Lady of the Lake (1998)

When his uncle dies by drowning in Owl Lake, David (Erik Rutherford) moves into the man’s house by said lake. Quickly, David encounters peculiar things: he finds a handful of too new photos of a strange, beautiful woman named Viviane (Tennyson Loeh) he remembers encountering by the lake when he was boy, and he begins having erotic dreams of her in which a mirror in the house works as a gate to the depths of the lake where Viviane seems to dwell. Soon, David can’t quite make out anymore where dreams and reality part, and certainly not on which side of that divide Viviane belongs.

His sleazy neighbour Anthony (Emidio Michetti) tells David his uncle didn’t just drown but was killed by Viviane, who is a cursed creature haunting the are for what I assume must be a hundred years or so – or whenever you suppose Renfaire style “gypsies” were roaming Canada – having to seduce and later kill men to avenge her own murder by pseudo-Renfaire knight Richard (Christopher Piggins). Actually, Anthony has rather personal knowledge of Viviane (which makes her being necessarily murderous somewhat problematic to believe) but he isn’t telling.

Given his experiences up to that point, David isn’t quite as sceptical about the story as you’d think but when a slightly more real Viviane asks him if he’d like her to stay with him for seven days and leave him forever afterwards, he’s much too love struck to disagree. Plot-wise, things go a bit off the rails soon after.

I was very impressed by director Maurice Devereaux’s later End of the Line, so obviously I had to go out and look for one of his earlier films. I’m rather happy I did, too, for while Lady of the Lake has some flaws, particularly during a third act that needlessly heaps more obvious action and some fine yet completely out of place gore onto a film that could have used a more low key and perhaps even subtle approach to tying its plot up, there’s a lot of good in the film.

I particularly enjoyed how much of Devereaux’s narrative has the feel and texture of a slightly modernized folk tale. A cursory internet search didn’t tell me if it’s based on a legend actually native to the Owl Lake area but the motives and structure of the tale are just right to be one in any case. Consequently, Lady of the Lake often feels more like a fantasy film than an outright piece of horror in its approach. Viviane, you see, might be a murderous spirit, but the way the film plays it, she’s also the innocent victim of things she has no control over, in a sense further punished for being murdered by a guy who couldn’t take no for an answer. The film leaves it unclear if Viviane’s former lovers’ mental deterioration to violent pricks is caused by the workings of her curse, or if these are just more cases of men not being able to cope with rejection without resorting to violence; if love turns to hate for them because it sometimes does, or because of the supernatural (or both). Given the film’s (very appropriate to this kind of tale) ending, I suspect it’s more if the former than of the latter.

In any case, unlike a lot of films featuring female sex-based supernatural creatures, this one doesn’t seem at all out to (even subtextually) demonize female sexuality; as should be obvious by now, it is not at all difficult to give Lady of the Lake an at least mildly feminist reading. It’s a rather uncommon approach that fits the film nicely. Its problems start when a peculiar time travel sequence makes Richard an active participant in the film’s proceedings. Suddenly turning this into a film with a very clear outward threat when it was doing very fine on its own in a more interesting, compassionate and ambiguous manner certainly isn’t doing the film any favours; it’s also less than helpful that Christopher Piggins’s performance as EVIL Richard is scene-chewing and broad in a film where everyone else goes for the low-key and the non-showy (sometimes with an added bit of indie horror acting awkwardness I’m pretty okay with here). Nor does it do the film many favours to remind its audience again of the weakest part of its set-up, the Renfaire folk of Canada. Structurally, the film gains a climax of outward excitement that doesn’t actually finish the plot in any way and de-emphasizes the actual resolution running parallel to it that fits the film much, much better.

That this doesn’t just straight up ruin the film for me has a lot to do with the care Devereaux put into the fifty minutes or so that came before, the simple and very clever use of effects (let’s ignore the digital fire), the atmospheric use of those old staple colours of artificial light in fantastic film, blue and red, the tight and imaginative editing that gives the film just the right flow, and a script that is (up to the point described and later again) more thoughtful than it actually needs to be. And all this while the film obviously has to work around a miniscule budget that should invite the usual “the catering for a mildly budgeted mainstream film will cost more” comparisons. Though, to be clear, the film’s good moments (that add up to an hour in all) don’t actually need the budget as an excuse; they’re well worth one’s time in any case.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

La Casa 5: Beyond Darkness (1990)

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beyond_darkness_posterParticularly innocently faithful priest Peter (Gene LeBrock) and his family – wife Annie (Barbara Bingham) and little kids Martin (Troll 2’s Michael Stephenson) and Carole (Theresa F. Walker) move into the wrong house, or really, are maneuvered into moving into that place by his mentor, one Reverend Jonathan (Stephen Brown), I think. Please keep in mind this movie was written by Claudio Fragasso, so half of the logical connections have to be provided by the viewer or the film would go from “makes no goddamn sense at all” to the noise a brain makes when it dribbles out of a helpless cult film blogger’s ears.

Anyhow, it’s really not a good place for a family to stay, for the house is haunted by a bunch of women in black shrouds – of course once burned for witchcraft they may or may not have committed – who like to tear holes in the fabric of reality, produce dry ice fog of astonishing density, and kidnap children for sport. These charming dead persons are lead by a dead child murderess (Mary Coulson, I believe) who not just murdered her little victims but ate their souls to be able to bring them down to her favourite demon’s part of wherever he dwells.

It was an encounter with that lovely woman right before she was executed on the electric chair that broke down the faith of Peter’s old seminary friend – who unlike Peter became a Catholic priest – George (David Brandon ably assisted by buckets full of sweat). Ever since, George has sort of dropped out of the priesthood, sort of become an alcoholic, is looking for knowledge Man Was Not Meant to Know. and may or may not be possessed by the demon the murderess prayed to, depending on the mood of Fragasso when he wrote any given scene. In any case, when the shrouded ladies get rude, it’s George who helps Peter in various ways, until the whole thing fake-climaxes in a hilarious exorcism and other assorted nonsense.

As we all know, when Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso ended their partnership, Mattei took with him whatever actual sense there was between the two (and given Mattei’s later output, that statement is rather frightening), while Fragasso went on to transfer full control to his Id and gave us Troll 2. Shot in the same year as that epochal achievement, and featuring the same non-acting child actor in Michael Stephenson, Beyond Darkness will probably always be “the normal one” in comparison, seeing that it features a vaguely understandable plot, contains only half a dozen or so scenes that might traumatise the unprepared by their sheer fucking weirdness, and even tells a – if completely unrelatable and absurdly told – story about faith lost and found and glowing holes in the wall that lead to another dimension belonging to demons none of the three priests in the film calls Hell.

Of course, compared with Troll 2, most films are “the normal one”, and you can’t really say Fragasso didn’t apply most of his powers of coming up with sheer bizarre bullshit dressed up in improbable dialogue while setting his camera at an angle when shooting Beyond Darkness. This is after all still a film that has his perhaps sometimes possessed doubting priest suddenly popping up at his old mentor’s church to sweat profusely and jam a bit on the organ while both men babble nonsense about demons a theology doctorate wouldn’t help one to understand, where there’s a scene shot via flying knife cam, and whose kidnap, rescue and possession plot is told in the most convoluted way possible. But hey, I’m pretty sure the good guys win thanks to mentor guy shouting at a demon really loudly while staying home in his church until a Satanic bible burns and mentor guy himself dies from a heart attack (see, you can hear Fragasso think, my film’s just like The Exorcist); which is pretty good, because without that, Peter and Annie would have sacrificed their own son to the demons – and only Peter has the excuse of being possessed at the time.

