Archive for September, 2012

Murder Rock:Dancing Death – Lucio Fulci – 1984

Posted in 80's with tags , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2012 by bookofdread

I wish they still made posters like this.

Murder Rock: Dancing Death is one of Fulci’s less gory efforts, and therefore not as well lauded by the throngs of gorehounds out there. However, this film is a restrained little giallo, borrowing from Suspiria and even his previous films, The New York Ripper, and Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. In an elite dancing school in New York, someone is killing off the students, and it’s up to Olga Karlatos (Zombi), to figure out who it is.

The film begins with two extremely cheesy and dated songs, and the dancing and editing don’t match the songs very well. It’s a rocky start, but once we get to the bathroom scene where Fulci undulates the lighting and moves to a rich suspenseful score by Kieth Emerson, the film puts its’ hooks into you as a heady psychological whodunit.  The cinematography by Giuseppe Pinori gives the film a gritty, sleazy look and the light varies from hot high key fluorescents in the beginning to dark club lighting and blue and pearl shine of a bathroom, where multiple kills take place.

Like many Fulci films, the director gives us several red herrings to follow, a false confession by a student chasing celebrity, an attempted murder by a jealous peer, and even a dream in which Karlatos imagines a semi-famous film actor to be the killer. Fulci juggles this misdirection between scenes of dancers being slain with hatpins to the heart. There is a sprinkling of detective work, by a couple of actors who don’t seem to care whether or not they solve the murders. It is typical of Fulci to toss off police figures as apathetic or incompetent. The characters are never too rich, but it is an intentional distance that is necessary so that the big reveal is not given away at the end.

In both Lizard In A Woman’s Skin and The New York Ripper characters dream they see the identity of the killer. In both films those dreams are validated, Fulci’s validation of a type of second sight offered by a dreaming state. In Murder Rock however, the dreams of Olga Karlatos are a mutation of the truth. The man she dreams the murderer to be is not the killer, but rather a man responsible for an injurious hit and run on her from years before. The man effectively killed her career.  And she has either consciously or sub-consciously created a plan to both keep other dancers, (artists) from realizing their dream while simultaneously framing the man who broke her legs, and making him pay for the slew of murders. It is a brilliantly conceived obsession, and the payoff of the film is worth the investment.

It’s a nasty little scheme, but one Fulci is apt to create. Perhaps he felt someone was spiteful to him and buried his opportunities. (After Don’t Torture A Duckling, his career was in a rough place, and he never got the steam back he had.) This storyline is needle to the heart of an artists dream. It creates a hateful, cyclical world where artists would kill peers to get ahead, and rueful has-beens are equally ready to destroy those who might pursue the life they would never have. Even the polite actor has dirty hands, having driven away from an auto accident so as not to injure his budding career. Being an artist is a dirty game, but if you want to play you have to “grit your teeth and dance, even when a friend dies!”


The New York Ripper – Lucio Fulci – 1982

Posted in 80's with tags , , , , , , , on September 14, 2012 by bookofdread

This is to be the first of many articles on Lucio Fulci. I love Fulci, so know that going in. Each film, to me, plays like a little personal letter from Fulci to the world, especially with his later films, but some in early ones. He is always able to communicate deeply, despite genre trappings, in fact, genre suits him better than 99 percent of all filmmakers. He is expressionistic, and despite the fact that he is a meticulous technician, his films have a logic that is best described as dream-logic, and one should feel his movies scene by scene rather than examine them as a continuum. That being said, I’ll try to discuss it anyway.

Fulci is the rare director that that went to horror late in his career rather than early, so he approaches the films with a very steady and sure hand, giving us a run of horror films more stellar than any filmmaker in history. Today, I’m going to talk about The New York Ripper. First of all, this is a film away from his super strong husband and wife writing collaborators Dardano Sachetti and Elisa Briganti. Fulci wrote Ripper and it fires on all pistons, but is missing both a sense of pace and character given by Briganti and Sachetti.

