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What I Watched in… October 2013

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

October, as you can see, was a busy month for me: a trip to Pittsburgh full of wedding prep, the end of a marking period, working backstage on a play… I didn’t have nearly the time I like to devote to my annual October orgy of horror movies. But I still managed to squeeze in a little fun.

1. The Crucible (1996), B+
2. Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th (2013), A-
3. ATM (2012), D+
4. A Trip to the Moon (1902), B; RiffTrax Riff, B+
5. Toy Story of Terror (2013), B
6. Coraline (2009), A
7. House of Dracula (1945), C
8. Horror of Dracula (1958), B+
9. Blacula (1972), C-
10. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), B+
11. Dracula 2000 (2000), C+
12. Trailer Park of Terror (2008), D+
13. Tales From the Crypt (1972), B
14. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966), A
15. Garfield in Disguise (1985), B+

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 21: Susperia (1977)

suspiriaDirector: Dario Argento

Writers: Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi

Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett

Plot: Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American ballet student, is attempting to enroll in a prestigious dancing academy in Freiburg, Germany. When her flight in from Munich arrives late on a terribly stormy night, though, she is unable to enter the school, and must spend the night around town. As she searches, a student who has been expelled from the academy, Pat Hingle (played by Eva Axén, although I find it hysterical that the character has the same name as the actor who played Commissioner Gordon in the Tim Burton Batman movies), takes refuge with a friend, but both girls are brutally murdered by a strange, largely unseen creature. The next morning, Suzy returns to the academy and meets Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), as the school is buzzing about Pat’s death. Suzy is sent off-campus to live with another student , Olga (Barbara Magnolfi. When a dormitory room is made available, she declines the offer. In her first dancing class, Suzy suffers a fainting spell, and wakes up to find that she’s been moved into the dorm room anyway, and the doctor wants her to eat bland foods with a glass of red wine at every meal for a week. When maggots suddenly fall from the ceiling, supposedly due to a box of spoiled food in the attic, the girls are forced to sleep in the academy’s practice hall. There, Suzy’s friend Sarah (Stefania Casini) recognizes a whistling sound as the snore of the school director, who is supposedly out-of-town. Suzy and Sarah search Pat’s room for notes, but Suzy falls asleep, leaving Sarah to be lured, alone, into a trap of razor wires, where the unseen creature returns and slits her throat.

The next morning, finding Sarah missing, Suzy seeks out a psychologist (Udo Kier) who tells her that the academy was actually founded by a Greek woman believed to be a witch, and that her coven cannot survive without their queen. Suzy returns to the school and finds that all of the students are missing, having gone to the theater. She follows a mysterious set of footprints to Blanc’s office, where she finds the staff plotting her death in a horrible ritual. She flees, encountering the school’s director – the original witch who founded the school . The witch sends Sarah’s reanimated corpse to kill Suzy. Suzy fights her way out, and the building burns to the ground with the witches inside, Suzy barely escaping the horror.

Thoughts: This is one of those times where I really must stress the importance of taking care of and pride in your work. Susperia has a place in the hallowed ranks of horror, but its effectiveness was seriously damaged for me by the shoddy presentation. The DVD release available through Netflix was absolutely terrible, with picture and sound that both appeared to have been ripped directly from some ancient VHS tape that had long since begun to degrade. If a movie like this doesn’t deserve a quality restoration, why even release it on DVD?

This isn’t the fault of the film, of course, but it does detract from one’s enjoyment. Trying to get past that, we look at the strong points of the film. Sadly, considering how poor the video quality of my copy was, this is a movie that is largely remarkable for its visual style. Dario Argento sets the film in bright, primary colors –red hallways that have an almost velvety texture to them, blue walls in the main hall, and ubiquitous use of yellow in the dance studio and other places. When the deaths happen, the precise shade of red is so bright and eye-popping as to be almost unrealistic, while at the same time giving the film a very different look that most of the other films we’ve discussed on this list. The blood in, for example, Last House on the Left probably looks more realistic, but the blood in this film is more memorable.

