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The Lodge (2019)
Dour and riveting
"The Lodge" follows two children-a teenage boy and his young sister-who are towed away to their familial lodge for Christmas with their father and his new fiancée, Grace, a woman who was raised in a Catholic separatist cult that committed a mass suicide. When the children are left with Grace after their father has to make a business trip back into the city, things get progressively sinister.
To go into too much detail could ruin this film for those who have not seen it, so I will spare the details, but I was extremely impressed by "The Lodge." It's drawn comparisons to several films from the recent horror renaissance, such as "Hereditary," though I think I preferred "The Lodge" more. It's also a far more threatening, sinister film than its directing team, Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz's previous feature, "Goodnight Mommy," which had a similar plot setup.
While "The Lodge" is very much a slow burner, the first act manages to create interpersonal tension among the characters masterfully; anyone who is a child of divorce will find these sequences profoundly realistic and discomforting. The film eases its audience into this feeling of awkwardness slowly before descending into a purgatorial hell-hole about midway through. The screenplay is masterful at toeing a fine line between what is real and who is at fault for what is occurring--it's the type of screenplay that would make for a fantastic novel, and is perhaps even better fitted for that medium. The film eventually shows its cards in the final act before leaving us with one of the darkest film conclusions in recent memory.
A substantial part of why this film works so well rests in the strength of the performances. Riley Keough is both meek and terrifying by turns, while the children--Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh--are both very believable. Richard Armitage has a supporting role as their father, and Alicia Silverstone appears in a brief (but powerful) role as their mother. Another core strength is the photography, which is dark and consistently ominous. The wooden-walled interiors of the home are oppressive and unwelcoming, and contrast sharply with the snowy exteriors.
All in all, I found this film to be a remarkably well-done psychological thriller. Audiences need not expect a popcorn film, though, or they will be disappointed. "The Lodge" doesn't necessarily play for amusement, but rather a bit of good, old-fashioned madness. Recommended for fans of psychological, sparse storytelling. Most others will find it too bitter a pill to swallow. 9/10.
Slumber Party Massacre III (1990)
Campy and sometimes surprisingly grim
"Slumber Party Massacre III" is the third installment in the "Slumber Party Massacre" series, and, well, you guessed it--it follows a bunch of nubile young women being slaughtered at a slumber party.
Where "Slumber Party Massacre II" went the outright bonkers route with the guitar/drill weapon brandished by a rockabilly killer, this third sequel is more akin to the original film, though it has a strong late '80s flavor to it. At times, it seemed to recall a "Friday the 13th" sequel, with the group of young people anchored to a house where they are picked off systematically.
There are absolutely ridiculous things about this film--probably more than there are not, including an electrocution death by sex toy-- but where "Slumber Party Massacre III" surprises is the subtext regarding the motives of its killer, which, though wholly underdeveloped, are disturbing in implication. The acting here is largely bad, but the characters are likable despite it, and the film ramps up to a manic final act that, though over-the-top, has surprising moments of realism.
Though it's not high art, I personally found this to be an admirable entry into this series, and a bit darker than it's given credit for. The camp factor is very much present, make no bones about it, but it's considerably less tongue-in-cheek than the second film, which errs on the side of pure absurdity. "Slumber Party Massacre III," though ultimately frivolous, is peppered with grisly violence and unexpectedly dark subtext. 6/10.
Moody chamber drama horror flick
This moody psychological thriller stars Michael Sarrazin as a professor plagued by bizarre dreams of a man being drowned by his girlfriend in a lake. He tracks down various landmarks from his visions to a small Massachusetts community, where he comes face to face with a woman (Margot Kidder), aged several decades, who is the woman from his nightmares.
"The Reincarnation of Peter Proud" is a solid, downbeat, and fairly uneventful psychological horror film that really takes its time. The plot is straightforward as can be, and there aren't many surprises to be had--we, the audience, know what's going on from the outset--but the acting and cinematography make watching the characters unravel the mystery fairly enjoyable.
The film was one of J. Lee Thompson's first forays into straight-laced horror following "Cape Fear," and he would go on to direct the slasher classic "Happy Birthday to Me" the following decade; "The Reincarnation of Peter Proud" has his glossy stamp on it, though at times it feels a bit more like a television film than a theatrical one. In any event, Sarrazin is decent in the title role, and Margot Kidder is unsurprisingly wonderful, despite the fact that there aged makeup in the latter half of the film (complete with spray-on grey hair) is unconvincing. There are several disturbing sequences in the last act, and the film ends in a manner that is gothically poetic.
All in all, "The Reincarnation of Peter Proud" is an effective, moody film, and contains a handful of moments that are truly sublime. Its greatest downfall is that it doesn't hold any real surprises because of the way the story is structured, but fortunately it excels enough in other areas that make it worth watching. 7/10.
Portland Exposé (1957)
A lean and mean low-budget film noir
"Portland Exposé" follows a tavern owner in Portland, Oregon in the mid-20th-century who finds himself a linchpin to a crime syndicate's gambling racket after installing their pinball machines in his business. His attempts to overthrow them endanger the life of himself and his family.
This low-budget film noir is one of the more slick, gritty, and iron-fisted out there, but it's unfortunately been largely forgotten. It's a B-movie through and through, and while it does suffer some pacing issues and a lack of development, it is at times surprisingly shocking. It depicts rape attempts (including a preemptory one from a teenage girl's boyfriend), and other types of violence that are a bit shocking given the time it was made. It also depicts prostitution in a manner that is frank, reminiscent of how the subject is treated in pre-Code films like "The Story of Temple Drake."
