Monday, April 29, 2013

Everything You Love Will Go Away: THE HOLY SOUND

The Holy Sound (2013)
Director: Nicholas Wagner
Rating: 6 / 10
IMDB | Official Site | Facebook 

Full disclosure: A screener copy of the film was provided by the filmmakers for review. 

Life as a small-town teenager can be rough, and nobody knows this better than the characters of Nicholas Wagner's microbudget film The Holy Sound. Rory (Ian Carmona) and Sam (Christian Adams) are just a couple of friends trying to survive the various perils of high school. If this wasn't enough, Rory's discovery of a hidden cave on the outskirts of town threatens to destroy any sense of normality in their lives. Inside the cave is a giant obelisk emitting an otherworldly sound that has euphoric effects on those exposed to it. Even worse, it appears to be addictive and requires human blood to function. Not content to keep something so strange and alluring to himself, Rory introduces his friend Parker (Elyse Dufour) to the cave. As he and Parker become more enamored with the cave (and each other?) Rory keeps the discovery from the somewhat naively religious Sam, who's undergoing a personal crisis of faith. Secrets this big rarely stay buried though, and this town is full of secrets - all of which hint at some sinister entity looking to exact punishment for sins long buried in the town's history.

For a first effort, The Holy Sound is unusually ambitious. Where many low/no-budget features opt for the easy route by resorting to a derivative plot or campy humor, Wagner's film takes a more thoughtful approach in an attempt to examine themes such as faith, addiction, and the loss of innocence. Bolstering its lofty message is its ability to effectively convey the sense of an ancient evil preying on the characters. Even more remarkable is how subtly it accomplishes this. In a standout scene, one of Rory's teachers delivers a monologue about a tragedy from his past. It's far more chilling than any monster shown on screen could be, and it sets the tone for the film's dark denouement. Adding to the otherworldly feel of the film is the dreamlike way in which it's shot - Wagner's ambient electronic score often runs unbroken over cuts from scene to scene, and time isn't clearly delineated. The slightly out-of-focus camerawork fits right in with the often saturated color scheme, giving the film a visual polish that's above par.

It also doesn't fall into the trap of being overlong, and runs for just a brisk 50 minutes. That said, the story is guilty of a little meandering. There are some plot hiccups in which events jump forward in fits and starts. One of these falls toward the end of the film, which might have benefitted from a slower crescendo. It's hard for me to say whether these choices were deliberate though, so I'll give the film the benefit of the doubt. What I'm guessing weren't planned were some flaws in the sound work that make portions of the dialogue difficult to hear. The editing is a little rough in a few spots as well, which undercuts the typically professional feel of the film. Still, for an independent production, I'm willing to overlook some technical imperfections in favor of the broader vision.

The Holy Sound is a promising first work, and Nicholas Wagner is a filmmaker I'll continue to follow in the future. I'd like to see more low-budget films that are this carefully crafted and thematically ambitious. You can watch the trailer for The Holy Sound at or at the official facebook page.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

OUR MOTHER'S HOUSE: Suffer the Children...

Our Mother's House (1967)
Director: Jack Clayton
Rating: 7.5 / 10

To say that I went into Our Mother's House blind is sort of an understatement. I learned of its existence a couple of months ago through a creepy trailer that screened during a revival showing of The People Next Door. I remember coming away from the trailer with a vague sense that the film had something to do with religion, secrets, and a bunch of strange little kids, but not much else. (Unfortunately I can't find the trailer online - this more straightforward one isn't the one I saw, and spoils a major part of the ending shortly after the two-minute mark.) It turns out that my first impression wasn't too far off, and I'm happy I checked it out. It's an unsettling little British chiller that didn't go quite where I expected in the end.

Our Mother's House opens with a young girl named Elsa coming home from school on a seemingly ordinary day. She's the eldest child in her family, which contains a grand total of seven kids. That seems like a lot when you take into account that Elsa isn't more than about thirteen years old. Maybe the constant pregnancy has taken a toll on Mother, who lies pale and ill in bed. We don't see much of Mother before she dies and leaves the kids alone in the house. Their reactions to her death neatly encapsulate their personalities - the eldest boy Hugh is uneasy with the sudden lack of authority, but the more mature Elsa assures them all that they'll be able take care of each other. The middle boy and girl, Dina and Dunstan, essentially flip their shit. Dina begins sobbing hysterically while Dunstan insists that they need to organize a funeral for their mother immediately, "BECAUSE GOD SAID SO!" The fact that Elsa reading from the bible calms them all down says a lot about how they'll handle the tragedy. Through all of this, the youngest kids remain somewhat oblivious and wonder why they can't just bury Mother in the garden...

