Friday, January 28, 2011
Okay, I've been continuing on my Lovecraft binge...still saving Shadow Over Innsmouth for last. Just read Haunter of The Dark and Charles Dexter Ward. Haunter struck me as rather minor, but I thought Ward was just plain stupendous. I hadn't read it since I was in college; I remember liking it, but not as much as I liked it this time. It'll be interesting to see if I enjoy Innsmouth as much on this go through.
Ward plays to all of Lovecraft's strengths, in spades. It's kind of the diametric opposite of Mountains of Madness, which I savaged in my last post...undoubtedly some of you thought I was being unjust, and I may have left the impression that I don't like Lovecraft. But Ward is exactly what I want in a Lovecraft story.
For one thing, it's very firmly anchored in Lovecraft's knowledge of local new England History, and his personal experiences of the area. Apparently the guy was familiar with every damn inch of Providence, and the story is crammed with fairly minute observations. He knew just what Providence was like at the moment...and thirty years before, and sixty, and a hundred, and so forth. If anything, the colonial stuff seems more immediate and current than the twentieth-century stuff...of course, he liked to think of himself as an eighteenth-century gentleman. He's steeped in archaic speech patterns and literary styles, and is extremely well versed in the economic life of old Providence, which figures bigtime in his supernatural tale...he's devoted a hell of a lot of thought to how a vile sorcerer/alchemist from that period could go about his affairs without anybody stopping him.
I liked the first part a bit more than the second part, precisely because it's somewhat more informed by the sort of things I was just going on about. We're told that a singular personage named Charles Dexter Ward has grown obsessed with a sinister ancestor named Joseph Curwen...nicely-written scene-setting and atmospherics give way to an extensive account of Curwen's awful history. An ominiscient narrator informs us how Curwen lasted from the mid-1600's to the mid-1700's, kept his youthful appearance the whole while, maintained a world-wide shipping empire operated by gruesome mongrel sailors, funnelled zillions of slaves into an underground labyrinth from which they never re-emerged, and managed to keep the forces of propriety at bay, by a combination of financial acumen, advantageous marriage, and blackmail.
Ultimately, though, despite all his devilish machinations, his sorcerous realm comes under attack...things just get too funky for the upright folk to stand any more, and a raiding-party storms his farmhouse/stenchy laboratory/underground complex.
We see the raid from a distance, which is kind of a pity...I would've liked to have been in there with the colonial commandos getting down and dirty with all kinds of wierd shit. However, the glimpses we're shown are extremely choice, and there’s some payoff later on, when one of Lovecraft's typical old guys penetrates Curwen's underground domain after a hundred and fifty years, and finds that the situation’s just about as satanic as ever...
Just as Curwen anticipated. You see, when the shit hit the fan, he concluded his affairs in such a way that snoopy young twentieth-century Charles Dexter would resurrect him, and well...
Do Not Call Up What Ye Cannot Put Down.
The blackmailing stuff, based on the fact that Curwen can raise your ancestors from the dead, and make them fess up where all the skeletons (I guess literally) are buried, is particularly ingenious. He knows all about the "Essential Saltes," you see, the fundamental ingredients that make you you, and from which you can be resurrected, although...he really needs to have all your saltes, because otherwise he winds up with "Ye liveliest awefulness."
Now there are those that think that the "Saltes” are simply not a very good device...Peter Straub has some things to say about this. But I think he's wrong. I found myself thinking about DNA...something rather like genetic material, and how an alchemist might've described such stuff. In short, it struck me as really great bullshit...and that's another way in which Ward excels. God knows Lovecraft was a great big scientific materialist, but he sure was knowledgeable about actual arcane hoo-hah, historical alchemists, sorcerers, books of lore, and so forth. He's quite the expert in constructing a scaffolding of truth to hang his half-truths and his total fictions upon...the occult biz fits seamlessly with the New England local color and colonial history. You wind up with layer after layer of mutually-reinforcing details. It's very dense and intricate, extremely compelling.
Another thing that's so cool about Ward is that so much of the first part, maybe a hundred pages of so(depending on how it's typeset), is dedicated to characterization. This is very much unlike a lot of Lovecraft's work...something like Mountains of Madness, for example, has nothing that could be called characterization at all. The protagonists are mere cyphers, generally bookish old guys corresponding with other bookish old guys. Curwen is front and center in Ward, even when we seem to be hearing about someone else...he really comes across...he's got a philosophy, he thinks in a particularly awful devious way, and he expresses himself like, well, an extremely sinister baleful survival from the Seventeenth Century.
Bottom line: if you haven't read this one, you should hit Amazon immediately and do the needful. It's a bona fide classic. Great great book.
Actually, a very good Charles Dexter Ward delivery system is the Library of America Library Lovecraft collection, edited by Straub. It's got all the primary Lovecraft stories, and it's what I've been reading since Christmas. Wonderful notes.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
The painting above is Fire Blossom, by Nicholas Roerich...Roerich comes up shortly.
I've been on a Lovecraft kick lately, and having a very good time. Read Colour Out of Space, The Shunned House, The Call of Cthulhu, The Dunwich Horror, Whisperer In Darkness, Mountains of Madness, and The Shadow out of Time. Of all of them, I think Colour is my favorite so far, followed closely by Shunned House and Dunwich. I'm presently Reading Dreams in the Witch-House, and I'm saving Shadow Over Innsmouth for later on, because that's my favorite HPL story ever.
I had some real problems with Mountains of Madness, though. Lovecraft tends to be at his best when he's doing his New England thing---he knows a lot about New England, being a denizen, and he knows exactly where to plunk his weird stuff down in it...there are places that fired his imagination, he paid very close attention to them, and they make wonderful points of departure. The Shunned House comes immediately to mind...the Vermont stuff in Whisperer in Darkness is very persuasive, quite beautifully written, extremely atmospheric, and adds tremendously to the overall impact of the story.
But when he takes his show to the Mountains of Madness, he is, quite simply out of his depth. Oh, he's done a bunch of reading about Antarctica, and geology, and paleontology, and so forth, but he's never spent any time out in a really wild desolate place, and he hasn't thought things through at all.
The story starts out reasonably well...an expedition discovers a bunch of eldritch whatnot in the high plateau of Antarctica and dissects some apparently mummified critters....it's sorta like The Thing. Then a big storm settles in, and they lose radio contact with the other part of the expedition, seven hundred miles away.
So far, so good.
The other guys fly on out once the weather settles...they find that everybody's been massacred, one's been dissected, and the mummified critters have disappeared. Quite logically, they conclude that their colleagues all went nuts and ripped each other to pieces and tore open their canned supplies in ways that no human would...they nurture suspicions that they might be wrong about all this, because all the evidence points that way, but...oh well. Lovecraft's protagonists (usually learned but rather dense old men) are always doing that, and you take it for granted. I was still going with the program.
But then two of the old cooters get in their plane and head for the titular mountains, and things get way less good. Never mind that we're told over and over again that the mountains resemble the mountains in Nicholas Roerich's paintings. Okay. I'm sure they do. There's a big alien city on the other side of the barrier...the elevation is in the mid-twenties or so...our elderly protagonist shrugs off the whole altitude thing by saying that he and his equally elderly buddy are in great shape. Well, I should say so. When you climb Everest, you have to spend four weeks at base camp at similar altitudes, but whatever.
We're just getting started here.
Our codgers spend three-four hours in the city of the ancient barrel-shaped wierd organisms. Three-four hours. That's about as long as one of those Lord of the Rings movies. The oldsters make one discovery after another...they get into these ruins, which are evidently tens of million of years old, and between the available lighting (sheesh is this place well lit) and the fact that they have amazingly good flashlights whose batteries just last and last, they're able to find all these bas-reliefs, and figure out what's going on in them right off the bat...you heard me right. We're talking pictures from an alien civilization, and their meanings are so immediately transparent that our boys can identify points of interest in other parts of the city, and figure out where everything is and walk right on over...they can even divine three-dimensional information. They can figure out how the aliens raised their young, that their economic system was a kind of fascistic socialism, and correlate historical events with our own schema of geologic periods, Eocene, Oligocene, stuff like that. Our guys document their finds with lots and lots of flashlit-photographs (that would've produced some very high-quality images) and shitloads of drawings, which apparently take no time whatsoever to do...I wonder what they were using as a drafting-table.
They trek some distance to a descending ramp which, our narrator casually tells us, is about a mile deep. It's merely as deep as the Grand Canyon...having hiked the North Kaibab Trail, I can assure you, a mile deep is quite a haul, even when the vertical distance is distributed over fifteen miles of switchbacks, you're not old, and you're not at twenty-five thousand feet. I dunno, maybe the codgers didn't go down that deep...although the mere fact that they can locate the ramp at all is a testament to profound map-reading genius on their part.
