Thursday, October 31, 2013

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #13: A Candle for the Devil

Welcome to Marta and Veronica’s guest house. It’s a tidy and very proper establishment. Please observe the rules. Kindly return to your room by 11pm. No gentlemen callers. No topless sunbathing. Seriously: heading up to the roofspace and divesting oneself of the bikini top is inadvisable with a capital don’t. 

Unfortunately, carefree English holidaymaker May (Loretta Tovar) decides to top up her tan without covering up her décolletage, whereupon sisters Marta (Aurora Bautista) and Veronica (Esperanza Roy) hustle her out. During the contretemps, May takes a tumble downstairs and goes head first through a stained glass window (they’re very devout, are Marta and Veronica). On account of the piece of glass that kills May featuring a detail of the sword that pierced Christ’s side, Marta takes it as a sign of providence and decides that any young women staying at the guest house who exhibit even the vaguest hint of wanton behaviour deserve to be killed.

The first thing to say about ‘A Candle for the Devil’ is that its title is completely meaningless. True, there’s some sinners-burning-in-hell imagery courtesy of the religious paintings May was studying (it’s hard to square May’s art/theism/social history backstory with the brief kittenish glimpse we get of her), but the specificity of a candle and its requirement on behalf of Ole Scratch suggests a Satanism aspect that’s not present. The film might as well have been called ‘A Spare Window for Christ’, ‘Don’t Go into the Spanish Guest House’, ‘Sisters of Evil’ or ‘All Wanton Harlots Must Die’ (imagine the DVD rental revenue from Hojatoleslam Sedighi and his followers!)

The second thing to say about ‘ACftD’ is that it gives name-above-the-title headliner Judy Geeson bugger all to do, even though her role is freighted with dramatic potential. You, see Geeson plays Laura Barkley – May’s sister. And during her stay at Marta and Veronica’s guest house, she becomes increasingly suspicious. Meanwhile, the twisted sisters commit further acts of homicide, either because they feel a single mother (Blanca Estrada, a.k.a. Eva Miller) isn’t capable to caring for her baby, or because another English tourist, Helen (Lone Fleming), behaves in a sexually predatory manner towards Veronica.

The dynamic should write itself: the bodies pile up, the sisters go to increasingly desperate lengths to cover up their crimes, Laura’s amateur sleuthing brings her ever closer to the truth, things come to a head, tense and violent denouement ensues. Let’s face it, you’d have to be a complete incompetent in both the script and direction department to fuck this up. Ladies and gentlemen, a big Agitation of the Mind welcome to Antonio Fos and Eugenio Martin.

Fos and Martin’s screenplay makes the fundamental mistake of keeping its heroine offscreen for large periods of time. Sure, Marta and Veronica – both of whom vacillate between spinster and cougar – make for a terrific villainous double act; but without an effective protagonist to set them against, their malfeasance soon becomes gratuitous. Moreover, attempts to root their behaviour in a psycho-sexual context makes for some stunningly unsubtle moments, such as Marta watching some boys skinny-dipping and then running through a briar patch in an ad hoc act of flagellation, or Veronica fucking the handyman senseless then running a world class guilt trip afterwards.

In terms of its direction, ‘ACftD’ is utilitarian without being inspired. Key moments, such as the discovery of a piece of evidence and an attack by one of the sisters immediately afterwards, are telegraphed so obviously that tension is depleted. Still, there’s a nice feeling of wonky “foreignness” – the kind of thing that Narciso Ibanez Serrador would conjure so effectively in ‘Who Can Kill a Child?’ a few years later – and Martin avoids the trap of unnecessary padding or misplaced comic relief; where, say, an Italian production would have had a couple of giallo inept coppers on the periphery, here we have a last reel lynch mob of grim-faced villagers. It’s to Martin’s credit that ‘ACftD’ is played absolutely straight … even though I can’t help wondering how marvellously the material would function as a black comedy.  

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #12: Cabin Fever

Amazing to think that it’s over a decade since ‘Cabin Fever’ came roaring onto cinema screens on a tsunami of hype that made ‘The Blair Witch Project’ seem under-represented. Amazing to think that Eli Roth was being talked up as the future of horror. And amazing to think, given the not inconsiderable amount of box office success and industry buzz that came his way in a very short space of time – not to mention becoming big buddies with Quentin Tarantino – that Roth has only made two films since: the hugely xenophobic and moderately misogynistic ‘Hostel’, and the hugely misogynistic and moderately xenophobic ‘Hostel 2’.

Look at ‘Cabin Fever’ now and it’s impossible to see the film for what it is: a shaggy dog story. But here’s the rub – Roth is not without talent. For all that the ‘Hostel’ films promulgate a grubby and unlikeable world view that comes on as two parts drunken frat boy to one part casual racism, they evoke a very specific and stomach-churningly effective sense of foreignness; before any Achille’s tendons are severed or surgical tools misused, Roth incrementally strips his characters of every vestige of entitled white middle class Americana, miring them in an ancient, superstitious and coldly intolerant culture.

It’s an ability that should serve him well in the forthcoming ‘Green Inferno’, Roth’s first directorial outing in six years (although early reviews are already talking up one-dimensional characters and a redundant first half), and it’s tempting to see the seeds of his cannibal opus – as well as the ‘Hostel’ films – as being in present in ‘Cabin Fever’. First point of comparison: a group of college kids journey somewhere (here, to the backwoods; the geographical peregrinations are pushed further with each film). Second: their initial interactions with the local populace betray their naivety/ignorance. Third: nasty shit happens.

The college kids in ‘Cabin Fever’ are smarmy law student Jeff (Joey Kern) and his voluptuous girlfriend Marcy (Cerina Vincent), douche-bro asshole Burt (James DeBello), ostensibly sensitive type Paul (Rider Strong) and girl-next-door Karen (Jordan Ladd), whom Paul is eyeing as girlfriend material. Karen, however, very much regards him as just a friend. Meanwhile, Jeff and Marcy are at it like rabbits while Burt just wants to go shooting squirrels in the woods. With Jeff and Burt as different varieties of macho asshole and Marcy as the all-purpose siren (Roth’s camera spends so much time lingering on Cerina Vincent’s midriff, the film begins to feel stalkerish), Paul and Karen are the only remotely sympathetic characters, a set-up that Roth subverts utterly by the halfway point.

In one sense, ‘Cabin Fever’ adheres to the tropes: a cabin in the woods, threatening hillbilly characters, a killer dog, cellphones betrayed by lack of signal, various contrivances that prevent the protagonists from leaving. In another, it doesn’t. The script flirts with the convention of final girl, vacillating between Karen and Marcy, before abandoning the idea altogether. The hillbillies are portrayed, at least until the gun-happy denouement, as considerably more calm and rational than the college kids. The comedy law enforcement – personified by Deputy Winston (Giuseppe Andrews) – becomes more protracted in the increasingly surreal coda.