Based on a series of crimes committed by real-life kingpin Jim Elkins, the screenplay never really fleshes out the inner workings of the syndicate or how exactly all of this ties together in the context of the labor unions, and that is probably its biggest trouble. At a quick-paced 72 minutes, there is not sufficient time to elucidate all of this. Where the film makes up for it is in its photography and acting, particularly that of Edward Binns as the tavern proprietor, Virginia Gregg as his concerned wife, and genre favorite Carolyn Craig (probably best known for her role in the original "House on Haunted Hill") as their tormented teenage daughter. All of the acting is surprisingly believable, and the scenarios pack a further punch because of it. The film possesses a borderline-documentary style that recalls 1955's "Kiss Me Deadly," though this film is far less surreal.
All in all, "Portland Exposé" is a solid film noir/thriller that largely succeeds on the basis of its performances and overall tone. It's a dark and gritty film noir, and has a certain kind of bitterness about it that makes it memorable even though it has narrative shortcomings. 7/10.
A Simple Plan (1998)
A taut but convient thriller
"A Simple Plan" follows three men in Minnesota who stumble upon a plane crashed in the snowy woods; inside is a corpse, and a bag of $4 million. They make a rash decision to keep the money--a decision they soon come to regret.
This film was one of the most popular thrillers of the late '90s, and it still remains a fairly well-plotted film. The story is a tale as old as time--greed leads to man's inevitable downfall. It's the operative trope at work here, and it's pulled off with a notable amount of flair.
Sam Raimi, who many of us know for his horror films, provides solid direction here, though there are scenarios throughout that do stretch believability to its utmost dimensions. Like many of the thrillers of its era, "A Simple Plan" hangs a fair amount of its action on convenient plot devices that sometimes feel contrived. The other issue the film has is that its characters seem to lack discretion, carelessly discussing their plans in public spaces to the point that it is difficult to take too seriously--some of the dialogue also feels stilted at times.
That being said, the film truly excels at presenting its cast of antiheroes who the audience can still somewhat root for. Bill Paxton's performance as the standup accountant who spearheads the effort is solid, while Bridget Fonda plays his cunning wife who assists and advises from a distance. Brent Briscoe is believable as the gum-flapping redneck, while Billy Bob Thornton turns in a performance as Paxton's unsuccessful, dejected brother, who is perhaps the most sympathetic (and sad) character in the film. None of these people are truly likable, and they all make jaw-droppingly cold, evil choices, but there is still a level of believability to them, and their motivations, as sad as they are, don't go unwarranted.
Even with the more strained elements at play, Raimi manages to squeeze some disturbing sequences throughout, and the film manages to be consistently riveting. There are a handful of truly grim moments where the characters' blood seems as cold as the snow around them. 7/10.
Monkey Shines (1988)
Entertaining, simian take on "Frankenstein"
"Monkey Shines" follows a Allan, young athlete who becomes quadraplegic after a car accident. His friend, who works in a laboratory studying monkeys, smuggles one of the creatures out whom he has injected with human brain tissue, unbeknownst to Allan. With some help from a local animal trainer, Melanie, Allan's new friend-a capuchin monkey named "Ella"-begins to aid Allan in his day-to-day life. However, when she begins to develop an obsessive attachment to him, her rage grows homicidal.
This is an oddball entry in George A. Romero's filmography, both stylistically and in that its was his only major studio film. That said, it still has his signature stamp on it, largely reflected in the Pittsburgh locations. Narratively, "Monkey Shines" is a modern take on the "Frankenstein" setup, except with a monkey at its center. The film does do some interesting, albeit sometimes convoluted, things as a psychological thriller. As Ella begins to grow possessive of Allan, she and him begin to share a psychic connection when in each other's presence; this becomes a problem, as Ella influences his feelings and triggers intense emotional responses. While this is not entirely elucidated and might seem silly, in the context of the story, it is fairly well-done.
Where the film falters a bit is the mapping out of subplots, particularly of Allan's ex-girlfriend and the surgeon who operated on him; the film does splinter out a bit at times, but it regains its focus in the final act. Despite this, the characters are very nicely drawn. Jason Beghe plays the lead here, and is at times likable, and at others unconvincing, but overall makes for a decent lead. Kate McNeil, who genre fans will know from "The House on Sorority Row," is a welcome presence as Melanie, the animal trainer who unshockingly develops a romance with Allan. John Pankow is strong as Allan's scientist friend, as is Joyce Van Patten as Allan's narcissistic mother. The dialogue is over-explanatory at times, which is another reason some of the performances (especially Beghe's) might come across as stilted or awkward.
While some genre fans might balk at the film's central threat being that of a monkey, it's worth keeping in mind that "Monkey Shines" is not necessarily aiming for hard-edged thrills or spills--rather, the film weaves a clever story that never totally takes itself seriously. Ella, as cute as she is, still manages to be a consistent threat as the film ramps up to a battle of the brains between the human and the ape. The fact that Allan is stripped of his physical capabilities results in the stakes remaining consistently high, and guaranteeing some fun, nervy moments. Recommended for those who like their horror light. 7/10.
Fulci goes back into the basement
A young New York City couple relocate to a rural mansion next to a cemetery outside Boston so the doctor husband can do research; accompanying them is their young son. The house is spacious, but there is unfortunately something lurking in the basement that is more horrifying than they can imagine.
It seems that, in Lucio Fulci films in particular, nothing good comes from basements. "House by the Cemetery," paired with "The Beyond" and "Don't Torture a Duckling," is one of Fulci's greatest works in my view. It's far less lucid than the latter, but not quite as oblique as the former. The film, though a bit slowing at times, still manages to be remarkably fun, and has a "Scooby Doo" quality about it that is quite amusing. It successfully manages to meld the supernatural with the slasher film, creating a cocktail of hack-and-slash and kitchen sink horror.
