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!

Deviant Desires: Erotic Grotesque Nonsense, Part IV: “Midori — The Girl in the Freak Show”

This is Part IV of my series of posts relating to the Japanese cultural phenomenon called “ero-guro-nansensu”, or erotic-grotesque-nonsense. Part III, which discussed Teruo Ishii’s “pinky violent” contribution to the ero-guro landscape entitled Horrors of Malformed Men, is found here.

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Midori — The Girl in the Freak Show
(a.k.a. Shôjo tsubaki: Chika gentô gekiga).
1992, directed and animated by Hiroshi Harada

Much like Teruo Ishii’s Horrors of Malformed Men, a great deal has been made about the banned status of Hiroshi Harada’s 1992 anime Midori — The Girl in the Freak Show, and similarly, the details concerning its banned notoriety are rather murky. This film has screened at a small number of festivals, but is unavailable on DVD in both the 
Japanese and North American markets. It is only available through a small DVD distributor in France called CinéMalta. To a large extent, the film has been buried due to ongoing issues with the Japanese censors, and Harada has simply chosen not to screen it in his native country. In a videotaped interview that was included as an extra on the Midori DVD, Harada stated candidly:

“The situation in Japan makes it very difficult for films like mine to enter the mainstream. Hayao Miyazaki is well-known in Japan, and his films are seen abroad. If his stories represent the official story of Japan, then “Midori” is a counter-story of Japan, one the Japanese State and powers that be have suppressed and tried to hide away.”

Due to the controversial nature of the content, Harada was unable to secure investors for the project. Thus, he financed and worked on the 52-minute film alone, creating all of the artwork over a 5-year period using the technique of cell animation. This explains, in part, the somewhat limited nature of the animation – i.e. some scenes being just a succession of still images with camera holds, pans and zooms.

Suehiro Maruo's 1984 manga

Suehiro Maruo’s 1984 manga “Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show” (now out of print).

Midori is a very faithful adaption of artist Suehiro Maruo’s underground manga entitled Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show (published in 1984, now out-of-print) that tells the story of an abused flower girl in 1920’s Japan. When Midori, a poor girl about the age of 12, is suddenly and tragically orphaned, she seeks the help of one of her former customers, the mysterious Bowler Hat Man, who had previously extended an offer of assistance. Unfortunately, it is soon revealed that the The Bowler Hat Man has tricked the naïve Midori into becoming a virtual slave for a travelling circus show, where he inhabits the role of impresario. Thus begins the bleak tale of Midori’s cruel mistreatment and repeated rape by the grotesque monsters that work the carny sideshow.

Both Maruo’s manga and Harada’s film adaptation are populated by a now familiar set of erotic-grotesque stock characters —  the carny sideshow impresario and his collection of “freaks” including the magician dwarf, the hermaphrodite, and a limbless performer similar to the “human caterpillar” (which reminds us of Rampo’s short story). Several forms of sexual fetishism are on display, and in particular the fetish of eyeball-licking (called oculolinctus, by the way), which is a favourite motif for Maruo.

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Midori opens with a succession of images that flash quickly across the screen, accompanied by different voices that seem to call out a disconnected, nonsensical stream of words. According to Harada, these strangely poetic phrases are the sort you’d hear from carnival barkers back in the 1920’s.

If you’re a fan of Anime, and particularly the more underground and darker examples of the genre, then Midori is definitely worth tracking down. It’s not an easy viewing – and it does have a relentlessly bleak ending—but it is a very faithful adaptation of Maruo’s “ero guro” classic and effectively conveys the very limited options available to a young girl without the benefit (or protection) of a family or husband in 1920’s Japan. WARNING: some animated puppies are squashed.

You can view the entire film here, at least for now.

My next post in this ongoing series on ero-guro-nansensu discusses one of the most notorious Japanese films ever made,  In the Realm of the Senses (1976), directed by Nagisa Oshima.

Deviant Desires: Erotic Grotesque Nonsense, part II. Edogawa Rampo.

This is Part II of my series of posts relating to the Japanese cultural phenomenon called “ero-guro-nansensu”, or erotic-grotesque-nonsense. Part I, which introduced and defined “ero-guro-nansensu” is found here.

