Sunday, January 17, 2010

White Zombie

White Zombie (1932) [Remastered Edition]
Zombie movies have been a popular staple of the horror genre since George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) shambled onto the screen.  The visceral fascination induced by watching a few isolated survivors fight off hordes of undead spawned a host of imitators.  Like the zombies themselves, zombie movies seem to multiply until it's hard to keep track of them all.  I'll be reviewing some of the most obscure, unique, or just plain odd.

White Zombie (1932) has a place in cinematic history as the very first zombie movie.  No Romero-esque rotting ghouls here- these zombies are the traditional sort, entranced by a magic powder to do the bidding of the sinister Haitian planter Legendre (Bela Lugosi).  When Legendre becomes enamoured with a young American, Madeline (Madge Bellamy), he uses his powder on her, tricking her fiance Neil (John Harron) into thinking she is dead.  Can Neil discover the ruse and rescue Madeline from Legendre's evil clutches?  Many viewers will find White Zombie overly melodramatic, but the dreamlike chiaroscuro images and Lugosi (thoroughly enjoying playing evil) make the film a pleasure to watch.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Carnival of Souls

Carnival of Souls - Criterion Collection
She emerges from the murk of a swollen river, mud-streaked, her pale bony face like a skull, enormous eyes staring in confusion and shock.
Mary Henry (Candace Hilligloss) is surfacing from a car submerged after plunging off a bridge in a drag racing accident. Of the three women within, she is the only one to escape. So begins Carnival of Souls (1962), an understated, sometimes surreal film which manages to deliver real chills despite being shot in three weeks with a minuscule budget, a cast of mostly amateur and B-grade actors, and a director (Herk Harvey) whose ouevre otherwise consists of over 400 industrial and educational films ((Carnival of Souls is bracketed by Jamaica, Haiti, and the Lesser Antilles (1962) and Pork: The Meal with a Squeal (1963)). The score, by Gene Moore, is made up entirely of organ music, cold, sinister, and unrelenting. Candace Hilligloss is an excellent lead for a horror film ((she also starred in The Curse of the Living Corpse (1964)), a woman who would be beautiful if she didn’t so closely resemble a mannequin with a wig, staring silently with wide lifeless eyes.
Mary Henry leaves town soon after the tragedy, strangely emotionless, perhaps traumatized by events. She drives to Utah to start a new life as a church organist, although without much religious fervor (“To me, a church is just a place of business.”). Here her troubles begin in earnest.
A strange and frightening (and perhaps dead) Man (Herk Harvey) haunts her, appearing and disappearing, his eyes burning into her soul. The enormous, abandoned carnival pavilion outside of town (“played” by the Saltair Amusement Park outside Salt Lake City, which has since burned and been rebuilt on a smaller scale), a hulking dark shadow on the shore of the Great Salt Lake, exerts a terrible fascination on her.
Her boarding house neighbor (Sidney Berger, who also had a part in 1998's Wes Craven Presents: Carnival of Souls, a film with a dissimilar plot and no redeeming characteristics) at first provides some distraction from her fears, but becomes disturbing in his over-persistent quest for her favors, and metamorphoses into a potential rapist with a drinking problem.
But this is nothing compared with the terror to come. The world changes, and she is temporarily cut off from humanity, unseen and unhearing, walking through the town in total silence, ignored by all (“It was as though for a time I didn’t exist!”). Has she been driven mad by her brush with death? Why does she feel so alone, so empty?
While sound and communication return, things continue to decay. The concerned Dr. Samuels (Stan Levitt) tries to sooth her nerves and diagnose her illness, but it is her idea to cure her problems by facing the carnival pavilion by the lake to which her attention is so strangely drawn, a spooky, desolate jumble of abandoned buildings and rides. Watching her walk through these empty spaces of shadow and silence is almost more terrifying than what is to come, full of palpable menace that brings to mind the oppressive, deserted hallways of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining(1980).
The final ten minutes of the film begin as a descent into madness, an exercise in horror mounting excruciatingly. The final three minutes, unfortunately, detract from the overall atmosphere. There’s a silly supernatural hide-and-go-seek scene not in keeping with the brooding horror of the rest of the film, and finally an unnecessary bit of explanation to clue in those who failed to grasp the not-so-subtle plot points beforehand.
Despite these flaws, despite a very simple plot, despite generally mediocre dialogue and some off-putting flubs (Hilligloss’s hair appears suspiciously dry as she emerges from the river), Carnival of Souls somehow succeeds in frightening. This is not overt, go for the gross-out horror, but a well-crafted and quite creepy supernatural thriller to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
As an added bonus, it’s somehow encouraging that a group of low-grade actors and a director of educational films, on a tiny budget and a few weeks time, could produce something creepily enjoyable enough to become a cult classic. One can only imagine they had a lot of fun doing it, too. Herk Harvey certainly seems to be enjoying himself, in a macabre sort of way, smiling an evil little smile as he stares into the camera in his ghoulish pancake makeup, far, far away from the mundane concerns of Why Study Home Economics? (1955) and What About Prejudice? (1959).
Carnival of Souls is available as a free download from www.archive.org.