Catriona MacColl and Paolo Malco give serviceable performances here, but acting is really the least of the film's concerns. As is the case with most Fulci films, the main focus here is mood and a general uncanny; there are numerous moments throughout where one might find themselves scratching their head, but there is still an impulse to keep watching. Things coalesce here in a bonkers conclusion that is as absurd as it is well-orchestrated.
Like most of Fulci's films, "House by the Cemetery" contains some elaborate gore sequences, which are less extensive and fantastical than anything in "The Beyond," but actually more robust and disturbing. The film features several stabbings that are graphic and shockingly realistic, even by today's standards. But again, mood always takes precedence, and the goriest set pieces are staged in atmospheric, Gothic New England settings.
All things considered, I find "House by the Cemetery" an effective amalgamation of styles and genres. There are prominent elements of the slasher film, the Universal monster movie, and a homespun American ghost story here. The whole thing is shot through with a dreamy otherworldliness that is signature of Fulci, but the plot manages to be clearer than some of his other works, albeit just as nightmarish. A solid, weird exercise in various horrors. 9/10.
Don't Hang Up (1974)
Effective shoestring slasher
"Don't Open the Door!" follows Amanda Post, a young woman who returns to her hometown thirteen years after the murder of her mother; she arrives because her grandmother is apparently on her deathbed, but soon finds several locals vying for her family's historic home, and is tormented by threatening phone calls that grow increasingly disturbed.
This followup to S. F. Brownrigg's "Don't Look in the Basement" (another shoestring regional horror flick) is a far better film that it deserves to be, and is possibly even better-made than "Basement." The plot here is straightforward, and the film shows its cards around the midway point, spoiling the potential "twist," but even still, there is plenty of offbeat fun to be had here.
Stylistically, "Don't Open the Door!" is quite colorful and lush, at times recalling Mario Bava's "Blood and Black Lace," especially with the use of mannequins as a plot device. The locations are well-shot, and there is a claustrophobic terror to the proceedings as Amanda finds herself subject to disturbed phone calls that grow increasingly violent and sexual in nature. Historically speaking, "Don't Open the Door!" may be a more important film than most realize; it was originally released in 1974, even predating Bob Clark's "Black Christmas," which has a similar setup involving a sorority tormented by a demented anonymous caller. The breathy, bizarre phone calls featured in "Don't Open the Door!" could have equally served as inspiration for those that appeared in the subsequent 1980 slasher "Prom Night," as they are similar in tone.
Susan Bracken, daughter of comedian Eddie Bracken, plays the lead here quite effectively. Her character is headstrong, sassy, and assertive--she is no damsel in distress, which is a bit refreshing to see for a film of this ilk. Even at her most terrified, she takes matters into her own hands, and holds her own against the various locals attempting to intimidate her into handing over her family's home. The film's final act is a bit disjointed and it does seem to grow clunky as it scrambles to provide us with a clean-cut conclusion (which I'm not sure is entirely achieved), but no less, I found myself pleasantly surprised by this film. For a low-budget, regionally-made horror film, "Don't Open the Door!" is inventive and stylish. Well worth a watch, especially given that it seems to have pre-empted the "killer caller" slasher as we know it. 7/10.
Al filo del hacha (1988)
Strangely compelling crossbreed of the American slasher and the European giallo
"Edge of the Axe", José Ramon Larraz's first proper slasher film, follows a series of brutal axe murders in a Northern California mountain town. A newcomer computer nerd, Gerald, finds himself at the center of them along with his new romantic interest, a local college student, Lillian, who is home for the summer.
Thanks to Arrow Video for unearthing this minor entry in Larraz's career, I've had the pleasure of seeing this film for the first time, and in a glorious print no less. While a far cry from a perfect film, "Edge of the Axe" is an odd entry in the slasher subgenre, not only because it is a late one, but also because it features an unusual blend of styles and tones. A co-production between the United States and Spain, the film boasts a strong slasher Americana disposition, while its hard-edged murder sequences and mystery plot recall European giallo films. The result is a strangely intoxicating crossbreed between national styles and aesthetics.
The bulk of the film was shot in Big Bear Lake, California, and the mountain town atmosphere is laid on thick here, though there are some sequences (including one brutal murder along a train track) that were ostensibly filmed in Madrid, where photography also partly occurred. The murder sequences throughout the film are by and large rather brutal, and Larraz never cuts away from the carnage. The killer, donning a plaster-white mask and a black poncho, is also quite menacing looking, and there are some fantastically-played sequences between the killer and the victims.
The acting is actually rather good for a slasher film, and the two leads (Barton Faulks and Christina Marie Lane) make for a spunky, offbeat couple. The technology angle (the two characters use an incipient computer and terminal system to communicate and research the killings) is completely odd, but adds to the late-'80s charm of the film. The screenplay does veer off course a bit in the last quarter, and at times starts to feel directionless, but the conclusion throws a nice curveball by making the audience think they've seen all its cards when they actually haven't. It's not profound, but it does end on a clever note.
All in all, this is a solid entry in the slasher genre. Its international cross-pollination leaves it with an indelible flavor somewhat reminiscent of 1982's "Pieces" (also a Spanish-American co-production), and the woodsy, small-town northern California setting provides a nice ambiance and setting for all the Euro-influenced slashing to unfold. 7/10.
