Kung Fu Halloween (1977)

At some point in the last horrific couple of weeks writer Jessica Ritchey asked what sort of media made you feel safe, what was your head’s comfort food. That was during one of my very brief returns to the turbulent waters of social media, and I didn’t respond. Well, now I am: kung fu movies.

That is a gross generalization: what I truly love is wuxia films, tales of righteous men and women taking up the fight against evil, often in the defense of the weak and helpless. Righting wrongs. That’s a message I need to see right now.

I watched two in the days before the Election, unknowingly preparing myself, I suppose. Then came the dark days, when I couldn’t get up the gumption to watch a movie until I forcibly broke my two-week fast with another – and then I watched Doctor Strange, and found myself watching a Marvel wuxia movie, complete with training scenes. I’ve since watched at least two Chinese fantasy adventure films, maybe more by the time this finally posts.

kung_fu_halloween_poster_01As usual, we’ll take these things on in a sort of backwards, piecemeal manner, with the movie that broke my fast, Kung Fu Halloween. This showed up several years ago in one of those “Weird Movies You’ve Never Seen” lists, which I usually read for sneering purposes, but by golly, I had to admit I hadn’t seen it, or even heard of it. The poster that accompanied the list looked pretty interesting, too.  Let us gaze now upon that image, and realize, as is the way with many exploitation posters on these fair shores, that it has absolutely nothing to do with the movie, and this scene will never occur, so stop waiting for it.

As you know, we just came off the annual Hubrisween challenge, an A-Z movie review event. Because some of us are unbridled masochists (and probably sporting a certain amount of brain damage), the dust hadn’t even settled before we started working on our lists for 2017. From the depths of my memory – oh, all right, my ever-freaking-growing Letterboxd Watch List – I pulled out Kung Fu Halloween for the difficult letter K, and took the rest of the day off.

Unlike most of these re-titlings, Wu Dang is actually at least mentioned once.

Unlike most of these re-titlings, Wu Dang is actually at least mentioned at one point.

Which is where things get interesting, if you’re interested in trivia. Like any Hong Kong flick of that era (and any other, really) that is not its original title, which would be Shi da zhang men chuang Shao Lin. Finding a copy of it would prove somewhat difficult, unless you were looking for the correct alternate title. Probably the most recent release was as Lady Wu Tang, back when Xenon was being breathtakingly barefaced in their greed to cash in on the success of kung fu-suffused hip hop group Wu Tang Clan (Kung Fu Cult Master became Lord of the Wu Tang, Taoism Drunkard changed to Drunken Wu Tang, you get the idea). Another popular title was apparently Don’t Bleed on Me. But if you go back far enough, the English title is the more generic Fight for Survival, which is how I finally found it (a tale which echoes my fractured search for Terry Jones’ The Wind in the Willows only to find out – years later – Disney had re-titled it Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride).

“But what about the movie, you long-winded buffoon?”

So the ten best, most famous fighters in the World of Martial Arts converge on the Shaolin Temple, saying they’ve heard a rumor that the famous Tammo martial arts manual has been stolen. As it is a great treasure of the temple, the Abbot is disturbed, and brings out the manual to prove it’s safe. At which point the leader of the fighters sucker punches the Abbot – mortally wounding him – and grabs the book, which is apparently like those books that contain multiple volumes on the sales tables at Barnes and Noble, because it flies into pieces and each of the fighters grab a piece and run away. Now that they each have one manual for each of the techniques in the Tammo book, they pull off Mission Impossible masks to reveal they were not the fighters they appeared to be.

Why, you're not the fighters we thought you were at all!

Why, you’re not the fighters you appeared to be!

And that right there is the justification for the Halloween portion of the title, over in the first five minutes, and to my mind, disqualifying it for Hubrisween. I mean, the rest of the movie gets fairly weird, but we’ve left the October Country behind.

