Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Blood and Black Lace (1964, Mario Bava)

Ah, Giallo. Ever wonder what the first Giallo film was? Well, you must look no further. Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace holds that title. It has all of the elements that made the genre what it is: a whodunit featuring a masked killer in a black trench coat killing women in gruesomely creative ways. Throw in sexuality, a few red herrings to throw the viewers off from the killer's identity and a very vivid and colorful atmosphere and you've got the Giallo. All of that is here and began here. I heard of this film listed many times when I first began watching Giallo films, and of course I've known of Bava for many years through my decade long search for Twitch of the Death Nerve. Anyway, I figured It would be a disservice to myself to not watch this. It has also been called the originator of the body count slasher films made popular in the 80s with Friday the 13th and a million imitators.

Blood and Black Lace takes place at a house for fashion models. After one of the models is murdered, the police begin investigating everyone at the house and those involved with the girls at the house. A diary belonging to the victim is found and then stolen by one of the other girls to cover up something she wants hidden in the diary. Before this information is released, she too is murdered but not before burning the diary. Soon after, each of the girls starts showing up murdered one by one.

This classic film is full of excitement, gore and fantastic camerawork. The bright colors used to accent certain objects or parts of a shot are brilliant, pre-dating and I'm sure influencing the master of the Giallo, Dario Argento. Also, I have never seen a film look so three dimensional as this film, without actually being in 3D. Bava's expertise in somehow filming scenes in layers without blurriness or close ups is absolutely amazing to watch. The film, especially considering its age, is surprisingly brutal and has some grisly deaths, including drowning, burning and some sort of claw thingy. Though not nearly as gory as today's horror films, the violent nature of the killer is almost unmatched. The way the victims are so brutally murdered is quite frightening, even earning one of the scenes a place on Bravo TV's 100 Scariest Movie Moments list. Though all of these elements together make for a wonderful film, the only problem I really had was just how dated it was and how many later films (again mostly by Dario Argento) take the blueprint of this film and take it a step further. I have argued before that just because a film is the first to do something, it doesn't mean that another film can't come along and improve upon it. Still, I would definitely recommend Blood and Black Lace for fans of horror, Giallo and slasher films to see where many films got their inspiration.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973, Jess Franco)

I know what you're thinking. Another stupid Zombie film ripping off Romero's Dead films. The cover sure looks that way, as does that title. When I first heard of the film and saw that Jess Franco directed it, I assumed the same thing, except that it was more of a Romero ripoff filled with pointless lesbian scenes. Then again, is there really such a thing as a pointless lesbian scene? Anyway, you know what I mean. Well in actuality, this film couldn't be farther from a Romero Zombie film. Sure it involves the living dead...well sort of. Read on to try to make sense of this babble. Oh and please note that there have been a million different cuts of this film (including one with scenes added from Jean Rollin's abysmal Zombie Lake). The one I watched was the Image Entertainment Euroshock Collection DVD, which is supposedly the most complete version of Jess Franco's original vision.

A Virgin Among the Living Dead begins with Christina Benson (Christina von Blanc), a young woman who recently found out that her father, whom she's never met but who has been supporting her, has died. She receives a letter from her Uncle Howard (Howard Vernon) inviting her to his castle in Montserrat, where he resides with some other relatives. After arriving, a lawyer will come to read her father's will. While waiting, Christina is introduced to the other inhabitants, including a mysterious woman named Carmence (Britt Nickols) who has no shame in making passes at Christina and their mute manservant Basilio (played by Jess Franco himself, under his real name Jesus Manera), who talks (or rather grunts) to severed chicken heads. Christina is repeatedly warned by a blind woman and eventually the ghost of her dead father to leave because of the evil that dwells in the castle.

What a weird one this was. I'm sure by the synopsis, most people would probably pass but this film is really hard to describe in a few sentences. Though I'm sure many people would hate this film, or just not get it, I "got it" and loved it. The few Jess Franco films I've seen, I've been indifferent about at best, but this one struck a nerve with me. I'm glad I chose to watch it in French with English subtitles (actually I didn't choose to watch it this way but the battery in my portable DVD player remote died so I couldn't change the settings) because it allowed me to absorb the dialogue, which was more like poetry. One of my favorite examples is:

"Where are we?
What is this world
of shadows and silence?
As sad as a cemetery
in the autumn dawn"

