Sensible, educated people should not enjoy AMOK TRAIN--or so one would gather from reading random comments on the Internet. To that, I say: Pppppffffftttt! Granted, the plot contains absurd elements, most notably, a train possessed by Satan, and many of the effects and model work come across as unconvincing. However, the film also provides some deliciously atmospheric camera work, with marvelously bleak Eastern European locations, including one of the most eerie forest journeys since CASTLE OF THE WALKING DEAD. Mario Bava--whose late film SHOCK, bears an odd relationship to AMOK TRAIN in that it, like AMOK TRAIN, was marketed as a sequel to the Italian shocker, BEYOND THE DOOR--would have done wonderful things with this script. In fact, the film's ending seems inspired in part by the final frames of Bava's LISA AND THE DEVIL. As it stands, AMOK TRAIN is a pleasing time waster.
The film's protagonist, Beverly, has an all-too-common problem in satanic horror: her ancestors have pre-arranged her to be deflowered by Satan (as evidenced by her odd birthmark). As an ostracized high school student, she joins a school trip to Serbia, her ancestral country, where she and the other young travelers will witness a pre-Christian version of the Passion Play. Bo Svenson plays their local guide with much sinister effect, and upon their arrival, he leads them through an ominous forest, into a primitive village, where the inhabitants board them with the intention to eventually kill them. Most of the students manage to escape on an archaic, coal-driven train, where they eventually meet their doom, as the train serves to bring Beverly to her date with the devil himself.
The film's crew make excellent use of the Soviet-era locale, utilizing a locomotive that in itself looks demonic. Much of the script remains undeveloped; indeed, Svenson's character starts to explain the origins of the pagan Passion Play, but stops short of explaining its significance and how it evolved into a representation of the Biblical story. We're left to assume that it all has something to do with fertility, virgins, and all that other good stuff. The film makes the Serbian rainroad officials seem laughably incompetent; with the possessed train on a collision course with another train and their constant failure to de-rail the demon locomotive, it never occurs to them to stop the unpossessed train until the last moment before its fatal wreck.
Such plot absurdities add more charm to an already daft good time. The film's script takes advantage of the all those churning, metal parts, providing plenty of squishy, entrail dangling deaths. The film ultimately scores on such excesses, as well as its thick atmosphere. Well worth a look, but be sure to turn off your brain!
Now, here's something perfectly nasty and unpleasant for the holiday season! In the 1980s, Pacific Comics pushed the horror envelope with TWISTED TALES, an anthology series featuring the work of Bruce Jones, who often featured themes of intolerance and social inequity. These themes reached their apex with "Banjo Lessons," a story that foregrounds racism in some startling and unsettling ways. Pacific Comics obviously realized that Jones' story would provoke controversy; in an editorial, April Campbell tried to preempt negative reader response by arguing that story served a purpose by "portraying bigotry, not for the purpose of promoting it, but to remind our readers that it not only has existed in the past, but it exists in even more insidious forms today." Yet, the sensational aspect of the story calls that purpose into question. The letters column of the next issue featured several responses to the story, most in support. However, one reader argued that the cannibalism in the story "obscured the point" and suggested that "it's stated motives [may be] a bit suspect." This raises the question of horror's ability to illuminate social issues without becoming complicit in the social ills it purports to condemn. Just watch CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and you'll see what I mean. Re-reading "Banjo Lessons" now makes me uneasy because its portrayals might have made more sense had it been written in pre-Civil Rights America. As a document of the 1980s, the servile nature of the title character seems out of place and raises damning questions. Does the animal metaphor raise empathy or merely become degrading? Read on, and judge for yourself.
Ivan Zuccon's NYMPHA begins in much the same way as Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA: a young American woman makes her way through a violent night rainstorm to take her place in a foreign institution for women--in this case, a convent. The young woman, Sarah (played by the fetching Tiffany Shepis), discovers in the most painful way that this order of nuns observe an unorthodox set of rituals. As the film progresses, she finds herself humiliated and tortured, even as she experiences past visions of an old man living with a daughter who has been impregnated under mysterious circumstances. Thanks to the alcoholic, broken down doctor working for the convent, Sarah gradually loses each of her senses; at the same time, however, new sensory doors open for her, and she begins to "see" the nightmarish truth of Nympha's birth and what her grandfather harbored in his attic.
