A Quiet Place to Kill

2013 italian film culture blogathon

Yes, things look a little different here today. This review is part of The Nitrate Diva’s 2013 Italian Film Culture Blogathon, a celebration of all aspects of Italian film culture. And as such, we’re including a little background information for those readers not accustomed to giallo. Without further ado …

You know, there are directors who achieve fame or notoriety chiefly through a particular work (or even a couple), regardless of how representative it is of their oeuvre. To the general public, Umberto Lenzi likely means nothing, except perhaps, “What gibberish are you talking now?” but to horror fans, Lenzi means Cannibal FeroxNightmare City. Maybe even Eaten Alive! Which are all … decidedly not good. Some might go so far as to call them worthless trash. And that’s a damn shame, because Umberto Lenzi–and he will be the first to tell you this–has made a number of fine films, or at the least, far better ones over the course of his long career. I’d say the majority of his pre-1980 work is better by far, but it’s Lenzi’s curse to be known best as a purveyor of ultraviolent cannibal sleaze.

Lenzi’s strengths lie chiefly in action and exciting set pieces, and accordingly some of his finest work is in the poliziottesco filone–the “tough cop” crime and action flicks of the Seventies inspired by the likes of Dirty HarryLenzi’s poliziotteschi are easily comparable to the best of the filone by acknowledged masters like Di Leo, Dallamano, and Castellari. But before the rise of the poliziottesco, there was the giallo.

For those tyros tuning in Wikipedia can provide a quick background on the giallo; for our purposes, the essentials are that the giallo was a sort of crime thriller popular in the Sixties and Seventies; it was during the latter decade that the genre peaked (about 1972). In 1963’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much and 1966’s Blood and Black Lace Mario Bava laid out the general narrative structures and tropes of the filone (later playing with those same generic conventions in a string of ever more experimental gialli), while Dario Argento’s 1970 debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage upped the ante with yet more violence and psychosexual drama–and was an international breakthrough hit. (Note that this film and Bird were released simultaneously, AQP2K coming out one day after Bird.) It is Argento’s work (in the vein of Bava) that is synonymous with the current popular conception of the giallo–complete with elaborate violence, kitschy style, and often impenetrable plotting. Most of the gialli popular today are from the “classic” period of 1970-1975, and therefore are considered direct descendants of Bird, and so the relentless discussion among fans and purists of just what does or does not constitute a “proper” giallo works from Bird’s example. And the Sixties gialli (saving Bava’s work, of course–in MOST instances) often fall victim to the “but really, what IS a giallo!?” nitpickers, particularly the type we’re discussing here, the sexy-thriller lenziani.

(Wait, what? That dude we just mentioned, the one largely reviled by anyone other than ardent gorehounds or fans of Eurocrime ? That guy has like, a film genre filone named after him? Yeah, pretty much. And it’s awesome!)

Differing from the Argento-type gialli in that they’re less mystery thrillers than suspense thrillers, i.e., the killer’s identity isn’t usually a mystery,  but rather the mystery lies in whether the killer will get away with their crime–and sometimes (always?) whether there is yet ANOTHER layer of duplicity. Less Agatha Christie than Hitchcock, these Sixties sexy-thrillers lenziani are also more Clouzot’s Les diaboliques than anything elseThink of the sexy-thriller lenziani as a gorgeous detour on the way from Bava to Argento, one that winds its way through sunny Mediterranean locales populated by the rich and glamorous. Carroll Baker and Jean Sorel will be there, looking fine, and there will be more of the beautiful people–and many of them will be nude! There will be scads of booze and pills, women and song, lies and videotape. We’re going to hop into a sporty little roadster and speed down treacherous serpentine roads until we reach the shocking conclusion of the sexy-thriller lenziani.

sex, lies, & super8

sex, lies, & super8

Paranoia
aka A Quiet Place to Kill
aka Os Ambiciosos Insaciáveis
aka Una droga llamada Helen
Director: Umberto Lenzi
Released: 1970
Starring: Carroll Baker, Jean Sorel, Anna Proclemer, Luis Dávila
Running time: 94 min
Genre: giallo

Women are sometimes silent, but never when there’s nothing to say. Lilian Terry, however, has plenty to say. She begins crooning “You,” the title track to Paranoia, over some Umiliani loungey jazz stylings. As the credits roll, we see  … I don’t even know what, but it sure is exciting! It’s all in Glorious Negativecolor, for one. There are zooms on women walking and staring, and cameras rolling–on us! There are reflections and distortions, rack focusing and women appearing, always staring. There’s a gun! And a crash! And a struggle! There’s running, and slapping, and ominous men in suits! And yet more staring, staring, staring! That dratted camera again! And it’s all tremendously exciting with the crooning the reversed colors and the THINGS HAPPENING. Finally, we see–who? Oh, it’s La Baker, and she’s ready for some Formula 1 fun.

