The Driller Killer (1979)

The Driller Killer (1979) movie poster

director Abel Ferrara
viewed: 10/22/2014

Believe it or not, I’d never seen Abel Ferrara’s punk splatter debut film The Driller Killer.  The writer/director of Ms. 45 (1981) and The Bad Lieutenant (1992), I always kind of assumed that The Driller Killer was a sort of Roger Corman-ish opportunity for a slasher film, maybe not so much of the purity of Ferrara’s style.  How wrong I was.

Really, it’s an amazingly personal film, I would guess.  Ferrara stars as Reno, a painter living in late 1970’s Manhattan’s gritty, pretentious art scene at the crux of the punk scene as well.  The problem is that he’s losing his grip or reality and fantasizing about going on random sprees of murder with a motorized but portable hand drill.

It’s far less Halloween (1978) and a little bit more Maniac (1980), and by this I mean it has gore and violence but it follows its psychopathic murderer more from the inside, a psychological sort of study.  But Ferrara’s killer is a reflection of New York City of its time, a critique of art culture and punk culture, hipster culture.  It also feels like a vision of a real sense of an individual’s response to the universe.

It earned a serious rep from its discredit in a British film ban.  A “video nasty” that is certainly perverse but is nowhere as nasty as some.

This was also yet another new tipping point for me.  Like I needed another outlet for content, I signed up for Full Moon Streaming (in large part because of a contract they have recently signed with Something Weird Video).  Their Grindhouse selection, from which The Driller Killer stemmed from has some goodly stuff on it as well.

The Curious Dr. Humpp (1969)

The Curious Dr. Humpp (1969)  movie poster

director Emilio Vieyra
viewed: 10/22/2014

Wow.  What a lulu!

Since I’ve been in San Francisco (the early 1990’s), I started my ventures in cult cinema through the Inner Sunset’s legendary Le Video store.  And from that cult section I became of the plethora of materials that they had from Something Weird video, a company that I didn’t know much about at the time other than Le Video seemed to carry their entire spate of old porn loops, Betty Page movies, and a variety of exploitation movies.  I didn’t come to know until at least a decadFirze later that it was the work and cultivation of Mike Vraney and Frank Henenlotter.

But some, maybe many, of the movies and covers sank into my brain as I pored over the video shelves every night that I lingered long in the shelves of the video store (truly a lost art in this day and age).  And from there and perhaps from other places as well, the image of The Curious Dr. Humpp stared out at me.

I’ll give you a synopsis, but I recommend reading Henenlotter’s own liner notes on the film at SomethingWeird.com.  It is a testament to Something Weird in the role it has played in aspects of film preservation that the sleaze market just probably would not have otherwise received.

It’s a story about a doctor with a degenerative disease that requires him to develop a serum that keeps him young and healthy.  This serum is derived from outrageous sexual ecstasies of the highly libidinous.  So not only does he kidnap nymphomaniacs and the like, but he gives them copious aphrodisiacs to keep the stuff coming.  One problem is that most men expire in the work.  Or he turns them into weirdo zombies.

It’s the late 1960’s, so these are hippies and drugs and lots of copious nudity, all in a rather glorious black-and-white.  And then these weird zombies with strange papier-mache heads that are so very very strange themselves.

It’s a unique level of perversity.  And an Argentine one by origin.  And you have to know that if Henenlotter says, “Brace yourselves, folks, this one’s a jaw dropper!” that you better believe him.

Eyes Without a Face (1960)

Eyes Without a Face (1960) movie poster

director Georges Franju
viewed: 10/20/2014

Georges Franju’s great Eyes Without a Face.  What can I say?  It’s great.

The story of a mad doctor murdering young women to steal the skin from their faces to replace his own daughter’s damaged visage.  It inspired any number of other films from Jess Franco to John Carpenter to most recently perhaps,Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (2011).  It’s still an amazing artifact all on its own.

I first heard of it from Billy Idol’s song “Eyes Without a Face”.   It took me years to finally see it.  And jeez, that was a long time ago now too.

I don’t have much to add at the moment.  Great movie.

Hercules in the Haunted World (1961)

Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) movie poster

director Mario Bava
viewed: 10/20/2014

Mario Bava.  The more I see, the more I love.

I think this movie first came to my attention some 25 years ago, in some joking Tim Burton documentary that I saw, where referenced his childhood appreciation for “foreign films” such as Hercules in the Haunted World and some Japanese kaiju flick.  And there it had lingered for all this time.  I’m not sure why I never got around to seeing it before.

It’s a glorious low-budget fantasia of color and fantasy.  I really don’t have words to do it justice at the moment.  It’s easy to see how Bava moved from cinematography and art direction into directorhood.  Sure, there is a chintzyness to the aesthetic but it’s also pure, camp gorgeousness.

