Monday, October 31, 2016

Galaxy of Terror (1981)

Directed by: Bruce Clark
Screenplay by: Marc Siegler and Bruce Clark
Starring: Eddie Albert Jr., Ray Walston, Erin Moran, Sid Haig, Grace Zabriskie, Robert Englund,Taaffe O’Connell
Running Time: 81 min.
Tagline: “Hell Has Just Been Relocated.”

On the desolate planet of Morganthus, the last surviving member of the starship Remus attempts to escape some unseen threat by sealing himself away in the ship’s morgue but whatever it is chasing after him, the crew member’s barricade does nothing to stop it and the man is violently killed by the seemingly invisible assailant. Back on the Remus’s homeworld of Xeres, the strange, god-like Planet Master, a robed figure whose face is obscured by an orange glow, is taking part in a strange game with an old crone named Mitiri (Mary Ellen O’Neil) when he receives word of the disappearance of the Remus on Morganthus. Surprisingly, Planet Master seems pleased by this news and is prompted by it to make a particularly daring move in whatever this game they’re playing is. Mitri is taken aback by his boldness but he sees what has happened on Morganthus as a sign to put a long gestating plan into motion and will not be deterred. A rescue mission by the starship Quest is quickly arranged, to be headed up by Commander Ilvar (Bernard Beherns) – a puzzling request since Ilvar seems to have been retired from active duty for a number of years – and manned by a crew personally selected by Planet Master himself. 

And what a crew it is! Captain Trantor (Grace Zabriskie) is an absolute lunatic suffering from severe PTSD as the result of being the lone survivor of something called The Hesperus Massacre, the mere mention of which triggers traumatic flashbacks in the woman. Officer Baelon (Zalman King) is, to not put too fine a point on it, a complete asshole, who is particularly hostile to fellow crew member Cabren (Eddie Albert Jr.), very likely due to Cabren’s relationship with Alluma (Erin Moran), who also joins the crew. Alluma is a psychic and you’ll be happy to know that in the grand tradition of movie psychics, her abilities end up being completely useless. Rounding out the crew are cook Kore (Ray Waltson!), Quuhod (Sid Haig!), a monastic warrior who eschews firearms for a pair of crystal throwing weapons and barely speaks (Haig agreed to do the movie on the condition that he could play character as a mute to get out of having to say some apparently horrendous dialogue.), rookie Cos (Jack Blessing) who’s so nervous about his first mission out he’s barely holding it together from the looks of things, and tech officers Dameia (Taaffe O’Connell) and Ranger. (Robert Englund!) To call the Planet Master’s choice of personnel a tad questionable is a bit of an understatement. 

Things go wrong as soon as The Quest reaches Morganthus. While in orbit, the ship is seized by some unknown force and pulled down to the planet’s surface, a rather inhospitable looking graveyard of wrecked ships, and while the crew comes out unscathed, the rough landing did the Quest no favors. Not that the ship being fully functional would be much help at the moment, as whatever snatched the Quest out of orbit won’t let go of it unless they can find its power source and shut it down. Fortunately, the Quest was put down in relatively close proximity to the wreck of the Remus and Ilvar dispatches a team to look for survivors. All they end up finding is corpses, which for reasons never remotely explained, Baelon immediately incinerates upon discovery. However, a thorough search of ship reveals there’s still several crew members unaccounted for and so it’s possible that some remnant of the Remus’s crew is still alive somewhere. Strangely enough, Alluma’s psychic radar does detect a lifeform of some sort, though it’s identifiably not human. Even more confusing, the presence she’s detecting seems to originate with Cos, who spent the better part of the search through the Remus jumping at shadows. Well, turns out that Cos had a very good reason to be afraid, because as soon as everyone else is off the Remus, he gets attacked and killed by a dog-sized creature that seems to be a mixture of insect and reptile. 

Dameia and Ranger, who are apparently also the ships surgical team as well as tech crew, perform an autopsy on Cos and the one corpse found in the Remus that Baelon didn’t reduce to charcoal briquettes but are unable to determine what killed them. That mystery will have to wait, because Commander Ilvar’s scans of the nearby area have turned up something interesting. Something nearby is putting out enough energy to scramble the Quest’s scanners and that’s enough to convince Ilvar that the source of whatever is trapping the Quest on Morganthus may lay in that direction. Another team is dispatched to investigate and this time Ilvar will join them. What they discover is a massive pyramid, which immediately spooks out Alluma, as she says she’s never encountered anything in her life that feels so empty when scanned by her psychic abilities. Despite her protests, heading inside that pyramid may be the only way for them to find answers to what is going on.  