The Pyx (1973)
Solemn, downbeat, insular horror yarn
"The Pyx" follows a Montreal police detective (Christopher Plummer) who investigates the mysterious death of a heroin-addicted prostitute (Karen Black), who leapt to her death from a building with a crucifix and pyx (a communion host container) gripped in her hand. Through his research, he slowly unravels a dark occult-related reality connected to her demise.
An underrated and under-seen Canadian horror-thriller from the early '70s, "The Pyx" is one of the darker films of its type, both tonally and visually. The setting is bleak, and the main character here--the Elizabeth Lucy, the prostitute who is the centerpiece of the story--goes through her own dark night of the soul before the audience's eyes.
The film is edited in a way that plays both Plummer's and Black's character arcs concurrently, ping-ponging back and forth between his investigation of her death, and her life leading up to it. It is a fairly effective method, though there are still some transitional issues, and ultimately, Plummer's character fades into the background. Black plays her character remarkably well, and there are some upsetting sequences in which she reminisces about her life before she became a drug-addled sex worker that really hit hard. Many have commented that the songs featured in the film (sung by Black herself) seem out of place, but I actually found the folky tunes quite haunting in their placement, save a few silly lyrics.
The film's inevitable conclusion is as downbeat and dour as the rest of the film, although the final sequence is the where things go noticeably awry, as a supernatural element is shoehorned in. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though it does seem rather abrupt the way it plays out. In the end, though, "The Pyx" is still an intelligent, and at times sad, horror film. Black is the heart of it, and she occupies the character in a way that evokes legitimate sorrow. For fans of dark '70s horror films (especially religious-themed ones), "The Pyx" is a dour but absorbing pill. 8/10.
The Wind (2018)
Beautifully shot and oppressive, but falters in the final act
"The Wind" follows a young woman and her husband who attempt to make a settlement in New Mexico in the late 19th century. They are the only people on the plain until another young couple arrives and moves into an adjacent derelict cabin. Both women share a common experience: There seems to be something living in the surrounding land that is trying to destroy them.
First off, I am a major fan of Western horror films, and frankly believe there are not enough of them--this period in U.S. history is ripe for horror movies, but it doesn't seem to be mined nearly as much as it could--so from that alone, I was thrilled at the concept of this film.
Director Emma Tammi really nails it here in terms of mood and atmosphere; the film is impeccably dressed, beautifully shot, and evokes a consistent dread that seems to close in on the protagonist. The narrative is told in a fragmented, non chronological manner, which might frustrate some, but it allows for a few clever juxtapositions and plot developments that wouldn't be possible otherwise, so it serves a purpose. Caitlin Gerard delivers a great performance here as pioneer woman Lizzy, the tormented lead. Hers eclipses the other performances from the small cast, and Julia Goldani Telles, though decent, seems miscast here. There are a few minor inconsistencies here in terms of the characters' appearances, as they all look far too primped and pressed for pioneers living in brutal conditions--but that aside, the period is well-represented.
The final act is where the film's screenplay starts to show its cracks. The explanation behind the events, albeit ultimately vague, is not entirely satisfying--it feels in some ways arbitrary, and the mythos is not fleshed out enough for the audience to ultimately care; it feels like a tacked-on afterthought that has little to support it. Despite this, though, I still found the film entertaining and at times thrilling. As far as Western horrors go, "The Wind" is a fine (albeit flawed) entry. 6/10.
"Poltergeist II: The Other Side" follows the Freeling family as they relocate to the maternal grandmother's home after the events of the first film. Unfortunately, the spirits aren't finished with them, and a strange elderly preacher begins stalking Carol Anne.
While there are a host of problems with "Poltergeist II," I personally find more positive things about it than I do negative. The "Poltergeist" films in general have a whacky cartoonishness about them, and this film is no exception. However, there are moments here that are far more frightening than anything in the original film, particularly the appearance of Reverend Kane, a frail preacher who seems to have been modeled after Robert Mitchum in "The Night of the Hunter." His character, played by Julian Beck, offers some of the most unnerving moments in the film, and really elevates the proceedings.
Admittedly, the finale of "Poltergeist II" is rather absurd, but again, the original film had its fair share of absurdity as well. For all the garish grand guignol, the film still manages to be wildly fun. Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams give apt performances as the Freeling parents, and Heather O'Rourke is memorable reprising the role of Carol Anne. While "Poltergeist II" is indeed silly, it's also memorably and frightening at times,; this strange mix might be too cartoonish for some audiences, but it is still a fairly well-made followup. 7/10.
And Soon the Darkness (1970)
A beautiful day to go missing
"And Soon the Darkness" follows two nurses on holiday in rural France. When they get into an argument, they part ways, but one of them (Michele Dotrice) goes missing at the edge of the woods along a country road. Her friend (Pamela Franklin) subsequently attempts to locate her, only to land herself in potentially deadly consequences.
Written by Brian Clemens, who penned various British horror films in the 1970s and 1980s, "And Soon the Darkness" is a small but salient thriller that both borrows from Hitchcock, and serves as the template for subsequent films in a similar vein, such as George Sluizer's "The Vanishing."
There is not much to "And Soon the Darkness" in terms of plot, but that is probably what makes it function well; it manages to be very involving, and swiftly absorbs the audience into the situation that the protagonist, nicely played by Franklin, finds herself in. The film is remarkably atmospheric, taking place in bucolic backcountry over the course of one sunshine-filled day, which makes it a bit of an anomaly as far as genre pictures are concerned. There are no nighttime rainstorms or thunder and lightning here--everything is set against lush, sunlit woods, meadows, and farm fields. The disparity between the quiet natural beauty of the setting, and the graveness of the circumstances, provides additional tension.