A backyard burial seems pretty good next to the possibility of ending up in an orphanage, and it ends up being the agreed-upon solution. This in itself would be weird enough, but the kids decide to move mom's possessions out to the garden shed along with her body and build a little shrine in her memory. Mother becomes almost like a god to them. They begin praying to her, scheduling "Mother time," and even speaking to her using an entranced Elsa as a conduit. It takes all of one day for things to get crazy within this house. Despite all of this, they insist (quite Britishly) that things will go on roughly as they have in the past and that the family will keep up appearances. The outside world must never suspect that anything is amiss. And if the looming threat of an orphanage isn't enough, the kids know what happens to those who can't keep secrets: "if we tell, we'll go to hell."

Hell, heaven, prayer, the bible, and belief are all at the forefront of Our Mother's House, which often reads as a metaphor for the controlling influence of religion on the innocent. Elsa's messages from Mother act as a stabilizing force for the orphans at first, but quickly get out of hand when the kids start to stray from her demands. After one of the younger girls, Gertie, takes a motorcycle ride around the block with a stranger, "Mother" demands a confession and punishment. The self-righteous Dunstan can't get enough of this, calling Gertie a "harlot" for thanking the cyclist with a kiss. Her subsequent punishment is the scene that people seem to remember from this film, and without giving the whole thing away, I'll say that it's pretty unsettling. All of this madness happens roughly a third of the way into the film, and it's natural to wonder how much crazier things can get from here.

I fully expected the kids' little society to remain intact throughout the story and for the kids' world to become an allegory for society as a whole. Surprisingly, the microcosm is broken when their estranged father shows up at the door. Charlie Hook (played by a gloriously sleazy Dirk Bogarde), is a degenerate of the highest order. Once he finds out that Mother has died, his only goal is to somehow weasel his way into her will and take ownership of the house. It's interesting that he does this not through any overt authoritarian measures, but by trying to win the affection of the children through their desperate longing for a parental figure. Still, he's an awful dad, and vice reigns supreme in his life. It seems like the natural assumption is that his lifestyle will clash with the remnants of the religious upbringing that Mother bestowed on the kids, but that's not quite the case, at least initially.

Essentially my childhood.
The cult of Mother that the children establish collapses relatively easily under Charlie's influence, most prominently with the boys. Even uptight Dunstan totally buys into Charlie's smooth talk. "We have a code," he tells the boys, "you can say this is right or that's right." Women, on the other hand, are more fickle: "they can turn on a sixpence and go in the same direction." But it's quite the opposite if you watch how the house becomes divided along gender lines. While the boys adopt the lax morals of their freewheeling dad (smoking cigarettes, reading porno mags, doing generally whatever they want), the girls attempt to uphold the more rigid rules of Mother. The exception seems to be Gertie, whose punishment earlier in the film has masculinized her in a sense. It seems like the film is falling prey to the notion that "boys are wild and need taming by girls", but I don't think it's that simple.

Father knows worst.
The film equates all things female with religion and order from the start - an interesting inversion of the typically male-dominated real-world organized religion. Even the title is a take on all the New Testament references to "my father's house." When Mother dies, Elsa is just taking on the role of matriarch and reworks her own immature religious beliefs into something more tangible for the younger kids. It's too bad that her new religion is grounded in so many of the negative aspects of the old-school Christianity she was raised with. On the other hand, Charlie - the father, key figure of the traditional family, and here champion of amorality - is no less manipulative. If anything, he's worse, as he has no ulterior motives in mind other than how he can profit from his ex-wife's death. So, Mother was an authoritarian religious nut, and Father is a manipulative dirtbag. Everyone is corrupt and nobody wins, particularly the youngest kids caught in the clash between the two.

Our Mother's House is a great little film that keeps you guessing, largely in part because of Charlie Hook, the film's wild card. Dirk Bogart is a highlight of the film, and manages to be convincingly despicable and manipulative while still occasionally hinting that there's a shred of good somewhere in his corrupt soul. Placing seven child actors front and center could easily turn into a disaster, but the kids are also surprisingly good here, particularly Pamela Franklin (as Elsa) who would continue her acting career throughout the following decades. A stuttering little Mark Lester also pops up, just before achieving minor child stardom with Oliver. (He'd eventually return to creepier territory in 1972's What the Peeper Saw.) It's a shame that Our Mother's House has fallen by the wayside, especially with the popularity of director Jack Clayton's The Innocents, which I haven't seen but am immediately seeking out. Layton was also responsible for Something Wicked This Way Comes, and thus can take credit for at least a few of my childhood nightmares. He's a director whose work I'm looking forward to exploring in more depth. Our Mother's House is definitely worth a look if you can find a copy.