And on the subject of said finale, ‘Cabin Fever’ has the gumption to play its last few minutes as if the preceding hour and a half were nothing more than the set-up for a punchline. This ought to feel like a cheat, or at best a hasty wrap-up before the whole infected water supply subplot threatens to necessitate another half hour’s running time and considerably more greenbacks in the budget, but somehow the sheer insouciant absurdity of it works.

In ‘Hostel’ and ‘Hostel 2’, stereotypes and sadism replaced the gallows humour of ‘Cabin Fever’. Based on the trailer and advance reviews, the probability is that humour will be notable only by its absence in ‘The Green Inferno’. Which leaves only this and ‘Thanksgiving’, the fake trailer Roth created for ‘Grindhouse’, as evidence of something that’s probably not at the top of anyone’s list at industry meetings but which I think would merit exploration: Eli Roth could direct the hell out of a comedy.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Oh my God, it’s full of blogging …

Before October draws to a close and I dedicate the fallow period of November and December to cynically destroying every last vestige of yuletide spirit with the 4th Annual Winter of Discontent, it would be remiss if I didn’t mention some great writing that’s happening out there in the blogosphere.

Amidst my 13 For Halloween schedule, I’ve managed to chip in two reviews as part of the Italian Horror Blogathon – itself in its fourth year – at Kevin Olson’s blog Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies.

I was invited to contribute to Bill Ryan’s literary themed The Kind of Face You Slash (such is the name The Kind of Face You Hate assumes during Halloween), but regrettably had to decline due to time restraints … in other words, having to bloody go to work when I should be writing florid reviews of gory fiction for this blog and others. Damn you, mortgage and debts, damn you all to hell!

Over at Tim Brayton’s Antagony & Ecstasy – which is to film blogging what Talisker is to single malt whisky – an audacious, city-stomping, Godzilla-sized retrospective has got underway: Review All Monsters. If you have to, throw a sickie or take annual leave in order to catch up with Tim’s daikaiju delirium.

Oh, and did I mention earlier that my own humble year-end sleaze-fest, the Winter of Discontent, is imminent? Here’s a small taste of what you’ve got to look forward to:

Monday, October 28, 2013

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #11: The Keep

F Paul Wilson’s novel ‘The Keep’ is a well-constructed genre-bender that throws Nazis, ancient slumbering powers suddenly awoken, and the vampiristic guardians of said powers into the mix and dives for cover as all hell breaks loose. Think James Herbert’s ‘The Spear’ with an A-level in History and a penchant for Wagner. It’s a fun read and the only real criticism I can make is that it occasionally gets bogged down in its own mythology.

Michael Mann’s film ‘The Keep’ is a curate’s egg, part of which was hard boiled, part of which was scrambled, and none of which looks quite right when it’s thrown on the plate next to the overcooked slice of ham that stands in for acting performances, the hill of beans that nobody gave a shit about when it opened, and the black pudding of the special effects. It’s only my use of breakfast ingredients by way of an analogy that stops me from calling it a dog’s dinner.

‘The Keep’ is a lunatic fucking mess, and how and why that’s the case – particularly as it’s the product of a director renowned for precision, intelligence and a meticulous application of his craft – would make for a pretty chunky article in its own right. Go here for an interview with Mann published in December 1983, just as the film opened to critical brickbats and audience indifference – the warning signs are already evident. It’s clear that Mann doesn’t have much time for Wilson’s novel, and that he wants to transmogrify what is essentially a horror story into a fairy tale full of surreal logic that will sweep the audience away as if they were in a dream. Uh-oh. His open admission of junking storyboarded sequences and rewriting scenes up to the day of shooting epitomises the kind of directorial approach from which no good can come.

But that’s only part of the problem. Here’s the main issue: Mann’s original cut was three and a half hours. The arc-lit slab of what-the-fuckery unleashed by the studio clocks in at 96 minutes. I’ve never seen the original version – and between Mann disowning the film and some issues around the rights to Tangerine Dream’s haunting score – I doubt any of us ever will, so I can only speculate that the missing hour and fifty minutes or so contained one or more of the following: narrative coherence, exposition, back story, character arcs, details pertaining to Graecken (Scott Glenn)’s Wagnerian journey back to the keep. Take another look at that interview: Mann states that the business with the Wehrmacht detachment accounts for about a fifth of the movie, with the focus mainly on Graecken.

This is a good moment to roll out a plot synopsis, but even with Wilson’s novel as a touchstone, this is no easy task. The first half hour or so is fairly easy to parse: a platoon of Wehrmacht soldiers arrive at a Carpathian village to defend a potentially strategically important pass. Their leader, Captain Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow), is the archetypal “good German”, tired of the war and happy to be out of the theatre of conflict. Woermann discovers a keep older than the village, whose walls are inset with over 180 strangely formed crosses (they actually look more like oversized rivets) made, he is informed, of nickel. A couple of soldiers on sentry duty obviously have some knowledge of metallurgy since they quickly cotton on that the crosses are silver and, with an eye towards a post-war nest egg, begin to pry them out of the walls. This is a big mistake. An Ancient Evil Is Awaken. Said ancient evil starts laying waste to the platoon. Upshot of which, SS officer Major Kaempferr (Gabriel Byrne) is despatched to the town to quell what he believes is partisan activity. An ideological disparity between Woermann and Kaempferr is evident from the outset. 

Things start to get a little wonky at this point. As the Ancient Evil Is Awakened, the aforementioned Graecken comes awake in a small Greek fishing village and immediately hires a boat. Now, Greece to the Carpathian mountains is approximately 950 miles (1500km) – this during wartime, through occupied territories. And yet Graeckan’s journey seems to consist of: skiff by sunset, blag his way past some guards, hello folks I’m back at the village. Also, even if you start out from a coastal town, Greece to Carpathia is an overland route, the Aegean being bordered by Greece and Turkey.

The temptation to pedantry arises during the next wonky narrative development. Woermann and Kaempferr find a supposedly Glagolitic inscription in the keep (its actually Cyrillic, therefore any of the villagers could have translated it, but hey ho) and it’s deemed appropriate for Jewish historian and former resident of the village Dr Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellen) and his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) to be released from Buchenwald and shipped over to the village to help decipher it. Incidentally, Buchenwald to the Carpathian mountains is also a 1500km journey, which Cuza and Eva seem to make in the blink of an eye. Also, they look very well presented for two Jews who’ve been languishing in a concentration camp. Watson in particular, all neatly tailored clothes and well-conditioned bouncy hair, looks like she’s just stepped out of a House of Fraser commercial.