Invariably, any examination of erotic grotesque nonsense will conjure up the name of the single most artistic contributor to that cultural phenomenon, and that name is Edogawa Rampo. In this post, I will introduce Rampo and briefly discuss his cultural legacy and creative output. Rampo serves as a common thread that links Japan of the 1920s-30s to the films I’ll be discussing in subsequent postings, as well as to the artwork of contemporary artists working with ero-guro style imagery. Of the five films I plan to discuss, three are adaptations of stories written by Rampo.

Edogawa Rampo was the pen name of Hirai Taro and the acknowledged grand master of Japan’s golden age of crime and mystery fiction. He is also a major writer in the tradition of Japanese Modernism, and exerts a massive influence on the popular and literary culture of today’s Japan. That his chosen pen name is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe is a pretty clear indication of his creative inspirations and early passions as a reader.

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The “Edogawa Rampo Reader”, first published in 2008.

Even though Rampo has remained a household name in Japan since the 1930s, translations of Rampo’s fiction were not available in the West until 1956, with the publication of Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination. This collection of nine short stories remained the only dedicated volume of Rampo available in English-language translation up until the early 21st-century (some short stories had been translated and published in other anthologies, but there hadn’t been a dedicated volume of Rampo available). In 2008, the Edogawa Rampo Reader was published, which contained short stories and some non-fiction prose that had hitherto been unavailable in translation.

While a university student, Rampo read detective stories by Poe, G.K. Chesterton, and Arthur Conan Doyle, which appealed to him precisely because of their use of careful plotting, logic and reasoning, and dark overtones. Many of Rampo’s stories feature a main protagonist in the character of Akechi Kogoro, a private detective very much in the vein of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character. Like Holmes, Akechi is a brilliant but eccentric detective who consults with the police on especially difficult cases. He is a master of disguise and an expert at judo whose genius lets him solve seemingly impossible cases.

It is Rampo’s more bizarre, fantastic and darkly erotic works of fiction, however, that ultimately established him as the Godfather of Ero-Guro. Rampo’s stories were wildly popular during the turbulent interwar years in Japan, and it is their transgressive spirit that best captures the essence of ero-guro-nansensu.

“The Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo has been called the Father of Japanese Mystery Fiction. This statement, while not inaccurate, fails to adequately consider examples of his writing that border on the macabre or the fantastic. Many of his works tap into the elements of strangeness that Japan’s headlong rush into modernity after the Meiji Restoration had unleashed. Far more than conventional mysteries, these stories incorporate elements of the fantastic, the gothic, and the absurd, in ways that thrill and entertain, and also leave the reader unsettled, and they delve deeply into the fear of the unknown that all humans share.”

— (Quote taken from the foreword written by Patricia Welch in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination.)

I’ve selected two of my favourite Rampo short stories to discuss, the first being The Caterpillar, and the second The Human Chair. These are two of his best known and most celebrated stories, and have been adapted in both film and manga form numerous times throughout the years. First published in 1934, The Caterpillar was the only of Rampo’s stories to have been banned by the prewar Japanese authorities for being ‘anti-nationalist’.

The Caterpillar (1934)


The Caterpillar is a short story about an army wife named Tokiko and her severely injured husband, Lieutenant Sunaga. A recent returnee from an unnamed war, Sunaga has unfortunately become a horribly disfigured quadruple amputee who is deaf, mute and dumb. He is, of course, completely dependent on his wife for all his physical needs, and he communicates these to Tokiko through a series of animalistic grunts and the use of his eyes. While Lieutenant Sunaga is literally trapped within the limbless stump of his body, Tokiko is also trapped in an endless cycle of care for her husband because, as she is continually reminded by those around her, it is her “wifely duty” to do so. As she is told by the retired major general in whose cottage the couple now reside, “The loyalty and meritorious services of Lieutenant Sunaga are of course the boast of our Army.”

