On CRISIS

Sprawling drama takes on the horrors of the opioid industry

Writer/director Nicholas Jarecki’s mesmerizing anti-opioid film CRISIS is being marketed as a thriller, which it is, I suppose. Structurally, its triple-arc, multi-character, puzzle-box narrative behaves like many drug-centric thrillers that have come before it (Steven Soderbergh’s TRAFFIC being the obvious comparison) and certainly, it occasionally has some of the dizzying flash of a Scorsese film as it zips around explaining the mechanics of an international narcotics operation, complete with narrated expository sequences slathered in The Rolling Stones. But really, at its core, CRISIS is a kind of horror movie; a human tragedy where the monster is not the drug itself (as in something like, say, Darren Aronofsky’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, where the smack was the villain) but a kind of banal, socio-economical bottom line; one exploited by fringe-dwelling hustlers, status-quo intellects and corporate kingpins alike. And while CRISIS shines lights on the grafters and amoral parasites who push these pills around, its focus is mainly on the victims of their trade, who sell their souls and who are often duped into doing so while trustingly filling a prescription.

Armie Hammer (THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.) stars as Jack Kelly, a dangerously deep undercover DEA agent posing as the middle man for a Canadian/Armenian opioid drug cabal that has wound its way into America and who lives in constant fear of his ruthless associates discovering his true identity. Meanwhile, in Detroit, straight-laced professor Dr. Tyrone Brower (Gary Oldman, late of MANK) slowly begins to realize that a supposedly safe painkiller his University has helped develop is anything but. And elsewhere at the same time, architect Claire Reimann (Evangeline Lilly, ANT-MAN) is shattered when her teenage son is found dead after an apparent Oxycontin overdose, a truth that doesn’t sit well with her when an autopsy reveals that he has in fact been battered about the skull, the pills potentially poured down his throat instead of being ingested willingly. All three of these tenuously connected stories come together in ingenious ways to hit home a singular truth: our society is in the grip of a passive, silent enemy that infested the corners of our lives like vermin and, if not addressed soon, will continue to breed and evolve. A crisis, indeed.

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On THE SENTINEL

A look at Michael Winner’s leering 1977 theological horror film

What are horror films but morality tales whose serpentine roots lie deeply grounded in campfire ghost stories, myth, folklore, fairy tales and of course, in theology. Organized religion has almost universally employed narratives of fear and terror as warning signs to obey the rules and exist divinely, to avoid the pitfalls of base temptation and vice lest ye be tossed into the bubbling cauldrons of Hell itself. And Since Edison first ran his one reel Frankenstein through a Kinetiscope, this pious, raw, stripping-down of elements both spiritual and corporeal have exemplified the best efforts our beloved genre has to offer.

Now, as any good student of history should know, the 1960’s were a time of change in America and abroad; of social and political upheaval. With JFK getting his noggin shattered on live television and the bloody shadow of the Vietnam conflict looming large, the people – fresh out of the pastel perfect 1950’s-were no longer blindly trusting of their flag, of themselves…or of their God.

Right and wrong became blurry. Black and white dissolved into various shades of grey. Good didn’t always conquer evil and sometimes The Devil would win and there was nothing your endless bible-to-bosom clutching could do about it. As the 60’s oozed into the 1970’s, Americans were shell shocked and, much like the angry youth coming out of post-war Germany, Italy and France, they began to seriously question their previously unchallenged beliefs. And, as mainstream pop culture began to reflect this disenfranchisement, so then did horror movies become more morally checkered, delivering the bleakest, most nihilistic answers imaginable.

So too then were the streams of guarded religious idealism attacked with profitable and controversial relish. This cycle of irreverent, theology-based pop-terror started in 1968 with Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s bestseller ROSEMARY’S BABY; it went sexually rabid with Ken Russell’s depraved 1971 melodrama THE DEVILS; it perfected itself with William Friedkin’s 1973 classic THE EXORCIST and it climaxed with the operatic pulp of Richard Donner’s 1976 shocker THE OMEN. But one picture that sought to ride this potentially blasphemous wave got lost in the shuffle, coming out after films about the persuasive power of The Devil were popular, receiving its cinematic communion perhaps a wee bit too late. Though many people that saw it theatrically back in 1977 still cite it as one of the scariest movies ever made, for whatever reason THE SENTINEL has kind of, sort of just disappeared from those omnipresent “best horror movies” discussions. It still exists primarily on the fringe.

