Friday, June 23, 2017

Popcorn Kernels: Pain And Life

Here is another trio of reviews on Pedro Almodóvar films, as we enter our final summer marathon of his collected filmography.


Year: 1986
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Assumpta Serna, Antonio Banderas, Nacho Martínez
Run Time: 1 hour 50 minutes
MPAA Rating: NC-17

A matador obsessed with death meet a defense attorney with a similar fetish when one of his students confesses to a string of murders

Matador is one of Almodóvar’s weirder movies, and that’s really saying something. It’s kinky, edgy, and dark in ways only his early 80’s output could be. He was still exploring his craft, and there was certainly still room for improvement, but his inimitable voice still rings loud and clear.

For one thing, this tale of rape, murder, suicide, and necrophilia is hilarious. The A-plot is as straight as a drama can be, but it bounces between a litany of buoyant performances on the sidelines: Julieta Serrano as the pious, bullying mother of Antonio Banderas, Chus Lampreave as the doting, oversharing mother of the model he assaults in an early scene, and even Pedro Almodóvar himself, in an uncredited cameo as a fashion show director. Their antics and complete lack of self-awareness allow Matador a levity that prevents the subject matter from becoming too unbearably dark.

And despite its lack of the bold color patterns that would come to define the director’s work, Matador is beautiful on top of everything. The opening scene in which bullfighting is compared to seduction numbers among the director’s most sublime visual sequences. Unfortunately, this level of cinematic perfection fails to sustain itself, and in turn is incapable of keeping the messy plot on life support. It’s still a delightful slice of filmmaking, but it overstays its welcome, something that almost no Almodóvar movie is capable of doing.

Rating: 6/10

The Flower of My Secret

Year: 1995
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Marisa Paredes, Juan Echanove, Carme Elias
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A romance author can’t find inspiration now that her marriage is on the rocks, and takes a newspaper job where she has to review her own novel.

The Flower of My Secret is definitely a middling Almodóvar work, from his period in the early 90’s that people don’t like to talk about quite so much. Nevertheless, if any other director had made it, it would be considered the peak of their career. That’s the kind of sliding scale we’re working with when we discuss Almodóvar, and that’s a glorious thing.

As far as I can figure it, there are only two things “wrong” with The Flower of My Secret. First, while Almodóvar’s plots do tend to meander, this one really gets away from him, especially in the third act. The movie is short enough that the messy plotting isn’t exhausting, but it can be a bit difficult to really sink your teeth into it. The second thing is that the film is just plain. The director’s retro, eye-searing colors and bold set design choices are rather toned down here, so there are no images immutably burned into your brain.

Those are the reasons it’s not a classic Almodóvar film. The reasons it’s a great Almodóvar film are numerous. For one thing, it’s downright hilarious. The plot beats are reserved for some heartstring-plucking melodrama, but some of the film’s many detours find their way into character-based joviality, with dialogue slipping over itself in a beautiful farcical frenzy. This reaches a particular height whenever our protagonist visits her mother and sitter, played by Almodóvar stalwarts Rossy de Palma and Chus Lampreave. Lampreave especially takes what she was working with in Matador and turns it up 11 as a batty, headstrong aging mother stock character given warmth and depth around the edges of her irresistible performance.

The melodrama is also well-crafted, anchored by the terrific Marisa Paredes, who joined the Almodóvar troupe in the early 80’s, but really rose to the top of the heap with his 90’s material. The scene of Paredes seeking comfort from the women in a knitting circle in her hometown is worth the price of admission alone. Paredes suffers a lot, but Almodóvar uses her trials and tribulation to celebrate life, love, art, beauty, and especially women of every shape and size.

Rating: 8/10

Broken Embraces

Year: 2009
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Penélope Cruz, Lluís Homar, Blanca Portillo
Run Time: 2 hours 7 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A blind filmmaker revisits a tragedy that struck 14 years ago while he was directing his final film.

Broken Embraces is definitely a Pedro Almodóvar movie. If ever you see a lush melodrama filled with gorgeous women and mop-headed twinks boasting an ending that makes you go “oh, that’s all?,” he is surely behind it. A lot of his favorite themes are present: a death setting a chain of events in motion, an artist finding catharsis through their craft, Penelope Cruz looking gorgeous as all hell… It’s definitely in his drama vein.

Frankly, Almodóvar’s dramas don’t appeal to me nearly as readily as his comedies, but broken Embraces struck me more than most of the others. There’s a quiet beauty in this reflection on a long, full career. And the autobiographical elements are hardly veiled, considering that this character is in the middle of making a fictionalized version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The only difference is that this version (titled Chicas y Maletas) is kind of a disaster whereas Breakdown is a stone-cold masterpiece.

Like most of his dramas, Broken Embraces is a technical triumph. From the detailed production design to Cruz’s platinum blonde wig so fierce they had to call in animal control, every item in the frame is perfectly composed. All the better to let the emotions of the story spill out around it. Frankly, I can’t find that much unique to point out, because it’s exactly as sublime as his other efforts. I should really step back and appreciate how lucky I am to be able to take this film’s craft for granted, but the sad fact is if it’s not Volver, then I’m just not as invested.

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1024

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Census Flashback: Female Directors

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

This week we’re anticipating the 70’s horror remake The Beguiled, because Transformers 5 has opted to premiere midweek, blissfully opening up the weekend to a crop of smaller titles. The Beguiled was written and directed by Sofia Coppola, so today’s slasher boasts the same, highly unusual, distinction of being both written and directed by women: A Night to Dismember.

