creature features: familiar premise distilled to elemental micro-thrills, cliched surface energized through relentless Rube Goldberg intensity.

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Favorite Movies of August 2020: Part Two

Continuing my monthly assortment of memorable, resonant, or just plain surprising movies I’ve watched, finishing August’s collection with a healthy helping of frontier survival, Lovecraftian haunting, and danger from beyond.

High Noon | Fred Zinnemann, 1952

A taut shortening fuse of a western. Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon unwinds in approximately real-time: one hour till the dreaded outlaw Frank Miller arrives on the noon train, one hour for Marshal Kane to assembly a posse to defend against his wrath, one hour for a town’s sins and fears to crumble its communal facade. Each passing minute imbues the melodrama and anxious debate with mounting tension, and the film sticks the landing when that fateful time comes.

Man In The Wilderness | Richard Sarafian, 1971

The largely forgotten precursor to The Revenant, a survival adventure told with ‘70s sturdiness and in earthy tones. Richard Harris as the Hugh Glass analog barely speaks in this, but his character is sketched by action and minor victories: a spear, a fire, a hare. While its bear attack can’t match The Revenant’s visceral mauling, Man In The Wilderness does exceed through its merits: a grueling battle against the wild, a compelling B-plot following the remaining trappers as they arduously drag their boat through mud and snow and native attacks, a strong antagonist in the expedition’s merciless captain.

Men In War | Anthony Mann, 1957

A Korean war film infused with the horror genre’s lurking dread and the frontier isolation of the western. Robert Ryan brings a grizzled gravitas to his dutiful Lieutenant, committed to keeping his unit alive and reaching Hill 465 as ordered even if that means trudging through sniper traps, artillery, and mine fields. Aldo Ray’s Sergeant Montana is his equal and foil, a bulldog transmuted into a new kind of soldier surviving through a maxim of “shoot first or die first”. The friction between Ryan and Ray grants Men In War a decidedly anti-heroic, anti-war, critical tone for a ‘50s war film; there are no heroes or patriots here, just scared desperate men trapped in a terrible draining situation.

Millionaires Express | Sammo Hung, 1986

Sammo Hung’s martial-arts action-comedy-western is an intricate gem of the genre. A who’s who cast of genre greats: Hung of course, Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, Cythnia Rothrock, even Jimmy Wang Yu and Shih Kien. Silent-film-influenced gags and scenario-a-minute pacing. A kooky collision of capers, misunderstandings, and incompetence that leads into the twenty-minute free-for-all finale. A few bursts of Hong Kong action daredevilry crescendo in an exuberant barrage of kung-fu fun: Gatling gun mayhem, samurai swordplay, Rothrock flexing on Sammo, no furniture left unscathed.

Noroi: The Curse | Kôji Shiraishi, 2005

Noroi seems like demonic horror on the surface but gradually its terrors are revealed to better align with cold-sweat slow-boil Lovecraftian dread. Shiraishi constructs a chronicle of death, madness, and doom told with clinical pseudo-documentary verisimilitude. Omens lurk at the edges and footnotes of the frame, piercing the comforting distance of reality show clips and news interviews, invading sleep and corrupting recordings. It all amounts to unnerving unnatural fates and skin-crawling otherworldly pay-off.

Punishment Park | Peter Watkins, 1971

$95,000 captures more reality and immersion than movies with a thousand times that budget. Punishment Park is dystopian horror at its most exposed-nerve painful. Dissidents and “terrorists” – all progressive voices, musicians, students – are given a choice by a mock tribunal enforcing puritanical fears and conservative values: prison or a grueling desert pursuit for a commuted sentence. The kangaroo court, the sun-scorched crossing, and the pursuing authority are brought to life through as-it-happens naturalism and raw performances from mostly improvising non-actors. With searing honesty, America’s darkness is explored through verite faux-news in 1971, but the stomach-churning truth is that such darkness nakedly unfolds on the real news in 2020.

Race With The Devil | Jack Starrett, 1975

Siege film, cult horror, chase thriller. Race With The Devil is a lean and and surprisingly suspenseful slice of action-horror. The plot is b-movie simple: friends go RV camping, friends see satanic cult sacrifice, satanic cult sees friends, friends flee in their RV and are hunted by the cult. The “race” may be reserved for the film’s awesome climax, but there’s no sense of waiting for promised pay-off. The entire film is marinated in unwelcoming paranoia, building to an epic Road Warriors-esque stunt spectacular of crunching metal and blasting shotguns.

