SEASON OF THE WITCH
Mother of Tears
I know I should have expected it to be terrible, but I'm not one to count out Argento entirely. I thought Sleepless and The Card Dealer were both perfectly acceptable late entries, and the only flat-out failure on his filmography up to this point was Phantom of the Opera. But I have to say, especially considering he had 25+ years to prep, this third installment of the Mothers Trilogy is a complete and utter botch from start to finish. Well...I suppose it all depends how scared you actually are of goth chicks. Actually make that ridiculously-dubbed goth chicks. If you were ever sitting at a train station and some chick with heavy black mascara, lots of piercings and plastic skull rings on her fingers sat down next to you I'm guessing your reaction wouldn't be to flip the fuck out and take the bus. Even if she started laughing inappropriately to herself, you'd probably just get up and stand at another part of the station or something. I mean, if this scenario actually scares you then I guess Mother of Tears would be your Watership Down (if you're comparing yourself to someone who is afraid of bunnies.)
But if you're like me and do not shit your pants at the sign of dark lipstick, chances are you won't find the "young witches" in this film frightening. I get what Argento was going for - the whole sexualized horror that he and other Italian horror directors have famously exploited their entire careers - but think back to Suspiria's villains: a group of stuck-up authority figures corrupting a group of youthful beauties. Here it's the young harassing the old, and it's a different kind of horror when the one being terrorized is Udo Kier playing a priest. He should be the evil one! Asia's cute as a put-upon curator, but she was a more sympathetic victim in Trauma at 17 than she is now at 32, and although she does a good job acting terrified of goth chicks, it's just impossible to take that kind of scenario seriously (I do like that Daria Nicolodi turns up as the ghost of her mother.) Things start out promisingly enough, with Asia Argento's buddy conjuring up some angry hooded demons who literally rip her apart with some very non-hygenic looking torture devises and a little hell monkey chasing Asia around a museum. But the film instantly devolves into a plot more elusive than the last forty minutes of Inferno. I'm worried Argento is entering De Palma territory, and I'll have to give up on his new shit.
Season of the Witch
For some reason I ignored this movie when Anchor Bay re-released it alongside The Crazies ten years ago. And for some reason I decided now was the time to finally check it out. Should've stayed with my first instinct. Notable to film historians as the reason Martin Scorsese's breakthrough film is called Mean Streets and not Season of the Witch, Romero's film is about a housewife who dabbles in witchcraft and blindly assumes that the situations around her are being manipulated by her newfound wiccan powers rather than distorted by her own psychotic breakdown. Romero would of course return to the similar idea of individual resorting to classic horror archetype (or does he???) to duck out of societal oppression with Martin, and Season of the Witch isn't even a dress rehearsal for that much more successful effort. It seems funny that Romero opened the gates on the socially-relevant horror film, then dropped the ball in the early 70's while Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby were doing movies like Deathdream. Whereas Martin and Dawn of the Dead rise above their dated confinements, Witch is bogged down by fuzzy cinematography, goofy outfits, hokey dialogue meant to sound edgy ("ballin" is slang for "fuckin") and the folky plucks of the Donovan song from which the film takes its name (sorry Scorsese...or rather you're welcome.) The movie is clearly influenced by Polanski - mainly Repulsion - and is tantalizing in theory, but never reaches beyond the basic set-up. Apparently Romero disowns the movie, although he has said he'd like to remake it.
Who Can Kill a Child?
Depends on the child. I for one have had enough of the toothless little Asian girl singing "My Country 'Tis of Thee" on that commercial. Should she ever turn evil, give me a hammer and I'll gladly bludgeon away. But seriously who doesn't love a good group of murderous children, from the albino telekinetics in Village of the Damned to the gum-chewing scamps of the Hostel films (the exception being Fabrice Du Welz's bratty mud children from this year's Vinyan.) The thing is I'm not scared of children particularly, mainly because I could beat them up (Who can beat a child? Me.) This is why I found the end of the French horror movie Ils to be a letdown: I couldn't understand why the victims didn't just spank the evil tykes and send them to their room.
