Friday, November 27, 2015

015. The Bat and 016. Death in the Shadows

Jump to Death in the Shadows (1985)

015. The Bat (1959)
Director: Crane Wilbur
Writers: Crane Wilbur from a play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood
From: Sci-Fi Invasion

A mystery writer starts being menaced by a serial killer known as "The Bat" after renting a house with a million dollars hidden in its walls.

In some ways a by-the-numbers studio suspense piece that, as a commenter on archive.org notes, was done in several versions. This version is pretty strong, though, with nice performances by Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead.

Vincent Price is the town doctor on a hunting trip with the local bank president. The president tells Price that he’s embezzled a million dollars from the bank and hidden it somewhere in his mansion. He expects the vice president of the bank will take the fall, but, to simplify things, wants Price to help the president fake his death. Price instead kills the bank president.

Meanwhile, Agnes Moorehead is a mystery writer who has rented the bank president’s mansion in the countryside for her vacation. The staff is worried because they’ve been hearing tales from town about a serial killer known as “The Bat.” The movie then follows the three plots—the Bat, Price looking for the money, and the effort to exonerate the bank’s vice president—to a satisfying conclusion.

There’s nothing radical about this film, but it handles its twists and misdirections well. I hesitate to say more because I think that would ruin the fun of watching this. The movie doesn’t have any Shyamalan-level twists, but it does a nice job of being aware of and then subverting expectations.

I actually watched this years ago as part of the pd project Horror Collection and had completely forgotten what it was about. I was confusing it with Man in the Attic, a movie about Jack the Ripper starring Jack Palance. The Bat was good, though, even a second time through. Highly recommend for anyone who likes that 50’s aesthetic or if you’re programming a spooky movie marathon for your kid’s slumber party. It has the right tone, doesn’t have any objectionable content, and moves along at a nice pace.

I have no idea why this is on the Sci-Fi Invasion set as opposed to any of the others.

I added an MPEG2 of this movie to the Internet Archive 7 years ago (holy cow. I was just getting ready to move to Philly). You can find it here.


016. Death in the Shadows aka De Prooi (1985)
Director: Vivian Pieters
Writers: Vivian Pieters and Ton Ruys based on Cahterine Arid’s novel Henrietta Who?
From: Pure Terror

Valerie finds out after her mother’s death in a hit-and-run that her mother never had children and wasn’t really her parent. Now Valerie has to sort out the details of her identity before whoever killed her mother kills her as well.

This is a dubbed Dutch film and I worry some of it got lost in translation. The tone’s nice and there are some interesting possibilities presented in how people respond to Valerie trying to uncover her mother’s past, but they don’t relate to the conclusion so the film feels like it takes several unnecessary turns toward the sordid.

And when I say “sordid,” I don’t mean gratuitous nudity, although there is that. Valerie undressing to take a shower or go to bed will make you roll your eyes: it’s not part of the plot, there aren’t other characters there so it’s not about showing a relationship, it’s just obvious pandering.

The sordid elements, though, stem from the neighbor. She’s played up as a suspicious figure and Valerie eventually follows her into town to find out what she does. Turns out the neighbor works as a dancer in a peep show club. All this does is make you ask why it’s there. That’s not a plot point and not something that comes up again. If it were part of the story, if that’s where things were going and Valerie was going to find out some unpleasant truths about her mother’s past, great. The story doesn’t go there, though, so it’s just a moment where the character descends into this leery space just so the movie can indulge in it. Honestly, if you’re going to try to be seedy, commit and tell a seedy story.

The plot itself—basically the revelation at the end and the inciting incident—is solid and compelling on its own. The movie just never feels like it locks into that. I might return to this movie in case I missed something while watching, but I don’t think so.

This is listed in Film Chest’s archives, but that seems unlikely since it’s from 1985 and my copy appears to have a copyright notice in the closing credits (although the print is blurry and it's hard to make out).

Friday, November 20, 2015

013. Deadtime Stories and 014. Counterblast

Jump to Counterblast (1948)

013. Deadtime Stories (1986)
Director: Jeffrey Delman
Writers: Jeffrey Delman, J. Edward Kiernan, Charles Shelton
From: Chilling

An uncle trying to get his nephew to fall asleep tells him three twisted versions of fairy tales: a story of 3 witches, a modern take on “Little Red Riding Hood,” and a psychotic spin on “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”

The first is a story about two witches preparing to resurrect their dead sister. They have a servant/slave/son that they use to trick victims into coming into their lair to be murdered. The witches send the boy out to seduce a maiden so she can be used in bringing back their sister. Of course the kid falls in love with the maiden and the story proceeds from there.

