No Concessions: H is for Horror
Given only the third October snowfall to hit New York since the Civil War, it’s beginning to look a lot like the holidays here at Popdose Brooklyn. But before we hand the mistletoe and holly, let’s address the nightmare before Christmas, shall we, and rummage through a few recent DVDs and Blu-rays. (And if perchance you’re seeing this after Halloween, remember that’s just a date on the calendar, while horror is eternal. And that in these here parts some communities have rescheduled Halloween for Nov. 5, so in fact this post is early.)
Attack the Block: This boisterous British romp, a low-fi gangsta variant of The Goonies for juvenile delinquents that have graduated to R-rated fare, needed more TLC than it got to click with theatergoers across the pond, and should have been brought back for weekend midnight screenings this Halloween weekend. It’s bound to catch on as a cult movie. “Inner city vs. outer space” read the ads, and that’s exactly what you get–South London gangmembers battling, as best they can, toothsome alien beasts that have colonized their stash spot. Writer/director Joe Cornish knows exactly what this needs to be and doesn’t let things drag on; it’s smart and punchy, the opposite, say, of Cowboys & Aliens. (Cornish and executive producer Edgar Wright, beloved for Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim, co-wrote the Spielberg/Jackson Tintin movie, already a smash overseas, with Doctor Who‘s Steven Moffat, and presumably brought their mojo with them.) Sony can’t be accused of stinting on the Blu-ray, which among other paraphernalia has three commentary tracks (all with the enthusiastic Cornish), an hour-long making of, and a featurette about the monster effects. (Also on DVD)
The Baby: I used to avoid this 1973 shocker when it played on New York’s Channel 9 back in the day. Rosemary’s Baby, sure, It’s Alive with its infant terror, fine, but The Baby sounded…well, like something that needed diapering, not checklisting for the committed horror fan. When I caught up with an earlier incarnation on DVD, though, boy, was I wrong. This is a sick little puppy, and I’m not sure how it ever got on TV. (The title and PG rating–changing times!–may have bamboozled standards and practices.) Not that it’s unduly graphic or anything, just unrelentingly questionable, a slasher version of The Miracle Worker, as a determined caregiver (Anjanette Comer) goes to great lengths to pry “Baby” from his smothering mother (Ruth Roman) and mean sisters–“Baby” being a mewling, mentally challenged young man somewhere in his 20s, one who turns on an unwitting babysitter in one of the movie’s numerous “they’re really going there” scenes. Unbelievable. And now available in a fresh transfer, with interview featurettes with director Ted Post (now 93, he made Magnum Force that same year) and actor David Manzy–“Baby” speaks!
Black Death: It’s hard to make a serious movie about witchcraft, as those of you (show of hands, please) who saw Nicolas Cage paycheck his way through Season of the Witch will attest. That one had to end with something trite and commercial; not so this British-made production, which is so true to its medieval setting and lore it’s hard to call it a horror movie. We’re in the plague-bound 14th century, where a town said to be free of illness attracts suspicion of evil doing from the church. Investigating are knight Sean Bean, who didn’t even have to change his Game of Thrones costume, trainee monk Eddie Redmayne, and Bean’s gang of not-so-reformed cutthroats and brigands, who soon cross swords–and intellects–with a priestess (Black Book star Carice van Houten) who is in league with something other than God. Christopher Smith has made horror films (Creep, Severance) but keeps a discreet distance from them here, not that he isn’t above using the period ambiance (highlighted in the extras) for a jolt or two. (Also on DVD and Netflix Instant)
Damnation Alley: In 1977 20th Century Fox had high hopes for this apocalyptic sci-fi road movie, with name stars (George Peppard, Jan-Michael Vincent)–and little faith in the space opera George Lucas was working on. Well, we know how that turned out, as Star Wars stormed the known universe and Damnation Alley had to wait 34 years to get a proper widescreen release on home video. (Time enough for teen sensation co-star Jackie Earle Haley to disappear and reemerge as a well-respected, and ragged, character actor.) It’s a lousy movie, with tacky optical color washes criss-crossing the irradiated skies and woebegone mutant insect effects that were out of date 20 years earlier–in short, the sort of movie that George Lucas had to kill off for its struggling genre to flourish. Producer Paul Maslansky tries to make sense of its troubled production in a game commentary track…and of all the great movies co-writer Alan Sharp could discuss (Ulzana’s Raid, Night Moves) this is the one he got asked about. Why is it here? Because I remembered scenes of “flesh-stripping cockroaches” to be scary. They would be, if you couldn’t see the obvious manipulation of the bugs. A remake, hopefully closer to Roger Zelazny’s gritty novel, is said to be on the cards. (Also on DVD)
