body snatchers (abel ferrara, 1993)

This is the ninth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 9 is called "Horror Revival Week":

Some of the best horror movies of all time are remakes, like The Thing or The Fly, but in general remakes get a bad rap due to failures like Psycho or Poltergeist. In recent years we've seen different methods of revival with long-awaited reboots/sequels like HalloweenCandyman, and Scream. This week we'll find out if these stories deserve a second life, or if they belong back in the grave.

This week's challenge is to watch a horror remake, reboot, reheat, etc. Use this list for inspiration.

Apparently we need a new Body Snatchers movie every two decades. The first, and still classic, was Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel in 1956, a few years after Jack Finney's novel was published. It was something of a Red Scare movie, with the pod people standing in for Commies. Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake fits in with other paranoia films of the 70s, with New Age undertones. I'm not sure where Abel Ferrara's 1993 movie fits into all of this, although the foregrounding of a female character marks a difference, as does the setting (not a small town like the '56 version, or San Francisco in '78, but instead an Army base).

What matters more than anything else is that Ferrara delivers on the horror. The acting is solid, the gore level is expectedly higher than before, and the dystopian attitudes of the earlier films remains. To say that this is the third-best Body Snatchers movie is not to say it's bad. (I haven't seen the 2007 version, with an impressive cast led by Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, which was mostly trashed by critics.) 

infinity pool (brandon cronenberg, 2023)

This is the eighth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 8 is called "Body Horror Week":

Prepare to be disgusted. Continuing this month of horror, let’s explore one of the subgenres that can really disturb and elicit a visceral reaction. Body horror features thrills based on the distortion, violation, and/or mutilation of the human body and has the power to make your skin crawl. From the godfather of Body Horror, David Cronenberg, to recent visionaries like his son, Brandon Cronenberg, and Julia Ducournau, there’s no shortage of filmmakers who use this subgenre to explore what it means to be human, to have corporal forms we can’t always control, and to have an identity that is based, at least partially, on how we and others perceive our physical selves.

This week buckle up for a wild ride and maybe don’t plan on eating dinner with your movie as you watch a body horror. Here’s a list from Maxvayne to help you out. The provocative imagery of Body Horror can help us think deeper about ourselves, but since this subgenre can also involve very real physiological reactions we respect anyone who cannot stomach these kinds of movies and offer up Body Swap movies as a lighter alternative with this list.

The list we picked from included lots of movies I really don't care for: Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tusk come to mind. I do like some of the films, with the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers at the top, but I realize I don't actually think of that movie as "body horror". The closest blend of "I liked it a lot" and "I'd call it body horror" is Ginger Snaps. My favorite movie by "the godfather of Body Horror, David Cronenberg", was A History of Violence, which wasn't body horror and didn't make the list. It's rare that I enjoy body horror movies, which is a good reason to take part in challenges like this, which expand your horizons.

So I feel like a good boy because I made it through Infinity Pool. But I didn't like it much. I'm not sure I was supposed to "like" it, anyway. Admire it, think about it, sure, but like? There's some intriguing acting, especially from Mia Goth, and the gradual revelation of the plot is well-handled. But the movie never grabbed me, and with an over-the-top film like this, being grabbed seems like the point. So chalk this up to my dislike of the genre.

dr. jekyll & sister hyde (roy ward baker, 1971)

This is the seventh film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 7 is called "Hammer Horror Week":

London-based Hammer Film Productions is most famously known for the horror movies they produced in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. They often made low-budget movies featuring classic horror monsters like Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, and the Mummy, employed a usual repertoire of actors in many of their films (including David Prowse who would later don the Darth Vader costume), crafted Gothic sets, and shot their movies in actual mansions rather than on studio sets. They capitalized on including more explicit violence and sexual content than was usual at the time, but when American films like Rosemary’s Baby and Bonnie and Clyde came out and offered the same thrills with much higher production values, Hammer Pictures couldn’t keep up and eventually ceased producing movies altogether.

This week dive into some classic Hammer Horror from this list. If you can’t unearth one of the classic gems of Hammer Horror you may look to the films made after Hammer Film Productions was resurrected in 2007 after decades of silence.