Monday, April 22, 2013

INTERVIEW: Drew Bolduc, Director of Science Team, Co-director of The Taint

Drew Bolduc is one-half of the power team responsible for 2010's indie horror film The Taint (the other half being Dan Nelson, who shared directing/producing/acting/effects/sound/etc. duties). The Taint was  a truly DIY affair that rose above its low-budget origins thanks to over-the-top gore effects, a ton of humor, a killer soundtrack, and even a little bit of commentary on the nastier side of horror films.

Word of Drew's new project Science Team hit the internet recently, and fundraising is now underway. From the promotional material on the fundraising site, Science Team looks like it's going to be a lot of fun. Even with preparation for the new film keeping him busy, Drew was nice enough to take the time to answer a few questions.

First, just in case there's anyone out there who isn't familiar with your work, can you tell us a little about yourself?

Drew: I wrote and co-directed a movie called The Taint and I worked on special and visual effects for Return to Class of Nuke 'em High.

Your new project, Science Team, begins filming in a couple of months. What should we expect? Lasers? Aliens? Gore? (Exploding dicks?)

Drew: All of those things. Probably not exploding dicks.

You've spoken about some influences on your filmmaking in past interviews, but what are some of the films (or other media) that inspired Science Team?

Drew: Moebius, Ultraman, 2001

The Taint really skewered the horror genre's penchant for misogyny by taking it to its utmost extreme. Is there a questionable assumption common to sci-fi films that you're looking to blast with Science Team?

Drew: In Aliens, Ultraman, and Independence Day there is something very nationalistic and xenophobic. They are about humanity having to defeat or destroy "the other"(aliens) which is not like us. It has a quite a bit to do with that.

After The Taint, you spent some time with Troma doing effects work for Return to Class of Nuke 'em High. How was the experience working with Troma, and what were some of the things you learned along the way?

Drew: It was insane, but an amazing experience. I met a ton of awesome people and learned so much about effects and how to operate in a much higher pressure environment than The Taint. I feel like many of us left that movie feeling like we could handle anything after it.

You're planning to start shooting in June - is Richmond aware, or are you going to take the city by surprise and shoot semi-surreptitiously again?

Drew: It will be a bit more planned this time.

I really enjoyed the soundtrack to The Taint. Are you composing the soundtrack for Science Team as well?

Drew: Yeah, but there will probably be other contributors as well.

You've turned to crowdfunding to help raise money (via IndieGoGo). Are you still looking to keep things small-scale, or are you aiming for a slightly bigger budget?

Drew: It's bigger this time. We want to do something greater and of a higher quality, but it is still relatively low.

How do you feel about bigger studios getting in on the crowdfunding game, as they did with the recent Veronica Mars movie? Do you worry that it'll sap attention and funds away from smaller productions like yours?

Drew: It might. The fact that the movie that did it was Veronica Mars is hilarious on some level. I mean, it may mean that crowdfunding has reached its logical end. But why wouldn't they do it if it works?

As a real-life scientist, I'm really looking forward to seeing my job reflected accurately and in an undoubtedly positive fashion. Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions! Any last comments you'd like to leave us with?

Drew: It will be a totally accurate movie. Thanks!

Head over to Science Team's IndieGoGo page and throw a few bucks their way if you can. Pre-production starts in May, with filming to follow in June.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Secret to Telepathy: All You Need Is Love (and Drugs)

Stereo (1969)
Director: David Cronenberg
Rating: 5 / 10

David Cronenberg is undoubtedly one of the kings of body horror, but in my mind that's only really one aspect of his more general interest in transformation. I've been filling in my gaps in his filmography lately, and I was really looking forward to watching Stereo - his first long form endeavor - to see how far back his thematic preoccupations stretched.

Stereo is an experimental work that shows Cronenberg still coming to terms with his own style of filmmaking. Rather than a conventional narrative, it takes the form of a fragmented oral report describing a study of telepathy conducted by the Canadian Academy for Erotic Inquiry (do I need to mention that this isn't a real organization?). In the experiment, eight test subjects are brought together and given brain implants granting them telepathic abilities. Some subjects choose to have their larynx surgically altered or the language centers in their brain cauterized so that they can eliminate any non-telepathic means of communication. Knowing this, it's somewhat appropriate that other than voice-over narration, there's no dialogue or sound in the film. Combined with the jargon-filled narration, this makes for a pretty difficult watch.

