Something hidden -- go and find it;
Go and look beyond the Ranges
Something lost behind the ranges:
Lost and waiting for you. Go!

-- from Guy Maddin's CAREFUL

Being a periodic meditation on some of the more obscure outlying regions of cinema;
regarding movies that are inadequately publicized and hence, easily overlooked --
and by cinema, it is meant in the larger sense of films/tv/DVD/internet --
that might be worthy of your interest, but perhaps has escaped your notice.


Friday, October 5, 2007

'Tis the season . . .

       It’s October, and even here in balmy L.A. the nights are getting a bit cooler -- not so much the days, but the nights, yes... With the change of season, comes a whole host of other changes -- the shorts get packed away until next year, jackets get put back on hangers and the A/C finally gets shut off -- and since October is also the month of All Hallows' Eve, the entries you’ll read between now and Halloween will all revolve around Horror movies -- with the exception of next week, I should mention. We kick things off with an assortment of movies (all available on DVD) appropriate for the “Holiday season” -- a selection of films that I hope you’re not overly familiar with; thoughtfully presented early enough in the month that you can pick up whichever one might catch your fancy well before Halloween; at your neighborhood video store; or add it to your Netflix queue; or heck, with any luck, just pluck it from the cut-out bin at Amoeba Records.

       For those who prefer their Horror “old-school”, I really can’t recommend 1935’s MAD LOVE enough. The movie stars Peter Lorre (in a performance that very much inspired this character) as Dr. Gogol; a gifted but “eccentric” surgeon. Mad Love is one of the many film versions -- but not the first -- of that old pot-boiler, “The Hands of Orlac”; a story in which a talented pianist has his injured hands surgically replaced with those of a talented murderer; the hands, of course, have a mind of their own (if I had a nickel for every time this idea was “borrowed” by some TV show or awful direct-to-video thriller...). The film was directed by Oscar winning cinematographer, Karl Freund -- who also developed the 3-camera system of shooting sitcoms for the I Love Lucy show in the early 50’s. Mad Love is the forgotten step-child of 30’s Horror films; Universal dominated that scene with their all-star monster line-up; and while this, an early MGM foray into fright films, is a worthy addition to those classics, it lacks a distinctive “monster” -- and so never quite found the audience that Dracula or Frankenstein did. Mad Love was released on DVD about this time last year with little fanfare -- or notice on part of consumers -- as part of the Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection, as released by Warner Home Video; so look for it under that title.

       Larry Fesseden’s The Last Winter is playing in theaters as you read this; he’s an actor and director who’s made a career out of making modern, “indie” Horror films, and for my money, his HABIT is clearly the best of the bunch. The movie opens by introducing us to Sam (Fessenden), an archetypal, down-on-his-luck, late 90’s slacker type; Sam’s luck seems to turn around when he meets Anna at a costume party -- they immediately hit it off; and she’s smart... mysterious... and sexy as all get-out! The one downside is that Sam is rapidly becoming convinced that she’s a vampire; well, you know what they say: beggars can’t be choosers... Habit certainly isn’t the first time this idea has been done, but rarely has it been executed with so little melodrama -- and certainly no trace of a “camp” sensibility. The film has a matter-of-fact, almost documentary feel that works very much in its favor. "Low-key" isn't a mood that most horror movies opt for -- but that unlikely choice of style just makes this film all the more effective.

       GINGER SNAPS is the movie that Teen Wolf should have been. Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) are sisters, pariahs at their high school and deep in the throes of that “difficult” period of adolescence -- things actually seem to get better for Ginger after she’s bitten by a very large “dog”. Well, relatively “better” -- if you can ignore the unsightly hair growth and the sudden appearance of a tail, that is. Look out, high school! Ginger may have been ‘goth’ before, but kids, she’s taking it to a whole new level! Lycanthropy as a metaphor for the wild, uncontrolled onset of adolescence seems like such an obvious idea that it’s surprising it took 43 years for this concept to get recycled (you get points if you can name the first -- hint: Ginger Snaps was made in the year 2000; do the math) . What makes Ginger Snaps really worthwhile is its well-written script, solid direction, and the excellent performances by the two leads.

       The popularity of J-Horror here in the States comes as no surprise to me. Coming at a time when American examples of the form are at an all-time creative nadir -- nothing but endless iterations of the “slasher” genre -- J-Horror succeeds by going back to the form’s roots: ghost stories (of which Japan has a very rich tradition) and tales of psychological pathology, a lá Poe (who is very much respected in Japan; so much so, that Japan’s most renowned writer of horror fiction borrowed his nom de plume from him). AUDITION is an example of the latter type of tale, and concerns a widower named Aoyama, who, working as he does in the film industry, decides to hold an “audition” for a prospective new wife. Asami, the woman he picks as his fiance, is beautiful, demure and a talented ballet dancer to boot -- unfortunately, she’s got a few... uhh, skeletons in her closet, so to speak. Unlike some recent J-Horror films that were snapped up for American-ized remakes (The Ring and The Grudge. for example), Audition has resisted being re-imagined as a U.S film; probably because the ideas behind it are just too disturbing; at least they would be -- to the mostly male studio heads who could potentially green-light such a thing. In addition to disturbing ideas, Audition has -- after a deceptively languorous opening 60 minutes or so -- some of the most unsettling execution of said ideas that I’ve ever seen. It’s a fine piece of filmmaking, but not for the squeamish.
       You’ve been warned.

       1961’s THE INNOCENTS is, plain and simple, a pretty-durned good cinematic adaptation of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” -- it is by far the most genteel and mannered of the films featured in this entry -- but compelling all the same. For those unfamiliar with the story, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), a 19th century nanny and governess, is given charge over two orphaned children and the expansive manse and grounds upon which they live. A difficult enough task on its own, made more so by Miss Giddens growing concern that the grounds are haunted -- and that the children may be possessed. Quite a few people cite Robert Wise’s The Haunting or Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby as pitch-perfect examples of how to make a horror movie that works by suggestion alone, rather than relying upon excessive violence or gore to generate goose-bumps-- but for my money, The Innocents is at least as effective as either of those. And, ya’ know -- you get to bone up on your Henry James; he’s a rather dry read, if memory serves correctly. At any rate, from the sublime...

       ... to the ridiculous. Frank Henenlotter’s FRANKENHOOKER has its share of horrifying moments, I suppose, but as the title would suggest, they’re overshadowed by the humorous ones. The plot -- such as it is: Jeffrey Franken, med school drop-out, decides to “rebuild” his dead girlfriend, Elizabeth, who was accidentally killed by a wayward automated lawnmower (don’t ask ...). Lacking a convenient nearby graveyard, Jeffrey decides to rent some prostitutes for this task, because, really, who’ll miss ’em? He can make Elizabeth better, stronger, .... uhh, well, busty-ier, at any rate. Of course the various spare parts and their respective pimps make things difficult for Jeffrey and Elizabeth, and wacky hi-jinks do, indeed, ensue. Frankenhooker was made by Henenlotter as part of a contractual obligation with the film distributor who was financing his better known Basket Case series. He’s not taking the whole set-up very seriously, and everything that can be played for laughs, is. A good choice for those who don’t like being even a teensy bit scared on Halloween. Frankenhooker was released last year after a long period of being Out-of-Print; it’s available now on DVD in a strikingly good-looking widescreen transfer -- What can I say? it’s reassuring to know that somebody’s preserving the classics...

Next post -- 10/12/07

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