Thursday, October 05, 2006

It Came From Netflix! Blood and Black Lace (1964)

Blood and Black Lace (a.k.a. Sei donne per l'assassino) is Mario Bava’s first color horror movie, and an obvious transition piece between the campy tone exemplified by the period’s West German ‘Krimis’—a slew of goofy crime movies ostensively adapted from the books of Edgar Wallace—and the heyday of the Italian Giallo genre. One of my favorite B movies, The Bloody Pit of Horror, also is such a mid-range piece, although Bava’s movie packs a bit more punch.

Bava scholar Tim Lucas, who provides the disc’s commentary track, hails Black Lace as “the first body count movie.” (Although surely And Then There Were None deserves some credit.) Fittingly, this was actually indicated by the original Italian title, which translates to Six Women for the Murderer. In the wake of this film, the Giallos would quickly adopt a more naturalistic and serious tone, as well as a much greater explicitness in graphically portraying baroquely sadistic death scenes.

In other words, they predated and predicted the Slasher genre, albeit while exhibiting much better art direction and an arguably even greater disdain for story logic. Bava again pioneered the trend towards gore effects with 1971’s Twitch of the Death Nerve (a.k.a. Reazione a catena), which more than doubled Black Lace’s victim count and definitely upped the ante in terms of lovingly depicting horrible deaths. The gag of two lovers being impaled simultaneously during the act of sex, copied by Friday the 13th Part 2 and many other movies, originated in that film.

Yet if the murders in Black Lace are not particularly graphic, several of them remain surprisingly brutal and cruel. At the time the movie must have freaked out many, even when more heavily edited as its American release was. For more squeamish folks such as myself, this is at least partly mitigated by the film’s aggressively overt artificiality, again a trademark of the Krimi genre. This begins with the film’s opening credit sequence (apparently changed for the American release), which features the large cast introduced one by one, named as they assume winking poses.

The setting is a fashion house, which allows for a ready supply of beautiful victims. The first such is quickly dispatched by a man in a black trench coat and fedora, who wears a tight flesh-colored fabric mask that renders his head eerily featureless. (Comic book fans will note the resemblance to the Charlton / DC character The Question.) It turns out that the victim had an incriminating diary, however, the appearance of which kicks off a resultant chain of gruesome murders.

Being an early example of the breed, Black Lace actually provides a credible Whodunit element. (Actually, as least as far as I can tell without having seen many of the classic later Giallos, the identity of the murderers in those films were afforded more weight then the usually perfunctory and slapdash revelations of same in the Slasher movies of the ‘80s.)

Along with the often eye-rollingly exaggerated mugging of the cast, surfeit of red herrings a brassy jazz score, Black Lace again could easily be mistaken for a particularly mean-spirited Krimi. Lucas, meanwhile, notes that those films had solely been filmed in black and white, and only begin putting forth color entries (The School Girl Murders, The Creature with the Blue Hand, etc.) in emulation of Bava’s picture.

Among the cast and an obvious suspect (among zillions) is Cameron Mitchell, whose voice is dubbed by a different actor on all three of the soundtracks, the American, the French and the original Italian. Even with the latter it’s clear that all the dialogue was looped in post-production. The American language version, meanwhile, employs the vocal talents of voice actor Paul Frees, instantly identifiable to fans of both ‘50s sci-fi movies and Saturday morning cartoon shows.

Also on hand Lucianno Pigozzi, known as the “Italian Peter Lorre” for his strong resemblance to that actor, and who last caught my attention as a murderous henchman in the wonderfully goofy whodunit / lycanthropy epic Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory.

I really love this era of filmmaking, and the campy elements—such as the strident bum bum bum! music cues that follow such lines as “It’s cocaine!” and “Isabella kept a diary”—easily get me past my general antipathy towards nasty death scenes. This isn’t sheerly lunatic enough to rival my enduring love for The Bloody Pit of Horror, but it’s pretty good stuff none the less.

The VCI special edition DVD of the film features a second disc with extras (including the alternate American and French opening credit sequences) that I didn’t’ t bother renting. Still, it’s a handsome package and, despite the galling lack of an anamorphic widescreen presentation, clearly represents VCI’s bid towards the specialty genre market served by other companies such as Blue Underground and Anchor Bay. They were wise to bring Bava fanatic Lucas on board, and his commentary, albeit scripted and hence a bit robotic, is astoundingly informative on the actors, Bava and Italian genre films.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Regarding acid...