And there we are, transported to a racetrack where Helen is a racecar driver, a veritable Maria Andretti. Only she sees (hallucinates? recalls? envisions? prophesies?) a handsome man (Jean Sorel) standing on the track–all we need now is Mary Weiss shrieking “Look out, look out look out!”–a swerve and a crash! The ambulance rushes the driver away, she goes into surgery, and then it’s … some time later, and Helen’s apparently recovered. Oh, all but her nerves, which are shot per the doctor, she’ll never race again. He also warns her against excitement, sex, smoking and drinking. Allowed to choose one but vice, Helen goes with whiskey, jettisoning playboys and fun. It’s not all so bad, however, as she’s also given a lifetime membership to the Valley of the Dolls–as long as she never takes one on an empty stomach!

Leaving the hospital with her erstwhile flunky/manager/paramour/hair model, Helen gets the bad news that she’s on the hook for MILLIONS (of lira, so who cares, it’s not like it’s real money anyways) for her hospital treatment and stay. Also for even more MILLIONS (see above) for the racecar she wrecked. On the plus side, she’s got a telegram from some well wisher! There’s always a silver lining. Turns out that the telegram is from Helen’s ex-husband Maurice, who’s got a villa in Mallorca, and suggests she visit. Playboy von Glamourhair makes a whiskey stop, and while he’s in the shop, Helen absconds with his sporty little car, headed for Mallorca.

helen was a racecar driver

helen was a racecar driver

you give love a bad name

you give love a bad name

when passion's a prison you can't break free

when passion’s a prison you can’t break free

In sunny Mallorca, however, Helen will find that it was actually Maurice’s WIFE (!!!) Constance who sent the telegram. And though she’s hesitant about joining Maurice and Constance for a little menage, their frolicsome fun in the sun life is just irresistible. As is Maurice. He’s just as deliciously seductive as he was when Helen married him (seriously, have you SEEN Jean Sorel!?), and Helen’s just as much under his spell as she ever was. Also under the influence of a drug called Maurice is Constance–but she yearns to break free. She enlists Helen in the founding chapter of Maurice Anonymous, and under her program the first step is murdering Maurice.

Murder is plotted and a murder occurs, but whose? Will the perpetrators convince the authorities of their story? Was the crime caught on tape? And just what is that untrustworthy nymphette Susan up to? It’s all J&B and jetsetters, women and Wess & the Airedales, upskirts and Umiliani until someone gets hurt–or dead.

A typical European male: selfish amoral, and corrupt. Between Bava and Aregnto there was a school of gialli rather unlike those with which we are more familiar. They are the psycho-sexy thrillers lenziani, and, well, guess who was the master? These gialli by way of Hitchcock and Clouzot–often with a noirish touch–are a breed apart from the post-Argento giallo, although their influence shouldn’t be underestimated.

your very first kiss was your first kiss goodbye

your very first kiss was your first kiss goodbye

psycho sexy

psycho sexy, qu’est-ce que c’est?

who's the hypotenuse now!?

who’s the hypotenuse now!?

Fisty: Let’s talk negatives first, specifically, that credits sequence. Maybe I suffer from short-term memory loss, but that was one of THE most exciting credit sequences I have ever seen. The first time I watched Paranoia, I remember being so jazzed within thirty seconds that I was jumping up and down, jizzing, texting, and tweeting. Then I tore my hair out. And started scream-crying, like footage of girls seeing The Beatles or Danny Bonaduce in person for the first time. I’m kind of getting the urge to start doing that again right now, actually. The music! The action! The cutaways! The crazy colors! SO. MUCH. EXCITEMENT.

You know, normally we wouldn’t spend so much time, either in the synopsis or the actual review, discussing a credit sequence, but in this case it’s absolutely warranted. The brilliant (yes, I am applying that adjective to Umberto Lenzi, more on that momentarily) thing about the sequence is not only how (incredibly) exciting it is, but the way it–well, I’ll let you take this one, Billy.

Bill: First, let me explain to the readers (as if we have those–HA!) what the hell you’re talking about, in case we aren’t being clear enough.

For anyone that hasn’t seen Paranoia (which I will now begin calling A Quiet Place to Kill or AQP2K for short–I’ll come back to that in a second,) the entire opening credit sequence is a montage of scenes from the movie with the colors reversed or, say it with me, “in NEG-UH-TIVE.” Now go back and read Fisty’s first sentence and laugh at her, because she’s funny. You can always trust her to bring the wits and class. She really was as excited as she claims about that opening sequence, too. That is not hyperbole. Her excitement was warranted though. It really is a kick ass way to open the movie … and kind of brilliant. You see all this struggle and violence and trippy, fun-looking stuff that foreshadows everything you’re about to see, while still keeping you clueless as to which things will be happening to what characters, since it’s so hard to recognize people in negative. Once you have seen the flick and re-watch that part, knowing exactly what you’re seeing in the intro makes it even cooler. One negative about the negative (I stole that from you, Fisty,) it does also tend to make everyone look a bit like poorly done CGI characters when they move. But there’s no way Lenzi could’ve have known that in 1970.

a quiet place to--oh, whatever

a quiet place to–oh, whatever

i play my part and you play your game

i play my part and you play your game

an ideal place to--oh, goddamnit, lenzi!

an ideal place to–oh, goddamnit, lenzi!

