N: Night Watch (2004)

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Well, it’s been a while since we’ve had a Russian representative on Hubrisween…

First of all, we are informed that there are people who not quite human, called “others” for their various talents, and they are basically arrayed into Light and Darkness factions. In olden times there was a tremendous battle between the two, but the armies were too evenly matched, and a truce was called. Each faction watches the other, Nightwatch is the light side watching the dark side, and Daywatch is the vice versa.

Twelve years ago, our protagonist Anton (Konstantin Khabenskiy) consults a matronly woman to get his estranged wife back from her new beau; the woman is a witch who claims a baby his wife is carrying must be aborted before she will come back to him. She can do this, but Anton must take the sin of the child’s death upon himself. That’s a violation of the truce, and she is busted by a Nightwatch team. The fact that Anton can see the team proves that he is an Other.

Twelve years later, Anton is working for Nightwatch, and it’s a job that really sucks. The mission that opens the story major requires him to get in sync with a young boy who is experiencing “The Call” – the spell of a vampire summoning him to a remote location to be exsanguinated. To do this, Anton must exploit his friendship with the vampire next door to get some pig blood to drink. This leads him to a vampire and his new bride, who is the one performing The Call – the boy is to be her first victim. Anton’s backup is late in arriving (mainly because Anton is a crap operative) and he winds up killing the male vampire in self-defense. This is going complicate his life exponentially for the rest of the movie, as the new female vampire escapes and still has a bead on the boy.

Further, while he was on the hunt, Anton saw a woman in the subway who his vision reveals was under a curse, and in his debriefing finds out it is THE curse – one that will cause a vortex of suffering and evil that will bring on, at last, the final battle between Nightwatch and Daywatch, and the end of the world.

There’s quite a bit of mythology thrown at you in Night Watch, some of it pretty standard fantasy boilerplate, some not. The not part seems pretty elastic, for instance the concept of “The Gloom”, a sort of twilight dimension only accessible by Others. First we’re told this is the safest way for Nightwatch operatives to interact with rogue Dark members, then we are told it has a time limit and requires blood sacrifice.

Night Watch is based on a novel by Sergey Lukyanenko, which itself is composed of three interlocking stories, of which the movie is only one. The sequel, Day Watch, is another, and the supposed third movie in the trilogy, Twilight Watch was the last of these. Director Timur Bekmambetov, however, split to make the 2008 Wanted, and never looked back. If, like me, you saw Wanted before Night Watch, the dazzling, rushing camerawork in many of the sequences are going to be very familiar. It’s stuff like that which made Night Watch the highest-grossing Russian movie of that year, and an international success (and made certain Russian film types grumble that it was “too American”).

The nature of the segmented source novel, though, carries with it an ironic violation of Chekov’s gun; you’re given a lot of characters with very cool potential that is never exploited. That was left, I assume, for the sequels, one of which we are never going to get.

Night Watch has a ton of interesting visuals that are worth checking out, but if you’ve never interacted with Russian cinema, be aware of some standards: a love for doomed characters, a large dose of fatalism, and a disregard for short running times. I found it interesting but not terribly engaging. As always, your mileage may vary.

M: Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary (1975)

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Hey, you remember what I keep saying about my unconscious tendency to access director’s careers in reverse? Starting at a recent point or movie and working my way in reverse like a dunderhead? Well, I sort of foiled my own motif, this time around. Sure, I reviewed Juan López Moctezuma’s third flick, Alucarda a couple of years ago, but I also did his first movie, Mansion of Madness (better known as Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon to us gringos), back in the halcyon days of the first Mondo Macabro releases. So it was high time to watch senor Moctezuma’s sophomore effort, especially since I had been low-key obsessed with its ad art since its first-run drive-in days. I mean, just look at it. Best woman-being-turned-into-a-skeleton-making-a-horror-geek-really-want-to-see-what’s-going-on since Scream and Scream Again.

I am pleased to report I was nowhere near as disappointed in Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary as I was in Scream and Scream Again.

We first meet Mary (Christina Ferrare) while she’s having engine trouble with her van outside a creepy abandoned mansion in Mexico. As rain begins to pour down, she finds an open door and tries to find a phone, only to find herself stalked by a shadowy figure. After the standard running and screaming, we find out the figure is Ben (David Young) a drifter who is also seeking shelter from the rain. He promises to sleep upstairs while Mary stays downstairs and has a flashback.

Mary, we find out, is a successful artist who just sold one of her paintings to a guy from the American Embassy in Mexico City. This guy is also quite set on seducing Mary, with some success – at least until she pulls out a dagger disguised as an ornate hairpin and cuts his throat so she can drink his blood.