Meanwhile, the Ancient Evil has manifested itself as a kind of red-eyed smoke demon and intervenes when a couple of SS dudes try to have their wicked little way with Eva. It then makes contact with her father, playing on Cuza’s hatred of Nazism in order to secure his assistance. As the demon – name of Molasar, y’all – incrementally becomes more powerful, Graecken hits town and, pausing only for some energetic bedroom athletics with Eva, squares up for a good vs evil smackdown.

In its 96 minute incarnation, ‘The Keep’ is reminiscent of one of those three-step plans where the first and third step are clearly defined, but the massively important middle stage remains nebulous. You know the kind of thing:
1) Design product
2) ???
3) Become rich.

With ‘The Keep’, it’s more like:
1) Nazis awake ancient evil and, peripherally, guardian of ancient evil
2) ???
3) Laser light show.

Yeah, ‘The Keep’ ends with a laser light show.

And yet, partly buried in all the silliness, partly excised from around it, there’s a bloody good movie. Sure, there are problems that I doubt even the full three and a half hour version can overcome – there isn’t a single good performance (even McKellen struggles to build a character), and only one of the various stages of Molasar’s transformation from smoke demon to golem is remotely scary – but I’d like to think that a version of ‘The Keep’ exists where the mythology is expounded upon coherently, the ideological divide between the key German characters is represented by something more than a couple of minutes of shouting and a gunshot, and the relationship between Graecken and Eva is deeper and more meaningful than the softcore writhings that seem to have wandered in from a Zalman King production. A version of ‘The Keep’ where the incomprehensible fog-enshrouded extravaganza of the finale is given enough context to emerge as a mythic and awe-inspiring denouement. A little faith can go a long way.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

ITALIAN HORROR BLOGATHON: What Have They Done to Your Daughters?

Posted as part of the Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies 4th Italian Horror Blogathon.

Okay, I’m probably stretching it a bit including this in the Italian Horror Blogathon, since it’s more of a polizia than anything else, but it was marketed strongly as a giallo and contains enough elements of that genre that you can just about make a case for it. As usual with 70s Italian exploitationers, the English language title isn’t an exact translation. It was released in Italy as ‘La polizia chiede aiuto’, i.e. ‘The Police Ask for Help’, which makes it sound more like one of “Milano” polizias – Lenzi’s ‘Milano odio: la polizia non puo sparare’ (retitled as ‘Almost Human’ for foreign distribution) or Martino’s ‘Milano trema: la polizia vuole giustizia’. The sleazier, more suggestive ‘What Have They Done to Your Daughters’ (hereinafter ‘WHTDtYD’ in the interests of brevity) suggests that it’s a sequel to Massimo Dallamano’s earlier, traditionally structured giallo ‘What Have You Done to Solange?’ It isn’t, but there are similarities. 

‘WHTDtYD’ starts in urgent style with Inspector Valentini (Mario Adorf) kicking down a door and finding a department store mannequin the naked body of a schoolgirl hanging from the rafters. He’s there on an anonymous tip-off and within minutes a peeping tom from an adjacent building has given the police their first break. Apparently, the guy’s been spying on the young lady question – swiftly identified as Silvia Polvesi (Sherry Buchanan) – for some time now, and taking pictures.

The post-mortem on 15-year-old but sexually precocious Silvia reveals “semen in the vagina, anus and stomach”. It’s a pull-no-punches line of dialogue, delivered with almost callous detachment, and it sets the scene for much of what follows. ‘WHTDtYD’ soon reveals itself as a sordid drama about the lengths high-profile individuals will go to cover up their involvement in a schoolgirl prostitution ring.

Let me just repeat that last bit: schoolgirl prostitution ring.

At this point in the review, I wouldn’t blame you if you’d formed an opinion of ‘WHTDtYD’ as on par with ‘Strip Nude for Your Killer’ or ‘The Sister of Ursula’ in terms of grubbiness, seediness and all-round venality. But with the exception of one topless scene from Buchanan, Dallamano keeps the underage nookie offscreen relying on the discovery of some audio tapes to provide the details of what the girls are coerced into.

The first half of the film is a fairly standard procedural. Once the post-mortem confirms that Silvia was killed elsewhere and the hanging was staged to approximate a suicide, Valentini is joined in the investigation new-to-the-job DA Vittoria Stori (Giovanna Ralli) and cynical old-school cop Inspector Silvestri (Claudio Cassinelli) – leading, as they variously take centre stage or fade into the background, to a never-resolved uncertainty as to who the actual protagonist is. Valentini has a daughter of Silvia’s age who turns out to have a level of involvement that suggests Valentini going off on a personal quest for the truth a la George C Scott in ‘Hardcore’; however, this potential dramatic development is left unexplored.

Bracing Silvia’s parents – Marina Berti and a long-in-the-tooth Farley Granger – our dogged investigators learn that Mrs Polvesi, frustrated at her daughter’s blithe attitude to promiscuity and refusal to tell her parents who she’s seeing, has hired a private eye to keep tabs on her. Said gumshoe is discovered in a car boot, neatly vivisected and wrapped in plastic bags. This occasions one of the film’s starkest images, after his less than grieving widow ignores the pathologist’s admonition that she should only look at the face. “Take the sheet off, I want to see how the cheating bastard died,” she responds. The sheet is yanked back: his corpse is arranged in a grisly pattern, like one of those 3D jigsaw puzzles. But with viscera.

From the severed shamus, Silvestri backtracks to his hospitalised secretary Rosa (Micaela Pignatelli) and all of a sudden ‘WHTDtYD’ gets its giallo funk on and the rest of the film is a race against time – or rather a race against a hatchet wielding nutjob in biker leathers and an identity-obscuring crash helmet – to link the clues and interview the witnesses before they’re despatched in bluntly violent fashion.

Dallamano has already established a pacy rhythm to the film – even the office-based scenes are sharply edited montages of information being ripped off teleprinters, phones slammed down, doors yanked open, and quick-march walk ‘n’ talk exposition as coppers negotiate corridors; that, or whip-pan camerawork during terse Q&A scenes. With the appearance of the biker/killer, Dallamano pulls out the action stops, and delivers a tense pursuit through a hospital which ends with a graphic use of the aforementioned cleaver; a motorcycle chase that takes in the urban sprawl, open three-lane highways, a quarry and a railway tunnel; and a white-knuckle sequence where the killer stalks Vittoria through an underground car park. Granted, this last steals heavily from ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’, made four years earlier. Having said that, ‘WHTDtYD’ was happily ripped off a year later when the black-clad biker-as-killer iconography was recycled by Andrea Bianchi in ‘Strip Nude for Your Killer’.

