Friday, October 29, 2010

Ju-On (The Curse) (2000)
JAPAN --- horror

Dir: Takashi Shimizu

The J-Horror fade that began in the late nineties was originally ushered in by the film "Ringu" (though there have been many films of the ilk before). Many of these films have explored the modern take on some of Japan's ancient supernatural ghost stories. While "Ringu" and others have showed our high-tech world meeting old horror, the thing that separates this film from the many others that followed, is it is actually deeply rooted in Japanese folklore. It doesn't have too much of a preachy essay about technology. Also, the ghosts in this film seem to be so imprecatory and powerful that they are boundless to anything, anyone, or anywhere (as Shimizu's American remakes would later prove).

Let's start at the beginning. In 1998, director Takashi Shimizu was in film school when he came up with the idea of Ju-On under the tutelage of director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Shimizu made two short but very creepy vignettes called "Katasumi" (In a Corner) and "444-444-4444" that he filmed on a shoe string budget. They both serve as precursors to the horror that is featured in the full-length film "Ju-On: The Curse". In the short "Katasumi" two school girls are feeding their pet rabbit. One girl cuts her finger and the other goes off for some medical supplies as the injured one stays behind. We do see that something emerges from the nearby woods and attacks the girl. When the other one returns, she finds her friend missing and the rabbit's cage in shambles, yet she discovers very soon she is not alone. As she soon notices an Onryō creeping toward her, with the now patented gurgling crackling sound associated with the appearance of these ghosts. In "444-444-4444" (#4 being bad luck in Asian culture) a young man finds a cellular phone ringing. He answers it, with what sounds like a cat's meow on the other line. Dismissing it as a crank, he hangs up, but the phone rings again. In true horror movie fashion, he answers and gets the same thing, this time asking if someone is watching him. A voice answers yes, but it isn't through the phone. A pale ghostly (bakemono) little boy appears right next to him, and we learn it was him calling.

In this made-for-television film, "Ju-On: The Curse", the mystery of the curse is unwoven through several non-sequential vignettes. First we're introduced to school teacher Kobayashi and his very pregnant wife. Professor Kobayashi discusses a delinquent student of his named Toshio Saeki, who he recognizes is the son of an old classmate of him and his wife's named Kayako. He decides to go check on him and his family. Once there he finds the boy home alone in the house which looks like its in absolute shambles. After a short discussion with Toshio about the whereabouts of his parents, the boy is pretty much silent, only telling Kobayashi they're together. Toward the end we hear the meow of a cat, and see that it is Toshio making the sound from his wide open mouth.

In the second vignette titled "Yuki", we follow a young woman who appears to have Ailurophobia (fear of cats). From the beginning she is disturbed by a bunch of porcelain feline statues and turns from facing her. She also seems to be tormented by the constant meowing she hears, yet her friend Kanna (one of the girls from "Katasumi") does not hear. Kanna rushes off to feed the rabbits at school, as Yuki stays behind. We're also briefly introduced to her brother Tsuyoshi (who we can later conclude is the character from "444-444-4444"). Soon our ghosts finds her and make her their next victim. This story successfully ties those aforementioned short films with this film fairly quickly, but as with any of these films, you need not have watched them all to follow along. The only problem with this episode we have no idea who this woman is. There may be something lost in translation, but we can only assume she is either a tutor, a friend of Kanna's, or an older sibling.

The following segment takes a cue from "444-444-4444" as we follow Tsuyoshi's girlfriend, Mizuho. It is after school, and she's looking for Tsuyoshi. As she walks around the school, she sees Tsuyoshi's bike with his book bag hanging on it, but no sign of him. She also finds his cellphone on the ground adjacent to the bike. When a teacher comes out to find out why she's there, Mizuho tells her she can't find Tsuyoshi. The teacher decides to help Mizuho and they go inside and announce his name over the loud speaker. The teacher goes off to search the classrooms for him, leaving Mizuho alone. However, while she waits, we see this girl is far from immune to the curse. She uses the cell to call Tsuyoshi's home, but finds he's not there either, and soon after the ghosts torment her.

"Kanna" picks up after the short film "Katasumi" as detectives and a coroner go over what may have killed Kanna and her friend. We jump back to the house where Kanna's mother comes home and gets the call from Mizuho. She hears someone come in and go upstairs, thinking it's Tsuyoshi she follows, but notices a trail of blood on the steps. She sees it's not Tsuyoshi, but Kanna, and soon discovers even that to be dead wrong.

