A deeper look at Matt Cimber’s moving, horrifying and emotionally sophisticated masterpiece

The job of every good horror film is to exploit, degrade and pervert that which society deems sacred, to suck us out of our comfort zone and shake our foundations. Ultimately, I’ve found – as have many other admirers of the genre – horror to be the most successful form of cinema to not-so-subtly remind us that life is NOT all strawberries and orgasms. That life is short, often painful. That the illusions we as a society work so hard to construct to make that short, painful life slip down our throats like sugar pills, are easily undone and that perhaps our only true defense against that which is inevitable is to accept and soldier on.

I find horror films – when they are on point – to be life-affirming, even when they come draped in extreme images of gruesome death, misery and general malevolent mischief.

This may seem an odd statement to make when one is about to discuss Matt Cimber’s leveling 1976 psychodrama THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA, a harrowing work that has slowly, surely amassed a devoted cult following. But despite the film’s jet-black subject matter and its wrenching portrait of a woman pushed into the deep end of psychosis,  THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA has a primal power that speaks loudly to the horrors of childhood abuse, and how – when left untreated – that trauma can decimate its victims and the many unfortunate people that surround them. It offers no trite solutions to its internal terrors,  it offers no comforting denouement for the grisly journey of the “witch” of the title. Rather it serves as a stark warning, a barb-wired buoy bobbing in the seaside where most of its lyrical, lurid action unfolds. And while its oft-tread subject matter has been explored in horror cinema many times prior and since, there is simply no other film quite like it.

Working from a thoughtful, mature script by DEATH RACE 2000 scribe Robert Thom, Cimber’s expressionist shocker expertly frames his canvas from the film’s opening sequence: a long, almost abandoned beach on an overcast day, waves crashing into the sand and over the lens of cinematographer Dean (HALLOWEEN, THE THING) Cundey’s camera. This meditative, lonely visage is rendered even more melancholy by Herschel Burke Gilbert’s beautiful, lilting flute and guitar score, music that speaks of the sea, and more importantly things “lost” at sea. Specifically, a woman lost at sea, hopelessly. That woman is the deeply disturbed Molly (a shattering, dissonant performance by Millie Perkins), a seemingly sweet, child-like lady who we first see embracing her beloved nephews, telling tales of their grandfather, a sailor who himself was lost at sea. The children obviously adore their seemingly eccentric aunt and she them. And it is at this level that Molly is happiest, in the company of children, safe and needed. Because in the real world, the one populated with peers and with expectations, Molly is barely hanging on.

Almost immediately, Cimber illustrates Molly’s psychosis when she spots a pair of Charles Atlas comic-strip-esque bodybuilders on the shore, her eyes fixating on their muscles, their sweaty bodies, their bulging swimsuits. Cimber expertly cross-cuts Molly’s lust-locked face with flashes of these “parts” and eventually climaxes with bursts of cartoonish blood and the men hanging dead from ropes.

At this point we are barely five minutes into THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA and we are painfully aware that our protagonist equates sex and desire with death and is only calmed by the elemental nature of the sea and the “pure” love of children. Through direction, photography, sound and Perkins’ wide-eyed, carefully controlled performance, we are completely committed to Molly’s plight, wherever it may take us.

And naturally, nothing ends well for her.

Protected by her welfare-chained older sister and endlessly rhapsodizing on her long-dead father – whom her sibling dismisses as a monster – Molly is a raging alcoholic and ritualistic drug abuser, a woman whose only protection from whatever demons have hold of her is to numb herself with substances and sex, something she seeks out like an innocent. She is loved by her salty dog boss Long John (Lonny Chapman), who owns the bar in which Molly works at and who lives for the moments he can get her in his bed. He also – like everyone close to her – enables her and turns a blind eye to her increasingly distressing psychological state. There are passages in THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA where it seems that Long John’s blind adoration might just “save” Molly, ground her and serve as a lantern to help her find her way out of her fog-drenched, self-destructing state of mind.

But naturally, it can’t. And it doesn’t.

In protracted, slowed-down and hallucinatory sequences that illustrate both Molly’s intoxication and lapses into out-of-body darkness, we see Molly immersed in kinky sexual liaisons that end in torture and murder. First, with a pair of drug-juiced Football heroes who tag-team the beautiful woman, only to awaken the “witch”, who ties them up and slowly, sadistically carves them to pieces.  As the police investigate the crime, Molly declines further, ferally attacking a Hollywood hotshot, sexually fixating on the star of a shaving commercial and worse. And while Molly’s lethal libido ramps up, we are treated to gut-punching flashback’s of Molly as a little girl, brutalized by her vile father. It all climaxes in one of the most affecting, tragic and strangely beautiful final acts I’ve ever seen a horror movie. If you can even call THE WITCH FROM THE SEA simply a horror movie. It is one, but it’s so much more. It’s a work of art and it’s what all filmmakers who toil in dark cinema should aspire to be.