It’s fair to say, in fact, that there isn’t much going on in ‘WHTDtYD’ that’s remotely original – and the denouement is a tad anti-climactic. True, it makes a salient point about people in high places being essentially inviolate, but it hardly does so with the élan of, say, ‘Chinatown’. Still, ‘WHTDtYD’ crackles with energy, exercises commendable stringency where it could easily have lapsed into outright sleaze, and remains a highly entertaining genre hybrid. It also boasts a score by Stelvio Cipriani that is magnificently inappropriate, in its soft romantic sighings, to absolutely every single thing that happens onscreen.

Friday, October 25, 2013


Posted as part of the Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies 4th Italian Horror Blogathon

It would be fair to say to Michel Soavi has something of a pedigree in Italian horror. At the age of 25, he was second unit director on Argento’s giallo classic ‘Tenebrae’. A year later, he was assistant director to Lamberto Bava – another Argento protégé – on ‘A Blade in the Dark’. At 28, he directed the feature-length documentary ‘Dario Argento’s World of Horror’, and two years after that made his first feature film, the hyper-stylised but incredibly accomplished ‘Stage Fright’ (aka ‘Aquarius’, aka ‘Bloody Bird’). Over the next seven years, he made three more terrific horror movies: ‘The Church’, ‘The Sect’, and this evening’s consideration, ‘Dellamorte Dellamore’.

He then withdrew from the film industry for a decade to care for his son, who was suffering from a debilitating illness. His most recent work has been for Italian television, plus second unit duties on Terry Gilliam’s ‘The Brothers Grimm’ (he’d worked for Gilliam in a similar capacity on ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’, back in the day when studios would happily give Gilliam large chunks of money to bring his imaginings to life).

‘Dellamorte Dellamore’ – which is both the protagonist’s surname and his mother’s maiden name, as well as a literal evocation of death and love – is based, nominally at least, on Tiziano Sclavi’s ‘Dylan Dog’ comic series. It sets out its stall in fairly generic, but entertaining fashion: Francisco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) is the caretaker at the Buffalora cemetery, where he is assisted by Gnaghi (François Hadji-Lazaro), a morbidly obese simpleton who can only communicate in grunts and whose puppy-dog adoration of mayor’s daughter Valentina (Fabiana Formica) is demonstrated by barfing over her. Francisco’s relatively content with his lot in life, since the job – self-admittedly the only one he’s been able to secure – comes with living accommodation. Moreover, it’s better than living in town, where the local motorcycle gang take the piss out of him and spread rumours that he’s impotent. The only real downside to his life is that the dead have a habit of coming back to life five days after burial, whereupon Francisco has to shoot them in the head and re-inter them.

So far, so comedy horror. The humdrum routine of Francisco’s life is spelled out with beautiful economy in the pre-credits sequence where he alleviates the dull routine by chatting to his friend Franco on the phone while casually blasting the cranium off a shuffling zombie attempting to break into his living quarters. Everett’s deadpan performance is comedic gold, and perfectly in keeping with a film that’s generally played straight (apart from some slapstick involving Gnaghi).

Soavi makes the first of several narrative swerves with the introduction of a young widow (Anna Falchi). Francisco inexplicably bumbles his way into her affections – his persona veers between bored, louche, Byronic anti-hero and nervous teenager in these scenes – and they get down to a pretty hot and heavy bit of consummation on her dead husband’s tombstones. Or rather, undead husband, since his zombified corpse chooses this exact moment to stage its resurrection.

And here we come to the next narrative curveball. Events that I don’t intend to spoil for those new to the film leave Francisco in a state of emotional meltdown. This is juxtaposed with an hilariously bad taste accident that kills one of his biker antagonists, Valentina, and a coach full of boy scouts. Francisco’s abject loneliness and rapidly loosening toehold on sanity plays out against Gnaghi’s romantic idyll with Valentina’s reanimated but decapitated corpse, a romantic subplot that manages to be as poignant and delicately handled as one could reasonably expect from an amour fou between a slobbering man-child and a severed head.

Meanwhile, a killing spree in town leads a detective more stunningly incompetent than any copper in any giallo to the cemetery, the mayor dies after discovering the truth about his daughter’s affair with Gnaghi, and his replacement turns up for a meeting with Francisco with his personal assistant (Falchi) in tow. Another romantic entanglement ensues when she confides to Francisco that the rumours of his impotence are a turn-on due to her phobia of the erect penis.

Did I mention that ‘Dellamorte Dellamore’ goes into some odd territory?

I usually distrust and try to avoid the ‘X’ is like ‘Y’ meets ‘Z’ school of film writing, but ‘Dellamorte Dellamore’ almost begs for it. So here goes: ‘Dellamorte Dellamore’ is kind of like ‘Night of the Living Dead’ meets ‘That Obscure Object of Desire’ while sitting down to write a love letter to ‘Vertigo’ and casually presupposing the utterly unreliable protagonist/narrator of ‘Fight Club’ as it cheerfully reworks one of the best absurdist set pieces from ‘The Phantom of Liberty’ and blithely helps itself to a key image from ‘Citizen Kane’ by way of its joltingly disorientating (but played fair: the clues are there) final scene.

It didn’t find much favour on its original release, either in Italy or the English speaking territories (Everett’s star wasn’t high enough at the time to guarantee it any real audience), but it’s endured. ‘Dellamorte Dellamore’ is frankly bonkers – its absurdist touchstones might be very specifically yoked to the work of Luis Bunuel, but there’s a strong evocation of Monty Python – and also, in places, genuinely creepy. The swirl of ashes from a bonfire that coagulate into the Angel of Death is a potent image, and the zombie boy scouts, all clacking teeth and earth-caked uniforms, make for an unsettling vision. Soavi’s conjuration of imagery is boundless: a sex scene shadowed by a carved angel that rivets together the death and love of the title; Valentina’s severed head starring in her own show in the interior of a functionless TV set; an office overflowing with files like something out of Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’; the riffling pages of the telephone directories in which Francisco crosses out the names of the deceased; a waterlogged necropolis lined with skulls; a road that terminates above a seemingly pre-historic landscape.

The humour is equally gnarly, particularly in Francisco’s attempt to convince a local doctor to castrate him in order to satisfy the mayor’s assistant’s sexless demands, spectacularly backfiring when a bit of rough sex from her employer cures her phobia, plays out like the tragic misunderstandings of the last act of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as if reimagined by the ‘Carry On’ team. Elsewhere, the erstwhile mayor tries to maintain a sense of hierarchy after death, only to learn the perils of loss of office; a hospital visit escalates into multiple murder; and the last scene – nay, the very last line – slams home an almost unpalatable final joke.