After cutting his teeth on a series of H. P. Lovecraft-based films, including the commendable THE SHUNNED HOUSE (2003), Zuccon brings us this fresh exploration of tropes and images that had become prevalent in past decades of Italian horror and nunspoitation cinema, calling to mind such films as THE OTHER HELL, THE HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS, and any number of films directed by Lucio Fulci. Even as Zuccon pays his respect to these previous films (even including some cringe-worthy eye violence that would have made Fulci proud of his fellow Italian), his references suggest something other than slavish fan adoration. Rather, we can see evidence that Zuccon sees himself as part of a tradition that has, unfortunately, fallen on hard times since the early 90s.
Zuccon appears to be on the verge of finding a truly distinct voice, even as he continues to explore the kind of source material that clearly obsesses him. In some ways, NYMPHA calls to mind H. P. Lovecraft's "The Color Out of Space," sharing with that story a focus on pregnancy that may have an otherworldly or supernatural origin. However, unlike his previous Lovecraft films, Zuccon does not draw directly from Lovecraft, and the ultimate revelation of his film involves something very different from what Lovecraft would conceive in his own work.
Zuccon also brings us plenty of exploitation goodies, including gore, nudity, and a lesbian encounter that didn't necessary develop the narrative, but still manages to add a surreal quality. Although shot on what appears to be digital video, NYMPHA nevertheless looks elegant, punctuated by Zuccon's flair for chiaroscuro. An uneasy co-existence of exploitation and arthouse sensibility emerges, but that's nothing new to anyone who watches Italian horror. What's refreshing is to see someone doing it now. Bear in mind, I don't mean to say that Zuccon has come forth as some kind of second coming; in fact, he seems to have plenty of detractors out there, as evidenced by the miserable 3.1 rating garnered by NYMPHA on the imdb. However, NYMPHA strikes me as a worthy effort that deserves a spot on your Netflix cue.
How can you not love a band that names itself after a Jordi Grau movie, plays to classic horror images, and features a freakin' flute? The quality of the image is so-so, but you can still get your freak on to Blood Ceremony with the clip below.
For me, no image better captures the weirdness and perversity of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" than Harry Clarke's interpretation of Madeline Usher's "rending of her coffin." With this story, Poe took the conventions of the gothic narrative in vogue during previous decades and compressed them into this tight story of live burial, doomed twins, and a decaying family mansion. The story opens with one of the most perfectly constructed sentences in dark literature:
"During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher."
Recently, I came across what might be a source of inspiration for this line, a 1797 gothic novel by Mrs. Carver, THE HORRORS OF OAKENDALE ABBEY. This novel contains the kind of gothic conventions Poe would perfect, and it also begins with a line that in some ways echoes Poe's own beginning:
"In the gloomy month of November, when the mountains of Cumberland were almost concealed by the heavy black clouds which hung below their tops, and a thick dripping rain scarcely left the few scattered cottages of Oakendale discernable, the peasants were all retired to their habitations; and through this thick atmosphere the stately ruins of the antient (sic) Abbey appeared like a black mass of immense length, and could only be distinguished as a building, by the glimmering twinkling of the small panes of glass from some of the many windows which were dispersed without uniformity, in this gloomy structure."
Carver's opening mirrors Poe's both in structure (clunky as hers may be, she even has a similarly placed semicolon), as well as effect (the pervading sense of gloom.) According to Curt Herr's introduction to the recent Zittaw Press edition, Carver's work was received well on both sides of the Atlantic, so it doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility that Poe would have come in contact with THE HORRORS OF OAKENDALE ABBEY.
