Sunday, December 6, 2015

Don't Torture A Duckling (1972)

Directed by: Lucio Fulci
Screenplay: Lucio Fulci, Gianfranco Clerici, and Roberto Gianviti
Starring: Barbara Bouchet, Tomas Milan, Florinda Bolkan, Marc Porel, Irene Papas, Georges Wilson
Running Time: 102 minutes

As the old saying goes, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. I had two other choices in mind for this VENGEFUL WITCH films round table and both had to be put on the back burner. SUSPIRIA was going to be my go to choice for this but that had to be put aside because I've decided to save that for a special project I'm working on for this blog. The next choice was going to be the bizarre Dutch silent "documentary" HAXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES but then that got hit with that bane of Netflix queues everywhere "Short Wait." Fortunately, I still had some notes left over from another project that ultimately didn't pan out, a series of posts about the films of Lucio Fulci that I planned to post this Halloween, so I had a back up handy. And unlike those other two, this one actually does feature a vengeful witch in a predominant role. "Vengeful" was more of a guideline than an actual rule, you see... From 1972, Lucio Fulci's unique entry into the Italian giallo genre, DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING, or as it's known in its native country, NON SI SEVIZIA UN PAPERINO. 

So, what's a giallo? I guess the first time you really start to discuss this genre on your movie review blog, you're sort of required to do a quick recap of the origins of the term. In 1929, an Italian publisher named Mondadori released a series of cheap crime / mystery pulp novels, most of which being Italian reprints of American and British crime authors such as Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Ellery Queen, Raymond Chandler and others. The book series was titled "Il Giallo Mondadori" due to their trademark yellow covers. ("Giallo" being the Italian word for "Yellow.") The series proved to be popular and some other publishers wanted in on some of that fat cash, so they too put out their own series of crime novels, complete with yellow covers. Cultural osmosis being what it is, "giallo" would eventually become synonymous in Italian pop culture with any type of detective / mystery thriller. Movies like Hitchcock's PSYCHO and VERTIGO would be considered "giallo" by Italian audiences, for example. However, what is popular considered a giallo wouldn't really be established until the 1960's, which is when Mario Bava released two films: THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. These two films, the latter especially, would be what would codify the basic tropes of a giallo: mysterious killers in black gloves, heavily stylized visuals, baroque titles, elaborate murder set pieces, outsider protagonists, glamorous women as the victims, etc. But while critical hits, neither of these movies apparently made much bank at the box office. The movie that would do for the giallo what A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS did for the spaghetti western wouldn't be along until 1970. That film would be THE BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMMAGE, the directorial debut of Dario Argento, a former film critic and screenwriter. (Prior to this, he had co-written the screenplay for ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, one of my favorite movies.) The film, which apparently drew heavily from Bava's BLACK LACE while ramping up the stylized violence, was an international success and kicked off the giallo's stint as a viable money maker. Between 1970 and 1973, Italy alone produced more than sixty five of the damn things and even the Spanish and German film industries would get in on the act. Their influence can even be seen in notable American films, such as Hitchcock's FRENZY, Brian DePalma's controversial DRESSED TO KILL, Wes Craven's A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, and the original HALLOWEEN, which John Carpenter would call "his Argento movie," making them a connective tissue of sorts between Hitchcock-ian thrillers and slasher films.

I must admit, that while I'm a familiar enough with them to recognize a giallo film or the elements in other movies that were influenced by them, the whole giallo genre is one of my big blind spots as far as my movie watching goes. I think I've seen more movies that take their cues from them, like some of the ones mentioned above, than I have the real deal, completely unfiltered pure uncut giallo experience. From memory I can only name DEEP RED and PHENOMENA, both by Argento, and seeing part of Bava's BAY OF BLOOD / TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE a while back. SUSPIRIA is one of my favorite horror films and it definitely has a lot of giallo in it's DNA, for obvious reasons, but ultimately it's more of a supernatural horror film / dark fairy tale. Well, I've been off and on something of an Italian horror kick since the middle of October as of late, so I've decided to correct this. DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING was the movie that started me on this, in fact.

I've seen DUCKLING described as Fulci's fun house mirror version of Harper Lee's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and, y'know what? That's actually not as absurd as it might seem at first glance. At their heart, both stories are of the manner in which a town's suspicions and prejudices escalate due to a horrible crime and how the fallout of that leads to the death of an innocent scapegoat. (Movie Morlocks has a good little write-up about how the influence of the 1962 film adaptation of MOCKINGBIRD can be traced through the entire horror genre. Read it here.) Even the title is somewhat evocative of it. The setting is Southern Italy rather than Alabama, here the rural village of Accendura standing in for Maycomb and in many ways, Accendura itself seems to be more of the main character of the story than any of the people in the film. When a twelve year old boy goes missing and is later found dead, Accendura finds itself the center of attention from both law enforcement and the national media. This is just first of several murders that will take place in this seemingly quiet town and as more and more young boys turn up dead, the town turns its suspicion and rage towards its various pariahs, culminating in one, a disturbed woman who practices witchcraft (Florida Bolkan), getting savagely beaten to death. When another of the town's outliers (Barbara Bouchet), a drug addict who was in a habit of making sexually provocative advances towards the victims, finds herself as the new prime suspect, she's forced to work with a reporter (Tomas Milan) to uncover who the real killer is.

DUCKLING is nestled in an interesting spot in Fulci's overall career. Like a lot of Italian directors, Fulci was a jack-of-all-trades, getting his start directing screwball comedies and westerns (one of which featured a pre-DJANGO Franco Nero) before tackling crime thrillers, horror films, and even dipping his toes into CONAN THE BARBARIAN knock-offs with his truly "What the hell?" CONQUEST. It was his horror work that made him an international success, marking him as one of the "big three" of Italian horror with Bava and Argento. The flashpoint, in this case, being ZOMBIE, his notoriously gruesome and grotty gutmuncher that was marketed in Italy as a sequel to George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD. It's ZOMBIE or perhaps his unofficial "trilogy of death;" CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD / THE BEYOND / HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY that horror fans know him for best over here and made "A Lucio Fulci movie" practically into a genre unto itself. However, before ZOMBIE, he made a trio of giallo movies that, like I said, are interesting to look at in the context of his entire career because they seem to represent something of a transition for Fulci from his earlier to later movies. 1969's PERVERSION STORY seems almost like an ancestor to 90's erotic thrillers ala BASIC INSTINCT, while LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN seems to be Fulci's first attempt at the hazy, hallucinatory narratives that would define his later work. DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING would be the third film of the bunch, and it's probably the most interesting, not only for how much it diverges from what we've come to expect from Fulci's films but from gialli as well.

