Monday, October 13, 2014

The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976)

Just as I went into Antichrist prepared to hate it, I went into The Town that Dreaded Sundown prepared to love it. I was cruising through Netflix (this is truly how I imagine my movie-watching life—I am quite literally cruising through the digital kingdom of Netflix in a convertible, perhaps with a scarf in my hair? I don’t really imagine this.) when I saw the cover art and decided that it was actually my new favorite movie of all time and I had never even seen it.

Look at that. Look at it! It’s perfect. It’s everything I want in a movie.

That is a promotional poster for the movie; the Netflix cover art is the same image but is missing the ominous words at the top and the film information at the bottom. You can see how this would be extremely attractive to me: the frightening-but-obviously-low-budget figure looming out of scale over the town, the use of dusk imagery, the unnecessary quotation marks because I am quite sure that is the title of the movie without needing the punctuation, just everything. It is truly nothing short of perfection.

The movie itself is certainly short of perfection but enjoyable nonetheless. It’s set in 1946 Texarkana, a town on the Texas/Arkansas border which, boy howdy, sounds like an absolutely terrible place to live. It is most definitely a terrible place to live in the spring of that year when cars parked on lovers' lanes are being randomly attacked by an unknown hooded assailant.

The first assault takes place in the opening scenes of the film. It seems like your fairly average maniac-attacks-teens-in-a-parked-car scene but I became aware that I was clenching my fists like I was really anxious. Then I realized that there was no soundtrack or effects or anything—it was just the sound of a woman screaming over and over and over into an otherwise silent backdrop, which was really unnerving. I thought, “oh man, this movie is going to be super scary!”

I was wrong. Eventually I came to realize that the lack of a soundtrack in that scene was most likely a production mistake as opposed to a conscious atmospheric choice because several scenes later, our strong sensitive police deputy is chasing the bad guy in what we are told to believe is a rainy night setting, but half of the cuts in the scene are to broad daylight, sunny and clear. He even uses a flashlight during the daylight cuts! Seriously, you couldn’t have waited eight hours to shoot this 45 seconds of footage? I mean, I guess not. They don't even try to hide it.

The police in this movie are dumb as a bag of hammers, they really are. The deputy reports to the sheriff, who has about six lines in the movie. Two of these lines were so good I felt compelled to write them down: “Captain, we ain’t got nothin’!” and “We haven’t been able to come up with a damn thing!” so that gives you a pretty good idea of his worth. Because he’s so useless, they bring in the most famous Texas Ranger in all the land who, spoiler alert, is also pretty useless. In fact, the middle hour of this film is basically a police procedural which is kind of insane because they don’t collect a single shred of evidence. Not one.

“Wow,” you must be thinking to yourself. “This killer must be good. He must be really good at covering his tracks.” NOPE. Well, the police seem to think so. In fact, the Famous Ranger says to the deputy, “This guy doesn’t make any mistakes!” except that uh, yes, he does. Ultimately he attacks eight people and kills five. That’s a 62.5% kill rate. He leaves more than 1/3 of his victims alive. He is also seen by police on two separate occasions, though they are unable to stop him. These are not the traits of a killer who is uncatchable AND YET, the police are unable to find any sort of clues to point them in any direction whatsoever. We are supposed to be identifying with the police, but they are portrayed as a bunch of bumbling morons. The film also weirdly devotes a total of about 25 minutes to comic relief in the form of a cop called Sparkplug, played by the director. Five full minutes are devoted to Sparkplug losing a set of car keys. There are some weird choices.

The killer himself is fairly frightening—a hulking man with a sack over his head, peering through crudely-cut eyeholes. My only real beef with him is that, through another strange directorial or acting choice, he is constantly doing this labored, heavy breathing into the sack in such a way that he’s sucking the fabric into and out of his mouth and it’s SO weird and distracting. I kept worrying that he was going to suffocate.

I made a gif, I think I can retire from this blog now. 

