On THE TURNING

Director Floria Sigismondi delivers a serious-minded, stylish and surreal fever dream

Somebody somewhere screwed up the story and spread the belief that all horror movies had to tear you to pieces, saturating the screen with sadism and nihilism and other sorts of negative isms. They forgot that once upon a time, people turned to darker filmed fantasies to immerse themselves in beauty, to experience a sort of sinister, out-of-body, sensorial trip; to lose oneself in a work of macabre imagination, of somber moods and grandiose imagery. I can’t be sure exactly when jolts and jumps and spoon-fed, mundane logic superseded aesthetics in horror, but I know how lousy I feel when the world shrugs its shoulders in the wake of the release of a film – and a filmmaker – who has NOT forgotten what the essence of the genre is.

Such a picture is THE TURNING, and such a director is Floria Sigismondi, the artist whose landmark work making videos for David Bowie and Marilyn Manson (and many, many others) defined the look and feel of darker rock ‘n’ roll in the 1990s. Her 2010 feature film debut THE RUNAWAYS was a logical extension of her love of sound and image, telling the story of Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and the titular band in a visually flashy fashion. But that movie’s greatest power was when it dialed things down, when it focused on faces, inner voices and emotion. The brief sequence where a tired, homesick Currie hears Don McLean’s “Vincent” on the radio during a drive between gigs is in itself a small, moving piece of cinema as poetry and secretly encapsulates everything the movie is about. Her second film, the recently released THE TURNING is indeed a horror picture, yet another dive into the well-worn weird-world painted in Henry James’ novel “The Turn of the Screw”.  And while the trailer for this one speaks to appeal to the Friday night Blumhouse crowd, its PG-13 rating inviting almost all audiences in to see it, the actual film itself is something else, or rather it slowly, surely, becomes something else. In fact, THE TURNING has the ultimate effect of actually turning, of rotating, sensually, seriously. It’s a movie that begins as a whole and then sort of melts into a swirling death-pool of subconscious imagery and primordial terror. In other words, it’s the work of a great artist trying to remind the world of the real deal power of horror cinema and what it can do to its audience.

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On HITCH HIKE TO HELL

A look at the shocking yet sophisticated 1977 indie psycho-thriller

Director Irvin Berwick (MALIBU HIGH) may not have made many movies in his day, but – as we all know – quality trumps quantity and his 1977 exploitation psychodrama shocker HITCH HIKE TO HELL is not only his best work, it’s one of the weirdest and most potent pictures of its kind, and that’s saying something considering the company the movie kept during that most sensational era of “passion pit” drive-in potboilers. And really, “quality” is a subjective term. By conventional standards, the shoestring-budgeted HITCH HIKE TO HELL isn’t a particularly well produced work. But man, does it pack a disorienting, primal punch.

The film tells the tawdry tale of Howard (Robert Gribbin), a dry-cleaning delivery driver who is seemingly happy, upbeat and well-liked by all. Certainly the wayward women hitchhikers he picks up dig his company. He’s kind and a good listener. But the problem is, when said runaway ladies start taking trash about their domestic lives – specifically griping about their mothers – Howard starts to get dark. Then, he gets darker. Within minutes, Jekyll become Hyde and Howard drives his poor passengers to a remote locale, yanks them screaming out of his van and beats and savagely rapes them before brutally murdering them. And then it repeats.

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On MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES

1957 Lon Chaney biopic is a beautifully made classic

Generally speaking, contemporary horror fans tend to associate the name Lon Chaney with the legacy of his son, Lon Chaney Jr, the man who was – and will forever be – Universal’s THE WOLF MAN. But of course, the more seasoned cinephile knows the elder Chaney was one of the founding fathers of special effects and fantasy-film performance art during motion pictures’ pioneering silent birth. He was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” and he was indeed just that, a virtuoso creator who literally did it all and perfected the craft of making the most hideous of visages sympathetic, likable and sometimes, even lovable.