This kind of nonsense is obviously only the tip of the iceberg of nonsense and non-sequiturs Beyond Darkness barfs into our eyes, ears and brains. I might be mixing my metaphors a little here but this is only appropriate when talking about a Fragasso film. In fact, it’s more or less the same approach Beyond Darkness is applying to storytelling. Visually, Fragasso is all about all kinds of crooked camera angles that are probably meant to be stylish and creepy but most of the time seem tacky and weird, incredible amounts of dry ice fog, glowing holes in walls (with dry ice fog coming through them, obviously), dry ice fog,  close-ups of eyes, dry ice fog, and more dry ice fog. Well, that and sweat, because all of the actors seem permanently drenched in a way that might – like a few other elements here – suggest some sort of misguided homage to Lucio Fulci, with David Brandon so caught up in the hot sweating action it’s a wonder nobody drowned in his fluids.

From time to time, between the nonsensical, the inane, and the bizarre, Fragasso also hits on an image that’s honestly creepy, like the shrouded (or really, wearing something that suggests he has seen The Woman in Black and/or photos of Victorian mourning garb) women stretching their hands through walls, doors, etc, again demonstrating that you don’t need to watch a “good” movie to see something shudder-worthy.

So, how much did I love this wondrous abomination of a film? Well, I wouldn’t want to marry it right now, but I’m interested in a long-term relationship full of speeches about demons, tasteless child ghosts, and some good old dimensional rifts in the walls.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Choke Canyon (1986)

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Rogue physicist Dr. David Lowell (Stephen Collins) is convinced he is able to develop a clean, infinite source of energy out of sound waves. To prove that particularly interesting theory, he has set up a lab with awesome blinking doodads in beautiful Choke Canyon. There, he’s waiting for the passing of Halley’s Comet because he’ll need to somehow use the comet’s soundwaves for his experiment. Or something – the film’s rather vague about its ridiculous nonsense science, so we’ll just have to take it at its word. Alas, Lowell has leased the canyon from the evil nuclear energy corp of one John Pilgrim (Nicholas Pryor), and Pilgrim really needs the place to illegally dump a huge ball full of nuclear waste there. You’d think the film would go for an “evil nuclear energy corp wants to destroy progressive green science” but that’s not happening.

First Pilgrim’s people – as mid-level henchman-managed by Lance Henriksen himself – try to buy David out, which he of course declines, for the time and place for his experiment isn’t optional (oh, please, don’t ask me why). Then they come back to rough him up, shoot up his lab with submachine guns and probably frighten him into submission, but only manage to make our hero even more determined, if now without a lab. To correct that, Lowell gets on his (non-metaphorical) horse, blows up parts of the facility (or as we know it, a couple of sheds) supposed to house the illegal nuclear waste and tries to blackmail Pilgrim into buying a new lab for him.

From there, things escalate further quickly: Pilgrim calls in The Captain (Bo Svenson), a man with “methods” as well as a flying circus job when he isn’t working as a heavy for an evil corporation. His day job will be important for the film’s biggest set piece. Lowell puts The Captain in a barrel; The Captain brings a mortar. Finally, Lowell kidnaps Pilgrim’s daughter Vanessa (Janet Julian) – who will of course change sides soon enough because what’s hotter than a little kidnapping, right? – and threatens to blow her up(!) which actually gets him his new laboratory, but certainly no peace, so the film will just have to culminate in a big chase scene between The Captain’s air carnival biplane and Lowell and Janet in a helicopter carrying the big ball of nuclear waste beneath them, followed by a tiny little punch up. The practice of physics is clearly more physically demanding than our teachers let on.

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Yes, all of these things really happen in Chuck Bail’s Choke Canyon, and the film truly is as bonkers as this makes it sound. Fascinatingly, despite making no darn sense at all and being the sort of family-friendly action film where automatic weapons, mortar and nuclear waste are applied in various violent ways without anybody ever actually getting hurt, the film doesn’t seem to be meant as an action comedy. It does play most of this awesome and inspired nonsense as straight as you can, which of course does make it much funnier than it otherwise would be, as well as even more bonkers.

Speaking of bonkers, among the awesome elements I didn’t mention when talking about the film’s plot (such as it is) is Lowell’s dress sense, which turns him into more of a cowboy scientist than a rogue scientist, what with his long coat, the appropriate cowboy hat, as well as a disturbingly close relation with his Bollywood approved anipals, a horse and a goat. For the record, I have not the faintest idea why the man has a goat in his lab, but he has, and he clearly loves it very much. In this context, the rather wrong love story between our hero and Janet looks comparatively healthy. After all, Choke Canyon teaches us, what’s a bit of kidnapping and threatening to blow someone up among hot young things?

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Then there’s the final fist fight between Lowell and The Captain, a scene that isn’t satisfied with just showing to guys beating each other to a pulp but also finds Lowell having to shout computations between punches, because of course The Captain comes for his revenge exactly in time for the big experiment. An experiment which for its part generates much pulsing of Lowell’s doodads (and probably his equipment too), a cheap light show, and the scientific revelation that Lowell’s theory works, “if only for a moment”. Well, he’ll have time enough to iron out any wrinkles in his computations, given his need for Halley’s Comet.

Now, all of this awesome, inspired nonsense doesn’t really sound like the kind of thing US low budget film makers are usually up to, nor feels much like it when you’re watching it. I’d really rather call this a nominally American movie, for while director Bail (a veteran of stunt work, as well as a bit of acting) certainly is American, and this was visibly shot in Utah, the film’s producer and co-writer is Greek exploitation film impresario Ovidio G. Assonitis (working for a company with a decidedly Dutch sounding name), one of the other co-writers is Sheila Goldberg, who was responsible for the dubbing scripts of various Italian genre films, and the final writer is the glorious genius we know as director, writer and all-purpose provider of the bizarre Alfonso Brescia, which is about as European exploitation style as any writing team can get. No effort is made by anyone to write (if “write” is what you do to produce a script like this) anything in a more American style.

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As a fan of Brescia’s peculiar sensibilities in particular I’m not complaining, mind you, preferring the man’s combination of the shamelessly bizarre with the outright silly played seriously to most other approaches to scriptwriting I can imagine; particularly since Brescia-style madness seldom is boring.

The great joy about Choke Canyon though is how the Italian writing approach and the mildly off acting (probably caused by the actors’ confusion about what the hell it is that’s going on in the script) collide with the not terribly cheap looking, and generally impressive shots of the desert and rock landscapes, and Bail’s very accomplished version of the classically – by 1986 probably rather old-fashioned to a contemporary audience – American way of shooting stunts and action, mixing approaches to low budget filmmaking that don’t mix all that often, providing the best of both worlds for a precious one and a half hours.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Nuclear Family, Exploded: Ward Moore’s ‘Lot’ and ‘Lot’s Daughter’

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Mr. Jimmon even appeared elated, like a man about to set out on vacation.

“Well folks, no use waiting any longer. We’re all set. So let’s go.”

