The October Country 2

The second phase of the current writing project is finished; now I have time to write about other stuff, at least for a day or so.

coverrrrrI bought the Scream Factory blu-ray of Lifeforce months ago, then allowed it to languish while I watched and did other things. I thought October would be a swell month to finally drag it out, and I’d be lying if I said seeing Gravity didn’t cause me to kick it to the top of the pile.

The default presentation in the blu is a longer, “approved” cut – I seem to recall reading this was a European version or somesuch, but I was rewarded with a lengthier opening sequence of the joint British/American research mission discovering a derelict alien space ship in the coma of Halley’s Comet. The opening now plays out like a mini horror movie in its own right, and helps the whole affair seem much more solid.

First, as gratifying as it was to see a space shuttle still being used in Gravity, it was even better seeing one with a nuclear engine being used to study a comet, because back in 1985 we still had money to spend on such frippery. (We also thought Halley was going to be the prominent presence in the sky that is presented in the movie, but oh well).

"We can't stop here! This is Bat Country!"

“We can’t stop here! This is Bat Country!”

You likely know the rest of the plot by now: amongst the dead giant bat occupants of the alien ship, three distinctly human bodies are found in crystal cylinders. These are removed and taken back to Earth, where it is discovered that they aren’t humans, but the creatures the vampire myths were based upon. One – Mathilda May (twenty years old at the time and gloriously nude for most of the movie) escapes, and starts unleashing a vampire plague upon the land, She is pursued by British spook Peter Firth (at the time likely best known in the States for Equus) and an even-higher-strung-than-usual Steve Railsback.

This is based on Colin Wilson’s novel The Space Vampires, which I dutifully read back in ’77 or so when it was published in paperback. I don’t remember much about it, except that the movie, ahem, doesn’t follow it too closely. I’m not even sure it could, given the ultimate climax concerning two different races of energy beings with neo-Lovecraftian names. One thing that does make the jump to celluloid is the vampires’ ability to body jump, which always pisses me off in a movie – I’ve seen it done well, once, and that was in The Hidden, where it was germane to the plot. Generally it is employed as a cost-effective way to complicate matters, and it seems so thrown in at the last minute.

8f01103af1a51388324c81210f61eb34There is one thing the body jumping does provide us, though, and that is a brief but important appearance by a pre-Picard Patrick Stewart (replacing John Gielgud, no less) as an unlikely victim of the body jumper, and there is one moment, when Railsback is speaking to her through the drugged Stewart, that you get the uncanny feeling that yes, there is a woman behind Stewart’s eyes; it is literally one of the best pieces of acting I have ever seen, and I have been in awe of the man ever since.

Lifeforce is flawed, there is no denying that, but it somehow remains entertaining despite those flaws, and with a general (almost gleeful) streak of sexual perversity running throughout, it’s also memorable. Time has been kind to it.

And then I looked sadly at my handful of Scream Factory blus beside Lifeforce and  Prince of Darkness – The Howling, The Fog, Prison, From Beyond, The Vampire Lovers – movies I have already seen, some many times – and I realized that if there was any rationale behind these Movie Challenge thingies, it was to drive myself to experience new movies. So I sadly shuttled those old friends aside and reshuffled the Halloween stack to include movies I had not yet seen.

First up: Sinister.

SinisterMoviePoster2012Ethan Hawke is Elliot Oswalt, a writer of true crime books who is now in the tenth year past his hit debut novel. Desperate to get his mojo back, he moves his family into a house where a family was murdered and their youngest daughter disappeared – without telling his wife or two children about that little detail.  His prevarication, when his wifes asks him if they just moved three houses away from a crime scene, a simple “No…” is amusing, and will, of course, return to bite him on the butt.

In the houses attic, Elliot finds a box of 8mm movies and a projector, and to his horror, he finds that one is a movie of the family’s murder filmed while it was happening. The others are similar massacres taking place back through the 60s, and Elliot realizes his book is now about a serial killer. Researching symbols half-seen in the footage, he also begins to realize that he is on the track of something much, much older than the 1960s and much, much worse than a serial killer.

film-sinister-splshSinister has been described as Ramsey Campbell Lite; I can’t testify, because all my attempts at reading Campbell have failed. I should probably try again, now that I’m older and calmer, because I really liked Sinister. It has a good, linear progression as the mystery is teased out, and if there is a failing, it’s that somebody needs to teach Elliot Oswalt how to use a light switch. The first scary trek through the house takes place during a power outage, but we have later long trips through the darkened house with Ethan Hawke obliviously creeping past countless light switches and lamps. Were I in his situation, screw the electric bill, all lights go on at dusk and stay on until dawn.

