Category Archives: horror

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

So I haven’t watched a film in over a year. I haven’t really had the interest or the desire, and the handful of films I did watch between my last post here and this one I just wrote cursory notes about on Letterboxd. Not feeling like writing either.

This was on TV for Christmas night. Counter-intuitive programming from SBS, marking the alleged anniversary of Christ’s birth by showing a film about his death… And for some reason I felt like watching it, and writing about it like I’m now doing. I saw this on the day of its cinema release back in 2004, and I saw it with my Mum. Mum was a far better Christian than I was or am, insofar as she actually was one, so we made an interesting pair going to this movie… and, remarkably, we both came out of it with much the same negative opinion of it. It did as little for her as it did for me.

As I’ve said elsewhere on here, I felt the fears that it would promote antisemitism were overstated, but all the reports of how excessively violent it was? It lived up to those. After this rewatch nearly 16 years later, I’m not quite so sure about that first point. With the dubious benefit of hindsight, we know now what Mel Gibson evidently really thinks of our Hebraic cousins, and it’s hard to watch the film without that knowledge; and we do know he leaned quite heavily on the “work” of Anne Catherine Emmerich (and/or of Clemens Brentano, who may or may not have faked her “visions”) which is apparently quite anti-Semitic. Accordingly I felt a lot more antipathy going on towards Caiaphas and the rest of the Sanhedrin, to say nothing of what the hell’s going on at Herod’s palace. Equally, though, I doubt the film would serve to actually make anyone an anti-Semite if they weren’t already one, and the film is just as horrible with its Romans; I’d forgotten just how psychopathic they were.

Equally, though, I can’t imagine that the film would make anyone a Christian, either; if you haven’t already read the gospels or otherwise have some familiarity with the stuff that happens before the film’s story starts, some of it’s going to be kind of incomprehensible. It presupposes a lot of its viewers in that respect, so it hardly works as a tool for evangelising to prospective converts. Which raises the question: who and what the hell is this movie for? What’s it about, really?

Because The Passion of the Christ is certainly not about Jesus’ resurrection, which is passed over a few seconds before the end; I mean, I’m not a Christian but I do understand that the whole point of Jesus kind of is the resurrection, you know, he dies and comes back to life and that‘s the important thing about him if you do subscribe to his newsletter. The film cares so little about this detail it may as well have left it out entirely. Similarly, it has only marginally more interest in Jesus’ actual message and teachings, which are also kind of important if you’re into that, and that makes it theologically useless.

So Gibson doesn’t care about the resurrection or the teachings of Jesus, he’s fundamentally interested in spectacle much like Cecil B. DeMille was with The King of Kings 80 years earlier. But this is a far more vicious spectacle than DeMille’s, not just because the latter couldn’t have got away with depicting this much violence in 1927 (and the violence isn’t the only thing even DeMille would’ve found unnecessarily vulgar). There’s no religious feeling underlining this film like there is in King of Kings; this is purely Gibson getting off on extreme violence. Gibson could talk all he liked about how he played the hands that nail JC to the cross cos “[his] sins put him on the cross”, but I don’t buy that for a second. He’s enjoying these atrocities being perpetrated against his putative lord and saviour—remember, this isn’t a fictional character to Gibson—so much so that he just had to take direct part.

Who and what is this movie for? It’s for Mel Gibson, as a kind of pornography. The Passion of the Christ is frankly the work of a ghoul, and I hate it now in a way I didn’t upon that first viewing on Ash Wednesday 2004. Like I said, I thought at the time the film lived up to the reports of its violence, but on rewatching I found I’d actually forgotten just how wildly excessive it really is (e.g. even when Jesus is finally up on the cross, Gibson has to have one of the other men being crucified—the one who mocks Jesus—be attacked by a crow that picks his eye out). David Edelstein famously christened the film “The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre”, which sums up the splatter aspect of the affair nicely, a chainsaw being about the only thing not used on Jesus; the miracle that the film really depicts isn’t that Jesus returned from death at the literal last minute, but that he didn’t die before he could even be crucified. I used to say I was afraid for anyone who claimed, as many did, that their religious faith had been strengthened by this grotesque nonsense; now I’m afraid OF anyone who would say that. How any of it was ever supposed to serve someone’s religious faith is beyond me.

