Friday, May 27, 2011

La Momia Azteca (The Aztec Mummy) (1957)
MEXICO --- horror

Dir: Rafael Portillo

In this B-grade Mexican horror film by director Rafael Portillo, we explore the unknown possibilities of life after death; particularly reincarnation. While that doesn't sound so horrific, the filmmakers decide to go the route of actually making it interesting, by throwing in some mummies and a notorious gangster/mad scientist.

In the opening, we see a shootout between police and gangsters, setting up the films antagonist, "The Bat". What's interesting here is they also reveal that this bandit at large is a kinda mad scientist in his own right, who experiments with creatures and humans. Esteemed Dr. Eduardo Almada has made advances in his studies of hypnotherapy. He suggests before a board of scientists about his experiment to use hypnosis to reveal a persons past lives. The board, being outright dismissive of the idea. He claims it could be very dangerous to the subject and that he has yet to find someone he can use. The board, realizing his studies to be incomplete without a subject, basically does not show approval. Later, Eduardo discusses the dilemma with colleagues like his flighty assistant Pinacate, and Dr. Sepulvada;  the father of his fiancee Flor (played by Mexican scream queen Rosita Arenas). It is Flora who eventually encourages Eduardo to move forward with his project. She even offers herself as the guinea pig for the project. Meanwhile, we see a masked man (The Bat) creeping around a window of Almada's home.

As Dr. Almada puts Flor under his hypnosis, "The Bat" looks on intently. Alamada begins his questioning Flor and soon gets her to go back in her memory to a past life. In flashback, she reveals that she is in the ancient Mexican city Tenoxtitlan (The Native American name for Mexico City). Her name was Xochi, a sacrificial virgin for a pagan deity named Tezkatlipoka. Alamada takes her memory to the time of her sacrifice. At this point, she reveals an Aztec warrior named Popoca, who's in love with her. She fears the desecration of her body by even kissing will be found out by the priests, and they will both be killed. They are found out and both are sentenced to death. They force Popoca to drink a sacred elixir that will drive him insane. The priests bury him alive with a breastplate and arm band, and the film spends quite some time showing the ritualistic details of the sacrificial ceremony.

When Xochi dies, Flor dies, as she actually loses a pulse and Alamada rushes to revitalize her. Almada's experiment was a success, but he realizes he needs concrete evidence to present to the board of skeptical scientists. His only solution to find his evidence in the temple of Tezkatlopoka. Meanwhile, having witnessed the experiment himself, "The Bat" contacts his gang to keep close tabs on Dr. Alamada as he sees potential in his findings. When Almada and his team arrive at the temple ruins, one of them sees "The Bat" sneaking around, but mistakes him for a ghost. Later, Almada uncovers the lower temple where they find the remains of Popoca and the breastplate. Alamda against Flor's warnings takes the breastplate as evidence, but unbeknownst to them, they awaken the mummy of Popoca. Almada returns his findings to the board of scientists, but unfortunately Almada's research is incomplete as he needs the arm band to decipher the breastplate's hieroglyph.

When Almada and team return for the arm band, they come face to face with the mummy. They escape with their lives, closing up the temple entrance behind them. It isn't before long the mummy goes after his keepsakes. The mummy of Popoca gets to Almada's home and abducts Flor. Soon, it's Almada goes on breakneck chase to the rescue, and even unmaskes "The Bat" as none other than Dr. Krupp (who will figure in the sequels), one of the board members of the science council.

"La Momia Azteca" is a mummy film, but much different than the tired old Egyptian mummy films we're used to. South American mummies have the history of these brutal rituals, even much worse than this film even scratched the surface of. The addition of adding Pinacate as comic relief is fine, but unfortunately, it's sad to say Pinacate is a racial slur in spanish. It is actually used as a name for "black" beetle stink bug. So using this character as a minstrelsy buffoon kinda takes the film down a notch for me. The use of the name "The Bat" as the villain has been used before in cinema. This character was possibly based on the famous play and film versions of "The Bat" by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood. Taking it's cue from Frankenstein as well as the mummy films, the Aztec Mummy trilogy is slightly more entertaining than one would give credit. Don't expect great cinematography or score here. A Saturday afternoon time-waster indeed.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Last Wave (1977)
AUSTRALIA --- fantasy