‘Dellamorte Dellamore’ is a curious, chaotic piece of work, arguably a little too packed with ideas and satiric sideswipes for its own good, but it’s one of the most unique and offbeat offerings Italian horror cinema has produced, and I will go to my grave – and quite possible come lumbering back from it – maintaining that it represents Everett’s finest hour and three quarters.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #10: Mother of Tears

Beware the law of diminishing returns. The three years between ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Inferno’ saw a quality depletion from one of the all-time great horror movies to a very good but not great horror movie. The twenty-seven years between ‘Inferno’ and ‘Mother of Tears’ took Dario Argento past his final triptych of great movies (‘Tenebrae’, ‘Phenomena’ and ‘Opera’), through a decade of relative disappointment (‘Two Evil Eyes’, ‘Trauma’ and ‘The Stendahl Syndrome’), to the abject nadir of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. ‘Sleepless’ in 2001 was a decent enough reminder of his giallo supremacy but nothing special, while his best work of that decade was arguably a couple of for the TV show ‘Masters of Horror’.

By the time ‘Mother of Tears’ was released in 2007 there was plentiful evidence to consider Argento a spent force, while the fact that he’d finally deigned to complete the ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy (sequels or sequentiality are present nowhere else in his filmography) was enough to hold out hope that this might, finally, be a long hoped-for return to form.

Entirely devoid of baroque stylisations or extravagant camerawork (Argento hasn’t delivered anything truly special on a visual level since the heroine-steps-into-painting set piece in ‘Stendahl’), ‘Mother of Tears’ nonetheless starts out with a certain amount of promise as a churchyard excavation unearths a chest containing arcane artefacts that sends the local priest into a proper tizz. Next thing, Mater Lachrymarum (Moran Atias) is back in town and Rome is in the grip of suicide, violence and nihilism. This particular sequence kicks off with an act so unspeakable, and yet communicated so casually, that for one disturbingly glorious moment the Argento of old is back in all his glory.

Sadly, it doesn’t last and ‘Mother of Tears’ very quickly strikes an awkward balance between exploitative violence (there is gore aplenty but little of it delivered with the imaginative verve of, oh, any of the murders in ‘Deep Red’ for instance) and abject stupidity. Examples: Mater L gets her powers back by donning a red dress (supposedly centuries old) but it’s got sparkly disco writing on and doesn’t even cover her ass); Mater L’s acolytes regroup in Rome, but fly in and charge through the airport looking like they’re in town for a goth-themed hen party; Rome is being ravaged by anti-social behaviour yet taxis can still be flagged down at a moment’s notice and phone boxes remain unvandalised). Also, why do so many characters rely on phone boxes when they’re all shown using mobile phones elsewhere?

Equally annoyingly, the Varelli backstory is deviated from, establishing a discontinuity between ‘Inferno’ and this film that’s as pronounced as the discontinuity between ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Inferno’. On the plus side, ‘Mother of Tears’ returns the trilogy to a female protagonist – art student Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento) after Mark Elliot’s bland hero in ‘Inferno’. However, it departs from chiefly locating the action in one of the Mother’s houses (Mater L’s pad doesn’t show up till almost the final reel) in favour of a city-wide theatre of action which the film quite patently doesn’t have the budget to achieve.

Beyond inheriting a poisoned chalice in having to fill the boots of ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Inferno’, ‘Mother of Tears’ doesn’t do itself any favours by bringing to mind several of Argento’s earlier, better films: Mater L has an almost psychic connection with a monkey (shades of ‘Phenomena’), a lesbian couple are attacked in their home (a la ‘Tenebrae’), Sarah spends several minutes exploring an old dark house (pace Marc Daly in ‘Deep Red’), and there’s a basement full of maggoty slime (‘Phenomena’ again). Likewise, the reuniting of Argento and composer Claudio Simonetti (of Goblin fame) recalls iconic collaborations while actually delivering something utilitarian and forgettable.

That ‘Mother of Tears’ is the weakest of the ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy is no real surprise. That it’s Argento’s best film of the last decade and a half is just plain depressing.

Monday, October 21, 2013

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #9: Inferno

The second film in Argento’s ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy shares much with its predecessor – notably a complete disregard for narrative, an aesthetic entirely dictated by the elaborate property owned by one of three witchy sisters (in ‘Suspiria’, a dance academy in Freiburg; here, a sprawling and fiendishly designed New York tenement), and a conflagrant denouement that signals the end of the film without actually resolving a durned thing – while at the same time paying no heed to continuity.

Two very specific shots in ‘Suspiria’ make it clear that the dance academy dwelling of Mater Suspiriorum was once the home of Dutch theologian Desiderius Erasmus, whose dates were 1466 – 1536. ‘Inferno’ opens with American student Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle) translating the Latin text of a book written in the Nineteenth Century by one E. Varelli, who apparently built three houses for the Three Mothers – the aforementioned Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs; the antagonist of this evening’s review Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness; and Mater Lachrymarum, the Mother of Tears, who makes a cameo appearance in ‘Inferno’ but would have to wait two and a half decades for her own movie. Of which more, in the key of disappointment, later.

Speaking of keys, Varelli rabbits on about the three keys by which one can determine if one is inhabiting a Mother house. Already we have the discontinuity of an architect who couldn’t have been active any earlier than the first couple of decades of the 1800s (perhaps even later in that century given the style of the New York residence) having somehow designed a building Desiderius Erasmus once called home. Even allowing that we’re watching a Dario Argento movie and it shouldn’t matter if the whole thing makes no sense, this annoys.

Ditto – and granted, this is only in retrospect – the fact that this film is called ‘Inferno’ while ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Mother of Tears’ explicitly reference which Mother they’re about, whereas he titled his next film ‘Tenebrae’ when it was a return to his earlier giallo aesthetic and doing to do with the Three Mothers.

But I digress. Let’s get back to Rose. Having purchased Varelli’s book from an antique shop owned by Kazanian (Sacha Pitoeff), an ill-tempered cripple, Rose becomes convinced she’s living in Mater Tenebrarum’s house and sets out to find the three keys that prove it. She sends an esoteric letter to her brother Mark (Leigh McCluskey), who is studying music in Italy, then goes poking around in the basement where she discovers a hidden, flooded room. Rose’s subaquatic misadventure to recover a set of dropped keys is the first of several beautiful, baroque and bonkers sequences, stitched together with even less attempt at linearity than in ‘Suspiria’. As a result, Rose brings herself to the attention of Mater Tenebrarum’s acolytes whose efforts to retrieve the book become increasingly violent.

Next up, there’s an extended sequence in Rome where Mark receives the letter, encounters Mater Lachrymarum and generally behaves like he’s in a daze. This characterisation lasts the whole movie. The letter ends up in the hands of Mark’s girlfriend Sara (Eleonora Giorgi), who reads it and is so disturbed by its contents that she undertakes some amateur sleuthing. The shifting of focus from Rose to Sara as protagonist is effective and recalls the amateur sleuthing of the luckless Sara (Stefania Casini) in ‘Suspiria’. However, the Sara of ‘Inferno’ proves as expendable as her ‘Suspiria’ namesake and suddenly we have Mark as protagonist as the film leaps back to New York.

