The Screaming Minis: V/H/S

The Screaming Minis is an experiment in short (well, shorter) individual reviews, as way for us to talk a little more about the other movies of note we’re watching but without the involved, in-depth discussion delivered as a duo. The name comes from The Screaming Mimi, the 1949 pulp novel by Frederic Brown that inspired Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

do not adjust the tracking

V/H/S
Directors: Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, and Radio Silence (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Chad Villella & Justin Martinez)
Released:
2012
Starring: Lane Hughes, Adam Wingard, Hannah Fierman, Joe Swanberg, Kate Lyn Sheil, Jason Yachanin, John Walcutt, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Chad Villella
Running time: 116 minutes
Genre: Horror

As a fan of found footage, anthologies, and Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) and Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead) I’d been looking forward to this movie. With its recent release to VOD and a few other outlets, I had to check it out.

A group of hipster thugs that spend most of their time doing crimes, being dicks, and making a buck with sharking videos are hired to steal a VHS tape. They burgle their way into the home of the man in possession of the tape, only to find him dead in front of a mass of screens and a mountain of cassettes. As they split up to search the rest of the house, one member of the group begins reviewing the tapes. In the first, some brosephs try to pick up some drunk girls and secretly record their own personal porn. They’re moderately successful, but probably wish they hadn’t been. The second tape is a travelogue of a young couple second-honeymooning in the American Southwest who picked precisely the wrong motel to stay in. In the third segment, a girl takes a group of new friends on a camping trip. Always a bad idea. Tape number four contains the webcam conversations of a man and his troubled friend who believes her house is haunted. And the final tape shows a group of guys heading out to a Halloween party. They may’ve gotten the address wrong.

I wasn’t sure whether I liked V/H/S or not after first watching it. I knew there were scenes I enjoyed and I liked the overall concept, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about its execution as a whole. It’s flawed: Some of the tapes work better than others. The third segment, “Tuesday the 17th,”  isn’t quite as good as the rest, though it does have its moments. Some of the characters (especially the dudes in the framing sequence and the first tape, “Succubus”) are EXTREMELY annoying. I think “10/31/98” went a little too crazy toward the end. It features a haunted house and with hauntings, subtle is usually better. Think The Haunting (1963) versus The Haunting (1999).  And the second and fourth tapes don’t provide much of explanation and can be a little disorienting.

The day after seeing it, I tried to describe the movie to, shockingly, someone who wasn’t Fisty. (I still feel guilty.) I found that there was a lot that I wanted to mention. There are plenty of freaky little details as well as big payoffs from each segment. That’s when I started to feel that there was more about the movie that affected me than I was immediately aware. Just hearing about the stories from the movie secondhand had that someone interested. She wasn’t just listening to the scenes I was describing, she was reacting.

Fulci said his film The Beyond was “[An] absolute film, with all the horrors of our world. It’s a plotless film: a house, people, and dead men coming from The Beyond. There’s no logic to it, just a succession of images.” I think V/H/S works in the same way. (Not as well as The Beyond. Don’t think I’m praising it THAT highly.) It’s a collection of nightmare clips not designed to flesh out every detail, make perfect sense, or just go from story point A to story point B, but rather to tap into our fears and freakouts. It’s a handful of video equivalencies of the urban legend about the mad man under the bed, pretending to be the family dog, licking the little girl’s hand. This is why just hearing my spoken account of the movie could affect someone. That’s the level V/H/S works on, that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark level. It does it well and that’s why I’m still thinking about the movie days after watching it. It affected me. It was freaky. It was scary. Bravo.

Also, there was A LOT of nudity … male and female!

V/H/S, while not being great, is still a good found footage anthology whose successes outnumber my nitpicks. Shockingly violent, disturbing, scary, and bizarre, it revels in its own freakiness and the disreputable nature of the genre.

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What Have You Done to Solange?

really, what?

Cosa avete fatto a Solange?
aka Das Geheimnis der grünen Stecknade
aka Terror in the Woods
aka The School That Couldn’t Scream
aka The Secret of the Green Pins
aka Who’s Next?
Director: Massimo Dallamano
Released: 1972
Starring: Fabio Testi, Cristina Galbó, Karin Baal, Joachim Fuchsberger, Camille Keaton
Running time: 103 min
Genre: giallo, krimi

Now you just think about screwing and grit your teeth. Proper Rape Vans being in short supply in ’70s London, the incredibly handsome and exquisitely bearded Italian Professor Enrico Rosseni drifts lazily along a wooded shore in his “Free Candy” boat, making time with Elizabeth, one of his young students from St. Mary’s Catholic College for Girls. Breaking from his embrace, Elizabeth claims to have seen someone being chased through the woods and the flash of a knife. Pretty sure that she’s just making up excuses to delay their inevitable sexin’ and just a bit irate that she’s not giving in so easily to his lovely beard, Rosseni gets snippy and rows them to the shore, to prove to her that there is no madman in the woods chasing anyone down. (Clearly, he needs to watch more movies.) When Elizabeth begins crying, he realizes that while he may be molesterific, being a dick on top of that is in bad form, and so he agrees to leave.