Pity poor Alison Parker (Christina Raines, NIGHTMARES), beautiful model and actress by day and nail biting nervous wreck by night. As a teenager she accidentally stumbled upon her father engaging in a tawdry threesome with two rather rotund whores and, after being beaten by her old man for the intrusion, promptly dragged a razor blade across her own wrist. Though she survived the bungled suicide, years later she tries again after her lover’s wife, who, upon discovering her hubby’s infidelity, jumps from a bridge to her own emotionally devastated demise. Again, Alison lives through it. Now shacked up with said lover, a slightly sinister high priced lawyer named Michael (FRIGHT NIGHT’s Chris Sarandon), the terminally tortured starlet, feeling she needs some much needed independence and space to figure out who she is, rents an apartment in a looming NYC brownstone.

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On HIDEAWAY

A closer look at Brett Leonard’s punishing 1995 thriller

Much has been said of the 1990s in regards to the genre, with many moping about the dearth of good stateside, American horror the decade produced, while others – mostly, those who came of age during the period – speaking of how Wes Craven’s SCREAM and its stabby, self-referential ilk “saved” contemporary horror. I suppose both arguments are valid, and sure, the ’90s also saw a wave of notable faves like CANDYMAN and NIGHTBREED slinking out from the multiplex, eventually becoming classics. Still, a majority of horror films from this era were very safe, slick and clean affairs. Few had the arch angles and WTF moments that make the genre so interesting. Sure, SCREAM may have hit hard with critics and the Friday night date crowd, but I felt then and even more so now, that its smugness, its faux-witty dialogue and its small-screen sensibilities were miles removed from everything I love, respect and, yes, fear about stranger cinema. When I close my eyes and think of the ’90s silver screen, all I see is an endless succession of samey-same posters with pretty alabaster young people standing in cascading lines, glowering at the lens. And – in my opinion – most of the movies they helped shuck were equally as uninspiring. It was as if the FRIENDS-ification of domestic pop culture dumped a kind of pretty glue over every moving entertainment in its path. Blech…

However there were a few bright, spastic cinematic spots that stuck out from the pedestrian pack. Stuff like RAVENOUS and FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, though I can’t really cite that latter picture as a true horror movie and I’ve always felt its second-half horror component paled in comparison to its straight-up crime drama set-up. No, to me, the greatest of all arcane offerings coming from the last-gasp of the past millennium was a picture everyone seemed to hate. They hated it then. They probably still hate it now, though perhaps that contemporary hate is closer to ignorance as I’m willing to bet folks have either forgotten about it or didn’t even know the movie existed in the first place. The visionary, violent and merciless slab of mad-science slasher mayhem I speak of is Brett Leonard’s muscular and ultra-stylish 1995 mind-bending psychic stab-a-thon HIDEAWAY and it’s about goddamned time people started paying attention to it.

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On THE GRAPES OF DEATH

Jean Rollin’s nightmarish dream thriller is the strangest zombie movie ever made

The enduring fascination – to pull from the title of one of his most famous films –with the work of French horror film director Jean Rollin doesn’t rest exclusively with sex. Certainly, as with his much studied Eurohorror colleague Jess Franco, the surface hook for Rollin’s oeuvre is his use of overt female eroticism blending with ample bloodshed, and like Franco, both directors have dabbled in hardcore pornography to make ends meet. But with Rollin, really, it’s that certain je ne sai quoi that keeps his admirers coming back, addicted to dissecting his pictures and pushing to have them spoken about just as seriously as the work of his New Wave countryman like Goddard, Truffaut et al. More plainly put, Jean Rollin was the poet laureate of European exploitation; a true artist who found himself making movies that had to be easily classified as simple genre works and whose vision was ghettoized by distributors looking to sell his unique, personal films to unimaginative consumers seeking a quick thrill.