This is where we meet Shi Fu Chun (Polly Shang Kwan), a girl who steadfastly kneels before the gates of Shaolin, hoping to gain admittance for training, even though the Shaolin He-Man Woman Haters Club does not admit girls or their cooties. Two lazy acolytes fool her into carrying water for them for a year in exchange for eventual training. That works against them when the current Abbot finds out (they now have to carry water for three more years before they can train) and Shi still can’t gain admittance. This doesn’t sit well with the old hermit Shi met and has been caring for along with the water carrying (Chan Lai Wau), who it turns out was a former Abbot who left because he was fed up with Shaolin rules.

"Non-Stop Streetfighting Action!"

“Non-Stop Streetfighting Action!”

He’s also shocked that the Tammo book was stolen a year before and no one’s managed to get it back. Just to show everyone, he trains Shi in every one of the techniques in the Tammo book so she can retrieve it and restore Shaolin’s prestige. He estimates this will take three years (this movie is pretty serious about its time compression). One problem: learning Positive kung fu causes her to grow a moustache, which the Old Man says is natural, and can remedied by studying Negative kung fu… but he’s forgotten how. To escape Shi’s temper tantrums, he fakes his own death.

These are the jokes, folks.

So after the Old Man is installed in the hall of golden former abbots, Shi does the pick-up-the-hot-brazier-and-get-dragons-burned-into-your-arms bit and leaves the temple with the two rapscallions from earlier (because we need not one, but two Odious Comic Reliefs) to reclaim the Tammo books.

Yes, sir, that's some vicious streetfighting right there.

Yes, sir, that’s some vicious streetfighting right there.

Shi and her two fifth wheels make fairly short work of tracking down the various pieces of the book, and we get to see the “magic kung fu” styles we saw briefly during her training montage, some of which involve growing arms and legs to extraordinary lengths, as seen in the previous year’s Master of the Flying Guillotine and subsequent Street Fighter games. (“They look strange because they’re very evil,” Shi explains to the OCRs) The fight scenes are unusual and exciting, but feel a bit short if you’re used to a diet of Chang Cheh blood and thunder flicks, or the more modern action movies.

Aaaaaa! Creepy!

Aaaaaa! Creepy!

Mixed in with this is the fact that the guy who snagged the Negative kung fu manual has, of course, turned into a woman and has been smitten with the Positive kung fu gender-swapped Shi (a character that presages Swordsman 2‘s Invincible Asia by nearly 15 years). The remaining band of thieves reunite to try to take down Shi, but are undone by Negative’s unrequited love and the fact that the Poison guy can’t resist poisoning everybody. Shi eventually triumphs – with the aid of the two Odious Comic Reliefs, even – and takes the Tammo book and the captured thieves back to Shaolin.

Wait a minute… there’s still 25 minutes of movie left?

Everybody conga!

Everybody conga!

Well, those ten famous fighters show up at the Shaolin temple again – economical filmmaking right there – but this time they’re the real deal. Turns out the thieves were all various disciples of theirs, and they want them released. Not for any ethical reasons, you understand, but because having their followers imprisoned affects their prestige in the world of martial arts. So they have to fight their way through the temple – represented by three of the fighters taking on masters in Monkey, Tiger, and Crane kung fu – and eventually reaching Shi in the central courtyard. She’s more than a match for any of them – even two or three of them – so they form the Shantung Battle Line, a sort of Kung Fu Conga Line that spells mutually assured destruction for both sides. With appropriate locomotive sounds, the Line takes to the air.

vlcsnap-2016-11-25-11h47m20s011Luckily, one of the two Odious Comic Reliefs knows the Old Man faked his death and he takes the hit of the Shantung Battle Line. Everyone learns a lesson, the thieves have been magically reformed by the teachings of Shaolin, the Old Man has earned his gold plating, the end.