The next morning Rosseni, while getting dressed and being hostile to his Teutonically stern and beautiful wife Herta, hears a radio broadcast describing the grisly discovery of a murdered girl on the banks of the Thames. Curious, he heads back to the spot Elizabeth claimed to have seen the flashing blade and finds it crawling with cops. She was right! Arriving at the school, he’s greeted by even more police. It seems the murdered girl was one of his students, one of his young lover’s friends. Elizabeth wants to help the police, but Enrico convinces her that doing so would reveal their illicit affair, so they keep their secret. Inspector Barth, the lead investigator on the case, knows Rosseni is hiding something. And with Rosseni’s pen being found near the murdered girl and his appearance there during the initial crime scene investigation, he becomes the prime suspect.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth continues to pick at her memories of the day, piecing together a better image of the killer. Was he … a priest? Why target “innocent” schoolgirls? The killer keeps on doin’ what he do and kills more girls from the school and begins stalking Elizabeth. Herta grows more suspicious of her husband. The girls take a lot of awesome communal showers in front of a peephole and there are priests and naughty schoolgirls aplenty as Rosseni races to find the killer with only a tantalizing clue: Who is Solange … and what was done to her?

They knew the score–you know, sex, man. Despite the sordid topics touched on (abortion, naughty schoolgirls, pervert priests, statutory rape, adultery, etc), Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange? manages to be one of the least sleazy gialli. Instead of splashing the red stuff around in elaborate kill scenes, Dallamano sticks with one profoundly grisly modus operandi used judiciously. Add thoughtfully developed characters and plot, and only a dash of sex, and it makes for an unusually sensitive, chaste, and even poignant giallo.

not a little bit sleazy

the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist

the hip bone’s connected to the  …

Bill: Man, what a fantastic confluence of talent in this flick. Dallamano, directing here,  is best known as the cinematographer on A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More. Joe D’Amato, who made, like, five million filthy movies, does the cinematography here. It’s got a score by Ennio “Even John Williams Wishes He Could Be Me” Morricone. And it co-stars Cristina Galbó from Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and The Killer Must Kill Again (still not giving it up, the prude) and  none other than rape/revenge superstar, Camille Keaton, famous for her role in I Spit on Your Grave, as Solange!

Fisty: Yeah, thanks to Dallamano’s work with D’Amato/Aristide Massaccesi, WHYDtS? is a gorgeous movie, even without the operatic, (overly) theatrical approach of Argento, or the hallucinatory jewel tones of Bava. And Morricone’s score is appropriately romantic and jangling as the situation calls for, his usual excellent work. And let’s give some kudos to co-writer Bruno Di Geronimo, because without the coherent storyline, Solange would have been that much less effective.

And we’ve got talented and pretty faces in this Italian-West German co-production: krimi stalwart Joachim Fuchsberger and cinematic workhorse Karin Baal, familiar Italian faces like Vittorio Fanfoni (Who Saw Her Die?, Trinity is STILL My Name), and of course Italo-superstar Fabio Testi (The Big Racket, Four of the Apocalypse) and scream queen Cristina Galbó. Well, maybe scream princess or duchess. Seriously though, we see her boobs, but does she ever give it up?

never gonna give it up

enrico’s angels

where angels go, trouble follows

Bill: No. No she does not (that I can recall.) Here we are, a movie removed, in a completely different review, and I’m still bitching about her not giving up the booty. If Margot Kidder were here, she’d be on my side. She totally knows  a professional virgin when she sees one. WHYDtS? doesn’t even have a Femi to fall back on for some sex. Consequently, as mentioned earlier, this ends up being fairly chaste for a giallo. Galbo’s Elizabeth always stops prior to actual intercourse. Enrico and Herta, even when they are working as a team, never get it on. The girls at St. Mary’s are supposed to be real turned-on chicks, swingers, man. And into lesbian orgies. You never see any of that, however. It’s mentioned, but never shown. And even when talking about what crazy little sexpots they all were, the hepcat Rosseni is pumping for information clarifies that they never do any real screwing, not with guys.

This puritanical streak is damn near American. It might be the most “American” giallo I’ve seen. It’s very polished. It was filmed in English. The plot is pretty straight forward, coherent, with no super secret inheritance or other crazy, out-of-left-field motivations popping up at the last second. You don’t get the surreal, sometimes nonsensical, nightmare imagery that Argento and imitators’ flicks are known for.  The movie isn’t particularly concerned with style, architechture (though, there are some really neat shots of a the inside of the school), design, or fashion. Hell, Enrico’s sweater is actually really freakin’ ugly. Bill Cosby wouldn’t wear the thing.  WHYDtS?almost feels like it could’ve come out of Hollywood. If you had a friend that had never seen a giallo and you wanted to ease them into the genre, rather than just dunk them, this would be the movie to do it with. I read that this movie got wider States-side distribution than a lot of other gialli. I can see why that would be. This one could actually have a bit of appeal for a general American audience. Though, I’m not sure how well the killer’s preferred method of murder would play to them. Yikes.

you really don’t want to see this

you want to put what where?

the creepy doll just turns this up to eleven

Fisty: I’d like to say here that I think it’s kind of hilarious that you ascribe a more chaste or “puritanical” film to an American perspective, especially in light of brouhahas over sex n’ violence in film. But I totally get it.

Solange stands out in a genre known for sex, violence, and campiness because it is so conspicuously lacking in all three respects. As Bill mentioned, pretty much all the sexing is talked about and not something we see onscreen (though we do get some cunning linguistics between Enrico the Italian teacher and Elizabeth the student). The violence–though effective and distinctly unsettling– is mostly offscreen as well, left to our imaginations, and we see only the effects of the horribly brutal MO. And the camp stylings are very sedate, limited mostly to the sexy, sexy photographer and his milkmaid. For crying out loud, despite Enrico’s omnipresent chic turtleneck, his sweater is 100% Rufus Humphrey–ugh. So that brings us to the question: If it doesn’t look like a duck, swim like a duck, or talk like a duck, is it still a duck? I’ll hazard the answer “yes.” And no, it’s not recondite to make a genre film that doesn’t use the genre tropes when the tropes of which we speak are superficial markers and not the main concerns of gialli. Obscured by elaborate murder set pieces, sexy sexiness, and ludicrous maccaroni fashions is a concept that makes up the very bones of the giallo (all the way back to Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much aka The Evil Eye and Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), that of the eye-witness.

