Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Nightmare Logic: Lucio Fulci's HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981)

October evenings in 2016--the usual chill of autumn warming the corpsey cockles of my hideous heart gone cold with heady heat. Has the Earth finally run dry of autumn leaf snap crackle and pop? Here in the East, a C-note of an October day barely resonates before summer muggin' flattens the coffers. In other words, this Halloween needs to get drastic. Luckily there's that first 7 days-free subscription to Shudder, which actually does curate and has pretty good taste --lots of 70s-80s Italian art-horror/giallos. Maybe it's age, but Lucio Fulci's 1981 Quella villa accanto al cimitero aka HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY has sure come along in my esteem. Maybe I'm finally mature enough to admit my prejudices against Italians and confront my childhood fear of a certain basement in our old Lansdale PA house in the 70s. (in particular the crawlspace). If you were ever afraid of the basement yourself, back in the time when each unaccompanied step was a huge endeavor, and when just going down there to get something for your mom while she was making dinner was so scary you'd race back up the stairs at the first tiny creak (even if you knew you made it)--then you owe it to yourself to revisit. Sure, there's a pretty fake bat involved, but we've all seen worse, and at least the wings flap and we wouldn't want Fulci to kill a real bat just for a movie like, say, old Ruggero.

Before diving in, a word of warning--even some of Fulci's fans aren't huge fans of this movie due to its many confusing anti-ellipses and stubborn adherence to paranoid  nightmare logic. Me, I like it better than most of his others in his undead series (City of the Living Dead, Zombi 2, The Beyond) as he keeps the focus so narrow--so localized and nightmarish, tapping the same vein of cabin fever time-bending paranoid 'always been the caretaker' interiority that make films like The Innocents, The Haunting, and The Shining (see Pupils in the Bathroom Mirror) so effective. Nothing evaporates the supernatural like the intrusion of cops and shrinks, fire arms, witnesses, panicky groups of holed-up survivors, reporters, etc.-- and nothing condenses it quite like communication failure between isolated, dysfunctional family members. In House it's the Boyle family --the father, Norman, is an academic researcher lugging wife and eight year-old son to New England for a six month stay to 'finish the project Eric (his mentor in grad school) started for the university' played by giallo mainstay Paolo Malco, Norman has a habit of staring conspiratorially at the camera as if its his Mr. Hyde wingman--especially when his emotionally drained and tantrum-prone wife Lucy (Catriona MacColl) is in his arms and can't see his face--meanwhile too people in town say he was up there a few years ago with his daughter--he denies it and doesn't have one, but the Malco stare suggests. Lastly there's Danny Torrance-style psychic son Bob (Giovanni Frezza--burdened by one of the lamest voice characterizations in Italian horror dubbing history). Bob's main communication is with the murdered girl, Mae Freudstein (Silvia Collatina) who urges him not to come--but what parent ever heeded a tow-headed third grader's babbling (and why isn't he in school?). There's also the ever-enigmatic and smoldering-eyed Ania Pieroni (the music student young witch in Inferno) as Anna the babysitter.

No Italian horror film ever just rips from one source, so though the Boyles have a passing resemblance to the Torrances, the presence of Anna evokes passing vapors from Gaslight (all through sultry stares --no words) though never enough of either one to settle and become 'predictable.' Like Argento, Fulci was coming to the horror genre from mysteries / giallo procedurals, where keeping audiences guessing who the killer was meant having everyone be slightly suspicious--everyone is hiding something--or so it seems. People keep mentioning the last time Norman was up there and he says they must be mistaken but he's that shifty-eyed Italian kind of giallo-brand ectomorph--thin enough that he can be mistaken for a woman in a long black raincoat (and vice versa) with eyes that make you suspect he's having an affair with or trying to kill nearly everyone he meets even while his actions and words are all regular scared family man; and the mom is emotionally unbalanced, refusing to take prescribed pills ("I read somewhere those pills can cause hallucinations") and losing shit; then taking them and feeling great; and then being attacked by a bat, and so forth; and there's the beautiful blue-eyed blonde boy with that terrible terrible voice and his dead friend Mae;

 but the graves run right under the living room floor. When asked about the grave in the hallway, dad dismisses it, "Lots of these old houses have tombs in them," he says "because the winter's cold here and the ground is too hard for digging." Do those Italians know that shit happens in New York too? 

Lurking on the threshold between Lovecraft and calculated absurdity of Bunuel in its deadpan execution, it requires a reckless willingness to let go of reason's handrails and fully embrace the primal anxieties of nightmare logic side-by-side with playfully enigmatic deadpan paranoia, evoking the wry termite wit of Michel Soavi's La Setta and Stagefright but with more genuine dread--the kind of attention to wringing maximum suspense from random things like a steak knife being used to turn a key in a rusty hinge, the camera pulling up close and the suspense rising with the intense chalkboard squeak of dry bold slowly turning while dad comes ever closer to slipping his grip and slashing open his wrist (or having the knife blade snap off and go ricocheting around the kitchen before lodging in someone's head. But then the door opens--Norman flashes the flashlight through the thick cobwebs and we wonder if Freudstein really does live down there or is some kind of a ghost.   And then--before Norman can look around--a bat attack. It's quite a sequence - practically real time from when Norman wakes Lucy up (the barbiturates lining up on her night table like little troupers) to the death throes of the bat - a complete wind up all around from waking up refreshed after a night of (presumably) Valium and sex, and winding up back to being the sobbing out-of-her-depth nervous breakdown


And then, as the basement keeps opening, the weird mix of nightmare logic and deadpan humor shifts to straight nightmare. No other film of Fulci's is so rife with childhood nightmare faithfulness, and so void of cold logical counterpoint. Italy's other great horror maestro of the period, Dario Argento, still turned to logical cops and psychologists for eventual explanation but in House Fulci forgets about cops and rationale as the time window is just too short. By the time the progressively more deranged and horrified recordings left by Norman's mentor reach the part about Freudstein keeping himself alive in the basement via a steady stream of replacement organs and limbs shorn from new tenants. Bob is already locked in the basement, with Freudstein--one of the most genuinely unnerving Italian walking corpses--shambling towards him. As with Carpenter's Halloween (its sequel was in drive-ins the same year as this) this has sort of melting clock tick-tock momentum, wherein time moves slower than real life while never actually being in slow motion - so moving across a room to open a locked door (ala Leopard Man) can seem to take forever the more you crosscut. For example if we see a Laurie Strode running from point A to B and then cut to Loomis walking down the street from house 1 to house 2, we wouldn't cut back to Lauruie now running past point C or D but still running past B where we left her --then when we cut back to Loomis he'd still be walking from house 2 to 3, back to Laurie running past D. It's an editing strategy that subverts our the narrative pacing expectations originally set up by DW Griffith who invented crosscutting as a narrative style in 1909's A Corner in Wheat to create that nightmare pacing feeling of running through three feet of sucking mud while some being slowly advances towards you. Usually crosscutting liberates us from time's tedious aspects while enhancing our desire for the two separate threads to finally meet (the pursued or endangered heroine and the cavalry riding - riding to her rescue), which flatters our paranoia (we sense our desire will be met at the conclusion of the sequence, due to associative tendency created through signifier expectation: show me an apple near a pointed black hat and I'll think its poisoned with sleeping sickness, show me a racing squad of cop cars crosscut next to an isolated young woman slowly opening her attic door, and I'll think the killer is up there -- etc. Few American auteurs dare screw with this formula the way Fulci (and Soavi had) until Demme with Silence of the Lambs (when it turns out Crawford and company are rushing an empty house and Buffalo Bill answers the door at Mrs. Bimmel's for Clarice, alone except for a standard issue side arm.

A similar rupture even occurs in the time-frame of Cemetery as well, between the two children on opposite sides of the life-death divide, separated by 60 or so years, where time is much more fluid in both directions, which we're not used to. This angle confuses some people in its ambiguity (especially the 'huh?' ending). But if you know Antonioni's BLOW-UP (1967) and the birth of LSD symbolic melt-down post-structuralism and the 70s movement towards ESP, telekinesis, past-life regression, Satanism, post-Manson cults, deprogramming, near death experiences (NDEs), Nigel Kneale's The Stone Tape theoryand the way in which strange visions and dreams might well be some denizen of your house in the far future channeling your ghost (wherein you might be talking to your unborn great granddaughter and not even know it), then yes the ending makes perfect sense. If someone from the past can visit our present why not vice versa, who knows we might be from the future - a visi on they're having in the past from around a seance table.

Whether or not Fulci had seen The Leopard Man (1943) by then--with little Maria's blood coming in under the door as her mama rushes to unlock it--is incidental. He takes that one pivotal moment -- a key scene in nightmare horror no one who's seen it can forget, and drains it of all cultural, feminist Jungian-archetypal symbolism, and mixed emotions (our relish knowing mom deserves to have this death on her conscience)--then distills it down into pure fear, turning the whole second half of the film into one prolonged, torturous child locked on one side, parents frenzied on the other, like a crazy man who distills a gallon of vodka down to a pint of 190 proof Everclear just so he can then take an hour and a half to sip it straight with no chaser. He may be dizzy, nauseous and trembling by the end but by god is he drunk.