Getting back to the title thing … Umberto Lenzi’s Paranoia came out in 1969, starring Carroll Baker only to be followed by Umberto Lenzi’s Paranoia, which came out in 1970 starring Carroll Baker. SAY WHAT?! The ’69 film, known as Orgasmo in Italy, was retitled to Paranoia for international release. The ’70 film, Paranoia–that’s the one we’re doing now–was given the same name as the U.S. re-title of Orgasmo. So, to avoid confusion, they retitled Paranoia as A Quiet Place to Kill internationally. This attempt to avoid confusion has failed. I got confused just writing this. Seriously, what the hell, man? Is the “ridiculous” in our “ridiculous re-titles” tag even a strong enough word for this tomfoolery, Fisty? Do we need a new tag? Maybe something with curse words in it?

Fisty: Dude, it gets better! The title of Lenzi’s 1971 giallo Un posto ideale per uccidere translates to An Ideal Place to Kill, though it was released in the US as both Oasis of Fear and Dirty Pictures. So after releasing Paranoia with the international title A Quiet Place to Kill he released another film with a similar title. AND, his original intent was for Orgasmo to be titled Paranoia. What with the reuse of Wess & the Airedales’ “Just Tell Me” in both Orgasmo and A Quiet Place to Kill, I think Umberto Lenzi gets a wee bit fixated on motifs now and again.

Bill: You don’t say? Could you call filming with a glass of red liquid ruining your shot twenty-eight different times in one movie a motif he was stuck on? If so, then I agree. He is a better filmmaker than most people that know him only for cheap exploitative thrills would probably realize, but in this instance, I have to wonder what he was thinking. I just don’t get it. I don’t understand why he would intentionally ruin his shot over and over with the glasses. There’s a few other scenes with, like, planters and vases in the foreground that throw you off, too. Is this some cultural thing that I’m not understanding? Just an eccentricity of Lenzi? Was this movie originally meant to be in 3D (with a funky disco cocaine theme song)?

you promise me heaven then put me through hell

you promise me heaven then put me through hell

quit being a bitch and fill one up

quit being a bitch and fill one up

bill is so pissed

bill is so pissed

Fisty: (Inasmuch as disco’s progenitors include funk, lounge, psychedelica, yes. Sort of.) But no. Those shots are hardly “ruin[ed],” Bill. Your use of “intentional” there should clue you in to what Lenzi was playing at with the different compositions –and AQP2K is indeed chockablock with funky yet elegant shots. Lenzi seems a bit experimental, like he’s playing more with different ways of telling the story visually rather than simply through the narrative, and that the tricks aren’t there just to to heighten dramatic impact. That showy rack focusing you find so distracting? Another way for Lenzi to show how the roles of victims and perpetrators become increasingly blurred and overlapping, the ways in which motives are obscured.

Lenzi also throws a lot of mirrored or double compositions and subjective camera shots into the mix, further playing with notions of just who’s doing what to whom here. Some of my favorites involve Helen and Constance, particularly their first scene (featuring a stunning gold crackle mirror tiled fireplace!), in which they’re both wearing green, establishing their jealous natures. Lenzi plays with color quite a bit, clothing Constance–and in one episode, Helen–literally in gold, symbolizing perhaps a deeper motive, and of course the film is practically awash in the red stuff. No, not blood (these Sixties gialli are rarely bloody), but myriad red libations–what are they, aperitifs? Campari or vermouth? I have no idea. Those little red glasses of SOMETHING potent–that’s important, Bill–are some of the worst offenders in those shots you hate. But Lenzi liberally splashes his film with red, the color of passion, anger, and blood.

Bill: I’m down with all the mirrors and the colors and characters dressing as one another and the flashes of memories and imaginings he uses to keep things twisty-turny and have the audience questioning everything. That’s all done very well. But whatever Lenzi was trying to get across by sticking a bunch of blurry crap in our faces, so we can’t even see the actors, he failed. Sure, you can say he hiding the actors behind a mask of colors that  represent their passions to show how those overpowering emotions are occluding their rational selves or whatever bunk you want throw out about it, but really, he could’ve done that in a much less annoying way. I think he did manage the same thing in other films without making me use my rage face. At least I don’t remember it being as jarring in Orgasmo or So Sweet…  So Perverse. I know Fulci has used similar ideas in, for instance, Perversion Story, but it wasn’t as frequent and it came off as cool, instead of … irritating. I don’t want to say this is because Lenzi is a bad filmmaker. Like I said earlier, he’s better than most give him credit for. I like him. But he is kind of eccentric and, I think, has a harder time pulling off ideas like that in a successful way. Or maybe he’s just a genius and he’s too smart for his own audiences. What do I know? I mostly watch these flicks for the sex and violence.

shot through the heart!

shot through the heart!

no one can save me; the damage is done

no one can save me

the damage is done

the damage is done

Mmmmm, violence. But only some! These lenziani tend to be fairly light on violence compared to other gialli, and that’s why they usually aren’t my favs. They do typically make up for it in other ways, however, like adding plenty of salacious kink,  bodacious style, beautiful locales, and vice vice vice! There’s booze and pills and T&A and sexual sadism, like Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion‘s Minou (who would totally be besties with Helen) in her sexy surrender scene in that movie, or the stylistic brilliance of Fulci filming a sex scene from the POV of a bed in Perversion Story. The pop culture hipness of The Sweet Body of Deborah is the big draw for me there, with a comic book themed nightclub and permanent Twister fixtures in the front yard. And Lenzi’s own Orgasmo keeps me rapt with the psycho-sexual torment a cute young couple put Carroll Baker through. AQP2K tries to make up for its lack of a body count by having Helen be naked pretty much every 10-15 minutes or so, which, believe me, I did appreciate. There’s also a fun club scene with a bitchin’ dancin’ girl upskirt (but, ugh, the song almost ruins it,) a fantastically bizarre cavern club, and some crazy, fun other stuff, like Hitchcock nods, Jean Sorel being ridiculously entertaining, and a scene with a stuffed fox monster … thing. And plenty of lovely decor, sets and artsy scenes, not counting those stupid drinking glass in the foreground ones. But, personally, I don’t think it was enough. I liked it and I certainly was never bored, but I don’t think it rises to the level of the other films I mentioned.