Given his condition, Sunaga devolves into something less-than-human and, much like the caterpillar (whose form he now physically resembles), his entire existence focuses on food, and sex. With her new position of power in their relationship Tokiko, resentful of her endless round-the-clock care of her husband, begins to cruelly toy with Sunaga. In a fit of rage at her husband, Tokiko gouges out his eyes with her fingers, thus removing his only sensory connection to the world. The sightless Sunaga manages an insectile crawl out of the cottage and plummets down a well to his death. (I plan to go into greater depth on this story when I discuss the film “The Caterpillar” (2010) directed by Kōji  Wakamatsu, in a later posting.)

The Human Chair (1925)


The second Rampo short story I want to discuss is The Human Chair, which was originally published in 1925. The story involves a young woman writer named Yoshiko who receives a mysterious envelope in the mail. At first, she believes it to be a manuscript from an aspiring writer seeking her critique, but as she reads, she quickly realizes it is a rather long and confessional letter penned by an unnamed writer. The mysterious letter-writer, who describes himself as “ugly beyond description”, confesses to a series of increasingly bizarre and perverse crimes. He reveals that he is craftsman skilled in the art of chair-making, and that he had been commissioned by an upscale hotel to manufacture a large, custom chair for its lobby. Deciding that this commissioned chair is his masterpiece, and therefore reluctant to part with it, he opts to fashion a compartment in the inside back of the chair that would accommodate a human being (namely, him). He then accompanies the chair to the hotel lobby, where he hides inside of it during the day, sneaking out of it at night to steal valuable items from the hotel. The chair-maker soon realized, however, that he received a perverse, erotic thrill when female hotel guests sat in his chair — and thus, on top of him.

After months of this strange existence, the hotel came under new management and some of its contents, including the chair, were sold to private individuals. Coincidentally, Yoshiko’s husband had purchased an overstuffed chair a short while back at an auction, which his wife loves to sit in whilst she reads (so, you know where this is heading, right?). The letter-writer then goes on to describe the daily routine of Yoshiko, confessing that he had fallen in love with her. Horrified, Yoshiko jumps out of the chair and runs from the room. Within moments, she receives a second mystery missive – this time a telegram – stating that the confessional letter was, in fact, a work of fiction, and that the author hoped Yoshiko enjoyed the effectiveness of the story.

Toshio Saeki, being the ‘Godfather of Japanese Erotica”, adds a predictably erotic slant to his interpretation of Rampo’s

Toshio Saeki, being the ‘Godfather of Japanese Erotica”, adds a predictably erotic slant to his interpretation of Rampo’s “The Human Chair” story.

My next post in this series will discuss Teruo Ishii’s gloriously schlocky, psychedelic mashup of Rampo-with-butoh, Horrors of Malformed Men (1969).

Lady Lazarus’s 2014 Halloween List: Scary Movie Moments.

Hello, my Darklings! It may be a relatively balmy afternoon in Toronto, but the warm weather’s not fooling Lady Lazarus.  It is undeniably mid-October, which means it’s that time of year to carefully craft a horror-themed list in anticipation/celebration of Hallowe’en.  While the tagline for this blog “musings on the macabre” indicates my year-round fascination with all things spooky and disturbing, come Hallowe’en, this fascination finds full expression in mainstream culture. In short, I can hoist my horror-freak flag up high.

This year, I decided to go with the theme of “scary movie/TV moments”, meaning those scenes that, for me, contain particularly potent images of horror. As always, this is a highly subjective list. Your list will likely vary. One curious thing I noticed when crafting my list is that all the scenes share a common element. Read on to discover what that would be.

1. Hospital hallway scene from Exorcist III: Legion (1990). William Peter Blatty’s novel Legion is the true sequel to The Exorcist, and not that ridiculous, let’s-cash-in-on-the-original Exorcist II that starred a somehow “re-possessed” Regan (with Linda Blair reprising her role) and a bunch of locusts. When I heard that Blatty himself would direct Exorcist III: Legion, I was actually hopeful that the movie wouldn’t suck. Well, it did. Except for this scene, which is a classic jump-scare moment, expertly done. I don’t want to spoil the moment if you haven’t seen this film, but I would like to point out how well the slow pacing, the static camera, and the everyday banality of the moments leading up to the jump-scare serve to underscore the horror.