In some ways, THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA reminds me of an adult version of the classic Swedish/German PIPPI LONGSTOCKING movies from the early 1970s. Astrid Lindgren’s beloved child-waif Pippi is realized in those movies as a free-spirit, living alone in a candy-colored world, blessed with unlimited wealth and super-human powers, the hero to all children and the scourge of responsible adults. Like Molly, Pippi pines for her long-lost sea Captain “Papa”, of which she has a close but rather irresponsible relationship with. If you’ve seen those pictures, you’ll know that they are adored mostly for their almost experimental nature and the way they are completely free of the crushing, pedestrian confines of conventional narrative. They move like a child’s life moves, from adventure to adventure, from moment to moment. Undercurrents of serious social issues like child abuse are ignored, but there is most assuredly a darker side to the pictures that scratches just under their day-glow surfaces.

I see Molly as Pippi, all grown-up. The world has moved on. The circus has left town. The magic has long since evaporated. She’s alone at the Villa Villekulla, left to stare at her aging reflection and forced to confront the truth of her childhood. Unlike so many movies with a central character who is broken and psychotic, Molly is never painted as a villain. She is always, from the first frame to the final sequence, a victim. We cry for not only the broken woman she is, but the ruined child she was. She is OUR child, left alone, unguided and unprotected.

See this movie. Now.




A look at the often neglected low-budget 1977 zombie chiller

In 1977, as STAR WARS blazed its way across the planet, re-writing the rules of cinema exhibition and defining its generation, a greasy little slip of shocker was quietly brightening regional screens and briefly providing a glowing ambiance for winos and weirdos on New York’s 42nd Street.

Said film was indeed a horror movie, humble, cheap and unpretentious. It came, it went. It came back again on home video, vanished once more. Was “rescued” and re-distributed by the fine freaks at Something Weird Video, then once more slipped into obscurity.

Indeed, THE CHILD (also known as ZOMBIE CHILD and in Italy as LA CASA DEGLI ZOMBI) probably deserves to stay in obscurity, hiding in limbo waiting for the odd set of eyeballs to find it, dig it and then forget it. It’s not a great movie (whatever that means). But there’s something about it. Some sort of lazy, lurid appeal. A morbid atmosphere, a rusty-swing eeriness that gets under your skin, if you let it. The movie’s charms perhaps only speak to a select few of extreme fringe film lovers.

I am one of these people, naturally.

THE CHILD was directed by LA based director Robert Voskanian, who never directed another feature film after it, but really should have. After graduating film school in 1975, the young Voskanian started his own company, Panorama Films, an imprint that aimed to make educational and industrial pictures and commercials, much like George A. Romero’s The Latent Image set out to do in the 1960s.

We all know how that turned out.

In fact, Voskanian and his partners were so smitten by Romero’s first feature NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, that they figured they would follow in his sizable footsteps and make their own horror picture. Getting their mitts on a scrappy screenplay by a one Ralph Lucas called KILL AND GO HIDE, the company raised an impressive $100,000 USD and set out to make their maiden movie.

Shot in the Los Angeles area on a 35mm Arriflex camera, KILL AND GO HIDE, later renamed THE CHILD by its distributor, exploitation movie fat cat Harry Novak, plays like an eerie amalgam of THE BAD SEED meets CARRIE meets NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, built on the foundations of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw”. In it, a governess named Alicianne (Laurel Barnett) drifts into a rural town to take the position of caregiver to a troubled girl named Rosalie (Rosalie Cole), a motherless child with a chip on her shoulder a mile wide, not to mention a very unique gift.

As Alicianne soon finds out, Rosalie is a telepath and not a very nice one. Her happiest hobby is to drag the desiccated corpses from the nearby cemetery out of their graves and play with them. Of course, when people cross her, she sends her monstrous friends out to tear them to shreds, something her nanny finds out during the film’s nightmarish climax.

The first thing one notices when watching THE CHILD is the eerie score, a haunting piano based melody by future video game composer Rob Wallace that bumps up against weird electronics to set a Gothic, dramatic mood. The second thing of significance is that Voskanian wastes little time getting to the atmospherics; as Alicianne wanders through the woods, fog machines work overtime and wind howls like mad on the soundtrack. And then there’s the ghouls: blackened, white eyed horrors that we barely see, save for a taloned hand uncoiling here, a tooth or two and a quick dash of a charred body there. It was Voskanian’s belief that the zombies should only be seen in the peripheral, not just to hide any budgetary limitations evident in their costumes, but to keep the audience guessing as to what exactly these things are.

THE CHILD was shot without sound, it’s dialogue dubbed in later and not terribly convincingly. The film feels like a European horror picture at times, with actors speaking louder than they obviously should be and voices not matching the faces of the people speaking them. And though this is a flaw that might isolate many viewers, this dissonance simply adds another layer of dream-like weirdness to the entire production.