Not really what you'd expect from a film called A Virgin Among the Living Dead. Franco's films definitely have a unique style, usually dream like which is certainly the case here. I was thinking about it and I guess the best way to describe it is an X rated version of Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls (which regrettably I haven't seen for about 10 years). Though that may be unfair and it makes it sound cheap, and this film definitely has it's exploitative qualities including lesbianism, severed limbs (and chicken heads), oodles of nudity and then there's "The Big Ebony Phallus", which is actually one of the DVD chapter titles. I guess I'd say this movie is like a fever dream; one where nothing makes sense, which you know should scare you but at the same time, you see beauty in the darkness and you feel at home.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Kenny and Co. (1976, Don Coscarelli)

I'm sure when most people hear the name Don Coscarelli they instantly think of either two films - Phantasm or Beastmaster. Phantasm is on many people's top horror movie lists and Beastmaster is a classic adventure film that every single person in the United States who was alive in the 80's saw at least 18 times on TV. As is evident by these two films, and some of his other films (the action film Survival Quest and the horror fantasy Bubba Ho-Tep starring Bruce Campbell as Elvis Presley), Coscarelli has delved into many different genres. Kenny and Co. is no exception.

Kenny and Co. follows a 12 year old named Kenny (Dan McCann), his best friend Doug (Phantasm's A. Michael Baldwin) and their younger annoying neighbor Sherman (Jeff Roth). Halloween is coming up and the film follows the boys getting ready for their favorite holiday. The movie also features the boys doing average kid things - sabotaging school projects, avoiding bullies and playing with firecrackers.

This might sound like it could just be a lame kids movie, but the truth is that Kenny and Co. is anything but. On the surface, the movie seems pretty safe but once you get into it you realize that the film takes the viewer for a roller coaster ride or emotions. The scenes involving Kenny trying to find the courage to talk to a girl and facing death, both of a pet and of a human life, open up the nostalgia flood gates, bringing us all back to a time where childhood innocence is first threatened by adulthood. Even the lighter subjects covered in the film and the scenes of every day life for a typical preteen is something anyone can relate to. That is where the film excels as one of, if not the, most realistic and identifiable coming of age film I have ever seen. The actors, which are comprised mostly of Coscarelli's friends, relatives and neighborhood kids, all add human qualities that are lost by many professional actors. This film made me laugh, shed a tear or two and yearn for the time when every day, though filled with uncertainty and fear, was an adventure.


Saturday, August 1, 2009

Mean Streets (1973, Martin Scorsese)

Martin Scorsese has to be one of my favorite directors. Other than Taxi Driver, I had never really paid much attention to him until the past year or so. I started checking out his films and soon realized that I loved every single one that I watched. Expect more reviews of his films soon (I watched Taxi Driver for the 5th or so time last week and watched Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore again this weekend). I had heard the name Mean Streets before but didn't know much about the film before I saw it for the first time. I wanted to check it out because of three main things: Scorsese, DeNiro and Keitel. I figured I couldn't lose. I wasn't blown away with it the first time I saw it but after watching Bad Lieutenant again it demanded a re-watch.

Mean Streets takes place in New York's Little Italy. Harvey Keitel plays Charlie, part of a mob family whose job is collecting protection money. Charlie hangs out at his friend Tony's (David Proval) bar and regularly meets up with Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), a young derelict who Charlie is constantly bailing out of trouble. Johnny owes money to pretty much everyone, including local wiseguy Michael (Richard Romanus) and Charlie tries to get Johnny to pay off his debts. Charlie's Uncle Giovanni is planning on giving Charlie his own restaurant but fears that if his uncle finds out about his friendship with Johnny and that he is in love with Johnny's epileptic cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson), his chances of running the restaurant will be gone.

Upon second viewing I have definitely changed my mind about Mean Streets. Everything about it is excellent: the cast, the story, the characters and (the thing that holds the film together) the setting. Everything about this film just feels so real and the fact that much of the film is autobiographical of Scorsese's life is not surprising. Keitel as Charlie is perfect as the good guy who needs to choose between his relationships and his future, all while trying to be a good Catholic. The real star of the film though is DeNiro in the role that really got him noticed (a year before he won an Oscar for The Godfather part II). He plays Johnny with such an incredible combination of immaturity, volatility and innocence it's a wonder he didn't get an Oscar nod for this role too. Scorsese's portrait of the mean streets of New York is so mesmerizing, I felt like I was right there following the characters around. Then there's the brilliant ending, but I won't give that away.