This review was originally published at the (now defunct) horror webzine Tales from the Moonlit Path.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Road

The Road Film Tie-In

It's a post-apocalyptic world, but the apocalypse isn't due to zombies for a change.  In fact, there's no explanation given for humanity's downfall in Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winner The Road. It doesn't really matter.  You can insert your own reason:  divine wrath, supervolcanoes, total war, environmental devastation, etc.  The important thing is that it has happened, and the sad remnants of the human race are engaged in a nasty, seemingly futile struggle for survival in a dead world.  The tale of a father and son journeying in desperation through the cold and the ash is the most gripping novel I've read in a long time, full of incredible sadness, beauty, and horror.  Reading it is a little like being punched repeatedly in the stomach.  Nevertheless, it remains quiet and understated, which contributes to the sense of reality - McCarthy leaves you feeling that this is exactly how a post-apocalyptic world would be.  

Monday, January 4, 2010

A Review of Kwaidan (1964)

The word kwaidan denotes ghost stories, particularly those from Japan’s Edo Period. The film is based on stories collected by Lafcadio Hearn (his Kwaidan: Stories And Studies Of Strange Things was published in 1904, the year of his death; some of the film’s stories are from earlier collections). Hearn, a journalist, traveled to Japan on assignment in 1890. The country enthralled him and he never left, working as a teacher and writer, marrying a local and becoming a naturalized citizen, even taking a Japanese name.
Kwaidan - Criterion Collection Kwaidan the film consists of four of Hearn’s stories:

In “The Black Hair”, a faithless samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) leaves his wife (Michiyo Aratama) to marry a wealthier woman (Misako Watanabe). Unhappy with the exchange of love for gold, tormented by guilt, by visions of his wife, and by the sounds of her loom, he eventually returns to the dusty desolate house where they lived, hoping against hope to be taken back.

“The Woman of the Snow” is the best of the stories, a classic fairy tale filmed in an inventive fashion. Two woodcutters (Tatsuya Nakadai and Jun Hamamura) are caught out in the forest in the midst of a terrible blizzard. Stumbling through the darkened, silent woods, with eerie auroras like staring eyes on the horizon, they take shelter in an empty hut, only to be set upon by a spirit of the snow (Keiko Kishi). She agrees to spare the life of the younger woodcutter if he never tells anyone about her. As the years pass and he settles down with a wife and children, the woodcutter grows complacent…

“Hoichi the Earless” tells of a blind novice monk, Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura) so musically talented that the ancient ghosts of warriors killed in a sea battle rise up and command him to sing the tale of their battle, night after night. It is an offer he can’t refuse. Can the head monk (Takashi Shimura) save him before the ghosts claim him for their own?

“In a Cup of Tea” finishes off the quartet with a writer telling the tale of a samurai (Kanemon Nakamura) who sees an odd reflection in his teacup. Soon the intruder appears in person, followed by other slippery spirits who are difficult to get rid of. How will the story end?

Kwaidan, directed by Masaki Kobayashi, was an expensive, ambitious production in its time. The cinematography is expressionistic, the performances are highly stylized. The film was shot primarily on huge indoor stages, and there is an air of the theater to the stories, with obviously artificial sets, backdrops, and lighting effects. Kwaidan won the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival, and received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film in 1966.

The main flaw in Kwaidan is the slow pace of the stories; they are all simple tales, reliant on sumptuous settings and imagery rather than action or dialogue. Sometime the images sabotage the stories: “Hoichi the Earless” spends far too much time setting up the history of the ghosts by panning over paintings of the ancient sea battle, the snow spirit has a stiff-armed way of walking that looks silly rather than supernatural, and the supernatural effects in “The Black Hair” are hardly apparent at all. Kwaidan is an interesting piece of exotica, but in the end it may be more satisfying to simply read Hearn’s stories and let one’s own imagination provide the imagery.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

"Look! It's moving. It's alive. IT'S ALIVE!"

Hello and welcome to my blog.  My purpose here is to survey the best and worst in horror movies and literature, the old and the new, from the hair-raisingly scary to the dreamily supernatural.  I want to share my love of horror with you, dear reader, and perhaps steer you towards some works you're not familiar with.  Likewise, I hope to discover something rich and strange, obscure masterpieces of terror and the supernatural, as I go.  Join me, won't you?

PS - The blog title refers to Robert Aickman's 1975 collection, Cold hand in mine: Strange stories, which contains some of his best, including my personal favorite, "The Hospice".