My problem with Fulci's other films in his undead category, such as The Beyond (also 1981) is that it's all over the place, spread out into hospitals and cops and corpses with pink Jello-pop acid waves and tarantulas, and seeing eye-dogs and half-headed zombie broads--all fine stuff but the broader the canvas the less effective the horror, to my mind. All the true classics involve structural collapses of the social order, patriarchal symbolic orders toppled by intrusions of the unassimilated real, in HOUSE the cast is kept down to a handful-- there's no cops nosing around, no red herring "pervert" suspects, and the supernatural element is kept on the DL --once people are killed they don't get up and walk again, or wink in and out of existence (as they do in City of the Living Dead), they just get hung up on the basement laundry line for Freudstein's use in his self-Frankenstein home repair.

Thus while many critics will say it doesn't make sense that people take so long to walk say from one room to another and no one does the smart thing like call the cops or leave but in dream logic it makes sense; dream logic isn't an excuse for lazy coherency, to just toss whatever crap together you want and call it dream-like. The structural geography of the dream landscape is just as organized and cohesive--each element corresponds to aspects of a psyche in turmoil, as in the CinemArchetype series, with Freudstein as the Primal father devouring his young like Cronus. Whereas something like, say, American Werewolf in London will rely on dream sequences to justify senseless but visually interesting 'trailer-ready' moments, such as a squad of werewolf Nazis (left over from Song Remains the Same) bursting into the family living room and machine gunning everyone. In doing so Landis betrays a faith in the permanence of conscious perception that pegs him as part of the provincial pop Spielberg-Lucas-Chris Columbus school of wide-eyed wonder. The kind of naivete that insists of gruesome latex transformation scenes, and issues like waking up from your rampage naked (your clothes having been shredded off), the kind of naivete that comes from having not taken mind-altering drugs, experienced drastic social upheaval or had mental illness issues (they're all the same thing, really). Take as opposition to that the more grey-shade psychic breakdowns from more literature-based European immigrants refracting the start of World War 2--the shadow of the wolf over Europe vs. the promise of the New World--in The Wolfman (1941) and the original Cat People (1942 - below). In the latter especially I recently made careful observation of the shadowy transformation scenes and noticed that in the transformation isn't rendered by effects but by black on black animation (if you look closely in the dark shadows in the corner of the pool room you can see an animated black ink splotch), her transformation back is shown from paw prints becoming not bare feet but high heels! The camera doesn't dwell on it, merely pans away, but the implication is truly marvelous in a true Camille Paglia-style fusion of the chthonic feminine and high fashion glamazon.

 But Fulci, a dream logic master, doesn't need dreams within the narrative to infuse things with weird imagery; rather the film's entire language is rooted in the figures and narratives of childhood nightmares, just as Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland are, and films that show reality from the point of view of a paranoid schizophrenic, wherein sensory perception merges with hallucination -so that, Dorothy finds everything in two-strip color, the farm hands all halfway between their archetypal dream selves, causing her to kill Mrs. Gulch by drowning her in the water trough, killing any older woman wearing red shoes and stealing them; Alice chasing real white rabbits around the woods, or leaving them to rot outside the ice box. Like The Innocents or The Shining, Cemetery is a study how one becomes the other, in understanding the importance of isolation for reality to bend - the way cops and psychiatry officials dispel it by trade and presence (the only outsiders are dispatched almost as soon as they enter, via axe or poker); a cop's whole training, and the court system, and doctors, is to clear away the cobwebs and separate fact from fiction, the very things that drive people into fits of cabin fever murderousness, the ghosts coming out when there's no one around to dispel them with the lamp of logic.

Therefore too comes the realization that a terrified kid locked in the basement, hammering at the door screaming and pleading while his mom pounds on the other side and the killer lurches slowly across the room--might run on and on, time melting down to stasis, the terror mounting like the swinging of a pendulum, or the slow ascent of a roller coaster. It doesn't matter in the end if the threat is actually real - it can still function along this line - in fact the two might need each other --the isolated paranoid schizophrenic and the supernatural Other like opposite polarities with a genuine demonic manifestation the lightning strike.

"Oh God! His voice... I hear it everywhere!"

One of the major quibbles/strengths for the dream logic effect is the sound of paranoia, the diegetic ambient sound effects which are genuinely (unless I'm as flipped as a Polanski heroine) attuned to incongruous association. Using a kind of Eisensteinian associative sound editing, the steady background sound of birds outside the window might include a child's scream --in the same key--heard but once, so that our brain doesn't have time to consciously notice, so that the birds never quite become a child screaming. If you hear a tree fall in the woods but didn't see it, and the sound of its creak-and-crash occurs the same time as a rusty door hinge is opened and is howling dog from a few yards back, did you really hear it? Would you go check it out? Or would you wonder if you just misread it, heard the dog plus a squeaky screen door hinge and a car driving by all congeal to sound, briefly, like a third thing, like an overtone in Tibetan throat singing. If another tree fell right afterwards or you heard a chainsaw, then you'd realize you heard it. Otherwise.... no. So did we even hear it in the film, either? I could rewind and check but would rather leave it be, Schrodinger's Cat-style.

Freudstein's disruptive manifestation comes even audio mimesis, a river of Satanic voices and--possibly--his past victims, such as Freudstein's unholy Bluto-style laughs of pleasure when killing the real estate lady or the way he cries in a child's voice (possibly Bob's) when injured, a voice that sometimes doubles itself to sound like a chorus and occasionally interrupts the cry with a tiny laugh. Are these the voices the ghosts of murdered children or is it a by-product of stealing their limbs, (including his own daughter's arm). Is this some kind of ability to mimic his victims to lure new ones down, ala Attack of the Crab Monsters? or does he just cry like a little baby? If you need an answer, then you may want to know for sure whether the hauntings in The Haunting and The Innocents are all in the projections from the deranged mind of a repressed middle-aged virgin hysteric or actual ghosts. Again, Schrodinger's Cat, man. Horror lives in amnesia and the dissolution of the line between hallucinations and reality.

Norman stares directly into the camera a lot - for the same reason most actors never do

Some would say fuck that dumb cat and label Fulci a sensationalist, especially in the spoiled mainstream USA, where open endings like House's allow for lots of WTF unanswered questions to just hang there. But they wouldn't dare say that about Antonioni or Lucretia Martel, because there's no shambling corpses in The Headless Woman or Red Desert. In each an ordinary upscale housewife reconfigures ordinary random events so that they almost constitute amnesia or an affair but we can never be sure what's going on - it's the way a thrill of guilty fear might pass us when we hear a siren in the distance or the flush of shame when we hear someone laughing behind us, as if mocking our private thoughts. In an international film center like Italy, since the language / dubbing is always so iffy from language to language, so much of the film's power rides (1) on the ambient noise / foley / sound effects and a style of antithetical music originated by Ennio Morricone and picked up by everyone, especially in the wake of Blow-Up. Italian auteurs like Fulci know the tone of a whole film can change with a bad dub job (as in the terrible adult voice doing little boy Bob here) but no one can argue with the way an innocent child's sob of woe is folded into the sprocket-waves of a squeaky door hinge, or a woman's scream becomes a jazz horn.

Walter Rezattis score rocks along all the while all, surging between soapy melancholic grand piano and crescendoes of church organ-driven prog rock, taking long pauses here and there so we can hear the pin drop, emphasizing all the weird random noises that come in and out of the mise-en-scene  This is a chamber piece movie as big as all outdoors while seldom leaving a few rooms, capturing the weird way time mirrors across itself, the way modern horror comes rupturing out of the ground like oil gushers of the putrid dead in between cliffside romantic clinches so that sweeping concert piano virtuosity --which normally is my least favorite Italian soundtrack instrument--fits elegantly as counterpoint--that great soundtrack style originating with Ennio (as far as I can tell)--where antithesis brings depth in a way the on-the-nose telegraph orchestration of Spielberg types like John Williams and Howard Shore would never imagine--as nowhere is the line between the 'experienced' and the virgin more sharply drawn than in music. Rezatti ain't no Morricone, or even Goblin but he is a kind of Keith Emerson-meets-Bruno Nicolai fusion, and as always with Fulci music is used sparingly, effectively, sometimes jarringly - roaring to life to cut off actors' last word or stepping on their first, with even what sounds like a 'play' button clicking in the mix. I've written too much validating accidental Brechtianism to just presume Fulci 'missed a few spots' in the sound editing, especially with all those earlier marvelous musical flourishes.

(but as a kid, so who believes me?)

Another example of Fucli's open-ended death/Lazarus metaphors (ala Mike Hammer voom! vavoom!): Bob, the child, racing in terror - the camera running up behind him with the score roaring to life with crazy synth squiggles of twisted menace--he falls atop a grave, the ghost (?) of its occupant's child, Mae Freudstein (redheaded child of horror Silvia Collatina) lifts him off grabbing him by his arm, which stays folded like he's in a coffin; Mae turns out to have been chasing him in a game of tag. But now Bob has to run home for lunch; promises -as we all have--to race back out right after. Mae watches as he runs back towards the house before saying (with a robotic fatalism) "No Bob, don't go inside." but the score surges to life again and cuts off her last syllable.