First off, there's how it differentiates itself from other films by Fulci. When you think of a Lucio Fulci horror film, odds are you'll be thinking in terms of something like the aforementioned ZOMBIE or the GATES OF HELL trilogy. These are movies that run on a sort of feverish dream logic. Stuff just happens in them, basically, as if Fulci and his screenwriters had ideas for scenes and then whipped a vague idea to connect all of them. (Like say "You really shouldn't build your hotel over a Hellmouth.") Thing is, when Fulci's has a handle on things, this ends up working in the film's favor, such as in THE BEYOND, where the incomprehensible narrative actually helps instill the sense that reality is becoming more and more unhinged. His movies are also known for their extreme gore, even by the standards of the Italian horror film, with his trademark being something truly egregious happening to a character's eyes. (Poor Paola Menard.) Hell, ZOMBIE's level of grue was so infamous it had barf bags made and distributed as a promotion. His previous giallo, LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN, had a scene which featured eviscerated dog props that were so realistic looking Fulci and special effects artist Carlo Rimbaldi had to prove in court that they were fake! Here, content serves story and the tangents the film ends up going on, like whole subplot with the witch Maciara, actually work as a part of the whole. As for extreme violence, there’s really only two scenes. One is the attack on the witch Maciara by the townspeople, a vicious whipping with chains that presages a similar scene that opens up Fulci’s THE BEYOND. The other is the death of our killer, who smashes their face on rocks repeatedly as they fall from a cliff. It has to be said, this would already be a fairly ridiculous sequence but that it features a dummy that couldn’t be more unconvincing if you tried doesn’t help. Sparks shoot out of the thing’s face at one point! The rest of the time, we only come across the aftermath of the violence, the discovery of the boy’s bodies. The only other killing depicted on screen is a brief strangling. Obviously, there’s a very simple explanation for this. I imagine that even with it’s lighter restrictions on violence and sexuality, the Italian film industry still considered depicting graphic murder of children something of a no-no, so much of DUCKLING’s running time, Fulci had to find other ways to get his shocks across. This would be achieved either through imagery such as the film’s opening scene where we witness Maciara digging bare-handed in the dirt, unearthing the bones of a small child, or in edits like the one where we cut from one of the boys still alive immediately to the discovery of his battered body face down in a stream. Not yelling “influence” here but I’d like to note that depicting the results of the violence, rather than the violence itself, would also be put to good use in David Fincher’s gialli influenced SEVEN.

It’s effective and the fact that DUCKLING doesn’t rely on over-the-top murder sequences to knock you on your ass gives it a feel that’s fairly distinctive from other movies of its kind. The violence itself isn’t the only way in which DUCKLING goes out of its way to differentiate itself from other giallo. Many popular giallo elements rear their head here; the “outsider” protagonists, the mystery that’s “solved” more by not letting yourself get tripped up by red herrings than any actual piecing together of clues, and yes, the one murder we do see is carried out by an unseen figure wearing black gloves. But in many other ways, DUCKLING likes to screw with your expectations. Getting back to what I was talking about earlier, whereas most giallos would rack up a body count primarily of attractive women, much like slasher films, DUCKLING goes the more taboo route of makings its victims male children. In fact, the women are among the film’s more sympathetic characters, the movie even allowing Patrizia, a promiscuous drug addict, to become one of the heroes. Then there’s common technique of keeping your killer hidden, by only showing their hands as they prepare or stalk their victims. This is used here but that’s to help set up Maciara as a red herring!

How about how this movie looks? There is certainly some memorable imagery, such as the skeletal grim reaper figure that looms over the boys while at prayer, and some disorienting camera angles are used, but you won’t see much in the way of garishly colored, baroque visuals and sets. This wouldn’t fit with the story Fulci’s trying to tell. Instead, DUCKLING opts for a more naturalistic, earthy look and many of the locations used in the film wouldn’t look too out of place in a spaghetti western, in fact. That film’s other eventual hero is played Tomas Milan, star of THE BIG GUNDOWN, Sergio Corbucci’s COMPANEROS, and one of the myriad DJANGO sequels, adds to this. (Also, good lord, that’s mustache he’s sporting.) Patrizia’s modern home is the only set piece in the movie that resembles anything you’d expect to see in an Argento movie and that’s supposed to stick out like a sore thumb, the home’s inconsistency with the surroundings, not to mention her modern brightly colored outfits serving as marks of her outsider status.

It’s actually a bit frustrating that information about Fulci’s childhood and early life is so hard to come by. All I was able to dig up was that the man had a Catholic upbringing, which isn’t surprising – a Catholic Italian? Come on! – because Catholicism and more importantly, Catholic guilt hangs over everything in the movie. Fulci got into a bit of hot water, in fact, with the Church with this movie because it felt that it presented a negative image of the organization. The reason I became interested in learning about Fulci’s early life because Fulci cited DUCKLING as his favorite out of all of his films and called it his most personal movie. There’s something incredibly autobiographical about this film and the way it depicts life in small town Italy. Unlike his much of his later work, you get the sense that Fulci is trying to really say something here about this. And well, whatever he’s trying to say, it’s not too good. In DUCKLING, small town life isn’t presented as some sort of wholesome counterpart to the decadence of the city, but rather a place that has its own form of corruption simmering under the surface. The modern world is encroaching on Accendura, represented by a newly built highway on the town’s outskirts, and the people there aren’t happy with it. Repression is the name of the game here, with the town showing suspicion and prejudice against anything that doesn’t fit their ideals. At one point, a Catholic priest tells a reporter that the church has final word on what magazines and other publications can be distributed in Accendura. This repressive attitude is taken to its most cynical extreme when we finally uncover the identity of the killer, who was murdering the children because they had began to show interest in things like smoking and sex and didn’t wish for them to fall into sin. Of course, no one in the movie (or in real life, either) grasps that it’s this repressive attitude that’s driving them to behave like this. When you emphatically tell a kid to not do something, well, that’s going to make them what to do it even more but without any real understanding of what they’re dealing with. Take the movie’s most infamous scene, where Patrizia teases one of the boys after he stumbles across her sunbathing in the nude. That kid, who was all bravado earlier, becomes scared, timid and is in completely over his head. Man, way to make “nude Barbara Bouchet” disturbing, Fulci.

It’s this whole repression angle that ties into my observation that real main character of DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING is Accendura. The idea that the environment they’ve created made the murders possible and that a moral authority may be the one responsible for it never crosses the villagers’ minds. Instead they turn against the freaks, the weirdos, the Others, because in their minds they’re a convenient, guilt free target. They don’t fit with whatever moral standard we’ve imposed on ourselves so obviously only they could be capable of doing this horrible thing. Whenever a scapegoat is offered up, the townspeople immediately form a faceless mob and start baying for blood. (A theme Fulci would briefly touch on again with CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD) Which leads to the entire subplot with Maciara, who, to get back to the TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD parallels, is our Tom Robinson figure. Maciara confesses to the murders but when her confession entails putting a “curse” on the initial victims in revenge for their defiling the grave of her stillborn child, the police realize that these are simply the ravings of a disturbed woman and let her go. What follows is without a doubt the stand out stretch of the film and one of the best scenes Fulci ever staged. Walking through Accendura’s sun-baked streets, Maciara is spat upon by old women and then later followed and corralled into a local cemetery by some of the men, where she’s beaten bloody all while pleasant music from a local radio plays over the scene. Shades of Tuco’s torture scene from THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, perhaps? Maciara doesn’t die there, managing to drag herself to the local highway before expiring, passersby ignoring her or deciding that they don’t want to get involved. When the police arrive on the scene, the officer in charge pieces together fairly fast what happened and just by glancing at the gathered crowd, knows that the entire town had a part to play in the murder of an innocent women. You can’t arrest an entire town, though, and police can’t do anything but leave the one’s responsible to live with what they’ve done.

This, I think, represents another transition in Fulci’s horror films. While I haven’t seen them, discussions of PERVERSION STORY and LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN made them out to be very moralistic films, stories about how these people have done wrong and they’re getting their just desserts. This isn’t quite the case with DUCKLING. Yes, the killer is eventually unmasked and dies but look at the damage left in their wake: families destroyed, an innocent woman dead, and people with her blood on their hands. ZOMBIE, THE BEYOND, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, etc. all seem to be set in an uncaring universe, where, to quote UNFORGIVEN “deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” We see the beginnings of that here, where it doesn’t matter if what age you are, what walk of life you’re from, how moral you are, if circumstances deem that you are screwed, then buddy there’s nothing you can about it.

Or to put it another way, “Forget it, Jake…it’s Accendura.”

This review was a part of DIRTY HEX APPEAL: A Vengeful Witch Round Table, presented by the CELLULOID ZEROES blogger group. First up is WEB OF THE BIG DAMN SPIDER and their take on ATOR, THE FIGHTING EAGLE, then hop over to MICRO-BREWED REVIEWS for MIDNIGHT OFFERINGS. Still not enough? Then swing by CINEMASOCHIST APOCALYPSE, who's cooking up some BLACK MAGIC or stop off at THE TERRIBLE CLAW REVIEWS for THE HAUNTED PALACE!