Brilliant.  Gorgeous.  So cool.

Cult of the Cobra (1955)

 

Cult of the Cobra (1955) movie poster

director Francis D. Lyon
viewed: 10/19/2014

The DVD format might have been short-lived in its marketplace, usurping VHS, then usurped by BluRay and slowly eradicated by non-physical formats, I am possibly of a minority that appreciated aspects of the form.  The best DVD’s have typically come from Criterion, not just new prints and repaired versions of films, but with really valuable additions like commentaries by scholars with solid historical or critical value or mini-documentaries to accompany films with valuable information.

But there have also been these odd box sets and double features, which sometimes make for some solid companionship.  More recently I watched The Monster that Challenged the World (1957) and It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), which was a sweet little double feature.

Now, Cult of the Cobra would actually probably make a better double feature with something different than Dr. Cyclops (1940), but it’s still kind of cool to get two for one.  The old fashioned double feature, put together by someone.  Really, these films have little in common, but I still enjoyed getting to see them both.

Cult of the Cobra, the B-side, is a sample of Universal Horror, though perhaps a more obscure and lesser pic than many.  It stars an array of actors who would go on to star in televisions shows in the 1950’s and 1960’s, as a group of army dudes in post-war “Asia” (it’s actually amusing how nonspecific the film is about where this all apparently happens.)  Intrigued by stories of a cult that believes that they can turn people into snakes, they bribe a member to take them to a ritual, though they promise to go incognito and not take any pictures.

Well, one yahoo does snap some pictures, outing them and getting their guide killed and the whole gang cursed (by a very non-Asian Edward Platt).  The same yahoo tries to steal a basket from the ceremony and gets bitten by a cobra.  They are then all hunted down one by one upon their return to New York by a mysterious lady who turns into a snake.

There are some relevant comparisons to Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942), which also involves a mysterious woman and animal transformations, but Curse of the Cobra is no Cat People.  Now that might be a good double feature still.

The fact of the matter is that there is a kind of nonchalant portrayal of American GI’s behaving badly and insensitively in a foreign country.  This really isn’t explicit nor is the punishment explicitly a critique of the insensitivity (the yahoo notes that he must have had a few too many to act the way he did as if chagrin is enough for insulting the religious practices of the foreign country).  I was actually thinking that this could be re-made today with a more biting (ha!) cultural critique if someone dared.

It’s a B-minus B-picture, but has a good cast and is certainly none too shabby.

Dr. Cyclops

Dr. Cyclops (1940) movie poster

director Ernest B. Schoedsack
viewed: 10/19/2014

From the great Ernest B. Schoedsack (The Most Dangerous Game (1932), King Kong (1933), Song of Kong (1933), Mighty Joe Young (1949)), Dr. Cyclops is a sci-fi thriller about a mad scientist who has developed a ray to shrink living creatures.  Albert Dekker in one of his most notable roles plays the myopic villain, lurking in the jungle, with his nutty plans.

The first sci-fi flick shot in 3-color Technicolor, it’s visually sumptuous.  Particularly if you are like me and have such a penchant for Technicolor’s wondrous lurid lustre.

Really, what is Dr. Thorkel up to in the jungle?  He invites some experts to come and help him confirm some of his research, but then quickly dismisses them.  It turns out that he found a rich cache of pitchblende, an ore that contains high levels of uranium and radium.  Rather than sharing this with the world and making lots of money from it, he has found a way to tap the resource to work on his mad plans.   His plan to shrink living things!  To what end?  Got me.

But he ends up shrinking his guests when they discover a bit of his schemes.  He then goes on to torment and kill them until they finally get a shot at overthrowing their Cyclopean antagonist.  The reference is to The Odyssey, trapping Ulysses/Odysseus in the Cyclops’ cave.  Apropos and interesting.

Really a sharp film, another great one from Schoedsack, a director who deserves better recognition  for more  than his masterpiece King Kong.

Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

Berberian Sound Studio (2012) movie poster

director Peter Strickland
viewed: 10/18/2014

Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio is a sort of meta-horror film, more interested in the meta than the horror but none the less interesting for that.

Set in the 1970’s, it features Toby Jones as Gilderoy, a mild-mannered English sound engineer brought into an Italian film production that he doesn’t know much about.  Lured by the job opportunity and thinking the film was somehow about an equestrian theme, it turns out to be a pretty lurid giallo picture whose title is The Equestrian Vortex, but is really about witches, the Inquisition, torture and lots of screaming.  Not at all his cup of tea, Gilderoy keeps his upper lip stiff as he suffers through rudeness and indignities, rescuing long-legged spiders while having to mimic sound effects like sizzling blood, splattering bodies, and crunching bones.