The next story shows us the origin of all the whole mess, as we are taken back to the beginning of the film with Kobayashi and Toshio. It would appear the ghosts almost invite Kobayashi to the house, as he soon discovers he is partly the cause for the tragic web of murder. He finds Kayako's diary and learns she has had a crush on him since their school days. This would be fine until he finds her corpse in the closet. Kobayashi then grabs Toshio and tries to get out, but receives a phone call from Kayako's husband informing him that he has just killed his wife and newborn baby. At this point, we see that Toshio gets the phone and goes into a sort of spooky trance as Kayako comes crawling down the stairs after them.

The final story, "Kyoko", sets up the sequel. We are introduced to a real estate agent and his psychic sister whom he inquires help on discussing our now haunted house. Since they got the house cheap, he wants to follow-up on rumors circling that the place is haunted or something. So instead of getting too deep into getting an exorcist which would only cause more rumors, he gets his sister to check it out. They walk around the house and she sees the ghost of Kayako upstairs. This episode actually gives us a little insight into Japanese paranormal practices, as Kyoko demands some sake and after gulping some spits it out. She tells her brother that anyone coming to look at the house should repeat what she has done. If they were to spit it out, they are not to buy the house, because the sake is a supernatural reaction. He later informs Kyoko he sold the house without notifying her first, and not to worry about it. When Kyoko goes to see the house, she sees a woman in the window who turns to face her, clearly a sign the curse has continued on and Kayako is not finished with her vengeance. As I mentioned before, watching this film can give you more than a little history lesson on Japanese superstitions and folklore. The fact that these centuries old beliefs can transcend time and cross the boundaries of culture is a testament to the power of their messages.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Dust Devil (1992)
SOUTH AFRICA/ UK --- horror

Dir: Richard Stanley

Horror movies coming out of Hollywood have churned out plenty of run-of-the-mill classics, and garbage alike. But they have run out of ideas, and some of the good ideas out there are not done quite right. A lot of times the good ideas don’t get the good treatment they deserve. Some films feel like you’re watching a caveman push a crude wheel down a dirt path. It rolls, but it’s still not smoothed out or it’s jagged in some areas. South African born writer/director Richard Stanley strikes me as one of those guys with the vision and perhaps if given time and money on a good project he cares about, he’d handle it well. But, even that doesn’t guarantee success.

His 1992 film, “Dust Devil” is no rudimentary horror film, it’s layered with deep marks of substance, involving dark South African spiritual beliefs, as well as foreboding realism, as they mention terrorism – unfortunately for all the heart it has, it doesn’t quite give it enough. The story is centered on a shape-shifting duster wearing demon vagabond in the desert of Namibia and South Africa. The demon played by Robert John Burke (of Thinner fame) does a great job as the wandering dust devil performing ritualistic murders. It’s these murders that garner the attention of a veteran police detective haunted by the disappearance of his own wife. Detective Ben Mukurob is played by Zakes Mokae who puts in a brilliant turn that reminds one of "Halloween"s reluctant Dr. Loomis to Burke’s Shape. It’s great to see him deal with his own problems on top of a case involving a strange serial murderer. The film also has a cliché battered woman on the run subplot, who is geared to be the heroine of the film. Wendy Robinson (played by Chelsea Field) flees her abusive husband for the open road, and picks up a hitch-hiker; of course he wears a duster. She nicknames him Texas, for his resemblance to one of those guys in a spaghetti western get up. Then, we go back to the husband in search for his missing wife, and thus the adventure begins.

I know that Stanley’s film went through a lot of turmoil, and this is not the original version of the film he had intended. That’s why all the bad reviews I ignore. But, I don’t laud the good ones neither, as there’s no need for the husband’s story throughout the film other than coincidentally meeting up with Detective Mukurob (who as mentioned shares a similar problem).

"Dust Devil" is loosely based on a series of Nama tribal murders in South Africa committed by what the local natives called "Nhadiep". They believed since the murders were ritualistic and only were within the tribe, that an unstoppable shape-shifting being who rides on the wind was the culprit. Stanley’s horror film is not for the gore-meisters, or even someone expecting something faster paced. It is an intellectual horror film and not a slasher flick where you don’t have to follow the characters motivations around or wonder why a villain is doing a particular thing. The cinematography throughout the film is awesome, and captures the mosaic landscape. My favorite character happens to be the eccentric old shaman (if you can call him that), Joe Niemand, played by veteran actor, John Matshikiza. His character fits perfect in any western as a wizened barfly in a rocking chair who can tell something ain’t right with the prairie.

