Friday, August 12, 2016

089. Gothic and 090. Death Rage

Jump to Death Rage (1976)

089. Gothic (1986)
Director: Ken Russell
Writer: Stephen Volk
From: Chilling

A fictionalization of the night Mary Shelley conceived and wrote Frankenstein.

It's 1816 and Lord Byron is in self-imposed exile from England to try to escape his overly-enthusiastic fans and the paparazzi. He's visited by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and her step-sister Claire Clairmont who find him being attended to by Dr. John Polidori. Claire is already in a relationship with Byron and the five quickly start indulging in every pleasure they can, including laudanum.

Strange things develop as the night goes on. There are couplings and recriminations, sightings of a figure from the corner of people's eyes, various paeans to the power of lightning. Byron proposes a game where they try to compose ghost stories. At one point, he brings out a human skull and the five hold a séance which induces an epileptic fit in Claire. Finally they realize that something living was created by the séance, a manifestation of their fears and desires, and is wandering the estate, seeking to destroy them.

Byron insists they need to hold a new séance to banish the creature, but Mary objects fearing that they might create something worse, as well as insisting that the creature did not ask to be made and that they have no right to destroy it. In the midst of the second séance, Mary heaves a rock and destroys the skull, breaking the spell and leaving the creature free.

The next morning, everything seems returned to normal, but Mary continues to think of what they've created and says her story's going to be about a creature that seeks revenge upon its creator hounding him unto death.

I first saw this movie as part of a vampires in literature and film course and it was one of the odder pieces—partly because it wasn't about vampires but rather, tangentially, about the genesis of an idea that became one of the first vampire stories—Polidori's “The Vampyre.” Mostly, though, the movie was odd because it's a strange, strange film. It's a Ken Russell flick so I thought I might just have not gotten it when I was younger, but, watching it again, the movie doesn't work.

At root, the script is bad. This is supposed to be the story of these creative minds coming together and their meeting producing these major works. We never see anyone composing during the movie, though. Instead, the characters make really stilted or obvious references to the pieces that inspired this story. So Percy is obsessed with lightning, Byron is a pansexual Don Juan, Mary lapses into mourning over her miscarriage, and Polidori keeps invoking vampires and bleeding. Everything is done with an almost winking affectation, like the characters themselves are playing characters, but the wink is never present.

Even if you ignore the shoehorning of Frankenstein and “Vampyre” references, there's no logic to the film. Nothing moves or arises organically. The sense is that there's supposed to be a dreamlike logic to everything, that the events don't actually flow from one to the other, and so we're in an odd space that is more Freudian than literal, but then it's actually a horror movie where they've literally summoned some kind of demon that they have to deal with. By the end of the movie, it's not even clear if what we saw was what happened to the characters or if it was all a bad drug trip.

Beyond there not being any real thread running through the movie, it looks bad. The sets are all spacious and empty. They may have filmed in the actual house where this gathering took place, but the result is it all looks like it was filmed in a dance studio with some furniture shoved into one corner. When we do get proper sets—the inexplicable dungeon or the final nightmare sequence—they look like “Closer”-era Nine Inch Nails' video shoots, an aesthetic that's not helped by Thomas Dolby's synth score. The music is great for 1986, but it doesn't fit with a movie set in 1816.

The movie's not mad as it should be, it's boring. It's partly a love letter to these keystones of Gothic literature, but if the nods to the source texts don't engage you, you're left with a movie that needs to be more lurid and more off-the-wall than it is to entertain. I'd say give it a pass.

090. Death Rage (1976)
Director: Antonio Margheriti
Writer: Guy Castaldo
From: Cult Cinema; Chilling

A New York hitman comes out of retirement to hunt down his brother's killer in Naples.

Yul Brenner stars as the hitman and the movie opens with him assassinating some random person at a concert festival in New York. We then cut to Naples where aspiring mobster Angelo is working the horse track. He finds out which horses the made men have bet on and then shoots the competitors with a pellet gun during the race to make sure the right horse wins. A visiting American wins because of Angelo, but is shot and killed by members of the Naples mafia.

The situation arose because Gennaro Gallo, a mover in the Naples branch of the mob, wanted the American kidnapped so he could ask why the Americans had sent someone over to spy on him, but the American got killed instead. The New York mob, of course, wants revenge for their guy getting killed so one of the bosses contacts Yul Brenner to tell him Gallo is the man who killed Brenner's brother. Brenner heads to Italy and doesn't do that much. I mean, he wears black, people try to kill him, he hooks up with a stripper, but he doesn't really hunt down his target.

Brenner trains Angelo to be an assassin and leaves him to kill Gallo. Meanwhile, Gallo's men have attacked Brenner's girlfriend Anna, so Brenner and Anna make a deal with the cops and go to a safehouse. Brenner slips out, meets up with Angelo, kills Gallo himself, but not before remembering that it wasn't Gallo who put the hit on his brother, it was the mob boss that sent Brenner over to kill Gallo at the beginning.

Angelo and Brenner run, but Brenner gets shot and killed. Finally, Angelo travels to America with Brenner's body and, at the funeral, kills the mob boss that killed Brenner's brother. The other bosses come up and tell Angelo he'll be the new hitman to take Brenner's place.

I have seen this movie too many times for how meh it is. I watched it when I was trying to go through the Chilling set before, I watched it with my bad movie friends, I think I may have seen it a third time that I can't even remember, and now I've watched it again. It's neither good nor bad, just sort of there. The movie passes the time, but makes it difficult to care.

Brenner is walking through the role, mostly just enjoying an all-expenses-paid trip to Italy, which, fair enough. His character doesn't have any arc, though. The action sequences aren't that spectacular. There are a few okay car chases, but overall the movie just ambles from point-to-point. The only interesting element is Angelo, a wannabe mobster who's a relatively resourceful criminal. He's not the main character, though, so it's hard to understand why he keeps coming back.

The movie's 85 minutes and that's the only definitive statement I can make about it. I'm not even sure if it's PD. I uploaded a copy to a while ago because there's no copyright notice on my print, however, it is an Italian film so it may have been put back under copyright due to GATT. The one campy pleasure that can be drawn from the movie is saying “I'm Yul Brenner, and I'm dead now” at the end, but I don't imagine that's a huge selling point.

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