Now I was reasonably happy that they finally got to the ramp and went down, because the shoggoths are down there, and everybody likes shoggoths (personally, I like them ever better than I like Raymond). But boy do we have to wade through a lot of half-baked stuff before our brush with the monsters. Lovecraft seems to realize he's digging himself in pretty far, and tells us that our two old fellows came to a lot of their conclusions after the fact, studying their drawings and photographs when they got back home...but it's hard to imagine they would've been able to figure out much of anything without decades of uncannily accurate interpretation and a whole lot of funding. The whole setup is simply nuts. Consider how impenetrable Egyptian heiroglyphs were until the Rosetta Stone was discovered...and they were the work of humans from mere thousands of years ago! My one-time Literary agent, Howard Morhaim, was studying cuneiform back when he was in Israel, and sometimes his assignment for the week would be to decipher a single cuneiform character! But Lovecraft's superfit grandpas can apprehend almost all the basics about a fantastically archaic prehuman culture on the basis of three and a half hours of photographs, drawings, and traipsings through some ruins...and find time to get up and down that ramp and escape from the shoggoths! And get back to their plane!
I understand Guillermo Del Toro is making a movies of Mountains of Madness, and I think it could be pretty cool...it could certainly make a lot more sense than the story, precisely because it would necessarily be quite compressed...that generally doesn't lead to greater coherence, but in this case it might. After all, there simply wouldn't be time for our old coots to jump to so many ridiculous conclusions.
When I trotted out my thoughts on MM to my friends Rich and Lena the other night, I think Rich was kinda nonplussed, and thought I really didn't like Lovecraft at all, which is not the case...I just think Lovecraft does rather better when he sticks closer to settings he knows about, and veers more towards fantasy than science, outright impossibilities frequently being more compelling than implausible possibilities....or ill-conceived rationalism. The attempt to shoehorn the Cthulhu Mythos with all its demonology and incantations into a scientific-materialist framework really isn't successful, in my opinion.
However, it works much better in Shadow out of Time than it does in Mountains of Madness. For one thing, Shadow begins with an excellent lengthy description of the mental state of a poor schmuck who's been plucked out of his body by cone-shaped aliens from the distant past, who used his body to visit our time, and stuck his mind in alien body way back when. Yes, there's a whole lot of business about the alien society, but we're not getting it from bas-reliefs and heiroglyphs...our POV character is actually remembering his experiences, albeit in drips and drabs. He's not jumping to conclusions...actually, the most irrational notion he has is that none of this stuff happened to him, even though all the appearances are to the contrary. Even after the discovery of an ancient cyclopean city in the Australian desert, which is completely confirmatory of his strange memories, and which he can find his way around in just fine, he's still not quite convinced...he needs to find a terribly old manuscript in his own handwriting, in English. But he isn't functional at great altitudes, doesn't descend improbable distances, or get three-dimensional info from two-dimensional depictions.
In short, the story hangs together vastly better than Mountains. I was fairly surprised, too...I remember liking Mountains better than Shadow when I was a kid. But really, I wasn't nearly so much of a smarty-pants then, and hadn't spent a bunch of time in the great American southwest.
By the way, I've also been reading about Lovecraft...was astounded to find out that he was having trouble getting his stuff published pretty much right up until the end. Editors would approach him about doing collections---they'd approach him---then ditch the idea themselves! What a world. You're H.P. Lovecraft, for Pete's sake, and they still treat you that way, and you die fairly penniless at forty-six.
Oh well. If Frazetta died, I guess anyone can.
Monday, January 10, 2011
I'm posting this thing again...Blogger seems to have gotten it into its head that it was first posted back in early January...and it wasn't, and people haven't been finding it. Hopefully, this will correct that...
This list may appear to be the product of an unhinged and fixated mind, but I actually have fairly catholic tastes when it comes to movies. I like all sorts of genres...as a matter of fact, I can't think of a genre that I don't like. Even though I'm not at all interested in sports, except perhaps for boxing, I even like sports movies. I love a good musical, and I'm most distressed that Hollywood really doesn't make them anymore...I always enjoyed romantic comedies, although the leads in Hollywood fluff these days never seem to have any chemistry with each other, and in order for me to get a musical or romantic comedy fix, I generally have to watch Bollywood films. All that being said, when I'm in the mood for action or horror, I like it bloody. And for those of you with similar tastes, here's a list of my violent faves...all of them really deliver, I promise you.
1.Ben Hur 1959 Director: William Wyler
Okay, some of you might be wondering why I'm kicking off this list with a religious/biblical classic that church groups used to take kids to, with reserve seating, no less. Well, the fact is that you could always get away with a lot more nastiness in biblical flicks than with other genres, hands down. Even the roughest gangster movies were never anywhere near as vicious as C.B. De Mille's stuff. If you compare the Muni Scarface, for example, with DeMille's Sign of the Cross, a kind of unauthorized version of Quo Vadis, it's immediately obvious which one of them is more in-your-face with violence, and for that matter, sex. DeMille's Samson and Delilah is chock full of ghastliness, this time in Technicolor, with wonderful bright scarlet Max Factor blood...check out the chopped meat spilling out of Philistine helmets after Samson bashes them open, or the guy who barfs up a five-foot long unbroken stream of red red krovvy when he's crushed between two fallen pillars when the temple collapses. Pretty startling.
And since it's biblical, no one could complain!
Fact is, Ben Hur was part of a longish and glorious tradition of biblical epic grue, although it far surpassed any of its predecessors in that respect. The movie was truly out there. There's this story you hear about Francis Ford Coppola running around on the Cambodia set in Apocalypse Now yelling, "more blood, more blood!" but in actuality, that story's about William Wyler, Ben Hur's director. He made absolutely sure that his very expensive film was going to be full of money shots, and the result is the most violent movie ever made in Hollywood up to that point.
Just consider what you see in this film. A lot of the heavy-duty stuff is in the sea-battle, such as the sequence of close-ups showing a galley-slave's ankle as he struggles with his chains and rips his flesh to pieces. Moreover, as far as I know, Wyler's the first director ever to use actual amputees to show mutilations...there are all these guys with bloody stumps (with bones sticking out) after the Roman galley gets rammed. There's a slave with his chest caved in...the water's all bloody...up on deck, Charlton Heston takes a torch and rolls it around in this one pirate's prosthetic face until the man's head catches fire.
Then, of course, there's the chariot race, one of the all-time great Hollywood action sequences, staged by super-genius Yakima Canutt. Amazing use of dummies getting creamed...shots of hooves hammering Massala to pulp...you can't quite believe what you're seeing. Then we have Massala on the operating table, with strips of bloody flesh hanging from his mangled arms...and finally, an extremely bloody crucifixion. Wyler's a genuinely great director, which makes everything that much more effective....exploitation is all very well and good, but when you want really choice ultraviolence, you need a real director, someone like Kurosawa, or Scorsese, or Spielberg.
So if you find yourself on Easter Sunday pining for a jolt of cinematic old-time religion, pop Ben Hur into your DVD player! It's better than a basket of colored eggs!
2. Yojimbo, 1961 Director: Akira Kurosawa
Hey, speaking of Kurosawa, here we are with the movie that changed Japanese swordfighting movies forever, and exerted a powerful influence on cinema across the globe. Kurosawa conceived of Yojimbo as a Japanese western, and western-makers in Italy and the U.S. were quick to latch onto the story and style; the first outright remake was Leone's Fistful of Dollars, and a lot of other movies, such as High Plains Drifter, were really similar...there was a David Carradine flick called The Warrior and the Sorceress , and that Bruce Willis/Walter Hill thing, Last Man Standing, was the last remake I can think of. For that matter, I spoofed the story in Samurai Cat in the Real World...Yojimbo is simply a cinematic sacrament, and everybody wants to partake.
But there were other things going in Y on besides a very sturdy and adaptable plot. Take a look at the Jidai-Geki movies that were being turned out in Dai Nippon before Yojimbo. Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy, for example. There's quite a bit of sword-play, but it's lacking in the kind of lip-smacking grisliness that Yojimbo serves up. Even Seven Samurai, full as it is of great action (including a early piece of slow-motion mortality) is considerably more tame. There's nothing like the little dog paddling down the street in one of the early frames of Yojimbo with a severed hand in its mouth, or the scene where the one Yakuza has his arm severed by Mifune (a scene ripped off in Star Wars)and the limb lands in close-up, stump towards the camera. There's a huge body-count, and the action generally leave you with the impression that you really just saw someone get killed...the staging is hair-raising. Mifune sustains what is probably the most brutal cinematic beating ever depicted up till that time, and the swordfight victims bleed pretty copiously. Big pools of chocolate sauce (this is a black and white film) spread out around dying baddies, and when one yakuza gets sliced, the stuff goes spraying halfway up a wall....I believe that was the first time anyone ever got to see just how high Japanese blood pressure was. Kurosawa would take the explosive decompression effect yards further in the sequel to Yojimbo, Sanjuro, in which Mifune opens up Tatsuya Nakadai with a draw cut and a giant blast of carbonated chocolate sauce flies out. Truly splendid. Later stuff like like the Baby Cart Movies would rise to even greater highs of gushing gore, but Kurosawa started the trend, and everyone owes him a debt of the most extreme gratitude.
3. Night of the Living Dead, 1968 Director: George Romero
When this thing first came out, no one had ever seen anything even remotely like it. It was so revolting that even exploitation specialists like American International wouldn't touch it...it got released by Trans-Lux instead, as I recall. I saw a trailer for it at the drive-in with my parents, and the coming attractions showed so much that my folks were completely grossed out and condemned the film then and there, although it looked pretty interesting to twisted little me. Went to see it at the Algonquin Theatre in Manasquan NJ...don't remember how I tricked my folks into driving me, but for some reason they did. Everybody was talking about the movie, and it sure didn't disappoint. Up until NOTLD, me and my gorehound friends had to make do with relatively weak tea like the Hammer films, and stuff like Horrors of the Black Museum...oh, Black Sunday had come and gone, but for the most part, other moviemakers hadn't followed Mario Bava's lead.