The ending features a landscape submersed in sand, as it alludes to an apocalyptic finale. The dust devil goes at odds with our heroes Det. Mukurob and Mrs. Robinson as Burke’s demon pulls out all the freaky stops. The interesting thing about the villain of the film is he’s revealed as weakened and vulnerable himself. These murders aren’t committed because he’s a vengeful spirit or wronged psychopath, their being done because this demon is trying to return to his rightful dimensional beating grounds. This isn’t the indestructible monster that will not stop for sequels, this is a credible malevolent spirit wrapped in a menacing human form.

Richard Stanley succeeds with displaying all of these emotions on a quiet level, just not as trumped up as its potential could be. Well, the reason isn’t entirely his fault. Stanley originally had a 120-minute feature length film here with “Dust Devil”, which was in turn cut to 110-minutes. According to many sources on the Internet and Stanley himself, the film was then mired in Murphy’s Law. As the European production company who was to release a 95-minute cut of the film, went bankrupt causing Stanley to lose control of it. Miramax had jurisdiction of the film with the right to their own cut of the film, and well, we know how they adore cutting. The film in their hands ended up being around 87-minutes long. Eventually, Stanley Had to self-finance his own new cut of the film with what he had left. The Subversive released DVD has the work print version available for comparison. The final verdict is, watch the film and decide for yourself, I guarantee, it’s not a bad little horror film.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
UK --- horror/ science fiction

Dir: Terence Fisher

Besides having the honor of having quite possibly one of the best titles in cinema history, "Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed" also raised the bar for the entire series. And much like the Beatles' "White Album", they could never really live up to this one. The team of Terence Fisher and Peter Cushing are knocking on all cylinders for this entry, as we find the mad Baron is back to his evil deeds with ruthless agility. In this film, the filmmakers come right out the bullpen to establish that it is Frankenstein himself who is truly the monster, leaving no question or sympathy in the audience mind.

In the opening, we are witness to the brutal beheading of a town doctor by way of a well-dressed sickle-wielding psychopath. We also see a vagrant burglar trying to break into the wrong abode, when he finds himself in a laboratory complete with a corpse on ice. The thief tries to hide as the owner returns swiftly discovering his unannounced visitor. The owner carrying a hatbox (a callback to the last film, Frankenstein Created Woman) is revealed to be a strange looking pock-faced bald man. The two wrestle as the thief tries his best to escape, but during the struggle the hatbox gets opened to reveal a severed human head. This along with the corpse-sicle is too much for the would be thief as he escapes the house of horror. The owner does not chase after him, as it is revealed it is none other than Baron Frankenstein, who quickly disposes of the evidence.

The would-be burglar runs for his life into the arms of a policeman who takes him in for questioning as he's covered in blood from his struggle with Frankenstein. Hammer Horror alum Thorley Walters provides the comic relief in a sorts as a pedantic always-one-step-behind police inspector hot on the trail of Frankenstein's machinations.

Dr. Frankenstein soon finds himself at doorstep of the comely Anna's (played by another Hammer Horror alum Veronica Carlson) boarding house. He later affronts a couple of fellow boarders discussing an old colleague gone mad, Dr. Brandt, whom had also studied brain transfer successfully. Once this comes to Frankenstein's attention, he makes new plans perform this surgery by rescuing the mad doctor from the asylum, securing the doctors notes on the procedure, and implanting his brain in the body of a local professor.

He can't do it alone however. After overhearing Anna and her fiance Karl (who serendipitously works at the mental hospital) discuss their illicit drug dealings to help her mother, he soon finds his new assistants by blackmailing the couple. As opposed to prior films having loyal help, it's only fitting to see such disgust and reluctance come from his servants this time, confirming the despicable character of Frankenstein in this piece. Once we learn the plan, we are spirited away with the couple on this journey as they are pulled into Frankenstein's relentless quest for banal evolutionary science. He does indeed abduct Dr. Brandt, and soon after capturing Professor, Frankenstein and team successfully transfer the brain of Dr. Brandt into a new body. The doctor's mournful wife is not far behind as she recognizes her husband's old colleague, Frankenstein, on the street and inquires about her own husband's whereabouts after his disappearance from the asylum.