A Little Something Extra:
"Burn The Witch" by Queens of the Stone Age. Getting into the music of Brody Dalle also lead me to check out Josh Homme, her husband's music, which includes Kyuss, Eagles of Death Metal and this band right here. A mix of classic and stoner rock, Queens have joined Monster Magnet and White Zombie on that list of bands where the volume just can't go high enough...

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Cronos (1993)

Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro
Screenplay: Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Fedirico Luppi, Claudio Brook, Ron Perlman, Tamara Shanath
Running Time: 94 minutes

Guillermo Del Toro was bound to turn up here at some point. It was inevitable. The big Mexican is unquestionably my favorite director to come along in the past decade and a half and one of the few whose movies I make every effort to see in theaters when I can. I first crossed paths with him when I rented MIMIC from Springhill’s local mom and pop in a stint between semesters at Louisiana Tech – not a movie that floored me, but enough of it has stuck with that I think it’s overdue for a re-watch – but the real gateway drug was BLADE II, his bloody, crazed sequel to Marvel and New Line’s surprise hit. Its mix of Hong Kong action and ALIENS channeled through gothic horror was right up my alley but it was the intelligence, humor and enthusiasm that Del Toro showed on the DVD’s special features that completely won me over.  I wouldn’t call Del Toro and myself kindred spirits but there’s enough in his obsessions and sensibilities that parallels what I enjoy in movies and art in general that I can jokingly describe him as a director who makes Movies Just For Me. His films are celebration of the strange and fantastic, undercut with a sense of melancholy and genuine empathy for the imperfect, the broken and the monstrous, whether they're heroes or villains. In Del Toro's world, monsters are more often than not tragic victims, something that runs throughout his entire body of work and can be seen as recently as his lavish gothic horror CRIMSON PEAK. As I stated when discussing Paul Verhoeven, in an industry that relies too much on "safe bet" entertainment, there's something quite wonderful about sitting in the theater and experiencing a film by a director that clearly doesn't care one bit for whatever the mainstream dictates. So, you can imagine how happy I was when I got hooked into participating in the Criterion Blogathon and while perusing the selections saw that not one but two of his films were available: His Spanish Civil War set ghost story THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE and my choice, CRONOS, his wholly unique twist on vampire mythology. I went with CRONOS because I feel that it may be in danger of getting lost in the shadow of Del Toro's later, more visible output. CRONOS isn't a perfect film, too obviously the work of a young, inexperienced artist who was still working on how to best express himself, but much of what would become Del Toro's trademarks are very much in evidence here and that definitely makes this movie worth your time.

CRONOS's story is a simple one by design: In the year 1537, an alchemist completes his work on the titular Cronos device, a gnarly crossbreed of mechanical scarab and Faberge Egg which our narration informs us will grant everlasting life to anyone who uses it. The device was obviously a success because when we jump ahead almost four hundred years later, we find the alchemist is still alive…but not for long, as he has been grievously injured by debris in a collapsing building. His invention was never recovered, hidden away in the base of a wooden archangel statue. That statue eventually finds its way into the possession of Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi), an elderly antique dealer who lives in Mexico with his wife and orphaned granddaughter (Tamara Shanath), who discovers the device while cleaning up a roach infestation. (An amusing touch, I thought. Resilient insects and all that.) While examining it, Jesus ends up activating the device, which sprouts several needle-like appendages that drive themselves into his flesh. The serious damage does to his hand will be just the beginning of Jesus’s problems. Come night time, his injuries won’t stop itching; he’s burning up with a fever and can’t seem to slake a powerful, sudden thirst. Most disturbingly, he can’t seem to take his eyes off of that piece of bloody meat in the refrigerator. Desperation for any kind of relief will drive him to use the device again and its here that we learn that the Cronos device houses an undying insect that lives off of the blood of its victim. In return, this creature injects them with a strange fluid of its own that restores their youth and vitality, ensuring that the creature has a healthy and grateful host to feed on for the foreseeable future. At first, Jesus enjoys his rediscovered passion and vigor but as he uses the device more and more, he's unsettled by the developing side effects; an aversion to sunlight, a weird substance oozing out of the wounds the machine inflicts on him, and those pesky cravings for blood. Those really don’t want to go away. 

Further danger comes from industrialist Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook) and his thuggish nephew Angel (Ron Perlman). The Cronos device is de la Guardia's obsession, a possible escape from the grotesque half-life a terminal sickness has reduced him to. He can't leave the clean room that rests at the heart of his factory, can't consume anything but pills for nourishment and many of his internal organs have had to be removed. (He keeps those in a display case like some sort of Cronenbergian trophy set.) Dieter will do anything to get his hands on the device and while Angel doesn't understand his uncle's madness -- "All that man does is piss and shit and he wants to live longer?" -- he's willing to play along if it means he can get his hands on Dieter's business empire. The fight over the Cronos piece comes to a head at a New Year's Eve party, where Angel kidnaps Jesus and savagely beats him before shoving him over a cliff in a car. That would be the end of Jesus's story right there...except for the little detail that thanks to his repeated use of the Cronos device, Jesus can't die...

Del Toro describes himself as a filmmaker who nearly kills himself making the kinds of movies that others would dash off for a quick buck. CRONOS's creation was exactly that sort of uphill struggle for the director, who wrote the screenplay at twenty one but wouldn't film it for another seven years. To gain the necessary experience to direct feature films, Del Toro served as a regular director on HORA MARCADA, Mexico's equivalent to THE TWILIGHT ZONE. He had to found his own make-up and practical effects house specifically for the production of CRONOS due to the lack of any sort of special effects company in his home of Guadalajara. (Once the film was completed, the company was shut down.) Despite the film's budget being the highest for any Mexican film production -- Two million dollars -- money issues plagued the production. Del Toro had to resort to mortgaging his house and selling his van in order to make up for the lack of funds and barely had enough money to fly his wife and himself to the film's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. The struggling production and Del Toro's growing pains as a director transitioning from television to film is readily apparent in the final result. Del Toro's movies are noted for their elaborate spectacle, camera work and sets, with the man himself regularly regarded as one of the industry's best visual designers but we catch only glimpses of it here. At times, CRONOS feels more like an elaborate television production than anything. The characters as they stand are more prototypes for what would come later than they are their own, though the cast is capable enough to do the heavy lifting. (It's no surprise that Perlman and Luppi would make regular appearances in Del Toro's movies.) The attempts at humor, including a comical interlude with a mortician and Ron Perlman’s nose job obsession, are genuinely amusing but seem so at odds with the sense of melancholy and loss elsewhere that they almost feel like intrusions from another film. There's strong imagery and moments of greatness here -- an undead Jesus's return home to his granddaughter after his funeral is a standout sequence -- but they come in between scenes where its obvious that Del Toro is still stretching his wings.

It's those moments of greatness, intermittent though they are, that make CRONOS worth watching. Del Toro may have still needed to get a handle on his filmmaking craft, but even at this point in his career his considerable talent is on display and we can see the first explorations of themes and ideas that would be refined in subsequent films. The extraordinary forcing its way into ordinary lives, discovering beauty in ugliness, the re-examination and re-purposing of classical imagery -- religious or otherwise and the aforementioned monster as a tragic victim. CRONOS is a vampire movie but it's view of the vampire is definitely not a romantic one. There's no regal aristo in suit and cape here but a poverty row junkie suffering from a near animal need for their next fix. (An idea continued with BLADE II's Reapers.) Jesus is so agonized by his newly developed craving that he'll lick up drops of blood from a bathroom floor. He becomes even more pitiful after his "death," his flesh rotting and peeling away and dressed in the tattered remains of his funeral clothing. His vampire's cloak is an old blanket he retrieves from the garbage and his coffin is his granddaughter's toy box. Even the Cronos device is revealed to be nothing more than a cage for a tick-like parasite. In an interview about the movie, Del Toro states "Life is beautiful because it has a beginning and an end." To attempt to go beyond this limit is to commit a crime against nature itself, something CRONOS illustrates not only with the fate of the alchemist and Jesus's deteriorating condition, but in the pathetic state de la Guardia's attempts to staving off his impending demise has left him in. Indeed, it's only when Jesus finally rejects the Cronos device and its costly immortality that he's allowed to regain his dignity. 