TWILIGHT made buckets of money this past weekend, and while I don't wish the film any ill will, I do intend to ride out this wave by taking refuge with some more daring, subversive vampire film. Who better to go to than Jean Rollin, the subversive French film-maker who made great contributions to the reinvention of the vampire in the 1970s? In THE VAMPIRE CINEMA, David Pirie suggests that Jean Rollin takes "the vampire out of a narrative context and plac[es] it in an essentially visual frame of reference." Even as he gives Pirie gives Rollin serious critical consideration, Pirie ultimately suggests that the lack of narrative structure marks a certain weakness in his films, making them somewhat inferior to, say, Harry Kumel's DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS. However, I find myself returning much more often to Rollin's films, most recently Lèvres de sang (known as LIPS OF BLOOD to Yanks like me.)
Arguably, Rollin focuses more on narrative here than he does in many of his other films. Rollin foregrounds childhood and innocence with a narrative that begins with a photograph of tower ruins by the seaside. This photograph calls forth memories in the protagonist, leading him to remember a mysterious, waifish woman imprisoned in the tower. He grants her a brief escape before she becomes just a vague, bittersweet memory. The rest of the film documents his quest to find the elusive tower and, effect, his childhood.
The whole film comes across as a unspooled fairy tale, complete with archetypes like a "terrible mother" and "shadow figures" in the form of female vampires awakened by the protagonist's desires. In fact, the vampires appear simultaneously lethal and pitiful in the film, just as the protagonist's quest to recover his childhood appears paradoxically as a dangerous sort of innocence, leading to unpleasant revelations about his own family.
Rollin uses stunning imagery here, including the seaside images he favors in all his films. The Kinoeye web page includes some excellent Jean Rollin resources that come highly recommended.
Recently, Kitty LeClaw, the dark mistress of the horror blogosphere, gave us an an excellent posting on SPLATTER #1, an anthology comic that featured what appears to be an early installment of Tim Vigil's GOTHIC NIGHTS, here titled "The Countess." The story follows the doomed romance between Tanya, a truly demonic vampire woman, and her werewolf lover, Anton, who falls victim to bloodthirsty mob. Mourning the loss of her lover, Tanya turns to Dr. Frankenstein for help.
The above graphic comes from SPLATTER, but notice how Vigil revised these frames when he later published the story in the two issues of GOTHIC NIGHTS.
These issues are favorites of mine, as they give us what is essentially a Universal/Hammer story hopped up on a cocktail of steroids and Viagra.
At some point, the story was available as a graphic novel, but I've only been able to track down the individual issues of the comic book. Below, I've scanned the striking cover art, and apparently, Broken Halo still sells copies. Trust me, these are well worth seeking out.
Someone on the Classic Horror Discussion Board called attention to this strange little kinky film. I'm half inclined to think that it really originates later than the silent era--in fact, with sound and color, it could easily be a 70s production--but perhaps it's a dirty little obscurity from that earlier period. Any theories? WARNING: It's definitely not work safe.
UPDATE: According to Gary L. Prange in a post on the Classic Horror Discussion Board, the clip comes from a 1928 French stag film called MESSE NOIRE.
Take the pioneering 1960s pop art of Basil Gogos and James Bama. Throw in a dose of punk rock. Result: the work of Bryan Baugh and David Hartman, two artists who carry on the tradition of featuring classic and contemporary horror characters.
Both give us representations with a delightfully nasty attitude and high dose of sexuality. Check out Baugh's colorful images of the Creature from the Black Lagoon lusting menacingly for Julie Adams, or Hartman's interpretations of Rob Zombie's Devil's Rejects.
Dig this iconic image from Lucio Fulci's seminal 1980s film, THE BEYOND. Often celebrated for creating chunkblowing masterpieces, Fulci's best work combined grotesque, over-the-top imagery with sublime images like this one. Romero has given us zombies that function as social metaphors, but Fulci's zombies reflect the nightmare of human existence: that a truly spiritual dimension is nothing more than another waste land (as seen here) that offers no escape from our material existence as meat. And what is a zombie but just meat?
