Friday, October 29, 2010

Night of the Demons (1987)

The Movie: Good girl Judy (Cathy Podewell) is excited to be going to the Halloween dance with Jay (Lance Fenton). However, Jay has a change of plans. Creepy goth-girl Angela (Mimi Kinkade) and her friend, Suzanne (the great scream queen Linnea Quigley, of such films as Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and Return of the Living Dead), are throwing a party that he would rather attend instead.

The party is at Hull House, a deserted house/former funeral parlor with a rather checkered history. By checkered I mean mysterious deaths, massacres, cursed ground. You know, the usual. Jay talks Judy into going, and the party starts. The teenagers look forward to a night of drinking, dancing, party games, and getting into each others’ pants

Unfortunately, there is something to all those horrible stories about Hull House. It turns out that demonic entities live there, and that Halloween is the one night they can come out to torment humanity. As the partygoers get possessed and killed in gruesome ways, the survivors try to find an escape. The one hope is the underground stream that the wall surrounding the property is built over, which the demons are unable to cross. Unfortunately, they have taken that little issue into account. Let the real party begin….

The Review:

Don’t worry Sal, it ain’t the weird ones you got to watch out for. God, didn’t your mother teach you nothing about women?”

On its surface, Night of the Demons resembles a typical dead teenager movie of the standard set by Friday the 13th. Hell, you could even do a checklist of the various elements. Group of teenagers throws a party in a location where a great evil lurks? Check. Said teenagers get killed off in grotesque ways? Check. Majority of characters little more than walking targets? Check. Gratuitous female nudity? Almost all the female characters bare some flesh at some point. Total asshole character? We get two, three if you count Jay.

So what is there to distinguish Night of the Demons from the rest of the pack? Quite a bit, actually. Probably most prominent is that the filmmakers show a sense of self awareness throughout the whole work. Hey! Get back here! Don’t worry, I’m not meaning that winking, smirking, “aren’t we clever” self awareness we see all too often in horror movies these days.

Instead, we get a deadpan “so they think they know what’s coming? Let’s see if they catch this!” mentality. It’s clear that the filmmakers are very aware of what they are creating; and they use that to tweak the formula. There aren’t too many glaring changes, though there are at least one or two. However, there are enough adjustments to the established cannon to keep you off your guard.

For example, Judy, our obvious final girl. There is a hint, not elaborated upon but still there, that she might not be a virgin. Likewise, at the beginning she actually bares some skin for the camera! In your standard Friday the 13th inspired dead teenager movie, either one of these would mark her as dead meat. However, it’s still clear that if anyone survives the happenings it will be her.
I would also like to point out that Ms. Podewell is fairly convincing in her role. On the one hand, she does come across as a genuinely good person; on the other she doesn’t come across as either too saccharine or intolerable, as one would be lead by other movies to expect her to be. I could imagine meeting someone like Judy, and actually enjoying her company.

This is done with some of the other characters as well. One of our total assholes actually shows a good head when things start getting weird; and even some nobility when he sacrifices his own life to save Judy’s. Another character, one of the survivors, has not one but two traits that, in any other movie of this type, would mark them out as one of the very first to die.

Along with the little tweaks to catch us off guard, the filmmakers obviously knew that they were supposed to be making a horror movie. I shouldn’t have to say that, but unfortunately there are so many makers of these films who don’t. There are some genuinely frightening scenes in Night of the Demons. One of my personal favorites, Angela’s dance to Bauhaus’ Stigmata Martyr, I find to be simultaneously one of the creepiest and most arousing horror movies scenes I have come across. There are also some good, subtlely done indications that characters are possessed. I wish they’d stuck to the subtle hints, I find the possessies a lot less scary when they are in full-fledged demon makeup.

Finally, and probably most importantly, it was clear that somebody had fun making Night of the Demons. This shows in the special effects, the plot, and especially in the wonderful animations played during the credits. Probably the two best actors, who also gave the impression of enjoying their roles, were Kinkade and Quigley. They played off each other well, and Kinkade reminded me of some women I’ve known in high school and college, though not ones I’d want to deal with in person.