Dir: Peter Weir

Peter Weir’s “The Last Wave” is a laconic explorative fantasy with very mild supernatural elements. Like Richard Stanley’s “Dust Devil”, another white male director living in a foreign land delves into the dark side of the indigenous culture of his homeland, in this case the Australian aborigines. The film involves a Sydney lawyer, David Burton, (played by the melancholic yet philosophic Richard Chamberlain at the height of his career) who takes on a case involving “city dwelling” Aborigines who are accused of the murder of one of their own. Their own tribal laws do not apply within city limits, and anything that seems deemed as such will be subjected to new law of the land. The thing is; the death is somewhat mysterious as it looks like it was a tribal situation (no tribes are allowed in the city). The mystery lies in the fact that the victim died of drowning on land. The aborigines remain mum and are completely uncooperative about everything, whether they are tribal or whether they know anything about the murder. The other thing is, there’s been an unusual amount of rain as of late, so much so that even those who don’t believe in Australian aboriginal myths or prophecies, which foretell the apocalypse happening, are skeptic.

What’s happening to the city, however, is nothing compared to what’s happening to David. He’s having strange delusional visions. Nightmares and haunting hallucinatory blackouts remain unexplainable, until he delves further into the fact that the city dwelling aborigines on trial are indeed tribal. He even dreams of one of his clients that he has yet to meet. Chris (played by probably the most famous working aboriginal actor David Gulpilil) , who’s a younger member of the tribe, was envisioned by David holding a tribal stone with blood on it while standing in his dining room. To make matters worse, at a dinner meeting with Charlie (who’s the leader of the tribe) and Chris, David learns that he himself may be the reincarnation of an aboriginal sun god, called Mulkurul. David becomes all too interested in this strange probability. Knowing something of his own ancestral background and his current affair with not knowing dream from reality, David knows full well the defendants did murder one of their own in a ritual.

His only friend in all of this ends up becoming Chris, who warns David that Charlie is not only the tribal elder, but also a powerful sorcerer. The vision was a warning, David eventually learns, as all the answers are given to him in one way or another. The rain continues to come down from torrential spells to black soot. It’s this that David has to question his own identity. David ultimately is lead by Chris to a sacred tribal area belonging to Charlie’s tribe. The sacred grounds can be found under Sydney’s water system as David discovers the prophecy of “the last wave” written on the walls and confronts Charlie the tribal shaman.

Weir’s “The Last Wave” is a very heady film, as it really is one of those films you don’t take on face value. It’s a lot in relation to one of Weir’s later films, “The Truman Show” (Not to mention the subject matter of Witness), where coincidentally water also seems to be a pivotal story element. The Australian Aborigine myth about the “dreamtime” states this was the time of earth’s creation, done by a rainbow serpent. The apocalyptic prophecy states that there will be a massive tidal wave from the Pacific Ocean that will wipe out the entire continent of Australia. Ponder Thailand and more recently Japan’s deadly tsunamis and earthquakes for a moment? There’s a reason for the characters interpretation of each other in this film that is the most important facet of all. As they deal with the duality within themselves. They are up against the greatest challenge any individual must face, the simple quest of self-identity, as Charlie in the film does ask David, “Who are you?”. I look forward to a Peter Weir film as most of the time they deal with a man challenging something bigger than just another man or some bad relationship, they deal with challenges that we all would have to question our own path.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Village of the Damned (1960)
UK --- science fiction/ horror

Dir: Wolf Rilla

Just what is it with cinema’s long sad history of antagonizing young children? Maybe it’s because we see them as so innocent, no wrong can be done from their precious little minds. Or perhaps there is a deep dark fear that with everything our forefathers and we have built and strived to create in our world, the next generation could easily rip down everything and destroy it.

Somewhere around the mid 1950's and on into the present, there has been a quaint little sub-genre of horror cinema that specifically involves evil children. I'm not sure anyone has pin-pointed when it started, but I would suggest it began with the 1956 Leroy Mervyn film "The Bad Seed". Along with that movie, "Village of the Damned" appears to be a post-World War II commentary on what exactly lies in the future minds of our youth. It's apparent to note other films of a similar ilk like "Blackboard Jungle", "The Wild One" and "Rebel Without a Cause" which focused more specifically with rebellious teenagers. But I digress, this "evil children" phenomenon seemed to deal specifically with the unnerving feeling of having birthed an almost demonic force that adults fear. Television even picked up on this when "The Twilight Zone" adapted Jerome Bixby's tale "It's A Good Life" to the airwaves. So there is definitely something to this. I suppose one can simply find the origin of this in a reversal of the immaculate conception of Jesus Christ. Instead, of course this is probably pointing to (as the film "The Omen" did) specifically the anti-Christ.