But Night established a whole new standard for repulsive. The prosthetic effects were pretty primitive by today's standards, or even compared to the ones in Dawn of the Dead; but Romero was truly determined to take things as far out as he could. The cannibalism in particular was a step beyond...zombies biting flesh from smoking bones, playing yo-ho-ho with slithering guts...it was a game-changer. And the scene with the little girl stabbing her mother repeatedly with the garden trowel upset the living daylights out of me...once again, excellent use of chocolate sauce in a black and white gorefest.
About ten years later it would all be in color for Dawn of the Dead, which advanced the cause of explicit violence about as far as Night did, I guess...fabulous makeup effects designed by Tom Savini. Lot of excellent head shots and splattery exit wounds...the top of the one zom's skull being lifted by the helicopter prop justified the movie all by itself. I went back and forth over whether or not to list Dawn instead of Night seeing as how it's actually loads bloodier...but I had to give the nod to Night, because it was the original, and made a bigger impression on me the first time I saw it.
4. The Wild Bunch, 1969 Director: Sam Peckinpah
I guess Hollywood filmakers felt challenged by the violence in the Italian Westerns...certainly something like The Wild Bunch would never have been made if it hadn't been for the Leone films. That being said, Bunch made it clear that the Italian boys couldn't hold a candle to Hollywood honchos when it came to serious balls-out carnage. I don't believe any Italian Western film-maker could've turned out something like the climax of WB, even if you gave him the budget. Certainly there's nothing in the works of Leone, Corbucci, or Sollima that even remotely compares.
Interestingly, for all its splatter and fury, The Wild Bunch is based on the same source material as the much more benign, indeed sweet-tempered, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Butch Cassidy's gang was called The Wild Bunch, and he and the Kid perished in a wild south-of-the-border gunfight with army troops, although they were Bolivian, not Mexican...there are other similarities, as well. But oddly, Butch Cassidy is far closer to the facts than Bunch...just goes to show you that gory and grimy isn't necessarily more realistic.
I'd rather watch the Peckinpah slaughterfest, however.
For one thing, none of that fucking Burt Bacharach music.
Movie gets venemous real quick...the Bunch get ambushed in the middle of a bank job, and we're introduced to a whole new sort of movie gun-battle...lots of slow-motion in very quick cuts, long whorls of blood shlorping from entrance and exit-wounds. As I said, Kurosawa had used slow-mo in Seven Samurai; it figured prominently at the climax of Bonnie and Clyde. But no one had ever used it as much as Peckinpah, or combined it with such tight editing...it was both impressionistic and extremely explicit, and set a standard for ferocious gun-battles that has rarely been equalled. Even when you have Peckinpah imitators like John Woo and Walter Hill, they tend to zero in on the slo-motion; they really linger over the shots, and there's a lot of spectacle and lusciousness. But Peckinpah really gives you the sense that all hell's broken loose....you get these momentary snapshots of fantastic contorted body-language that really say it, print themselves on the brain.
After the first shoot-out, the Bunch flee down to Mexico, and get involved with the vile Mexican general Mapache, who wants them to rob an American train and supply him with the latest Browning goodies...all this sets up a final hurricane of murder that's simply a religious experience for a loon like myself. A Yaqui indian in the gang runs afoul of Mapache, who cuts his throat...the Bunchers, played by William Holden, Ernest Borgnine (God bless 'im, the old boy's still with us, Hail Ragnar!)Ben Johnson, and Warren Oates, go out in a blaze of crimson-gushing nihilistic glory. One by one, our boys take the grips of a Browning Thirty and are blown to bits even as they peel back rank after rank of whirling, somersaulting, bullet-riddled federales. It's bonkers beyond belief, I've watched it over and over, and it was the primary inspiration for the climax of my novel Nightmare of God. And if it doesn't sound like your cup of tea, consider the words of Bo Hopkins after he's been shot to shit towards the beginning of the film:
"Why don't you kiss my sister's black cat's ass?"
5. Straw Dogs,1971, Director: Sam Peckinpah
After The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah got typecast as Mr. Violence, rather understandably; whenever he made some very nifty non-bloodbaths, like Ballad of Cable Hogue and Junior Bonner, nobody went to see 'em, except for me and my friend Sam Tomaino. Still, Sam P. really hadn't gotten all that gore out of his system, and the next time he made a really big box office splash was with Straw Dogs, a movie so mean it made one British critic despair over the whole future of cinema.
Dustin Hoffman plays an American astrophysicist who's spending his sabbatical in the small English village his wife came from. In a twist on the usual stereotypes, the American is the too-civilized fellow and the Brits are mostly subhuman, sort of like pithecanthropoid versions of D.H. Lawrence characters, or the yahoos in Cold Comfort Farm. England is a windy, wet, crummy place, and everyone's lives are rotten and seething under an unattractive crust. Dustin tries to be friendly with the moldy lowbrow locals, but one of them, unbeknownst to Dustin, had an affair with Dustin's slutty wife, Susan George, and the locals rebuff the poor American and start piling it on, killing his cat, raping his wife, and generally engaging in an hour and a half of buildup leading up to a one-farmhouse apocalypse in which Dustin defends the poor hapless village-idiot (an uncredited David Warner)---who's been accused of molesting a little girl---from the foul Brit brutes. Ultimately, the movie becomes an extremely well-directed, well-acted hold-the-fort horror flick, in which locals blow their own feet off with shotguns, have their guts blasted out their backs, their skulls crushed with mashie niblicks, and get giant mantraps slammed down over their heads. It all ends with Dustin, a big smile on his face, driving off with the idiot, feeling perfectly justified. Recently, while channel-surfing, I blundered onto this thing, hadn't seen it in thirty years...time had done absolutely nada to dull its fangs.
By the way, if you watch this and Bunch, and still haven't gotten enough Peckinpah brutality, check out Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The great Warren Oates plays an American down-and-outer in Mexico, who takes a commission to deliver the titular Alfredo's noggin to some bad guys...we're not sure why they want it. Alfredo's already dead, though...and other gringos are looking for the prize. Scads of folks get shot, and Warren's so extremely down-and-out that the head becomes his fly-magnet best friend....he starts talking to it. The film's that great. It's Peckinpah's ode to really hitting bottom, from a guy who's actually gotten there...it's his last masterpiece. But the violence, while copious, isn't quite as memorable as the stuff in Bunch and Dogs, (sounds like a cop movie) and so it's just honorable mention on this list.
6. Taxi Driver 1976, Director: Martin Scorsese
A movie's got to be really something before it gets me queasy, but Taxi Driver managed the trick...in truth, the fact that I'd just eaten a box of Goobers might've had something to do with it. But the first I saw this seminal Scorsese masterpiece, I got to that climactic stuff and was wondering if I was really going to whoops my cookies...or rather, my half-digested chocolate-covered peanuts. Wow.
Once again, what we have here is an illustration of the principle that it takes a really great director to serve up the choicest movie carnage. In my opinion Scorsese is one of the best directors who ever lived, and he sure knows how to murder people onscreen, particularly when it's relatively intimate one-on-one stuff. Consider the thing where Billy Batz gets finished off in the trunk of the car in Goodfellas, or again, the scene where Tommy blows Stax's brains out at the end of a long, beautifully-rehearsed single take. Movie violence doesn't get any more convincing.
Taxi Driver features young Bob deNiro as Travis Bickle, a crazy ex-jarhead whose diary ramblings are based on those of Arthur Bremer, the guy who tried to assassinate Gov. George Wallace. But in spite of the fact that Travis is thoroughly nuts, he's rather likeable...you sort of sympathize as sin-drenched unbelievably disgusting NYC sends him even farther round the bend. As depicted by Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader, the Big Apple is just squirming with worms and dripping with blood and cum...when Travis starts going on about cleansing the filthy streets to arch-phony politician Charles Palantine, I found myself agreeing with Travis.
And caught myself immediately, of course.
As the nightmare rolls on, Travis strokes three obsessions...he falls for blonde campaign worker Cybill Shepherd, decides he needs to kill Palantine, who she works for, and inserts himself into the life of kid prostitute Jodie Foster, thinking he's going to save her soul somehow. When things don't work out with Cybill and the pol, Travis arms himself to the teeth and goes after Jodie's vile pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel), and two fellers who are higher up the mob food chain.
There's only been one brief bit of violence up till this point, with Travis shooting a convenience-store robber...but the big finale delivers an astounding extended horrorshow. The special prosthetic effects are by Dick Smith, who's idolized by other makeup men, for good reason...the mutilations and gore are so extreme that the movie was originally slapped with an X-rating, and only got an R after the color was toned down to a virtual monochrome.