As most readers of this blog will already know, Fulci created much of his best work in the early 1980s, as he followed up ZOMBI 2 with THE GATES OF HELL, THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, NEW YORK RIPPER, and THE BEYOND. These films often draw our attention to the eyes as the spiritual center, the focal point of human existence. Yet, the eye also becomes subject to tearing, to destruction, to blindness. I recently revisted THE BEYOND courtesy of the new Grindhouse DVD, and while I still find that the graphic violence has impact, I feel more and more drawn to the film's surrealism and its ability to make me feel like I've visited a truly otherworldly place. Those blasted out and blinded eyes Fulci shows us? He was trying to say something about our place as viewers.
Meanwhile, I also recently revisted Jess Franco's, BLOODY MOON, a 1981 film that borrows heavily from the America-style slasher film in vogue at the time. Nevertheless, this viewing left me with the sense that Franco accomplished something more in line with the Italian giallo, with its red herrings and emphasis on voyeurism. At the risk of making the film something more than it really is--basically something Franco did for a pay-check--it still manages to seem more artful than the American equivalent at the time, with (BEWARE SPOILER) an ending that calls to mind Mario Bava, who also gave us endings that presented more than one perpetrator
For a Franco film, the effects work looks more professional than the painted-on blood often seen in some of his scaled-down, more personal productions, like VAMPYROS LESBOS or VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD. While I generally prefer those more personal films, I still have fun with BLOODY MOON, which stands well above most of the other stalk'n'slash films of the early 1980s. Plus, it features a truly cruel "must-see" moment with a circular saw.
Lastly, a confession: the film adaptation of TWILIGHT opens today, with me about two-thirds of the way through the novel. I told myself I didn't have to read it, that I had other things more worth my time. But when a horror (lite) novel captures that much attention, I feel like I just oughta know what's going on. I have to say that it's not changing my life, and I'm not ready to start decorating my Facebook page with Flair images of Edward. Nor do I think we really need yet another instance of the "romantic" vampire (another confession: I only made it through the first two books of Rice's Vampire Chronicles). Still, I can see why young readers go for this stuff. I even feel strangely connected to my inner teenage girl (though I'm a 39 year old straight guy). And, I have to say, the book's kind of . . . hot, though in a really chaste, Mormon kind of way. As a vampire, Edward's drawn to Bella's bouquet, her scent, and I'm struck by how just about every page of the novel contains something wet and moist--just not what you might expect. Still, after finishing it, I think I'll need a good chaser to wash it down--maybe I'll finally finish VARNEY THE VAMPIRE.
Well, the plague came to the Tomb, and at the most unwelcome time possible. I spent the week before and after Halloween utterly sick and haven't been able to bring myself to write much. Hence why you heard little unholy howling this Halloween season. The holiday months ahead will have to make up somehow, and we're going to start with Lovecraft . . .
If you've looked at the links in the sidebar, you may have come across the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, an organization that, among other things, has produced a sterling 1920s style silent film production of THE CALL OF CTHULHU. In addition, they have gone on to produce a handful of adaptations in the style of "old time radio" of Lovecraft's stories, beginning with AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS. I spent some of my convalescence time catching up with THE DUNWICH HORROR, another story in Lovecraft's "Cthulhu Mythos." A prior audio adaptation of the play found listeners in 1945 thanks to the radio show SUSPENSE, and thanks to DataJunkie, you can listen to that program by going here.
While I love programs like SUSPENSE (along with THE WITCH'S TALE, WEIRD CIRCLE, and others), it's still a shame that they seldom turned to Lovecraft's work for material. With that in mind, it's refreshing to find the HPLHS bringing us new adaptations of such professional quality. THE DUNWICH HORROR stands as one of Lovecraft's more chilling stories, where libraries and old books become sources of terror and paranoia. We also see the author's signature anxiety over miscegenation, and as outmoded and silly as such fears rightfully appear today, Lovecraft's "Old Ones" still come across as brilliantly conceived.
Definitely check out this production, which the HPLHS store offers both as a CD and as a downloaded MP3. The CD comes packed with pseudo-reproductions of newspaper clippings and pages of archaic tomes. Your hard-earned dollars will be well-spent.
Last weekend, I traveled to Orlando for "Halloween Horror Nights" at Universal Studios, where I also had the good fortune to find James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN playing on the big screen in City Walk. Naturally, I gobbled up the chance to take in the big screen experience, though the afternoon showing I went to only had six people in attendance--and that included me, along with the two people I talked into tagging along. Still, watching Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, and Dwight Frye in larger-than-life form made the early evening drive back home very much worth it.