Or, as my son put it, it’s brighter outside the house at night than inside.

Good cast, great direction from Scott Derrickson, previously known for The Exorcism of Emily Rose (didn’t see) and the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (which had its good points).  A horror movie that starts out strong and manages to ratchet up the tension throughout. Highly recommended.

And then things went raaaaaather south on me.

The_Visitor_VideoCoverI had been aware, on some level, of The Visitor for years, mostly in a mental folder labeled DON’T BOTHER. Then The Projection Booth podcast said some interesting things about it, and I relented and even put it on my Letterboxd Watch List. Then Diabolik DVD had a sale on Code Red DVDs, and one of them was The Visitor, and that is how events do conspire against me.

First, know that this movie is unaccountably star-studded: John Huston, Lance Henricksen, Franco Nero, Glenn Ford, Mel Ferrer, Shelley Winters, Sam Peckinpah!!! all of them doing their best. Hell, even the second stringers are really good, Joanne Nail putting out a vulnerable Lee Remick vibe (we’ll soon see why that is important), and Paige Connor as the Baddest of Seeds. It’s just… this movie, man. This freakin’ movie.

It starts with Jesus (Nero) telling us of the battle between the Captain (Huston) and Satan, or, more properly, SATEEN (Satan apparently has very good copyright lawyers). Sateen is broken into several parts to be reborn piecemeal, and Huston keeps hunting the pieces down. In this case, it’s Paige Connor, a girl in Atlanta (the movie does present a pretty neat time capsule of Atlanta in the late 70s). Her mom is being pressured by Lance Henriksen to marry him and have a son, who will also be Sateen, which is important to the shadowy Committee that needs more Sateen in the world (headed by Mel Ferrer).

Cosmic, man.

Cosmic, man.

Paige has telekinetic powers (and a thick Southern accent that they should have just gone with, instead of trying to suppress it) which enables her to shoot her mom in the back without touching the gun. Mom, now in a wheelchair, still resists Henriksen’s wiles, so the Committee has her kidnapped and artificially inseminated.  Shelley Winters comes in as a nanny who takes no guff from our little monster (Connor complains that Winters actually hit her in their confrontation scene), yet doesn’t get Carrie White-ed. Not so lucky is Glenn Ford as the cop investigating the shooting, who winds up in a bizarre Omen-inspired death scene.

That is the major problem here – The Visitor is a sci-fi inflected Omen where the Damian character wants a sibling, but then keeps following other, time-consuming paths that ultimately lead nowhere. Huston keeps cropping up with an army of shaven-headed monks, but he never really does much until the end, after an attempt to copy the climax of Close Encounters with ten bucks and some flashlights.

WHOA! I'M PEAKING, MAN! I'M PEAKING!

WHOA! I’M PEAKING, MAN! I’M PEAKING!

I suppose it was all worth it to see Peckinpah as an actor. He turns in a very real, sympathetic and gentle portrayal as Nail’s former husband, a doctor who performs an abortion when Mom realizes exactly what has been done to her. Even more surprising when you hear Peckinpah on set was, well, Peckinpah. Abusive, probably drunk. His role was cut down considerably, and it’s a credit to the filmmakers that I got no intimation of that while watching.

Maddeningly oblique as to what exactly is the endgame Connor and Huston are moving toward, even after seeing the whole thing, The Visitor… well, it must be art, because I don’t get it. It is fun to watch Huston and Peckinpah, though.

Do not take that as a recommendation.

Here witness the astoundingly inappropriate music apparently on vacation from an Italian crime drama:

The October Country Trek Begins

I love October. It’s my birthday month, temperatures finally begin to cool in the hellhole where I’ve set up shop, but above all, the macabre becomes the law of the land. Yeah, I watch a lot of horror movies, but in October, everybody watches horror movies. Unless they’re wusses. You’re not a wuss, are you?

That’s a hard sell, this year, The popular challenge is “31 Nights of Horror”, but if I’m not working evenings at Job 2 or Job 3, I’m trying to churn out 1000 words a night on a writing contract (yes, four jobs, because like all liberals, I am such a fucking moocher. Bitterness intended), and this does not leave a whole lot of time for movie watching. Yet, I manage, such is the siren call of the horror movie. I can sleep when I’m dead (or collapse from exhaustion).

220px-Prince_of_darknessIt feels like I’ve been championing Prince of Darkness forever; ignored at the box office, lambasted by critics. So I, of course, love it – it’s the sort of mashing up of science and horror I really enjoy, and director John Carpenter’s choice of pseudonyms for the screenplay credit – “Martin Quatermass” – really points up his desire to do a Nigel Kneale-type picture. Although the last faux Kneale movie he was involved with, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, didn’t do so hot, either.

