Saturday, October 27, 2012

Italian Horror Blogathon - DEATH SMILES AT MURDER

This post is part of the Third Annual Italian Horror Blogathon hosted by Kevin Olson's marvelous blog Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. I participated last year, and I'm very happy to be a part of it again. I don't know why, but when writing reviews of these films for the blogathon, I tend to use a goofier style than normal. I guess the films bring out that side of me. Also, I lean toward describing the plots in obsessive detail (including massive spoilers), perhaps because so many of them are next to incomprehensible. Read on if you dare!

The late Italian director Aristide Massaccesi directed somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 films over a period of more than three decades, nearly all of them pseudononymously. The most famous of his aliases, and the one most commonly used when he's referred to, is Joe D'Amato, which I love, because isn't the whole idea of an Italian director using a pseudonym based on it not sounding Italian? Massaccesi worked in a variety of genres, but he was perhaps most prolific in the realms of horror and porn. He even combined the two on occasion, with such questionable films as Erotic Nights of the Living Dead and Porno Holocaust. Many of his straight horror films, among them Buio Omega (aka Beyond the Darkness, Buried Alive) and Antropophagus (aka The Grim Reaper), were firmly aligned with the glut of ultra-gory zombie and cannibal films that emerged from Italy in the late 1970s/early 1980s in response to the success of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, but his first foray into the horror genre, which was also one of his first films as a director (and the only one he directed using his given name), was slightly more restrained than his later horror films. With that being said, 1973's La Morte Ha Sorriso All'Assassino (aka Death Smiles at Murder or Death Smiles on a Murderer) certainly more than fulfills its quota of nudity and violence. It's a curious hybrid between the earlier Italian gothic horror films, which were petering out about this time, and the newer, more violent giallo films which would come to predominate the remainder of the decade. It's a far from perfect film, but from a cinematic standpoint, it's an interesting glimpse into where Massaccesi/D'Amato's career might have led him if he'd focused more on quality than quantity.

A peeping Franz
Death Smiles at Murder takes place in the early 1900s, and begins with a sweaty hunchback named Franz (Luciano Rossi) grieving over the body of his dead sister (Ewa Aulin), who isn't named right away. Franz experiences a few flashback memories of sis, the first of which consists of him sexually assaulting her, our first indication that their relationship was rather, ah, unconventional. Afterward, Franz's sister begs him to take her away from the place they live, which is apparently awful (apparently, her rapist brother has nothing to do with the awfulness). The second flashback is of his sister flirtatiously running away in slow motion, only to fall into the arms of another, older man as Franz watches jealously from afar. This can't end well, but we already know that, don't we?

One of the earliest traffic safety films
The film then cuts to a wealthy couple, Walter and Eva von Ravensbrück, having breakfast outside their palatial home. A coachman comes roaring down the road only to crash a moment later; he ends up impaled by a piece of the overturned coach with his guts hanging out (a favorite motif of Massacessi's as we would see later in his directorial career). Walter looks inside the coach and finds a woman, who turns out to be - surprise - Franz's unnamed sister. Either this is another flashback, or it's not. She seems to be in shock, and she's taken back to the von Ravensbrück estate, where they summon Dr. Sturgess (Klaus Kinski) to examine her (if your doctor is Klaus Kinski, I advise you to find another primary care physician, stat).

Paging Dr. Kinski

Hang on, you've got something in your eye
During the examination, specifically when he's listening for her heartbeat, it becomes clear that Dr. Sturgess discovers something out of the ordinary that sets his forehead veins to throbbing. He sends everyone out of the room and tells the woman to get undressed, because hey, he's a doctor. He finds an amulet that the woman is wearing, which says "Greta 1906" (apparently three years before current events) on one side and has some funky hieroglyphics or something on the other. She also has a scar on the side of her neck. Then he pulls a pin out of his tie and STICKS IT RIGHT IN HER EYE! AND SHE DOESN'T EVEN CARE! The effect here is so convincing that I'm not sure I want to know how they did it. Since people usually object when you pierce their eyeballs with sharp objects, the doc quickly confirms that something is definitely fishy here.