But Who Can Kill a Child kind of brilliantly gets around that by positing: What if you couldn't bring yourself to beat/kill the tiny helium coming at you wielding a scythe bigger than he is? What if it were your own loving little daughter? They'd have their way with you simply because you were unable to fight back. The killer kiddies of Who Can Kill a Child are actually pretty spooky and get up to a lot of un-childlike behavior, specifically in the maiming and murdering department. This movie is ballsy (and pretentious) enough to open with eight minutes of Holocaust footage, reels of starving kids in Biafra and shots featuring Napalm-ed children in Vietnam. Following that hilarious montage, a British couple travel to an island they've heard is gorgeous, non-touristy, and low in child-inflicted disembowelments. They've been misinformed on at least one of those claims (won't spoil which one.) Seeing only a few kids fishing off the dock they assume the population is off at a fiesta somewhere, thus displaying a classic bit of foreigner's credulousness (having traveled in Spain this year I was embarrassed by my lack of cultural knowledge; I felt a little better when this lady didn't even know what a piñata was. Also that moment turns out to have an excellent pay off!) So there's a lot of tense build-up during these "what's going on here?" sequences, although we as an audience have a pretty good idea what's happening.
And these kids make Children of the Corn look, uh, corny. It's a little weird that the kids were able to kill off nearly the entire population of the town in two days. What's really baffling is why the guy, even after learning of the homicidal children, constantly wanders off leaving his frail, pregnant, Mia Farrow-esque wife alone. She's kind of homely though. If looks can kill a child, they'd all be dead. Director Narciso Ibanez Serrador, who sadly doesn't seem to have done many other features, comes off great on a dvd interview where he specifically talks about the importance of not explaining why the kids weren't alright (apparently in the book written in conjunction with the movie, it's explained that some yellow smoke descended on the town and caused madness in the young minds for some reason.) This is a new classic, especially the amazing end on the boat: keep swingin' pal!
This film does get more ridiculous the longer it runs. That said, I still think it's absolutely solid, and very near-great, especially considering it's the debut of directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (it must be getting tough to make a horror film with just one director these days.) A lot of credit belongs to Trouble Every Day's Beatrice Dalle as the gap-toothed specter draped in a dress the color of gray shadows, a genuinely frightening horror heavy. Alysson Paradis (aunt to Johnny Depp's children) plays a frail pregnant woman, like the Who Could Kill a Child wife except much hotter. She lives alone after being involved in some kind of terrible crash. Incidentally I've noticed lots of horror movies these days open with a violent car accident (homage to Carnival of Souls?) Dalle comes knocking and - let's just say the Repulsion influence Romero dropped with Season of the Witch is much better suited to this film, which includes plenty of shocking moments and a twist at the end that actually works. Who Could Kill a Child? was the highlight of this year's picks, but Inside was the best surprise.
Mark of the Devil
Apparently Rob Zombie calls this "the best horror movie ever made." It's a Hammer-esque witch hunt story featuring nuns in 1770 whose fillings are visible when they scream. This film has nothing on Witchfinder General, but has some great scenes and a creepy performance by Herbert Lom as the inquisitor.
Take an ill-tempered, ex-mercenary Vietnam vet. Put him in a gang-run Miami high school. Watch the sparks fly. Just kidding, this isn't the Tom Berenger classic. It's not even the Amanda Donohoe cable movie (with "Marky Mark as Westerburg.") This is a Danish film (Vikaren) from Ole Bornedal, famous as one of those foreign directors Hollywood seduced into coming to America and remaking their above-average breakthrough film as a shitty American thriller (see also George Sluizer, Takashi Shimizu - only recently has Michael Haneke broken the thread playing by his own rules.) Bornedal's film was Nightwatch, which these days is confused not only with its shitty American counterpart starring Ewan MacGregor but also that terrible Russian vampire movie Night Watch people seem to like so damn much (and if you're an arthouse snob, Peter Greenaway's last film Nightwatching.)
Since then Bornedal hasn't done anything notable Stateside other than help produce Guillermo Del Toro's Weinstein-ruined Mimic. He's back in his hometown for this one, a sci fi monster movie released over here as part of the "Ghost House Underground" collection. A meteor falls to earth; shortly after, Dogme diva Paprika Steen (The Celebration, Mifune) pops up as the new teacher. Right away some pretty unbelievable shit goes down. For example: the principal compensates for the inconvenience of a substitute by promising the class a trip to Paris if they behave and letting them go home early. What the fuck?? Is this how Norway schools are run? Another weird moment occurs when a kid gets hit in the face and says "Hey not funny asshole!" Um - is getting punched in the face usually supposed to be funny? (A punchline?) "Oh you punched me. Good one, I get it."
Anyway, the kids don't appreciate this new teacher, especially since she's an alien with nefarious plans for the students and their families. Steen does a good job (I would actually like to see this substitute take on a classroom from that Who Could Kill a Child? blood gang) although I'm not sure whether she lost any homies in 'Nam. The dubbing makes Argento's movies look like models of live sound recordng. But overall this one is worthwhile, with creative low-budget effects. It's better than The Faculty, but there's nothing in the film is as outrageous as seeing teacher Louise Fletcher munching on a frog in Tobe Hooper's Invaders from Mars (this one devours a live chicken, but it's not as impressive looking.) The movie ends with one of those cast dance party credit sequences that seem to be so damn popular these days (see: Slumdog Millionaire.)
