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SPASMO (1974)

Ah, Umberto Lenzi. What a terrible mess you have made of this movie. Or maybe it is not your fault. But most likely it was your fault, since you want to take credit for rewriting the story. Not to mention inventing the whole giallo genre.

Wake Up Barbara

Actually, SPASMO is a great idea. A cross between a surrealist reworking of LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH and a weird mediation on the unstable world of a serial killer.

SPASMO’s world is one where the characters have a tenuous grasp on reality and the film gleefully plays on that with disjointed conversations and off kilter staging. Plus there is the weird inclusion of the quick shots of variously posed mannequins, but more on that in a moment.

SPASMO centers on a hammy playboy named Christian, a typical tight-suited unbuttoned smooth chested skinny; the type of European pretty boy who skids along these giallos, failing and sometimes saving the day. Overplayed by Robert Hoffman, Christian is possibly tormented, possibly suggestible stooge. Does he have a dark secret or is he a victim of a loony conspiracy? Seems both, actually.

In one of the films defining moments, Christian who might have just picked up a prostitute named Barbara, earnestly played through sweaty makeup by Suzy Kendall (To Sir with Love & Argento’s Girl With the Crystal Plumage). She has a demanding pimp/boyfriend who lounges on the side of the frame projecting greasy threatening threats.

But it is Barbara who is the real threat. She demands that before they make it together, Christian must shave off his beard. He does so with little protest, which could be read several ways. The most obvious is that Christian has been unmasked. He turns the corner, stripped of his protective mask, he enters a maze of psychological disruption. Nothing is what it seems and he is nakedly unprotected.

Beardlessness might, also, set the viewer up for a bait and switch. A MacGuffin, of sorts, where Christian is being set up to look like someone he is not. Possibly a twin? Or another sort of doppelganger? Both are the sorts of absolute left turn twists offered by these giallos. Of course, it should come a no surprise that Christian isn’t what he looks like. He IS a sick serial killer, not the gently confused hero of some sinister plot.

Mannequins in the Woods

The only other effective aspect of SPASMO is the quick cuts to the disrobed and anatomically correct mannequins. Elaborately staged like violent crime scenes, the few times actual people discover the life sized dolls, the make out lovers or the gardeners, these people are shocked then confused. These quick shots befuddle the viewer, as well. They might be disconnected hallucinations of an off screen killer. They might be stand in dislocations for actual crime scenes, actual murders seen as grotesque objet d’art, posed as the disturbed killer sees them? They seem to be cast as key pieces in the film’s psychological puzzle.

Of course, there are other hints at a better movie that might have been filmed. The unfamiliar familiarity of the old man and his provocative red haired companion who materialize out of the night only to know more than they possibly could know. There is the windy scenery of the tower, under lit and creepy. There is the nefarious bother lurking in a well to do office taking phone calls. Then there is that stupid home movie.

I must say something about that home movie. In the film’s pivotal confrontation between the brothers, a scene that should reveal the psychological impetus of the horror, the film totally fumbles the ball. The home movie, showing two little boys ominously staring at the camera, close up of mental institution needles and equipment, and a somber birthday party , all play laughably incoherent. Nothing is revealed.

In fact, the film and confrontation is so ineffective, the movie needs to explain itself in a phone message. Much like the doctor’s speech at the end of PSYCHO, this message explains the whole movie in a few brief sentences. Stupidly as well.

SPASMO tries to be innovative and introduce some subtly into the over the top violent gore of the giallo. BUT. It fails. The failure is mainly built into the structure of the narrative. In order to strip the genre of its tent poles, Lenzi casts aside all suspense or coherency of danger. Since we are never shown that murders have actually be committed, the fact that they have been comes as an “oh okay” moment. The fact that there are no police bumbling around, removes the audience’s only guide through the off screen action. Etc.

Had Lenzi been a better writer or maybe had a better cinematic vocabulary, SPASMO might have proved to be an effectively strange film of psychological horror. As it exists, it is a bit of a strange mess.

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THE NIGHT NO ONE COMES HOME: except to watch the big giveaway at 9

I will tell you this – HALLOWEEN III: Season of the Witch is one of my favorite bad movies. It has become a seasonal tradition with me. This year I did not need to rent the video, since AMC included it in its Horror Movie, Month-long Halloween Marathon. I caught about 80 percent of the movie the other night, which was enough of the movie. Heck, I probably missed that much in previous years changing and folding laundry while it was on.