And while Rollin will forever be associated with his now celebrated series of dreamy, sensual feminine vampire pictures like SHIVER OF THE VAMPIRES, REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE and his ultimate fanged-femme masterpiece LIPS OF BLOOD, one of his lesser discussed efforts dabbles in a different kind of undead fiend, that of the zombie.  Filmed as PESTICIDE, released in France as LES RAISINS DE LA MORT and eventually known stateside as THE GRAPES OF DEATH, this 1978 ghoul-fest is indeed a story of outbreak and the murderous, mindless, diseased monsters it creates. But we promise you, THE GRAPES OF DEATH is unlike any zombie film ever made, a picture that pulls in the pundits with promises of post-NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD frissons and then subjects its audience to meandering, mesmerizing passages of death, decay and dream-state horror.

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On CONTAMINATION

A 40th anniversary tribute to Luigi Cozzi’s delirious science fiction shocker

It’s almost impossible to think that it’s been 40 years since the release of CONTAMINATION. It’s equally unimaginable that some of you reading these words have no idea what CONTAMINATION is. But for that lucky legion of fans that have indeed long-loved Luigi Cozzi’s delirious 1980 Italian sci-fi/horror romp (and former “Video Nasty”), your pulses were likely pounding as soon as you saw the headline of this piece. And for you curious lot still in the dark, allow me to illuminate.

CONTAMINATION stars ZOMBI 2 and ZOMBI HOLOCAUST legend Ian McCulloch as alcoholic ex-astronaut Ian Hubbard who is roped back into action by Colonel Stella Holmes (Canadian actress Louise Marleau) after a ghost ship drifts into the New York harbour carrying crates of acid-spewing death-sacs, the likes of which have just caused a crew of investigators to explode like blood piñatas.  Seems Hubbard was part of a doomed Mars mission many years prior in which fellow astronaut Hamilton (Siegfried Rauch) fell under the spell of some sort of egg-laying terror and vanished. When Hubbard returned to earth, raving about Martians and half out of his mind, no one believed his tales and he slipped into deep depression and hopeless addiction. Horrified to learn that the pulsing poison eggs he encountered in space are now on earth, but exhilarated that there is finally proof of his career-killing claims, Hubbard joins forces with Colonel Holmes –and NYPD cop Tony Aris (Marino Mase) – to track down the source that’s shipping the deadly, toxic eggs around the world, a journey that takes them to the steamy jungles of Columbia. Seems Hamilton had also returned to earth where he runs a coffee plantation and has become a puppet of the insidious alien lifeform, who has psychically ordered him to help bring the earth to its knees via its evil ova, packed discretely in boxes of coffee beans.

Calling CONTAMINATION an ALIEN rip-off is no insult to the film, nor is it a slight on Cozzi’s integrity or intentions. During that period of Italian exploitation moviemaking, no producer worth his salt would have dared finance any genre film that wasn’t a direct quote on an existing, profitable picture – especially if it was a profitable American picture as ensuring U.S. screens was an essential component to a European film’s success.  And that is indeed exactly how CONTAMINATION began its swollen galactic pustule-popping life, with Cozzi – fresh of the modest success of his wild space opera STARCRASH – walking into producer Claudio Mancini’s office and promising a movie that boiled down to being “ALIEN made for peanuts”, one that was originally to be called CONTAMINATION: THE ALIEN ARRIVES ON EARTH. As Ridley Scott’s masterpiece was a ground-breaking, instant global sensation, without blinking, Mancini agreed to do the movie and it was rushed into production.

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On 8MM

Another look at Joel Schumacher’s devastating neo-noir horror film

It’s as good a time as any to scribble about a motion picture that I cite as one of the most underrated horror films of the past quarter century and certainly, the most undervalued in the Nicolas Cage cannon. It’s a movie that positions itself as a noir-steeped murder mystery but goes so deeply into phantasmagoria that it becomes, almost imperceptibly, a full blown horror film. And while there isn’t anything explicitly supernatural in the film, there is a leather-clad Frankenstein monster-esque porn stud-gimp named “Machine” who acts as the angel of sexual death for an egomaniacal snuff film pimp named Dino Velvet who is so over the edge with his grim villainy that he makes Dracula look like a milquetoast by comparison.

