Posts Tagged ‘horror films’

The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974)

Giallo horror tends to run the gamut from artistic to exploitative, and often just combines the two into an unholy union that is at once profoundly uncomfortable and deeply enjoyable. One of the stranger works in the wide range of giallo films is The Perfume of the Lady in Black (the greatest title ever), from director Francisco Barilli, starring Mimsy Farmer as a perfumier in Rome who begins to hallucinate (or does she?) images from her childhood that center around a lady in black.

Farmer is Silvia, a talented chemist who enjoys making perfume, going out with her boyfriend Roberto (Maurizio Bonuglio), and hanging out with his friends, including a professor (Jho Jenkins) with an interest in black magic and the occult. But things begin to get weird when she smells a new perfume and begins to hallucinate a woman, all dressed in black. As the hallucinations get more intense, recalling Silvia’s childhood, her deceased father, and her mother’s old lover, she also begins to believe that she’s being stalked by men in dark trench coats. At the behest of her friend Francesca (Donna Jordan), Silvia goes to a blind psychic, who brings up even more past memories, inspiring another flood of hallucinations. What’s real and what’s Silvia’s psychosis become more and more intertwined, exacerbated by the machinations of her strange neighbor, and the mysterious people who may or may not be following her.

Like many giallo horrors, the focus is more on the aesthetic than the actual plot, which telegraphs the solution to its mystery so clearly that it almost isn’t necessary. The garish seventies’ colors and weird character quirks – like a continuous emphasis on hippos that is just confounding – make for the entertainment value here. Rooms painted bright blue, yellow dresses that are just too yellow, pinks that conflict with purples, haunting music that dogs Silvia’s steps—these are the trappings of the weird. There are the usual elements of the occult and psychosis, as Silvia’s belief that she’s being bewitched co-mingles with her hallucinations, which are either repressed memories, are realities being perpetrated against her by some unknown assailant, or are the result of something more supernatural. What’s unnerving about the film is how difficult it is to completely understand what’s going on, or why. The ending is at once predictable and utterly shocking, and I doubt that a rewatch would be able to place it in proper context. It doesn’t make sense, which is half the fun.

In some ways, though, The Perfume of the Lady in Black needed to be more extreme, to indulge its tendencies to excess rather than attempt to tell a coherent story. What sets films by Bava, Argento, or Fulci off is the willingness to go all in on the aesthetics and overwhelm the viewer with imagery such that we almost forget there is a plot. This film doesn’t go far enough—there’s actually very little violence, and the most violent scene (of an attempted rape) comes off as too serious to be particularly enjoyable. The overlapping of reality and psychological horror is well done, but it could be emphasized more. I wanted more hallucinatory images in a film about hallucinations.

The Perfume of the Lady in Black is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

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Child’s Play (1988)

childs-play

Every year for my Halloween viewing, I attempt to fill some gaps in my horror knowledge. Is there a horror classic I have not seen? Is there an essential film I’ve avoided? I generally have a problem with horror franchises, often because the first film is often not the best and could easily be ignored, but I’m a completist and must watch it. Which is how I came so late to Child’s Play, Don Mancini and Tom Holland’s introduction to the Chucky franchise, about a doll possessed by the spirit of a serial killer.

Child’s Play opens with the death of Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), a serial killer and black magic aficionado working on the South Side of Chicago. After being shot by police officer Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon), Ray survives just long enough to perform a ritual and commit his soul to a “Good Guy” doll. Not long after, Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks), buys the doll as a birthday for her son Andy (Alex Vincent), who is obsessed with the Good Guy television show. Andy becomes convinced that “Chucky” is talking to him and, eventually, that Chucky is actually doing bad things, like committing pushing babysitters out windows. As the bodies pile up, Karen and Detective Norris must discover just what is going on, whether Andy has lost his mind or if Chucky really is responsible for the mayhem.

Like many slashers of the same type, Chucky the character has become better known than the film that spawned him, thanks to the development of the tongue-in-cheek humor only nascent in the original. But Child’s Play is good fun for what it is, thanks largely to the malevolent humor of Brad Dourif (vocally, at least) in the lead. The audience knows that Chucky is evil, but there’s a degree of glee to be had in watching what’s basically a Cabbage Patch doll run amok with a butcher knife, scrambling in and out of windows, threatening small children, attacking and biting grown men. There’s less blood here than one might expect, and the film does better with its tension up to Chucky’s attacks, which become overly comedic once they happen.