We saw her in a flashback to her own period (Victorian, judging by the dress), earlier (and again later) saying the same thing, as if in a trance, after we've heard her say it to Bob, while he's in a trance, and sees her talking to him from the window of the old photo of the house they're moving to, so one imaginary friend in the early 1910s is having a conversation with a real boy in "present" time (1981), etc. The girls admonition in the graveyard --"you shouldn't have come, Bob" has a chilling unemotional frankness far beyond either scary emotion or kids trying to act.

It's not like Bob really has a choice; as a kid is never listened to. Even after he sees his babysitter's head bounce down the stairs he's unable to get this across to his disbelieving mother the type of parent who if you came to them covered in bruises would chide you for having such a morbid imagination when crying for attention. Of course from that horror then comes the comedy of the idiot Bob down in the basement alone shouting "Ann! Mommy says your not dead!" when the last time the door just swung shut down there and locked by itself and something killed her. This is just one of the ways Fulci builds terror in a viewer, the raw molasses slow illogic after all that high-toned paranoia reaches back to the fatalistic dread of kids who aren't heeded until it's too late. It's the big fear preyed on in all the best horror films, most recently in Let the Right One in and It Follows, of being a kid in danger and adults around either unwilling or unable to notice or give your fear the slightest heed. Not until the blood runs under the door will they believe you and even then will rather believe it's somehow a result of your own morbid imagination.

NIGHTMARE LOGIC III:  Schrödinger's Cat People

House opens up with a mini masterpiece of generating suspense - we pan  up from the gloomy house and there's a gorgeous young women getting dressed by a table where clearly she's been getting it on mere moments ago, talking to her off-camera boyfriend (who doesn't answer--and we never see him until we see him dead), they've clearly been using this dusty derelict old house for their romantic trysts - which signifies their love is: a) forbidden (probably both living with parents -so they're young), passionate (they'd have to ripe with sexual heat to get it on in such cobwebbed gloom), and doomed (no one knows they're there, of course, so won't be looking for them). Anyway, the boyfriend doesn't answer - she gets more panicked - looking around --you can guess the rest. It's so simple - but it works. There's no fancy surreal touches, just a monologue really by this beautiful blonde actress (Fulci regular Daniela Doria) as she orbits a copulation table in ever wider arcs, introducing us to the house in the process --which is caked in dust now but presumably won't be after the credits. While many Italian filmmakers add weird touches and tricks from Hitchcock etc., Fulci's trick is to cut right to it, like paring away Argento's operatic style to establish a sense of powerless unease in the viewer using very little in the way of backstory, plot, or other stalling tactics. Good writing can convey more mood and information in a glance or line than three pages of lame exposition and that's the case here--all the details add up so that after barely a few minutes of elapsed screen time, the house itself seems doomed - the basement especially is cavernous and foreboding - the kind of place you can imagine never visiting even if you bought the place - better to just leave it be, and you're not sure why--but we feel it, too, in our bones along with the setting wintry New England desolation. As a result what might be just another dull opening murder of a naughty young girl and/or boy leaves dread in the air like a radio key. From this we cut to New York City and Bob's first psychic link with Mae, whose warning him not to come before he even knows they're going.

House by The Cemetery - Anna the Babysitter

Later: The real estate agent's corpse is dragged across the kitchen and down the stairs, leaving a wide streak of blood; the close-up of blood on the wooden floor is suddenly interrupted by a sponge coming into frame. We wonder for a half-sec if Dr. Freudstein is actually cleaning up after himself, but then see the floor's being cleaned by Anna, throwing down a big mop and bucket. But is she cleaning the blood or was the blood gone before she started cleaning or is she in league with Dr. Freudstein or is Lucy just hallucinating and by now shrugging it all off (or is it dead bat blood)? Lucy comes into the room in her robe, "What are you doing?" she asks. Anna gives her an enigmatic look that could mean a) what does it look like, genius? You people leave blood everywhere. and b) I'm going to fuck your husband. But instead: "I made coffee."

haunting stare from House by the Cemetery

Lucy continues, oblivious: "What a shame you didn't come with us to the restaurant last night." This gets a knowing, vaguely contemptuous and cuckolding stare even closer and straight into camera that could be read many ways, as its no doubt meant to. Since a lot of these signifiers all come from mysteries Italian filmmakers are used to conveying the 'everyone's a suspect with the same approximate build, male and female' suspicions.  It even continues with the implication Anna is bringing a tray of coffee into Norman at this desk, but instead in the reverse shot after her muffled voice we realize it's Lucy and shortly after all that's forgotten when we see it's Lucy behind the tray  - and that whole aspect evaporates. Lucy ccomes out with groceries and we think we see Norman driving by in the car but can't tell - did Lucy drive the car and he stole it leaving her to walk hme with two bags of groceries through the woods, did he say he was going to NYC but really is haning around the library listening to disturbing tapes of his predecessor's rantings (accompanied by POV shots of Freudstein's 'workshop' replete enough gore to repel most anyone no matter how fake most of it looks.)

It would be unfair to make Fulci account for the lack of resolution in all this unspoken
'let's drive the wife insane' red herring implications anymore than in the  'almost affair' between Richard Harris and Monica Vitti In Antononi's Red Desert. There's no trope or cliche that sits still and allows us to situate ourself into what kind of movie this is, which again maddens the either/or types. They can argue that since nothing comes of it, plot-wise, one can argue it's just a waste of time that goes nowhere, Fulci fooling around with the bag of enigmatic stare tricks so beloved of Italian genre filmmakers and French film theorists.

But one can argue to the genius of that - for it generates a sense of paranoia and unease if you submit to it, that helps amp up the shocks to come as they seem further and further afield but in actuality are remarkably blunt and close to home, like tricking us into looking at a car driving from far away and then after our eyes have adjusted, stabbing us in the throat from behind with a scissors. Fulci critics wouldn't dare say Hitchcock wastes our time with the Melanie Daniels'-Mitch Brenner meet-cute romance in The Birds or Marion Crane's embezzlement in Psycho. Well, Fulci does the same thing within the confines of wordless stares! In all three the suspense and fright comes seemingly from left field - we're not given to expect birds or knives or monsters in the basement because the cinematic signs are all lining up for a different movie, one we've doubtless seen: in The Birds, the story of a spoiled city heiress finding love and meaning while hiding out in a small waterfront fishing community (in the vein of Anna Christie, The Purchase Price, He Was her Man) is sideswiped by the bird attacks, so that the birds fly in under our radar in a sense, as in Pyscho where there's no signs of what's coming in the shower as we believe we're seeing some sexy noir thriller where a woman steals from her employer to run away with her handsome lover.

Did Anna Pieroni inspire this iconic
NG photo from 1985?
And besides, she has those gorgeous eyes, that haunting stare really is like the best part of Inferno -naturally Fulci would want one for his very own.

Earlier, seeing she's stressed  out over the move, husband Norman asks if Lucy's taken her pills (we never learn what they are or hear of them again). Though clearly very rattled by the goings-on in the house she says no, she hasn't been taking them because "I've read somewhere that those pills can cause hallucinations...." He looks at her (mock?) enigmatically: "Are you sure?" One can read the paradoxical inference (she hallucinated reading the article) but as it;s also just tossed off by the dubbing so if that meaning was there it's become lost in translation, but it's also typical of the gaslighting tactics husbands and their young lovers (or daughters and gigoloo acid dealing boyfriends) employ to destabilize a saintly momma in Italy's many soapy romantic thrillers. Especially in the age of the"Valley of the Dolls" era-- (the 60s-70s) wives could no longer always tell what reality was thanks to some blue pill a man who says he's her doctor keeps giving her--is he arranging gaslight-style scenes to make her think she's hallucinating? Put strong acid in her Valiums and play weird tape recordings of dead husband's voice under her bed (as they do in The Big Cube) and you can get her to jump off the roof into the sea while you're safely miles away with perfect alibis. It lets the filmmaker use all sorts of crazy images and unresolved ellipses (way better than the "it was all a dream" defense.

Again all these little tangents go nowhere, they're really more misdirection and paranoia-boosters, both aspects helping to make the ensuing murders that much more traumatizing - especially as they're so blunt an inexorably straightforward, like a raw unedited nightmare. After the incident in the kitchen with the staring and blood mopping, both parents are out and Anna is alone in the house with Bob, who's playing with his remote control car in the living room, the setting for another of the film's inexorable but natural progressions from one small thing to another until the trap swing shut. First Bob's the car turns a corner toward the kitchen out of his sight; Bob turns the corner wondering why it hasn't driven back; it's gone and there's no sound of it revving; the basement door, which is usually locked, is wide open however. Bob goes down into the gloom to look for it and disappears from view. A moment later Anna comes into frame and calls to him; he doesn't answer. She looks down the basement steps, and slowly goes down into the basement to look for him. Suddenly the door slams shut above and locks her in and some shadowy thing comes moving towards her from the far end of the basement. She's fucked. She starts screaming for Bob but he's somehow upstairs. It's so a simple logical progression: the remote control car disappearance leading to the babysitter locked in a cellar. She's screaming for Bob to open the door as Freudstein starts shambling towards her out of the gloom. But Bob isn't going to open the door unarmed, so he's collecting his stuffed monkey and flashlight while she's screaming and pounding at the door and the killer's lurching slowly towards her...