Dead Alive: Not that many years before his first brush with Tolkien, Oscar glory, and palling around with Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson was churning out grotty, ill-mannered puppet flicks and horror movies. It was this one, from 1992, that got the most play here, and I watched it with undiluted pleasure at a San Jose art house back then, never figuring that Jackson would pull a 180 with his subsequent, sublime Heavenly Creatures (1994) and one day become a king of the world. You won’t, either, if you’ve never seen this belch from the past, a wickedly (and funnily) gory opus where an overburdened young New Zealander’s problems with his overbearing mother only start with her undeath, and continue (after several hundred choppings of bloody zomboid flesh) to an insanely Oedipal (or is it Freudian?) finish. The Blu-ray transfer is indifferent; you won’t have that reaction to this undisciplined-seeming, unrestrained movie.
The Devil Within Her: An inaugural release of the “Katarina’s Nightmare Theater” line, hosted by Katarina Leigh Waters, “former WWE Diva and current TNA Knockout.” I’m not sure what that means, but I think it’s wrestling for “Mess with me and I’ll kill you.” Fortunately for me, I don’t have to; she knows her stuff and her asides can be accessed independent of the feature, which is a hoot. Her career in an abyssal trench in 1975, Joan Collins (does she watch this and Empire of the Ants on Halloween?) is a strip joint dancer lusted after by Hercules, her dwarf co-star. When Collins breaks from showbiz via marriage to a moneyed Italian (Ralph Bates with the slipperiest accent) a dejected Hercules curses, then possesses, her baby (“You will have a baby…a monster! An evil monster conceived inside your womb! As big as I am small and possessed by the devil himself!”). The little tyke emanates bad vibes, knocking off the cast in various ridiculous ways that anticipate the (somewhat) more straight-laced hit The Omen, which followed. It was no surprise to see Donald Pleasence here as a doctor but Eileen Atkins, as Bates’ nun sister, has some explaining to do. A good way, though, to launch this series, which needs some kick-butt titles for its host. (Also on Netflix Instant)
Island of Lost Souls: H.G. Wells disliked the 1932 adaptation of his Island of Doctor Moreau (and the next year’s film of The Invisible Man); I wonder what he would of thought of the pedestrian 1977 and 1996 versions? Whatever–horror fans have always loved this seamy, scandalous, atmospheric version, which has been frustratingly out of reach since the VHS and laserdisc epoch. The Criterion Collection corrects that with this great disc, a thing of smoky beauty, ripe with pre-code perversion and still an eyebrow-raiser 80 years later. It’s loaded for bear–and panther and dog and gorilla, too, with Charles Laughton unforgettable as the not-so-good doctor, busily turning animals into makeshift men and eager to mate them with human interlopers, and a fresh from Dracula Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the (tenuous) Law. “Are we not men?”–a question that intrigued Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh no end, so much so that they created Devo in response to frequent Creature Features TV airings of the film, which they talk about on the disc. It also sports has a finely detailed commentary by Gregory Mank, and other valuable interview segments with monster maker Rick Baker, director John Landis, and other visitors to the House of Pain. Essential viewing. (Also on DVD)
The Last Circus: Is there anything more unsettling than clowns? Not too much, no. The Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia (of the wild Perdita Durango, with Rosie Perez and Javier Bardem) ups the ante by putting two of them at war, a conflict with its roots in that country’s civil war (a fertile ground for horror; see also Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth.) Seltzer in the pants hijinx are at a minimum as an oppressed sad clown, the end result of Franco’s dirty politics, seeks revenge on a boorish happy one, who’s more than comfortable dishing out authoritarian abuse as the regime begins to crumble. What begins with machetes in 1937 ends with machine guns in 1973, and the filmmaker choreographs the violence with voluptuous abandon. The Blu-ray is stunning, but coulrophobes are warned that clowns are really scary in hi-def. (Also on DVD)