Comments were posted under the Black Pit of Dr. M review (below), as to the general availability and use of acid. This reminded me of my friend Andrew Muchoney's learned remarks on The House on Haunted Hill, as part of one of his scholarly B-Fest recaps:

"The next film on the agenda was House on Haunted Hill, starring Vincent Price. In this film, Mr. Price invites a group of people to stay overnight at a mansion-house legendary for its tragic history of bloodshed, promising a large sum of cash for anyone who stays -- and survives -- the night. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this moving-picture drama is the presence of an acid bath in the basement of the mansion, covered with a crude wooden trap-door. Although many persons observing the film likely noted some irregularity in accoutering a mid-Twentieth Century home with a large acid bath, few are probably educated enough to realize that such baths were commonplace comforts to North American homes of the late Nineteenth Century. Indeed, the most remarkable status-symbol of Colonial-era homes of the well-to-do North American bourgeoisie were their beautifully ornate basement acid baths, often incorporating such whimsical motifs as fish or sea-nymphs spouting gentle geysers of acid. The most famous of such acid baths, of course, is that found in the wine cellars of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, noted for its austere melding of classical architectural forms, its clean lines, and its lethal acid fumes.

Indeed, archaeologists have recently speculated that the fabulous Roman baths constructed by the Roman Emperor Caracalla in the early Third Century, A.D., were not filled with water at all but rather with thousands of gallons of acid; according to such experts, this would help explain the severe erosion sustained by the structure over the last two-thousand years or so, as well as the increasing depopulation which caused Rome to rely ever more heavily on foreign mercenaries to defend its extensive borders. In any event, acid baths became less and less prominent over time, probably due to a few careless persons ruining a generally beneficial resource. At last, rising acid bath-related insurance costs, and a corollary impetus toward consumer safety, caused the very few acid baths remaining in the 1960s to be drained and filled with murky piranha-infested water.

I believe that I have elaborated enough on House on Haunted Hill; therefore, I shall now turn to the next feature of the evening...."

These, and other erudite observations on a variety of topics may be found here. I strongly recommend this article.

It Came from Netflix! Squirm (1976)

Squirm is a fun, fairly typical Revenge of Nature flick, from back in the ‘70s when the genre was in its heyday. Killer Animal flicks generally fall into one of two categories, the Single Killer Animal as exemplified by Jaws, and Multiple Killer Animals, ala The Birds. Insect and arachnid movies unsurprisingly tend to fall into the latter category, and Squirm is no exception.

This is a pretty standard ‘70s independent horror movie, which is not intended as an insult. Like most such, it was actually shot on film, makes good use of a distinctive setting, and is written, directed and acted better than most of the equally low-ball fare made today. There’s a reason Roger Corman’s reputation rests as much on his glory days as a producer as his salad days as a director.

The ’70s was also an era, being just past the worst of the Civil Rights struggle, when the South was viewed as a viper’s nest of not only racism but evil cops, xenophobia and inbred hillbillies. There is a little of that here, although only the asshole town sheriff, a Charles Napier-type, is really exaggerated much.

We open with some title cards indicating (falsely, of course) that this is Based on a True Story. Georgia gal—who perhaps slavers on the Southern accent a bit too much—Geri is eagerly awaiting the arrival of big city quasi-nebbish Mick, her prospective new boyfriend.

Meanwhile, her small, insulated town of Fly Creek is pounded by hurricane-level storms. These topple an electrical tower*, and the downed power lines start dumping thousands of volts of juice into the wet ground. As everyone knows, electricity will drive worms up from the ground (true), while all turning them into screeching carnivores (maybe not so true).

[*The tower falling over is clearly a stock shot from another movie, and in the commentary track, director Jeff Lieberman notes that it was from the original Ocean’s Eleven.)

Mick arrives, and is greeted warmly by Geri, with interest by Geri’s pot-smoking kid sister Alma, with polite trepidation by Geri’s emotionally unstable widow mother Naomi (who as played perhaps strays a little too much into Tennessee Williams territory), and with growing hostility by their neighbor Roger. Roger is the film’s most interesting character, the half-witted but hard working son of an abusive worm farmer.

Presumably in love with Geri since an early age, he obviously sees her as the one bright thing that can make his life better. (He hopes to marry her and help with her antiques selling business, rather than take over his father’s hated worm farm.) His resentment of Mick is certainly understandable, and although Geri obviously pines for better things, it’s also clear that given time Roger would have a real shot at marrying her. The problem, of course, if that this would represent a perhaps dreary compromise for Geri at the same time it would be a best case scenario for him.