It goes without saying that the discovery of the pyramid is the cue for whatever is behind all this to start picking off our cast in earnest. Ilvar is killed by another alien life form as he rappels down into a shaft on the side of the pyramid. Quuhod gets attacked by his own weapons before bizarrely being finished off by his own severed arm! Trantor, believing that they’re under attack by the same alien force responsible for the Hesperus Massacre, ends up burned alive and in the most infamous scene in all of GALAXY OF TERROR, Dameia is overwhelmed by a giant maggot that tears her clothing off and um, has its way with her before she dies. Ew. As their numbers are whittled down, the remaining survivors realize that something within the pyramid is tapping into their subconscious fears and siccing their own personalized id monster on each of them. They’ll also discover that their walking into this deathtrap was very much part of that mysterious plan of the Planet Master’s alluded to in the early scenes and if they want to get out this alive, they’ll have to figure out what his game is. 

In 1970, after spending the previous decade and change directing several dozen films for American International Pictures, Roger Corman parted ways with A.I.P. and with his brother Gene, founded New World Pictures Ltd. Corman’s intent was to take a brief sabbatical and work primarily on the production side of things for about a year or so before he hopped back into the director’s chair. Well, as it turns out, New World Pictures would keep Corman so busy on that end of things that he would never direct another movie but since production and supervisory roles were where Corman’s real talent lay, I think we can all agree that things worked out for the best there, right? Anyway, much like A.I.P. before it, the independent New World’s focus was to be on the creation and distribution of small scale, low budget exploitation films made to cater to popular tastes that could be made fast and recuperate their budgets quickly, while also bolstering their library by picking up the distribution rights for foreign films by the likes of Kurosawa, Fellini, and Bergman. And also STARCRASH, for which we are eternally greatful. Think of them as the 70’s and early 80’s counterpart to Cannon Films and hey, guess who Menaham Golan got his start with?

As I mentioned, where Corman’s excelled was on the production side of things, in particular his knack for spotting potential great talents and motivating them to learn and grow as filmmakers by doing. You were given an idea to develop into a script and you had so many days to shoot the movie for so much money. If you’re capable of working under those restrictions, then you can pretty much do whatever the hell you wanted on the movie. Corman would be relatively hands off most of the time but wasn’t afraid to pop in and suggest (often insistently so) changes or ideas that he felt would make the film more appealing to the markets he would be selling the films too. It was an approach that worked and if you need evidence thereof just look at the numerous heavyweight directors, writers, and others who inform so much of modern day filmmaking that got their start and proved themselves working for the man, a list that includes the likes of Joe Dante, Paul Bartel, John Sayles, James Horner, William Stout, Ron Howard, Jonathon Demme and Gale Anne Hurd, not to mention special effects experts who would work on everything from NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET to AVATAR.

However, this was also the time period where the arrival and massive success of films like JAWS and STAR WARS initiated a major shift in Hollywood filmmaking for better or worse. “What is JAWS,” Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote, “but a big budget Roger Corman picture?” The Hollywood studio machine was now catering to the exact same audiences that Corman was but were able to throw a ton more money into it. If he wanted to compete, the famously pennywise producer was going to have to risk opening up his pocket book a teensy bit more. Therefore, he needed to be certain that people would come out to see the movies he produced, and so got into the practice of making movies that mimicked whatever film was popular at the time just enough to grab the attention of fans looking for a something familiar. The difference between the best of these and say, the “mockbusters” shoveled out by the Asylum a couple of decades later is that for the most part they aimed for something different than simply recreating a more successful movie for (a whole lot) less money. Instead, they would look at the most basic, core concepts behind these movies as a jumping off point for something unique. Yes, Dante’s PIRANHA is about a resort town getting chewed up and spit out by an aquatic menace but the movie itself is a gleefully self-aware mixture of ‘50’s “science run amok” and black comedy. BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS pared down STAR WARS to “Kurosawa jideki film meets WWII dog fight movie” and gave us SEVEN SAMURAI in space, even bringing in Robert Vaughn to play a riff on his character from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.

GALAXY OF TERROR – submitted as PLANET OF HORRORS, produced under the title QUEST, and initially released under the truly god-awful title of MINDWARP: AN INFINITY OF TERROR to tepid response until, in true Corman fashion, they slapped a new title on it and re-released it -- is an ALIEN cash-in and isn’t afraid to admit it. But despite the repeated swipes from Ridley Scott’s film and of H.R. Giger’s design sensibility, I wouldn’t say that it’s wholly accurate to describe GALAXY OF TERROR as a complete ALIEN knock-off. Certainly, the film plants itself firmly in much of the same territory as its inspiration for a good chunk of its first act, what with a crew setting down on a hostile alien world to explore the wreckage of a derelict spacecraft. It even cribs the ominous alien pyramid structure from the original script of ALIEN. (Coincidently, back when ALIEN was known as STARBEAST, O’Bannon and Shusett had intended to sell the script to Corman to help pave the way for their dream project, an adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”) But as GALAXY OF TERROR moves along, it reveals a movie that shares as much if not more in common with the likes of FORBIDDEN PLANET or Mario Bava’s PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES as it does Scott’s film. Furthermore, the fictional universe its set it couldn’t be further removed from ALIEN and is more like something you’d run across in the pages of HEAVY METAL or 2000 A.D. magazine. Certainly, off the top of my head, I couldn’t name any other ALIEN-like which featured a psychic as standard part of a spaceship crew, a warrior order that wields crystal shuriken, a ruling body led by an alien demigod who governs by playing what amounts to a gussied up Atari game with a freakin’ witch or a nebulous psychic threat that unleashes a whole menagerie of different beasties to dispatch our cast of characters. The result is something that feels like a grindhouse STAR TREK episode.