The story shows hints of themes that Cronenberg would revisit later - most obviously in Scanners, which also explored the idea of telepathy. What's different about Stereo compared to much of Cronenberg's later work is that it doesn't blend its ideas into a snappy B-movie style narrative. The ideas are sitting there right on the surface, dictated in monotone. If you're willing to parse all the techno-babble that the narration throws at you, there are some interesting ideas within, if nothing too groundbreaking to anyone who's read some sci-fi from the same era. In an attempt to dissolve the identities of the subjects and create a gestalt being, the participants undergo a number of experiments. Telepathic dependencies are created to mirror mentor/mentee relationships, in which a dominant and submissive member slowly merge minds under the guidance of the more experienced of the pair. Sex is essential, as it allows the subjects a physical closeness leads the way to the dissolution of mental barriers. Oh, and it's the sixties, so drugs. Lots of drugs to attempt to induce telepathy.

This is how you become telepathic.
It's a shame that there just isn't that much for the characters in the film to do while the narrator informs us of all these interesting things. They wander through the building, play a series of "games" to test their new abilities, they sit around, take drugs, have sex... What often redeems all the languor is that Cronenberg's eye for interesting shots doesn't disappoint - he's able to transform an academic building into a sparse futuristic setting that blends right in with the sci-fi heavy plot. Unfortunately it seems that he was too in love with some of his cinematography. Interesting shots linger a little too long. Some scenes drag endlessly beneath the silence. This slightly self-indulgent air gives it the feeling of an overly ambitious student film. Sex and nudity that might have shocked decades ago seems a little quaint these days, although I'd be willing to bet that the MPAA would balk at at least one scene involving a threesome.

What isn't clear to me is how tongue-in-cheek Cronenberg intended to be with the material. Naming the institue the "Academy of Erotic Inquiry" shows that he had at least a little bit of self-awareness, but the overwhelming seriousness of the narration often overshadows everything else. Despite the sterile feel of the film (which foreshadows the same sort of clinical detachment and cold analysis that many of his later films would adopt) it seems as if Cronenberg is mocking science's attempts to rationalize the vagaries of emotion and love. But there's a ton of tension between this idea and his seeming interest in science as a genuine way to push beyond the limitations of the body. I still haven't figured out where the film stands on either issue. Maybe that was Cronenberg's intent.

Stereo isn't an easy or enjoyable film to watch. Its most worthwhile aspect seems to be the insight it offers into Cronenberg's early days as a filmmaker. As early Cronenberg, it's interesting. On its own, not so much. Recommended for Cronenberg enthusiasts only.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Sorcery, Surrealism, Socialism: ARCANA

Arcana (1972)
Director: Giulio Questi
Rating: 7.5 / 10

[It's hard to talk about a film like Arcana without massive spoilers - be warned!]

Arcana was Giulio Questi's final feature before he took a decade-long hiatus from the world of film. Its roots in low-budget horror conceal the fact that it's really a surrealist endeavor with a charged political message. This is the kind of film that seems to fall into the crack between arthouse and grindhouse; it's often too trashy to fit into the former and too opaque for the latter. What sets it above similar films is that it's willing to eventually drop its mask and go all-out, ending in a place that's closer to Buñuel than Bava.

The film is divided into halves, the first of which is relatively straightforward and focuses on a fortune teller named Mrs. Tarantino (played by the renowned Lucia Bosé), who reads palms and tarot cards for wealthy clients. Even more popular are the group séances in which she works a circle of customers into hysterics and then "channels" a spirit into their midst. Her adult son (Maurizio Esposti, who goes nameless throughout the film) is her reluctant assistant. Esposti's character is frustrated by his mother's profession, particularly the fact that she's content to fake her way through most of her magic and leech off the rich. He's convinced there's untapped potential in her rituals, and experiments alone in his room with bizarre rites involving pictures he steals from the clients and donkey teeth he finds outside their tenement.

There are hints that even weirder things are to come. A written message before the opening credits says that the film isn't a story, but a game of cards, and that the viewer should play smartly in order to win. (With the connection to tarot, does that signal that we're watching a prediction of the future?) Another prominent oddity is the pack of kids constantly running around the Tarantinos' apartment building. They taunt visitors with animal noises, bow down in front of an egg, and even occasionally crossdress. (I'd say it was just a case of boyish looking little girls, but with Esposti walking around in his mom's heels later on the film, I think there's some deliberate resonance there.) Things take another turn for the strange when the son's rage at his mom makes plates fly around the room and tarot cards begin to deal themselves. It's clear that the power at his disposal isn't just charlatanry like his mother's. It's often frustrating how much the first half of the film seems to allude to and how little it's willing to explain. Thankfully much of the tension is released in an incredible blast when the second portion of the film begins.