The New York Ripper is a super mutant horror film. It’s both a kind of Halloween American slasher and an Italian giallo, in that we don’t know the killer’s identity until the end of the film. It gives sex and violence in equal measures and was sure to satisfy even the sleaziest audience members.

The closest thing to a protagonist is a character called Lieutenant Williams, a cipher of a detective, trying to make sense of the events just as an audience member does. We see a brutal killing, and then he sees a brutal killing. Eventually he employs professor man who doesn’t do much but give vacant speculation about the psychological nature of the killer. Fulci really isn’t interested in characters in this film, rather he wants an excuse to push the audiences level of acceptability.

He stages a scene during a live sex show, in which a woman gets off to the live sex. He give brutal permutations of knives and razors slashing open women’s’ torsos and breasts. To what end? Is it pure exploitation? The woman is later killed, a cause and effect. Fulci punishes her lack of fidelity. I would suggest that Fulci here offers a deconstruction of the slasher film and instead of a mindless killer, the neurosis offered at the end is actually very believable.

After a series of unrelated killings of sexy New York babes, a woman is stalked in a theater, and then has a dream her boyfriend is the killer. With any other director, a dream would be a red herring, but as in Lizard With A Woman’s Skin, the dreamed killer is in fact the real killer. Fulci puts all the stock in the world in dreams and in his films, following the dream is the truest way to reality. The boyfriend has a daughter with amputated limbs and a terminal disease. He kills beautiful women because his daughter will never have a life beyond a hospital bed. And the terror that faces his daughter he feels compelled to re-vist on those more fortunate.

During one scene the killer threatens detectives’ whore girlfriend. Fulci is saying something both about the incompetence of the police force and the hypocrisy of these men. They are a step behind him and the Lieutenant must out his prostitute girlfriend in order to save her life. As always, Fulci has little to no respect for the authority figures in his films and instead prefers to undermine and marginalize them.

The New York Ripper is really for gore-hounds and misanthropes. There isn’t much to be said about Fulci’s hope for humanity here. He’s working without his best collaborators and his film is a mutilated child missing the limbs of great characters and deliberate pace. He acts out in spite, slashing at each idea, taking a short path, filling each frame with sex and violence, one cannot help but think Fulci is the sad parent, not wanting his child to lay sick and limbless, so he brings the nudity and gore, but ultimately we are left with a film, beautiful and sparse, dying on a table.

Ms.45 – Abel Ferrara – 1981

Posted in 80's with tags , , , , , on September 14, 2012 by bookofdread

Abel Ferrara and Nicolas St. John are sick puppies in the best of ways. He knows how to get under your skin, and in the most human of ways. He never leaves you without a point of humanity to access, and no matter how extremely his characters behave, one is left shaking his head thinking, “What a fucked up world you live in Abel.”

Ms.45 is a film about Thana, a mute seamstress who is raped on her way home after work by a man in a mask. Upon her arrival home, as she is gathering herself from this trauma, she discovers an intruder in her apartment. As he attempts to rape her she smashes him in the head and then bludgeons the man with an iron. She puts him in the bathtub until she can figure what to do with him. She decides to saw him up and place him in garbage bags, stowing them in her refrigerator and then dropping them off one at a time, as she normally would leave the apartment. As she is dropping one off a skuzzy man follows her with a bag and haunted by the prospect of being found out she takes a .45 from her purse and shoots the man in the head. Thus begins her serial killings. Thana leaves at night, dressed up, dressed to kill.

The men in the film are presented in no spectrum of morality. The men are uniformly awful and reprehensible as human beings. They offer money for sex, make cat calls from the street, her boss touches her on the face and neck and treats her like an animal, and the worst men, two of them in this film, actually rape her. Perhaps New York in the early eighties was actually like this, without a speck of humanity worth saving. And save them she does not. Ms.45 blows them away.

At some point though, sexuality and violence get wrapped up in her brain, warping her perception of what is and is not an attack on women. A Chinese couple make out in front of a Baskin Robbins and though they playfully fight, Thana interprets this wrongly and follows the man home for execution. The fates save this kid this night, and maybe Ferrara is exonerating youth here, for these young characters are among the few spared.