It's his love for his granddaughter Aurora that gives him the strength to destroy the device and it's this relationship that forms the heart of the film. This is another theme that crops up again and again in Del Toro's movies: familial bonds across generations. Yet another appears when you contrast Aurora and Jesus against de la Guardia and Angel; that of families that act in opposition to one another while serving as distorted mirrors of each other. Where the latter is an abusive, adversarial one, defined by what the two can get out of the other, the former is ultimately defined by selflessness and sacrifice. When Dieter is mortally injured, Angel wastes no time in finishing the old man off to that he can take over. When Jesus is similarly hurt during his confrontation with Angel, Aurora does whatever she can to save him, even offering her blood to him. No matter how monstrous Jesus becomes, Aurora's love for him never wavers. It's interesting to note that Aurora was adopted by Jesus after his son's death because we see over and over that the strongest bonds in Del Toro's films are those formed by surrogate families formed by circumstance. Blade and his mentor Whistler, for example. The orphans of THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE. Stacker and Mako In PACIFIC RIM and the "freaks" of HELLBOY I & II's B.P.R.D. The connections with the most solidarity are the ones that gain the strength to overcome hardships placed before them.

Finally, beyond the thematic elements, CRONOS shows that Del Toro was already firmly aware of how to distill down his numerous influences into something that is uniquely his own. The story is stuff of classical fairy-tales, the feel is like that of Hammer horror, and the visual influence of gothic art and Italian horror is all over the place. Notice how the face of the archangel statue has crumbled to the point it resembles a skull? Or that de la Guardia's clean room is like a sterile, industrial counterpart to the witch's lair in SUSPIRIA? Not to mention Del Toro shows a knack for bodily horror that puts him in company with Barker and Cronenberg. He may not strive for their flesh ripping extremes -- though I assure you that flesh does get ripped to spectacular effect in CRONOS's finale -- but he's clearly taken notes from them in how to make you squirm in your seat. Try not to cringe when the device's scorpion like appendage hovers over Jesus's bare wrist, almost as if in anticipation, before plunging in or the delight taken in giving us an up close look at Jesus's mouth being stitched shut by a mortician. The way Jesus cuts those stitches is equally unpleasant. These are not mere references and quotations though but rather recognizable elements that make up a unique piece's DNA.

Speaking of Barker, he's the creator I'd say Del Toro most resembles. Not only in their usage of violence and nightmarish transformations but in how both men love to re-purpose and subvert the religious iconography of their upbringings and that their sympathies lie steadfastly with the Outsider and the Other. You wouldn't be crazy for seeing a lot of NIGHTBREED in Guillermo's comic book adaptations and CRONOS is definitely Del Toro's HELLRAISER, his story of an ancient artifact that transforms a man into a vampiric monster. If you ask me, I think the Cronos device would look marvelous on a shelf next to the Lament Configuration.

One can imagine the relief when CRONOS became one of the big prize winners at Cannes, later sweeping the Golden Ariel Awards, Mexico's answer to the Oscars, and receiving considerable praise from notable critics, including Roger Ebert. It was an entire lifetime's worth of hard work paying off, opening doors and securing the career he wanted so badly. If he was to make CRONOS today, Guillermo muses, it would be a different movie because the director is so different now. Would it be a better movie? Maybe not. Flawed though it is, CRONOS was a necessary step in his development as a filmmaker. It's exactly the movie that he needed to be make when he did.

This review was part of the Criterion Blogathon, a six-day event celebrating film sponsored by Criterion Films. Click here to go to the Blogathon's main page and check out the other entries by participating blogs. Some friends of PSYCHOPLASMICS are also participating in the event and direct links to their reviews will be added as they go up.

Three Beer Theater: Micro-Brewed Reviews: The Fiend Without A Face
Yes, I Know: Seven Samurai
The Terrible Claw Reviews: Godzilla / Godzilla: King of Monsters!
Checkpoint Telstar: Robocop

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Eyes Without A Face / Le Yeux Sans Visage (1960)

Directed by: Georges Franju
Screenplay: Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Claude Sautet, and Pierre Gascar; based on the novel by Jean Redon
Starring: Edith Scob, Pierre Brassuer, Alida Valli, Francois Guerin, Juliette Mayniel
Running Time: 90 minutes

In the 1950’s, the French weren’t known for producing horror films. French cinema, after all, was the home of the New Wave, Goddard, and Truffaut, they didn’t have time for such “artless” movies. But it just so happened that during this decade, a studio in England was finding world-wide success by cranking out that very sort of film that the French had stigmatized. That would be Hammer Studios, and needless to say, when the French film industry saw the way Hammer was raking in cash hand over fist with the likes of THE HORROR OF DRACULA and THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, they started to have a change of opinion on that so-called “disreputable genre.” “Money talks,” to quote AC/DC. The first producer to jump at this was Jules Borkon, who had purchased the film rights to a novel by Jean Redon titled LES YEUX SANS VISAGE / EYES WITHOUT A FACE and enlisted one of the founders of the famous French film club Cinematheque Francaise, Georges Franju, to direct it. Franju was a documentary filmmaker who had made a name for himself for such reactionary works as THE BLOOD OF BEASTS, PASSING BY THE LORRIANE, and HOTEL DES INVALIDES (which he fondly refers to as his “slaughter trilogy”) and had moved on to making fiction films with LE TETE CONTRE LES MURES / HEAD AGAINST THE WALL, a film set in a mental hospital which was released as THE KEEPERS on our side of the Atlantic. Thing about Franju is that unlike the other notable filmmakers that were members of Cinematheque, who were former film critics who decided to take that old comment section refrain of “Well if you didn’t like it, make one of your own!” to heart, Franju was simply a cinema buff through and through and jumped at it when Borkon offered him a chance to make his own addition to cinema of the “fantastique.”

There were to be some restrictions, Borkon told Franju. While Borkon wanted a horror film that could compete with the blood-spattered gothics Hammer was putting out, the film couldn’t show any real bloodshed. That was would be a big no-no with the French film censors. He couldn’t depict animals being tortured. That wouldn’t fly with the English and Americans. Furthermore, the film could not feature a mad scientist performing horrible experiments on innocent people. The Germans…for obvious reasons. With those set in place, Borkon handed Franju the story of a mad scientist who experiments on animals and kidnaps beautiful women so he can cut their faces off and told him to make a movie out of it.  
The film starts with a completely wordless opening that does a marvelous job of setting the tone. It’s night time in Paris and a nervous woman (Alida Valli, the intimidating dance instructor from SUSPIRIA) is driving an old Citroen taxi up to the Seine River, where she dumps a woman’s corpse that she’s had disguised as a passenger in the back seat. The corpse was so completely covered by a trench coat and hat that we can’t get much of a look at her but if we look close enough, we can get a tiny glimpse of her face and whatever has happened to them couldn’t have been pleasant. The next day, respected surgeon Dr. Genessier (Pierre Brassuer) is called away from a speaking engagement by the Parisian police. They’ve found that body that the woman disposed of and there’s very good chance that it could be Genessier’s daughter Christiane, who disappeared following a car accident that ended up horribly disfiguring her. Thing is, the body could also be that of another missing woman, the damage done to her face an attempt to hide her identity. Both Genessier and the missing woman’s father are called in to identify the body, but Genessier gets there first and confirms that yes, it’s Christiane, before leaving to make funeral arrangements. Some of the details don’t completely add up but Genessier’s identification is enough for the police to conclude that Christiane committed suicide and consider the case closed. It’s at Christiane’s funeral, however, that we get the idea that there’s more going on here, because attending with Dr. Genessier is his assistant Louise, who is the nervous woman from the opening. When we look at the way the two of them act when they are alone after the funeral is over, it’s becomes clear to us that that whatever Louise is doing, she’s doing so on Genessier’s orders. It’s when Genessier returns to his home, a mansion located near the clinic where he works, that our suspicions are confirmed: the body in his daughter’s crypt is that of the missing woman and Christiane (Edith Scob) is very much alive. Seems Genessier is responsible for the death of the other woman, who died while he was performing “an experiment” on her. However, the woman’s death ends up working to Genessier’s advantage. By making everyone believe that Christiane is dead, Genessier doesn’t have to worry about anyone, such as her fiancé Jacques (Francois Guerin), stumble across his work in the process of searching for her.