Fisty: I know some of his choices irritate you (though you’re TOTALLY wrong), but it’s important to note that Lenzi’s stylistic choices are used consistently and coherently; the style essentially delineates the text.

now part of this complete breakfast

now part of this complete breakfast

paint your smile on your lips

paint your smile on your lips

ohhhhhhh, you're a loaded gun!

ohhhhhhh, you’re a loaded gun!

For me, AQP2K has an elegance, a neatness, a … well, I’m just going to go ahead and quote Margaret Mitchell here: There was a glamor to it, a perfection and a completeness and a symmetry to it like Grecian art. Some–including Bill here–might argue my use of “perfection,” but when we take the concept of perfection back to it’s origins (sup, Aristotle!), we’re talking about something that is not only the best of its kind, but that is a whole, not missing any of its parts, and that it achieves its purpose. Though it might be argued (okay, is argued here) that AQP2K is not the best of its kind, it’s undoubtedly a consummate sexy thriller lenziano, made up of all the requisite parts. And most importantly for this argument, IT DOES WHAT IT SET OUT TO DO. Or rather, what Lenzi set out to do. To it. With it. Or something. Whatever. AQP2K is sexy, thrilling, and entertaining–and that’s exactly what we ask of gialli, be they in the style of Bava or Argento or Lenzi.

And lest we forget, AQP2K is technically excellent in every respect. The cast nails it; they don’t just hit their marks but inhabit their roles–Sorel and La Baker in particular playing signature character types. The psychology of the characters is credible, particularly Helen’s (and to a lesser degree, Constance’s) embodiment of Carlos Fuentes’ statement “Jealousy kills love, but leaves desire intact.” There’s a rococo look to it as well, from the sunny, golden exteriors in Mallorca to the literally glittering interiors–and costumes. And Piero Umiliani’s loungey score repeats the title theme when apropos, and otherwise provides a pleasantly snazzy background.

Bill: I also ask that they not obscure half of the screen with an out of focus drinking glass, but that’s just me.

Fisty: Boor. Swine. Uncultured lout.

ladies and gentlemen

ladies and gentlemen

home movies

home movies

there's something about maurice

there’s something about maurice

Bill: Snob. Are we finished here? Did we get back to how this is a giallo? Because there are a lot of arguments about that.

Fisty: Oh yeah. You’re right, I’ve seen these arguments come up for well, almost every non-classico giallo, it sometimes seems. We’ve touched on it previously with Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, Luciano Ercoli’s 1970 giallo  la femme (that’s not really a thing), and again with Massimo Dallamano’s 1972 schoolgirl giallo What Have You Done to Solange? Along different lines, Luigi Cozzi’s 1973 genre-bender The Killer Must Kill Again labors under the same accusation for different reasons. Shoots, even a prime example of the classico giallo like Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark has had such aspersions cast at it–seriously!–which just goes to show, not only are some people plumb crazy, but the definition of giallo is as nebulous, and ambiguous as the films themselves.

A generic definition that can (debatably) encompass such outliers as Argento’s Suspiria and Phenomena or Fulci’s The New York Ripper can certainly include films of a less fantastical or gruesome nature. But it’s not even about what we can stretch the definition to include, but what films make up an integral core of the filone. In that the Sixties gialli–lenziani or no–tend to be along the lines of the sexy inheritance thriller, referencing noir and Hitchcock and Clouzot, Lenzi’s thrillers absolutely typify this approach. While he did not necessarily innovate–Bill’s BFF Romolo Guerreri busted The Sweet Body of Deborah out in 1968, not to mention Bava’s previous contributions–Lenzi absolutely refined and realized the generic potential of these thrillers when he dominated the filone.

This type would flourish mainly in the Sixties, and the beginning of the Seventies, but would continue to affect the filone even after Bird’s excesses. Later gialli that place the emphasis on suspense as opposed to mystery, the inheritance thriller-type giallo, the gaslight giallo, the intimate giallo based on internal concerns–adultery, incest, etc–instead of the eyewitness, these are all related to the sexy thriller lenziani and its success. I dare say that virtually all of Sergio Martino’s classic gialli bear the imprint of the sexy thriller lenziani, and traces are found throughout many post-Argento films such as Forque’s In the Eye of the Hurricane or Picciolo’s The Flower with Petals of Steel.

probably an entire reel of blurry glass footage

probably an entire reel of blurry glass footage

ring ring ring ring ring ring ring giallo phone!

ring ring ring ring ring ring ring giallo phone!

