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Retview #16 – The Howling (1981)

Title: The Howling

Year of Release: 1981

Director: Joe Dante

Length: 89 minutes

Starring: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Slim Pickens, John Carradine, Elisabeth Brooks

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I’ve already covered several werewolf movies in this series (An American Werewolf in London, Dog Soldiers). However, previous entries tend to verge on horror/comedy. I don’t know why, but someone way back in movie history must have decided there was something knee-slappingly funny about people transforming into humungous wolf-like creatures and ripping innocent bystanders into bloody pieces. Not so the Howling. Despite a script dripping with satire (“You were raised in LA, the wildest thing you ever heard was Wolfman Jack.”) adapted from Gary Brandner’s novel by screenwriter John Sayles, who had previously worked with director Joe Dante on tongue-in-cheek classic Piranha, there are precious few chuckles here. Except right at the very end, which we’ll get to in good time. Even now, almost four decades after it was first released, The Howling is still a brutal, terrifying, and deeply disturbing journey into the dark heart of the lycanthrope legend which has long been considered a metaphor for the beast lurking inside all of us, something which is hinted at several times throughout the movie. If you’ve never seen it, that’s something you need to rectify post haste.

Karen White (Scream Queen Dee Wallace, star of horror staples Cujo, the original Hills Have Eyes and Critters, but probably best known for her role in E.T.) is a television news anchor in LA who is being stalked by a serial killer. In conjunction with the police and TV crews, she takes part in a sting operation, agreeing to meet the murderer in a sleazy porno cinema. In the ensuing kerfuffle, the serial killer is shot dead by cops, but Karen is left severely traumatized by it all and suffering from amnesia. Her therapist (Macnee, that bloke off the Avengers) suggests she and her husband (Stone) should spend some time at an exclusive retreat in the countryside to aid her recovery, something they are only too happy to do. Big mistake. The Colony, as they call it, is full of colourful characters, one of them being a nymphomaniac called Marsha (Brooks) who tried to bed Karen’s husband. When he rejects her advances, she follows him into the woods one night and scratches his arm, thereby ‘turning’ him. They later do it next to a bonfire (snigger) in one of those scenes that you probably rewound way too much as a horny teenager, before getting creeped out by the fact that by the end you are essentially watching a couple of Furries getting some. Anyway, Karen soon begins to suspect that something sketchy is going on not just with her husband, but at the retreat as a whole, and calls in a little help from her friends. That’s when things get interesting, if they weren’t interesting enough before.

There’s no getting around it, by today’s standards The Howling does seem awfully dated in parts. But the script is extremely well-written, the cast is a who’s who of the era’s acting talent and, though Rick Baker deservedly won an Oscar for his creature effects on An American Werewolf in London a year later, Rob Bottin’s work here is just as impressive. You can achieve quite a lot with tiny inflatable air bags under latex skin. He lets the side down somewhat in the final scene where Karen morphs into something resembling a cross between a Spaniel and a Golden Retriever live on air, but we’ll let that one slide. I prefer to think that particular scene (a late addition tagged on to the end while Wallace was filming Cujo) is meant as one of those tongue-in-cheek moments. An earlier section where the werewolf attacks Karen’s friend at a secluded cabin in the woods is utterly terrifying, as is the part where our heroine comes face to face with the monster for the first time and watches transfixed as he changes in front of her. The suspense is maintained throughout, and the action rarely lets up. There’s also a fair bit of sex and nudity which led to some reviewers, somewhat unfairly, dubbing it erotic horror. Dante (who also directed Gremlins, Innerspace and Burying the Ex, amongst others) fits all the pieces together nicely, and shows neat little touches like having Little Red Riding Hood playing in the background.

Unsurprisingly, due to its success, the Howling spawned a sequel (Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf) in 1985. What is surprising, however, is that despite the sequel being a total flop it then led to a bunch more, none of which were very good. The most recent was the eighth installment released in 2011. Word is that a ninth is in pre-production, a remake of the first, which you would think would round things off nicely. Just as long as they don’t decide to remake the other seven.

Trivia Corner:

Dee Wallace and Christopher Stone were married in RL, having met on an episode of CHiPs before filming started on The Howling. They were together until his death from a werewolf bite (not really. It was a heart attack) in 1995.

