Horror films I said I wouldn’t watch, but did.

Back in September of 2010, I wrote a blog entry entitled The horror films I probably won’t watch, and why in which I listed five films that, solely based on my knowledge of their content, I felt unlikely that I’d opt to view them. The five films were:

  1. Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980).
  2. Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) by Pier Paolo Pasolini.
  3. The August Underground Trilogy (August Underground 2002, Mordum 2003, Penance 2007) created by the Pittsburgh-based film production/special effects/design company Toetag Pictures.
  4. The mondo-style films Faces of Death (1978), and it’s imitators Faces of Gore and Traces of Death.
  5. Irreversible (2002) directed by Gaspar Noé.

The main issue I had with the listed films were the common element of “cruelty for the sake of cruelty” — or, in other words, that the sadistic nature of their content existed only to titillate in the most exploitative manner possible. Of course, since I had not seen these films, I had only their reputation on which to base my decision.

In the six years since I originally wrote that post, curiosity has — perhaps, predictably –gotten the better of me. Of the five films on that list, I’ve watched two (and almost three) of them. Here are my thoughts on each, in the order in which they first appeared:

Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust is, without doubt, a nasty film. Every frame of film looks smeared in blood, grime and sweat, probably because it actually was. The animal deaths are brutal and very real, and the actors endured a great deal of hardship while filming in the Amazon. The film is so notorious for the animal deaths, in fact, that I felt little shock when they finally happened as I’d read a great deal about them already. I was not prepared, however, for the casual manner in which violent rape was thrown on the screen. Now, if you’ve watched any number of 70’s Italian exploitation films, you’ll already be aware that rape is depicted with a great deal of frequency. Cannibal Holocaust is no different in that regard, but it’s much more violent here. Then again, this is a brutally violent world that Deodato is creating for us, and he does this quite effectively. The first half of the film, with the rescue team heading into the Amazon to locate the missing filmmakers, is frankly a bit boring. Things improve considerably in the second half, with the executives in New York viewing the footage recovered by the rescue team. This is where the whole “found footage” conceit kicks in, and is without question the greatest contribution Cannibal Holocaust has made to the horror genre. We’d probably not have The Blair Witch Project without the shaky, hand-held camera and POV-style of this earlier film.

The gore is spectacular and reasonably well executed, with the iconic impalement scene standing out as an impressive achievement in practical special effects. Sure, all the blood looks like red paint but, hey, it’s 1979-80. By the end of the film-within-a-film, you’re basically cheering on the natives to take their bloody vengeance on the monstrous Euro-American filmmakers — and boy, do they ever. If you consider yourself more than a casual horror film fan, then you owe it to yourself to watch Cannibal Holocaust at least once. Of the Italian cannibal films, it’s probably the best (though I haven’t seen all of them).

Incidentally, Eli Roth’s 2013 offering The Green Inferno is basically a mash-up of this film with Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox (itself a complete retelling of the basic plot in Deodato’s film). Roth’s rehash pales in comparison to the brutality of the earlier films, partly owing to the fact that one simply couldn’t make those films nowadays (laws protecting animal rights in films were passed after the making of Cannibal Holocaust). The only change Roth makes to his film which I felt worked was the repositioning of the native tribe from “peaceful victims pushed to violence” to very purposeful and sadistic predators. The cheerfully privileged college student-activists in The Green Inferno die out of sheer First World naïveté which — aside from a problematic view of non-white “primitives” as the menacing Other — is an interesting re-contextualization of the traditional cannibal film narrative. 

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Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) by Pier Paolo Pasolini.

 

I tried to watch Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom, I really did. I only made it about 45-minutes into the film before I switched it off. Sure, the cinematography was fabulous and the acting seemed very competent … but, it was so fucking boring. Judging from the first 45-minutes only, it appeared that the sadistic fascists planned to bore their adolescent victims to death with all their incessant talking, talking, talking. One has to suppose that all the infamous rape, torture and shit-eating occurs much later in the film. Perhaps several cups of coffee are required to view this lengthy piece of arthouse-smut. I may follow-up with a films I said I wouldn’t watch because they were so boring, but I persevered anyway post at a future date.

I haven’t watched any of the August Underground Trilogy yet, and I’m still on the fence about them. I may give-in to my curiosity late one night, when I’m feeling up to the challenge of a film that features a headless, maggoty toddler corpse. These films are not available (nor will ever be available) on streaming media like Netflix. One has to dig in the deeper, darker places of the Internet to unearth these atrocities.

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One version of artwork for the “Faces of Death” VHS case.

I have, however, watched the infamous Faces of Death (1978), and found the film completely hilarious. I recall closely studying the VHS case at my local Blockbuster Video when I was a teen in the 80’s, curious about the title but too intimidated to actually rent it. Banned in 46 countries! Depiction of actual death!

