7 horror movies for halloween

Inspired by a piece on "The Horror Oscars", here are seven Halloween-ready movies you might not have seen (links are to my original posts on the movies in question):

 

Island of Lost Souls, with Charles Laughton, based on a novel by H.G. Wells.

The Phantom Carriage, silent Swedish film written and directed by Victor Sjöström, who also stars.

I Walked with a Zombie, from producer Val Lewton, reportedly inspired in part by Jane Eyre.

Faust, silent film from F.W. Murnau.

Kwaidan, Japanese ghost story anthology, Oscar-nominated.

Eyes Without a Face, French film originally released in the U.S. in a butchered version as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus.

Train to Busan, non-stop Korean zombie movie.


horror of dracula (terence fisher, 1958)

This one was originally called Dracula, but the title was changed for the U.S. market to avoid confusion with the Bela Lugosi version. (It was also released here on a double feature with The Thing That Couldn't Die.) It was Hammer Films' first of several Dracula movies, and an early example of Hammer Horror, coming a year after The Curse of Frankenstein.

Hammer was a staple of Creature Feature shows when I was growing up. You looked forward to them, because even the worst of them didn't suck the way something like The Corpse Vanishes did. Their Dracula had a lot going for it. Christopher Lee seemed born to play the title role ... eventually he played the Count ten times, seven of those for Hammer. Peter Cushing, another Hammer warhorse, played Van Helsing. The two had also starred in the Frankenstein movie, with Cushing as the Doctor and Lee as the Monster.

Hammer added decent production values to the horror genre, albeit with low budgets. They looked good, especially once we got a color TV. The best ones are the earliest, which were taken seriously both by the filmmakers and critics, at least as far as critics could go with the genre. (Dracula is #896 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.) Eventually, the budgets seemed to be smaller, and a certain camp quality crept in. (I remember watching Dracula Has Risen from the Grave once in a theater where the audience laughed throughout the picture, prompting the man in charge to stop the film and come out to berate the audience.)

Dracula isn't nearly as gory as you might expect. Hammer is known for adding more overt sex to their movies, and while censors in 1958 weren't going to allow much, Lee was clearly a much sexier vampire than Lugosi, and the scenes where he bit buxom women were sexy in ways you didn't see in 1931. There's a story about director Terence Fisher telling one of those actresses, Melissa Stribling, "Just imagine you've had the best sex of your life, all night long!"

The picture is rather slow, to be honest. Lee only appears on the screen for seven minutes. The atmosphere is appropriately unsettling, and Lee and Cushing are great. It's far from the worst Dracula movie you'll ever see. But neither is it a classic.

I'll mention a couple of other Hammer pictures. Quatermass and the Pit (released in the States as Five Million Years to Earth) may be my favorite, and I'm surprised I've never written about it. And there is no better example of how loosening censorship gave Hammer space for more sex than 1970's The Vampire Lovers, which did get a blog post after I bought it on Blu-ray.

A scene from Dracula:

And, for comparison, a chunk of the middle of The Vampire Lovers:


perhaps i need to go out tonight

Quiet around here.

Partly that's because I had written a post about the movie The Look of Silence, only to have the draft disappear (user error, but still frustrating). I was already struggling to write about it, and lost all inspiration when I had to start over. Short take: definitely see it if you've seen The Act of Killing. Don't see it if you haven't seen the other film ... you need to watch that first.

I'm sure I'll have a post about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In fact, I've already written a bit in a Facebook thread, but that's doesn't fill space here, at least not yet.

I'm finished Heather Havrilesky's new book of essays, What If This Were Enough? Again, I wrote elsewhere, in this case in an email to a friend. I'll cut-and-paste ... this is incomplete, but better than nothing:

Her title bothered me at first ... was this going to be an ode to accepting the world as it is (which turned out to be partly true) without questioning the parts of that world that are destructive and dangerous? But she isn't interested in sticking her head in the ground and ignoring injustice. Nor is she promoting navel-gazing. She's arguing against the ever-present idea in our culture that we must always strive for more, that the best is just around the corner. She doesn't only mean consumer culture, but rather, the ways in which our acquisitive culture never allows us to stop and ask if what we have and where we are is enough.

