Wednesday, December 31, 2008

All Aboard AMOK TRAIN (1989)!

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!

Friday, December 19, 2008

"Banjo Lessons" from TWISTED TALES #5

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.

Friday, December 12, 2008

For a Full Moon

Tonight we'll see the biggest full moon of the year, so here's a little something in honor of that event. Don't walk on the street alone! Aaaaaaahhhhhrrrrrrooooooooo!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ivan Zuccon's NYMPHA (2007): Contemporary Italian Horror Done Right

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.

Monday, December 8, 2008

A Witchy Kind of Progressive Rock

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.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Possible Source for "The Fall of the House of Usher"

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.