Bob2. There are two things that creep me out about the character of Bob from David Lynch’s cult TV series Twin Peaks. Firstly, it’s his appearance. He’s a bedraggled, denim-on-denim denizen of a very seedy underworld, with wild eyes and a maniacal grin. His long hair, toothy grin and feral nature casts him in the role of the Big Bad Wolf, only the world that he emerges from is not one of fairytales, but of nightmares. The second, even more chilling aspect of Bob is how he always just appears, seemingly out of nowhere. One moment, there you are sitting on the broadloom of your parent’s tastefully decorated, circa 1980’s suburban home — complete with floral arrangements and throw-cushions — and suddenly BAM! There he is, climbing over your Mom’s couch with that sinister grin, making his way directly towards you. Whatever his plans, you know it’s not going to end well. Much like the psycho-killer in the scene above from Exorcist III: Legion, it’s Bob’s sudden, inexplicable appearances that always freaked me out.

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3. I first saw Ju-On (2002, dir.Takashi Shimizu) at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2003, and it still remains one of my favourite J-horrors of that era. While I have to admit that the latter half of the film is mainly comprised of a relentless succession of jump-scares, Ju-On still offers up some great visuals, such as the image of the ghost-woman Kayako slooooooowly crawling down the stairs towards the horrified heroine Rika. The image that has always stuck with me, however, is the one depicted above — with Kayako suddenly materializing underneath the bed covers, and directly on top of her victim. Can you imagine lifting your bed sheets to see that face staring up at you? NO.

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4. Yes, ok, The Exorcist (1973, dir.William Friedkin). I know it’s a given on any horror movie-related list, but there’s a really good reason why that would be. It’s just that good. I’ve already mentioned in a past post the freaky demon-face that haunted all our childhood dreams — if you happen to be of a similar vintage to me — but the image I’d like to address is the one with Father Karras’s mother suddenly appearing on Regan’s bed during her prolonged exorcism. Other than the fact that the scene cuts to this image so abruptly, eliciting a jump-scare moment out of the audience, it’s the sad, questioning expression on her face that I find so unnerving.“Why, Demi? Why?” Indeed.

So, that’s it. Have a safe and happy Hallowe’en, kids. I hope to, as long as nothing sinister suddenly appears around me.

The Artist in Horror Cinema.

We all have an idea in our minds of what constitutes the “Artist”: a tormented, misunderstood outsider, compelled by an almost otherworldly drive to create. We recall images like those of Vincent van Gogh’s famous self-portrait with bandaged head, concealing the wound that resulted from severing his own left ear, or we envision the distorted figure of Edvard Munch’s magnum opus The Scream, it’s creator checking himself into a private sanitarium later in life after hearing voices. While these biographical details of Van Gogh and Munch are true and verifiable, this notion of the Artist as a mad, tormented genius is a cultural construction originating from the 19th-century Romantics, as described by scholar Pamela Fletcher in her Victorian Studies text Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century:

[Michael] Wilson’s title essay traces the myth of the artist as a unique genius, alienated from society both by his own commitment to the demands of his art and a philistine public’s inability to value or understand it. Wilson rightly notes that the idea of the artist as a melancholic genius dates back to the Renaissance, but he locates the full flowering of the myth in the Romantic era. — excerpt from “Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century”, by Pamela M. Fletcher.

The Romantic era (approx. 1800-1850) reconfigured the artist as a tragic hero who, in the best case scenario, is a darkly brooding and cynical Byronic hero or, in the worst case, is a half-lunatic hermit who lives on the very fringe of society. Though most-assuredly a myth, this notion of the artist as a crazed — and possibly even dangerous — outsider has persisted even into the modern era.

The genre of horror is fed by our psychological and cultural fears. One of our collective fears is our fear of the Other: those individuals who, whether through a transgression of gender, physical deformity, or mental illness, deviate from the “norm” in terms of their appearance and/or behaviour. (See my previous series of posts on Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, which addresses the topic of women as the Other). These types of individuals tend to make the majority anxious, and therefore they are ideal to occupy the role of the “monster” in horror fiction. Given the Romantic notion of the “mad artist”, it’s hardly surprising that artists have served in this role of the feared Other in horror cinema. Below are a few examples of horror films that have featured visual artists in such roles.