Year: 1983
Director: Doris Wishman
Cast: Samantha Fox, Diane Cummins, Saul Meth 
Run Time: 1 hour 9 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

A good title is worth a thousand ticket sales, and Doris Wishman’s A Night to Dismember has a great one. Unfortunately, it’s attached to something that’s not even a movie. According to legend, a great deal of the negative was destroyed by a disgruntled film technician, forcing the movie to be a Frankensteinian assemblage of surviving dailies with a new voiceover track papered over the whole affair to make the story make sense.

Now, as much as I love to see a female name above the line in slasher movie credits, let alone two (the film was written by Judy J. Kushner), that doesn’t mean I’m inclined to go easy on them. Women can be just as good (the Slumber Party Massacre trilogy) or just as bad (Home Sweet Home) as male directors. Or in this case – if the stories are true – just as up a creek without a paddle.


So, here’s the plot. As recapped by an investigator in voiceover, drawing from the apparently very extensive, incriminating diaries kept by all involved, the Kent family comes across a spot of bad luck on October 15th, 1986 (making this a science fiction movie). Daughter Vicki Kent (Samantha Fox) has just returned from a five year stint in a mental institution, to the jealousy of her attention-seeking siblings Mary (Diane Cummins) and Billy (William Szarka, director of future Census Bloodbath entry Phantom Brother). These people are all adults so we can watch them have sex, but they pretty much exclusively act like children.

They conspire to drive Vicki back to the asylum, and the massively extended Kent family begins to fall prey to what I’m convinced is the exact same shot of the shadow of an axe on the wall, repeated ad infinitum.

They really gotta drive this point home.

A Night to Dismember is a shambles, no two ways about it. But if it had been completed as envisioned, it probably would have only been slightly less of a shambles. It’s just a string of slasher murders barely connected by the faintest wisp of a plot. OK granted, that’s pretty much true of all slashers, but presentation is key.

Snippets of catalogue music from the Greatest Hits of the Home Shopping Network collection jerk to a start and abruptly leap between tracks, cheerily underscoring the endless parade of cut-rate softcore porn and unfocused, jittery murder sequences. It’s like the celluloid itself chugged a gallon of coffee and is practically leaping out of the projector.

It’s just so manic, hopping from one bloody lily pad to the next without pausing to take a breath. And even brimming with this energy and boasting a run time so slight it’s barely visible to the naked eye, A Night to Dismember is incredibly, catastrophically boring. It’s poorly shot, packed with grainy close-ups, and the miles of plot it relentlessly spools through have no emotional anchor. It’s more like watching a PowerPoint presentation of slasher murders than an actual plot with recognizable characters,

Hell, that’s probably being unfair to the entertainment value of PowerPoint.

There is at least one interesting thing about A Night to Dismember, though "interesting” isn’t even in the same ZIP code as “good.” With its jagged motion and half-assed dubbing, it feels like an old silent film, only with 80’s hairstyles. The acting is pitched to the back row, and the shards of scenes are glued together by a monologue that might as well be a set of title cards. It feels like some surviving scrap of an ancient artifact, despite the anachronistic modernity of is setting. For that it’s kind of fascinating, but its worth as a curio does not extend beyond about a quarter of an hour.

And hell, I’ll come up with something nice to say. Why not? The film’s construction is dreamlike enough that some of the attempts at horror genuinely land. Out-of-context uncanny imagery like hands groping at Vicki in the dark or a “Halloween mask” played by a scaly old man will send a tingle or two down the spine. And the effects makeup on the kills is mostly OK, wallowing in a 70’s grindhouse vibe during its gorier sequences.

But let’s not pretend this movie is anything but a tedious, poorly acted, incoherently edited monstrosity. A teaspoon of interesting imagery can’t cover up that sour taste. If Ken Burns made a documentary where he read the phone book aloud over photos of severed fingers while elevator music droned in the background, I would still rather check that out than watch A Night to Dismember again.

Yes, I understand that this film was FUBAR behind the scenes. But still… They didn’t have to release it.

Killer: Mary Kent (Diane Cummins)
Final Girl: N/A
Best Kill: Mary literally rips her uncle’s heart right out of his chest.
Sign of the Times: Anybody allowed this movie to happen, because slashers were still profitable.
Scariest Moment: A muddy man rises from the lake and chases Vicki.
Weirdest Moment: the finale sees Mary pack her axe in a briefcase and take off into the woods.
Champion Dialogue: “Susan had accidentally fallen on her axe. She was dead.”
Body Count: 16
  1. Bonnie is axed to death.
  2. Susan falls on her own axe. She is dead.
  3. Lola is stabbed.
  4. Broderick hangs himself.
  5. Boy #1 is stabbed through the back of the neck.
  6. Boy 2 is stabbed through the back of the neck.
  7. Frankie is decapitated with a machete.
  8. Sandy is decapitated with a machete.
  9. Uncle Sebastian is axed in the head.
  10. Auntie Ann is run over with a car.
  11. Bea Smith is axed in the neck.
  12. Adam gets a needle through his neck.
  13. Blanche is axed to death.
  14. Billy is buried alive.
  15. Vicki is strangled.
  16. Taxi Driver is axed to death.
TL;DR: A Night to Dismember is a catastrophically compromised slasher film.
Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 1086

Monday, June 19, 2017

Blumhouse: What You Missed

Hey everyone! It's been a while, because I've been actually working hard to stick to a regular blog schedule with my Census Flashback feature (which I'm very excited about), but here's what I've been up to over at!

The Haunted Save Mart of Chowchilla, California

Early on in an article, I made a joke that ghosts only haunt old things, not supermarkets or anything. Boy did I come to regret that when I Googled "haunted grocery store." Things got weird real fast.