party time, excellent

party time, excellent

Bill: I really did love The Sweet Body of Deborah. And going back to the cast “inhabit[ing] their roles,” you didn’t mention her, but Marina Coffa as Susan is just perfect. She embodies Susan so well that the second she’s on screen, before she’s even had a chance to act, I knew she was trouble. I’ve never seen her in anything else and I kind of wish she’d done more. Now, about the debt Martino owes Lenzi… Yeah. I can’t deny that. And I love Martino. Everything you’ve said about Lenzi and about this movie is true. I’ve been kind of critical of it and it isn’t my favorite lenziani, or even my favorite of the So Sweet… So Perverse/Orgasmo/Paranoia trilogy–I liked Orgasmo better–but I want to reiterate: I LIKE THIS MOVIE. My criticisms are minor, mostly adding up to, “I think this other movie is better,” and, “Blurry cups!” But just because I don’t consider it perfect, doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. It would definitely surprise anyone that only knows Lenzi from his later films. But maybe it shouldn’t. He adapted to smaller budgets and changing audience desires and his later movies, while maybe not showing quite the technical proficiency he does here, are still precisely what he meant them to be and perfectly typify the times in which he made them. I can’t ever remember being bored while watching a Lenzi movie. Bottom line: He’s better than he gets credit for being.

Don’t worry about me, you’re the one sitting in the death seat. Ultimately, A Quiet Place to Kill is a fine film, a perfectly typical sexy thriller lenziani. With fine characterizations perfectly played by its cast, exotic and glamorous locales, a jazzy score, and a delightfully intricate yet tight storyline. While not as bloodily thrilling as later, post-Argento gialli, AQP2K–and others of its type–create a sensual atmosphere brimming with lasciviousness and intrigue. They are dependent upon not only the looks and attitudes of their characters, but also the psychology; instead of witnessing violent tableaux, we explore the ambiguous relations between the characters. The success of the sexy thrillers lenziani lies in the deliciously trashy spectacle of pretty people doing ugly things to one another in glamorous places.

 

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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.

April Fool’s Day

a cut above the rest

April Fool’s Day
aka Week-end de terreur
aka Die Horror-Party
aka A Noite das Brincadeiras Mortais
Director: Fred Walton
Released: 1986
Starring:
Deborah Foreman, Thomas F. Wilson, Griffin O’Neal, Mike Nomad, Deborah Goodrich, and Clayton Rohner
Running time: 83 minutes
Genre: slasher, comedy

It’s gotta be bloody unforgettable: Preparing for the arrival of her friends at her island home, Muffy St John (Deborah Foreman) prepares the house, happening upon an old jack-in-the-box in the basement. While opening it, she recalls receiving it as a birthday present, and how the little monster inside scared the bejeezus out of her while all the adults laughed.

Ready for some Spring Break, Muffy’s friends wait for the ferry to pick them up. The company includes the serious A-couple Kit (F13P2 Final Girl Amy Steel!) and her boyfriend Rob, sex maniac B-couple Nikki and Chaz, and Chaz’s BFF Arch. Unknown quantities are wetblanket shy girl Nan who does theatre with Muffy, the ambitious Hal who’d like nothing more than to make good with Muffy’s wealthy father, and Muffy’s fine-ass cousin Skip. On the ferry over, insta-buddies Skip and Arch smartly play a game that involves throwing knives (yes, exactly what your parents warned you NOT to do), but the fun and games take a turn for the worse when Skip takes a knife to the stomach and falls overboard. Rob and townie crewman Buck leap into the water to save Skip, only to discover that it was an elaborate prank involving a trick knife belt. After all, it’s April Fool’s Day! Oh, you kidders!

we got punk’d

But then as the ferry is arriving at the St John dock, Buck, who stays in the water attempting to hook the boat up from below, is crushed and horribly maimed between the ferry and the dock. He’s carted off to the hospital by the ferryman, screaming imprecations at the group, who are also roundly chewed out by the local constabulary, who warns them not to leave the island until the matter is sorted out. Suitably chastened, they repair to Muffy’s secluded mansion.

The girls talk sex while heating up beans n’ franks for dinner, and the boys goof around outside, but Skip stews over the accident and Buck. At dinner, Nan is mortified by sitting on a whoopie cushion, while Arch is somersaulted by his trick chair. Nan drippily offers a toast in appreciation of college chums, only to be outshone by Muffy, who quotes Boswell’s Life of Johnson. (You really cannot go wrong with Dr Johnson or Boswell, kids.) A touching moment. As the guests raise their glasses to their hostess, Muffy looks on smirking, enjoying the wine dribbling down everyone’s chins. “April Fool,” she says archly. That isn’t the end of the gags, though. As everyone settles in for the evening, each room’s occupant stumbles upon more yet more pranks. Some of the pranks are innocuous–exploding cigars, trick faucets, lights that won’t turn off–but others seem aimed at dark secrets: clippings about questionable deaths, drug paraphernalia, S&M gear, and more.

hey, biff, your mcfly is open and we can see your flux capacitor

Even Muffy seems off-kilter when they come down in the morning, looking unusually frowzy and acting totally out of it. Despite the previous night’s minor contretemps, everyone spends the day relaxing and trying to enjoy their vacation. At least until Kit and Rob sneak off to the boathouse for some nookie, and catch a glimpse of what appears to be Skip’s body floating past. Rob, Chaz, and Arch investigate and find Skip’s trick knife covered in blood, and speculating on a connection to Buck’s accident, the three split up, intending to search for either Skip or the possible maniac. Only, Arch doesn’t come back.