The big screen also gave me an opportunity to soak in one of the my favorite moments of the film, specifically when the monster intrudes on Elizabeth as she prepares for her wedding. This sequence has never lost its unsettling impact for me, as we see the monster clearly unhinged after accidently drowning a young girl, and it doesn't seem entirely outside the realm of possibility that he does something unspeakable with Elizabeth. The implication seems all the more evident when we consider the need he feels for a mate in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.
I love how Whale frames the scene to look like Fuseli's 1781 painting, "The Nightmare," which features an incubus crouching atop a sleeping woman. Perhaps Whale structured the scene this way intentionally, calling upon an association with the painting's metaphor for transgressive sex. Or maybe I just want to view the film in a kinky way . . .
"On mounting a rising ground," writes Washington Irving in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," "which brought the figure of his fellow traveller in relief against the sky, gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horror struck, on perceiving that he was headless!" No story says Halloween better than this one. This year, my local supermarket decorated its foyer with a life-sized paper mache of Irving's famous spectre, and we even find new M & M television advertising featuring a pretty nifty headless Hessian. Modern readers might find Irving's original text a bit wordy, yet it still evokes an eerie magic, with its haunted church-yard and ominous woods. Reading it today still transports us into the hearth, where we live "the "marvellous tales of ghosts and goblins, and haunted fields and haunted brooks, and haunted bridges, and haunted houses, and particularly of the headless horseman, or galloping Hessian of the Hollow, as they sometimes called him."
Contemporary film-makers still feel drawn to the story, and their attempts to capture Irving's magic have let to varying degrees of success, from contemporary interpretations like THE HOLLOW and HEADLESS HORSEMAN (the latter which gave the story a backwoods horror angle, not unlike THE HILLS HAVE EYES of all things), to Tim Burton's wonderful SLEEPY HOLLOW, which re-imagined Ichabod Crane as a police detective. Still, the most brilliant interpretation comes from the least likely source: Disney's 1949 adaptation.
Watching Disney's version on TV during the 1970s became one of the most formative experiences of my young imagination. Narrated (and sometimes sung) by Bing Crosby, the story stays remarkably faithful to Irving's original story. The animators use deep, rich colors to capture the horrific majesty of the horseman, and even peppered with humor, the terror that Ichabod feels on his fateful ride seems real and genuine. One of the most remarkable moments occurs when Ichabod, forced into an embrace with the spectre, peers down into the open neck hole of the horseman's tunic and sees . . . what? Something that evokes terror, something that undercuts the ambiguous ending that Irving's story leaves with us. It all might have been Brom Bones' practical joke, but Ichabod sees something that terrifies and possibly revolts him. This is a moment of genius on the part of Disney's animators, and (I mean this) one of the greatest moments of horror film history.
Reportedly, Disney's imagineers originally planned to tie its Haunted Mansion attraction in to the Sleepy Hollow legend. According to Jason Surrell's book on the history of the attraction, the original concept involved a climax in the conservatory, where spectators would witness the crossing of the headless horseman past the window overlooking the graveyard. How cool would that have been?
Here's a well-made independent film that reminds us that, deep down, beneath tons of psychic scar tissue created when we watched Disney's SNOW WHITE at a young age, many of us still find old, cloaked ladies with crooked noses and hunched backs scary. Not since THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT has a film indulged those old fears, taking us into a frame of mind created when the Christians of Europe sought to suppress pagan religions by portraying its practitioners as diabolical and evil--with ugly faces to prove it. Full discosure: I liked this movie, and the filmmakers did their homework, including references to Samhain, the Witches' Sabbat that falls on November Eve, as well as MALLEUS MALFICARUM, or THE WITCHES' HAMMER, which offered instructions on how to detect and effectively execute a witch. However, unlike THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, WITCHES' NIGHT taps into the fear of female sexuality that the demonization of witches ultimately represents.