Don't tell anyone, but you may recognize this as a reworking of my original review of The Birds. I thought this would be a controversial article, but apparently more people love The Birds than I thought.

This is my favorite article that I've written in quite some time. I love learning about weird-ass movies I've never heard of, and these franchises are made even weirder by the sheer amount of sequels that have slipped right by without anyone (at least in America) really noticing.

I will never stop writing about Wes Craven.

I started Hulu's monthlong free trial to watch The Handmaid's Tale, and considering that their catalogue is so hard to access if you're not a member, I utilized my unprecedented access to scour their horror section.

Thankfully we don't do reviews on the site, because I wasn't a huge fan of Seoul Station. But I did find the opportunity to expand on what i found most interesting about the film, and it was a lot of fun!

Clearly my Handmaid's Tale binge influenced a lot of recent articles. What can I say, it's a good show!
Word Count: 326

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Census Flashback: Sequels Nobody Asked For

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

In anticipation of Cars 3, a sequel absolutely nobody asked for, this week I’ll be revisiting the Bates Motel with 1983’s entirely unwarranted Psycho II.

Year: 1983
Director: Richard Franklin
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, Meg Tilly 
Run Time: 1 hour 53 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Making a sequel to Psycho 22 years after the fact was a monumentally terrible idea. But miraculously, that was the only bad idea made in the process of creating Psycho II. An astoundingly qualified crew was assembled to bring the Bates Motel back to life: actors Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles returning, Child’s Play and Fright Night director Tom Holland manning the screenplay, and Richard Franklin in the director’s seat. Franklin you may recall from the earlier Census Bloodbath entry Road Games, a terrific roadside thriller that proved him such a potent disciple of Hitchcock that hiring him was a no-brainer. With this team supporting the film, at least it would have been watchable no matter what. A little bit surprisingly, it's even more than that.

Hold onto your wigs.

So, Psycho II pretty much picks up where we left off. It’s 22 years later and Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) has been declared sane and released from the institution where he’s been held since his murder spree in 1960. As he tries to get his life back together, he takes in a wayward teenage girl named Mary (Meg Tilly), whose presence in his home sends him (and us) some painful reminders of the beautiful, deceased Marion Crane. As if we needed reminding, considering that her murder is crudely cut and pasted into the first five minutes of the film as if this were a cheap Friday the 13th sequel or something.

Anyway, people who cross Norman start to turn up dead, causing him no small amount of distress. Is he back to his murderous ways, or is someone else framing him? And exactly what is Lila Loomis née Crane (Vera Miles) doing skulking around town after all this time?

I mean, other than marrying her dead sister’s boyfriend like a badass.

Psycho II had quite the legacy to live up to. Not only was it the long-delayed sequel to a Hitchcock classic, it was being released smack dab in the middle of the slasher boom, the genre its forebear helped to create. That’s a lot of pressure. Psycho II is like the kid of the CEO attempting to take up the mantle of the company. It had to prove itself worthy in a massive pool of imitators. And mostly, it did exactly that.

Where Psycho II succeeds is that it doesn’t try to fit in with the slasher crowd. Sure, there’s a little more nudity, a little more blood, and one or two teens in the mix, but the film isn’t focused on the murder spree. It is very much about the aftermath of a broken mind attempting to mend itself, and as such it’s even different from Psycho itself. This is the best place to be, as free from expectation as humanly possible, and it spins quite a yarn out of it.

There’s so much yarn, in fact, that it can be fashioned into at least two different Mrs. Bates wigs, because buckle in folks: Psycho II has a lot of moving parts. The film has so many twists and turns that you’re constantly second guessing yourself, but not too many that it flies off the rails. It’s the perfect kind of melodrama, keeping you on your toes and glued to the screen. The plot is such a bucking bronco that the now-traditional “authority figure clunkily explains it all” scene gets the entire thing hilariously wrong.

As if I wasn’t already on this movie’s side.

Richard Franklin doesn’t get to have as much visual fun as he did on Road Games, but he still finds some cool imagery to play with, especially during the death scenes. Nothing could possibly live up to Psycho’s shower scene, but Franklin stages his murders with brutal flair, utilizing the modern effects without over-relying on them. His kills are full of motion and they’re unrelenting, letting you chew on every stage of the far-from-brief mayhem.

Another benefit of being a Psycho film is that it attracted a pretty solid, venerable cast. You won’t see Robert Loggia skulking around in no Sleepaway Camp sequel. There’s not a single dud in the cast, though it takes Perkins a minute to warm up into his old character. They ground the crazy story in a welcome, almost stately reality that does wonders for the film’s tension.

All this is what allows the film’s gonzo ending to work so well. Although it’s a slow burn to the finish line, Psycho II reaches a shrieking crescendo that feels like Bernard Hermann’s manic score come to life (incidentally, the classic Psycho theme appears in the flashback scene only – the rest of the film has to make do with a subdued and tedious Jerry Goldsmith jobbie). It’s a fun film, bringing Psycho into the 80’s without diluting its inimitable spirit.

Killer: Who could possibly keep track?
Final Girl: N/A
Best Kill: Vera Miles with a knife sticking from her gob. You don’t see that every day.