The ground chuck school of makeup effects
A debutante ball for a dead girl
Meanwhile, the maid, who has been spying on all of this, starts having some sort of bad acid trip and sees threatening hallucinations of Franz. She becomes so distraught that she gives her notice, packs a bag and runs off, only to encounter an unseen assailant with a shotgun who shoots her in the face, leaving her looking like she's wearing a facial mask made of hamburger helper. Greta stays on as a guest at the insistence of the von Ravensbrücks, who throw a big party to introduce her to the locals, even though they don't know who she is ("Hey, rich friends! Come meet this total stranger!"). Later, while on a hunting trip, Walter confesses his love for Greta, unaware that Eva is watching. During all this, Dr. Sturgess has been working like a madman, mixing chemicals and studying the formula he found on Greta's amulet. It's apparently a means of reviving the dead (did something just click into place?), and he successfully reanimates a corpse in his secret underground lab by sticking an IV tube into the dead guy's neck (hence a certain scar), but immediately after the guy sits up, the doc is strangled from behind by, yes, an unseen assailant, who also offs the doc's assistant for good measure.

"I'm sorry I tried to drown you. Let's make out."
Nothing bad ever happens down in the crypt
Later, Eva tries to drown Greta in the bathtub, then confesses HER love for Greta, because nothing says "I love you" like pushing someone's head underwater; nude lesbian hijinks ensue. In fact, nude hijinks of various persuasions ensue, as we're treated to an interminable montage of softcore sex scenes depicting Franz screwing Eva, Eva screwing Greta and Greta screwing Franz (remarkably, knowing what the director would get up to later, there's no three-way action). Eventually, things get a bit awkward, and Eva decides she's had enough. She tricks Greta into coming down into the crypt with her, where she walls her up alive (note to self: never, ever follow anyone into a crypt). When Walter gets home, Eva tells him that Greta just up and left, and they seemingly move on with their lives.

Not so hot for me now, are you?
The party's over
A month passes, and the von Ravensbrücks throw a costume party, at which Eva is shocked to see Greta. She chases her throughout the house and finally corners her, at which point Greta appears to her with a horribly rotted face. Eva ends up falling out a window to her death. Walter's father arrives for Eva's funeral, and - surprise - it's Greta's older lover from Franz's flashback. During the funeral, he flashes back to Greta apparently dying in childbirth and Franz looking none too happy about it. After the funeral, dad takes a stroll through the cemetery and stops in front of Greta's tomb. She appears behind him and tells him it's OK, she's not dead, Franz just made it appear that way. Nevertheless, he starts seeing her with a rotten face just like Eva did, and he takes off in a panic. In what is probably the film's most effective sequence, Greta pursues him through the mazelike cemetery, leading him to duck into a handy tomb to hide. He ends up locked in the tomb, which just so happens to be Eva's, and to his horror, she opens her eyes, sits up and advances toward him, as we hear his screams reverberate.

He didn't have to wait until the morning after to regret his decision
Back at home, Walter finds Greta in his bedroom. He starts to make love to her, but of course, she turns all corpsey on him and he flips out. Greta then kills the butler by slashing his face with a straight razor. The cops turn up and find the butler's body as well as Walter spiked to the wall with the amulet in his hand. Trying to figure out what the inscription on the amulet means, the Inspector takes it to a professor, who spills the beans that a student of his - Franz - was working on deciphering the inscription, which indeed contains an Incan formula for resurrecting the dead, but gave up after his sister died. But he didn't really give up, did he? In one last flashback, we see him three years earlier, just after he's resurrected Greta, promising to take her away like she asked. In the film's single greatest WTF? moment, Greta throws a bunch of flowers at his face that suddenly turn into a cat that claws his eyes out. The inspector finds Franz's decayed body and wonders to himself if he'll ever solve this case. (My guess: no.) Back at home, he's telling his old, grey-haired, wheelchair-bound wife the story as she sits with her back to him; suddenly, she turns around, I can't say it. You'll just have to see for yourself.