The glacial pace in which Bob suits up to walk across the kitchen floor -taking his sweet time -as she's cut to ribbons on the other side of the door is maddening, that borrow of Leopard Man thrown into an infinite loops, and yet we certainly can't fault Fulci for choosing 'nightmare time' frame for the action, the slowing down rather than speeding up is just what real nightmares are like. There's no time or space in a nightmare-- no logic rhyme or reason -running three steps can take an hour and a ten miles crossed in a single second. Here it's the former and a sense of fatalism overtakes us as, one after another, the adults trundle down into the basement to their deaths. We already know no one can be spared--from the tapes of the previous tenant/researcher that Dr. Boyle listens to: "Oh my god, not the children! "The blood! Blood! Not only blood.... his voice!" That terror in the tape is the most emotional of all the voices in the film. It settles over the rest of the film like a pall.

Demerits for some terrible dubbing, especially the lady playing Bob like he's always counseling a simpleton in a terrible 60s movie (which is why I can use that word) but that sense of wrongness helps to give it all a nightmare fatalism. The dad's declaration after dragging the family away from comfy upscale NYC, a dismissal of their needs and concerns, "You're gonna love it, smell that country air," is also strangely unconvincing --carrying no authority and raises suspicions he's woefully inadequate as a father. You could be coming to him bleeding and on fire and he'd wave it away as new school jitters. It can drive viewers insane but that's part of why it works as a nightmare logic parable -simple buildups from normal tiny incidents seeming slightly out of joint --the way no one in the family really hear what one another is saying - which is why Anna's ominous silence carries such a charge and says way more than all the generic small talk of the mother. If it gets too frustrating to see a whole family helpless to escape a limping armless dead man who can barely shamble, preferring to cower and die helpless and screaming when it would be a simple thing to chop off his other arm (or at least use your own) well, that's how nightmares are and who knows how we'd really act and maybe that's where the horror is -- the realization that if the shit got heavy enough we'd crumble into a sweaty sobbing ball. At least in this case we can imagine the terror really is overwhelming - that this thing has been living below them all the while and has been for over 70 years, repairing itself through limb replacement until all that's left is walking death - this is the first time they see it, and the last--as if the full horror of Freudstein's shambling maggoty cadaver is so overwhelming it paralyzes the prey, jams the record so it hops a groove and leaves you screaming on an eternal skip--a kind of instant repression black-out.

That's why the film's chamber piece momentum works so well, almost like a three act opera, as all the paranoid 'almost' sub-plots evaporate in the cold finality of the basement, the illogic that a row of corpses could be strung up down there without the smell carrying upstairs through the same crack in which Bob crawls for his own escape (trying to fit his head through that narrow crack provides one last nerve shredding moment that stretches forever) into Mae's and Mother Freudstein's sympathetic decades-departed arms--is so startling, original and final. There is no death but what we make for ourselves, which is called waking up, the alarm clock of your tender throat raw from claw-choked screaming, pulled up from the pillowy grave like sluggish screaming Lazarus Jr. by a girl who died before your grandmother was born, to a world with its own set of rules, but the same damned house. Or to put in layman's terms, it's the end of The Shining if its Danny who wound up at the party in 1929, or at least upstairs with a babysitter and those cool creepy twins... forever... and ever...And mind your manners--you know some other guest is sure to drop in.

1.(since it's going to be dubbed and subtitled in about 20 different languages, Italian film tradition is to shoot MOS (without sound) or silently - each actor in the international cast speaking his or her own language and then dubbing their part for that country's track, ideally, and voice actors in that language doing the rest, which is why nearly every character in Italian horror sounds like one of two or three different voice actors. No one knows their names or where they are - the invisible heroes of the business- as a voiceover actor myself I say their stories must be told!

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Occult Streams of the Amazon (Prime): 13 Witching Hour Picks

The welcome and most unholy arrival of this year's big new horror classic, THE WITCH, onto Amazon Prime last week signaled the month (my favorite) of all unholy magic has arrived. Time for great hauntings and macabre classics streaming like a running flow of witches o'er town and dale come Hallow's eve or mizzenmast half-flap. Lucky then that--as I wrote re: their Vampiredeliction last week--while Netflix has shied away from the ratty old rarities and sideshow bargain basement found object art, Amazon Prime has more than picked up the slack. Every category of October horror now can hold its own special list. This one stretches from silent films from 1922 up until present day, linking Middle Ages gynocide to 70s ouija boards and forward to modern direct-to-DVD scrappy indie gems, made for the love of making them with nary a chance in hell of turning  a profit--if that's not trusting the dark arts, what is? If only Ed Wood could have lived long enough to see the wonders his legacy hath wrought! My two great-great-great-great-etc. Aunt Marys (Edwards and Easty) and all my other Salem ancestors (no joke - I have the documents) are avenged through thee Prime. Let the fall foliage crumble in lovely dark red and purples in the crispness of your knobby knuckled hand's caress! We shall collect them for a recliner to plant before our tombstone screen. Wake thy imps from their velvet cloth slumber, the charm's rewound again!

PS  - as before each film is rated both for film quality (factoring personal preferences) and image quality (as in the clarity, restored crispness/color etc of Prime's streaming print --which is subject to change)

(1989) Dir. Michele Soavi
**1/2 (Image- B)
It's long (feels longer than it is), convoluted, and it tries to keep too many balls in the air, this DEMONS variation (cross-section of people trapped in a building and threatened with demonic possession) is set in an ancient church erected over a pit full of Templar-slain pagans, involves a treasure map mystery and Rube Goldberg contraptions stirring to dusty life, opening the pit and releasing a horde of long-buried evil spirits (if the demons are let loose the church locks shut tight to keep them trapped). Like so many horror films dealing with witchcraft, this has its cake (those Temnplar murderers are bad), eats it too (but the witches are real, and evil), and then brings it right back to the store complaining its stale and demanding a refund, and then projectile vomits it back (pea-soup colored) into the cashier's face when he refuses (possession is 9/10 of the law!).

Co-written with Lamberto Bava and Dario Argento at the height of their mutual appreciation society, this stars Argento company regulars Barbara Cupisti (OPERA), Asia Argento (when she was still a young school girl), and creepy-sexy Thomas Arana, and ends with a spectacular destruction scene preceded by devil copulation (a running theme in Soavi's late 80s-early 90s work), unsettling near incest (as various people are possessed by demons), hallucinations, gory murders, and a relatively keen sense of who is where in the cavernous space at any given time. The music is credited to Phillip Glass and "The Goblins" and there's occasionally some annoying prog courtesy Keith Emerson, but most of the time it's quiet though, so you can pray to the blessed virgin sans distraction albeit in vain. The image is a little fuzzy but I think it's always looked like that - on par with Soavi's other films - lots of gray and dust filtering the light. Let Lamberto have the bright red Suspiria color fields; Soavi doesn't need them. Even if CHURCH isn't as good as most of Soavi's other work it still holds up better than most everything else in its league, genre, and field.

(1962) Directed by Sidney Hayers 
***1/2 / Image - A

What makes this film work is its moody black and white photography and AIP talent roster, including Corman Poe screenwriters Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, who always instill 'classic' material with an edge of modern wit that does nothing to dispel the unease and terror. It's directed by Sidney Hayers, a TV director who's worked on The Avengers, and Baywatch, among others, but hey - it's all about the script and the actors, and these are top flight, even if there's nary a familiar face in the bunch: Janet Blair is the wife, Peter Wyngarde the brooding Rod Taylor-ish lead, Margeret Johnson the limping rival; Judith Stott an amazing and odd face as the charmed co-ed.

I've been shy about this film since I was afraid half of the running time would be spent with the husband condescendingly lecturing and belittling his wife about her black magic habits. He does, but she fights back with scathing wit and makes her conversion to logic something that's a result of her own self-doubt, rather than his stern paternal berating. Part and parcel to this left brain belittling the right thing is the whole code-enforced demoting of women from sexy independent thinkers to smiling slave drone Stepford wives. I love women! I think they're great / they're a solace to a world in a terrible state. What a nightmare to have no women in the world (Lou Reed). Or as BWB shows, it's a nightmare either way, but beautiful (Bing Crosby). Filmed in black and white, BURN has the arty photography of the British countryside, rocky beaches, and cloudy English skies of the British new wave, and stands up against the cream of Hollywood's post-Lewton / Tourneur ambiguous shadowy horrors.