There are reminders of the importance of, as well as the sometimes fallible and sometimes delusive nature of witnessing scattered throughout WHYD2S?. Enrico’s friend–the only witness to a very shocking murder (Seriously, I did not see that murder coming, and it threw me for a loop. It’s City of the Dead mind-bottling.)–cannot possibly identify the killer in a police line-up because he is bewildered by the killer’s masquerade and he can barely think (or see) straight. (Of course, the murderer is disguised in order to obfuscate any potential witnesses.) Phil the hottie photographer (a profession by its very nature concerned with observation and seeing) provides Enrico with the most important clues to the mystery of Solange and the secret world of the naughty schoolgirls. When Enrico arrives at Phil’s houseboat, he is spied upon by the model, and when Phil and Enrico converse, Phil is initially in the extreme foreground (HOTNESS), using his camera as he relates his observations of the girls to Enrico. The girls are spied upon in the showers and in the confessional too, in both instances their most private, vulnerable places.

two turned-on dudes

i always feel like somebody’s watchin’ me

beautiful girl or candlestick?

Of course, from the very opening scene Elizabeth is the primary eye-witness; though she barely knows what she saw, she did see it, and she saw more than she realizes, hence her later recollections in dreams and visions, mediums that are normally highly suspect but common to the giallo. Her witnessing of the murder runs so deep that she may well be linked somehow to the killer, and that lies in her being witness to the events that started the mystery to begin with: what was done to Solange. So too are the girls witnesses, for though they may be in a sense peripheral to what was done because of their role as spectators, all but two of them were more deeply involved in placing Solange in those circumstances. However, the two girls who were ONLY spectators bear equal responsibility–according to the killer, who has them on his naughty list–thus placing the emphasis again on the eye-witness.

Bill: I initially thought you were crazy–and reaching–but you may be on to something. The idea of spectators being equally responsible may even extend to the viewer. The movie uses the killer’s POV several times, most fantastically in a fisheye shot of the killer sneaking into an apartment to commit a hella shocking murder. Those POV shots shift the audience from just watching the killings to actually participating, making us–as the sickos that want to see this crap–just as guilty as the murderer in the movie. If this is one of those movies that gives its fans the stink-eye for getting their kicks from this kind of sick exploitation and violence, that might explain why the movie doesn’t revel in those aspects of the giallo. It makes me wonder what Dallamano might have thought about the popularity of the genre. It would also make for some tasty irony if a movie that sought to condemn its audience for being sickos played a bigger role in the evolution of the slasher than a lot of other, more trashy gialli.

Everyone knows that Twitch of the Death Nerve was a huge influence on the Friday the 13th movies and that gialli, in general, were, at the least, the slasher’s cool uncle with a bitchin’ bachelor pad and a different girlfriend every visit. And everyone knows that Black Christmas was a pretty big deal as a proto slasher, begetting Halloween which, in turn, beget Friday the 13th and so on and on and on. I’m wondering if WHYDtS? might not have been a huge influence on Black Christmas. I don’t know if Bob Clark ever saw Solange?, but the movies share a whole lot of similarities: Plot aspects dealing with abortion, a group of school girlfriends as the primary victims, a matronly figure to the girls who may not be the ideal role model (also a victim), phone stalking by the killer, the use of the killer’s POV, which was considered a big deal in Black Christmas and then later Halloween and …

Fisty: Dude in a turtleneck! How could you miss dude in the turtleneck?

feel free to admire my turtleneck and cardigan

then who was shovel?

it is better to have shoveled and lost, than never to have shoveled at all

Bill: It’s so obvious! You can even find some shots with similar composition in both films. And WHYDtS? does eschew the typically more adult world of the average giallo for a younger victim pool of nubile teens, something that became common for slashers. You can interpret a moralistic bent to the murders in Solange, as well, similar to the drink/fuck/smoke=death trend people often attribute to slashers. The similarities between BC and WHYDtS? make a pretty solid bridge between their respective genres.

Fisty: But I so did not see that connection between the two, and it makes a lot of sense in retrospect. But we can’t ask Bob Clark, damn it! There are a few differences, however, which largely highlight some of the changes in the shift from giallo to slasher. Motivation is a big one: Most slasher villains are just fucking nuts without real motives. Clearly some do have them (Mrs Voorhees, Cropsy, etc), but many do not (Michael Myers, Russ Thorn, etc). There’s also the MO, which tends to be pretty consistent, or have a consistency about it, in gialli, whereas unless there’s a weapon of choice, many slashers are opportunistic hello, Jason!). Solange‘s killer uses the truly demented vaginal stabbing (Bill:ICK!) in every case but one, that exception being the TRULY SHOCKING MURDER mentioned above. And there are good reasons for that–though I might argue over them. But they’re relevant, and the imagery is striking, especially in light of later revelations.

There’s a lot more we could touch on, like the youth culture explosion Dallamano explores, the  morality of the various situations, and how Solange addresses female sexual agency, but we’ve blathered enough at this point. We also agreed that there are a few things we don’t want to spoiler in this one (though other reviews cheerfully do so, so beware), which kind of hinders some further discussion.

headed for cat-astrophe

csi: london, 1972

now that you’ve found love

Bill: Wait! We’re done?! We didn’t even talk about how blindingly, flawlessly handsome Enrico is. Or how characters and relationships that you expect to be shallow or harsh end up being sweet and genuine. You never talked about the cute scene you like where Enrico drives alongside Elizabeth on her bike, honking his horn at her and smiling, like a big sixteen-year-old. I didn’t even talk about the communal showers and that nude photo model’s milky titties!

