Horror Films 101: Overlooked and Obscure Gems of Horror Cinema.

1. Director Bob Clark’s debut feature was the campy and extraordinarily low-budget zombie film Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972). A theatre group is brought to a graveyard located on a remote island by its flamboyant and eccentric director Alan. With the aid of a magical grimoire, Alan performs a necromantic ritual as some sort of elaborate sick joke, presumably at the expense of both his frightened comrades, as well as the deceased buried on the island. His violation of the dead is further compounded when, disappointed by the seeming failure of his ritual, he opts to desecrate a grave — exhuming a corpse named Orville with whom he amuses himself. Needless to say, when the dead finally do rise from their graves, they’re out for bloody vengeance. A strange and darkly comedic film, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things has a slow build that rewards its audience with a satisfyingly creepy ending.

2. The post-Vietnam/Watergate/Charlie Mansion paranoia of 1970’s America played out in that decade’s horror films. Beginning with seminal genre films like Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), terror was primarily psychological in nature. Claustrophobia, paranoia and mental illness are themes central to 1977’s The Sentinel, a horror film populated by Satanists and other strange, eerie characters. A beautiful but mentally fragile NYC fashion model moves into a furnished Brooklyn brownstone, unaware that the reason for the remarkably cheap rent is the “portal to Hell” that exists in her building. While an impressive list of American actors — including John Carradine, Burgess Meredith, José Ferrer, Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, Beverly D’Angelo, Ava Gardner and Tom Berenger — appear throughout, its the creepy, nightmarish atmosphere which elevate this film from your typical ’70s Satanic-horror fodder. The film is controversial for its inclusion of physically deformed people to portray the ‘souls of the damned’, a choice by director Michael Winner which does seem exploitative even as it is effectively off-putting.

The creepy cast of 1977’s “The Sentinel.”

3. Hong Kong director Fruit Chan serves up a dubious feast in Dumplings (2004). Originally released in a reduced, 37-minute long form on the pan-Asian horror omnibus “Three… Extremes” DVD, Chan’s film has been reissued in its original, 91-minute length with additional subplot and alternate ending. In Dumplings, the aging actress Mrs. Li seeks out the dumplings of “Auntie Mei” that allegedly contain a secret ingredient which offers eternal youth. The nature of this “ingredient” is revealed early in the narrative, a fact which makes the desperate vanity of Mrs. Li all the more grisly. Darkly comedic in parts, Chan offers a tongue-in-cheek commentary on Chinese culinary culture and the socio-economic class divide still present in modern-day Hong Kong-Kowloon.

Mrs. Li (Miriam Yeung) consumes the titular “Dumplings” in Fruit Chan’s gruesome film.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Calamari Love: the curious tradition of Japanese ‘tentacle erotica.’

Katsushika Hokusai, "The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife," 1814.

Tentacle…what? Yes, indeed. In the realm of sexual fantasy, any and all things that can be imagined are possible. Like, for instance, receiving cunnilingus from an obliging octopus, as depicted in the above image by renowned artist Katsushika Hokusai. Known in the West by the title The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, Hokusai’s print is one of the most celebrated examples of shunga (erotic art) from the Edo Period in Japan. According to a scholarly paper written by Danielle Talerico, the Edo audience would have clearly recognized Hokusai’s woman as a depiction of the female abalone diver Tamatori. In the legend, Tamatori steals a jewel from the Dragon King. However, during her egress, the Dragon King and his sea-life minions — including octopodes — pursue her. Evidently, once the minions successfully capture Tamatori, some sexy-time ensues.

The more contemporary version of Japanese ‘tentacle erotica’, known as shokushu goukan, is a darker, violent and sadistic cousin of the gentler, Edo-period erotica. In 1986, manga artist Toshio Maeda created his infamous series Demon Beast Invasion, which featured malevolent tentacled aliens who embark upon a cross-breeding campaign with human females in a bid to rule the Earth. Essentially, Maeda’s rather thin plot-device afforded him the excuse to stuff a large number of phallic ‘tentacles’ into a great many female orifices. The reason for the reliance on tentacles was simple. Until 1993, Japanese law prohibited straightforward depictions of penises and intercourse. So Maeda was obliged to come up with a substitute: tentacles.

So, there you have it. I bet you’ll never look at a plate of deep-fried calamari in quite the same way again.

The macabre eroticism of the ‘Anatomical Angel’

Sex and Death. An alluring, if frequently controversial, coupling. The symbolically potent pairing of eroticism with the macabre has a long, well-established tradition across many different cultures. The artists of the Northern Renaissance in Europe gave us the now familiar Death and the Maiden motif with its inherently erotic subtext. In 1920-30s Japan, there was the emergence of ero guro — a literary and visual art form that combined eroticism with elements of the grotesque. The focus of this blog post, however, shall be on the curious convergence of the erotic with the grotesque/macabre in anatomical art produced during the Age of Enlightenment.

L'ange Anatomique by Jacques-Fabien Gautier d'Agoty, coloured mezzotint, 1746.

One of the best known of the 18th-century anatomical artists was Jacques Fabian Gautier D’Agoty. Renowned as a printmaker of exceptional technical skill, his image of a flayed woman entitled Anatomical Angel was viewed as highly controversial even during his lifetime. D’Agoty dubbed his image Anatomical Angel due to the flaps of skin pulled away from the cadaver’s back in a manner that suggests angel wings. Great attention has been devoted to the elegantly coiffed hair on her half-turned head. Her rosy cheek appears flush with life. D’Agoty’s aptly-titled Angel exists on a plane somewhere outside of death, rendering her an otherworldly creature.

Personally, I find D’Agoty’s Angel less erotic than she is aesthetic. One cannot, however, quickly dismiss the artist’s decision to depict a young, conventionally beautiful and, yes, sexually attractive woman. Of course, D’Agoty knew his audience: scientists and people in the medical field, all of whom would’ve been men.

Wax model with human hair and pearls in rosewood and Venetian glass case; Probably modeled by Clemente Susini (around 1790)

Let’s leave the Angel of D’Agoty and examine a comparable Italian wax anatomical sculpture entitled Anatomical Venus, dating from the last decade of the 18th-century. This exquisitely detailed sculpture, attributed to Clemente Susini, extracts the erotic elements that were merely a subtext in D’Agoty’s Angel and places them in the forefront. The languorous expression on the face of Susini’s Venus seems to evoke the petite mort of orgasm more than the morbidity of actual death. Similar to the aestheticism of D’Agoty, Susini styles his Venus with elaborately braided hair and an elegant pearl necklace. (Even in death, a girl must accessorize).

Anatomical Venus, wax model; probably modeled by Clemente Susini (around 1790)

For more views of Susini’s Anatomical Venus, as well as other examples of anatomical sculptures, visit Anatomical Theatre. Highly recommended, if predictably macabre.