Sign of the Times: There’s a cameo from a Ms. Pac Man machine.
Scariest Moment: Mary looks through the bathroom peephole and sees an eye on the other side.
Weirdest Moment: A revelation late into the film about Norman’s family tree comes completely out of left field.
Champion Dialogue: “I don’t kill people anymore, remember?”
Body Count: 6
  1. Mr. Toomey is stabbed to death.
  2. Basement Boy is stabbed to death.
  3. Lila Loomis is stabbed through the mouth.
  4. Dr. Raymond is stabbed in the chest.
  5. Mary is shot.
  6. Miss Spool is hit in the head with a shovel.
TL;DR: Psycho II is a surprisingly worthy sequel to an unimpeachable classic.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1012
Reviews In This Series
Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960)
Psycho II (Franklin, 1983)

Monday, June 12, 2017

Blogaversary The Fourth

Folks, today marks the fourth anniversary of Popcorn Culture, and it’s amazing we all survived this long, let alone this little blog. Now, our good friend Hunter over at Kinemalogue started on the exact same day, so I want you to head over there and give him a little love. Our blogs are fraternal twins, after all. In celebration of this landmark, and in honor of the traditional fourth anniversary gift being electrical appliances, I have a little list prepared for you.


#5 TV Set in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

The boob tube gets a bad rap. It might turn your eyes square and your brain into mush, but at least it won’t murder you… unless you’re in the nightmarish thrall of Freddy Krueger. This TV kill is one of the most iconic Elm Street scenes ever, and for good reason. It’s pithy, playful, and yet still unspeakably dark in its absurdity.

#4 Microwave in The Last House on the Left

The Last House on the Left remake was altogether much less grim than Wes Craven’s original, but that also allowed them to go to some incredibly silly places that even the intermittently goofy 1972 flick couldn’t reach. The highest peak of this bonkers attitude is this scene that brings a popular urban legend to bloody life: death by having your head shoved into a microwave.

#3 Lawn Mower in Misery

Is a lawn mower an appliance? I’m not actually sure about that, but who could resist Annie Wilkes’ inimitable gusto and the creative way she dispatches one of her captive’s only means of potential survival? [Editor's Note: OK, I'm dumb. This scene is in the book, not the movie. But it's still great.]

#2 Toaster in Inside

Inside is a bleak, incredibly gory movie, but one of the scenes that has the most impact is this little moment of blunt force with a toaster. It’s a startling gag that’s so abrupt you want to giggle, but quickly devolves into full-fledged horror.

#1 Blender in You’re Next

You don’t get to be one of the best new horror flicks of the decade without an awesome kill scene, and You’re Next is chock full of them. One of the most memorable is the incredible denouement where our heroine demonstrates the incredible versatility of a common household blender.
Word Count: 399

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Census Flashback: Ancient Entities

Summer has struck again, so it’s time for the melanin-challenged folks like Yours Truly to retreat to the cool air conditioning of the local cineplex. And the return of the summer movie season means the return of our long-suffering feature Fright Flashback! Every Wednesday from now until mid-August, we’ll be exploring an older horror film that is somehow spiritually related to an anticipated new release. Only this time, there’s a twist. We’ll be merging this project with my Census Bloodbath marathon, so we can keep that train a-rolling as well! So every week, we’ll be reviewing an 80’s slasher film instead of just any old horror flick.

This week, we’re anticipating The Mummy, in which Tom Cruise and that chick from Annabelle fight an ancient mummy unearthed from her tomb. Our slasher features another powerful, mythical enemy: a bloodthirsty genie. Let’s dive into 1987’s The Lamp!

Year: 1987
Director: Tom Daley
Cast: Deborah Winters, James Huston, Andra St. Ivanyi
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

As any reader of Census Bloodbath certainly should know by now, 1984’s Nightmare on Elm Street done changed the game. The newly revived slasher genre was flooded with a deluge of supernatural villainy, taking after Wes Craven’s dreamlike M.O. And although it takes after certain Elm Street precursors like The Boogeyman or The Ghost Dance, The Lamp (inexplicably directed by a Tom Daley who is patently not a teenage swim champion) certainly could not have existed without Freddy Krueger. So I guess we know who to thank.

And I know it’s rare, but I really do mean that sincerely.

As elemental as the plot of The Lamp is, there are a lot of moving parts, so let’s get into it. We open on two separate prologues, the first depicting a series of mysterious deaths in Galveston, Texas in 1893, leaving behind only a young girl whose mother (Deborah Winters) was the very first victim. The second depicts the final minutes of that young girl, now an old woman (Deborah Winters again), as she is robbed of her mysterious lamp by three Southern fried hooligans. They open the lamp, they die in horrible supernatural ways. Pretty straightforward.

Anyway, the lamp ends up in the custody of the local museum, which is curated by Dr. Wallace (James Huston). His relationship with his daughter Alex (Andra St. Ivanyi) has become strained since her mother died, but he’s finally found happiness with Alex’s high school teacher Eve Ferrell (Deborah Winters again, and did I mention she has an associate producer credit on this movie?). So Alex finds a magic bracelet that’s linked to the lamp, and wouldn’t you know it, her sexy teen friends want to spend the night in her father’s museum.

There’s barely 40 minutes left, but let’s Meet the Meat and make it snappy. We have Ted (Scott Bankston), Alex’s horrifyingly bland new boyfriend; Babs (Damon Merrill) and Ross (Barry Coffing), a white couple; and Terry (Raan Lewis) and Gwen (Tracye Walker), a black couple. Look, the person handing out character traits could only stay for the first half hour, OK? Their revelry is intruded upon by the ne plus ultra of 80’s bullies, Mike (Red Mitchell). Mike is the worst. Mike thinks that because he used to date Alex, he has free license to ram her new boyfriend’s car and strangle her on school grounds. You will want Mike to die a horrible death, and you will not be disappointed.