This installment of the John Carpenter franchise is, by all rational accounts, a complete failure. Not only was it made on a shoestring budget, but it bombed at the box office. But the damage of that was all absorbed by Carpenter’s intention to forge the HALLOWEEN movies into yearly installments in an ongoing holiday-themed serial anthology, not Michael Myers bulging jumpsuit. Since the movie disappoints so many, they need to fill the void with trivia and quotes. So all the movie’s storied  apocrypha is well documented elsewhere.

However, I think the movie has some really effective aspects, the least of which picks up on the whole mean-spiritedness of trick or treating. This mean-spirit does not refer to childish pranks or other mischievousness, but rather the atmosphere of fear and sadism that settled around the holiday in the late 1970s. The prevalent fear that the trick or treat ritual hand delivered child victims to the doorsteps of depraved predatory adults. The whole razor blades in the apples fear, that compelled parents’ need to check for malicious tampering of all our candied loot.

The best theme of HALLOWEEN III has to be the very idea that the country’s most successful costume company was founded, only, to bring about some sort of pagan druid cult end of the world thing. The release of the old gods by crushing the heads of America’s children is a truly horrifying concept. Plus doing it through television and latex masks is just kinky.

The Halloween latex hood mask was made into a palpable horror fetish object by the first HALLOWEEN movie. The heavy breathing, as each measured breath is contained, built the suspense in a new way. The audience was inside with the killer, and all but smelled the atmosphere under Michael Myer’s mask – the claustrophobia builds as his foul breath mixes with the smell of chemical plastics, the sweat and rubbery-ness of the mask as it heats against the skin. Then there is the camera peeking out of the stiff eye slits. His vision distorted, confined, and razor-sighted straight ahead – the predator’s fixed vision, oblivious to what lurks behind and structurally unable to take in the useless periphery.

All those attributes ascribed by the point of view in the first HALLOWEEN movie come into play in the third movie. But the fetish of the mask is expanded upon as well. For instance, the danger (suffocation) of the latex mask is heightened, since these masks literally kill. Or how these masks subvert the purpose of transformation – the imaginative world of children’s pretend shifted over to the transubstantiation area of ritual sacrifice.

In other words, the playfulness by which the child imagines herself a skeleton when donning the mask becomes the weapon of actual mutilation by sacrificing the child who wears it. This sacrificial aspect of these masks is made implicit by the villain’s expository monologue before entrapping the hero in an easily escapable demise. Which, fittingly, is to strap Dr. Dan Challis (THE FOG’s Tom Atkins) to a chair and place a Silver Shamrock mask over his head while the tv flashes the pixilated Magic Pumpkin while blurting out the jingling kill music

This is his LAST HALLOWEEN! His last Halloween.

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The fact that the adult is able to escape his fate, extends the sacrificial implications – an adult is not innocent, pure, and his loss is not a suitable oblation. Contrast, Challis’ active resistance against Little Buddy’s rapt attention, for further proof. And what is Stonehenge but “…an ancient, sacrificial circle…”

This leads to some interesting things the movie seems to say about the emerging mediascape of modern childhood.

First, HALLOWEEN III is a pretty clear statement on the rotting effects television was supposedly having on children, most notably advertising that was directed at them. In 1982, when the movie was released the proliferation of commercials aimed specifically at children had begun to bloom into a clamor for federal deregulation of FCC rules governing what sorts of claims and products could be marketed to children.

This movie makes the subtle claim, through the repeated and ubiquitous viewing – it’s on every tv screen in the movie – of the Silver Shamrock Halloween mask commercial. Added to this over-saturation critique is the marketing strategy of a competition (the big drawing at nine!) which incentivizes the masks. These masks and the commercials that compel you to buy them, ultimately, turn your brain to mush.

Second, it was brought up, once, that the major problem with HALLOWEEN III’s plot is that there is no way kids would all want to be the same thing for tricks or treats. Even though there are three glow in the dark options, it is still hard to believe that the kids in America would be content to limit their costume choices like this. Sure, there are cut away scenes to kids who are wearing the masks with their clown, ghosts, and princess costumes, but still, it does stretch the limits of credulity.