In the late 1950s, perhaps due to the birth of television and the renewed interest in monsters, Chaney’s legacy enjoyed a resurgence, with late night horror shows screening Chaney classics like THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and THE MAN WHO LAUGHED and magazines like Famous Monsters offering beautifully painted covers of the master’s various guises. Enter Joseph Pevney’s Cheney biopic MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES starring the legendary Jimmy Cagney and co-written by R. Wright Campbell (writer of a handful of classic Roger Corman westerns). The 1957 Universal production was initially criticized for its altering of key facts in Chaney’s life and for the casting of Cagney, who was by this time a bit long-in-the-tooth to play the actor during his youth. But no matter. Time has proven this fine film to be the classic it is and now, thanks to Arrow Video’s licensing of the title for Blu-ray, we can reappraise the picture.

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On SOLE SURVIVOR

 

Thom Eberhardt’s eerie 1983 chiller is a memorable, haunting horror classic

For years, no one talked about Thom (NIGHT OF THE COMET) Eberhardt’s 1983 chiller SOLE SURVIVOR. It haunted video stores. It drifted across late night cable TV. That’s where I saw it. But no one else I knew had seen it. I had no one to share my enthusiasm over the film with. I was God’s lonely man. And before the internet, there were no communities to join. There was no way to find a copy of it to purchase, which is what I so wanted to do. But I did find a copy, eventually. And I watched it again. And I estimated that it just might be the scariest movie I’d ever seen. When I was writing for Canadian horror magazine RUE MORGUE in my “Mad Musings of a Schizoid Cinephile” column, I wrote enthusiastically about the movie. Suddenly I was getting letters from people who had read that rave and had scoured eBay for that elusive Vestron VHS. A cult was swelling. And when Code Red licensed the film for DVD in 2008, they put my quote on the back of the box.

It was a moment of triumph!

These many years later, I’m not so sure it is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen anymore. But it’s certainly one of them.

The film stars Chloe Sevigny-by-way-of-Gaylen Ross look-alike Anita Skinner as Denise Watson, the single living passenger found amidst the grim debris and broken bodies of a catastrophic plane crash. After the initial shell-shock subsides (her blood spattered, PTSD-fueled nightmares feature a wide eyed, gut-leaking torso, an image that froze my veins as a kid), life slowly carries on, save for one rather distressing turn of events; it seems that everywhere that poor Denise goes, hollow-eyed, slack-jawed zombies follow. They stare at her through restaurant windows; they harass her in public parks; they block her way on country roads. They’re everywhere, all the time and, alarmingly, their numbers are multiplying.

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On EMANUELLE AND FRANCOISE

Joe D’Amato’s trashy sex drama is as lurid as they come

Even among the skeezy depths of Joe D’Amato’s cinematic oeuvre, his 1975 sex thriller EMANUELLE AND FRANCOISE is a jaw dropper. The director made his share of unofficial sequels to the popular Silvia Kristel-starring erotic EMMANUELLE movies, most starring the lovely Laura Gemser, but this trashterpiece (also known as EMANUELLE’S REVENGE) is among the best and is almost as cheerfully vulgar than his crown-jewel of vileness, the disturbing 1977 entry EMANUELLE IN AMERICA. Echoing the plot of the decade-and-change later Lucio Fulci softcore drama THE DEVIL’S HONEY, EMANUELLE AND FRANCOISE wallows in perversion to tell its operatically extreme tale of vengeance and sexual humiliation and though D’Amato’s lens captures ample upset, the entire thing is just so damned entertaining and groovy (Joe Dynamo’s funk soul score is a marvel) that you can’t help but kinda love it.

