REVIEW – Black Sunday (1960)

BlackSundayFilmJuice have my review of the Arrow Films re-release of Mario Bava’s wonderful Black Sunday (a.k.a. The Mask of Satan) which is out in shops today and well worth picking up.

Very loosely based upon Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Viy”, Black Sunday is an unabashedly Gothic vampire story about a pair of aristocratic doctors who accidentally re-awaken a long-buried evil. Shot in luxuriant black and white that looks absolutely sensational on Blu-ray, Black Sunday shows how effective Gothic imagery can be when used by a director who knows what he is doing. As I point out in the review, many people have come to associate Gothic horror with campy Hammer Horror films but those films undermined the effectiveness of their own Gothic tropes by shooting on Technicolor film:

Many period horror films such as Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein attempted to improve upon traditional Hollywood gothic by shooting in colour and making use of the Technicolor reds made famous by Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. The problem is that while these vibrant reds looked amazing when spilling from someone’s throat, they looked absolutely nothing like the colour of real blood. Combine this cartoonish hyper-realism with the fact that the aggressive lighting required by Technicolor cameras made it almost impossible to shoot a dark film and it is easy to see why the movement into colour collapsed 1930s Hollywood gothic into the camp silliness of Hammer horror.

My point is best illustrated by a scene in which one of the doctors drips blood on the witch’s corpse causing it to knit itself back together. Had Bava shot this scene in colour then the writhing blood would have just looked disgusting. However, because the scene was shot in black and white and blood appears black on black and white film, the writhing flesh looks more like a seething blackness than a bloody rice pudding.

REVIEW – Basket Case (1982)

BasketCaseTHE ZONE have my review of Frank Henenlotter’s low-budget cult Horror movie Basket Case.

Basket Case is an odd little film whose eccentricities are clearly the product of an era when directors and producers were happy to try anything in the hope that it might attract an audience. In this case, what the director tries is to enliven what is an otherwise unimpressive monster movie with a series of Freudian motifs about the savagery within and the dangerous of hidden trauma:

The connection between the boy and the monster is also made clear at the film’s climax when the boy is forced to literally wrestle with his desire and hatred in order to save the woman he loves. Though somewhat unevenly handled, the suggestion that the monster represents the boy’s hidden desires transforms Basket Case from a poorly made monster movie to a poorly made psychodrama.

However, as I sat down to write this it occurred to me that my attempt to place Basket Case in some sort of historical context was actually validating what can now be thought of as something of a baby boomer origin myth.  Indeed, consider films like Corman’s World, Midnight Movies and Not Quite Hollywood all share this image of 1970s exploitation film-making as a sort of Wild West where ambitious young film makers broke rules and made reputations. While this vision of the 1970s as The-Darwinian-Swamp-from-which-Modern-Hollywood-Did-Crawl is quite evocative it does occur to me that it has emerged at a time when many of those ambitious kids are not only in positions of power but also nearing the end of their careers. After all, how better to lionise a fading Baby Boomer generation than to suggest that their rise to prominence came at a time when real talent was rewarded? Not like nowadays when it’s all about social connections and luck… ahem.

A Paragraph from Peter Straub’s Ghost Story

Last night I picked up my copy of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story (1979) and just started reading. Within a couple of pages, I pulled up short, unable to get past the astonishing beauty and craft of this paragraph:

So for hours they drove south through the songs and rhythms of country music, the stations weakening and changing, the disk jockeys swapping names and accents, the sponsors succeeding each other in a revolving list of insurance companies, toothpaste, soap, Dr Pepper and Pepsi Cola, acne preparations, funeral parlors, petroleum jelly, bargain wristwatches, aluminum sidings, dandruff shampoos: but the music remained the same, a vast and self-conscious story, a sort of seamless repetitious epic in which women married truckers and no-good gamblers but stood by them until they got a divorce and the men sat in bars plotting seductions and how to get back home, and they came together hot as two-dollar pistols and parted in disgust and worried about the babies. Sometimes the car wouldn’t start, sometimes the TV was busted; sometimes the bars closed down and threw you out onto the street, your pockets turned inside out. There was nothing that was not banal, there was no phrase that was not a cliché, but the child sat there satisfied and passive, dozing off to Willie Nelson and waking up to Loretta Lynn, and the man just drove, distracted by this endless soap opera of America’s bottom dogs.