Reassuringly, Muffy offers to make tea, because that’s definitely what’s needed in times like these. Discovering that the water main is broken, Nikki and Hal go out to the well where they discover Arch’s head and Nan’s body and flip their shit. When the constable calls that evening, he assures them that he’s been with Buck all day, but that he’s on his way to the island with some important information. While they wait, the group battens down the hatches, locking doors and windows. Everyone but Muffy hangs tight in the den, where they speculate on how odd Muffy’s been acting–and looking. As they discuss the pranks from the night before, tempers flare and suspicions are raised.

What exactly is going on at the St John house, and will anyone survive?

“april fool”

An essential lack of seriousness: Despite initial low returns at the box office (due in large part to a crap advertising campaign), April Fool’s Day ended up a cult classic due to success as a staple on late-night television and as a video rental. It is a perfect blend of comedy and horror featuring a quintessentially ’80s cast, and directed by Fred Walton who helped kick the whole slasher craze off with ’79s When a Stranger Calls. It’s a lighthearted mid ’80s slasher that manages to pay homage to the antecedents of the genre while epitomizing the decade in which it was made.

Bill: Writing reviews in the two person format we’ve chosen here at PB&G can sometimes be a pain.  With a single voiced review, you can just bang it out whenever you feel like it, but with a partner, you sometimes find yourself hostage to your “co-anchor’s” schedule, health, even mood, and sometimes your desire to crank one out gets stomped on by your 2nd voice’s (my) laziness.  Such was the case with last week’s review of French Sex Murders. I slacked off and we didn’t finish on time. Because of that and because I love April Fool’s Day, I figured I’d surprise Fisty by having this review all primed, synopsis written, and ready to go, so we could turn this mother out  and start on our next, The Initiation of Sarah. …but I got sidetracked. By the time I was ready, she’d already done most of the work and been waiting on me. My response upon seeing this, being as I’m a jerk, was not, “Wow! You’ve been busy. Good work. Let’s get into this.” It was, “Aw. You already did the synopsis for AFD. I was going to do that.” Now, since Fisty isn’t talking to me (this has happened before – it’s temporary) and this review has to be done by tomorrow, I get to review April Fool’s Day all by myself. Prepare to be underwhelmed!

dramatic recreation of the results of two-person format reviewing

First thing I want to talk about is the cast. As our crew of possible killers and would be victims arrives, ready to ship on out to friend Muffy’s island for the week, you’ll notice a lot of faces that any child of the ’80s will recognize. Ginny from Friday the 13th Part 2, Larry the narcoleptic male stripper from Summer School, Biff motherfucking Tannen, the wholesome girl from the S&M scene in Waxwork, um … the boyfriend from I, Madman … and … others. I wish Fisty were here. She’d love to talk about these folks and their ’80s pedigree.

Fisty: Mr Passive Aggressive, you forgot to mention the hot, popular girl in Just One of the Guys AND Rick, the made-over nerd into cool dude also from Just One of the Guys! Plus Stu Charno, from BOTH Friday the 13th Part II AND Just One of the Guys! And last, but certainly not least, that truly dazzling Julie chick from Valley Girl! Totally trippindicular fer sher!

Bill:Fisty! I am NOT passive aggressive. And I’m pretty sure the Julie girl from Valley Girl is the sweet girl from Waxwork, but I’ve still never seen Valley Girl, so… Hey, did you know the guy that played Buck was in Jason Lives? He was the stunt coordinator on that, too. That movie ties with The Final Chapter for my favorite Friday the 13th movie.

Fisty: BILL! Yes! I know that! Actually, he’s also Thornton in Jason Lives, which is why he’s got his own category. Nyah. That’s how we roll here, by the way; we have categories for every actor, director, sometimes FX or composers or writers, that you might possibly find in another movie we might conceivably write about one day.

but where is paul?

On topic, this movie is chock-a-block with familiar faces from myriad other classics of the Eighties, which is one of the reasons it’s so fun. Even Aristotle would agree. Also agreeable in that they satisfy certain expectations are the genre conventions that April Fool’s Day upholds, then transposes. Like gialli before it, AFD takes a murder mystery–in this case, one of the ur-mysteries, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None–and applies the slasher formula, slowly picking off pretty young things in inventive ways.

Bill: AFD is a lot closer to its gialli forebears than most slashers. In ways I think it resembles Bay of Blood even more than Friday the 13th does, with all the mystery and talk of inheritance, the possibility of sinister local boatmen, the missing bodies, scheming for money (by Hal), and the wooded setting. It even slightly resembles 5 Dolls for an August Moon, even if that is mainly due to the island setting and the healthy sense of humor. I love that it feels so akin to a giallo or straight up mystery.

a bay of blood?