It’s work of particularly grisly sort. Genessier is convinced that a new skin grafting technique that he has developed could restore Christiane’s ruined face, which he has her hide behind a featureless white mask. Problem is, this technique requires a donor that’s close in age and physical appearance to Christiane and needless to say, most young women aren’t going to give up their skin willingly. That’s where Louise comes in, stalking women that fit the necessary body type and luring them to Genessier’s mansion where he can drug them and surgically remove their faces. Louise is horrified by this but goes along with it because she’s grateful to the doctor for restoring her own disfigured face (the sole remnant of which is a tiny scar she keeps hidden with a pearl choker) and because she’s become something of a surrogate mother to Christiane during her time with Genessier. A second woman falls into the pair’s trap and it seems that this time, the facial transplant takes. The second victim obviously doesn’t appreciate receiving the Castor Troy treatment and ends up either committing suicide or falling to her death in an escape attempt, so now Louise and Genessier have another body to dispose of. More troublingly, though, is during dinner a few days later that Genessier begins to notice something has gone wrong with the skin graft. Within a couple of weeks, Christiane’s body rejects it and her father is forced to remove it.

This leaves Christiane on the edge of a suicidal despair and in her desperation, she calls Jacques. Jacques, obviously, is more than a little weirded out by hearing his supposedly dead fiancé calling his name over the phone and goes to the police. While talking with them, Jacque’s catches the description of the woman last seen with missing woman and damned if it doesn’t sound a lot like Louise.  Realizing that this may be the break they need, the police blackmail a shoplifter into acting as bait for Genessier, hoping to catch him in the act. Unfortunately for our poor shoplifter, Genessier is able to cover his tracks well enough to send the police looking elsewhere, and she ends up on the good doctor’s operating table. Now her survival will depend on whether or not Christiane can stand being complicit in whatever crimes her father commits in her name any longer.
Like I said earlier, Franju was put under several restrictions when he was given EYES WITHOUT A FACE, but it’s the sign of damn good filmmaker when they use the limits placed on them to discover the considerable spaces they can work in.  To deal with the whole “mad scientist” angle, Franju and his screenwriters (which included the writing duo behind DIABOLIQUE and Hitchcock’s VERTIGO) made a notable change from the novel: moving the story’s focus away from Genessier and put more emphasis on Christiane. Doing so ends up having the effect of helping us understand more why Genessier is willing to do such horrible things. See, the key detail here is that it was Genessier who was driving (“like a lunatic”) when the accident that disfigured Christiane occurred and the distraught young woman blames him for it. It’s the anguish brought about by his love and guilt that drives him to such extremes and had Christiane not stopped him would have likely lead him to continue butchering woman in his pursuit, unable to admit that his technique may not work and there could simply be no hope for her. What we have then, is a mad scientist movie where the mad scientist isn’t mad, but haunted. (It’s no accident, that Christiane, dressed all in white and wearing that unnervingly serene looking mask, is every bit the ghost you’d find roaming the halls of some decaying old gothic estate.) I think it’s telling that when EYES WITHOUT A FACE was released in the United States under the thoroughly blunt-instrument title of THE HORROR CHAMBER OF DR. FAUTUS (Really guys? Dr. Fautus?) the only scene removed had nothing to do with any of the film’s violence but a moment in where we see Genessier comforting one of his patients, a little boy, and his distraught mother. Apparently we’re fine with showing people being monsters but God forbid we have to deal with the uncomfortable truth that monsters can have a human side as well.

With that one major change from the source, one of the hurdles Franju had to deal with was overcome and the animal experimentation aspect of the story wasn’t that difficult to work around either. We see that Genessier has numerous stray dogs, some covered in bandages, locked up in part of his hidden lab and we see one after he’s experimented on them. It’s nothing too messy and tells us all we need to know, so nothing to get upset over. Which leaves us with how the bloodshed was going to be handled. Make no mistake, EYES WITHOUT A FACE is a violent movie. This is after all, a movie about a guy cutting women’s faces off. But there’s a reason why decades later, after advances in special effects technology and relaxing of restrictions on violent content would have dulled the edge of other movies, it’s still so incredibly effective and squirm inducing. A lot of that, I think, comes from the fact that EYES WITHOUT A FACE is just so low-key and quiet of a movie. Its tone is somber and melancholy (in that way that only the French can do) and the film goes long stretches without dialogue. Couple that with the fact that we’ve probably conditioned ourselves to not expect to see somebody get a scalpel in the throat or their face chewed off by dogs in a black and white movie from the time, and so when the shocks come, they’re genuinely shocking, like a slap to the face. Furthermore, as noted earlier, Franju made documentaries before he moved on to film; his first, THE BLOOD OF BEASTS, being about the inner workings of Parisian slaughterhouse. In an interview excerpt that came on the Criterion disc, Franju also discusses how the single most horrific film he ever watched was footage of a trepanation being performed on a conscious patient with a brain tumor. You can definitely see how both informed his approach here, as the whole film is shot with the kind of clinical detachment you’d find in a medical documentary. This level of remove, I feel, was a major factor in getting the film past the censors, however, in terms of how it affects the views, it has the opposite effect of what you’d think. It forces us to face (no pun intended) the violence being done rather than disengaging from it. I’m not surprised that people at screenings were actually fainting when EYES infamous face surgery scene came along. It’s excruciating to watch, poking and prodding at every subconscious nightmare that we’ve had about going under the knife and we’re with it every single step. The scene is probably even worse, if, like me, you’ve had family members hurt by a botched surgery. Really, this where a lot of the horror in EYES stems from. Vitally important as it is, Franju is forcing to face that there can be something dehumanizing and wrong feeling about medical science. (Part of the reason hospitals creep me out.) Take a look at that contraption the shoplifter gets hooked up to test her brain patterns. Or most effectively, how about the scene that details the deterioration of Christiane’s condition when the graft fails via a photographic montage. The calm manner in which Dr. Genessier throws out such gruesome sounding terms as “heterograft,” “ulceration,” and “necrosis” as we see Christiane’s face get worse and worse would be bad enough without the added touch of this being a father talking about his daughter’s face rotting off. Brrr… You’d likely have to turn to David Cronenberg to find anything that does as good a job of tapping this vein of medicinal horror.