 

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RetView #15 – The Fly (1958)

Title: The Fly

Year of Release: 1958

Director: Kurt Neumann

Length: 93 mins

Starring: Al Hedison, Vincent Price, Patricia Owens

“The more I know, the more sure I am I know so little. The eternal paradox.”

Andre Delambre

The fly 1958

Before the famed David Cronenberg effort in 1986, came the 1958 original. I’d never seven seen it until relatively recently. I was thinking about covering the remake for this series, but I have a feeling there might be enough 80’s flicks here as it is, and the series might benefit from an entry dating from the late-fifties. You know, for context and stuff. So, here we are.

The premise: Canadian scientist Andre Delambre (Hedison) is found dead with his head and arm crushed in a hydraulic press. His brother (Price) comes on the scene to try to make sense of what has happened. Was a freak accident? Suicide? Gulp. Murder? The scientist’s wife (Owens) readily accepts liability, but says she’d rather not say why she did such a terrible thing. Which is not only unhelpful, but pretty odd. She then takes to her bed, and starts acting weirdly. It’s especially disconcerting when the housekeeper swats an insect and she freaks the fuck out. Apparently, she is becoming obsessed with a particular white-headed fly which buzzes around the house. From that point, the film shifts from a murder mystery to flat-out sci-fi horror.

Through a series of flashbacks it is revealed that her dead husband was engaged in a ground-breaking series of experiments concerning the transportation of organic matter in an invention called the disintegrator/integrator. The basic idea is to eventually be able to send things through time and space instantaneously, thereby doing away with costly and time-consuming modes of conventional travel. He has great fun successfully transporting inanimate objects like ashtrays, then progresses to Dandelo the family cat. That doesn’t go quite so well, as Dandelo fails to reappear but can nevertheless be heard meowing somewhere in the ether. Oops. Despite the missing moggie, curiosity soon gets the better of Delambre. He constructs a pair of man-sized teleportation chambers and proceeds to try to transport himself. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to him, when he tries the experiment he is sharing the chamber with a house fly which has snuck in, resulting in their atoms becoming merged. Yes, Delambre is now part fly, and the fly is now part Delambre. Hence the scientist with the missing head and arm, and the fly with the white head. Geddit?

Ignoring the obvious plot hole, whereby Delambre somehow ended up with the head of a fly but with his old brain in it, and the flipside of that eventuality where the fly ended up with Delambre’s head, but with a fly’s brain, yet could still scream “Help me!” when threatened by a spider, something picked up on by critic Carlos Clarens (who noted that the film, “Collapses under the weight of many questions”) The Fly can still be considered a landmark in cinema. Of particular interest is the sub-text, which warns against the march of progress and the often terrible price of success. Remember, this was the late 50’s, and the decade had already brought television, transistor radios and passenger jets. UFO flaps were common. It was a time of such technological and scientific innovation, all heavily influenced by fractious Cold War politics and the continuous threat of nuclear war, that anything must have seemed possible. All this would have made The Fly terrifyingly plausible. Furthermore, it might be camp and funny now, but by 1950’s standards, the famous “Help me!” scene near the end must have been utterly horrifying. And speaking of campy goodness, do yourself a favour and check out the original trailer.

Producer/drector Kurt Neumann, who also worked on Kronos and She Devil (both 1957) died of ‘natural causes’ at the age of 50, shortly after attending the premier of The Fly, not knowing he’d just made the biggest hit of his career. Without him, film went on to become one of the Box Office successes of the year, raking in $3 million from a budget variously quoted as being $325,000 – $495,000. Much of this expense was due to it being produced in colour, another innovation which was just coming into its own. The film went on to spawn two sequels, Return of the Fly (1959) and Curse of the Fly (1966). Sadly, neither were able to replicate either the success or the cultural impact of the original and sank without trace.

Trivia Corner

The Fly was based on a short story by French/British writer George Langelaan, an interesting character who had been a spy in World War II and was allegedly a close friend of ‘The Great Beast’ Aleister Crowley. The original version of the short story appeared in the June 1957 edition of Playboy.

Go here for the previous entry in the RetView series.


