2018년 9월 10일 월요일

Il cento notti di orrore- The One Hundred Nights of Horror Relaunched: DOWN A DARK HALL (2018) and COLD SKIN (2017)

Today, I have decided to revive one of the less "academic" features of Q Branch prior to my unexpected hiatus in 2013 due to health reasons, Il Cento notti di orrore or The One Hundred Nights of Horror series.  After Q Branch had been relaunched, I was pretty much trying to use WATCHA and Twitter as archiving platforms for the films I watch, but I have grown frustrated over them for various reasons.  Make no mistake, I like Twitter (although the stinking presence of The Great Orange Leader there is almost enough for me to quit it altogether sometimes), but trying to archive my movie watching habits there has become a bit like trying to subsist on eating cupcakes and party mixes only.  WATCHA is a great movie-watching app but is very thoroughly Korean, and too focused on those movies connected to Korea (at least so far, in 2018). So I have come back to try it out again in the blog space.  Below I have cut and pasted the rambling introductory remarks I have written in 2013, pretty much the way it was, only updating a few time-specific references. 

The cinematic art itself may be biting the dust worldwide, as the endless parade of Marvel and DC superheroes colonize Hollywood, the indie cinema is selling out, film studies graduate students are watching source materials via Netflix streaming in their spare time, left over from decoding hallowed writings of Lacan and Deleuze, and Lars von Trier is lauded as the world's greatest filmmaker.  But hey, horror cinema is alive and well.  Even if future consumers of cinema would have to watch their “movies” on six-inch screens attached to their wrist-phones, you can guarantee there will be horror films, about haunted Google Glasses, your latest wonder drug with a side effect of turning you into a purple-skinned carnivore (“Your loved ones suddenly crave meat!!”), even maybe a teenage space-shuttle astronaut vampire, who loves inhaling human blood globule by floating globule, in the zero gravity. 
Watching horror films has always been one of the less mentionable-in-polite-company cultural habits of mine. And you are right to call on this sense of mild embarrassment as hypocritical. After all, what dumb English lit major would publicly state that Edgar Allan Poe is inferior to, say, Herman Melville, because the former mostly wrote morbid stories about the supernatural? My closest friends and loved ones can certainly testify to my ongoing and never-flagging love of the genre.  My wife, Angela, remembers me sauntering off to catch the third installment of Hellraiser playing at a Somerville theater all by myself, in between caffeine-induced bouts of paper-writing and seminar preparation.  In my youthful days a dinner conversation could easily slide off to a loving description of the effects of a “Stonehenge chip” embedded inside the Silver Shamrock Halloween mask in Season of the Witch... you get the idea. 

Now I am enjoying motion pictures on a staggering variety of platforms-- In addition to Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, Film Struck, Amazon, Shout! Factory TV (such a thing truly exists… I am currently fast-forward watching, of all crazy things, Ultraman Leo on it) and other glut of streaming and VOD services, I still catch a chunk of horror films not only through Blu Rays and DVDs but at the local theaters-- and horror genre is far from shrinking in proportion and importance in terms of my movie-going life. It certainly remains an important sector of the archival Blu Rays and DVDs I purchase-- especially among the cinema of '70s and '80s-- but even among relatively new films, its power and influence have not diminished.  Now whether there are more good horror films these days than, say, '80s: that's another set of ballgame. Has the quality horror cinema gone the ways of civil discourse in American politics and VHS tapes? Or are we in fact facing another renaissance of ingenious and creative horror cinema? 

