Saturday, September 13, 2014

Spooky Ukiyo-e

Hitsune sees the skull beneath the skin (and everywhere else)
I recently came across this article in the Japan Times about an exhibit of ukiyo-e horror art, with lurid, grotesque illustrations from ghost stories and folklore.  Pictured above is a triptych from "The Dream of Hitsune", a kabuki drama, in which the villain is prevented from further mischief by a vision of the bones of his previous victims.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

"Weird... alarming... occult": The 4th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories

Robert Aickman begins his introduction to Fontana #4 with a dour rant against science and the familiar prophecy that science will, if not kill us all, at least "close in the world around us, shutter by shutter..."  He continues with "truth can be found only through the imagination" before getting on with it:  "Ghost stories inquire and hint, waver and dissemble, startle and astonish.  They are a last refuge from the universal affirmative shout."

The 4th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories contains ten stories, starting with The Accident, by Ann Bridge, the pen name of an author not know for ghost stories, who based most of her work, including this story, on her travels.  The Accident takes place at a Swiss resort and involves mountain climbers menaced, without much of a motive, by the spirits of deceased mountain climbers.

Not on the Passenger List, by Barry Pain, is one of the more satisfying stories in the collection.  On an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic, a jealous shade pursues a widow on her way to remarry.  Pain's tale is congenial and concise, sunny yet chilly, and makes me want to read more of his horror stories and other fiction.

To call Oscar Wilde's The Sphinx without a Secret a ghost story is to use an already loose term even more loosely.

Vincent O'Sullivan's When I was Dead quickly veers in an unexpected direction as the narrator mentions his belief that "if you place some drops of human blood near you, and then concentrate, you will after a while see a man or a woman who will stay with you during long hours of the night..."

The Queen of Spades by Pushkin, is the story of an elderly countess in possession of a surefire way to win at cards and the avaricious soldier who wants the knowledge at any price.  Needless to say, things end badly for him.  Tchaikovsky loosely based an opera on this story.

The ghostly strangulation depicted on the cover of this volume comes from Hugh Walpole's The Snow, in which a temperamental second wife fails to heed the warnings of the protective first wife's ghost.

Along with Not on the Passenger List, Carleton's Father, by Eric Ambrose, is one of the highlights of this collection.  The plot involves a room insulated from time, and the writing has a classic pulp magazine tone.

What can be said about A School Story, by M.R. James?  James is frequently, and deservedly, anthologized and this classic might be his most frequently printed story.  I've read it so many times in different places that I have it almost memorized.  "He was beastly thin, and he looked as if he was wet all over, and... I'm not at all sure he was alive."  James specialized in concise chills.

In The Wolves of Cernogratz, by Saki, wolves appear and howl when members of the aristocratic von Cernogratz family die in their castle.

Mad Monkton, by Wilkie Collins, involves hereditary madness in 60 gothic pages, over one third of the total word count in The 4th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories.  It's enjoyable, but a few more shorter stories would have been preferable instead.  There's no contribution from Aickman in this collection; his writing (The Swords) returns in the next volume.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Beast Within (1982)

Nioba, Mississippi, 1964: a dark night, a stranded couple, and a barely-glimpsed, dog-eating, raping thing. So begins The Beast Within, directed by Philippe Mora (who later directed several Howling sequels). Seventeen years later, the product of the rape, Michael (Paul Clemens), is suffering from strange dreams and what his doctor thinks is a mysterious pituitary disorder. His parents (Ronny Cox and Bibi Besch) rather optimistically go in search of his real father to try to find some answers. Before long, Michael too is compelled to go in search of his roots, drawn to creepy small-town Nioba. Soon a murder and the discovery of mass graves in the woods stir things up, and then the body count starts to rise. Who was Michael’s real father, and what dark secrets lurk in Nioba’s old rotting houses and eerie swamps?

Mora makes good use of small town and rural southern imagery, and of the creepiness of small town dwellers. Almost every scene is well planned for maximum horror (the camera lingers lovingly on raw meat mixed with ketchup as Michael rips a man’s throat out).

The acting is enjoyable as well. As the tormented Michael, Paul Clemens shines.  His twitchy, shifty mannerisms effectively convey his character’s struggle with the “beast within”, and these combined with subtle makeup effects make him truly scary. In fact, when the beast finally does take over (and the transformation effects are well done, with one of the early uses of air bladders to convey the look of things bursting out from under the skin) the final product isn’t as frightening as the glaring, crazed Michael himself. Also good are Kitty Moffat as the innocent Amanda Platt, the object of Michael’s twisted affection, and John Dennis Johnston as her abusive father. The undertaker, Dexter Ward (Luke Askew), ramps up the creepiness factor. The town drunk (Ron Soble), the doctor (R.G. Armstrong), the judge (Don Gordon), and the cold-eyed sheriff (L.Q. Jones, in one of his many sheriff roles), are all enjoyable if overly-familiar small town characters.

