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Thursday, September 28, 2017

Halloween 2017: September 28

Cat People (1942)

As a long time horror fan, I'm pretty well-read in the genre. Yet, like anybody else, there are classics I haven't gotten to. One such blind spot are the films of Val Lewton. To many, the shadow shrouded films Lewton produced for RKO defines horror in the 1940s. The nine films are widely available, frequently packaged together, and are often shown on TV. So what's my excuse? I just... Haven't gotten to them yet. Well, no more. This Halloween, I finally expose myself to the work of Val Lewton. I begin with the first horror film Lewton had a hand in, which I have seen before, albeit years ago. “Cat People” remains probably the producer's most well-known motion picture.

Irena Dubrovna is a young Serbian woman who immigrated to America years ago. Her childhood was haunted by legends of cat people, individuals who turned into panthers and killed those they love. This has instilled in her a fear of falling in love. That's an especially pressing concern, as she's just met Oliver Reed. Oliver is immediately smitten with the exotic and charming Irena. The two quickly marry. However, Irena continues to fear that she might transform into a cat person. It puts a strain on their marriage, to the point that Oliver considers the advances of his lovelorn secretary. That is when the curse of the cat people takes hold of Irena.

Supposedly, Val Lewton's films began as titles first. RKO would allow him to do whatever he wanted with the films as long as they kept the exploitation movie titles and never ran over 75 minutes. With “Cat People,” it seems Lewton's team set out to subvert then-expectations for horror. Instead of being a simple creature feature, “Cat People” is about what happens when modern psychology meets ancient legends. There's a question of whether or not Irena is actually transforming into a panther. Even by the end, this isn't given quite a definitive answer. Her nightmares are haunted by images of black cat. She is told to visit a psychologist, who informs that this curse only exists in her head. Themes of sexual frustration and romantic anxiety inform the entire story, to the point that Irena's transformations become a manifestation of her psychological guilt. Imbuing what could've been a standard monster movie with themes such as this was a deliberate attempt by Lewton, screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, and director Jacques Tourneur to elevate the genre.

Tourneur's direction extends the shadows inside Irena's mind into the film's world. “Cat People's” visual palette is defined by deep shadows. The early scenes are sunnier but, as Irena descend into her personal nightmare more, the film's appearance gets darker. Even regular shots, of people just hanging around home or work, are shaded in blackness. The film is also acutely aware of the totemic power of the cat. Irena often visits the black panther in the zoo, fascinated with it for reasons she can't understand. She's subconsciously aware that the cat symbolizes the inner turmoil she can't acknowledge. She even feeds it a dead bird at one point, confirming the unspoken kinship she feels with the big cat. Fittingly, the panther contributes to her undoing. The film is littered with other cats, Irena constantly being reminded of the feelings she denies.

It's within this environment that some effective horror sequences are deployed. Since any were-panther action is kept strictly off-screen, “Cat People” has to function on suspense. Such as in two sequences where Alice, the secretary, is stalked by something unseen in the darkness. The first is a masterful sequence where she walks down a darkened walkway, strange growls and footsteps heard behind her. It concludes with what many consider the first jump scare in horror history: The so-called Lewton Bus. That scene is more famous but what's better is a later scene where Alice is chased into a pool. As odd lights and shadows dance off the water, Alice can only look up at the unseen predator in the darkness. These moments are so effective that when the were-panther is revealed, it can't help but be underwhelming. A simple black panther isn't the most memorable movie monster. “Cat People” probably should've kept its titular beastie totally in the darkness.

Really, I should consider “Cat People” brilliant. There are so many elements in the film that work for me. It's obviously a classic. So why don't I like it more? The love story at the film's center doesn't work for me at all. Irena and Oliver first encounter each other at the zoo, in what would be called a “meet cute” in modern film lingo. Within minutes, they are romantically involved. After a few scene, the two get married. Yet Irena's psychological hang-ups prevent her from even kissing her husband! No wonder he accepts Alice's romantic advances. Yet this infidelity also makes Oliver look like a jerk. It's hard to become too invested in the film when the love story is this anemic. Simone Simon, a perfect mixture of vulnerable and exotic, is perfect in the lead role. Even Kent Smith is fine as Oliver. The flawed writing is to blame.