And it's fun. All the pieces, by the way, are fun in their way and pretty competently handled despite their dramatic differences. This first piece really feels like it's drawing on Evil Dead for stylistic inspiration, which isn't a bad thing. Watching it, I remembered other times I'd stumbled across this movie and thought this short was an entire feature. It feels larger than it actually is and spins out a world and situation nicely.

The second piece is “Little Red Riding Hood” transposed to the 80's. Red is trying to deliver a prescription to her grandmother only the pharmacist mixes her prescription up with “the wolf's” prescription: an intense sedative that was being sold under the table. The wolf goes to the grandmother's house to try to get the pills back, but Red is meeting up with her boyfriend for sex. As night gets closer, the wolf's patience starts to run thin.

This isn't shot as well as the first one and its ideas are a little muddled. It makes “Little Red Riding Hood” semi-allegorical by framing the wolf character as a drug dealer, but then mixes that with “Little Red Riding Hood” as a werewolf story which kind of undoes any allegorical element. Plus the sex stuff makes it feel like a Skinemax version of “Little Red Riding Hood.” It's the weakest of the three shorts and definitely drags a bit in the middle.

The final piece is the strangest: “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” reimagined with the Bears being a family of criminal sociopaths who retreat to their isolated hideout only to find the telekinetic murderer, Goldi Lox using the place to bury the bodies of her ex-boyfriends. Tonally, this is completely different from the other two and doesn't even try to be a horror story. Instead, this feels like it was produced by the Subgenius Foundation: basically a live-action cartoon, but fun for just how off-the-rails it is right from the start.

Tying all the pieces together is the frame narrative of the uncle trying to get his nephew to go to sleep. Why he's watching the kid or where the parents are is never explained nor is it ever explained why anyone would trust their kid with this guy. He threatens to hit the kid, is telling him sexualized versions of fairy tales, and basically tells the kid he's getting ready to masturbate to some pageant show. He's not falling into the realm of “Uncle Touchy,” but he's definitely toeing the line of “Creepy Uncle.” The frame, of course, is just a pretense to get us to the shorts, but it's still a curious choice the director made.

Overall, though, it's a fun movie and I'd recommend finding a copy. It's a nice flick if you want to enjoy some mid-80's cheesiness. This was mistakenly thought to be in the public domain which is why it's on my copy of the Chilling box set but not on copies being distributed now.

014. Counterblast (aka Devil's Plot) (1948)
Director: Paul L. Stein
Writers: Jack Whittingham from a story by Guy Morgan
From: Cult Cinema

A Nazi bacteriologist escapes from a British POW camp and is forced into a plot to develop a new biological weapon and its cure—the cure for the defeated Nazis and the weapon for the rest of the world!

I don't want to say too much about this movie because I really enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone. It's a studio machine piece, just something cranked out after the war, but competently done. One of the upsides of the studio system is that even their cheaper pieces were produced by experienced professionals.

What stands out most about this movie, though, is that the protagonist is a Nazi. You're not watching some British spy try to hunt him down before he develops his super-virus, you're with the Nazi wondering if he'll perfect his formula, if he'll get caught, and if he'll sort things out with the other characters. I had moments watching this movie where I worried that he'd get caught and then realized, he's a Nazi literally trying to destroy the world. I want him to get caught!

That cognitive dissonance runs through the film as well. The movie opens with the scientist and several of his Nazi colleagues escaping the POW camp and then the main character getting back in touch with the remaining Nazi underground in post-war England. He wants to leave, they force him to stay and continue working on the virus. So the character is set-up with a certain degree of sympathy. He's in a situation that he wants to escape and can't.

The movie tries to make him monstrous later by referring his activities in the war and by having a scene where he seems to be reaffirming his commitment to the Reich, but it never quite succeeds at making him read as being anything but a man caught between two powers' fight.

And then you remember he's a Nazi trying to destroy the world and it's, “Movie! You fooled me again!” It's a solid little flick.

This appears to be in the public domain, unfortunately my copy has a Mill Creek Entertainment bug burned into it so it can't be uploaded. However, there is an mp4 of the movie here on archive.org

Friday, November 13, 2015

011. Best Friends and 012. Don't Answer the Phone!

Jump to Don't Answer the Phone! (1980)

011. Best Friends (1975)
Director: Noel Nosseck
Writer: Arnold Somkin, Doug Chapin (additional dialogue)
From: Cult Cinema

Jesse meets his best friend Pat freshly back from Vietnam after an injury to his hand. The pair are traveling to California with their fiancées to get married and settle down into adult life. Only Pat isn't ready to call an end to the wild and crazy times he had with Jesse and goes to increasingly disturbing lengths to get his way.