Linnea Quigley’s character actually had a few clever things about her. One of the things I liked was how pre-possession, Suzanne doesn’t have much of a personality. Once she’s possessed she has a clearly defined, although very mean spirited, one.
My favorite scene with her character; because it is so clever, albeit amoral; is when she first appears. She’s at a mini-mart, wearing a really short skirt and bending all the way over. And while the losers behind the counter are staring and drooling, Angela shoplifts the supplies for the party.

In short, Night of the Demons is a conventional formula with a few clever tweaks and twists and a few scary scenes. It is also a lot of fun. If you like movies with gore and gratuitous female nudity, you’ll love Night of the Demons. If you like these things, or at least don’t mind them, but you want a bit more in your movies; give this one a try.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Iron Rose (1973)

The Movie: An unnamed young man (Hughes Quester) at a wedding notices a woman (Francoise Pascal) sitting at another table. He stands up and announces that he would like to recite a love poem, which he does, while staring at the woman. A little later, he stands outside and she comes out to ask why he looked at her while he recited the poem. The man talks her into meeting him for a bike ride the following day.

They meet at a train yard and, after playing around, go on their ride. The couple passes a cemetery and decides to go in for a picnic. After eating, they go into a crypt to make love. The couple is so distracted that they don’t notice the passage of time, and when they finally exit the crypt night has fallen. An attempt to find the exit reveals that they are lost. As they search, unsuccessfully, for a way out, hysteria starts to set in…

The Review: For this blog I have focused on movies that have affected me in some way. Naturally, the majority of them are movies I have enjoyed; whether as good art or brainless fun. However, if you look through my past entries you will notice I have also reviewed one film that disappointed me; one that underwhelmed me to the point of depression; one that simultaneously repulsed me and pissed me off; one that reopens old wounds every time I watch it; and one that will wound just about anybody who sees it.

Movies are a form of art, and I am of the opinion that art should serve one of two functions, if not both at once. Firstly, art is meant for enjoyment. On some level, most art is made specifically for somebody to enjoy. That is certainly one of the main reasons I got into movies in the first place.

Secondly, art should make you think, cause your mind to go directions it normally wouldn’t. Sometimes this can be pleasant, thus fulfilling the first role as well as the second. However, sometimes this is done through invoking shock, disgust, anger or other less pleasant emotions. These are also necessary; hence why artists tend to push the envelope of what is acceptable. Our world is not all sweetness and light after all; and there are many unpleasant truths that we must be aware of.

Of course, there is a line to be drawn. Things like child porn, the snuff films of urban legend, or animals being hurt or killed on screen are definitely wrong and illegal for a reason. This isn’t because of the subject matter, but because of the harm done to create them. I am of the opinion that no subject matter, in and of itself, should be off limits for art. However, I am against anything that causes actual harm to others in the creation of said art.

The Iron Rose is one of Jean Rollin’s earliest works. It is also one of his most personal and least commercial creations. The first problems come in with how, exactly, to define it. The synopsis on the back of my DVD box claims it is a horror movie, but it really isn’t. There are some creepy and eerie parts throughout the movie, but that is the extent of its horror elements; The Iron Rose is not a horror movie by any real standards.

If I had to assign it a standard designation, I would say that The Iron Rose is a romance. However, it is nothing like what you probably thought of when I said it was a romance. And as for the “eurosleeze” aspect; Pascal does do a nude scene, but it is such a small and brief part of the film that if you are only watching for the nudity, you are really going to feel cheated.

The website Esotika Erotica Psychotica (there is a link to your right if you are interested), in its review of the film, says that The Iron Rose is a literal depiction of a man and woman creating a private world that only contains each other. That is certainly my impression as well. Aside from the wedding at the beginning, and the odd looking people initially in the cemetery, our two protagonists are the only two people in the film. They are definitely the only two characters we get any kind of real look at.