Fisty: Ohmahgawd, Enrico is pants-droppingly fine! (Even in that fug sweater!) And yes, the relationships (I touched on this) and characters are often surprising (I think that one we’re talking around, not about, is a krimi thing, but I’m not familiar with those, so I’m not sure. Anyone know this?) I know you wanted to mention Herta, and what an awesome character she is. And yes! That scene! I think that one is the clincher for me that makes Enrico’s relationship with Elizabeth seem much more of a real thing, not a sordid affair but rather a genuine (if inappropriate) romance. Cutely creepy.  It’s part of the surprising depth Dallamano gives the characters; though on the surface his relationship with Elizabeth, his student, is sleazy (more so today than then, I think), it’s also poignantly romantic. We also see surprising sweetness in his often strained relations with Herta, a sweetness that suggests an emotional depth and a neediness outside the realm of the usual machismo (I’m looking at you, Carlo). Gah, so much to touch on! If we don’t stop, this’ll be a ten thousand word entry!

mmmm, your hair smells of youth and impropriety

nothing’s sexier than a man who listens

in german you say “no no,” in italian we hear “yes yes”

What Have You Done to Solange? is a must-see giallo and should be on every checklist of essential gialli. Dallamano et alia have created a good-looking thriller that works for both mainstream audiences and giallo/krimi aficionados, one that focuses on people and relationships, substance over style. Touching on feminism, youth culture, and anti-clericalism, Dallamano has made a genre flick where the exploitation is incidental to the plot and characters. Solange has its share of brutal, deeply visceral violence, but it is packaged in beautiful cinematography, with beautiful faces and music, creating a palatable vision of despair. Plus, boobies n’ bush. 

After Dark HorrorFest Recaps, Part I: Lake Mungo, Nightmare Man, Dying Breed, Frontière(s)

In celebration of After Dark’s annual HorrorFest and their 8 Films to Die For, we’re pounding out a couple of shortie omnibus reviews of eight releases from HorrorFests past.

still waters

Lake Mungo

Alice, a pretty but increasingly despondent 16 year-old, cannot breathe under water.  Sadly, this means she’s likely dead when she disappears during a family trip to a reservoir where she and her brother were swimming.  After driving home backwards (their car was acting screwy and would only go in reverse) and daughterless (while the authorities searched for Alice–or what was left of her,) the Palmer family wait for any word about their girl.  She does turn up but, as I mentioned previously, she makes a very poor fish and her father is forced to identify her body.  Before they are even able to begin the grieving process, the walls of the Palmer house begin to bleed and long dead corpses surface in their pool.  No, I’m kidding, but strange things do happen.  Alice is sensed, even seen, and cameras begin to pick up strange, eerie images that may or may not be proof of something supernatural.  With media attention focused on them and a psychic attempting to help, they begin learning some of the secrets that haunted Alice, and why Alice may be haunting them.

Part of Horr0rfest 2010, Lake Mungo is an Aussie mockumentary that tells the story of Alice and the Palmer family through interviews with the family, friends, assorted individuals involved with them, and the recordings and pictures they capture.  It’s kind of like Paranormal Activity if Ken Burns had made it, only way better than that sounds.

Fisty: This wasn’t quite what I expected, which was a pretty straightforward ghost story mockumentary. A lot of horror films these days rely upon a final twist to add depth and interest to what are often otherwise staid genre stories, and Lake Mungo has its share of twists, but Joel Anderson has crafted a thoughtful and sometimes beautiful meditation on grief and loss from the various turns the Palmer family’s story takes. Alice had secrets, but they’re not all what might be expected. As the documentary progresses, our skepticism ebbs and flows from the evidence that comes in, sometimes seemingly proving Alice’s existence beyond death, and sometimes disproving it entirely. By the very end, I was left with a feeling of profound sadness–and the worst case of chickenskin yet from a movie. It literally gave me chills.

Bill: Spine-tingling! That’s not hype either. Really. There was a few moments in Lake Mungo where I was so creeped out that I felt what was almost like an electric current run through me. Not from any jump scare either. There is only one real jump scare in the movie that I can recall. This intensity comes from pure, palpable dread. Anderson will let you know through the interviews that you’re going to see … something … but it’s never quite as easy to spot as you’d think, so they have to  slowly zoom in, your eyes searching all the time, until you land on the part of the image that just shouldn’t be there, and you feel the goosebumps spread up your arms. Everyone feels so real, their sorrow so genuine, that they raise the sense of reality of the whole affair, so that the things, the manifestations, if that’s what they are, that appear in the photos and videos seem like so more than just a fiction. This may be the only mockumentary I’ve ever seen where my suspension of disbelief was absolute. The movie made me afraid to use cameras. It’s sad and it’s frightening. Just watch it.