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is a fairly typical late Hammer picture. They make the most of their limited sets, none of the actors are bad, and there's some cleavage. The angle on the classic story this time is that when Jekyll drinks his potion, he doesn't turn into Mr. Hyde, he turns into Mrs. Hyde. The transgender undertones are more obvious nowadays, I imagine. It's the first time I've seen Ralph Bates, who played Jekyll ... he's functional. Former Bond Girl Martine Beswick is better as Mrs. Hyde. The movie works Jack the Ripper and Burke and Hare into the story without too much trouble. Roy Ward Baker has made better films ... he directed the excellent 1958 Titanic movie A Night to Remember, and my favorite Hammer film, Quatermass and the Pit. (He also directed the disappointing Vampire Lovers.)

revisiting carrie (brian de palma, 1976)

With the passing of Piper Laurie, I thought I'd revisit Carrie, for which Laurie received a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination (Sissy Spacek was also nominated, for lead actress). The cast for Carrie is pretty remarkable, with many making their feature debuts ... besides Spacek and Laurie, there were Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen, John Travolta, Betty Buckley, P.J. Soles, and Edie McClurg. For my money, Laurie's performance is a lesser one. She gives her all to the part of a religious fanatic mother, but I found her too over the top. (Apparently, Laurie thought of her role and the movie as black comedy rather than horror.) Every Brian De Palma movie thrives on excess, the good ones and the bad, so it's a bit silly of me to complain about Laurie's scenery chewing.

Carrie clicked with a lot of people. It was the first in what became an endless series of films and television shows based on the works of Stephen King. There was a sequel and two remakes. There was even a musical adaptation for the stage.

There are a few iconic scenes ... again, it wouldn't be a De Palma film without a couple ... and while De Palma builds the horror gradually, he definitely delivers in the end. But I admit, I think Carrie falls short of classic status.

film fatales #182: messiah of evil (willard huyck & gloria katz, 1973)

This is the sixth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 6 is called "Art Horror Week":

Kicking off this year's October horror themes with a different kind of horror. Art house and avant-garde films take an abstract and experimental approach to scares, but they can be just as effective at getting under your skin as traditional horror.

This week's challenge is to watch an avant-garde or art-horror film. Use this list for inspiration.

A husband-and-wife team produced, wrote, and directed this for under a million dollars. They had just finished a treatment for a film with fellow SoCal film-school grad George Lucas, and went on to make their own movie. They later returned to work on Lucas' film, which was American Graffiti. They worked on many subsequent films, including the notorious Howard the Duck. Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz had their hands in a lot of George Lucas films, and are ultimately best known for that at-times uncredited work. Messiah of Evil, like so many early films out of film schools in the late-60s/early-70s, makes a virtue of its cheapness, overflows with student-film flourishes, and makes the most of what in the end isn't all that great.

Those arty flourishes are the best thing about the movie. It has a unique look ... the main home where much of the movie takes place is filled with art works that lend an almost Caligari feel. But Messiah of Evil isn't very scary ... foreboding might be a better word. The film making is accomplished. I want to say more positive things, but the movie didn't do it for me.

The cast is interesting. The four leads are cult figures to varying degrees: Michael Greer, Marianna Hill (Fredo's wife in Godfather II), Joy Bang, and Anitra Ford from the immortal Invasion of the Bee Girls. Old Hollywood is represented by Royal Dano and Elisha Cook Jr. (Cook apparently filmed his entire part in one day). In the time-honored tradition of cutting costs by using friends, future writer/director Walter Hill is the first person we see, as a soon-to-be victim, and Huyck and Katz themselves have cameos as zombies.

smile (parker finn, 2022)

This is the third film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 3 is called "Letterboxd List Battles!: Litterboxd vs. Letterbarkd":

"I have studied many philosophers and many cats. The wisdom of cats is infinitely superior." – Hippolyte Taine

"Dogs have boundless enthusiasm but no sense of shame. I should have a dog as a life coach." – Moby

"Way down deep, we’re all motivated by the same urges. Cats have the courage to live by them." – Jim Davis

"If I could be half the person my dog is, I’d be twice the human I am." – Charles Yu

"Dogs and cats living together! Mass Hysteria!" – Peter Venkman

It's a dispute as old as time: dogs or cats? For this week's challenge, your friendly hosts are cruelly forcing you to choose between man's best friend and man's indifferent roommate. For those who are dog people, fetch a film from Rembrandt Q Pumpernickel's Letterbarkd list. Cat lovers can curl up with a selection from Hollie Horror's Litterboxd list. And if you cannot possibly choose between the two—your animal-loving heart torn asunder at the thought—spread the love like a canine, disregard the rules like a feline, and watch one of each. That's right, Venkman, mass hysteria!