D’Amato regular George Eastman (the monster-man in ANTHROPOPHAGUS and ABSURD and the lead stud in EROTIC NIGHTS OF THE LIVING DEAD) stars as Carlo a preening svengali-esque hustler brute who toils on the back-end of the entertainment business, grafting gigs and delighting in the exploitation and degradation of his lover, the sweet-natured and fragile Francoise (Patrizia Gori). As the film opens, Carlo subjects the girl to one blow too many and she jumps in front of a train.  Enter Francoise’s sister Emanuelle ( in this incarnation played by SALON KITTY’s Rosemarie Lindt), who traces the sad tale of her sister’s decline via letters, with each despicable incident leeringly illustrated by D’Amato for the audience’s outrage and titillation. Soon, Emanuelle hatches a plot to seduce, trap and torture the bastard, locking him in a room armed with a two-way mirror, drugging him and subjecting him to endless images of her getting off with a succession of lovers, both male and female.

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On KILLER NUN

 

Anita Ekberg screws the scenery in this wonderfully tasteless shocker

In the annals of the unsavory subgenre known as “nunsploitation’, director Giulio Berruti’s late-from-the-gate shocker KILLER NUN stands tall, a truly nasty piece of work that has so much fun reveling in bad behavior that it’s a grim joy to behold. And that can’t be said for many of the post-THE DEVILS “nunsploitation” ilk, as they’re often depressing, claustrophobic affairs. Now back on Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow Video, hardcore fans and newly minted habit-horror-hounds alike can go another round with this psycho-horror classic and marvel at its delightful tawdriness.

The movie stars Fellini favorite Anita Ekberg (LA DOLCE VITA) – here, well into middle-age but still a goddamned knockout – as the deranged Sister Gertrude, a woman whose religion-fueled madness has caught up with her. Respected by her peers (and, in the case of some of her fellow nuns, lusted over), Gertrude is deeply, profoundly mentally ill and after tormenting weaker souls around her, begins self-medicating her increasingly disturbed condition with heroin addiction, serial sex with both fellow sisters and male strangers and eventually, wholesale murder.

Apparently based on a real case of convent carnage, KILLER NUN is most assuredly trash, but what beautifully crass trash it is. Ekberg dives deep into the role, making Gertrude a manic marvel, veering between the most jaw-dropping atrocities and yet tempering the character with empathy, pathos and remorse. This woman is sick and sculpted by her surroundings and is seemingly unable to stop her free-fall from happening. She’s a pathetic creation. But one doesn’t really watch KILLER NUN for its wrenching drama. No, the true pleasures to be found here are gleefully grotesque and often hilariously cruel. My favorite is the unforgettable sequence where Gertrude screams at an elderly woman for taking out her dentures at the table then proceeds to grab the old lady’s teeth and stomp them to dust while laughing maniacally. As the woman recoils in shock, Gertrude snaps out of her derangement and apologizes. Hours later, the poor gummy granny dies of a heart attack! Nasty? Sure. Tasteless. You bet. But scenes like this (and there are plenty of them) are SO outrageous that Berruti is inviting us to laugh. And we do. Well, at least some of us will.

FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN/BLOOD FOR DRACULA legend Joe Dallesandro also shows up as a doctor but the dubbed actor has little to do but look square-jawed and concerned while Paola Mora threatens to steal scenes from Ekberg as a horny sister who is in love with Gertrude. But never mind the supporting cast, this is Ekberg’s show all the way, her wild, aging eyes popping from her face while cackling like a lunatic with every fresh transgression. She’s goosed by a lush, eerie score by the great Alessandro Alessandroni (THE DEVIL’S NIGHTMARE), who over-the-top sonics match Ekberg’s mania.

Arrow provides a crisp 2K transfer from the 35mm camera negative. There are the usual flurry of interesting extras packed into the rear end of the disc, most edifying being Kat Ellinger’s thorough video essay tour of the nunsploitation genre and a brand new interview with Berutti himself. A remarkable, macabre and truly mad movie and a marked improvement over the previous Blue Underground release.

On TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN

A closer look at the sleazy but intelligent 1972 exploitation film

It’s arguable that the greatest sorts of exploration films dial back their visually explicit shocks in favor of the power of suggestion. The most obvious example might be PSYCHO, with its skillfully edited shower scene making us think we see more than we do. But that’s not particularly fair, as PSYCHO was made by a major filmmaker and studio and released during a period where nudity, sex and extreme bloodshed were simply not on the mainstream menu. But later, the same Ed Gein-centric source material was mined for THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, a 1973 release that was produced at a time when all manner of gushy thing was allowed and accepted on screen. And yet, CHAIN SAW, one of the most brutal and notorious pictures of its kind in the world, refused to show too much either, using sound and suggestion and style to to turn stomachs and smack its audience senseless. Other films, like 1971’s BLOOD AND LACE, 1973’s THE BABY et al also proved ample sleazy and upsetting while teetering between PG and R and using theme and tone to their advantage.

Which brings us to 1972’s harrowing and hideous and unforgettable trash sorta-classic TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN, now widely available via a splendid, feature-packed Blu-ray release from Arrow Video, a restored 2K visual upgrade from the long out-of-print Something Weird Video DVD release, where it was paired with the icky and awesome THE TOY BOX. The film is as perverse and seedy as they come, telling the tale of the emotionally disturbed young woman Jamie (a fascinating one-shot turn from Marcia Forbes), who we first meet masturbating in bed to one of her many stuffed animals as she breathlessly chants “daddy, daddy”, a sweaty session interrupted by her braying mother, who chastises her and accuses her of being “just like her father”. Seems Jamie’s dad was a cad who tom-catted around and eventually bailed on the family, leaving the vulgar mother to smother her only child. Though MIA, Jamie’s pop has continued to send her toys, which she keeps littered around her room and whose presence have contributed to her bizarre, sexually stunted, childlike state of mind, where she yearns for daddy’s love while yearning for other more carnal pleasures.

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Interview: Norman J. Warren

A career discussion with the legendary British exploitation film director

The eccentric exploitation films of British filmmaker Norman J. Warren are certainly flawed and nowhere near as angry or socially-minded as his contemporary, Pete Walker, but they have a charm all their own.

Films like INSEMINOID (aka HORROR PLANET), PREY (aka ALIEN PREY), TERROR, SATAN’S SLAVE and of course, his final film to date, BLOODY NEW YEAR, offer nothing save 90 minutes (or less) of pure, down and dirty phantasmagorical escapism; well-crafted genre romps made to distract, shock and titillate.

And there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

Warren’s roots were in short films and eventually included, as many European genre director’s early credits did, soft core porn comedies; but it is with horror and dark fantasy that we concern ourselves and that put the charming director on the small stretch of the cult film map he now occupies.

So then, in honor Vinegar Syndrome’s delicious recent Blu-ray re-release of his first horror movie, 1976’s SATAN’S SLAVE, we’re happy to present this interview with the one and only Norman J. Warren.

ALEXANDER: After your initial short film experiments in the mid ’60s, your first feature-length picture was 1968’s A PRIVATE HELL, a naughty film, no?

WARREN: Yes, it was! There were of course many films like it around from Germany and Sweden, sexploitation films we called them then and still do, but none really that were made in England. So when Her Private Hell came along, it suddenly became this enormous hit and I think that it was because it was homegrown. It was also one of the first sex films to really tell a coherent story. So while it was still pretty far from being a great film, it was unique and box office wise it was an amazing hit, which did me a world of good, I assure you!

ALEXANDER: The BBFC have always been notorious for their hatred of horror…but what were their views on the sexploitation film? How much could you show without getting your figurative knuckles rapped?

WARREN: If you were to see HER PRIVATE HELL now, it would seem innocent, naïve and really, it was never that bad. But still, the censor was very particular about what you could put on screen. If you had a bare breast you couldn’t show the nipple. And of course the guy still had to keep his pants on in bed or else you had to cover him with a sheet. So it was a very innocent time. My film did run into trouble, however, even though most of my nudity was only shown from the rear. I made only one more sexploitation film called Loving Feeling the following year – in color and in cinemascope – and by that time the censor had relaxed. We could at this point show the nipple and show SOME female frontal nudity. Things were beginning to change.