Film still from "Blind Beast" (1969

Film still from “Blind Beast” (1969, dir. Yasuzô Masumura).

1. Blind Beast (1969, dir. Yasuzô Masumura) is a masterpiece of ero guro nansensu from Japan that is based on a story by Edogawa Rampo. A blind sculptor kidnaps a beautiful young model and takes her back to his home to act as his model and muse. He and his mother live in a warehouse which he’s transformed into a surreal sculptural installation of giant body parts, dedicated mainly to the female form. At first, the model only wants to escape from this bizarre scene, but eventually she succumbs to his strange vision and even surpasses his obsession. In true ero guro style, they develop a curiously erotic, sadomasochistic relationship that eventually leads to the crazy, horrific and over-the-top violent finale. Below is the entire film posted on Youtube, though regrettably it lacks English subtitles. Worth watching, if only for its beautiful and bizarre visuals — such as the two protagonists cavorting atop a giant (foam rubber) sculpture of a reclining female nude.

2. As an artist myself, I can fully understand the urge to find the exactly correct hue for a project. On many occasions I’ve paid a princely sum for tubes of Cadmium Red paint because, well, no other pigment is as brilliantly, intensely red (the toxicity of the metal cadmium notwithstanding). Hershell Gordon Lewis, the notorious exploitation-film director who singlehandedly created the splatter-gore film, used this notion of the dangerously obsessive artist to splatter his signature gore in Color Me Blood Red (1965).

"Color Me Blood Red" (1965, dir. Hershell Gordon Lewis.

“Color Me Blood Red” (1965, dir. Hershell Gordon Lewis).

Artist Adam Sorge struggles to find critical and commercial success when he accidently discovers that blood smeared across his canvas provides his paintings with the vibrancy they previously lacked. This discovery provides the rationale for Sorge (and Lewis) to bloodily dispatch a couple of bikini-clad beauties in this lesser offering from Lewis’s “Blood Trilogy”. Low-budget and poorly acted (Lewis often relied on non-actors), what this film lacks in craft, it makes up for with its campy, rough-hewn B-movie charm. You can watch the entire, uncut film on Youtube. Considering that it was made in 1965, it truly is subversively gory.

3. Cauldron of Blood (1970) is a terrible film. That said, I kinda have a soft spot for it. Also known under the title Blind Man’s Bluff, it was cobbled together over a few years, repurposing footage from different films. One reason for this cinematic mess is the fact that its star Boris Karloff was in very poor health, and couldn’t appear in a number of scenes (he died in 1969, before its release). Thus, its creators were obliged to pad the film with previously shot footage. Karloff appears frail and sadly diminished — but even a diminished Karloff is still pretty good. Here’s the short synopsis from IMDB: “A blind sculptor works on his magnum opus unaware that the skeletons he has been using for armatures are the remains of the victims of his evil wife and that he is the next target”.

Again, the entire film is available on Youtube (one assumes distribution companies don’t care about these older films). My advice is to forward to the 1:27 mark and watch the final showdown between Karloff and his gloriously evil wife, where she meets her comeuppance in a vat of acid.

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.

REPOST. Karen Black like me: When dolls attack.

It’s summer, and I’m currently busy working away on my animation project. I decided to share one of my earlier posts from 2010. Enjoy!

Let’s face it, dolls are creepy. Horror fiction has always acknowledged this fact, and some of the earliest films in this genre have prominently featured the doll as an object of terror. One can relate this genre’s fascination with dolls to the psychological theory of the Uncanny as expressed by Ernst Jentsch in his 1906 essay, On the Psychology of the Uncanny:

Jentsch defines the Uncanny as: “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might be, in fact, animate”[1]

Sigmund Freud later expanded on Jentsch’s concept in his 1919 essay “The Uncanny”, but this posting isn’t about psychoanalytic theory. It’s about some of my favourite horror films that feature dolls.

