Monday, 6 January 2014

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (Tobe Hooper, 1986) is a lot like those "mystery surprise bags" they used to sell at convenience stores. A few great bits, then a whole bunch of junk no one could possibly have any use for.

That makes it a classic in my books. I love great film, and I love terrible film, and it's so rare that I get to enjoy them together.

Yeah, that's Dennis Hopper. (Photo stolen from
Sassy late-night DJ Stretch (Caroline Williams) is dealing with an on-air crank call when the callers are murdered with what sounds like... a chainsaw. (!!!) She teams up with ten-gallon kook Lefty (Dennis Hopper), a relative of the hapless youths dispatched in the original film, to get to the roots of the atrocity (the DEEP roots, hardy har). First fending off Leatherface (Bill Johnson) and Chop Top's (Bill Moseley) preemptive attack at Radio Free Texas, Stretch and Lefty pursue the Brothers Sawyer-mazov back to the Batcave their underground lair.

Our intrepid-ish heroes are quickly separated, and in what might be beautiful and elegant meta-symbolism but probably isn't, the plot then falls apart in almost exactly the same way the Sawyer's subterranean empire soon literally crumbles to dust. I'd be loathe to spoil the ending of this (Criterion-overlooked) masterpiece, but it's bonkers and inexplicable and awesome.

"What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding?" (Picture stolen from
So much of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is so transcendentally stupid. Why would a radio station forbids DJ to hang up on a caller? Why would Leatherface develop a crush on Stretch after having torn through a plethora of nubile teenagerettes in the original? Why do Stretch's lines to Leatherface read like a soap opera breakup? ("I'M TRYING TO BE OPEN WITH YOU!") Why does Lefty spend the second half of the film running around an empty amusement park, screaming "DAMN IT ALL TO HELL" and chainsawing support beams willy-nilly? Why is Lefty in this movie at all?

On the other hand, when The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 gets it right -- boy howdy, they get it right. I defy any woman who's walked alone down a dark alley or shared a bus stop with a creepy stranger to name a more unsettling scene than Chop Top's introduction. He's waiting on the radio station's couch when Stretch finishes a late-night set solo, and he's just polite enough, just sincere enough, that she second-guesses herself and doesn't haul ass out of there: "You're my fave," Chop Top simpers, requesting an autograph. Stretch strains to her breaking point, striving to stay polite for this frightening stranger. It's so much scarier than Leatherface waving a power saw. It feels as though it goes on forever. It's genius. It's terrifying. What's it doing in this movie?

Paging Dr. Freud. (Photo stolen from
FINAL GIRL: Stretch is among my best-loved final girls, although she'd a bit of an odd duck. For one thing, she's not really a final girl so much as a final woman (the character is gainfully and steadily employed in a grown-up's profession; the actress was 29 when the movie premiered). For another, most final girls try to keep their wits as their trials progress, usually only abandoning them  at the climax of the movie. Stretch, on the other hand, takes terrorized leave of her senses almost immediately upon encountering the Sawyers. After that, I guess, there's nowhere to go but up -- and up she does go, with a vengeance.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Black Moon (1975)

Boyfriend and I have a "happy place": Video Difference, a 24-hour, 3-storey DVD rental outlet (yes, they still exist) on Quinpool Street. It's a cineaste's paradise. They stock every movie under the sun and, if you request a movie under the moon, they will move heaven and earth to get it for you. I have applied for a job there numerous times but, despite my excellent GPA, my film studies minor, and my university film studies prize, they have never so much as called me in for an interview, and I've been forced to seek genuinely gainful employment instead.

On any given weekend, often in the wee hours of the morning, Boyfriend and I may be found at Video Difference, perusing racks of Criterion movies, sending staff to dig into the deep archives, and generally having a delightful time renting movies we've never heard of, hoping to discover an unknown masterpiece. But while I've rented films from Video Difference that wound up on my All-Time Greatest Movies Hit List (Belle du Jour, Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown, Viridiana) my recent luck has been terrible. In the last month or so I've taken home Black Orpheus, which was utterly boring; Haxan, which was just OK; and most recently Black Moon (Louis Malle, 1975), which, I don't know, maybe I should stop renting movies I don't know anything about altogether.

The only thing that kept me on the couch watching Black Moon, and not doing anything, anything else, was the fact that my nails were drying. My manicure is now perfect, but in the immortal words of Kim Kardashian, is it worth it?