Twitch of the Death Nerve
I was trying to rent Twitch of the Death Nerve, which Chris Funderburg is right in claiming to be one of the best-titled movies of all time, but it seems to be out of print. Instead I decided to rent another Bava, Bay of Blood, which it turns out is also called...Twitch of the Death Nerve (ie, it's the same movie, not another movie also titled Twitch of the Death Nerve. They're the same movie is what I'm getting at.) So that's confusing. Not a big Bava fan so I didn't go into this one with high expectations, and to be fair those low expectations were more or less met. Being into Argento's movies, I'm always convinced that I will love any giallo film when clearly 80% of them are absolutely terrible. This one's not a complete strikeout - I can get behind a movie where instead of having one killer going around it's all the characters killing each other - but it definitely doesn't deserve that awesome title (or even Bay of Blood, which is also a good title.) In an interesting coincidence, this movie was advertised by Hallmark Releasing Corporation as "the second film to be rated V for Violence!" the first being Mark of the Devil.
I blame the marketing campaign for this one. The shot they used to sell the movie in the preview - giant Liv Tyler standing in the middle of a room unaware of the masked killer watching her from the hallway - probably would have been more effective had I not already seen it a hundred times. But to be fair, there's something else that doesn't work about this shot, and that's Liv Tyler. I don't have anything specific against her as an actress, but because she is Liv Tyler I can't help but feel her NOT LOOKING. Seeing that shot, I'm completely aware of her knowledge of the scary man in the background. The director should have at least done that shot without telling Tyler he would be back there, but that's not really a solution: the problem with the shot, and the movie in general, is her. They should have cast an unknown actress, or at least one with a lower profile, or at least a shorter one who hasn't played a warrior-princess, for this kind of thing to work. I don't buy her wimpering in the closet Jamie Lee Curtis-style. I also question the casting of Gemma Ward as one of the sinister night visitors: true, we never see her face but we already know it's Gemma Ward under the mask so unless you suspect her of having something to do with Heath Ledger's death or have a phobia of pale Australian models that pre-knowledge is a hindrance to the movie's creep-factor.
But moving away from the actors, I'd say the movie is guilty of both trying too hard and not trying hard enough. For one thing, the intruders are so well-organized (I'll knock on the door, you get the cell phone while you leave a spooky message on the car etc.) they more closely resemble mischievous Halloween pranksters than legitimate psychopaths. It's not fair to compare any horror film to the greatest of all time, but think about Leatherface's first appearance in Texas Chain Saw compared to The Man in the Mask. This guy and his business partners are far to slick too be scary: he (and the movie) are trying too hard. And yet at the same time so little actually happens in the film it seems like the writer and director are slacking a little. They've set up this creepifying situation ("based on true events" like, uh...the Manson family? Violent crime in general?) but do so little with it that by the time the bad guys have what they want, they kind of look at each other like "Now what?"
To bring up Ils again, I wish there were some way to combine the menace of this film with the superior suspense set pieces of that one, because these masked folks could potentially be threatening in a scarier milieu (more so than little kids in hoodies, that is.) And the "gotcha" moment (spoiler) where Speedman accidentally shoots his friend to death mistaking him for a Stranger has nothing on Alysson Paradis stabbing her mother through the neck under similar circumstances in Inside (double spoiler.) That one and several others - Wait Until Dark, Someone's Watching Me - are better home invasion movies, and especially after two incarnations of Funny Games it's hard to see The Strangers as anything but a rote thriller. Still, I guess it's better than Unlawful Entry. Maybe the sequel will have more interesting revelations about these rude late night guests (better than Jehovah's Witnesses but worse than people who use your toothbrush without asking.)
I had read about this movie, one of Eli Roth's favorite gorefests from the early 80's, then saw the dvd used in a bookstore for $1. I wondered if it was the same movie Roth had praised: the tagline on the box seemed to want to convince me ("It's exactly what you think it is!") So what the hell I picked it up, and it turned out to be exactly what I thought it was, a dubbed Spanish slasher that's a fun watch without too many extraordinary moments. The moment Roth highlights - a horribly dubbed woman screaming "Bastard! Bastard! Bastard!" - is definitely worth seeing the movie for.