(1973) Dir. Ted V. Mikels
 *1/2 (Stream quality - B+)

For this alcoholic, a great simple throbbing synthesizer score goes a long long way towards paving over rough spots (what Carpenter called a 'carpet score' - i.e. it avoids micromanaging). Good old De Palma's preference for high-falutin' longhairs like Hermann and Rota can get a little overwrought, like one long music video for the orchestra, but here in Mikels country a nutcase named Carl Zittrer doing the 'special electronic music' keeps it simple: just one crude sustained repetitive drone, occasionally there's organ and drums - it works like some magic enchantment. Mikels directs the whole thing like he's ingested too much mandrake root and didn't pay his light bill, but the darkness is its major asset, for in this Amazon print/image the blacks are deep black and that's what counts. I've never been a fan of the HG Lewis aesthetic but something about Mikels primitivism grabs me, sometimes.... here the vibe is somewhere between Kenneth Anger's ceremonial rites and a Sam Fuller primitivist pulp nightmare. The lead witch Mara (Lila Zaborin)--stressing every word of her weird rhyming spells as if channeling Mickey Rooney's Puck in the 1935 Rienhardt film version of Midsummer Night's Dream--holds it all together very well with her intense, drawn-out, vaguely amphetamine-tinged hypnotic trance voice. I used to hate Mickey's Puck. I considered it a blight on an otherwise classic movie, but now I get it -- he's a speed freak Puck, and magic is speed. He knows how to conjure donkey snouts out of thin air.

The scenes of her group of sexy acolytes dancing around prone male victims with spears, their hot midriffs and long legs driving innocent boys like me to sad distraction connects it all in some vague way to Hammer's Prehistoric Women (1967). I could have used more of them, less of the weird bouncer guy with the fur hat (he looks like he could be Tom Savini's dad trying out for the father in The Hills have Eyes). Various coven members stare into mirrors and hallucinate their past lives as witches being persecuted. A scene of a girl forced to watch her child mercilessly flogged while she's burned alive is pretty vividly acted and as a result kind of painful to endure. There's also Native American dances and a pope trying to exorcise a woman, failing and so having her stoned to death by the locals. It's all very appalling and surprisingly well done with decent crowd scenes. Meanwhile Mara takes a contract to rub out a crusading politician at a cocktail party via totem telepathy. It works, but the client doesn't get the message. Honey you don't cross the woman who can kill through remote viewing telepathy and voodoo doll torture. There's also a pretty weird seance, maybe the most amateur-creepy since the one the guy shouting "Mongo Mongo Monnnngo" in Ed Wood's Night of the Ghouls. In other words, this is clearly a can't miss Halloween option. "Sometime people devote their entire lifetime to study of the mind," notes the "good" doctor, known for his ability to "psychometrize objects." He and the 'normal' visiting couple who bring down Mara's coven aren't painted very well in the narratve; they seem like just another batch of violent puritans determined to kabosh Mara's powerful "demoniacal" presences. "There's a sabbath going on in this house at this time" he notes as her cool LA pad glows in the dark. Surrounding the house on all four sides with powerful 'good guy' warlocks, he kills everyone inside - after all, their politics disagreed with his. It is what it is. Christendom is 'saved.' Not even a rubber bat shall pass. 

(2016) Dir. Robert Eggers
***1/2 / Amazon Image - A

Shrouded in portentous gloom and ominous droning electric cello, THE WITCH (2015) is the first great woodsy pre-Salem devil film in 300 years, a SHINING for the ANTICHRIST x BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW subdivision of the HAXAN community (with a dash of the recent HONEYMOON if you're keeping track). Set in 1630s New England on a small patch of farm and field surrounded by deep (if leafless) woods, it's a character piece that delves into the same dark patch of the soul that many witch and devil movies make feints at but then run away from, i.e. the actual dark superstitions and folk tales, court records, and the twisted folk horror stories of zonked-out American mystics like Hawthorne, Poe and Ambrose Bierce. First time-writer/director Robert Eggers flair for the milieu and the genre both, making the narrative work by being straightforward with the paranoia and the reality. Not unlike ROSEMARY'S BABY it functions on both conscious and unconscious levels; an historical look at repressed female psychic energy in a patriarchy and the validation of that patriarchy's fear of the dark.

Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Thomasin (above, amidst deepdreamgenerator pareidolia), a naif to the menstrual age, who prays valiantly for deliverance from sinful thoughts but nonetheless falls prey to shady woodsy pagan strangeness, especially once the baby disappears on her watch. Kate Dickie, brilliantly unhinged, is the salt of the earth mom slowly dissolving into the dirt from the loss; the loving yet ineffectual dad (the nicely deep-voiced Ralph Ineson) can do nothing but try and fail and shy away from all blame; the son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), is the sacrificial Barleycorn offering of a young lad starting--since there are no other options--to lust for his developing sister. Running rings around them all are moppet evil twins and a strapping horned goat named Black Phillip --possibly the embodiment of Goat of Mendes i.e. Baphomet, or maybe just a buck in heat or in the early stages of rabies. Somehow that goat steals the show and miraculously never seems CGI fake or badly cut-in to appear to not be doing naturally the eerie stuff he's up to. There's also a rabbit and a raven, filmed in such a thin grey light we feel the ominous ambivalence in their empty eye that they might remind yo of being a small child terrified by some strange small (but big to you) animal. That THE WITCH conjures such tremulous memories via just showing a frickin' hare just sittin' there in the deep dusky woods speaks to the film's unholy power. (more)

(1973) TVM ( Aaron Spelling & Leonard Goldberg)
*** (Image - C)

A kind of funky prelude to both Charlie's Angels (1976) and Suspiria (1977), this Spelling & Goldberg production (for ABC, natch)  is groovy meditation on straight dirty blonde hair and 70s girl clothes back in the halcyon days of relaxed morality (before the Satanic panic of the early 80s), Future Angels Cheryl Ladd and Kate Jackson are on hand as students, and there seems to be only two teachers--Dr. Delacroix (the ubiquitous Spelling character actor Lloyd Bochner) goes crazy imparting the secrets of mind control via a rat maze; the other, Dr. Clampett (noted Spelling production character actor Roy Thinnes) teaches art and encourages the girls to embrace their own hallucinatory perceptions. "What we think we see is as real as what we actually see" he tells them. "Condemn nothing; embrace everything!" Between that and the mind control rat maze we can't help but feel the writers have done their MONARCH-7 homework. The acting is all spot perfect to create the vibe somewhere between an old Nancy Drew mystery (I also had a massive crush on Pamela Sue Martin) and a Rosemary's Baby style Satanic conspiracy (the girls don't believe it was suicide).

The print on Amazon isn't great but it's the best we've got until someone within the space-time continuum puts in some effort and $$. At least the bulk of it is actual film damage--green lines, cigarette burns, inconsistent color, blotches etc., which works for its 70s retro cachet (as opposed to the 80s VHS streak cachet). The damage is actually very reminiscent of the first half of Tarantino's Death-Proof. And in addition to Kate and Cherly Ladd, the students include Pamela Franklin (the girl-child in The Innocents) who'd just come off shooting Legend of Hell House and Jaime Smith-Jackson who'd just come off Go Ask Alice!

So look, it's not that great I'll grant you, but there's a certain kind of black magic to this School that defines what I call '70s babysitter cinema' --the hair clothes and open attitude conjures precious childhood memories in some of us of cute older girl babysitters with straight blonde hair and flared jeans, playing with ouija boards on the orange shag rug, wood panelling, the hum of the air hockey game, and the staying up late watching scary old movies on the late show (but racing upstairs when we heard the parents' car). Charlie's Angels was the frosting on the 70s babysitter cinema cake, representing an alchemically-transmuted gold standard of adult sexuality just achingly beyond our ken, and Satan's School for Girls (alongside Death at Love House), was the dark sexy poison cherry always too out of reach. Being a TV movie it seldom came on except late late at night when parents were home (long before VCRs). Thus it entered in my brain via the realm of jouissance-charged myth. We'd heard it wasn't great...

But that's the beauty of a 70s made-for-TV occult movie (and there were a lot): even stripped down simple narrative like this, even after seeing it a few times on a crappy transfer, its myth endures. Like a Satanic rite one is forced to participate in as a hypnotized child, one forgets it mere minutes after undergoing it, and the cover memory is even stranger --what a peculiar dream said Alice. Quick, "He" is coming.

If you're not as old-ish and weird-ish as me, well, console thyself with its ramshackle easygoing charm--relative to most horror movies made today it's totally tame--it's something the whole family can mildly enjoy: there's no kissing or nudity or blood (a few metonymic body parts aside) and there's no kids, or gross boyfriends to come over and steal our babysitter away to the porch (as they sometimes did). One day, when a first-rate transfer/restoration is undergone, me and the seven other people who love this film will chant and dance 'round the altar in ecstatic surrender. We're home, Elizabeth! Our unborn children have no bedtime.