Death Smiles at Murder is truly an absurd film. At one point, the Inspector remarks, "I don't understand. None of this makes any sense," and that just about sums it up right there. Just when you think you're beginning to figure things out, random stuff happens that leaves you scratching your head, like the maid's hallucinations, the unexplained revival of Eva in her tomb or the flowers that turn into a cat. Despite its drawbacks, though, it's a highly entertaining, sumptuously made piece of trash cinema that holds up to repeated viewings. The production values are quite high, and it's beautifully shot, which isn't surprising given that it's the work of a cinematographer transitioning to directing films. The acting is fairly decent as these things go. Swedish actress Aulin, best known for appearing in the sex comedy Candy alongside such luminaries as Richard Burton and Marlon Brando, is the centerpiece of the film; the camera loves her doll-like beauty (except when her face is falling off). The lush score, by Berto Pisano, is quite accomplished, reminiscent at times of the music of Ennio Morricone. Best of all, the film contains some truly chilling moments, and though it's nowhere near the same level as Mario Bava's Lisa and the Devil, it has the same sort of morbid, necrophiliac atmosphere in which sex and death are inextricably intertwined. Although Massaccesi would go on to make a handful of more notorious films (and a shitload of instantly forgettable ones), this one is probably the closest he came to a work of cinematic art.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Final Girl's SHOCKtober - Tombs of the Blind Dead

(Before I dive into the Italian Horror Blogathon, which starts today at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies, I figured I'd better post this piece, which is part of the SHOCKtober celebration at Stacie Ponder's blog, Final Girl. Stacie had planned on covering a different horror film each day in October, and today's film is Tombs of the Blind Dead, one of my all-time favorites. Although she's gotten a bit behind, I'm going to go ahead and post my review for posterity.)

The 1970s were arguably the golden age of the European horror film. So many filmmakers - among them Jean Rollin, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Paul Naschy and Jesús Franco - came to prominence during this decade that it boggles the mind. Of the many classic films released in this period, Amando de Ossorio's 1971 Spanish horror film Tombs of the Blind Dead (La Noche del Terror Ciego, or Night of Blind Terror) is for me one of the absolute best. Sometimes referred to as a zombie film, it's really more of a mummified, devil-worshipping vampire film, but whatever you choose to call it, it's a strikingly original work of horror, and over forty years later, it still retains its power to disturb and unsettle the viewer.

The Blind Dead of the film's title are the undead Knights Templar, a group of warriors who returned from the Crusades with a newfound appreciation for the black arts (somehow, I don't think that was the idea behind the whole campaign). After terrorizing the countryside with their bloody sacrificial rites, they were captured, put to death and hung from a tree, where their eyes were eaten by birds. Hundreds of years later, they rise from their fog-shrouded tombs as dessicated, skeletal corpses to begin their reign of evil once more. Having no eyes, they track their victims by sound.

The film introduces us to Betty (Lone Fleming) and Virginia (María Elena Arpón), two young women who went to boarding school together and who bump into one another at a seaside resort. Virginia is there with her sort-of-boyfriend Roger (César Burner), who quickly takes an obvious shine to Betty. Virginia is clearly jealous of the two, although as it turns out, she and Betty had a fling back in school, and Virginia still carries a torch for her. Roger invites Betty along on a train holiday he and Virginia had planned, but having had enough his and Betty's flirtations, Virginia hops off the train in the middle of nowhere and sets out on her own. She arrives at Berzano, an eerie, ruined monastery, and decides to camp out there for the night. Unlucklily for her, it's the burial ground of the Templars, and they rise up in the middle of the night and slaughter her, feasting on her blood.

Concerned about Virginia (but apparently not enough to have jumped off the train after her), Roger and Betty rent some horses from their hotel and ride back to Berzano in the morning. There, they meet the police, who inform them of Virginia's brutal murder, which is attributed to a local gang of smugglers. Shocked and saddened, they head home, but they're determined to find out what really happened, and they return to the area surrounding Berzano to investigate further. They meet up with the smugglers and prevail upon two of them to accompany them to Berzano, not the wisest choice as it turns out. They turn out to be not the nicest people, and conflict erupts, but soon the Templars rise again, and everyone but Betty is killed. Half-crazed, she manages to escape on the passing train, but the knights hop on board and slaughter the rest of the passengers (including, audaciously, a small child in her mother's arms). At the film's climax, the Templars make their way to a suburban train station, where they wreak havoc on the unsuspecting commuters (and, we are to assume, the world).

