Archive for May, 2017

Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970)

Hatchet for the Honeymoon is an odd entry into Mario Bava’s parade of insanity, not least because it suddenly shifts about halfway through to something far weirder and more supernatural than it initially appears. But that in itself lifts it above the better but messier movies of the giallo canon, giving it a humor and gleeful malevolence all its own.

The film begins with John Harrington (Stephen Forsyth), a devilishly handsome young man who inherited his mother’s upscale bridal boutique. He divides his time between fashion shoots, fittings with brides, arguing with his wife Mildred (Laura Betti), and violently murdering young women on their honeymoons. Rather than concealing Harrington’s psychosis, the film puts it front and center, starting off with a vicious murder and then Harrington’s voiceover, in which he frankly admits that he’s a psychopath. The reason for his need to kill? With every murder, he experiences a flashback to his childhood and the death of his mother, and it is only through killing that the memories get clearer. As time goes on, we begin to understand that Harrington is impotent, and the murders of the brides take on even more psychosexual overtones (as if they needed any).

Bava injects this giallo plot with a hefty dose of humor (in my limited experience with giallo, Bava seems to be the director most aware of the inherent campiness of his work). That humor cuts through some of the more graphic depictions of murder, not to mention Harrington’s underlying misogyny and fear of sexuality. While the camera gleefully captures every lurid detail of the killer’s hatchet work, it also throws in some lovely ironic twists and tricks, focalizing through Harrington’s eyes as he handles his victims and his less victimized wife. Mildred, in fact, begins the film as a vicious harpie and ends it as the same, but her presence is also the saving grace–she despises her husband and plans to torture him for all of eternity, no matter what he does to escape her.

Hatchet for the Honeymoon is far more style than substance, of course, but somehow that doesn’t condemn it. The lurid photography, constant voiceover, and somewhat predictable twists are all part of what makes giallo so very entertaining. Then, without apparent warning, it turns into a ghost story and seems to delight even more in the torture it wreaks on its protagonist than it did on his murder. Where 0ther giallos have a tendency to dwell for so long on the poetry of violence that the humor and sympathy ebb away, Bava instead pays greater attention to the actual psychosis going on beneath the surface. Harrington is searching for an answer to his madness by indulging it, and so is something of a victim himself, but he’s never figured into the hero–he’s the villain, and he’s going to be made to pay the price, in a most delightful and satisfying way.

Bava’s work here closely resembles Roger Corman’s, or the Hammer horror films being made in England around the same time – he even references his own films, when Harrington uses Black Sabbath for an alibi. If Hatchet for the Honeymoon becomes repetitious after a while, it’s worth sticking it out for that shift in the second half of the film, which twists ghosts and ghost stories into a simple but impressive shape. A brilliant film? Hardly. But man is it fun.

Hatchet for the Honeymoon is available to stream on Shudder.

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13 Ghosts (1960)

It’s easy to get so caught up in the gimmickry of William Castle that one almost forgets that he made seriously enjoyable films. 13 Ghosts is one of his finest, and one that most clearly exploits the marrying of gimmickry and supernatural that Castle enjoyed so much.

The story opens with paleontologist Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods) being willed a house by his uncle Plato, a scientist and master of the occult. The house is a godsend for the impoverished Cyrus and his family, including youngest boy Buck (Charles Herbert), daughter Medea (Jo Morrow), and wife Hilda (Rosemary DeCamp). They move in immediately, despite warnings from Zorba’s lawyer Benjamin Rush (Martin Milner) that the house is inhabited by 12 very nasty ghosts, captured by Zorba using a special set of goggles. Strange things begin happening straight away as the ghosts reveal themselves and plague the newly arrived family.

As with many of Castle’s films, 13 Ghosts mixes a carnival-esque atmosphere of jump-scares and gimmicks into its haunting tale. Despite the warnings about the house, and the subsequent hauntings, the Zorbas actually begin to get comfortable in their new abode. Buck, already obsessed with ghosts, enjoys experiencing the supernatural firsthand, and begins learning about the ghosts’ pasts from the housekeeper Elaine (Margaret Hamilton), Zorba’s housekeeper and occult assistant. The ghosts float in and out of view, appearing as faded apparitions that engage with the human world in weird and occasionally destructive ways. Castle’s gimmick, in this one, is Illusion-O, a sort of semi-3D type of viewing goggles that allowed viewers to “see” the ghosts more starkly through red-filtered goggles. The ghosts are still there even without the goggles, but Castle pushed the concept of Illusion-O for the people willing to brave the terror.