At the end of the book, she writes:

We are called to resist viewing ourselves as consumers or as commodities. We are called to savor the process of our own slow, patient development, instead of suffering in an enervated, anxious state over our value and our popularity. We are called to view our actions as important, with or without consecration by forces beyond our control. We are called to plant these seeds in our world: to dare to tell every living soul that they already matter, that their seemingly mundane lives are a slowly unfolding mystery, that their small choices and acts of generosity are vitally important.

Finally, I just listened to this, which made me feel good for some reason:

 


still in the mood for love (anthony bourdain edition)

I revisited In the Mood for Love after watching an episode of the late Anthony Bourdain's series, Parts Unknown. I watched Bourdain at the encouragement of a friend who had asked me to do so earlier this year when Bourdain died. He specifically suggested the Hong Kong episode, and I finally got around to it. I get recommendations from people all the time, and sometimes it takes me forever to get to them ... a couple of weeks ago I watched a DVD someone had given me a few years ago, for the first time. It takes forever ... but I keep track, and I do get to them eventually. (Hint: the comments section is always a good place to make requests.)

I know very little about Anthony Bourdain. I know he died. I know he was partners with Asia Argento. What I know of his work comes completely from when he wrote for Treme. I also knew nothing of the series Parts Unknown. Honestly, I thought it would be a food show and nothing more.

Well, it was great. And when it began, and I heard music that sounded a lot like In the Mood for Love, I was instantly happy. Then I found out Christopher Doyle, long-time collaborator with Wong Kar-Wai and the co-cinematographer for In the Mood for Love, is in the episode. Watching Doyle, I couldn't believe I'd never encountered him anywhere but behind the camera, so to speak. I love his work, and left it at that. To find out he is such a character fascinated me. Of course, I had to look him up, and found that he is famously rambunctious. I felt at times that I was watching a camera-toting Keith Richards, and liked finding out that he has called himself the Keith Richards of cinematographers. Like I say, I can't believe it took me this long to learn about him as a person.

There are things I don't think I quite get, given I am coming to Parts Unknown cold. It was a bit creepy knowing this was the last episode shown before he died. It was also creepy knowing Asia Argento directed it, given her own recent problems. I guess I'm lucky I found it, since apparently CNN removed her episodes from their streaming site.

I often think, when watching food or travel shows, that I wish I was adventurous. I don't like to travel to unfamiliar places, and my taste in food is notoriously narrow. Seeing Bourdain wandering around HK and eating any damn thing they put in front of him reminds me of how limited I am.

I admit, this didn't make me want to immediately watch more of the episodes of the show, but it did make me want to watch In the Mood for Love yet again. That film was #38 on my Fifty Favorites list of a few years ago. At the time, I wrote:
In the Mood for Love is a perfect title for this movie. The two main characters are most definitely in the mood; they also don't ever get beyond being in the mood. Repressed emotions have rarely been so charged as they are here. While on one level, "nothing really happens," Wong Kar-wai does a great job of making us anticipate what is about to happen. Of course, our expectations go unfulfilled.

This time around, I think I better appreciated why some people wouldn't love the film as much as I do. The haunting waltz that is played throughout the film might simply seem repetitious, and those unfulfilled expectations might just be irritating. Not for me, I must add. As beautiful as the film is to look at, it takes an extra leap because of its stars. As I once said, "The plot, whereby a man and woman discover that their respective spouses are having an affair, isn’t particularly far-fetched. But they are played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung, two of the best-looking actors in the world, and you can’t help wondering why anyone lucky enough to be married to them would have a roving eye." Ultimately, I'm not sure In the Mood for Love felt different when seen partly through the filter of the Bourdain show. But the two make a perfect, if tragic, pairing.

Here is an interesting video essay on the movie from "Nerdwriter1":


tell me something new

Diamonds Are Forever (Guy Hamilton, 1971). This was the 7th film in the Bond canon, and the last with Sean Connery until his return in the non-canon Never Say Never Again. It followed the only George Lazenby Bond, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which had everything except a good actor playing 007. Connery returns to the worst of his first six ... it's not up to From Russia with Love or Goldfinger ... heck, it's not up to You Only Live Twice. Jill St. John is a decent Bond Girl, there are a couple of goofy bad guy partnerships, and Jimmy Dean plays Howard Hughes. But it's nothing you haven't seen before, if you'd watched the ones that came before it. 