RetView #14 – [REC]

Title: [REC]

Year of Release: 2007

Directors: Jaume Balaguaro, Paco Plaza

Length: 75 mins

Starring: Manuela Velasco, Carlos Vicente, Pablo Rosso

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Unlike near-neighbours Italy, with a few notable exceptions, Spain isn’t renowned for producing horror movies, something which makes [REC] all the more surprising. And terrifying. The whole thing is horribly realistic, a fact aided by utilising the much-maligned ‘found footage’ method of filming and a ‘shaky’ hand-held camera. If nothing else, [REC] proves than when done well, this can be an incredibly effective technique. Another contributing factor was the casting of Manuela Velasco (an actual TV presenter in her native Spain) as the lead, Angela Vidal, along with a bunch of unknowns. For comparison, this would be a bit like a ballsy little-known British independent filmmaker somehow persuading Lorraine Kelly to take on the starring role in his latest gore fest. Genius.

In [REC], Lorraine Kelly, sorry, Manuela Velasco, sorry, Angela Vidal, is sent to a fire station in Barcelona with her cameraman Pablo (whose real name is Pablo, just to add another element of authenticity) during a night shift to record a TV documentary. They crack some jokes and mess around, and it’s all going rather well, until a call comes in about a woman trapped in her apartment screaming. Even then, nobody panics. What might seem damn creepy to normal people is apparently nothing out of the ordinary to seasoned fire fighters, who head out to rescue the woman with the TV crew in tow. When they arrive at the apartment building they meet up with some cops, so far so good, but then the woman in question freaks out (even more) and bites one of the cops in the throat. The tension builds and the apartment block’s other residents, a motley bunch if there ever was one, gather in the lobby. Safety in numbers and all that. The fire fighters try to take the mortally injured bitten-in-the-neck cop outside to receive medical attention, only to discover that the entire building is in lockdown, having been sealed off by the military. Oh shit. Unable to escape, the TV crew then realize that many of the building’s occupants are showing signs of sickness and violent, psychotic tendencies, and it soon becomes apparent that they have landed smack, bang in the middle of a zombie outbreak.

From there, it’s a bloody thrill ride. There is a fantastic scene where Pablo the cameraman batters a zombie to death with a camera while we are looking through it and lots of spurting blood and frothing at the mouth. But far from being just another zombie flick, this one has a bit more bite to it (sorry). Near the climax, Angela and Pablo find themselves in the penthouse suite, where they discover the cause of the virus which until then they had believed to be some form of rabies. The occupant of the penthouse suite was an agent of the Vatican who was researching an enzyme he believed to be the biological cause of demonic possession. On locating a possessed girl, he unwisely takes her back to his penthouse to conduct experiments on her, but during the process the enzyme mutates and turns viral. Left with little option, the agent does a runner and leaves the girl to starve to death. Except, she, you know, doesn’t.

From relatively humble beginnings, [REC] became a huge international smash, generating over $32 million in revenue from a mere $2 million budget, and spawning a succession of sequels culminating in the last of the franchise REC 4: Apocalypse in 2014. It was remade in the US where it was re-titled Quarantine (2008) which itself bore a sequel, Quarantine 2: Terminal (2011). Both are very serviceable horror films, but neither can quite capture the intensity of the original Spanish language version. Reviewing the film for the BBC, Jamie Russell called it, “A runaway rollercoaster of a fright flick,” praising the, “faux-docu handheld style,” and the sense of claustrophobia and confusion, ultimately concluding that “[REC] will definitely jangle the nerves.” The film remains very highly regarded among horror junkies, and is regularly included in ‘best of’ lists such as Time Out’s 100 Best Horror Films of all Time, where it placed number 60 in 2016.

Trivia Corner

The actors were never given the script in its entirety, so none of them knew of their character’s fates. Sometimes until they were actually filming the scenes. This meant the actors were, more often than not, stressed out, nervous and apprehensive during filming, ideal qualities for a horror film.

Go here for the previous entry in the Retview series!

 


The Top 10 British Comedy Horror Films!

Everyone does lists of their Top 10 Horror films. I wanted to do something special for you instead. How about a Top 10 BRITISH Horror Film List? Not special enough? Well, taking it to the next level, you know how us Brits are renowned for our unique, irreverent, occasionally wacky yet sophisticated sense of humour? No? Well, we are. Sometimes it can be as subtle as an autumn breeze. Other times it can be fast, bloody, and brutal. Like a good bout of period sex. So… how about a Top 10 British COMEDY Horror Film List? Yeah, let’s do that.