So I had this idea of watching one hundred horror films in one year, regardless of national origins or year of production, the only condition being that I watch them in proper venues (with the correct aspect ratio, preferably HD presentation) and that I have not laid my eyes on them before.  Call it a tribute to horror cinema from a fan.  In terms of Korean cinema, I am politically more invested in seeing a truly excellent SF film (a goal partially met in 2013 with the release of Bong Jun-ho's majestic Snowpiercer), but that's for the future happiness of South Koreans. For the future happiness and philosophical growth of the mankind (I hope you do not take my pronouncements as juvenile humor or even misplaced irony, thus revealing your hideous cultural prejudices against the genre: I will remind you again, Edgar Allan Poe did HORROR. Mary Shelley did HORROR. Dostoevsky did HORROR. Goethe did HORROR. The truly great masters ALL did horror), we could still do much more with horror.
As I am reviving this series in September 2018, I will give it until December 31, 2019, to tally up one hundred horror films. I don't think this will be difficult at all, in terms of keeping up with the supplies. Shucks, I could probably fill in the quota even if I limit myself to only Asian horror films, or North American ones. I will also discard my long-held feature-film-only prejudice and include TV series and short films in the roster: the rather arbitrary rule of thumb will be to count three or four episodes of a series or the same amount of short films as one feature film, although obviously exceptions could be made.  

A word regarding the format: I am not going to list the usual detailed staff and cast information, and the reviews will be shorter than my full-on Blu Ray-DVD reviews, or other academic pieces such as interviews with scholarly colleagues or creative personages.  A word on the star rating system: I use the black-and-white star ratings system developed by the Japanese film critic and hardboiled mystery specialist Futaba Juzaburo 双葉十三郎 (1910-2009), with a white star counting for twenty points, and a black star for five points. The average score falls somewhere between fifty five ☆☆★★★ and sixty ☆☆☆, as few movies actually score less than twenty points.  I might drop the star ratings after a while, as rating the movies is really not the point of these lists. It is really for 1) archiving my movie-watching habits, and 2) discussing the evolution of cinematic horror as an ineradicable component of the broader cultural expression of the global mankind.   

1. Down a Dark Hall (U.S.-Spain, 2018). A Fickle Fish/Nostromo/Temple Hill Entertainment Production. 1 hour 36 minutes. Widescreen 2.35:1. Directed by Rodrigo Cortes. Screenplay by Michael Goldbach, Chris Sarling, based on a novel by Lois Duncan. iTunes, Rented. Down a Dark Hall brings together two strong trends of today's genre cinema, the Spanish-language Gothic thriller tradition on the one hand, and young adult literary resources a la Hunger Games and The Maze series, on the other.  The result is reasonably well constructed but entirely predictable Gothic hokum, with the central idea that really sounds like it was daydreamed up by a suburban-bourgeois teenager sick and tired of having to go through piano lessons or math tutoring classes. 

Considering the already existing countless stories about girl's boarding school it would have required some other ingenious turn of events to elevate Down a Dark Hall above average. But the filmmakers have little ideas other than the admittedly interesting casting of Thurman in the tyrannical headmistress role (she seems to be a tad too sincere: a kind of droll, Lynn Redgrave-on-oxycodone approach might have worked better).  AnnaSophia Robb does what is required as the suitably harried young heroine Kit, but the materials she is given to work with are just not up to the snuff.  Rodrigo Cortes, director of Buried (2010) and Red Lights (2012), keeps the kettle boiling and the Blackwood Boarding School set is pretty impressive.  Jarin Blaschke's (The Witch [2015]) cinematography, while plenty atmospheric, sometimes becomes so pitch-black as to entirely obscure the goings-on.  Probably appropriate for a popcorn-munching spook-show screening during a junior-high girls' slumber party (they wouldn't know Uma Thurman from Meryl Streep, I suppose?), I was not seriously bored with the film, but still can't give it a score higher than ☆☆★★★. 