(1944) Dir. William "One Shot" Beaudine
*** / Amazon Image: B

Like Satan's School, to appreciate the beauty of Voodoo Man without the background of having being what Forrest Ackerman called "a monster kid" in 1960s-70s, is surely not easy. You must first understand true suffering: romantic longing, unfair parents, stupid little brothers, annoying teachers, sweethearts heading overseas to god knows where to face what kind of horror and death at the hands of the Germans or Japanese, because then you will know the joy in Bela Lugosi's insane megalomania, and be afraid of him at the same time. Here he abducts, hypnotizes young women, dresses them in ceremonial robes and uses them in weird soul energy transfer voodoo rites. Sound familiar? A little bit Skeleton Key (though that film was more clear about if it's supposed to be the victim's souls going into the wife's body, or vice versa), a little bit Satanic panic Illuminati-mind control conspiracy theory, a little bit Monogram's typical pulp crime story (with the girls instead of kidnapped kids, contraband tires or bank receipts) and all rather incoherent to a nine year-old Lugosi fan. Where's the monster? Why is George Zucco wearing the funny hat? It's not scary, and as a kid you just presume you don't understand anything because it's 'adult talk' i.e. gibberish. You never guess that there's nothing there to get, that in fact even as an adult it's still gibberish - but now you love it - now you love the sound of sweet, sweet incoherent... gibberish.

But now I know - it's not Monogram's fault it's just.... it's just the world... in 1944, the height of WW2.  And now  I know everything is neither coincidence or on purpose inside gibberish, like decoding dreams. The idea of a row of brides in white flash frozen in somnambulistic trances meant something - for this was a kind of forlorn soldier's hope, that his bride's recently awakened sexuality would "keep" in suspended animation until he returned; but playing around this deep freeze we have Lugosi, a sad, mad genius struggling to restore life to his catatonic wife via soul energy transference from these hypnotized brides (quite similar to another Lugosi film, THE CORPSE VANISHES). For like such a mad genius, VOODOO MAN suffers from disrespect and the hostile derision of lesser mortals. For indeed, the poverty row horrors of the 1940s were dissed by everyone, even their own makers (the writer hero disparages even his own past 'voodoo movie' scripts); a sad state of affairs when the director and writer admit throughout the film that they don't give a damn about what they're doing and you shouldn't either. But we were used to being told stuff we liked was crap. And we raged against boredom and against every bedtime and in this refusal to kowtow to life's petty rules we really found a kinsman in Lugosi. It didn't matter how bad everyone else was in front of and behind the camera in these dull murky dramas, Bela was the star and he gave it 120 proof. 

And he has George Zucco.... in a headdress, acting up a solid 1/2 a shit storm of no tomorrow with mouthfuls of gobble di-gook probably made up on the spot. Is it possible to love anything more? Not even John Carradine's painful hamming as an imbecile assistant (which I realize is for the censors--so he scans too childish to molest the zombie brides beyond petting their hair), or the condescending attitude of the hero, can dampen the glow, the passion, the moistening in Bela's eyes when he thinks he's finally waking up his sleeping beauty. (more)

(1922) Dir. Benjamin Christensen
**** / Amazon Image - A

The definitive documentary / dramatization on the 'science' of the Middle Ages, where the problem of overpopulation and unmarried old bitches was solved through witchcraft accusations, though something doesn't quite add up considering how impossible it was to be found innocent and how many accusations were flying around. We follow two different relatively minor incidents--a father is dying of some unnamed malady, the wife suspects witchcraft, and event follows event and soon the entire household is rounded up and burnt at the stake; in another a horny young monk can't stop fantasizing about some local girl, therefore rather than pray against temptation, the elder monk flogs him and then denounces the girl as a witch. So of course, she's tortured to death to make her confess. Shit is hard to watch, but luckily sooner or later all the women confess lurid fantasias of a Bosch vision of Hell coupled to a Bruegel drunken peasant mass came to life it would look just like these crazy scenes, while the scenes of the monks laughing and drinking while torturing poor old women to death is pretty gut-wrenching but the eventual confessions make it all worthwhile: witches kissing the devil's filthy ass like it's a new bride reception line; a devil feverishly churning his witch pole and flicking his tongue with enough lascivious obscenity to shame a Pazuzu-possessed Regan McNeil; flying witches, stop motion imps breaking through doors; flying gold pieces always just out of reach, banquets that turn to rancid toads at first bite --all like some wild datura root nightmare come to life.

On Amazon Prime we have the 1968 version which was spruced up and given a strange and wondrous free-form jazz score (featuring lots of avant garde percussion and the violin of Jean Luc Ponty) with the intertitles replaced by Acidemic favorite William S. Burroughs, acting as a kind of Satanic beat version of Frank Baxter. He not only covers both the intolerance, hysteria and the fantasy but begs further thought, especially as regards modern Satanic panic / conspiracy theory / UFO abductions and so forth, as they survive to this day. Did these lurid scenes exist before the torture? Or in modern cases, the hypnosis? Did constant heart-wrenching torture unlock past memories through the shattering of the mind and body as modern folklore says happens to create split personalities in CIA assassins ala Sirhan Sirhan? Either way, fascinating stuff and for those of us familiar with the film through old shitty grey dupes (as I was), put your initial impressions out of your mind, see this version and shudder at the fathomless depths of your own crazy species and all we do not know about where reality ends and the collective subconscious begins. 

(2015) Dir. by Roxanne Benjamin, Radio Silence,
David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath
*** (Amazon Print: A)

With its wildly retro-analog synth score by The Gifted setting the mood, this anthology of of five tales of WTF action involving Satanists, demons, and world-weary bartenders all driving around on a stretch of Southbound highway doubling as an 'ass end of purgatory' whereon some characters are mere innocents on the wrong turn or with an untimely flat tire and others there on endless loops as if the idea of watching a film obsessively over and over is more than just the strategy of neurotic film lovers striving to avoid our own dreaded existential mortality. Some of the moments are funnier than others - but the cumulative effect is one of droll pleasure as genre expectations are continually confounded. Those expectations are why I've never been a huge fan of anthology horror films --they tend to allow for lazy writing where some see-it-coming-a-mile-away twist is patiently set up through a series of conspicuously out-of-place details sprinkled amidst an otherwise dreary linear progression. Soutbound handles instead more Sin City than Amicus or EC / DC, albeit with a quietly remarkable absence of misogyny. There's even a girl director for one segment, involving a Satan-worshipping 'normal' family recruiting most of an all-grrl rock band, followed by a very chilling and nightmarish trip to  a deserted ER, a misguided 'rescue' by some old crazy brother for his long-missing biker sister, and a murkily motivated assault on a vacationing family that also is almost, but never quite explained. This is a road with no end or final gotcha, just the patter of the local DJ (rockin' Larry Fessenden) ever-present on all the vehicular radios. But hey, he doesn't add bad puns or plot hole putty like the Crypt Keeper or Alfred Hitchcock, he just keeps the existential road homilies flowin' in a kind of Wolfman Jack meets Nighthawks at the Diner Tom Waits. Hey, sounds good to me. Drive on, man, whether you can get off the highway or remember where your home is or not. You're an American after all --the endless highway is home. It's always been.

(1996) Dir. Jane Simpson
**3/4 (Image - B)

It's in full screen if you can believe that but damn, maybe it was never in anything else. I certainly don't remember it in theaters though I imagine it tried to ride the success of the very similar high school girl clique coven flick, The Craft. Much as I like that film and much as critics disparage this one online, I think Little Witches is better. The only advantage The Craft has is that career-defining badass performance by Fairuza Balk. Well, this one has a great evil witch performance too, from the lovely dark-haired Sheeri Rappaport. And this one is great because it doesn't have the yucky Skeet Ulrich, adhering more to a Satan's School for Girls format, which by now you know I have a soft spot for. It too is set in a boarding school for girls, this time Catholic, but with the same chosen coven of orphans and kids who don't want them home for Easter holiday.

There is one romantic boy though but he's hunk--objectified--a construction guy who uncovers a walled-off room of the church on campus, exposing a deep well/pit to caverns leading to the sea, and a gaggle of skeletons of missing girls from decades earlier. The girls, bored and restless, prowl over to the uncovered room in the dead of night, driven to perform unholy rites for reasons that would make no sense to the layman (magic has the ability to make you think conjuring them into life is your own idea).

 It all starts with Mimi Rose as a brainiac shy girl who conveniently happens to read Latin fluently and is bunked into the same room with the popular wild child (Rappaport), there's some jealous disputes over the sexy construction guy, allowing for lots of nudity from Rappaport, which is a rather startling contrast considering these girls in their little uniforms read pretty young within the scope of things. Rocking an insane midriff and baring her (thankfully un-augmented) breasts with diegetic abandon, and without undue ickiness (the film's directed by a woman which I'm sure helps). Rappaport is quite a heart-stealer. Horror royalty Jennifer Rubin (Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Bad Dreams) is the cool nun in charge of the girls; Jack Nance is the priest (though still doing his Twin Peaks fisherman schtick); Poltergeists's Zelda ("this house.... is clean") Rubenstein is the requisite blind nun tasked with a holy Sentinel-style duty; one of the girls is a very young Clea Duvall.