Supported by one of Carpenter’s creepiest soundtracks, the opening of Prince is marvelous in its precision; an elderly Catholic priest dies before his appointment with the Cardinal, and thus Donald Pleasence discovers the Brotherhood of Sleep, who have kept in the basement of their discarded church an ancient, sealed vat of green liquid which has begun agitating itself of its own accord. The problem is, the substance, locked away in the vial, is getting more active. Actually, the problem is it appears to be Satan.

So the priest reaches out to Professor Birack (Victor Wong), a quantum physicist who had engaged in a series of televised debates with him years earlier. Birack and a troop of graduate students set up shop in the church, hoping to quantify just what the liquid actually is – and that process leads to madness, death, possession, and an army of the homeless led by Alice Cooper.

prince-of-darkness-liquid-container-devilThis was Carpenter’s first independent production in years, and it’s nice to see him blossom again on a comparatively low budget. Some concessions are made to this lack of money, as in the cost-effective menace of homeless schizophrenics (a constant lightning rod for PC bitching). Bits of questionable science provide grist for nerd pedant complaints, but good grief, I realize faster-than-light travel is impossible, but I still watch Star Trek. Even I wince at the ancient astronauts angle, which is so outlandish that I expect to see Prince of Darkness playing regularly on what now passes for The History Channel.

Thing is, I don’t care. I love this movie, one of the last movies to actually frighten me in a theater. There is so much here that is good, I can actually forgive any shortcomings and enjoy myself. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait for the Scream Factory blu-ray, which did not disappoint. But I did wait a couple of weeks to watch it. Stupid Jobs. Stupid adult life.

There was a brief detour to watch Gravity on opening day – yes, if you still haven’t, see it and spring for the 3-D and huge screen. This one will not be the same on home video, I don’t care how orgasmic your home theater system might be. In the spirit of contrarianism, after enjoying the $80 million dollar CGI of Gravity, I partook of the $80 menace of The Devil Bat.

devil_bat_poster_01The Devil Bat, in my opinion, gets unjustly dismissed. Sure, it the quintessential Poverty Row production (for years, i thought the distributor’s name, PRC, stood for Poverty Row Company, not Producers Releasing Corporation), small cast, limited locations, a risible flying monster on a string. In fact you’d see the same setup many times from Poverty Row, notably with George Zucco in The Flying Serpent, not to mention the deliriously-named Devil Bat’s Daughter. But this time out, we have Bela Lugosi, not quite yet a parody of himself, and a somewhat fresh angle on the revenge motif.

Bela is Dr. Paul Carruthers, whose chemical genius has made multi-millionaires of the Heath and Morton families, who built their cosmetic company fortune on a revolutionary cold cream formula sold to them for a mere ten thousand dollars. Sadly for the families, that ten grand (an all the other money they’ve paid him for subsequent products) has gone into his experiments with “Glandular stimulation through electricity”, which means he’s been creating a bigass bat with Kenneth Strickfaden equipment.  Deciding to kill off both families, Carruthers gives each a sample of a new after-shave he’s working on, and the Devil Bat uses that scent to track down its targets.

devilbatLugosi is really good in this; he gives the character a tragic undertone. Every time a future victim leaves with their bottle of Bat Bait, no matter how they take their leave – “So long, Doc!” “See you later!” he always answers “Goodbye” in as portentous a manner as possible, and we even see a little regret in the mad genius.

As is the tradition of the times, our hero is a wisecracking reporter – Dave O’Brien, the “Faster! Faster!” dope fiend of Reefer Madness. He’s actually a solid leading man, small wonder he eventually became Captain Midnight.  This was also apparently a time of unparalleled cooperation between the Police and the Press, as O’Brien walks into the Police Chief’s office and offers his investigative skills to the poor, bemused bureaucrat. Thank God for the fourth estate!

The Devil Bat itself is fairly ridiculous, especially since they keep cutting in the head of a fruit bat in close-ups – I guess because of the pointy ears, but come on, it’s a fruit bat! They have one of the cutest faces in the bat world!

I watched this on the new Kino-Lorber blu-ray, and the commentary track by Richard Harland Smith is first-rate, presenting a ton of information in a brisk 68 minute span.

So… How busy am I? That’s only two of nine movies I’ve watched lately… and I don’t have time right now to even name the rest. Best to just get these up and write up the others as I have time …IF EVER. See you when I can.

Or, as Bela would say, “Good bye… Dr. Freex.”