People consider 28 Days Later revolutionary for introducing fast zombies when in fact that idea had already been employed by Umberto Lenzi 28 years earlier (ok, 22 - I just wanted that last sentence to sound cool.) I guess this would technically be more of an infection horror film, since these undead are intelligent and dexterous enough to fire spear guns and cut phone lines. It's interesting to see how Italians in a city besieged by zombies deal with the situation, for example: a nurse engaging in a coy discussion of whether or not they had instant coffee back in the Old West after seeing her friends and co-workers slaughtered at the hospital. Very little strategy as to how to survive, in other words, but luckily homemade Molotov cocktails come to the rescue.
Like Pieces, Nightmare City understands the importance of topless women. If there's a semi-attractive woman running around, chances are good she'll have her shirt ripped off by zombies and her ample bosom torn asunder. There's a great scene where zombies (one character refers to them as vampires, guess she doesn't watch these kind of movies often) break into an operating room, kill the doctors, and then gather around the open patient like it's a buffet set out just for them. In another scene a group of people are stuck on an elevator and beg to get off only to be met by bloodsucking freaks: personally I'd welcome being eaten alive to having to remain in the elevator. But my favorite part is when a guy throws a tv, and I guess they must have put some dynamite in the tv earlier because it explodes on impact and sets fire to the zombies. Movies need more things like that: everyday objects behaving like grenades when you throw them. Beware the retarded final three minutes!
Australian horror films were marred for me by Peter Weir's intensely boring The Last Wave and its environmental-terror derivatives. Not until Greg McLean came on the scene with Wolf Creek and the above-average croc thriller Rogue did I think to give Oz horror another shot. It was probably a mistake to go with this one: it even shares the same initials with Last Wave. The Aussies love subtly in their horror movies to the point that sometimes you're not sure what exactly is going on until right up to the final reel, which is a mixed blessing. Because while it's said that the unknown is the greatest fear, it's still hard to fear something if you don't know what it is. Put that in your book young horror directors. The married couple in this movie are as unlikable as the characters from Cannibal Holocaust, and indeed share a propensity for killing animals (a manatee, a kangaroo, a duck, an eagle egg, although all more or less by accident.) I guess if you're scared of a dead manatee, the way you're presumably scared of goth chicks, this one might work for you. Didn't for me though.
Night Train Murders
I guess the closest thing 1970's and 80's horror has to the old "Die Hard on a..." premise is "Last House on the Left on a..." In this case, it's Last House on the Left on a train, and it's just as goofy as it sounds (even without one of its alternative titles, The New House on the Left, Second House on the Left or Last House Part II - my personal favorite is Don't Ride on Late Night Trains.) To be fair, the movie opens with two guys mugging Santa Claus (justifying yet another alternative title, Xmas Massacre) and it's kind of hard to top that. Afterwards you get the standard formula: two guys, two girls, two sexual assaults that ultimately prove fatal, a bereaved father exacting his revenge. Aldo Lado's spin is to introduce into the mix a bored dominatrix and a perverted passenger (actually billed that way), who turn out to be more involved than the actual criminals.
And of course Lado sets it on the night train (not sure whether it's the same one Guns 'n Roses sing about: none of the characters acknowledge feelin' like a space brain, and only one appears to carry a rattlesnake suitcase.) This setting is problematic as far as credibility goes. There seem any number of ways to escape on a crowded train of glass door compartments and the film doesn't take a Kitty Genovese approach with dozens of passengers walking past without doing anything, which would have been better. Some excuse about switching cars is presented, but it still just makes the girls look weak. Incidentally one of the victims is Irene Miracle, who would go on to star in two classic scenes: the conjugal visit in Midnight Express ("O Billy!") and the underwater ballroom sequence of Argento's Inferno. As far as the juxtaposition with the girls' families (preparing for Christmas instead of a birthday, like I said: completely different from Last House), Lado is clearly disinterested in that subplot so even if these evening railway homicides were made well enough to be disturbing - they're not - we're left with these boring stretches of slightly turbulent domestic life.
And the formulaic revenge, somewhat juiced by a forced overdosing, is too flamboyant to recreate the moral gray zone of Last House and The Virgin Spring. Lado tries to do something with the dominatrix, making a point about female tormentors becoming worse than their male counterparts should the sadistic mood strike, but that character is incredibly cheesy. Couple this effort with previous "Halloween Horror Movie Marathon" disappointments Evilspeak and House on the Edge of the Park - and with Abel Ferrara's weird Driller Killer, I'm starting to think not every film in the infamous Video Nasties catalog is worth defending. Night Train Murders' one redeeming aspect is its Ennio Morricone score (how many dozens of movies can be described that way?) which includes - natch - a chilling harmonica solo. That alone makes the movie infinitely better than, say, Chaos.
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