Wednesday 26 December 2007

Vampyr (1932)

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr - Der Traum des Allan Grey is truly one of the most disturbing films ever made. It’s totally unlike most modern horror movies – there are no sudden scares, there’s no gore, there’s almost no plot. What it does have is a succession of images of isolation and alienation and dread, images that are more unsettling because they’re so mysterious. Nothing is clear-cut, the line between dream and wakefulness and between delirium and reality isn’t just blurred, it’s completely erased.

The picture is incredibly fuzzy and washed out but this isn’t because the film has deteriorated, it’s how Dreyer wanted it. The story goes that the film camera they were using had a small hole in it which resulted in the film being partially exposed so that the picture had huge areas that were completely washed out, huge patches of vivid whiteness. Dreyer was delighted, and decided the whole movie would be shot that way! And he was correct – it doesn’t seem like a gimmick, it just seems totally right. As well as the blotches of intense whiteness the movie has shadows everywhere, shadows which might be the shadows of people or maybe they’re shadows without people.

Tuesday 25 December 2007

Satan’s Blood (1978)

Ana and Andres are on their way to the park with their dog when they encounter another couple, Bruno and Berta. Bruno claims to be an old college friend of Andres’ although, oddly enough, Andres just can’t recall him at all. When Bruno and Berta invite them back to their house for drinks they see no harm in accepting. After all, what’s the worst thing that can happen? I mean, they seem like a nice couple and they’re not likely to be devil-worshippers or anything like that, are they? But of course this is a horror movie, so they most certainly can be devil-worshippers! Satan’s Blood (Escalofrío) is an intriguing 1978 slice of Spanish erotic horror released on DVD by those fine folks at Mondo Macabro. And like most of the offerings from this company that I’ve encountered, this movie is a lot better than you might expect.

Ana and Andres are offered some unusual wine, and some rather odd cigarettes, and pretty soon Bruno suggests that they give the old ouija board a spin, just for amusement. This certainly gets things happening, and pretty soon Ana and Andres are joining their hosts for some naughty bedroom fun (although in this case it’s naughty living-room fun). So far it’s been an entertaining evening, but from this point on things start to get unsettling, with disturbing psychological games involving suicide and a series of unexplained and upsetting events. The evening starts to take on the logic of nightmare, and the coming of daylight brings only terror and confusion, as our innocent young couple find themselves in an escalating waking nightmare. Director Carlos Puerto does a fine job in slowly building an atmosphere of the weird and the uncanny. The acting is competent, and the effects aren’t fantastically ambitious but the ones that are used are used effectively. There’s a staggering amount of nudity, but it would be difficult to describe it as gratuitous nudity – it is after all a movie about terrifying sexual and emotional games (among other things) so any coyness about sex would have weakened the film considerably. There’s a certain amount of gore but it isn’t overdone. It’s a movie that relies more on a slow developing of an atmosphere in which the protagonists feeling increasing trapped and out of control rather than on overt scares. In this it succeeds very well. Recommended for eurohorror enthusiasts. The DVD transfer is extremely good, and the extras include an interesting short documentary on Satanism.

Saturday 22 December 2007

The Killer Shrews (1959)

The Killer Shrews has the distinction of having a premise that is remarkably silly even by the standards of 1950s science fiction/horror B-movies. A team of scientists on a remote island are working to solve the overpopulation problem by finding ways to make people smaller. They’re experimenting on shrews, but instead of making the shrews smaller they end up making them bigger. In fact they make them into dog-sized venomous killer shrews. Being dog-sized is convenient, since the giant killer shrews are portrayed in the film by dogs cunningly disguised as giant killer shrews. Except that they still look like dogs, dogs in scraggly furry suits. For close-up shots the shrews are portrayed by the most un-lifelike puppets you’ve ever seen. Captain Thorne Sherman has just arrived in his boat bringing supplies, and is forced to find shelter on the island from a hurricane. Naturally the chief scientist has a beautiful daughter, and naturally Captain Thorne falls for her. He then finds himself besieged in the scientists’ house with hundreds of killer shrews trying to tunnel through the walls.

Apart from the sight of dogs in toupees masquerading as shrews the highlight of the movie is the captain’s ingenious plan to construct a tank out of old chemical drums so that the survivors of the siege can reach his boat. The Killer Shrews is definitely one of those so-bad-it’s-good movies. Entertaining when you’re in the mood for such things.