2. Cold Skin/La piel fria (Spain-France, 2017). A Babieka/The Ink Connection/Kanzaman/ Pontas Film & Literary Agency Co-Production. 1 hour 48 minutes. Widescreen 2:35:1. Directed by Xavier Gens. Screenplay by Jesus Olmo & Eron Sheean, based on a novel by Albert Sanchez Piñol.  Purchased, iTunes. Cold Skin is another classically-oriented horror opus filmed in English language with the British leads but dominated by the Spanish-Catalan sensibility. The director is Xavier Gens, who has primarily worked in the Francophone cinema, and, as evidenced by his previous films, Frontier(s) (2007) and The Divide (2011), has tended to gravitate toward the characters in confinement forced to reveal their animal-like true colors.  This particular film, about a young, unnamed weather observer (David Oakes) stationed at an isolated Antarctic island (nicely location-shot at Canary Islands and Iceland) running afoul of a disgruntled, possibly insane lighthouse technician Gruner (Ray Stevenson) as well as a horde of amphibian humanoid creatures, is inevitably going to be compared to Guillermo Del Toro's The Shape of Water.  There is even a female humanoid christened Aneris (impressively embodied by the Spanish actress Aura Garrido under layers of blue-grey latex) who Gruner keeps as a sexual slave.

The creatures and the desolate, salt-bitten island-scape are quite effectively drawn, and the screenplay does not dawdle on, quickly introducing the otherworldly menace and keeping the viewers on their toes for the most part.  The human characters, on the other hand, are simply not interesting. Gruner is such a thoroughly unsympathetic rapist-cum-mass-murdering-scumbag that the young meteorologist's initial willingness to join in the former's daily routine of extermination campaign against the humanoids comes across either as a form of transmitted madness, or an irredeemable moral failure on the latter's part (possibly both?). Gens possibly intended all this as a political allegory (heavy-handed references to the genocidal character of the First World War,-- the movie is set in 1914, following the source novel, I assume-- not to mention a groan-inducing epigram taken from Nietzsche-- that's right, that "you gaze into the abyss and the abyss gazes into you" jazz--, seems to corroborate this interpretation), but without a sympathetic character or even a relatable villain, the movie tends to fall back on creature-attack action scenes and other monster-movie boogaboo stuff.  Concerning those things, at least, this film is not too bad. 
I didn't expect Cold Skin to be as powerful or genuinely weird as The Shape of Water or Splice (2009), but given its considerable technical prowess, I wish it had the temerity to swim beyond its sub-Jack-London, men-are-the-true-beasts literary-trope atoll and to genuinely surprise the viewers. ☆☆☆   

Well the class is starting soon, and I still have many, many things to do, so I will resume at No. 3 hopefully in a few days.  I know, I know, it is a constant struggle to keep the blog going, but seeing that some of the people I know or read, who are far more prolific and diligent than I am, eventually shut  their blogs down or keep them unattended for months on end, I take solace in the fact that this problem is not unique to me.      

2018년 9월 5일 수요일

A Nightmare Doll in Girl's Boarding School- THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED (1969) Blu Ray Review

1 hour 42 minutes (Original Spanish Release Version), 1 hour 34 minutes (The American Release Version), 1969. Aspect Ratio 2.35:1, 35mm, Eastman Color. Written and directed by Narsciso Ibáñez Serrador (writing as Luis Verña Peñafiel). Music by Waldo de Los Rios. Cinematography by Manuel Berenguer, Godofredo Pacheco. Edited by Mercedes Alonso. Production Design by Ramiro Gomez. Costume Design by Victor Maria Cortezo. 

Cast: Lilli Palmer (Señora Fourneau), Cristina Galbo (Therese), John Moulder-Brown (Luis), Mary Maude (Irene), Maribel Martin (Isabel), Candida Rosada (Señorita Desprez), Andrea (Teresa Hurtado).