Lacking any sense of true narrative, the film is a cobbled-together series of newsreel and documentary footage showing fatal accidents, war photography, human autopsies, and animals being dispatched in slaughterhouses, all loosely connected by the authoritative voiceover of our death-tour guide, the fictitious Dr. Francis B. Gröss. Some of the footage is clearly (and, in some cases, laughably) staged reconstructions of reputedly real events. The segment featuring a group of American tourists supposedly eating monkey brains in some exotic locale is laugh-out-loud ridiculous.

The final film, the Gaspar Noé directed Irreversible (2002), I plan to watch at a future date. It’s such a seminal film within the framework of “New French Extremity” that I feel I should, though I seldom feel like settling-in to witness Monica Bellucci get violently raped for several, protracted minutes. Blech. Still, the time-reversal conceit seems like an interesting one.

Anyway, happy Halloween horror-viewing!

Female Eye Film Festival, Toronto.

Video still from "Domestikia, Chapter 3: La Petite Mort", 2013. Directed by Jennifer Linton.

Video still from “Domestikia, Chapter 3: La Petite Mort”, 2013. Directed by Jennifer Linton.

The voice actors have already recorded, and the creative work is well underway for Toronto Alice. Thanks again for all your support!

I’m delighted to announce that my previous animated short film Domestikia, Chapter 3: La Petite Mort will be screening in the Late Night Horror: Canadian Feature program at the Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto. Screening will be on Saturday, June 21st, 11 pm – 1 am. Q & A with directors to follow the program. Canadian horror directed by women — yes!

If you’re in the Toronto area, come check it out. The festival has a great line-up this year! http://www.femaleeyefilmfestival.com/#!sat-june-21st/c1vaa

Lady Lazarus’s Halloween Party Movie Night, 2013 Edition.

It’s a cold, misty, grey and rainy Saturday afternoon — the perfect climate in which to begin compiling my annual Halloween horror-movie list to whet your ghoulish, pre-Halloween appetites. Last year, when it came time to write my list, I shared with you the outstanding horror films I’d seen in 2012. I decided to continue with that tradition this year, with a list of horror films that you might want to keep an eye out for — read on to get the bad Lucio Fulci-themed joke, and apologies in advance — and track down online or on DVD. As with last year’s list, some of these films are new, and some were just new to me in 2013.

Lucio Fulci's "The Beyond" (1981).

The blind girl and her canine companion from Lucio Fulci’s “The Beyond” (1981).

1. This past year I caught up with two classics from Italian horror maestro, Lucio Fulci. The sheer audacity of his signature goopy, oozing, swarming-with-maggots gore and trademark eye-gougings rightfully earned him the title of ‘Godfather of Gore’ in late 70’s – 80’s horror cinema. While I can’t recommend any of his films on the basis of story or dialogue, what they do offer are arresting visuals, an undeniably effective atmosphere of dread, and a try-anything attitude towards experimentation in B-movie filmmaking. How else can you explain the batshit-crazy scene that occurs in Zombi 2 where an underwater zombie battles a shark? Although that zombie vs. shark scene is truly heaps of campy-horror fun, the film that I’d most enthusiastically recommend by Fulci is his nightmarish masterpiece The Beyond (1981). For this film, Fulci pulls out all the stops and gives us a crumbling Southern-Gothic hotel, black magic, zombies, a portal to Hell, face-eating tarantulas and not one but three graphic scenes of eyeballs being pulled, poked and eaten out of their sockets. The story meanders passed the brink of comprehension, but the images are worth seeing it through to the end. And speaking of the end, The Beyond boasts one of the most bleak and truly haunting finales to a horror film that I’ve seen in quite a while.

Elijah Wood plays a surprisingly sympathetic serial killer in "Maniac" (2012).

Elijah Wood plays a surprisingly sympathetic serial killer in “Maniac” (2012).

2. The recent remake of the 1980’s slasher-horror Maniac by French director Franck Khalfoun was a superlative rethink of the serial killer cult classic. Then again, with Alexandre Aja heading up the screenwriting team, one should hardly be surprised at this clever re-contextualization of the tired old slasher genre. It was Aja, after all, who gave us the gender-bending slasher-thriller Haute Tension back in 2003. When the remake of Maniac was announced, many wondered (as I did) how the relatively diminutive Elijah Wood could step into the role of serial killer Frank Zito that had been originally portrayed by the large, hulking Joe Spinell. Admittedly, he was convincingly creepy as the cannibalistic Kevin in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, but then all Wood needed to do for that role was stare vacantly behind eyeglasses and grin. The character of Frank needs to be equal parts nerdy, pathetic and truly terrifying. Wood pulls this off, in part due to the POV-style of the film. The audience experiences the film through Frank’s eyes, and Wood is only occasionally glimpsed in mirrors and other reflective surfaces. As the grimy, crime-infested New York City of the original film no longer exists, Khalfoun shot in the sleazier neighbourhoods still existent in Los Angeles to recreate an environment that threatens violence. The kills are bloody enough to satisfy most gorehounds, though the CGI does lack the visceral quality of Tom Savini’s famed physical SFX — such as the infamous scene in the 1980 original where Savini himself has his head blown off by a close range shotgun. That said, this remake is definitely worth a look.