I’m not sure if Voskanian and his producer Robert Dadashian ever saw any profit from THE CHILD. Knowing Novak, it’s unlikely that they ever did. But the film did see play-dates all over the world, with 1100 screens in the US alone, an impressive number for a low-budget horror movie with no stars. And yet, to this day, so few remember the movie. So few reference books have ever seriously discussed the picture. Even the web offers a dearth of discussion on this flawed, fascinating little film.

Bloody, sloppy, strange, serious, sometimes too somber but always more than a little bit spooky, THE CHILD is out there, waiting for the handful of horror fans who will no doubt embrace its charms.

Originally published at www.ComingSoon.net


Reflecting on the enigmatic 1986 supernatural mystery

I tend to gravitate towards genre cinema that isn’t necessarily perfect but rather is flawed, fascinating and enigmatic; movies that reflect upon the mysteries of the human condition by shielding their truths in a thin sheen of bloody mess and abstract fantasy. I like films that are hazy, a bit out of focus, out of reach; pictures that you keep revisiting in order to unravel their secrets, even if they originally set out to offer very few. John McTiernan’s 1986 head scratcher NOMADS is one such feature film, a picture that feels like a dream. And like a dream, the effect of NOMADS is subjective and can’t properly be articulated.

But I’ll try.

During a long, graveyard shift in the ER, pretty young Doctor Flax (Lesley-Anne Down) encounters a beaten, bloody man (Pierce Brosnan) who initially appears to be a stark raving- mad transient. When the run down, sleep deprived MD leans in to check his pupils, the pair momentarily lock eyes before the wild-eyed lunatic bursts from his gurney, locks his jaw around her neck and whispers something in French before finally collapsing, dead.

Shaken, Dr. Flax is treated for her minor wounds and left to lie down and collect her bearings before, almost immediately, she begins to experience vivid hallucinations that send her into violent fits. As she soon discovers, the drooling madman that attacked her wasn’t a madman at all but rather a famous Canadian anthropologist named Jean Charles Pommier, a man who after traveling the earth studying nomadic cultures had finally settled down at the request of his gorgeous wife (the persuasively beautiful Anna Maria Monticelli), into a cushy teaching gig in LA.

Apparently, shortly before his death, Pommier had been tracking a leather-clad gang of street punks (whose ranks include 80’s rocker Adam Ant and cult film heroine Mary Woronov) drifting around his home. Turns out these homeless, rootless ruffians are in actuality a tribe of evil, nomadic spirits, the same breed of ancient, wandering souls he’d been obsessively following his whole life and are now hell-bent on driving him mad. The bite that Jean Charles gives Dr. Flax inexplicably causes her to aggressively relive – and we, the audience along with her – the memories leading up to his final sad state. Soon enough, she too becomes sucked into the Nomads’ secret, clandestine, twilight world.

I saw NOMADS theatrically in 1986 ( I bought a ticket for the still-running, PG rated BACK TO THE FUTURE and snuck into the curiously R-rated film instead) and I can clearly remember the disorienting effect it had on me. See, NOMADS doesn’t really make much sense, not in a linear, easily digestible way, anyway. The odd narrative structure – with its flashbacks within flashbacks, ever shifting points of view and lack of clear explanation as to the Nomads’ history or true intent – made for a rather infuriating initial viewing experience. But I soon discovered that I could not stop thinking about it. I became obsessed with it. When it arrived on home video months later, I watched and re-watched it numerous times, trying in vain to decipher its clues and determine what made the movie resonate so much with me.

But NOMADS has something. An aura. A lyricism, a kind of poetry. It has that certain– as Pommier himself might say, je ne sais quoi, that elevates it beyond simple 80’s genre potboiler and into the fluid, subconscious realms of the surreal.

I can tell you that I absolutely adore Bill (ROCKY) Conti’s urgent, erotic synth and guitar score – especially the opening theme and closing hard rock collaboration with the wingnut, bow-hunting guitar wizard Ted Nugent. I can tell you that both Down and Brosnan are magnetic in a pair of extremely difficult roles that require them to achieve a bizarre sort of character symbiosis. I can tell you that the cold, washed out look of the film (perhaps the mark of a low budget, perhaps not) is claustrophobic and unsettling in its otherworldly, dim lit way.

It’s difficult to believe that McTiernan would go on to create an endless spate of high octane, considerably less challenging, popular action pictures like DIE HARD and THE 13th WARRIOR because his maiden cinematic voyage is a work of such strikingly haunting and original moxy, such an intelligent, sophisticated, offbeat and mysterious psychological /supernatural thriller. Maybe the fact that NOMADS made about 10 cents at the box office scared McTiernan off from continuing in this daring, metaphysical fantasy vein.

I’m not entirely sure if this is a “good” movie or a “bad” movie but you know what? I don’t really care.

