Times New Keeferton Keef shows no signs of lethality or psychosis

11Oct/170

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017: I KILLED THEM ALL, OF COURSE

Don't Torture a Duckling (1972)

I've been a fan of Lucio Fulci since seeing Zombie in high school. Watching a zombie fight a shark underwater was such a mind-blowing and hilarious thrill that I knew I was watching something really special. I've seen his best-known supernatural films, primarily post-Zombie output, and there are some real gems: The Beyond, House By the Cemetery, City of the Living Dead. But I haven't seen much of his non-supernatural movies. He's done some gialli that are very well-regarded, including Lizard in a Woman's Skin and New York Ripper (which is also on my list this year).

And this one, Don't Torture a Duckling.

This movie's pretty dang weird. I should've been better prepared for its bizarro nature, given that 1) it's Fulci; 2) it's a giallo; 3) it's about a series of child murders; but I went into it imagining that it'd be a fairly standard giallo thriller. It gets way stranger than that.

We meet three adolescent boys in a small Italian city. They get up to various mischief-- slingshots, trespassing, harassing a dude who's spying on a couple getting it on.

We meet some other villagers. A priest. The town simpleton (the aforementioned peeping tom). The childrens' parents. A celebrity woman staying in the village to live down a drug scandal (and who has some really weird ideas about what's appropriate around the boys).

A witch, who creates some voodoo dolls.

One of the reasons I chose this movie from all the choices in Fulci's oeuvre is that it's generally considered the first time he went full-on SFX crazy, splashing blood every which way and murdering folks in interesting ways.

And hoo boy, does he ever.

This guy, for example, topples off a cliff. His face bangs and scrapes against every craggy outcropping on the way down. Sometimes there are sparks. It's great.

It's taut, suspenseful, utterly trashy, morally questionable, and gory. I enjoyed it quite a bit, although I felt queasy more than once, and for multiple different reasons.

Pin (1988)

I'd heard about Pin for years. A potentially-possessed anatomical medical training mannequin? A couple of nutty kids who are up to no good? Terry O'Quinn as a weirdo domineering dad? Count me in.

It was substantially more subtle than I'd anticipated, given those facts, and the performances are very good, especially the kid who plays li'l Leon, an actor named David Hewlett. Dude apparently had some big roles in the Stargate TV Universe, but I never got into that.

Also, the doll is creepy as hell.

Recommended. Solid and spooky.

From Hell It Came (1957)

When it gets late at night, I have to work in the morning, and I still need to watch a movie, I browse my collection by duration. Then I pick the shortest one. This one was an hour and ten minutes long. Perfect! Also, it's about a guy who gets murdered and returns to life as a giant tree stump to take his revenge.

Sounds great, right?

NOPE.

Here's the rest of the story. The entire movie takes place on some unnamed South Seas island. The dude who gets murdered is a native of the island, and he's murdered because he's dared to talk to the white folks, and give his plague-ridden father some medicine the thoughtful Americans gave him. The tribe's witch doctor gets mad about it, feeling like he's being usurped, and therefore the prince must die.

There's also something about nuclear fallout from the atolls falling directly into the young man's grave, which causes him to return as a "Tabanga," which is what the natives call the alive tree stump that wants to throw everyone into quicksand.

Every single native is a horrible racist caricature. Every single native with lines is a white dude with tanner on their face. They're so backward! They don't understand that the white scientists just want to make their lives better! They try to murder a woman just because she peeped the ritual ceremony of unjustified murder!

This is literally what she says about that.

The white scientists constantly talk about what a dungheap the island is, how backward and savage the natives are, and how they can't wait to get back to civilization. There's a moment where they criticize the almost-murdered woman because she runs the "trading post," where she gives the natives worthless junk in exchange for copper and pearls, where it seems like the filmmakers caught a glimpse of the way this film might be seen, and then they go back to swilling back booze and complaining about those pesky natives.

A few of the natives join forces with them to defeat the murder-stump, but it's accompanied by clumsy acknowledgement that the Americans are bringing them such good things, and they need to adapt and improve and acknowledge the superiority of the helpful colonialists. The Americans eventually obliterate the stump by shooting the hell out of it.

The rubber suit for the stump monster looked okay. This movie is terrible.

6Oct/170

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017: BLOOD FOR THE GREAT GOD CHUKU

So this is a round-up post! If I watch a movie that for some reason doesn't warrant a full-on review, I'll write a brief encapsulation and opinion, and post it in a round-up. The first movie I watched was The Uninvited.

02. The Cat People (1942)

I was certain I'd seen this before, but I hadn't. I'm not sure what I was confusing it with-- The Leopard Man, maybe? Val Lewton is held up as a master of the noir suspense genre, and this movie is consistently ranked high in the canon, but it largely fell flat for me. There are some beautiful scenes, don't get me wrong. There's a taut sequence where a character is followed down a dimly lit street that's shot marvelously, and a scene in a swimming pool that's magnificent.

Despite the direction and cinematography, this movie is not very good. The core idea is fine, but the plotting is baffling and the characterization leaves something to be desired.