Kung Fu Halloween/Fight for Survival isn’t the weirdest martial arts movie I’ve ever seen, except perhaps in tone. The plot is pretty standard stuff, save for the gender twist on the protagonist, and its pursuant lighter, often comedic touch. Polly Shang Kwan (real name Lengfeng Shangguan) was a versatile actress who manages the change from girl hiding behind the master (and going ee! ooh!) while he routs upstart monks to kung fu badass very well. Chan Wai Lau is a gifted physical actor who appears in what seems like thousands of  kung fu flicks.

fight-for-survival-1977-bThat, in fact, covers a lot of the actors in this – it’s full of familiar faces, and only the breadth of my ignorance prevents me from naming them all. Most only get one brief fight scene, if that – Polly’s the only woman who gets to show off her stances – but that original poster has the line of head shots along the bottom to prove it.

So I was a bit disappointed that I wouldn’t get to do a kung fu flick for Hubrisween – but I wasn’t disappointed in the movie itself. It was a whole lot of ridiculous fun – and isn’t that what Halloween is all about, anyway?

It’s Thanksgiving. Buddha and YouTube are merciful:

 

Well Now

Well wellWarning, as Neil Gaiman says: contains me.

This has been probably the most profound bout of jet black depression I’ve experienced since my checkered career as a college student. That new prescription for an anti-depressant was very well-timed, it seems, because this time I was actually able to get out of bed and force myself to, you know, do things. Well, some things, anyway.

I stayed off social media for a week. Then started dipping my toe in. The first day I made it five minutes before I had to turn off that particular faucet of despair. That period has gotten a little longer every day. I’m almost up to an hour now, and the flavor runs more toward anger, and then I have to turn off the faucet again.

I live and work in one of the counties that actually turned Texas blue for a few minutes, and I’ve found the best thing has been to be out among people, which is exactly the polar opposite of those dark college days. Well, perhaps not that opposite, but these days I’m a whole lot better equipped to consider that as an option. We’re all being pretty nice to each other. A succession of four people on the campus going through a door, each holding it open for the person behind them, and each thanking the person for doing so was a balm for a very bruised soul, far beyond such a seemingly simple act.

It made it feel a bit less like living in enemy territory.

No, it’s when you’re alone that things get bad, which is a hell of a thing when you’ve been cultivating a reputation as a solitary person for most of your life. I watched a movie last night for the first time in those two weeks, and maybe that will finally shake loose the article I’ve been trying to write for the same period, which has gotten no further than the first line I stare at for far too long. A first line which sounds increasingly like a suicide note, the more chronal distance I put between myself and its writing.

So obviously the first thing to do is delete that line. Delete it forever.

I haven’t entirely been ignoring the blog. I spent a significant portion of those two weeks repairing five years worth of dead YouTube links. I’ll be bold and say, you’re welcome! and even pretend that someone besides me has any interest in what I said years ago. Maybe the links will last more than a week this time. (Of course, one of the side-effects of that little exercise was getting heartily sick of the sound of my own voice, as it were)

So take heart; I’m certainly trying to.

Next time, let’s talk about some movies.

 

Onward

First, welcome to the new subscribers I picked up during the last Hubrisween event. Sorry for the seeming silence – when we’re not doing Movie Challenges, we only update once a week around here. An A-Z challenge like Hubrisween takes a lot out of you, and although I didn’t end up hating movies (as I have in the past with such things), it was also spectacularly easy to just not watch any for a week or so.

Then I got two gut punches in a row. One is personal, and I won’t bore you with it. The other is that last night’s Election didn’t go the way I thought it should.

So I’m going to be personal and topical tonight. Click away if you must; I totally understand. I hope to be back to my usual light-hearted shilly-shally sooner rather than later. But that is not where I am right now.

I didn’t watch the News last night, I only checked in occasionally on Google and Twitter. The only way I could keep my heart from freezing or exploding or both was listening to the Mike Oldfield channel on Pandora and re-reading Philip Jose Farmer’s Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, perhaps the ne plus ultra of escapist literature. There was a lot of deep breathing involved.