Thana’s female co-workers are a tough bunch as exemplified when the douchey photographer hits on a table of them together. “Get fucked! Get the fuck out of here! Get bent!”, come the replies. It’s hard to be a gal in the city. If you want to live here you have to have very thick skin. But as a contrast to the men, the women are affable, and at least kind to one another. They try to include Thana in group activities and are never presented alone as Thana is, suggesting a pack mentality and safety in numbers as opposed to the men who are the lone wolves, roaming the allies looking for weakness and vulnerability.

Thana meets what seems to be a sympathetic man. They share a beer and he tells her of his ex. They end up on a park bench and he tells her of how he discovered his wife cheating on him and went home and strangled her cat. This petty act of vengeance mirrors Thana’s out of control vendetta on the city. As she hears of the cat killing, she pulls her gun to kill the man. He takes it from her, and asks if it is a joke. Silence is her only reply, and the decision to make Thana mute keeps her from vocal justification of her misdeeds. We are left to fill in her thoughts for ourselves, relying on Zoe Lund’s mostly dead and vacant expressions. The man puts the gun to his head and pulls the trigger. In a wide shot we see the red mist as the shot reports into the night. This man was the most moral male figure in the story and he figures he needs to die. This is one more example of self-destruction for Thana’s brittle mind. The camera removes us from the act just as Thana is mentally removed from it.

By the time film ends in a Halloween party, Thana, blasphemously dressed as a nun, ends up firing her gun again and again into a party of masked individuals. The masks both function as echoes of her initial assailants visage and thematically underlines the fact that Thana can no longer see friend from foe, that her death fixation now clouds her mind completely. A man in a dress is shot and as he falls his wig is removed effectively changing his gender in front of us. Where she once was targeting only men Thana is killing everyone. A female co-worker eventually seizes a knife and holding it like a cock in front of her penetrates Thana, killing her, completing the sex-death association.

Thana’s name is based on the name Thanatos, the Greek god of death. Freud used the word to refer to the human death instinct, a desire that leads people to take risks, seek thrills or behave destructively in a manner that may lead to death. Thana begins her obsession with death by killing a deserving man. But with each subsequent kill it is apparent that her neurosis is not one of revenge as it started but an obsession with death itself, being near death, causing and courting death. She dresses as a nun, not as a Christ-bride, or one married to God, but as an acolyte of termination. And as obsession is prone to do, it destroys her. But not before it leaves a nasty taste in the audiences’ mouth.

And, this film really is for a very expressly crude 42 street audience. These people in the New York grindhouses in the late seventies and early eighties, these weren’t film fans. They were murderers, pimps, junkies, and rapists. These men were the victims of Ms.45. Maybe one or two of them walked out of this film looking over their shoulder.

Piranha II: The Spawning – James Cameron – 1981

Posted in 80's with tags , , , , , , on September 12, 2012 by bookofdread

James Cameron is a master manipulator, and one of the key tools in his box is the ability to create likeable characters. Piranha 2: The Spawning is no exception. What could and should have been a D-grade, rubber monster, camp-fest, instead is transformed into a transfixing human drama with the invasion of flying, carnivorous fish at its’ center.

Curious divers explore a sunken navy ship and discover mutated piranha. Which brings me to point one. This movie is so dang Camerony. The opening and closing sequences are beautifully photographed scenes featuring a sunken battleship. We didn’t really know it at the time but underwater photography is one of the things that Cameron does best, later exemplified in the Abyss, Titanic, Ghosts of the Abyss, and Aliens of the Deep. This lasting fascination serves well the narrative claustrophobia of a Piranha film. Keeping his characters trapped in small spaces, and sharing respirators he achieves a suffocating effect. One amazing bit toward the end pre-dates the tunnel scene from Aliens. The killer fish are actually the last of the viewer’s worries.

Also very within the Cameron mold is the heroine Anne Kimbrough. This lady is fearless, get-it-done type, a proto Sarah Conner or Ellen Ripley. (I know Ripley predates this film, but I mean Cameron’s Ripley.)