“What a waste of a perfectly good morgue attendant.”

This isn’t your typical low-budget vampire movie. Mary doesn’t do the traditional movie vampire stuff; she walks around in daylight, sleeps in a bed – at night – and has no fangs. But every so often she has to drink blood, and at those times she uses knockout drops in her necklace’s pendant to render her victim unconscious, so obviously she’s been doing this for some time. Mary is attracted to Ben, and the feeling is mutual, which is going to complicate her predatory lifestyle. There’s also the fact that the Mexican police are starting to notice the number of exsanguinated bodies, and the death of the Embassy guy has brought in the FBI. And, oh yes, there’s another vampire out there trying to track down Mary, and it’s her father… John Carradine!

If you like your vampire movies offbeat, Mary, Mary Bloody Mary is worth checking out. Some folks point to it as an inspiration for George Romero’s Martin, but I think that’s stretching a point. Mary isn’t deluded, but she has a very definite pathology, what her father refers to as “a disease”. There is one heartbreaking point where Mary’s need for a blood fix coincides with gallery owner Greta’s (Helena Rojo) pushy lesbian seduction. It’s the one time her careful searches for someone “I didn’t know or care about” has fallen through, and the first time she tearfully apologizes to one of her victims.

Yeah, yeah, it’s 1975 so there’s plenty of nudity and blood. I can see that after the surreal, Jodorowsky-influenced excesses of Mansion of Madness, it was brought to Moctezuma as a case of “Okay, can you make a normal movie?” which he does – though his penchant for creative editing and visuals is still evident. The seduction and eventual murder of Greta is shot in a lush bathroom with mirrored walls and is quite stunning. But it’s also 1975 and this is a very low budget movie, so be prepared for some slow spots, though Moctezuma tries to minimize those, and to reward you with things like unexpected car chases when you make it through them.

And now, here’s the trailer for the Code Red blu-ray, featuring a couple of my favorite bits: a newspaper with the headline NIXON CHEERED and, apropos of nothing, some dudes stabbing a dead shark to further death in shallow waters.

 

L: Lust for a Vampire (1971)

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I had a friend who was one of those grey market vendors, who made his living selling VHS dupes of out-of-print movies (he’s out of the biz now, ditching the whole enterprise a couple of years before torrenting made it superfluous). For years, though, this movie was his best seller; given a VHS release once, and then vanishing from sight. So I was glad to finally watch the damn thing, and find out what the shouting was all about.

Spoiler alert: boobies.

In the opening scene, a peasant girl is kidnapped by the usual evil black carriage and taken to Castle Karnstein. Her blood is used to resurrect the dried-out corpse of what we will come to know as the infamous Carmilla (Yutte Stensgaard). The guy doing the officiating is Count Karnstein, played by Mike Raven, with a cameo of Christopher Lee’s eyes.

But never mind that, wandering nobleman and author Richard LeStrange (Michael Johnson) has arrived in the village, doing research for his next book on witchcraft, vampires and black magic. Told of the Karnstein legacy, LeStrange visits the seemingly abandoned castle, only to find himself stalked by three be-caped ladies. Ho ho, though, it’s only three girls from the nearby Miss Simpson’s Finishing School, on a field trip led by their headmaster, Giles Barton (Ralph Bates). LeStrange is introduced to Miss Simpson (Helen Christie) and the rest of the girls, just as a new student arrives – Carmilla, once again using the Mircalla alias. LeStrange is instantly smitten.

(LeStrange isn’t the only one, as we are treated to some lesbian-tinged toplessness and skinny-dipping that night at the school)

Things rapidly get complicated from there. A serving girl at the inn is found dead, two bite marks on her throat. LeStrange meets the new English instructor for Simpson’s school, tricks him into going to Vienna instead, and gets his job just to be near Mircalla. Mircalla’s skinny-dipping girlfriend Susan Pelley (Pippa Steele) vanishes (we know she’s been exsanguinated and dropped down the well). Giles Barton, knowing Mircalla’s true identity (the study of local noble families is his personal obsession), offers himself to her, hoping to become a vampire and worshipping her forever. Mircalla, though, only likes girls and turns him down. His dead body is found on the outskirts of the school the next day.

Miss Simpson has gone into full cover-up mode, refusing to call in the authorities about the missing girl, and grateful that Mircalla’s personal doctor (whom we recognize as the driver of that black coach) certifies that Barton died of a heart attack. LeStrange goes through Barton’s library, and discovers Mircalla’s secret. He, too, confesses his love to Mircalla, and begins to put that only-likes-girls thing to the test (he wins). Meantime, the school’s dance teacher (Suzanna Leigh) has notified the cops and Susan’s father (David Healy), who is American and having none of this shit.

