Saw (2004)

Director: James Wan

This was on SBS tonight as part of their Wednesday night horror series for October; I’ve been recording some of the others but decided to just watch this as it aired. I remember thinking it was a pretty grotty piece of shit when I first saw it (on DVD, not long after the original release), and I can’t really say I feel any better disposed towards it now… Wan & Whannell were kind of quick to distance their film from the “torture porn” trend that followed in its wake, arguing that it was the rest of the series that really fit that description (which was only applied retrospectively anyway), but this is bullshit, of course; the film is full of it. Maybe not all as physical as later films in the series seems to have turned, but let’s not kid ourselves, torture is what it’s all about… albeit torture dressed up as self-improvement, cos that’s the rationale behind the film’s somewhat singular psycho, Jigsaw; dying as he is, he takes various people he considers don’t appreciate their existence well enough and runs them through various ghastly mechanical traps to see how far they’re willing to go to not get killed by them. This would be all fine and well if Saw gave us any reason to care about Jigsaw’s victims, but our two “heroes” in the body of the film, as played by Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell’s put-on American accent, are frankly a pair of irritating shits; Elwes the doctor having an affair with one of his medical students and Whannell the photographer hired to pursue him by a cop who suspects Elwes of being Jigsaw. Which, of course, he proves not to be, as we find in one of the most idiotic, logic-defying, you-have-got-to-be-fucking-joking climactic twists in film history… if the film had just been irritating up to that point, it suddenly turns actively insulting. I don’t think I’ll be missing much if I don’t give this a third go some time in the future, nor if I never see any of the other films in the series even once.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Director: George Romero

For reasons that even I don’t understand, not only did this blog pass its fifth birthday two days ago, this is the thousandth post. So, to mark the occasion, I had to find something special. Had to be something big, cos why waste a milestone post on something crap… and, well, a film that kind of reinvented a classic horror monster single-handedly—really, how much of what you “know” about zombies is really because of this film?—while never actually using the word “zombie” seemed big enough for the task. Before I start, though: how hilarious is it that, given all the debate in recent years over running zombies and whether or not they should exist, the very first zombie in Romero’s first zombie film is actually seen running (or jogging at any rate) after a car? Not just that, he uses a rock to break into it before it takes off (and let’s not forget the ones who bust into the house at the end, nor indeed the undead child in the cellar). Funny how the dead are only just learning to use tools in the third dead film…

Anyway, I have a longish history with this film, which would’ve been one of the first horror films I ever saw back in the mid-90s… my video shop had a typically shabby Hollywood House tape of it (also bearing Mr Coppola’s Dementia 13, if I recall rightly), which left a lot to be desired as did pretty much everything HHV issued, but the film itself was amazing. Still is, of course. You can tell it’s one of those films where they were operating on a stupidly low budget (which seems not to have extended to affording continuity; some scenes are amusingly uncertain about what time of day/night it is), but that the people making it had evident ability to overcome it and were determined to make the best damn film they could with it; it’s an actually terrific bit of independent filmmaking irrespective of genre. Apart from rewriting the zombie rulebook, Romero also pulls off the feat of having a horror film with a noticeably black hero whose blackness is never actually highlighted, and infuses the whole thing with a hellacious “everyone dies in the end” grimness I don’t know that any horror film before it had pulled off. Romero’s dead films have always left room for critics to read certain attitudes and statements about society into them, and Romero himself hasn’t exactly discouraged that; Dawn of the Dead is pretty open on that front, and I know there are those who’d say it’s better than Night for that reason. Still, while you can make that case and while you can also read some sort of state-of-the-nation subtext into this film if you really want, there’s a certain purity of overt purpose to Night; whatever subtexts you may find in it, its real mission is to be a cheap, shit-scary film about a disparate group of people trapped in an isolated location by an outnumbering force they can’t stop. As someone else called George once said with far less justification, “mission accomplished”.