So begins the saga of David Jimmon, the focal point of Ward Moore’s post-nuclear novelettes Lot and Lot’s Daughter (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May 1953 and October 1954) and thematic successor to Albert Weener, the antiheroic protagonist of Moore’s free-market doomsday satire Greener Than You Think (William Sloane Associates, 1947). Jimmon is introduced in medias res, as he finishes packing his family (wife, daughter, two sons) and a bulky assortment of hunting gear and non-perishables into his station wagon. It could well be the beginning of a typical American vacation, as the opening lines allude, were it not for the strange overtones that surround it. The utilities have been cut, and the Jimmon’s second car sits idly in the garage, “the air thoughtfully let out of the tires and the battery hidden.” The wagon’s FM set belches Mexican radio, Civil Defense broadcasts, and channel after channel of static.

The implications are clear. The atom has struck the greater Los Angeles area, though Moore leaves the attack itself tantalizingly off page. The reader is left to deduce it’s full scope from fragmentary quotation of Civil Defense reports and Jimmon’s questionable deductions. He balances the official assurances of a limited attack (“. . . panic will merely slow rescue efforts. Casualties are much smaller than originally reported . . . “) and a capable emergency response with grimmer observations; civilization is cooked by his estimation, and only those (like himself, conveniently) with the foresight to prepare and the ingenuity to put such preparation to action are deserving of survival.

Therein lies the crux of Lot and its sequel Lot’s Daughter. Speculative fiction is ripe with tales of man’s efforts to survive in the face of some great cataclysm or other, and Moore’s stories themselves served as uncredited source material for scenarist Jay Simms’ Panic in Year Zero! (American International Pictures, 1962), a film that positively revels in its chauvinist post-apocalyptic excesses. The similarities are only skin deep, however, and one would be remiss in lumping Lot or Lot’s Daugher together with the bulk of libertarian survivalist fantasies. David Jimmon is certainly no self-made doomsday hero, as is Ray Milland’s Harry Baldwin in the filmed version, protecting his family against an inevitable post-nuke social decline and taking up arms to fight for life, liberty, and the American way against black market profiteers and doped-up hot-rod hoodlums. Jimmon is a fundamentally broken character in the best of Moore’s writing tradition, a meek and cowardly perennial malcontent and a festering amalgamate of middle-aged resentments; he is a Harry Baldwin only in his own delusions, and deluded enough to believe himself superior to all.

Jimmon hates many things. He hates his neighbors, the Warbinns (“. . . incompetent borrower, bad neighbor, thoughtless, shiftless, criminal . . .“), who provide an early stumbling block to his station wagon exodus from A-bombed Los Angeles. He hates the family pet, a spaniel Jimmon leaves to fend for itself in the hills of Malibu (“. . . Should have sent the dog to the humane society; more merciful to have it put to sleep. Too late now. . .“). But most of all David Jimmon hates his own family, and the civic-minded responsibility that binds him to them.

Dependent. Helpless. Everything on him. Parasites.

But as the station wagon barrels wrong-way down a divided highway the ties that bind him to his pre-disaster responsibilities begin to fray. The prospect of abandoning the long-engrained habits of good-natured civility invigorates David Jimmon.

What, after all, does he now owe to those for whom he was responsible? His wife Molly, whom he wishes were fat and supine, and whom he suspects of cheating while simultaneously refusing to believe she has the independent agency to have done so. His two sons, David Jr. and Wendell, in whose youthful recalcitrance he sees the germ of violent hooliganism. Before merely a burden, now an existential danger to his individualism, and the final barrier to the shedding of his civility. His predilections and prejudices, presentiments and perversions simmer, barely sublimated, tenuously restrained by the eroding bonds of family.

Parasites.

A gas station break. Jimmon pays the attendant’s extortionate rates, bemused. Wendell rushes to the restroom. David Jr. ponders catching a movie. Molly wonders about the local hotel accommodations. Jimmon slips a wad of cash into her purse, $20,000 in hundred dollar bills- the sum of his life savings, and suggests she take David Jr. and find a telephone.

Parasites.

Jimmon orders his teenage daughter, Erika, into the station wagon. She complies. He slides behind the wheel, starts the motor, and shifts the wagon into low gear . . .

. . . he thought Erika turned to him with a startled look. As the station wagon moved forward, he was sure of it.

“It’s all right, Erika,” said Mr. Jimmon, “I’ll explain later.”

He’d have lots of time to do it.

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Cover detail from Urania #375, published in March of 1965, which collects Italian translations of both ‘Lot’ and ‘Lot’s Daughter’.

Set some six years on from the events of Lot, Lot’s Daughter finds Jimmon struggling to exist in his brave new world, the initial post-attack excitement having long-since subsided and the invigoration of his grand social trespass supplanted by the tangible consequences of the same. Jimmon and Erika are alienated from whatever may remain of the America they left behind, isolated in a patch of otherwise unpopulated woodland near Monteray. The station wagon is hidden, its battery dead, its radio silent. Whatever has become of his abandoned wife and sons is unknown.

Jimmon’s fantasy of survival has collapsed under the weight of the realization of his own crippling weaknesses. The sum total of his achievements in six years are a single ramshackle shelter, an incongruous collection of cut logs and moss in constant need of repair. His carefully collected supplies have been lost to careless exposure to the elements, his best-laid plans now but a string of dismal personal failures. A roof not boarded. A dam not built. Local foodstuffs are either depleted or beyond his minimal skills to hunt them down, and he falls upon a dwindling population of shellfish, gleaned from the coastal waters nearby, for his subsistence. He has a four year old son, fathered through an incestuous union with his own daughter (a relationship “. . . of almost mystic propriety . . .“), and both have become wholly dependent on Erika for their ongoing survival.

Parasites.

As her father before her, Erika holds her resentments at bay through the dull persistence of her familial responsibilities. She patches the walls of their shelter, keeps the fire burning through the night, collects ever-smaller abalone from along the coast, and reminds David Jimmons to shave. The sum of her existence is consumed and defined by the needs of others, those of the father who abandoned her mother and brothers, and of the child born of their indiscretion.

Then, one day, change. A set of jeep tracks headed southbound along a stretch of sand-swept highway. People. A chance. Hope.

Parasites.

Lot and Lot’s Daughter make for compelling, even shocking, reads more than sixty years after they were originally published; Moore’s prose remains pointed, stark, deliciously sardonic and surprisingly provocative. Comparison with Panic in Year Zero! is too tasty to resist. Where Simms’ screenplay and the resulting film delight in their derivative exercise in anarchic post-disaster fantasy1, Moore’s novelettes serve as pre-emptive rebuke of the same. The speculative aspect of Lot is not, after all, to ask what would happen should atom bombs fall on America – film and fiction alike are replete with such narratives. Lot inquires instead of those who would wish for such catstrophes, and of what might become of them should they get precisely what they asked for.

In the end, in keeping with the Biblical allusion of the title, Jimmon reaps what he has sown. He sits with his son (grandson?) in his deteriorating shelter, now empty save for the two of them, having abandoned the people he had grown to despise and been abandoned by them in kind.


Print copies of Lot and Lot’s Daughter can be a bit tricky to pin down. The stories were last published together in a handsome edition of 400 (300 soft-cover and 100 leather-bound, the latter signed by author Michael Swanwick, who provides the introduction to the edition) from Tachyon Press in 1996, but copies can be quite expensive to obtain (I found instances of the desirable 72-page tome selling for anywhere from $98 to $1500). It’s much easier to procure each separately. Lot is regularly reprinted, and most recently appeared in A Science Fiction Omnibus (Penguin Modern Classics, 2007). Lot’s Daughter is less often revisited, but was collected as part of A Decade of Science Fiction (Doubleday, 1960). That collection saw numerous reprints through the middle-1960s, and used copies of it are both readily available and quite affordable.