Aspects of the writing is sharp. The direction is brilliant. The scenes of suspense are beautifully executed. Even the cast is decent. Yet I don't love “Cat People” as much as its reputation as a classics makes me feel like I should. Still, regardless of how I feel about the film, “Cat People” would successfully launch Val Lewton and Jacques Tournier's careers as horror filmmakers. It's plea for a more psychological, shadowy type of horror would have an immediate impact on the genre, with many similar films being produced by other studios. [8/10]

Necronomicon (1994)

Considering H.P. Lovecraft was best known for his short stories, an anthology film based around his work seems like a natural idea. I'm surprised nobody tried it before 1994. “Necronomicon,” usually accompanied by subtitles such as  “Book of the Dead” or “To Hell and Back,” was produced by Brian Yunza. Yunza had previously been involved with “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond,” making fans eagerly anticipate this one. The film was completed in 1993 but never got a wide release. Eventually, even the VHS would go out-of-print. A domestic DVD release has never followed, though disc versions are available overseas. This rarity has given “Necronomicon” a certain allure. Is this hard-to-find Lovecraft film really worth tracking down?

The film features four segments. The framing device involves H.P. Lovecraft visiting an occult library. After sneaking into a hidden area, he uncovers the legendary Necronomicon. There, he reads three stories from the past and future. “The Drowned” is about Edward De LaPour, a man who has just inherited a dilapidated hotel. He learns his uncle, the hotel's former owner, lost his wife and child in a boat wreck. He then used the Necronomicon to bring them back to life. Both men, in turns out, are being manipulated by darker forces. In “The Cold,” a teenage runaway befriends an eccentric scientist who lives in a refrigerated room. The two fall in love before she learns how severe his condition really is. “Whispers” involves a pregnant police woman hunting a serial killer called the Butcher. This quest leads her to a bizarre underground world involving aliens and profane sacrifices to forgotten gods.

Another reason “Necronomicon” caught fans' attention is its leading man. After starring in so many Lovecraft adaptations, Jeffrey Combs finally got the chance to play the famous author. Combs doesn't look much like Lovecraft and wears some mediocre facial applications in the film. Lovecraft rarely left his home town in real life but “Necronomicon” recasts him as an adventurer. Combs makes this work though, by playing up Lovecraft's status as the knower of arcane knowledge. He also captures the author's sophisticated, Anglophile vibe. “The Library” is honestly a lot of fun. The library set is awesome. The Necronomicon prop is really cool. The ending features some delightfully messed-up creature designs. Seeing Combs play an action hero Howard Philips is definitely entertaining.

The first proper segment in the film is also quite good. “The Drowned” doesn't have much to do with the story its adapting, “The Rats in the Wall,” but feels fittingly Lovecraftian anyway. An amazing looking fish man puts in an appearance. Later, undead people sprout tentacles and seaweed from their orifices. The segment concludes with a giant elder god emerging from under the old house. The old hotel setting is very atmospheric. Christopher Gans, who would make “Brotherhood of the Wolf” and “Silent Hill” later, makes sure the segment is darkly colorful. Bruce Payne and Richard Lynch are solid in the leads. The segment ends a bit abruptly but its pretty good up to that point.

The second story is weaker than the first two. “The Cold” is based on “Cool Air” and is probably the closest adaption in the film. (Though many liberties are still taken with the source material.) The segment is, confusingly, told as a flashback within a flashback. Bess Meyer has decent chemistry with David Warner, as the scientist. Their love story develops far too quickly but is still believable. “The Cold” features multiple distracting subplots. The doctor is given a clingy female assistant. A plot point involving stolen spinal fluid doesn't go much of anywhere. The twist ending does not satisfy. The coolest thing about “The Cold” is its grisly special effects. A man rapidly decomposing before our very eyes is brought to life with some effectively gnarly make-up. Director Shusuke Kaneko, of the Heisei “Gamera” films and “GMK,” didn't speak any English when he made this film. Which may explain the slightly disjointed story.

The last story, Brian Yunza's “Whispers,” is by far the film's worst. Supposedly inspired by “The Whisperer in the Darkness,” the segment is actually totally unrelated. The opening scene, establishing the heroine's pregnant state, is bluntly delivered via messy dialogue. Signy Coleman's Sarah is too gruff a protagonist to be likable. The plot shifts gears several times. Soon, “Whispers” degrades into a nonsensical series of gross special effects. A body, its brain totally removed, staggers around. A woman with no eyes appears. Gooey corpses are snatched up by flying bat monsters. Fleshy forms, with transparent domes containing organs, are revealed. It all leads up to an overly grim and mean-spirited conclusion. The special effects are pretty cool but its in service of a story that makes no sense.