The action commences with a classic Scorsese long take from several yards back...Mohawked Travis comes walking up to Sport and starts harrassing him, Sport gets madder and madder, flicks a lit butt against Travis's chest...and gets plugged right through the gut when Travis pulls on him. As Sport sinks down swearing, Travis heads into the apartment building, blows half of one mobster's hand off, gets shot (gushingly) in the side of the throat by the not-quite-dead-yet Sport, and keeps going up the steps, now with the mutilated wiseguy hanging on him and saying "I'll kill you, I'll kill you," over and over again. Travis tears free of him at the top, gets shot in the shoulder by the other mobster, and shoots that guy a half-dozen times in the face with a hideout rig he's got up his sleeve...then the first mobster grabs him again, gets a knife thorugh his mutilated hand, and has his brains blown out against a wall, as Jodie Foster looks on screaming. Sequence ends with Travis slumped in a chair, smiling at some cops, putting his bloody hand to his head and pretending to shoot himself over and over again. As you can see, I've got it memorized.
I'd already written Zorachus by this point, and it seemed to me that Scorsese was working a similar vein, albeit in a realistic non-fantasy setting...if you took Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now and combined them, and made a sword-and-sorcery story, I think you'd get something pretty similar to my first Khymirian tale...I regard Paul Schrader in particular as something of a kindred spirit, although I don't know the guy. As nearly as I can make out, he's a Calvinist gun-nut...Taxi Driver sure seems to have been written by one.
Re Scorsese, I suppose you could argue that a couple more of his movies, namely Goodfellas and Casino should be on this list. But as great as they are---and Goodfellas is certainly the greatest gangster movie ever---neither of them is as mindblowing in the violence department as Taxi Driver, at least in my humble opinion.
7. Shogun Assassin, 1980, Director:Kenji Misumi
If you look up this flick on the IMDB, some guy named Robert Houston is listed as the director, but that's bullshit...basically, it was his idea to take two Lone Wolf and Cub movies, Sword of Vengeance, and Baby Cart at the River Styx, and cobble them together. The final product works a whole lot better than you might expect, but that doesn't justify that director's credit. It does result in a virtually nonstop flood of artificial blood, though, featuring all the choicest violence from both movies, which were already extremely gruesome, and you really can't argue with that.
In case you don't know, the Lone Wolf and Cub films, also known as the Baby Cart series, feature chunky Tomisaburo Wakayama as Ogami Itto, an ex Imperial Decapitator who's run afoul of a ninja clan, the Yagyus, I believe. In Shogun Assassin, the ninja chieftain is indentified as the Shogun himself. Refusing to commit suicide, our protag takes to the road as a paid assassin, accompanied by his cute little son Dai-goro, who rides in a baby cart full of hidden weapons, including a primitive machine-gun. They kill loads and loads of people. There were six of these movies; they're all pretty amazing, and as I mentioned in my Yojimbo entry, they take Kurosawa's ball and run it way on down the field, now in color. The two films that Shogun Assassin was combined from are worth seeing in their own right. But if you really want to feel like you're about to be washed out your own front door on a crimson tsunami, SA is absolutely the movie for you.
The movie is extremely good-looking...excellent color photography. Japanese movies these days are nowhere near as good visually as the early 70's stuff...don't know why that is. The action sequences these days also tend to be rather lame...but the seventies fights, again following and even improving on Kurosawa, were much more impressively imagined, very sharp and well-staged. The sword-slinging in Shogun Assassin is right at the top of the heap; it's quick, perfectly composed, and fire-hoses the screen with splatter. Heads get bisected, and chests and opened so juicily that the blood boils up, hits guys in the chin, and splashes back down; hidden killers are pried up out of bloody sand by rakes in their faces...it just goes on and on, and it's being narrated by little Dai-Goro, (an adorable kid actor who's probably even older than I am now), who's always counting up his father's victims so he'll know how many souls he should pray for. At one point, after dad has just butchered a couple more ninjas, Dai-Goro turns to the camera in his super-cute way and goes..."Three hundred and forty...five." How could you not love that? What sort of person would be so soulless that they wouldn't be completely charmed?
It's noteworthy that the Uma Thurman's kid at the end of Kill Bill is watching Shogun Assassin just before she goes to bed...nice to know the child is getting the right sort of education.
Incidentally, though, those Japanese folks should stop eating so much salt...maybe they wouldn't squirt quite so much when they get nicked. A papercut over there must be an occasion for raincoats...you'd see it from orbit.
8. Conan the Barbarian, 1982, Director: John Milius
This is one of my all-time favorite movies. I know a lot of Howard Purists have problems with it, and if I were going to make a Conan movie, I'd probably stick closer to the source material---the film is way more John Milius than it is Two Gun Bob. However, Milius is, when it comes right down to it, a vastly better writer than Howard, as much as I hate to say it, and CTB, with all its flaws, is way better than any of Howard's stories. The characterizations are pretty sharp, the main villain, Thulsa Doom, played by James Earl Jones, is one of the best movie villains ever (he features on my Villain list), and the score, by Basil Poledouris, is tremendous, with four or five times as many separate cuts as a typical soundtrack.
Also, the movie is a grade-a fix for fans of movie mayhem. The talents of Milius's favorite stunt director, Terry Leonard, get exploited to the hilt in a series of extremely dangerous-looking gags involving heavy, genuine, edged weapons, horse-falls, and copiously filled blood bags. This stuff would be handled digitally today, but they did it all in the camera back in 1982, and the result is vastly more meaty-looking and whumpf-worthy than contemporary hacking-up.
Those were the days of High Adventure!
Screenplay isn't based on any particular Conan story, although it lifts elements from a couple, and borrows Thulsa Doom from Howard's Kull series, which preceded the Conan stuff. We have our young Cimmerian seeing his parents murdered by Doom (Conan's drop-dead gorgeous mom gets it in one of the screen's all-time coolest beheadings), and after he receives a bunch of implausible asiatic training as a pit-fighter, he's freed by his master, and hits the vengeance trail. Joining up with the deadly archer Subotai (Milius's surfer bud Gerry Lopez), amazonian Valeria (Sandahl Bergmann), and a nameless nutty mound-tending priest (Mako), he tracks Thulsa Doom to his snake-cult hideout, which is full of murderers in armor and idiot hippyshit return-to-the-earth types, who long for "Nothingness," which is to say, being used as stock in the ghastly green soup enjoyed by Doom and his inner circle.
Up till this point, the violence hasn't been too explicit...even that great mom-decapitation was actually beautifully understated. But when Conan, Valeria and Subotai penetrate Doom's orgy chamber, the gore starts to come sloshing out big time. Subotai and the Valeria go round the sides while Conan plays cleanup down the middle...Gerry Lopez and Sandahl look real good in their fight scenes, and one schmuck in particular gets the full treatment, being doubled over and beheaded in the film's second great decapitation...it's real meaty and convincing and very well staged. In most movie beheadings, you get the impression that the head's just being knocked off, but here you have a real sense of the sword passing through the neck..if you watch it in slow motion, you can see a little white pin retracting into the neck-stump, allowing the head to fall off just as the sword strikes.
Schwarzenegger doesn't look as sharp as his goombahs, unfortunately; an ideal movie Conan wouldn't be a lumbering refrigerator type; he'd give you the impression that you were watching a human airplane propellor. But the guys he chops do seem like they've been gashed but good, kind of a challenge when said baddies aren't wearing much...if you look close, you can see one open his own white-wrapped belly with a razor blade just after Schwazenegger's sword passes.
All this mere prelude, though..Valeria gets shot with a live-snake arrow, and Thulsa Doom leads his forces in an assault on Conan and Subotai in the burial mounds that the priest hangs out in. This is where the film really ascends to cinema-slaughter Valhalla. Terry Leonard's work is front, center, and awesome...after a splendid build-up, which includes a wonderful monologue by Schwarzenegger (this was the point at which I concluded the guy was going to be a real star, although my friends were skeptical) our heroes get busy with heavy honking axes, spears, arrows, swords, and a great big booby-trap with a spiked swing-arm. Conan and Subotai canalize the villains into kill-zones and rub them out one by one in a series of fabulous gory gags. You just gotta grin when Doom lackey Thogrim (Sweyn Ole Thorssen) gets impaled on the booby trap, the business end bursting out through his back in a giant blast of blood; but even more luscious is Conan's final duel with Rexor (Ben Davidson), in which Conan whacks him repeatedly with his hand-and-half sword, each stroke opening a juicy bloodbag and splashing out a crowd-pleasing eruption of incarnadine syrup; at the end of the fight, Rexor topples like a red glistening falling tree, and we get a final shot from his point of view as he collides with the ground, one last splash flying up out of his chest at the impact, right in front of Conan...it's one of the most iconic bits of movie ultraviolence that anyone's ever dreamed up.
Thulsa Doom takes off...realizing his operation's completely compromised, he gathers is horde of horrible hippies and plans to dispatch them to murder all their parents, their leaders, all who would call themselves their judges. But just before he can quite give them the word, Conan comes up...barely missing a beast, Doom launches into into an argument about how he actually did Conan a favor by murdering his folks...after all, Conan derived a great deal of strength and purpose therefrom. But Conan doesn't fall for this snake-cult-oil, and we get the last of the film's classic melon-amputations...Conan chops Doom on the shoulder, then really sets up on him, hacks through his neck, and hurls the head down the steps at the hippies. The sound effect as the head bounces down is very well chosen. I suspect they used something like a big bouncing overripe cabbage. Doom's followers disperse, sadder but wiser...Conan contemplates his next adventure.