EYES WITHOUT A FACE was met with considerable controversy on release; critics who didn't condemn it outright either having to jump through hoops to justify their appreciation, one English critic nearly getting fired for praising the film and another famously arguing that a respectable French filmmaker couldn't have made something disreputable as a horror film and EYES WITHOUT A FACE was actually a film noir. Anyone else getting flashbacks to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS'S magical transformation into a "psychological thriller" once it was nominated for Oscars? But, as with a number of films that stir up the hornets nest because they force people outside their comfort zone, it has endured and influenced a number of filmmakers sense. I've never heard Cronenberg talk about this film but it stands to reason that he'd be a fan, right? You can chalk it up to this film and that shot with Christiane and the doves as the reason why there's a scene involving birds in the every damn John Woo movie. Can't blame him, it's a fantastic image. John Carpenter was so taken with Edith Scob's eerie, spectral performance that it influenced the creation of his own faceless wraith, Michael Myers. (One a remnant of humanity, the other completely void of it.) Maybe, it's because I saw it in the same weekend as CRIMSON PEAK that I could trace the influence of this film's use of sudden intrusions of violence to Guillermo Del Toro's. Hell, it was Del Toro's recommending the film on twitter that finally motivated me to check it out.  (P.S.: Go see CRIMSON PEAK. It's good!) If what they say about imitation and flattery is true, well, notorious Euro-sleaze director Jess Franco is a huge fan, as he spent a good chunk of his career making the like of FACELESS and THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF that are remakes of EYES in all but name. Could explain why I'm not too hot on the American title, sounds a little too much like one of Franco's knock-offs.

Once you see it, you'll understand why. EYES is one of those films that sticks with you after its over. It ends rather abruptly, with Christiane's fate unknown, and some people may be off-put by that. For me, after mulling it over for a day or two, I found that I actually am quite fond of its ending. Strange to say about an ending that features a young woman turning against and killing her family but bear with me. While EYES'S conclusion isn't what you would call uplifting, I do feel that there's a hopeful message at the heart of it. A lot of it has to do with Jacques final scene. Believing Christiane truly gone forever, Jacques decides to move on, with one of the detectives commenting that he's young and has his whole life ahead of him as he departs. To me, that's what EYES WITHOUT A FACE is really about. The events of the past change us, tragedies harm us, and we will carry the effects of that forever. There's no going back and "fixing" that. Dr. Genessier and Louise tried that and look where that got them: they became murderers and ultimately were destroyed by the very person they damned themselves for. The best thing you can do is pick yourself up, move on, and live your life. even if it means facing an unknowable future.

A Little Something Extra:
What? You thought I was going to post that Billy Idol song? Now, I would have gone with "Eyes Without A Face" by The Flesh Eaters from THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD soundtrack but after giving it a listen, I realized it wasn't my particular favorite song from that; so the hell with it, here's "Surfin' Dead" by The Cramps. Remember folks, life is short and filled with stuff.


"The Rats" by James Herbert

Early on in DANSE MACABRE, Stephen King tells this anecdote about the writing of his vampire novel SALEM’S LOT where, in the first draft, one of the characters meets a fairly unpleasant end at the teeth of a swarm of rats loosed on them by king vampire Barlow. In his words, King had wanted to riff on a similar moment in Stoker’s DRACULA but add a gruesome E.C. Comics touch to the proceedings, and was gleefully happy with the result. However, King’s editor, Bill Thompson, found the scene to be so revolting he asked for it to be changed in subsequent rewrites, with the character instead biting it when he sets off a booby-trap on a stairway. A nasty way to go, but not as spectacular as his earlier demise - a “middle-of-the-roader” as King puts it - and the change had the effect of leaving the build up to that, repeated mentions of the number of rats infesting the town, with no real pay-off.

I wonder what ole Bill would have made of James Herbert’s debut novel, THE RATS?

There’s not as much of a leap between the two books as you’d think. Stoker’s DRACULA was the key inspiration for both and in fact, it was that very scene King was putting his own disgusting spin on that sparked Herbert’s novel. But whereas King’s novel is a good, hefty sized volume - maybe not the doorstoppers IT and THE STAND were, but still clocking in at over six hundred pages – Herbert’s is a speedy little shocker that comes in at around a third of LOT’s page count, the kind of slim paperback that you could slip into your back pocket and carry around all day, for whenever you find a quiet corner and moment to yourself. (Those are the best kind, aren’t they?) And while King was using DRACULA as a template so he could dig into what might happen if the Count had found his way to an American small town, Herbert, the son of street traders from London’s East End, used it as a jumping off point to put a voice to his frustration at how the powers-that-be were letting his old home fall into ruin. Simply put, the events of THE RATS could have been avoided had the city not left an old house to rot.

The plot is as straight-forward as they come. There are these swarms of bigger-than-normal rats running around London eating people. Any survivors who have been bit will die painfully within twenty four hours from a virus that the rats are carrying. Someone has to put a stop it and of course, that job falls into the lap of Harris, an art teacher whose student was among the first victim of the virus. What? You thought the authorities were going to do it? They’re the ones that gave the rats their breeding ground by neglecting the bombed out buildings around London, or the homeless problem, which is how the nasty little buggers got their first taste of human flesh. No, it’s only with the help of our working class hero with no first name (I’ve read this book twice and never spotted one) and the kind of anti-establishment streak that has him locking horns with and ready to slug any authority figure that he meets that The Man is able to get anywhere with combating this menace before it wipes the entire city.

As you can tell, THE RATS is nestled very firmly and proudly within old-fashioned B-movie, pulp horror territory of the nature / science gone amok branch. We never get a description of Harris but it’s easy to picture him as the sort of virile looking, broad shouldered, square jawed manly man we associate with these stories. Scientists are here to spout off jargon, suggest solutions and then get the hell out of the way so men of action can take over and save the day through applications of violence and mule-stubbornness, usually after the initial attempt to stop the threat fails or even makes it worse. Women are um…here…basically, though of course, the only one who has any major role outside of potential rat fodder is Harris’s lovely girlfriend, Judy, she of no last name. Even that old monster movie boogeyman Atomic Radiation sticks its nose in with a near blink-and-you’ll-miss-it suggestion that these killer rats were spawned from mutants originating from a nuclear testing site. THE RATS is very much aware of its pedigree, as two of its set pieces, an attack on a school and one at a movie theater, feel like deliberate nods to THE BIRDS and THE BLOB. (Even the title is suggestive of such.)

You wouldn’t have found the level of graphic violence and explicit sex in those old B-movies that you do in Herbert’s books, though. Imagine one of those old flicks having a gruesome baby with a considerably harsher horror film of the post-NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD –era or a step between classical horror and the splatterpunk movement. Getting back to DANSE MACABRE for a moment, in his segment on Herbert and Ramsey Campbell, King accurately describes Herbert as “putting his combat boots on and assaulting the reader with horror […] …seizing us by both lapels and screaming in our faces.” A writer that has gone on record stating he loves to see how much he can get away with, Herbert is willing to charge full-bore into some very unpleasant places. This is, after all, a book about people being devoured by a swarm of disease carrying vermin. Herbert is clearly having a blast playing with our old fear of cloth and skin not being much of a defense against teeth and smashes fiction taboos about what’s okay and what’s not early. Within the first twenty pages, a baby and the dog protecting it fall victim to the rats, a scene that got Herbert in trouble in his home country, one reviewer saying that that the book was enough to make a rodent retch. While the remainder of THE RATS never quite matches that mean spirited shock, it still manages to sustain a level of nastiness comparable to some Italian gore flicks. A good part of the motivation to keep reading is seeing not only whether or not he’s going to go there but how.

What THE RATS lifted from those old movies most successfully was the pacing of those drive-in monster films. This is a book that moves, never letting the action lull for a moment. There are probably two chapters out of the twenty that don’t deal with the menace of the rats. If it looks like one of those lulls is coming, Herbert just takes the camera off his main characters for a moment and switches to a minor character for a little side vignettes, usually a few pages of back story and “…and then they got ate by rats” as the denouement. The episodic chunks are actually fairly successful at giving the reader a cross-section look at what life was like in post-war London and helping us grasp that there’s an entire city in danger, not just our Chuck Meatslab hero and company. It’s this refusal to let things lag for too long, coupled with our desire to see where he’s going to take it, and its short length that makes THE RATS such a quick, exciting read.