Frankenstein amiably allows her to visit his creation whose face is bandaged-up, but when after he convinces her it is indeed her husband, he quickly plans his escape. The final twenty minutes of the film is directed at breakneck precision as we get a monster that is not bogged down in makeup effects and truly assumes the role of protagonist, even with a unique twist on the ever-present Hammer Frankenstein climax where they all go up in flames. Fisher really directs some great and memorable scenes throughout this venture. High on suspense such as the escape from the asylum and a scene where Anna and Karl's house is being searched by police with the Baron in the basement. I found the sound design especially potent in some scenes. Some such as the asylum guards snores, or in particular the excruciatingly meticulous display at the procedure of the surgery with every bone-cracking noise accentuated. The cinematography in this one is once again top notch. There are so many little touches from the smoky fog to a lush glow of Veronica Carlson in a pink nightie. Aside from a Producer-forced rape scene injected into the film, all of the aforementioned highlights makes "Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed" the best of the series. Had this been the final film, the series could have went out with a bang. It is pure Hammer Horror at its best.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Brood (1979)
CANADA --- horror/science fiction

Dir: David Cronenberg

Does there exist a nether region of the mind that so deeply represses some of our darkest emotions that somehow it can be manifested? Director David Cronenberg explores this question, in what could be one of the greatest films in true psychological horror. It is certainly one of the directors quintessential films. Known for his explorations into a sub-genre he almost single-handledly created in "biological horror", Cronenberg here searches the mind of a woman with repressed issues and the dangers of opening the horrors of the past. Something that was all too prevalent in the introspective "ME" generation of the 70's.

Frank Carveth (played by Canadian actor Art Hindle) is a father and husband in the midst of a bitter divorce as his estranged wife, Nola, (played to the hilt by Samantha Eggar) is undergoing a newfangled kind of therapy at the Somafree Institute. Dr. Hal Raglan (played by the legendary thespian Oliver Reed) runs the center, and is a slightly sinister controlling research psychologist who has developed "Psychoplasmics", a new way of channeling negative emotions and releasing them physically. The Carveth's daughter is a platinum-haired 5-year-old named Candice, who is the quiet observer caught in the middle of her mother's therapy sessions and her protective father. Whenever I see little girls like her or the "Poltergeist" girl I think of "Village of the Damned". Intentional?

After Frank observes one of Dr. Raglan's sessions with a patient in an auditorium, he's convinced his wife is not truly being helped. He's acquired even more disdain for Somafree when he discovers what he assumes are bruises on his daughter. Frank confronts Dr. Raglan about what is happening to his wife and demands to see her, but he only implores the session must not be interrupted by any means, save for their daughters frequent visitations.

Later, we see that Dr. Raglan, in his own way, does question Nola of her possibly hurting Candice, but only gets the revelation of her deep ire for her own mother. Frank takes Candice to stay with her maternal grandmother, who's clearly a chronic alcoholic. This coupled with the little tidbit of back story about Nola's "bumps" creates the rationale for first victim of the film. The grandmother goes to investigate a noise in the kitchen and she is brutally attacked by a diminutive child-like creature in a red parka.

The police later notify Frank of the incident at work and express concern for Candice's calm demeanor after this ordeal. Frank soon tries to find alliances against Somafree. Particularly in a sardonically eccentric former patient of Dr. Raglan's named Jan Hartog. Hartog has filed legal action against Raglan, who he believes may have caused his cancerous growth, thanks in no part to "psychoplasmics".

Meanwhile, Nola's father is in town to bury his late ex-wife. His visit to Somafree to see Nola is unsuccessful, and like his late wife is later murdered by the same dwarf. Raglan's interest in Nola Carveth has increased as the body count goes up. Soon Frank finds Nola's father dead, and the demoniac creature which he takes to the police, which takes him one step closer to the terrifying truth of his wife and her lineage.

Made in the same year as his "out-of-genre" film "Fast Company", "The Brood" was really where Cronenberg found himself as a director. The film is much more polished in its air of mystery and focused on its ambiguous message on what could be seen as a statement on "Women's Lib and the destruction of family". Also the commentary and possibly jealousy that woman can create life and men cannot. This is cemented in a couple of things in the film, mainly Frank's profession as an architect.

This was a personal film for Cronenberg, who was going through a rough custody battle and divorce involving his own daughter. The origin of this kind of film harkens way back to William Shakespeare's "The Tempest" infused with Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde". As opposed to the latter, here dwelling more on a maternal female rather than a male with regressive tendencies and a monstrous second nature. One problem I have with the film is the creatures discovery. Anytime something even the least bit supernatural crosses with something based in realism like police and news media, I personally can't take serious. It takes a good writer to balance it and make it believable. The score is provided by Howard Shore, who with this film was inducted in the Cronenberg repertory. Having come off of being Saturday Night Live musical director , he makes his first attempt at composing a film, and its definitely not his best. This seems too influenced by Bernard Hermann's "Psycho" and other horror films of the zeitgeist to really standout on its own.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Vault of Horror (1973)
UK --- horror

Dir: Roy Ward Baker

"The Vault of Horror" comic series was created as a companion piece to "Tales From the Crypt" and "The Haunt of Fear". Most would think that these comics are as interchangeable as Lego's, but this was not the case. Max Gaines and co. made sure each series had a distinct difference. In the case of "The Vault of Horror", Johnny Craig was the cover artist as well as frequent writer throughout the entire run. The series would in a way have his style, which meant the stories often dealt with psychological terrors. In that regard, "The Vault of Horror" film gets kudos, as a well done adaptation.