And here the film’s one big flaw – more so than its sacrifice of a Goblin score for the close-but-no-cigar Goblin imitation of Keith Emerson (though kudos to him for one truly brilliant moment that turns Verdi’s ‘Va pensiero’ into speed metal); more so than its jarring recasting of Alida Valli playing a totally different non-Mother-affiliated character but adopting exactly the same mannerisms of her ‘Suspiria’ performance; and more so than the stupendously silly last scene – is revealed as a combination of the script’s inability to do anything interesting with Mark and McCloskey’s acting style, which makes the hypnotized cast of Herzog’s ‘Heart of Glass’ look like the kids from ‘Fame’ on crack cocaine and far too many fizzy drinks.

Nor does ‘Inferno’ have quite the same freaky yet cohesive dream logic of ‘Suspiria’. While the earlier film revels in bizarre concepts (a room-between-rooms packed full of razor wire, for example) it uses them. One of the biggest set pieces in ‘Inferno’ has Mark pry up floorboards in Rose’s apartment and smash through concrete (in a manner reminiscent of Marc Daly finding the walled up room with the corpse in ‘Deep Red’) to discover a secret mezzanine level built at half scale, only to utilize it as a shortcut. It’s a moment laden with promises of revelations, of secrets about to come to the fore, but without payoff.

What ‘Inferno’ does have is a cluster of unforgettably surreal and creepy scenes: the aforementioned flooded room, a library that seems to be built over an alchemist’s laboratory, a murder in a Rome apartment scored to Verdi, and a truly Hadean vision of Central Park. It’s not quite as suffused in primary colours as ‘Suspiria’, but there’s an off-kilter vibrancy to it – the kind of three-strip Technicolor nightmare that could only have been made by Dario Argento.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #8: Suspiria

Part way through the opening credits of Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria’, a calm and reassuring voice intones “Suzy Banyon decided to perfect her ballet studies in the most famous school of dance in Europe. She chose the celebrated academy of Freiburg. One day, at nine in the morning, she left Kennedy airport, New York, and arrived in Germany at 10.40pm local time.” It’s the first and last time in the movie that any degree of calmness or reassurance occurs. And it’s at least an hour till anything else remotely resembling exposition finds its way into the dialogue.

It’s probably just as well we’ve been told that Suzy (Jessica Harper) has landed in Germany, since there are no real cues – apart from some oompah music in a bar whose patrons guzzle from steins; and this comes much later in the film – as to the locale. In fact, the concourse we see Suzy walking through in the opening shots barely resembles an airport. A set of automatic doors slide open (Argento’s camera lingers on the mechanism as if something nasty is about the happen) and Suzy is propelled outside into a raging storm.

There are several storms in ‘Suspiria’, each one crashing away as if the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have just come galloping into town. These storms are a welcome aural relief from the sustained assault of Goblin’s score. The soundscape of ‘Suspiria’ makes Ministry at their loudest sound like the Penguin Café Orchestra. I can’t think of any other film whose soundtrack – not just the music, but the unearthly noises that reverberate along corridors, the disembodied voices that gibber and cackle, and the foley work that drowns out the dialogue and footsteps ring out like gunshots and water trickling down a plughole sounds like somebody’s death throes – is so explicitly keyed in to its aesthetic.

Everything about ‘Suspiria’ is purposefully and punishingly designed to disorientate, disturb and mindfuck the viewer without cessation. It’s pure cinema: immersive and visceral, it unfolds with the intensity, inescapability and illogicality of a fever dream. Plot synopsis? Oh come now, that would suggest that ‘Suspiria’ has a plot. It barely even recognises narrative. Indeed, its few concessions to narrative – a bit of exposition utterly detracted from by camerawork; a villain identified and defeated; a denouement (in the sense of everything goes, quite literally, to hell just before the film ends) – are almost a statement of anti-narrative in and of themselves.

Argento’s script, co-written with his then partner Daria Nicolodi, takes Thomas de Quincey’s essay ‘Suspiria de Profundis’ (a work that makes your average William Burroughs text look like a “just say no” commercial) as its starting point, and throws in some guff about witches at a ballet school that Nicolodi claimed had happened to her grandmother as a young woman, but which Argento later blew the whistle on as bullshit. Essentially, Suzy turns up at the academy the night a fellow student flees the place and is killed at a friend’s apart; Suzy experiences weird shit, including having some kind of spell put on her; Suzy’s one friend Sara (Stefania Casini) dies after speaking too freely about the aforementioned weird shit; Suzy uncovers witchery. But even this précis dignifies ‘Suspiria’ with too much coherence. Sara’s concerns about what’s going on behind closed doors don’t take the cinematically popular form of amateur sleuthing, clues being uncovered and building up a picture; on the contrary, her ramblings are senseless and paranoid. Nor does the weird shit Suzy experiences indicate what’s going on behind the scenes. Argento and Nicolodi’s script doesn’t engage with the idea of witchcraft beyond, “hey, witches are women and they do weird shit, right?”

In many a film, these elements would be incredibly problematic. ‘Suspiria’ claims them as part of its aesthetic. And what an aesthetic! ‘Suspiria’ is an aggressive barrage of sound, imagery and nightmarishly unnatural colours. The principle of which is red. It may have been Argento’s previous film that gloried in the title ‘Profondo Ross’, but ‘Suspiria’ is his true hellish symphony in red.


Easily the most beautiful film ever to be stuffed full of horrible and troubling images – an already eviscerated body plunging through stained glass; an attic crawling with maggots; a young woman plunging helplessly into a room filled with razor wire; a reanimated corpse with nails in its eyes – ‘Suspiria’ gains another layer of unease from the prowling, gliding, queasily subjective camerawork Argento had already become famous for. Everything disorientates or defamiliarises. Even a boilerplate scene of exposition where Suzy consults Professor Milius (Rudolf Schundler) for an academic perspective on witchcraft is punctuated by a vertiginous bit of architecture porn …

… and pays off with a long zoom that floats between the protagonists and comes to rest on their murky reflections:

I love the way Milius’s reflection ghosts, giving him the look of a man with two heads. As if Argento is commenting on the schism between intellectualism and superstition, or reinforcing an earlier comment by Milius’s colleague Dr Franco (Udo Kier): “bad luck isn’t brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds”. 

It’s a phrase of such potency that Maitland McDonagh chose it for the title of her cornerstone study of Argento’s work. It sums up so much of his work. And for ‘Suspiria’ it’s a statement of intent.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #7: Insidious Chapter 2

I’m at a loss how to begin this review.

Do I talk about the staggering self-importance of the word “chapter” in the film’s title, and how absurd it is that scripter Leigh Whannell aims for such a degree of literary aspiration when his screenplay is sloppy, unfocused and studded with truly dreadful dialogue?