I checked into social media early this morning to confirm my worst suspicions. I did what I had to do on Facebook and Twitter for work, and then – following the advice of one very important series of Tweets, I proceeded to close the tabs for Facebook and Twitter. I had quite enough despair and rage and confusion of my own, though the little I did read at least confirmed I was not alone.

Then I followed the directions in that Tweet series I mentioned.

I had checked my blood sugars as usual that morning, but I was too dazed to write the result in my log. Whatever they were, they’re weren’t extraordinary enough to register.

I forced myself to eat breakfast so I could take my meds. Might as well, my ACA health insurance is probably going away, followed soon, no doubt, by myself.

I showered and flossed and brushed my teeth and shaved.

I put on clean clothes. I went to work.

This was important. This was to confirm to myself that Normal is still possible, still exists. Other people showed up for work and classes. Life goes on.

I took my long walk, trying to get my weight and triglycerides down.

There are a lot of people wearing black on campus today.

One of the other things the series suggested was, if you have a creative bent, do it as you are able. I’m a writer, so here I am writing. There’s some fiction I’ve let lie ignored for too long, I should get back on that horse, unhampered and untempted by those two closed-down tabs in my browser. Maybe try again to learn how to use Scrivener.

One of the other Tweet series I read before shutting it down was by an African-American, pointing out that if we felt betrayed, dismayed and that our interests and voices and well-being had been ignored and, in fact, actively torpedoed by powers apparently beyond our control – well, welcome to the club.

And that’s it, isn’t it? We’re all in that club, the Club of the Other now, and we have to redouble our efforts to look out for one another. Normal will still be possible, but it seems like it will be a debased Normal, and – barring a Twilight Zone-style plot twist – we’re going to have to struggle for it even harder.

Dan Rather used to end his newscasts with the word, “Courage,” for which he was mocked and derided. But that’s what we need now, isn’t it? Because it seems, in this horrorshow of a year, luck has largely abandoned us.

Movies will resume soon. I hope.

Z: Zeder (1983)

Hubrisween 4Hubrisween Central  ♠  Letterboxd Page

OH WHAT A LIE

OH WHAT A LIE

Zeder has an odd, somewhat fractured reputation. It was released during the great VHS boom under the title Revenge of the Dead, which is a pretty accurate description, I suppose – but it was being sold as another gory Italian zombie flick – and it ain’t that.

You think it might be, with the opening – an elderly woman getting mangled by a shadowy figure outside an old mansion, “The third in two years!”, and a mysterious Dr. Meyer (Cesare Barbetti) forcing an obviously disturbed teenage psychic, Gabriella (Veronica Moriconi) to seek out a body buried in the cellar while all sorts of Amityville shit is going on upstairs. While Meyer brings the authorities downstairs, another shadowy figure mangles Gabriella’s leg. The body is dug up, a moldering skeleton – with Gabriella’s slipper in its bony hands.

Going over the few effects found with the bones, Meyers finds the skeleton’s wallet, with an ID card, revealing the corpse was once Dr. Paul Zeder. Meyer is astounded. “He found a K Zone!” he exclaims.

Enough about that, let’s go to the present day of 1983. (There aren’t a bunch of visual cues – at least tot hese Amrican eyes – that reveal the opening was twenty or so years in the past, but we are also going to find that Zeder is that rare creature, a movie that expects its viewer to be smart enough to keep up with it) A young writer, Stefano (Gabriele Lavia) is given an anniversary present by his wife Alessandra (Anne Canovas): a dinosaur of an electric typewriter she bought at an auction. Stefano sets to writing, but the ribbon runs out quickly, and upon trying to change it, he notices he can read what was written before, by the previous owner. Something about “K Zones”.