The Brink (Jonathan Li, 2017). We saw this at an HK festival ... it came out in Asia last year, but is only now showing up in the U.S.. It's Li's first turn as a director, and he is brutally efficient. The fight scenes are well-choreographed, and the two leads, Jin Zhang and Shawn Yue, were charismatic. But the plot existed mainly for the fight scenes ... there was none of the over-the-top "heroic bloodshed" of HK gangster movies in the past. It's a good movie that doesn't give you any real reason to watch it. Like Diamonds Are Forever, it's nothing you haven't seen before, if you watched the ones that came before it. 

 


film fatales #44: faces places (agnès varda and jr, 2017)

This is the fifth Varda film I've seen, all within the time I've been writing this blog. I don't know what took me so long to get started on her work, and I'm puzzled why, even though I have loved every one her movies I have seen, she doesn't come immediately to mind when I think of my favorite directors. (For the record, the others of her films I have seen are Cleo from 5 to 7VagabondThe Gleaners and I, and The Beaches of Agnes.) The most recent of these movies, including Faces Places, have an impish quality that is quite appealing. Varda was in her 70s and 80s when she made those films, and the themes of aging and mortality are present, but Varda makes you want to live a better life, makes you want to appreciate what you have while you still have it.

The film that preceded Faces Places, The Beaches of Agnes, was thought to be her last movie, but almost a decade later, she gave us Faces Places, co-directed by artist and photographer JR. The two of them travel the French countryside in a van that includes a photo booth. Villagers have their photos taken, and enormous prints come out of the side of the van, much like the photo booths in amusement parks. He then plasters the large photos on buildings, rock, anything, creating remarkable larger-than-life visions of the people. Seeing their photos on the sides of buildings, the villagers encounter a new way of looking at themselves. Varda is the one who picks many of the locations, and her fascination with the smallest items makes everything seem larger-than-life.

Varda and JR make quite a team. You can't help wishing for more Agnès and less JR, but no one expected her to make another movie, and she was 89 when the film was made. And JR is a perfect companion, an artist in his own right whose ability to make artful magic out of everyday life is a good fit for Varda.

JR spends the entire movie wearing a hat and sunglasses, and Varda presses him constantly to remove his glasses so she can see his eyes. (Eyes matter, here ... Varda is going blind, at one point getting an injection directly into her eye to help.) Near the end, Varda convinces JR to visit her old New Wave friend Jean-Luc Godard. When they arrive at his house, Godard has left a cryptic message for Agnès, but he is not there. She is clearly disappointed, as are we ... although the film focuses on "regular" people, we look forward to the appearance from Godard as a way to remind us of Varda's connection to the French New Wave. As the film ends, JR tries to find a way to give something special to Agnès, and suddenly, the obvious comes to him: he removes his sunglasses. We see his face as Agnès sees it, blurry, so that he maintains his mystery for the audience even as he makes a present for Varda. "I don't see you very well," she says, "but I see you." It's overwhelming, and Godard is forgotten for the moment. #339 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


ms .45 (abel ferrara, 1981)

Perhaps it shows a lack of imagination on my part, but when I tried to think of a movie that might reflect recent events, I came up with Ms .45, an example of what was called "Revenge Movie Feminism" on the Roger Ebert website. It's the story of a mute woman who is raped twice in one day, and how she reacts to this outrage.

I can't remember when I first saw Ms .45, which came out in 1981. Sometime in the 80s ... I don't remember seeing it in the theater, so it would have been a VHS copy from a video store, sometime later in the 80s. I know it wasn't until I was studying feminist theory in grad school that I realized how much Ms .45 was an excellent case for a feminist analysis. I had taken a lot of Women's Studies classes over my years in junior college, but they tended to focus on women's history. In fact, I had very little training in literary theory of any kind until graduate school, which I began in 1988. Once I dipped my toes into feminist theory, I immediately thought of Ms .45. The heroine fights against a male oppression made explicit by her rapes ... she is mute, and thus does not have the power of public speaking behind her ... her revenge is targeted only towards men ... she uses an iron as the weapon for her first kill ... in the film's climax, she wears a nun's outfit as she blows away one man after another.

The surprising thing is that all of this came in a low-budget exploitation movie directed by Abel Ferrara, who got some attention with the early-90s films King of New York and Bad Lieutenant, but who never seemed to escape his exploitation-film past. The cast was almost all unknowns. Jayne Kennedy is listed as a seamstress, but I can't find her, and don't know for sure if this was the famous Jayne Kennedy. Jack Thibeau ("Man in Bar") had a bit of a movie career. Then there was Ferrara himself, wearing a mask as "First Rapist", and a bum played by "The Kog".