Unfortunately, it would turn out to be the Milius-free Conan the Destroyer, which was much lighter on the violence, didn't have any nudity, and was crammed with shitty comedy relief (whereas the first movie is frequently genuinely funny). Destroyer only made half as much as Barbarian, and that was the end of the series. Milius was getting set to do another installment a few years back, but the fucking suits pulled the plug on it at the last moment, which just confirms Milius's prescription for Tinseltown:
"There should be a vast bloodletting,a Night of the Long Knives."
9. The Road Warrior, 1982, Director: George Miller
As I believe I've noted elsewhere, 1982 was just the best year ever for fantasy and SF movies. Along with Conan, you had Bladerunner, Wrath of Khan, E.T. Tron, and last but not least, The Road Warrior. Warrior is a perfect example of how something can really stand the test of time, in the sense that decades and decades can go by, and no one can top it...when it comes to motorized chases, no one's ever approached the standard set by the climactic sequence.Given the sheer mind-numbing quantity of car chases we've all sat through, you'd think that someone would take up the gauntlet, say, "I'm going to beat that!" really figure out what made the sequence so great, and truly apply themselves. But no one ever seems to. It's just demoralizing...when the car action starts, I just tune out, because I can just tell that it's going to suck.
You encounter this suckage, by the way, in movies that cost skazillions more than Warrior did. I believe George Miller made the thing for a couple million Australian bucks (although that was way more than he'd spent on the initial kick-ass installment in the series, Mad Max). But the priceless commodities he did have going for him were a great visual sense, an unerring instinct for showing the audience exactly what it wanted to see, and a burning desire to put things on the screen that no one had ever seen before...oh, and a bunch of Aussie stuntmen with no apparent interest in preserving their lives.
Miller made a pantload worldwide on Max Max, and should have...putting that aforementioned much bigger budget to excellent use, he went and made a sequel that's considerably better than the first film. But even though Road Warrior is supposedly a followup, it doesn't seem to be quite set in the same world...in Max, there was no reason given for the societal decay, while in Warrior, there seems to have been a world war over oil...in the third movie, Beyond Thunderdome, there was, apparently, a nuclear war.
But whatever. In Warrior, we're much farther along the road to sheer barbarism, and the story is set out in the desert somewhere, instead of along Australia's coast. Gangs of football-padded vikings are roaming around looking for victims and fuel...a guy who seems to be Max Rocketansky from the first flick discovers a heavily-defended oil-drilling facility that's beseiged by marauders, led by the horrible Lord Humongus, and his maniacal henchman Wez. Max gets inside and finds that the folks there are planning to break out, although they need a big tanker to haul their fuel...Max knows where one is, makes a deal for some gas, and goes and gets the truck. He doesn't plan to drive it, just deliver it and leave, but ultimately he winds up behind the wheel in that chase I've been raving about.
Up until this point, we've been treated to some pretty heavy-duty shit, including a boomerang into the skull, severed flying fingers, and a particularly awful skull-splitting head-butt enhanced by a flash from a single frame of blank film. But the final sequence ups the ante considerably. Bodies get sucked beneath tractor-trailer wheels, guys on motorcyles get sucked under too, and we see it in slow-motion, from under the truck...marauders swarm all over Max's cab, and get shotgunned in the face and the crotch. Human figureheads mounted on grilles get splattered against the back of the trailer, and in a jaw-dropping moment, one of the barbarians gets pitched off his motorcycle, goes flying through the air, and has this end-over-end spin imparted to his body as he clips a piece of wreckage that's sticking up...the camera follows this KaRAYzee when-the-muse-says-frog-I-jump stuntman all the way to the ground. Cars get smashed by the truck, and completely disintegrate...the final bit of business features Max turning the truck around, just as Wez comes up over the grille, just as Lord Humongus comes up over a rise on his Apocalyptic terror jalopy...the resulting impact is more 3D than 3D. A friend of mine, who'd somehow fallen asleep, woke up just in time to see Wez lunge into view...she screamed, and the image literably pitched her against the back of her seat. It's one of my favorite moviegoing memories.
I thought Beyond Thunderdome started out okay, but completely disintegrated once it got to the kids...re latter-day George Miller, my favorite movie was Babe, Pig In the City, which was one heavy-duty horror film that must've had a lot of kiddies heading for the exits. But back in the magic summer of '82 George had us pinned to our seats, and Road Warrior is still the chase-film to beat.
10. A Bullet in the Head, 1990, Director: John Woo
Anyone who knows me will tell you I'm a huge fan of Hong Kong New Wave movies. Long about 1982-83, there was this big change in the way they did things over there, and HK became the Ancient Athens of exploitation cinema. It was a true golden age. You had Jackie Chan, Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, Johnnie To, Ching Su Tung, Jet Li, Stephen Chiao, Bridget Lin, Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung...ah Hell, I could just go one and on. Things kind of petered out after 1997, although the Hongkies are still doing some good work...but for about fifteen years there, that little island was positively radioactive. And if there was one guy whose work came to stand for the entire explosion of cinematic brilliance, I think you'd have to say it was John Woo.
He was the bullet ballet man, an amalgam of Melville, Walter Hill, and Peckinpah...he'd kill off the entire population of Hong Kong in one movie, then kill off all of Asia in the next. And everyone would have at least one good bullet-squib on them...if they didn't have seven or ten. His work was copied pretty slavishly by Hollywood hacks, but they never seemed to realize what was good about it; they'd have the stuff where two or three guys were pointing guns in each other's faces, and guys flying through the air, and all that hoo-hah, but they never understood the sadism and the splatter; or the fact that Woo would generally have some really smart idea that informed each action sequence, as in the flowerpot gunfight in Better Tomorrow, or that amazingly long complicated single take you have in the hospital in Hard Boiled. Ultimately, when he got to America, the suits wanted him to deliver their own shitty idea of what a John Woo movie should be, and made him tone tone the stuff that was genuinely good.
Oh well, he's back in China doing good work again...take a look at Reign of Assassins if you get the chance.
Now oddly enough, he was never as big in HK as he got to be overseas, at least if you can judge from the boxoffice. His huge hit was Better Tomorrow; but The Killer was a flop, so was Hard Boiled, and so was his personal favorite, A Bullet in the Head. Frankly, I'm not surprised by Bullet's lack of success...it makes A Better Tomorrow, and even Hard Boiled and The Killer look positively friendly by comparison. Indeed, if you stack it up against The Deer Hunter, which was an obvious influence on it, it completely blows Cimino's flick out of the water. It's that harrowing. No kidding.
Movie seems to be an unofficial prequel to A Better Tomorrow.After a credit sequence featuring I'm a Believer, we're introduced to Jackie Cheung, Tony Leung Chu-Wai, and Waise Lee as three buddies who decide to skip out of HK and make a fortune selling antibiotics in the Saigon black market during the Vietnam war. But they get way more than they bargained for when they cross the ganglord who runs the Chinese rackets in Nam...driven out into the countryside after a spectacular gunfight in his nightclub, they're swiftly captured by the Vietcong, who entertain themselves by forcing them to shoot other prisoners in the head. It's very much like the first Russian roulette sequence in Deer Hunter, except that it's gorier, more intense, goes on much longer, and makes more sense. It's exit-wound city, and profoundly terrifying...there's no nonsense about talking the VC into letting them have extra bullets, and Tony Leung actually wastes a several of the other prisoners. The only reason any of our guys survive is that American gunships descend on the commie hellhole; even so, Jackie Cheung gets wounded, and is screaming, and Waise Lee shoots him in the back of skull to keep the VC from discovering them...Cheung survives, but he's turned into a drooling psycho vegetable who does hits in Saigon.
The movie's gone downhill by this point...in a ridiculously short time, Lee returns to Hong Kong, becomes a big wheel in a corporation, and Tony Leung goes after him to avenge Jackie Cheung. Tony and Waise have a big senseless action scene at each other that's quite the waste of time...the filmed should've been wrapped up back in Nam. But for about the first three-quarters, Bullet in the Head is one of the most frightful action/war films you'll ever see. Woo's quite right to be so proud of it.
Monday, January 3, 2011
Robert Wise's second entry on this list was based on Shirley Jackson's Haunting of Hill House...I saw the movie when it first came out, and it made a huge impression on me. My father had heard about it, and tried to talk me out of seeing it; when I made it clear that I needed to go matter what, he took me anyway, and he was a really good dad, but...I rather wished I'd listened to him. While I was watching it, some of the scenes made me want to be absolutely elsewhere, and I remember being just plain depressed for the next couple of days. The movie scares me somewhat less now, but that's because so many of its tricks have been ripped off over and over again...fact is, you saw that twisting, turning doorknob in The Haunting first. And the only stuff in that stupid CGI-laced remake that was any good were the couple of bits where they pretty much followed the original. Fact is, CG can't hold a candle to plaster ceiling-molding with little faces in it that you can only see when the lightning's right.