The answer is no.
The film opens with an extended shot of a badger on a highway. ("Ladies and gentlemen, an art movie," Boyfriend observed, prophetically.) The badger is then run over by a car. In the car is Lily (Cathryn Harrison: Rex Harrison's granddaughter, sources say, although what Rex Harrison was doing allowing his progeny to sully the family name in tripe like this is mysterious indeed). Lily drives through the countryside, trying to avoid the guerilla warfare being fought by armies divided along gender lines (one of only two interesting ideas this film ever has; the other is daisies that scream when you step on them).

Lily stumbles upon a farmhouse in the country, inhabited by a crazy old woman, twincestuous adult siblings, and about two dozen naked children (whose elders, once again, should never have allowed them to feature in this film). Various utterly stupid and frustrating events happen for no fucking reason. A unicorn (well, a very fat Shetland pony with a horn affixed to its head) appears and Lily follows it all over. Lily throws a half-dozen alarm clocks out a window. The Goler twins and their birthday-suited offspring perform selections from a Wagner opera. People breast-feed one another. Lily helps bury a dead soldier and then, in an act no way loaded with obvious and heavy-handed symbolism, allows a garter snake to slither between her legs. This is more or less the blessed end, after an hour and forty minutes of unbearable nonsense.

Lily also falls all the time in this movie. Like, she must have an inner ear problem or something.
At first, this movie comes across as an extended metaphor for sexual abuse. Then, it starts coming across as an extended metaphor for sexual abuse, produced by someone who didn't know anything about film-making. Then, you finally realize that it's not an extended metaphor for anything, except the importance of being more careful what movies you take home from Video Difference.

Sometimes, bad things happen to good people. This is hard to explain. Sometimes, bad movies happen to good film-makers. This is easier to explain, but just as frustrating. "At the time of release, Black Moon received mixed reviews and vanished into obscurity," says Wikipedia. Good, and I wish it had stayed there instead of being resurrected under the Criterion label. They're handing those things out like candy.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Haxan (1922)

Haxan (Benjamin Christensen, 1922) is a silent black and white Swedish documentary on witchcraft from the 1920s. Kind of speaks for itself, doesn't it?

Double double.
There's not much point giving a plot breakdown for Haxan. There isn't really a plot, as such, just interlinking episodes connected by factual background information. We see some bad medieval ladies casting spells and partying with Satan. We see a couple witch trials. We jump to the modern era and Christensen makes his case (probably progressive in the 20s) that witchcraft was really mental illness. The film ends with the abrupt accusation "SLUT", which is apparently Swedish for "The End".

I was really rooting for Haxan, really ready to like it, if only because "so I saw this awesome silent Swedish documentary on witchcraft"would be such a great way to start a conversation. Unfortunately, it hasn't aged well. Both the documentary and horror genres were in their infancy in the 20s, and Christensen isn't particularly prophetic on either front.

I love silent movies and think they're often unfairly criticized, but there's a lot to criticize here: the inconsistent acting, the occasionally ludicrous costumes, fact that nothing, literally nothing, happens for the first quarter-hour. The biggest problem is that no one on Haxan seems to have realized that what you don't see, or only think you see, is much scarier than what you do see. Every time Christensen fills his frame with cavorting demons and leering devils (and he's very fond of this) they get further from scary and closer to cute.

Finally, the Wagner score Criterion chose to accompany this film was apparently true to authorial intent, but that doesn't make it easier for a modern audience to take seriously. I can't be the only one who hears certain melodies and immediately thinks of Bugs Bunny sitting on a pony, batting his eyelashes.

If you were a teenage boy in the 1920s, Haxan would have been a good way to see naked girls. Beyond that, it's hard to recommend.

Monday, 14 October 2013

White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932), which Wikipedia claims is Hollywood's first zombie flick, is ruthlessly, remorselessly stupid (thus setting the bar for a lot of zombie flicks).

A film that cannot be saved by Bela Lugosi in a tux.
Madeleine (Madge Bellamy) and Neil (John Harron), the 1930s' most annoying newlyweds-to-be, have arrived in Haiti for their destination wedding. Inconveniently, every male they meet immediately lusts after Madeleine, who is apparently the only woman in a 100-mile radius. Madeleine's list of would-be suitors includes annoying plantation owner Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), who teams up with annoying voodoo master Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi; yes, the character's name is actually Murder) to zombify Madeleine. This is not difficult because Madeleine barely has two brain cells to rub together. Once Madeleine is zombified our heroes and villains run all over Haiti fighting for her while she wanders around looking stunned. The appropriate parties are dispatched in convenient ways, Madeleine is apparently de-zombified (though it's not easy to tell) and we, the audience, have wasted an hour of our lives.