Here's a brief encapsulation of the plot. Oliver Reed falls in love (on the second date) with Irena Dubrova, a Serbian immigrant. They get married immediately, and then Irena reveals that she believes she's descended from a line of evil, wicked, devil-worshipping cat people, who turn into panthers when they get sexually aroused or very angry. She got some issues. Oliver eventually gets frustrated and falls in love with his co-worker Alice, and then Irena gets mad. They all make some pretty bad decisions, and then it comes to a boil in the way you'd imagine it would.

It all falls down for me in its own estimation of its characters and their importance. Oliver's an asshole and an idiot, with all of the weird entitlement issues that came with being a straight white dude in the 1940s, and which are seemingly endorsed by the film. Alice is a total jerk and also an idiot. Irena's a pretty good person working through some issues.

I was complaining about a choice some characters made, and Barb nailed it. She said, "I think it's well-established that the people in this movie are dumbshits."

The one thing that kept me entertained is that Val Lewton is a master of the lewd implication.

In 1942, you couldn't just have a character outright say, "Hey, I'm afraid I'll turn into a panther and maul you if we get our bone on," so he had to dance around it, and this is the one place where the writing really shines. Lewton's frustration with the edicts of the Hays Code actually led him to some beautiful exposition through subtle implication. It's worth seeing for his deft navigation of the censorship, and those two tense "somebody's about to get murdered" scenes. Plus, it clocks in at a nice tight 70 minutes, so you could, for example, start it at nine o'clock when you have to be at work early the next morning.

03. Craze (1974)

This movie is some deliciously hot garbage.

Jack Palance, replete with 70s porno-style pencil-thin moustache, plays an antique shop owner. By day, he peddles his wares, but by night, he runs a coven in his crappy basement-- a coven devoted to worshiping "the great African love god Chuku."

It's exactly as bonkers, over-the-top, and racist (in that 'oh those mysterious magical primitives' way) as you'd expect.

His antique shop isn't doing very well, but when he gets into an argument with a woman who's left the coven-- she wants to take the Chuku idol, claiming that it was hers in the first place (a gift from Aleister Crowley)-- they struggle, and she gets impaled on the idol's spikes, spraying technicolor tempera everywhere.

Suddenly, Palance finds a cache of gold coins, and figures that Chuku is rewarding him for his sacrifice.

Well, heck, what's a guy to do but to keep murdering people in the name of the great god Chuku?

The rest of the movie is basically an excuse to let Palance run wild, killing people and chewing scenery. Nobody chews scenery like Jack Palance. I watched Alone in the Dark a few years ago, and gained an appreciation for the man that hasn't yet waned. Listening to him say stuff like, "It's all for you, great god Chuku," is utterly hilarious and beautiful.

There's a subplot about Palance's elderly great-aunt and his desire to get his inheritance a little bit early. It gets a little convoluted when he manufactures an elaborate alibi and the movie loses its way, but doesn't stray too far. There are, after all, still ridiculous set-piece murders.

The supporting cast is very good. Diana Dors plays a blowsy ex-girlfriend, Martin Potter plays Palance's antique-store assistant, and one of the cops is played as straight as can be by Trevor Howard, an actor I didn't expect to crop up in this kind of movie.

The whole thing comes to a head as expected, and Palance chows down on everything in his path. This entire movie was a delightful surprise.

04. Torture Garden (1967)

Man, people love these Amicus anthology horror films. I can understand why-- the casts were uniformly good and interesting, they had that 60s/70s technicolor garishness about them, and if one story sucked, you could simply wait a few minutes for the next one. I watched their Tales From the Crypt anthology when I did this back in 2014, and thoroughly enjoyed it, and I've seen a handful of others. The House That Dripped Blood is still on my list for this year, but... after watching this one, I don't know if I can handle another one. This one was boring as fuck.

The framing device is great. Burgess Meredith plays "Doctor Diabolo," and he runs a sort of budget circus-sideshow grand guignol, inviting people into a tent for a couple pounds. Once they're inside, they see beheadings, medieval torture devices, and an electric chair, held up as an example of the barbarity of American culture.

Burgess Meredith is fantastic, as always.

The problem comes during the parts of the movie that aren't the framing device. This shouldn't be the case-- this entire thing was written by Robert Bloch, for god's sake, and based on his own short stories-- but hoo boy, this thing is packed with stinkers.

The first story is an excruciatingly long segment about a young man who murders his uncle, searches for his hidden riches, and then gets mind-controlled by a possessed, murderous cat he digs out of a coffin in the basement.

It is awful and mind-numbingly protracted.

The second is about a wannabe Hollywood starlet, who finds that maybe screen and stage immortality isn't all it's cracked up to be. It has its moments, but it's jam-packed with dull filler.

In the third, a... grand piano... defenestrates a woman? I was losing interest hard by this point.

Thankfully, the fourth story brought it all home for me. Jack Palance (again, with the pencil-thin creepstache again) plays a guy who's obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe. Peter Cushing plays another collector, who has a magnificent Poe collection, much envied by Palance.

It gets pretty spooky, and watching these two masters play off each other is deeply satisfying and engaging for the entire running time.