roftd4Sensing a story, Stefano begins to trace the previous owner, and find out exactly what a K Zone might be; he visits his old college where his former professor (John Stacy) reveals that it was the theory of a Dr. Paul Zeder, who mysteriously disappeared years before. He felt that there are certain areas of the Earth where time periodically comes unglued, as it were. opening up the possibility that the dead could be communicated with at these times, and even come back to life. Absurd, obviously! Oddly, the professor’s copy of the articles laying that out seem to have vanished…

And thus, Stefano becomes more and more obsessed with solving this mystery, and overcoming the many obstacles thrown in his path. The prior owner of the typewriter was a priest who left the order when he discovered he had terminal lung cancer. The priest’s crypt is empty… because he has been buried in the grounds of that mansion, in a coffin wired with television cameras and motion sensors by a group headed up by the now grey-haired Dr. Meyers and an adult Gabriella (Paola Tanziani). The K Zone, as it turns out, is quite real, and the dead do come back – though not quite the way you’d want.

zeder-1So, as mentioned before, what we have here is not truly a zombie movie (except that the dead have a tendency to tear off throats and enough body parts for video boxes to make false claims), but a mystery more in tune with a giallo than an actual horror movie. You have an amateur sleuth, his lovely wife involved against her better judgement, and at least one remorseless killer – all that’s missing is the black leather gloves. One piece of oddness I have difficulty overcoming is why the group investigating the K Zones feel that information is worth killing to conceal. A little more information or motivation would have been nice, but perhaps that’s meant to be just one more enigma to hash over after viewing.

zeder4Pupi Avati directed somewhere around 50 movies and TV shows, but his fame in these parts rests mainly on this movie and another, The House of Laughing Windows, giving him a reputation for thoughtful horror. Zeder, as I said, is arranged as a mystery, where we know more than Stefano, but we aren’t sure of the why of things. Stefano’s gradual peeling back of the layers around the K Zone mystery keeps the viewer engaged, until the final act when the K Zone busts out The Weirdness in all its glory. A lot of low-budget horror movies do this, saving all the money for the close (appropriately so), but in the case of Zeder, it actually feels like that is earned.

It’s hard to find, but if you’re in the mood for a giallo-inflected movie with more than a bit of the supernatural in the mix, Zeder/Revenge of the Dead is worth the effort.

Buy Zeder/Revenge of the Dead on Amazon

Y: 28 Days Later… (2002)

Hubrisween 4Hubrisween Central  ♠  Letterboxd Page

28-days-later-postersYes, it’s the second Blank Tile dropped in two days. I left this one until today so I could point out that it’s “20 DaYs Later” when the Twitter intelligentsia get tired of making rape and death threats and decide this is a good hill to die on.

Dystopic horror movies can put you in a really bad mood.

Some animal rights activists break into a lab, determined to free the chimpanzees that are confined there as test subjects. The trouble being that these chimps are all infected with something called the Rage virus, which is pretty much the primary symptom, it seems. They pay the price of their misguided altruism rather quickly and messily.

Then, as the movie helpfully informs us,  28 Days Later Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakes from a coma in a hospital. It seems Jim was a bike courier who was hit by a car, and as he wanders about a deserted London, he discovers he has slept through the Apocalypse. And then he finds out that London is not quite so deserted at night, which is when the Infected come out.

28-days-later-2002-image-3The Rage virus has spread far and wide, and Jim falls in with Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley). Jim is the first uninfected human they’ve seen in nearly a week. Eventually our heroes will meet up with Frank (Brendan Gleeson), a bluff taxi driver, and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns); Frank’s done his best in an abandoned tower flat, fortified it well. But there has been no rain in ten days, and they’re running out of water. Frank, however, has a hand-cranked radio, and has found a recorded, repeating message from a military base urging survivors to come to them.

Don't get used to it, folks.

Don’t get used to it, folks.

So we have a road trip during a zombie apocalypse: sometimes terrifying, sometimes lovely. The base is found, in an isolated mansion. A small garrison of troops, led by Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston) has made full use of land mines, razorwire and generators to keep their version of civilization alive. West has a vision of rebuilding civilization from this base, and he has gone about organizing with that aim. The major problem for our heroes is that plan requires women, and they’ve just brought two of them. And these soldiers are more than willing to kill any obstructions to their Utopia.