Seven Women for Satan (1976)

Director: Michel Lemoine

I gather Michel Lemoine began as an actor for respectable filmmakers like Maurice Tourneur, Sacha Guitry and Julien Duvivier, but over time his slightly strange looks seem to have made him hard to cast in “normal” films, so he found himself in B movies instead and the directors who took him on got less reputable, people like Jose Benazeraf, Antonio Margheriti, Max Pecas and the infamous Jess Franco; ultimately, as a director himself from 1970 onwards, Lemoine found himself stuck in the porn ghetto like Jean Rollin. This, on the other hand, was an evidently sincere attempt at a film fantastique, one of many films that have been inspired by The Most Dangerous Game, but this had a bit of a twist to the usual human hunting, with the lead character (Lemoine himself) being the son of the original story’s Count Zaroff, an otherwise normal (?) businessman kept in the Zaroff family’s old ways by the butler Karl (Franco regular Howard Vernon—apparently he and Lemoine had both been in the same Sacha Guitry film in 1948 as well as Franco’s Succubus). At that time, of course, the idea of a “French horror film” was still too much for some people to accept, and Lemoine had to put up much of the budget himself since he couldn’t find a producer who’d stump up more than half of it, and unfortunately that money was kind of wasted when French censors objected to the film’s admixture of sex and violence and slapped an X rating on it… said rating had only just been introduced for pornography and extremely violent films in France, and was a commercial death sentence; as such, Lemoine was bankrupted and the film effectively vanished for over a quarter century. Whether or not its re-emergence is a good thing, well, eye of the beholder and all that, I suppose. I imagine you’d need to be a pretty hardened 70s Eurotrash devotee (particularly of the Jess Franco style, which it does resemble strongly) to really get much from it; certainly I found it incoherent enough that I suspect I’ll need a second viewing just to try to piece together what the hell actually happens in it. Still, if nothing else, there’s a really excellent choice of location (that chateau brings an amazing amount to the film) and the cheesetastic synth-rock score is actually kind of fantastic in its own way…

Eyes Without a Face (1960)

Director: Georges Franju

Even now there’s still something bracing about that scene. I remember first seeing this film on SBS probably about 20 years ago—before I was particularly into horror; I wasn’t approaching it then as a “horror classic” but a general foreign classic—and the surgery scene left me kind of dry-mouthed and quivering. And then I got to the end of the scene as they start to peel the face off and JESUS FUCK NO HOW COULD THEY GET AWAY WITH THAT IN A FILM OF THIS AGE CHRIST THAT’S FUCKED etc… and it mercifully faded just as the face peel started. And then a bit over a decade later, your humble scribe invested in the Criterion DVD, and got to that scene, and JESUS FUCK NO CRITERION’S PRINT DOESN’T FADE OUT AT THAT POINT IT SHOWS MORE CHRIST THAT’S EVEN MORE FUCKED THAN I THOUGHT IT WAS AT FIRST I MEAN REALLY FOR A FILM RELEASED IN 1960 ONLY A FEW SECONDS LONGER BUT IT MAKES SUCH A HORRIBLE DIFFERENCE WHERE IS MY GOD NOW etc. And on re-viewing again this afternoon, I still kind of felt that way at the crucial moment; knowing what to expect doesn’t necessarily make a thing easier to bear… That’s not bad for a film of this vintage.