After a particularly violent incident with his mother in which he forces her to give up her magical secrets, the son runs wild with his new power and begins to unleash it upon the city. A largely dialogue-free sequence follows him through the streets as he performs new rituals in public areas. Where his mother's magic was strictly regimented, his feels organic. It draws not on old systems of rules or props, but the detritus of nature and the city. He hangs everyday objects from strings: bones, cans, a tube of toothpaste, chicken feet, a harmonica. He pulls weeds from the cracks in the sidewalk. The old magical structures comforted and healed those who were willing to pay for them. This new magic is derived from the city, and its aim is to change the city. While the son flees police and causes chaos, his mother undergoes an even stranger  transformation of her own. In what's by far the most surreal and remarkable portion of the film, she spits up live frogs in her kitchen as a black-clad family does a shuffling dance to a droning folkish violin song. (There are even a few cuts to the violin player himself walking alone through country hills.) It's an abrupt change from the slow pace of the first hour of the film and is fascinating, even if many of its images remain impenetrable.

The class dynamics that previously crept into Questi's work also become more apparent in the second half of the film. Early on, we learn that the family's father was killed while working a construction job in the subway beneath the city. Now the son's magic causes subway workers to assault the subway cars, terrifying the wealthy riders. The son recruits the semi-feral kids to assist him in tormenting the suited businessmen who walk the streets. After luring one man into an abandoned hallway (by flirting with him no less) he sics the pack of kids on him to swarm over him and bite him. While the son's magic is dissolving the old societal boundaries imposed on class and sexuality, his mother is busy overthrowing the traditional family structure by performing abortion rituals on a young pregnant newlywed. By the end of the film, chaos has engulfed the city, bursts of gunfire echo through the air, and military police run through corpse-littered streets. It's a bold ending that many genre flicks would be afraid to touch.

There's still lots of room for interpretation though, and regardless of how you assemble the pieces, there are bound to be a few that don't fit. Things I haven't mentioned so far: the film's obsession with the human body - from the pictures of hands and eyes that the son collects in his early rituals to a scene near the end where a dwarf whispers the names of internal organs into his ear. What about the donkey that's repeatedly shown being hoisted into the air next to a rural building? The lone violinist? The massive Oedipal complex between mom and son? There's more than enough strangeness in this film to go around. Parsing all of it may be impossible.

For that reason, Arcana is probably a better film in retrospect than it is while you're watching it. It teased me for nearly an hour with little payoff, but just when I was about to give up on it, it erupted and caught my interest again. Getting to that point is a challenge though. Cinematographer Dario Di Palma is more subdued here than in Death Laid an Egg, so while he's often carefully emphasizing his subjects to underline the various thematic foci of the film, there isn't the visual dynamism of his previous work. It's also interesting that the score is less experimental compared to that of Death Laid an Egg. Composed by Romolo Grano and B-movie/giallo veteran Bertolo Pisano, it's often really catchy and surprisingly poppy (you should definitely listen to the whole thing via the video at the bottom of the article). When it's necessary, it lapses into unnerving territory, most noticeably in the previously mentioned violin sequence.

Arcana isn't easily approachable, but it fits right in as the final piece of Questi's triptych of feature films. While all of his work falls within the confines of typically lowbrow genres, he's never content to play by their rules. He seeks to use them as tools to approach a deeper political goal as opposed to telling stories (which Arcana essentially states right up front). Arcana isn't a perfect film by any means, but it's an experiment that's interesting and outlandish enough to be worth seeking out.

Enjoy the soundtrack:

Saturday, April 13, 2013

This Is Not the Fairy Tale You Grew Up With

Hansel e Gretel (1990)
Director: Giovanni Simonelli
Rating: 4.5 / 10

With modern interpretations of fairy tales all the rage at the moment, it's probably worth taking a step backwards in time to remind ourselves that it's all been done before. Well, sort of. This 1990 feature by prolific screenwriter Giovanni Simonelli isn't at all like the modern action-driven fantasy films you'll find at the multiplex. It actually doesn't even have much to do with fairy tales at all. To get a better sense of the territory it falls into, all you need to see is "Lucio Fulci Presents" displayed proudly over the title. Don't get your hopes up though - other than lending his name to the film in a cheap ploy to make it marketable, Fulci had nothing to do with this film. To be honest, his name is probably the only reason why this film is remembered at all. Other than an obligatory moment of ocular trauma and the general low-budget 80's aesthetic, there's not a whole lot of resemblance to his body of work.

Despite its name, Hansel e Gretel actually has almost nothing to do with the original story, other than that it features two kids, a house, and a wicked mother figure. The film opens on a remarkably dark note, even for a merciless Italian horror flick.  Young Hansel and Gretel wander down a road one day and stop to inspect an abandoned car, which turns out to be not so abandoned. They're promptly chloroformed, kidnapped, and taken away to an old mansion. Inside, they're ushered into a makeshift surgical theater where their organs are harvested to be sold. It's a really abruptly and twisted start to the story, and I had high hopes that it'd stay in similarly dark territory. Unfortunately, it's mostly downhill after the first ten minutes.