Last Exit to Brooklyn: OK, not a horror movie. But it sure played like one back in 1990, this remorseless film of Hubert Selby, Jr.’s cult novel, the sort of book that tempts directors over the decades but has zero chance of winning an audience, particularly when it’s German-produced (albeit in English) and seems at a remove from its location. (The Sheltering Sky, which came out the same year, was another no-hoper.) Set in the Red Hook neighborhood in the 50s, like Arthur Miller’s trenchant play A View from the Bridge, it obliterates the slim hope the playwright holds out for his lower-rung characters, as union corruption and other ills of postwar America boil over into bad-to-worse behavior, including a fearsome gang rape. With Jennifer Jason Leigh (of course) as the ill-fated prostitute TraLaLa, and a cast of familiar faces, some more prominent today, including Stephen Lang, Stephen Baldwin, Sam Rockwell (a flop indicator from the get-go), Ricki Lake, Burt Young, Alexis Arquette, and Jerry Orbach. Director Uli Edel explains the attraction in a commentary track that accompanies the beautiful-ugly Blu-ray image. Postscript: I now live near a “Last Exit” bar in Brooklyn. I’ve never gone in it.
Mimic (The Director’s Cut): Speaking of del Toro…before those aforementioned classics he was Miramaxed in his U.S. debut, and his contribution to cockroach cinema, 1997’s Mimic, went buggy in the editing room. Though still worthwhile (my parents and I were fairly impressed when we saw it first run) over the years it’s come to stand out as the proverbial redheaded stepchild of his career. This new cut, a must for fans, applies peroxide to some of its problems (the character development is more rounded now) but the roots show–on some level, del Toro never licked this tale of a mutant menace in Manhattan’s subways. But the hi-def transfer, thick with Gothic colorations and del Toro-esque atmosphere, more than compensates. And there is a splendid, spleen-venting commentary track, where the filmmaker, free of his corporate overseers, kicks ass and takes names.
[Rec] 2: Not to be confused with Quarantine and its sequel, though any puzzlement is understandable, given that the US-produced Quarantine (2008) was a closerthanthis remake of the Spanish-made [Rec] (2007). From what I rec-kon the sequels part ways, but I’m too chicken to find out. This is the one “found cinema” concept (The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity) that really gets under my skin, as a “possession virus” continues to sweep through a Barcelona apartment complex, claiming new victims under the impassive scrutiny of helmet-mounted video cameras worn by a special ops team assigned to find the cause. The minimalism of these movies, the lack of anything but the tense central situation (here split between two groups, a less satisfying but perhaps necessary concession to avoiding redundancy), creep me out. (Not being a gamer, used to first-person immersion, probably helps.) That said, with two more sequels planned, maxing out the franchise may be inevitable.
Roger Corman’s Cult Classics Triple Feature: Seeing the 85-year-old Corman in the flesh at Lincoln Center last month at a screening of the fine new documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Rebel was a real treat. As gratifying is the continuing release of his films on DVD, from his stints at Allied Artists, American International Pictures, and New World Pictures. This is an especially welcome release, bundling the tepid War of the Satellites (playing off long-retired space race fears) with the clever, no-budget aliens-among-us picture Not of this Earth and one of my favorites, 1957’s Attack of the Crab Monsters. Here researchers looking for the survivors of a past expedition to a Pacific atoll used for atomic testing find them…find them, that is, absorbed into the shells of outsized crabs, which communicate telepathically (“Jules! Jules!”) and make eerie cracking noises that took me right back to being eight years old and watching this one on New York’s Channel 5 over and over again on Saturday afternoons. It still holds up, even the silly but voracious human-faced crab, and the pincer-sharp transfer has a typically excellent commentary co-featuring historian Tom Weaver. In the cast: Russell Johnson (the Professor on Gilligan’s Island).