Spoilers, I'm going to give away the ending and I don't recommend this movie.

This is a grim little film that serves as one of those unintentional time-capsules, portraying moments as lighthearted or innocent that seem reprehensible today: have sex with your friend's fiancée while traveling with your own and don't try to hide or apologize for it (she'll let it go), buy drinks for teenage girls when you're in your 30s so you can hook up with them later. I'm shuddering because it's cold where I'm writing this and because that's horrifying.

It's not just that the movie is turgid and dull—which it is—it's really disturbed. There's something weird relationship-wise amongst the four characters from the start and it's pretty clear early on that Pat's an abuser. Jesse, the hero, isn't much better, though. He sleeps with Jo Ella, Pat's partner, without much, if any, coaxing, and then refuses to leave Pat behind after he tries to rape Kathy, Jesse's partner.

That's part of this movie, by the way, no exaggeration. Pat tries to rape Jesse's fiancée, is only stopped by Jesse showing up, Jesse has no doubt about what happened, and Pat's response is, quote, “We gonna let something like this come between us?” And it doesn't. Jesse still doesn't cut Pat out of his life.

In fact, the only time Pat crosses the line is at the end when Jesse asks him what it would take to make things okay and Pat says he wants to screw Kathy. After everything up to that point in the movie, Jesse's incredulity and outrage, even though they're totally appropriate, seem odd. How was that the line? It wasn't a problem when he tried to do it without Jesse's permission (leaving aside the question of Kathy's consent because lord knows the movie doesn't give that a moment's thought), but now that consent is involved it's unacceptable?

I'm talking mostly about the end, but the movie is creepy throughout. Pat gives off warning signs the whole time, neither of the guys is really likable, and it's all such a strange set-up. Even when the two couples are introduced, there's a real swinger/partner-swap vibe that doesn't feel right.

So we get to the end where Pat is harassing the other three. Jesse tries to shoot him and ends up killing Kathy instead. The next morning, Pat's sitting next to Jesse, the two of them staring at Kathy's body, and Pat's nattering away about whether Jesse remembers this one time when they were kids. Jesse is destroyed, his lover dead by his own hands because of the madness of his friend Pat, and Pat's still there. How are we supposed to read this ending? If Jesse had just said, “yes,” and let Pat screw Kathy, everything would be okay? Pat can't really be blamed, he just wanted his friend back? This movie makes me feel dirty.

For the first half, the movie is cheesy and unintentionally homoerotic enough to be funny and highly riffable, but when it starts its descent, it goes fast and deep into the darkness. This movie isn't fun, it's full of WTF-moments and really depressing. Don't go looking for it.

Richard Hatch from Battlestar Galactica stars as Jesse, but noting that just reminds me how good (minus the final hour) the reboot of Battlestar was. Watch that instead.

012. Don't Answer the Phone! (1980)
Director: Robert Hammer
Writer: Robert Hammer & Michael D. Castle, based on “Nightline” by Michael Curtis
From: Pure Terror

A serial rapist-murderer becomes obsessed with a radio psychologist and must be caught by the police before the doctor becomes his next victim.

The movie starts with a very promising moment: a title card announcing that this is a Hammer/Castle co-production. Hammer studios and William Castle? This will be b-movie gold! Only it's neither that Hammer nor that Castle and all hope is abandoned.

The plot itself begins with the killer assaulting his first victim and the ensuing crime-scene investigation by the cops featuring a wise-cracking forensic investigator who isn't funny. On top of not being funny, it's during this scene that the cops let us know this is a murderer rapist who maybe commits the acts in that order.

Thanks. Thanks a bunch.

And maybe there's nothing else that needs to be said. That moment, that failure of the movie to know itself and strike the right tone continues throughout. It's fine to have a serial killer that does foul and disturbing things to people, that's Silence of the Lambs and many other excellent thrillers. Those movies, though, don't marry their horror with irreverent wise-cracking cops. They know their tone.

We're then introduced to what seems like the main character, the psychologist, who has a call-in radio show. The killer is one of her regular callers—affecting a bad accent and calling himself “Ramone”—and calls to essentially brag about his latest killing without explicitly saying he killed the woman. The doctor's response starts immediately getting to the core of his madness and the killer hangs up.