Mick’s obvious, er, city-ness also quickly draws the suspicions of the townsfolk, and he has soon run afoul of the aforementioned town sheriff. Even so, Mick’s attention is soon drawn to the human skeleton (stripped of connective tissue but still articulated, needless to say) that pops up and disappears. In the face of the sheriff’s hostility and indifference, he attempts to solve the mystery himself. The cause, needless to say, is a gigantic number of now man-eating worms. They hate the light, but night is quickly approaching…

This is no classic, but it’s solid stuff, and like many films from that period is surprisingly naturalistic. The characterizations are also, per the era, more nuanced than normal. Geri is clearly excited by the relative sophistication Mick represents, but she still likes Roger even as she grows increasingly wary of his obvious interest in her. At the same time, she takes advantage of the poor guy, and even flirts a bit with him at one juncture.

Mick is the smart city slicker, and generally a pretty solid protagonist. However, it’s notable that once he gets caught up in the mystery, he casually abandons an obviously unwilling Geri, leaving her alone with Roger so that the latter will be distracted while Mick searches the worm farm.

As noted, Roger, who can indeed be thuggish and frightening, at the same time never completely loses our sympathy. His life sucks, and his desperate clutching at of Geri remains understandable throughout. Maybe he would have turned violent in any case, but as portrayed he only does so after he goes through quite a lot, including a nasty worm attack.

Hell, even the stereotypical sheriff is mostly a blowhard dick rather than a menace.

The budget obviously allowed for only so much (although they do drop a real tree on a wing of the heroine’s house—the commentary confirms that the addition so destroyed was, as I assumed, fabricated for the movie). We only get period small worm incidents until the big finale, when the massed, flesh-eating mounds of worms roll through town like the Blob. The massed worms are represented by not entirely convincing mountains of rubber ones, although a few brief nasty encounters earlier on are aided immensely by the special effects artistry of a young Rick Baker.

In the end, this is a pretty good movie somewhat hampered by budgetary considerations. It would be interesting to see it remade with a bit more cash (the hinted-at eradication of Fly Creek could certainly be portrayed more epically), although the inevitable heavy use of CGI effects does temper one’s enthusiasm somewhat.

As noted, director Lieberman provides an often entertaining and informative commentary. Lieberman at one point made a bit of a name for himself, with genre fare like this, Blue Sunshine (also 1976) and Just Before Dawn, but he hasn’t done much since the latter’s release in 1981.

If Lieberman sounds a bit shrill about the film’s apparent (I guess) lambasting on Mystery Science Theater 3000, it’s at least understandable. Despite it’s flaws, Squirm is entirely too good of a movie to warrant such a thing. He also spends a lot of time pondering what might have been, since (according to him, anyway), the main three parts were quite nearly played by Kim Basinger (Geri), Martin Sheen (Mick) and Sly Stallone (Roger [!]).

I also liked his story about how a TV station once mistakenly played the movie in black and white, and he actually liked the film’s climax better than way. Per his urging, I turned off the color on my TV for the film’s final fifteen minutes, and you know what? He’s entirely correct.

[Side note: Try watching The Nightmare Before Christmas in B&W sometime. It's neat!]

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

It Came from Netflix! Misterios de ultratumba (1959)

The latest release by the already invaluable CasaNegra, available under the American title of The Black Pit of Dr. M (more on that in a bit), MdU is a corny but straightforward and quite fun Mulligan’s Stew of a movie. It feels like the result of one of those round robin stories, where one guy starts a story, and another adds to it, and so and so, with the tale getting wilder with each new addition.

The film opens upon a decrepit, spider-web strewn courtyard, as narration informs us that we are about to see a tale of doom. From there we flash back to meet the tightly wound and quite obsessed Dr. Mazali. He’s leaning over the deathbed of his colleague Dr. Aldama, and reminding him of their pact. Whichever one of them dies first is to return from the afterlife and help the survivor uncover its secrets.

Even as Aldama is receiving a nicely atmospheric funeral—the highlight of which is when his coffin is opened just before burial (!), and his corpse is greeted with an ominous blare of music (“Look! There’s a dead guy in this coffin we’re burying!)—Mazali is using a medium to contact the guy. Aldama indeed makes himself known, and offers Mazali the chance to visit the afterlife and return to life afterwards, albeit at some horrible price. Mazali agrees, setting in motion his elaborate fate.

