Hellraiser (1987)

Hellraiser (1987) movie poster

director Clive Barker
viewed: 09/28/2014

Clive Barker.  Remember when he was going to be “the next big thing in horror writing”?  Wasn’t it Stephen King who anointed him thusly, right around the time of this movie?

Well, I’ll give this to him.  Hellraiser was indeed an original, effective, and creepy horror film, creating a zeitgeist all its own and spawning Halloween costumes for many years to follow.

I appreciated the film at the time, though not as vigorously as others.  I recall my roommate joking about its first sequel, Hellraiser II: Hellbound (1988), by calling it “Hellraiser 2: Hellbent for Leather”.  Oddly enough, that joke really makes sense because this whole thing is some extremist S&M (or now BDSM) fantasy of extremism.

It all starts with the box, the magical Rubik’s cube-like puzzle, that when played with summons the cenobites (Pinhead, pictured on the poster, is the head cenobite).  They then rip you to shreds (literally) with chains and fishhooks, tacking you up, piece by piece on boards, in some long-sought journey through pleasure and pain.

Only when a small family: a father (played by the terrific Andrew Robinson), step-mother (Clare Higgins), and young adult daughter (Ashley Lawrence) show up to the house of Uncle Frank to find that Uncle Frank has gone to the dark side (that sentence went to hell and back).  Blood drips on the floor bring Uncle Frank back, albeit without any skin and even less at first.  He spends the time coercing the step-mother, an old lover of his, to bring him more blood and flesh to somehow allow him to become more and more corporeal.   And then the cenobites show up looking for him.

Really, the visual effects are pretty good and the design of the cenobites is iconic and was very inventive in 1987.  And actually, it’s a pretty good movie.  I think at the time I appreciated it less.  But my 2014 reassessment is that this is indeed a very fine, very original horror film in a genre that trades heavily on variation rather than invention.

I read that the film went on to have eight sequels, continuing production up through 2011.  Who knew?  Not I.  I think we watched up through the third film originally.  I’d give the first three a spin again (they are all available on Netflix streaming).

There’s been talk of a re-boot/re-make.  But that is almost always true of anything these days.  Apparently, Barker gave away the rights with this film, though.  So he made this one and had nothing to do with any of the films that followed nor any films yet to come.

Lessons can be learned, indeed.

The African Queen (1951)

The African Queen (1951) movie poster

director John Huston
viewed: 09/28/2014

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I first saw The African Queen.  I was a teenager, I think.  What I do recall is how much I liked it.

I’ve come to really appreciate John Huston movies over the past several years and have been slowly working my way through them.  The African Queen, though, seemed like a good one to watch with the kids, and good ol Netflix was rotating it out for October, so it turned out to be no time like the present.

The funny thing about watching some of the “classics” with the kids, who are now 10 and 13, is that they can really appreciate them and do appreciate them.  It had been so long since I had seen The African Queen that I had actually forgotten many of the key particulars of the story.

Set at the onset of WWI it tells the unlikely love story of prim missionary’s sister Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn at her best) and grimy jack-of-all-trades Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart in his Oscar-winning role) as they wind their way down an “unnavigible” river with the intent of turning the boat, The African Queen, into a torpedo to blow up the German’s ship that is dominating a lake that the river feeds into.

I watch movies with honesty but it’s still very rare for something to “move me”, if you will.  But toward the end of the film as Rose and Charlie are about to be hanged together by the Germans on the very boat they came to blow up, Charlie requests the captain of the ship to marry them and Rose replies, so brightly, “Charlie, what a wonderful idea!”  It’s very touching and sweet.  A real testament to the characters developed and the timing and writing to still have that effect on my 45 year old self.

The kids did like it, wondering aloud at some of the special effects, “Is this green screen?”  I told them it was an early equivalent so to speak in those shots.  But true to its creation a lot of it was actually shot in Africa, on location, and the cinematography by Jack Cardiff is really stunning, fine, classic Hollywood at its best.

And really.  That’s what you can say about the film too.  Stunning, fine, classic Hollywood at its best.

The Craft (1996)

The Craft (1996) movie poster

director Andrew Fleming
viewed: 09/26/2014

I’d seen The Craft back in its day, most likely in some form on cable because its level, of interest for me was variable.  One thing about no longer being a teen (I was in my 20’s in 1996), the teen movies of the time play differently.  I think that the 1990’s were not a bad time for teen movies, though I don’t know if any truly great ones came out then.  An interesting question to look into, perhaps?