Julie Harris plays Nell, a completely neurotic lady who's spent most of her life taking care of her sick, sick mother...soon after mom dies, Nell's contacted by Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), a psychic investigator. Julie, it turns out, is someone who attracts psychic weirdness, and he wants her to join the team he's assembling to look into strange goings-on at a New England mansion called Hill House. Nell has nothing better to do now that her mom's gone, and wants to get out of the house with its stinky vacated sickroom, so she signs on...at the mansion (which is a fantastic Victorian monstrosity that Wise found in England), she meets the caretakers, who don't stick around at night, and Nell and Luke (Claire Bloom and Russ Tamblyn), the other members of the team. As Markway and his guinea-pigs explore their terrible new surroundings, Wise exaggerates the house's freaky gingerbread architecture with the dankest black and white photography ever. We get cold spots and a stenchy sickroom-nursery and a cavernous library with a spiral staircase that isn't too well anchored...at night, faint mumbly voices come out of the ceiling, you think your room-mate's holding your hand even though she's yards away, the doorknobs turn, and the doors bulge and creak. We learn that the house was built by a crazed fundamentalist pushing very bad religion, everyone who resided there lived unhappily and died miserably, and then wound up with the house as their shitty afterlife.
Nell's pretty scared, needless to say, but it begins to dawn on her that, for the first time in her lousy existence, she's actually wanted...yeah, okay, it's by this demonic house, but she's not thinking straight because the rest of her life was that bad. Also, she's developed an attachment to Dr. Markway, and when his wife shows up and disrupts Nell's relationship with him, Nell begins to retreat more and more into the halls and walls...
It's a grim, depressing, merciless movie, and all the principals are fabulous at making you feel bad...Julie Harris was never nuttier. Film was the granddaddy of all those "Akk, the house is alive!" films like Burnt Offerings, but none of them is a patch on it. So what if you never really see much of anything. Sometimes sizzle's scarier than steak, and this movie's the proof.
This is the best Dario Argento movie.
I saw it one afternoon with my friend Frank Clough in a big old movie palace in decrepit downtown South Bend...just the place. The flick doesn't make lick one of sense, but it sank its teeth in right at the beginning and never loosened his jaws. It has this incredibly loud and grating soundtrack (by Argento's group Goblin) that was plainly inspired by Tubular Bells, and it really gets into your head. Normally I don't like having my ears blasted out, but for some reason I went with the music...don't know why.
As for the visuals, they're something.There's a shot very early on where Suzy Bannion (adorable Jessica Harper, from Phantom of the Paradise) has arrived in Germany for ballet lessons, and goes out of the airport through these sliding doors...a blast of wind hits her, her clothes fly up, and she seems to be completely transformed for a moment...this had me coming out of my seat. I guess you could say it was a fake scare, but it was a really superb one. Much of the movie is like that. Even when there really isn't anything going on, you're still frightened.
Just as Suzy gets to the school, a girl comes dashing out...we switch to the girl's POV, and she rushes off crazed to her friend's house...upstairs, she gets stabbed by something with glowing eyes, is hung by a cord around her neck, and crashes through a skylight...pieces of glass drop down and kill her friend. You say, huh, yikes, what the hell is going on here? But the emphasis is firmly on hell.
Meanwhile, Suzy has been locked out of the ballet school, and returns the next day, although God knows why, seeing as how people come running out screaming. She seems to forget about the incident...after all, the head mistress, Mrs. Blanc (Alida Valli, from The Third Man) treats her nicely enough at first. But the situation gets funky pretty quick...Mrs. Blanc gets nastier to her...a deformed cook-lady reflects light onto poor Suzy from a shiny knife, and that causes Suzy to get ill and bleed from the nose at dance practice...maggots fall out of the ceiling at dinnertime...someone with a weird thunderous snore climbs into bed with Suzy and her room-mate Sara. Sara tells Suzy about the girl who ran screaming out of the house...shortly afterwards, Sara is stalked by an unseen killer and falls into a bin filled with razor-wire, which slices her right the hell up.
If all this sounds incoherent, it is...we find out that the place is run by witches, and that explains just about anything, apparently. Why they maintain this strange establishment, and conduct their affairs so that maggots rain out of the ceilings, I never really figured out. But Suzy does get chased around inside the house during a very unnerving climax, and finds herself in a room with the snoring, wheezing head witch, whom she wakes up...the sorceress has resurrected Sara (who's got pins through her wide-open eyes), and dispatches her to knife Suzy, all the while wheezing about "the dead, the living dead..." A knitting-needle goes in one side of a wattled witchy neck and out the other in close-up...the house burns, Suzy escapes...happy ending.
Pin-eyed Sara is one of the very most horrible apparitions ever committed to film; if I had to pick the most frightening living-dead thing I ever saw, she'd be a prime contender. A lot of the makeup jobs are way too thick and over the top, but that just lends them this filthy aspect that makes them quite effective. There is a lot of in-your-face gore that's as nasty as an Italian film-maker from the period could've made it.
But even though the violence is most squirm-inducing, I give much of the credit for the film's overall success to the photographer and the production designer. The movie's lensed in really garish clashing colors, and the sets are all completely wacked-out Art Nouveaux. None of Dario Argento's other movies display such an astounding pictorial sense; his next two witch movies are nowhere near as good; I suspect the real auteur on this thing was someone else. I don't know. But it all came together here. I didn't relax once.
This is another great haunted-house movie in the tradition of The Uninvited and The Haunting. It was directed by Peter Medak, who's done a whole lot of TV, but some good feature work too, most notably, The Ruling Class, The Krays, and Romeo is Bleeding. Don't know what he's up to at the moment, but he sure should give us some more creepy ghost fests...can't get enough of those. Ghosts done right are the very scariest things.
Changeling has George C. Scott as John Russell, a composer who loses his family in an auto accident; deciding to bury his sorrows in work, he moves into gigantic mansion that has a wonderful music room. But he soon discovers the place is haunted. The ghost is all kinds of noisy, shocks the living daylights out of John (and the audience) by appearing underwater in a bathtub, and bounces the world's scariest little red ball down some steps. John calls in a medium. and we get a particularly effective seance with some automatic writing...the ghost is a little boy who was murdered seventy years before, and he exploits John's grief and paternal instincts to get him to keep on digging and reveal who did what, and why. The trail leads to an old senator, (Paul Douglas), who benefitted quite a bit...but ultimately John's got to confront the vengeful ghost, who tools about the upper floors in a spiderweb-covered wheelchair.
The final scenes with the creaky kiddy conveyance are rather too special-effectsy for my taste...not that I dislike special effects, but the movie had been fairly free of them, and the climactic doings clash with the tone that's been established. Up till then though, theflick is textbook scary film-making, very well directed, written, and acted. Some might be a bit surprised to find George C. Scott in a film like this, but he turns in a characteristically excellent performance, lending a whole lot of gravitas to the proceedings. Haven't seen this one in years, but I'm in the process of looking up a copy...hope it's on DVD.
1982 was quite an amazing year for fantastic movies. You had E.T., Tron, Wrath of Khan, Conan The Barbarian, Bladerunner, and The Thing. I wasn't all that keen on The Thing at first, since I was so used to the original Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby version, which I'd watched over and over again on Million Dollar Movie on Channel 9 in New York when I was a kid. To tell you the truth, I still think that version's at least as good as Carpenter's...the dialogue and the direction are better, and it's got that super Dimitri Tiomkin score. But the movie sure did jettison a lot of John Campbell's Who Goes There, and in the process became a radically different story.
Carpenter hewed much closer to the source material, which involved a shape-shifting alien, and injected a gigantic dose of gore; on my first viewing, I actually thought he leaned too much on the yuck factor. Later I saw the movie again, on a black and white TV, and I was better able to appreciate Rob Bottin's prosthetic designs. I'm a huge fan of Bottin's work, and The Thing serves up an amazing smorgasbord of hallucinatory hideousness...I humbly apologize for not going with the program that first time.
Story has Kurt Russell as Macready, a helicopter pilot at an American Antarctic base full of cranky guys who seem to dislike each on principle, their reasons getting a whole lot better after they stumble onto some seriously horrible shit at a neighboring Norwegian outpost. The Norwegians, it seems, uncovered something in the ice, lugged it back to their camp, and were all exterminated, or committed suicide. Amidst the wreckage, the Yanks find a semi-burned corpse that seems to be all sorts of things at once, melding into each other. In the grand tradition of horror movie dimwittery, they bring it back to their own base for study....also one of the Norwegians' surviving dogs.
Of course, the remains aren't really dead, and the dog isn't a dog...in the film's first big horror scene, the pooch, put in with the other poochies, reveals its very peculiar nature and tries to absorb them. Our boys fry it to a crisp with a flamethrower---don't ask why they have a flamethrower at an antarctic base---and things (pun intended) seem to settle down. But they discover that they're up against an alien that's very hard to kill, and which can assume the appearance of anything it devours, slurps on, french kisses, whatever. Since anyone might be the thing, everyone gets pretty paranoid. At one point a guy keels over from a heart attack, but it turns out that he's really a duplicate who copied him so completely that it got his heart disease too...when a doctor tries to defibrilate him, the copy's chest bursts open, grows fangs, and bites the doc's arms off. While Macready and crew are trying to torch the thing, its neck lengthens, and its head slides of the side of the operating-table, grows spidery legs when it reaches the floor, and tries to scuttle away. Summing this all up, one hippie-shit doper dude (who later turns out to be a thing himself), says, "You gotta be fucking kidding."
The film's third signature sequence is right out of Campbell's original story; Macready concludes that you could do a blood-test to determine who's a thing and who isn't, by dragging a hot wire through a petrie dish full of red red krovvy...the theory is that any part of the thing must be an organism that'll try to save itself. One by one, Russell goes through samples from the various suspects, until the blood in one dish comes leaping out, and the guy it came from turns into this monstrosity whose skull splits, forming a yawning mouth that one of the non-thing suspects gets stuffed into head first. Napalm is liberally applied to the problem, but we're still pretty sure that there are more things waiting to pounce...