10: I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle (1990)

Once upon a time, in a faraway land called 1980s Britain, there was a very popular comedy drama TV series. Boon was its name, and it was about a courier service-cum-private detective agency. It was so popular that at its peak a shrewd production company hired its two main stars, Michael Elphick and Neil Morrissey, to appear in a riotous low-budget horror romp in an attempt to capitalize on its burgeoning success. They only partially failed. In the beginning there are satanic rituals and rival biker gangs, climaxing in a motorcycle getting possessed and then purchased by an unsuspecting Noddy (Morrissey) who, coincidentally or otherwise, is a courier by trade. And then, people start having terrible ‘accidents’ and it appears the motorcycle is to blame. This is like Boon with the gloves off and the volume turned up, with blood, gore, dismemberments, swearing, lewd behaviour and even a talking turd. I shit you not.

9: Inbred (2011)

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This late-night Horror Channel stalwart sees a group of thuggish inner-city young offenders taken to an isolated Yorkshire town to do some community service. During a run-in with a group of local louts, one of their carers, Jim, falls and cuts open an artery in his leg. In a panic, the young offenders take him to a nearby pub to get help. Unfortunately, the locals (aka, ‘inbreds’) don’t like strangers in them parts. Not at all. They quickly decapitate poor Jim with a meat cleaver and lock the young offenders in the cellar, until they are taken out one by one to provide the village entertainment. Daft, disturbing and deeply offensive, the most puzzling thing about Inbred is just how far the makers managed to stretch a measly £109,000 budget, which is about half the cost of the average house in the UK.

8: Doghouse (2009)

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It’s got Danny Dyer in it, and it’s about a boy’s night out gone terribly wrong. Therefore, you just know it’s going to be crude, filthy and unashamedly misogynistic. What did you expect? At its core, it’s a parody of lad culture riffing on men’s supposed inherent fear of women. Luckily, it’s funny enough to compensate for all the Cosmopolitan schtick. Dyer, helped out by Noel Clarke, Stephen Graham and a few other less famous faces, head to a fabled town where women allegedly outnumber men 4-1. When they get there, they realize this is by no means a good thing as every female in sight has fallen victim to a biological toxin that turns them all into frenzied, blood-thirsty zombie types. It’s a battle of the sexes for sure.

7: Carry on Screaming (1966)

Apparently, very few people outside Britain have heard of the legendary Carry On films. Quite frankly, this appalls me. The films (all 30-plus of them, including such gems as Carry On Teacher, Carry On Behind and Carry On Doctor) are a British institution. Where else are you going to get fart jokes and edgy one-liners about hard-on’s and knockers on terrestrial telly at Sunday tea times? This particular outing is a parody of the Hammer Horror films, which were peaking in popularity at the time, and tells the story of a series of mysterious disappearances in the English countryside, which ultimately leads police to a mad doctor in a castle and a monster called Oddbod. Admittedly, the plot is a bit thin in this one, but the gags are timeless.

6: Lesbian Vampire Killers (2009)

Before James Corden became a late-night TV host (or got his driving license) he starred in films like this. The critics hated it, with some bloke from the Times calling it an, “Instantly forgettable lad mag farce.” But that isn’t really saying too much. This was an era when it was fashionable to lamblast lad mags at every opportunity and besides, the Times don’t like any films. Even today it’s rare to see a film get more than two stars out of five, unless it’s an artsy fartsy French drama you need multiple degrees to understand. Personally, as far as low-brow humour goes, I thought this unofficial companion to Doghouse was a riot. When Jimmy (Mathew Horne) is dumped and Fletch (Corden), is sacked from his job as a clown for punching a kid, the duo decide to escape for the weekend to an idyllic village in Norfolk. A village which, unbeknownst to them, has been cursed, leading to a sizeable percentage of lesbian vampires. And you thought Eastern European immigrants were the problem.

5: Grabbers (2012)

This is one of the more slick, big-budget entries on this list. Most of the time you just wouldn’t think it, which I guess is the point, as self-defeating as that is. Grabbers is essentially an alien invasion creature feature, the comedy aspect fuelled primarily by the fact that alcohol is found to be toxic to the invaders, which encourages the inhabitants of a small Irish village to lock themselves in the pub and get rat-arsed as a defence mechanism. Think of this one as Father Ted crossed with the Blob and garnished with a liberal sprinkling of Cloverfield. It’s not a feckin’ lobster!