Jorge Michel Grau's cannibal film "We Are What We Are." (2010).

Jorge Michel Grau’s cannibal film “We Are What We Are.” (2010).

3. Recently on Hulu, I noticed there’d been an English-language remake of the Mexican cannibal film We Are What We Are (Original Spanish title Somos lo que hay, 2010. Directed by Jorge Michel Grau). While I’ve not seen this remake, the original Mexican film was a surprise discovery for me this past year (the film was only released in North America on VOD). It tells the curious story of a family of cannibals who are compelled — for reasons that are left to one’s own imagination — to ritualistically murder and devour victims kidnapped off the streets of Mexico City. For a cannibal film, We Are What We Are is profoundly understated in it’s gore…at least, until the latter half of the film. For the most part, it’s a tense family drama, and relies much more on character development and atmosphere than one would expect from a film in this genre. Recommended for the horror fan who likes a dash of the unexpected.

"X is for XXL" from the horror anthology "The ABC's of Death." (2012)

“X is for XXL” from the horror anthology “The ABC’s of Death.” (2012)

4. Five minutes, five thousand dollars, and one randomly-selected letter of the alphabet. That was the premise behind the massive horror anthology The ABC’s of Death (2012).  It contains 26 different shorts, each by different directors spanning fifteen countries. Like most anthologies, it’s a real mixed bag of offerings. Even though watching all 26 shorts felt like a bit of a slog, at least one could have fun trying to guess what each letter represented, as this information is never revealed until the end of each segment. Stand-outs for me include “D is for Dogfight”, the darkly funny claymation “T is for Toilets”, and the very meta “Q is for Quack.” “L is for Libido” by Indonesian director Timo Tjahjanto is sick and twisted, and Noboru Iguchi’s “F is for Fart” is just plain loopy. The best of the bunch, by a wide margin, is Xavier Gens “X is for XXL”.

Katharine Isabelle stars as the titular "American Mary", though it's never revealed as to why she's identified as "American."

Katharine Isabelle stars as “American Mary”, though it’s never revealed as to why she’s identified as American.

5. The Canadian directorial-duo of Jen and Sylvia Soska, a.k.a. the “Twisted Twins”, have been steadily gaining notoriety in the genre film world these past few years.  They first gained attention with the low-budget exploitation film Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009), and returned in 2013 with the gloss and production values of a bigger budget with American Mary (2013). Starring Katharine Isabelle — best known to horror fans as Ginger from the Ginger Snaps franchise — this film is essentially a rape-revenge mashed up with medical-horror. The titular Mary is a medical school drop-out who finds herself working as an underground surgeon in the world of (very extreme) body modification. The visual style of American Mary is very much fetish intermingled with body horror, though the body modification community is not exploited nor treated unkindly.

Horror Films 101: “When love goes terribly wrong” moments in horror cinema.

Scene from the Thai film "Shutter" (2004).

Scene from the Thai film “Shutter” (2004).

1. Asian ghosts always have an agenda. Typically, it’s one motivated by a desire for revenge, or a need for justice. In the Thai supernatural-thriller Shutter (2004, directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom), the heroine Jane mistakenly believes that the female ghost who torments both she and her boyfriend Tun is seeking revenge for the hit-and-run accident in which the mysterious woman was killed. There’s much more to the story, however, as a dark secret connecting Tun to the dead woman is ultimately revealed. The true horror of this film may be the fact that, even though Tun’s deeply troubling past has been shown, Jane seems to be supportive of him at the finale — so much for justice and gender equality in Thailand. I thoroughly enjoyed this Thai ghost story and, even though an English-language remake was released in 2008, I feel no need to watch it. I can read subtitles just fine, thanks.

Unrequited love gone wrong in "Haute Tension" (2003).

Unrequited love gone wrong in “Haute Tension” (2003).

2. Haute Tension (2003). If a woman wielding a bloody chainsaw towers above you, shouting “Do you love me?!” over the ear-splitting whirl of the blade, I would just quickly say “YES!”. If you don’t happen to share her amorous feelings, you can explain so later at a safe distance. Preferably over the phone, from another continent.

May admires her Frankenstein-like creation.

May admires her Frankenstein-like creation.