I’d had 28 Days Later recommended to me as wondrous new twist on the zombie movie, the freshest concept in ages, a shot in the arm to the genre, blah blah blah because this was released right after I signed off on zombie movies for ten years, even the good ones. And make no mistake about it, 28 Days Later is a very good movie.

28-days-later-red-eyesWriter Alex Garland and director Danny Boyle set out to make a different kind of zombie movie, and in some ways succeeded: an argument can be made for this as one of the very first “fast zombie” movies, for one – before this, the Re-Animator movies and Return of the Living Dead seemed like outliers. The Infected aren’t interested in eating your guts or your brains. The Rage virus seems to be just that, a lot of people wandering around looking for people to hurt, to vomit blood on them and infect them. Even when they’re set on fire they don’t slow down. Ebola was used as a basis for the virus’ spread, but Ebola isn’t terribly successful as a virus: it tends to kill its victim before they can spread the disease. Rage is much more successful in that respect. Major West keeps one of his troops who got infected chained in a courtyard to a very grim purpose: he wants to find out how long it will take the Infected outside his walls to starve to death.

kinopoisk.ru

For attempting to carve out a novel approach to the zombie picture, it’s surprising that 20 Day Later still pays tribute to them very openly. Though it’s not a zombie picture, Jim’s awakening in the hospital is straight out of Day of the Triffids. The movie manages to encapsulate all three of Romero’s classic Dead trilogy: the improvised strongholds from Night, the scavenging from deserted stores and not-so-deserted building next to a source of gasoline from Dawn (right down to the child zombie), and the last half of the picture is a more pastoral yet venal riff on Day, right down to its own version of Bub the zombie. Garland and Boyle are extremely open about this, and the approach is different enough to make it appreciative homage rather than naked appropriation. We’ve seen way too much of that.

The Canon XL1: lean and mean.

The Canon XL1: lean and mean.

This is also one of the first feature films to be recorded digitally, which allowed Boyle to capture those eerie scenes of empty London far more quickly than using the standard film camera would have allowed (which probably made him very popular with the Police). That lends an intriguing look to the movie, especially where the Infected are concerned – their jittery movement caused by increasing the framerate in the camera. On film that would result in slow motion; in a digital camera, it seems to pull out frames.

So what you have here is a good-looking zombie movie with good actors and a good director, with a story that takes its characters through changes more complex than what’s on the inside suddenly coming outside. Yes, I should have gotten over myself in 2002 and watched it, but I am so much better equipped to appreciate it now, for what it is.

Good filmmaking.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/c7ynwAgQlDQ}

Buy 28 Days Later on Amazon

X: The 7th Victim (1943)

Hubrisween 4Hubrisween Central  ♠  Letterboxd Page

seventh-victim-poster-2It may be unnecessary, but I feel I need to point out the Blank Tile Rules for Hubrisween, which was developed precisely for pesky letters like Q, Y… and X. One can substitute a movie from either of the letters bracketing the misbehaving majuscule, or a movie with a number in its title. Hence, tonight’s offering for X (and tomorrow’s for Y, but that would be telling).

 Young Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter, in her film debut) leaves her private girl’s school when she is told her last remaining relative, her older sister, has vanished. She journeys to New York City, where she finds that her sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks, eventually) sold her successful beauty company eight months before; she finds she had rented an apartment above an Italian restaurant, and when she convinces the restaurant owners to let her in that apartment, she finds only a single chair, sitting beneath a waiting hangman’s noose.

sv4There’s more: though there’s no sign of Jacqueline ever being at the City Morgue, it does lead her to handsome lawyer Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont!), who is also looking for her. Ward is then visited by a psychiatrist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) who knows where Jacqueline is, but refuses to tell anyone.

