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

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Popcorn Kernels: Queers For Fears

In which we catch up with two delightfully queer films I watched an embarrassingly long time ago.

To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar

Year: 1995
Director: Beeban Kidron
Cast: Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, John Leguizamo 
Run Time: 1 hour 49 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Three drag queens on a road trip break down in a small Southern town and befriend the local ladyfolk.

It is an absolute miracle that To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar got made in the first place. Obviously it owes its existence to that other drag queen road comedy with an overwhelming title The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but the fact that this movie got made in late 90’s America with this caliber of onscreen talent and that it didn't turn out to be an unholy mess is something that makes me ant to fall to my knees and weep in gratitude.

First and foremost, To Wong Foo doesn’t treat its drag queen protagonists with kid gloves. It takes the fact that they’re gay men who dress up like women for granted, and though it’s a bit of an indulgent fantasy in terms of how often they’re in drag during their daily lives, their personalities and conflicts aren’t defined by their proclivities: Patrick Swayze’s Vida is a bit too prim and controlling, but has a warm, gregarious nature as a shield against her cold upbringing. John Leguizamo’s standout character Chi-Chi just wants to be loved, but her fierce stubborn nature gets her in hot water. And Wesley Snipes’ Noxeema needs to learn to open her heart after sending so long closing it off from the world.

Its depiction of the inhabitants of a small Southern town as hopeless yokels who need to be save by urban sophisticates probably isn’t quite so tender and realistic, but really: who needed the representation more? And they’re treated with just enough respect and autonomy that it’s easy to ignore their more cartoonish nature. Regardless, To Wong Foo is a cartoonish comedy, dazzling audiences with gleeful, glitzy camp magic.

It’s uncompromising in its queerness, and that leads it down a road to letting comedy develop naturally from its characters. Is it the best comedy in the world? No, probably not. But a charming and character-driven rote comedy is nothing to thumb your nose at, especially when those characters are so far outside the usual sphere.

The best thing To Wong Foo has to offer is its cast, who justify every predictable beat in the plot and ground their tomfoolery in something real and true. That goes for the Southerners as well, though Leguizamo, Snipes, and Swayze are doing most of the heavy lifting. With or without its prematurely progressive values, To Wong Foo is a delightful romp, and I am supremely glad it got made.

Rating: 8/10

The Skin I Live In

Year: 2011
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Jan Cornet 
Run Time: 2 hours
MPAA Rating: R

A respected doctor who’s developing a new synthetic skin keeps a mysterious woman captive in his mansion.

Pedro Almodóvar’s filmography has been aggressively, transgressively queer from square one. Hell, his debut film Pepi, Luci, Bom features a housewife casually getting peed on by a punk rock teenager. He’s not afraid to bring radical ideas into his filmmaking, and The Skin I Live In is the first time he has brought his unique sense of melodrama to the horror realm, or at least as close as any of his amorphous films have ever gotten to inhabiting a single genre.

The Skin I Live In is basically a decades-later progression of his earlier film Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, in which Antonio Banderas also played a captor hopelessly in love with his victim. Where that film may have been even more transgressive by giving the characters a sweet ending, The Skin I Live In leans into the more terrifying aspects of the thing, doubling down on full-tilt body horror.

Although it’s tremendously effective at creating a sense of creeping unease, The Skin I Live In is probably Almodóvar’s least visually stimulating film to date. He still retains his effervescent attention to detail in his production design but the stark, sterile color palette mutes his personality a little too much. It’s a very cold film, which works for its storyline, but also makes it just a little less accessible. And accessibility has never really been the man’s strong suit.

It’s very European, frankly, which is has every right to be. But if you’re not ready to approach it with your brain turned on at full power, you’re probably not going to like it quite as much. However, that can hardly count as a criticism. The Skin I Live In will chill you to the bone if you let it, and I certainly have.

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 810