What most of all makes the film work, though, is that the central crisis comes about over such a relatable issue--the two characters get into a very normal argument, and when one storms away, it makes room for significant tragedy (and mystery). The arbitrary nature of it all anchors the film in some semblance of reality, as we can all relate to getting irritated with friends or loved ones, especially in a vacation-like setting; and unfortunately, here, one decision alters both of their lives in drastic ways.
The only real pitfall here is that the film does start to run out of steam as it progresses toward its conclusion, but it is ultimately saved by an inventive final chase sequence and a solid twist ending. Overall, "And Soon the Darkness" is a quiet, moody thriller--it is the type of film that finds horror in arbitrary (and sunny) circumstances, and for that alone, it's worthwhile. 9/10.
The Story of Temple Drake (1933)
Dark pre-code drama held together by Hopkins' performance
"The Story of Temple Drake" follows a wayward Southern belle who finds herself in the clutches of a murderous gangster after she and her suitor find themselves stranded outside a makeshift bootlegging operation in an abandoned house.
Adapted from William Faulkner's "Sanctuary," this little-seen film features a tour-de-force performance from Miriam Hopkins as the titular Temple Drake, who is tormented by a murderous rapist who swiftly plans to prostitute her. The subject matter, scandalous in 1933, is not so shocking by today's standards, and it's visible where the filmmakers were forced to tone down the material, but the gritty implications remain.
The film is unusual in that it seems to traverse genres in its short running time; initially, it presents as a romantic drama, but once Temple and her suitor arrive at the abandoned house, it more looks like a horror film; by the midway point, however, it comes into focus as a quasi-gangster film turned rape-and-revenge movie. The conclusion of it all is a bit silly, but there is still in immediacy and palpable reality to the proceedings, largely due to Hopkins' performance, which is raw and feels very modern, even by post-millennium standards.
All in all, "The Story of Temple Drake" is a unique film, part crime, part drama, and at times, part horror. Hopkins' performance ties it all together, and the desperation of her situation is well-played throughout. Overall a dark, underrated (and under-seen) pre-code film. 9/10.
Bloody Birthday (1981)
Not necessarily what you might think it is
"Bloody Birthday" follows a group of children who were all born during an eclipse; on their tenth birthdays, they begin committing a series of murders without explanation. A local teenager, Joyce, finds herself enmeshed in the series of crimes.
With a title like "Bloody Birthday," one might think this is a slasher flick set around a birthday party (ala "Happy Birthday to Me" or "April Fools' Day"), but this early '80s oddity is really more of a quasi-sci-fi flick mixed with pinches of "The Brood," "The Bad Seed," and "Village of the Damned." The plot is objectively silly, and the explanation for the series of killings is never quite made entirely clear, but the general kookiness of it all is part of the film's charm.
Lapses in logic aside, the film does have several nasty murder sequences which are made even more disturbing in that they are committed by children. The three "evil kids" here--two boys and one girl--are appropriately unlikable, and the child actors turn in decent performances. Genre favorite Lori Lethin appears as a teenage babysitter who finds herself in the center of these crimes, while Susan Strasberg appears as an ill-fated teacher.
As "Bloody Birthday" charges ahead toward its conclusion, it manages to not lose its general kookiness, but also strangely maintains a sense of seriousness about it. The entire film toes this line, really, and that is perhaps why it is such a strange watch. Though not a genre masterwork, "Bloody Birthday" is a fairly well-made, weird "killer kid" movie that is likely better than most of its "killer kid" peers. 6/10.
Love Me Deadly (1972)
A necrophilia-themed chamber drama
"Love Me Deadly" follows a young woman in Los Angeles who attends the funerals of men she does not know in order to sneak kisses with the dead. She is soon spotted by a kindred spirit--a man who shares her same necrophiliac tendencies--and it turns out he has his own Satanic group he wants her to join.
This early '70s effort is marketed as a horror film, and in some ways it is, but "Love Me Deadly" plays more like an oppressive chamber drama, drenched in gaudy colors, cheap-looking sets, and peppered with necrophilia sequences. Given the audacious subject matter here, one would think the film would edge into total exploitation, but it manages to keep its wits about it.
Necrophilia aside, the film's main horror angle is the funerary worker/leader of a Satanic necrophiliac cult which he wants the female protagonist to join. This plot element seems hackneyed and the actual nature of this "cult" is not entirely made clear (especially its alleged Satanic motivations, which are never really elucidated), and the film suffers slightly because of this. Mary Charlotte Wilcox portrays the leading character nicely, and the script attempts to unravel her sexual proclivities, tracing them back to a childhood trauma; at times the film reminded me of its contemporary, "The Witch Who Came out of the Sea," in that it deals with similar themes regarding childhood trauma, though it goes about them completely differently. Like many films of this ilk, "Love Me Deadly" also suffers from poor editing and dubbing, which is fairly common for grindhouse pictures of this type.
All in all, "Love Me Deadly" is a mildly entertaining horror film that is not nearly as disturbing as one might expect. The subject matter, though perverse, is handled well, and the lead character evokes sympathy on some levels despite her unusual attractions. It is an obvious precursor to the more extreme necrophilia-themed films that would follow, such as "Nekromantik," as well as the more introspective, quiet ones, like "Kissed." Not a terrible film overall, though it is certainly not for everyone. 6/10.
An underrated, nightmarish psychological thriller
"A Quiet Place in the Country" follows a painter in Milan who finds himself drawn to a dilapidated villa. Upon renting the property, which he plans to restore, he learns of a young countess who was killed there during an airstrike in World War II, and comes to believe he is being haunted by her ghost.