None of this really matters, because Zoë Tamerlis dominates the movie as the title character. It's one of the great unnoticed acting jobs (unnoticed to the extent that Ms .45 remains unnoticed). Since her character is mute, she can't rely on dialogue to create her character. It's all in her remarkable face. Without Tamerlis, there is no movie, or rather, the movie would not be worth watching. Her portrayal of PTSD is sadly realistic. Her progression from terrified woman, to woman taking matters into her own hands, to a woman pushed over the edge, is heartbreaking. She goes from killing her attacker, to killing men who she sees as acting improperly towards women, to just killing every man who crosses her path.

Tamerlis was only 17 when the film was made, and was reportedly paid $1500. She had an interesting life, and was involved in some interesting movies, but she was also a proponent of heroin use, and she died of drug-related illness when she was only 37.

I was lucky to have Carol J. Clover, author of Men, Women, and Chain Saws, on my dissertation committee, and I spoke with her more than once about slasher films. Her book examined the role of the "Final Girl" who ultimately triumphed in horror films, and how her triumphs allowed male viewers to root for her point of view. Of Ms .45, she wrote:

It goes without saying that the notion of women going around New York putting bullets through male chauvinists has everything to do with fantasy and little to do with reality. Just what the male spectator's stake is in that fantasy in not clear, but it must surely be the case that there is some ethical relief in the idea that if women would just toughen up and take karate or buy a gun, the issue of male-on-female violence would evaporate. It is a way of shifting responsibility from the perpetrator to the victim: if a woman fails to get tough, fails to buy a gun or take karate, she is, in an updated sense of the cliche, asking for it. 

In the previously mentioned piece on the Ebert site, Sheila O'Malley wrote:

The scene where she is play-acting with the gun before going to the Halloween party, in the nun's habit, is my favorite scene in the film. She is truly mad, in the classic sense. There's a moment where a little smile of almost humor flickers on her red lips, and it's the only moment she almost smiles in the film. It gave me the creeps, but in a really excellent way. She is lost in her fantasy of herself, and it reminded me of Deneuve peering at the distorted reflection of herself in the tea kettle in "Repulsion." ... I think that private moment she has with the gun in the nun's habit is so important and the film wouldn't be the same without it. It shows her fantasy world, straight up, without anything between us and it. It shows her little-girl playacting in a way that is blatant and quite mad. It doesn't shy away from the fact that this woman is "off" and has been so from the beginning. But including that moment of her whipping the gun around, pretending she's a Charlie's Angel, and sort of laughing at herself in the mirror, helps put the film and its psychology over the edge where it needs to be.

It is indeed a great scene ... unfortunately, the only copy I can find online has a different soundtrack. Nonetheless, here it is:

(Just a note for anyone who is confused if they are checking out this movie. It has an alternate title, Angel of Vengeance, and Tamerlis later married and went under the name Zoë Lund.)

The movie inspired a song by L7, "Ms. 45".

She's got a big gun
She's gonna make those assholes pay
You fuck with her
She'll blow your ass away

 


margot at the wedding (noah baumbach, 2007)

A few days ago, I wrote about the fading quality of Shameless, a series about a dysfunctional family. It's been a success for Showtime, now in the middle of its ninth season, with its 100th episode on the horizon. One way it retains its popularity is by giving even the most dysfunctional members of that family some likable qualities. I think this works against the show in one major area: William H. Macy's Frank should not have any likable qualities, and the show was at its best in the early years when Frank deserved none of our sympathies. But who am I to argue ... Shameless is still on the air, and Macy has four Emmys for his role.

Margot at the Wedding is a movie about a dysfunctional family, and in comparison to Shameless, it is an example of "Be Careful What You Wish For". The main focus is on two sisters, Margot (Nicole Kidman) and Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who haven't spoken in some time. The more we get to know them, the more we understand why they don't much like their sibling. Both Margot and Pauline are insufferable ... that Kidman and Leigh are both excellent in the film almost makes it worse, because they are willing to be crappy people in ways that Shameless doesn't allow William H. Macy. The other characters range from pitiful to awful. There are a couple of teenagers who are almost human, although you can't help but feel their familial environment isn't going to be much help as they grow into adulthood.