I can’t believe I am this deep into this review and I have yet to mention that Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island is in this movie and she is great. It’s a shame that Dawn Wells was probably so well-known for that wholesome television role that I imagine it was difficult for her to get other work, because she could have had a career as a scream queen—I really thought she did a nice job in her few minutes of camera time in which she screams a bunch, gets shot in the face twice, cries, rolls around in the dirt, falls down, etc. Probably not how she imagined life off the island, huh? Man, that was a joke so bad I feel compelled to leave it in here to shame myself.

Mary Ann is not the only great thing about The Town that Dreaded Sundown, though. I have to say, this movie had one of my favorite kills in all the movies I’ve reviewed here so far: the Phantom Killer, as he comes to be known, has captured a high school couple immediately after the prom, and the young lady happened to be the trombone player in the band. After tying her up with her arms around the trunk of a tree, the killer fastens a knife to the end of the slide on the trombone and repeatedly stabs her. It’s sort of a hilarious scene, though, because he doesn’t just stab her with the end of the slide—he puts the brass mouthpiece up to his mask as though he’s playing the trombone even though there’s no mouth-hole in the sack and it's totally unnecessary. It’s wonderful.

I didn’t know until I did some research after watching The Town that Dreaded Sundown that it was based on a true story (I know, they are all based on a true story) but this one actually stuck fairly closely to the real life events of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, including the bit about several victims being left alive. I definitely went down the internet rabbit hole reading about the actual crimes of the Texarkana phantom and man, they were pretty brutal. That brings me to my next point:
I also didn't know that this film was just remade and that the remake is just about to be released (or was just recently released, I'm unclear), which was probably why it just popped up on Netflix. This particular remake was apparently conceived and produced by Ryan Murphy, the co-creator of 'American Horror Story', so I am guessing that any degree of subtlety that was exercised in the 1976 original will be off the table entirely. Given how much I liked this version and how much I guiltily enjoy AHS, I’ll probably check out the reboot when I have an opportunity. 

The Town that Dreaded Sundown: not my new favorite as expected by the cover art, but definitely not a letdown! Would recommend.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Antichrist (2009)

Kristina told me this was the date movie of the year; I thought this was going to be one where the people kiss in the rain and that real handsome dude is like, “if you’re a bird then I’m a bird” and then she gets Alzheimer’s or something? Antichrist? No? That’s what? The Notebook? Shit.

Honestly, I came into Antichrist pretty well-prepared to hate it. Several months ago, Kristina told me that she had really liked Lars Von Trier’s Melancolia and wanted to see Antichrist and I agreed to watch it with her, but then we found that Nymphomaniac vols 1 & 2 were going to be playing at Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ so we just saw those instead. And boy, did I wish I was dead.

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Nymphomaniac vol. 1 is kind of a fun porno and Christian Slater is always welcome in my life. Vol. 2 was like having your nether regions sandblasted and then jumping into a salt bath with the open wound. Nope nope nope nope. We’re not here to discuss Nymphomaniac, but please keep in mind that it is 86 hours long and Kristina and I just saw both volumes in recent months. Because of this, I honestly feel as though I have spent literal weeks of my life watching Charlotte Gainsbourg weep, writhe and get boned. I just cannot anymore, so much so that I have to wonder if anyone has ever had sex with LVT. It seems as though he found out about the mechanics of sex and became FASCINATED and that’s as far as it went until he decided that all kinds of terrible things can happen to people’s genitals.

Here are the good things about Antichrist: it is undeniably beautiful—every single shot. The first act is absolutely heart-wrenching. It is sort of fascinating that the two characters of Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are the only characters in the entire film (less their dead son). When the fox LITERALLY SAYS “chaos reeeeiiiigns” to Willem Dafoe I lol-ed for like three straight minutes. When blood comes out of Willem Dafoe’s peepee I clapped my hands over my face then lol-ed for like five straight minutes.