The thing that strikes about this paragraph is the way that it breaks down into three very different sentences. The first – which MS Word is currently underlining entirely in green – is not just a run-on sentence but a run-on sentence comprising little more than a list of things overheard on the radio. Aside from Straub’s eye for set dressing (The South belongs to Dr Pepper and Pepsi… not Coke), the astonishing thing about this sentence is that it in no way feels over-long or under-punctuated. It is easy to forget that punctuation exists in order to instruct the reader where to place emphasis and when to pause while reading ‘aloud in their head’. Straub strings his sentence together using a series of commas and a semi-colon that shifts the emphasis away from the adverts and towards the music. The sentence does not feel too long because Straub chooses his words with utmost care and precision. He chooses them for colour and he chooses them for cadence. He chooses them places them in the sentence in a very specific order so as to ensure that we can read the entire sentence without ever getting lost and without ever having to check the punctuation to make sense of what it is that we have just read. The words and concepts slip by us like the miles of a cross-country road trip. They fit together because we see them together, their association is almost accidental and yet strangely evocative in the same way that shopping trolleys and broken windows create an impression of poverty that has little to do with the bank balances of local residents. The semi-colon is a masterstroke as it changes the emphasis without jerking us out of the rhythm of the sentence. Once it was adverts that flowed by us, now it is song lyrics. They flow into one another and create a single impression almost by accident but seemingly by design.

If the semi-colon was impressive then the full stop is a stroke of genius. Again, we are confronted by a list of things but Straub cleverly inserts the second-person pronoun ‘You’ to suggest a growing bond between the music and the listened. What began as a way to keep the child quiet ends as a reflection on the listener’s life. YOU know what it’s like to be thrown out of a bar. YOU know what it’s like to have a busted TV and nothing to do. YOU know these things and so do the singers and songwriters. They speak to YOU, their words are no longer just a different type of noise to the adverts that started the paragraph. They got to YOU.

The third sentence finds the listener jerking himself out of a country music-filled reverie. The opening clause of the sentence is almost petulant: “There was nothing that was not banal, there was no phrase that was not a cliché” then comes the comma… then comes the BUT. This shit is awful, trite, clichéd nonsense but it lulled the child to sleep and it gave the miles a pleasing feel. Just enough of a pleasing feel to allow the driver to forget that the child on the back-seat has been abducted and that, sooner or later, he will have to be deal with her one way or another. That time will come… but not yet: “the man just drove, distracted by this endless soap opera of America’s bottom dogs.”

Even those last two words are brilliant: Bottom Dogs… Buh-dum Dah!

REVIEW – The Island of Lost Souls (1932)

FilmJuice have my review of Erle C. Kenton’s much under-loved The Island of Lost Souls starring Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi.

The film is a product of the 1930s Golden Age in American horror that produced many of the great American movie monsters. Based on H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Island of Lost Souls was banned in the UK because of its tendency to deny God and play with the idea of inter-racial and inter-species sex. Indeed, to say that this film is racist would be something of an understatement as it represents an almost flawless articulation of White America’s fear that non-whites will someday rise-up and, in the immortal words of Hunter S. Thompson, savagely penetrate every orifice in their bodies with their throbbing, uncircumcised members:

The film’s use of the word ‘native’ to denote the man-beasts is hardly accidental as it panders to double-edged racist fantasies about non-white people being more animalistic than American Christians. I use the word ‘fantasies’ advisedly as this belief in the passionate nature of non-white people extends not just to their perceived capacity for violence but also to their atavistic sexualities. Thus, when Parker kisses Lota and recoils in disgust, his disgust is born not only of inter-racial and inter-species revulsion but also from the realisation that he enjoyed kissing the savage far more than he did his immaculate groomed white fiancée.

Interestingly, the film is currently considered to be out of copyright meaning that you can watch it for free on Youtube. However, the good folks at Eureka have done a fantastic job of packaging the film up with a series of interviews and essays and the print used for their release is fantastically clear so I definitely recommend picking up their edition rather than watching it for free on the internet.