Let's be honest: much of the time, Tombs of the Blind Dead looks like what it is - a low-budget horror film from the early 1970s. On the surface, it often seems painfully dated. Nevertheless, the film gets under my skin for a variety of reasons, chief among them the sinister score by renowned composer Antón García Abril. Abril's acclaimed soundtrack is a revelation, avoiding the musical clichés of the era in favor of an atonal, droning mélange of piano, percussion and organ, topped off with spine-chilling Gregorian-style chanting and random shrieks and groans. It's deeply unsettling to say the least, and it cloaks the film in a suffocating, unearthly atmosphere.

Another thing that makes the film work is the Templars themselves. Although they're clearly stunt performers wearing basically immovable masks, their vacant eye sockets, wispy beards, bony claws and grimy robes are truly creepy to behold. As they inexorably close in on their next victim, it never fails to send a chill up my spine. It's a cliché in horror films to have the slow-moving monsters always catch up to the running victims, but it makes a weird kind of sense in Tombs of the Blind Dead. The Templars actually ride (dead) horses in pursuit of their prey, but de Ossorio films these scenes in slow motion, making it seem like time itself is being warped by the supernatural influence of the dead knights. (Peter Jackson had to have been influenced by these scenes when he filmed the Ringwraiths' pursuit of Arwen in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.) I also can't say enough about the decrepit monastery of Cercon outside of Madrid, which stands in for the fictional location of Berzano in the film. This has to be, hands down, one of the creepiest movie locations ever. It's almost a character unto itself, and it lends incredible production value to the film.

The film has its share of problems. Although its portrayal of the two main female characters is actually fairly progressive for the time, and their obligatory lesbian encounter is handled in as non-exploitative a manner as possible, another seemingly obligatory element is a rape scene (courtesy of the male smuggler character), fairly graphic but thankfully brief. The makeup and special effects, while certainly effective, are rather crude (this is one film that could probably benefit from a remake using modern technology). Additionally, there's a segment in which one of the Templars' victims inexplicably returns to life as a zombie, killing a morgue attendant and stalking a woman through a factory full of mannequins, a seemingly random plot point which was abandoned in all of the film's three sequels. Still, I can't complain too much, as these scenes are among the most frightening in the film. Despite its flaws, Tombs of the Blind Dead remains a nightmarish horror classic that still manages to scare and unnerve after more than four decades.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Italian Horror Blogathon

This begins tomorrow at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. Be sure to check it out every day. I should have my first contribution up by this weekend.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Goin' down to the underground: The Descent and Born of Earth

In 1999, mountain climber-turned-author Jeff Long published a remarkable novel entitled The Descent. A rousing hybrid of horror, science fiction and adventure, the novel chronicles the discovery of a vast network of interconnected caverns beneath the surface of the Earth that is home to a species of devolved hominids with predilections toward cruelty and cannibalism. It is revealed that these beings, who branched off from the same roots as modern humans and were once superior to us, are the basis for the recurring legends of subterranean devils and demons throughout history, and their nightmarish, abyssal homeland naturally turns out to be a place better known abstractly as Hell. Conflicts erupt when the primitive cave dwellers venture into the surface world en masse, while corporate interests and individual settlers attempt to stake their claims in the resource-rich underworld. The book is by turns thrilling, stomach-turning, frightening, awe-inspiring and moving; it's truly vast in scope, and Long brilliantly juggles multiple storylines and a huge cast of characters, capping things off with a harrowing journey underneath the Pacific Ocean by a team of scientists and mercenaries. Long's extensive knowledge of climbing high mountains is easily inverted, providing a welcome sense of authenticity to his descriptions of a descent into the dark recesses of the planet.

The Descent quickly captivated me, and it has since become my favorite novel. I've read it (along with its sequel, Deeper) repeatedly over the past 13 years, and each time, I've contemplated what an amazing film it might make. I say "might make," because The Descent tells a massively complex and epic story, and it would take a monumental effort to commit a reasonably faithful adaptation to film. The budget for such a project would be enormous, and some of the themes the book explores would likely be unpalatable for a mass audience, to say nothing of it's sometimes ghastly scenes of violence. As we saw earlier this year, when the plugged was pulled on Guillermo del Toro's long-planned adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, the major Hollywood studios really don't have the stomach for big-budget, R-rated horror films any more. Nevertheless, in the years since its publication, there have been two films that have at least touched upon some of the novel's plot points, with varying degrees of success.