So yeah, a genie gets released from the lamp. It possesses some of them, murders most of them, Alex and Associate Producer Deborah Winters survive, and credits roll.

Bada bing, bada boom.

The Lamp, genie or no genie, is a bog-standard late 80’s slasher at the structural level: we have a set of heteronormative pair-bonded teens spending the night somewhere they shouldn’t be, with a prankster skulking around to add an element of chaos until they all die in mostly bloodless ways. But the filmmakers must have mad a wish on a magic lamp, because the result is far greater than the sum of its parts.

For starters, every inch of this film is draped in terrible neon fashions, and radios are shoehorned into as many scenes as possible to allow for a free-flowing New Wave synthcrap soundtrack. That’s the bait for an 80’s cheese-o-phile like myself, but here’s the hook: The Lamp is completely insane. One thing I value above all else in an 80’s slasher is when a movie proves to be completely unpredictable, showing me sights I never thought I’d see in a million years.

Unfortunately, a major part of what’s inexplicable about The Lamp is Mike, who never ceases to be deeply offensive, but if you view this as a bizarre-world time capsule, it makes for an enjoyably surreal watch. Take for instance this one scene, which takes up no more than five minutes of the total run time: Mike barrels down the school hallway, grabs his ex in a chokehold, calls the principal the N word, and starts beating up Ted until Ms. Ferrell lays him out with a broomstick, flipping him over like a kung fu queen. This is a nuclear blast of lunacy that just keeps building into a stunning crescendo. And it’s less than five percent of the movie!

Thankfully though, the N-word use is a one-time thing.

What else does The Lamp have to offer other than utter weirdness? OK, not a whole lot, but the death scenes – though bloodless – compensate for the lack of gore with a whole slew of explosive supernatural effects. This movie must have had a bit of a budget on it, because not only do we get a random car chase in the first act, we get a whole roster of kills involving people being levitated Elm Street style into a variety of gruesome demises. The kills could perhaps stand to be more creative, but they still maintain the madcap, anything-can-happen energy, with death pouring in from all sides rather than a single killer with an axe or whatever.

It’s not a perfect movie, (don’t think I’ve forgiven Mike, who has a flagrantly unnecessary - though thankfully brief – rape scene) but The Lamp floats by being blissfully amusing in its own dumb-as-rocks way. If I can’t have actual quality I will accept something that’s thoroughly weird, and The Lamp gives me what I need.

Killer: Jinn (Jackson Bostwick)
Final Girl: Alex Wallace: Alex Wallace (Andra St. Ivanyi)
Best Kill: One of the robbers is hung with an invisible rope in a sublime effect that proves the movie certainly won’t be a waste of time.

Sign of the Times: Literally any outfit or song in the entire movie.
Scariest Moment: An old woman weakly protests as robbers steal the lamp and proceed to murder her with an axe.
Weirdest Moment: One of the museum’s security guards loudly sings opera while making his rounds.
Champion Dialogue: “I never said I was the wizard of coffee and toast.”
Body Count: 16; not including a female teen who presumably dies but we don’t specifically see it.
  1. Young Arab Woman dies… somehow.
  2. Random Dude is mauled offscreen.
  3. Old Arab Woman is axed to death.
  4. Max is cut in half or crushed or something, it's hard to tell.
  5.  Harley has his face impaled on an axe.
  6. Faylene is hung with an invisible rope.
  7. Dr. Theo Bressling has his head chopped with a ceiling fan.
  8. Bob is impaled on a spear.
  9. Ross is split in half offscreen.
  10. Babs is attacked by bath cobras.
  11. Terry is bitten by a snake in his pants.
  12. Tony gets his head twisted off by a medieval helmet.
  13. Mike is impaled with a viking helmet.
  14. Jeff is killed offscreen.
  15. Ted is devoured by a reanimated corpse.
  16. Dr. Wallace is killed offscreen.
TL;DR: The Lamp is a thoroughly weird and engrossing supernatural slasher flick.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1317

Friday, May 26, 2017

Census Bloodbath: Something Evil's Lurking In The Dark

Year: 1982
Director: John Russo
Cast: Melanie Verlin, Lawrence Tierney, John Hall 
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

It’s very easy to make a name for yourself with a relatively sizeable horror hit. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to break away from that name once you’ve made it. That’s what Wes Craven learned whenever he wanted to make a drama film. But it’s even harder when that hit was Night of the Living Dead, the seminal 1968 classic that more or less changed horror forever. There’s a reason only hardcore fans know about George Romero’s non-zombie movies. The public wasn’t ready for anything else.

This probably explains the ad campaign for NotLD screenwriter John Russo’s Midnight, which boasts that “the DEAD Drink the BLOOD of the LIVING” and in certain synopses posits that our heroes venture into “the land of the living dead.” As you’ve hopefully learned from my fraught relationship with slasher posters, this in no way reflects almost anything about the content of Midnight, which is more of a Texas Chain Saw riff than even Texas Chainsaw 2. At any rate, neither the movie promised nor the movie delivered is particularly good.

Why do I do this to myself?

It’s very easy to define Midnight by the other, better movies it reminds you of. The villains are the Texas Chainsaw-esque progeny of a mother (Jackie Nicell of The Majorettes) straight out of Carrie – a Satanist who believes that any intruders on their property are demons who must be ritualistically sacrificed. They won’t come back into play until irritatingly late in the film, but they are the mentally handicapped Cyrus (David Marchick), the bearish Luke (Greg Besnack), the fresh-faced Abraham (John Amplas of George Romero’s Martin), and the solitaire-obsessed spiritual medium Cynthia (Robin Walsh).

