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Friday, October 27, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 26

A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)

I'll admit, I'm not as well-read in Hong Kong cinema as I'd like to be. Yeah, I love “In the Mood for Love” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” as much as the next guy. My exposure to the country's cinema doesn't extend too far beyond that. I'm definitely interested in this stuff though and intend to explore it more some day. Best known for its martial arts cinema, the country's film industry has produced its share of horror pictures. Titles like “Encounters of the Spooky Kind” and “Mr. Vampire” certainly interest me. So did “A Chinese Ghost Story.” It's another one of those movies I've heard about for years, mentioned in reference guides like “101 Horror Movies To See Before You Die” and others, but have never gotten around to seeing. Once again, Halloween is the best time of year to watch stuff like this.

Set in 15th century China, the film concerns Ning Choi-san. A debt collector who isn't very good at his job, he arrives in the countryside and is quickly run out of town. He ends up staying the night in a near-by temple. There, he meets Yin, a Taoist monk and swordsman fighting with a rival. Afterwards, he meets Nip Siu-sin, a beautiful and mysterious young woman. Ning quickly falls in love with her. However, Nip has a secret. She is a ghost who was sold, by her father, to an ancient Tree Demoness living in the woods. Now, the Tree Demon plans to marry Nip off to a great demon king. Ning and Yin have to retrieve her ashes and re-bury them in order to free Nip from these evils.

From what I have seen of Hong Kong cinema, it seems like tonal consistency is not as big a deal in the East as it is over here. “A Chinese Ghost Story” throws several different genres together. It's primarily a supernatural romance with very strong horror elements, due to its crazy ghosts and demons. However, it also feels like a period drama at times. The actions scenes involve the highly aerobatic flips through the airs, proud warriors and bitter rivalries, and crazy sword fights you expect from the wuxia genre.  There are also several scenes of broad comedy. Such as a lengthy scene set in a farcical courthouse or Yin going on a serious monologue, while his face is dripping with monster slime. There's even a musical number, when Yin brags about his ghost-slaying abilities in song! Because of its period setting and fantastical story, the shifting genre landscape “A Chinese Ghost Story” inhabits feels less inconsistent and more like a wild tapestry.

There's certainly no shortage of stuff to interest horror fans in “A Chines Ghost Story.” The movie begins with an “Evil Dead”-style sequence of Nip seducing a traveler before an unseen force rushes at him through the forest. That fluid visual style reoccurs through the film, at one point even flying inside a man's body through his mouth. There's some shambling zombies, who are disposes off in an off-handedly comedic fashion. Towards the last half-hour, “A Chinese Ghost Story” really starts to feature some crazy monster. The Tree Demon attacks via a massive tongue, which creeps up through floorboards and snares people. When that doesn't work, the tongue slip opens to reveal a crocodile-like jaw, which spits glue-like slime. Even that's not enough for the film, as it concludes with a journey into the underworld. A giant demon lord ripping open his robe to reveal a wall of screaming faces is just one thing you'll see down there. It's pretty crazy stuff.

Yet what truly grounds “A Chinese Ghost Story,” beyond the creature effects and the colorful direction, is a genuinely touching romance. Ning Choi-san stumbles into the romance with Nip Siu-sin. Yet he manages to impress the ghost enough during their brief meeting, so that she doesn't kill him. From there, they form an odd bond. He continues to seek her out, even though it's dangerous. Even after learning she's a ghost – something he probably should've picked up on sooner – he remains true to her. The film even gives the two a love scene of sorts, when they are encircled by billowing sheets and hold each other in their arms. That you believe Ning is truly in love with Nip is important, as the last act – where he travels into Hell to save her – wouldn't have been believable otherwise. Leslie Cheung, funny but heartfelt, and Joey Wang, beguiling and vulnerable, are perfect in the parts.