Even without the gimmick, 13 Ghosts holds up quite well as a half-comedic, quirky little horror film that embraces its personal campiness. The idea of being able to capture ghosts by seeing them is a fascinating one (and predates Ghostbusters by more than twenty years), but the film doesn’t dwell for too long on the unpleasantness of the ghosts’ pasts, nor on their reasons for continuing to be tied to earth. They’re apparitions, leave-overs from unfinished lives, not in need of being fully fleshed. But their backgrounds are still appropriately gruesome, from an Italian chef doomed to murder his wife and her lover over and over again, to a headless lion tamer (plus lion) constantly searching for his head.

It’s the human beings that live with them who are really interesting, and it’s here that the film lives up to Castle’s strange standards. The Zorba family are oddballs, handling their haunted home with tongues firmly in cheek–in fact, they more than once recall the family Oscar Wilde created in his comic ghost story The Canterville Ghost. Woods and DeCamp make for a great onscreen husband and wife, a sort of slightly kinky Ward and June Cleaver, but a lot of the focus goes to Charles Herbert as Buck, played with a combination of innocence and a small edge of childish ghoulishness. Margaret Hamilton’s small but effective role gives a little shot of metanarrative, as Buck occasionally asks her if she’s really a witch, a neat complement to Buck’s obsession with ghost stories that opens the film. There are further references to the gimmickry of the supernatural, including a devilishly enjoyable use of an Ouija board, which was once again gaining popularity as a game in the early 60s.

The practical effects used both in the appearances of the ghosts themselves, and on the moving candles, shattering milk jugs, and flying cleavers, hold up brilliantly even now. It’s hard to tell how effective (or not) Castle’s Illusion-O concept would have been, but the film happily works without the gimmick. There’s much that Castle is dealing with here, about turning spirits and the spirit world into things for entertainment or experimentation (or just the source of old-fashioned human greed) without fully understanding or respecting them. Under the carnival facade is a more serious treatment of the spirit world than appears on the surface–you just might need Illusion-O to find it.

13 Ghosts is available to stream on Shudder.

The Lovers (2017)

The Lovers is that rarest of cinematic endeavors: a truly adult romance. By “adult,” I don’t mean “explicit” (though The Lovers does have one or two depictions of orgasm both tender and slightly humorous), but genuinely grown up. Rather than dwelling in puerile depictions of marital infidelity that result in either suffering (Unfaithful) or humor (It’s Complicated), The Lovers treats of the subject with a carefully structured depth, complexity, and even messiness that is at once funny and deeply moving.

Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts) are an aging married couple settled into a comfortable routine of largely ignoring each other. They are both having affairs—Mary wwith the charming Robert (Aidan Gillen) and Michael with the somewhat unhinged Lucy (Melora Walters). Though both are ostensibly concealing this fact from their spouse, there’s the distinct impression throughout the film that the couple is tacitly aware of each other’s infidelities. Things come to a head in all the relationships when Mary and Michael’s son Joel (Tyler Ross) comes for a visit with his girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula). The parents decide that they’ll set their respective affairs aside for one last weekend with their son, after which (they promise their lovers) they will separate. Things, naturally, are not so simple as that.

The Lovers walks a fine line between comedy and drama (much like human relationships themselves). Mary and Michael have an awkward relationship, one in which they’re barely able to speak to each other without stammering or stumbling. But their unhappiness seems to extend even to their affairs—the film opens with Mary assuring Robert that she really does love him, while Lucy and Michael’s relationship appears to consist mostly of distrust, fighting, and making up. But as circumstances drive Mary and Michael closer to one another, the complications increase: nascent feelings come out and memories of a good life (or what they wanted to be a good life) resurface to muddy the waters.