The Book of Human Insects (1970) By Osamu Tezuka – The Horror of Limitless Potential and Unfettered Change

It is impossible to dangle one’s toes into the waters of Japanese sequential art without, sooner or later, encountering the name of Osamu Tezuka. Aside from being a hugely prolific and influential artist who inspired generations of authors, Tezuka was also one of the first Japanese comics artists to enjoy commercial success in the West with series including Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. However, despite the child-friendliness of Tezuka’s greatest successes, many of his finest works are decidedly darker and a good deal more complex. An excellent example of this is Tezuka’s recently translated The Book of Human Insects. Set in 1970s Tokyo, the novel offers a darkly compelling portrait of a woman with a remarkable capacity for re-invention. Ostensibly a psychological thriller about a Mr Ripley-like femme fatale who feeds upon Japan’s predominantly male intelligentsia, The Book of Human Insects resonates most when read as a critique of post-War Japanese society.


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REVIEW: 3-D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy (2011)

THE ZONE has my review of Christopher Sun’s erotic fantasy film 3-D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy.

Incorrectly marketed as the world’s first work of erotic 3D cinema, Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy is a film that never quite manages to achieve the levels of inspired oddness that make for a decent cult following. Instead, the film has a few nice moments (including an intersexual vampire lifting cartwheels with her 8 foot-long prehensile penis) that ultimately wind up getting lost amidst a lot of puerile sniggering and some deeply unpleasant misogynistic sadism.

Right from the off, Sex And Zen 3D suffers from translation problems as British culture tends not to cope too well with attempts to combine sex with comedy. While most British people will happily acknowledge the fact that sex – as an activity – can sometimes be very funny, attempts to capture that comedy on screen generally do not fare too well, as ridicule was traditionally one of the means through which matters pertaining to sexuality was repressed. For example, while a case can be made for seeing the Carry On films as agents of social change, one could just as easily say that they helped to reinforce taboos about the human body by presenting sex as a laughing matter. 3D Sex And Zen‘s tendency to move between (rather un-stimulating) eroticism and childish humour is not only unsettling, it is also fiercely reminiscent of the jarring tonal shifts common to the kind of campy Bavarian softcore porn films that were made in the 1960s and 1970s and screened on British cable TV in the early-to-mid 1990s. Sex And Zen 3D ultimately fails as a film because its jokes are unfunny and its erotic content is nothing more than boobies and thrusting bottoms, but the constant shifting between these two registers makes for an experience which, I suspect; would translate better for people from cultures where laughter was not used to drain sex of its power.

I hate to say this but, watching 3-D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy actually made me want to read some Laurel K. Hamilton as while Hamilton writes with all the style and insight of a someone with a pick-axe embedded in their skull, she at least knows how to mine the sweet spot between titillation, repulsion and transgression.

REVIEW: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

Just in time for Christmas, THE ZONE has my review of Jalmari Helander’s Evil Santa picture Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.

Much like Dick Maas’s anti-clerical Saint, Rare Exports draws much of its humour and all of its horror from confronting children’s stories with the eyes of an adult. As with Maas’s take on the story of Saint Nicholas, Helander’s take on the more familiar story of Santa Claus finds something distinctly unsettling in the idea of an immortal being who hangs around children. Given the gimmicky nature of the subject matter, it would have been easy for Rare Exports to get away with being cheap and shoddy but instead, the project boasted quite a lavish budget that made it all the way to the screen thanks to some wonderful cinematography and a script that knows when to place tongue in cheek and when to allow the surreal horror of Santa Claus to speak for itself:

Rare Exports [repeatedly] toys with the idea of arrested development. Indeed, the head of the multinational corporation that are trying to unearth Santa is a man who dresses and acts in a manner that suggests that adulthood does not necessarily become him. Aside from spending an absolute fortune trying to meet the real Santa, the man also hands out a set of safety precautions in order to prevent his men from being seen as ‘bad boys’. These precautions include statements such as ‘no swearing’ and ‘no drinking’, precisely the kinds of rules that adults apply to their children. By attempting to ensure that his workmen are seen as ‘good boys’, the foreign businessman is effectively trying to envelop them in the same state of arrested development as him.

Regrettably underused, this character is fiercely reminiscent of both the collector character from Toy Story 2 (1999), and Michael Jackson, in that all three give off an image of adulthood that is just far-enough out of alignment to set people’s teeth on edge. Although Rare Exports never delves into the capitalist’s motivations, it is clear that there is something very wrong with a man who would destroy a mountain, risk dozens and lives and spend a fortune in order to meet Santa. The childlike glee displayed by the capitalist when he first encounters the reindeer herders’ old man is beautifully unclean; the way he strokes the old man’s filthy and matter beard speaks of a profoundly broken form of humanity.

Lovely, wrong and distinctly Finnish.