Wednesday 19 December 2007

The Red Queen Kills 7 Times (1972)

The Red Queen Kills 7 Times (La Dama rossa uccide sette volte) is one of the tiny handful of films made in the early 70s by Emilio Miraglia. It’s an interesting hybrid. It’s mostly a giallo, with all the typical giallo ingredients – high fashion photography, expensive cars, glamorous women, and lots of grisly murders. But it adds some gothic horror elements to the mix – a family curse, cobweb-enshrouded crypts, a castle, and decadent aristocrats. The results are even more bizarre than you might expect. This is one very strange movie, and it gets stranger and stranger. The plot is even more incomprehensible than the average giallo plot. It’s something to do with a painting of two sisters, the Black Queen and the Red Queen, and sisterly hatred and revenge repeated at intervals down through the centuries. It’s now 1972, so one of the current generation of sisters works in a fashion house. Her sister Evelyn is dead, or at least she’s supposed to be dead, but the mysterious killer in the red cape looks a lot like her. There’s lot of bed-hopping and drugs and hints of kinky sex and the other excesses of the rich and glamorous, and everyone seems to have a motive for murdering everyone else. The body count rises steadily while the police remain baffled.

The plot is eventually explained, and it’s as convoluted and unlikely as you could hope for. What the movie lacks in coherence it mostly makes up for in style and pace and overall weirdness, and the climax is spectacularly gothic. The DVD release by Noshame (which also includes Miraglia’s earlier The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave) is absolutely gorgeous. I wouldn’t describe either movie as a masterpiece but they’re both off-beat enough to be worth seeing if you’re a fan of eurohorror.

Thursday 13 December 2007

Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1968)

Ingmar Bergman’s Vargtimmen (Hour of the Wolf) was made in 1968. It opens with Alma, the wife of an artist, telling us about his disappearance. They had moved to a lonely cottage on an island. She had found his diary, and she then recounts the events described in his diary. The audience is therefore getting her interpretation of his interpretation of events, and the audience then adds a third layer of interpretation. As a result the film is unusually ambiguous. The artist, Johan, is troubled by nightmares. His nightmares and his memories are so entwined that is difficult to know which of the events shown in the film might actually have happened and which are purely the products of his troubled imagination. To make thing even more ambiguous, Alma implies that she had started also to see what she referred to as his ghosts. Did she start to share his madness? Or were some of these nightmarish incidents real?

The film is absolutely dripping with gothic atmosphere and imagery. There is a castle on the island, or at least we’re told there is, but we can’t really say for sure that it really exists. The black-and-white cinematography by Sven Nykvist is both ravishing and deeply disturbing. Most of the time the images seem fairly realistic in themselves but every now and then Bergman throws in a piece of true nightmare imagery, like the man who walks up the walls. Or a particularly alarming scene involving a woman’s face (I won’t spoilt it by telling you any more). At the end of the movie you’re left feeling that you really need to watch it again. Does it qualify as a real horror movie? I think it does. Quite apart from the horror of madness there’s the constant feeling that the world of nightmare and the world of everyday reality are bleeding into each other, and there’s also the ever-present feeling that Alma is in real danger. A very unsettling movie. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday 11 December 2007

The Devil-Doll (1936)

Tod Browning’s 1936 film The Devil-Doll is based, very loosely, on Abraham Merritt’s novel Burn Witch Burn. It tells the story of two escapees from Devil’s Island, one a mad scientist, the other a banker (played by Lionel Barrymore) who had been falsely accused of embezzlement. The mad scientist is working on a scheme for reducing humans to one-sixth their present size – he is convinced this will be a huge boon for humanity. The banker just wants revenge on his partners who framed him. When the mad scientist dies the banker realises that his insane scheme could aid his own schemes for revenge. He teams up with the widow of the scientist (an immensely enjoyable performance by Rafaela Ottiano as the most crazed and obsessed mad scientist you’ve ever seen). I suspect that Browning never intended this movie to be take seriously – like hi later (and very underrated) Miracles for Sale it seems to be done very much tongue-in-cheek. And it’s immense fun. The special effects work superbly. I was going to add “by 1936 standards”, but in fact they look thoroughly convincing even by today’s standards. There is some real creepiness involved with the miniature human dolls. Barrymore is almost as over-the-top in his performance as Ottiano – he’s obviously having a good time. The plot comes together quite satisfactorily in the end, with surprisingly little in the way of moralising. The humour is genuinely amusing without being annoying, which wasn’t always the case with movies of his period that tried to mix humour and horror. This is really a wonderfully engaging movie with just the right mix of laughs and chills, enjoyable acting performances, and very able direction by Browning.

Sunday 9 December 2007

Night of the Werewolf (1981)

Night of the Werewolf was I believe the ninth of the Spanish films in which Paul Naschy played the role of the Polish nobleman/werewolf Waldemar Daninsky. He wrote the screenplays for these movies, and this one is directed by him as well. Although made in 1981 it’s very much a 70s gothic horror movie making no concessions whatsoever to changing tastes in horror cinema in the 80s. In fact Naschy throws in everything gothic he can think of – it was witches, vampires and werewolves. The problem with werewolves, I find, is that they never look convincing. They always look like a guy in silly make-up. This one is fairly typical – the make-up effects are OK but I still think werewolves look silly. It does have beautiful but evil female vampires though, and a beautiful but evil female witch. The plot hangs together better than you might expect. Three beautiful but evil female anthropologists - yes, we’re starting to see a bit of a pattern here - decide it would be fun to raise the bloody countess, Elizabeth Bathory (the one who liked to bathe in virgins’ blood because it’s good for the complexion) from the dead. Someone else has already inadvertently raised a old buddy of hers, Waldemar the werewolf, from the grave. He’s not really evil. OK, he rips people apart, but he’s really sorry afterwards. He apparently needs to find the love of a Good Woman in order to save his soul. He fins himself opposing the wicked machinations of the beautiful but evil Elizabeth Bathory and her beautiful but evil henchwomen.