Ricochet | Russell Mulcahy (1991)

What if Cape Fear was a deranged DTV actioner given a studio budget and borrowed a few buckets of blood from a slasher? What if, instead of a houseboat fight, Cape Fear had an Aryan-honor prison swordfight with Jesse Ventura, forced-heroin rape, and a scaffolding jungle-gym brawl while Ice-T runs interference? Ricochet is mean trashy revenge-thriller insanity given a glossy finish, carried by a more-wild-eyed-than-usual Lithgow and a charming-as-ever Denzel.

Southern Comfort | Walter Hill, 1981

A thriller swamp-thick with primal paranoia, a film of macho bluster sloughing away until only sweaty panic remains. Walter Hill’s bayou quagmire take a subversive almost-arthouse approach to its action: an arsenal of guns…firing nothing but blanks, an unseen enemy as much mud and fog and endless cypress as they are flesh and blood, a cat-&-mouse confrontation where the mice might as well already be in the predator’s gullet. Swallowed whole by a marshy labyrinth as fear corrodes chain of command, trust, and bravado.

Sputnik | Egor Abramenko, 2020

Russian sci-fi creature horror ensconced in political thriller intrigue. A cosmonaut returns with a symbiotic passenger; a disgraced scientist brought in to study his condition, resulting in a film less about monster maulings and more about humanity under a totalitarian microscope. Questions of the human cost of science, of the humanity behind heroic propaganda, are intertwined with solid creature effects, claustrophobic suspense, and gory final-act action. Well-paced, handsomely atmospheric production, good performances: Sputnik don’t break any new ground but the above-average execution and Russian perspective make for entertaining horror-thrills.

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Review

Favorite Movies of August 2020: Part One

Going to assemble a monthly (or bi-monthly depending) assortment of the best new viewings and revisits I’ve watched. Let’s start with the dog days of summer and an August collection that includes New Orleans Woo-mayhem, high action-comedy in the Highlands, and Seven Samurai by way of high-school biker gangs

The Big Trail | Raoul Walsh, 1930

 The definition of don’t-make-em-like-they-used-to: a gargantuan frontier epic, a focus on grueling hardscrabble authenticity, shot on 70mm “Grandeur” widescreen, shot on location across seven states, with hundreds of wagons, thousands of extras, entire herds of oxen and horses and livestock. A vast and methodical portrayal of Oregon Trail hardship fills the entire frame to the horizon with an army of wagons and settlers. An abundance of dull stretches and early-talkie stilted dialogue turn the journey into more of a frontier travelogue, but nine decades have not dulled The Big Trail’s arduous adventure and sheer technical scope.

Brain Damage | Frank Henenlotter, 1988

Brain Damage is not exactly subtle but that’s the beauty of this bond between guy and otherworldly brain-devouring parasite. Henenlotter delivers an anti-drug parable as a horror-comedy that revels in gruesome absurdity and NYC grime, twisting heavy-handedness into surreal splatter-shock. Audacious provocative gore, trippy visuals that seep into reality (that final shot!), and a hilarious puppet with way too many teeth and sarcasm to spare.

Bullet In The Head | John Woo, 1990

Apocalypse Now, Treasure of Sierra Madre, The Deer Hunter, John Woo-style. A seething merciless film, born of the same anger and era as Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind and School On Fire. The siren song of money draws its trio of freewheeling youth down an increasingly-jagged path paved with profiteering and greed, ruthless gangsters and wartime trauma, psychological torture and bloody consequences. The escalation from street brawls to nightclub chaos to prison-camp bedlam acts as an astounding display of Woo’s versatile action direction. Draining his furious bombast of its trademark cool, what’s left is a chaotic abyss of gushing wounds and senseless slaughter. Two hours of beautifully-choreographed but emotionally harrowing mayhem, infused with Peckinpah-esque nihilism.