The 7th Victim has a twisty plot, even for a Val Lewton movie, and it is certainly the most noir-inflected of his eleven movies for RKO. Mary navigates the mean streets of the Village with a growing cadre of helpers: Ward and Judd, a failed poet (Erford Gage) who fancies himself Cyrano de Bergerac, and the owners of the restaurant (Margarita Sylva and the real-life Chef Milani). It has a rich cast of characters for a unexpectedly complex story.

seventhvictim2One of the people coming to our waifish heroine’s aid is a weasely private investigator (William Halligan), who takes up the case of the missing sister because he’s warned not to… a contrary urge that will cause his eventual death, in one of the most effective, tense sequences in the movie.

The 7th Victim is almost 75 years old, and has been written about by much smarter people than myself, so I don’t think I am giving anything away by revealing that Jacqueline – ever “the sensationalist”, according to Dr. Judd – joined a cult of “devil worshippers”, seeking excitement and happiness, and when those did not materialize, went to Judd for her depression – and the cult considers this revelation a betrayal to their secrecy, which demands her death.

seventhvictim1But. This cult is also (rather bewilderingly) sworn to non-violence, so they have to convince her to kill herself. This non-violence thing is certainly novel, and an odd choice; rather than making the cult evil and frightening, it makes them merely selfish and self-interested to an extreme, and this fifteen years before the publication of Atlas Shrugged. This one fairly outlandish detail perversely makes our devil cult seem more realistic.

Jaqueline, we will find out, spent several weeks imprisoned at her former beauty salon, and has been in hiding since her escape. Once Mary, Ward and the Poet convince Judd to finally reveal her hiding place, Jacqueline is convinced to go to the Police. Disastrously, our band of heroes decide to let her rest for a day, which is just enough time for the Satanists to find her. Honestly, the plotting of the movie so far, in an attempt to be misleading and surprising, is a bit of a mess, but its 70 minute running time doesn’t leave much opportunity for audience cries of “Now wait just a minute…”

seventh_victim__the_001_758_426_81_s_c1Jacqueline will resist the peer pressure to drink a glass of poison, leading to one of the Lewton standards: a tension-racked walk through shadowy streets, where any patch of darkness can hide doom – in this case, one of the Satanists who has been tasked with forsaking non-violence to end Jacqueline. It can’t be overstated that RKO had come close to closing its doors after the disastrous box office of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, but it had kept almost all the craftsmen who had worked on those pictures, to RKO’s ultimate benefit. After his successful string of low-budget features, it was felt that Lewton deserved a shot at an “A” picture, which was to be the original version of The 7th Victim (which apparently actually had 6 prior victims in its story). But to do this, he would have had to abandon director Mark Robson. Lewton was extremely loyal to his co-workers, and refused, relegating this movie back to a “B” budget – and this sequence alone, if nothing else, justifies why Lewton felt that way.

Lewton was also notoriously death-obsessed, and it shows in his movies; for so many of his characters, it is, to quote Hamlet, “a consummation devoutly to be wished.” In the closing minutes of The 7th Victim, Jacqueline meets a character we’ve seen only once, at the apartments over the restaurant – Mimi (Elizabeth Russell), a dying prostitute straight out of La Boheme. “I’m quiet and I rest and Death keeps coming closer, all the time.”

“And you don’t want to die, answers Jacqueline. “I’ve always wanted to die. Always.”

seventhvictimmorgueAnd there it is, right there, bang. Lewton’s health deteriorated steadily through the 40s – probably not aided a bit by the hellacious work hours he set for himself – and he passed away in 1951 at the age of 46. 46! He once said, perhaps jokingly, perhaps not, that the message of Isle of the Dead was “Death is good.” But that moment in this movie, that one line, is a moment that hits like a freight train… especially if you’ve ever felt that way. If you’ve felt too keenly the crushing weight of life, if you’ve listened to the lies of depression that tell you that you’d be better off, that everyone would be better off.