However, if you’re interested in checking out Herbert’s work, I wouldn’t call it the best place to start. That would be the first Herbert novel that I read and his second written, THE FOG. (No connection to the John Carpenter’s movie.) Reading THE RATS afterward, it feels like something of a dry run for THE FOG; an amorphous threat, similar cast of characters and story structure, as well as the same reckless abandon in regards to its content. But the scope of THE FOG is grander and the characters are given a tiny bit more weight. The nature of THE FOG’s threat, an insanity causing microbe, is also more interesting one than THE RATS swarm. There are, after all, only so many ways you can describe people fighting against rats crawling all over them before such scenes start to sound the same. Again, a reason the short length plays into its favor. When THE RATS reaches that point, its ends soon afterward. THE FOG on the other hand, is able to throw out such varied and memorable horrors as a entire town committing suicide, man-eating pigeons, and a whole class of murderous school children. (Also, THE FOG doesn’t have a moment where its main character ogles one of his young students. Seriously, ew.) Once you’ve read THE FOG, THE RATS is as good a place as any to go next. Despite the backlash he got from it, THE RATS was successful enough that Herbert wrote two sequels to it. The first, LAIR, sounds a little too much like THE RATS…AGAIN to really interest me, but I’ve seen someone describe the third post-apocalyptic installment, DOMAIN, as “George Romero’s DAY OF THE DEAD with rat monsters.” Now that I’ve got to check out.

There was a film adaptation of THE RATS, but not a particularly faithful one. (According to the screenwriter, he didn't really read the book and instead just ripped off PIRANHA.) It's worth checking out, though, because the way they went about portraying the rat swarm is somewhat infamous...and adorable. Would you like to know more? Hop over to Checkpoint Telstar for Tim's review of DEADLY EYES.

You've Got Red On You


Sunday, September 27, 2015

An American Werewolf In London (1981)

Director: John Landis
Screenplay by: John Landis
Starring: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine, Brian Glover
Running Time: 97 minutes
Tagline: "From the director of ANIMAL HOUSE...a different kind of animal."

"Beware the moon, David."

AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON came to Landis in a moment that sounds like it could have been the opening of a werewolf movie itself. It was 1969 and he was working as a production assistant on KELLY’S HEROES in Yugoslavia. While being driven to a shooting location in the countryside, Landis witnessed a burial being performed at a crossroads by a group of gypsies. The man being buried was done so feet first and had his body wreathed with garlic. When Landis inquired as to why he was being buried in this manner, his driver informed him that this was to prevent the man from rising from the dead. Wondering what would happen if the man didn’t stay in his grave was all that it took to send Landis on a writing jag, resulting in a script that was a contemporary update of THE WOLF MAN. Had things gone as planned, WEREWOLF would have been the follow up to SCHLOCK!, Landis’s 1971 debut feature. It was going to be his second collaboration with special effects and make-up man Rick Baker, who created SCHLOCK’s ape-suit and Landis, correctly, thought was just the guy to pull off this ambitious idea he had for how they would approach the werewolf’s transformation scene. Things had to be put on hold, however, due to studios not wanting to pony up the funds it would have cost and furthermore, not understanding how to sell a movie that was too horrific to be a comedy and yet too comedic to be a horror film. So, onto the back burner it went and there it remained for a nearly a decade, until the success of ANIMAL HOUSE and THE BLUES BROTHERS gave Landis the clout he needed to get the project off the ground. That Rick Baker had worked on this small, independent movie called STAR WARS in the interim probably didn’t hurt, either.

Two American college students, David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), are backpacking across north England when they come across the sleepy village of East Proctor on a stormy night. The place makes a rather ominous first impression; what could charitably be called the center of town is dominated by an Angel of Death statue and the local pub carries the rather uninviting name of The Slaughtered Lamb, its sign depicting a severed wolf's head impaled on a pike. ("Where's the lamb?") But the boys are cold, hungry, and could use a rest, so despite their misgivings, they head inside. Once there, they run into the expected throng of suspicious-of-strangers types you find populating sleepy English villages in this sort of movie, and when Jack inquires to the purpose of a five pointed star on the wall,"The sign of the wolf man" according to him, they're asked none politely to move on. Their departure sparks an argument among the bar patrons, with some saying that they've just committed murder by sending the boys out on this particular night before the village leader (Brian Glover) shuts them all down with the usual "outsiders shouldn't be stickin' their nose into our business" spiel.  Besides, they reason, the boys will be alright as long as they obey the cryptic warning to stay on the road, steer clear of the moors, right? Maybe nothing will happen...

Almost as if it that was its cue, something that sure as hell isn't a dog cuts loose with a very unpleasant sounding howl. The creature, a hulking beast that looks like a shaggy bear with canine features, chases the boys down, tackles Jack and rips him to pieces before David can come to help, and all that little act of bravery earns him is some teeth in his shoulder. The villagers, finally deciding they don't want the boys' blood on their hands, intervene and shoot the creature dead. Before David loses consciousness, he catches a glimpse of their attacker, which, strangely enough, is now a naked man.

David comes to in the hospital and discovers that weeks have passed. Jack's body has already been shipped back home and buried. Confusing David even further is when officials question him about the attack and he discovers that several witnesses blame it on an escaped lunatic. David's claims that his friend was killed by a monster are dismissed as the ravings of someone who's just been through a very traumatic event. That would be all she wrote, but David's having these dreams, you see: real vivid ones. Ones where monsters are killing his family or he's going through some form of transformation. Then there's the visit from his good buddy, the dearly departed Jack Goodman, Jack, who now looks like he's been thrown face first into a threshing machine, informs David that they were attacked by a werewolf. Seeing as David survived the werewolf's attack, the creature's curse has passed onto him and as long as the bloodline of the werewolf lives, Jack is condemned to walk the earth as a ghost, unable to pass on. As much as for wanting to save his friend from the cruel fate in store as he is wanting to be free from his own horrible unlife, Jack urges David to kill himself before the full moon rises.

If there's one bright spot for David in this whole mess, it's the Florence Nightingale-esque romance he's struck up with Alex (Jenny Agutter), the nurse who has been serving as his primary caregiver during his recovery. It's a testament to the actors and the filmmakers that they're able to sell us on this relationship despite it developing so fast, so we don't bat an eye, much, when he goes home with her once he's discharged. (And hey, it's Jenny Agutter.) The two sleep together that night but David's good mood doesn't last, because Jack makes a return appearance looking much worse for wear, and again warns him of what's coming. Up until now, David's been able to convince himself that everything; the monster, the dreams, Jack's ghost; was all in his head but he's beginning to question that. He won't have to wait long to get a definitive answer. The full moon is tomorrow night.

If you’re going to discuss AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF at any length, you’re almost required to discuss that other werewolf movie that opened in 1981 and also featured a totally boss transformation sequence, Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING. They’re practically joined at the hip at this point. I had even planned on reviewing both movies in one go for this blog entry, only to find my copy of THE HOWLING had deteriorated to the point of being unplayable. Despite the close proximity of their release dates, the two movies are pretty dramatically different. LONDON is a fairly traditional werewolf story by design, adhering close to the template established by THE WOLF MAN. We’ve got the male American outsider in a foreign country, the mysterious societal outliers for whom the patient-zero werewolf is their dirty little secret, transformations that come with the full moon, and our hero’s doomed love with a local girl. Only deviation from the norm here is that silver isn’t necessary to kill him (good ole buckshot will do just fine) and there’s no old lady with a thick accent to proclaim “the way you walked was thorny…” THE HOWLING, on the other hand, wants to put as much distance between it and Lon Chaney Jr. as it can; portraying werewolves as a secret society of competing factions and philosophies, tossing out any overt supernatural elements, and picking up the ball and running with the Freudian and sexual underpinnings of the werewolf archetype, all while skewering mental health fads and the news media culture in the process. (I saw someone describe THE HOWLING as the closest thing we'll get to a Brian DePalma werewolf movie and can only nod.)