The makeup is also impressive towards the end of the film. Sarah’s corpse, done up in a horror mask for her terrible attack on Suzy, is in fact the stuff of nightmares. Although Sarah isn’t really referred to as a zombie, she’s not far off from the original Haitian concept of the creature: a deceased person brought back to a semblance of life to serve the bidding of a master. In this case, it also plays on the most evocative fears of the zombie trope, the idea of taking something familiar and safe and transforming it into something horrible and deadly.

One of the weaknesses, though, is that the movie often tries too hard to inject fright in mundane scenes. Suzy’s constant encounters with creepy members of the staff at the ballet academy are often punctuated with loud, hypnotic music that succeeds in creating the desired mood. When combined with the looks of the characters, though, it starts to feel a bit much, like we the audience are being beaten over the head with the fact that something EEEEEEEVIL is going on around here, consarn it, and we’re gonna take notice whether we like it or not. Back to the music for a moment – it’s really very good. It’s scary and evocative, and I could imagine it being a Halloween standard like the themes to Psycho and Jaws if not for the fact that the main theme is played approximately 18,921 times throughout the course of the 92-minute film, robbing it largely of its effectiveness.

What’s more, the story isn’t particularly strong. Go back and read my synopsis again. Does it seem like a kind of bizarre, disjointed story here things happen for no reason and nothing really seems to make sense in the context of anything else? Excellent: I have successfully conveyed the feeling of watching Suspiria.

Contextually, I find it interesting that 1977’s great Italian horror film goes back to witches, a topic which had largely lapsed in the United States at this point. Perhaps I’m projecting – I’m an English teacher, remember, and at the time I write this particular analysis my 11-grade class is deep in study of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible – but it’s difficult to think of an American audience of the late 70s putting this much stock into the concept of witchcraft. In Italy, who knows? Maybe it was different.

The marketing certainly was different – look at the tagline on the movie poster. “The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92.” Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but isn’t that essentially saying the end of this film isn’t as good as the rest of it? If that’s the case, it’s true. Except for the creepy attack by the ex-Sarah, the ending is horribly anticlimactic, with a weak appearance by the head witch and Suzy pretty much just waltzing out of the academy just before it bursts into flames for no apparent reason.

Except for the visuals, honestly, I’ve got nothing to recommend this movie. Thank goodness tomorrow’s film is, for me, a proven commodity: John Carpenter’s classic Halloween.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 8: The Cat People (1942)

Cat PeopleDirector: Jacques Tourneur
Writer: DeWitt Bodeen
Cast: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph

Plot: A young woman from Serbia meets and marries a handsome young American man. But their relationship is stalled due to a fear that, should she allow herself to become intimate with her new husband, she will fall victim to an ancient curse that causes people in her family to transform into killer panthers. After they’ve been married for some time – during which she never allows herself so much as a moment of physical passion with her husband – she begins to suspect that he is having an affair with his attractive young assistant. And then we realize lust isn’t the only emotion that can trigger the curse… jealousy works, too.

Thoughts: Like a lot of early horror films, this one uses folktales (real or imagined) as the basis of the monster, such as it is. The idea of an “old curse” is standard. What’s interesting to me is the way Irena (Simone Smith) claims the curse came upon her family: in centuries past, they dabbled in witchcraft and consorted with the devil, and as such were branded with this inability to grow close to anyone. This immediately calls to mind the question of how, exactly, they’ve managed to perpetuate the family line over the centuries, if they turn into monsters and slaughter anyone they grow physically intimate with. (The 1982 remake answered this question in the logical and extremely squicky way of saying that family members could only be intimate with one another, despite them being from Serbia and not members of any particular royal family.)