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On MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE

Words on a rock ‘n’ roll trash horror classic

It’s taken Stephen King’s MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE thirty years to get any sort of authentic respect and I don’t even think it’s quite there yet. Thing is, I’ve loved it since the first time I saw it and, as it features a full soundtrack by iconic Aussie rockers AC/DC, heard it. Leonard Maltin gave it a BOMB rating and virtually every other critic of the period saddled it with the same sort of sneering disdain.

To be an 11 year old boy in 1986 and stand up and say “FUCK YOU! I LOVE MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE!” took courage. I ran the risk of spinning into the roll of cinematic social outcast, shunned by my peers and ridiculed by my pals.

But I’ve never really been one to give a gear what anyone else thinks about me so what the hell.

MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE is a hubcap headed, gas spitting 1986 sci-fi action trash classic; the first and – if you believe his publicly uttered promise since then – only film to be directed by one of the most influential and Important fantasy/horror fiction writers in history. The film was indeed one of the worst reviewed studio pictures of its time and it has since been either ignored, reviled or smarmily dismissed. And while the diesel powered shocker is indeed nowhere near a decent creeper and is a pretty odd choice for one of the major forces of literary fear to choose as his maiden film voyage, I think it’s a fascinating example of the working class hero King aesthetic in full, perversely amplified effect and truly believe that there’s more going on in the picture than perhaps even its director understood.

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On EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE

Joe Berlinger’s tragic, disturbing portrait of the final days of Ted Bundy is a quiet masterpiece

Director Joe Berlinger has long traded in making movies that juxtapose perceptions of truth vs. the actual truth while sifting through the messy, often mind-bending micro-truths that pulse between those two often radical extremes. From his acclaimed, award-winning documentary work like BROTHER’S KEEPER and the near-revolutionary West Memphis Three-chronicling PARADISE LOST pictures, to his once derrided, now considerably more respected horror film BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2, Berlinger refuses to settle for easy answers and is even less interested in easily-cast judgements.

The misunderstood and troubled BLAIR WITCH sequel is a particularly fascinating work, exploring the way those who commit dreadful crimes are often able to delude themselves, swallowing their own lies enough that they actually believe them. In the case of that picture, the theme is embedded with the body of a supernatural story but in Berlinger’s latest film, EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE, the tale told is fact-based, chronicling as it does the final reel of serial killer Ted Bundy’s reign of barbarism and deceit. Based on the book THE PHANTOM PRINCE by Bundy’s then-girlfriend Liz Kendall, the movie opts to use as its point of entry both Kendall’s intimate perceptions and observations of Bundy’s behavior as the law closes in, and also the way others in the media and elsewhere did. Because the capper and hook of Bundy’s public legacy was that no matter how much smoke seeped from his gun, he hid all culpability under a greasy sheen of mock-outrage and liquid charm. How could a man this intelligent, attractive and articulate possibly  be the monster he was accused of being?

Maybe its because Berlinger chose this as the way to illustrate his tale, using actor and co-producer Zac Efron as his Bundy-puppet, that some critics and audiences have attacked the picture (which incidentally, is currently streaming on Netflx). Its possible they are missing the point of Berlinger’s faux-romanticised portrait or were expecting/demanding a more blood-spattered glimpse into the gynecology of Bundy’s horrific crimes. Generally speaking, audiences want absolutes. Especially now, in this often hysterical culture of outrage, where facts, empathy and investigation are second to the instant reward of shared anger, of being able to easily identify and crucify “the enemy”. That’s not what EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE offers. What Berlinger wants to do with this story is go so much deeper, not into WHAT happened, but HOW something like this could ever happen and, at the end of it, realizing that sometimes…there is no answer. Evil is not absolute. And the path to it and through it is often not easily charted.

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