We are a cat family. Have been all of our lives. So you know which list I chose. Of course, Smile isn't a movie about a cat, but a cat plays a significant role. Smile is a very effective horror film, enough so that it makes you wonder why we choose to watch such movies in the first place. It's an uncomfortable watch, but then, that's why many people like horror ... we get giddy with nervous anticipation.

I wouldn't call Smile unique or original. Parker Finn knows how to hit his spots, and the angle (evil represented in smiling faces) is just unusual enough to make a difference. We recognize the tropes as they come along, but they are new to the characters, so their actions are not driven by what we in the audience know ... they don't know they are in a horror film. It's a very tense movie, at times unbearably so, which is all to the good. It's too long by a bit, but the tension peaks as the film ends, so you won't be looking at your watch.

Sosie Bacon is great. It's the first movie I've seen her in, and she carries it like a champ. The events of the film wear on her character, and you see it in her face ... she seems to be getting thinner and more wasted by the minute. I've seen some reviews that credit Finn for offering a study of grief and guilt in the midst of the horror, but I think that's a stretch ... it's a fine horror movie, but a person could write a doctoral dissertation on the ultimate meaning of The Babadook, while Smile just delivers as a strong genre effort. For me, it's not a diss to say it's not quite as good as The Babadook. Not many modern horror films are.

the birds (alfred hitchcock, 1963)

Revisited The Birds, which has always been a favorite of mine, for some reason. It's far from great ... the setup takes forever, and the characters are uninteresting until the birds show up. I was 10 when it came out. It showed up on TV in 1968 (it was the highest-rated movie on TV ever at the time), and I would have seen it then for sure, but whenever I saw it, The Birds was always part of the popular culture.

Despite my feeling that the first half of the film prevents it from being a classic, once it gets going, it works, even with the dated special effects and Hitchcock's usual lame rear projection. I was surprised to remember just how many classic, memorable scenes are in the film: the attack on Bodega Bay, Tippi Hedren trapped in a phone booth like a bird in a cage in the same scene, Hedren getting mauled in the attic, the ambiguous ending, and my favorite, when the crows come to the playground:

Hedren was famously mistreated by Hitchcock during the making of the film (among other things, after the days-long, endless reshooting of the attic scene, Hedren had to be hospitalized). I'd like to say these things wouldn't happen today, but I'm not sure we've made that much progress. The bird effects are up and down, but the soundtrack, absent music but with electronic noise that is very effective at adding to the scariness of the birds, is one of the best things about the movie. #180 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

geezer cinema: night of the living dead (george a. romero, 1968)

It has been 9 years since I re-watched Night of the Living Dead. At that time, I wrote:

I think I underestimated this in its early years. It was so cheap-looking, especially on the crappy versions shown on crappy TVs during the Creature Feature days, that I assumed the amateurish quality overcame the intentions of George A. Romero. When Dawn of the Dead came out in 1978, I thought the real classic had arrived: in color, lots more gore, much funnier than the original. And course, since those times, Romero’s films have become a franchise full of sequels and remakes, while an entire industry of movies influenced by Night keeps on coming. Compared to the rush of 28 Days LaterNight of the Living Dead is almost tame, not because of the different level of gore, but because of the amphetamine rush of Danny Boyle’s film. Finally, it is impossible in 2014 to watch Night of the Living Dead without carrying the baggage of the past 45 years. So I’ll never really know if I think this movie is the classic everyone else sees. I’ve grown more appreciative of the acting over the years, and it’s impressive how much Romero and team are in control, considering how little experience they had.