That sort of off-kilter, throw it at all wall strangeness grants GALAXY OF TERROR a considerable amount of charm and part of the allure of the movie is watching to see just how bizarre it’ll get. That’s certainly helped by the film’s cast, as you’d be hard pressed to find a movie of this type with such an eccentric mix of recognizable faces. We’ve got Freddie Krueger, Captain Spaulding, Laura Palmer’s mom, the guy from THE RED SHOE DIARIES, Joanie from HAPPY DAYS, and the star of MY FAVORITE MARTIAN all in one package. (And it could have been even screwier. Mark Hamill was apparently game for a role in this.) But if GALAXY does have one major stumbling block though, it all has to do with this cast of characters. If there’s one aspect of ALIEN that GALAXY OF TERROR could have benefited more from following, it’s the way in which ALIEN takes time establish the personalities, relationships and tensions of the Nostromo’s crew members before their nasty little stowaway shows up. GALAXY OF TERROR has an even larger cast and the fact that so much of what befalls the Quest’s crew hinges on their psychological make-up makes getting to know these people even more vital. As it stands, the characters are more memorable because of the disparate actors in the roles and their outlandishly gruesome death scenes and more often then not, you’ll be left scratching your head trying to figure out how exactly each person’s death translates to their “greatest fear.” Trantor’s PTSD, Alluma’s claustrophobia, and Cos’s paranoia aren’t too hard to figure out but how exactly does one character fearing that he’s too old and out of touch to be a competent leader lead to him getting killed by blood sucking worms? Or Quuhod’s weapons and eventually his own body turning against him? Sure, seeing Freddy Kruger getting menaced by his own evil doppelganger is fun, but why is he the only one that gets a human manifestation? And for the love of God, how does Dameia’s disgust at worms translate into her getting raped to death by what looks like friggin’ Mothra’s larval form!?

Well, I can actually answer that one: it was all Corman’s idea.  Corman had sold GALAXY OF TERROR to distributors due to the promise of a certain degree of sexual content, most of it involving Taaffe O’Connell. Apparently he even promised a sex scene between her and Eddie Albert without telling anyone involved in the actual making of the movie. So, to add in the sleaze he had sold the film on, Corman decided at the last minute to change what was originally supposed to be a straight forward monster attack scene into not only a monster rape scene but one where the victim seems to actually enjoy the experience! (Corman’s explanation would be that what Dameia truly feared was her own sexual desires. Sure thing, Rog.) The film’s director, screenwriters, and Taaffe O’Connell, who had taken the job because she was drawn the idea of getting to play a rare non-sexualized role, were not amused. According to the commentary on Shout Factory’s Corman Classics release, O’Connell even had to talk with her priest before she agreed to do it -- would I have liked have been a fly on the wall during that conversation -- while Clark refused to do it, forcing Corman to come in and handle it himself. Shooting the scene itself was also a trial, with O’Connell just narrowly avoiding getting crushed by the immense hydraulic puppet at one point, and it was subjected to numerous edits and cuts to keep the film from getting slapped with an X-rating. Thing is, Corman was right. This moment is so completely out of left field and thoroughly “what the hell?” that it sticks with you more than any other scene in the film. Being “that movie where a lady gets screwed to death by a giant slimy maggot” gave GALAXY OF TERROR the kind of sleazy infamy that translates to ticket sales, video rentals, and cult fascination years later.