I like honest movies about family trauma, or at least, I think I do. And I liked the other Noah Baumbach movies I've seen (The Squid and the Whale, and especially Frances Ha). But for whatever reason, Margot at the Wedding irritated me so much that I quit caring about the characters. It has the opposite problem from the later seasons of Shameless ... no one is sympathetic. I couldn't wait for it to end, and it was only 91 minutes. #716 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

 


nothing sacred (william a. wellman, 1937)

A short (77 minutes) screwball comedy in Technicolor, Nothing Sacred has a decent reputation, based in part on the presence of Carole Lombard. She is good, although she doesn't even turn up for the first 15 minutes of the film. But I never felt I was watching something zany, so for me, Nothing Sacred lacked the pizzazz I expect with screwball.

It reads like a classic of cynicism. Lombard plays a small-town woman who is supposedly dying of radium poisoning. She finds out she is fine, but when a big-city reporter played by March comes to town wanting to exploit her upcoming death, she plays sick in order to get a trip to Manhattan. There, she is feted like a Goddess, inspiring everyone with her bravery. The average person comes across as gullible, Lombard is deceitful, and March not much better. The script shows that city folks are just as apt to be hoodwinked as those from the small towns. All of this is indeed cynical, and more power to it. But despite an attempt at several big scenes, it mostly just lays there.

I should note that I saw a terrible print, basically the worst possible one. I was fooled by Amazon, who has at least two versions ... one was marked "Digitally Remastered", so I went with it. It was awful, with washed out colors that were a nightmare for fans of old movies. What makes it worse is that the other Amazon version uses a decent print. Hell, you can find the movie on YouTube and it looks better than what I saw.

So I admittedly saw Nothing Sacred under less than good conditions. Even taking that into consideration, though, I wasn't overwhelmed by the picture.

This was remade in the 1950s as a Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis picture, Living It Up, with Lewis in the Lombard role and Janet Leigh in the March role. (Martin played a doctor.) It also gave us the wonderful Sheree North:


the spirit of the beehive (victor erice, 1973)

To discuss The Spirit of the Beehive, you must start with Ana Torrent. This was her first movie ... she was seven when it was released. In fairness, whenever you see a great performance by a child actor, you must tip your cap to the director, because getting a good performance out of a kid is a lot harder than it looks. So Victor Erice gets credit, too, especially since as far as I know, he is the one who cast Torrent to begin with. I'm of the school that thinks a low-key performance from a child actor is usually preferable to the kind of thing Shirley Temple used to do, and Torrent is most definitely low-key here. To focus this even further, it's Ana Torrent's eyes. They are bottomless ... they seem to see everything both on and beneath the surface, we can project just about anything into them, and just keeping Torrent from overacting during the times when we are looking into her eyes is brilliance.

The film is beautiful, both in the exteriors and the interiors, where the house in which the central family lives seems as endless as those in Sergio Leone Westerns. It's amazing to learn that the cinematographer, Luis Cuadrado, was going blind.

The emptiness of the family's house reflects the lack of interaction between the characters. The parents rarely speak to each other, and the two daughters are often left to their own devices, with only a housekeeper to offer an adult presence. Thus, the daughters, Ana and Isabel, have the only close relationship in the film. (And it's another sign of how young Torrent was, that the names of the family characters match their real-life names, because Torrent was confused by the difference between their names and their characters' names ... Erice just rewrote to match the names.)

The film takes place in 1940, just after Franco won the Civil War. The little town where the film takes place is full of buildings that seem to have gotten the short end of the stick during the war. One day, a traveling distributor comes to town to show the residents a movie: the 1931 James Whale version of Frankenstein. The excitement as the movies come to town is fascinating, reminding us that it wasn't always possible to call up any old movie on your phone. The film affects Ana quite deeply ... she isn't quite sure where reality ends and movie fantasy begins, and her older sister, in a combination of helping and teasing, only makes this worse. Somehow, when we look into Ana's eyes, we feel what she sees, and the world becomes more magical.

There is something to say about the influence of Franco on the film, and I confess I am not the one to talk about it. In the early 1970s, Spanish filmmakers still had to deal with state censorship, and they developed ways of making points about Francoism without being obvious. In this case, that method isn't clear to me, but that's on me, not on Erice. #111 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.