Here are the bad things about Antichrist: pretty much everything else. A person who really likes this movie recently described it as “a slow burner” which I guess is a positive spin on something that I would call extremely tedious. I had trouble getting lost in it; I ate a bunch of soup, thought about what I was going to wear to work the next day, went to the bathroom twice, and so on. At one point I asked Kristina, “wait, why is this woman afraid of the grass? Because her kid died?” and she said, “because he asked her where she’d feel most vulnerable? Women are weak, see?” and that’s really how the first 75% of the film feels. Things certainly shift in the third act and I won’t spoil them here, but at no point is there a favorable treatment of the “She” character.

There’s plenty of internet space devoted to arguing over whether Lars Von Trier is or is not a misogynist so I’ll not spend more of it here except to point out that part of the budget of this film was spent on the hiring of a ‘misogyny specialist.’ K.

Look, it’s obvious that my tastes in horror run to the lowbrow and the silly, the tasteless and the shallow. Antichrist is not really any of these things…it’s artsy and I guess it’s deep. But I don’t want to watch horror to debate whether it’s misogynistic, you know? To get real with you for a second, -turns chair around and sits down backwards, AC Slater-style- I have to deal with misogyny in many aspects of my daily life. I am a female financial advisor. I am a female sports fan. I am a woman who lives in a city who sometimes has the audacity to walk on public streets. I know people who tell me not to be soooo sensitive. Quite frankly, I want horror to be an escape from reality, not another reason to reflect on it and another avenue in which I have to defend my feelings. Ahem. Because this feels too real for my blog where I make terrible jokes and terrible cartoons in a terrible image creating program, -turns chair back around and sits like a reasonable person- this is also kind of why I refuse to go to haunted houses around Halloween even though they ought to be right up my alley…it’s too goddamn real for me! I like to keep horror as a bizarro fantasy world of killer clowns and crazed rednecks and murderous home invaders on a screen far, far away from me…not shit that is actually real and in my face and possibly going to touch me even though I know they are not allowed to touch me.

So, Antichrist. You can see this if you like to talk about stuff and feel real feelings, or if you enjoy genital mutilation (you sick freak.) And since there was not a single scene that I felt like I could reasonably illustrate for this blog, please enjoy this rendering of Kristina and me eating soup. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Black Sunday (1960)

Let me begin this post with one thing that I feel fairly confident in saying even though I am pretty sure it makes me sounds like a xenophobe and I truly don't mean it to: Russians are sort of crazy. As I was watching Black Sunday, a film about a reanimated Russian vampire witch, my next door neighbor who is Russian and very large and also crazy was seemingly hosting a Wrestlemaniac-style event in his living room that was seriously causing every dish in the cupboards in my kitchen to rattle. This was at 8:45 on a Sunday evening. Russians are kinda nuts.

Black Sunday, aka La Maschera del Demonio (The Mask of Satan) is an Italian film that is supposed to be based on the Gogol short story “Viy”, but the two works really have almost nothing in common except the aforementioned theme of Russians being crazy and the additional motif that women are bitches who will stop at nothing to murder your shit. Fair enough. In fact, Black Sunday is kind of a hilarious representation of what Italians think Russians are. To wit, here are the names of some of characters in the film:
Andre (this is actually my Russian neighbor’s name, so there’s that)

To be fair though, it’s actually pretty goddamn scary. There’s something about this era of film which lends itself to being creepy but not scary (with the exception of the swimming scene from Creature from the Black Lagoon that terrifies me to this day, although you could easily make the argument that Black Sunday is a different animal altogether anyway) but I think that Black Sunday is actually legitimately scary. 

Let me backtrack. The film opens on an inquisition of a stone cold fox (Barbara Steele, in the role that launched her career and also apparently made her not afraid of Italians anymore? Because that was a thing for her?) named Princess Asa. She along with her servant (the supercreep Javuto) have been accused by her brother, the Prince of Moldavia, of colluding with Satan as a witch AND a vampire and totally sucking people’s blood and generally being a badass. She is sentenced to death and they brand her with the letter S for Satan. Apparently this sequence is shortened in the American version, but it’s still really explicit for 1960. Then they place a spiked mask over her face and SMASH IT WITH A GIANT HAMMER. In 1960!! The approach of the mask to her face from her POV is one of the best visuals of the film.