I also love that it’s successful at being damn funny (that sense of humor I just mentioned.) Chaz and Arch are the primary funny men, and they are great as the class clown types. The girls’ sex quiz talk is genuinely funny, too, but Muffy’s pranks, childish as they are, are the best. Whether it’s dribble glasses, whoopee cushions, trick chairs, rigged faucets, whack-a-mole lighting or whatever, it all gets at least a smile. Most of these actors have had some comedic experience as well, and they know how to sell the sense of merriment you feel whenever you see someone get gotten. It really makes the first half of the film super fun to watch. It also creates a sense of total uncertainty. From the very beginning of the movie, everything is a joke. You’re never quite sure when something is real or just another trick. When the mischief begins to darken to the point of upsetting people, you don’t know if you’re seeing actual clues to the real mystery, genuine malice, or just more jokesterism going a bit too far. This carries on through the whole film, so that even in the very last moments, you can’t be sure where things will go.

Fisty: Walton creates and sustain tension beautifully throughout the movie, right from the beginning, which has a “found footage” feel. Perhaps this is a metamodernist interpretation (since Cannibal Holocaust was really the only such genre film before it), but Chaz’s video footage gives the feeling that it’s the only surviving testament to their weekend, that perhaps no one survived. And that’s from the very first frame! The creepy boatman that Bill mentioned, the accident, the isolated setting, and the possibly malicious pranks–Walton harps on all of them to keep heightening the tension, and then lessens it with moments of good humor and gregariousness as the narrative rolls on. By the time people really start disappearing, the mood is well-established, and Walton never lets it up right until the finale. But he couldn’t do any of it without the superstrong (mutant strong?) cast.

“hold me as only a mutant strong man can”

As noted above, pretty much everyone in the cast was a regular on the psychotronic scene by the time they hit AFD, and their combined experience–particularly in working together previously–lent a genuine camaraderie to their acting. The first part of AFD is very much an ensemble piece, depending on those actors to create likeable, real people, and they get it right. As does Walton’s direction, and even more, Danilo Bach’s script, of course. Though they’re all spoiled preppies–they (mostly) attend Vassar, and Muffy OWNS an ISLAND, for crying out loud–they’re still not just walking, talking stereotypes, nor do we get Twenty Minutes with Jerks. They’re just ordinary, if over-privileged, young people, concerned with their nearing entry into the post-collegiate adult world, with very real concerns like career-planning, “what will I do with my life” nerves, and whether to do anal or group sex. This weekend, they might have their choice.

Now, I don’t know anything about Bach, other than that he also wrote Beverly Hills Cop, and it makes me curious about his agenda with AFD. Because seriously, there is no other pre-Scream slasher that has anywhere near as much gay subtext as does AFD. It’s not even all subtext; we’ve got the subliminal, the liminal, and the superliminal! So we’ve got Vassar students–a college renowned for its resistance to heteronormativity–and we’ve got at least three men who are very comfortable playing dual roles with their sexuality. Chaz plays bottom to Nikki’s top and camps it up with his New Wave look. Arch, despite vowing to bed multiple women over the course of the weekend, also indulges in a lot of mincing, and is comfortable rolling around on a bed with not only his BFF Chaz, but gets up close and personal with Skip, whom he’s only just met.

heteronormative

Rob is kind of a nonentity, but he does like to prance around in half-shirts and short-shorts, displaying his wares for men and women alike. With the women, we have first Kit, who like Rob is the control, though she is fond of mannish attire (contrasting with his slutty togs?). Next we have Nikki, a mostly confident and sexually adventurous young woman, who is comfortable experimenting though she might sometimes feel insecure. And then there are Muffy and Nan, our Vassar theatre girls. There is definitely something going one with those two; not only is Nan completely out of place with the group, she’s also unreasonably upset when she thinks Muffy may have betrayed her secret. Her toast celebrating the particular importance of college friends seems to hint at the particular importance Muffy has for her, and notice her role at the end? Very telling! My interpretationof their relationship casts Nan in the role of Serious Sapphist, maybe new to it, but sprung on Muffy, while Muffy is a bit of a playgirl–maybe she’s just experimenting, maybe she’s an honest to goodness bi Ethical Slut. Muffy is a bit of an odd fish, with her past with Biff Arch; contrast that with her interactions with Nan and Nikki, and she comes off as very much as smooth operator, a genuinely self-assured coquette, even a femme fatale of sorts. Deborah Foreman OWNS Muffy, and she OWNS this movie. Hats off to Amy Steel for another outstanding Final Girl, but it’s Foreman who gets the standing ovation here. No other Val girl can touch her.

Bill: Speaking of homo-subtext, I really would’ve loved to see Muffy get it on with Nikki. Or even just see Nikki get her kit off. (See what I did there?) Man, Nikki was hot. There’s no nudity in AFD, however, and less gore than you’d expect, a certain boating accident’s victim being the main exception. Even the three – count ’em THREE! – severed heads aren’t particularly gruesome. Believe it or not, I’M NOT COMPLAINING! This a movie that doesn’t need any more red than it has, would, in fact, suffer by its inclusion. This is a movie that needs a bit of mystery to the kills for it to work. You have to be kind of uncertain about what happened and how. Is someone just missing or are they dead? Where did they go? Who startled them? Are they kidding? Is it just a joke or did something terrible happen? The less you know, the more tense it gets.