The Craft is kind of like The Witches of Eastwick (1987) in high school (Does anyone even remember The Witches of Eastwick?)  But it doesn’t have a literary source (no John Updike story, this).  But it is about a group of Los Angeles Catholic school girls who form a coven with a new member, only to go mad with power and hubris.

Most notably, the cast includes Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, and Neve Campbell as three of the four.  Rachel True is the fourth.  Skeet Ulrich is the young bad boy from the school and Christine Taylor has the racist mean girl.  Campbell would star in Scream in the same year and “blow up” as they say nowadays.  Falk is the dark-hearted goth villainess in probably one of her most memorable roles.  Tunney was the star, and a fairly promising one at that, whose career didn’t manage to take off as significantly as Campbell’s.

Often the judge of a teen movie often comes back to the casting of the film.  How many faces are congregated as young up-and-comers in the midst of the story?  It can be a sign of a good core for the film.

Really, it’s a pretty decent flick.  It’s not so much an R-rated affair except for the fact we’ve got teenage witches (Ooh, minds are so corruptible!) Actually, the witch thing was probably at its height at that point of the 1990’s, so it had a timeliness.  But it’s whole heart about social pressure, bullying, friendships and such has probable present day correlations too.

It’s another one of those movies that I thought was okay when I saw it back in the day but now for which I have a slightly better appreciation.  It’s not radical or poignant or even top-notch, but it’s a good teen horror thriller with a good cast.

Rewind This! (2013)

Rewind This! (2013) movie poster

director Josh Johnson
viewed: 09/26/2014

Technology, the constant, incessant march of technology.  That is an ever-growing reality of modern life.  If you think of how profoundly technology evolved in the 20th century alone, the jump to the automobile, the airplane, the atom, DNA, there are almost too many major discoveries and inventions that completely and utterly changed the world in such vast turns that no single other century in recorded history could compare.  Of course, what I’m saying has been said, so I won’t belabor the point.

But we are also a generation of obsolescent technology.  The things that come and the things that go.  Honestly, in some ways, I think nothing ever truly goes away.

The subject of Rewind This! is VHS, the explosion of that technology, the impact it had on culture and movies, and its strange place in the hearts of some seriously hardcore collectors and archivists today.  And certainly there is a story here for certain.

VHS changed media distribution in huge ways.  It wasn’t necessarily the invention of home media for film, but it democratized it and delivered it to virtually every home in most modern countries.  It changed the way people watched film, not only in the privacy of their own homes but the accessibility of content changed the landscape forever.  And the markets it created gave birth to a strange array of opportunism in the movie industry (as well as other video only industries).

What is actually the most relevant and interesting to me is how this speaks to the contemporary present, now several major evolutionary steps beyond VHS.  In many ways, the VHS revolution presaged the era of content on demand, of distribution channels, the idea of “owning” content, and the eventual scrum by corporations to vie in this arena ever onward.  It was a time that didn’t foresee our present, though our present is very informed by this past.

The thing is, the film is focused on people who FREAKING LOVE VHS.  Like its analog charm, compared to vinyl LPs was some great masterstep of technology.  Many of the interviewees and talking heads are collector nerds of the highest order, who have a profound passion for the form.

But I have to agree with the one guy in the film who basically says that VHS was very important but it was basically a really crappy format.  It won out over the competing BETA format which was considered superior, simply because you could record on it for much longer, a quantity over quality thing, which goes against most media arguments, I would think.

Some argue further that some content “only exists on VHS” and so it needs to be preserved.  I don’t know how true this argument is.  It seems weird and sort of unlikely.  Even a film that was distributed “straight to video” was typically shot on film.  And even the ones that were shot on video, you’d still go to the originals if you could find them, not the dupe tapes…right?  Though I know that film preservation finds many of its jewels on cheaper 16mm or worse copies of films.  So who knows?

It’s an interesting world and an interesting time and for those reasons too, an interesting film.  I think anyone interested in film, particularly over the past 40 years would find something here to glom onto.

It made me think that it would be a good pairing with the comedy Be Kind Rewind (2008), which I have never seen, but know inspired the whole “Swede” film thing, which is pretty amusing.  That is a true video double feature.

Bad Biology (2008)

Bad Biology (2008) movie poster

director Frank Henenlotter
viewed: 09/25/2014

I don’t know but this movie sounds like someone dared Frank Henenlotter to come up with the most crass, impossible movie to make and he made it.  Apparently, co-written by Henenlotter and R.A. “The Rugged Man” Thorburn, that my prior supposition is not the least true, but still, let me lay it out for you.