The blaring score by Les Baxter is sometimes overused - silence would evoke more horror. Also, the beast-Michael is creative but oddly cartoonish and unthreatening. Still, the end result is fairly satisfying. The Beast Within may not break much new ground, but it stands out from the crowd. What it does, it does well.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

At Midnight I'll take Your Soul: "I'm going to the graveyard. Anyone care to come along?"

The opening credits of At Midnight I'll take Your Soul (1963) roll as haunted house sound effects play- the screams and moans and laughter of the damned.  Then we’re treated to an over-the-top witch lady who speaks directly to the audience “Don’t watch this movie.  Go home.”

Coffin Joe, the sadistic undertaker, is a nasty little bully of a man, terrifying the townsfolk with his black clothes, top hat, cape, and long, sharp nails.  He eats meat on holy days and casually attacks people.  “Want me to measure your coffin?” is his common threat.  He's a blasphemer, an atheist, and somewhat of a philosopher, disbelieving in god and devil alike.  He is kind to children, but casually psychopathic towards everyone else.  His eyes go all wide and veiny when he’s about to do violence- a little like Popeye’s muscles when he eats spinach.  This and other special effects, especially an eye-gouging and a setting on fire, look primitive and painful- it’s likely the actors really suffered for their art (I use the word "art" lightly, as well as the word "actors").

Obsessed with carrying on his bloodline, Coffin Joe decides to etherize his barren wife Lenita and kill her with a tarantula in hopes that the lovely Terezinha will consent to his wishes.  Unfortunately for Joe, things are not so simple and he must kill and kill again.  He taunts the spirits and disrespects the witch lady, never a good idea.  Such an unpleasant character must surely get his comeuppance.

“AliMENto des VERRmis!”  A lot of Coffin Joe’s impassioned soliloquies are overdubbed and this is somehow quite effective.  José Mojica Marins does well with a melodramatic portrayal of a crazed killer, almost like a silent film villain in scope, with grotesque twisted features and much leering and rolling of eyes.

At Midnight I'll take Your Soul is one of those movies that- well- it isn’t GOOD good, but it inspires a certain fondness.  The over the top melodrama, the spiders and maggots and cemeteries, the maniacal laughter and ghostly wailing on the soundtrack, the glitter meticulously glued on the negative to denote a ghost, the title itself, all are endearing.  It's a good one to watch late at night without devoting your full attention to it.

This film is available on YouTube, but I saw it on DVD.  The DVD includes an interview with the director/star, and a trailer for the higher-budget sequel, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse.  After seeing the trailer, nobody can resist, and I’m looking forward to tracking this down and continuing the saga of Zé do Caixão.    

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Oasis of the Zombies: Yawn of the Dead

I can at least say that Oasis of the Zombies (1982) was better than Zombie Lake.  Slightly.  Prolific writer/director  Jesús Franco was originally supposed to direct the latter as well, but didn’t.
Unlike Zombie Lake, Oasis of the Zombies attempts a plot, with Nazi gold lost for decades in the desert at a “damned” oasis (and this is the only explanation we get as to why there are Nazi zombies there).  The North African setting, with dunes, camels, and mustached adventurers, is inviting, but Franco fails to fully deliver.  

After some backstory, a carefree group of students travels from London to hunt the treasure.  They progress toward it at a snail’s pace, and once arrived they are awfully nonchalant when they find the zombies’ last victims, burying them in shallow graves and then having a good laugh.  But soon, the laugh will be on them.

Franco wisely chooses not to reveal the zombies until well into the film.  The zombie makeup is not great, but it is at least sporadically creative (with worms!).  The same could be said of Franco’s cinematography and script, only without the worms (and, perhaps, the creativity).  There are a few hilarious lines, though (“They came from the sand!  They came from the sand which is here!”; “Did you find what you were looking for?”  “I mainly found myself”).  

The exotic scenery in Oasis of the Zombies is nice, but the zombies-beneath-the desert sands idea isn’t really put to good use.  In the end, the zombies plod around and take forever to get anywhere, like this film and many others of its ilk. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Zombie Lake: How can a film about Nazi zombies be boring?

Furthering my explorations into the Nazi zombie subgenre, I tried Zombie Lake, and almost fell asleep.