Indeed, the movie I’m about to rave about is the Andrew Kevin Walker (SEVEN) scripted psychodrama 8MM, released in 1999 and directed by the Hollywood the late gun-for-hire Joel Schumacher, he of slick and empty entertainments like THE LOST BOYS, FLATLINERS, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, the risable BATMAN FOREVER and the even more dire BATMAN AND ROBIN. Outside of the latter two pictures, however, I actually rather liked Schumacher’s solid journeyman work. He was a sleazier Tony Scott in some ways, making glossy, easily packaged product that nonetheless had covert personal kinks splashing around on the peripheral and very often, a palpable passion for movie-making at their cores. I believe 8MM to be his masterpiece and certainly, it’s further evidence that Cage is one of the great dramatic screen presences when used properly and when dialing down his patented eccentricities (though I am indeed a huge devotee of said eccentricities).

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On THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM

A look at Otto Preminger’s groundbreaking and harrowing 1955 addiction drama

I remember when Darren Aronofsky was doing the press tour for his controversial and unsparing 2000 Hubert Selby Jr. adaptation REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, he correctly cited the film as a horror movie, one in which the monster was the heroin that seduced, dominated and decimated the lives of its fragile, deluded blue-collar characters. That’s kind of Selby Jr.’s beat, sifting through the streets and trying to find grace notes among the desperate, scrambling human beings who are forever lost to boredom, poverty and vice. But in Aronofsky’s film, the idea of addiction  is pumped up to supernatural heights, with screeching Clint Mansell music, rapid fire visuals, extreme sexual debasement and carnivorous refrigerators. Yeah, it’s a horror movie alright and one that no one who has endured it ever manages to forget.

But long before Aronofsky attacked audiences with REQUIEM, director Otto Preminger broke ground with another film about a junkie perpetually trying to outsmart the drooling monkey that claws at his back, 1955’s THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM , based on the novel by Nelson Algren. Starring iconic crooner and occasional actor Frank Sinatra in what is most assuredly his greatest performance, MAN is a film crawling out the sensibilities of the morally ambiguous and unofficial noir subgenre of the 1940s but bleeding into more dangerous, graphic territory, rejecting as it did the dying Production Code that had been sanctimoniously clipping Hollywood’s balls since the early 1930s. But Preminger was adamant that his movie did not glamorize drugs rather it showed the smack as life-decimating parasite that, once invited into its host’s life, refused to vacate until that person was dead. Preminger and distributor United Artists released the movie without the approval of the MPAA and, though their battle was hard won, their defiance was instrumental in paving the way for a new wave of American cinema that would eventually reform and dominate American cinema in the 1960s.

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On THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM

Celebrating Roger Corman’s 1961 masterpiece of Gothic dread

Though he has made hundreds of films spanning over six decades, producer/director and indie genre film pioneer Roger Corman’s 8-picture “Poe Cycle” continues to be among his most celebrated and discussed works.

The story goes that Corman, who was, by the end of the 1950’s becoming fledgling studio American International Pictures’ regular house producer/director, went to AIP bosses Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson and convinced them to take the budget they’d normally use for two black and white pictures and instead combine them to make a single full color movie. The studio initially balked but eventually relented and the first entry in that experiment was 1960’s HOUSE OF USHER, based on the classic Edgar Allan Poe tale, “The Fall of the House of Usher”.

The Gothic, lushly realized film, written by popular writer and novelist Richard Matheson (“I Am Legend”, “Hell House”, THE TWILIGHT ZONE), was a rousing critical and commercial success, a picture that bridged the gap between the drive-ins and teen-drenched “flat tops” that Corman and AIP catered to, and the arthouse, with a distinctly literate and moody European sheen that most exploitation films of the time simply didn’t have.

But as to which of the 8 remarkable Poe films is the superior entry, It’s subjective, Certainly, everyone has their favorite and latter works like the shot in England, Ingmar Bergman-influenced MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and TOMB OF LIGEIA are the most sumptuously designed of the lot. But his HOUSE OF USHER follow-up, 1961’s THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, is inarguably the scariest…

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On THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE

Could Jorge Grau’s 1974 shocker be the greatest zombie movie ever made?