And so we meet their new crop of victims, some 60 miles away at this point. 17-year-old Nancy (Melanie Verlin) is escaping from her sexually abusive stepfather Bert (actual actor Lawrence Tierney of Reservoir Dogs) and hitches a ride with road tripping college friends Tom (John Hall) and Hank (Charles Jackson). They camp out in the wrong neck of the woods and are captured by the murderous clan, who want to sacrifice Nancy for their Easter Satanic communion. Bert catches wind of this and is hot on the trail to rescue her, because who better to root for than an alcoholic child molester?

Seriously, f**k this movie.

The defining feature of Midnight is that it has absolutely no defining features. It’s constantly morphing from domestic drama to American Honey nostalgic road trip movie to an indictment of small town racism and police brutality to slasher and back and forth into oblivion. Pretty much the only thing these scenes have in common is the obscenely cheesy easy listening tune “Midnight Again” that underscores the entire monstrosity.

As that song proves, Midnight has no idea how to manage its tone, and with some of the deeply bleak subject matter it explores, that’s a truly dangerous thing to not have control over. It’s more depressing than it is scary, and even the film’s most effective moment – in which a character shuffles off this mortal coil far sooner than expected – is too grim to be thrilling.

Not that thrills were really an option for this mummified bore of a film. With its wooden staging and flat performances, Midnight is almost two-dimensional. Characters weakly go about their business like they’ve just taken massive doses of Nyquil, delivering dialogue from unmoving automaton faces. And don’t get me started about the action sequences, if you can call them that, Nancy knocks out her stepdad by lightly tapping his head with a radio, and the entire third act sees her affecting her escape in a noncommittal, maybe even slightly bemused haze.

You can just taste the fear in this scene.

It’s a shame that Midnight flies so far off the rails, because certain scenes are pretty chilling in their stilted, low-fi kind of way. The fear is more conceptual than anything, but the scene where we see the warped mother commanding her brood of children or the incidents where the mild annoyance of back country racism actually flares into a physical threat are relatively effective.

Unfortunately it’s frequently more depressing than it is scary. Most slasher films are seedy, but few feel this fatalistically amoral. I refuse to let go of the fact that we’re meant to cheer on an abusive stepdad, and the potentially interesting racial tensions in the plot are nothing but window dressing for a facile exercise in misogyny. There are a couple feints at religious discourse in the third act, but they come far too late to do any good.

No, Midnight is an unbearable slog, however clever it thinks itself to be (did I mention Russo adapted this from his own novel? It’s hard to hear criticism when your ears are attached to a head so firmly ensconced up one’s own ass). It frequently cuts away from the action for unbearably long scenes of Nancy’s mother and stepdad blandly reciting dialogue over coffee, but it’s not like they were cutting away from anything particularly interesting to begin with. It’s just a dismal exercise in how broken a film can be when it comes to pacing, tone, and – oh heck – general quality.

One to miss.

Killer: The Satanic Family
Final Girl: Nancy (Melanie Verlin)
Best Kill: Tom Savini allegedly worked on this film, and the only evidence I can find of that is two excellent slashed throats in the third act.
Sign of the Times: Every character, male or female, has the exact same shaggy, lopsided haircut.
Scariest Moment: Tom and Hank are menaced by police officers convinced that they’re guilty of murder.
Weirdest Moment: Nancy is put in a cage, where she meets a random woman who affectlessly delivers exposition for three full minutes.
Champion Dialogue: “Lord have mercy if you decide to camp out here. Didn’t you hear me say some people have been murdered?”
Body Count: 13
  1. Jimmy Peterson’s Sister is ritually sacrificed.
  2. Revered Carrington is stabbed to death.
  3. Sandra is strangled in the tub.
  4. Hank is shot in the head.
  5. Tom is shot in the chest.
  6. Billy is stabbed to death
  7. Sharon has her throat slit.
  8. Gwen has her throat slit.
  9. Bert is stabbed in the back,
  10. Cyrus is shot.
  11. Abraham is shot.
  12. Cynthia is scythed in the throat.
  13. Luke is beat with a mallet, shot, and lit on fire.
TL;DR: Midnight is a crummy Texas Chain Saw riff that's even more disappointing for its potential to be something better than it is.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1107

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Census Bloodbath: Slayboy

For the Scream 101 episode about this film, click here.

Year: 1987
Director: Lamberto Bava
Cast: Serena Grandi, Daria Nicolodi, Vanni Corbellini
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: UR

Italian horror in the late 1980’s was in a very strange place. The thrilling, erotic giallo genre had long since died down, but international markets were still demanding more and more slasher content. The two big Italian horror exports that year, despite sharing four crew members and almost a whole title, explored two polar opposite approaches. Those films were Deliria AKA StageFright: Aquarius and Delirium AKA Photos of Gloria. They shared a costume designer, composer Simon Boswell, star David Brandon, and writer/actor George Eastman, but they couldn’t be more different.

Michele Soavi’s StageFright resurrects the idiosyncratic visual style of Dario Argento and applies it to a delightfully gory romp through slasher excess, whereas Delirium: Photos of Gloria (our topic for today) takes a more self-reflective approach, wearing the faded patches of the giallo genre on its sleeve yet failing to find the energy to rise above being mildly intelligent softcore trash.

Nobody got out of the 80’s with their dignity intact.

Delirium assembled a robust team of the giallo old guard to bring its story to life. Legacy director Lamberto Bava (son of cinema legend Mario Bava) helmed a crew that included Don’t Torture a Duckling screenwriter Gianfranco Clerici, Five Women for the Killer editor Mauro Bonanni, and The Scorpion with Two Tails production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng. And that cast is a nonstop barrage of familiar faces, both old and new.