Most of the reviews I've read for White Zombie blast the acting, which is unfair. The performances are dated (they're not bad, they just veer into the more melodramatic silent style), but they're solid. White Zombie's real problem is that these actors have nothing to work with (except, in Bellamy's case, some funky vintage costumes). Bland script, boring characters, dumb cinematography. And although I hate to shoot fish in barrels, this film is as cringe-inducingly racist as you might expect of a 1930s movie called White Zombie. A product of its time, perhaps, but there are still some absolutely squirm-worthy moments.

Some people enjoy a good bad movie. I am one of them. If you go into White Zombie knowing that it's a curio, not a classic, you might have a good time. Or you could just, you know, watch something that's actually good. Do what you want, I guess.

SCENE STEALER: There's not much to salvage in White Zombie, but Bela Lugosi does his fighting best. Fresh off of 1931's Dracula, Lugosi was probably used to being the coolest person in the room. Still, even he can't pull off those ginormous prosthetic eyebrows. For real, it looks like twin caterpillars crawled onto his face and died.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

The Conjuring (2013)

Went to see The Conjuring (James Wan, 2013) with my friend Shannon last week. As we left the theatre, some dudebro ahead of us enthusiastically informed his buddy "dude, that was fucking sick." And I was like:

Dude, no. No, dude. No, dude, no.
This? This passes for "fucking sick" nowadays? The last half-century brought us The Exorcist, Cannibal Holocaust, the Blood Trilogy, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre -- and come 2013, The Conjuring qualifies as "fucking sick"? Stop this decade. I'm getting off. This isn't fucking sick. This is a big budget version of that episode of The Waltons with a poltergeist.

Shucks howdy.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Pumpkinhead (1988)

I must say I was disappointed that the demonic baddie in Pumpkinhead (Stan Winston, 1988) didn't actually have a pumpkin for a head.

He had a head for a head.
When country bumpkin Ed Harley's (Lance Henriksen) cherubic little boy is run down by teenagers on motorcycles (details at eleven), Harley turns to swamp witch Haggis (Florence Schauffer) to help him wreak revenge. Using remains disinterred from a nearby pumpkin patch, Haggis calls forth a hell demon (the "Pumpkinhead") and unleashes it on the hapless teens. Said adolescents are picked off one by one until they realize that Harley and the Pumpkinhead share a magical connection. Then they do the logical thing and riddle Harley with bullets, and both he and the Pumpkinhead drop dead.

Pumpkinhead is sort of a deeply okay movie. It's not really bad (and indeed it's much better than a movie called Pumpkinhead has any right to be). It does some interesting stuff. The lighting and colour are gorgeous (there's a really striking orange/blue palette). Plus, it's a cool about-face the film pulls with its POV, starting with Ed Harley as protagonist, then switching gears halfway through to follow the imperiled teens. Generally, though, Pumpkinhead doesn't do much that a thousand other horror movies haven't done before and after, both better and worse.

The middle of the road is a dangerous place for a horror movie. The worst entries in the genre often wind up as popular as, or even more popular than, the best: look at Friday the 13th (a terrible film). There's something unique enjoyable about bad horror: the Sears catalog model woodenly reciting her lines, the monkey-with-a-typewriter script, the jump scare you see coming for ten minutes. There's a place in the annals of film for bad horror. But mediocrity? That's less sellable. (It's worth noting that Pumpkinhead got three sequels, though. Why? Who watched them?)

No Bain, no gain.
FINAL GIRL: Tracy, played by Cynthia Bain. She's unremarkable. Most of this movie's teenagers are just corn-fed, interchangeable Pumpkinhead fodder.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975)

Yes, I'm back and boy howdy, do I have a movie for you. Today Black Cat Reviews tackles Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (Don Edmonds, 1975).

(Quick note -- I'm not really sure how it works to put a trigger warning on something, but I think probably trigger warning on this. Possible all of the trigger warnings on this. If you're squicked out by, well, anything, move along.)

"I want to talk to my agent."