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4: Severance (2006)

Severance mixes humour, bravado, and some of the most brutal body horror this side of the Saw franchise to great effect, making it one of the stand-out Brit Horror films of the past two decades. The plot revolves around a group of office staff who are sent to Hungary on a team building exercise. As you would find in any office, the cast is made up of an eclectic and varied group of characters, all living up to certain long-held stereotypes. Danny Dyer pops up again, playing everyman caner Steve, who sees the getaway as the perfect opportunity to get off his tits. He’s munching magic mushrooms and puffing on a spliff in the toilet before the coach even stops (“Have I pissed meself?”). All in all, Severance comes off like a mash-up between Hostel and The Office. Brill.

3: Dog Soldiers (2002)

There haven’t been many British horror films over the past decade or two more worthy of praise than Dog Soldiers. From the opening scenes, when a couple camping in the Scottish Highlands are ripped apart by a ferocious beast, you’re left in little doubt that this is a werewolf flick. If you like your horror bloody, funny, and gore-tastic, you can do a lot worse than this. You’re probably never going to see another northern bloke holding a flare aloft and singing, “Come and ‘ave a go if you think you’re ‘ard enough!” to a group of rampaging lycanthropes ever again. That man, incidentally, was played by an actor called Chris Robson, and he’s a French teacher in the north of England now. One of the few genuine, undisputed cult classics. Miss it at your peril.

2: An American werewolf in London (1981)

Some films you see during your impressionable formative years make an impression on you. Others scar you for life. For me, An American werewolf in London belongs firmly in the latter category. The subway chase scene gave me nightmares and years later when I first moved to London I remember going out of my way to incorporate Tottenham Court Road station (where the scene was filmed) in my daily commute. It never failed to give me chills, largely because the only thing about the station that has changed in the past 35 years are the fucking posters on the walls. The story goes that when director John Landis first started touting it, he had trouble securing finances with most would-be investors claiming the script was too frightening to be a comedy and too funny to be frightening. Eventually, PolyGram Pictures put up the $10 million, and were glad they did when it went on to become a box office smash and win an Academy Award for its special effects (Rick Baker went on to win six more from eleven nominations. A record). The story? It’s about an American werewolf in London, innit?

1: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Could any other film really take top spot in this list? Not on your nelly. This, the first instalment of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s so-called Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (the others films being Hot Fuzz and The World’s End) is a bona-fide modern classic. Whilst dealing with feuding housemates, a demanding girlfriend and a shitty job, Shaun (Pegg) wakes up one morning with a hangover to find he’s in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. We’ve all been there. Naturally, the only place to go to wait for the world to restore order is the local pub. Brilliant performances by the cream of noughties British comedic talent and commendable special effects, topped off by a hilariously witty script. The perfect introduction to a positively booming sub-genre.

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Honourable Mention:

Cockneys Vs Zombies (2012), the Cottage (2008), Sightseers (2012), Stitches (2012), Boy Eats Girl (2005), Horror Hospital (1973), Nina Forever (2015) Stag Night of the Dead (2010), The World’s End (2013), Ibiza Undead (2016)

While you’re here, why not check out the Japanese Horror Movie Marathon?

This post first appeared on the Deviant Dolls website

My latest release, Human Waste: A Short Splatterpunk Story, is out now on Deviant Doll Publications.

 

 

 


RetView #13 – Witchfinder General

Title: Witchfinder General

Year of Release: 1968

Director: Michael Reeves

Length: 86 mins

Starring: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies, Hilary Dwyer, Robert Russell

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Though its historical accuracy has been questioned, this unflinching document of one of Britain’s darkest and most brutal periods, filmed largely on location in the sweeping countryside of East Anglia, is loosely based on the activities of one Matthew Hopkins. He was a lawyer who, during the English Civil War (1642–51) when society degenerated into general lawlessness, took on the role of ‘Witchfinder General,’ and rampaged across country torturing and terrorizing innocent (probably) people he believed to be cohorts of the devil. Historical evidence suggests that he and his associates were responsible for the deaths of up to 300 men and women. They got rich charging local magistrates for the ‘work’ they carried out.

One of his favoured methods of determining whether or not his intended victim was a witch or not  was the ‘swimming test’ or ducking stool, whereby he tied people to chairs and threw them into a lake or a river. It was believed that true witches who had renounced their baptism would be rejected by the water and therefore float. If they did, they were promptly executed. Obviously, with their arms and legs bound, it was far more likely they sank to the bottom where they drowned so either way, it would end badly. He would also search for ‘Devil’s Marks’ on the bodies of the accused, which could take the form of a scar, mole, or any other kind of blemish. If no mark could be found, he would make his own with a blade. As you can probably imagine, he was despised and feared in roughly equal measures.