3. The desperate ache of loneliness never seemed so palpable as it does in Lucky McKee’s May (2002). When our titular heroine, a socially-awkward misfit whose best friend is a (very creepy) doll, fails to find her true love, she takes matters into her own hands and fashions herself one. Angela Bettis, a long-time acting staple in McKee’s films, turns in a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a character who’s essentially a psychotic serial killer. A criminally neglected film.

Keir Dullea, all turtlenecks and shaggy 1970's hair, as Peter in "Black Christmas" (1974).

Keir Dullea, all turtlenecks and shaggy 1970’s hair, as Peter in “Black Christmas” (1974).

4. You know a relationship’s going south when you begin to suspect your lover of being a serial killer. Such was the case between Jess and her turtleneck-wearing boyfriend Peter in Black Christmas (1974). When Jess reveals to Peter her unwanted pregnancy and plans to have an abortion, his reaction is not only negative, but downright crazy in its intensity. But did this news, plus his failed piano recital — artists, they’re so sensitive —  push Peter to the brink of insanity?

Nostalgic for sleaze, part III: more grisly than ever in Blood Color!

Print advertisement for Herschell Gordon Lewis’s splatter-gore classic, “Blood Feast.” (1963).

Sex sells. So, evidently, does violence. When the two are paired together and offered up as a form of “extreme” entertainment, the results can be problematic. Throughout the horror genre, as well as within exploitation cinema, the naked bodies of young women are displayed, initially to arouse, and then to be victimized by violence. But why? Granted, there is a small segment of any population that are sexual sadists, and by which I mean truly pathological individuals and not your garden-variety, suburban married couple who dabble in spanking and other types of weekend sadomasochism. But this type of individual is not the norm, and is certainly not indicative of the fan base for horror & exploitation cinema. Most horror geeks — and I include myself in this grouping — are people who have a taste for that which is not typically found in mainstream, non-genre entertainment: the shocking, the trashy, the absurd and the downright nasty. These are also the mainstays of that close relative to horror, the exploitation film. Exploitation films of the 1970’s competed with each other over an ever-shrinking audience at drive-ins and grindhouse theatres, and this competition resulted in a kind of oneupmanship in terms of sex, violence and gore. Advertisements tantalized by promising the most shocking, the most sickening, and the most racy content available at a cinema.

The average consumer of horror and exploitation films in the 1970’s was young and male. The majority of men like to view attractive women in states of undress, and if they are horror/exploitation fans, they also have a taste for gore and violence. Hence, sexualized violence towards women — like the naked torture victims in nunsploitation, naziploitation, and WIP (Women in Prison) films —  became an accepted, and even expected, feature in these films. I rather suspect, though, that the male audience that flocked to see Pam Grier play a sadistic lesbian prison warden in Women in Cages were more interested in the physical attributes of Grier and her onscreen cohorts than the plights of the prison inmates.

However, this “boys will be boys” explanation doesn’t let either the filmmakers, the producers, nor it’s audience off the hook that easily. One can’t help but draw a parallel between the social changes propelled forward by Second Wave Feminism of the late-1960’s and 1970’s and the corresponding cinematic “backlash” against women in exploitation films. The same could be argued for the equally controversial blaxploitation film for its reinforcing of negative racial stereotypes at a time in history when the civil rights movement had advanced equality for African-Americans. Do I think there was some organized conspiracy against gender equality amongst B-movie filmmakers? No, of course not. The Roger Cormans of the world cared about bums-in-seats in movie theatres, not sociopolitical agendas. One thing that exploitation cinema has certainly never promised to be is politically-correct or enlightened — in fact, the inverse is often true. However, there is an undeniably strong anti-feminist ethic to many of the aforementioned films, best characterized as a “who the hell does she think she is? Let’s teach her a lesson” response to the burgeoning political power of women in the 1970’s.

“Tokyo Gore Police” stars Eihi Shiina as a member of Tokyo Police who exterminates creepy mutants, ninja-style.

You might now be asking yourself the question: why does Lady Lazarus, a woman and professed feminist, enjoy watching exploitation films? Well, apart from enjoying the trashy, campy fun of it all, it is only in the speculative fiction of horror, science fiction & fantasy that women can truly stand in equal footing with men — and by “equal footing”, I mean in terms of physical strength and prowess. Female characters can be imbued with superhuman strength, have magical powers, be kick-ass ninjas or fight off the zombie hordes. For every repellently misogynistic film like Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1974), you have the blood-drenched, splatter-gore lunacy of Tokyo Gore Police (2008), a contemporary Japanese horror-exploitation film with a sword-wielding female protagonist. While this film is replete with very disturbing and sexually-charged body horror imagery — most notable being a headless ‘human chair‘ — I did not sense the same level of sadism targeted specifically at women as I did in the Ilsa film. Everyone in Tokyo Gore Police — men, women, chairs — gets the slice ‘n’ dice treatment.

Take that, Herschell Gordon Lewis.