Anyway, we’ve been promised a somewhat belated sequel in recent years, which is apparently currently scheduled for April 2021, and which will supposedly cover the period between the death and the resurrection and may be set at least partly in Hell. Which means it’ll be even less biblical than Passion but we can probably at least expect spectacle again, and though I’ve no desire to see Passion ever again I could be tempted to see just how Mel handles the underworld…

 

Red Christmas (2016)

Director: Craig Anderson

I don’t often engage in “Christmassy” things, cos I’m not particularly into Christmas itself, but eh… thought I might make an exception and watch this (which is itself something of an exception to my general rule this year of not watching stuff of any sort). And, yeah, I probably shouldn’t have bothered… I was expecting a bit more in the way of comedy for some reason, possibly because director Anderson’s background is TV comedy (things like Black Comedy, Maximum Choppage, Double the Fist), and partly because the premise is fucking deranged; basically we’re dealing with a slasher film in which the killer is an aborted foetus that somehow survived, grew up, and is now out for revenge on mummy dearest. (And the foetus is called Cletus. Amazing.) That idea is so brilliant that it’s such a shame the film is, really, just a slasher film after all (it’s also one of those old school-style Ozsploitation films that evidently brings in an American lead actor—Dee Wallace in this case—mainly if not solely to help sell the film in the US). A perfectly competently made one (the rather strident and bold use of colour in the second half of the film is really striking), but that’s all.

As a study of the ramifications of abortion, it’s obviously lacking in subtlety, though the question of whether it swings pro-choice or against it isn’t terribly clear-cut… you can’t really call any of the characters particularly sympathetic—apart from Jerry who has Down’s Syndrome; this is a quite lovely performance (much the best one in the film) by Gerard Odwyer, and he gets probably the best scene in the film when he discovers just why mother dearest chose to terminate her youngest child—and that includes Cletus; unlikable as the rest of the family kind of is, it’s weirdly hard to feel for him when he’s slicing them up just for having the temerity to have, you know, lived (the first victim, too, is the adopted daughter). Basically I think I just wanted something kind of epic trash from Red Christmas, mostly because of the berserk central premise, and I didn’t really get it; obviously you can take a berserk central premise and play it fairly straight and do so effectively, but here I think a more excessive and black comedic approach might’ve served it better.

A Serbian Film (2010)

Director: Srdjan Spasojevic

Well, HERE’s a bit of a change in pace from our last couple of items… a film I’m pleased to finally wipe off my ever-increasing backlog (just because I’ve hardly been watching anything for months doesn’t mean I haven’t stopped accruing new things to watch, even if it will take me the rest of my useless life to do so) and will be even happier to wipe off my hard drive and never see again. WHAT A PIECE OF SHIT, and that also goes for the people who made it. By now I suspect this film’s many and varied censorship woes around the world (obviously including this crappy country, where it’s banned not only uncut but in two separate censored versions, one of which was actually passed and nearly released before the OFLC review board stepped in) don’t really need to be recounted here, the film’s Wiki entry will do that just fine… let’s just say it both does and doesn’t earn its reputation for hideousness.

I’m willing to bet that director Spasojevic took at least some inspiration from Gaspar Noé, even if it was only to set about making something even more fucked and extreme than the latter’s work, and, if you believe him, he was also motivated to make some sort of political commentary on the state of modern Serbia. Which is as may be, but any such commentary the film throws up—basically, the rape/snuff film our former porn star “hero” finds himself roped into making is supposed to be a metaphor for how the country fucks its people or something—is hammer-handed enough to make Cannibal Holocaust look subtle and sincere. As for the actual content on screen… yikes. Actually, while most commentary on the film brings up such obvious things as, you know, the “newborn porn” business and the climactic skull-fucking, I was personally more repulsed by the opening business where the child is watching one of his dad’s old starring efforts and, frankly, it has a certain effect on him. Serbian authorities apparently investigated the film over crimes about protecting minors, and I’m not entirely sure I disagree with them for doing so.