Of course, my reaction was much the same as the general reaction seems to have been back in the day, and the French critical reaction was even more stunned; what was a French filmmaker doing making horror at all, and why this particular one? Georges Franju, the documentarian and co-founder of the Cinematheque Francaise, lowering himself to make a nasty cash-in on the recent rise of Hammer? But the film wasn’t just that in the end; Franju liked his pulp fiction (cf. Judex and Nuits rouges), but his documentary background meant he took a different approach to it, as the DVD notes helpfully remind us. It’s more detached, not played for luridness, and the film uses music in an extremely careful way by not using it in the surgery scene to underline the horror of it all (only a few bits of the film are underlined thus). Similarly, as Patrick McGrath’s essay observes, a “normal” horror film would’ve had the police or the lover save the day at the end of proceedings, which this one notably doesn’t; they completely fail to solve the mystery. The bafflement with which some greeted the film back in the early 60s isn’t hard to understand, and there’s still something a bit “other” about it now; a “mad doctor” film that mostly avoids exploitation and successfully demands to be taken seriously, driven by some lovely performances, especially Edith Scob, who spends most of her screen time masked, but also Pierre Brasseur as the doctor whose foolishness (he caused the car crash that disfigured his daughter) drives him to atone by resorting to kidnapping other young women for their faces. Remarkable stuff all round.

The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

Director: Terence Fisher

Given that Universal had already assayed this story twice (1925 and 1943), it’s not surprising Hammer would have a crack at it too, although I’m interested to discover this was actually originally going to be Universal’s third go at it before they decided to let Hammer make it for them instead. Even more that Cary Grant was originally slated to play the romantic lead… Anyway, I read the original novel by Gaston Leroux earlier this year, which is terrific and I endorse it whole-heartedly; it also means I have a pretty exact sense of the… changes Hammer made, of which relocating the story from Paris to London is actually not the most egregious. Hammer’s Phantom is one of those frankly unfaithful film adaptations of literary works that really only retains the broadest outline of the narrative and a few specific incidents while changing almost everything else, introducing entirely new characters, etc; indeed, the Phantom’s motivation in this film seems to have been inspired more by the 1943 Universal version (he’s an up and coming composer whose work is purchased by the odious Lord Ambrose D’Arcy, who then publishes it under his own name; Ambrose thus becomes the real villain and the Phantom a much more tragic figure whose acts of havoc are actually perpetrated by the dwarf who tends to him) than anything else. Of course, that means it’s essentially no different to Curse of Frankenstein or Horror of Dracula in that respect; it’s just that they’re both much better films than this one is… although it’s not actually that bad as such. Herbert Lom plays the Phantom nicely and brings out the tragic side of the characterisation quite well, and it does get off to a cracking start at least (some nice shock edits in that opening reel), but it’s still hard to share the enthusiasm some have for it. Certainly audiences at the time had little enthusiasm for it at the time; Sinclair McKay’s book on Hammer notes they toned it down some to get an A certificate rather than an X and thereby hopefully attract a wider audience, but that plan evidently failed miserably, and Hammer shut Terence Fisher out for a while as a result. Shame.

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

Director: Terence Fisher

Interesting that Hammer followed Universal’s lead in so many respects when it came to reviving the latter’s horror franchises, but they never revived the Wolf Man character like they did Dracula and Frankenstein and tried to do with Sherlock Holmes; instead, they turned to a novel by Guy Endore, who actually worked on some of the 30s horrors MGM made (including Mad Love, Mark of the Vampire and Devil Doll). Haven’t read that novel (which is apparently the defining werewolf novel in the way Dracula defines the vampire story), though I gather it’s set largely during the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune; Hammer, however, transplanted it to 18th-century Spain because they’d built sets for a planned film about the Spanish Inquisition that didn’t go ahead and they didn’t want to waste the money spent on them. This probably actually works to the film’s advantage, and probably to Hammer’s as well, since it saved the expense of battle scenes on top of the other period trappings… Overall, the film gave me an interesting feeling of Hammer trying to lift their game here, still clearly aiming at the B horror market but trying to give the film itself a bit more of a “quality” feel, not quite A grade but higher than their usual standard; it would actually be a reasonable choice as an introductory Hammer film for someone who’d never seen one. The problem is that the pace of the thing is kind of plodding, with the overt lycanthropy not really kicking in until the last half hour, there’s a fairly long set-up to the action. Mind you, once it does kick in, that last half hour is really good; the werewolf makeup job is quite something when you finally get to see it, and the film really is ultimately sold by Oliver Reed in a fairly amazing film debut. It’s no wonder he became a star the way he did when you see him here, and slightly disappointing that—because he plays the adult version of the werewolf character, Leon, and the first half or so of the film is devoted to the rather grotesque circumstances of his birth and his childhood (business that really didn’t need to be as long as it did)—he’s not in more of the film than he is.