“A Chinese Ghost Story” is a wildly imaginative film, successfully blending horror, action, romance and humor. I'm not sure I was one-hundred percent on its wave length – some of those tonal shifts are super weird – and the plot is pretty loose, which doesn't seem to be unusual for films like this. Over all, I enjoyed it. The film was massively popular in Asia, leading to two sequels, a television series, a remake, and even an animated adaptation. I doubt I'll get to all of that but I probably will give the two sequels a look some day, as they seem to be equally well regarded. [7/10]

Night Warning (1982)

“Night Warning” probably would've been forgotten. Originally released under the title “Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker” – which represents the film no more than “Night Warning” does but is a lot catchier – the film was the sole stab at horror from William Asher, the director behind four of the “Beach Party” movies. It came out in 1982 and was quickly lost among the many slashers being released at the time. Aside from a Saturn Award nomination, it received largely negative reviews. “Night Warning” probably would've been forgotten if it hadn't been one of the 72 horror movies banned in the United Kingdom in 1984. Yes, “Night Warning” is one of the notorious video nasties, films deemed obscene by British censors. Instead of burying the movie, this act made “Night Warning” and many other films way more famous than they would've been otherwise.

Billy Lynch's parents died when he was only a baby, following a fatal automobile crash. He was adopted by his Aunt Cheryl. Cheryl grows creepily attached to Billy over the years. At seventeen years, Billy has a chance to get out of the family home when he becomes eligible for a basketball scholarship. This angers Cheryl, who wants Billy to stay at home forever. Cheryl also feels threatened by Julia, Billy's young girlfriend. Sexually frustrated, Cheryl attempts to seduce a repairman. When he rejects her, Cheryl stabs the man to death. Billy arrives after the murder and is spotted holding a knife and covered in blood. Afterwards, a detective begins to suspect that Billy committed the murder. That's when Aunt Cheryl's grip on sanity slips even further away.

“Night Warning” is a film obsessed with quote-unquote deviant sexuality. Cheryl's obsession with Billy isn't merely paternal in nature. Soon, it's revealed that she's sexually attracted to the boy, explaining her jealousy over his girlfriend. This incestuous turn gets even weirder when we learn that Cheryl is actually Billy's mother, the boy the result of a secret affair with her sister's husband. The film doesn't stop there. The detective leading the investigation is insanely homophobic, dropping the f-slur probably fifty times. He discovers that Billy's gym coach and the dead repairman were both gay. He then accuses Billy of being homosexual, in an especially vulgar way. This subplot barely affects “Night Warning's” story but creates a mood of sexual repression, bigotry, forbidden desires, and disturbing persecution. This is a seedy, uncomfortable film and that was clearly intentional.

What critical recognition “Night Warning” did receive was for Susan Tyrrell's performance as Aunt Cheryl. From the beginning, Tyrrell seems unwell. As the story progresses, she becomes increasingly unhinged. By the final act, she's a screaming, chattering madwoman, chopping up victims and smearing blood around. These more insane moments are balanced with quieter scenes of Tyrrell hiding in the attic and talking with pictures of her dead boyfriend. Tyrrell's acting is clearly above her co-stars. Jimmy McNichol seems almost too innocent as Billy, making his more dramatic moments difficult to believe. Bo Svenson plays the utterly despicable detective in such a way that you believe Svenson probably didn't see the guy as the villain of the piece. That either reflects very well on his acting abilities or poorly on his personality.

As a horror movie, “Night Warning” is less effective. The film has often been classified as a slasher movie but is pretty low on the slashing. It's not until the last act, when Aunt Cheryl really begins to hack up people. The opening car crash, in which a head is torn off by a wayward log, is fairly startling. Otherwise, there's not much gore here, making you wonder why the BBFC objected so much to the film. Director Ascher's directorial choices are odd, as the film slows down and the soundtrack shrieks before the aunt attacks. Occasionally, the movie achieves a low-key sort of tension. When a family friend is sniffing around, while Aunt Cheryl has Billy's girlfriend locked in the basement, is mildly tense. Probably the best sequence int eh film involves Cheryl chasing Julia through a muddy pond, though that's owed more to Tyrrell's performance than anything else.

As a moody examination of sexual frustration, “Night Warning” is sporadically insightful. As a horror movie, it's a bit of a dud, progressing too slowly. Honestly, with a few alteration, the film would've fit in well with the “psycho biddy” movies popular in the sixties and seventies. It's easy to imagine the film with a salacious title like “What's Aunt Cheryl Hiding in the Attic?” or something like that. By the way, the VHSPS DVD of this I grabbed includes the ten minutes of trailers HBO Video tagged on at the end. Ending a movie like this for odd promos for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,” a Benny Hill collection, and some music videos by the Tubes makes “Night Warning” even more of a baffling experience. [6/10]

Festival of Family Classics: Jack O' Lantern

For myself and many others, Rankin/Bass' Christmas specials are truly iconic. It's really not December without a visit from Rudolph or Frosty, no matter how stodgy, cheesy, or of questionable quality those specials might be. But did you know Rankin/Bass also made a Halloween special? Sort of? From 1972 to 1973, the studio produced a television show called “Festival of Family Classics.” The animated series showcased half-hour versions of famous stories from the public domain. One of the few installments to stray from the fairy tales and Victorian literature was the fifth episode, entitled “Jack O' Lantern.”