Of course, the Child’s Play series of films from the 1980’s immediately spring to mind, with their signature black humour, bad puns and sadistic doll-villain Chucky. To be honest, I’ve never been a big fan of that particular horror franchise.

I do, however, fondly recall a 1975 made-for-TV horror anthology Trilogy of Terror. The third story of this anthology, entitled “Amelia,” stars Karen Black — that darling of 1970s horror flicks — and involves a demonic Zuni fetish doll. And it’s one seriously pissed-off doll, too. Watch the clip below, because it’s likely to be the funniest thing you’ll see all year.

The next clip I want to include is a bit of a cheat. I’ve never actually seen this film, though I’ve viewed this trailer a number of times — and the trailer majorly creeps me out. Will definitely have the track down 1978’s Magic, a “terrifying love story” that starred Anthony Hopkins and Ann Margaret. Hopkins really must’ve been hitting the bottle hard when he took this role.

And lastly, an obscure little gem from Mexico called The Curse of the Doll People (1960). Midgets can be scary, too.

Horror Films 101: Favourite Ghost Stories.

Can I let you in on a secret? This hardcore horror fan is scared of ghosts — OK, more specifically, films that feature ghosts. I’ve watched zombie hordes feast on flesh, and vampires drink human blood. I’ve seen the minions of Satan perform gory midnight rituals, and serial killers dispatch their victims in creatively sadistic ways. None of these have frightened or unnerved me to the degree that a good, old-fashioned ghost story can. If anything can cause me to cower beneath the bed covers at night, it’s the suggestive power of a ghost story that relies on psychology rather than gore or cheap scare tactics to frighten the bejeezus outta you. Therein lies its true potency.

Film still from "Ugetsu Monogatari" (1958).

The Lady Wakasa from “Ugetsu Monogatari” (1953).

1. The Japanese have always had a knack for constructing effective tales of the supernatural. Ugetsu monogatari (dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953) is a beautifully-shot, black-and-white masterwork from Japan’s “Golden Age” of cinema. This film is a  jidaigeki (period drama) set during the Edo period, and is ostensibly a morality play on the theme of personal responsibility. As is customary in many Asian ghost stories, the supernatural co-exists with the world of the living in a straightforward, matter-of-fact way. Ghosts can be the benevolent souls of the dearly departed who dwell on the earth to protect family members, or they are malevolent spirits bent on revenge. The ghosts in Ugetsu are more the former than the latter, although the Lady Wakasa has a definite sinister side to her. I would characterize this film as a tale of misfortune and poor-choices-with-tragic-consequences than as a ghost story whose raison d’être is to merely frighten.

The malevolent ghost-child Samara climbs out of the TV in the now-iconic conclusion to "The Ring" (2002).

The malevolent ghost-child Samara climbs out of the TV in the now-iconic conclusion to “The Ring” (2002).

2. While we’re on the topic of Japanese ghost stories, my next pick The Ring (2002) is the English-language remake of the Japanese film Ringu (1998). When a foreign-language film is remade into an English version, I almost invariably prefer the original film — in fact, I very seldom watch remakes of foreign-language films as I feel that much of the original context is lost in translation (ie. the [REC] films are enriched by their location in Spain, with everyone speaking Spanish, etc). Gore Verbinski’s The Ring is that rare exception where the remake is an improvement over the original. Verbinski maintains the visual aesthetics of the original, but torques up the fright factor. The remake also removes some of the problematic (for a Western audience) gender issues that are present in the original film.

3. Ti West is one of my favourite new directors working in the horror genre. He is the master of the slow-boil, and while the snail’s pace of his 2011 film The Innkeepers is definitely not for the thrill-a-minute horror fan, I truly believe that the slow pace works to amplify the creepy-as-hell finale. West gives us ample time to get to know his two main characters Claire and Luke, two employees — and amateur paranormal investigators — who work at a supposedly haunted New England hotel. I actually switched this movie off twice whilst viewing it. The first time, it was out of sheer boredom. It was 45-minutes into the film, and virtually nothing had happened other than some banal, somewhat-flirty banter between our two protagonists, and the occasional hotel guest complaining that they had no towels in their rooms. I decided to try again. The second time I switched it off, it was because things were finally happening, and the suspense had me too much on edge.  My advice: stick with it, because the ending is worth it.