In the new century, Spanish-language genre cinema, both Spainish/Catalonian and the Central-Latin American variants, is doing remarkably well, especially in the realm of orthodox (puzzling-solving) mysteries and politically conscious horror-thrillers. Just check out the roster of new movies and TV series added to Nexflix and Amazon and it should become obvious that many interesting and rewarding Hispanic works of horror and dark fantasy are steadily supplied nowadays, even if not all of them demonstrate the level of creativity scaled by the Guadalajara native Guillermo Del Toro or the Barcelonite J. A. Bayona. For the last two decades the DVD (and now HD disc) revolution has also steadily rehabilitated reputations of the classic-- '60s to '80s-- Spanish-language horror filmmakers, such as Armando de Ossorio (of the Blind Dead films fame), Paul Naschy (a.k.a. Jacinto Molina Alvarez, the "Spanish Lon Chaney" himself) and, er, yes, Jesus Franco (There are also cult favorites such as the Brazilian auteur Jose Mojica Marins, whose language of choice is Portuguese, so perhaps the "Spanish-Portuguese-language" is really the technically correct designation). To this illustrious roster belongs Narsciso Ibáñez Serrador, who directed only two theatrical features, this film and the monstrously powerful Who Can Kill a Child? (¿Quién puede matar a un niño? 1976), bracketed by more than fifty years of celebrated TV work, most notably the long-running genre series Historias para no dormir (Stories to Stay Awake, 1966-1982).

Often cited online as a film that inspired Argento's Suspiria (a perversely diminishing claim reproduced in the Scream Factory Blu Ray's back cover), La residencia unabashedly dives into a hoary Gothic set-up, a 19th century girl's boarding school for "troubled girls," run with an iron discipline by a sexually repressed headmistress. The film's ostensible protagonist, Therese, is immediately picked upon by a clique of mean seniors, led by the nasty Irene, upon arrival. However, she also befriends the headmistress's weakling son, Luis, apparently willing to help the frustrated girls escape the stuffy establishment. Unfortunately for them, a knife-wielding murderer is stalking the corridors of the dormitory, and the presumed "escapees" have in reality been gruesomely dispatched by the maniac.

The full description of the plot (including the "shocker" ending, which I shall not reveal here) makes the film appear unbelievably lurid and exploitative, but compared to, say, the Italian horrors such as What Have You Done to Solange? (1972), also starring Galbo, of the same period, La residencia remains quite restrained and levelheaded (until the very last fifteen minutes of the film, but perhaps even then). Serrador spends a lot of time not only building up considerable suspense and atmosphere of dread, but also illustrating character traits, not usually paid attention to in the flamboyant Euro-horrors of this period. Even though the director pulls off a few flashy stylistic set-pieces, mostly during the startling murder sequences (including a very effective use of slow-motion, both sonic and visual), he for the most part keeps things subtle. There are potentially exploitative scenes-- such as a girl stripped of shirt and caned as a corporal punishment, and a group shower-- but the prurience quotient is not high at all (the shower scene does manage to work up sexual tension leading to a silent confrontation between a girl and Madame Fourneau, but it highlights repressive atmosphere rather than eroticism). 

Despite the fact the film is more or less confined to a (admittedly huge) single mansion, Serrador eschews excessive theatricality, and wrangles good to excellent performance out of his cast members. Anglophilic affectation is a strange problem that still plagues some Spanish-language genre films even in the 21st century, but most viewers will not have a problem accepting the English-language dialogues of the (allegedly) French characters in this Spanish production (Serrador's uncommon sensitivity to the spoken languages is in fact one of the reasons why Who Can Kill a Child? works so well with the English-Spanish mixed soundtrack, and not with the Spanish dubbing).

Having said that, one of the weaknesses of the film is that it is really about the relationship between Madame Fourneau and her son, and the film's obvious identification figures, including Therese, are in fact pawns of the director deployed to mislead the viewers, or to serve, in the ultimate sense, as objects putting plot mechanisms in motion. Like quite a few psychological thrillers of '60s and early '70s, La residencia goes through an abrupt shift in the positionality of central characters (no doubt some of this is due to the overwhelming influence of Psycho), which is certainly effective, but as a result, the viewers are not allowed to receive dividends from their emotional investments in the main characters. Well, it is a horror film, after all, and slapping the viewer's faces out of their complacent expectations might be regarded as a fair game. Yet, the British couple of Who Can Kill a Child?, its fish-out-of-water protagonists, have zero trouble garnering our sympathies, without Serrador having to resort to any kind of genre-savvy manipulation of the viewer expectations. La residencia, while an undeniably high-quality Gothic horror show, does not exactly transcend the visible mechanics of the genre.    