But it’s so BORING. And I probably should’ve expected that; in my experience, self-conscious censor bait such as this, especially in the last couple of decades, generally proves to be hugely tedious once you get past the shock value. Indeed, I actually probably found Serbian Film more repugnant in theory than in practice, and was kind of surprised by how comparatively not extreme it is. I’m not saying that just to sound like some jaded aesthete of extremity who can only get it up these days to actual death footage or something; the vile stuff is clearly there but the actual on-screen depiction of it was actually not as explicit as I’d expected. I mean, there’s no actual peen shown in the excerpts from our hero’s porn career that we see, that’s more about the off-screen sounds. Actually, there’s not a lot of overt cock in general, and the aforementioned climactic skull-fucking just looks… kind of ridiculous. And once you strip away that sort of thing, there is fuck all else going on it.

Unlike this reviewer, with whom I am otherwise in broad agreement, I have no problems attacking Spasojevic personally for making this; I suspect the man is an absolutely complete scumbag and moral vacuum, and if he were to meet the fate of the filmmaker character in his film, I for one would not exactly be sorry to see him go. Shitty, vacuous exploitation of the most cynical sort; fuck this film and everyone involved in it.

The Living Corpse (1967)

Director: Khwaja Sarfraz

“Dracula in Pakistan!” the DVD cover art shrieks, and by God/dess that is precisely what we’re dealing with here. More precisely, although the opening credits cite the Bram Stoker novel (and the film does famously include a certain detail no previous Dracula film had done before), it’s more Hammer’s Horror of Dracula that this film leans upon… indeed, I think it’s not exaggerating too much to say that, basically, if you took that film, updated it to 1960s Pakistan (that’s a funky car Dracula drives), shot it in Urdu and in black and white with much reduced general production values, and added a few song and dance sequences, and then threw in some of James Bernard’s score for good measure (the hamfistedness of the soundtrack is a wonder), The Living Corpse is precisely the film that would result. Which is not to say that’s a bad thing, mind you; as avowed knockoffs of this sort go, it’s pretty entertaining (if mainly as a piece of exotica), and as comparatively crude as it might be, director Sarfraz actually summons up some nice atmospherics (particularly the vampire’s mansion). And, of course, there’s a certain twist, in that Pakistan apparently has no real tradition of the vampire in the way European countries do, so Pakula (sorry) is actually a scientist who’s created an elixir of immortality, which goes wrong for him in the way that these things are wont to do so he becomes the Christopher Lee of Lahore instead. This is why I love films like this, cos you get little cultural factoids like that… and I know next to nothing about Pakistan generally, never mind its cinema history (which seems to have been vexed), so a film like this presents me with various questions… you know, like just how does a Muslim country make a film with a traditionally Christian monster, how did the Hammer influence actually make its way there (cos Pakistan had no horror film tradition either; Rehan, the actor playing the vampire, had never even seen one before), even little things like, you know, people speaking in English every now and then (the Van Helsing guy always being called “Doctor” in English, not whatever the Urdu title would be, stuff like that—hangover from British rule?)… Anyway, hadn’t seen this for a few years, and a pleasing revisit tonight (and let’s have one last parenthesis for the hell of it).

Dark Intruder (1965)

Director: Harvey Hart

And so, to officially end this year’s month of horror, we turn to the small screen. Kind of. This was actually the pilot for a proposed TV series called The Black Cloak, which none of the American TV networks wanted to touch cos they considered it a bit… heavy or something. An occult detective chasing a sort of Jack the Ripper but with more demonic tendencies in fin-de-siècle San Francisco? That was too much for TV audiences to deal with. So Universal, somewhat grudgingly, put it out in cinemas as a supporting feature since they couldn’t do much else with it, and the networks were smug until, a few years later, The Night Stalker demonstrated TV audiences were actually perfectly fine watching that sort of thing… Anyway, I first heard about this years ago, read about it in a book about film adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft; this isn’t actually one, but the passing reference to Azathoth (and, more obscurely, Nyogtha) demonstrates that author Barré Lyndon had at least a passing acquaintance with the Cthulhu Mythos, and the Sumerian business is kind of fascinating in light of the infamous “Simonomicon” over a decade later. (Wonder if this was an influence at all?) Basically, the plot is as I briefly described above, Leslie Nielsen plays Brett Kingsland, a bon vivant playboy in 1890 San Fran where a series of strange murders is taking place, which he finds have something to do with Sumerian demonology in some way; while the “film” is kind of evidently an episode of a TV show in its execution, the story’s actually pretty good and there are some decent things here. It’s hard to entirely disagree with this piece that calls Nielsen the weak link in the chain, though, even if only because of hindsight; this predates his “official” comedic coming-out in Flying High, but he rather notably plays Brett in a flippant, foppish style that kind of looks a bit weird. “Frank Drebin without the jokes” isn’t actually that far off. Still, this was just the pilot for the show, and I imagine certain things would’ve been fiddled with had a series been commissioned (remember how different Star Trek was in pilot form?). That one wasn’t is, I think, a great disappointment; Dark Intruder certainly looks like the potential was there.