Fortunately, the other major reason why GALAXY OF TERROR managed the longevity its had is considerably more pleasant than That Scene. Reports vary on how much GALAXY OF TERROR cost to make exactly – one apocryphal story has it that Corman was able to recoup the film’s budget by simply renting a couple sets out for an Italian watch commercial one weekend – but it couldn’t have been much. Therefore one can’t help but be impressed at what the film’s production team was able to accomplish on such a limited budget. You wouldn't believe that much of movie's sets a props were built out of spray-painted cardboard and discarded scraps as the production design on the ship and pyramid interiors, the effects of the ship’s take off, the matte paintings of Morganthus’s storm wracked surface, and the creature work are all of a surprisingly high standard. Of course, that means when the production design does slip up, such as how it doesn’t try to hide the fact the restraints used by the Quest’s crew to strap themselves down during hyper space jumps are just car seatbelts, complete with visible logos, it sticks out all that much more. But we really shouldn’t be too surprised that they were able to accomplish this much, as the teams in charge of these aspects of the movie were headed up by a hungry young filmmaker by the name of James Cameron, who Corman had hired on as a production assistant and effects technician for BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, wherein he was responsible for designing a number of the spaceships featured in that film.
GALAXY OF TERROR would be his second feature for Corman, (between the two films Cameron and his crew would also work on a little film called ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK) and you could make a fairly strong argument that GALAXY was more the James Cameron Show than it was Bruce Clark’s. The future TERMINATOR director not only had a hand in painting the concept art,  designed most of the creatures -- an exception would be the one that settles Baelon’s hash. That had been donated to the production by a former Corman  EFX artist and written into the movie at the last minute – acted as a second unit director, and by all accounts, served as Roger Corman's representative there on the set. It shows and with Cameron's fingerprints all over this movie, it wouldn't be too hard to view GALAXY OF TERROR as a warm-up for what he would eventually do with ALIENS. Some scenes even presage the later movie: try not to think of the Space Marine's initial sweep of Hadley's Hope when the Quest's crew investigate the wreckage of the Remus or how the alien pyramid paved the way for the xenomorph's hive. And Cameron wasn't the only GALAXY OF TERROR alumni to work on ALIENS either, the two films also share visual effects supervisor Robert Skotak and Hudson himself, Bill Paxton, worked on GALAXY as a carpenter.

By the way, if you ever get your hands on Shout Factory's disc, I recommend watching the behind-the-scenes documentary on it. There's a whole segment of it devoted to anecdotes  about what it was like working with the famously confrontational filmmaker and not all of them are positive ones.

Would I recommend GALAXY OF TERROR to just anyone? Probably not. The lack of characterization, sometimes odd performances from its eclectic cast, and moments of gratuitous sleaze and extreme gore would likely turn a quite a few people off to it. But, if you have a love for a bygone era of B-movie filmmaking, are interested in seeing a small if notable step in the career of one of the most influential popular filmmakers of the past thirty years, or are just hankering for something incredibly strange, give it a try.

Return of the Living Dead (1985)


Directed by: Dan O’Bannon
Screenplay by:  Dan O’Bannon
Starring: Clu Gulgar, James Karen, Don Calfa, Linnea Quigley, Thom Matthews, Beverly Randolph, Miguel Nunez
Running Time: 91 minutes
Tagline: “They’re back from the grave and ready to party!”

“The events portrayed in this film are all true. The names are real names of real people and real organizations.”

Back in 1968, an independent film production out of Pittsburgh made a low-budget fright flick that delivered such a wallop to popular culture that its fingerprints can still be found on popular media decades later and the director’s very name was transformed into descriptive shorthand. You might’ve heard of it; it was this stark, mean little bugaboo of a film called NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. To go into the exact whys and hows of what a shock to the system NIGHT was deserves a post all of its own, so we won’t go into that, but you can’t really discuss RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD without mentioning NIGHT because of how much the former film hangs over the latter. After all, RETURN was originally conceived as a direct sequel to NIGHT, based on a novel by NIGHT’s co-writer John Russo, who had won the legal right to create his own follow ups separate from Romero’s sequels. Russo had intended for the film adaptation of RETURN to kick off a franchise all of its own and well, that is what happened, it just did so without Russo.

This came about when ALIEN screenwriter Dan O’Bannon became attached to the project as both writer and eventually director, taking over from Tobe Hooper, and he was uncomfortable with how much the source material lifted wholesale from Romero. So, rather than proceed with what he perceived as a pale imitation he through out almost all of Russo’s material and refashioned the project into something of tongue-in-rotting-check tribute to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF DEAD . Now, when you hear the title RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, you don’t think of people caught between a crazed religious cult and a gang of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT-esque thugs with the dead rising to inconvenience everybody, do you? Heck no, what comes to mind is that poster up with the corpses sporting chains and mohawks, “The Surfin’ Dead” by the Cramps, and Linnea Quigley doing a striptease on top of a crypt. Much to Russo’s chagrin, I imagine, it would be O’Bannon’s version that would leave its mark – hungering for brains as a generally accepted Thing That Zombies Do originates here –and much like THE HOWLING, reduce the novel to little more than a footnote. (Amusingly enough, Russo would write the film’s novelization, which means there are two different books titled RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD by the same guy.) Give the film a watch and it’s easy to see why that is. Not only is it just a damn fine horror-comedy in its own right, like all good parodies, as much as it subverts and thumbs its nose at Romero’s blueprint, it understands the through line of his zombie fiction far better than any of his imitators.