Of more interest – to me, anyway – is the way the perception of witchcraft has changed over time. Sure, whenever a movie that seems vaguely related to the topic is released today you get your requisite group of picket sign-carrying protestors condemning everybody who’s going to see the movie to Hell, but they’re considered a joke by both the media and most passerby who see them. In truth, these days if a movie uses witchcraft as its hook, we usually see a case of an innocent person accused of witchcraft and being tormented by an oppressive society. (For the best example of this, see 1996’s The Crucible, the script for which was written by the original playwright, Arthur Miller.) The alternative is typically a more classic representation of witchcraft wrapped up in a movie that’s laughable in its presentation of something that was once considered a very legitimate threat. (For the most recent example, as of this writing, see 2011’s Season of the Witch. This movie gets bonus cheese points for having Nicolas Cage with long hair while simultaneously being bald.)

At any rate, in 1942 witchcraft was seen as a much more legitimate source for horror, and a curse being a punishment that goes down generations was something that could cause true fear. The 1982 version of the film throws away the witchcraft elements in favor of a more vague curse, which is apparently still acceptable so long as you don’t specify that it’s a result of bubbling cauldrons or dancing in the moonlight with Mephistopheles. Even the specific manifestation of the curse is given a Biblical connection – Irena chats with a zookeeper who kindly takes the time to explain who the Book of Revelations describes a beast from Hell that is “like a leopard, but not a leopard,” which to him is pretty much the definition of a panther.

The other thing about this film that I find really odd is the way the relationship grows. In 1942, when filmmakers didn’t get quite as explicit about sex as they do today, they got away with a man falling and love with and marrying a woman who refuses any sort of physical intimacy – even so much as a kiss – giving him an excuse that would today either have the man drop her for a loony after the first date or do everything he can to get her onto Dr. Phil. Granted, Oliver (Kent Smith) eventually does seek out psychological help for Irena, but only several chaste months after they are married. I don’t care it if is 1942, nobody is that good. Let’s be clear about this: this is not a fear that Irena developed some time after she and Oliver got involved, this was a barrier between them from the day they met. A month after they start dating, he mentions to her that, y’know, normal people in love kiss, and she starts with the whole “I turn into a cat” thing. This, Oliver, this is the time to seek out mental help. Not after you marry a woman who insists on separate bedrooms and a bowl of Fancy Feast at night.

In many ways, this Oliver Reed character begins the film as something of a fantasy man. He’s good-looking, square-jawed, loves Irena from the moment he meets her despite her little “quirks,” and is resistant to temptation from Alice (Jane Randolph) even once she pretty much starts throwing herself at him. But even Mr. Perfect eventually starts to break down – he gets mad at Irena when she starts skipping her therapy sessions, and ultimately decides to leave her for Alice. Even then, though, the film doesn’t give us reason to believe there’s any hanky-panky going on before he proclaims he wants a divorce. Look at the timeline here: Irena is given the 1942 Man of the Year on a silver platter, then drives him away because she acts cold, jealous, and irrational. (Well, okay, it only seemed irrational, turns out she really did turn into a murderous cat, but one can hardly blame Oliver for not quite believing that.) You can’t tell me that the writer of this film wasn’t firing a warning shot across the stern of the Women of America, whose husbands at this point were increasingly getting shots fired across their own sterns over in Europe and the Pacific.

The movie’s ending is suitably tragic, and the body count is remarkably low (compared to modern films). And to be frank, while it’s entertaining in its own way, I don’t see it as being that great a precursor to modern films, except perhaps to show how different societal norms have become in the last 70 years. There’s a taste of Jekyll and Hyde in here, a flash of the subtle sexuality that would later become more dominant in the works of Anne Rice, but nothing I really feel is definitive the way I’ve felt about some of the other movies I’ve seen. The film’s sequel, 1944′s Curse of the Cat People, is even less memorable, with no “cat people” present, instead tapping into The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and turning into a ghost story about a married Oliver and Alice terrorized when Irena’s ghost begins visiting their six-year-old daughter. Weirdness.

We’re taking our biggest jump in time yet next, and I’ll talk about why that is tomorrow, when we get down to the classic 1958 sci-fi chiller The Fly.