1 Panic in Year Zero! is so similar in its events that it points to a second, and obvious, uncredited source in addition to Moore’s set of stories – John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, which had been released to significant commercial success in 1956. That novel remains strangely out-of-print in the USA, and the Penguin Modern Classics reprint from 2009 offers one of the few reasonable options for reading it here.

「丑三つの村」Village of Doom

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Young INUMURA Tsugio (FURUOYA Masato) is a perennial invalid, and something of a pariah in his rural village. It’s the late 1930s, and at a time when the rest of the village’s young men have been enlisted into the Imperial Army the sickly Tsugio is safe at home with his only family – a doting grandmother. Tsugio’s self-education and perceived arrogance only complicates his relationship with his fellow villagers further, isolating him from all but Yasuyo (TANAKA Misako), a young woman his own age whom Tsugio adores. But Tsugio’s relationship with Yasuyo is emotionally fumbling and physically unconsummated, a point of frustration for a young man in the throws of sexual development. Complicating things further is Tsugio’s stringent nationalism, which defines his social interactions and finds him constantly and inevitably falling short of his own expectations.

An unexpected outlet for the young man’s frustrations arises within the village’s female population, particularly those whose young husbands are at war. Several of the wives contrive clandestine relationships with the weak (and presumed harmless) Tsugio, whom they find a convenient tool for alleviating their own loneliness. Tsugio wastes little time in adapting to his new lot in life, but the charm of it all is short-lived. Determined to serve his country along with the rest of his generation, Tsugio subjects himself to a physical examination so that he might enlist in the army as well. The results are disastrous. The cause of the young man’s ongoing illness is tuberculosis, an incurable disease in Tsugio’s time and one which had claimed both of his parents years before.

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Word of the diagnosis travels quickly, and Tsugio finds himself ever more at odds with his fellow villagers. Upon witnessing the brutal murder of a transient misfit by a gang of his elders Tsugio tries to do the right thing, but after reporting the crime to a local authority he is derided and ostracized instead. The women of the village close their doors to him as well, disgusted and fearful of what his disease might mean for them. Only Yasuyo remains in support, but this too is fleeting – when she is ushered off to an arranged marriage by her family Tsugio finds himself alone once more, and his fervency and frustration begins to transform into something far more disturbing. As his rage against his fellow villagers grows Tsugio quietly plots, secretly arming himself for a vengeful assault on all those he believes have wronged him.

Late one evening his plan is put to action. He cuts the electrical lines into the village and returns home, where he ritually transforms himself into something less than human – a do-it-yourself demon with a pump shotgun at his side and a pair of flashlights strapped to his head. As the village sleeps Tsugio descends, systematically eliminating the families he deems to have transgressed against him and finding empowerment and purpose in the bloody destruction of those who had so long denied him.

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As shocking a film now as it was upon its release in early 1983, lauded pink film director TANAKA Noboru’s Village of Doom is an unconventional and unsettling exploration of one of present society’s most persistent bogeymen – the mass shooter. If Tsugio’s influences and actions feel disturbingly true to life (especially in a era where the crimes and character of his all-too-common modern analogues are dissected ad nauseam by a voracious 24-hour media cycle) it’s with good reason. Despite altering names and taking a degree of dramatic liberty with the subject matter (as had NISHIMURA Nozomi’s eponymous 1981 source novel) Village of Doom is a broadly accurate retelling of the infamous Tsuyama Incident, which occurred in a rural village in Okayama in May of 1938. Indeed, Village of Doom‘s protracted and controversial reenactment of the event earned it the ire of Japan’s censorship board – the Eirin deemed the film to be unjust and cruel on the whole and restricted it in theatrical release with a rating of R-18, the equivalent of an X from the MPAA.

One can forgive them for finding the film a tactless affair – it is, and deliberately so. Director Tanaka was best known then as now as the talent behind some of the very best of Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno series, and he brought the same transgressive sensibilities to his first (and unless I’m mistaken, only) production for Shōchiku. In retrospect Village of Doom seems a logical progression for the studio, which had been going against its own trademark style (and with excellent box office results) since the middle 1970s. Their highly publicized and very successful 1977 adaptation of YOKOMIZO Seishi’s much-loved mystery novel Village of 8 Gravestones thrilled audiences not just with its lofty production value, but with fountainous bloodshed as well – coincidentally or otherwise, one of that film’s most famous scenes plays as a deliciously grim invocation of the Tsuyama Incident (from which Yokomizo’s novel, which began serialization in 1949, drew contemporary inspiration). IMAMURA Shōhei’s violent biographical drama Vengeance is Mine continued the trend, casting top talent OGATA Ken as an ex-con fraudster who murdered his way across Japan nary a decade prior. That film won praise from critics and audiences alike, topping Kinema Junpo’s top-ten list for the year and sweeping most of its annual awards categories.

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There’s a lot of similarity to be had between the Imamura film and Tanaka’s, which premiered four years later, most having to do with the historically-grounded subject matter (whether through intent or by happenstance, Shōchiku itself alluded to the similarities with their ad art for the film). Village of Doom separates itself largely along exploitative lines (More sex! More violence!), with Tanaka playing the gruesome eventualities of his story to the outrageous, subversive hilt. Indeed, the enduring shock-factor of the film lies less in its violent content (considerable in a film built around the slaughter of nearly three-dozen people) than in the unexpected manner in which Tanaka portrays it. Despite the true crime overtones Village of Doom plays a lot like some of the other action sagas of the decade, replete with hissable baddies who go against the moral righteousness of a just hero and are summarily suppressed in bloody fashion, with one-liners to spare and a triumphant power ballad to tie everything neatly together.

Of course the hero in this case isn’t an ex super-soldier blackmailed into action or a Vietnam vet pushed too far by prejudiced yokels or Rowdy Roddy Piper laying a smackdown on an alien invasion, he’s a real-life mass murderer responsible for one of the most infamous crimes in Japanese history. To that end Village of Doom seems almost calculated to incense those who rail against violent media as murder fuel for the world’s disgruntled loners, indulging as it does in an almost mythic glorification of an actual atrocity. It’s a coup for director Tanaka, who deftly hijacks established heroic conventions for his own nefarious purposes and leaves audiences in the uncomfortable position of rooting for a man they know will be responsible for terrible things. That so many of Tsugio’s attacks amount to little more than gruesome misogynist wish fulfillment only heightens the internal unease, the viewer’s innate thirst for cinematic justice conflicting with the abject horror of the action unfolding on screen. We can be frightfully permissive just so long as we’re provided a satisfying dénouement, a fact Village of Doom lays bare. Rarely has a film left me feeling so uncomfortable in my own skin.