Interview: Composer Claudio Gizzi

A conversation with the Italian composer on his scores for Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula

In Paul Morrissey’s eccentric and utterly unhinged 1974 Italian horror classic BLOOD FOR DRACULA (often erroneously credited as the brainchild NYC art guru Andy Warhol under the name ANDY WARHOL’S DRACULA), the opening imagery of Dracula (played by iconic German weirdo Udo Kier) painting his face kabuki-white has always haunted me. The sequence is the spine and soul of the picture, showing the good Count as a tired, lonely showman who has long been forgotten by time and by the audience he once terrified.

And as eerily gorgeous as that bit of credit-crawling business is, it’s the delicate piano waltz playing in the background that truly sells it.

Like Morrissey’s 3D companion film, the previous year’s FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN, the music for BLOOD was composed by Italian musician Claudio Gizzi. It’s orchestral, elegant, full of melancholy mourning and sadness. And truthfully, it’s that dichotomy between the excessive gore, sex and general insanity on screen and Gizzi’s sophisticated, sometimes Wagnerian soundscapes that – I firmly believe – have given both films their enduring and evolving cult status.

Whether it be experimenting with progressive electronica with his fascinating Automat project or sculpting oddball stanzas for Roman Polanski’s eccentric and often neglected WHAT?, the music of Claudio Gizzi has always been a sort of secret handshake in cult cinema soundtrack circles.

A few years ago – way back in 2009 – I had the pleasure of speaking with Gizzi in an interview for the now long-scorched archives of Fangoria.com. I’m very pleased to resurrect and re-present that conversation here.

Tell me a bit about your childhood experiences with music…

From my earliest childhood I was very attracted to music. My parents told me that in the earliest days of my life my favorite tune which made me convulse with laughter and made me beat time to the music, was the Overture to William Tell by Rossini. In other words, music had to be lively and jolly for me. I belong to a family of amateur instrumentalists. In my family I am the only one who has adopted music as a profession. From being a few months old, I listened with pleasure to the violin, the banjo and the accordion and then at school I started to learn to play the piano, so as to continue in the family tradition, my parents realized that I was really fascinated by music, and so I studied composition, orchestration and everything else.

How did you become involved in composing for film?

My teachers had noticed that from the beginning, from my earliest lessons, I preferred, when seated at the piano, to improvise rather than to study and that it was easy for me to compose little pieces in a required pattern and so my way of life was indicated. Not as a pianist – even though I preferred piano and it was my favourite instrument- but as a composer. Anyway, in my way of thinking, the music more expressive and pleasing to write and to perform for an up-to- date composer is music for films and therefore at the first opportunity that came in my way I was there to collaborate with famous directors and it was incredibly important that my first appearance in the cinema was with Luchino Visconti with the film DEATH IN VENICE , a film completely infused by music. But then Roman Polanski arrived and wanted me for the sound truck of WHAT?

What was Roman like at this time? It was I presume, a strange film for him to make at a very volatile point in his life.

For me Roman was like a magician, a fairy, an elf…a genius, a creator of a dreamlike atmosphere, lively and a very knowledgeable person about music both entertaining and profound…every moment that I spent with him (from the very start of the work at Cinecitta’ to the eating of spaghetti together at his villa on Appia Antica is stamped on my memory.

And to think that he immediately had faith in me, even though I was then just a young boy.

Your work in FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN is incredible. Who really directed the film? Antonio Margheriti or Paul Morrissey? There has long been some debate as Margheriti gets credit on the Italian prints…

You know, the soundtrack for FLESH is due to Roman Polanski. He had listened to some of my compositions at piano and he introduced me to Paul Morrissey. That meeting was the beginning of the collaboration with him, followed then by the soundtrack for BLOOD FOR DRACULA. Both the principal themes of this films I had played on the piano and then with my orchestration I was able to create that atmosphere of horror and romance that I considered necessary for the films. Really, I was always interested in this style of horror, fantasy and Science Fiction in literature as well as in the cinema so, to be able to work at these two strange films – elegant, witty, intriguing – involved me and delighted me. I had artistic connections at all times with Paul Morrissey, whom I consider is a most cultured, refined and creative person. I remember that Margheriti intervened to bring his skill and experience in the splatter scenes and in the tricks of some scenes.

How much freedom were you given with FRANKENSTEIN? Were you aware ahead of time that it was a 3D film and did that influence your compositions?

It has been a very good experience because I was not conditioned by Paul, who trusted my musical intuition, especially my collaboration with Visconti. Before writing Frankenstein’s soundtrack Paul had listened to Frankenstein’s theme played on the piano and was very impressed. For the rest I had been able to present and to realize all my musical ideas as I wished to do and in the style that I had originally chosen. With reference to the 3D, I can remember having been able to see only as far as the end of my work, so I could not have been influenced at the time at all by the gimmick.

With BLOOD, you created one of the most gorgeous pieces of music ever used in a horror film….that overture…haunting. Was that composed while staring at Udo Kier’s face in post production or was it composed before the film was edited?