Anne takes tourists on recreational dives at an island resort. She is separated from her husband the police chief, and she and their teenage son live in the resort hotel. Before taking a group out to dive, she instructs a man not to go inside the ship, but foolishly he does, and is eaten by killer piranha. The way Cameron treats Anne with the camera is fairly unique, choosing to show her more unflatteringly toward the beginning of the film with her getting sexier and sexier as her attitude shows through the narrative. By the time she is underwater, planting a bomb to kill all the fish the viewer is practically in love with her, and can’t bear the thought of her demise.

Her husband Steve is no less capable. He questions her about the dive, and holds her accountable. Lance Henriksen is at his most affable here, it is very easy to want him to mend his family. Though a friendly portrait, (he lets the fishermen dynamite in the bay), his role is really second fiddle to Anne. Though, the scene where he leaps from a helicopter he intentionally crashes into the sea is indicative of his willingness to do anything for his family.

If the film were made today Tyler Sherman, would have been played by Bradley Cooper and all that that implies. The actor exudes a kind of charismatic douchery that doesn’t make your hate him, but he is the long arm of the military scientists responsible for the piranha, so you don’t care too much when he dies. He really does die so that Anne can escape, so he effectively saves her life, giving you a little tingle of regret. But, fuck that g-man.

The kid, Chris Kimbrough, is really the most likely in-point for most of the non-cop, non- scuba instructor, non g-man members of the audience. Chris is a regular kid, though he can gladly sail your yacht and screw your daughter around the bay. He’s a cool kid living a sweet island life, and honestly his scenes make you wish you were a cool kid living the sweet island life. You really never feel that he and the sexy gal he’s with are in danger but in a film full of over achievers and douches he’s the everyman.

I suppose I should mention the titular fish. They are pretty crappy. The design is good, but the execution on the flying effects elicited laughter from the audience at each appearance. To undercut this phenomenon, the gore is very explicit, and there are practically no moments of levity throughout the rest of the picture. Cameron clearly knows these are laughable moments so he undercuts the lack of suspense these scenes offer with suspenseful scuba scenes.

Cameron writes the thing like a math equation. Three characters to love, (a broken family to boot), are separated, put through peril, crosscut for suspense and return to a happy, yet breathless point of origin. Throw in two dozen meat puppets for fish food plus one hard to root for, but hard to hate company man, and you not only satisfy the needs of the unwashed masses for a flying piranha bloodbath, but you also get to kill a few characters who have a note or two of emotional resonance. (The fisherman and his son come to mind.)

There’s really not much to sink your teeth into thematically, but dramatically Cameron never stumbles. The film plays like a series of rising actions, building up to a breathless finale. When I last saw this film I was fifteen and watching it on a fuzzy VHS. I had rented both Piranha films and watched them back-to-back. The first film is shot full-frame so lost nothing on my TV and it’s funny tone suited my teenage sensibilities. The Spawning has an almost dour and tragic tone, with few moments of levity. Seeing it in 35mm made the underwater scenes positively epic and I left with a very healthy respect for the film.

The Mist – Frank Darabont – 2007

Posted in 00's with tags , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2012 by bookofdread

Frank Darabont’s The Mist may very well be my favorite horror film of the double-aughts. From it’s iconic Lovecraftian imagery to the amazing and empathetic characters that populate its’ story, each scene is both deeply emotional and harrowing, while still being a zany creature feature, the likes of which were most popular during a Saturday morning matinee during the 1950s.

Let’s think of these concepts in terms I’ll return to: The Artist and the Grocery Store. The artist has taken his son; let’s call him, generations to come, to the store to get supplies. The grocery store here under Ms. Carmodys’ influence becomes a circle of closed thought. The artists’ goal throughout the film is to get generations to come out of a circle of closed thought.

Now that we have that out of the way, a storm comes to a small town. A blinding white mist fills the town and many residents are forced to band together in a grocery store to fend off demons of fearsome viciousness, while a fanatical Christian creates an attitude of dangerous piety from within.