It ends as all such gothic romances must, in a burning castle with Carmilla dead again, and LeStrange’s heart broken. The end.

After the success of The Vampire Lovers, Hammer felt they’d finally found a new vein to tap with Ireland’s other favorite author of vampire stories, Sheridan Le Fanu. The Karnsteins would crop up again in Twins of Evil and the next year’s Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter, but never really recaptured the popularity of their Dracula series. It didn’t help that Lust for a Vampire had a troubled production.

Jimmy Sangster replaced Terrence Fisher in the director’s chair at very short notice. Also rushed into his role was Ralph Bates – Peter Cushing was to play Giles Barton, but bowed out due to the serious illness of his wife. Bates hates this role and this movie, and most people hate him for not being Peter Cushing, but really – he’s fine. There was a reason he was Hammer’s utility player at this point. What really kills the movie is the lack of Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla – she turned it down because she thought the script was lousy (she ain’t wrong). (also, there’s no Michael Ripper, so I don’t feel it can rightly be called a Hammer film) Overall, it’s pretty emblematic of Hammer’s rudderless direction in the 70s, when they found that everybody was doing the voluptuous horror bit, and the obvious thing to do was free those bosoms from their constricting bustiers and peasant blouses. A prime example, I think, of scarcity giving a movie a panache of quality it did not warrant (see also The Incubus).

K: Killing Spree (1987)

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First of all, don’t strain yourself looking for this scene.

I was supposed to do Krampus here. That seemed like a good idea nearly a year ago when I came up with this list. Obviously, I wasn’t thinking straight. I tend to fall into fits of apoplectic rage when stores start putting up Christmas supplies in late August. I did not foresee that the same thing would happen when I tried to watch an Xmas monster movie for my favorite month of the year.

So. Killing Spree. Written and directed by Tim Ritter, who crap cineastes will recognize as the man behind Truth or Dare: A Critical Madness. This will become obvious as the movie progresses, but that’s not a bad thing.

Tom (Asbestos Felt) is a mechanic for a small struggling airline. Pay cuts have become the order of the day, so there’s a severe money crunch on, not aided by the fact that Tom refuses to let his wife Leeza (Courtney Lercara) go back to work. His state of mind is outlined when his best friend, the pilot Ben (Raymond Carbone) comes over for dinner and announces he has a girlfriend who is only 20 years old; not only is Tom extremely put out by this, but he suspects Ben is trying to make time with Leeza, and throws his old friend out in a rage. He tells Leeza afterwards that his first wife left him, and if Leeza did that, he would go insane.

Yeah, that’s kinda your plot right there.

See that red light? That means he’s NUTS!!!!

After a truly bizarre nightmare sequence concerning Ben and Leeza (and I mean quite unexpectedly bizarre, the first inclination you get that this is not going to be your typical direct to VHS gore flick), Tom finds a black notebook that details sexy dalliances with delivery men, TV repair men, the lawn guy and the like. So naturally Tom begins to do away with them in a variety of bloody, rococo fashions, some of them quite nasty. The standouts involve a chainsaw in the basement (just to make sure, a length of intestine is pulled out and plugged into a light socket to electrocute the victim), some machete blades attached to a ceiling fan, and a lawnmower, which just proved to me that Ritter read the same underground horror comic books as me while growing up.

Like I said, this is not your typical direct to video excuse for a movie – after he’s racked up an impressive body count, and feels it’s finally time to properly punish Leeza – his victims rise from the grave to exact vengeance, giving rise to a lot of extremely dark comedy. And oh yeah, Tom finds out that the entries in that notebook were rough drafts for stories Leeza was writing for her favorite magazine, Romping Romances – which she just sold for 1500 bucks so Tom wouldn’t have to get a second job.

Which doesn’t help with all the zombies banging at the door, of course.

“Hi there! They spent dang near all the money on me!”

This is Ritter’s fourth movie, made directly after Truth or Dare, which I watched earlier in the year. ToD was made when he only 19 years, and I was actually quite impressed with it. Ritter was pretty sure where he wanted to place his camera, his pacing was good, even if the logic was often very suspect.