What follows is a very straightforward, very repetitive tale of ghostly revenge. Young Hansel and Gretel are haven't been buried for a single day when their ghosts rise from the ground red-eyed, blank-faced and looking stoned as hell. They're pissed at being dead so young, and begin offing people with their telekinetic powers. You can't make a movie out of death scenes alone though*, so to give us a reason to keep watching we're introduced to Sylvia, a recently recruited detective who's assigned to the case of a human trafficking ring run by a woman named Solange (a nod to Massimo Dellamano?). Sylvia goes to investigate the suspicious activity at Solange's estate and decides to live there temporarily while she carries out her work. Is this standard protocol? Somehow I don't think so. Since people at the estate have been dying in all sorts of suspicious ways, Sylvia begins to suspect that something fishy is going on. We already know the true story though, so to say that there's no suspense is an understatement.

Meanwhile, Hansel and Gretel continue offing the mansion's inhabitants one by one in a series of truly low-budget death sequences. In several, the effects guys clearly just made a trip to the butcher shop rather than take the more conventional route of latex and karo syrup. The most glaring example occurs when a farmer is run over by a combine and comes out the other end looking like a side of beef. There's also a scene ripped more or less straight out of Fulci's The Beyond, but without any of the artistry. To give you an idea of just how stretched for cash the filmmakers must have been, try to find a gunshot in this film that isn't dubbed. No muzzle flash, just the gunman giving the prop a little shake as a signal to the foley artist. The cast of characters is pretty varied though, and includes various sleazy farmhands, an old lady, an evil lesbian (of course) convinced she's going to make off with Solange's fortune, and this guy named Stanko:

Despite the impressive pencil moustache (or perhaps because of it), poor Stanko, like the majority of the cast, is doomed to fall prey to those ghostly kids.

Overall there are some interesting bits scattered throughout Hansel e Gretel. I found myself fixating mostly on all the things I usually do when a sleaze-fest like this fails to entertain me with conventional stuff (like a story). You can hear the old synths in the soundtrack practically dying from over a decade's use as they warble and churn their way through the score. It's not a bad thing - it actually ends up being pretty eerie. The gloomy rural Italian landscape adds some atmosphere as well. I'm trying really hard to come up with other reasons that this film isn't a total slog, because it really is better than many other films of its ilk. Maybe it's because it's so repetitive that just puts you into a lull. It sets up characters and knocks them down. Cue sallow red-eyed Italian ghost kids. Cue cheap gore. Cue synths. Rinse, repeat.

On the whole, it's forgettable stuff, but still not the worst way to kill an hour and a half. Just get used to seeing this a LOT:

*Actually proven false by Fulci's Cat in the Brain, which harvested a kill scene from this film.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Perverted Families, Dehumanization, and...Chicken Farming?

Death Laid an Egg (1968)
Director: Giulio Questi
Rating: 8 / 10

Giulio Questi left a brief but fascinating mark on Italian cinema in the late 60's, directing only a handful of films (including the seriously weird Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot!) before drifting off to TV movie obscurity. His 1968 feature, Death Laid an Egg, works within the then-fledgling genre of the giallo and pushes it into the psychosexual territory that films such as In the Folds of the Flesh and The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh would explore in later years. It's questionable how pure a giallo Death Laid an Egg actually is, but with such an expansive genre there's more than a little room for some creativity. However unconventional it may be, many of the themes and imagery will be familiar to any giallo fan. The story centers around secrets (even if few are kept from the viewer), and features some pathologically voyeuristic camerawork, drawing in the familiar giallo theme of seeing the forbidden. It even throws in a pair of murderous black gloves - although it's not the villain who's wearing them, but a main character.

Our hero.
Honestly, Death Laid an Egg does not have a great plot, but what it lacks in narrative quality is more than balanced out with weirdness. Anna and Marco are a husband and wife team who own a chicken farm. Their farm has recently upgraded to machinery that is nearly fully automated, and has displaced dozens of workers. The couple runs most aspects of the farm now, with only their childlike assistant Gabrielle to help them. Despite the increase in productivity, Marco seems to resist modernization at every turn, and is wary of being caught between the profit-hungry administration and the increasingly irate workers lurking outside the farm. Maybe he sees that he's just as disposable, and could easily end up on the other side of the fence. Meanwhile, Anna seems to have mixed up her dissatisfaction with her marriage with her career ambitions. She's on board with all the changes occuring in the factory, no matter how drastic they may seem, and Gabrielle is there to back her up at every step. Gabrielle is more than just a secretary though. She simultaneously completes the symbolic nuclear family and acts as the third leg in a love triangle between the three main characters. She's manipulative as hell and constantly plays Marco and Anna against each other. A triangle like this can't end well, especially with someone as cunning as Gabrielle mixed up in it.