Each scene illuminates with truth the way that many branches of thought would respond to the situation. When David Drayton tells the hicks he suspects something awful outside, they meet his attitude with difference. This stubborn behavior gets them into a pretty serious mess with some tentacles and a kid dies. Simple minds want problems to be simple and would rush blindly into the fog, but for the artist who tries to warn them and keep them safe.

When the locals go back into the Grocery Store, they attempt to tell David’s neighbor, a judge, the truth about what they have seen. Distrusting, and disgruntled, the neighbor sees nothing but personal politics and avoids recognizing the problem. Here again the Artist is presented as leading the mind away from politics and toward truth.

As more attacks come and more people are killed, Ms. Carmody acquires acolytes, even one of the simple minds from the tentacle attack, convinced that God’s absolution is the only escape from the impending Hell. Carmody is presented not as convincing but as opportunistic, seizing control of the chaos around her and placing herself in the middle, using the frightened nature of souls against them and making them a same-thinking weapon. Near the end of the film a young enlisted military man is slain for only the loosest of associations with the mist. Fanatics will have blood, they are the rot from inside the Grocery Store.

What is the Mist? We hear only that military scientists were working on creating doorways to other dimensions. We are to assume then that this backfired and not only were they successful, but only the worst possible things were on the other side. Is this a criticism, of military, science or of military science? Is it simply a riff on Shelly’s “do not play in Gods’ domain”, by way of HP Lovecraft? It’s hard to say where this film comes down on the military considering their role in the films dramatic conclusion.

And what a finale it is! After Ollie kills Carmody, David and company make a break for his truck and make it with a few deaths on the way. No one ever said following the Artist was safe. Those souls who do make it drive into the unknown as far as the gas will take them. The car stops for a creature to pass, massive, weird, tentacled, six-legged, the beast could stomp on or devour the car, but lumbers by in careless abandon, all the strangest thoughts one could ever have manifest.

When the gas runs out and the final decision left to the Artist to save everyone from being chewed up nightmare food, the Artist takes the short way out. In a way, the truck has become a new closed circle of thought. David slays his family, slays even generations to come, his son. A surrogate family to be sure, but the only family he has. The mistaken sounds of horror are revealed to be the sounds of military rescue. It’s an obvious moral, but still one that should not be taken lightly. Never give up. Never take the short path. It is always darkest before the dawn.

A History Of Violence – David Cronenberg – 2005

Posted in 00's with tags , , , on September 8, 2012 by bookofdread

Tom Stalls, the hero of Cronenberg’s film is a façade. He is a carefully nurtured and constructed image designed to soften the truth of his past. This performance is at least as old as his son Jack, who appears to be around 16. This kid is doomed to fall prey to the sins of his father. A son who has never know anything but a lie.

When two criminals try to bully Jack in his family restaurant, Tom kills the men and saves his employees and patrons. This event garners national media attention and Tom’s face is on the news. Soon, thugs from Philadelphia arrive accusing Tom of being a former acquaintance/mobster.

Why Philadelphia? The evils of Tom’s past are rooted in Philadelphia just as the violent history of the United States was. It is considered, “The Birthplace Of America”. This is the place the declaration of Independence was signed. We are meant to parallel Joey Cusacks’ transition from the eastern cities to the heartland of America with the general population shift from those cities to the central USA. You can leave the city, but some roots are too deep to cut.

It is frightening to think that in any small town, someone who behaves as gently and as personably as Tom Stall could be associated with these men, these east coast ties. Cronenberg objectively handles the story as it plays out, never offering a morality beyond Toms’. When Jack kills Ed Harris to save Tom, we know that he is now drawn in to this world of death. Even though Tom goes and destroys his brother, I feel it is understood that Ritchie is connected enough that more men will be coming. There is no leaving.

This is not even the most disquieting thing about the film, the fact that some ex-mafia Jack-off in your little town is bringing gangster shit to your back porch. The most troubling element is that you might be married to one. Maria Bello plays the wife perfectly never giving an ounce when she finds out the truth. Even in the end she is acting out of inevitability, not because she has forgiven Tom.

This deception is a devastating revelation for anyone, that the person they have chosen to love and create a life with has by association alone endangered them and their family. To have it further revealed that the man you are fucking is a cold-hearted killer must be doubly troubling.

