Times New Keeferton Keef shows no signs of lethality or psychosis

21Oct/150

YOU DON’T KNOW THE BAD THINGS I’VE DONE: A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT

Today we're going to look at another lady-driven monster movie, this one about an Iranian vampire. The movie is Ana Lily Amirpour's...

This is a weird one. It calls itself an "Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western," but I don't think that's entirely accurate. The director was born in Britain and lives in America. It was filmed in California, using primarily American (well, Iranian-American) actors. Don't get me wrong, I love this movie... but this is an American movie. And ugh, this is a bullshit tangent that doesn't matter, because this movie is beautiful and amazing. Amirpour channels Jarmusch, Tarantino, and Coppola (well, primarily Rumble Fish).

Everything's filmed in high-contrast black and white. It's slow and extremely stylish.

There are a few strange choices. There's an Iranian pimp, the true antagonist of the movie and a real shitbag. He steals the main character's car as payment for his father's heroin debts. He takes all of the earnings from one of his hookers and then forces her into demeaning situations. All fairly standard "bad-guy-pimp" behavior. The odd choice is that the dude looks exactly like the dude from Die Antwoord. Face tattoos, weird crappy moustache, hi-top fade. Also-- spoiler alert-- he gets eaten in the first half-hour of the movie, and the rest of the movie follows the unfolding and intersecting of the remaining characters in the vacuum left behind by his death, in a very Tarantino-esque inevitable collision.

The characters, by the way, are pretty fascinating. Arash is a young man who works as a general handyman, who exudes that 50s-white-T, James Dean, Rusty James-type cool. His father (played by Marshall Manesh, who you'd recognize if you saw) is a junkie, deep in debt. Saeed is the gross-ass pimp (who steals Arash's convertible). Atti is a hooker (played fantastically by Mozhan Marnò, who you'd also recognize). These characters are all racked by tumultuous inner turmoil, and the most racked of all is the titular character, played beautifully by Sheila Vand. At points, she seems to be projecting Renée Jeanne Falconetti from The Passion of Joan of Arc, all huge winsome eyes, suffering, and tragic circumstance.

Other times, that tragedy is tempered by fun.

And lest you forget, she's a vampire. She murders a few people, threatens a few more, the entire time looking beautiful and exotic, eyes all kohl, black lipstick, chador acting as an impromptu (and effective) black cape.

So: outstanding cast; incredible cinematography; great style; excellent pacing. This movie's got a lot going for it already. What brings it all home, and actually manages to make the whole thing cohere, is the soundtrack.

The movie opens with expansive twangy spaghetti instrumental Western music from Portland band Federale, which carries throughout. Periodically, Persian music makes appearances-- Iranian bands Kiosk and Radio Tehran knock it out of the park as well. But the heart and soul of this movie is in the New Wave / Post-Punk stuff, mostly by British band White Lies. This soundtrack is really fucking good, especially in conjunction with the beautiful imagery.

I really liked this movie, and I'm really, really looking forward to her next one (The Bad Batch, which she calls a 'postapocalyptic cannibal love story,' and which stars Jason Momoa, Keanu Reeves, and Jim Carrey. What?). That said, I can't give this a full perfect score-- I feel like the influences are too heavy on her sleeve. I kept seeing slow sky shots and thinking of Rumble Fish, or bloody close-ups and thinking Kill Bill, or lingering interpersonal reactions and thinking Stranger Than Paradise. The decision to base Saeed so heavily on the Die Antwoord guy pulled me out of it the entire time he was onscreen-- even if it's interpreted as a choice by this character to adopt that specific look, it broke the narrative for me every time (and yes, your mileage may vary on that score).

Still: watch this movie anyway. Watch it for the cinematography, the cast. Watch it for the inimitable style. Watch it for the soundtrack.

Watch it for the cat, who is awesome, and nearly steals the show in more than a couple scenes.

20Oct/150

AN ACTUAL DANISH TIDAL-POOL GHOST

The other night, I watched a double-feature of two new horror movies featuring ladies as monsters: When Animals Dream, a Danish movie about a young girl who discovers that she is a werewolf, and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, an black-and-white American movie filmed in California, set in Iran (and with dialogue in Persian), about a woman who is a vampire. They were both very good. Today, I'll talk about the former, and tomorrow, the latter. Let's get into it.

When Animals Dream starts off with a series of beautiful clouded vignettes featuring remote Danish locations and no people, over which the opening credits are shown. They're beautiful and strange, showcasing a tiny nameless Danish fishing village. Odd living-room tableaux. Darkened moors, a small lantern bobbing in the distance. Fields of scrubland, sparse clumps of vegetation. Tiny houses set off on dirt roads, featureless expanses beyond to the horizon.