Nostalgic for sleaze, part II: Nazis, nuns, and wicked prison wardens.

In my previous blog post, I waxed nostalgic over the print advertisements for grindhouse theatres that appeared in the newspapers back in the 1970’s, the heyday of exploitation cinema. I felt the need to establish my long-term relationship with these films, in order to provide context for the discussion that follows. As you’ll soon read, the relationship I have with exploitation cinema is a conflicted one. It’s highly reminiscent of those teenage Bad Boys I yearned for in high school: appealing in their dangerous good-looks and rule-breaking nonconformity, but essentially all abusive jerks. Simply put, exploitation cinema isn’t always kind in its treatment of women.

But before we delve too much further, let’s trot out the standard definition of ‘exploitation film‘ as offered up by Wikipedia:

Exploitation film is a type of film that is promoted by “exploiting” often lurid subject matter. The term exploitation is common in film marketing, used for all types of films to mean promotion or advertising. These films then need something to exploit, such as a big star, special effects, sex, violence, romance, etc. […] The audiences of art and exploitation film are both considered to have tastes that reject the mainstream Hollywood offerings. […] Exploitation films may adopt the subject matter and styling of regular film genres, particularly horror films and documentary films, and their themes are sometimes influenced by other so-called exploitative media, such as pulp magazines.

Typically, the exploitation film was a low-budget B-movie, created as cheap, double-feature fodder for drive-in theatres. In order to attract audiences, they promised risqué content not offered by mainstream Hollywood productions. Sex and violence frequently intermingled, and were served up as an intoxicating cocktail of naughtiness. Hence, many of the exploitation subgenres — including the three I’ll examine here — contain copious amounts of nudity and sexualized violence.

As mentioned in my previous post, I shall focus my discussion on three subgenres of exploitation cinema: nunsploitation, WIP (Women in Prison) films, and Naziploitation. Apart from the fact that I typically write about depictions of gender in film, I wanted to address these particular subgenres for the simple reason that they are variations on the exact same narrative. And this narrative runs as follows:

A sadistic lesbian [Mother Superior/prison warden/Nazi Stalag Commandant] oversees the naked torture and general abuse of her attractive female wards. A young ingénue enters the [convent/prison/concentration camp] and must overcome great obstacles. She ultimately escapes, and her tormentor/s receive their final comeuppance.

Now, let’s parse this narrative. The variable same-sex settings — convent, prison or concentration camp (essentially another form of prison) — provide the excuse and opportunity for lesbian sex. This is the same sort of lipstick-lesbian fantasy that frequents pornography produced for heterosexual men. Presumably, the buxom women that populate these films are (mostly) lesbian by circumstance, rather than true sexual preference. This detail maintains the fantasy element for its predominantly male audience, who can enjoy the lesbian spectacle onscreen, while their belief in the inherent heterosexuality of these female characters remains intact.

The same-sex settings also provide opportunity for a second, considerably more sinister element: violence perpetrated on women by other women. Given the context of the various scenarios, this violence takes the form of ritualized or systematic abuse and torture. The cruel prison warden portrayed by Pam Grier in Women in Cages (1971) derives sadistic pleasure from the physical punishment of her female wards. Similarly, the Mother Superior from Joe D’Amato’s Images in a Convent (1979) vents her sexual frustration on one of her nuns through ritualistic flogging. The Nazi Stalag Commandant from Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1974) tortures her female prisoners with the curiously-misguided goal of proving female superiority over men. Is all this girl-on-girl violence merely the cinematic equivalent of a catfight, or is there something more menacing at play here?

Flogging constitutes a form of foreplay in Joe D’Amato’s raunchy “Images in a Convent” (1979).

One possible theory I have is that girl-on-girl violence seems less sinister and realistic than violence perpetrated on women by men, and thus more palatable to an audience in the context of an exploitation film. It can argued that the poorly-written scripts, implausible scenarios and less-than-stellar acting commonly found in these films tends to undercut any convincing menace in a torture scene. When you also factor in the high camp of a Nazi Commandant whose ample bosom threatens to burst out from her fetishistic SS uniform — well, it all seems more absurd than truly sinister.

But none of this answers the question “why is sex and violence so often paired together in these films?” I’ll attempt to tackle this big question in my next blog post.

Nostalgic for sleaze, part I: sex, violence and newspaper movie listings.

“Who has not a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?”
– Edgar Allan Poe.

The impossibly busty Chesty Morgan was a grindhouse fixture in the 1970s.