As much as the film is about Gilderoy’s descent into vague madness, it’s about the analog glory days of practical sound effects and the magnetic tape manipulations in old school technologies.  Strickland lingers on the vegetables that are the cores of many of the effects, the two foley guys, Massimo & Massimo, who perform their work with professional detachment but with professional perfection.

The only part of the film within a film that we really see is the title sequence, which replaces Berberian Sound Studio‘s own sequence and is executed in a throwback style of the Italian giallo films of the 1960’s and 1970’s.  The actors, director, producer and other hangers-on suggest a variety of aspects of the post-production process and the levels of focus and creative investment therein.

If anything, there is more homage in the details than in the film’s narrative.  It’s not by any means typical itself of the giallos that I’ve seen which were all more pulpy even when surreal.  The film does stretch itself into a more surrealist strategy toward the end, as while the film within the film disappears, the filmmakers, or at least Gilderoy finds himself in his own version of a film within itself.

Interesting if not brilliantly compelling.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) video poster

director Frank De Felitta
viewed: 10/18/2014

Not sure where or what I’d read about it to give me this notion, but somehow I gathered that The Dark Night of the Scarecrow was a good one to watch with my kids.  I think it has been remembered as one of the more eerie made-for-tv movies from the heyday of such things.  I’m pretty sure that I’d seen it but it didn’t jog my memory for much.

It’s a revenge from beyond the grave kind of thriller.  When Bubba (Larry Drake), a mentally deficient adult, is suspected of harming his child playmate, he is hunted down by a quartet of vengeful, bloodthirsty locals and shot to death while hiding as a scarecrow.  It doesn’t take long for the error to be realized.  Not only was the girl not killed but Bubba was the one who saved her.  These upright citizens, led by the inimitable Charles Durning, of course, don’t own up to their error but say that Bubba was killed in self-defense.  And they get away with it.

For a time.

The vengeance type or thriller is a different kind of horror film.  The only ones in real danger are the bad guys.  Except of course all the other folks that Durning takes down in trying to cover up his initial crime.  But it’s not the same kind of vicarious fear you have for a character that doesn’t necessarily get their own comeuppance.

Felix thought the film not really scary at all, which it’s not really.  It does have a sort of curious ending that suggests something.  Is Bubba really come from beyond the grave?  Is he a scarecrow figure or some invisible operator?  What is the little girl’s role in the murders?  The ending is just that nuance of unclear suggestiveness that could get under one’s skin in the 1970’s/1980’s.

Is it one of the better horror films made-for-tv?  I don’t know.  It’s not a bad film.  I don’t know why I couldn’t remember it better.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The Blair Witch Project (1999) movie poster

directors Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez
viewed: 10/18/2014

So, with my 13 year old son suddenly deciding that he is really into horror films, I offered him the pick of the film channels of what movie he wanted to see.  Between Netflix, Hulu, and Fandor, we had a lot from which to choose, and he went with my notes on The Blair Witch Project.

The film that didn’t invent the “faux found footage” genre but did spark it into overdrive, The Blair Witch Project was one of those things that I saw back in the day, appreciated for what it was, but had never revisited in all the years.  I had seen its remarkably bad sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000), and I think for all its badness had appreciated that it hadn’t tried to go all “faux found footage” 2 on us.

To be fair, in 1999, “faux found footage” was novel enough to enliven a movie.  And The Blair Witch Project took that concept, that the movie is utterly comprised of footage that was found when its filmmakers disappeared that it earned its added thrills of fake verity.  It’s very dedicated to the whole concept that this footage is all we have.  And the crappy camerawork, the ellipses in knowledge, all the shaking darkness, and mumbled nonsense…it’s because the film was all that was left.  This is no polished work of film art, but the opposite, an artifact.

The story of a trio of filmmakers hunting on a legend of the Blair Witch in the Maryland woods only to become utterly lost and tormented by unknown forces…it taps into a pretty primal fear.  Lost in the woods.  Don’t know what is out there, what is scaring you.

For all the credit that I’ll give it, and it does deserve it, largely on innovation and casting and improvisation (the film was executed interestingly, as well as marketed in novel fashion), I would say what it winds up lacking is the power of images.  And unless you are really plugged into the narrative, the diagetic universe of the characters, all that shaky camerawork and black screen, breathing and cursing, terrors are not all that well evoked.

The actors actually did film the whole thing.  And the lead, Heather Donahue, who is the director within the film, hadn’t actually operated a camera much prior to being the lead camera operator on the film.  What I’m getting at is that I don’t think that the film itself holds up all that well.  It’s not bad by any means, but it’s not as iconic as one might try to recall.  The efficacy of the images of the bound sticks and hanging objects, it could be freaky…the teeth when uncovered are actually creepy.  The final image, with one character standing in a corner before the camera slaps down and the film runs out…it works to an extent.  You don’t really have time to read it.  It’s freaky because it doesn’t make sense, but that’s all you’re left with in the end.