Black Magic (1975)

Director: Ho Meng Hua

Well, I wanted something different from the last thing I watched, and damn me if I didn’t get precisely that. I’m not really au fait with the early Hong Kong horror film, other than that I know Shaws made a number of them, and this was one, probably one of the first in fact… The plot is simple enough; there’s a rich widow and two men, she has her eye on one (but he hates her) and the other has his eye on her (but she hates him). In order to win her over, the latter does the logical thing and resorts to black magic, as you do; hiring the services of the magician Sha Jianmai, his plan doesn’t exactly go to order, but the widow decides to try this black magic thing herself to see if Sha’s skills can win over her beloved architect Xu Nuo. Unfortunately for her, Sha has his own ideas about due recompense for his spells… will his nemesis Master Furong be able to save the day? Black Magic is a remarkably silly film, and what really lifts it to its own level of strangeness is that the above plot doesn’t take place in some remote past where it would make sense, but in contemporary Kuala Lumpur (this film just SCREAMS “1975” in so many ways it’s not funny); the icing on the cake is that the climactic duel between Sha and Furong takes place atop one of Xu’s building sites. And the BLOOD! It’s not as gory as I gather some of Shaws’ other horrors (including the sequel to this which came out a year later) would be, but the blood is so ridiculously bright red it just tips the film over the edge whenever it appears. Look, it’s got sex magic, potions involving breast milk, corpses being disinterred and dismembered, astounding mid-70s fashions, music ripped off from what I presume would’ve been European thrillers of the day (and a few bits of Tangerine Dream’s Rubycon), centipede eating… no one would ever mistake it for a masterpiece of the genre, let alone the art, but sometimes 95 minutes of ludicrousness is exactly what you need at stupid hours of the night when most people would be in their beds…

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

Director: John McNaughton

Apparently this film actually began life as, of all things, a wrestling documentary, but when that fell through the producers gave McNaughton the money that had been raised for it—about $100,000—and told him to make a straight-to-video horror film instead. Apparently expecting a regular “let’s kill teenagers” movie, instead they got this loosely-based-on-fact chunk of nastiness… the producers dithered about whether or not to release it at all meant it didn’t really start to spread until 1990; it was probably a couple of years after that I first read about it (and its mounting censorship misadventures) in Rolling Stone. Ebert’s review from that time ends with an observation from the film’s Telluride screening, that response seemed to be divided between the film did its job brilliantly and the film should never have been made; Ebert himself was in the former camp. Scroll down, though, and you have someone calling Henry “porn dressed up as an edgy exploration of the criminal mind”. And I’m… somewhere in between the two, leaning a bit more towards the latter. It’s, I suppose, well enough made within its limitations (hundred grand, 16mm, no stars), and it’s interesting that it tries to underplay as much as possible (apparently the influence of McNaughton’s co-writer Richard Fire; McNaughton apparently envisaged something more conventionally exploitative), going for a pretty flat realism that does serve to enhance the grimness of the material. That flatness of approach, however, combined with the basic repulsiveness of the characters (and though Henry may be the “hero” of the film, it’s actually Otis who is, in some way, the worse of the two), kept me at a distance from it—even the infamous family massacre scene didn’t really grab me—and I don’t think the “portrait” offers anywhere near as much insight into the serial killer as it perhaps thinks. Henry’s not one of those serial killers who dares the police to catch him—indeed, the police are notably absent from the whole film—and knows to shake up his MO so his killings won’t be linked to each other, but we’re offered no real insight into why he kills in the first place beyond the mere fact that he seems to enjoy it. It’s a good performance by Michael Rooker, but on the whole Henry just struck me as fantastically unpleasant and essentially empty; I wouldn’t call it a bad film as such but it’s one of the least likeable things I’ve seen in some time.