The occasion this time was a 4k Blu-ray from Criterion. You wouldn't think there was much you can do to improve the picture of a 55-year-old black-and-white movie made for $114,000, but in fact, the movie looks great. Sounds great, too. If I was feeling more appreciative back in 2014, I'm even more inclined now to call this a classic.

the killing of satan (efren c. piñon, 1983)

This is the sixteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 16 is called "Southeastern Asia Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from a Southeastern Asian country. This list should help.

There are some good movies on that list. I can't use things I've already seen, but The Raid is terrific, and I've liked every film I've seen by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who god bless him has said it's OK to call him "Joe". Back in September when the Challenge came out, I picked a Thai film that was on the Criterion Channel for this week. Four months later, I go to watch the movie and find it's no longer available. So I had to quickly hunt down something else that I could stream. Which is how I found myself watching the Filipino horror fantasy, The Killing of Satan.

Oh my, it was bad. Scott Drebit described it perfectly when he called it, "epic in scope and minuscule in execution". Epic? It's about the battle of good and evil, with the actual Satan competing for the bad side. Minuscule? At times, I was reminded of Robot Monster, where the entire movie seemed to take place in the same section of Bronson Canyon. The characters in The Killing of Satan would go into caves, spend time underground (apparently next door to Hell), escape, and somehow, they always ended up in the same place.

The movie is full of action. But it's bad action. The fight scenes are a blend of boxing-style fisticuffs and cheap FX. This is not a martial arts movie, it's a movie where people with supernatural powers try to beat the crap out of each other while dodging some of those cheap special effects. There is no imagination in these scenes. It almost made me pine for the oddball hopping vampires of HK films. There's a plot, but everything is so ragged it's as if Jean-Luc Godard popped by long enough to tell everyone to ignore continuity.

As is often the case with movies this bad, it's the accompanying trivia that interests us, and here we are blessed with the star of the film, Ramon Revilla. In 1992, almost a decade after he made The Killing of Satan, Revilla became a Senator in the Philippines, where he served two terms. Wikipedia tells us that one of his bills in the Senate states "The illegitimate children may use the surname of their father if their affiliation has been expressly recognized by the father through the record of birth appearing in the civil register, or when an admission in a public document or private handwritten instrument is made by the father." In a perhaps unrelated note, depending on the source, Revilla fathered somewhere between 38 and 72 children.

And I watched all of this because the Criterion Channel took one of their movies off of streaming. What's worse, the only place I could find that was streaming this junk was Tubi, which meant there were two minutes of ads every 15 or so minutes, the print was shitty, the aspect ratio was wrong (at least, that's my assumption), and the dubbing wasn't any good.

Spoiler alert: this is the scene that fulfills the title. See if you can guess which one is Satan:

the cremator (juraj herz, 1969)

A very odd film, which isn't news to the many fans who have made it a cult classic over the years. From what I knew, I expected an arty horror film, and that's not entirely incorrect. But while The Cremator is creepy from the start, it goes in a direction which makes sense in the end but which I didn't anticipate at first.

Rudolf Hrušínský plays the title character, Kopfrkingl, a man who runs a crematorium and has some big ideas about expanding his business. Hrušínský is the reason the film is creepy from the start ... he plays the cremator as if Peter Lorre's character from M somehow managed to fit into polite society. Much of the movie is taken with Kopfrkingl philosophizing about his job, inspired by Tibetan Buddhism. Hrušínský gives an otherworldly performance, and the dialogue by Juraj Herz (from a novel by Ladislav Fuks) gives Hrušínský plenty of opportunity to impress. The look of the film (Stanislav Milota is the cinematographer) is suitably disturbing, in line with the musings of Kopfrkingl.

The film takes place in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, during the rise of the Third Reich. The gradual move by Kopfrkingl towards Nazism is a bit hard to believe at first, but by the end of the film, Hrušínský convinces us that the combination of Kopfrkingl's occupation, his Buddhist tendencies, and his growing madness lead inexorably towards the ultimate horror, a horror made somehow even worse by the way Kopfrkingl comes to think of himself as the next Dalai Lama.

The Cremator is unsettling, and its various comedic touches might convince some that Herz isn't really serious here, that it's "just a horror movie". But it's horror where subtext becomes text, and it's a movie you won't soon forget.