This is really how frightening and dramatic and powerful it looked; this is my art, and it is dangerous.

Fast forward two centuries and we have to spend some time with these two dumb doctors on their way to a conference via horse and wagon when they encounter the haunted crypt of Princess Asa. The older of the two acts like such a fool in the crypt, waving his arms around at a bat that is seriously the size of Glenn,

eventually breaking the stone cross that hangs over the body of Asa so as to protect the world from her coming back to haunt it, then shoots the bat, takes the mask off her face, cuts his hand, bleeds onto her bare face, then leaves. WHY ARE BUSINESS TRAVELERS SUCH DUMMIES? You tell me, I do not know.

The doctor’s blood brings her back to life and you had better believe she is ready to exact some revenge on her brother’s ancestors, including her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great niece Katia, also played by Barbara Steele.

Black Sunday is full of great imagery: foggy forests (that’s pretty much all the Eastern Bloc countries are, right?), a man being burned alive in a great hall fireplace (apparently this was also cut down for content in the American version from the Italian version—in the Italian version, you see the skin peel off his face. I feel like I could have dealt with that but I guess I am just a wimpy American after all), Asa’s face that is riddled with holes from the spiked mask but still adorned with PERFECT cat-eyeliner makeup.

Speaking of which! When Princess Asa telepathically orders her servant Javuto to rise from the grave, he crawls from the earth and pops his mask of Satan off his face like the cap from a beer bottle and all these oozy shreds of gunk come off with it. It is seriously gross. I love it.

The final gross scene is at the climax of the movie (why am I only telling you about the gross scenes? Because it’s my blog, suckers) when the evil witch Asa is about to drink an unconscious Katia’s blood but then sees this gaudy cross Katia’s been wearing the whole movie and it stops her. Just then the younger doctor bursts into the room and Asa convinces him that she is actually Katia and that he should kill Asa by staking her through the eyeball (director Mario Bava’s highly entertaining version of a stake through a vampire’s heart). The younger doctor is just about to do it when he too recognizes the gaudy cross, turns to Asa, pulls open her robe (the best way to identify a woman is her boobs, naturally) and reveals  A DISGUSTING DECAYING CHEST CAVITY AND IT IS AWESOME.

Apparently there is a decent amount of censorship in this version of the movie—a total of about three minutes is gone from the American version. I hunted for any videos online to share them with you and could only come up with some useful stills here. Some of what was supposed to be cut is in the Netflix version (such as the garden conversation where Andre gives Katia the most posi pep talk of all time) and some is not (such as where Vajda’s face burns off in the fire). What can you do? Apparently Asa’s line, “You too can find the joy and happiness of Hades!” was changed to “You too can find the joy and happiness of hating!” which is hilarious to me because I hate a lot of stuff, like the St. Louis Cardinals, ketchup, people who think they are funny but are just repeating stuff they read on Twitter, and snow. I do feel real joy and happiness! I am truly with you, Asa.

Several years ago, I made an Excel spreadsheet of every classic horror movie I owned in various forms and in various box sets, sorted it by date and promised myself I’d work through them chronologically. Black Sunday was on the list but obviously towards the end since it’s from 1960 and I never made it anywhere near it because I kept falling asleep in the 1930s and making deals with myself where I wouldn’t have to restart The World Gone Mad and things like that, and eventually just gave up the whole project. I’m really glad I finally got to it though because it’s truly a great watch. Available on Netflix and seemingly all over the internet for free, it’s definitely worth your 87 minutes. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Grave Encounters (2011)

Hi guys, and welcome to the first installment of a new series on this blog called “Movies Rob Wants to Watch.” He has sent me an email with three more MRWTW and they are all pretty much the same movie as this one so buckle up babies—this shit’s about to get paranormal!

I was bothered by something while watching the Canadian horror production Grave Encounters: the lead actor looked SO familiar to me but I could not place him. My cousin Vicky is an occupational therapist which is practically a doctor and she says that everyone Googling everything on their smartphones all the time instead of trying to remember things is going to give us all Alzheimer’s so I didn’t look it up and instead just racked my brain trying to figure out where I knew him from. I had just about decided that he was just a thinner, Canadian, cut-rate version of Dean from 'Supernatural' when around the 23-minute mark I remembered what I knew him from: GRAVE ENCOUNTERS. I had seen this before.