Best frenemies.
It's interesting that this film is so transparent about plot points that other films might have concealed to build suspense. The film opens, shockingly, with Marco murdering a prostitute in a hotel room. There's no attempt to hide his identity from the viewer, although filming the scene from the perspective of a voyeur underlines the secret nature of his crimes. From the moment Gabrielle appears, her devious motives are so clearly telegraphed that you wonder how Marco and Anna can be oblivious to her games. It's not hard to figure out the broad arc of this plot, and the few twists at the end don't really change its outcome. With so much information on the table, the film is left to luxuriate in the ponderous angst of its characters. They're constantly musing on their relationships, the future of the farm, choices they've made, and choices they'll have to make.

In fact, there's so much alluded to that the plot ends up being almost an afterthought. What stood out most prominently to me was the commentary on the dissolution and perversion of the nuclear family. Marco is a staunch traditionalist, the stoic father figure who acts as the foundation of the company and the family. Unfortunately the "vice" of killing hookers hints at a deeper corruption - one he's painfully aware of but is unsure how to combat. His response: harden himself against the modern world, even as he's fucking his symbolic daughter Gabrielle. As much as Gabrielle plays to his lust, she's also taking advantage of Anna's desire for something more. Gabrielle and Anna's relationship remains platonic on camera, but there's no way in hell it isn't also physical. Look at how Gabrielle is sexualized when she shares the frame with Anna:

They're even caught sleeping together by Marco:

Anna is downright fascinated with Gabrielle. She's constantly talking about how pretty she is, and how she'd like to pull her apart into pieces. "It wouldn't be to destroy her, but to remake her." Even when Anna is looking at photos of Gabrielle they aren't enough. "Too bad photographs aren't like mirrors," she says, dissatisfied with their permanence. Anna wants a break from her boring, stifling marriage, and Gabrielle is the walking avatar of youth, change, and freedom. Knowing she can't have Gabrielle, she latches onto the more tangible changes the administrators are forcing on her factory. The tension between Marco's resistance to change and Anna's love for it is wound tighter by Gabrielle until something eventually snaps.

As if the love triangle wasn't unstable enough, enter a fourth player: the publicity specialist Mondaini, sent to the factory by the administrators to help brainstorm new ways to sell the public on the dietary benefits of chicken. He's the link between the corporate higher-ups and those managing the factory, but it's clear he favors the stance of those in power. Just look at an image from his new marketing campaign:

Chickens as people, or people as chickens? Mondaini views both consumers and workers as animals - soulless things to be used in favor of a profit. He's selling them the notion that they're something more, but really they only exist to be chewed up and shat out.

Let the beast run wild.
This is brilliantly conveyed in a scene where Marco and Anna throw a party, in which Mondaini organizes a bizarre party game. A room is completely emptied, to "free ourselves from the tyranny of objects," then a couple spends some time alone in the room. How much time is up to them, and what happens in the room can't be spoken of to anyone else. What should be just an adult version of "seven minutes in heaven" turns into a setting where the partygoers descend into existential introspection. Some come out shaken, some titillated. We don't find out what happens to most of them when they're inside, but the few we do see seem reduced to their base animal natures. The room strips away all that's human about them - Mondaini is turning them into chickens trapped in a pen. Is it any wonder that Gabrielle sees his ability to manipulate people as attractive? Her involvement with Mondaini is the final destabilizing factor in Marco and Anna's little family.

Cinematographer Dario Di Palma also plays around with the notion of dehumanization by frequently treating the characters like objects. The close-ups are a little too close, the subjects often just a little too far to the sides of the frame. The focus occasionally shifts to inanimate objects, then back to the characters in a series of quick cuts. It's one of many disconcerting elements of the film, the other notable one being Bruno Maderna's off-kilter score. It's jazzy and noisy (like a chicken coop?) in a way that's not at all pleasant to listen to. Fitting, but jarring.