Effectively this theme for Dracula, especially in its version for solo piano,  is one of the most complete and efficacious things of my career. This is a demonstration that the simplicity and power of melody makes it superior and the most important thing in the musical world. I remember that this theme was born spontaneously by the magnificent images of the titles of the film while they were being shown on the screen. Udo’s sadness, composure and elegance in front of the mirror really struck me and guided me towards this musical experience…

Have you received letters and love for these scores over the years?

In fact, I received a great number of messages of approval and enjoyment from all over the world, especially from the U.S.A. There were also some people who wanted to have the score and to some of them I sent a score that I had written and signed. I hope I have made someone among my admirers happy. Basically, music is a wonderful, universal language which unites us and creates friends.

Why did you stop making music for movies?

Italy is a strange country, where both the most marvelous and the most unbearable things occur. As you know, from the great world of the Italian cinema after the second world war, we have come to a time that was less favorable to our productions. In these years the so called “cinema of style” has vanished and also the greater part of Italian films have been comedies, or at least entertaining or dramatic works (obviously apart from the work of Fellini and other talented people). So, the conditions for being able to write music of international value is greatly reduced and there is space only for the great Italian composers, above all, Ennio Morricone. In other ways even my way of life as a musician has not helped me to find a place in my country and so, during these years of my career, I have been working in the world of commercial music… in the world of the TV, easy listening and music for the theater. However, even in this sphere I have been able to achieve international success under the pseudonym “Jean-Pierre Posit ” doing classic- romantic music , dreamy and elegant,  or “Automat” which is more electronic and aggressive.

I also enjoyed your work in David Gregory’s PLAGUE TOWN. Why did you decide to make that piece for the film?

I have been sorry not to have known sooner David, a man of great experience and knowledge of the cinema-music world who immediately became my dear friend, by then the work of his splendid film was already completed and the music already recorded…the elegance and the atmosphere created in his film would have been perfect for my way of making music. Anyway, when David had sent me a rough cut of his film I was struck immediately by the pictures, especially the expressiveness and skill of the lead actress Josslyn DeCrosta and the sight of that girl with the eyes drawn , the one in the advertisement of the film) and suddenly the theme was born. I then sent it to David – once more the piano, as you can hear – and he liked it and to my great satisfaction has included in his film. I hope to be able in the future to collaborate again with David Gregory, because I am sure of being able with my music to contribute to his excellent work as a film-maker and because, with David, I have a great feeling of agreement and also a feeling for filming and for music.

Who are some of the great composers for film that you love?

A great number of them. Often, when I watch a film just about I don’t understand the plot as I cannot listen to the dialogues, being so involved with the music. However, my favourite, without a doubt, is John Williams, who I consider to be a master because of the strength of his melodic talent and at the same time an incomparable builder of forms and orchestrations. Here, in Italy I like Nino Rota because no other composer is able to invent simple melodies that are very beautiful and unforgettable. I always think that the greatest attraction in music is due to that incomprehensible skill that you don’t study, you don’t learn, but that is born in you, the melody.


In praise of the lurid and pulpy 1960 shocker

Before H.G. Lewis was bathing in cheap stage blood and flipping stomachs at drive-ins everywhere and the same year that Alfred Hitchcock ran chocolate sauce down the drain while a sort-of nude Janet Leigh screamed, there was director Sidney (BURN WITCH BURN) Hayers’ wonderfully pulpy and surprisingly sadistic CIRCUS OF HORRORS, a Grand Guignol shocker with a campy cruel streak that was far ahead of its time.

The film was the product of a partnership between British studio Anglo-Amalgamated (the same studio that brought us PEEPING TOM and Roger Corman’s THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH) and US genre machine American International Pictures, their second after the successful Michael Gough vehicle HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM. And like that deliciously dark picture, CIRCUS has a rough, lurid edge and trades in cruelty and nasty behavior to provide its frissons.

But the movie is great for other reasons too. It’s a bright, candy colored melodrama about the abuse of power and, like any good Frankenstein tale, it’s a moral parable about the dangers of playing God.

The great Anton Diffring, who a year earlier starred in the magnificent THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH and decades later wound up in Jess Franco’s FACELESS, stars as Dr. Rossiter, a brilliant plastic surgeon on the lam after a series of botched operations. We see one of these failed procedures in the first 5 minutes, with a comely woman whose face is slowly melting to putty. When she screams in horror at the disintegration of her visage, we scream too. It’s a harrowing scene that must have alarmed audiences in 1960 and still has the power to ick you out today…

After he flees the city and crashes his car, he himself is disfigured and, with the help of two loyal assistants, rebuilds his own mug and re-christens himself Dr. Schuler. The trio travel to France where they meet a poor, kindly circus owner (the great Donald Pleasence) and his scarred daughter. Figuring this not-so-big top is the best place to hide out, Rossiter/Schuler makes a deal with the ringmaster to heal his daughter, which he does, in exchange for taking him on as a partner in the circus. But when the owner is killed by a dancing bear (it’s a great, violent and ludicrous sequence), Schuler takes over the joint entirely.