It's a beautiful introduction to the strange world in which this movie takes place, glowing and cinematic and slow, before we even meet any of the characters.

The main character of When Animals Dream is Marie. She's a late-teens girl living with her father and her mother, who is nonverbal and wheelchair-bound. We see her feeding her mother, and we see her father bathing her mother and periodically giving her injections. Marie gets a job at a fish cleaning and packing warehouse, where things quickly start to get a little rough.

The basic outlay of this movie is fairly well-trodden territory: it's the story of Carrie. A young girl faces societal pressures, which build until those pressures unleash something hidden within her. It's a revenge movie, basically, which takes all of the pressure off of the plotting, and allows for the visuals, pacing, and acting to really take center stage.

Once Marie starts working at the fish packery, her co-workers start to haze her. They push her into a pond full of rotting and fetid fish heads and skeletons.

When she's hauled out by the foreman, she gets a round of applause from all of her co-workers, giving the sense that this is a mandatory rite of passage for all employees of the plant; but then the hazing continues in a much more unpleasant manner, that leaves no doubt that she's been targeted for ongoing abuse.

Meanwhile, she discovers a small rash on her chest. She sees the doctor, who tells her to let him know if it spreads or gets worse. It starts to (very quickly) sprout a thicket of hair, which she shaves off with a small pink disposable razor. Her eyes start to do this weird thing:

When I was watching this movie, I kept thinking about the Jezebel review of the Carrie remake, bemoaning the casting of Chloe Grace Moretz (who is a wonderful actress, but too beautiful to play outcast Carrie White) and referring to Sissy Spacek as an "actual feral prairie ghost." Sonia Suhl is the Danish equivalent of that actual feral prairie ghost, all angular features, wide-eyed timidity, and grasping, vulnerable loneliness.

Eventually, Marie begins to understand that her mother is feared and reviled by the members of the village community, and that the injections she receives are designed to keep her sedated and near-comatose. After sprouting more hair, Marie is confronted by her father and her doctor, who attempt to give her an injection.

I'm loath to give more away here, because the way it unfolds is satisfying and fascinating. I'll keep going with the screenshots, and discuss the movie in more general terms.

These days, a lot more horror movies seem to have no problem taking their time, which is a development that I absolutely love. After an inundation of movies that leap straight to the horror (I'm looking at you, Saw), it's nice to see a return to the slow introduction. I've always been a firm believer in the Stephen King adage that horror doesn't really work unless the audience actually cares about the characters. Hack'n'slash movies have their place, but they function more as gruesome spectacle, and rarely inspire actual horror. Here's a quote from King's Danse Macabre that has stuck with me from a young age:

I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud.

As a clarification: terror is the emotion leading up to a horrible occurrence-- that sense of dread, anxiety, and impending doom. Horror is the mixture of empathetic fear and nauseous disgust that happens after the horrible occurrence.

This movie deals primarily in terror. You can see the impending crash of awfulness, but first-time director Jonas Alexander Arnby somehow dodges expectations, and the actual moments of shock and awfulness often come out of left field-- and then they end up piling back onto the inevitable stack of dread, allowing that anxiety and dread to continue.

When hell finally breaks loose, it's almost a relief.

Actual Danish tidal-pool ghost Sonia Suhl, who plays Marie, really shines throughout, and continues her incredible performance once she sheds her humanity and becomes a werewolf. There's no longer even any hint of personhood there, and Marie really becomes an animal, an exemplification of revenge, and the explosive, inevitable violence of cornered ferocity.

And then, the aftermath: a mirroring of the beginning. A series of tableaux, this time of the aftermath.

This movie is beautiful and strange and striking. I recommend it.

16Oct/150

HOW ABOUT YOU GO SUCK A TURD?

So, after all these half-century-old flicks, I figured it was time for me to turn my attention to some more recent entries in the horror genre. There have been some great ones this year, including some truly wonderful movies-- I'm thinking specifically here of It Follows and Spring, both incredible new horror movies. There have also been a number of movies that I just haven't seen yet-- so now I will.

Last night, I watched Final Girls. It's been getting a fair amount of interest, and it stars a lot of people I really like: Taissa Farmiga, Malin Ackerman, Thomas Middleditch, and Adam Devine, and Alia Shawkat, among others. I know the majority of the people in this flick from alternative comedy stuff, so I knew full well that this was going to be a campy comedy-horror flick. I know Taissa Farmiga from American Horror Story, where she acquits herself admirably, and can clearly hold her own in the legit horror world.

This movie was well worth the seven bucks. I highly recommend it.