Unfortunately, the movie gets way too stupid after that. You have a critter whose every part, even a drop of blood, can infect someone and become a new thing, so what do our heroes resort to? Dynamite, naturally, something that will blow little thing-bits everywhere. The climax is nowhere near as gripping as the preceding set-pieces. But...you've gotten your money's worth. The Thing is John Carpenter's scariest horror movie, a genuine classic, and mea culpa again for that initial failure of judgement on my part. Let's face it, I'm the monkey. But you're reading my list, and I'm not reading yours, so on to...
15. A Nightmare on Elm Street---1984
Saw this when it first came out, with my friend Sam Tomaino...wasn't expecting much from it. When one of the opening credits said that Robert Englund (who?) was playing a character named Fred Krueger, I turned to Sam and said Fred Krueger didn't sound very scary, or something to that effect. Little did I know that the movie was going to feature the first appearance of a classic movie monster.
Freddie was the brainchild of Wes Craven, who'd been carving a reputation for himself ever since Last House on the Left...Nightmare was his biggest hit to date, and it really made him, and for that matter New Line pictures, who released it.
Story has a bunch of teens (including young Johnny Depp) getting wiped out as result of weird dreams...if they die in the dream, they meet some ghastly fate in the waking world. Kids get sliced up by unseen blades or sucked down into their beds, which then erupt in huge geysers of blood....things like that. In their nightmares, they all encounter a badly-scarred dude, the aforesaid Freddy, who wears a fedora and a cartoony red-and-black striped sweater, and is armed with a leather glove with knives on the fingers. His haunt is a steamy basement boiler room, from which he sallies forth to invade the sleep of horny teens. As the film progresses we learn that he was a child murderer who was killed by a vigilante squad composed of the adolescents' parents...they got him down in the boiler room and soaked him in gas and lit him up, hence those horrible burns. Now he's going after a new gaggle of kids, and the parents, whose lives have all collapsed since Krueger's death, are no help at all. The teens share info about the situation, and try to keep each other awake, but it does no good...sooner or later, despite all the coffee or pep pills, they fall asleep, and Freddy does them in...
The movie is consistently entertaining, and well worth watching right till the end, but it's on this list primarily for two sequences. In one, young Tina Grey (Amanda Wyss) finds herself in a goat-infested alley, and sees Freddy coming, stretching his arms way, way, way out on either side, dragging his knife-tips along a sheet metal fence and striking sparks...after he slices some of his fingers off, Tina flees into her yard, but he catches her...she wakes up in her bed, but gushing parallel slash-marks start appearing all over her...screaming and struggling, she's dragged up the walls and over the ceiling before she finally falls back down dead on the mattress.
In the second sequence, Tina's grieving friend Nancy conks out in a high school class, and Tina comes to her in a body bag, says a few words from inside, then gets dragged out. Nancy follows, and finds a huge swipe of blood on the floor...in the film's most chilling scene, she follows the trail until she sees the body bag laying on the floor some distance ahead...suddenly the end with the legs rises up, lifted by whatever invisible fiend is doing the dragging, and the bag slides from view around a corner. Nancy keeps following the blood, finds herself in the boiler room...Freddy comes at her, but she burns her arms on a hot pipe, and wakes up screaming back in class...
Things get much less frightening after that. There's plenty of gore, and the proceedings move right along, but the imagery just isn't as cool. Ultimately we get to a whole lot of physical conflict with Freddy, with him bouncing onto beds and swiping at Nancy and missing, and he just gets progressively less intimidating. The very last shot, with someone getting jerked violently through a window, is pretty neat, but the film's been going downhill for some time before that.
Of course, the first half is so scary that's hard to see how Craven could've kept it up.
There were a bunch of sequels...the second one was worthless possession thing, largely devoid of the nightmare elements, but the third movie, Dream Warriors, had a lot going for it. Post III, the series just stumbled on, and continued to be a big cash cow for New Line, but I'd had enough. Freddy remains a horror icon though, right up there with Pinhead, and the classic Universal monsters...wouldn't be a bit surprised if someone put him to really good use at some point in the future. Didn't see that attempt to reboot the series, with Jacky Earle Haley, although I imagine he's good...loved him as Rorshach...
Even though H.P.Lovecraft is such a big deal---deservedly so---in horror fiction, he hasn't fared too well on film. A lot of times you get things like Hellboy or Ghostbusters, which are heavily influenced by the Cthulhu Mythos, but aren't actually part of it; then there the movies that are supposedly based on Lovecraft stories, but chuck virtually everything about them---Die Monster Die was a adaptation of Colour Out of Space and featured a blasted heath and a meteorite, but otherwise bore no resemblance to its source material...Reanimator is rather a hoot, and Jeffrey Combs is a great Herbert West, but Lovecraft's stories have been replaced by a very nasty carno-fest, complete with severed-head cunnilingus, that would've had old H.P. spinning in his grave. True, Dagon bore more than a passing resemblence to The Shadow Over Innsmouth, but you had to put up with the setting shifted to Spain. The Dunwich Horror did indeed put the Mythos front and center, but tried to replace Lovecraft's structure with something like a typical Hollywood storyline, and it just wouldn't gel. Interestingly, the two best Lovecraft adaptations, for my money, are both versions of Charles Dexter Ward, although the first, Roger Corman's The Haunted Palace, was billed as a Poe movie...the second, which I prefer, largely because it sticks more closely to Lovecraft, is called The Resurrected, and was directed by Dan O'Bannon. There are some klutzy performances, and parts of the film look pretty threadbare, but there's a very powerful sequence that that I think Lovecraft would've absolutely endorsed...movie deserves to be much better known than it is.
Film's set in Lovecraft's beloved Providence and thereabouts...I think it was filmed in Canada or the Pacific Northwest, but it does a pretty good job on the locations, particularly a nasty colonial-era farmhouse. John Terry plays providence P.I. John Marsh, who's hired by Claire Ward (Jane Sibbet) to find out what's happening to her husband, Charles Dexter (Chris Sarandon in his scary guy phase). Having developed an interest in alchemy and other arcane matters, Charles has moved into a remote farmhouse, abetted by a weird bearded fellow who looks rather like him...people and animals are turning up mostly eaten...when Marsh visits the farmhouse, a one-eyed Chinese dude answers the door, and Ward is weird and rude. Bit by bit we learn that Charles has been messing about with the "essential saltes" of long-dead sorcerers, and that his ancestor, Joseph Curwen, who was killed by a mob back in Colonial times, had a lot of the same unpleasant habits.
All this leads to the niftiest segment in the film...after Ward is consigned to a padded cell, Marsh, Claire and Marsh's assistant Lonnie find a hatchway that leads into Curwen's ancient underground domain, where Ward, like his ancestor, has been raising things up, mostly unsuccessfully. Characterized by "ye liveliest awefullness" the rejects have been tossed into pits, where they're still twitching and squirming about. The production design here is excellent, and most of the money seems to have been poured into it...the monsters are half-glimpsed but very well rendered, and the mood is top-notch. O'Bannon makes excellent use of malfunctioning flashlights. Lonnie gets killed by something very lively and awefull...Marsh and Claire escape, and Marsh heads off to the looney bin, where the inhabitant of that padded cell may or may not be Ward....
Not sure if this thing even got a theatrical release, but I recommend it highly. O'Bannon, who died recently, directed another of my favorite horror movies, Return of the Living Dead: Alien, which I'm not too fond of (although everyone else thinks very highly of it), was based on a story of his....he isn't too famous, even among horror fans, but he deserved to be a much bigger deal than he ever became.
17.The Ring--- 1998
This is the movie that inaugurated that whole cycle of first-rate Japanese horror films, and it's one of the primary contenders for scariest movie ever. First time I became aware of it, I was watching a Stephen Chow/Wong Jing "Tricky" movie where they had a brief parody (in the background) of the scene where Sadako comes crawling out of the TV...just that little throwaway bit was enough to worry me. I said, "Gee, what was that?" and my daughter Soph said, "Oh, that's from that movie Ringu," and I knew right then I had to get hold of a copy and poison some evening in the near future.
Even though a lot of things about the story were new to American audiences, it used a slew of fairly standard Asian ghost-story conventions, largely based on Taoist notions. You have Yin and Yang, fire and water, and Yin---water---is the female, ghostly principle. Wetness and women operate in horrible, close conjunction, and ghostliness results. If you have a woman anywhere near a lake, ocean, river, puddle, the bathroom, watch out---especially if she's combing her hair. You're headed straight for the morgue.
In Ring, you're dealing with a haunted videotape, but the dead girl that created the situation is the daughter of a sea-demon, and she died down a well...it simply follows that all of Japan will be threatened with extinction. Japan, you see, is a highly monochromatic place filled with unhappy marriages and alienated people. Teenagers have nothing better to do than have slumber parties and investigate urban legends that turn out to be true and kill them. Also, the fucking place is surrounded by water! And full of women and hair!
