Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 17, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 17

Hour of the Wolf (1968)

When it comes to art house cinema, there are few names more revered then Ingmar Bergman. In the right crowd, Bergman is considered one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live. His films – especially the image of the Grim Reaper playing chess from “The Seventh Seal” – have become visual shorthand for dour, arty, European cinema highly regarded by serious cinephiles. I mean, Goddard and Truffaut didn’t get referenced by “Bill and Ted” and “Animanaics.” I’ll admit, that film was the only Bergman I had previously watched and I didn’t love it. “Hour of the Wolf” has appeared on multiple best horror movies list, meaning I had to watch it eventually. This would be the one that would decide whether or not this kooky Swedish guy is for me.

Johan, a respected painter, moves to a new home on an isolated island with his pregnant wife, Alma. At first, the couple is happy in this location. However, Johan begins to suffer from insomnia. During his sleepless nights, he begins to see entities that look human but aren’t human. These personal demons haunt him, attacking him even during the sunlit hours. After the couple is invited to a party at a near-by castle, Johan slips further away from Alma. The wife is desperate to save her husband from the visions that torment him.

“Hour of the Wolf” is not a traditional horror film, though its classification within the genre is without doubt. At the story’s root, it’s about a dissolving marriage. Max von Sydow’s Johan and Liv Ullmann’s Alma seem to have marital bliss at first. The early scenes of the two hanging around their home, Sydow sketching her, are sweet. However, it soon becomes apparent that Johan is stuck on an ex-girlfriend, Veronica. He has fantasies about her, paints portraits of her. When this revelation is delivered to Alma – via the humanoid monsters – she becomes desperate to hold onto him. After the party, she begs him to stay. She stays up with him during his insomnia, becoming increasingly frightened by his thoughts. She runs to save him during the night time climax. Yet the seed of doubt has been laid in her mind. Ullmann’s opening and closing monologues, delivered directly to the audience, clarify this point. The question of, no matter how much you love someone, if it’s possible to ever truly know them.

This point is powerful but not what truly drew me into “Hour of the Wolf.” Walking home from a day of painting, a man attempts to make casual conversation with Johan. This makes him incredibly uncomfortable. At the party, Johan and Alma are the odd couple out, as they don’t know any of the people there. Bergman slips disturbingly personal confessions in with banal, party chitchat. This builds towards an incredibly eerie sequence, where a strange puppet show is performed. Ostensibly, the reason this is spooky is because the audience can sense that the people in the castle mean the protagonist harm. The reason it speaks to me is I’m never comfortable at parties. I hate it when random people try to strike up conversations with me. I don’t know if Bergman was intentionally recalling social anxiety to create unease. Either way, it works.

Before the end, “Hour of the Wolf’s existential horror descends into disturbing nightmarish visions. There’s a startling sequence where von Sydow is attacked by a young boy. (Or, at least, something that looks like a young boy.) The scene has no dialogue or incidental sound. Instead, a quivering, chaotic musical score plays over it. As Sydow reels in a fishing line, the boy looms behind him. When the child climbs onto his back, biting and clawing, the soundtrack goes wild. The climax has Johan walking through the castle, entering a hellish netherworld. A man walks up walls. An old woman removes her face, plopping her eyeballs into wine glasses. Crows attack. It concludes with a sexual humiliation, the film’s psychic and visceral horrors meeting head-on. Bergman shoots these scenes in stark black and white, capturing the visual language of a nightmare.

What it all means is debatable. I’m sure scholars have examine every little detail of the film, searching for deeper symbolic significance. It’s clear that the apparitions represent Johan’s various psycho-sexual hang-ups. The film is deliberately ambiguous about what level of reality these events are happening on. The discussion about the titular time frame and the value of a minute surely have deeper meanings. I’m not well read in Bergman so I can’t attest to how these themes reflect on his career. And scholarly readings only matter so much when faced with pure, primeval reactions. To me, “Hour of the Wolf” is a genuinely terrifying horror picture, a nightmare committed to celluloid. I guess I’ll have to give “Persona” a try next, won’t I? [9/10]

The Velvet Vampire (1971)

Earlier this year, I came upon a listicle about the trailblazing horror films directed by women. I had never heard a few of the films on the list, including “The Velvet Vampire.” It was described as an American counterpart to the dreamy, sexploitation vampire flicks of Jean Rollin, of which I’m a fan. Onto the Halloween watch list it went. Stephanie Rothman – a protegee of Roger Corman – directed at least one other horror movie, 1966’s “Blood Bath,” and a number of New World’s sleaze flicks. Despite this pedigree, she doesn’t seem to have much of a cult following. Let’s see if we can find out why.

Young married couple, Lee and Susan Ritter, attend an art gallery. Inside, they meet a strange woman named Diane LeFanu. Lee is immediately smitten with the woman but Susan is uncertain what to make of her. Diane invites the couple to her home in the desert. The days are filled with dune buggy rides. The nights are filled with strange dreams, that the husband and wife share. Diane attempts to seduce both of them but it soon becomes clear that she’s not an ordinary woman. She obsesses over her dead husband’s grave, has an unusual manservant in her thrall, and fears crosses. Soon, Susan begins to suspect that Diane may be a vampire.