It begins with a grandfather relating an incident from his childhood to his grandkids. One autumn, the fields of the family farm yielded no crops. Something was making the fields barren at night. The kids attempt to create a new scarecrow, wondering if that will help, and carve a jack o' lantern for the head. This awakens a leprechaun spirit inside the pumpkin, calling himself Jack, who uses his magic to help the crops grow. This draws the attention of the witch and her warlock husband, who are responsible for blighting the fields.

Rankin/Bass' “Jack O' Lantern,” disappointingly, does not adopt the Celtic legend of Stingy Jack, the actual origin of the jack o' lantern tradition. I guess the story of a drunken miscreant being denied entrance into both Heaven and Hell, cursed to walk the Earth forever with only a cinder of hellfire to light his way, was too strong for the kiddies. Instead, it's a typically Rankin/Bass-y story about good kids, magical entities, and comical villains. The Irish-accented Jack makes for a mildly entertaining hero, even if his magic tricks resolve every plot point a little too easily. The witches, especially the foppish warlock, are kind of funny and more threatening than the likes of Burgermesiter Meisterburger or Professor Hinkle, though just barely.

As a Halloween special, “Jack O' Lantern” does feature some cool ghosts and spectres, actually referred to as “demons.” It is a little lower on seasonal atmosphere than I hoped. Still, I did enjoy it well enough. You've got to grade these things on a curse, you know.  It holds up better than some of Rankin/Bass' lesser Christmas specials. For the record, “Jack O' Lantern” is the most beloved of the “Festival of Family Classics” episodes, even receiving a DVD release. It would seem I'm not the only one who was crying out for a Rankin/Bass Halloween special. Considering the obvious demand, I'm surprised this was the studio's only attempt at one. [7/10]

The Telephone Box (1972)

The wonder of the internet is that even someone like me, who has seen over 1800 horror films, can still discover stuff he's never heard of before. While perusing the “They Shoot Zombies, Don't They?” list, really an invaluable resource, I came across “The Telephone Box,” known in its native Spain as “La cabina.” A half-hour short film made for Spanish television, it's not the kind of thing I probably would've discovered on my own. The short concerns a man finding an empty telephone booth in the park. He enters it to make a phone call, only to discover that the door won't open. As he struggles to escape, a few people come to his aid but no one can jar the door. Soon, a truck appears and carries the booth off, the man still inside, taking him to a mysterious location.

“The Telephone Box” is not your typical horror movie, as there are no supernatural horrors or psychotic killers. Instead, the short's horror arises from an absurd event happening in a commonplace location. Extinct now, telephone booths were once as common as cellphones currently are. It's in this perfectly normal setting that something seemingly impossible but horrifically plausible happens. Being trapped inside a telephone booth, totally unable to escape, is actually a very frightening, but very easy to imagine, scenario. Antonio Mercero's direction is detached, further emphasizing this sense of normalcy. As the film progresses, things grow increasingly grim. After a series of monotonous events, set inside a strange factory facility, we arrive at a chilling final act. “La cabina” plays its premise to its logical conclusion in as unsettling a manner as possible.

“The Telephone Box” was made during the last years of Francisco Franco's rule in Spain. This can't help but invite a political reading of the film. The way the telephone box is installed by an unknown, but clearly organized, corporation brings the faceless and cruel machinations of a fascist government to mind. Once the man is trapped inside the booth, a crowd quickly forms. A man even brings out a comfy chair for a rich, older woman. Somebody's even selling snacks by the end. Only a few people step up to help, as most are content to watch another person's plight. This speaks to the universal theme of the masses' indifference to the individual's suffering. Yet in a society where people rat each other out, where everyone feels like they're being watched, this becomes especially significant. Even when removed from the political climate in which it was made, “The Telephone Box” is a chilling douse of existential horror. [8/10]

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