I may be dating myself here, but I am a child of the 1970’s. One of my favourite childhood activities involved sprawling across the living room floor with the newspaper, closely studying the movie listings in the Entertainment section. Why, do you ask, was a young child so thoroughly fascinated by the listings in the movie section? Simple. The latter two pages of the movie section were customarily reserved for advertisements for the drive-in theatres and the smaller, single-screen (and second-tier) movie houses, typically referred to as the grindhouse theatres. And these theatres promised that which you could not readily access anywhere else: the sleazy, the pornographic, the violent, the gory, and the shocking. In short, the lurid subject matter of the exploitation film. The hardworking Ontario Censor Board had effectively shielded my innocent eyes from viewing such troubling content on TV and in the movie theatres, but their efforts did not prevent me from finding it elsewhere. In fact, as the above quote from Edgar Allan Poe suggests, it was precisely due to the forbidden nature of this content that I felt compelled to seek it out. And so, my preadolescent self scrutinized those back pages of the movie section, trying to imagine — unsuccessfully, no doubt — just how “the vampires do it”, or marveling at the intimidating assets of Chesty Morgan. After all, it was the latter part of the 1970’s and the heyday of schlock and exploitation cinema.

A movie print advertisement for “4 orgies of evil”, as it would’ve appeared in the newspaper.

Now, for the benefit of my younger readers, allow me to place these grindhouse movie listings in the proper context. These listings served as my only window onto a dark, seedy and alternate world, one that ran parallel to the family-friendly bright lights of the local cineplex. While I was far too young to view these films, simply the knowledge of their existence thrilled me. This was the era that predated the proliferation of videotape, and was several years before the DVD or, yes kids, even the Internet. If, for instance, you wanted to view what a human being might look like after being turned inside out, you’d have to trek from the cozy comfort of your suburban home into the inner city and plunk your money down at the kiosk of a grimy grindhouse theatre. In stark contrast, in this digital age of the 21st-century, you would simply Google “horror movie in which people are turned inside out,” and discover that Roger Corman’s Screamers is the cinematic gem you seek, then set about finding a copy online*.

This preamble about nostalgia and 1970’s movie listings is my long-winded way of introducing a new series of blog posts on the exploitation film. As the topics I tend to fixate on typically involve gender, sex and violence, I plan to focus my discussion on exploitation films that most clearly address these subjects: nunsploitation, WIP (Women in Prison) films, and naziploitation.

Next up, flogging as a form of foreplay in the nunsploitation film.

*Here’s some fun facts about Corman’s Screamers, a re-released US version of Sergio Martino’s The Island of the Fishmen (1979)

REPOST: Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a creepy Canadian slasher flick.

A repost of last year’s blog entry on Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, with an added paragraph and one or two spoilers.

An often overlooked classic, the 1974 Canadian film Black Christmas now enjoys a cult status amongst horror fans and critical acknowledgment as being the progenitor of  the “slasher” genre that dominated horror cinema in the late ’70s and throughout the 1980s. Directed by Bob Clark — best known for his raunchy teen sex comedy Porky’s (1982) — the film boasts an enviably list of talented Canadian actors: Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea, John Saxon and comedienne Andrea Martin. The film stars Olivia Hussey, a British actress who’s most frequently recognized for her role as “Juliet” in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. In Black Christmas, Hussey leaves the Elizabethan poetry behind and gets her “scream queen” on.

Getting all wrapped up for the holidays in Bob Clark's 1974 cult slasher film "Black Christmas." Apologies in advance for the bad pun.

Getting all wrapped up for the holidays in Bob Clark's 1974 cult slasher film "Black Christmas."

It’s important to note that Black Christmas predates the better known slasher films like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), and they owe a great debt to Clark’s film. The quote below from Wikipedia concisely captures this film’s cult status:

The film gained a fairly decent cult following over the years of its release, and has been praised by fans of the slasher film genre internationally. The Black Christmas fan site has considerably increased the film’s popularity over the years. The film ranked #87 on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments for Lynne Griffin’s infamous plastic sheeting scene. During an interview regarding the film, Olivia Hussey met Steve Martin at an industry event and he brought up the fact that she starred in one of his favorite movies of all time. Hussey thought he might have referred to her work in Romeo & Juliet, but was surprised to hear from Martin that it was Black Christmas, which he claimed to have seen 25 times.

What Black Christmas possessed — and what later films in the slasher genre often lacked — was the element of suspense. Rather than rely on the crude shock tactics of gore, Clark torques up the tension by placing the insane homicidal intruder inside the sorority house right at the opening of the film — and then keeps him there, undiscovered by the house’s other occupants. Only the audience is aware that the killer, and a couple of his victims, are stowed away in the attic. The fact that the events in the film happen over Christmas provides the killer (and Clark) the opportunity to surreptitiously dispatch a number of sorority sisters on an ordinarily bustling — but now slowly emptying — college campus as it shuts down over the holidays.

Below is a wonderfully creepy clip, featuring an uncomfortably prolonged obscene phone call from the psycho-killer. There is a prodigious use of the word “c*nt” in the following sequence, so consider yourself warned. Oh, and Merry Christmas.