Count Dracula (1970)

Director: Jess Franco

It’s only taken me just short of five years after seeing Pere Portabella’s Cuadecuc vampir to finally watch the film associated with that one… There’s a really interesting comment by Christophe Gans in an interview on the Severin DVD of this film (which handily includes the Portabella film as an extra, evidently he got over his reluctance to let people see it), that Franco’s absurd work rate (especially in the 70s) meant what you got from his films was more of a “trance” than “a worked-out product”. Which, basically, sums this film right up. The idea for it seems to have really come from his producer Harry Alan Towers, who thought it would be a great idea to make an adaptation of Dracula that was actually faithful to the novel. On which level I’m not sure it fully succeeds (though it’s a damn sight more so than the 1931 Tod Browning film, to say nothing of Hammer’s version), but give it points for trying. Actually, what struck me more than anything was what I can only describe as the disorienting feel of the whole thing… I don’t know how else to describe it, there’s just something really strange at work that I can’t quite put into words. I’ve said before about some of Franco’s films that they don’t seem to fully take place in a recognisable world, but it’s not quite that here… It seems to be a mix of things, like the way it’s shot at 1.33 (unusual by 1970), the compositions within that frame, the camera angles, maybe even the camera lenses… things just seem slightly off somehow in a way I find hard to describe, as you can see… In the end Franco’s Dracula is what it is, i.e. a cheap European horror film made at the end of the 60s, and the slow pacing doesn’t help much, but the atmospherics are interesting and performances are actually decent; Christopher Lee in particular attacks his lines with some vigour, knowing Hammer would never give him the chance to speak actual Bram Stoker…

The Howling (1981)

Director: Joe Dante

The other werewolf movie of 1981 (yes, there’s Wolfen, but apparently there’s some debate about whether or not that’s actually about werewolves as such), which I must confess to not liking anywhere near as much as American Werewolf in London. Indeed, Rick Baker, the latter film’s make-up/FX man, actually started working on this one before Landis said “hey, I’ve finally got money for my werewolf movie” and poached him for it, leaving Baker’s erstwhile assistant Rob Bottin to handle the lycanthropy on this one. And, to give the young man credit, he did a terrific job on a fraction of the budget of AWiL; the werewolf transformation about two-thirds of the way through is the highpoint of both films, and Bottin’s work holds its own quite capably in its own way. I also rather like the concept of the Colony in this film being a sort of resort where Patrick Macnee’s doctor is trying to kind of rehabilitate the resident werewolves and bring them into the modern world. And it looks remarkably nice, too, there’s a really good use of colour and light and judicious application of fog. So why didn’t I like it more? I don’t know… maybe there’s just something not terribly exciting about it, or maybe it’s the not awfully interesting characters. Maybe it’s the somewhat weak humour, which in this case extends mainly to naming characters after directors of vintage werewolf and other horror films. Maybe there’s something I’m not getting. Maybe it was just me and whatever mood I was in (you can never entirely rule out my useless brain and its vagaries). It’s good. I’m just not blown away by it.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Director: John Landis