There's so much that's atypical about Death Laid an Egg when you compare it to other gialli: how it eschews an urban setting for a rural one (a farm for god's sake), how it pushes the murder mystery to the side and doesn't even keep the identity of the killer a secret. I haven't even mentioned the science experiments taking place on the farm, which have the feeling of something out of a cheap sci-fi production of the same era. There's just so much going on in this film that it's almost never boring (which, admit it, many gialli are). But does it qualify as a good giallo? That depends on what you're looking for. While it bumps up against the walls of what's expected of a typical giallo, the sheer ambition of it all justifies it for me. Those wanting a more straightforward suspense story should look elsewhere, but if you're willing to indulge a meandering, digressive plot focused mainly on the psychosexual angst of its characters with some left-leaning politics thrown in for good measure, then you've found your film.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

What I've Been Reading: Winter 2013

While I tend to stick mostly to film talk around here, in real life when I'm not sitting in front of a screen I'm usually sitting behind a book. Yes, I am working hard at being single forever. Depressing quips aside, here are a few recent reads of mine that fall in or around the horror world:

Video Night, by Adam Cesare

For high school student Billy Rile and his slacker friend Tom, nothing is more sacred then their weekly basement horror movie night. But when their town is invaded by a parasitic alien race, will their tradition survive? And even if the aliens are defeated, can it survive Tom's new relationship and their senior year of high school? Video Night is as quickly plotted, colorful, and witty as the best clamshell-packaged gore-fests you'd find on an old video store shelf. It also does a great job of getting you invested its characters so that you're genuinely concerned for their fate by the time they start to realize the peril they're in. Adam Cesare brings a horror fan's knowledge and love of the genre to his writing, but never in a way that feels like he's name-dropping to be cool. Cesare is one of my favorite new horror authors, and I'm eagerly awaiting his next work. Highly recommended.

Wormwood, by Poppy Z. Brite

Poppy Z. Brite is a writer that I enjoy immensely in small doses. His ultra-lush prose frequently pushes eroticism into areas considered taboo even in the horror world. What's most remarkable is that it rarely descends into cheap shock and maintains a relatively nonchalant tone even when the subject matter gets pretty extreme. That said, there are some quirks that come along with a lot of Brite's work: a fixation on preternaturally beautiful goth guys, indulgent descriptions of music as a vast transformative force... absinthe. When it works, it works really well, but it can occasionally fly over the top. This collection of short work illustrates Brite's signature style, for better and worse (but mostly better). The highlights are:

  • Angels, a haunting story set in the same universe as Brite's novel Lost Souls that has protagonists Steve and Ghost helping to reunite a pair of formerly conjoined twins.
  • Calcutta, Lord of Nerves, a nihilistic zombie story that's less about the undead and more about societal decay.
  • The Sixth Sentinel, a doomed romance / ghost story that has one of the most disturbing reunions between lost lovers that I've ever read. 

Wormwood is a great sampler of Brite's writing. I'd recommend it for the stories listed above, which alone are worth the price of admission. Aside from those, there are four other good ones, four average, and only one I'd skip (How to Get Ahead In New York - another Lost Souls throwback that feels way too fanfiction-y).

The Wind Through the Keyhole, by Stephen King

Despite many rough patches over the past couple of decades, Stephen King has recently undergone a sort of renaissance with back-to-basics novels like Under the Dome and 11/22/63. It's too bad that he backtracks with his latest novel, which is a return to the universe of The Dark Tower. The Wind Through the Keyhole takes place between volumes 4 and 5 of the Dark Tower - sort of - it uses the main series as a framing device to flash back to prequel territory, and then uses that to frame a third story that's more a fable than a Dark Tower tale. The central story is good but not great - it follows a young boy sent on a quest to save his mother from a horribly failed marriage and abusive step-dad. It's a typical episodic coming-of-age fantasy, and aside from being set in Mid-World, it doesn't have many new ideas of its own. The most disappointing part about it is that neither of the framing stories are fleshed out enough to add much to the series' mythology. It's also littered with tons of annoying baby-talk slang that I either overlooked or learned to ignore when I read the main series. I don't remember which, but here it was grating. For Dark Tower completists only.

Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn's work is most often placed under the "thriller" umbrella, but Dark Places lives up to its name in a way that will satisfy any horror fan. Libby Day's family was brutally murdered when she was only seven years old. Her teenage brother was convicted of the killings and sentenced to life in prison. Twenty years later, Libby has milked the donations from her charity fund and the profit from her book deal until they're almost dry. She's also a depressed, alcoholic mess. Finding herself in an increasingly desperate financial situation, she's forced to rely on funding from a group of hobbyists who obsess over serial killers and crimes - but only if she's willing to unearth some of the buried secrets behind the night that ruined her life so long ago. All of Flynn's characters seem loathsome in some way when viewed through the toxic lens of Libby's viewpoint. The stink of small-town corruption and ennui is palpable throughout the novel, and adds another layer of discomfort. That said, Dark Places is incredibly well written and grabbed my attention from the first page. If "true crime" stories, the satanic panic of the eighties, and gothic horror are things you like, I'd strongly recommend this one.