The Innocents (1961)

The Innocents (1961) movie poster

director  Jack Clayton
viewed: 10/28/2017

Are two young Victorian children possessed by evil spirits and driven to acts of incest? Or is their governess a pent-up Christian woman so full on repressed that she’s projecting psychosis and death everywhere?

On this particular viewing of Jack Clayton’s classic The Innocents, the latter reading struck home more so than the former. Though always part of the film’s (as well as the Henry James The Turn of the Screw) power is the uncanny variance between the supernatural and the psychological.

Another thing that struck me this time through The Innocents was how the horror imagery earns its eerie value. So many things that are “designed” to be scary (look scary at a glance) are imbued with nothing but surface horror. When the image of the woman standing in the far reaches of the pond recurs in the film, it’s still just a figure in the distance, but it is what has been impressed upon the children and upon us the audience, that gives the figure its essence and evil.

One of the great Gothic ghost story films of all time, The Innocents stands up time and again as truly classic horror. And Freddie Francis’s amazing cinematography – amazing stuff.

Woodchipper Massacre (1988)

Woodchipper Massacre (1988) screen capture

director Jon McBride
viewed: 11/01/2016

I’m kind of new to the whole uptick in shot-on-video horror flicks, even though I have the street cred to say that I appeared (albeit extremely briefly in one – Twisted Issues (1988)).  But like others I’m finding the DIY oddities that arose in the 1980’s (and have arguably been carrying on until video quality eventually evened the playing field) are as interesting for their oddities, amateurity, obscurity, and also at times pure crapness.

Case in point of crapness: Jon McBride’s Woodchipper Massacre, which sounds like it’s going to be a lot more bloody than it even comes close to being.  Really, it might be best described as the John Hughes of shot-on-video horror because it’s much less horror and a lot more amateur comedy hour.

Unlike a lot of others, I thought that Denice Edeal and Tom Casiello as the younger sister and brother had some authentic charm in their unfailing geekiness.  McBride stars as the eldest of three kids who wind up killing their aunt and cousin and eventually woodchipping their bodies, before scurrying Risky Business (1983) or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) style to finish cleaning up the yard before their father gets home.

This was neither McBride’s first shot-on-video horror rodeo nor his last.  I don’t know what else to say about that.

Terror Train (1980)

Terror Train (1980) movie poster

director Roger Spottiswoode
viewed: 10/31/2016

The prologue sets the story but starts things rather oddly.  Medical students at a party haze freshmen with various pranks.  The worst one sets up a virgin fellow with a body of a corpse, which freaks him out and pushes him over the edge.

Flash forward 3 more years.

The slasher genre was in high swing by 1980, so it’s pretty obvious that when a group of the same college kids, including star Jamie Lee Curtis, board a steam train for their annual holiday fling, you kind of have to expect that the killer is going to turn out to be the guy who was so shell-shocked in the first sequence.  Right?

Well, whoever it is, starts knocking them off, stealing their get-ups (they are all in costume), and yet the movie coyly tries to play out the mystery.  Throw in David Copperfield as hired entertainment for the ride (nobody seems to know who hired the magician!) and the pretty terrific Ben Johnson as a conductor and bet you didn’t recognize beauty D.D. Walters (who was better known in life as Vanity) as one of the gang.

Terror Train doesn’t really seem to get the slasher vibe down but otherwise is a very accomplished production.  It’s well-shot and the characters don’t seem utterly generic.  Well, not all of them anyways.

While the gore factor is low, Copperfield helps up the cheese factor considerably.

Track of the Moon Beast (1976)

Track of the Moon Beast (1976) VHS cover

director  Richard Ashe
viewed: 10/30/2016

You look at the title and the image on the VHS cover of Track of the Moon Beast and tell me that you don’t think “werewolf”.  On closer observation, you might suspect it’s maybe slightly not a werewolf, but jeesus you weren’t thinking it was going to be a komodo dragon man monster.

Actually, the monster is kind of cool, and seeing that Rick Baker worked on this, well, heck, you kind of wish you could see it a little better.  The lizard man is nearly black and shot in the darkness of night rarely gets his real close-up.

He comes about when a minerologist is hit by a meteorite that fell from the moon.  His pet komodo dragon disappears and then he starts taking on the transformation and lizard-like qualities as depicted in ancient Native American drawings (which look like they were drawn by ancient Native American children).

Somehow, despite a lack of gore or gratuitous nudity or that much of a monster, this really pretty bad movie is actually kind of fun.  But I like bad movies, so you’ll have to take that into consideration regarding my esteem.  It has the feel of a bad movie made a decade or two before 1976, with its bad science and hokey nigh hilarious ending.