met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine

Charles Bernstein’s music adds to that intensity. He’s done plenty of horror scores before, for movies like The Entity, Cujo and, of course, A Nightmare on Elm Street, but there’s something different going on in the music for AFD. There’re no discordant sounds meant to disorient you. It’s not about some unrelenting chase theme or crazy stinger. It gets at you the most during calm, quiet scenes. It’s simple and serene. It sounds like secrets and childhood. It reminds me a little of the music from Poltergeist, but even more so, it reminds me of the opening of Tales from the Darkside. It makes me feel like I did when I was a kid, when it was so easy to be scared.  It makes me think of the opening sequence of Darkside, where everything looked nice and sunny and pretty, but you knew there was something else, something you couldn’t see, that needed to be feared. I don’t know much about music, but I know when it’s effective and the music in April Fool’s Day really creeps me out.

So, we dig the cast, the music, the direction, the tone, the writing… What do we have to bitch about in this movie? I know the most common complaint thrown at it and I suppose we can address that after this…

SPOILER WARNING! SPOILER WARNING! SPOILER WARNING!

Do not read past this point unless you’ve seen the movie!

Fisty, what do you have to say about the people that hate the twist ending of April Fool’s Day?

Fisty: Well Bill, they’re fools. I’ll admit it, the very first time I saw AFD back in high school (after years of admiring the VHS cover), I was like, “Wait, WHAT?” I can understand the shock, really, I can. But any long-standing ire or complaint is completely unwarranted. It’s just so cleverly done, so much misdirection and hinting–with very few stretches of imagination–that you just have to applaud. And it’s so fucking funny, too. Kit’s reaction when she runs into the parlour, and everyone silently pretends to ignore her, is fucking priceless. It’s absolutely perfect. And poor Rob! Still locked in the pantry while Kit’s getting the lowdown, wailing and pounding on the walls–oh, I may just faint. Hilarious. Absolutely worth it.

oh, HA HA, that’s really funny, you guys

Bill: Damn right, they’re fools! I watched this A LOT when I was younger and I can’t really remember my very first reaction to the twist, but I imagine I must not have had a problem with it, since I went on to watch it so many more times. As it is now, I love it. It’s a slasher movie with a truly happy ending. How often does that happen? Everything about the reveal is perfect. Even better, Walton did such a great job of keeping you on your toes and questioning everything in the movie (even when you hear a dog howl in the dark, it turns out to be one of the guys getting drunk outside) that you doubt the happy ending. The denouement reveals everyone to be ok, it was all a big joke, they partied down and had a good time and, yet, you, as the viewer, can’t relax.  You’re still expecting something horrible at any moment. So great.

Fisty: And you do get a final jump scare, one of my favorites!

Now that we’re in Spoiler Town, let’s touch on how AFD handles those slasher tropes, shall we? Attractive young people: check. Any questions? Remote location: check. There’s no boat back to the mainland till Monday. Stalking victims into an And Then There Were None scenario: check. AFD is relentless and creepy about it. Nil authority figures: check. Our constable is the only one, and he’s only nominally involved, long enough to disappear. Bodies disappearing so that no one knows what happened to them: check. It’s essential to the plot.  Inventive deaths & Poetic Justice: check. We’ve got F13P2’s caught in a Looney Toons trap, Hall’s trussing, the Chaz bondage mask murder, and Skip’s being stabbed with his own prank knife all fit. Holiday theme: check. It’s the whole gimmick of the movie! Yes, yes, these qualities are all in line with what we expect from our slashers. What’s different?

As mentioned above, the characters aren’t two-dimensional assholes, and we’re not rooting for any of them to die. We also don’t have any expendables, people who wander onscreen long enough to die and show what a Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day the Real victims are going to have. The Psychotic Evil Twin of Happy Birthday to Me and Blood Rage is inverted not only by being not a psychotic evil twin, but by being a fraternal twin, not Buffy but Muffy. And then there’s Death By Sex: Doesn’t happen. Yes, all of our characters are sexually active, but the first to “die” is the most morally upright and virginal-seeming, Nan. Darling Nikki is the last girl–barring our Final Girl–to go, and she and Chaz were getting it on all weekend. Our Final Girl Kit herself is a pretty ordinary, non-virgin type: monogamous, but not with the guy she lost it to, gregarious, happily participating in the sex quiz. She and Rob even sneak off for some midday booty without being impaled in the middle of it. The guys are all pretty similar; Arch and Hal are both intent on getting some, while Rob and Chaz actually are. Now if only the many slasher imitators had had the brains to be similarly original, then perhaps the slasher genre wouldn’t have peaked and devolved into self-parody quite so quickly, effectively murdering the horror genre for years.

THUS ENDETH THE SPOILERS! SPOILERS HAVE ENDED THUSLY!

You may resume reading. Or just go watch the movie and come back, jerk.

Bill:So, no real complaints about April Fool’s Day at all. It’s a solid flick. I’d put it right up there with Friday the 13th, The Burning and Halloween as one of the best. Do yourself a favor and watch it, if you haven’t already.

And thank you, Fisty, for forgiving me and being the consummate pro that you are. I couldn’t do this without you.

PSYCH! I got this shit, man. I got it by the ass! HAHAHAHAHAHA! April Fools, sucka!