So the unholy powers are summoned and the Good Friday solstice convergence threatens reality as we know it (the tentacles monster thing comes at the end like a checkered flag) and all is well. I'm not sure why this film gets such derision, as Arrow in the Head notes that the film is too on the fence about what it wants to give us: "the sex is too soft (no lesbian scenes or sex scenes) to satisfy the [XXX] hounds and the horror too weak to thrill the genre fiends. I don’t even know if the film is supposed to be a comedy or not." But to some of us that's the whole point.. Arrow! Once it's a comedy or a sex film or a gore fest it's boring. What Little Witches has that's unique is the naturalistic Hawksian overlapping rapport between the girls, the freedom from all the typical characterization shorthand (i.e. no dumb pranks, gross gags, or slut-shaming, doofus boys leering through keyholes and snickering about scoring) and a sense of the supernatural arising slowly and naturally, almost like a joke at first but then, like the frog in the boiling water, too late to escape. I'd say anyone who hates on this film is a misogynist idiot whose fate is decreed by the unholy raiment of the Illuminati Sistren shish boom blah blah blah. Sheeri Rappaport rulez!

Rapport sexy Linda Fiorentino eyes
I'm a sucker for Rappaport's Linda Fiorentino-ish brunette feline fierceness
(1935) Starring: Bela Lugosi
** (Amazon stream Image -D+)

It's sometimes hard to figure why Bela Lugosi got such mean treatment in the studio system but films like this may offer a clue; a lifelong drug addiction can be controlled, even harnessed, with an endless prescription or enough quality product $$ and connections to keep you "straight" as in not taking too much (so you nod off and miss your cue) or too little (so you're a twitching, sweaty mess). But if you run short (and sooner or later you always do) then you're in deep shit---screaming about zee bats eating zee little wall mice --- what music they make! The drugs is the life, Mr. Renfield. Perhaps a simple booster from a big studio doctor could have knock Bela into the outfield of calm centered brilliance and he wouldn't have to drink embalming fluid to get his screaming under control, but there was no magic doctor on a B-movie serial set like that of the 12-chapter Return of Chandu. Probably not even a trailer; you were on your goddamned own. Shooting up between the potted fronds when the gaffers aren't looking, barely keeping it together, you're only solace is that unless you really fuck up your lines the number of takes on a given scene seldom passes the 'one' mark.

At any rate that idea of drug addiction certainly jibes with both the notion of vampirism and the notion of magic spells (and potions).  the drugs as magic metaphor explains why the 70s was so cuckoo for occult, and why the only difference between me in the late 80s and Dr. Strange ever is nothing. Here in Chandu serial country (12 unfermented chapters boiled and distilled down to a potent 65 minute potable) the trick is, as always, to be able to pass for normal and to know when you got to bring out the big guns, the secret stash and get the hell out of there before Johnny Law arrives (or in this case, the bad high priests' evil minions).

I generally warn you away from Amazon streams with the poor image quality on this Prime print but I've never seen a good version--my old two-tape set of the original serial looked just as bad--and the distillation works well (the original is mad boring) and the blurry pixelation strangely enough works for the diegetic smoke and mirrors and soul transference projection crystal ball and stirred fountain effects. And most importantly, not only is Bela the good guy (confusing all the kids who loved him as the bad guy in the Fox's Chandu the Magician from 1932), he has a girlfriend! Me I can't help but see how poorly that role suits him. He was alive and sexy in the same year's The Raven at Universal but here he's sweating. bloated, overwhelmed with panic in his eyes. His pain can be hard to look at, so just pretend Bela's Chandu really is a junkie and that magic and trippy visions are the same thing and that the princess Nadi is really his smack dealer and the bad guys with the funny hats are Reagan's draconian 80s drug policy-enforcers. And only by renouncing her love is he granted the biggest spell of all, which brings the evil temple down upon them - and that means only one thing - he makes a conscious decision to turn his will and his life over to the care of a higher power, which just takes willingness. And I pretend the big cat sculpture is the one from the Viaje al cielo de los gatos and all is well with the "world." So even if at times you'll want to bitch slap Lugosi's character for just standing around letting people get hurt rather than speaking up or launching a spell of some kind -- toting a big ungainly diplomat family around subjecting them to danger and nonstop hostage-taking while he just stands around sweaty and horrified and passive, forgive him as I have. I'd rather light a cigarette than curse your nicotine withdrawal darkness. Even so, when I get the screaming yips again, which even now happens so regular you can set your watch to it, I'm glad this film is handy, like a forgotten spell remembered in the nick of time, only just.

(1999) Dir. David DeCoteau
** (Amazon Image: A-)

A simple story set in a very cool mansion (stuffed with interesting bric-a-brac and natural [candles, oil lamps, string] lighting) about a small solstice gathering held by well-heeled Goth girl Margaret (Ashley McKinney) for a disparate bunch of Dunwich schoolfriends, couples mostly, some who barely know her. They don't even know about her ancestor Lilith (Arian Aulbright), a 'buked and scorned (and burnt) Salem witch who levied a terrible curse upon her Puritan executioners 300 years earlier--and she's been revived for the party and the guests are descendants of those Puritans! Mwah hah hah! Sure it's shot on high def video but it looks pretty great anyway, filmed by patient Romanian craftsmen (Romania, home of the ex-pat Charles Band empire!) it has the vibe of some slightly awry unaired pilot run at at the 4 AM witching hour with no mention in the TV Guide--as if some sleepy Cabin in the Woods titan in the center of the Earth alone is watching--there's all the requisite types he likes: the stoner comic relief, the dumb jock and his hot blonde sexed-up girlfriend, the nebbish bookworm hero and the bookworm girl he just met who doesn't know how cute she is and wears glasses or is afraid of sex or something, gosh - gee, etc. But this is from 1999, when we still partied like it was... just that year... even in the wilds of.... Transylvania (or wherever in Romania this was filmed). And though this is the lamest party I've ever seen (both the pot idea and the whiskey idea are kaboshed by buzzkill girlfriends); an uptight film major is the first to get zapped and he's the loudest at just saying no - preferring to stay all tense and bothersome. And the stoner's girlfriend kicks the witches ass ("I coldcocked her and locked her in the other room," she casually announces). So surprises still abound to make up for the lack of convivial mood.

L-R: ---Brooke Mueller (the rocker type); seance; Monica Serene Garnich (the cute nerdy type)

Like Little Witches above, it's an innocuous little film that seems to me gets unwarranted negative reviews-- it may not be that great but compared to what? It's not trying for anything it can't achieve. So what's it trying to be, then, exactly? I'm very bad you axed! In the low-key acting of some of the characters--how innocuously yet lovingly the cinematographer keeps the candlelight in proper atmospheric balance--Witchouse works as a more or less PG-14 spookshow with nothing to upset the sleeping ancestors; though some sex is implied and there's some gore, there's no nudity and the romance budding between mega engineering major super nerd and the lovely glasses-wearing long blonde hair -wearing history major is actually very nicely acted, with just enough aching "c'mon and kiss her already" tension that it's enough they kissed for five seconds to feel they've bonded forever (no need for a slow-mo grind).

I especially like it as I myself am the grand child of Dorothy Perkins, therefore a "direct" (?) descendent of several Salem community witches, including Mary Easty. Seeing films like this I feel like wow, should enact some kind of unholy black magic revenge on her behalf? The simple fact is, 320 years is a long time to hold a grudge. Just to be safe, though, I bore witness against the thinness of Sherri Moon Zombie's lips in my review of Lords of Salem.

Lastly, it might help to have grown up reading/watching shit like The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and/or to really resent the need for gore and graphic sex and sexual assaults rubbed like doggy doo-doo in our Kordovaa Milk Bar-jaded psyches, amping up the intensity as we get jaded from overexposure. Then again, I'm very particular - the list of things I dislike in my go-to horror films gets longer every year, especially if there's any gross eating scenes or any imprisonment or cockblocking or garlic salt. Witch House may not be as stealth great as The Eternal, but is similar enough that I forgive it all trespasses. Plus the bond between Lilith and Margaret is cute - like they're old pals, the cool aunt who visits on the holidays once a year (neither turns on the other as a final bloody twist, for example). Sure the nerds win in the end, but who gets to rock? Witches give snitches stitches and damn right they'll be back, whether anyone shows up to fuckin' ever drink that whiskey or not!

(2014) Dir. Jason Bognacki
*** (IQ -A)

Proof you don't need a huge budget and a ton of scenes or even linear time -- you just need to have done enough drugs, meditation, therapy, or arguing with a manipulative mother --to know how slippery identity and self perception really is; there's never a guarantee when we 'let go' of ourselves that we're going to get our same self back. Clearly a kind of expanded short in concept, which is fine with me, it tells a pretty easy to follow tale via a series of Lynchian para-sympathetic matriarchal ellipses and horror hallucinations of the aftermath of a marked young woman's 18th birthday --her strange history involving a witchy coven, and a body-hopping immortal imp mother. Inside a dream within a dream souls fight for possession and reunion and evil can never be beaten for long (nor can good, if there is such a thing). The life blood! It is not only thicker than water, it's the sewer tunnel through which eternal beings scurry like rats under the river of the centuries. losing their marbles like Flounder at the Animal House parade. The acting here --especially from newcomer Paulie Redding as the newly 18 year-old pharmacist-intern (my dad was doing the same shit at her age)--with her marvelous range of expressions we can instantly tale who's possessed her at any given time, and the Skelton Knaggs -nosed Maria Olsen, playing either her mother or herself or her ancient ancestor or all of them, there's no difference, it's all in the family even with rebel sort of 'good witch' guardian Nancy Wolfe. Dig the way the director bides for time by slowing the end credit scroll to ten minutes!