From here the plot veers wildly around. A man is seen at the weirdest nightclub I’ve ever seen, watching a dance patterned on the blowing-streamer dream ballet between Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse in Singin’ in the Rain. The main dancer, Patricia, is shocked when she sees him, and flees. She’s been seeing him in her dreams, and vice versa. Moreover, Patricia is the daughter of Aldama, who she never knew, and his ghost appears to her, and….

Really, this thing is just nuts. But in a good way.

Eventually all these characters and many more come together in Mazali’s sanitarium (the deserted locale seen in the beginning of the film), where Aldama or Fate’s machinations continue apace. One thing I learned is that when you run a place for the violently, homicidally insane, and take them into your examining room unsecured, you probably shouldn’t have loose bottles of acid lying around on top of the medicine cabinet.* Also, if all that stands between you and a potential horrible death is the tune emanating from a music box, you might actually want to prop up the lid or something.

[*At one time acid was held to have useful properties in terms of blob-proofing one's laboratory. However, the efficiency of acid and other caustic liquids in this regard has been demonstrated to be negligible at best.]

As you’d expect, Mazali gets what he asked for, but ends up wishing he’s been a little more precise in the details. In the end we get murderous maniacs, a disfigured killer, a fellow rising from the grave, and many other interesting elements.

This is a very stylish little flick. I can’t agree with Frank Coleman (CasaNegra’s founder, and provider of the disc’s commentary track), who labels this a masterpiece and the equal of any of the classic Universal horror films (!), but it’s quite neat. I’d put Curse of the Crying Woman, also out via CasaNegra, above it, but that’s a very good movie indeed, if not a great one. Still, this is a great addition to what is quickly becoming one of the most impressive horror DVD lines out there.

The film looks terrific. This a real plus, given the level of the art direction, which for a low budget equals the best of Roger Corman’s Poe series. The actors mostly play everything straighter than you see in many Mexican horror movies, so the camp value is downplayed, even with the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink nature of the script.

One sadness is that there is, unlike most of CasaNegra’s offerings, an English language dub track to go along with the original Mexican soundtrack. In this case, the Americanized version, again The Black Pit of Dr. M, seems to be lost. Coleman makes a good case that the film might not have been dub and released here by K. Gordon Murray, the man known for the vast majority of such fare, and that this might be why the American version has become so elusive. Still, even sans the American track, this is definitely something fans of old-fashioned gothic horror might want to take a look at.

New to DVD (10/03/06)...

Some interesting TV collections coming out today, although the sort of thing that will annoy people who have been picking seasons up piecemeal.

Since this is Horror Month, we’ll start with The Twilight Zone Complete Series Collection, which happily includes all five seasons of the program, and is made up of the recently released “Definitive Collections”, remastered presentations with nifty extras. A stupendous 28 discs is included in a set that will cost you about $200, which is much less than the price I was paying for the individual seasons when they first came out.

The complete run of The Greatest American Hero also hits shelves today, in a tin collector’s box with a cape (!) and “a battery-powered reproduction of the show's infamous guide book.” (!!)

Harvey Toons The Complete Collection is a four disc set featuring such second-grade characters as Casper, Little Audrey, Herman and Katnip and Baby Huey. Still, running a stated 200 minutes, there’s no way this could be in any way “complete.”

Other TV sets available today:

Andromeda S5; Baywatch, Collections 1 & 2; Commander in Chief V1 & V2; CSI New York S2; Medium S2; Penn & Teller Bullshit S3; Planet of the Apes TV Series; Stargate SG-1 S9

As for movies, we’ll start with, again the horror stuff, although it’s a slow week. Expect more to come as Halloween nears.

My film of the week is The Norliss Tapes, a 1973 TV pilot movie by Dan Curtis that was obviously intended to launch another show just like The Night Stalker. The movie is very similar to the Kolchak movies, although they do lack the humor those films are known for. Still, a very nifty flick, and it’s great to see stuff like this emerging from TV vaults. There’s a lot more where this came from.

Another essential buy is Super Inframan, the long-awaited widescreen presentation of the insanely fun Hong Kong film that is the ultimate statement of stuff like Ultraman and Mighty Morphing Power Rangers. Everyone should have this in their movie collection.

Abominable is a Bigfoot movie with Lance Henriksen. His last Bigfoot movie, Sasquatch, was just OK, but Scott Foy over at Dread Central surprisingly gave this movie a very good review, so you might want to check it out.

The Blood Trilogy collects three previously released Herschell Gordon Lewis gore films in one set; 2,000 Maniacs, Blood Feast and Color Me Blood Red. Not my bag, but three films for well under $20 for those so interested.