Do I mention the spectacular anti-talent necessary to spend three times the amount that the original cost and emerge with a piece of work that looks cheaper and shoddier all round?

Do I bemoan the fact that the essential flaw in, ahem, “chapter one” – the unsuspenseful final twenty minutes set in The Further – is pretty much the raison d’etre here, and that a lot of noise and frenetic movement aren’t enough to paper over an even greater dearth of suspense this time round?

Do I basically rehash the final analysis of last night’s review and urge James Wan to give Whannell the heave-ho and start working with writers who can actually write – y’know, like he did on ‘The Conjuring’? 

Do I shake my head slowly and sadly at the laboured final scene that takes its begging bowl to studios and audiences alike and asks you to spare a penny for ‘Insidious Chapter 3’ (or ‘Volume 3’ or ‘Insidious: The Triptych’ or whatever pompous moniker it chooses for itself)?

Or do I describe one particular scene and let it stand as an example of how utterly terrible ‘Insidious Chapter 2’ is?

Yeah, let’s go with the latter. Here’s the set-up: Josh (Patrick Wilson) is acting very strangely following his incursion into The Further at the end of the first film; Renai (Rose Byrne) is having difficulty adapting to life at Lorraine (Barbara Hershey)’s house – where they’ve relocated while a police forensics team is busy at their home – and painfully unfunny comedy psychic investigators Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) have been approached by Carl (Steve Coulter), an associate of their erstwhile employer Elise (Lin Shaye). Carl’s a medium who communicates with the spirit world by throwing dice. Information received at a séance directs Carl, Specs, Tucker and Lorraine to an abandoned hospital where Lorraine used to work and where – she only realises in twenty-year retrospect – she once saw a ghost. This quartet enter a dilapidated building which doesn’t seem to be locked up, fenced off or have any security arrangements in place – a building whose dank and decaying corridors are littered with expensive pieces of medical equipment that nobody seems to have thought of transporting to the new hospital – and, whaddaya know, they come across a file room that’s still full of patient records (confidentiality issues, anyone?) The first file they open is that of Lorraine’s former patient, a man – she recounts – who committed suicide by jumping from an upper window; a man – she further recollects – who was admitted after attempting to castrate himself. The file gives this troubled individual’s address and Whannell’s script immediately takes us to a big old house as dank and dilapidated as the hospital. It’s sat empty these twenty years … empty, that is, but for the couple of dozen corpses all sat upright in a basement room and covered with dust sheets. Carl and co. discover said bodies behind a false wall, the stink of putrefaction only assaulting them when they slide said false wall open, because, y’know, twenty years of rotting corpses wouldn’t stink out an entire house, would they? And, hey, they’d all still be in a sitting position and not just a pile of bones, amiright? And Carl’s contact in the spirit world could just have given him the address and not go through all the rigmarole of visiting an abandoned hospital whose administrators have no concept of information governance, non? And …

Oh fuck it. ‘Insidious Chapter 2’ has no respect for its audience. This review has just as little for its subject.

Monday, October 14, 2013

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #6: Insidious

A couple of months ago I concluded an appreciative review of ‘The Conjuring’ thusly: “I’m curious to find out … exactly where James Wan became such an accomplished craftsman”. The answer, ladies and gentlemen, is ‘Insidious’ … kind of.

Made for a million and a half and looking like he spent ten times that much on it, ‘Insidious’ gelled with a moviegoing public fascinated by ‘Paranormal Activity’ and scared up over $90 million at the box office. It gave Wan the clout to make the bigger (but still, at $25 million, comparatively modestly) budgeted ‘The Conjuring’ and made an ‘Insidious’ sequel inevitable.

‘Insidious’ does a lot that marks it out from a slew of similar films, not least having a dictionary word for its title and not only understanding what that word means but keying in it to its aesthetic. It has a dependable cast, spends time establishing character and interaction, and allows them to behave intelligently. A major plus point here. How many horror movies have you seen where a beleaguered family stubbornly remain in their haunted residence, long after every logical and scientific rationale has been exhausted and the presence of supernatural forces proved beyond reasonable doubt? If for no other reason that the scene in which middle class couple Josh and Renai Lambert (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) decide during the first act that it might be a good idea to up sticks and relocate, I’m inclined to give ‘Insidious’ a pass and overlook how damned sloppy it gets towards the end.

Here’s the set up: Josh and Renai move, with their three kids (pre-teens Dalton and Foster and newborn Cali) into an old but spacious house. A house whose interior seems unremittingly dark, whose corners and corridors are shadowy. A house with the kind of attic that you wouldn’t want to spend too long in even if it wasn’t haunted. Weird things begin happening almost immediately: objects move from one room to another, doors slam shut, Renai hears a strange voice on the baby monitor and later glimpses a figure in Cali’s room. Dalton (Ty Simpkins), playing in the attic one day despite being warned it’s off limits, falls from a ladder. Shortly afterwards, he slips into a comatose state. Doctors are unable to determine why. Three months later, he’s still unconscious, the Lamberts are receiving help from a home nurse, and the weird happenings are just about to kick things up a notch.

The long and short of it is that Renai braces Josh and they decide to move. The haunting follows them.

So far, so good. A horror film featuring adult characters behaving in a recognisably adult manner rather than dumbass teens doing stupid things. And the “it’s not the house that’s haunted” rug-pull is a doozy, even though the posters gave it away from the outset.

Then things get a bit iffy: Josh’s mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) suggests her old friend Lin (Elise Rainier), who just happens to be an expert in the field of paranormal phenomena, would be the ideal person to help them. Lorraine’s motivation is a dream in which she seems a demon standing by Dalton’s bed, who conversationally informs her he has come for the boy. Enter Lin, with her grindingly unfunny comic relief assistants Specs (Leigh Whannell, who also wrote the screenplay and if alarm bells are ringing at this point then you’re well ahead of me) and Tucker (Angus Sampson). Even at this point, the characters continue to exhibit realistic behaviours: Specs and Tucker at least try to undertake a scientific evaluation before the real spook show stuff cuts loose; and the tension between Josh and Renai is exacerbated as she buys into Lin’s portentous proselytizing while he recoils from it as so much bullshit.

Then things get really iffy: Lorraine reveals that when Josh was Dalton’s age he was able to astrally project and travelled, under the impression he was simply dreaming, to a realm called The Further and by doing so was followed back into the waking world by a demon. Lorraine shows them photographs which indicate a sinister presence behind the young Josh, inching closer to him in each shot. Lin intuits that the same thing has happened to Dalton and advises Josh that he will have to descend into The Further under hypnosis in order to rescue his son.

Leaving aside the implausibility that Lorraine would keep shtum about a past Josh has forgotten until three months after her grandson initially slipped into a coma that she knows isn’t a coma but an enforced stay in The Further, what happens next devalues the film almost to the point of parody.