(1998) Dir. Michael Almereyda
**** (IQ - B)
Like a few other films on this list, I'm shocked at the afforded hostility of the average critic who finds this loose drunkard druid meditation on Irish horror novelist Bram Stoker's Jewel of the Seven Stars about a mysterious ring on a perfectly preserved lady mummy hand that winds up possessing a young Victorian daughter of a catatonic Egyptologist. The book is great, like Dracula, Stoker seems obsessed with a kind round the clock vigil over endangered hotties whose past lives either are these ancient demons or were in love with them. Either way, that ridiculous faux K-horror erotic video cover is terrible, the title is meaningless, and even the other title 'TRANCE' is bad. Michael! Call me I can help! You could have called it She-druid Drunks of the Iron Age - that's just off the top of m'head. And whatever you have against this film, film critics at large, admit that Allison Elliott is sublime in an array of roles, and the idea of a devouring matriarchal druid ancestor jibes very well with the other films on this list, so even though I've written about it a dozen times already (see: Inescapably Her Iron Age Druid Bog Mummy Telekinetic Alcoholic Hottie Self) I had to include it, do you understand? I didn't have a choice!! 

And for Almereyda heads out there, Prime has his first feature, favorite of everyone ever in the world who's seen it (all sixteen of us), 1989's TWISTER, (no relation to the 1996 Jan De Bont action movie). As for NADJA it's buried in a 4-for-1 vampire set somewhere, but worth gettin' even if it does look like shit (non-anamorphic). Where's Criterion when you need them? Almereyda is Lord!


(AKA Meeting at Midnight)
**1/2 (IQ-C)

A Monogram Chan with opening and closing seance, this is one of the latter poverty row Chans but don't let that stop you. I used to loathe the Chans mainly because the children were annoying (his extended family), #1 son Jimmy's competent if easily distracted, while #2 is just a vulnerable spazz and #3 just a face loping after Mantan like a mask stuck to his shoe.

(2016) Dir. Christian Grillo
** (Image - A)

If Phil Tucker (the genius behind Cat Women of the Moon and Robot Monster) took a bet he could film an all-ages girl power spookshow with just his daughter and her friends, a few very odd guest stars (such as Michael Hills Have Eyes Berryman) in one afternoon - then hey - this is similar. For "adults" of all ages who are trying to turn their ten year-old daughters away from the Neon Demon and the hentai watched by their peers and point them towards the Labyrinth / Power Rangers past, or crazier still, grandfathers trying to do the same thing with Ultra Man and H.R. Puf-n-Stuff this might do it. I know I would have tolerated its idiocy if I was like eight or nine and this came on TV in the dead of night - that zone where most TV stations have already signed off but some are showing late late movies or early early kids' movies imported from Sweden with terrible American dubbing. It's the kind of thing that might come on during the old USA network 'Night Flight' or on a plane.

 demonic Power Puff contingent for the freshly pierced. Something the less mature children can show their younger siblings after trick-or-treating - to both laugh at and laugh with, and even get the gist of what good Brechtian so-amateur-it's-genius is all about (like I used to do on the dance floor to get the crowd bopping - just start flailing around to the music as wildly and terribly as you can - all the shy people relax --no matter how lame they are, they can't be any worse than you. It never failed. As Prospero says in Corman's Masque of the Red Death, the best swordsman in Europe wouldn't fear the second best, he would fear the worst.  If put over with enough gusto, terrible pacing, clunky editing, amateur acting and muddled writing can be overcome through pure muttonheaded moxy. I also will ascertain at this juncture I know no one in the cast or crew, have not been sent a copy or courted via emails to review this, I just found it floating in the Amazon stream, like all the rest. Let us give thanks this day, for in my childhood this kind of distribution was a foolhardy dream. The label putting this out is 'Potent media' and their symbol is an inverted pentagram. Something is amuck, I mean amiss. Yet I found it - floating in the 'similar titles on Prime' and for a hot sec I felt once again like a single digit-aged Ed Wood fan finding a surreal K. Gordon Murray kiddie import on the 5 AM movie.

(1962) Dir. William J. Hole
(at least two versions of different quality exist on Prime)
I have tried to see this all the way through a few times but it seems like little more than an Alfred Hitchcock Presents or Karloff 'Thriller' episode padded with a lengthy scene of coven members sprawled on divans watching a floor show of devilish doin's. That said, mileage may yet vary. The incomprable Bruno ve Sota lurks amidst the divans, and look fast for...nah I won't spoil it. 

(1987) TVM - Dir. Carl Schenkel 
**1/2 (IQ - C)

The mid-to-late 80s TV movie was mired in Michael Mannish Miami pastel shoulder padded jackets, Ray Bans, perms bouncing to aerobics videos or MTV; Armani, narcissists like Tom Cruise and Richard Gere thinking that playing narcissists who learned a thing or two about trust by the credits made it all all right, absolved not just their dewey longing for that beautiful boy in the mirror but the whole of the 80s--all its greed and bad synthesizer and soft focus slow motion grappling intercut with aerobics and hideous spandex--all absolved because one man... turned around... and carried Deborah Winger away in the middle of her shift. Uh uh, sorry boys. By 1987 we were wise to that boyish crap, and we had the abortion affidavits to prove it. What we needed was a fresh start, to go back to the Wicker Man paganism (how perfect would Cruise be inside that thing?), to go back to harvest sacrifice and covens (Children of the Corn came out in 1984) and get away from the rat race. So Bay Coven, or Cove --an isolated island community only 45 minutes away from San Francisco, where an unholy pact has resulted in all the original members still living, sacrificing descendants of their auld persecutors and not forgiving them a single fiery trespass. You know, business as usual.. in the 90s... the 1690s. But now they need new blood so its time to recruit Timothy Hutton and and his sexy wife (Pamela Sue Martin!), and to welcome them a little too thoroughly for comfort. So many unanswered questions. Like who the hell does Woody Harrelson think he is in all this? Has she really flipped or did they use their magic to kill her brother and why no mention he was her brother until after he's dead?

Well, I know it's a lot to ask, but if you can take Pamela Sue Martin's post-New Wave shoulder pads and unflattering Cherry Hill perm and don't mind the movie's stubborn refusal to try even one original plot point on its own instead of "borrowing" everything (right down to the dream sequences) from Let's Scare Jessica to DeathCrowhaven Farm, The Stepford Wives and The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, (and of course, the one they all borrow from -- Rosemary's Baby) or its dated ersatz neo-noir look (the muted blue-and-grey shot-on-video colors and venetian blind lighting) and you're doing something else at the same time, then you may like Bay Coven or Cove.... whichever.

Maybe that's the whole reason the whole family used to love these old TV movies in the 70s- they were never meant to be original or riveting - never meant to absorb our full attention or bum us out. They knew what they were designed to do, keep us watching, mildly absorbed but never fully enthralled, able to joke about lame dialogue or inept special effects while sharing popcorn mom made on the stove, guzzling Coke (for the kids) and highballs fort he parents. It's a movie meant for 'checking out' to--it can be followed while two rooms away fooling around in your bed while your parents are out playing bridge. Now that we can watch entire seasons in one sitting, no commercials, no respite, no return from reality, all that social connection is fading. Now I am become Tivo, the destroyer of worlds.

AKA "Hungry Wives"
(1972) Dir. George Romero
 ** / IQ - C
This doesn't get a lot of love due its hopelessly trite surrealism, depressing aesthetic (terrible greasy paleface make-up that everyone seems visibly sweating under worse than a butch Aldrich hag), and glum acting. Sure it's directed by George Romero, sure it was made between Living Dead and The Crazies, sure sure, but it's too dingy and too didactic to work as either horror or any 'cracker factory' polemic. It's like hey, we get it, like so many women in the early days of "women's lib," housewife Joan (Jan White) is bored and sexually frustrated, with a husband who barely seems to notice her (and vice versa) and nothing to do--she thinks--but laze around dreaming in surreal shorthand. Even her witchiness is boring--doing it mostly alone at home = too sad for school. Honey, we all have to suffer against the sucking tide of societal indifference and our own inertia, toying around with New Age accoutrements is just another form of isolation consumerism. And no offense to Romero, but do we really need another man telling a story about the troubles faced by women at man's hands? Instead of just laying around in bed all day dreaming of being led around on a leash by an uncaring bored (impotent) husband, why not get a job? Go work as a dominatrix in the afternoons and you can lead the men around on the leash instead? Wouldn't you like that, huh girl? Who's a good doggie? As Pete Townsend put it in "A Quick One (While He's Away), "Clangg! Clangg! / Clang / Clanggg!"

You are forgiven.

on Youtube (last I looked) THE WITCHING starring Pamela Franklin! 
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