This film seems to have an equal share of detractors and champions, and I fall in the latter camp, as I legitimately find it to be an engrossing psychological thriller that sometimes functions equally as strongly as a supernatural horror film. The demarcation between the two is what the film really bases itself upon--is the artist mad, or is there a ghostly nymphet haunting the property? This narrative device is old as time, but director Elio Petri manages to make it feel fresh, mainly due to the blurring that occurs between reality and fantasy.
As the film progresses, we are introduced to a variety of scenarios in which the tormented painter, Leonardo, has encounters and surreal visions that seem to meld with reality, to the point that the two become indistinguishable from one another--and I believe this was Petri's goal given the main theme at work. Even more startling is that the majority of these sequences occur in daylight, and still manage to be ominous and bizarre--the sprawling villa is atmospheric and lends an additional sense of unease. On numerous occasions throughout, I was reminded of the work of Robert Altman, particularly his more surreal endeavors such as "3 Women" or "Images," which have a similar DNA to "A Quiet Place in the Country." Its preoccupation with art and the histories of places also recalls its contemporary, "The House with the Laughing Windows," another film it predates.
"A Quiet Place in the Country" is perhaps most famous for its leading actors, Franco Nero (as the protagonist painter), and his real-life lover, Vanessa Redgrave, playing a gallery curator with whom he is having a love affair. Nero's portrayal of paranoia is solid, and Redgrave, though she mainly spends the film looking pretty or appearing in lingerie or nurse costumes (both in reality and in a variety of visions), handles the more dramatic material expertly. As the film reaches its climax, it leaves the audience with open-ended questions, though it seems to point us in a certain direction, and the final scene is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek jab that feels a bit at odds with the rest of the film.
That being said, "A Quiet Place in the Country" is still a solid exercise in unease that I found genuinely absorbing. It is not a perfect film, but it is a nightmarish meditation on madness and the supernatural that hits all the right notes. As it moves along, it weaves a spell that is truly bewitching. 8/10.
Sweet Sixteen (1983)
A fun, sometimes clunky slasher whodunit
Melissa Morgan is the new girl in a small Texas town, and she gets a lot of attention from the boys--unfortunately for them, they keep on turning up dead. Who is offing these virile Texan boys?
"Sweet Sixteen" is an offbeat entry in the slasher subgenre, and is really more of a murder mystery than it is a slasher, at times recalling the likes of "Happy Birthday to Me." The film peppers in some ominous death sequences as it moves along, though at times the pacing does feel wonky. There is a subplot injected into the proceedings involving racism against local Native Americans, which doesn't really serve a purpose for the film's M.O., though it provides some characterization and context.
Susan Strasberg appears here as Melissa's mother, while Bo Hopkins is the town sheriff attempting to solve the string of killings. "Friday the 13th: Part III"'s Dana Kimmel appears as one of Melissa's classmates whom she forms a friendship with. The acting overall is solid here, especially for a genre film of the period. The conclusion, which can be seen from a distance if one has any experience with these sorts of films, feels a bit brisk, though its nighttime unfolding is atmospheric and relatively tense.
All in all, "Sweet Sixteen" is a decent entry into the slasher canon--not as masterful as its counterparts, but at times mildly effective and atmospheric. The narrative feels a bit messy, and at times it is difficult to discern who exactly the protagonist is, but these qualms aside, this is a relatively enjoyable '80s popcorn movie. 6/10.
Blood Beat (1983)
A wintry acid trip of a horror film
"Blood Beat" follows a young woman named Sarah who goes along with her boyfriend to his family's rural farmhouse in Wisconsin to spend Christmas. Their celebrations are soon interrupted by her boyfriend's mother's apparent psychic visions, followed by the spirit of a Japanese samurai soldier armed with a sword who begins decking the halls with body parts.
I think it's probably inarguable that "Blood Beat" is the strangest Christmas-set horror film that's ever been made. It's not really a "Christmas film," though for some reason it is set during the holiday; it's also not entirely a slasher film, as it is littered with supernatural goings on and psychic extravagances that go without explanation.
The most baffling (and alluring) thing about the film is that next to nothing is elucidated for the audience; the psychic connections between the characters, the ghost of the samurai, the utterly bizarre dialogue--it all comes and goes with a casual passiveness that is rather astounding. I have read that the French filmmakers who made the film were on drugs during its shooting, which does not surprise me in the least. However, I will admit that, despite its logical inconsistencies and bizarre structure, the film is actually well-shot, especially for having been made on a shoestring budget. It looks fairly professional and slick at times, save the odd camera filter edits that go wild in the final act. The atmosphere is at times creepy and oppressive, and the wintry woodsy setting is well-captured, adding a chilly element to the proceedings. In some ways, the film reminded me of its equally strange contemporary "Satan's Blade."
Overall, I found myself consistently perplexed and amused by "Blood Beat," mainly because so little of it makes a shred of sense. One can try and put the pieces together themselves, though I'm not sure they were designed with the forethought to be put together in the first place. The film is utterly bizarre, and I say that as someone who has seen their fair share of weirdo genre flicks. If nothing else, "Blood Beat" is a true B-movie one of a kind. 6/10.
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Gene Tierney stars here as a young east coast socialite who meets a writer by chance on a train ride through New Mexico. The two soon form a relationship, and quickly, a marriage--but her obsessive devotion to their love soon proves disastrous--and lethal--for those around them.
One of the darkest Technicolor films of its era, "Leave Her to Heaven" is a stunning film for a variety of reasons, one of which is the mere visual. On a purely aesthetic level, the film is gorgeous. Lush colors abound in every scene, and the atmospheric sets ranging from the New Mexico ranch where the two first meet, to the couple's remote lake house, are breathtaking onscreen.