"I know, Luke. We should totally hang out in the dark, creepy basement of this haunted hotel."

“I know, Luke. We should totally hang out in the dark, creepy basement of this haunted hotel.” Claire and Luke try to record the ghost of Madeline O’Malley in “The Innkeepers”.

Majorly creepy dead guy from "Carnival of Souls" (1962).

Majorly creepy dead guy from “Carnival of Souls” (1962).

4. An overlooked gem from the early 1960’s, Carnival of Souls (1962) has received some well-deserved recognition from genre fans these past few years. An impressionistic, almost surreal black-and-white film that follows the lone survivor of a car accident who’s haunted by visions of a ghoulish man who stares silently at her, grinning. Did she survive the car accident, or is she truly dead and a ghost? That’s the question that torments poor Mary throughout Carnival of Souls, and while the story is somewhat threadbare, the visuals and atmosphere are superb.

5. I’ve already written about Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) in a previous post, but I felt it definitely needed to be on this list. Let’s all pretend that the abominable 1999 remake didn’t happen, shall we? This is such a beloved Gothic ghost story. Watch the clip below to see why:

Theatre of Blood: Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol

"Crime in a Madhouse". Photograph by Hans Wilder, 1947.

“Crime in a Madhouse”. Photograph by Hans Wilder, 1947.

If you’re  a fan of horror and/or theatre, you will inevitably encounter the term grand guignol and, if you’re like me, wonder what it means and from where it comes. The French phrase grand guignol has been absorbed into the English lexicon as a term to describe any excessively gruesome and gory spectacle, but its origins are much more specific. Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol was a theatre founded in Paris by Oscar Méténier in 1894. Operating for 65 years, it produced one-act plays, many of which focused on violent and erotic works of horror.

The theatre was opened by Oscar Metenier, a writer and police secretary, who created slice-of-life plays about the Parisian underlife and stories of true crime. Metenier was a follower of Naturalism: a movement in late 19th Century theatre that attempted to create a perfect illusion of reality. Naturalistic works often exposed the dark harshness of life, with themes of poverty, racism, sex, prejudice, disease, prostitution, and filth.

After a couple of years at the helm, Metenier handed the theatre over to Max Maurey, who saw the commercial potential of the theatre and, in particular, capitalized upon its darker side. Maurey incorporated melodrama into the Grand-Guignol’s acting style to heighten the emotion of the more sensational elements while keeping Naturalism as the guiding principle for characters and situations. It was under Maurey that the style of the Grand Guignol became renowned throughout Europe and, eventually, the world.

— text from Theatre of Blood web site.

Theatre-goers would be treated to five or six one-act plays in an evening’s performance, alternating between bawdy, Vaudevillian-style comedies, to violent tales of crime, madness, and bloody revenge. The gory special effects of the Grand-Guignol were world-renowned for their high degree of realism, and the theatre employed teams of propsmen who specialized in fake blood, severed limbs, and impaled eyeballs. Some of the more famous horror-themed plays staged included:

Le Laboratoire des Hallucinations, by André de Lorde: When a doctor finds his wife’s lover in his operating room, he performs a graphic brain surgery rendering the adulterer a hallucinating semi-zombie. Now insane, the lover/patient hammers a chisel into the doctor’s brain.

Un Crime dans une Maison de Fous, by André de Lorde: Two hags in an insane asylum use scissors to blind a young, pretty fellow inmate out of jealousy.

L’Horrible Passion, by André de Lorde: A nanny strangles the children in her care.

Le Baiser dans la nuit by Maurice Level: A young woman visits the man whose face she horribly disfigured with acid, where he obtains his revenge.

A scene from Grand Guignol.

A scene from Grand Guignol.

Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol closed its door in 1962. Audiences had dwindled in the years following WWII, likely due to the fact that the staged horrors had now been eclipsed by the real world horrors of the war and the Holocaust. “We could never equal Buchenwald,” said its final director, Charles Nonon. “Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality.” (from Wikipedia).