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Credit director Tanaka for that, but also star FURUOYA Masato, whose gaunt, tall physique (he measured a lofty 188 cm, or roughly 6 ft 2 in) was a perfect physical match for the alternately meek and menacing Tsugio. A frequent collaborator of Tanaka’s and a fellow veteran of Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno revival, Furuoya capably carries the film, which unfolds explicitly from the perspective of his character – without his ability to render Tsugio so sympathetically much of Village of Doom‘s unsettling potential might well have been lost. Though Furuoya necessarily commands the bulk of audience attention Shōchiku provide a typically strong stable of familiar talent in his support. Prolific stage, film, and television actor HARA Izumi was already well into the fifth decade of her career by the time of Village of Doom‘s production, and appears here in a hefty role as Tsugio’s grandmother, while NATSUYAGI Isao (Village of 8 Gravestones) is suitably unpleasant as a seedy lead villager. ARAI Yasuhiro (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters) is best known for his extensive and ongoing career in television, and appears as Tsugio’s disaffected loafer buddy Tetsuo – a youth aimlessly biding what time he has left before the army drafts him off to his untimely demise. TANAKA Misako (Roar of the Crowd), IKENAMI Shino (Devil’s Flute), OHBA Kumiko (House), and SATSUKI Midori (Blade of Oedipus) take turns as Tsugio’s varying love interests (his beloved Yasuyo and a trio of ill-fated housewives respectively), and gravure photo shoots of the four in-costume were a significant component of Shōchiku’s promotional push for the film.

While attendance figures are hard to come by it’s safe to say that Shōchiku were pleased with Village of Doom‘s performance, and the studio continues to profit from its reputation – the film has been a staple of the company’s Best of… series of video releases since the days of VHS, and was recently reissued in a restored Blu-ray edition. Nothing sells quite like sex, violence, or controversy, and Village of Doom wraps all three into a package that’s far more alluring than most of us would care to admit.

「丑三つの村」 VILLAGE OF DOOM is available on R2 DVD and All Region Blu-ray from Shōchiku 松竹, or on R2 PAL DVD (with English subtitles) from Warrior in the United Kingdom.

2012: Curse of the Xtabai

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Very suddenly, the population of a small village in Belize is struck by a deadly illness. It’s not your run-of-the-mill kind of sickness either, but the sort of thing that very quickly convinces the local doctor to somewhat unhelpfully mumble about curses. The government is very quick to quarantine the village, so soldiers surround the place and are all too willing to gun down everyone who comes too close; on the other hand, we don’t get to see any attempts at actual medical help.

Young Nehanda (Nehanda Higino) has been having a recurring dream concerning a cave, the jungle and the witch-like creature known as the Xtabai. When her little brother catches the illness, and her mother is killed by the soldiers when she tries to leave to find a doctor who doesn’t go from “unknown illness” to “curse” in the course of a few hours, Nehanda becomes convinced these dreams are indeed prophetic, and the cave contains a way to lift the curse destroying her village. So off she goes to the jungle with vaguely sleazy local guide and owner of an excellent name John Jones (Arran Bevis), and half of her school mates as well as her teacher (Jim Goodchild Arnold) in tow, facing the dangers of the soldiery as well as the rather unwanted attentions of the Xtabai herself.

Central-American Belize isn’t exactly a metropolis of filmmaking, so Xtabai may or may not be the country’s first (and possibly only) horror film. Not surprisingly with a film from a country with a small population and comparatively little cinematic infrastructure, director Matthiew Klinck’s epic is very rough around the edges, mostly shot with handheld digital cameras and featuring amateur actors. It does have a bit more going for it production-wise than many a microbudget horror film though, like actual soldiers portraying the members of the Belizian army (which comes as a bit of a surprise in a film that does portray that organisation as perfectly willing to gun down an unarmed woman and taking flight on the first sighting of a floating witch), and a general air of professionalism making the best out of a difficult situation behind the camera.

Xtabai is an interesting (in the best possible interpretation of the word) mixture of various elements: there’s an air of down-to-Earth realism to the early scene setting parts of the film – in part certainly on account of the semi-professional actors in very real locations – but the film also shows an imaginative streak that seems half to be caused by the ambitions of low budget horror movie that doesn’t quite want to only copy other films and half feels like folklore. This is after all a quest story about a girl trying to save her brother from a curse.

There’s also a bit of what I’ll never stop to call home-made psychedelia going on. The Xtabai’s murders scenes are delightful examples of how to use the cheapest digital effects to portray the change in perception attacks of the Weird/supernatural have on the characters, and definitely demonstrate more creativity than just letting the Xtabai slash and stalk in too mechanical a manner. From time to time, Klinck even manages to find a bit of visual poetry. I was particularly fond of the shadow play in Maestro’s death and the pure Weirdness of his fate in this regard, but there are a lot of little moments like that scattered around the film to keep the jaded horror film viewer interested.

I deeply appreciate the film’s dedication to the local: it’s not only the jungle (though I suspect that’s as good as cheap locations that are just sitting there for a filmmaker to use can get), or the way the film’s characters don’t fit horror movie tropes quite the way one expects. It’s not that the characters are deep mind you, but they are products of slightly different cultural sensibilities the film doesn’t attempt to hide, though they might very well be particularly embarrassing clichés if you’re from Belize.

The Xtabai – related to other folkloric entities of a parallel kind from all around the world as she may be – is a great pleasure in the local regard too, as is the film’s decision to include some of her stranger habits you’d typically get to see in folklore or in Weird Fiction, and less in straight-up horror. To make a final example of the film’s individual way of going about things, the Xtabai can in the end only be conquered with the help of a human sacrifice as prepared by a helpful Mayan elder (Nicasio Coc, I believe), something Klinck doesn’t keep hidden for some kind of final twist or for a not pre-planned self-sacrifice but lets the Mayan gentleman state completely friendly and matter-of-factly right when the characters meet him.

Of course, there’s also the mandatory “sexy bikini scene” (absurdly enough after the first member of our expedition has been taken by the Xtabai), a plot that more than once creaks mechanically, some feet dragging and so on and so forth in here, too, but in the case of this film, all that adds a slightly naive charm to the proceedings and not the generic blandness it could have. These weaknesses just can’t distract from Curse of the Xtabai’s inherent qualities of Weirdness, localness, imagination and enthusiasm that make it a film very much worth seeking out for those willing to approach a film on its own terms.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Mister Hipp Goes to Town: The ‘Undercovers’ Notes

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Undercovers_big_boxWhere golden-age pornography is concerned, 1982’s Undercovers is no lost classic. I had certainly never heard of the film before it found its way into a package of big-box VHS tapes I ordered, and having watched it, I can say that’s no surprise.

An unambitious spy farce that’s less saucy than it is sleep-inducing, Undercovers follows an aging dime store James Bond through his ineffectual and booze-addled efforts to track down a vaginally-installed diplomat-stupefying device using the most advanced secret technology available to him – a Milton Bradley Pocket Simon. Non-secrets are revealed in grindhouse bathroom stalls, Turkish barbershop patrons meet their ends in the name of comedy, and geriatric Bond gets head from an unfortunate pornographic also-ran. Top-billed Samantha Fox (A Night to Dismember) does her good-natured level best with a screenplay that does neither, shags a janitor, and is forgotten as soon as Undercovers remembers its own plot. Sharon Mitchell (Night of the Juggler) makes more of an impression as androgynous Blofeld stand-in Enema, and the leather-heavy interpretive dance orgy that unfolds in her fog-bound lair is the film’s only real highlight. The rest is a drowsy mix of bland scripting, worse acting, and unwavering technical indifference, punctuated with sex that forgets to be sexy and comedy that forgets to be funny. It may be far from the worst the porn world has to offer, but as an entertainment it barely rates.