Here, Vincent Price does a great job of portraying the self-appointed witchfinder general. His cruelty knows no bounds and at times, he seems to exude evil at will. He and his assistant Stearne ride into the village of Brandestone and round up a gaggle of suspects, including the local priest (Rupert Davies) who is quickly executed. When her soldier lover Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy, best known for assuming the lead role in Return of the Saint in 1978) comes home from battle, he finds the priest’s niece Sara (Hilary Dwyer) has been raped by one of Hopkins’ entourage, swears revenge, and goes off in search of retribution. In the interests of self-preservation, Hopkins and his assistant then devise a trap to capture Richard and frame him for practicing witchcraft, and the climax sees both he and Sara being tortured in a castle dungeon. In a fittingly gruesome finale, Richard breaks free of his bonds, stomps on Stearne’s face then sets about Hopkins with an axe. Hopkins is only saved from dismemberment when Ogilvy’s soldier mates finally show up to save the day and shoot him dead, but by then it’s too late as dear Sara has been driven insane.

One of the major talking points around the film’s release was the fractious relationship between Price, then a veteran of some 70-plus films (not the 84 he reportedly claimed at the time, though we’ll forgive him this minor indiscretion), and the novice director Michael Reeves who’s first choice for the role (Donald Pleasance) had apparently been stonewalled by the studio. Legend has it that on the last day of filming, Price turned up on set thoroughly pissed, as per the English sense of the word. As a final act of revenge, Reeves instructed Ian Ogilvy to “Really lay into him” with the stage axe used in Price’s violent death scene. The blows you see in the movie were not faked, but Price allegedly got wind of the director’s dastardly plan and wisely padded out his costume with foam to guard himself from injury. As a suitably chilling postscript, less than a year later, a 25-year old Reeves would be dead, the apparent victim of an accidental drug overdose.

Though it pales in comparison to today’s standards, Witchfinder General drew considerable criticism for the scale and ferocity of the violence on show, with Dilys Powell of The Sunday Times famously summing it up as, “17th Century hanging, burning, raping, screaming, and Vincent Price as England’s prize torture overseer. Peculiarly nauseating.” However, helped in part to Reeve’s untimely death, the film went on to achieve cult status with few sparking so much discussion and in 2005 was named the 15th Greatest Horror Film of all Time by industry bible Total Film. In the half a century since it’s release it has become not just an undisputed horror classic but an invaluable, if heavily dramatized, historical account of one of the darkest periods of British history.

Trivia Corner:

Witchfinder General was re-titled The Conqueror Worm for its American release in a shameless attempt to link it with the earlier series of Vincent Price films based on the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. This was despite the film having nothing to do with Poe, and only included brief voiceovers of the poem in question which were added later to justify the name change. Word has it that extra nude scenes were filmed especially for the German release.

 


RetView #12 – Ringu

Title: Ringu (Ring)

Year of Release: 1998

Director: Hideo Nakata

Length: 95 mins

Starring: Nanako Matsushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rikiya Otaka, Yuko Takeuchi, Hitomi Sato

Ringu-1998-movie-Hideo-Nakata-6

It would be a huge generalization to say that I love them all because like anything else, the genre can be a bit hit n’ miss. But I’ve spoken at length before about my fondness for Japanese horror movies. Ringu (the original version of the Ring, followed in 2002 by a big-budget and hugely successful American remake) is quite possibly the king of J-Horror. It’s without doubt the movie responsible for sparking a western fascination with Asian horror movies which was mined extensively over the next decade or so with varying degrees of success. Think Pulse, the Grudge and Dark Water, all of which were remade for western audiences.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that until Ringu burst onto the screens in all its grainy glory, western horror cinema was going through a notoriously bad time. We were still bogged down in the deranged serial killer/slasher genre, which was getting decidedly old by then. There are only so many cheap scares and bloody, increasingly imaginative kills an audience can tolerate before they get desensitized to the whole thing. We wanted something new. Something that wasn’t the same as everything else. Then came Ringu.