This feels like it'd be the plot: a cat-and-mouse game between the killer and the doctor. The killer is stalking the doctor, attacking her patients, constantly calling her, the movie is him vs. her.

However the movie is convinced that it's really about the cops vs. the killer, one cop in particular. He's a super cop, the bestest cop, most amazingly coppest cop that ever copped a cop of cop! Nothing gets by him except everything. Let's call him “Officer Poochy” since he's so cool and everyone's role in the movie is to say how cool he is.

How cool is Officer Poochy? After the doctor's patient is assaulted and killed, Officer Poochy wants the doctor to just hand over the patient's files in case there's anything there that would point to her killer. The doctor says he needs a warrant. Then there's a long strawman argument about how psychologists are only working to keep criminals out of jail and it's all these laws and due process and Constitution that are getting in the way of cops doing their job and she should want to hand the files over regardless of the laws binding her because it was one of her patients that was killed. She still refuses and then Officer Poochy hands her the warrant that he had the whole time. Good thing he wasn't insisting time was a factor and the primary reason he couldn't go through standard procedure of getting the warrant he already—oh wait, his argument was bullshit and he's a prick.

The cop and psychologist meet up again when there's a woman threatening to jump off a building. The psychologist is trying to talk her down when the cop shows up, takes over the show, and starts berating the woman telling her to jump and let everyone get on with their evening. Of course this brings her off the ledge and the psychologist agrees to get dinner with Officer Poochy because he's just that cool.

So the doctor and cop hook up, killer goes after the doctor not because he's obsessed with her as he has been the entire movie but because he wants revenge on Officer Poochy, Officer Poochy saves the doctor at the last minute, and, because he's just that cool, kills the killer—in a scene with hilarious ADR.

Then Poochy returns to his home planet and that's the end. Additional notes: the music cues in the flick are terrible with bad music that doesn't match the tone, the killer looks like Kevin James which is one of the only entertaining parts of the movie, and the N-word count in the movie is 3. So you've got that going on.

A dull, dull serial killer movie that seems more interested in hammering it's conservative politics down your throat than scaring/entertaining you. If it had just been the killer vs. the cop or the killer vs. the doctor, the tension would have been easier to manage, and I might have been able to get behind its badness. When the cop becomes the main character, though, and let's be clear, he is not the main character for the first 30-40 minutes, the whole thing falls apart. If it had been just the killer and the doctor, there would have been the potential for a really creepy Argento-esque mystery where she's slowly learning who he is and what he's doing through his phone calls as he's inevitably getting closer and closer to attacking her. The movie that's here, though? Forget about it.

Friday, November 06, 2015

009. The Beach Girls and 010. Deep Red

Jump to Deep Red (1975)

009. The Beach Girls (1982)
Director: Bud Townsend
Writer: Patrick Sheane Duncan, Phil Groves
From: Cult Cinema

A young woman invites her two friends to spend the summer at her uncle’s fabulous beachside mansion where the girls decide to throw a massive party. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard is trying to catch a band of drug smugglers who’ve just ditched a massive marijuana shipment. The weed washes up right near a certain stretch of coastline with hilarious results.

Sarah is staying at her real estate magnate uncle’s beach house all summer and has invited Ginger and Ducky to stay with her, which is the first curious conceit of the movie. These aren’t her friends. In fact, they make that explicit saying they’re coming just because she has access to this great house. You’d think this would become a point of conflict—“You’re not my friends, you’re just using me!”—but it never comes up even as Ginger and Ducky create ever more problems for Sarah.

In fact, there’s no real conflict in the entire movie. Ginger and Ducky arrive, decide to throw a massive party, the uncle shows up and says everyone has to leave by morning, but isn’t particularly mad. He tells Sarah, you’re young, you’ll have parties, but sometimes the parties have to end. Ginger and Ducky are having none of it, though, and decide to take turns trying to seduce him.

It’s a little hard to summarize this movie because it all felt so perfunctory. I found it almost as dull as The Creeping Terror, which says a lot. My notes even say, “23 minutes to get to the beginning of the set-up of a plot.” The movie imagines itself as a bold, brassy comedy, but there’s just no energy here, no sense of joy.