The very messiness of the relationships makes for good comedy—and there is quite a bit of good comedy in The Lovers, which exploits its two main characters’ comedic talents to the full. Winger and Letts are by turns charming, annoying, funny, and, above all, profoundly human. The awkwardness between Mary and Michael transforms to a tentative courtship (including a truly hilarious bit of verbal foreplay involving Chinese food), which in turn makes the audience increasingly invested in their relationship. Their son Joel, meanwhile, is almost horrified by his parents’ newfound interest in each other. In his first introduction, he tells his girlfriend to hit him if he ever starts behaving like either of them, a canny bit of character development that hints that Mary and Michael’s past was probably never halcyon. It’s both hard not to root for the pair, and hard to root for them. Mary is cold and evidently unhappy; Michael floundering in a dull job and an apparent need for constant drama in relationships. Their flaws linger just beneath the surface, and the film leaves open the question whether or not they will ever be able to make it past those flaws, with or without each other.

The Lovers’s biggest stumble is in the depiction of Robert and Lucy, both of whom struggle to exist as believable individuals. Granted that they are mostly there to give shape to the central relationship, they are still less rounded, less subtle, than either Mary or Michael. This problem is particularly apparent in Lucy, who’s dramatic to the point of near hysteria. But Robert is also a bit of a dullard who wants to force Mary into finally making a choice between himself and Michael—there’s some indication that they’ve been through something similar before, and Robert is all but fed up with the situation. The tinges of madness in Lucy and vindictiveness in Robert might have been explained if more time and attention was paid to the backgrounds of the two relationships, but because the film prefers to dwell on the lead relationships, those elements remain secondary and unresolved.

Though its subject is very messy, The Lovers is not itself a messy film. It treats its characters with respect and understanding without justifying their behavior. It’s precisely constructed, much being done with the silences and awkward pauses, the tentative movements of bodies, the unspoken words, and unfinished conversations. In that, it is a deeply satisfying film for anyone craving a step outside of Hollywood superficiality and into a deeper, richer realm of human relationships. The Lovers does not presume supply any easy answers or unambiguously happy endings. What it does supply is a charming and profound exploration on what it means to love someone.

The Lovers premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. It hits cinemas May 5.

Abundant Acreage Available (2017)

Abundant Acreage Available is a strange, chamber piece of a film, taking as its subject the decline of two families and their dedication the land that both keeps them alive, and slowly kills them. The film opens as Tracy (Amy Ryan) and Jesse (Terry Kinney) bury their father’s ashes in the soil of their North Carolina tobacco farm. There’s already conflict there: Tracy insists on putting their father in the field where they’ll grow next year’s crops, while Jesse wants to bury him “properly” in the cemetery adjacent to the land. Things become more complicated when the brother and sister discover three elderly brothers camping on their land the next morning. The eldest brother Hans (Max Gail) explains that their family used to own the farm, but their father was more or less scammed out of it by Jesse and Tracy’s father. This revelation sets off a series of conflicts and arguments between the three brothers, and Jesse and Tracy, all of whom attempt to cling to their pasts with increasing fervor.

Abundant Acreage Available peels back layers of character and relationships without falling into the well-used trap of romanticizing its subjects. Rather than being a story about “saving the farm” or returning to one’s roots, it’s about hanging on for too long, immuring oneself in the past and the meaning of things—locations, land, possessions—rather than in the present moment and human relationships. Tracy and Charlie (Steve Coulter), the youngest brother, are the caregivers, the family members who become tied to the pain of the past via their loved ones, who in turn refuse to release past trauma. Their lives are lived in isolation from anyone outside their families—an element reinforced by the absence of establishing shots of the town, or the introduction of any characters outside the main five. The film keeps us turned inward, making much out of short sentences and unspoken ideas, the occasional bursts of anger, speech, and song all the more poignant for the intense build-up of emotion behind them.

There are no children here, and no spouses—only sibling relationships that will end with death and have no real longevity. Hans wants to return to the farm in order to die; Jesse wants to sacrifice the farm in order to fulfill the penance that he has set out for himself. Both cling to the past as something that they can somehow return to, or set to rest, without ever looking at the present or even approaching the future. Tracy, meanwhile, exists in an in-between space—she wants to hang onto the farm as a way of processing her own grief in losing her father. Her grief is in the process of becoming externalized, while Jesse’s has become so embedded in his being and in his psyche that he will never be truly free of it. She and Charlie understand one another because they are the somewhat unwilling participants in the game of the past, working through their own desires in the midst of the demands made on them by others. Their potential romantic relationship has a chance to be a “solution” for Jesse and Hans, paying off the imagined debts and putting to rest the suffering of the past, but it’s yet another kind of caregiving and insistence that Tracy and Charlie give of themselves.