Now I say this because this is my takeaway from this viewing of The Blair Witch Project.  And again, I didn’t think it was awful by any means.  I think there is an honesty and a commitment to the narrative and idea to which most “faux found footage” films since have often paid poor lip service.  But I also don’t think it stands up as a “great” horror film, even of its time.  I think it’s influence and innovation stand strong.

That said, Felix was pretty freaked out by the end of the film while most of the film he was almost kind of bored.  The ending is the film’s best sequence.

In the end, the film is more iconic for its influence and sadly that influence is a litany of much crappier and cheaper horror films on the whole.  I look forward to a gap in the production of “faux found footage” films.  Maybe after some long break from them, someone will innovate again.

Annabelle (2014)

Annabelle (2014) movie poster

director John R. Leonetti
viewed: 10/18/2014

Annabelle, the haunted doll movie, a prequel/spin-off of James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013), didn’t call out to me (in a creepy voice) that it was something that I needed to see, much less see in the theater.  However, my 13 year old son, who has up until recently stated that he didn’t like horror films has suddenly decided that he does like them and wants to watch ones that look particularly scary to him.  The film did call out to him, apparently.

That said, it doesn’t take a lot of arm-twisting to get me into seeing a horror film.  But as I bought tickets and we headed up the escalator to the theater, I realized to him that I don’t think I’ve ever taken him to a horror film in the cinema, much less an R-rated one.  At home, he cowers behind pillows or grabs my arm when things get intense.  In the theater, things tend to be more intense due to the size, volume, and darkness.  He assured me that he’d be fine.

The Conjuring was supposed to be based on the “real life” experiences of supernaturalists, Ed and Lorraine Warren, “their freakiest case” or some such thing.  And it featured a room of their house that was filled with evil or possessed objects, of which, supposedly, Annabelle the amazingly creepy-looking doll, was the most evil of all.  Annabelle the movie is supposedly about the real-life(?) doll, the first in a potential series of films about the objects of this creepy room.  I have to  give them credit, that’s a pretty sweet and pretty wide-open franchise of things scary.

The film begins with a group of nurses telling the off-screen Warrens about their experiences with the creepy doll, and then the film flashes back another year to a young married couple in Santa Monica, expecting their first child, and decorating its nursery with antique dolls.  But then all hell breaks loose in the form of a murderous cult couple, the young adult drug-addled daughter of their next door neighbors who, much like the Manson family, have come to wreak murder and havoc in middle class California.  They kill the neighbor family and stab the pregnant woman in her abdomen before getting shot down by police and/or committing suicide.  The daughter, Annabelle, bleeds into the creepy doll’s eye as she dies.

This is actually quite shocking and terrifying in itself.  Whether devil-worshipers or drug-induced cult nutsos, this random act of violent chaos bears of the reality of the time of the late 1960’s/early 1970’s when this stuff was relevant and a true fear.

Of course, that blood infects the doll and evil things happen in the house.  Evil things even follow the couple from the house to Pasadena, to an older apartment building to which they relocate.  That’s because this is one of those dolls you can’t get rid of…and is being used as a conduit by a demon seeking a soul.

Frankly, I was really surprised how good Annabelle was.  It hadn’t received very good reviews.  I had thought The Conjuring to be pretty good, but not overly great, so I didn’t have particularly heightened expectations.  But the film relies on some more practical visual effects for much of its creepy imagery.  And while there certainly are a lot of loud music jumps, eerie movements in a frame’s background, techniques you’ve seen many times before, the film does build on a solid framework of narrative, has some genuinely creepy qualities, and is pretty darn effective.

It played Felix like a Stradivarius.  Actually, he was so primed that he even jumped during the trailer for Ouija (2014).  He was so freaked during some of it I thought he was going to hyperventilate.  I really questioned if bringing him was the right thing.  He grabbed my arm throughout, and whether it was through some contact vicariousness, or even enhanced by other gasping and laughing members of the audience, I found myself enjoying the film much more than I expected.

In then end, Felix said that it was definitely among his most scariest films.  I’ll settle for saying that it was very good, much better than anticipated, and that I was impressed, which believe me, is a compliment, even if it sounds a little backhanded.

It’s true that the two genres of movie that are the most fun to see with an audience are horror films and comedies.  Whatever your response is, it’s easily influenced for the better hearing those around you gasping or laughing or shouting or screaming.  It does actually make the whole thing more fun.

Surprisingly fun, in fact.