Lady Lazarus’s 2011 Halloween Party Movie Night: ‘Pushing Boundaries.’

This is the follow-up post to Lady Lazarus’s 2011 Halloween Party Movie Night: ‘Ghoulish Delights.’

Pushing Boundaries.

Something you don’t want coming at you in the dark (and with that hammer) in REC and REC2.

1. The Spanish horror films [REC] (2007) and [REC]2 (2009) have proven to be a potent one-two punch in recent horror cinema. The second film is less of a sequel as a continuation of the first, with the action literally picking up where the first film ended. This is a very good thing, indeed, as the final third of [REC] set-up an unanticipated and fairly novel plot twist involving the Vatican, some dubious medical experiments, and a solitary priest living in the penthouse of the sealed-off, ‘zombie’-infested Madrid apartment building. It is this unique mashup of zombie-meets-supernatural thriller that makes the [REC] films standout from the recent overabundance of shaky-camera, faux found-footage style horror films. From what I’ve read, the shot-for-shot English language remake Quarantine (which I have not seen) altered the heavy Catholicism of the original Spanish film, replacing all those Virgin Marys with more generic, non-denominational Christian iconography. While the Catholicism would not have the same resonance for the multicultural, multi-faith English-speaking world as it would for the Latin, an easier and more obvious correlation exists between the flesh-eating ‘zombies’ and the characteristically morbid, blood-drenched imagery of Spanish Catholicism than it does for the more ‘sanitized’ versions of Christianity. The only disappointment I had with these films was the ending of [REC]2 which, as soon as a certain character reappears on the scene, is pretty much spelled out.

Catherine Begin as the diabolical Mademoiselle in “Martyrs” (2008).

2. I had purposely avoided Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008) after reading the synopsis and questioning whether a plot that hinged upon the brutal and systematic abuse, torture and murder of young women was something I wanted to witness. After relenting and watching the film, I must admit that it pleasantly surprised me. Now, make no mistake — this is a troubling, violent, and gory film that boldly underscores the word extreme in the phrase ‘New French Extremity’, a category of recent French films in which Martyrs is often included. Much like the [REC] films above, Laugier’s Martyrs veers off in an unexpected and fascinating direction towards the end of the film, revealing a secret society of privileged individuals determined to discover — at any cost — the existence of an afterlife. The enigmatic ending will have you scratching your head for years to come.

3. Any film that re-imagines and updates the ‘slasher’ genre immediately gets my attention, as did Alexandre Aja’s superlative Haute Tension (2003). While some horror fans argue that the ‘big reveal’ in the film didn’t work, I give Aja credit for playing with the conventions of gender in the rigidly formulaic slasher genre. In one of my earlier posts, entitled Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, I wrote extensively on this film.

Nothing quite says “revenge” like a fish hook in the eyelid. Jennifer Hills is more of a badass in the 2010 remake of “I Spit On Your Grave.”

4. Like the dated sexual politics of the slasher film, the rape-revenge film is an exploitation subgenre also in need of an update. Much has changed in gender roles and equality since Meir Zarchi made his controversial 1978 cult film I Spit On Your Grave. The 2010 remake, which credits Zarchi as one of its producers, attempts to address some of the shortfalls of the original — at least, shortfalls in the eyes of this contemporary horror fan. In my earlier post Rape-Revenge Girl, I criticized Zarchi’s film for the rather unsatisfying revenge sequences. “The quotient of rape-to-revenge in Zarchi’s film is too much rape, not enough revenge,” I wrote, and “…the deaths of Jennifer’s rapists were not violent and/or gory enough for my — admittedly, gruesome — taste.” As if in direct response to my criticism, the 2010 remake offers up grisly and sickly-twisted revenge killings reminiscent of the stuff you’d find in “torture porn” films like Saw and Hostel. Admittedly, the whole transformation of Jennifer Hills from cheerful girl-next-door, to rape victim, to psychopathic and sadistic killer doesn’t work in any realm other than extreme, cathartic fantasy. Then again, if you’re opting to watch a film entitled I Spit On Your Grave, then you probably know what you’re in store for and will suspend your disbelief long enough to see the blood spill.

Horror Films 101: Summer viewing suggestions from Lady Lazarus.

The dog days of Summer are now upon us, but don’t let those increased hours of daylight discourage our mutual reveling in the dark & macabre.  Summer is the perfect time of the year to relax, disengage your critical thought and wallow in the raunchy, gory, completely tasteless absurdity of horror & exploitation films. For the bookish crowd, there are “Summer Reading” lists offered annually by media sources such as Toronto Life and CBC Radio. Now, don’t get me wrong —  I do love to curl up with a good book whenever the opportunity presents itself. Film geek that I am, however, I derive greater enjoyment from seeking out and viewing obscure, bizarre and, um, not-exactly-high-brow films — such as the films I list below. If your taste in film is rather like mine, then track these films down as a “Summer Viewing” project. You probably won’t find these titles in your local Blockbuster video store, though. If you’re successful in locating any of these, then cue the DVD, pull the curtains, and embrace their insanity. Then tell me what you thought in the Comments section at the end of this post.