When Neil Marshall's 2005 British horror film The Descent was first announced, fans of Jeff Long's novel could have been forgiven for believing it to be a direct adaptation of the book; many of us were initially convinced that was exactly what it was. The film promised to tell the story of a group of caving enthusiasts who encounter a ghastly race of subterranean humanoids, and the title, coupled with the underground setting and the horrifying, flesh-eating creatures gave the impression that Long's novel might have been a source of inspiration. Ultimately, it ended up being more of a coincidence than anything. While Marshall's film does share certain similarities with the book, and may have even been partially inspired by it on a certain level, it really is its own animal.

The film introduces a group of female friends, including Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Beth (Alex Reid) and Juno (Natalie Mendoza), who convene periodically for an outdoor adventure of the extreme variety. Following a whitewater rafting trip in Scotland, Sarah's husband and only child are killed in an automobile accident. A year later, the women gather again for a caving expedition in the Appalachian mountains. The other women hope that the diversion will help Sarah, who is still struggling to cope with her loss. After they're trapped by a cave-in, Juno reveals that they're not in the well-known cave system the others believed they'd be exploring but an uncharted system Juno had hoped they could conquer and name. It soon becomes clear that they're not alone, as a race of vicious, blind, flesh-eating predators begins to prey on them. The women struggle to elude the carnivorous monsters (which the filmmakers refer to as Crawlers) and deal with their own interpersonal conflicts while trying desperately to find another way out of the cave.

At the time of its release, The Descent was hyped as being one of the scariest films ever made, a boast that always brings out my inner skeptic. I missed its brief theatrical release in the US, but I caught up with it when it came out on DVD. While I enjoyed the film well enough the first time around, I allowed myself to buy into the hype, and I was perhaps a bit disappointed that it didn't live up to my unreasonably lofty expectations. Subsequent viewings, however, have deepened my appreciation for the film immensely. Marshall, who had previously directed the well-received werewolf flick Dog Soldiers, has a firm command over the film; he starts things off with a bang, then resets and gradually builds the tension to nearly unbearable levels. The Descent is indeed very, very scary, but it's also very emotionally resonant. There's an undercurrent of grief and loss that runs through the film and adds a poignant element, always an effective thing in a horror film, which are too-often devoid of any emotions other than fear. While in the hospital following the opening car crash, Sarah has an eerie dream involving a darkened corridor that foreshadows later events in the film, and her emotional breakdown upon awakening and learning of the death of her family is difficult to watch. The acting, especially by leads Macdonald and Mendoza, is of a uniformly high quality, and it's refreshing to see a film packed with strong, female protagonists. There are literally no noteworthy male characters in the film save for Sarah's ill-fated husband and the male Crawlers.

Of course, The Descent is at its core a survival horror film, and once it gets going, it delivers the expected elements in spades. The unrated version is extremely gory, as the Crawlers attempt (often with graphic success) to capture and devour the cavers, who fight for their lives with equal ferocity. In particular, Sarah transforms from an emotionally fragile woman at the beginning to a sort of Terminator figure by the end, mercilessly dispatching the subhuman Crawlers left and right but also dishing out a ruthless form of justice to a fellow group member who has transgressed against her in more ways than one. Remarkably, the film's cave scenes were all filmed on studio-built sets, but it's impossible to distinguish them from the real thing. An early scene which showcases the group working their way through an extremely tight space which ultimately collapses will undoubtedly be nerve-wracking for anyone who suffers from even a hint of claustrophobia. I have no doubt that having seen this film in a darkened theater would have added to its effect immensely, and I'm sorry that I didn't go when I had the chance, although the US theatrical version had its violence toned down to secure an R rating and also had its ending tampered with at the behest of preview audiences who found the original finale too bleak. As it stands, I much prefer the original ending; although it is unquestionably downbeat and grim, it has a certain poetry that brings the film's poignant streak full circle. (In any case, the ending was negated by the film's sequel, The Descent: Part 2, which picks up right where this one leaves off.) David Julyan's hauntingly effective score accents the film perfectly; it's scary and ominous when it needs to be, and appropriately somber during the more emotional scenes.