So, I'm the kind of weirdo who actively avoids any spoilers at all. I won't even watch trailers, if I can help it. I just take interest when movies hover into my field of interest enough for me to take notice of them-- which isn't hard, because I follow a lot of film and media bloggers. All of this is by way of saying that I'm not exactly sure what's common knowledge about the premise of this movie and what's not. I didn't really know the basic premise of this movie at all before I watched it. I just knew that it had been getting good reviews (and also that Thomas Middleditch fails to jump over a velvet rope). So if you're the kind of weirdo who, like me, prefers his movie-viewing experiences to be relatively unspoiled, you might want to quit reading.

So, the premise of this movie is basically that a small group of high school students actually enter a 1980s campground slasher movie, and have to contend with what they find there. That's a rough encapsulation; one of the girls is the daughter of one of the stars of the movie, who has since passed away; there are somewhat complicated relationships between some of the characters, et cetera, et cetera. The important bit, the high-concept, is that a small group of modern teenagers enter a 1980s slasher flick.

And man, the whole thing is pretty stylish, and pretty meta. They keep encountering things like the original credits, and the original title screen:

At one point, one of the original characters in the 1980s movie starts spinning a flashback, and then all these weird icicles drop from the ceiling and encircle everybody:

Before whisking them back in time to the movie's flashback (which is in black-and-white), complete with title card displaying the date. The title card is actually part of the scenario they have to interact with, stepping over it to get around it.

I'm a sucker for little metatextual bits like that. There are all kinds of little flourishes like that-- at one point, Malin Ackerman's character says something like "She always says the best thing in the world is smoking pot and doing it on a waterbed," which is a direct reference to the movie Pieces, a terrible early-80s slasher flick I saw (and blogged about) a little over a week ago. I'm sure there are dozens more of these direct callbacks that I missed. This movie is wry and self-aware and deeply knowledgeable of the source material that it's not-exactly-parodying.

Because it's packed with all these amazing comedy actors, there is no shortage of really funny moments, both visual and textual. Alia Shawkat is a master of the ol' dry-and-wry, and her talents are on full display here. Malin Ackerman can spin on a dime, from earnestly playing the 80s horror heroine to deadpan delivery of terrible horror-movie staple dialogue, which is hilarious. Thomas Middleditch and Adam Devine were clearly given a lot of room to improvise, which leads to all sorts of bizarre exchanges and hilarious moments.

Oh, and there's no shortage of visually interesting violence.

The thing that surprised me most about Final Girls is that it actually has some emotional impact, and it comes in some pretty unexpected forms. There's a cheesy striptease that actually manages to be sad and meaningful and really touching. A sad striptease. Not in the gross Requiem For a Dream sad way; not even in the gross Closer way. It's sad in a new way, a way you'd more commonly associate with Pixar movies (the sad striptease summoned the same emotions BingBong did in Inside Out, if that means anything to you). It literally, legitimately made me tear up a little bit.

As I said, well worth the seven bucks. I recommend it.

15Oct/150

WHAT IS THIS, S&M WUTHERING HEIGHTS?

After the amazing spectacle that was Blood and Black Lace, I decided I needed to get more familiar with the director of that film, Mario Bava. He was a cinematographer for a dozen years before actually stepping up to direct, albeit uncredited (Ulysses, a retelling of The Odyssey starring Kirk Douglas, five years before Spartacus). He did a bunch of westerns, a bunch of peplum (sword-and-sandals) movies, he basically started the giallo movie trend, directed several science fiction films, slasher films, and gothic horror movies.

This one is The Whip and the Body, released a year before Blood and Black Lace. I've grown a little weary of giallo movies, so I decided to roll with this one-- it's a gothic horror movie starring Christopher Lee, and Lee always maintained that it was one of his best movies.

Hoo boy, it's a doozy. This entire blog is basically an excuse to show you these beautiful, beautiful pictures.

Lee plays Kurt Menliff. The opening shots feature him riding up to a castle. It's beautifully lit and framed. When he gets there, he's greeted with trepidation and downright animosity by his father and his brother. He left years before, apparently, after driving the daughter of one of the housekeepers to suicide. The housekeeper, by the way, still works there-- and still has the dagger her daughter killed herself with. She swears that before she dies, she'll see Kurt impaled on it.

Kurt's there purportedly to wish his brother congratulations on his new marriage. It turns out that Nevenka, the woman Kurt's brother just married, used to be Kurt's special lady. They used to have some kinda thang goin' on-- and the next morning, when Kurt finds her on the beach, that thang just keeps goin'.

The thang is, basically, he whips the crap out of her, she loves it, and then they knock boots.