Sugar Hill: My favorite blaxploitation movie has everything except a more dominant female lead, not that Marki Bey isn’t quite fetching as the title character. But genre queen Pam Grier would have had a hard time holding her own against all its other elements, including the instruments of Sugar’s vengeance–zombies with ball-bearing eyes–and their voodoo master, the legendary Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley, in a delightful performance). The movie has the best raising the dead scene, with a funky score that’s pure 1974 and attended by Zara Cully, soon to find late-in-life fame on The Jeffersons. And the rest is pretty good, too, with a lip-smacking, Southern-fried turn by horror star Robert Quarry (Count Yorga, Vampire) as Sugar’s chief nemesis in the rough-and-tumble Houston nightclub racket. Another nice extraction from the American International vaults courtesy of the MGM Limited Edition Collection of manufactured-on-demand discs, directed by Paul Maslansky, who should have devoted his attention to Sugar Hill vs. Blacula rather than Damnation Alley. (Also on Netflix Instant)
Wake Wood: The reconstituted Hammer Films is trying to redefine itself in the horror marketplace. This attempt didn’t get much of a chance, but its take on “The Monkey’s Paw” makes for fairly diverting viewing, not that this nervous parent can watch such a story without flinching every few minutes. The parents of a little girl killed by a dog find that the villagers in their new home observe pagan rituals that can return her from the dead, but only for three days, and with a few strings attached. Needless to say the strings come undone as the film, directed and co-written by David Keating, establishes a mood of creeping dread, reinforced by strong performances from Aidan Gillen (The Wire) and Eva Birthistle (Strike Back) as the parents, Timothy Spall as the town father, and Ella Connolly as the troublesomely dead daughter. (Also on Blu-ray)
We Are What We Are: And what they are is a family of cannibals, at loose ends following the death of their father. In this Mexican-made film festival favorite the children decide to carry on in the tradition, upholding the rites of kidnapping, murder, and dinner, as policemen as interested in fame as collars search furtively for clues and the kids, who are picky eaters, get a bit more self-assured in their task. Critical of a society that has gone from dog eat dog to people eat people writer/director Jorge Michel Grau approaches the storyline very clinically, maybe too much so for some. But he has laid out a compelling meal.
Zombie (2-Disc Ultimate Edition): Wonders never ceasing: Zombie, the signature work of Lucio Fulci (remember the Italian restaurant in Shaun of the Dead?), is on Blu-ray. And seeing it with fresh eyes made me reconsider a few things. Like, the cursed Caribbean island of Matoul, so drab on VHS and DVD, now looks like a pretty place, where you might want to go rather than just end up. And why does everyone just sort of loiter around Matoul and wait for the worst to happen? Oh, I know–they’re scared stiff by those ghoulish zombies, never more so than on Blu-ray, where you can see every brushstroke and maggot of the makeup design. Cool stuff–and there is that one great scare, in the bathroom, a sequence of oppressive dread that builds to a crescendo of zombie mayhem that will have all eyes riveted to the home screen until they puncture with fear. Fulci made arguably better, more atmospheric pictures (The House by the Cemetery, also new to Blu, is one) but Zombie is the keeper, a grindhouse legend that didn’t disappoint when it made it to home video, and to have it on Blu-ray in a superior, extras-choked edition is a beautiful thing, if Zombie is your idea of a beautiful thing. Next up should be the barf bag Blu-ray set.
Oh, and check this out. Hammer time around Valentine’s Day!