And a quick aside: There have been a lot of really good movies coming out of Australialand the past few years. Keep it up, Aussies. It’s great.

dude looks like a lady

Nightmare Man

Ellen believes a demon-thing called the Nightmare Man that resembles an African fertility mask she bought to help her conceive with her lousy Latin lover is haunting her. Everyone else thinks she’s schizophrenic. Bad news, Ellen: If you think a tacky mask will help you get pregnant, you are indeed mental. While husband William is driving her to an institution conveniently located in the woods miles from anywhere, they run out of gas. Doting husband leaves Ellen alone in the car in the woods to go fetch some, and that’s when shit gets real. Well, the Nightmare Man appears to. Suddenly, Ellen’s paranoia coalesces into a hideous mask-faced assassin who chases her through the woods with a knife, and is vulnerable to a good nards kneeing. In a nearby vacation house, former college chums (and lovers) Mia and Trinity are rusticating with their current beaux, drinking wine and playing Truth or Dare, until Ellen shows up with the Nightmare Man in hot pursuit. When Mia’s boytoy Ed bites it, she busts out a crossbow and then a rifle, and is prepared to defend herself and her friends from the demon outside. Unfortunately, Ellen soon reveals a much worse horror inside …

Directed by schlock jock, Rolfe Kanefsky, and starring the greatest ass working in current B-horror, Tiffany Shepis, Nightmare Man was selected as one of the 8 Films to Die For in Horrorfest 2007.

Fisty: I was so pissed at Nightmare Man by two minutes in, and my mood did not significantly improve until people started actually dying. I thought it was an interesting idea poorly executed. And by “poorly executed,” I mean it was damn awful. The straight-to-video, shot on camcorder look emphasized just how cheap the whole thing was, and the acting and story were dreadful. The pseudo-sexy non-tension between Mia and Trinity (gag) was lame, as was the clumsy, hamfisted use of Mia as a sexual object; there are myriad ways to convey sexiness without having a woman dress and pose like a crappy stripper working the third stage for dollar bills. That first half seemed more like a Skinemax feature than a horror movie, as it created no sense of either anticipation or dread–except the anticipation of it finally ending and dread that there was so much left to get through. But, I will say that at the very end, past all the logical improbabilities and lame duck attempts at naughty humor, it did get kinda funny in a very over the top manner. If Kanefsky had just stuck with that ludicrous style through the whole film, it would have fared better.

Bill: Fisty is right on with all of her criticisms, but I’m going to be way more forgiving, because none of it stopped me from enjoying Nightmare Man. It never really hits me that there is someone in the world named Rolfe until I see the name pop up in one of the guy’s movies. It makes me lol.  So, for me, this flick was bringing the lulz from the very start. It’s an abominably stupid film with dialog so bad, coupled with acting so terrible, that a lot of it seems as if the actors are reading their lines stiffly from the  poorly translated subtitles on a Chinese bootleg DVD of the movie they are actually acting in. It’s also full of dumb little errors and idiotic behavior, like when Mia, armed with a rifle, sees the Nightmare Man and runs back into the house without taking a shot at him with the loaded rifle that she went out specifically to get for the very purpose of shooting him. All of this sends me into a lollering tizzy. I even lmao‘d at a few of the intended laughs, maybe because I have the mentality of a 15 year-old. Speaking of … Tiffany Shepis.  Hominahominahomina! I actually became a fan of her after seeing her in (and out) of a silver jumpsuit in another of Kanesky’s movies that I like, The Hazing. She was the best thing in the movie, though Bull from Night Court was pretty awesome as well. Nightmare Man is Z-grade schlock, at about the same level as softcore com-porns like Genie in a String Bikini and The Bare Wench Project, only with less sex and a little more horror.  Not as good as The Hazing, but I was still rolfemao.  See what I did there?

having pie and eating it too

Dying Breed

Eight years after her sister, Ruth, drowned while searching for the supposedly extinct Tasmanian tiger, Nina returns to the island to continue her dead sister’s work, taking along three friends: boyfriend Matt, his childhood friend Jack, and Jack’s girlfriend Rebecca.  The farther into the wilds of Tasmania they go, the more like Deliverance their trip becomes, encountering (and stupidly getting into trouble with) the increasingly strange and sinister locals.  As they hunt for the tiger, an even more dangerous carnivore begins hunting them, the twisted, inbred descendant of Tasmania’s  legendary cannibal convict, Alexander Pierce.

An Aussie box office flop, Dying Breed was given a second chance as part of the third year of the After Dark Horrorfest in 2009.

Bill: There’s a scene in Silver Bullet that shows the drunken, white trash father of little Marty Coslaw’s future potential girlfriend sitting down to watch some good old pro wrasslin’.  As he’s taking his seat, on TV, one wrassler catches a mighty blow to the dangly bits and Daddy DrunkTrash grabs his junk and calls out, “Oh! Ohhh, that hurts mah parts!”  No one’s balls get pummeled in Dying Breed, but there are a few great gags that got a similar visceral response out of me.  I “oooh”-ed, “ow”e-d, “oh”-ed and “ugh”-ed at nasty flesh rippings, naked butchered corpses, heads in bear traps, arrows through faces, and an awesome slithery eel-thing popping out of a dead chick’s mouth. Nothing I haven’t seen before, sure, but it’s done here with a minimum of digital effects.  No bit-&-byte splatter or slow-mo to detract from it’s effectiveness.  That’s pretty much Dying Breed in a nutshell:  Standard backwoods hicksploitation cannibal story, but done damn well, the way it ought to be. There are a few nice surprises and twists, however, and some familiar faces for horror fans. Leigh Whannell from the Saw series is in here, as is Nathan Phillips from Snakes on a Plane and Wolf Creek.  Tying the story of the movie into the real legend of Alexander Pierce and the search for the Tasmanian tiger was a great move.  It just makes it that much better for folklore and cryptozoology nuts like myself.  Dying Breed may just be the last in a long line of movies about city slickers going where they don’t belong, but it sure does got a purty mouth. Squeeeeeal!

