Saturday, April 28, 2012

Lady Harlequin (1960)

Okay, here's something unusual: it's a supernatural film noir, before those things became popular.

Lady Harlequin is a 1960 horror film noir with no listed director. It's from the same "Horma" production company as The Slender Man and Cruel Embrace, so they must be older than what I thought. I still don't know why there isn't any information about them on the internet, but oh well.

The main plot concerns Detective John Smith (yes, that's his name in the film and no, they don't list any actor for him either - in fact, there are no credits whatsoever in this film) who is investigating the kidnapping of his niece, Grace. He finds out that she has been taken by "Lady Harlequin," a crime boss who is, I kid you not, an actual life-sized marionette, made of wood and everything.

Lady Harlequin tries to seduce Detective Smith to get him to join her criminal "family" - which is filled with weird characters like "Mister Jester." He refuses to join them, however, and finally finds Grace, who is being prepared as a sacrifice.

Detective Smith is caught by Lady Harlequin's "strings" however and (SPOILER) watches helplessly as Grace is sacrificed upon the "Screaming Tower." This scene was unusually graphic for a movie made in 1960. Smith escapes from Lady Harlequin's strings and vows revenge on her and anything like her.

And...that's where it ends. It doesn't really have the weird ending of The Slender Man and Cruel Embrace, but then the ending also doesn't pack the same punch as those ones. Those endings were memorable (even if they didn't really make sense), which this one seems to be more of a lead-up for the final act.

Anyway, thus ends film noir week.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Ah, Kiss Me Deadly. It's practically a deconstruction of the film noir. Let's take a look, shall we?

Kiss Me Deadly was a 1955 film noir directed by Robert Aldrich (who later went on to direct Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Flight of the Phoenix, and The Dirty Dozen). It came at the very end of the original noir era. And it had by far one of the weirdest endings ever. (So this WILL have spoilers. Sorry!)

The main character is the archetypal film noir detective, Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker). He's crude, he's misogynistic. He has  a hot secretary, Velma, who is in love with him, but he doesn't care. He's Mike Hammer, dammit.

The film begins with Hammer driving down a country road one evening and encountering Christina (Cloris Leachman). She is the Mysterious Woman who sets Hammer off on the case and then dies.

The plot twists and turns like a roller coaster. There's Lily (Gaby Rodgers), who pretends to be Christina's roommate, but is actually after some sort of mysterious box (nicknamed, in a bit of genius, "the great whatshit" by Velma). The box is the archetypal Maguffin. It's only there to move the plot forward. Or is it?

Well, in this case, no, it isn't. There is a purpose for the box. And here there be BIG SPOILERS, so if you want to watch the movie without knowing what's going to happen, stop reading. The purpose of the box is this: it represents the end of the world.

That's right, ladies and gentlemen. See in the movie poster where it says "Latest H-Bomb!" They weren't be figurative: the box actually contains radioactive materials needed to built an atomic bomb. That's the Maguffin everyone is searching for. At one point, Mike Hammer opens the box and his hand gets burned by radiation - so we know, contrary to the filmmakers at the time, Hammer is almost certainly doomed.

And, even worse, is the ending. (Yes, I am going to spoil the end.) Velma is, of course, kidnapped and taken the evil villains house. Hammer goes there and gives up the box. The villain opens the box. The box explodes (in the original ending, Hammer and Velma escape; for the longest time, this ending was cut, so it is assumed that they both died). Since this is an atomic explosion, this pretty much dooms whatever city it took place in. And the surrounding areas. 

There is a reason that critics have called this film "apocalyptic." Because it is. Because it takes the tropes of the normal film noir and it brings up the shadow of the Cold War and it smooshes them together and shows you exactly what would happened if they met. It showed you just how out of his depth the detective was, how dangerous the radioactive material was, how nothing anyone did mattered. This was the bleakest film noir until Chinatown.

And it is awesome. Sorry for spoiling so much, but you guys need to watch it.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Gun Crazy (1950)

Okay, this week is going to be a little different, because I'm switching genres. They are still B-movies, but now, instead of horror, I'm going with my other favorite genre: film noir. Oh yes.

Gun Crazy is a 1950 film noir starring Peggy Cummins and John Dall and directed by Joseph H. Lewis. Ostensibly, it's about Dall's character, an ex-soldier who has had a long fascination with guns, and falls in love with Cummins' character, Annie Starr, who is a sharpshooter at a circus. What follows is, as the poster says: thrill crazy, kill crazy, gun crazy.

But you can forget the characters. Well, okay, you can't forget them, just as you can't forget the plot, but the true story is about violence and the violence inherent in humans. Dall's character, Bart, has had a fascination with guns since he was a kid - and not just guns, but shooting them. After all, that is what they are for. There is a darkness in him that only needs to smallest push from Annie to bring out.