With an attractive female cast and eroticized rituals (as well as violence), this is a sexy film, though without the trvialization that we might see in a Misty Mundae production. The very plot begins with male rejection, as the protagonist struggles with the anguish caused by his fiancee leaving him at the altar. To cheer him up, his three friends take him on a camping trip, intending a night of beer drinking, male bonding, and a "women, who needs 'em" mindset to get them through the crisis. Naturally, the four men choose the wrong woods for their camping trip, for a coven of ancient witches has made it the scene of their Halloween Sabbat. Capable of altering their appearance, the witches appear as seductive young women, intended to make the guys forget all about that terrible woman who left their buddy at the altar. Sexual congress with these ladies, however, results in blindness, mutation, and horrible swelling (not the good kind, either).
The film's director, Paul Traynor, effectively combines seductive images with the traditional "hag" archetype associated with witchcraft. At first we get only obscured glimpses of the witches in their true form--scurrying behind trees, glaring at the men from behind branches, adding a degree of unease to the film's overall effect. They come to represent a power beyond the male imagination, attuned to a malevolent form of nature to which the men fall prey. Modern day experts in witchcraft might rightfully remind us that the image of the "hag" represented wisdom in pre-Christian religions, its eventual association with evil a means of a reactionary effort to suppress those religions. While WITCHES' NIGHT does not make an effort to correct this--it wants to scare us after all--it tells its story well, and for an independent film, it comes across as a polished, professional effort. With its Halloween setting and use of classic archetypes, it makes for good holiday viewing.
The film is available for download or on DVD at http://www.witchesnight.com/. Considering the paucity of good horror films at the multiplex, WITCHES' NIGHT is worth the effort to seek it out.
Where I live, we don't have proper seasons, so I often have to kick off Autumn through artificial means, like buying tons of Halloween decorations, or watching a movie that lets me imagine an added crispness in the air. BCI's recent release of COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE (titled in their double bill with VAMPIRE HOOKERS as CEMETERY GIRLS) gave me the opportunity to do so with one of Paul Naschy's best films, a riff on the Dracula mythology that has very little to do with Bram Stoker, but still has a uniquely Spanish aesthetic that makes it a pleasure to watch. The film starts off with scenes and scenarios that seem lifted straight out of a Hammer production--in fact, DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS comes most immediately to mind, with a plot that starts with a group of stage-coach travelers stranded in the Borgo Pass. Naturally, they wind up in Dracula's abode, which apparently spent time as a mental asylum, and the group gradually falls prey to the vampire (who has disguised himself as Dr. Marlow) in a way that echoes the earlier Fisher movie.
However, the recognizable Hammer tropes give way to something more akin to Jean Rollin by the end, as the film increasingly grows more surreal and less governed by plot and dialogue and more by so by image and monologue. As the lover of one of the women, Victor Alcazar's character appears set up as the film's hero, strong, sexually desirable to women, with instincts to protect. However, he falls victim to vampirism himself fairly early in the film, a departure from what we would expect from a Hammer film, where we generally see women placed in positions of dependency to men. In fact, the general attitude toward evil in COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE appears skewed when compared to traditional Dracula films: Instead of standing as the source of control over a monolithic evil, Naschy's Dracula creates other vampires that he not only can't control, but with whom he seems decidedly at odds.
Of course, the filmmakers may have devised this kind of characterization so that we can see Naschy's Dracula play hero at convenient spots in the film, killing his share of vampires and serving as the male protector in these scenes. However, he still seems the embodiment of evil he cannot control and, at times, genuinely seems to regret. (How often do we get to see such a tender moment involving Dracula as when he frees a trapped rabbit?) With its off-kilter approach, COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE takes its place in a canon of Spanish vampire films that include THE DRACULA SAGA and THE BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE, films that take risks and subvert the traditional narrative that Universal and Hammer had taught us to expect.
In an earlier post, I linked screenshots that suggested that the BCI disc would offer a substantial improvement over previous releases of the film. I'm happy to report that this is indeed the case; while not in pristine condition, BCI's print still offers the film in what appears to be close to the original aspect ratio. Very highly recommended.