Belladonna of Sadness (1973)

Belladonna of Sadness (1973) movie poster

director Eiichi Yamamoto
viewed: 10/29/2016

I first heard of Belladonna of Sadness from Scumbalina at Atomic Caravan.  I’ve been following Scumbalina and Atomic Caravan for about four years now, turned onto Jean Rollin, Aleksandr Rou, and now Eiichi Yamamoto.  I don’t know how hard it would have been to find Belladonna of Sadness, but its recent restoration and release have happened and a random reading of the New York Times told me something else: it’s streaming on Amazon Prime!

The film draws comparisons to George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine, which I assume is because there really isn’t anything else out there like it.  And the 1968 animated Beatles’ vehicle is both psychedelic and unlike most anything else itself.  I actually think it has more in common with René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (also 1973) than anything else I can think of.  Maybe some other Eastern European films of the time.

That said, it’s also very, very Japanese.

Inspired by La Sorcière, a French book about Satanism and Witchcraft from 1862, Belladonna of Sadness takes concepts of European descent and filters them through a psychedelic lens, imbued with elements of Japanese folkloric tradition, plus lots of sex and violence.

Produced initially by Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy and generally referred to as “the Walt Disney of Japan”, this is pretty far-out and sexy stuff.  This was the third production that Tezuka and director Eiichi Yamamoto collaborated on, following One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (1969) and Cleopatra (1970), though Tezuka left Belladonna early in its production.

The style is utterly different from anything else I can think of in feature-length animation.  Yamamoto uses long pans across complex, elaborate drawings oftentimes, using a single image to tell the story.  At other times, the highly stylized imagery comes to life, in gorgeous lines like ink and watercolor and in figures that recall Gustav Klimt or Aubrey Beardsley for many (the latter certainly for me).

The story and images are violent and sexual, with a phallic devil, a woman ripped between her legs, endless vaginas and penises, in what is attempting to be a proto-sex-positive feminism perhaps, though heavily muted by its violent imagery and convoluted path to female empowerment.  The film’s final image, confusingly straight out of left field, is a close-up on Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”,  possibly suggestive of something hopeful and empowering?

People have cited the film for its slow pace and possibly drawn out length (even though it is short).  Also whether it is a successful attempt at a positive feminist message, a failed one, or one at all.  And I cannot say, certainly not on one viewing.

But what it is and why it is so striking is something so radically unusual, with visual designs so gorgeous and unique, I can’t help but find it a remarkable and impressive film, something strange and tremendous and fresh.

Teenage Zombies (1960)

Teenage Zombies (1960) movie poster

director Jerry Warren
viewed: 10/27/2016

It’s not actually all that unusual when a movie poster is better than the movie it’s meant to promote.  Albert Kallis crafted a lot of classic images for Roger Corman productions that could never hope to live up to their gorgeous promotional materials.

The poster of Teenage Zombies doesn’t begin to achieve the qualities of an Albert Kallis.  Far from it, it’s almost comically crap itself, with its buxom cutie in the clutch (one-handed clutch) of a seriously fanged gorilla.  And yet, this poster is still way, way more entertaining and funny than the movie that it was crafted to promote.

“Young Pawns Thrust Into Pulsating Cages of Horror in a Sadistic Experiment!”  Do you want to parse that phrasing?  “Thrust” into “Pulsating Cages”? Wait, what? of “Horror” in a “Sadistic Experiment”  There is a lot of titillation in those words, even more than down the “Young Pawn’s” open shirt front.

The movie?  It’s 70 some odd minutes of teens falling into the figurative clutches of an evil female scientist who has developed a mind-control device to turn humanity into “zombies”.  And she tested it on a gorilla, too.

Yes, it’s very bad.  In a somewhat pleasing if also tedious and boring way.

The poster is much better.

The Slime People (1963)

The Slime People (1963) movie poster

director Robert Hutton
viewed: 10/26/2016

Before the zombie apocalypse or an alien invasion, Los Angeles was beset by slime.  Disturbed by testing of underground explosives, the slime people emerge from below the streets of the city of angels, armed with spears and a fog machine so powerful, it is able to create an impenetrable bubble over LA…in slime!

Star/director Robert Hutton flies into this mess (from where?) and runs into a scientist and his two daughters who through the magic of television, show him just what is going on.

The film’s fog is notorious, occasionally obscuring the entire scene, and its creatures loping gill-man variants that are actually kind of cool.  It’s also somewhat notable that you see the monsters before you even get the film title, unusual in almost any movie.

My favorite tidbit from Wikipedia on The Slime People:
“Producer Joseph F. Robinson recalled that the filmmakers originally intended to feature midgets as giant voles, who would serve as the advance guard of the invasion, but the sequence was so bad it was cut from the released film.”