Joy is important. This isn’t quite a full-on boob comedy, but it’s operating within the same territory of gently venturing into transgression, a giggling sense that we’re all engaged in something naughty. That feeling is fun and, I’d argue, ultimately what carries the more watchable 80’s sex comedies. Moreso than the not-quite-porn nudity that they had, they conveyed a sense of sexuality and relationships as fun, of a fantasy where people eventually are freed from the burdens of their daily fears and personal hang-ups. Remember, the triumphant end of all these films (including this one) is the shy “good girl” ends up hooking up with the sweet guy who’s shown mutual interest in her. Relationships, so fraught in our daily lives, are simple things with little-to-no consequences here. The world in sex comedies is a little more relaxed.

The Beach Girls isn’t just relaxed, though, it’s on Quaaludes, and that laid-back tone doesn’t serve its purpose.

Everything in the movie seems perfunctory, every scene present because, “sigh, I guess we have to do this scene now.” Despite the premise—which is just supposed to provide a framework for za-a-a-any hijinks—there’s no sense of fun. The first party they have only lasts one night but is shot in such a way that it feels interminable and runs over the course of a week. There’s a subplot of the Coast Guard trying to catch drug smugglers that’s trying to be campy with ridiculous performances from both the officers and the smugglers, but it’s so at odds with the rest of the movie that it’s just bad (it’s also just bad on its own). Even the parts that feel like they’re going to be conflicts—Sarah interested in a guy who’s not immediately hooking up with her, Ginger and Ducky trying to seduce the uncle while his fiancée is due back at any time, the Coast Guard busting the party and finding all the weed—come to nothing and never feel like they have consequences. Nothing in the film has a sense of risk.

On the whole, it’s innocuous and inoffensive (except for the racist stereotypes of the gardener and chauffeur which introduce their own level of “why?”)—I wasn’t cringing while watching any of it—but it’s that very innocuousness that makes it fail and so hard to watch. It wasn’t worse than staring at a wall for 100 minutes, but it was very rarely distinguishable.

010. Deep Red (1975) aka Profondo Rosso
Director: Dario Argento
Writers: Dario Argento, Bernardino Zapponi
From: Chilling

A psychic detects a murderer while demonstrating her powers at a lecture only to be killed by the figure that night. Her upstairs neighbor, a pianist who witnesses the attack, tries to hunt down the killer before becoming the next victim.

I always forget my Marshall MacLuan, that the medium is the message, that the way something is communicated is almost as important, if not more important, than what’s communicated. This version of Deep Red is dim, muddy, and even has VHS scanlines. There’s a real possibility that this is the TV edit.

I was initially disappointed watching it because I enjoy Argento, I enjoy his visual style, and this seemed to lack all of it until about an hour in. Turns out, my copy is just so bad that I can’t see how fantastic each shot actually is. Check this tumblr post for real screen shots. That is really something and would have made the movie more interesting to watch. As it is, the acting and dialogue isn’t quite enough to carry the weight of the film.

Argento’s films tend to follow a bit of a fairy-tale or nightmare logic. Things connect imagistically or, repurposing Moebius’ comments on comic book writer-artists, events happen because they look good and then are worked into the plot. That makes for an arresting film experience, but, when you’re looking at the film on a plot level, can provide a lot of absurdity.

This movie has a central trio of characters—the killer, their next potential victim, and the reporter/investigator. This is a standard trio in most thrillers, but this drops the reporter relatively early even though she seems to be developing a romantic relationship with the potential victim (something, it turns out, that was cut from the US version of the film). Likewise, other victims arise, but it’s not clear why the killer goes after them or how the killer even learns about them.

At one point the film cuts to a cottage in the countryside featuring people I don’t recognizing talking about someone I don’t know. One person leaves, the other goes into the cottage, realizes she’s not alone, and gets killed. But she’s able to leave a message. Later, someone connected to the first victim comes to investigate, finds the message, but is killed in their home by the killer.

How did these things happen? They’re visually amazing. One death involves a giant marionette/puppet-thing rushing across the room at a victim. The victim destroys it and then the killer murders them. Why any of it? I don’t know but it’s super creepy.

According to Wikipedia, the US cut is missing 22 minutes, mostly involving the romance, the humor, and a subplot of a folktale about a haunted house where a children’s song is heard just before someone dying (something that is a nice touch that isn’t explored enough in this cut).

As for the version I watched, there’s some nice tone when it’s allowed to develop and compelling visuals, but it’s hampered by the things that have been cut and by being such a terrible print. If you can find one of the official DVD/Blu-ray releases of this, check it out.

It looks like this particular version has been posted to archive.org here and is public domain. I've added an MPEG2 copy here.