While The Descent is a superb movie in and of itself, for those of us who were hoping for an adaptation of Jeff Long's novel, it does fall somewhat short. I was therefore excited to discover a little-known 2008 film directed by Tommy Brunswick and entitled Born of Earth, which sounded like it might have taken more direct inspiration from the book, as it deals with subterranean creatures who have lived underground for millenia but emerge from time to time to abduct humans. Sadly, although it has one or two decent moments, it's by and large a resolutely awful film which makes the average SyFy Channel movie seem masterful in comparison. It stars Daniel Baldwin as Danny Kessler, a husband and father living in Prophet Hills, a small Michigan town. In the opening sequence, which is probably the most effective part of the film, his wife is butchered and his children are abducted by grotesque humanoids that emerge from the ground outside their home. Kessler is suspected of having committed the crimes, but is cleared and eventually leaves town. He reads a book by a professor who reports that similar events have been chronicled throughout history and who expects another incursion from below to happen again on a larger scale, prompting Kessler to return to Prophet Hills in an effort to protect his sister-in-law and her daughter from meeting the same fate as his family. Naturally, no one believes him, and the greedy mayor (Brad Dourif) enlists the help of the Sheriff (James Russo) to run Kessler out of town before his outlandish claims can derail a lucrative development deal. Kessler races to elude the authorities while trying to convince his skeptical relatives that they're in mortal danger. Of course, the promised return of the subterranean hordes comes to pass, and the residents of Prophet Hills are faced with a nightmarish invasion from beneath their feet.

A title card at the very beginning of Born of Earth tips the film's hand as to the origin of the creatures; they're referred to as demons, and we're informed that they were banished to the Earth's caverns after an ancient battle. This seemingly occult element is borne out by the creatures themselves, who flash brightly before turning into piles of dirt when killed (admittedly, a unique twist). This plot element removes the film from the realm of speculative fiction that Jeff Long's novel inhabits and makes it more of a generic supernatural horror film. With a few exceptions, the acting is execrable; many of the performers are clearly local amateurs who were seemingly enlisted by the low-budget production to cut costs, and they're not up to the task, especially when called upon to express big emotions. Frankly, given the lousy script, even the decent actors in the film have had a hard time coming up with anything worthwhile. Baldwin does what he can with the material, which isn't much, but he's occasionally believable. Dourif, on the other hand, provides a typically manic and enjoyable performance as the asshole mayor. The creature effects are done reasonably well considering the budget, and the opening scene with them crawling horizontally along the side of the Kessler home is fairly creepy (even though it echoes similar scenes in The Descent), but the odd movements utilized by the actors occasionally make it seem like they're performing some sort of interpretive dance routine which leads to unintentional laughs. An apocalyptic finale in the streets of Prophet Hills with cheap-looking CGI is laughably bad. While the filmmakers win points for trying something different (and for seemingly being savvy enough to look to Long's novel for inspiration), the end result is pretty shoddy.

It seems that fans of The Descent (the book) who still hope to someday see a faithful film adaptation will have to continue to wait, just like we've been waiting less-than-patiently for Long to finish the rumored third novel in the series (come on Jeff, you're killing us!). A definitive film version may in fact never be made, but for those who crave more subterranean horrors, Neil Marshall's gripping film The Descent and the comparatively lackluster Born of Earth will have to do for now.

Monday, October 1, 2012

It's that time of year

Wow. How is it that September has already come and gone? It seems like the kids just went back to school. At any rate, October is here, and you know what that means. Any horror blogger worth their salt is going to be working overtime in preparation for Halloween. In my case, "working overtime" probably means I'll post six or seven times throughout the month, but hey - I do what I can. Maybe one day I'll have the time and fortitude to do something every day.

In addition to posting on my own about some of my favorite horror films, I'll be participating in SHOCKtober over at Stacie Ponder's blog, Final Girl, and I'll once again be joining Kevin Olson's Italian Horror Blog-A-Thon at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. This is gonna be fun, so lie back, relax, and let the horror begin.