Reiko Asakawa (Nanko Matsushima) is a divorcee who learns that her neice Tomoko has died, and that Tomoko was part of a group of kids who all went the same way, croaking from fright, seven days after watching a certain video, copies of which are circulating all over Nippon. At a resort cabin, Reiko finds one of the accursed tapes and watches it---it shows a series of apparently unconnected but very upsetting images involving a well out in the woods and other stuff. Thoroughly rattled, she gets in touch with her ex-husband Ryuji, an expert on video matters. He watches too...which means that both of them will die after seven days. To make matters worse, Reiko's little son gets a hold of the thing and eyeballs it as well, making it a very high priority for Reiko and Ryugi to get to the bottom of all this.
Their enquiries bring them to an island where a family has been keeping a nasty secret...a while back, the father, who spent too much time down at the cold wet rocky beach, went and impregnated a woman who was apparently a sea-demon. The result was a little girl named Sadako, who had very scary ways...daddy eventually tossed her down a well, which is why the tape shows that well in the woods, and shots that seem to be looking up from the bottom of the shaft. Armed with this knowledge, our sleuths locate the well---it's been buried under the cabin where those kids first found the tape, and Ryugi makes the highly inspired decision to go down into it...I know I would. With Reiko having kittens up above, he roils things up, and Sadako's skeletal corpse rises to the surface...she gets a decent burial. Having done their duty by her, our protagonists conclude that all will now be will.
But the little dead bitch is having none of that, and in an extremely powerful climax (which was ruined in the American remake by some very ill-advised intercutting), Sadako flips Ryugi's TV on from somewhere in the great beyond, and we see that well out in the woods once more...only this time she's crawling up over the edge. As Ryugi sits paralyzed with fright, the ghost gets closer and closer to the "camera," then comes slithering out through the screen. Things don't end well for Ryugi, but you must've guessed that already. I mean, this is Japan, and it's surrounded by water, and the women comb their hair, and...
Boy does this thing pack a punch. It's only serious competitor is The Haunting. If the director, Hideo Nakata, had never made another movie, he'd still be one of the all-time champs of cinematic fright. As it is, he helmed one of the other movies on this list, and we'll be visiting that shortly, but first we have to hit a different J-horror masterpiece, which is coming right up.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Akira's nephew, directed this movie, which was adapted from his novel...like so many of these Asian horror films, it spawned an American remake, Pulse, but you really don't have to bother with that. Kairo serves up a vision of modern Japan that makes Ring seem sweet in comparison; everyone's even more alienated, the film is even more monochromatic, there are zillions of ghosts, and the place gets totalled at the end. Once more, I'm not giving anything away...we're in Dai Nippon, and everything is bad,bad, bad. I don't recall there being any watery imagery, but you don't need it...a lousy economy and the internet are quite sufficient to destroy everything.
It won't be too easy writing this entry...the story is even less coherent than Suspiria's, and it's pretty non-linear. Characters come and go---mostly go---and narratives are picked up only to come to a sudden end as someone gets so frightened and/or depressed that they wind up as a black smudge on the wall. I suppose the underlying unities are basically thematic; all this horrible imagery is primarily in the service of a diatribe against Japaneseness and technology. But the pictures are so extremely unnerving that the film completely surmounts the lack of a conventional framework.
The basic premise is this: the afterlife is full up, and the ghosts are leaking back into this world, via the internet. When you're hooking up your computer, you get a little box that says..."Would you like to talk to a ghost?" If you're stupid enough to click on that, you see some picture of a dingy place with an extremely depressed person in it...you get totally obsessed with this shitty new relationship of yours, and finally you kill yourself, or become one of those black smudges, and your spirit gets on the web, and so it spreads. Ghosts also come out of the internet, and you can keep them at bay for a while by sealing your doors and windows with red tape, but something still gets you. When other poor Japanese come looking for you, and break into your basement apartment to find you gone but for your smudge, there'll be a woman walking around in slow motion, swinging her arms, and even though your friends hide behind the couch, she comes and looks over the top...
The situation is simply devoid of hope. Your local videogame parlor gets emptied, and you have to listen to idiotic videogame music as the ghosts close in. Some of them are black and out of focus, except for their glowing eyes. As burning military transport planes rain from the skies, you get onto a boat and go far out to sea, but everybody on board winds up black and powdery on a wall, and you realize that the whole world is ending, having become at least as bad as Japan...
Kurosawa made another couple of horror movies, Cure and Bright Future, the latter being the more memorable of the two, as it involved a plague of glowing jellyfish in Tokyo's canal system. But Kairo remains his best so far...doesn't make me want to visit Japan though, or use the damn internet.
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Well, even though, if Kairo was to be believed, Japan was completely demolished in 2001, it was back in 2002, and water, not the internet, was wreaking the havoc. This time we find ourselves in an awful moldy concrete apartment building with profoundly lousy plumbing and another damn dead little girl who just won't stop making a nuisance of herself. There's hair in abundance, too...in fact, the titles are over a bunch of hair (and other less recognizeable stuff) floating in nasty brownish fluid. Yep, Hideo Nakata is back to his old Yin-yang tricks, although the story is very different from Ringu.
We start off with more divorce biz...Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki) has custody of little Ikuko, moves to the aforesaid apartment block, and gets her daughter into kindergarten. Their apartment sucks big time...there's a huge water-stain on the ceiling, vaguely suggestive of something, and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and starts to drip. Hair comes out of the faucet... a kid's red bag shows up repeatedly and refuses to be thrown away, and Yoshimi keeps seeing a tyke who looks like her daughter. As that leaky ceiling gets leakier, Yoshimi finds Ikuko in the apartment above, which is absolutely flooded. Inquiring about the previous tenants, she learns that a little girl, Mitsuko, lived up there, went to Yoshimi's daughter's school, and vanished after being neglected by her mother...up on the roof, Yoshimi finds a great big watertank and begins to suspect that Mitsuko fell in there and died and rotted, which would go a long way to explain the problems with the pipes.
Just wanting to have a nice loving mom of her own, Mitsuko takes steps to get rid of Ikuko, appearing to her in the kindergarten, and trying to drown her back in the apartment...Yoshimi arrives to save her daughter and runs off, only to discover that she's got the wrong girl in her arms...
Like all the movies on this list, Dark Water is long on atmosphere....certainly it's the squishiest, moldiest movie of the bunch. I don't think it's as scary as Ring, but it comes close, and has other virtues...the story is more focussed and intimate, and you care more about the characters. Basically, you have an increasingly frantic mom, a live little girl, and a dead one. The very end, which I won't reveal, is most chilling, although, oddly, not altogether unhappy...you should judge for yourself. And if the stain on your ceiling keeps getting bigger and bigger, and the water from your tap goes all brown and hairy and soupy, draw the appropriate conclusion...
Namely that, for some reason...
You're in Japan!
Not to be outdone by those moist depressed Nipponese, folks all over Asia, in China, Korea, and Thailand began generating their own exposes of the supernatural situation in the Far East. Hearing about a girl who got a corneal transplant and killed herself soon after, Danny and Oxide Pang, who'd just made Bangkok Dangerous, came up with a yarn about the unexpected consequences of eye surgery...you'd be better off blind.
The Eye features lovely Angelica Lee (from Princess D!) as Mun, a blind twenty-year old violinist in Hong Kong. After receiving a new cornea, she starts seeing freaky things in the hospital, including black blurry figures who visit terminal patients who then die. The visions continue once she gets out...at a barbecue place, she sees a ghost vainly licking at a bunch of hanging spare-ribs, and finds herself in an elevator with a guy who has half his face missing (they seem to have used a fellow who was really in this shape), and floats several inches above the floor.
Very distressed, she turns to a a psychologist, who doesn't believe her right off, but is won over by her sincerity and extreme cuteness. They learn that the cornea that's causing all the trouble came from a woman in Thailand, called Ling, and book a flight...at Ling's village, a doctor explains that Ling had a whole mess of psychic ability, tried to warn everybody about some bad shit on the way, and, after the village was wiped out, blamed herself and committed suicide. Ling's mother has never forgiven her for that, and when Ling's spirit takes Mun over and tries to force her to kill herself, Ling's mom saves the day, rather inexplicably forgiving her daughter for everything...Ling's spirit goes somewhere better.
But Mun's not done with supernatural crap...she and the psychologist find themselves trapped in a bus in a traffic jam on their way back to Bangkok. Seeing dozens of black blurry figures fanning out along the line of cars, obviously waiting to harvest a whole heap of souls, Mun realizes that something awful is about to happen...
The first half of The Eye is extremely frightening and well-realized...third quarter bogs down as the mystery behind the haunted cornea is solved. This happens a lot in spooky movies...fact is, while it might be advisable to let the audience know exactly what's going on, mere revelation isn't necessarily interesting...scariness is better. But the movie recovers right at the end...a huge dose of suspense precedes a spectacular, harrowing catastrophe.
The rights to a remake were snapped up almost immediately by Tom Cruise, who produced an American version with Jessica Alba in it...after the fashion of these things, it wasn't too hot. They just should've copied the scare scenes as closely as possible, but the American director didn't have a clue. It's sorta embarrassing...Hollywood used to be the horror movie capital of the world. But I'm not looking for the situation to improve any time soon....there are way too many suits for much good work to get done, and until they get disabused of this notion that they know anything, we're going to get a lot of lousy remakes and other worthless crap...
Hell, I'm sounding the way I did at the end of the vampire list.
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