Rollin’s trademark invoking of feelings of isolation help reinforce this impression. Most notable is the scene where the two are playing and making out in the train yard. Our protagonists are not just the only people in the scene; they are the only things moving. However, all the while we are hearing the sounds of moving trains and passengers and loudspeakers. The scene leaves the sense that the lovers have stepped out of the world the rest of humanity inhabits, but that it is still running just out of sight.

Likewise, in the graveyard there is a definite disconnect between the two young lovers and the other visitors. For the most part, they take little, if any, notice of each other. With one minor exception, it’s kind of like they are in alternate dimensions where the others don’t exist.

The Iron Rose doesn’t really have much in the way of plot, but instead functions by invoking emotion and poetic images. I think the beginning of the movie does a very good job of conveying the impression of beginning love between two young people. Both the actors and the shot do beautifully in portraying the attraction the lovers are feeling, and the tentativeness they feel approaching each other. Even better, it’s done without any kind of music; just the sounds of the outdoors and their words.

My favorite part, because it’s so accurate to my own experiences, is the man’s reaction when he’s successful in convincing the woman to go on a date with him. As soon as she starts heading back to the building, he lets out an excited whoop and punches the tree he is standing next to. Then he immediately regrets it.

For the most part, The Iron Rose is a series of dreamlike episodes. It is beautiful, and there is a strong sense of wonder and emotion over the whole thing. However, there is much that is open to interpretation; which can be a good or a bad thing depending on your preferences. For example, after seeing the film several times and reading many reviews, I’m still not sure whether I’m supposed to find the ending to be happy or tragic. While the movie successfully invokes a lot of emotions in me when I view it, I’m not always sure what the emotions are.

In conclusion, The Iron Rose is a true art house movie, though of the good kind. It is a unique vision of beauty, wonder, various emotions, and a certain amount of filling in the blanks on your own. Whether that appeals to your or not is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Grapes of Death (1978)

The Movie: Our first view is of a vineyard where the workers are spraying pesticide on the grapes. One of the workers complains of not feeling well, but his supervisor has no sympathy, ordering him to drink some water and get back to work. He then tells the workers that the new masks will arrive the next day, and that they are completely air-tight…

Next we join Elizabeth (the tragically short-lived Marie-Georges Pascal), who was just on vacation and is now headed to the vineyard of Roublès to meet her fiancé. As it is October, the train is completely empty except for Elizabeth and the friend she met on her trip. Unfortunately, when the train stops at an eerily deserted station, a terrifying man gets on; one who seems to be rotting before Elizabeth’s very eyes. Elizabeth manages to escape off the train and into the countryside, but her friend isn’t so lucky.

Elizabeth seeks help in the nearby town, but all the people are affected by a horrible affliction. Like the man on the train, they are rotting; and their condition is driving them homicidally insane. Somehow, this is linked to the yearly wine festival that was held recently. Elizabeth finds herself caught in a nightmare which she cannot escape from. Even when the cavalry arrives in the form of two armed and unaffected construction workers (Félix Marten and Serge Marquand), Elizabeth has worse things to face. Unknown to her, her fiancé is inextricably tied into the horrors she’s trying to escape from…

The Review: Ever since Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968, Romeroesque zombies have been a popular trope in the horror genre. Every decade or so since has had a period where a glut of movies based on Romero’s original premise comes onto the public scene. While, on the one hand, some very good movies have come out of this premise; on the other, as time goes on there are fewer and fewer original uses for these tropes. However, every so often people can surprise you.

Grapes of Death is a film that stands out from its Romeroesque zombie movie brethren; if only by virtue of the fact that it was written and directed by Jean Rollin, a man who blazes his own trail whenever he possibly can. There are many reviews (quite a few of them on the sites this blog is linked to, in fact) that compare it to the 1972 Let Sleeping Corpses Lie for one of the reversals of the typical Romero inspired zombie flick that both movies use. The Romero films, and those that imitate them, tend to present “indoors” as safety and “outdoors” as dangerous. The plot usually centers around the protagonists barricading themselves inside buildings to keep away the zombies. In Grapes of Death on the other hand, even though the countryside seems threatening (especially with the simple synthesizer score Rollin uses for the soundtrack), the heroine is safest when she is there. It’s when Elizabeth goes indoors or enters town that she is in danger, because that is where the infected people lay in wait.