We’re not even a few minutes in and RETURN is playing with our expectations. Yes, this is a sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, just not the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD we know. You see, Romero’s film was loosely based on actual events, where the test of a new chemical compound, 245-Trioxin, went awry, returning a morgue full of dead bodies to some semblance of life. The military hushed things up, threatening Romero with a lawsuit if he told what actually occurred, and sealed the reanimated corpses up tight in airtight tanks to be shipped off some undisclosed location. At least, that’s the story Uneeda medical supply warehouse manager Frank (James Karen) spins for Freddy (Thom Matthews), the new stockroom clerk, while closing up shop. How is it that Frank knows all this? Simple; due to what he describes as a “typical army fuck-up,” the tanks containing the corpses were shipped to the wrong address and for the past fourteen years have been sitting off in a corner in the basement of Uneeda Medical Supply. While Frank is showing off the tanks and their grisly contents to the rookie, Freddy asks if there’s any danger of the tanks leaking. Nothing to worry about, Frank assures him, these were made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and gives the tank a good solid swat on the side. Cue leak.

Both Frank and Freddy get hit with a face full of 245-Trioxin and from there the gas makes its way into the ventilation system and out into the warehouse proper, where it reanimates anything dead it touches. This includes the butterflies pinned to boards, the split dog corpses used for veterinary schools, and of course, the human cadaver currently locked in the freezer. Realizing that things have going completely south on them, Freddy and Frank decide to call in their boss, Burt (Clu Gulager) for help. After reading Frank the profanity laden riot act for even going near those tanks, Burt decides the best course of action is to dispose everything and everyone keeps their mouths shut. Of course, to do that means letting that cadaver out of the freezer so they can kill it. That shouldn’t be too hard to do. Destroying the zombies’ brains worked in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, right? Well, as Freddy will astutely point out, the movie lied: the first attempt to kill the thing by bashing its skull in doesn’t take; the next results in the three of them having to chase a headless corpse around the warehouse. Whatever 245-Trioxin is, it creates a ghoul that is substantially more durable than anything that came after Ben and company in that farmhouse. Fortunately, Burt remembers that his friend Ernie Kaltenbrunner (Don Calfa) works in the mortuary at the nearby funeral parlor and has access to a crematorium, which, needless to say, is looking like it would come in pretty handy right about now.

As all of this hilarity is going on, Freddy’s friends find themselves faced with a Friday night with nothing to do. This little group includes punk rockers Spider (Miguel Nunez), Scuzz (Brian Peck), Casey (Jewel Shepard), death-obsessed Trash (Linnea Quigley), and “one spooky motherfucker” Suicide (Mark Venturini), as well as hanger-on Chuck (John Philbin), and Freddy’s girlfriend Tina, who is such a Wholesome Girl Next Door, the type that says “oh fudge!” when frustrated, that I can only assume that she and Freddy have a VALLEY GIRL thing going. Eventually, the group comes to agreement that if anybody knows where the good times are to be had, it’s Freddy. Thing is Freddy doesn’t get off work for a couple of hours and nobody is happy with the idea of sitting outside Uneeda Medical Supply in the summer heat for that long. Scuzz makes the suggestion that they could kill time by fooling around in the nearby cemetery, which unbeknownst to them, happens to be at the back of the same funeral parlor where Freddy, Burt, and Frank are smuggling in the cadaver, now hacked into convenient pieces and stuffed into garbage bags. Burt’s cover story about being saddled with a bunch of rabid weasels that he needs to dispose of doesn’t go over so well, so he has to show Ernie what really is in those bags. Well, nearly getting your foot wrenched off by a still moving severed arm makes a fairly convincing argument. Into the furnace the cadaver goes and for a moment, it looks like the problem is solved. Except Freddy and Frank have been getting progressively more ill since their exposure to the gas and not to spoil things, there’s a reason that when they let that cadaver out of the freezer, it ignored them and went straight for Burt. Second, Tina has wandered over to Uneeda so she can meet up with Freddy when he gets off work and is attacked by a zombie that escaped from the drum that started this whole mess, a particularly nasty revenant that looks like a walking pile of bones and sludge. Finally, yeah, they burned up the cadaver but that smoke, saturated with 245-Trioxin, had to go somewhere. Somewhere, like say, into those passing storm clouds, where it triggers a sudden thunderstorm and torrential downpour, dumping several gallons of instant zombie juice right on the graveyard. Whoops.