Child’s Play exploits a number of quintessential 80s horror tropes, setting itself in the slums and upper middle class neighborhoods of Chicago, playing with Western configurations of voodoo and Satanism, and wrapping it all up in a different kind of villain to undercut the whole idea of an “evil child” so popular in the 70s and 80s. Andy is an initially annoying little boy who becomes more sympathetic as the film goes on – he knows that Chucky is bad, but no one will believe that his doll is a walking, talking monster. Catherine Hicks and Chris Sarandon are likable as the adult leads facing a very bizarre and inherently funny situation. The scene where Chucky finally convinces Detective Norris that Andy’s not making it up is a combination of terrifying and hilarious, not least because it’s a grown man fighting off a child’s toy who keeps trying to stab him.

If Child’s Play is still very much a product of its time – this was the era when people were literally stomping each other to get Cabbage Patch Kids – it’s an enjoyable product of its time. Chucky will return again and again, most recently in Cult of Chucky, to wreak havoc on unsuspecting victims who would never believe that a little doll could be so nasty. And for that, we have Child’s Play to thank.

Pet Sematary (1989)

I have a contentious relationship with Stephen King. I enjoy his plots, and often the films based on his books, but his novels themselves tend to go just a little too far for me, shifting from pleasurable horror to uncomfortable sadism sometime in the final quarter. But there’s no doubt that King crafts some indelible narratives that get right to the core of fear, and this is thanks, in part, to the films based on his books. Pet Sematary was actually the first King book I read (and permanently fucked up my ability to spell “cemetery”) so I turned to Mary Lambert’s 1989 film version, scripted by King himself, to remind me of my childhood fears.

Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby are Louis and Rachel Creed, recently arrived in a little Maine town with their children, Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) and Gage (Miko Hughes), to start anew. Their house is idyllic, even if it is on a road with a number of fast trucks, and even if it does have a creepy burial ground for pets in the woods beyond. When Ellie’s beloved cat Church is struck by a truck, their neighbor Jud (Fred Gwynne) kindly takes Louis beyond the Pet Sematary and onto an ancient burial site to bury the cat. Church comes back to life, but he’s not the same cat he once was, and Louis’s exposure to resurrecting the dead will eventually have dire repercussions for the family.

Pet Sematary is very much about the nature of grief and the lengths to which people will go to avoid the realities of death. Jud’s initial offer to Louis to help with Church is well-intentioned—he doesn’t think that Ellie should have to be exposed to death at such a young age. But of course, it’s a bad idea. Church isn’t Church anymore, and Ellie is troubled by the cat as a result of her father’s unwillingness to explain loss to her. This becomes more problematic as the film goes on – Jud tells about the things that happened when people are buried in the burial site, and speaks the (now classic) line that “sometimes, dead is better.” The narrative problem with the film is the same as the narrative problem of the book – how to render grief so convincing that it actually makes sense for someone to behave in such a fundamentally stupid manner and unleash all the horror that he does. The book mostly gets this right, but the film stumbles a little, due mostly to the performance of Dale Midkiff, in establishing a convincing tone.

Pet Sematary is a very 80s film, with a very 80s aesthetic. The music – including the Ramones! – pulses to the beat of the narrative, and there are moments of extreme hokeyness that all but undercut the dour, serious nature of the story. But those hokey moments, and even a few jokes, also help to lighten what could be a depressing slog. This is a story about grief and death and darkness, so there needs to be a few moments of levity, dark humor though it may be. Lambert deftly combines the story with grotesque imagery and hallucinatory violence that becomes an approximate visual rendering of King’s often fantastical creations. The story of Rachel’s sister Zelda, her first encounter with death as a young girl, is suitably terrifying, as is the creepy, mocking voice of Gage nearing the end of the film.

The standout star here is Fred Gwynne, whose turn as the possibly malevolent neighbor Jud keeps the film on an even keel, evading either dipping into campiness or into self-serious horror. There’s just something inherently creepy about Gwynne’s thick Maine accent, as though he’s doing a good impression of Kate Hepburn. He mostly plays it straight, but there’s a hint of sinister glee in his performance, especially as the film begins to draw to a close. He’s earnest and likable and just a bit frightening, and that makes all the difference.

Pet Sematary may not have aged well – it’s stuck in its time period, and the practical effects are occasionally unconvincing. But it’s still a nice piece of 80s nostalgia, ably directed and a more than adequate adaptation of King’s work.