Rollin’s “zombies” are another departure from the traditional mold. Instead of brainless, shambling corpses, they are people. Albeit, rotting, psychotic people; but they are human beings with human level intellect and awareness. In fact, Rollin adds a sympathetic, emotional resonance to them. Many are aware of what they are becoming, and what they are doing to their loved ones, even though they cannot help doing it. They are scary on the level of a blatant physical threat, but they are even more terrifying in the fact that these are ordinary people who are turning, against their will, into something horrible.

In some ways, Grapes of Death diverges from Rollin’s usual work. Whereas the majority of his so called horror movies are generally far more erotic and poetic than horrifying, Grapes of Death is a more traditional example of the genre with more horror than the latter two elements. It’s fairly vicious and bloody, making it one of the first, if not the first, French gore film. The fate of the blind girl, Lucy (Mirella Rancelot), at the hands of Lucas (Paul Bisciglia), her lover and caretaker, and even more so its aftermath; is just vile and wrong in ways I doubt any mainstream horror flick will touch. To which the part of me that takes my horror movies seriously can only tip his hat and say “good show Mr. Rollin.”

However, quite a few of Rollin’s familiar touches are present. His usual languid, dream-like atmosphere is there, although in the case of this movie it makes it seem more like a waking nightmare. There is also the sense of loneliness and isolation that is a trademark of most of Rollin’s films. You can see it in Pascal’s performance, as an ordinary young woman who has inadvertently found herself in the middle of a nightmarish situation she has no point of reference for. When she finally finds help, it is clear that the horrors she has experienced have pretty much served to isolate her from them, or probably any other normal human she might encounter. And then at the end, when she finds the fiancé she has been trying to reach, and discovers that he is behind this whole mess…

That sense of loneliness can also be seen in the infected shamblers themselves. While they are monsters, it is clear that they are monsters despite themselves. Rollin and his cast very adeptly purvey the grief and despair that they feel with the knowledge of what they are becoming.

There is one important exception, which brings me to the final notable element of this movie. A year prior, on the set of one of his adult films, Rollin met a young porn actress by the name of Brigitte Lahaie. He was impressed by her performance and promised her a role in his next straight film. While Lahaie plays only a small part in Grapes of Death, I find her to be the most frightening and memorable part of it.

Lahaie plays an unnamed woman who at one part saves Elizabeth from a mob of the infected by pulling her inside a building. I actually find the following scene to be the scariest one. Basically, Lahaie’s character explains why she is there and what has been happening. None of her words or actions are anything but innocuous, and even her tone isn’t blatantly threatening. However, she somehow oozes menace in a way that had me screaming “you’re safer with the mob” at Elizabeth after only about a minute. The fact that Lahaie’s acting affected me this way even though she was speaking French (a language, sadly, that I have no fluency in) and I was reading subtitles says something about her talent.

Of course, I was right. It turns out that the unnamed woman has no festering sores and looks completely normal, but is completely psychotic. Worse, she still has all her mental facilities, and can pass for normal when she wants to. Lahaie’s execution of this role shows very clearly what Rollin saw in her in the first place, and why she was able to get into non-pornographic movies. She’s one of my favorite actresses; although she scares the living hell out of me in most of the roles I’ve seen her play. My friends say there’s probably some psychological reason behind this.

In conclusion, Grapes of Death is a different sort of zombie apocalypse style movie. Even more than three decades after it was made, this movie stands out as something truly unique in a mostly overdone genre. If you’re into Romero inspired zombie films, you should give Grapes of Death a try.