X-Men The Last Stand The third and possibly final X-Men movie, in numerous editions.

Clouds starting to part...

Well, I've got my car towed to the garage last night (thanks, AAA), so at least some progress has been made. Now if it would only stop raining long enough for my roof to get fixed. Not today, I guess, as we're due for more major storms this evening, much like the ones that blanketed the Chicago area last night. Still, just a bit more water damage and hopefully the roof will finally be done and I can start paying that bill off.

Also, if all goes well, the garage will have the part I need and I'll get the car back tonight. A bill under $200 would be nice, too. I don't have $200 at the moment, but it would be better than $400 I don't have. I have putting stuff on my credit card, but it is good to have it when you need it.

Ah, well. I shouldn't let all this keep me from basking in the fact that Dusty Baker is no longer the manager of the Cubs.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Speaking of horrors...

I attended the final Cubs game of the season yesterday. (Admittedly, had I known my car was going to crap out this morning, I might have spent a bit less in the process. Oh, well.) That was one of several games in September, and on October 1st, I had bought tickets to back in February. I was harboring, you see, the delusion that the mighty Cubs might play better this year than they had in 2005.

In fact, they played worse, helped mightily by an injured Derek Lee, one of several hobbled key players. In the end, our major 'triumph' was to barely avoid losing a mind-boggling 100 games. Instead—whew—we only lost 96, in one of the most pathetically weak divisions I’ve ever seen.

Despite all the tickets for the year being sold over the first weekend they were available, each September game at Wrigley saw thousands of empty seats, a fact I can attest to first hand. Each empty seat told of a fan who didn't want to bother seeing this team play, but couldn't find anyone to buy, or even take for free, the tickets they had in hand. I was in that boat myself, several times.

Hopefully this sounded a warning bell. The Tribune company already had the money for these unused tickets, but concession sales must have taken a huge beating from the absent fans. Meanwhile, perhaps someone figured out that an irate fan base, agitated further by last year's World Series victory by the hated White Sox, might actually decide not to procure as many tickets next year. There are also theories floating around that the Tribune Company intends to sell the team. If so, they will want a very good year to help pump up the price.

Although the sheer stupidity of such an act seemed to defy all concepts of logic—no, wait, that’s exactly why I thought it was a slam dunk for this exact team—I remained convinced that Dusty Baker, an excuse-making, race-baiting, overpriced buffoon, would be rehired for another term after his contract expired yesterday. I never really changed my mind until, amazingly, Baker’s boss’ boss, Andy MacPhail, announced his (forced) resignation right after yesterday’s game.

MacPhail has overseen the franchise for a dozen years, and mostly rotten years at that. His loss of job is richly deserved. In any case, Baker too is hitting the road, no doubt to be quickly hired by another team and thus able to avoid eating too much into that sixteen million bucks he bilked us out of over the last four years.

However, another author of our woes, General Manager Jim Hendry, remains in place. We can only hope that he realizes that his ass is on the line (and possibly, just maybe, he wanted to pursue bigger players over the last several years, but was blocked by MacPhail), and that he spends whatever funds the Tribune allots wisely and well. Here's one hint for Jimbo, though: If you decide to take a flier on constantly injured players yet again, make sure this time that you actually get backup players for when they inevitably go down.

In any case, major changes have occurred within about 18 hours of the final game ending, and we’ve many months to sit back and see what else occurs. However, for my own part, this year has finally given me a hard, cynical shell, and it's going to be difficult for the Cubs to win my favors again, unless major changes continue to occur.

Now, if you’ll excuse, Lucy is holding out that football, and I’m pretty sure I’m really going to get to kick it this time…

Boo, hoo, my life is so hard...

I had intended to hit the road running on the blogging front today, and to do lots of horror movie reviews this month in honor of Halloween.

However, this morning I went out and my car was absolutely dead. Didn't turn over, or anything. This after a battery of recent car repairs, and my leaky roof finally in the process of getting fixed this week. I was pretty much busted before this latest problem, so now I get to go into actual debt getting my car fixed, again.

So when I eventually wend my way home tonight, presumably via some kind soul here at work, I'll have to call AAA and get my car towed in to my garage, and take it from there.

Anyway, I feel sort of morose at the moment, and if there is a temporary decline (like that doesn't happen anyway) in my blogging, that's why. Hopefully in a few days my spirits will be back up again.

What a wimp. God forfend my life ever really takes a turn for the worse.