A remarkable trash classic, worthy of consideration of one of the worst films of all time.

Night of the Blood Beast (1958)

Night of the Blood Beast (1958) movie poster

director  Bernard L. Kowalski
viewed: 10/26/2016

When you’ve watched enough Roger Corman 1950’s horror and science fiction films, you begin to feel that there is a rather low ceiling to how high the quality will ever rise.  But like any creative toiling prolifically in pulp, especially one who brought on lots of first time talent on the cheap, every once in a while, something more interesting comes along.

Re-using the monster costume from his film Teenage Cave Man shot only weeks before, Night of the Blood Beast is typically cheap but atypically interesting.  It was written by Martin Varno (his only writing credit per IMDb), apparently under the spell of Howard Hawks’s The Thing from Another World (1951).  It has, however, more in common with The First Man in Space (1959), a pair of space race sci-fi/horror stories about what might happen when man first made it out of Earth’s atmosphere and tried to return.

In Night of the Blood Beast, the pilot comes back dead but impregnated with alien fetuses and revivified by the creatures he carries inside him.  The monster is pretty silly looking but the image of the embryos under the fluoroscope, as well as an opening title image and visions of cells under the microscope are cheaply but interestingly animated and drawn.  There is also a suggestively gruesome corpse with half its face torn off, dripping blood in near silhouette.

I would not try to suggest that this is necessarily “good” science fiction, but there are some interesting ideas here.  The male impregnation is definitely on of them.  The script also has the pregnant pilot struggling with empathy for the aliens (for whom all the other humans have a “destroy first and ask questions later” attitude about.  It’s almost as though the story was hedging its bets as to whether these were benign aliens or true “blood beasts” until the very end.

Ultimately, I think this has a bit more going for it than some give it credit for.  It surprised me a bit.

Evil Spawn (1987)

Evil Spawn (1987) VHS cover

director Kenneth J. Hall, Ted Newsom, Fred Olen Ray
viewed: 10/24/2016

Two phrases that come to mind in watching Evil Spawn:  “They don’t make ’em like they used to” and “I know a friend or two who would LOVE this stuff.”

That said, I don’t know what I have to add to the discussion of Evil Spawn other than it’s more fun than it seemingly has a right to be.

It opens with message about “alien microbes” and an FX shot of a spaceship flying towards Earth?   Then, a somewhat inexplicable sequence in which a strange woman releases a creature in a lab that attacks and mutates a schlubby looking scientist.  Who then goes crazy and attacks some “teens” looking for a lost cat before getting killed.  Followed by another scene in which the strange woman from before has a conversation at a table with a very elderly John Carradine.

Followed by a whole new scene with a voice-over by a hard-boiled writer who turns out to be writing the biography of a faded starlet, Lynn Roman (Bobbie Bresee).  These seemingly unrelated segments result in the reappearance of the strange woman bringing Ms. Roman an injectable youth serum, presumably infected with these “alien microbes” which sort of freshen her up but also turn her into a rather strange bug-like mutant with a penchant for murder.

It seems the film was patched together from various versions by at least three directors including Fred Olen Ray (though it’s Kenneth J. Hall who is credited).  The footage, for instance, of Carradine was generically shot by Ray some time before (Carradine would be dead a year later with Evil Spawn as one of his final films).  In additional notes on the DVD, Ray suggests that there had been an entirely different monster at one time too.

All this retroactive knowledge helps make sense of this mildly warmed over (not really “hot”) mess.  But again, doesn’t really tell the tale of why it’s low budget hack filmmaking turned out such a rather entertaining piece of cult junk.  But it did.

The Neon Demon (2016)

The Neon Demon (2016) movie poster

director Nicolas Winding Refn
viewed: 10/22/2016

Effin’ Nicolas Winding Refn.  At least that is how I’ve come to think of him.

I liked Drive (2011) (liked not loved).  Afterwards, I went back and saw Valhalla Rising (2009), Bronson (2008), and Pusher (1996).  And then Only God Forgives (2013).

Now, it’s possible that Nicolas Winding Refn is a genius and that Only God Forgives and now The Neon Demon too are remarkable cinematic works.  It’s even possible that at some point in the future, I too, will realize this and concede that my initial experiences with them were errant.

But as beautifully shot as some of this stuff is, Winding Refn starts resembling fellow Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier.  As in filmmakers who are totally up their own asses.  The Neon Demon skates close to the extreme misogyny of Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013).  It’s a film ostensibly about women and beauty and ugliness.  Psychological horror.  Meant to be off-putting.

But am I the only one who found the film hugely problematic?  Not even in the more obvious moments of sexual violence but even in its quieter scenes?

I don’t know, man.  I recognize I could be wrong.  But I seriously don’t know.