One gets the sense that there is little future in Abundant Acreage Available. Set during the winter, the land is barren; all the crops have been brought in. But it’s also set on a tobacco farm—not a crop that nourishes, but one that kills and that will go on killing (it’s even implied that Jesse and Tracy’s father died from lung cancer, and both brother and sister smoke). The past of the land, those that have died on it and for it permits nothing new to grow.

Yet, the deep melancholy of its images and themes does not make Abundant Acreage Available into a fatalistic film. It grapples with the meaning of grief, the need to cling onto something, and the equal need to let go. The film pushes towards a resolution—a kind of growth—that might perhaps lift the people within it out of their winter cycle and on toward spring. Something may still grow on that farm, but first the people who lived on it, and who interred within it, have to be able to let it go.

Dog Years (2017)

Burt Reynolds might not be the ultimate male celebrity, but he certainly makes a case for it in Dog Years, a film about aging stardom, regret, and the possibility of redemption even for an asshole. The film opens with elderly Hollywood star Vic Edwards (Reynolds) having to put down his dog Squanto, an act that precipitates all that comes after, as Vic is forced to face up to his past mistakes, feeling like he’s an old dog about to be put down. The same day, Edwards receives an invitation to a film festival in Nashville, where he’s being honored with a lifetime achievement award. Encouraged by his friend (Chevy Chase), Edwards packs up and heads off to his home state of Tennessee to receive the award, only to be picked up at the airport by Lil (Ariel Winter), a foul-mouthed young woman in a beat-up car who introduces herself as his assistant for the weekend. When he arrives in the city, Vic discovers that the film festival is actually just a crowd of film geeks putting on screenings in the backroom of a bar.

Dog Years trades on Reynolds’s undoubted celebrity, even casting the elder Burt in conversation with his younger self. In this, it’s not much of a change from many films that grapple with aging stars faced with a system obsessed by youth and a world that has passed them by. Dog Years alters the paradigm only slightly by establishing a dialogue between a younger generation of characters, all of whom admire Vic’s cinematic past without a trace of irony, and Vic, who has become at best an obscure celebrity, living in his old image. As Vic and Lil travel around Knoxville, reliving Vic’s past, the elder man comes to terms with mistakes made by his younger self, revealing a depth of self-reflection and understanding. Dog Years (happily) avoids creating a romance between Vic and Lil, but he’s also not a father figure—they grow to be friends, and he enforces, for her, that she’s worth more than what any man thinks of her. The story is about buoying the younger generation and an acceptance, on Vic’s part, that while his youthful stardom might be behind him, he’s still worth something in the eyes of a few important fans.

Intentionally or not, Dog Years also has something to say about film fandom, and the admiration of a younger generation for the old. The kids (Clark Duke, Nikki Blonsky, Ellar Coltrane, and Al-Jaleel Knox) putting on the festival truly do admire Vic, whether or not he deserves it and even when he proves to be less the idol that they want him to be. The film avoids either ironizing or satirizing that fandom—the boys are genuine and their admiration comes to mean something to Vic as he begins to come terms with his past. The film constructs a complicated relationship between an older generation that doesn’t want to let go and a younger on that is holding on to nostalgia, sometimes in spite of reality.

The unlikely team of Reynolds and Winter results in some happy surprises. Reynolds reminds us of why he was a star in the first place, delivering a performance that is nuanced and moving without discarding his iconic status as a rake. Winter, meanwhile, is slowly coming out of her sitcom roots, stretching herself a bit to play the foul-mouthed, tatted-up Lil. But she lends her performance a surprising depth. While this is a film about coming to terms with the past, it’s not about transforming oneself to better fit other people’s images. Vic remains a bit of a dick, and Lil is still as insulting as ever, but they are both better people for having known each other, accepting their roles and changing their attitudes to the people around them.

The weakest moments in Dog Years are those scenes where Reynolds addresses his past self directly, in scenes from Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance. While those scenes will be recognizable to most film fans, the use of green screen and the limited dialogue comes off as more hokey than moving, a weird attempt to bring the older and younger Reynolds into dialogue with himself.

Dog Years doesn’t completely escape cliché, try as it might. But it has warmth, and heart, a celebration of the meaning of stardom to new generations, and the willingness to embrace the past, understand it, and then be able to let it go. It’s a sweet film, and maybe that’s all that it really needs to be.