Or worse, that man is your father. After Tom’s initial act of heroism, Jack beats a bully down at school. Would Jack have acted out that way without he celebration of his fathers’ violent action?  Are future generations of bullies, physical and financial, Wall Street gangsters and white trash, Neanderthals, are we then to repeat the tactics of our fathers? Is it that simple to pass down? If the tree is rotten is there no hope fore the apple?

Through television broadcasts the thugs identified the lying sack of shit, Joey Cusack. So, literally the media is the avenue through which the truth about Tom Stalls is actually revealed.  This truth proves to be quite dangerous, and yet the film begs the question, is it better to be unknowingly in danger or knowingly?

Tom is a son of a bitch no doubt. Once he is compromised, so is his family. As his young daughter sets him a plate, smiling in naiveté, the rest of his family know their fate is sealed. Cronenberg asks the viewer to be that child, looking up at the sins of her father with objectivity. He asks us as we set the plate there, empty will we learn from the mistakes of the past, consider their ramifications and act selflessly? Or will we steal away what we can and lie to ourselves about what we are and what we have been, only to have those lies poison our family and our heart.

This film is a punch in the gut and an eye opener. Hopefully those who see it consider this work more than a slight gangster tale. It is micro-thesis on the dangers of duplicity.

Pieces – Juan Piquer Simon – 1982

Posted in 80's with tags , , , , on September 5, 2012 by bookofdread

Pieces is exactly what you think it is according to the tagline. If you think it’s a condemnation of secondary education rife with nudity, grisly violence, and some very misanthropic comedy, you think right.

Our tale begins as a young boy assembles a jigsaw puzzle of a nudie spread. His mother enters and begins berating the child for possessing the same filth as his father, and if he continues to put this rubbish in his brain he’ll end up just like his father. (What his father was like we never find out.) The mother sends her boy out of the room to get a bag to place all his contraband. The boy returns with an axe and slays his mother with a number of horrifying blows to her head. When the police come the child hides in the closet and is seemingly exonerated due to his terrified mumbling to the police. In this first scene is a type of suggestion that denying a child a healthy sexual development can be detrimental, and the repression felt thereafter has repercussions that echo in eternity.

Forty years later.

The child is the dean at a university. A university that employs homosexuals, a fact brought up by the dean in an attempt to show his progressive side, that he is not judgmental, though he might be judged mental, by the stories end. The dean is slaying students with a chainsaw and assembling their pieces into a strange jigsaw corpse who he dresses as his mother. Here we have a comment on absentee parentage. Even though the child has slain his own mother, the longing for her remains, not in a sexual fashion, but in the need for the guidance, removed by his displaced mom.

The bit players are fairly inconsequential to the story, a campus Casanova named Kendall, and a few entertaining cops who eschew familiar tropes, such as “Holy mother of God, let’s hope we aren’t too late!” The film serves generally to provide exploitation thrills by way of heaving naked bosoms, and shaved dead mammals eviscerated with actual chainsaws.

Though not wholly original, Pieces wears its derivative nature on its sleeve. It’s a pretty crass move, but the actors are game, the score by CAM is much better than many of its’ giallo contemporaries. Despite being released in 1982, the killer’s identity is kept secret until the end, a hallmark of late seventies Italian horror. Clearly the filmmakers and knew what the fans of the era wanted and marketed directly to the “boobs and blood” crowd, and no one left disappointed.

The film is often comical, to the point of satire, joking about the archetypes of cops and killers and even the gregarious nature of college students. Even in the final scene, where Kendalls’ genitals are ripped apart by an unexplainably animated corpse doll, the theme of sexual repression or lack thereof is made apparent. The mother corpse rips the college deviants bits off just as the actual mother expressed her displeasure at her sons sexual growth and kept her son from looking at salacious images. The film almost dares criticism by saying, if you don’t let your kids watch innocuous sex and violence as harmless release, they might be doomed to enact base fantasies without such an outlet.

Pieces: put them together, and you’ll find more than you bargained for.

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