As a follow-up to the "Tales From the Crypt" anthology, Amicus studios solicited the use of EC Comics title, "The Vault of Horror". This film is the less gorier of the two, and the tales used in this one, while unique are not quite on par with the stories from "Tales". We have the same formula as "Tales" in this film, where a group of people (this time all men) are gathered together and do not know where they are yet, but recite their tales of their own deaths. The aforementioned psychological aspect comes in here, as they each claim to have recurring dreams or fears. There is no vault keeper in this one, I suppose Sir Laurence Olivier was busy. Kidding.

The first tale stars siblings Anna and Daniel Massey as the brother unfolds his recurring dream/nightmare. Adapted from "Tales from the Crypt" #35, "Midnight Mess" features a conniving brother who is in search of his long lost sister. He has hired a private detective to find her, and after getting her location, he kills the p.i. to cover his tracks. He is, of course, another perfect foil for a story like this. The brother travels to what the p.i. felt was a strange town. He does find his sister and after he reveals that their rich father has died and left everything to her, he subsequently stabs her to death. He goes to a local restaurant for something to eat, and discovers the local habitue are blood sucking vampires. To confirm it, his sister, whom he just murdered, walks in with the murder weapon as the hungry diners have their fresh taste of her brother.

The next story is a darkly comic cautionary tale. It involves an overbearing controlling husband with a bad case of OCD, and his slightly younger timid new wife. The vignette plays like an episode of "I Love Lucy" as the new wife has to adjust to her husband's obsessive demands about life around the house. It gets to the point (no pun intended), that she offs him, and neatly stores away his body parts in labeled jars. Based on a story adapted from "Shock SuspenStories" # 1, "The Neat Job" was another one that was remade in the HBO series as "Collection Completed" by Mary Lambert. The difference between the two being the wife in the film version is very much the victim of her husbands ways, in the TV version, she's the cause and culprit. Personally, though it does give the film variety, the film could do without this particular story, as it seems all the men in the vault were villains who truly belonged there.

In the third tale, we get a different type of married couple. A magician and his wife are on vacation in India when he cruelly exposes the poor street magicians tricks. He later happens upon a young lady performing the Indian rope trick, but she will not sell him the secret. He begs her to at least show his sick wife, but he has other plans. The couple murder the girl in cold blood, and they attempt to uncover the riddle behind the magical rope. The wife tries the rope on for size and climbs on up to the ceiling on it, as she vanishes into thin air. Her blood, however, begins to seep out of the ceiling and the husband promptly tries to escape the room, but the rope snaps at him like a bullwhip. Having him trapped, the sentient rope soon entangles around his neck enough to raise him up off his feet to his demise.

The next tale is quite quick, but it also involves a lot of double crossing and twists. We learn that a writer with the assistance of who is presumably his editor devise a plot to inherit his insurance money. He plans to take a drug that will allow his body to appear to all dead. Then after his burial, his friend Alex is supposed to dig him up within 24 hours. All perfectly planned, until two local anatomy students, who discover his body, have their own plans for the body. The end result of this story, based on "Bargain in Death" from "Tales From the Crypt" # 28, is everyone gets their just desserts.

In the final tale, Tom Baker (the most recognizable Gen X Doctor Who) portrays an artist out for revenge. After a visit to a voodoo practitioner, he adopts the use of the black magic. Through creative uses of his paintings of his three crooked business partners, he disperses of them, one-by-one. Of course, like most good Crypt tales, no evil deed is left unpunished. In the humble opinion department, I felt Denholm Elliot was criminally underused in this film. Of note, years later he starred in an episode of the television series "Ray Bradbury Theater". The story would have made an interesting little vignette in a film this, considering Bradbury allowed many of his stories adapted into EC fare, including this one. Having said that, this particular tale comes off as an episode of "The Night Gallery".

The film ends on a dull note, as the men walk out of the "vault" to the graveyard and disappear to their own graves. As one stays behind to explain that every night they must recall their most horrendous acts of the life they lived. It would have been interesting if they had made a nice little trilogy by adapting some more stories for "Haunt of Fear", but alas . . .