In the early 1970s, a young, experimental Spanish director named Jorge Grau was, alongside an equally visionary, Nouvelle Vague inspired pack of bratty celluloid slingers (the likes which include THE BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE helmer Vincente Aranda, being championed as the future of the Spanish film industry. In the wake of Grau’s violent, sexual and historically accurate telling of the Elizabeth Bathory legend, 1973’s THE BLOODY COUNTESS, producer Edmondo Amati approached the filmmaker to direct a movie that would blatantly ride the box office coattails of the George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but add the more visceral dimension of dripping, full-blooded color, replacing the gritty, cheap, shadowy expressionism of NIGHT with a more garish, pulpy and stomach churning pallet. Grau, swayed by a larger paycheck and the chance to film in England eagerly obliged, taking the rather straight forward genre screenplay and giving it a re-write, grafting on his own, unique personality quirks, obsessions and style, “borrowing” from Romero’s creation but forging something completely fresh and deliciously offbeat.

Known on these shores under at least a dozen lurid (and occasionally ludicrous) titles, including DON’T OPEN THE WINDOW, BRUNCH WITH THE DEAD and LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE, Grau’s resulting 1974 Spanish/Italian zombie shocker “Non Si Deve Profanare Il Sonno Dei Morti”, is a movie that I’ve always preferred to call by its UK moniker, THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE. Because I just love the way it reads, especially when read aloud.

London antique dealer George (a bearded, badass looking Ray Lovelock from, among many other things Armando Crispino’s AUTOPSY and Umberto Lenzi’s AN IDEAL PLACE TO KILL) is on a cross-country motorcycle trip into rural England when, after a bike crushing accident, he regretfully hooks up with the beautiful, fragile Edna (Christina Galbo from WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?) who is also traveling into the sticks to visit her mentally ill sister. On route, the pair come across a strange machine; a whirring, pulsing metallic engine sitting squarely in the centre of a farmers field. Said machine is an agricultural device that sends out waves of low frequency radiation designed to provoke insects to go mad and cannibalize each other. Science!

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On THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY

An appreciation of Peter Strickland’s sensual masterpiece

What is gender, exactly? When sperm hits egg and the first spark of creation takes shape in the cozy confines of the mother’s womb, all life is… is just life. Just the blueprint of the potential of what we will become. What plumbing and genetic purpose that life will have is unknown. And then a biological die is cast and presto bingo, we have a code that defines a role in nature. But no matter what dangles between our legs, we are all amalgams of both, we all have the same chemicals and impulses, just some of us are designed to perhaps tilt strongly in one direction or another. It’s out of our hands. It’s nature.

But where things get tricky and — yawn, yes, political — is when we socialize nature. When we try to put parameters around that which should have none. Religion, media, fashion, school, all of these societal factors serve to muddy waters that should run pure. Boys. Girls. Men. Women. Beyond our biological function when it comes to mating and birthing, we are all in fact masculine and feminine hybrids. And yet we keep on trying to categorize and compartmentalize.

Which brings me to British director Peter Strickland’s ingenious and delirious 2014 masterpiece THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY, a film I fell in love with instantly and which has haunted me ever since. Like his previous singular cinematic swoon, 2013’s BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, DUKE combines intimate drama with hyper-stylized evolutions of European genre tropes and festishizations of their iconography. In BERBERIAN it was the giallo film, focusing its narrative on a cinema sound designer who is losing his mind while working on an imagined ’70s Italian thriller. In DUKE, Strickland mines the voyeuristic, psychedelic and lush films of Jess Franco. In fact, the movie began its life as a straight remake of Franco’s 1974 exploitation shocker LORNA THE EXORCIST. But Strickland — one of the most wonderfully unconventional filmmakers alive — got bored of the idea of a remake and instead took the project in another direction. And I’m so glad he did. Because what he did here in this mesmerizing film transcends any sort of classification. Sure, it has the ghost of Franco whispering in our ears, but this is Strickland’s vision. It’s pure cinema, deceivingly simple, breathtaking to behold and intimately observed with one of the most fragile and moving film scores I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. And while THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY was exceedingly well reviewed and beloved by many, it’s still very much a secret. It’s out there. And it needs your eyes, your mind, your heart. And your other parts.

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