If Jean Rollin’s vampire films were the artsy-fartsy, if very sleazy, take on the age-old monster, “The Velvet Vampire” is the hippy version of the vampire movie. Both the women and the men have long hair. The central couple is somewhat square. Their encounter with the vampire woman, in one way or another, expands their minds. There’s undercurrents of free love and feminism running through the film. If that isn’t evidence enough, dune buggies are a plot point. Yet the movie’s hippy-est element is its meandering story. Long stretches of “The Velvet Vampire” are practically plotless. People hang around the house, eating, sunbathing, talking. The more active sequences – a pitchfork stabbing, a snakebite, a trip into a cave – are few and far between. It’s not exactly dull but I wish “The Velvet Vampire” had a little more going on.

That so much of “The Velvet Vampire” drags is a bummer, as the film does feature some interesting moments. The reoccurring dream sequences are my favorite. Every night, Susan and Lee both dream about their bed appearing in the desert. Diane appears out of an empty doorway. She lures the man from the bed, in the nude, just so she can bite the woman. The scenes are scored to a sparse, trippy guitar score, truly capturing the feeling of a strange dream. In its waking moments, “The Velvet Vampire” occasionally captures a similar feeling. The climatic sequence, where Diane chases Susan through a bus station, wraps up in a slightly surreal fashion, feeling a little out of step with reality. It’s not as aggressively strange as Rollin’s movies but occasionally Rothman’s film captures a similar feeling.

If you’re watching the movie for its erotic vampire action, you’ll likely only be satisfied with one half of that equation. The vampire stuff is brief, more implied then anything else. There’s no actual bloodsucking on-screen until near the end, when Diane turns on the couple. The film even floats the possibility that Diane isn’t a literal vampire, that she only believes herself to be. As for the erotic stuff, being a seventies New World film, there’s plenty of nudity. Celeste Yarnall as Diane and Sherry Miles as Susan often remove their clothes. The lady vampire has love scenes with all three of the other major characters. It’s not especially sexy, as there’s an uncomfortable layer of sleaze surrounding all of it. If you’re into that sort of thing, the film does deliver.

It’s doubtful that Rothman was deliberately emulating Jean Rollin, as the director had only made two of his naked vampire epics when the “The Velvet Vampire” was made. (Rothman has cited Harry Kumel’s “Daughters of Darkness” as an influence.) Maybe these thoughts – dream sequences, loose plots, bisexual vampires shedding their clothes – were just in the air at the time. Either way, Rothman can’t reach the same unusual heights of those European filmmakers, even if she tries really hard from time to time. She probably should have included more beach scenes or twins. [6/10]

Masters of Horror: Pick Me Up

I’m not quite done with Larry Cohen just yet. The director’s “masters of Horror” episode is as high-concept as the rest of his films. David J. Schow’s script, based off his own short story, presents a psycho vs. psycho scenario. Walker is a serial killer hitchhiker, who murders the people who pick him up. Wheeler is a serial killer truck driver, who murders the hitchhikers who enter his cab. After a bus breaks down on the side of the road, a number of people are stranded. Passenger Stacia chooses to walk to the nearest hotel but the others take their chances on Wheeler, unaware of his gruesome hobby. Soon, both men are pursuing Stacia, the two killers forming a grisly rivalry.

“Pick Me Up” is one of Cohen’s most violent films. Walker bounds a woman with barbwire and hangs her from a tree. Later, he ties a nude girl to a hotel bed, partially skinning her. Wheeler’s antics are less obviously visceral but his tendency to punch women is still awfully confrontational. Despite the gore, “Pick Me Up” is quite funny. Warren Kole plays Walker as a sarcastic, sadistic cad. While chasing a potential victim through the woods, he comments on the triteness of the situation. (He also expresses his dislike of the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake.) His torture of the girl in the hotel is mistaken for enthusiastic sex. Michael Moriarty, meanwhile, is typically nutty as Wheeler. His performance is as off-center as ever, aggressively eccentric, making normal lines of dialogue into strange poems. When the two confront each other at the end – discussing punchlines and snakes – the episode reaches its absurdist peak. Fairuza Balk as Stacia, as caustic and independent as ever, makes a solid foil to the killers. An ideal cast, Schow’s grisly script, and Cohen’s sick sense of humor makes “Pick Me Up” an October treat. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Kraken

For season three’s second episode, “Lost Tapes” returns to formula. A documentary filmmaker follows a group of scientists and explorers on a trip into the Baltic Sea. The team is there to excavate a sunken Finnish battleship and recover the Tsarist gold on-board. One of the divers disappears, claiming to have seen something in the water before vanishing. Their boat is repeatedly struck by something underneath. Eventually, the giant tentacles and huge eyes of the Kraken peak out of the water, directly attacking the ship.

For once, “Lost Tapes’” educational segments actually make the episode creepier. The mythology behind the Kraken is explained in an interesting way while genuinely unnerving squid facts are delivered. The fictional segments features some decent suspense, as we hear people attacked off-screen by the beast. The episode escalates nicely. First, the ship is bumped by the Kraken. By the end, the sea monster is directly scooping people up with its tentacles. The monster’s presentation – we only see its huge eye and grasping tentacles – is handled well, making some okay chills. The characters are disposable and the found footage gimmick doesn’t add much. However, “Kraken” is at least a big improvement over season three’s first episode. [7/10]

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