Night of the Hunted (1980)

The Movie: Robert (Alain Duclos), is driving his car one dark night when he happens to catch sight of a woman in a white nightgown. He manages to get her name, Elisabeth (former French porn star and amazing actress Brigitte Lahaie), and that she’s running away from something or someone. Being the Good Samaritan he is, Robert offers to take her somewhere safe. However, Elisabeth’s memory is not good; at best she only recalls bits and pieces, and for the most part she forgets things as they happen. As a result, she and Robert drive off without noticing Veronique (the gorgeous Dominique Journet), the naked red-head crying and calling for Elisabeth.

On the drive home, Robert discovers just how bad Elisabeth’s memory really is; in only a short while she forgets what she’s doing in his car, or even that she asked him for help. However, he manages to get her to trust him. At Robert’s apartment, Elisabeth decides that she wants something she can remember, so she and Robert make love. The next morning he has to leave for work, but Robert gives Elisabeth the number for his office.

After Robert has left, two people approach Elisabeth: Doctor Francis (Bernard Papineau, who I have seen in at least one or two of Rollin’s other movies) and his assistant, Solange (porn star Rachel Mhas). They know about Elisabeth’s condition, and have come to take her back where she belongs. Elisabeth is taken to a clinic in a high rise. As her roommate, Catharine (the late Catharine Greiner, another regular in the French adult film industry), shows her, everybody here has Elisabeth’s memory problems.

The situation is both sad and nightmarish. The people kept in the tower forget who they are, their names, sometimes even how to eat or walk. They make up memories for each other, to the point where they can’t tell whether what they do manage to remember is real or fabricated. Sometimes, their mental state becomes so bad that they are either suicidally depressed or homicidally violent.

While here, Elisabeth runs into Veronique again. While they cannot remember any of the specifics, both women intuitively know that they are very dear to each other. When Elisabeth discovers Robert’s phone number, she and Veronique, realizing that this is a potential outside ally, make plans to contact him about helping them escape. Robert, who has fallen for Elisabeth, jumps at the chance. Unfortunately, there is far more to the patients’ mental condition, and the authorities behind the clinic, than any of our heroes realize.

The Review: Night of the Hunted was one of my first introductions to the films of Jean Rollin. It is probably not the best place for those interested in his work to start, as it deviates somewhat from the fare he is known for. Also, if most of your movie experiences are in mainstream cinema, you will probably find it difficult and frustrating. Still, I find Night of the Hunted to be a pretty amazing movie, and my respect for it grows with each viewing.

Rollin shot Night of the Hunted at the end of a long era of his life, where he was forced to direct hardcore pornography to earn enough money to fund his own projects. This project started when his producer wanted him to do another cheap porn flick; but Rollin, tired of adult films, offered to do a horror movie instead, using porn actors, for the same amount of money. It was shot in nine days, on a very low budget. The end result is obviously flawed, yet it still turned out amazingly well in my opinion. In fact, the quality is even more amazing when one considers the constraints Rollin was dealing with during production.

For one thing, the acting is probably the best I’ve seen in a Rollin movie. Rollin’s films often face charges, not entirely unwarranted, of wooden acting and stilted dialogue. However, for Night of the Hunted Rollin picked actors that have definite talent, and it shows.

The primary example for this would have to be Brigitte Lahaie. Night of the Hunted was my first introduction to Ms. Lahaie; and, considering how first impressions tend to color our subsequent opinions, that would go a long way toward explaining how I’ve developed such high regard for the woman in such a short time. The truth is Lahaie can act. I’m not saying that she’s good for a porn star; I’m saying that by any reasonable standards she’s pretty amazing.

Lahaie’s role for Night of the Hunted is her first serious, non-pornographic major movie role; and it’s probably her best. The role of Elisabeth is a pretty complex one, a woman who loses her memory almost as she experiences things. In a sense she is an innocent, yet she is intelligent and can make decisions on her own. And that intelligence and strong will at the beginning provides a strong contrast to when she is finally overcome by her condition at the end, becoming effectively mindless. Ultimately, Elisabeth is a very tragic and memorable figure; one Lahaie is to be commended for.