I won't beat around the bush here; another significant reason the film is so powerful is because of Gene Tierney's performance. Her character is a complex amalgam of the tender to the pitiful to the pathetic to the sociopathic; she is as warm as she is ice cold, and Tierney hits every note. These dualities are part of what make the character so terrifying, and her deadly acts are chillingly captured. The film's most famous scene, which is set on the lake, is one of the most cold, macabre murder scenes in film history.
Where the film falters ever so slightly is in the courtroom denouement, which feels tonally wrong given all that precedes it; Vincent Price has a solid turn as the aggressive attorney here, but it nearly feels like it belongs in a different movie entirely, and its rather brisk pacing leaves it feeling even more unwarranted.
Despite this, however, "Leave Her to Heaven" is a nearly flawless film, and a haunting portrait of how dangerous unmitigated devotion can be. A bonafide classic in the tradition of "A Place in the Sun" and "Night of the Hunter." 9/10.
A complete anomaly
"Ruby" follows an ex-gun moll in 1951 Florida who employs a bunch of her former mobster peers to run a drive-in theater adjacent to her house. Unfortunately for Ruby, the spirit of her deceased husband has come back to haunt her, the drive-in, and her mute daughter.
This is a film that has been on my radar for years, but I've never caught it until recently; and boy, what a strange cocktail it is. At times, "Ruby" is a quasi-mob flick; at others, it's a supernatural horror film riffing (rather sloppily) on "The Exorcist." In some moments, it's a chamber drama. The end result is truly baffling and the tone inconsistent. But is it all bad? Not really.
The glue that holds it together is star Piper Laurie, fresh off her critical acclaim from "Carrie" (it's a mystery why she agreed to do this low-rent grindhouse flick). Even though her role is much less exciting than that of Margaret White, she plays the oddly amoral Ruby in a way that evokes Norma Desmond from "Sunset Boulevard." Her gun moll past is at times overshadowed by her failed "career" as a singer and actress, and she spends a fair amount of the film lamenting her nascent glory days, strutting around her house in extravagant costumes and playing her sole record on a jukebox in a makeshift dance hall. It's all very bizarre, and director Curtis Harrington never even attempts to elucidate the context.
It's probably this utter weirdness and lack of clarity that left me mildly amused by "Ruby," because there is more that doesn't make sense about it than there is that does. As the film ramps up to its finale, featuring full-blown poltergeist madness and Linda Blair-esque contortions, it serves up a ridiculous conclusion that is oddly befitting. Given how silly and utterly strange it all is, the "Scooby Doo" ending makes sense.
Overall, I found myself consistently entertained by "Ruby," though it is not a good film, nor is it a film for everyone. As a horror film, it is rather dull and apes snippets of its contemporaries--but as an utter anomaly, "Ruby" deserves some street credit. There truly isn't much out there that is quite like it. A haunted gun moll running a haunted drive-in? The people who will enjoy this know who they are. 6/10.
Miss Leslie's Dolls (1973)
Bizarre but atmospheric grindhouse flick
"Miss Leslie's Dolls" follows a young female professor and three of her students who seek shelter at the home of a reclusive, strange woman named Leslie during a torrential storm. Unfortunately, Leslie is an outspoken occultist who collects female corpses with the hopes of transferring her soul into them--and her four guests are in grave danger.
This highly-obscure quasi-slasher flick is one of the weirder offerings of the early 1970s, and has remained largely buried (I believe it was for a time thought to be a lost film). For fans of garish horror, "Miss Leslie's Dolls" certainly delivers; it feels like a low-rent take on a Mario Bava film, chock full of awkwardly dubbed, rambling explanatory dialogue from the gender-bending protagonist/antihero, extended single shot takes, and stilted performances.
While there are many amateurish streaks here, the film does have its pluses: It is at times colorful and nightmarish, and there are a handful of truly creepy sequences involving Leslie's "dolls," which again recall the bright, floral color tones of films like "Blood and Black Lace." At its dreariest, the film looks drab and depressing (probably intentionally so), especially with the dull interior sets of Leslie's home. Midway through, the film nearly becomes a sexploitation flick with attempted threesomes and a lesbian tryst, before going into full-blown axe slasher mode. The finale is ridiculous and the final girl is unexpected, but the conclusion of it all is weirdly fitting given how outlandish everything else is.
All in all, "Miss Leslie's Dolls" is a strange offering; a mix of proto-slasher with late-'60s occult hangover. It's silly by and large, but it does have some interesting visual elements and an atmosphere that is indelibly bizarre. If nothing else, I've never seen anything quite like it. 6/10.
The Dunwich Horror (1970)
"The Dunwich Horror" follows a young graduate student, Nancy (Sandra Dee), who becomes acquainted with a mysterious man, Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell), studying the Necronomicon, an ancient grimoire. Little does she know, he is in fact a warlock hoping to use her in a devilish ritual.
I am not student of Lovecraft, so I cannot comment on the film's faithfulness to the source material, though I can say that "The Dunwich Horror" is very evidently an acid-tripping interpretation of it. The plot structure is rather bizarre, and leaves many questions throughout--for example, what draws Nancy to be so willing to accompany Wilbur in the first place? As Nancy withdraws with Wilbur, spending time with him at his family home, a subplot involving her friend and a detective's pursuit of her is built into the proceedings.