Combing through the city streets, Schuler begins collecting wounded women, including a prostitute/hustler whose face-long scar has driven her to a life on the skids. In one of the movie’s most entertainingly sick bits, the hooker stabs and steals the wallet of one poor John, and as he cries for help and bleeds out in the background, Schuler pins the girl to a wall and urgently convinces her to join his psycho circus. Schuler becomes a sort of surgical Svengali, rebuilding broken women and controlling them, training them to be his star attractions and, if they dare threaten to leave, murdering them.

Of course, the ruse can’t last forever and, despite the circus’ success and evolution into the biggest of its kind in the country, the law begins to snoop around and, very quickly, Schuler’s reign of megalomaniacal terror winds down.

There’s so much to savor in CIRCUS OF HORROR, including the lilting, romantic and delightfully tacky Garry Mills song “Look for a Star”, a song that actually charted successfully in England, and of course the endless array of violent, theatrical murders, bubbling-cauldron melodrama and winking mean-spiritedness (love the death by knife throwing bit). But the movie really works primarily because of Diffring’s truly magnetic performance, a complicated turn that sees his Rossiter/Schuler veer between sympathetic and sociopathic, sometimes within the same scene. We never quite hate him. His intentions are always good – or at least the germ of his intentions are –  and yet they’re fatally corrupted by his ego. It’s a fascinating character and a very layered performance in a truly remarkable horror movie that has sadly slipped into the sideshow of shock cinema history. It’s out there, waiting and ripe for rediscovery.



A look at German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s haunting 1979 vampire film

Immortality. We all want it. The chance to defy that black specter of death that equalizes us. But to live forever, drifting through time like a ghost; residue of a memory, unattached to anything, anyplace…anyone. Hiding in shadows until the earth stops spinning. The crushing loneliness of it…would it really be worth it?

That’s the central driving thematic force behind director Werner Herzog’s dark, dreamy, full color remake of the immortal 1922 German expressionist classic Nosferatu. A film that, although deeply indebted (sometimes almost scene for scene) to the iconic, silent original, still manages to evolve beyond its experimental horror roots, taking its essence from F.W. Murnau (like a vampire would, in fact), assimilating that blueprint and then injecting liberal amounts of lyricism and a driving force of deep, bittersweet melancholy. The resulting work is among the inimitable Herzog’s most powerful and important films.

After a string of incredibly successful art house favorites throughout the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Herzog, who alongside trailblazing filmmakers Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders, was a major figure in the German new wave movement, turned his gaze to the film he correctly acknowledged as the single most important German movie of all time. Indeed, the director had set his sights on remaking Murnau’s shuddery unauthorized Dracula adaptation, shooting both German and English language versions and applying his own unique cinematic aesthetic to the oft filmed tale of the bloodsucking undead.

Unfortunately, at the same time Universal was also prepping the John Badham / Frank Langella take on the Hamilton Deane stage version of Dracula and MGM were launching the post-disco era George Hamilton spoof Love at First Bite, both easily accessible to mass-audience sensibilities and hugely popular. Herzog’s languid, meditative anti-horror film was completely at odds with both the times and stateside sensibilities and his film, Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht (or Nosferatu:The Vampyre as it was known in the US and UK), although critically praised by many, got lost in the sanguinary shuffle, deemed by some as pretentious and thought by some critics to be a pointless attempt to revisit a picture that was already perfect as is.

Of course, that simply is not the case and time has, like it often does with most enduring masterworks of dark cinema, proved any naysayers wrong. Herzog’s epic tale of disease, death, love, loss and isolation is absolutely one of the most evocative and emotional vampire film ever committed to celluloid.

To fully appreciate the one of a kind wonder of Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht, one must first understand the work of its creator. Born and raised in a remote German mountain village, one completely untouched by technology, young Werner would grow up in an environment two shades shy of the Stone Age, not making his first phone call until he was 14 and not seeing his first film until he was 17. But Herzog had something far better than modern distractions to inspire him. He was surrounded by the beauty of the natural world; of mountainous terrain, unforgiving nights and swooning days; of green grass, gentle winds and free flowing rivers. Herzog would grow up understanding nature, respecting it and most importantly, he was deeply humbled by it. He understood infinitely that mother earth was an unforgiving mistress; a bitch goddess that could kiss as easily as kill and only a fool would dare attempt to gain the upper hand against her.

So when life propelled him towards becoming what he would become, Herzog began making movies that told tales of dangerous eccentrics, heroes and madmen whose sometimes valiant, often vain, efforts to conquer nature result in their ruin. Thing is, Herzog would often choose to film these pictures in the very bowels of the badlands and wild worlds that his scripts painted as treacherous, using locals and natives as extras and often personally teetering on the very destruction he sought to chart.