The House of the Devil (2009)

The 80s are a favorite period for many horror fans, producing as they did films as diverse and disturbing as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, Child’s Play, and a whole range of brutal slasher films that indulged backlash male fears and, occasionally, a few feminist ones as well. The contemporary horror fan’s obsession with the 80s has some darkness to it as well, given the obsession with weaponized maniacs murdering bare-breasted women and prizing the Final Girl as the ultimate virginal fantasy. But there are times when 80s nostalgia produces something really unique, as is the case with Ti West’s The House of the Devil, a deliberate throwback to the decade that immerses its viewer in the chills and thrills of slow-burn violence.

Jocelin Donahue is Samantha, a sophomore at an upstate college who longs to move into a proper apartment. When she spots a flyer asking for a babysitter, she answers it, and heads out to a lonely house far from campus on the night of a full lunar eclipse. There she meets Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) and his wife (Mary Woronov), and learns that there are no children to look after – the couple just want someone to stay in the house for the evening in order to keep an eye on Mr. Ulman’s mother, a bed-bound old woman asleep upstairs. The whole setup is a bit creepy, but Samantha needs the money and agrees.

We all know where this is going, but The House of the Devil takes its sweet time in getting there. The opening act leading up to the arrival at the house takes up a good bit of runtime, but somehow the slow burn isn’t boring. This is a leisurely film that knows how to develop the tension, rather than getting straight to the violence. And that’s the film’s strength – rather than rushing into what’s ultimately a sparse and somewhat predictable narrative, there’s an inherent enjoyment of the development of the fear, as the audience waits for the killer, the cult, the ghost, or goblin to come into frame. Some viewers who demand more gore and less tension might find it dull, but the time that West takes to develop his story is time well-spent. There are momentary bursts of violence separated by long sections of Samantha ordering pizza, turning on the TV, investigating weird noises coming from the upstairs. As the narrative unfolds at its own pace, the viewer can only sit back and watch, secure in the knowledge that something is going to happen, held in thrall by not knowing when.

Donahue is a big part of what makes The House of the Devil work. She’s a throwback to the Final Girls of the 1980s, recalling Jamie Lee Curtis or Dee Wallace (who has a bit part as a landlady at the beginning of the film), innocent without being weak or even particularly naïve. Although the situation is creepy, the film takes care to develop reasons for staying at the house that are believable and that therefore don’t prompt the audience to dismiss her as stupid, or the film for concocting excuses to get to the scary bits. Given that Donahue has to spend most of her onscreen time alone, it’s a testament to her presence that The House of the Devil never bores, and that the audience can care about her character fairly quickly.

The House of the Devil won’t be for everyone. It’s very much an 80s film, even if made in 2009, with a self-seriousness that avoids any hint of the campy. As such, as it’s incredibly loving film, a movie that feels like an homage without attempting to be more knowing than the films it references, that tries and largely succeeds in approximating one of horror’s most famous periods. But it’s still slow, more interested in the creation of tension than in giving the viewer blood and guts. It works, thanks in no small measure to West’s use of old-school aesthetics in the creation of the house itself, and the occasional hints of what is actually going on just enough to the audience on their toes.

The House of the Devil is available to stream on Shudder.

Phenomena (1985)

Dario Argento’s Phenomena opens with the brutal murder of a schoolgirl, somewhere in Swiss Alps, by a…well, something chained in a room in a remote cabin. Things just get weirder from there. The film mostly follows Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of a famous actor, who arrives in Switzerland to attend the Richard Wagner Academy for Girls (yes, really), where a bunch of violent murders have been taking place. One night, Jennifer sleepwalks and witnesses a murder, then stumbles onto the home of Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), a disabled etymologist with a chimpanzee helper, with whom she forms a close friendship (both the professor and the chimpanzee). McGregor discovers that Jennifer has a telepathic connection to insects and realizes that this connection might be the key to finding the killer.