Here’s the thing with the unknown: it frightens the most when it intrudes into the normal, the domestic, the everyday. Reverse the process and have the everyday (i.e. one unremarkable middle class guy) intrude on the unknown (i.e. The Further) and no matter how bizarro or Lynchian the imagery you conjure, it’s never as scary as, say, a silhouetted figure passing outside a bedroom window and then - bang! - suddenly appearing inside the room; or a face emerging from a painting right behind a character who’s completely unaware of it. At its best, ‘Insidious’ wrings significant scares from relatively simple set-ups and minimal requirement for special effects. Moreover, it works because Wan’s timing is impeccable: he virtually points out where and how the big scare moment will work, doesn’t deliver, seems about to move on to something else then – again, bang! - royally fucks you up with it.

Sadly, much of this good work goes south once Josh wanders into The Further, a place that can only be described as looking like Carnival of the Bizarre were trying out so new routines in Jack Ketchum’s basement and using a lot of dry ice to disguise any deficiencies. Oh, and The Further is ruled over by a demon who looks like he came last in a Darth Maul face-painting competition. It’s all incredibly silly and leads to a twist ending that you can see coming like an ocean liner on a duckpond. It’s the point at which Whannell’s script – not that it was particularly subtle to begin with – abandons all form of restraint and goes running around shrieking “Muh-hah-hah-haaaaa!!! I’m one of the demonic talents behind ‘Saw’. Are you scared yet? Are you, motherfucker? Are you? Muh-hah-hah-haaaaa!”, to which the only polite response can be a quiet observation that yes, actually, we were so why did you feel inclined to ruin it? That, and a vote of thanks that ‘The Conjuring’ was written by somebody who wasn’t Leigh Whannell.

When ‘Insidious’ works, it works incredibly well. But it remains a transitional film. It demonstrates all the strengths Wan would bring to ‘The Conjuring’, while suffering from the weaknesses that dogged ‘Saw’ and (so I’m told) ‘Dead Silence’. I’m aware that Wan and Whannell go back a long way and are big mates. Far be it from me to break up a bromance. But Wan sure as hell seems to deliver the goods in infinitely better style when he doesn’t have a Whannell script holding him back.

Friday, October 11, 2013

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #5: Ghost Hunt: The Bloodstained Labyrinth

Based on Fuyumi Ono’s unfinished novel sequence and Shiho Inada’s ongoing manga series, ‘Ghost Hunt’ was a short-lived (one season; twenty-five episodes) anime that nonetheless managed to establish its characters and their interrelationships quickly and not without a certain degree of charm; whose best tales – there are eight individual stories comprising anything between one and four episodes – balance supernatural shenanigans with science and scepticism whilst maintaining an effectively creepy atmosphere.

The opening three-parter ‘Evil Spirits All Over?’ sets up the premise and most of the main characters: high school student Mai (voiced by Cherami Leigh in the English dub I watched) blunders into an investigation being run by the Shibuya Psychic Research team, an organisation headed by the youthful but appallingly pompous Kazuya (Todd Haberkorn) – whom she swiftly nicknames Naru the Narcissist – and accidentally damages an expensive piece of equipment. Kazuya icily informs her she’ll be working for him till she’s paid off the debt. (Kind of like ‘Ouran High School Host Club’ but without the rampant homoeroticism.) During her erstwhile case with the team, she’s quickly introduced to Kazuya’s right-hand-man Lin (J Michael Tatum), celebrity TV medium Masako (Jad Saxton), Buddhist monk Houshou (Travis Willingham), shrine maiden Ayako (Colleen Clinkenbeard), and a teenage Australian Catholic priest who’s improbably named John Brown (Jason Liebrecht).

Lin’s as standoffish as Kazuya, Houshou quit his monastery to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band, Ayako acts more like a fashion model than the “temple virgin” she claims to be, John’s a happy-go-lucky surfer dude type who’ll break out the holy water and perform an exorcism at the drop of a hat, and Masako is precocious and frosty towards Mai, perceiving her as a rival for Kazuya’s affections. The absurdity of these characters and their participation in often very solemn narratives (‘Silent Christmas’ is almost unbearably poignant) provides a strand of humour that counterbalances the darker aspects of the show.

‘The Bloodstained Labyrinth’ – a title that wouldn’t be out of place in a roster of giallo faves has the team engaged as part of a forum of parapsychologists to look into recent disappearances in a rambling old mansion once occupied by a relative of a former prime minister. Kazuya opts to keep a low profile (for reasons that aren’t fully clear till later in the series, never mind this particular storyline) and invites former client Osamu (Eric Vale) to assume his role as head of the team. The mansion seems haunted from the outset: a genuinely creepy prologue suggests in quite blunt terms that more than one person has met a bad end there; a séance ends with the medium scrawling “I don’t want to die” over and over in automatic writing; members of the other teams go missing; finally, one of Shibuya Psychic Research’s own number disappears.

The mansion, Kazuya discovers, has been obsessively remodelled and extended over the years; moreover it rests on a floating foundation. The script acknowledges its borrowings early on, setting up a clear analogue with the Winchester Mystery House. This was a property owned by Sarah Winchester, the widow of the arms magnate. She had continual building work done on the place from 1884 until her death in 1922 at a cost of $5½ million (equal to around $80 million today). Perhaps as a result of the depression she suffered after William Winchester’s death, she came to believe that the incessant remodelling of the house would confuse the spirits of those killed by her husband’s weapons and thus keep her safe.

Applying this concept of collective guilt to a property owned by a former political leader gives ‘The Bloodstained Labyrinth’ an edge that’s not present in any of the other stories. Later, as revelations about the property’s history come to light, the historical touchstone is less American gothic than the Carpathian variety.
Dripping with imagery that is at one moment redolent of the classic haunted house movie a la ‘The Haunting’ and the next more in keeping with an Eli Roth production, ‘The Bloodstained Labyrinth’ is atmospheric plus VAT. To such a degree that the comedic moments, so natural and unforced elsewhere in the series, seem out of place here. The sprawling edifice of the mansion, with apparently endless corridors and rooms within rooms, gradually becomes a character in its own right – another trait of a successful haunted house story. The repeated refrain “I don’t want to die” takes on a different context as the final revelations are unveiled. 

‘The Bloodstained Labyrinth’ isn’t necessarily the best starting place for anyone new to ‘Ghost Hunt’ – I’d advise watching the series sequentially: there are at least two character arcs that develop specifically through the twenty-five half-hour episodes – but it’s one of the high points of a notably consistent show; and with several forthcoming picks for this year’s 13 For Halloween continuing the haunted house bias of ‘Citadel’ (okay, haunted tower block) and ‘The Baby’s Room’ – and with a certain trilogy by one D Argento Esq on the radar – it was the ideal choice.