With apologies to Uncle George, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD may be my single favorite zombie movie. It’s just so much thoroughly twisted fun, filled to the brim with wonderfully sick jokes and sight gags, a fantastic punk rock soundtrack, and top-notch make up and effects. For my money, you’d have to look to something like AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON to find a movie that comes as close to working as effectively as both a comedy and a straight horror movie. And credit for much of what makes it work so magnificently has to go to Dan O’Bannon. Watching this film, you’d have a hard time believing that this was O’Bannon’s first rodeo as a director because he pulls it off with the skill and self-assurance that one expects from a seasoned professional. With help from William Stout’s excellent EC Comics influenced production design, O’Bannon manages the fairly difficult trick of giving the movie a visual look unique from other horror films being made at the time without actually calling attention to that. Furthermore, by giving his cast, a mix of veterans and talented newcomers, a longer than normal rehearsal period, the characters genuinely do come off as people who’ve known each other for years and are as much fun to watching simply hanging out together as they are being pursued by zombies. But as fantastic as his direction is – and it’s a crying shame that he would go on to only direct one more movie in his life: THE RESURRECTED, a fairly decent low budget adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s THE STRANGE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD – it’s his screenplay where he really shines. Not only is it quotable as all get out (“Ain’t you never been to a funeral?” “I never knew nobody that died!”) but it has all these great moments of the sort of bleak absurdity, horror, and humanity that comes from being trapped together in a situation where you are well and truly screwed. Sometimes all at once: take the scene where a zombified Freddy has Tina and Ernie trapped in an attic. A teenage girl hiding from her boyfriend who is calling to her to let him eat her brains is utterly ridiculous but you can’t deny that both Tina’s sheer terror and Ernie trying to work up the courage to deliver a mercy shot to the hysterical girl before Freddy breaks in comes across as completely believable.
It’s no wonder that O’Bannon “gets” Romero so well; the two men have such a similar world view. Like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD before it, being an alpha male type or having the best intentions behind your actions doesn’t guarantee that you’ll make it to RETURN’s final reel and sacrifice and attempts to fix things can easily make things worse. There’s also the fact that while wildly different in execution – RETURN’s ghouls can be every bit as agile, strong and intelligent as a human being, as opposed to Romero’s shambling hordes --  both  NIGHT and RETURN understand that what really makes the undead so terrifying is how pathetic they are. With Romero they’re recognizably human society slowly decaying into an identity-less mass while O’Bannon’s are amped up junkies – we learn from a captured one that ingesting brain endorphins is the only relief from the constant pain that comes with their existence as a rotting corpse – whose need for a fix is so all consuming it reduces them to animalistic savages. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Romero influenced zombie film if the whole notion of The Proper Authorities Are Not Your Friend didn’t rear its head at some point, as the military decides to let God sort ‘em out when finally implementing its contingency plan for dealing with a borderline indestructible zombie outbreak, a truly spectacular escalation of NIGHT’s own subversive ending. I mentioned Russo’s novelization of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD earlier and one of the truly baffling additions he made for the novelization was a framing story that casts the whole incident as the result of a conspiracy by Communist sympathizers to destabilize the United States. (!!)  Obviously, it’s generally agreed by anyone aware of this of what a wrongheaded decision that was because not only does it no damn sense from any logical standpoint – why exactly don’t these fifth columnists just unleash the gas themselves instead of leaving the tanks there in hopes that a couple of knuckleheads will one day accidentally do so – but also illustrates how Russo didn’t get what Romero was trying to say and O’Bannon did. In Romero’s movies, the reason that the system fails so badly in fixing the problem is because systems are inherently broken by design because people created them, people run them, and people can be some seriously dumb and narrow minded sumbitches when they put their mind to it. That’s part of the reason why leaving the domino that started it all a “typical army fuck up” works better; a horrible tragedy caused by the authorities’ incompetence and exacerbated by their willingness to implement blunt solutions while showing casual disregard to collateral damage and long term consequences to cover up their mistake is something I find a load more believable and terrifying than some elaborate conspiracy waiting in the shadows.
A Little Something Extra:
Oh come on...what else did you think I was going to throw in at the end of this review? This flick has got one of the best soundtracks in 80's horror and arguably, of all time:

Friday, October 7, 2016

Blood and Black Lace (1964)


Directed by: Mario Bava
Screenplay by: Mario Bava, Giuseppe Barilla, and Marcello Fondato
Starring: Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Thomas Reiner, Ariani Gorini, Luciano Pigozzi, Mary Arden, Calude Dantes
Running Time: 89 minutes

A masked killer in black clothing, fever dream colors run riot, brutal and elaborately staged murder set pieces, ineffective police detectives, and a mystery that isn’t actually solved so much as the movie just comes out and tells you whodunit. Yep, it sounds like Psychoplasmics is paying another visit  to our good friend the giallo this Halloween. The first time we did so, we dug into a movie that diverged rather dramatically from what we'd come to expect when we hear the term "giallo." Here we're shifting in reverse and taking a look at the movie that codified many of those elements in the first place and still manages to pack one hell of a punch despite decades of imitators ramping up the shocks. I give you Mario Bava's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE.