He leaves her there and goes back to the castle, holding her riding crop, which he claims he found outside the castle. They ask him where she is, and he claims not to have seen her-- he was just out riding around. Then he drops this hot potato:

OH SNAAAAAP

In other news, the castle is beautiful. The costumes, the sets, the lighting, the color. This is precisely what a beautiful technicolor gothic horror castle should look like.

Anyway, Kurt gets murdered with that dagger.

Then his ghost starts showing up on a nightly basis, menacing Nevenka (and sometimes whipping the shit out of her for sexual pleasure).

These scenes are pretty bonkers, you guys. I mean, there's one in particular where Christopher Lee is just going nuts on Nevenka with a riding crop and she's rolling around moaning in ecstasy, and I straight up could not believe this was a major motion picture in the 1960s.

I mean, apparently it never made it through unscathed-- the US-released version cut out all of the weird S&M stuff-- about fifteen minutes' worth, a full sixth of the movie-- and was retitled "WHAT?!," presumably because it now made zero sense, and left audiences confused and scratching their heads.

Strange footprints appear in the weird creepy castle. Kurt's father is also murdered with the same dagger.

Holy shit, the sets are beautiful, especially when bathed in Bava's peculiar and magnificent color and lighting.

Eventually, they dig up Kurt's corpse. To make sure he's dead.

SPOILER: He is.

As they dig him up, he appears to Nevenka again, telling her that because they're about to open his coffin, she'll never see him again, and demanding that she come with him.

Then they set his moldering-ass corpse on fire!

Man, this movie is beautiful.

THE END

SORRY FOR THE WEIRD TRUNCATED BLOG YOU GUYS I JUST REALLY LIKED ALL THESE SET PIECES AND NEEDED AN EXCUSE TO POST TWELVE SCREENSHOTS

14Oct/150

BLOOD AND BLACK LACE

The other night, I watched Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace. It was recommended to me a few years ago by my friend Jeremy, who was taken aback and shocked that I had never seen it. I swore to him that I would watch it at the first available opportunity. A couple months after that, I started watching it, and then fell asleep after about twenty minutes or so. I don't know if it turned me off because of the subtitles, or because of the slow and dramatic storytelling, or what. Having now seen it in its entirety, I absolutely cannot believe that I fell asleep during this movie.

Because this movie is great.

The version that I watched was most likely German in origin, hence the title (which translates to "Bloody Silk," apparently).

I have made the mistake of assuming that Bava was a lesser director. In all of my thinking about Italian horror in general, I've always been an Argento man through-and-through (primarily because of Suspiria, which is one of the greatest horror movies ever made). After Argento came Lucio Fulci (primarily for Zombie, but also The Beyond and The House By the Cemetary). I'm not sure why I thought that-- maybe because the only Bava I'd seen was Danger: Diabolik, which is a masterpiece, but of a different stripe altogether.

Blood and Black Lace is throwing my "Italian Horror Directors" ranking list into total disarray. You can see a whole lot of Bava in Argento-- there are a lot of direct correlations between this movie and the Argento movies I discussed previously, which came out a half-dozen years after this. Hell, there are a lot of direct correlations between this movie and Suspiria: the use of color, the use of pacing, the use of specific emotional cues among the murder set-pieces.

This movie sort of laid the foundation for a lot of my favorite horror movies of this style and type: it's slow and brutal and absolutely beautiful.

The plot is almost circumstantial. An Italian fashion and design house is filled with administrators, models, designers, and fabricators. Their personal lives are riddled with vice and misdeeds: drug abuse and trafficking, surreptitious abortions, adultery, mounting unpaid debts, corruption, and blackmail.

The design house is also beautiful in and of itself. Among the white wicker dress forms, there are mannequins in deep bleeding red; everything's filled with supersaturated colors, and everyone casts an ominous shadow.

One of the young and beautiful models, Isabella, has been keeping a diary. In this diary, she's been keeping records of all of her coworkers' horrible transgressive societal taboos, complete with names, dates, and all the grisly details. Because of course you would do that, right-- maintain a running tally of all your acquaintances' shameful secrets? What could go wrong?

She's murdered for it, of course-- within the first five minutes of the movie. By a person wearing black leather gloves, a long trench coat, and a flesh-colored mask that covers all his features. Think Rorschach without the patterns, and flesh-colored. So, think The Question, if your comic-book knowledge runs that deep.

Pretty stylish choices, anonymous murderer. Pretty stylish choices, Mario Bava.