Lilli Palmer might have been cast thanks to her famous turn as a teacher in the 1958 version of Mädchen in Uniform. I am not sure a 19th-century French school mistress would quite have the kind of cutting diction (in English) as she uses in this film, but otherwise her performance is excellent, adding shadings to the character so that she would not end up a mere sadistic dragon lady. Moulder-Brown, who had had a long career as a child actor since late '50s, was possibly cast for his angelic looks, but in this film and the unclassifiable masterpiece Deep End (1970) he manages to leave an indelible impression as a soft-spoken teenager gradually revealing frightening levels of instability and obsession to the viewers. Among the girls, Mary Maude (equally striking in the rather twaddle-dum cult horror opus Crucible of Terror [1972]) leaves a strong impression as the meanest but strongest-willed potential victim.  

Critics will probably have little difficulty in reading allegorical meanings into La residencia, given that it is about a closed-off, repressed community under a stern but ineffectual "dictator" who unintentionally allows psychosis to brew under the façade of order and enlightenment, but taken at its face value, the film remains a strong psychological thriller-Gothic horror that rewards multiple viewings and certainly deserves its classic status. 

Blue Ray Presentation:
MGM/Scream Factory (Shout! Factory Imprint). Region A Blu Ray.  Video: 1080p High-Definition Widescreen 2.35:1. Audio: English DTS-HD Master Mono. Subtitles: English. Supplement: A U.S. import version, Interviews with John Moulder-Brown and Mary Maude. TV Spots, Radio Spots, Still Gallery. Release Date: December 27, 2016.

The House That Screamed has been one of the titles high up in the list for restoration of its longer cut for many years but remained inexplicably MIA during the DVD years, except for bargain-basement budget edition from Sinister Cinema, even when Serrador's Who Can Kill a Child? received a lavish special edition treatment by Dark Sky Films, forcing fans to procure the Spain-produced DVD with the Spanish language edition only, without English subs. In 2016 Scream Factory, the horror imprint of Shout! Factory finally filled in the gap with a welcome special edition that includes both the original release version (clocking at 102 minutes) and the U.S. release cut shorn of approximately ten minutes by the American International Pictures.

The longer cut switches to SD-level footage noticeably inferior in quality whenever the excised bits are reintroduced. Thankfully the process is not too distracting. Curiously, the Spanish language audio is not included, although, given the English-language command of Palmer, Moulder-Brown and Maude, the English track makes greater sense than the Spanish dub in any case.    

The 1080p transfer certainly looks good but is supposedly taken from internegatives, and color scheme tends toward somewhat subdued red and brown, which might well have been Serrador's original intention. While not as colorful and fresh-looking as some viewers might have hoped, the visual presentation is overall rich and robust, unlike some other vintage BD titles that tend to sport "faded beige" look. The DTS-mastered mono audio also does its job. In fact, the crackle and pop that suddenly intrude in the soundtrack in the inferior-quality restored scenes are far more distracting than the drop in visual quality.   

Supplements include brief interviews with Moulder-Brown (conducted in 2011 at a German screening of Deep End) and Maude (done in 2012 during the Manchester Film Festival), both well-aged and pleasant, giving the audiences nice run-down of the production of La residencia, with impressions of Serrador (apparently a tough taskmaster) and Palmer (an old school film star). Not as professionally put-together as a piece done by Red Shirts or other specialists in DVD supplementary docus, they are nonetheless very welcome additions.