Have you done this before? I mean, seen a movie so unmemorable that it took a significant portion of the film to actually trigger the memory of having seen it already? If so, please post the movie in the comments-- I am interested to see what movies are so dull they couldn't even stick in your brain. This is actually the second time I’ve déjà vu-ed a crappy horror film; the first one was a real shitshow on OnDemand called Grave Dancers and I honestly didn’t remember it until ten minutes before the end when they trotted out a pyromaniac child dancing in a room of fire. Either I watch way too many terrible movies or I already have a memory disorder as per Dr. Vicky’s prediction.

Anyway, Grave Encounters. This is a movie about a paranormal investigation television show gone terribly wrong inside an abandoned psychiatric hospital. Like 99% of horror filmed in 2011, it is found-footage style which makes me want to put a Dramamine patch behind my ear because I’m your grandma.

A cast and crew of four men and one woman are locked inside the hospital overnight after a tour of the supposedly haunted facilities. They set up a bunch of steady cams and then walk around doing various paranormal activity testing to try to stir up some ghostly moments. Eventually some scary-ish stuff happens, then the caretaker doesn’t come back to let them out as planned, then more scary-ish stuff happens, then they break through the front door and instead of finding the outside, they find another hallway.

First, certainly the abandoned psychiatric hospital scenario has been played out on a number of occasions, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a lot that can be done with it. It’s a terrifying concept but Grave Encounters really falls flat with it. Like, just parade out a variety of crazed ghosts and sadistic doctors and I’ll probably be scared. Don’t try to convince me that it’s a portal for Canadian demons, and definitely don’t do both of those things. And MOST DEFINITELY don’t do both those things AND have someone’s death occur via a disappearance into a mysterious fog AND have the building have the ability to shapeshift AND have no one die until like the 70th minute.

I feel like the writing/directing duo of Grave Encounters (the Vicious Brothers—not brothers, questionably vicious, definitely Canadian)wrote everything they knew about horror movies onto slips of paper and threw them into a hat, then instead of picking out random pieces they just dumped them onto the floor and used them all. Here are some highlights:

      Every good movie using a psychiatric hospital has to have a room with writing all over the wall, right? This one has it, and it has in big letters:

That is actually what it says. In the movie. These are definitely Metallica lyrics, right? Like post-rehab-James-Hetfield Metallica lyrics? 

At one point, a member of the crew wakes up with words scratched into the skin on her back. Kinda spooky, and at first I thought it said “HELP” like, “help me, I am a patient in this hospital and am living in terrible conditions and these doctors want to stick a needle in my eye!” Nope. It seriously says “HELLO.” ‘Sup, buddy?

I am desperately trying to remember actual physical threats to the characters in this movie. There are a few scenes where demon-like creatures come at them (but don’t seem to do any damage?) and of course the aforementioned scene where someone is just whisked away in a cloud of smoke but otherwise, they are few and far between. For instance, in one scene a bunch of hands inexplicably come through the ceiling (15 feet above the characters’ heads) and that’s about it. Again, ‘sup?

Obviously this movie is fairly unmemorable, since I didn't remember it.

I’d be remiss without pointing out some enjoyable parts of this one: the changing building scared me in a claustrophobic way…in the third act, our intrepid crew believes they have found roof access but the stairwell ends in a completely sealed wall, and that kind of gave me the shivers. The ‘medium’ character is a decent comic relief. There is a scene where a ghost doctor gives a ghost patient a lobotomy which caused me to remember a phrase that my Uncle Frank always used to say: “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy” and I said that to Rob like I’d made it up so he thought I was really funny and I liked that (Uncle Frank didn’t make it up either). So, you know, that’s something.

Lucky you guys though, at the top of the list of MRWTW is Grave Encounters 2! I am like 99% sure I have not seen that (and 99% sure that no one else has, either).