Based on science fiction novelist John Wyndam's 1957 novel "The Midwich Cuckoos", the film "Village of the Damned" weaves a terrifying tale of a town that is slowly destroyed from within, by a new found breed of peculiar children. When Maj. Alan Bernard (Michael Gwynn of "Revenge of Frankenstein") places a phone call to his brother-in-law Professor Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders), he loses him. We see him and everyone else in the small town of Midwich pass out. We then see that it's not just him, but the entire town including animals has passed out. For several hours the residents of Midwich are secluded within a mysterious "time out", that has no scientific explanation.

Upon investigation, Maj. Bernard finds that it is only the town from a certain perimeter that has experienced this phenomenon. They set up a quarantine around the town with the town doctor standing by to discern just what has happened. With no real signs of anything malignant, everyone eventually does awaken. Professor Zellaby and his wife wake up hours later with odd effects such as a chill and numbness. However, not too long later, all the women of  child-bearing age who experienced the "time-out" discover that they are mysteriously pregnant, including Mrs. Zellaby. The doctor and town parishioner find that they have no explanation whatsoever for this event. When the children come on the scene, the townsfolk realize they are all related by strange eyes, platinum blonder hair, an apathetic demeanor, a shared high intellect, and most of all they exhibit the capacity for Extrasensory Perception and even mind control.

At the rapid pace of these children's aging, Professor Zellaby, the town doctor, and Maj. Bernard realize they may need to study these children more closely. In a meeting with some scientific minds and the military, they also learn that the same "time-out" occurred in other countries, including the Soviet Union, Australia, and an Inuit tribe in Canada which killed their children. With the exception of the Soviet Union who were training their children, most of the other children did not survive, which leads Zellaby to a sympathetic stance, feeling there could be unexplored assets to studying them further. He bargains with this small council to keep them under close watch for one year under his watch. They all agree, and thus trouble begins.

The Zellaby child, David, seems to position himself as the ringleader of the children, which makes the Professor even more eager to explore their prowess. However, when they begin to kill some of the villagers out of self-defense and then just plain old eliminating anyone of a threat, things become more hairy. When news comes that the Soviets destroyed their children in one village like Hiroshima, the Professor has become aware that drastic actions must be taken one way or another.

"Village of the Damned" is an excellent science fiction film. Unfortunately, over the years it has, as mentioned, turned into a horror cliche, and all remnants of sci-fi are gone. In fact the only mention of aliens is in one scene in the film. Clocks figure prominently in the theme of "Village of the Damned" appropriately. The novel is called "The Midwich Cuckoos", as in the cuckoo bird which we associate with the cuckoo clock. However, the title is insinuating more than that, as the nature of the cuckoo bird is to lay its eggs in the nest of another birds species. The mother will feed the the young cuckoo birds unbeknownst of their lineage. Interestingly, the spooky eyes used in the film, look strikingly similar to the cuckoo birds eyes.

There was a remake of the film in 1995 by horror master John Carpenter. The film transported Midwich to New England, America, and concentrated more on the horror aspect of the story, and threw in a government conspiracy. In fact the only mention of extraterrestrial possibility is in a classroom scene in the original film where Professor Zellaby asked the children about life on other planets. The idea of abortion was brought up in this version of the film, which is interesting since the original film sparked controversy from Catholic anti-abortion groups, even though there was no mention or hints about the subject. "Village of the Damned" is a classic science fiction film that goes beyond the Cold War nightmares of science gone wrong, and hits more at the heart of our own psyche. As opposed to nuclear threats, there's the threat of the minds behind those who could potentially hit that button in the first place. The look of the children is a clear homage to Hitler's ideologies of an Aryan Übermensch (translated "Super Man"). The Nazis actually recruited Aryan women for a program called Lebensborn and impregnated them for this purpose. They also kidnapped thousands of blonde-haired blue-eyed children. It's safe to say, John Wyndam was definitely inspired by these true events when putting "The Midwich Cuckoos" to paper.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: Symphony of Horrors) (1922)
GERMANY --- horror

Dir: F.W. Murnau

When it comes to the quintessential vampire story, all roads lead to Bram Stoker's 1897 literary masterpiece "Dracula". The success of this Gothic tale spurred interest in other media from stage to eventually film. The first adaptation would actually be a 1921 Hungarian film titled "Drakula Halála" (Dracula's Death), which is now thought to be lost. The true first would be German director, F.W. Murnau's classic silent film "Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens".