The backdrop for BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is the glamorous Christian Haute Couture fashion house in Rome, run by the widowed countess Christiana Como (Eva Bartok) and her current paramour Massimo. (Cameron Mitchell) It's the kind of place where every single one of its occupants has some dirty secret that they'd like very much to keep hidden, so when one of the models turns up strangled to death on the fashion house grounds, the police have their work cut out for them in narrowing down the possible suspects. Thing is, this is but the first in a series of murders, because our first victim, unknown to the police, kept a diary which detailed a lot of the shady goings on at Haute Couture and several people there would do anything to keep it out of their hands. As the diary ends up passed from person to person, our killer -- a figure in black wearing a featureless gauze mask -- hunts them down and dispatches each one of them in spectacularly brutal fashion. That the victims are all beautiful women and the vicious nature of each of the murders have the police mistakenly convinced that they're after a deranged sex maniac, which ends up indirectly giving the killer a perfect alibi to throw them off their trail. Now all they're going to need to get away scott free is someone to pin the blame on.

While discussing briefly the origins behind the term giallo in my post about Fulci's DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING, I neglected to go into the importance of the German krimi film on the genre's development. Krimis or "Kriminalfilms" were a series of crime movies (produced mainly by Rialto Films) that primarily adapted the works of 20's pulp crime writer Edgar Wallace, beginning with 1959's THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE FROG and ending with 1972's PUZZLE OF THE SILVER HALF MOONS. Krimis had plots that were straight out of old fashioned murder mysteries, usually revolving around individuals or group thereof hiding a dark secret being menaced by a masked villain, stylishly shot and with added touches of more graphic violence and sexuality than one would come to expect. If that sounds familiar, it should. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE was a German-Italian co-production, intended to be a crime thriller in the Edgar Wallace tradition. (According to Tim Lucas's commentary on the Arrow Video release of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, the film seems to have lifted rather liberally from a Wallace story titled WHITEFACE, to the point that apparently it ended up being more faithful to it than that story's actual adaptation.) You can find traces of the krimi throughout BLOOD AND BLACK LACE; the collection of suspects and their entangled sins, the bizarrely dressed killer (who looks a lot like comic book superhero The Question), the bossa nova theme music by Carlo Rustichelli, and police detective hero. (Thomas Reiner) Or, well, about as close as you're going to find in this movie.

However, for all their flourishes, krimi films were police procedurals at heart and Bava, bored with the cliches of whodunits, aimed for something a little different. So, the role of the police in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is pared down considerably. Their investigation plays no role in the reveal of the killer's identity except in how it pays off a visual clue for the audience and they are not involved in the mystery's resolution. In fact, their one big move to capture the killer ultimately ends up giving that killer an opportunity to escape justice. You also won't be seeing any of the film's remaining cast members becoming amateur sleuths and taking it upon themselves to solve the mystery themselves. If anybody ends up being proactive in any fashion, it's usually to work up an alibi to cover their own ass than help anyone else. No one uncovers the killer’s identity; the movie just comes out and tells you. Instead, it’s the actions of our mysterious killer and the stalk-and-murder scenes become the real focus of our film. Therefore, by diverging from the krimis that formed its foundation and moving towards something much darker and harsher. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE becomes a missing link between film noir’s nihilism and horror’s viciousness. Obviously, our bizarre killer and the brutal methods he uses to dispatch his victims – strangulation, drowning, shoving them face first into a furnace, and stabbing them in the face with a barbed gauntlet – paved the way for the Michael Myers’ and Jason Voorhees’ to follow but when its revealed that the killings are driven by greed and the last act follows our killer as they try to clean up loose ends, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE doesn’t feel too far removed from the likes of DIABOLIQUE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Almost joyously misanthropic, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE presents a world that, underneath all the riches and glamour, is more corrupt, cynical and savage than anything else.

Of course, it wasn't just the shift in content that helped BLOOD AND BLACK LACE kick off a sub-genre of its own but also the presentation of it. It's important to note that early in life, Mario Bava had aspirations to be a painter. When that career went nowhere, Bava moved on to work with his father in the Italian film industry but that inclination stayed with him. After a number of years working as a cameraman and co-directing whatever movies Riccardo Freda didn't feel like finishing, Bava would graduate to helming films all by his lonesome, starting with his More-Hammer-Than-Hammer gothic BLACK SUNDAY. He would direct his first color feature with 1961's HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, which would be the first to feature the hallucinatory color cinematography that would become synonymous with the phrase "a Mario Bava film." See, as a director, Bava was concerned more with the staging and lighting of a scene than whether or not it made complete logical sense. To him, the script was generally little more than a vague outline to follow, which considering the quality of the scripts that the man usually worked with, maybe was for the best. While this does lead us to wonder what he could have pulled off if he had an actual decent script to build on, it ultimately isn't as big of the drawback as it sounds because in Bava's films, it's the pictures that do the talking. While the writing in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE never manages to rise above adequate enough to not be intrusive, the images contained within the film are potent enough to pick up the slack.