The story is simple enough. Gloria (Serena Grandi of Anthropophagus) is an ex-nudie model who now runs a men’s magazine. Unfortunately the women who pose for the cover start turning up dead, photographed in front of a massive blow-up of Gloria which was shot during an unpublished modeling session that very few people have access to. She and the useless Inspector Corsi (Lino Salemme of Lamberto Bava’s earlier Demons) must find out who the killer is before they turn their sights on her.

The suspect pool is rather large, as Gloria is surrounded with intimate friends and coworkers who have all been acting rather peculiar lately…. First there’s Flora (Capucine of the Pink Panther series), a matronly lesbian who wants to buy Gloria’s magazine out of revenge for her resisting the woman’s advances. The list goes on and on from there: Mark (Karl Zinny, also of Demons), her wheelchair-bound Peeping Tom neighbor; Gloria’s actor ex-lover Alex (George Eastman, the impossibly tall cannibal from Anthropophagus), who always seems to be conveniently out of town whenever the murders occur; the stand-offish photographer Roberto (the aforementioned David Brandon); her brother and partner in crime Tony (Vanni Corbellini of The Belly of an Architect); and her dutiful – almost too dutiful – assistant Evelyn (Argento collaborator/ex-wife Daria Nicolodi of Tenebrae, Deep Red, Suspiria, and so forth).

Shockingly, she actually survives this movie.

Even though the cast isn’t particularly small, it’s intimate. There are practically no other characters involved, and the interpersonal relationships between almost every combination of personalities are explored with some depth. This is a giallo with an exceptionally focused murder mystery plot (that’s a low bar, but still) because the people populating it are at least mildly interesting all across the board.

That’s just about the last unequivocally good thing I’ll be saying about Delirium, but let’s keep this positive train a–chuggin’ for another minute. Seeing how the film is such a blend of old and new, it really is an interesting reflection on the genre it more or less put out to pasture. Much like Dario Argento’s Tenebrae five years earlier, it’s as much a meditation on misogyny in the genre as it is a pristine example of it.

With the most phallic, penetrative imagery this side of Slumber Party Massacre’s giant power drill, Delirium is a 90-minute exercise in foregrounding the never-quite-subtle sexual symbolism evident in the slasher and giallo genres. If you don’t want spoilers (like anybody cares), skip until after the next image.

The killer here targets women as an outlet for his rage at his impotence, a theme that has never been explored more explicitly (except maybe in the chainsaw seduction scene of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2). When the killer finally confronts Gloria, he undresses her with his blade, sticking it in her mouth and rubbing it across her body until he’s literally shot in the dick and “ejaculates” blood all over her face. And every other death is so symbolically penetrative it’s almost obscene, especially the sequence where a nude young woman is stung to death by hundreds of bees.

Truly delightful.

The overtly misogynistic violence clashes against the film’s depiction of women who have sexual autonomy and hold high-powered jobs, manipulating the voyeuristic eye of the camera and the men holding it.

But mostly of course, this is all just an excuse to shove as many bare breasts into the frame as physically possible. It’s a shame such an intelligent, knowing visual theme has to be supported by a weak softcore plot and actors who perform like this is the very first rehearsal of a high school play. It also features a completely unnecessary and inexcusable rape scene, which tilts the balance too far over the edge into genuinely nasty exploitation.

Delirium: Photos of Gloria tries its best, but it’s a thin wisp of a film; a sad straggler from a genre that had more or less already been interred. If you’re going for a taste of 1987 Italy, StageFright bridges the gap between Italian giallo and American slasher with aplomb, whereas Delirium merely plummets to its demise.

Killer: [Tony (Vanni Corbellini)]
Final Girl: Gloria (Serena Grandi)
Best Kill: My fingernails never can survive a good bee sting death.
Sign of the Times: Oh, Simon Boswell. You really had a time and a place.

Scariest Moment: Gloria visits her husband’s grave and finds her photo attached to the next casket.
Weirdest Moment: From the killer’s perspective, one of his victims has a giant eyeball for a head.
Champion Dialogue: “I warn you, the hate of a woman can be very bad!”
Body Count: 4; shockingly low for this type of movie.
  1. Kim is pitchforked in the gut.
  2. Sabrina is stung to death by bees.
  3. Susan is killed offscreen.
  4. Roberto is hit by a car.
TL;DR: Delirium: Photos of Gloria tries very very hard to be artful and worthwhile, but flails behind abysmal acting and softcore plotting.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1076

Friday, May 12, 2017

Blumhouse: Keeping Up

I've been a little behind schedule here at Popcorn Culture, so here's a quick look through what I've been cooking up over at Blumhouse! It's been a busy month, that's for sure.

6 Great Road Trip Horror Movies

Sergio and I went on a road trip up to San Francisco/Sacramento, and it really got me thinking about all the terrible things that can go wrong on the great American highway.

A thesis that readers of Census Bloodbath should be intimately familiar with.

Combine bubblegum pop music with sheer existential dread and I'm there.

As a hypochondriac, I put together this list in less than five seconds.

Inspired by how much "American Girl" was ruined for my mom by Silence of the Lambs.

I stand by this. Intimate gore is way more profoundly affecting than big, splashy grotesqueries.

I don't actually recommend you watch many of these. It's more of an informative piece than anything.

Definitely one of the cooler things I've gotten to do at the web site.

Pilfered from my appearance on Geek K.O. quizzing the guys on the Alien franchise!