Both were noted for their pitch-black humor, but THE HOWLING approached that through inside jokes and satirical touches, while AMERICAN WEREWOLF goes broader and more absurd, it's success laying in knowing exactly how to utilize that mixture of comedy and horror that so confused studios and later critics; when to contrast imagery and tone and when one needs to intrude on the other. Think of David's dream where he sees his family butchered by shrieking, monster headed Nazis while The Muppet Show plays in the background. The image is so over-the-top and bizarre that it's certainly amusing, like escapees from a creature feature crashed into some Family Ties-style sitcom, while at the same time...Holy Shit, right? Or the scenes late in the film where he sits in a theater with a particularly naff porno playing, surrounded by the bloody shades of his victims, all of whom are suggesting any number of methods he can use to kill himself in chipper tones of voice. It also helps that WEREWOLF knows when to pull back and let one aspect take over completely. The moments that are just straight comedy, like David having to escape from the zoo after waking up naked in the wolf's enclosure are legitimately hilarious. ("A naked American man stole my balloons!") Then, scenes that focus entirely on horror, such as the initial attack on David and Jack or a transformed David stalking his victims, still effectively generate a palpable amount of tension even after any number of repeat viewings. (I watch this flick at least once a year around this time, for obvious reasons.) The distance between terror and laughter isn't as far as many people think, and the best horror comedies like this or RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, know how to use one to underline the other. It doesn't hurt either that AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF may be the most quotable skinwalker flick, some of its best lines coming from the banter between David and Jack's ghost. ("Have you ever talked with a corpse? It's boring!" "I will not be threatened by a walking meatloaf!" "He is your good friend, whereas I am a victim of your carnivorous lunar activities!")

If there's one thing that both AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF and THE HOWLING have in common it's the major shifts they represented in the werewolf genre. The biggest one being that, after these two movies, just dissolving between shots of an actor with more hair glued to his face wasn't going to cut it for a transformation anymore. Special effects technology had finally reached a point where you could show the hair grow, claws sprout, the limbs and face distort, selling you on the idea that yeah, changing into a completely different species was horrifying and painful to watch. Horror fans will debate 'til kingdom come which movie had the better wolf-out scene but neither are anything to sneeze at. Coincidently enough, Rick Baker was attached to do the effects work for THE HOWLING but decided to jump to WEREWOLF due to his earlier commitment to Landis, handing Dante's movie off to his protégé, Rob Bottin. I'd say things worked out for both. THE HOWLING made Bottin's career and opened the door for projects like THE THING, ROBOCOP, and TOTAL RECALL and Baker received the first Academy Award for Make-Up Effects thanks to WEREWOLF. (Presented by Vincent Price!) Thirty odd years later, they still impress, WEREWOLF's even more so because it makes no effort hide it through dim lighting or excessive editing. Landis had complete confidence in Baker's skill and lets the audience linger on every detail.

Not only did these two films change the way in which the werewolf's transformation was depicted, but the werewolves themselves. Before then, the popular image of the werewolf in cinema was Larry Talbot stalking through a fog shrouded forest in the shadow of his family castle. I can't think of too many werewolf films before these that used a then modern urban setting as its backdrop; moving away from the moors so its creature can run down its prey in subway stations or the seedier side of Los Angeles and cause all manner of carnage at Piccadilly Circus. But more importantly, after 1981, filmmakers finally got it into their head that maybe it was high time that werewolves started looking like wolves, damn it. Now, werewolves weren't just some brute with fangs and a mighty need for a wax job but gigantic hellhounds and towering wolf-headed bipeds. Even designs which were meant to evoke the older form would incorporate aspects of these new ones, i.e. THE MONSTER SQUAD. 'Bout time.

There’s one more thing I’d like to discuss about AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF before I close out this post, something that stuck out at me when I re-watched it for this review. Now, we’re all familiar with the various spiels about what fears your classic monsters represent, right? The vampire is unrestrained sexuality, zombies are the inevitability of death and societal decay through conformity, etc. etc. Our good friend the wolf man? Loss of control. Giving in to your subconscious primal impulses. The Old Adam, as Stephen King calls it in his treatise on the horror genre, DANSE MACABRE, which is a phrase that I love and so badly want to use as a title for a horror story that I’ll probably never write. The beast beneath the skin is the go to supernatural archetype for stories about someone’s bad side coming out to play and has been used as such for everything from abusive relationships (an episode of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER) to young girls going through puberty. (GINGER SNAPS) What I find interesting though, is how rarely lycanthropy is used in fiction and film in connection with mental instability, especially when so many stories of it from history and folklore come across sounding a lot like a person suffering from that. Just ask Nebuchadnezzar. THE WOLF MAN touches on it a bit, but in the end, that’s simply Larry Talbot desperately trying to find a rational explanation for what is happening to him. THE WOLF MAN is too straightforward a movie for the connection between the two to take. THE HOWLING definitely plays around with it, what with its setting being a mental health care retreat that its beasties use as way to hide in plain sight while learning to keep their animal side under control. Werewolf rehab, if you will. But in the end, its focus remains primarily on the tried and true angle of werewolf as the monster from the id. (No, not that one.) Discussing this with some of my fellow movie buffs, the only movie that uses werewolves explicitly as a metaphor for mental illness we could name was one of the GINGER SNAPS sequels. In that, it’s basically a medical condition and if the main character doesn’t get the medicinal herbs she needs to keep it in line, she starts self-harming and doing other things that you often see in cases of people who need treatment for depression.

What does this have to do with AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF? Well, look at what David experiences through the whole movie. He suffers from nightmares and hallucinations so frequently he begins to wonder what is real and what isn’t. He struggles with suicidal impulses. When he transforms into his wolf form, he blacks out and has no memory of anything that he does. Alex and David’s doctor certainly don’t buy into any of this talk of werewolves but they certainly believe that David is in a state where he could be a harm to himself or others. And consider that what starts this is seeing a close friend get killed horribly before he himself is badly injured and put into a coma. I don’t know about you guys but I’ll be damned if this doesn’t read like some of the more extreme cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF does a fantastic job of making you experience its main character’s disassociation with reality, with only its repeated cuts to the perspective of other characters preventing it from being on par with say, MIRACLE MILE, in that regard. What’s surprising about this and a good indicator of how sometimes the end result can get away from a creator’s intentions is that I don’t think that was exactly what Landis and company were going for. The reoccurring instance of David waking up from dream after dream until you’re left unsure whether what he’s seeing is real or not, Landis admits, was something he lifted from a Bunuel film that achieved a similar effect through that motif. You also have to account for how much AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF draws from THE WOLF MAN, so of course, it would feature characters blaming what’s happening as the result of the protagonists fractured mind. Then there’s the fact that in interviews with Landis and Naughton, they show that while they did think of David’s condition in terms of a disease, it was a physical sickness, not mental, they approached it as, playing him as someone who refused to face that he has a terminal disease. So, as it turns out, the most effective “werewolf-as-mental-problem-stand-in” story may have been the result of an entirely coincidental combination of influences and shooting close to the mark, with what we understand about the werewolf represents filling in the blanks as necessary. 

This review was part of the Celluloid Zeroes ADULT ONSET LYCANTHROPY ROUNDTABLE. Want more? Head over to Checkpoint Telstar for Tim's review of THE BAT PEOPLE, or maybe stop by The Terrible Claw Reviews for Gavin's opinion on SSSSSSS. Still not enough? Cinemasochistic Apocalypse bites into the samurai werewolf flick (!!) KIBAKICHI, 3-Beer Theater is inflicted with THE CURSE OF THE BLACK WIDOW, The Tomb of Anubis takes on ROMASANTA, Las Peliculas de Terror deals with a were-cicada infestation with THE BEAST WITHIN, and Web of the Big Damn Spider goes back to SUMMER SCHOOL.