Unless the movie is making a further point about the growing conformity of children based on their exposure and consumption of media, most notably tv ads. The uniformity of the masks does harken back to various consumer fads – like the pet rock. And in the post STAR WARS era of merchandizing every single frame of film, does such a satiric element seem that farfetched? Not really.

This movie is clearly Anti-Kid

The last thing, I will say about this fantastic movie is about the slightly anti-corporate sentiments aimed at the Silver Shamrock Co. While this company is downright mom and pop compared to the mega-corporations that will close out the 80s – think Cyberdyne Systems Corporation or Omni Consumer Products or the Nakatomi Corporation. I mean they still deal with independent sales people!

Yet Silver Shamrock is distinctive in several ways. For instance, the whole company and the whole town are just an empty shell, a front, hiding the nefarious goings on in the factory warehouse. The loud speakers announcing curfew and the lingering shots of the empty factory yards really do manage to create a creepy mood.

Or what about the fact that Silver Shamrock’s entire operation is run by androids – ROBOTS!! The great Reagan Era fear of factory line obsolescence, the auto worker being kicked off the assembly line to be replaced by a tireless, errorless big yellow robotic arm, comes to its absurd conclusion at Silver Shamrock.

While the movie fails on quite a number of levels, like the acting and effects, the general idea is solid. In fact, I think it fits perfectly into the B-Movie cannon alongside the other horror movies that attempted complex decoding of social philosophy and political trends through the gore splattered screens of splattered brains and oozing toxic goop.

Who are you to kill my mom?

Dario Argento returns to the murderous nature of art and music in SLEEPLESS where a haunted musical instrument serial killer returns after years of silence. Max von Sydow shuffles through his scenes with an over-aged bumble. While excellently filling out the faulty memory of the retired inspector who first tracked the case, he has little to do and the pain of his affliction is inconsistently displayed. He remembers, then he doesn’t, its a flaw in the scripting more than anything else.

The Dwarf Killer is on the loose again, killing with cut out farm animals and using silly contrapasso means of dispatch. There are some fairly effective scenes of tension and gruesomeness, but the gore is fairly light. Plus the sheer meanness of the killer is not as pronounced. Which might have something to do with the fact that Asia Argento is played by  Chiara Caselli, in this one.

The lighting is not as richly artificial as other, more effectively disconcerting, Argento pictures. Nor are there many of the off-putting out of reality rooms or other spaces that establish so much of the nightmare dread. SLEEPLESS happens too much in the real world, which makes the problems with the plot and time line all the more glaring.  Still, the loose ends and red herrings aside, we have seen this solution a few other times in giallos, but it is a pretty good reveal in this one too.

Overall, I would recommend this a a fine giallo, but a mediocre Argento, easily skipped over.

Remember your table manners.

Another one of the film that is clipped into CAT ON THE BRAIN. This is the nazi movie that Fulci is working on that causes the German press to burst into an all out orgy or something.

Basically, the plot of this one is that a ruined villa in France is haunted by a reel of film. The film was shot by a young Nazi during a horribly unsexy orgy. There are hints of all sorts of depravity, fetish play, and drug use. And terrible dancing. Oh, the dancing. The Villa is bombed shortly after the orgy. Maybe the same time it is going on, the next morning, something. It doesn’t matter.

When the compact European car full of twenty somethings buzzes on-screen, it is only a matter of time before these nitwits prove themselves to be honry dorks I could not wait to see killed by ghost Nazis or whatever.

Anyway, these jerks get lost. Find the abandoned villa. Break in. Only to find the place strangely set up for occupation. The candles burn, the dining room is filled with piping hot food, the records still play. Then one of these euro-dweebs plays a film. The film. Next thing you know everyone is drunk, one of the girls is a lesbian, and chaos ensues as a man emerges from a mirror.

He is the young Nazi filmmaker and he has come to make your deepest fanaties come true. Or something. The plot is stupid. But the dubbing is marvelous. And by that I mean it is badly done to humorous effect. The nudity lopsided and the gore non-existent – save for the sloppy chest effect which is so bad it hurts.

I don’t know about this one, folks. Mainly because the ending is sooooo lame.

MANIAC

Back in the early 1980s when I was a reading STARLOG each month, I was fascinated by the full page movie soundtrack advertisement. The ad featured low budget and foreign horror/science fiction movies that had some of the best posters and covers. I am not sure why anyone would want the soundtrack to MANIAC, but it was there in all its disturbing glory. The poster tells one everything one would need to know about the movie.