“Very suspect logic” will cover Killing Spree, too, but then it’s basically an EC Comics story stretched to feature length, and the stretching can be verrrrry tedious early on (for instance, being told the story of why Tom’s co-worker is called “Stewmaster”. Answer: He is really good at making stew).  But there is another thing carried over from the first Truth or Dare that I liked, and that’s the fact that Ritter likes to show the disintegration of his main character’s sanity, not gloss over it in a scene or two. That speaks of a level of care in the filmmaker that goes beyond your typical gore flick. And when Tom does lose it, it has to be admitted that Asbestos Felt absolutely goes for it. Ritter obviously told him to go over the top, and then announced that the top was somewhere in the orbit of Jupiter.

That’s Raymond Carbone there, who may impress you as the dollar store version of Jerry Orbach, but he’s really good in this (and he was the detective in Truth or Dare). In fact, Ritter does very well in the actor category for this movie.

We won’t talk about that fairly lamentable severed head. There are much better FX to be had later.

The clip above and the gory trailer below (just in case you needed to see that head scene again) may not change your mind about DTV horror movies from the late 80s, but this one actually is a cut above (as it were). Some care is evident in the execution, and when I hit play, I wasn’t expecting to find a movie with so much… well, “heart” isn’t the appropriate phrase, let’s say moxie. A movie with this much moxie.

 

J: Jug Face (2013)

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After the last two less-than-satisfying (to me, anyway) horror movies, it was nice to find one that hit a number of sweet spots for me: well-made, novel, compelling, and unnerving.

Jug Face starts with the neat trick of giving us the backstory during the opening credits (in my experience, only used heretofore in The Boogens, Screams of a Winter Night, and The Incredible Hulk). Presented in Grandma Moses-style rustic art, we’re given a backwoods community being ravaged by some sort of pox. One fellow makes an urn out of clay from a nearby pit; the urn bears the face of the local clergyman, who is sacrificed bloodily to a nearby pit, and everyone is cured.

Which brings us to the present day, in that same backwoods community. Teenager Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) has sex with similarly teenage Jessaby (Daniel Manche), and not for the first time. This is going to cause problems for her later because by the cult rules of the community, she has to be a virgin when “joined” with another local youth, the doughy Bodey (Mathieu Whitman). And only Ada knows she is pregnant – she keeps stealing paint from her friend Dawai to make it look like she is till having her period.

The rather simple Dawai (Sean Bridger) is the village’s potter. Every now and then The Pit demands a sacrifice by possessing him, and while in a trance he makes the jug which bears the face of the chosen sacrifice. So Ada’s other problems recede to the background when she looks in Dawai’s simple kiln and finds out the next jug face is hers. Panicking, she steals the jug and hides it, but The Pit is not to be denied, and starts killing people randomly, while Ada, in a trance similar to Dawai’s, sees the bloody murders. She uses Dawai’s longtime love for her to cause him to make another jug face, this time with Bodey’s face – which only makes things worse for everybody.

There’s a certain understated, otherworldly realism to Jug Face‘s portrait of a community controlled, somewhat willingly, by a malign entity. Before you ask, no, we never see exactly what it is that lives in The Pit, and we don’t need to. The conviction of the cast that says things like “The Pit wants what It wants,” is often horrific enough. Ada’s parents are played by Sean Young and horror legend Larry Fessenden, and their experience and professionalism prove to be the mortar that glues the movie together.

Jug Face can be read as a more demonic, southern variation on Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” with a feature-length signaling to the ending, now not so much shocking as inevitable and tragic. Even at a trim 81 minutes, though, it feels a bit stretched at times, but not unworkably so. As a portrait of fear-based religion and as a horror movie, it is fairly unique and well worth checking out.

I: The Incubus (1982)

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You know, this was supposed to be my “I” entry last year, but I decided to watch I, Frankenstein instead, mainly so I could get it posted before everybody forgot that I, Frankenstein even existed.

By the time I finished finally watching The Incubus, I really wished I had just watched I, Frankenstein all over again.

John Cassavetes is Sam Cordell, a surgeon who has recently moved to Galen Village, a small New England town, with his teenage daughter Jenny (Erin Nobel). Seems he’s the only doctor, as he’s going to wind up being medical examiner and resident Quincy. Something is violently raping women and murdering men; the first victim, Mandy (Mitch Martin) will be the only survivor, and then only because Cordell performs an emergency hysterectomy to remove her ruptured uterus.

“We can’t close the town! It’s the 4th of July!”