Fisty: I love Tasmanian tigers, and pretty much my favorite thing about Dying Breed was the chance to see my favorite cryptids prancing about–even though I then got all drunkenly teary-eyed about them being (likely) extinct. Assholes! That’s not to say that’s the only thing I liked about it, however. Jody Dwyer handles genre conventions aptly, pounding out a reliable little tale of City and Country Mice meeting … and eating one another. It’s a very slick, professional-looking movie, with a gorgeous setting that’s used beautifully. Two caveats: I object to Dwyer’s having some of the cannibals just leap right into chomping on a live or barely dead person’s face. Cannibals usually butcher and cook their meat, just like anyone else, because they’re people–whether they be pescetarians, or chomping on Tofurkey. It’s a cheap way to emphasize the bestiality of character that actually displays itself easily through most of the other actions taken by the cannibals. So fuck that. Also, the very end–one of the aforementioned twist endings–is just silly. Dwyer tried to cram like, fifteen different endings into one, and the movie as a whole suffers. I was really digging it until then. I’d still recommend it.

nothing very exciting

Frontier(s)

Panic on the streets of London Paris!  Cars are burning, people are being hosed, violent protesters are throwing rocks and being beaten by fascist riot squads, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!  Or at least that’s what we see in the stock footage of riots that kicks off the movie.  Taking advantage of the chaos, the pregnant Yasmine, her brother Semi, and three other guys that you won’t care about, being a bunch of  opportunistic thieves, have stolen some cash or something.  I don’t know.  They have a bag of money and cops are shooting at them, so I guess that’s what it was.  On the run, with Semi shot and bleeding all over the place, they split up and make plans to meet up at a hostel off in the countryside, on their way out of the country.  How were they supposed to know that they were running right into the French version of Motel Hell, run by a family of cannibal Nazis?

Frontière(s) was supposed to have been one of the 8 Films to Die For in the 2007 Horrorfest, but it didn’t make the main eight due to it’s NC-17 rating, but was still released on DVD under the After Dark banner.

Bill: I’d heard this was supposed to be some hardcore, ultraviolent, cringe-worthy stuff, but I was more than a little let down.  With the exception of the oven scene, where one poor fella gets roasted alive (pretty awesome,) there was nothing in Frontier(s) that I hadn’t already seen done better or taken further in the movies it seemed to be trying to crib from, namely Hostel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, House of 1000 Corpses, The Hills Have Eyes, The Descent … even House of Wax … pretty much every mid-2000s horror flick with a bit of a mean streak.  There are even elements in the film that I would swear were taken from Inside and [rec], even though both of those were released in the same year, even months after Frontier(s).  It played like a Best of 2003-2007 montage, only without really using the best bits.  Still, I could forgive the movie for just giving me more of the same, so long as there was something else to like about it, but it isn’t cleverly written, has no real twists, no real nudity to speak of  (a crime when it has a two-couple sex scene, one topless girl, and a hosing down sequence,) is completely devoid of humor or beauty, and doesn’t have a single interesting character in the film.  Even the Nazi cannibals were forgettable and plain.  How is that even possible?!  And the action was near impossible to follow because of all the extreme use of quick cuts and shaky cam.  It’s bloody and it’s violent, but not outrageously, shockingly, disturbingly, creatively, memorably or even entertainingly so.  A solid, “Meh,” though I was slightly amused by the last half hour of the movie, because of Karina Testa’s use of a spot on impersonation of a post-Parkinson’s Michael J. Fox.

Fisty: It’s starts so promisingly and then gets so … not. And uninteresting. It really did seem to me like three different movies mishmashed together, and spiced up with bits appropriated from a thousand other movies. There’s the crime thriller with racial commentary at the beginning, the city dwellers run afoul of country folk torture porn of the middle, and then toward the end we see splashes of a really interesting horror movie built on warped family dynamics. The sibling rivalry between brothers Goetz, Karl, and Hans, as well as the sisters Gilberte and Klaudia (and seriously? Estelle Lefébure’s Gilberte was a strung out hag. Amélie Daure was way more interesting and attractive; we needed more of her), is mostly great, very well done–but not enough of it!–and the moments between Eva and Yasmine are the only ones of beauty in the entire film. I would have enjoyed that movie way more. I did like Karina Testa’s Yasmine, however, and thought she nicely portrayed the effects of shock and constant terror in a way that neatly revisited Marilyn Burns’ Sally. Only for completists.

Splice

worst poster yet

 Splice
aka Nouvelle espèce
Director:
Vincenzo Natali
Released: 2009
Starring: Sarah Polley, Adrien Brody, Delphine Chanéac
Running time: 104 minutes
Genre: horror, science-fiction, thriller

Neonatal-i stylee: Splice delivers, literally, as it opens and we experience birth from the perspective of a newborn critter being brought into life by the rockstar scientist couple of Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley).  The critter turns out to be one of two maple leaf-tongued (they’re Canadian!) chimeric horrors named Fred and Ginger, seemingly spliced together from the DNA of a loogie and that creepy limbless guy from Tod Browning’s Freaks. When introduced, the pair (male and female they created them) bond touchingly, and it seems that Clive and Elsa’s latest project is destined for success.

High on pure scientific discovery with visions of human hybrids and miracle cures dancing in their heads, Clive and Elsa walk into a meeting with the financial and operational heads of Nucleic Exchange Research and Development (yes, N.E.R.D.,) who proceed to kill their buzz with a harsh dose of capitalist reality.  Playing God is très expensive, they’re in the private sector, and so they need to start bringing in the big bucks. So, from now on, discovery is put on the back burner until they can start synthesizing  the new proteins and compounds that Fred and Ginger make possible to make everyone rich and fund further research.  Besides, the bosses point out, at this early stage the outrage at using human DNA would be pretty extreme.