While the plot is full of idiosyncrasies, in some ways they work in favor of the film's visual tone, which is bizarre and quite atmospheric. There are a handful of nightmarish sequences involving Nancy, one of which has her being caressed by various demonic-looking figures as she sleeps on a bed in a field. The stylistic imagery that director Daniel Haller utilizes in his approach to the film's horror elements is psychedelic to the core--given that the film was made in 1969, at the apex of the love generation, this is not surprising. Some who are ardent fans of Lovecraft may find this unfitting, but I thought it was an interesting approach.
A fresh-faced Sandra Dee is likable here, although her character is not well-drawn; neither is Stockwell's, for that matter, but he has enough offbeat charm to draw the audience in. The film's finale is rather ridiculous, and at times recalls the gaudiness of an early-1960s Hammer film, but it's not entirely out of pitch with the rest of the film. In the end, "The Dunwich Horror" is a mildly effective film that is largely worth seeing for its imagery and atmospheric nature. It is not particularly thrilling, but it is certainly bizarre. 7/10.
Les yeux sans visage (1960)
A fairytale masquerading as a horror film
"Eyes without a Face" follows Dr. Genessier, a respected surgeon outside of Paris who is attempting to reconstruct the disfigured face of his daughter, Christiane, who suffered a violent road accident that was his cause-and he is willing to go to horrific lengths to right his wrong.
Opinion of this film seems to be notably divided, with some finding it repetitive and boring, and others being drawn in by its surreal, dreamy demeanor. While I can concede that there is a repetitious formula to the proceedings, I find this film to be absolutely absorbing. While it is, on the surface, a horror film, "Eyes without a Face" is really more of a tragic fairytale at its core.
The film's narrative arc is structured like a classic fairytale, with echoes of "Rapunzel" or "Sleeping Beauty," both of which feature a central female character isolated from the world and at the provision of forces who have oppressed her. In this case, while the forces (her father, Genessier) are attempting to remediate her isolation by restoring her face, the crux here is really a power-play; it is ultimately a story about control, a virulent God complex.
While the ghostly images of Christiane in her sleek, emotionless mask are haunting, the real horror of the film lay in the lengths gone to "save" her, which consists of a series of kidnappings of female civilians, whom Genessier attempts to steal the faces of (and botches on several occasions, leaving behind a trail of mutilated corpses). Despite the horrendous nature of this, the film never loses sight of its characters' humanity: Genessier, though an oppressive overlord, is still a man trying to help his daughter in some capacity. Pierre Brasseur executes the character with gruffness and an imbued sensitivity. Alida Valli plays Louise, a former patient of Genessier who serves as his assistant, and she too, though unwavering in her dedication to him, is at times distressed by the lengths they have gone. Edith Scob is exceptional as Christiane, acting mainly with her body, as her face is concealed for the majority of the film. Small moments are used to highlight her childlike innocence, including a touching moment in which she comforts her father's caged dogs--creatures to whom she can unfortunately relate.
Much has been said of the film's cinematography, and it is gorgeous. The black-and-white is used expertly, and the imagery of Genessier's chateau, laboratory, and the outlying grounds are photographed beautifully; moreover, none of it appears phony or artificial. Several key scenes of horror, including one in which Christiane unmasks herself in front of one of her father's impending "victims," is wonderfully illustrated with point-of-view camerawork that is truly ahead of its time.
Overall, I have nothing negative to say about "Eyes without a Face"; it is a gorgeous, sad film, but one that has genuinely touching moments that keep the audience connected to its characters' humanity. It is, on some levels, a horror film, and there are disturbing sequences throughout; but ultimately, it is a fairytale at its core, wearing the coat of a "mad scientist" horror film. 10/10.
Black Narcissus (1947)
Both visually sumptuous and dramatically rich
"Black Narcissus" follows a young nun (Deborah Kerr) who is appointed the Sister Superior of a convent in the Himalayas in the mid-19th century. Along with her are several nuns, including a mentally-disturbed one (Kathleen Byron). The nuns' adaptation to their new environment--a dilapidated seraglio atop a mountain--proves difficult, and eventually, impossible.
If there is such as a thing as cinematic perfection, "Black Narcissus" is among the films that has come closest to reaching it (filmmaking duo Powell and Pressburger's "The Red Shoes" is another). It's a phenomenal meeting of breathtaking visuals and rich, taut drama--there is truly never a dull moment here. The landscapes, all of which were painstakingly hand-painted to create the illusion that these women are isolated atop a mountain peak, are as incredible today as they were when the film was first released.
Thematically, the film hits on a variety of topics, the central ones being isolation, sexual repression, and the related madness--and violence--that can be borne of it. The failure of man to adequately comport with any given natural environment is another core preoccupation here. The abandoned seraglio (a residence for concubines, ironically) is doomed before the nuns even arrive, as it was the site of a failed monastery. What reads as a portentous omen goes unnoticed by the characters, but the oppressiveness of the place quickly latches onto them like a ghost.
Deborah Kerr gives a nuanced performance as the nun who is in over her head, while Kathleen Byron is counterpoint in a terrifying performance as a woman quite literally losing her mind. David Farrar turns in an admirable performance as the virile, strapping young agent who becomes the focus of Byron's repressed desires, while Jean Simmons (playing an Indian girl) appears in a supporting part as a dancing local, along with Sabu, who portrays a prince-to-be receiving his education at the convent.
Overall, "Black Narcissus" is an indisputable classic, and is one of those films that earns its keep in the "needs to be seen to be believed" category. It is well-paced, well-acted, and expertly-shot. Shockingly, even amidst all the aesthetic beauty, the audience grows just as exasperated as the characters who cannot seem to shake the external environment--or their inner demons--from under the skin. 10/10.