First, we’ve got Jennifer who has a mutant vagina (or whole reproductive system) who needs sex often and intensely, gives birth to babies two hours after becoming inseminated (and dumps them in the trash).  Then we’ve got Batz, who has a steroid-addicted mutant penis that literally has a mind of its own.  Though they sound like a match made in heaven, it turns out that two mutant genitalia don’t necessarily work so well together.

But we don’t find that out til the end.  Batz’s penis goes on a murder rampage of rape when it detaches itself and makes its way around the neighborhood.

The amount of perversity that Henenlotter gets packed into this film is intense and extreme.

At first, told from the perspective of Jennifer (Charlee Danielson), I was thinking that this story of a self-proclaimed nymphomaniac would be a wonderful companion piece to Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013), just a lot more fun and funny.

The movie isn’t quite as good as it could be, probably for a number of reasons.  Danielson is not the greatest actress in the world for one thing.  And the mutant penis is funny (and gross) but I was thinking how much funnier and bizarre was Henenlotter’s other phallic symbiote in Brain Damage (1988).  Because though Batz (Anthony Sneed) can hear the penis talk, it doesn’t actually have a voice.

Still, for out and out crass weirdness, Bad Biology has its merits.

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) movie poster

director Alan Gibson
viewed: 09/25/2014

One good Dracula deserves another I decided.

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (portentous-sounding, isn’t it?) is the final Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing Dracula film.  They made several together.  In the end, it’s not all that surprising that this one came to be the last.  Now, I haven’t watched the ones recently that led up to it, but it has that sort of tired feeling to it.  When Dracula gets his in the end, he gets tangled in a hawthorn tree, easily pinned by Van Helsing to get his stake in his heart.

It also has a group of satanist-types apparently worshiping Dracula (Lee), who is secretly a corporate bigwig with plans to release a super-virus to destroy the world.  I guess everybody needs a hobby.

One other oddly lame moment comes when a bunch of lady vampires, chained up in the basement (why they are chained up exactly is never explained), get killed by a sprinkler system — since one of the things that can kill a vampire is running water, a symbol of purity — but really?  a sprinkler system?

Probably not Hammer’s greatest film, but entertaining enough.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) movie poster

director Francis Ford Coppola
viewed: 09/25/2014

The monthly Netflix streaming purge, the movies suddenly short-lived on my queue.

I had been curious to revisit Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula for a while.  I’d seen it in the theater in its day, 1992, and had thought it both overdone and underdone in parts.  I think I was with many critics of the casting of Keanu Reeves with an “English?” accent and thought it was stretching Winona Ryder out in ways that didn’t seem right.  And the aesthetics, while quite well-done in ways, also seemed a little too-too for me.

But you know, I think I disagree with my younger self on this.  Okay, Keanu’s “accent” if it can be called that can be singled out as pretty silly.  But the film itself is actually quite good in many ways.

First and foremost are the set designs, costuming, make-up, and visual aesthetics and effects. Though made at the coming of the CGI revolution, the film’s effects are designed and executed through more traditional means and not only are many of them stunning but they are unique, surprising, and almost iconic.  The Simpsons did a very amusing parody in an early “Treehouse of Horror” which is some ways is as much homage as parody.  It’s funny to me how much I like it all now compared to how cynical and unappreciative I was of the film in its day.

Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins are both very good in the film.  Oldman is saddled with a very strange Romanian accent but manages to craft a Dracula of extremes of oddness and great sympathy.  Hopkins on the other hand seems to lustily enjoy his coarse, cruel Van Helsing, making for a most humorous role.

More than anything, Coppola’s approach is fun, neither overly serious nor overly camp, enjoying the indulgent visual gags, like Dracula’s ever-busy shadow, but adhering to the melodrama as well.

I wouldn’t call it a masterwork of any kind, not one of the “great” films of the world, but a really good, interesting, well-crafted work.  This is a film for which I have new-found appreciation.

Frontier(s) (2007)

Frontier(s) (2007) movie poster

director Xavier Gens
viewed: 09/25/2014

Frontier(s), a French horror/thriller from the school of New Extremism is another one that makes lists of most shocking or disgusting.  My recent little dip into the genre/style/aesthetic has included Martyrs (2008) and Them (2006), but has in the past also included High Tension (2004), Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001) and the films of Gaspar Noé.