It was Bava’s intent to make this film look like one of the lurid covers to an old Mondadori paperback brought to life and it goes without saying that he succeeded. Through the use of wildly varied and vivid color schemes and lighting and strange camera angles, Bava makes normal spaces take on surreal dimensions. A simple cellar gets warped into a gothic dungeon. An antique store becomes a phantasmagorical nightmare world that our killer, seeming to merge with the shadows, stalks his victims through. A furnace glows red with an unnatural intensity. Red is a very important color in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. (Hey, considering the title it better be.) The film opens and closes with lingering shots on an object of that color and it reappears time and time again, most notably via a strange mannequin that is shown posing with some of the cast during the film’s marvelous opening credits and pops up again and again like some sort of impartial observer to the decadence on display. Most interestingly, though, is when Bava restrains himself from using his strange color schemes. Scenery that’s so delirious at night is rendered almost unrecognizable when shown in the light of day. It’s in these scenes that much of the police investigation takes place and well, no wonder they can’t solve it. It feels like they’re in a completely different world. This visual mastery is made even more impressive by the fact that Bava was working with a limited budget and could only get the shots he wanted by resorting to such methods as dragging the camera around in a child’s wagon or rigging up a see-saw-esque device in place of a crane.

The year previous to BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, Bava directed another film that’s often credited as the first giallo: THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH / THE EVIL EYE, starring John Saxon and Leticia Roman. There’s no argument that it created the template for much of what we westerners know as giallo – the outsider protagonist turning amateur sleuth after witnessing a murder, the travelogue like depictions of its European setting, and even a touch of supernatural weirdness that other giallos would run with – but it’s not quite there yet. It’s still nestled comfortably within the boundaries of your Hitchcockian thriller – in fact, it was originally intended as a comedic send-up of Hitch’s films, as the title suggests, until Bava concluded that the film’s absurdity would work better played completely straight. So, more of an evolutionary step then. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, on the other hand, can’t be mistaken for anything else, not just for its cynicism and candy-colored visuals but simply just for how horrifically brutal it is. Even with the on-screen gore kept to a minimum and years of the likes of Argento, Sollima, and Fulci amping up the shocks, the violence in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE remains effective because Bava knows how to make the audience feel it in a way that many of his imitators never grasped. Stabbing someone in the face with spikes is bad enough but throw in a lingering shot from the victim’s point of view showing those barbs are at eye level before they plunge in? Yikes. While subsequent giallos and especially their bastard offspring, the slasher, would victimize scantily clad women for cheap titillation, the sexualization of the victims here just serves to make the violence against them all more disturbing. Thanks to Bava’s whole filmmakers-as-painter approach, shots like a pair of corpses posed as for a magazine spread or that of a drowned women, the briefest lingering on blood spreading over the water’s surface, come across like macabre art pieces about the destruction of something beautiful.

It’s strong stuff, to say the least, and so it should come as little surprise that audiences weren’t quite ready for it when it hit theaters. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE flopped in its native Italy and was dismissed by critics. AIP, who had distributed Bava’s films stateside in the past, deemed the film’s content too disturbing for the teen and drive-in audience they marketed to and passed on it, the film eventually getting released over here thanks to the Woolner brothers. A bit amusing that the movies that Bava is best known for are among his least successful. West Germany loved the movie though and you can see BLOOD AND BLACK LACE’s influence all over the krimis that followed in its wake, eventually leading to German-Italian co-productions that combined krimis with giallos even further. It would be years before it kicked off a similar trend in its home land though, brought about when Bava’s disciple Dario Argento would basically Brundefly THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE into THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and thereby open the floodgates.

But BLOOD AND BLACK LACE did it first and in my opinion, did it best. It’s a truly exceptional piece of filmmaking art and one of my all time favorite movies. If you haven’t seen it yet and are interested, may I recommend the recent release by Arrow Films, now available for us knuckleheads in the U.S.? Not only is the new picture transfer absolutely gorgeous but it comes with an absolute bounty of supplemental features. Included are an article / interview with Joe Dante about his love for Bava, a commentary by Tim Lucas – the man who literally wrote the book on Bava -- , a feature length documentary interviewing Italian screenwriters, directors, and critics about the history and influence of the giallo, YELLOW, a short film created as a tribute to the giallo, a fascinating video essay about distinct portrayals of gender throughout the genre, and an episode of The Sinister Image guest starring BLACK LACE star Cameron Mitchell. It’s probably my favorite feature of the bunch, as Mitchell discusses his entire career with a mix of good humor and professionalism. Mitchell regarded Bava as his favorite director to work with (and this is man who got his start under John Ford, remember) and you can hear the genuine affection he has for the man whenever he’s brought up. Seek it out, it’s worth the price.