Hell Will Hold No Surprises for You

A quick trip down the highway to hell today with three infernal flicks I’ve caught in the past week or so…

It had been years since I last saw Ken Russell’s The Devils and in the interim I had forgotten what an eyefuck it is. Even beyond Vanessa Redgrave’s madcap turn as a randy nun with a repulsive prosthetic hunchback and Oliver Reed’s sinful-as-a-chocolate-éclair handlebar mustache, the film is just one scene after another of effulgent, gratuitous genius. While most folks would cite Tommy and Women in Love as better films, for my money this movie is Russell’s finest moment.

Oh, sure, the movie’s narrative is a bit of a mess, but given the subject matter, I think it works in Russell’s favor. While every character and their mother is going on about decadence and wickedness, it’s Russell himself that’s committing the real transgression here; from the first frame to the last, The Devils is full-on, joyously blasphemous film-making.

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Speaking of blasphemy, I also had opportunity last week to revisit one my favorite horror comedies. Álex de la Iglesia’s El día de la Bestia (“Day of the Beast”) isn’t as over-the-top as Dead Alive or Evil Dead II and it lacks the lyrical poeticism of Dellamorte Dellamore, but it certainly belongs in that hallowed company for its masterful balance of laughs and horror. There are realtively few ‘shocks’ in El día de la Bestia, but the apocolyptic tone of the film is pervasive and persuasive.  While the genuinely likable characters and performances make this one a delight to watch, its de la Iglesia’s portrait of mid-90’s Madrid as a filthy garbage heap quickly sliding into the incinerator that lingers with me.

The supernatural elements are fun, but it’s that moment when our protagonist, Father Ángel Berriartúa (Álex Angulo), is sitting at a bus stop and he sees a group of men get out of a car across the street and set a homeless man on fire that pushes El día de la Bestia into a whole different weight class. Love this one.

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Of the films I caught lately, though, the real sin against man is  L’ Occhio del male (“Manhattan Baby”), quite easily the single worst Lucio Fulci film I’ve ever slept through.

If you’ve ever seen Fulci’s transcendentally terrible The House By The Cemetery, than maybe you are under the delusion you’ve seen the man’s worst horror film, but rest assured you don’t know the dregs of Fulci’s 80’s output until you’ve watched ineffectual archaeologist Christopher Connelly stumble around with his eyes bandaged under his glasses after getting his corneas zapped by blue laser beams fired out of an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph. I know that does indeed sound awesome in a MST3K-sorta way, but trust me, you’ll be the one wishing your eyes had been disintegrated after 10 minutes with one. I spared myself some of the torment by falling asleep 30 minutes in and scanning over what I had missed at 4X when I woke. Even that felt like an eternity spent in some previously unpostulated level of Hell reserved for Fulci apologists, and this is coming from a guy who owns both City of the Living Dead and The Beyond on DVD.

The Black Cat

(movie) This 1934 blockbuster is an early battle of 20th century celluloid Death Gods. Karloff’s make-up makes him the living personification of cold death compared to Lugosi’s barely contained seething violence. Occult architect Hjalmar Poelzig’s (Karloff) home is all Bauhaus deco with Caligari shadows built on top of an unconsecrated graveyard of the war dead – a monument to futile sacrifice. His prize possessions are his dead lovers, suspended in glass coffins, their pale forms suspended in air like spirits trapped on their ascension to heaven. This begs the question of what kind of women were these to be attracted to Karloff’s gallows mystique in the first place? That Poelzig worships the devil is incidental – what he really worships is undeath, the unchanging beauty of things that defy decay.

“Are we not both the living dead?” Poelzig asks Verdegast (Lugosi), a comment that reaches beyond the confines of the narrative. Karloff’s resplendent home and luxurious furnishings stand out in the historical context with the depression going on right outside the theater. Karloff’s Poelzig represents nothing so much as the sort of morbid greed that led the world into collapse not more than five years earlier – Verdegast’s vengeance is the vengeance of everyone “sold out” and wronged by the cold, unfeeling architects of the misery of others. And what vengeance! Lugosi’s revenge is absolutely satisfying, if only for the sadistic glee he brings to the moment when he snarls in Karloff’s face “Have you ever seen an animal skinned alive?” The silhouette horrorshow of Lugosi using a scalpel to scrape the flesh off Karloff’s face is one of the most savage images in 30’s cinema.

31 Days of Knife: One, Two, Freddy’s Comin’ For You

I’m going to make some people very happy – I’m going to praise Wes Craven for a moment. I ripped the guy pretty mercilessly when I looked at Last House on The Left. I stand by that rebuke because I don’t think Craven has the stomach for making a great exploitation movie, i.e. one that really challenges its audience’s sense of decency. I also believe he’s a film maker who is better at capturing specific moments of horror with clarity and acuity, but that generally his narrative chops are weak.

Interestingly, I think of the three big filmmakers we looked at from the exploitation era of the 70’s – Craven, Hooper, and Carpenter – Craven is stylistically the weakest of the bunch, yet both Hooper and Carpenter’s careers fizzled in the late 80’s. In contrast, Craven’s career has gone through highs and lows but it presents an interesting case study – Craven has been present at the birth of the Slasher film (Last House), the end of the Slasher film (Nightmare on Elm Street), and the re-birth of the Slasher film (Scream).

Now, you may be asking yourself, “How was ‘Nightmare’ the end of the Slasher film?”

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31 Days of Knife: The Best There is At What He Does

Marcus Nispel gets a lot of shit for his 2003 Texas Chain Saw remake, some of it coming from your’s truly. That film really failed to capture what made Tobe Hooper’s film such a successful exercise in terror. Nispel relied on a washed-out color palette and abrasive textures to do most of the heavy lifting in that film, never quite getting that what made the original film click was its raw, unrepentant tone of almost documentary realism. In other words, the 2003 TCM was too much sizzle and not enough steak.

Having said that, I’m here to tell you that Nispel’s 2009 Friday the 13th remake is a certifiable success in just about every way. Is it as fun as Friday the 13th The Final Chapter? Nope. Is it as weird as Friday the 13th Part II? No siree. It is, however, a pretty effective re-invigoration of an otherwise dopey franchise using the exact same tricks that made the Texas Chain Saw remake such a disappointment.

It all boils down to the strength (or, in this case, lack thereof) of the source material.

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31 Days of Knife: He wasn’t a very good swimmer

Pamela Voorhees: Did you know a young boy drowned the year before those two others were killed? The counselors weren’t paying any attention… They were making love while that young boy drowned. His name was Jason.

Netflix had the Friday the 13th series streaming for the month of September and I thought it might be fun to catch up with a series that made up a big chunk of my teenage cable viewing habits.

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31 Days of Knife: See anything you like?

LOOMIS: Just try to understand what we’re dealing with here. Don’t underestimate it.

MARION: I think we should refer to ‘it’ as ‘him.’

LOOMIS: If you say so.

MARION: Your compassion is overwhelming, Doctor.

Sometimes you’re just too close.

In the past 22 years, I’ve seen John Carpenter’s Halloween more times than I can count. I have a great memory of seeing it at the theater with John Carpenter himself sitting near-by. It’s a ridiculously effective film, and sometimes I take for granted all the myriad elements that make it such a rewarding movie for me because every scene is so ingrained in my headspace.

I have Rob Zombie to thank for giving me some much needed perspective.

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