Saturday, May 30, 2009


I feel I should take a moment and defend the integrity of the 100 Rare and Obscure Horror Films You Should See Before You Die, as, in the world of silent movies, F.W. Murnau is admittedly not all that obscure. That being said, however, there really isn’t a great surplus of people my age (or in general) that have seen any silent films at all, except perhaps in a film class. Even then, any silent film is likely to be Nosferatu, the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, or a non-horror movie. I feel confident, therefore, that few if any of you have seen this silent classic, about a renowned doctor who makes a deal with the devil to help his people, and surprisingly finds that it doesn’t turn out quite how he imagined it would.

The film, based on Goethe’s play that I’ve yet to read (I have read Marlowe’s version, if that makes up for it at all), opens humbly with the four horsemen of the apocalypse flying through the land. This turns out to be an opening gambit by the Devil, who, when confronted by God, argues that the human race is thoroughly corrupted and belongs to him now. God obviously disagrees, and so they make a wager: if the Devil can completely corrupt and ruin a pure soul – the aforementioned doctor – then the world is his.

The film, presumably like the play, is structured rather oddly. It’s bookended with some startling imagery that partially floats away from a conventional narrative, as when they show the Devil infecting Faust’s city with plague via him spreading his wings out to surround the land. However, during a good chunk of the middle portion, the film seems to turn away from the dark and fantastical, and towards romantic comedy territory, as Faust is given his youth, and spends his time chasing after a girl. I can only assume this section is meant to show us that even someone renowned for his wisdom and intelligence can turn into a damned fool when youth and beauty come along. It tends to go on a bit overlong (as the comedy sequences in Marlowe’s play did, come to think of it), but at least it wraps up appropriately miserably, as a story of a man making a deal with the devil should.

While the pacing is off (as was often the case with silent films), the movie is filled with such great imagery and tells such a classic, dark story, that you owe it to yourself to check it out. Also, if you find you just can’t bring yourself to watch a silent film, or if you’d just prefer a film that goes completely surrealist and weird, you can also check out Jan Svankmajer’s Faust from the mid-90s, which is also totally awesome. Sadly, though, it’s not available in full on Youtube, as Murnau’s is.

Also, keep in mind you can never go wrong with 1920s tits.

Rating: *** ½

*Further proof: on Amazon, Faust’s new 2 disc special edition DVD is currently ranked at 15,786 in DVD sales, while Basket Case, a cult horror movie about a man whose murderous mutant twin brother is kept hidden in a basket, is ranked at 8,934. This is scientific proof that Faust is only half as popular as semi-obscure cult movies from 1982.


Saturday, May 23, 2009

Eyes Without a Face (a.k.a. Les Yeux sans Visage)

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this on the blog before, but no matter how much I may enjoy gorefests and the over-the-top bloodiness of the best slasher movies, I will happily take a horror movie that emphasizes creepiness over blood any day of the week. That’s not to say that Eyes Without a Face has no gory moments (indeed, a couple shots are pretty extreme for a movie from 1959), but it does mostly focus on being one of the most unsettling and weird horror movies of its day.

The film is about a famous surgeon in the French countryside whose daughter’s face has been hopelessly ruined in a car crash, and so he becomes obsessed with kidnapping other young women and trying to surgically graft their faces onto his daughter. Clearly a man ahead of his time, as just recently have we had the world’s first successful face transplant. While he uses his first victim as a means of faking his daughter’s death, the police do eventually start noticing the disappearances of several young women in the area, all of whom seem to have recently been at the doctor’s clinic (way to keep attention away from yourself there, buddy). Additionally, he also finds he has to contend with his daughter, who is increasingly horrified at what is being done to all the young women, as well as to herself.

It’s always interesting to me how the French countryside can look so beautiful in so many movies, and yet look so grim and ghoulish whenever a horror movie is set there (Calvaire is another one where all of France seems to be a grim post-apocalyptic wasteland). Add to that the unsettling carnival music, and the constant sound of the doctor’s pack of dogs barking, and you’ve got a place that seems a wee bit less pleasant to live than, say, Manon des Sources.

I also enjoyed how plausible most of the film was – not only is there nothing at all supernatural about the plot, but it bears mentioning that quite a few of our major medical breakthroughs have indeed come from using people as complete guinea pigs. Sure, most of the time there wasn’t any outright kidnapping going on, but there hasn’t been any shortage of tests done on minorities or prisoners of war (or, in the case of the Japanese Imperial Army, all of China) – in short, any time someone was able to pretend someone else wasn’t a real person. This was a pretty dark subject matter for the 50s – or even today – and even if it doesn’t fully deal with the questions it raises, it still makes it one of the best horror movies out there, and one that it’s a shame almost nobody my age has seen.

Rating: *** ½


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Evil Dead Trap

Like the Eternal Evil of Asia, this was another of the first Asian horror movies I ever owned. In retrospect, I see that I was completely being spoiled by almost solely purchasing high quality Asian horror, as later years and the spread of what feels like hundreds of cookie-cutter “scary ghost girl terrorizes people for using technology” films would water the product down so heavily that an impulse purchase nowadays is far more likely to give you a mediocre to terrible film than one actually worth having. Fortunately, back in the days before Ringu/Ju-On/Dark Water/Angry Ghost Girl With Long Black Hair 87 flooded the market, here in America we were only given access to the very best Asia had to offer, such as this film.

The film follows a group of women that work for a small late night news show who receive a video detailing a woman being tortured and killed. Also featured on the video is a nice lengthy driving sequence showing the girls how to get to the abandoned warehouse/factory type place where the murder was committed. Now, as anyone with half a brain would do in their situation, they decide not to call the cops, as this might just be their big break as serious reporters, and they decide instead to grab a cameraman and drive out there to investigate. They all start dying soon afterwards.