Phenomena is a rare Argento film in the sense that it doesn’t spend all that much time dwelling on the visual poetry of murder. While there are the hallmarks of giallo, especially in the opening scene, the film is more interested in exploring the bizarre affinity between Jennifer and the insects than it is in focusing on the quest for the killer. And for that, it’s actually a refreshing experience. There are some excellent set pieces, including one scene where Jennifer summons the help of flies to defend her from bullies, as well as the usual giallo staples of sudden, violent deaths with bright red blood and rolling heads. But Phenomena is less soaked with atmosphere than some of Argento’s more popular works—there is the play of light and dark, but none of the flights of color and fantasy that come into movies like Tenebrae or Inferno. There’s also a heightened emphasis on characterization and dialogue, especially between McGregor, Jennifer and, um, the chimp. The music here is slightly less haunting than Suspiria, though it does emphasize Argento’s style, with bursts of head-banging rock and shrieking chords to underline apparently banal moments.

What is most surprising about Phenomena is how slow-moving and creepy it is, avoiding more explicit acts of violence in favor of building tension and character. Then the third act happens. For experienced Argento viewer, you know that his films tend to get very weird in the third act, with the build-up to the denouement usually more coherent than the actual climax. But Phenomena really does stand by itself, both for artistry and total, batshit insanity. The solution to the mystery is definitely there and it does make sense – kind of – but the sudden plunge into excess is jarring and, in its own way, curiously delightful. It should suffice to say that everything the film has introduced along the way does pay off – including an incongruous scene involving the chimp – and does so in maddest way possible.

Phenomena has been criticized for its rather limited performances and unclear resolution—and certainly Jennifer Connelly became a better actress as she grew up. Pleasence is delightful, however, and has great chemistry with the chimp, herself a very prominent player in the film. And Phenomena is no worse in terms of acting than any other Argento film—giallo is rarely known for great performances, after all.

While Suspiria and Deep Red are works of art, Phenomena feels more intensely personal, as though Argento has dropped any pretense of what’s expected of him and is simply doing what he wants. Phenomena is something like an amusement park ride that sails along pleasantly but uninterestingly, and then drops you fifty feet down. You know it’s coming, but it’s still quite a stomach-churning experience.

Phenomena is available to stream on Shudder

Also showing in the “Dark Gatherings” shorts block is Blood Sisters, a humorous entry from director Caitlin Koller that entertains, even if it doesn’t completely stick the ending. Two young women spend an evening doing what all young women do: watching movies, drinking vodka, and performing blood rituals. The pair cut each other’s hands and chant incantations to become “blood sisters,” but soon find that things have gone wrong when they won’t stop bleeding.

The humor is strong here, as the two girls debate going to the doctor and attempt to fix things themselves. The punctuation of horror with laughs works well, for the most part, and undercuts the scares without totally relaxing the tension. The final few minutes, however, don’t really pay off, as the girls come up with an idea to stop the bleeding. It feels like the film needs to be five minutes longer to develop their reasoning, rather than jumping from one event to the next without a clear connection. At the same time, though, it’s a well-made short, with good performances from the two women, and a sharp script. It just needs to be a bit longer.

Blood Sisters will show in the “Dark Gatherings” shorts block of Final Girls Berlin on February 2.

It’s that time of year again – time for a reminder that women are still pushing the boundaries of horror filmmaking. The Final Girls Berlin Film Festival, which began yesterday, provides a showcase for both shorts and features, directed (and often written by) talented female filmmakers. If you ever wondered about my constant assertion that women are the future of horror, then check out some of these films and be educated.

First up for me is Black Coat, part of the festival’s “Mind Games” shorts block. Directed by Tatiana Vyshegorodseva, the film wends through a nightmarish fantasy as a young woman awakens by the side of the road, with no memory of who she is or why she’s wearing someone else’s black coat. Picked up by two strangers who insist on being paid for the lift, she finds herself plunged into a circuitous nightmare.

The film aspires to a fascinating if somewhat obscure kind of surrealism, weaving a dark narrative that only clarifies within the last few minutes. It’s visually reminiscent of the sparseness of Ducournau’s Raw, though in this case it’s decaying architecture and evocations of homelessness that drive the horror. Pursued by terrors, the protagonist has to find a way out of the nightmare’s spiral, repeating events and actions until she can finally open her eyes. There are some shorts that feel like they’re templates for features, but Black Coat functions best as a short, a quick, sharp piece of terror that confounds and finally resolves. While I almost hoped for clearer elucidation of the film’s imagery, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that any further exposition would have damaged the film’s final moments. It’s a short story (literally based on one), reliant on visual language, and can only be resolved through visuals. An example, in other words, of pure (horror) cinema. 

Black Coat shows as a part of the “Mind Games” block on February 2.