The rapes and murders continue, as the local police, as represented by John Ireland, are useless. After Mandy, our rapist starts leaving a prodigious amount of semen behind – analysis can’t identify it except to say it is faster and more aggressive than normal sperm, and red. The County Investigator (Harry Drivas) feels the large quantity of sperm points to a gang of perps, though Cordell isn’t so sure. After all, his daughter’s boyfriend, Tim (Duncan MacIntosh) is having headaches and bad dreams that coincide with the incidents…

Oh, yeah, a similar series of rape/murders happened in the town thirty years ago, which is something you might think is pertinent to any investigation, but noooo, it has to be brought up by local crusading journalist Laura Kinkaid (Kerrie Keane), who, incidentally looks just like Cordell’s last girlfriend, who he may have killed accidentally and oh say also Tim’s creepy aunt Agatha (Helen Hughes) is from a long line of witch hunters and

This movie will give you a headache. It’s based on a novel by Ray Russell, which should be a pretty fair indicator of quality, but that is a hope that will be dashed (yeah, it’s tempting to say that hope will be insert terrible thing that happens in the movie but it doesn’t deserve that much effort). What it does feel like is one of those gaudily-covered horror novels chronicled in Paperbacks From Hell (for all I know, it is) that glutted the market after The Exorcist and The Omen made bank, except those authors, even at their hackiest, had a firmer hand on story and character. This script does nobody any favors (least of all the audience), and John Cassavetes seems genuinely pissed to be forced to say these lines.

The decision was also made to not show the title character until the closing scene of the movie, which is a classic approach (that’s a pretty good monster, though) – but that means we spend a lot of time concentrating of the agony of the victims during the rape. A lot of time. Too much time. Dario Argento would call it excessive.

I also expected a bit more from director John Hough, who had delivered a decent horror flick with The Legend of Hell House, but he can’t get a grip on a slippery, nigh incomprehensible story that loses brain cells the longer it goes on. I have tried to figure out the timeline that is set out in the closing quarter of the movie, and though I like puzzles, I am not adverse to throwing the damn things across the room when they’re missing pieces or just too shabbily constructed to fit together correctly.

In conclusion, the 1966 Esperanto movie Incubus, starring William Shatner, is much scarier and makes more sense.

Next, please.

H: The House with Laughing Windows (1976)

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So back a couple of years ago I reviewed Pupi Avati’s Zeder to close out Hubrisween and I was impressed enough to track down more of his work (so it took me two years. So what).

House opens impressively enough, with a man, strung up with arms overhead, being stabbed to death in slow-motion while we hear some crazed loon babble about the colors in his veins and paint running down his arms, all during the opening credits.

Then we meet Stefano (Lino Cappolicchio) (Avati had a thing for naming his protagonists Stefano), a professional restorationist who has been hired by the mayor (Bob Tonelli) of a small village to restore a fresco in the church. It’s a painting of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, done by a local artist, Buono Legnani, known as “The Painter of Agony” because of his preference for painting and drawing only subjects near death.

Stefano was hired on the recommendation of his old friend, Dr. Mazza (Giuilio Pizzarani), who was researching Legnani. Mazza is always on the cusp of telling Stefano something important about Legnani and the village, but the arrival of someone local will make him nervous and interrupt his tale, until he asks Stefano to meet him at his hotel. Of course, when Stefano arrives, it’s just in time to see Mazza thrown out a window to his death.

In proper giallo style, Stefano investigates the mystery of Legnani himself, despite creepy anonymous phone calls commanding him to leave. He finds an old wire recorder, containing the utterances we heard during the opening. Legnani was obviously more than a little off-kilter, and was aided and abetted in his off-kilterness by his two sisters, who Stefano comes to realize (as more and more of the fresco is revealed) are the models for the two women joyously murdering Saint Sebastian – and an actual murder may have taken place to act as a model for the painting. Legnani reportedly doused himself with kerosene and ran blazing into the woods, his body never found; and Stefano begins to fear that Legnani is not truly dead, and he and his sisters may still be up to no good – and they seem to have some sort of horrible control over the village at large.

The House With Laughing Windows is the most un-giallo giallo you will ever see. Most movies in this genre will keep you occupied with multiple murders, even more red herrings, sex (usually as perverse as possible), or heightened, intense visuals. House has none of these, but does have the doom-laden atmosphere and the independent investigator in way, way over his head. Leave it to Avati to not travel the well-worn road.

The movie is 110 minutes long, too long in my estimation. The final fifteen minutes, though, are suitably nightmarish and horrifying, but it can be a chore to get to them. If you’re, say, a fan of slow burn horror directors like Ty West, this is going to be right up your alley, and you should seek it out. For me, though, it’s more of a case of Okay, now I’ve seen it, and going on to my next horror movie, which will hopefully be more to my liking.

(Spoiler: it will not be.)