Zombie Lake, filmed in 1981 with the original title of Le Lac des Morts Vivants, immediately goes straight to business as a young woman strips off for some skinny dipping in the titular lake (more of a pond, really).  After a few minutes of nudity, the first Nazi zombie appears and clumsily grabs at the water nymph (underwater sequences courtesy of a very poorly disguised swimming pool).  Neither party seems fully invested in the scene – in fact, they both look rather bored.  This sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Script, acting, special effects, and dubbing are almost deliberately bad, but rarely in the “so bad it’s good” way.  The long periods in which nothing of interest happens give the viewer time to admire the pleasant French village scenery, or take a nap.

In a flashback to World War II, we see a forbidden romance between a Nazi soldier and a village girl cut short when the Resistance ambushes the Nazis and dumps their bodies in the lake.  “You could call it the damned lake of the dead,” as the mayor puts it, although why the lake creates zombies remains an unanswered question.  

Damned or not, the lake is certainly a popular skinny-dipping spot.  A septet of giggling girls is soon disgorged from a VW camper van (one of many anachronisms) to become the next zombie snack.
Stirred to action, for some reason, after lo these many years, the Nazi zombies rampage around the village.  Their modus operandi is to clumsily wrestle their victims to the ground, then give them hickeys on the neck while drooling unconvincing fake blood.  Sometimes the special effects “artists” could be bothered to add slight neck wounds after the fact, sometimes not.  Clumsily applied green zombie makeup makes the Nazis look a bit like plastic army men.  Also, some of them have taken lessons from Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.

The only ghost of a plot involves the love child of the forbidden romance, who is visited by her “good” zombie father.  The villagers eventually form a mob to destroy the “mad, murderous zombies” via flamethrower, leading to some alarming special effects sequences (one wonders how many Nazi zombie actors were burned in the making of this movie).  The fact that the zombie-eradication scene inexplicably alternates from night to day is a little distracting.

Perhaps a drinking game could be made of the numerous goofs and anachronisms, but the whole thing is so dull and plodding, with awful special effects and no real frights, that skipping Zombie Lake is probably the best option.  Even the director, Jean Rollin, claimed to be embarrassed by the film, and this was a man who directed such greats as Folies Anales and Discosex.  If the abbreviated version above wasn't enough, the entire film is to be had on YouTube   

Incidentally, something about the movie (plotlessness, nudity, people walking in and out of lakes?) reminded me of Jesús Franco, and sure enough he’s listed as one of the writers of Zombie Lake.  Next up is Franco’s own Oasis of the Zombies, which can’t be worse than Zombie Lake.  I hope.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Barry Levinson's "The Bay": It's the chicken shit, stupid!

The Bay, Barry Levinson’s eco-horror production, didn’t play in many theaters, but the Strand Cinema in Georgetown, South Carolina (where most of the filming took place) had a few showings over the weekend.  
Although it was interesting to see all the nearby locations, the film itself didn’t meet my expectations (which weren’t particularly high).
In The Bay, Georgetown stands in for the Chesapeake Bay town of Claridge, where Fourth of July festivities are in high gear.  There’s a blue crab eating contest, a dunk tank, and even a Miss Crustacean contest.  A novice reporter (Kether Donohue) is there to cover the action.  What unfolds is a parade of horrors, as festival-goers stagger around screaming with fast-growing red pustules.  The local hospital begins to fill up and doctors make the horrifying discovery that something is munching on the victims from the inside.
The premise is that the reporter puts together an exposé of the cover-up following the disaster, so the whole thing is documented with a plethora of found footage.  This is almost convincing, except for the typical horror movie soundtrack pasted over it to enhance the arthropod terror.
Yes, it’s isopods.  Flogging the eco and minimizing the horror, screenwriter Michael Wallach makes it abundantly clear that pollution, primarily from chicken farm runoff (a real problem around the Chesapeake), has made the fish parasites grow and multiply and decide humans might be tasty too.  Again and again, the audience’s collective nose is rubbed into the explanation, although why the isopods decided to strike on the Fourth or why other organisms weren’t affected by the toxic water are questions that remain unresolved.
Abundant real-life examples of the indignities suffered by the Chesapeake, from leaking nuclear plants to pharmaceuticals in wastewater, are trotted out for display.  But if Levinson wanted to send a message about environmental issues, the silliness of the isopod premise was not the way to go.
The biological implausibility helps deflate the public service announcement aspect of the film, and what’s left is oddly dull.  The plot is minimal (people get infected and die) and the characters are so peripheral as to be almost non-existent.
There are a few genuine, if cheap, scary moments as the infected townsfolk pop up suddenly, roll their eyes, or scream, and shots of bodies lying in the quiet streets at night inspire a momentary sense of dread, but there’s not enough horror to go around.  Somehow the squeaking, scuttling isopods aren't very menacing even when they're eating their way out of people.  The real assault on the senses is the shaky found footage camera work, which made me want to vomit harder than the folks in the blue crab eating contest.

I had hoped something more entertaining would come out of The Bay... giant crabs, perhaps?