Cape Fear | J. Lee Thompson, 1962

Scorsese’s 1991 remake would heighten the premise to blood-&-rain-drenched pulp, but J. Lee Thompson’s original Cape Fear excels at noir-shadow suspense. De Niro reimagined the villianous Cady as a wild unleashed animal, but Mitchum plays the role as calculating, reptilian, and unpleasant, saying more with silence than with words. His monster aptly represents the original’s simmering intensity and its morality tale of Gregory Peck’s chiseled righteousness versus Mitchum’s laser-focused evil. That moral simplicity allows the famous houseboat finale to act as both a suspenseful cat-&-mouse confrontation and a thematic climax for its tested protagonist.

Conan The Barbarian | John Milius, 1982

John Milius’ fantasy epic is the cinematic definition of both words: presenting a sword-&-sorcery adventure in all its archetypal simplicity, transforming the screen into live-action Frank Frazetta art. Arnold himself could have stepped out of those covers, his hulking statuesque frame and blazing glare speaking louder than any dialogue. Unfolding with picaresque pacing, Conan The Barbarian spans years and cities. Each new trial leaves its mark through lavish sets and creative world-building. Milius often allows the film to linger in awe of its mythic landscapes and its grand hero, all while Basil Poledouris‘ elemental score lends an operatic air. It all crescendos in a climactic final stand imbued with the emotional and narrative weight of the great sagas.

Get Duked (aka Boyz In The Wood) | Ninian Doff, 2020

A raucous horror-comedy that in simplest terms plays like a mix of Attack The Block and Hot Fuzz. Four troublemaking teen outcasts (well, three plus one shy introvert) are left alone in the Scottish Highlands to earn their “Duke of Edinburgh” wilderness award, only to find there are worst dangers than getting lost. Director Ninian Doff’s music-video background is on full blast, from the excellently-timed hip-hop needle drops to the screen-bumping trippy visuals (courtesy of feces-tainted shrooms). Gorgeous mountain visuals, well-paced set-up of its characters and its terror, witty charm and natural snappy banter, the best brick joke in a long time: Get Duked is a great hangout film and a madcap genre-skewering debut.

Go For Broke | Genji Nakamura, 1985

In which an all-woman team of dirtbike yojimbo, stunt performer, incendiary inventor, wrestler, and razor-blade rogue help a high school defend against a biker gang and their dominatrix leader, in a bonkers-spectacle manga-madcap Seven Samurai riff. Go For Broke radiates DIY low-budget creativity and anime-esque action fantasy. Super ‘80s entertainment packed with oddball personality, impressive visuals, vicious torture, no-holds-barred violence, and an insane school-grounds warfare finale overflowing with mayhem, explosions, stunts, and more mayhem

The Gunfighter | Henry King, 1950

Over a decade before Leone rebuilt the myth of the frontier, nearly half a century before Unforgiven, Henry King’s The Gunfighter deracinated the titular archetype. Gregory Peck’s forlorn exhausted performance grants the curse of infamy an emotional weight that looms over the entire film; the aging repentant days of “the fastest gun in the west” are days of wandering restless caution and shame, of potential death by vengeance or young-gun bravado at every civilized place in the frontier. Reminiscent of High Noon, The Gunfighter accumulates ticking-clock suspense and gripping drama with barely a shot fired.

Hard Target | John Woo, 1993

Hard Target is a masterpiece of ridiculous action like only John Woo can deliver. JCVD punches a snake in the head, Wilford Brimley sends an arrow through a goon’s throat, there are crossbow-sniper-rifles, and there are doves. On the surface, another Most Dangerous Game riff, but so heightened and over-the-top that Hard Target becomes its own beast: a carnival of chaos where every moment is maximized for style. Woo really makes the most of the New Orleans atmosphere, taking the action from docks to graveyards to the bayous in increasingly explosive sequences. Countless roundhouse kicks, arm snaps, hails of lead escalate to a game of motorcycle-v-car chicken and an incredible finale inside a Mardi Gras parade warehouse. 

Hardware | Richard Stanley, 1990

Hardware is a movie about blood-red end-time wastes and weirdo scavengers roaming the dead zones. To be exact, Hardware is that movie for the first ten minutes. But then it’s a Dredd-adjacent dystopian apocalypse nightmare, and then it’s a single-location killer-robot slasher. Unstoppable authoritarian cruelty personified as a self-repairing military killbot, versus Stacey Travis’ resourceful artist. Silly and sleazy, but also gorgeous, gory, and feels huge despite its budget and small scale. Richard Stanley has an eye for stunning shots and a talent for bizarre tone, layering his sci-fi horror world with rusting detritus and minute details.