Don’t worry. I’m on medication now.

Mimi dresses up and goes out for one last fling before her demise. Jacqueline – quietly retires to her room, with the noose and the chair.

It is possibly one of the bleakest endings in all horror or noir, two genres not known for their uplifting qualities. And that is probably the true horror of The 7th Victim – that it touches so easily a darkened corner that lurks within us all.

Buy The 7th Victim on Amazon

W: The VVitch (2015)

Hubrisween 4Hubrisween Central  ♠  Letterboxd Page

thewitch_online_teaser_01_web_largeAs I said a lot earlier in this enterprise, I have watched a lot of horror movies over the years. A lot. I do enjoy a good horror movie. But therein lies the problem – I said a good horror movie, and because I love the genre, I am a lot tougher in my judgment of them. The last time a movie actually frightened me was Ringu, and that was back in ’99; I was writing these things for a goodly portion of a decade, and I am all too familiar with how they tick. I’ve torn them apart and put them back together again.

I’m not interested in the old cliches being rehashed, unless you can put a new slant on them. I appreciate movies that have some actual thought behind them. I’m a bad fanboy, I guess. Meh horror movies feel like a betrayal to me.

So I’m inclined to be friendly toward The Witch.

the-witch-2015-woods-witchesIn 1630s America, a family is cast out of a settlement for being the wrong kind of Puritan. They set up house near the edge of some woods and begin to scratch out a life for themselves, which doesn’t go well at all. Their farm is failing. The father trades his wife’s silver cup to some traveling traders for traps, which aren’t catching any animals. Then the family’s infant son is stolen away by – they think – a wolf, but it’s actually a witch, who grinds the baby up (offscreen, thankfully) to make an unguent so she can fly through the night sky.

Things go downhill from there.

the-witch-2015-4All of that is covered in about the first twenty minutes; the rest of the movie is an examination of how the isolation and increasing paranoia of the family causes it to turn on itself, as something in the woods – and it is not simply the title character – begins to prey on them. The bait for this subtle trap was already there – the teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy)’s burgeoning womanhood troubles them all – especially the eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), who’s hitting puberty. The father, William (Ralph Ineson) can’t bring himself to confess to the mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie) that he made off with her cherished silver cup. And the young twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Granger and Lucas Dawson) are six years old and monsters anyway. The fact that they keep talking to the ominous he-goat, Black Phillip – as if he can talk back – isn’t helping matters. This family was heading toward a crisis of some sort, even if an eldritch evil in those woods wasn’t actively resenting their intrusion.

The-Witch-5The Witch, as I said, is a fairly subtle matter that won praise at festivals but not a lot at theaters, where audiences were expecting Saw or something, not a “fucking art film”. I suspect that this lack of patience was exacerbated by the thick accents of the characters; after five minutes I gave up and turned on the subtitles, much like I had to do with Attack the Block. My ear attenuated to it eventually, but the theatrical experience didn’t have that resource.

THE-WITCHWriter-director Robert Eggers has tried to create a historically accurate picture of life in 1630s New England, up to a point (in the commentary track he’s quite forward about the times he had to fudge for the sake of the picture, and why). A movie like this has to rely on the talents of its actors, and it has to be admitted that in this case, Eggers hit a home run with each and every one. The level of emotional commitment is high, and the experience of Ineson and Dickie is evident; but special praise must be doled out to Taylor-Joy, who carries the weight of the story, and Scrimshaw, who is bewitched in one of the most harrowing scenes of the movie, which took three days out of a twenty-eight day schedule to shoot.

It is quite an achievement in many ways, this movie. Stephen King says it terrified him. I’m not willing to go quite that far, but in the realm of well-made, intelligent horror movies, it definitely stands tall. It’s not a movie to see if you’re looking for action and extreme FX, but if you’re in the mood for thoughtful horror, and willing to be open to the experience, it is impressive in both intent and execution.

Buy The Witch on Amazon