The film opens with Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) and his wife Ellen (Greta Schroeder) at home, and soon Hutter meets with his employer Knock (Alexander Grannach), who offers him the opportunity to go to Transylvania for a stay at Count Orlok's castle. Hutter takes the offer, and leaves his wife, departing for the Count's abode. Soon arriving at an inn, the habitue warn him not to travel by night. In this scene, it's important to note the much used cliche of a foreigner entering a bar where upon mention of the evil (depending on the film) stops everything in cricket-induced silence. Murnau should be credited for that much. Anyway, Hutter decides to stay the night and finds a book about vampires (or Nosferatu as they're translated), which has ominous warnings he pays no attention to. In the morning, he rises to continue his trek, but even the coach driver will not take him but so far.

So Hutter takes his belongings and hoofs it alone, until he meets a stranger (played by Max Shreck) with a swift horse buggy who takes him directly to his destination. He finally meets the Count late at night (though in the film it is clearly still daylight), though in some cuts of the film, it is colorized blue tint to give the intentional time of day. During dinner, Hutter accidentally cuts his finger, which of course brings out the thirst in his beady-eyed host. Orlok then tells Hutter they have much to discuss through the night. In the morning, Hutter rises and when looking in the mirror finds two bite marks on his neck. He writes a letter to his wife, describing his strange stay so far. Hutter, however, finds the Nosferatu lying in a coffin filled with dirt, having already sensed the vampyr had somehow visited Ellen back in his hometown of Bremen. Frightened still, Hutter espies a worker board up and remove the coffin and take it out on a carriage. They take the coffin down river and to the docks to the ship called the Demeter. Once there, they open the cargo to find it filled with rats, yet Orlok is on his way to the Hutter's place of residence.

We are next introduced to Professor Bulwer, as he teaches a class on carnivorous plants , comparing a venus flytrap to a vampire. Next we revisit Knock, who's locked in an asylum for being mad, but who is in actualality under the influence of Count Orlok. Ellen has also become distant and unusual in her behavior as well, even upon receiving a good tidings letter from Hutter. The sailors aboard the Demeter become infected with an "unknown" deadly plague; taking them out one by one. One of them inspects the cargo particularly the coffin and discovers the body of Count Orlok. Tempted to see "The Book of Vampires" Hutter forbid her from, Ellen reads something about the willful offering of a woman of purity to the Nosferatu. Many townspeople become victims of the plague. Adhering to the book,  that night Ellen decides to sacrifice herself to Count Orlok, and to rid them of the Nosferatu. Nearing the dawn, she pretends to become sickened, as Hutter rushes out to get Bulwer for help. Meanwhile, Count Orlok is stalking her from a window nearby. His shadow looms over her, and when he finally sinks his teeth into her, the cock crows and Orlok is defeated by the dawn's morning light.

"Nosferatu" became infamous for many reasons. First and foremost, it really is a creepy horror film, silent or not. Max Schreck's (Even his name is intrepreted as Fright or Horror) performance is perfect. This is a very different Count Dracula than what we would see later with the very regal Bela Lugosi and the seductive Christopher Lee. The visual interepretation of Count Orlok in "Nosferatu" distinctly resembles a rodent. By no indication can this be a coincidence. Though some have gleaned an anti-semetic cariacture from this, which was of course rising in Germany at this time, I see it differently. This could be a comparison of the plague of vampirism caused by Count Orlok and how the bubonic plague was caused by rats throughout Europe in the 14th century. This film introduced the world to vampires, going by the book with this nightmarish interpretation. Murnau helped innovate the German Expressionist cinema movement, with high contrast light and shadow. The names in Nosferatu were changed in order to avoid legality issues with the Stoker's estate; namely Stoker's widow Florence. So, Jonathan Harker was changed to Hutter, Dr. Van Helsing to Professor Bulwer, Dracula was renamed Count Orlok, and Renfield was renamed Knock. Murnau's adaptation has become legendary, and has allowed Dracula's presence to sink his teeth in film ever since.