The film has two main flaws to it, both heavily intertwined. One is in the weak pacing, as almost every death in the film occurs within the first hour. The reason for this is due to its other flaw, in how the first two thirds of the film work really, really well as a particularly nasty slasher film, while the final third suddenly turns into a Cronenberg film. Just completely out of nowhere it devolves into complete weirdness and insanity, and I can’t say I’m a very big fan of all that, at least not when a film was doing such a good job at doing things in a semi-sane manner.

That said, when the film is working it does a really great job. It’s got a really gritty, grindhouse-style look to it that perfectly complements the grisly murders that take place in it. The murders themselves are also a piece of work; it should come as no surprise that Japan was and is able to make video nasties much better and more grotesque than anything America or England was capable of. Just compare this to, say, its namesake Evil Dead, which got an NC-17 in the USA and an X in England prior to being outright banned as a video nasty, for reasons that elude anyone who’s ever actually seen the film. Compared to that film, this should have gotten a XXX rating while being edited down to a 20 minute run time. Moral of the story: don’t even try to compete with Japan when it comes to brutal violence against women, you’ll never come close to matching them.

Rating: ***


Friday, May 8, 2009

The Eternal Evil of Asia

This was one of the first Asian horror movies I ever bought, dating back to the fabled year 2000 when a co-worker brought in a copy of Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind and gave me the bug for more. Being a budding young Amazon enthusiast, I went on there and checked their Asian Horror category, which at the time consisted of three movies: Encounters, Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, and this film. It has remained a cherished part of my collection ever since.

While the film works on pretty much every level, if there is a weakness it would be with the plot. It’s the fairly standard “group of friends somehow wronged someone earlier in life, and now he’s back for revenge” type deal, though this one admittedly has a few nice twists. For one, it’s pretty much 100% the guy’s fault that they wronged him – the villain is a wizard, see, who tried to use a love potion on the main character to get him to fall in love with the wizard’s sister, only the main character’s friends accidentally got the potion instead. After a nice softly-lit orgy, she awakens, sees she’s attracted the wrong people, flips out and tries to kill them, and is accidentally killed in the process. Totally not our protagonists’ fault in any way, though this should be considered a strong cautionary tale of why one should never vacation in Thailand, for any viewers out there not already warned off by all the trannies.

So, with the plot more or less brushed aside, what does this film have to really offer? Well, it has a lot of great humor to it, such as when the evil wizard punishes our hero by using a voodoo doll to make him impotent right when he’s getting it on with his fiancee. That’s just cold. There’s also a good deal of fun with the unconcernedly terrible subtitles, which not only mutilate the English language (and presumably also whatever Asian language is sitting on top of them, though I haven’t sat any Asian friends down with the movie and had them verify this), but also sometimes says the exact opposite of what the character is actually saying.

Finally, there’s the unavoidable topic of the women in the film, who are tremendously attractive, especially our main character’s fiancee, played by Lily Chung, who IMDB helpfully tells me was Hong Kong’s representative for Miss Universe 1987. I hope she won, because she totally deserves it. Hell, the film’s climax alone, which plays out pretty much exactly how The Invisible Maniac SHOULD have played out, should have won her the title. If, you know, this hadn’t been made almost a decade later, which I feel is an unfair sticking point.

Rating: *** ½


Saturday, May 2, 2009

Eaten Alive

While a great many people have seen and loved Tobe Hooper’s first film, a little ditty known as the Texas Chain Saw Massacre (well, not counting some weird hippie movie he made in the 60s that all of five people have seen), surprisingly few have seen or even know about his second film, Eaten Alive. One could argue that this is because it’s not as good, but that kind of argument would then require us to watch only the single greatest film by each director and ignore all of their other films. I don’t think I want to live in a world where I’d be missing out on films like Creepshow (Romero), Last House on the Left (Craven), or Chopping Mall (Wynorski) just because they weren’t the top films of their filmmakers.

The film centers around Judd (Neville Brand), the owner of a small Texas hotel that, much like the Bates Motel, has its own swamp in the back. Even better than the Bates Motel, though, this swamp has its own crocodile, to which he feeds his more troublesome guests. It’s a nice way for him to expand from Texas Chain Saw, keeping things somewhat similar while taking them in a completely new direction. This would be pretty much the only time Hooper would ever do this, as almost every other film he’s ever made has been wildly different stylistically from all his others, leaving it very difficult to fit him into any kind of auteur theory. But I digress.

Even if it’s not on the level of Chain Saw (and honestly, that is kind of a tough act to follow), there’s still quite a lot to like about the movie. First is the quality acting of the film, headlined both by Brand and by a very young Robert Englund, who before becoming Freddy Krueger and Willie plays here a charmingly violent yokel that always enjoys plugging girls from behind. Also, while not an actual sequel, this does still follow the formula somewhat of ratcheting up the sex and violence to compensate for not being able to be the first film all over again. Not only does the croc kill people, but Brand takes a pitchfork and a scythe to his enemies, and a dog gets eaten too, something I always appreciate in a film. Also, following the simple understanding that everything is scarier (or at least creepier) at night, every single scene in the entire film is at night. Watching this, one would have no idea such a thing as the sun exists. It’s that kind of genius thinking that leads a man to make a movie about a house cursed from being built on an Indian burial ground, and then deciding to use actual corpses as props in the movie.

This is a true grindhouse film – nasty, vicious, and ugly. It’s also quite a lot of fun. If you want to see the kind of film that people reminisce fondly about when they complain about the dullness of present day movies, give this one a viewing.

Rating: ***