Then the framing device brings the whole thing home by revealing what we've suspected all along-- Burgess Meredith is a giant creep!

I can't recommend this movie in good conscience, because it is brain-bendingly stultifying overall, but the framing device and final story are worth watching. Just fast-forward through the rest of that junk (okay, maybe watch the grand piano defenestration scene, too).

2Oct/170

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017: THE UNINVITED (1944)

It's that time of year once again! Hello! Yes! I am the insane person who has both a toddler and a desire to watch 31 horror movies in the month of October! I decided I couldn't do it last year, but this year I'm going to give it a shot.

My rules are as follows: I'm going to try to watch at least one movie made during every decade from the 1920s through the 2010s. I'm going to try to watch at least 90% movies I've never seen before. I'm going to try to watch a combination of trash and arty stuff.

LET'S GET STARTED!

The first movie I watched this year was 1944's The Uninvited, a classic film noir mystery / ghost story / haunted house deal, starring Ray Milland. During the opening credits, I learned that the screenplay was co-written by Dodie Smith, which made me excited-- she's most famous for 101 Dalmations, but the thing I love her for is I Capture the Castle, a charming coming-of-age story about a girl whose eccentric family lives in a run-down old castle in 1930s England. That book is so great, and she weaves atmosphere so beautifully, that I was interested to see how that would translate to the screen.

The answer, as it turns out, is "fairly well." Her fingerprints are all over this thing, and it winds up being a bit like... well, call it "Shirley Jackson Lite." Here's the opening narration:

They call them "the haunted shores," these stretches of Devonshire and Cornwall and Ireland which rear up against the westward ocean. Mists gather here, and sea fog... and eerie stories. That's not because there are most ghosts here than other places, mind you. It's just that people who live hereabouts are strangely aware of them. You see, day and night, year in, year out, they listen to the pound and stir of the waves. There's life and death in that restless sound... and eternity too.

Pretty damn good. It doesn't touch the opening paragraph of Jackson's Haunting of Hill House, but then again, nothing does. I'll put that here just because I love it so:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

So, it's not Jackson, but it's in the same ballpark. Great opener.

One of the reasons I chose this movie was because it kept cropping up on "best-of" lists: best haunted house movies, best ghost movies, best movies that are actually scary, that sort of thing. "Actually scary" is a bit of a stretch, but this movie is atmospheric as all hell, and it wouldn't be a stretch to call it eerie or creepy, which is almost as good as "scary."

Milland plays Rick. Ruth Hussey plays his sister Pam. Rick and Pam, while vacationing on the seaside, find a massive empty mansion on a cliff overlooking the ocean. Their dog chases a squirrel inside, and they follow. While chasing him through the house, Pam falls in love with the old place-- despite a mysteriously locked room and the odd chills. They decide to buy it from "The Commander," a crusty old dude who warns them about "the wind at night," which "plays odd tricks in old houses." His granddaughter, Stella, tries to warn them off, but to no avail. THE DEAL IS DONE!

Once it's theirs, they unlock that room, and discover an oppressive dampness and cold spots, and Rick is swept with a spell of depression, wondering if they've "made the most howling mistake," and voicing his concerns that he'll ever be able to write any music ever again, or if he's just worthless.

Roses, brought in by Pam, wilt in the room immediately.

Despite their initial misgivings, Pam and Rick jolly it up again. Rick hangs out with the Commander's granddaughter, charmingly played by Gail Russell, and attraction blooms. Pam moves in, and Rick joins her a few weeks later, after moving all the furniture up to the joint. The first night he's there, he's awakened in the pre-dawn darkness by a disembodied weeping. He takes a candle into the hallway, where Pam is already waiting. This has been happening periodically, she says, and she's relieved that Rick can hear it too.

I watched this with Barb, and ten minutes in, she said, "Oh, so I guess this is the original 'white people get too wrapped up in their haunted house investment and stay beyond the point of all sense' movie."

That's about right, with a few twists and turns.

Ray Milland is excellent in this movie. He's charming and funny a lot of the time, and he plays frightened with a quiet bug-eyed terror that's remarkably effective.

I don't want to spoil it too much-- the plot is actually fairly engaging and intricate, with multiple moving pieces, fascinating secondary characters-- Miss Holloway, a lowkey lesbian character who runs a sanitarium where everything may or may not be on the level; the leads' housekeeper, Lizzie, an superstitious Irishwoman who's at turns hilarious and the only smart person in the entire movie; and Dr. Scott, the town doctor, played to perfection by Alan Napier, who was Alfred on the 1966 Batman series. Classy and charming, that one.

Along the way, there's some absolutely beautiful cinematography, a beautiful and haunting song, and perhaps the first ouija scene in any movie ever:

Oh, and a ghost or two.

There's a reason this movie is held up as a classic of the genre. While it never approaches the genuine scares of The Haunting of Hill House or The Innocents, it manages to be spooky and eerie throughout, with moments of humor, warmth, and suspense. The cinematography is outstanding, the music and score are fantastic and very well used-- when the film goes silent, you feel the hairs rise on your arm-- and the performances are very good. This is a perfect movie for a cold night, when the wind is howling outside and the lights are low.