Snake Woman’s Curse (1968)

Director: Nobuo Nakagawa

I don’t know an awful lot about Nakagawa, and this is only the second of his films that I’ve seen, but if this and Jigoku are indicative he may have had a thing for killing off his characters that George R.R. Martin would recognise. In this film, that includes killing off the ones we’re supposed to sympathise with (there’s one whose death seemed a bit ambiguous at first, but given that he vanishes from the film until the very end the ambiguity faded). I’ve seen one other review that compares the plot to a Lars von Troll film, which seems not far off the mark… basically, the setting is early Meiji-era Japan, the point where the country is starting to modernise but there are pockets still run as ever by feudal landlords; the film takes place in an area ruled by the Onuma family, one of the worst of the lot. When one of Onuma’s tenant farmers dies, leaving behind an awful debt, he takes the dead man’s wife and daughter and basically makes slaves of them on his own property, where they have to contend with the heinousness not only of the working conditions but Onuma’s ghastly wife and son (Takeo’s hat is one of the few signs of western influence in the film). Factor in a couple of accidental deaths, one suicide, and some madness, and yeah, not too far removed from little Lars… just with a few more ghosts than he usually provides. Unfortunately, even at just 85 minutes, Snake Woman’s Curse struck me as kind of thin and dry; as the DVD booklet essay observes, Nakagawa’s ghosts are kind of passive and take no direct action themselves, and so could be viewed as externalisations of the character’s bad consciences as much as actual supernatural manifestations (although the film does, I think, still come down pretty clearly on the latter side). I don’t know, something about it just didn’t click with me, a bit of a flatness to the storytelling and characters (none of whom are actually especially interesting, and the daughter’s love interest, one of the good guys, comes across at a kind of crucial juncture almost as badly as the rapist thug Takeo) that stopped me engaging more with it.

The Uninvited (1944)

Director: Lewis Allen

I don’t suppose most horror fans think of the 1940s as an even remotely golden age for the genre. That’s partly because I suspect most horror fans don’t acknowledge the genre even existed before the 1970s, but also because, in real terms, the pickings were pretty slim. What we have here is one of those slim pickings, a great little film from a thin period, that’s always sounded interesting to me since I read about it in Everson, but was inaccessible to me until the Criterion release; happily it was worth the wait. I wrote in one of my Val Lewton reviews that at one point RKO wanted to promote him to produce their A films; although this is a Paramount job rather than an RKO one, I still imagine that this is what a Lewton A-level production might’ve looked like (had he still made horror at that level, of course). I don’t think director Lewis Allen actually cited Lewton as an influence, but he was certainly of a similar mind about keeping visible horrors off-screen; apparently the handful of ghost appearances were a studio imposition, Paramount thinking a ghost story should have visible ghosts. And it is ghosts plural, as we find out in the course of the story unfolding, the ghosts of two women kind of battling each other for the life (or otherwise) of a young girl who is the daughter of one of them. The film actually begins in surprisingly light fashion—Ray Milland as the lead character is a regular font of wisecracking—and takes a while to settle on seriousness; once it does, though, OY. It turns into some quite gothic stuff as it develops and more of the background comes to light, murder, madness and whatnot… the atmosphere tonight being somewhat enhanced, perhaps, by a cracking thunderstorm outside while I was watching (still going on as I write these words), but the film sustains its own power quite nicely and it wisely refuses to cop out with a non-supernatural explanation for its events. An auspicious directorial debut for Lewis Allen (of whose other work I think I’ve only seen the terrific thriller Suddenly), and now one of my favourites from the 40s…

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