In this article, which is a culmination of a lifetime of work, I expand on a brief comment I made in my review of The Fireworks Woman and even get a teensy bit academic!
Word Count: 312

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Census Bloodbath: Brae Yourself

For the Scream 101 episode about this film, click here.

Year: 1982
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Anthony Franciosa, Giuliano Gemma, John Saxon
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Although the Italian giallo genre had started to peter out by the time the American slasher boom began in earnest, you can’t keep a good killer down. This deep into the 1980’s, the genre still had a thing or two to say, and the man to say it was Dario Argento, Italy’s premiere purveyor of beautiful murder and inscrutable nonsense. His 1982 offering was Tenebrae (also known as Tenebre for no discernible reason other than the fact that it’s required by law for Italian movies to have a half dozen alternate titles), which more or less automatically became the most interesting movie of the year by virtue of his stylish, idiosyncratic nature.

And his eagerness to expose breasts in ways no human has ever done before.

In Tenebrae, American author Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) arrives in Rome with his agent Bullmer (John Saxon of A Nightmare on Elm Street) and his personal assistant Anne (Daria Nicolodi, frequent Argento collaborator and his wife at the time; she also co-wrote Suspiria), to promote his new murder mystery novel, also titled Tenebrae. More or less immediately he is swept up in a real-life murder mystery as various vixens around town begin to be murdered with a straight razor, just like the victims in his book. Can the author solve his own mystery before the killer turns their sights on him?

And how young counts as TOO young for a sexy victim?

Tenebrae is the most typical giallo I’ve seen from Argento. Although he brings his usual flair to the murder setpieces, he indulges in altogether too many tropes of the dormant genre, including the black-gloved killer and a literal giallo novel actually incorporated into the plot. That’s not necessarily a problem. I dig the giallo clichés, but it just feels like his personal style is a little bit muffled here, at least in the way the plot and the basic imagery play out.

However, the same can’t be said for many other aspects of Tenebrae, especially the score, which is an electrical cacophony of beautifully catchy synthwork provided by the reliably frenetic band Goblin. It rivals the Suspiria score for pure operatic lunacy, though at least it’s performed in what are recognizable as “keys and “octaves.”

Argento also lets himself loose in the murder sequences, which find the director settled comfortable into his manic, off-kilter editing patterns. There’s a jagged beauty to his kills, which are executed with clockwork precision and a calculated flair. What is perhaps the most memorable kill scene (a double bill with a lesbian couple being murdered) is prefaced by a gorgeous tracking shot from outside a window, traveling over the roof of the apartment and down the other side. It’s a gloriously pointless shot, but it’s such a triumph of technical execution and sublime stylization that it almost doesn’t matter.

Except it does matter, at least a little bit. Argento’s nasty habit of halting a film dead in its tracks for an unrelated, dishwater dull sequence right when the tension is due to ramp up hits an all-time high here, clogging up multiple key moments with useless interludes.

The man does like to keep us on our toes.

Unfortunately, outside of the gonzo death scenes, the murder mystery plot is pretty rote. Argento falls back on his usual theme of exploring the fluidity of memory by having a character struggle to recall a vital detail of a scene he witnessed. Although this is cinematically interesting, it prevents us from getting a key clue toward the identity of the killer, and a murder mystery you can’t solve yourself isn’t worth the celluloid it’s printed on.

There are only two non-murder sequences that are remotely thrilling, and they both immediately precede a killing. The first is a slick reversal, where a dangerous hobo who is menacing a girl accidentally becomes a witness to her murder at the hands of someone else. The second depicts John Saxon waiting for a friend in a busy plaza. It’s a quiet moment, lazily watching the goings-on about town until increasingly bizarre shots of incredibly mundane tasks ratchet up the tension. These scenes are great, but Tenebrae is hardly scarier than your average stilted giallo.

Probably the most exciting aspect to Tenebrae is how chillingly self-aware it is. Peter Neal is so clearly a stand-in for Argento that he might as well have been played by a mirror. An author skilled a writing murder, Neal faces criticism of misogyny in his work. [SPOILERS The fact that he himself is driven to murder is both a thrilling twist and a bizarre case of cognitive dissonance on the part of Argento, whose life and work is full of these odd little conundrums.]

Overall, I’m glad I sat down with Tenebrae. It is a work of horror art. It just doesn’t show Argento challenging himself, and he’s at his best when he’s his weirdest.

Killer: [Christiano Berti (John Steiner) and Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa)]
Final Girl: This isn’t really applicable, but Detective Altieri (Carola Stagnero)
Best Kill: It can’t possibly be described. You just have to watch.

Sign of the Times: A woman shoplifts a book, because people actually read in 1982.
Scariest Moment: That hobo thing. We’ve already discussed it.
Weirdest Moment: In a flashback, a beautiful woman presses the back of her head against three guys’ crotches on a beach. A fourth guy slaps her and the others pin him down so she can stick her red heel in his mouth.
Champion Dialogue: “So passes the glory of lesbos.”
Body Count: 12
  1. Shoplifter is choked with paper and has her throat slit.
  2. Lesbian #1 is stabbed with a razor.
  3. Lesbian #2 has her throat slit.
  4. Maria is axed in the stomach.
  5. Christiano is axed in the head.
  6. Heels Lady is stabbed to death in flashback.
  7. Bullmer is stabbed in the gut.
  8. Gianni is garroted.
  9. Jane has her arm chopped off and is axed to death.
  10. Anne is axed in the back of the head.
  11. Detective Germani is axed in the back.
  12. Peter Neal is impaled on a statue.
TL;DR: Tenebrae is a typically stunning giallo from Argento, even if it's a little too generic in its plotting.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1064