Conclusions?  I’m not there yet.  But I’d put Noé’s films on a different level from the others.

Frontier(s) starts out in what seems like a slightly futuristic Paris, beset by extremist politics and mass riots, in which a group of young people of varied immigrant background pull off a robbery and hightail it to the countryside to re-group.  At first, this seems like the main direction of the film, a heist story maybe.  That is until the hostel that they arrive at turns out to be inhabited by a white supremacist “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” kind of clan.

Gruesomeness ensues.

The casting is quite good, I would say.  The characters that people the film seem well-selected for their menace.  And the convoluted, not sure where all this ends aspect of the plot, leaves you never really certain when the film has hit its lowest of lows or has let its final shoe drop.

But in execution, some of the film is better-shot than others.  Some of the sequences are heavy with hand-held, quick-cut visual nonsense.  Other part of the film settle down into more coherent visuals.

Overall, I’d rate this film higher on ideas than execution, but not necessarily super high on any one thing.  It has a political critique, of course, very much about the right-wing extremists and where anybody of any outside community has no place in this crazy version of France.  But the frontiers it refers to don’t come through as strongly as it could have.

It is gory.

Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown (2008)

Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown (2008) movie poster

director Frank H. Woodward
viewed: 09/22/2014

When I first heard of H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), I had no context for him at all.  I had taken high school American Literature, which was pretty deeply ingrained with the standards, but I had gone all my teen years without hearing about Lovecraft at all.  Who was he?  When did he write?  Where was he published?  How is he considered against those like Edgar Allan Poe or later writers?

Over the years, I would read a number of his stories and see several films made from his works.  But frankly, it wasn’t until the internet that I got any access to biographical information on the mysterious man.  Not that he’s such a total mystery, not anymore.  And now, with Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown, we’ve got a nicely produced documentary with the likes of Neil Gaiman, John Carpenter, Guillermo Del Toro, Ramsey Campbell and many others speaking their own opinions of praise and wry discredit along with the historical background.

The film doesn’t necessarily reveal anything new that you couldn’t possibly find on Lovecraft’s Wikipedia page or with little other web research.  It is interesting to hear his notable fans discuss his strengths and shortcomings, analyze his work.  It’s fun to hear all that.

The documentary is almost in an A&E Biography style, at least, a simple, clean, straight-forward one, with Lovecraft’s words from letters and stories, read aloud to give some sense of his work to those uninitiated.

The film deals with the biggest elephant in the room about Lovecraft, his rampant xenophobia and racism, by discussing it in earnest.

I am one who likes to know more about the subjects in which I am interested.  So, a documentary like this one is quite nice since it is so directly on a subject that intrigues me.  It makes me think that academics probably has come around to him.  Academics that deal with the pulps and genre writers on a level that allows them to be spoken of in the same breath as “literature”.

Le Viol du Vampire (1968)

Le Viol du Vampire (1968) movie poster

director Jean Rollin
viewed: 09/21/2014

I’ve been digging into the films of Jean Rollin since first experiencing The Night of the Hunted (1980).  For the most part it was spot checking a few films (many of the films are not available on DVD from Netflix anymore — while others are readily available on Netflix streaming).  But this is part of the case for Fandor because they have a number of the films available that aren’t on Netflix.  And now, with a bit more options, I decided to go back to his first film, Le Viol du Vampire or The Rape of the Vampire.

It’s the only of Rollin’s films that I’ve seen that was shot in black and white, which interestingly actually seems to suit his personal aesthetics.  Apparently, the film was originally shot as a short and then expanded into a feature.  Rollin did this more seamlessly by a two-part flick, “The Rape of the Vampire” and then “The Queen of the Vampires”.

The first part of the film circles around four vampire sisters who live in an isolated manse, but are visited by a modern trio who hope to convince them that they are delusional.

The latter part is about…a queen of vampires who comes to…okay, it’s pretty confusing.  It does involve transfusion cure and … like I said, it’s kind of confusing.

Significantly, the film is also shot on the beaches of Normandy with the rotting pilings and the isolated beaches that have haunted at least half of Rollin’s films that I’ve seen.  It hand lots of boobs and general eroticism, lesbian themes, and again, this feminist stance that I’ve detected in so many of this films.  The stories are about women who are manipulated by men or by the patriarchal aspects of the world, while in reality, they are the powerful, magical, transformative beings.

His films are strange, the way they linger in the mind.  On the surface, they can be more easily dismissed, I suppose, but they’ve really grown on me.