MANIAC captures the seedy, uncurbed dog doo glory of the late 70s New York City. The City seems to smell even on film. The stains and dim lighting hint at the filthy creatures that scurried around the night. Other than the low budget reality of filming in sweaty, cramped closets and other living room pits from overpriced realty hell, this movie is a strange nightmare character study.

The night side of Frank, interestingly portrayed by Joe Spinell with an ugly physicality, is a heavy breathing, sniveling mess of damp and crusted sheets and the hunting habits of  Son Of Sam. Frank’s apartment is a truly scary place. In fact, it is the best part of the movie. That set with its shrines, looming crowd of mannequins, and cockroach squirming, is an unmatched scene of physiological madness. That room is the real scary monster in this movie, forget Frank’s serial scalping of his prostitute victims, that he then nails to the mannequin’s heads.

The daytime world of Frank does not make sense. He is still super-creepy, but somehow lands the affection and attention of the fantastic looking Caroline Munro. This whole part of the movie is pretty awful. And that is really saying something, because this is NOT a good movie.

I can say that I was somewhat disappointed. Serial killers have been so mainstreamed these days, that today’s TV police procedurals  have more disturbing portrayals of MANIACS. Still, given the time period it was made, I can see how the seediness really added to the movie’s panache and reputation as a disturbing expose of madness and a filthy exploitation of violent gore.

Kiss me you, serial killer, you!

What the hell? Serial killer cannibal gambler is undone by his own shadow? Stupid.

Lester likes to gamble. In order to fund his fun, he marries wealthy widows. Ends up poisoning them, or bonking them on their faces, or chainsawing them up into pieces. Lester, also, likes home cooked meals in front of the television. Lester has a tape recorder that tells him things. Stupid, meaningless things that make no sense for the plot. But these tape recorded discussions are necessary in order to make the idiotic ending not a complete nonsensical. Even if it ends up being completely unexplainable.

The movie starts out with a super gory premise that quickly becomes a double cross mystery? I guess. Halsey is pretty creepy though and his disgust is pretty over the top. The cadaver humor falls flat though. WEEKEND AT BERNIES pretty much proved that a corpse does not make for a great comedic prop, especially after it has been smashed and hammered and bashed in with bloody squirts and eye popping gore! Plus we need to forget that Lester has access to a pig farm and likes to eat his victims. Weird. But then it is Fulci, so I guess that explains it.

Other notables about this movie, other than it is horrible festering mess of unwatchability, is that this movie, itself, was cannibalized in CAT IN THE BRAIN. This stinker also stars Zora Kerova from CANNIBAL FEROX. Other than that, why watch it?

Canker upon canker upon one million tiny punctures

What starts out as a wonderful sister’s holiday, ends with a hotel held hostage to a sex manic pyschokiller!

Or something.

Because there is clearly maybe a ghost story, a double cross drug plot, and  a romantic love triangle/story! All subplots that, ultimately, go no where. But the seaside hotel it all happens at provides some wonderful outdoor shots, especially when the wind kicks up and all the actors start to shiver.

THE SISTER OF URSULA is more soft core skin flix than a giallo gore. The killer, who disembowels the victims through their vaginas after she has paid to watch them all have various kinds of sex. Or skulked in the corners, voyeuristically shadow draped, with only the ominous giallo eyes revealed! The killer’s identity is never in question, really, and there are some rather laughable sex scenes – like the diddling with the gold chain – but then some other rather implied hardcore moves. The religious icon as murder weapon is not credible, considering the damage it was supposed to have inflicted.

This is some particularly horrible dialogue as the two sisters quibble over a dead father and absent mother, made all the more absurd by the nudity of D’Amario as they are arguing. Magnolfi plays the proto-goth with all the bed sheet grabbing angst of a spoiled loony. The scene in the stone side chapel where she caresses the carved Christ before fainting dead away must be seen to be believed. It is beyond campy. And do not get me started on the silver shimmer of a nightclub act, the dubbing of which made it look like a sketch from SCTV. Love it.

Still, the great locations, a drug narc subplot, and a lot nude females kinda make this clunker a watchable dud. Not to mention the fact that Stefania D’Amario, the titular Ursula, goes on to star in Fulci’s ZOMBI! As Barbara Magnolfi, with her dangerous puppy dog eyes, makes a fated appearance in Argento’s SUSPERIA.