“Necronomicon” is about half a really solid horror picture. The wrap-around segment and first story are easy to recommend, stuffing in quite a bit of Lovecraftian atmosphere in their brief run times. The other two stories aren't very good, especially the last one. (It doesn't help that more faithful adaptations of “Cool Air” and “The Whisperer in the Darkness” would come along later.) The anthology is not quite worth seeking out. Unless you're a freak for really cool practical creature effects, which the movie features plenty of. Still, I am glad I watched the movie. If only because a Lovecraft anthology film is such a great idea. [6/10]

Masters of Horror: Right to Die

I mentioned the other day how Joe Dante's “Homecoming” was the breakout episode of “Masters of Horror's” first season. This led to season two being full of similarly politically themed episodes. We've already seen John Carpenter's “Pro-Life” and here comes “Right to Die,” from Rob Schmidt. Dentist Cliff Addison has just had an ugly fight with Abby, his wife, over his infidelity. In the aftermath of this, they go for a drive. Cliff crashes the car and Abby is horribly burned. All of her skin burned off, Abby is put on life support. Cliff decides to honor Abby's wish to not be a vegetable, taking her off a ventilator and allowing her to die with dignity. Her mother has other ideas, demanding Abby stay alive as long as possible. A huge media controversy ensues. Cliff's opinion on the right to die changes when Abby flatlines and her ghost comes after him.

If the plot synopsis didn't make it clear, “Right to Die” is obviously inspired by the Terry Schiavo case, still fresh in people's mind in 2007. The question of whether it's ethical for a doctor to induce death could've been fertile ground for a horror story. Instead of building on this “Right to Die” takes things in a deeply tasteless direction. I think Schmidt – whose “Wrong Turn” was fun but hardly earned him the title of master – is going for dark comedy. The way Cliff flip-flops on his wife's condition, when he realizes she's haunting him, seemingly makes light of a heavy real world issue. This is most apparent in an especially gross scene where skin Cliff has stolen, in hopes of providing Abby with a transplant, falls off his speeding vehicle. Furthermore, “Right to Die” is another sleazy episode. There's frequent female nudity and several lengthy sex scenes. All of the episode's content is at odds with any social or satirical commentary it could've had.

Making the episode more insulting is how big of an asshole the main character. Cliff isn't merely a jerk. He's a fully despicable psychopath. He shows no remorse about cheating on his wife. When she discovers video of him fucking his secretary, he stares her straight in the eyes and lies.  Even as his wife is dying, he doesn't stop boinking this other woman. After realizing that Abby needs to stay alive, or else he'll face the wrath of her ghost, he literally commits an incredibly grisly murder. He dopes his secretary up, ties her down to a dentist chair, and fucking skins her alive. To this disgusting stew, the episode adds an asinine twist ending, where we learn that Cliff attempted to murder Abby too. Martin Donovan plays Cliff as an idiot, making the character's increasingly hateful actions even more crass.

About the only thing “Right to Die” has going for it is the central premise of an intermittent ghost. Abby is barely living as a grotesquely burned invalid. Every time she flatlines, she becomes a ghost, immediately seeking revenge on Cliff. She also apparently has some control over heat and fire. Whenever the ghost enters a room, the temperatures sore. One of the episode's grislier scenes involve Corbin Benson, playing a sleazy lawyer, being dragged into a cat scan machine and set ablaze. All of this stuff is mildly interesting but not well served by the dumb-ass material around it. “Right to Die” is not only the weakest episode of “Masters of Horror's” entire run but one that actually managed to offend me. It's probably possible to make an effective horror story or dark comedy about this topic but they sure as fuck dropped the ball this time. [3/10]

Perversions of Science: Ultimate Weapon

Compared to the usually farcical “Tales from the Crypt,” “Perversions of Science” was a far more serious series. “Ultimate Weapon” joins “Boxed In” and “Panic” among the series' “funny” episodes. Lou Ann and her husband Matt are having some problems. Lou Ann is having reoccurring nightmares about space aliens. Matt dismisses them but Lou Ann really is being probed by intergalactic scientists. They hope to trick her into mating with one of them, presumably to cultivate a hybrid fetus. To accomplish this, they take the form of her old college boyfriend, her husband, and even her female best friends. Shenanigans ensue, especially when Lou Ann's parents stop by unexpectedly.

“Ultimate Weapon,” whose title is totally non-indicative of its content, is the most disjointed episode of “Perversions of Science” thus far. The premise seems to shift from scene to scene. Sometimes, Lou Ann has been infected some sort of alien device. This causes her personality to shift and her appearance to change. However, other times, Lou appears unaffected. During these scenes, the focus is on the aliens attempting to be human. This leads to jokey scenes like the aliens having to learn suddenly what “gay” means. There's too many characters in the episode and the writers can't juggle them. One of Lou's friends spends half the episode stuck in a closest. Another, along with her parents, come and go without notice. It's occasionally kind of funny – the final scene is somewhat amusing – but is ultimately too hard to follow. Heather Langenkamp stars as Lou. It's nice to see her again but even her charms can't save this mess. This is the sole directorial credit of screenwriter/producer Dean Lopata which tells you a lot. [4/10]

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