I’m unaware of if, when, or how widely Undercovers was distributed as a theatrical feature, but in the early 1980s it appeared on VHS from Caballero Video (a branch of the insidiously, delightfully named Caballero Control Corporation). The release is pretty typical of the time – the tape is housed in a generic clamshell case, which is itself packaged in an attractively designed (and in this case, generally tasteful) oversized box. I’ll confess that it was the box, and not so much its contents, that led me to add it to my order. After all, as one who grew up during the first home video boom, and who later found his first employment in a declining rental shop, these big box releases hold a lot of visceral appeal.  Still, I like porn, so aside from the few bucks the seller was asking I figured there was precious little to lose.

Undercovers_big_box_backWhile I may have found Undercovers a less than memorable experience, some unknown someone almost certainly felt otherwise. The evidence for this is one of the weirder things I’ve ever encountered in my years of collecting second-hand whatsits; six small pages worth of hand-scrawled notes which relate, in surprisingly detailed and suitably bizarre fashion, the events of the film in question. These I found lurking behind the tape within its clamshell case, where they had remained for long enough for the ink on the first page to discolor from  contact with the tape’s reels. How long might that take, exactly? I have no idea, but given the tape’s age (thirty-plus years) it has the potential to have been quite a while.

From the enigmatic first line (“Mister Hipp Goes to Town”, a reference to a non-pornographic cartoon that was included at the start of the tape) and numeric cataloguing of the film’s cast to the the systematic abbreviations for sex acts (“CL”, “DS”, and the ever-popular “✲ on butt”) and context-free narrative details (“9) talks to 11) go to Istanbul” or “waves flag”), these cards are far more interesting than the film itself. Would that Undercovers had half of their crudely poetic appeal. Indeed, deciphering the author’s nigh-inscrutable handwriting became the default household pastime in the week following the tape’s arrival, as did an effort to discern the film’s plot from the notes prior to our actually watching the thing. Whoever said that pornography can’t bring a family together?

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Photos of the individual cards appear below, with each side followed by ExB’s attempts at a transcription. In the case of the latter we have endeavoured to remain as true as possible to the original text, spelling errors, punctuation, and grammatical oddities, but the author’s often inscrutable handwriting has made the task a daunting one to say the least. With regards to the formatting of the transcription as it appears on this blog:

• The original author sometimes separates scenes or shots with a variety of vertical lines, which are represented here with a vertical stroke |

• Ejaculations and other semen-related events, abbreviated with asterisks by the author, are represented by an open centre asterisk ✲

• Paragraphs are denoted by

• Any complementary notations from ExB will appear in brackets []

And that’s all, I believe. Enjoy the weird!

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UNDER COVERS (1982) (1:27)

1) Becky Savage – Luciana [excised text below]
2) Samantha Fox – Dilly
3) Sharon Mitchell – Enema [excised text above]
4) Deep Throat – Deep Throat
5) Debbie Ross – Member
6) Drea – Slave
7) Tigr – Slave
8) Mcrane – Slave
9) Laurence Rothchild – Commander James
10) Bobby Astur – Harry
11) Sir John Feelgood – “Q”
12) Baron Fritz Von Schleff – Gross-Finger
13) Tommy La Roc – Janitor
14) Ken Starbuck – Diplomat 1
15) Richard Russell – # 2
16) Johnny Stagl- Slave
17) Anthony Venuti- Slave
18) Mac Laurin- Slave
19) Richard McCoy- Chauffeur


Mister Hipp Goes To Town.
1) + (2) kiss, | lay on bed, kiss, CL, Fing, | She’s on all fours, DS, pull out, ✲ on butt, | Both smoke, he asks her to put

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[continued from side one] atomic device in vagina, will pay her $$$, “When do I start”
12) calls 3), being attended by slaves, tells her 1) has agreed to implant. Perform ASAP.
1) on operating table, legs spread, nurses assist 9) clean pussy, table, cream, on pussy, fing, implant device, in pussy.  Lay out knees, put her on gerney, wheel back to room.
12) calls 11) and tell about operations, implant will make men “an idiot” upon ejaculation, 11) tell him to get someone to remove it suggest 9), 2) overhears call, morgue, wrong #.
9) out of jail, kills guy in barber shop, 12) in London, 2) runs in on 10) playing piano, tells him about operation phone call, also about 9) looking for 1) to get devise, 10) tells 2) to get device back from 9) when he gets it | 2) undresses 10), drops his pants, cock out, she kneels, BJ. | She nude on bed, rub own pussy, he’s on top, kiss, kiss tits, moves down, CL, kiss, pull out, she makes cock ✲ on belly, kiss.
9) arrives at headquarters.  Sees 11) in office, gives him drawing of girl, devise to detect her, must check out a lot

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[continued from side two] of women, tells him about 10) + 2) trying to get device also, mention 12), 11) mentiotion brother, has finger + ½ | 12 goes outside finds, (7), sitting in car, tells 2) wants to meet him, meet at pub.
2) tells five girls about being out to get 9), wear black outfits,
3) tells other girls by pool to wear white outfits, takes device from 9) when he gets it, 3) drunk
At pub, dart practice, 9) shoots, 2) arrives in pink feathers, 9) orders champaign, kiss at bar 2) hand out of champaign, red files.  About him, sip beer, more beer, lossen up, more beer, grabbing cock, more beer, 2) asks him to fuck, at his flat, he can’t stand up, can’t do it now, gives 2) his address, 2) leaves, place bombed.
2) at 9) appt house, asks 13) janitor to unlock door, follows her in, he sits in chair, she undresses, kneels unzip pants, BJ
9) calls 11) about bomb blast.  Thought she was going to blow me not blow me up.

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2) continues BJ on 9), | She’s on all fours on sofa, DS, pull out, she pulls cock, ✲ on butt, kiss. | she grabs her cloths he leaves, she searches appt, can’t find “it”.
9) reads in paper about “Deep Throat” – goes [excised text below “goes”] to theater, goes inside, sits, guys jerking off, 4) calls him over, kiss, unzip pants, BJ, moist cock, ✲ in mouth, spat ✲ in handkerchief, asks for message, no message, charge 25 lbs, pays her. He leaves, goes to men’s room, pisses, hears guy in stall, Deep Throat, talk to him personally, plan aborted, protect gismo, go to first call 11)
At first, 9) calls 11), plan changed, go to Venice Italy, he leaves, two agents, one is black other is white, shoot each other when he ducks. | Flys to Venice, rental car lot, goes to hotel, white agent (girl) shot. | In room, girl calls 9) to meet him and remove devise.  3) gets girl ([unknown scribble]?) to go to him, | 9) in gondola, meets her, run to lonely spot, kiss, checks her with decoder, no device, he runs off.