While the fashion house is preparing for their next show, and in full view of literally everyone else in the house, Nicole finds Isabella's diary. Peggy takes it out of her purse and runs off with it. After the show, Nicole drives to an antique shop owned by her lover. There's a knock at the door. Nicole answers it, and the murderer rushes through, searching for the diary, and chases her around.

Bava's directorial talents are on full display here. Nicole is chased through what appears to be a massive medieval warehouse full of beautiful antiques, many of which are amazingly colorful and fascinating. Some of the lightbulbs are apparently purple, some are green. Some are deep red. There's a beautiful shot where Nicole runs up some stairs and the camera follows her up-- it looks like a crane shot-- and the colors shift with the movement. The chase scene is full of amazing moments.

That crane shot, by the way-- not actually a crane shot. In my research about this movie to write this blog, I found a bit about this chase scene, which claimed that Bava didn't have much of a budget and had to improvise-- so he used a child's little red wagon for tracking shots, and a "see-saw mechanism" for crane shots. The scene goes on for a very long time, and manages to maintain suspense throughout. Nicole finally manages to get into a hallway and make it to the front door, which she begins to unlock--

Surprise! The murderer has somehow managed to silently put on a full coat of medieval plate armor, including the helmet. Nicole gets a weird medieval three-pronged murderglove to the face! The murderer searches her, but the diary is nowhere to be found.

While all this is happening, Peggy has taken the diary home. All her secrets are in it as well as everyone else's, so she throws it into her fireplace and turns it into ashes. Whew! Crisis averted!

Right? Crisis averted, guys?

Oh no, wait. The masked figure bursts in on her, roughs her up, and demands the diary. She says she burned it, but he doesn't believe her, so the roughing-up continues. The police arrive during his interrogation, so he slings her over his shoulder and hauls her off to some undisclosed location. He demands the diary again, she again tells him that she burned it. So, of course, he presses her face against a red-hot furnace and then kills her.

The police have found Nicole's body by this point, so they know there's a definite pattern of murder here. They've also uncovered a little bit about the drugs. They round up a bunch of suspects and hold them in custody.

Greta, another girl, drives home from the fashion house. Once she gets there, she hears a strange noise coming from the back of her car. She opens the trunk, and Peggy's burned-ass face rolls out. The camera holds on it for a long time as the wind blows through her hair. It's oddly beautiful.

Instead of calling the police, the way you or I would, Greta chooses a different path. Remember, she's carrying the burden of a whole pocketful of destructive personal secrets. I'm not positive about this, but I believe she was part of the drug trafficking ring? She helped one of the male designers keep himself all smacked up all the time? Anyway, she's racked with secrets!

Remember that part about the plot being secondary to the visuals and murder set-pieces?

Greta slowly, clumsily, awkwardly puts her arms under poor dead Peggy's arms, hoists her out of the trunk, and carries her into the house. The camera doesn't cut or look away for any of this, even when Greta tries to maneuver the body up a set of stairs, stumbles, and drops it.

The murderous set-pieces in this movie are two things. They are brutal and they are beautiful.

They are brutal in that there is zero titillation to really be had. You can't really watch these murders rapt with glee, enjoying the choreography and violence. Bava's nearly Hitchcockian in his reluctance to show actual violence, preferring short quick cuts; he'll draw out the lead-up to violence, and he'll linger on the horrible aftermath, but he doesn't spend a whole lot of time on the actual moment-to-moment gore. Far from being a disappointment, this ends up being the merciful choice. The violence itself-- not the lead-up, not the aftermath-- is extremely unpleasant. I found myself wincing more than once, and even looking away. When Peggy's face hits that red-hot furnace, the shot is from the back of her head, and it lasts maybe half a second, but holy shit, it packs some hellacious impact. When Greta stumbles and drops that body, the camera doesn't even flinch. So brutal.

They are beautiful in their lead-up and aftermath. That ornate, lingering chase through the antique shop. Peggy's hair blowing in the wind. The dappled moonlight scattering on Isabella's face through the leaves. It's beautiful and horrible.

When Tao-Li (yet another beautiful model) gets drowned in the bathtub, and then has her wrists slashed to make it look like suicide, it's eerie and slow and beautiful:

Even this horrible shot, showing the corpses of Peggy and Greta (oh yeah, she gets murdered too), is beautiful in its eerie composition, coloring, and framing.

I was deeply impressed with Blood and Black Lace. I've decided that I need to familiarize myself with Mario Bava's catalog further-- so y'all can look forward to more entries about him in the near future.

I really can't stress enough how creepy, beautiful, and well-directed this movie is.

I think this might be my last giallo for a while. I was getting a bit burned out, and with this masterpiece, I think the binge has reached its inevitable end. The giallo run is going out on a high note.