Lady Lazarus’s Halloween Party Movie Night, 2012 Edition.

Hello, my darklings! The leaves are down, the sweaters are on, and it’s that time of the year that Lady Lazarus carefully crafts a list of horror films to whet your pre-Halloween appetites. Traditionally, I’ve had a theme for each Halloween list, such as “Best Horror Films of the 2000s” or “Favourite Horror-Comedies“, but this year I thought I’d open up and share with you, plain and simple, the horror films I’ve been watching of late. Some are new, and some are just new to me. Perhaps there’ll be a discovery or two for your own ghoulish viewing pleasure.

Isabelle Adjani proclaims “[He] is very tired. He made love to me all night” in Andrzej Zulawski’s challenging film  Possession (1981)

1. I first learned of Andrzej Zulawski’s cult classic Possession (1981) through the writings of Canada’s First Lady of Horror Kier-La Janisse, who’s an enthusiastic champion of this film. Equal parts arthouse, domestic drama, and gory supernatural-horror, this film defies any attempt at easy categorization. Ostensibly an unflinching gaze at a marriage in turmoil, the film ultimately — and quite surprisingly — veers into the realm of abjection, absurdity and visceral horror. Isabelle Adjani plays her character’s descent into madness to the hilt, earning her the Best Actress award at the Cannes Festival for Possession in 1981. Sam Neill turns in a strong — if affected and somewhat stylized — performance as her estranged husband. I don’t want to give away any of the plot points, as the film works best the less you know about it. If you like your horror with a big dash of the unexpected, then you’ll probably enjoy this one. If you just want to see some naked coeds get sliced, steer clear.

Investigating a strange noise, Samantha ventures upstairs with a kitchen knife in Ti West’s “The House of the Devil” (2009).

2. I had heard many good things about Ti West’s The House of the Devil (2009) and, fortunately, those things turned out to be true. This is an accomplished psychological-horror in the vein of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, where the terror builds on a slow-boil. What’s that, you say? You’ve been invited to babysit for creepy strangers in an isolated, in-the-middle-of-nowhere house? Why, sure. You need the money, and what could possibly go wrong? Let’s suspend that disbelief and just roll with it, ’cause it’s a fun, suspenseful ride. Kudos go to the art direction and costume design, as The House of the Devil boasts the most authentic recreation of that 1980s-look that I’ve personally viewed on film. Nice little cameo by that darling of ’80s horror, Dee Wallace (The Hills Have Eyes and The Howling).

3. Oh, Joss Whedon. You don’t always hit it out of the park, but when you do…wow! Admittedly, taking the piss out of the slasher-horror is a little like shooting fish in a barrel and, yes, this is well-trodden ground that the Scream franchise visited sixteen years ago. All the same, Cabin in the Woods (2012) seems fresh and original, and is heaps of fun with a clever twist or two. Again, I don’t want to spoil the surprise, so I’ll simply end with —  zombie redneck torture family.*

Placing the bets in “Cabin in the Woods” (2012).

*SPOILER ALERT. Wanna know what all the various beasties and baddies were in Cabin in the Woods? Click here.

4. The horror genre has traditionally loved the anthology format. This love affair possesses a kind of logic. If one particular scenario doesn’t frighten you, then perhaps the next one will do the trick — after all, fear can be very subjective. One of the major pitfalls of anthologies is that they’re often hit-or-miss in terms of ratio of success. Such is the case with the 2012 ‘found-footage’ anthology V/H/S which, although it’s initial premise seemed promising, suffered from it’s weaker components. The first 35-minutes of hand-held shaky-cam is nauseating to the point of being almost unwatchable, though this does improve with the subsequent stories. The best offerings in this anthology were the fourth story of a couple communicating via FaceTime, and the final segment — created by a team of directors out of L.A. who call themselves Radio Silence — which follows a group of guys trying to find a Halloween party.

The rationale for the found-footage actually makes sense in one of the stronger offerings in V/H/S (2012).

Happy Halloween, everyone!