Too young, idealistic, and in love (and being such big know-it-alls) to postpone for anything silly like moral or financial reasons the couple plunge into human splicing in secret, just to see if they can do it. (Just the tip?) Of course, things go further than planned and before they’re anywhere near ready, they find themselves ankle deep in amniotic fluid and over their heads in parental drama.  Their creation, Dren, grows rapidly, forcing everything else in their lives into the background.  Previously an almost perfect couple, Clive and Elsa now find themselves at odds over how to deal with Dren, who is becoming more difficult, unpredictable, and deadly with each passing day.

fred, meet clive & elsa

Stylish and smart, Splice features Cronenbergian-levels of squick, as well as fascinating meditations on the meanings of marriage, pregnancy, abortion, childbirth, and parenting. Natali establishes tension early on in all aspects of the film, but it sadly peters out by the silly finale. Perhaps too varied for hardcore horror and sci-fi fans, and too intense for mainstream audiences, Splice was a box office stillbirth, but celebrated by most critics.

Fisty: A bit disingenuous, aren’t we, with that synopsis? Let’s be blunt: Elsa is the dynamo in this relationship–at least until Dren comes along–and the whole project rests largely on her shoulders. She’s the one who pressures Clive into experimenting with human DNA, and she’s the one who refuses at every opportunity to give the project up. Splice begins with the premise that while Clive wants to progress in their relationship and plans on children one day, Elsa doesn’t want kids–not outside of a laboratory. She frightened, in part because of her rocky past with a possibly crazy, abusive mother, and in part because, well, having kids is a pretty big and intimidating undertaking. At least, it ought to be. There’s a lot of awesome mystery involved in the organic process of pregnancy and childbirth, not to mention parenting forever after. And Splice nicely explores all of the terrors a modern, liberated woman might have about it.

sexting

Bill: I’d really like to stand up for Clive, but I can’t.  He’s a bit of a pushover. Only once in the movie does he really show any kind of initiative to act decisively on his own.  He basically lets Elsa run him, only ever offering fairly weak resistance to whatever she wants, which his younger brother calls him out on at one point.  He can’t get the work done at the lab, leaving Elsa to go save their jobs (though, she did have fresher tissue samples.)  He can’t even be the sexual aggressor.  He just strokes Elsa’s leg until she takes over.  And he isn’t just that way with Elsa either.  He can’t handle Dren.  He can’t handle her when she’s a baby.  He ends up holding his ears and letting Elsa take care of her.  He can’t handle her when she’s a child, instead forcing Elsa to be the disciplinarian.  He has a brief moment during what I would guess to be an early pubescent stage of Dren’s development, while teaching her to dance, that he uses this obviously adoring and uncertain tween-thing to be “The Man,” something he can’t do with Elsa, trying to explain to Dren that the man should always lead.  As soon as she gains some confidence and enters adolescence, however, he becomes a doormat for her, too.

It isn’t just Clive.  Males, in general, in Splice are all either completely incompetent, weak-willed or both, as well as constantly out-classed by and subservient to their female superiors.  The only exceptions are the few times when being male instantly makes them violent, territorial murderers and rapists.

geek chic

Fisty: Odd, I seem to recall someone babbling that all males in Splice were depicted just as violent, murdering rapists. But here you’re saying they’re violent wimps? Interesting. I think you’re projecting again, Bill. This is not King of Queens or According to Jim.  (Bill: So I get a little annoyed with the PR war on masculinity.  Sue me. Fisty: NO SUCH THING.)  It’s a metaphor for starting a family. But if it makes you feel better, you could just as easily say that all the women in Splice (what few there were, even considering the small cast) were castrating bitches. And violent, murderous ones, too, who placed reproduction above the needs or concerns of their partners–or just about anyone, really. Unbunch your nuts already. And neither would I call Gavin or Barlow incompetent, weak-willed, or subservient. You’re grossly generalizing.

Bill: Oh, come on.  They are such buffoons.  Gavin is completely reliant on his brother for his job and can’t even tell the difference between a boy and a girl and Barlow is scared shitless of Chorot and is completely dismissed by Elsa.  “When the REAL scientists show up, ” she says to him.  But, you’re right that the women don’t fare any better, often shown behaving like selfish tyrants.  Perhaps, if the characters are a family, then the movie is a home, and it’s still the case in our society, at least at the moment, that the woman is the central figure in the home and the man has a lesser role (not to trivialize dudes.)  And, yeah, the chicks can be pretty violent in this, too.

oh, SHI–!

Fisty: It wouldn’t have bothered you AT ALL if Gavin’s role were female instead–and lest we forget, EVERYONE in the lab relies on Clive and Elsa keeping their shit together and the project going, or they are out of a job … and plush scienterrific jobs are probably not so easy to find–or if Clive had said that to Barlow. Like I said, you are totally projecting. Elsa IS a real scientist, so why shouldn’t she scorn a bureaucrat mucking about in her lab? I LIKE that Elsa is aggressive and sometimes unpleasant. It’s a relief that she isn’t relegated to just demonstrating maternal instincts, or being the great moralizer; too many women in horror and sci-fi are left to fulfill that Victorian notion that women are inherently moral–or at least, more moral than the men around. Instead, from the very start, Elsa chivvies Clive along persuading him into ever further transgressions, until she hasn’t a leg to stand on when she makes a volta face and accuses him of being the great transgressor. Just by continuing their experiments and creating Dren, Elsa takes them into a place without rules, where they’re left to create their own. Unfortunately, neither of them is really capable of doing so. Like a lot of adults lingering in a twilight world of post-adolescence, Elsa and Clive are … clueless.