Valerie embraced by the 'Polecat' vampire-like creature, who's also the town's high priest and possibly her father (??!!) in "Valerie and her Week of Wonders" (1970).

1. Valerie and her Week of Wonders (Czech: Valerie a týden divů) is a 1970 film from the former Czechoslovakia, directed by Jaromil Jireš. This is the most “artful” of the films that appear on this list and, even though the print I viewed was of very poor quality, the stellar cinematography clearly stood out. The film is a dark, coming-of-age fairytale as only the Czechs could envision. The titular heroine, 13-year-old Valerie, grapples with her burgeoning sexuality, as well as the many priests, vampires, men and women who attempt to seduce and/or kill her. Fortunately for young Valerie, she possesses magical earrings which, when placed in her mouth, rescue her from impending death — which happens with great frequency throughout the film. Disjointed and surreal, you’ll hurt your brain if you try to make sense of the proceedings. Characters often change appearance and, as in the case of the ‘Polecat’, occupy shifting and ambiguous roles. Is he a priest? A vampire? Valerie’s father? A weasel? All of the above? Yes. Don’t worry about it, just enjoy the many beautiful images and the hazy, dreamlike pace of this film.

Christina Lindberg stars as Frigga, the vengeful one-eyed prostitute in "Thriller -- A Cruel Picture."

2. Thriller — A Cruel Picture (Swedish: Thriller – en grym film, also known as They Call Her One Eye, Hooker’s Revenge and simply Thriller) is a 1973 Swedish exploitation film. The film follows the typical Rape-Revenge formula: the heroine suffers tragedy and physical degradation until the latter half of the film, when she exacts bloody revenge on those who’ve abused her. (Read my earlier post on the Rape-Revenge film for my thoughts on this exploitation subgenre.) The teenage Frigga — who has been rendered mute by the childhood trauma of sexual abuse — is kidnapped by the local pimp and forced into both heroin addiction and prostitution. When she is initially non-compliant, Frigga has one of her eyes cut out with a scalpel in a brief but grisly scene that reputedly employed an actual cadaver as a body-double. From then on, she silently endures abuse from her clients while she saves up her portion of the financial transactions. She packs her Mondays (her one day-off work) with karate class, rifle-shooting and driving-really-super-fast class, as she secretly plots her revenge. Montage after long montage, she finally dons a black leather trenchcoat, matching eye-patch, and a sawed-off shotgun, and pays a slow-motion visit to each of her (soon to be former) clients.

The film was marketed as the first film ever to be completely banned in Sweden, although the one that actually was first was Victor Sjöström’s The Gardener from 1912. It has received a cult following and was one of the inspirations behind Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, specifically the character of Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah). In Daniel Ekeroth’s book on Swedish exploitation movies, Swedish Sensationsfilms: A Clandestine History of Sex, Thrillers, and Kicker Cinema, it is revealed that the producers took out a huge life insurance policy on star Christina Lindberg, as real ammunition was used in the action sequences, and that she was asked to inject saline solution during the drug scenes. — from Wikipedia.

There's no joy in being dead, not even 'living death', as evidenced by the melancholic Catherine in Jean Rollin's "The Living Dead Girl" (1982). Oh, the existential angst of it all.

3. The Living Dead Girl (French: La Morte Vivante) is a 1982 campy classic from French fantastique director Jean Rollin. Reanimated by the spillage of a toxic waste goop on her corpse, the aristocratic Catherine discovers she has a new-found taste for human flesh. Like all of Rollin’s films, the aesthetics play a much more crucial role than the story or, indeed, the acting. His films are as gorgeous as they are completely ridiculous. The absurd plot devices — toxic goop dumped on (surprisingly well-preserved, two-year-old) corpse interred in family crypt — exist only to furnish Rollin with an excuse to create his signature erotic-grotesque imagery. Rollin’s The Living Dead Girl is splatter gore-meets-arthouse, served up with a little Jean-Paul Sartre on the side. The existentialist exchange that occurs between Catherine and her childhood friend Hélène is thoroughly hilarious:

Hélène: You were never dead. The dead don’t come back to life. You were put to sleep, drugged, driven mad or I don’t know what. I don’t understand. I never saw you dead, Catherine. They put an empty coffin in this crypt.

Catherine: No. I’m dead, Hélène. I know I am. Don’t you understand? I know I am!

Catherine and Hélène discuss the finer points of existence in "The Living Dead Girl."

Heady stuff, people. Heady stuff.