So that’s one of the more substantial holes in my acquaintance with horror cinema filled at last… I can’t think of any good reason why AAWiL has eluded me until tonight, cos it’s not like it’s an obscure thing; I’ve always known about it, it’s one of the more famous horrors of the early 80s, it’s never been exactly hard to get, I’ve recorded the fucking thing off SBS twice… but no, until tonight, it was just one of those films I’d never got around to seeing for no real reason. My loss, cos it’s an awful lot of fun. At heart there’s actually something kind of old-fashioned about the story, and I don’t think that’s just because Landis wrote it over a decade before he actually filmed it, I think it might’ve seemed that way had he made it in 1971 rather than 1981… there are a few explicit references to the 1941 Wolf Man, so the film does kind of overtly look back to the Universal films. It’s things like the somewhat bizarre sense of humour (like that Muppet Show excerpt) and the surprising amount of time star David Naughton spends naked (the film’s IMDB trivia page has a delightful detail about why Landis had to be careful about getting Naughton’s tackle in shot) that mark it out as something more modern, but I think it’s the film’s focus on character that’s most notable; I was actually surprised by how comparatively minimal the werewolf action is… it’s nearly an hour before we get to the groundbreaking transformation scene (still pretty stunning), and though the climactic havoc at Piccadilly Circus is terrifically pulled off, it’s also relatively brief. The time spent building the characters up, though, is well spent; Naughton is great as this sort of everyman guy in a pretty fucked situation, which is worse than usual cos Landis adds a neat twist whereby Naughton has to face the spirits of the people he killed on his first rampage and listen to them debate about how he should kill himself (cos his death is the only thing that will let them rest in peace). It’s almost like the werewolf isn’t a tragic enough figure as it is. Great stuff that I really should’ve seen years ago.

The Baby (1973)

Director: Ted Post

Cult Sinema is back in Sydney! It’s been an awfully long time since the Mu-Meson crew ran films at the Annandale; now they have a new home in Petersham, and OY did they kick off the revival in style… Being part of the Drive-In Delirium collection, The Baby is a film whose trailer I’ve seen many times, and so I had some idea of what to expect, i.e. a sort of southern Gothic melodrama (albeit one set in what I presume were rather more northern suburbs) involving the titular baby… who just so happens to be a young adult who never developed beyond infancy. And one day a social worker takes on Baby and his family—mother and two sisters—as her latest client, for reasons that finally become clear at the end. So I was prepared for some strangeness… and yet I was woefully underprepared for just how strange it would get. Put bluntly, this is profoundly fucking warped; there’s an early hint that something untoward happened to a previous social worker who dealt with the Wadsworth family, and it doesn’t come as a great surprise to learn that the rest of the family has even more problems than Baby, but OH MY just how problematic they are is something else. The scariest actually scary thing in the film—which I’m filing under “horror” cos that’s the best I can do with it—is Marianna Hunt’s astounding bouffant hair in the party scene, cos it looks more like 1983 than 1973, but the overall atmosphere of wrongness (enhanced by the film’s bizarre pacing and bravura scenery chewing by pretty much everyone involved, especially Ruth Roman’s matriarch) is the main thing, especially in the last third or so when the emotional temperature goes from merely superheated to positively thermonuclear. This film, basically, is fucked, and I enjoyed it immensely through all the times I had to keep picking my jaw off the floor.

The Undying Monster (1942)

Director: John Brahm

So, in 1941, Universal had a hit with The Wolf Man, and the people at 20th Century Fox decided they should do something like that as well. Except that they apparently saw no need to go the whole hog and make it an A production… but the end result still looks like one somehow. Not sure exactly what they did to save money, but The Undying Monster looks extraordinary when it comes to art direction and cinematography (an early job by Lucien Ballard); apparently a blu-ray is forthcoming and it should look amazing in HD given how good it looked in the OK online copy I watched. The film was adapted from a 1922 novel of the same name, but I suspect the aforementioned 1941 film was really more of an influence… from what I can gather, the film slims down the novel considerably though it does seem to retain the general outline. As the title may indicate, there is a monster afoot (and if, like me, you discovered this film via a reference work like Wm. Everson’s Classics of the Horror Film, you’ll know exactly what it is), but the film keeps it off-screen until the last reel; I imagine that even viewers in 1942 who didn’t know what the monster was were wondering long before then when it would finally appear. But the film is so compact (something like 63 minutes—like I said, this is a 1940s B film we’re talking about) that it doesn’t matter that much, and the only foot it really puts wrong is the comic relief detective’s assistant character (Heather Thatcher has some impressive other roles to her credit, but this was not her finest hour, evidently). Otherwise, it’s a fascinating little late-Victorian Gothic tale (dressed up with some of the finest science 1900 could buy), told with fine expressionist visual flair, and it should be better known than it probably is these days.

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