His front-of-lens collaborator for 5 astounding films, the probably legitimately insane performance artist Klaus Kinski, he of the blond hair, widely spaced eyes and twitchy lips, would in essence become the extension of Herzog; his dark side, the embodiment of his vice and his irrational desire to perhaps subconsciously cause his own destruction. The two became close friends but also, famously, mortal on-set enemies, once even plotting to murder each other behind the other’s back (check out the stirring Herzog documentaries Burden of Dreams and My Best Fiend if you don’t believe me). The fact that Herzog would eventually cast his beloved nemesis as the Lord of the parasites, speaks volumes about their unique and creatively volatile relationship.

Now, as every horror historian knows (but we’ll recap here for those who don’t), back when Murnau decided to adapt Stoker for the screen, he ran into a huge problem: Stoker’s widow was very much alive and in possession of both her faculties and the rights to her hubby’s estate. And she wanted cash. A lot more cash than Murnau was planning to part with. So Murnau, ever the arrogant brat, got the idea to tweak names and places in the story, changing Stoker’s suave Transylvanian Count into a bald, bone- white, taloned freak named “Orlock”, and went ahead as planned, calling his picture Nosferatu instead. As only a moron would miss the narrative disguise, the widow Stoker sued the director within an inch of his life, resulting in the courts ordering all prints of the picture to be destroyed. But they weren’t and years later some of them surfaced, the film was hailed a lost classic and the rest is horror lore.

When it came time for Herzog to make his own tribute to this remarkable picture, the Dracula property had lapsed into the public domain, meaning he could call his villain Dracula and change the names and places back to their rightful literary origin. His plot, however, follows the original film’s setup verbatim: Jonathan Harker (here played by notable German actor Bruno Ganz, perhaps best known now as Hitler in the film Downfall) lives in quiet bliss in Virna with his porcelain skinned wife Lucy (played by the ravishing French actress Isabelle Adjani). One day, Harker’s giggling, half-mad boss Renfield (brilliantly played by author Roland Topor, the same Roland Topor who wrote the novel on which Polanski’s The Tenant was based) sends him on an expedition to Transylvania to sell property to one Count Dracula (Kinski), a long trip he promises will cost the young go-getter plenty of sweat…and blood.

Harker leaves his beloved Lucy and begins his serpentine journey to Castle Dracula where, after enduring weeks of endless horror, he discovers his host is in fact a night-crawling, neck-nipping monster. As Dracula packs up his black coffins and heads to Harker’s hometown, specifically to sample the wares of his wife, a fever-ridden Harker must escape his tower prison and beat the rat-bringing, plague- carrying vampire to the punch before it’s too late.

There’s nothing in that synopsis that you haven’t read or seen before, but remember, this is Dracula retold by a man who tells tales a bit differently than most. This is Werner Herzog’s Dracula, shot on staggeringly eye filling locations in the Netherlands, filled with impossible beauty, eccentric characters and most importantly an almost overwhelming sadness. The film is, as are all Herzog pictures, free of artifice and special effect save for Kinski’s shocking make up design, cribbed wholesale from the original fiend played by actor Max Shreck. Indeed the first time we see Kinski, his bald, pointy-eared, rat-toothed visage is shocking; he’s a creature completely at odds with the natural beauty around him. This Dracula, for all his hideous, otherworldly, appearance, is simply another one of the director’s dangerous outsiders, a thing who has been blessed and cursed with the secret of eternal life and yet forced to live as an outcast, skulking in rotting tombs, in a twilight shadow world, free of any sort of comfort…or love.

And this vampire needs love, or rather needs to be loved.

And what of Kinski? Does this lunatic who so viscerally brought the monkey-tossing, delusional Don Lope de Aguirre and the megalomaniacal Fitzcaraldo to screeching life, manage to successfully essay a miserable, attention-starved vampire fiend who’s bloodlust is only matched by his despair? Fucking right, he does. Whether glowing in the moonlight, hungrily eyeing a dining Harker or creeping up on the beautiful Lucy, Kinski manages to create a monster that is as pathetic as he is terrifying, who wants to re-join the human race but whose disdain for it keeps him terminally distanced from everything.
Witness the climactic scene where a broken-hearted Lucy finally invites Dracula to drain her, hoping to drown him in daylight and save her husband’s soul. In the original, Max Shreck’s Count Orlock simply drinks her dry but here, with Kinski in the role, he vainly attempts to engage in ‘normal’ lovemaking, clumsily pulling up Lucy’s dress, clutching her bosom, sniffing her like a suspicious dog, before she lets him off the hook and just pulls him to her throat. It’s an erotic (though free of nudity or traditional erotica tropes), tragic and macabre sequence and there has never been anything like it onscreen before or since.