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9) talks to 11) go to Istanbul,
10) tells 2) she will have one more chance, 1) + 9) will be at Istanbul,
In Istanbul, 9) wanders street, goest to park. | 11) calls 9), waves flag, | 9) open violin case, radio, discuss 1), gone home.
3) on back, gets invitation to “ball” 6); 7), 8) + 16) 17) 18)
3) sends out girls, watch by window, bodies against glass, guys dance around 3), she stands, guys rub her body, one guy CL [centered dot] | gives 3 BJ, CL BJ guy, CL, CL/BJ | 3) on back asks girls to go 11) to stay, kiss, kiss tits, CL, kiss | she’s on all fours, DS, ✲ on butt.
9) gets mail, invitation to ball, |11) get one too.  Opens it. | 9) talks to 11), discuss invitations, 11) tells 9) to go, meets [number and parenthesis, scribbled out] ? ? .
Big house, limos drive up, 9) checks out women with decoder as they go inside, decoder finds 1), guy with her; gets her apartment address.
9) goes to her appt, goes inside, couple 2) and 12) come to door, enter, 9 hides, he wants to fuck, she wants romance,

Undercovers_side_6

[continued from side five] they undress each other | she sits on bed, drops his pants, BJ) she lays back, dress off, on floor, kiss her tits, kiss, CL, | he’s on back, BJ, she sits on cock, FF XO, pull out cock, makes ✲ on pussy, rub cum on tits, 1) hears decoder, looks under bed, 9) comes out, 12) now an imbecile, | 9) talks to 1), appeal to her decency, pardon + $10 M, tell them it was flushed away, she agrees | she lays back on bed, legs spread, he gets vacuum cleaner, sucks pussy, get device (from hose), she thanks him.
12) in  limo, gives 9) a ride, tells him about device, gives it to 9), 9) looking at girls, | stop car kick out 9),
9) goes to 11) office, gives bag to 11), takes out device, test w/ decoder, not device, 11) chews out 9) about giving 12) the device, | 11) tells 9) to watch demented diplomats.
9) herds them off, down street

Special thanks are owed to my wife, who did the bulk of the work transcribing these things. I found the handwriting to be mostly illegible, so without her assistance it’s safe to say this article never would have happened.

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Tales that Witness Madness (1973)

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Some middle-aged guy (the body of Jack Hawkins and the awkwardly dubbed voice of Charles Gray) visits the high-tech – by way of what looks a bit like a set from a cost-effective (but awesome) SF TV show – psychiatric clinic of one Professor Tremayne (Donald Pleasence). Tremayne shows off his four favourite patients while mumbling something about how his deep research into the cases and the truth about them will change everything.

This being a British horror anthology movie, with each patient lies a tale. There’s little Paul (Russell Lewis), who has a pair of permanently warring parents (Georgia Brown and Donald Houston), a nice private tutor (David Wood), and an imaginary friend who just happens to be an invisible tiger cleverly named “Mr. Tiger”. The obvious thing happens.

Next up is Timothy Patrick (Peter McEnery). His tale involves the inheritance of quite a few antiquities, among them the (soon to be moving) picture of one Uncle Albert (Frank Forsyth) and a penny-farthing that once belonged to the man. The unicylce or the picture or both have telekinetic powers that violently draw Timothy onto the cycle, make him cycle quite hard and transport him into the unicycling past where he takes the place of Albert and repeats a scene or two from a doomed romance (his past adventure love and present day love both being played by Suzy Kendall, the former one in a hilariously melodramatic manner) while being observed by what looks like mud zombie Uncle Albert. Obviously, past and future catastrophe looms.

Patient number three is Brian (Michael Jayston). Brian lives peacefully in a large house in the woods with his mildly irascible –she’s being played by Joan Collins after all – wife/girlfriend Bella until he finds an about human-sized and vaguely woman-shaped piece of a tree in the woods. Obviously, he’s dragging it home and putting it in his living room. Soon, the age-old tale of a man’s affections split between a piece of wood and a woman repeats again.

Last but not least, we witness the tale of Auriol (Kim Novak), a literary agent who’s rather fond of her best client, the “Polynesian” – or “Hawaiian”, going by the whole luau thing – writer Keoki (Leon Lissek, obviously neither Polynesian nor Hawaiian but then it is rather difficult to imagine somebody with the appropriate ethnicity taking on this particular role). Little does she expect that Keoki is in the process of fulfilling the last wish of his dear old mum, namely, to sacrifice a virgin to their favourite god and have a nice cannibalistic get-together afterwards. As luck will have it, Auriol’s daughter Ginny (Mary Tamm) just happens to be a virgin. And wow, isn’t it quite the coincidence Auriol is actually planning a little luau for him! Accidental inter-family cannibalism just might ensue.

As the observant reader might have noticed, the stories contained in this not Amicus produced (despite being directed by dear old Freddie Francis and featuring a structure and actors you might know all too well from the Amicus films) British horror anthology are utter, preposterous tosh, ending on notes as obvious as moonlight, while still managing to be flat-out crazy.

If you’re looking for something moody, thoughtful or just vaguely believable, you’ve come to the wrong film. Like a lot of these anthologies, this one’s a horror comic made flesh, but – apart from tale number four – it’s less EC style horror than the sort of thing Charlton Comics would have put out in comics code times (with perhaps a bit more blood than would have been allowed there on screen), stuff that at the best of times distracts from how pedestrian it should be by being outright crazy. Which is pretty much exactly what Tales That Witness Madness does after the somewhat useless first story, adding utterly peculiar elements to the stories that would seem ill-advised in a film actually out to scare its audience. Seriously, a haunted penny-farthing? And let’s not even talk about the whole of story number three, which just might be one of the major achievements of human arts.

Talking of ill-advised, it is rather difficult not to realize – even if you pretend very hard not to notice – how much of a racist fever dream the film’s last tale is, with its evil brown people killing a white virgin and feeding her to her own mother, and there’s really nothing I can find to excuse it, so if that sort of thing offends you (and good on you), you’ll loathe the rest of the film for it, too, I suppose. On the other hand, I found this tale so preposterous and silly in tone while also being gloriously lurid I couldn’t help but enjoy it more than a little. It’s just very difficult for me to look at this sort of thing (particularly in a film made more than forty years ago) and take it seriously enough to get angry or even very annoyed at the dead people responsible; not that I approve of it, mind you.

Be that as it may, Francis is pretty much the ideal director for this whole beautiful mess, combining his usual wonderful sense of visual style with the appropriate shamelessness to actually bring these deeply stupid tales to glowing life. Francis has just the right sense for movement and colour to turn this into a moving comic strip, clearly realizing that attempting to add class to this stuff would be a fool’s errand and opting for being as lurid and peculiar as possible, a task he fulfils with aplomb (as well as, one assumes, on time and on a not very large budget). Despite being quite so silly, the film also shows a wonderful sense of the telling (yet weird) detail that is best demonstrated by how the tree thing in tale number three is a bit more shaped like a woman in every scene, until the rip-roaring denouement that suggests a piece of tree is preferable to poor Joan Collins.

Clearly, it pays off putting effort even into the silliest things.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

 

When it’s red you’re dead: Blood Moon (2014)

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The Old West. A group of travellers on a stagecoach – the freshly married couple of Deputy Marshal Jake (George Blagden) and Sarah Norman (Amber Jean Rowan), baby-faced London Times journalist Henry Lester (George Webster), nervous priest Father Dominic (Kerry Shale), saloon owner Marie (Anna Skellern), and a mysterious gunman named Calhoun (Shaun Dooley) they picked up on the way – make a pit stop in what is supposed to be a station located in what otherwise is a ghost town. Unfortunately, the station owner is spending a bit of time out of town in his new role as a ripped apart corpse, clearly having taken going native in the place a bit too seriously.

Calhoun – not the only white guy in this part of the West suspiciously knowledgeable about Native American monsters – quickly determines the man wasn’t killed by a normal animal but by a skinwalker; the rest of the party doesn’t exactly agree with his assessment. However, this specific dead body and the possible supernatural cause of its death might not be the most pressing of the party’s problems anyway, for they soon find themselves ambushed and captured by notorious outlaws Hank (Corey Johnson) and Jeb (Raffaello Degruttola) Walker, who might not be supernatural, but sure as hell are dangerous enough. Plus, at least one of the Walkers is so crazy, he might as well be a supernatural monster for all the difference it makes.