Annie is an interesting study in violence, too. It's obvious that she's turned on by Bart's use of guns. This was back when the Hays Code didn't allow that much sexuality, but boy, do they hint at it. If there's anyplace where a gun really does represent a penis, it's here.

And, finally, there's the last scene. I really don't want to spoil it for anyone, but the last scene is masterpiece. It's dreamlike, it's dark, it's symbolic as fuck. But it's shows exactly what the entire movie is about: the madness in all of us, that fact that we are gun crazy.

Or maybe I'm reading too much into it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Cruel Embrace (1971)

Okay, I found this in the same bargain bin as The Slender Man and it looks like it's by the same company. So let's dive right in.

This is Cruel Embrace, a 1971 film by HORMA Studios, starring "Seann Barbour" as the main character. Still no director listed - is this going to be a thing with all HORMA films? Are they directed by a pool of directors who take no credit? I recognize some of the actor names from The Slender Man, so perhaps they did have a pool of actors, but some I don't recognize and Google gives me nothing.

The plot is this: Steward Joseph (Barbour) is a transfer student at a university where there are some mysterious happenings going on. Strange rituals, weird cults that appear at night during student celebrations, blood sacrifices. Stewie acts like a good amateur detective and investigates along with his girlfriend/gal friday Crystal.

Here there be spoilers: Stewie and Crystal figure out what's going on, that there's a cult made of up professors who sacrifices students to their god "The Archangel." They try and stop them, but Crystal ends up being killed and...this is where the movie goes off the rails for me. The Archangel itself appears as Crystal - which was, I'll admit, a very neat twist - and reveals to Stewie that it is the afterlife. Like, whenever someone dies, they go to the Archangel. No matter what. It contains all the dead. "I contain multitudes," the Archangel says. "Embrace me."

Stewie doesn't, of course, since he's the hero. But then...that portal from the end of The Slender Man appears and the "slender man" (played by Dooling again, I think) appears and extends a hand towards Steward. And Steward takes it.

As a sequel to The Slender Man, it doesn't really work. It has a completely different atmosphere, much more realistic and bleaker. And, really, it holds up on its own enough. It has good characterization, good acting, and some very good plot twists. But for some reason, the director decided to directly connect it to the previous film. I don't know why.

It didn't help that my copy of the film contained a bunch of glitches. Oh well, onto the next film!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Prince of Darkness (1987)

This is one of my favorite horror films and one of the most imaginative.

The 1987 film Prince of Darkness, directed by the master himself John Carpenter and starring Donald Pleasence and Jameson Parker. In the second film in Carpenter's "Apocalypse Trilogy," the first being the classic The Thing and the last being the mindbending In the Mouth of Madness.

The vicar of a church (played by Donald Pleasence) invites several academics to his church, including a Professor and a metaphysician named Marsh (Jameson Parker). The reason he has invited them? Because in the basement of his church, he found a hidden room where they was an ancient cylinder...filled with a mysterious green liquid. The academics try to figure out what the mysterious green liquid is, while they all seem to suffer from bad dreams.

So why is this movie so good? Well, I'm going to spoil it a bit for you: that green liquid? That's Satan. That's right: Liquid Satan. How awesome is that? The Liquid Satan starts influencing rats and bugs and homeless people (one played awesomely by Alice Cooper) and soon the vicar and the academics are fighting for the lives and holing up inside the church, hoping to survive the night. But the Liquid Satan can possess people and it wants to bring its father into the word...a being known as the Anti-God.

This movie is, very simply, a very complex and well thought out horror film, which invents new ways of scaring people. The first scene I saw of this movie was of a spurt of Liquid Satan flying into someone's mouth and possessing them...and it scared the living hell out of me. Just one scene and I was scared. And the end, my god, the end is just wonderful.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Suspiria (1977)

It's time for some good, old-fashioned blood and gore!

This is the 1977 Italian film Suspiria directed by noted horror film director Dario Argento. It's the first in a thematic trilogy Argenta calls "The Three Mothers," which was followed by Inferno and The Mother of Tears.

The plot is this: Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) is an American ballet student who has moved to Germany to go to a prestigious ballet school. The school, however, is creepy and is associated with several deaths, including that of a former student. The school is run by Madame Blance and Miss Tanner, while Suzy befriends the blind pianist Daniel and her roommate Sarah.

The true horror in Suspiria is not in the plot, however. It's in the cruel and inventive ways of dying: the very first death (in the opening sequence) has the ex-student being smothered, stabbed, graphically disemboweled, and then hung on a cord for a skylight (where the broken glass ends up falling and killing someone else). In another scene, a character tries to escape through an open window and ends up falling into a room filled with barbed wired. Why is there a room with nothing but barbed wired? There's no explanation, just the eerie atmosphere of the film.