Bill: They are and because they are, they both make some severe mistakes in how they deal with Dren.  They both crack up at various points.  They screw up.  Still, they aren’t bad people.  They aren’t unlikable.  They both care and they both show compassion.  These aren’t one-note characters.  Even when they’re at their most despicable, they aren’t evil, just angry, stressed or mixed up.

a mommy & me moment

Fisty: Elsa herself isn’t self-aware enough to realize what she is doing when she creates Dren. Though she categorically refuses to have children with Clive, she leaps into creating a human-animal hybrid using her own DNA, creating a surrogate child in the controlled environment of her lab. For someone who is supposed to be so smart, she sure is stupid about her motives for the experiment. Elsa, because of her past with a crazy mother, seeks control–and she cannot control pregnancy or childbirth and rearing unless it’s in the guise of an experiment, with a specimen. After all, then she can have a family and a career, but in one package instead of juggling the two! (One could even choose to interpret this as a danger of the scientific world in which Elsa and Clive live, that she/they fear anything outside of certain rigid parameters, but that just seems silly.)

It’s not so unusual to fear pregnancy and childbirth, and to have to cope with the idea of certain things being out of your control–they will happen regardless. MY GOD, Dren’s birth scene is an absolute nightmare of hospital birth trauma. Now, Eli and I are planning on reproducing sometime soon, and I am frankly terrified, so I get the idea. It is normal and rational to be anxious and afraid of reproduction, but Elsa’s reaction is pathological. Not to mention that she drags Clive into it in a neat reversal of the usual “tricked into pregnancy” coup de grace administered when one partner (*cough*THE MAN*cough*) is reluctant to breed. That was pretty funny.

shoulda gone for hypnobabies at the birthing center

Bill: I want to talk about Dren.  First, a few props to Delphine Chanéac for making her more than just a standard movie monster, giving us a creature with personality and pathos.  That’s essential to a good Frankenstein story.  Also…  OMG, so cute!  I want one!  She’s like a little fleshy mouser from TMNT.  NO!  She’s Mew.  She’s an adorable little live action Mew.  Then, when she grows up…  total genetic lolita hotness.  She’s like Mewtwo if Mewtwo were a porn starlet.  Kind of alien looking, sure, and slightly androgynous, yes, but she has a tail.  Man, I dig chicks with tails.  She’s the sexiest only vaguely human character in a movie since Helena Bonham Carter in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes.   When she grabs that rail with her foot and does that thing with her hips…  OMG!  I want one!  Then, when those wing things pop out, kind of like Shuna Sassi’s quills in Nightbreed…  Fuck yeah!

Fisty:

She kind of grossed me out, actually, and I like aye-ayes and naked mole rats. She’s got an uncanny valley kind of thing going on, but um, alive. At least in the face. For me, she was cutest when she was newborn–and least human (and more like a bunny head).

the train goes in the tunnel

Speaking of gross, Natali went all out with the squick. Suitably for a movie taking place in a lab with human hybrids and featuring a crazy reproductive psychosexual subtext, there’s a lot of … fluids. And goo. Fred and Ginger are basically goo balls that sprout tentacles. Dren’s “birth” scene, the delivery from the host uterus tank thing, is especially nasty. There’s broken glass and amniotic fluid EVERYWHERE, and meconium and placenta, and just nasty nasty nasty. With all the screaming and trauma, it’s a perfect commentary on the nightmare of a hospital birth gone awry.

Bill: Don’t forget the splatterthon in front of a live studio audience.  Those poor people should’ve had a Gallagher tarp.  Maybe that scene was meant to be like going to your kid’s school play and watching him walk out with his shoe untied, trip, then vomit on stage.  I have to wonder if Fred and Ging were acting out because Mommy and Daddy were giving all of their attention to the baby.  One good thing about Splice, while the main themes and metaphors are obvious, maybe even obnoxiously so, there’s a lot of room to play with various interpretations of everything else in the movie.  It’s a movie that deals with themes that beg to be OVER-analyzed.  It’s fun think about and discuss.

That starts to break down, though, towards the end, when things get a little too Freudian.  If you ain’t down with Freud, the last act won’t really work for you.  It didn’t for me.

cam2cam ne1?

Fisty: Neither I. And I think that may be what upset so many of the fan people, they were unwilling to deal with the masses of Freudian associations thrown at them by Natali: transference, incest, Oedipus, Elektra, the genital stage, phallocentrism, etc. Especially at the end, when the nice, tense thriller devolves into a silly, clichéd action chase, culminating in an ultimate transference. And of course that’s when Dren mutates–like how Fred and Ginger switched sex because of … well, why? Stress? A coping mechanism? Did they ever really explain that?

Bill: Not that I saw.  The sudden biological and behavioral changes just happen with no real cause other than it being the end of the movie and an excuse for some action.  It was said previously in the film that Dren’s accelerated life would be very short anyway.  We didn’t need a big confrontation or a sudden body count.  Natali has said that his films always end implying that there may be another story.  I think he might of rushed to get to that point with Splice and lost what could’ve been a much more emotional ending that would’ve been more in line with the rest of the movie.

Fisty: Yeah. The crap climax–combined with already touchy subject matter–took a thoughtful and genuinely creepy sci-fi thriller cum horror into a Hollywood-typical action chase sequence, and ultimately alienated well, pretty much everyone. Except critics. For the most part. I hope that Natali keeps it up though, because horror needs more intelligent voices.

totally adorable!

Eli: Shouldn’t have had sex with her after midnight, dude.