Another memorable role is Dominique Journet as Veronique. Journet is almost as memorable as Lahaie, and the two women have great chemistry together. Veronique comes across as a childlike innocent, both charming and sympathetic. Also, it’s very easy to believe that she and Elisabeth share a very strong bond, even when they can’t remember what, exactly, that bond is. Journet is wonderful here, it’s sad she doesn’t seem to have done too much else. Plus, on a personal note, a gorgeous red-head who speaks French is a feminine ideal for me. When I figure out how to break the laws of time and space….

Another stand out performance is Catherine Greiner. To see her in this movie, you wouldn’t think of her as a porn actress. She is very sympathetic and touching in this role, it’s unfortunate that she didn’t go on to better things.

The atmosphere is partly what I have come to expect from Rollin’s movies, but partly something a bit different as well. On the one hand, there is still a dreamlike quality about Night of the Hunted, with some truly haunting shots and scenes. There are also a small handful of surreal moments, such as the one of Robert dancing with Solange. Finally, there is the feeling of loneliness and isolation that pervades most of Rollin’s work.

On the other hand, unlike most of his work, Night of the Hunted is an outright horror movie. There are no beautiful gothic castles, no romantic shots to take your mind off the horror. There are some haunting shots of Paris at night; but they, like the rest of the movie’s scenes, are cold and sterile. A feeling of doom and gloom hangs over the whole movie, with only the occasional scene of intimacy and tenderness between the characters to briefly alleviate it. There are a small handful of fairly brutal parts, the woman who has committed suicide by putting a pair of scissors through her eyes being the most notable. Finally, there is the ending, a truly bleak downer that cleverly inverts the old trope of the heroes striding triumphantly into the sunset.

Then there’s the sex and nudity. Some of this can just be passed off as Rollin being Rollin; female nudity, in both innocent and not so innocent scenarios, being prevalent in the majority of his films. However, there are also three fairly graphic soft-core sex scenes that don’t fit quite as comfortably into the movie. Rollin does his best with them, but it’s clear that they are mainly included for the benefit of the producer. My copy has, as extras, some hardcore outtakes Rollin shot just to be sure. I haven’t watched them, but hardcore scenes would definitely have messed up the pace of the film.

The first sex scene, the one between Elisabeth and Robert, actually plays to a theme running throughout the whole movie. Because the patients can only live in the now, physical intimacy of all kinds is one of the few avenues of connection available between them. This is why Elisabeth chooses to sleep with Robert, and Lahaie is a good enough actor to portray throughout the scene the desire to hold on to something, anything, for as long as possible.

The second is a bit more problematic; involving an orderly who takes advantage of the female patients. On the one hand, it does help highlight the patients’ nightmarish situation; but it is not needed for the story. Also, rape always makes me extremely uncomfortable, even when it is necessary to the storyline. The third sex scene, between two patients, is just gratuitous; although it quickly takes a turn for the perverse when the man’s psychosis kicks in mid-coitus.

But there is one thing that convinces me Rollin was trying hard not to create a piece of sleaze; or at least, one thing missing. No smutty porno, especially from this time and place, would be complete without a scene of lesbianism; and yet that is conspicuous by its absence. Elisabeth and Veronique quite obviously love and care for each other deeply, but there is nothing sexual about it whatsoever. This is especially noticeable for those familiar with some of Rollin’s other works, which often have female friendships containing a hint (or more) of the sexual to them.

Then there is a scene between Lahaie and Greiner which neatly addresses, and then sidesteps, the issue. Catherine, desperate for any kind of intimacy, makes a move on Elisabeth. The scene is very well done, with Catherine shy but persistent, and the expression on Elisabeth’s face clearly telegraphing what she’s thinking: “What the hell? Okay, do I want this? Well? No, I don’t believe I do.” And that’s the end of it, Elisabeth leaves to find Veronique.

For all its flaws, Night of the Hunted is still a well done piece of work. It’s not a good place to start with Rollin’s movies, but definitely worthwhile if you’re after something different. Just go in aware that what you will see is probably nothing like what you’re expecting, and you may be surprised.