It’s entertaining, it has plenty of suitably gothic sets and Naschy is pretty effective at creating gothic atmosphere – if in doubt, more fog! If you like 70s euro gothic horror (and what right-thinking person doesn’t love 70s euro gothic horror) there’s no reason to think you won’t like this movie.

Saturday 8 December 2007

Whore (1991)

Whore, made by Ken Russell in 1991, is an odd little film. Much of the time star Theresa Russell (as Liz, the whore of the title) addresses the camera directly, giving it a slightly stagey feel (it was in fact adapted from a play). In some ways it’s a very uncompromising and very confronting look at the realities of prostitution, but it combines this with comedy, often rather black comedy. It takes us through one day in the life of a prostitute in a major US city, during which she has major problems with her pimp, tells us about her past and her child, and we see her with a variety of tricks. The movie spells out quite plainly that a good deal of the unpleasantness of the prostitute’s life would be eliminated if prostitution were legalised, a sensible course of action that seems unlikely to be taken in most places any time soon.

Whore was too odd and unconventional to have any chance of box office success and most people seem to dislike it. I thought the strange mix of ingredients worked. The comedy makes the bleakness of Liz’s life bearable, and prevents her from seeming too much of a victim. Theresa Russell’s performance is, like the movie itself, very stylised but I thought it was excellent. I read somewhere that it was Ken Russell’s answer to Pretty Woman. It has a message but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it. It doesn’t glamorise the prostitute, nor does it demonise her. Amid the sordidness of life on the street it’s a very funny film. I liked it.

Friday 7 December 2007

Rasputin, The Mad Monk (1966)

Christopher Lee is best known for his portrayals of the vampire count in the many Hammer Dracula movies, but his finest moment came in a comparatively little known 1966 Hammer movie, Rasputin, The Mad Monk. This is Christopher Lee as you’ve never seen him before – it’s an extraordinarily dynamic and extravagant performance, a completely over-the-top performance. I’m not really a Christopher Lee fan, but as Rasputin he’s sensational. This is a movie that is cheerfully untroubled by historical accuracy. Lee’s Rasputin is evil, certainly, but he’s so full of life you can’t help feeling some sympathy for him. Early on he tells his superior at the monastery that he likes to commit big sins so that God will have something worthwhile to forgive him for.

The other actors are totally overshadowed by Lee, but Barbara Shelley is good as lady-in-waiting to the Czarina who is ruthlessly used by Rasputin. Director Don Sharp does a solid job and keeps the film rolling along at a good pace. Rasputin, the Mad Monk is worth seeing, in fact it’s worthy buying on DVD, just for Christopher Lee. Not a movie to take very seriously, but it delivers plenty of entertainment.

Saturday 1 December 2007

One Million Years B.C. (1966)

One Million Years B.C. was one of the most expensive movies made by England’s Hammer Studios, and it was a gamble that paid off at the box office. Whether you like this movie depends very much on whether you’re a fan of the stop-motion animation techniques of the legendary Ray Harryhausen. If you are, you’ll love it – there’s lots of it in this movie, and Harryhausen did a very fine job of it (although unfortunately on a couple of occasions they resorted to using blowups of common iguanas, which looked like blowups of common iguanas). It does have other things going for it, though, and I don’t just mean Raquel Welch in a fur bikini although she does look rather fetching). There’s some rather nice location shooting, done in the Canary Islands I believe, and it’s visually surprisingly impressive, and the visuals still hold up pretty well. Some skilful use of colour as well. One of the more interesting things about the movie is the almost total lack of dialogue, apart from grunts. It was a fairly brave thing to do, but it works quite well. OK, the plot is pretty basic, but even telling such a basic story without dialogue (and without even the title cards they had in the silent days) is a challenge. The actors do a reasonable job of it, and although Ms Welch might not be held in terrifically high esteem as an actress she acquits herself quite adequately. The plot involves a romance (well, it’s about as romantic as you can really imagine a caveman and a cavewoman getting) who come from two different warring tribes, spiced up with encounters with dinosaurs. Overall it’s entertaining, it looks good, it moves along at a brisk pace and as long as you don’t let the idea of humans and dinosaurs living at the same time upset you too much there’s plenty of fun to be had.