The ending is a bit rushed and kind of lame, I will give you. The Big Bad is dispatched so easily it seems like a cheat. But the rest of the film is beautifully shot pain, with every murder lovingly detailed. It's an ode to suspense and death by Dario Argento and if you enjoy horror films, you should see it at least once.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Slender Man (1968)

Here's an interesting B movie I found just a few days ago.

The Slender Man starring "Jordan Dooling" as the titular character. What's weird is that there is no director listed and I can't seem to find any of the actors on IMDb. I guess they didn't want this movie on their resume, so they all used pseudonyms - which makes this a movie filled with Alan Smithees.

I don't know why they would want to distance themselves from this film, however, since it is great. My copy was on an old VHS tape, so it wasn't the greatest condition, but it still held me in suspense.

The plot is this: Dr. Hartford (Dooling) is, of course, a mad scientist who seeks to combine science with magic. To this end, he tries to create a "tulpa man" using what looks like the remains of an interocitor from This Island Earth and a spell from the Necronomicon. He succeeds in creating a tulpa, but his creation (also played by Dooling) ends up half-finished, without a face, and kills Hartford. From here, the movie goes off an a sort of weird tangent, where the "slender man" stalks several characters, including Hartford's wife and children. We see him eventually abducting them, but we don't see where he took them or what he did with them. It gives the whole thing a very creepy vibe. And then, at the end (SPOILERS), the whole movie goes insane and the "slender man" opens what looks like a portal where other beings like him enter into the world, as probably a hook for a bunch of sequels.

The studio who made this, "Horma," I can't seem to find anything about on the internet. From the accents in the film, they might have been a small British company, probably trying to capitalize on the Hammer Horror films.

The movie, though strange and incredibly disturbing at times, is great. If you can find it, I recommend watching it.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

So we've all seen the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, right? The 1956 black-and-white version which ends with Kevin McCarthy yelling "You're next!" at the audience?

Well, what about this version?

The 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, starring Donald Sutherland and directed by Philip Kaufman.

The plot is, essentially, the same one as the original movie: Matthew Bennell (Sutherland, called "Miles Bennell" in the original) is a local health inspector (doctor in the original) who starts hearing reports of people saying that their loved ones aren't themselves - that they've been replaced. His friend, Dr. Kibner (played wonderfully by Leonard Nimoy) dismisses this as simply "hysteria," but the truth is that they have been replaced by people grown out of alien "pods."

The beauty of this film is that is essentially replaces the original films metaphor about post-war panic with Cold War paranoia. In the original film, Bennell is essentially telling his story to the audience about this new danger - the danger is real and we could be next if we don't act fast. In the studio-mandated ending, the authorities do act fast and stop all the pods from spreading - an executive-mandated happy ending.

Nothing like that happens in the 1978 version. No, it's much more bleak here. The danger is real and the danger is here...but nobody can stop it. You have to sleep sometime. And who can you trust? Your friend? Your lover? They have been replaced. Even the ending to the movie (SPOILERS) has one of the only surviving characters ending Bennell and whisper to him...only for him to point at her and let out a pod-person scream, revealing that he is, of course, one of Them. They are everywhere and you cannot escape Them.

People who loved the original version should definitely see this one. In fact, people who love horror films laced with paranoia fuel should see it. It has wonderful displays of acting by Sutherland, Jeff Goldbum, Veronica Cartwright, and, of course, Leonard Nimoy.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963)

This first movie is special to me. It's the movie that got me started on watching B movies, if you can believe it.

It's X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, a 1963 movie starring Ray Milland and directed by Roger Corman.

The plot is simple enough: Ray Milland plays Dr. Xavier (no relation to the X-Men's Professor Xavier), a scientist who invents eye drops that allow him to have x-ray vision. The science is, of course, as soft as pudding, but as soon as he puts on the eye drops, he can see perfectly through people's clothing.

But, as usual with these films, things soon go wrong. The eye drops don't stop working and in fact they increase in strength. Soon, he's seeing through bones and brick walls. His eyes turn black and silver and then just black.

Towards the end of the film, he tells someone that he's gone beyond seeing through objects and begun seeing things on the "edge of the universe" and that there is an "eye that sees all" at the center of the universe. To spoil the ending, he plucks out his eyes, like Oedipus in Thebes.

Here's why I watched this and why it began my obsession: Stephen King wrote about it in his book Danse Macabre. He claimed that there was an alternate ending, where Xavier, after ripping out his eyes, screamed towards the heavens, "I can still see!" Nobody's seen this ending, even though Corman does admit to filming it "on a whim."

This is a classic B movie with a standard plot of scientific hubris. The acting is superb, as to be expected by Ray Milland. The individual scenes themselves are boring at the beginning, but as soon as Dr. Xavier starts losing his marbles, it picks up and gets really interesting. His scenes at the carnival are good and the ending scene itself is great.