There’s one paralyzing section in Herzog’s Nosferatu that long ago made it one of my favorite films. As the rat plague brought by Dracula ravishes Virna, killing men, women and children without mercy, Lucy wanders the streets trying to convince the few survivors of the undead menace in their midst. The haunting sounds of Herzog’s regular composer, the late Florian Fricke (aka progressive rock outfit Popol Vuh) bleeds into an otherworldly Georgian Choir, their mournful sound drifting across a tableaux of an inevitable death. Pigs shit in the street, men try to mate with sheep, children dance with fiddlers, couples make love on the cobblestones and Lucy, dressed in white, raven hair pulled tight in a bun, almond eyes open wide weaves within it all. A table in the middle of the madness sees handsomely attired men and women dining and drinking, inviting Lucy to sit with them. “We all have the plague” a woman says matter-of-factly as rats dart in and out from between her legs, “and we want to enjoy every last minute we have left.”

A frame later and the people are gone. Their feast now simply a table full of hordes of diseased rats. Chilling and beautiful stuff…. watch it below…

Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht might just be Werner Herzog’s ultimate masterpiece. A moving, haunting portrait of the mercilessness and inevitability of death but also a stark statement about how sometimes a brief life filled with warmth, love, beauty and belonging is better than an endless one filled with nothing but want. From the gorgeous cinematography, heart breaking performances, eerie, unforgettable music and even the quintessentially Herzogian dark humor, this is one of the few motion pictures that benefits from several serious viewings, preferably alone, without a break of any kind. To say it pales beside the original is to miss the point…

Originally published at www.comingsoon.net


A 70’s Europorno with a dark, psychological edge

People speak of the golden age of hardcore pornography spurting from the 1970s like they were hallowed, horny works of reflexive art. This is due in most part to nostalgia (what isn’t) when comparing these classics to the contemporary gynecological jack-hammering iPhone porn that now stink up every corner of the internet. And I mean, sure, Deep Throat and Cafe Flesh might as well be Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Alphaville by comparison to any of the antics on PornHub, but that doesn’t mean these pictures were the bold works of hormonal vision we deify them as today.

I think there’s also the factor that 70’s porn was shot on real deal 35mm film and more often than not were more couple-inclusive than run-of-the-mill stag films and most had plots and were publicly exhibited often in hard-top theaters with big splashy premieres and mainstream media coverage. But look closely and all you’ll see are standard-issue exploitation films, most of them crass and goofball comedies jazzed up with blowjobs and genital pumping. Even the aforementioned, highly regarded Cafe Flesh just swipes a science fiction hook to hang its graphic coupling on.

All that said, if you steer away from America during the free-love decade and look to Europe, you’ll often find porn that DOES function as art. You’ll find movies not made by gangsters and 42nd street hustlers but rather skilled craftsmen and realized by decent actors with a much more avant garde, occasionally even thrillingly dangerous, leaning. Case in point, director Alain Nauroy’s perverse and hypnotic 1975 fuck film Helena (aka La Villa), a lush and, eventually, rather disturbing movie that is not only a great porno (proving that yes Vagina, er, Virginia, there ARE such things as great pornos!) but a very, very good film in and of itself: dark and hot with a gritty, psychological edge.

Gorgeous French legend Valerie Boisgel (Max Peca’s Young Cassanova) stars as the tit-ular heroine, a woman who ventures into the French countryside to hook up with Roy, a wealthy socialite she had previously met and made love to. Instead she finds another skeezy fellow named Frank staying at the villa, who informs her that Roy is busy having endless sex with another woman by the pool. Helena is justifiably mortified but sticks around and waits (“He’s about to cum” Frank smirks at one point), engaging in witty, sharp-tongued banter with the cavalier Frank while Nauroy keeps cutting to Roy working on his other lover.

Eventually, Helena has sex with Frank ( a hot scene up against a wall, standing up) and then Roy (while Roy’s other lover masturbates with a huge dildo and watches) and all this elegant, urgent and well-shot pounding and climaxing happens outdoors, with the beautiful countryside in the background, the sun shining, the pool shimmering and composer Alain Goraguer’s psychedelic fuzz-rock groove snaking around on the soundtrack.

But suddenly, this lazy and lovely shagfest is obliterated when a gang of thugs overtake the villa and begin tormenting the lovers, first trying to bury a copulating couple alive and then raping Helena. What starts as a stylish and truly sexy porn, soon becomes a harrowing, often deeply upsetting, horror movie, with shades of Last House on the Left and the later Funny Games. All this insanity is peppered with more sex until the truly daft climax that sees Helena literally “reborn”. Hard to explain, hard to forget.

And speaking of hard, let’s talk about dicks in 70’s porn. More often than not, the penises were both obscenely hairy and, well, flaccid. Not here. In Helena, it actually looks like the actors were enjoying the experience and the men have legitimate, well manicured erections, which may seem an odd comment, but it helps sell the fantasy as opposed to other films where it looks like dudes are just rubbing their sticky sausages into spots, like wet hairy marshmallows stuffed into glistening piggy banks.

Bottom line is that Helena (recently unearthed and released by Synapse’s Impulse Pictures line on DVD) is a super stylish, grim, weird and rough Eurotrash film, a balletic melodrama that is like Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness without the vampires. It blows (ahem) other domestic films of its vintage out of the water.