Of course, then there’s the further complication added to our heroes’ troubles that the station owner was indeed killed by a skinwalker and the creature’s still roaming the area in a very bad mood, particularly since a blood moon is hanging in the sky…

There’s also a subplot about Jake’s cousin, one Marshal Wade (Jack Fox) and his Native American tracker/visionary/witch friend Black Deer (Eleanor Matsuura) in their role as the miniature posse hunting the Walkers, but I honestly couldn’t tell you why these two are even in the movie apart from taking care of some plot setup the film could have handled without introducing two characters who’ll spend most of the film’s running time randomly trundling through the woods and not doing much of interest.

And right here, we’re at the main trouble with Jeremy Wooding’s UK-produced horror western Blood Moon – Alan Wightman’s script simply becomes awkward from time to time, not just by introducing a subplot that takes up more space than is necessary (and adds further characters to a film that already has enough of them just to introduce a bit of exposition, a minor horror scene that has little business being in the plot, and light deus ex machina-ing) but also with moments like Chekov’s Awkwardly Presented Silver Rings near the beginning. You know the rule: “If a werewolf film has a character showing off her silver rings in the first act, they will end up being used for werewolf killing in the third”. That Chekov guy really knew his stuff. These aren’t catastrophic failings as far as this particular film goes, though they do tend to make a movie that puts a western skinwalker twist on a Carpenter-esque siege scenario rather less focused and tight than I’d have liked it to be. On the other hand, wheneverBlood Moon works, it does so very well indeed, and it does work more often than not.

Despite including one or two scenes I found rather stagy for my tastes (mostly some of the indoor dialogue concerning Jeb), Wooding directs much of the film with a very sure hand, filming around its probably tiny budget quite elegantly and creatively, and turning the – mostly effective suitmation – monster into a credible threat as well as into a source of suspense that works as a nice catalyst for revealing the tensions between the characters besieged by it. That’s also an area where the script comes into its own in a positive way, giving stock character types just the right minor twists they need to come to life, and providing some fun old west style dialogue that might not be realistic (well, surely is not) but is – apart from a moment or two when it sounds just a bit silly – a joy to listen to. The majority of the actors not being Americans isn’t much of a problem here, either, because they’re not faking actual American accents here but are using what movies – a lot of them dubbed in Italy – have taught us people sounded like way back when. The core cast is decent, and often better, even if you don’t enjoy artificial accents, the film providing most everyone with a few moments to shine (and perhaps a pleasantly bloody death).

While I’ve done quite a bit of nitpicking in this write-up, I don’t want anyone reading come to the wrong conclusion about the film: if you’re able to get over its flaws – and there are more than enough virtues on display to make that pretty easy for me –Blood Moon is a fine example of contemporary low budget filmmaking, working in a genre mix that’s gotten a bit more common in the last decade or so but is still far from being overused, and providing  quite a few things to appreciate. That it’s not perfect isn’t really the most horrible thing imaginable (that would be getting ripped to shreds and not even eaten by a skinwalker, I suppose, or having to watch another Paranormal Activity sequel).


Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Evil’s Roots Run Deep: Jack Heller’s ‘Dark Was the Night’

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Some rather weird occurrences start happening in a US small town close to your proverbial deep dark woods. Things start with a missing horse and a line of curious, cloven-hoofed tracks running through the whole of the town, tracks that certainly don’t fit any animal anyone’s ever heard about. Despite, or perhaps even because of, the legends surrounding something living deep in the woods around town, sheriff Paul Shields (Kevin Durand) and his freshly imported formerly New Yorker deputy Donny Saunders (Lukas Haas) don’t believe in any cryptids roaming around town. A rather imaginative hoax seems more plausible to them.

Paul has his head full of other things, too: after the death of one of his two little sons in an accident he blames on himself, his marriage to his wife Susan (Bianca Kajlich) has hit a very rough spot, her now having moved out to live with her parents. So Paul is at first so distracted he doesn’t quite buy into the disquieted attitude going around town. The curious incidents are piling up though, and Paul might be emotionally battered but he does take his responsibility towards the people he has sworn to protect very seriously, so he changes his mind about the “hoax” before whatever it is that has come to town can take its first human victim (apart from some introductory ones he doesn’t know about which the film gave to the audience as a blood toll).

Now, if this doesn’t sound like a dozen SyFy Original creature features: a sheriff with a marriage on the rocks, a typical US small town, a hungry cryptid known from local Native American legends, the former big city deputy running from his own piece of the past, and so on and so forth. Which only goes to show that very often, the point in genre filmmaking isn’t being original, but using the clichés and the tropes you find in the right way.

For that is what makes Jack Heller’s (also responsible for another film that made good with not exactly original ideas in Enter Nowhere) Dark Was the Night as fine a movie as it turns out to be – the thought and care that has been put into these hoary old clichés to make them breathe and come alive again. I think much of this effect is caused by how careful Heller as well as Tyler Hisel’s script approach all of the very traditional elements they’re working with, clearly putting much thought into their place and meaning in the context of their specific narrative, instead of just regurgitating them like most other films would do (sometimes even to fun effect). This is not deconstruction or an “ironic” (shudder) approach to the creature feature, though. Rather, the film takes each old element and applies it as if it were new, more by changing the emphasis on elements than the elements themselves.

This careful (careful seems to me the watchword for the film) approach enables the film to turn plot elements that should be tiresome, like the whole dead kid/marriage trouble angle, into something emotionally touching and valid. To my eyes, the film does feel just a decisive bit more honest about the inner lives of its characters here too, aiming for a kind of psychological realism that fits its calm (or should I say careful?) approach to its monster. The way the film tells it, it’s not even feeling dishonest or clichéd that monster fighting actually can pull a guy out of his depression and bring a marriage back on track.

How well the character based parts of the plot work is in part due to the respectful and not melodramatic way it is written but of course also something the ensemble deserves praise for too. Durand, Kajlich and Haas in particular really hit the emotional spots right, treating the emotional turmoil of their characters in a monster movie with the same respect and care they’d apply to a domestic drama. And since the film very much puts the emphasis on these characters and their inner lives, it gets all the better for it.

This doesn’t mean the film isn’t a really fun low budget monster movie too. Heller does know how to make this part of the film memorable too, not surprisingly given the rest of the film’s approach) putting the emphasis here on suspense and expectation, only getting little snatches of its monster on screen for the longest time until it becomes impossible to hide the fact we have a case of a pretty mediocre looking CGI creature. At that point, however, the film has put so much effort and (again) care into building up the situation, the monster, and even the why of its attacks (without falling into a complicated mythology or over-explaining), it could have put a marionette on screen and still deserved all the praise it can get. I do love here, too, that the monster isn’t one of cryptozoology’s greatest hits but again a creature the film has put some thought into, trying to give the creature as much reality as it possibly can.

This sense of realism goes a long way for a film in a genre that mostly goes “yeah, bigfoot/the chupacabra/etc, you know” and does of course fit with the emotional and psychological realism on display as well.

The only moment I found somewhat disappointing was the usual horror movie “gotcha!” ending that has stopped working on me so much I can only ever see it as an empty cynical gesture anymore. Though it has to be said, even here Dark Was the Night keeps to its realistic approach to the strange in so far as the ending actually makes sense in the context of at least some of what we’ve seen before. However, complaining about a movie’s final thirty seconds when the rest of it is so carefully, unassumingly fine really is a luxury problem to have, so I can’t say I minded too much.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?