The film begins innocuously enough, giving barely a hint of the edge-of-the-seat creepiness to follow. Two cutesy teenaged girls, Masami (Sato) and Tomoko (Takeuchi) are messing around in an apartment and discussing a cursed videotape which supposedly kills its victims after they receive a phone call seven days after watching it, when one of them confesses to watching just such a strange tape a week earlier. Then the phone rings. Some time later, reporter Reiko Asakawa (Matsushima) learns that her niece Tomoko (Yup, thadda one) and three of her friends died under mysterious circumstances, and sets about investigating. The trail leads to a cabin in the Izu area of Japan. There, she finds an unlabelled video tape. Obviously, she watches it, thereby starting off a trail of events which might just be the death of her. She enlists the help of her ex-husband (Sanada) and together they attempt to break the spell and avoid Reiko’s imminent fate. More than two decades on, that unforgettable scene where Sadako the ghost girl climbs out of a well (and then through a television screen) remains one of the simplest yet most evocative slices of cinematic history ever committed to, er, videotape? Though many have tried to replicate the effect, it has never been emulated.

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Adapted from the 1991 novel Ring by Koji Suzuki who, in turn, based the story on an urban myth , the movie has long been noted as examining Japan’s obsession with the clash between tradition and modernity. This is only one of the many subtexts critics have pointed to, another popular one being that ghost girl Sadako is a model for the modern woman and how independence conflicts with the traditional core values of motherhood. Whether you agree with any of that or not, it’s clear that Ringu is an extraordinarily complex film that works on many levels. It is a visually stunning piece of work, so heavily steeped in Japanese culture that as a westerner it’s practically impossible to grasp all the subtleties. It draws on many aspects of history, folklore, and even theatre, to create a mash-up that is much more about fostering a pervasive sense of dread rather than going for cheap jump scares. Much was made at the time about Sadako’s jerky, twisty, hauntingly deliberate movements. These were actually based on a kind of interpretive Japanese dance called Butoh, which became popular after the Second World War. Even Sadako’s classic look is no accident, having been based on a specific species of ghost called the yūrei, which invariably feature stark white faces, long black hair, and white kimonos. The reason yūrei appear this way is because that’s how Japanese women looked when they were buried.

In fact, everything about Ringu was designed to creep the viewer out. One way it achieved this was through use of a technique called ‘Ma,’ where sound effects and musical scores are deliberately punctuated with sequences of rapid pauses or even long, drawn-out silences. This was another way the film differentiates itself significantly from Western films. While Western horror uses sound to let the audience know how they should be feeling, J-Horror (and Ringu specifically), uses Ma as a way to keep the audience thrown off balance. This is just one reason the Guardian named it the 12th Best Horror Film of all Time. By the way, you can watch it in its entirety (with English subtitles) HERE.

Trivia Corner:

In what proved to be a shrewd and innovative move at the time, both Ringu and its sequel Rasen (not to be confused with Ring 2), were released in Japan on the same day, January 31st 1998. Both films had different writers and directors, yet shared many of the same cast members. Shrewd and innovative this may have been, but successful it wasn’t as Ringu was an international hit and Rasen a comparative flop.


RetView #11 – Thinner

Title: Thinner

Year of Release: 1996

Director: Tom Holland

Length: 92 minutes

Starring: Robert John Burke, Joe Mantegna, Lucinda Jenney

Thinner

Adaptations of Stephen King books are almost always given a rough ride. Even such classics as The Shining and Misery are not without their detractors. I don’t really understand why that is. My theory is two-fold. On one hand, there are a lot of Constant Readers who place the books in such high regard that they are considered untouchable. Woe betide any director who dares change the smallest detail, let alone put his own stamp on it no matter how talented he is (Stanley Kubrick being a case in point). On the other hand, there are others who just don’t like his work and are resentful of his success. I feel the same way about Justin Bieber. Another possibility is that the ‘good’ ones suffer from being associated with the shit ones. Who can forget Lawnmower Man? In that sense, Stephen King movies draw eerie parallels with his beloved AC/DC. For every Highway to Hell, there’s a Fly on the Wall.

Unlike some SK movies, usually those adapted from short stories which struggle to provide enough material for a full movie, Thinner benefits from a good, solid premise. Billy Halleck (Burke) is an arrogant and morbidly obese lawyer who has gotten rich keeping mobsters and crooks out of jail. One night he is out driving with his wife (Jenney) after celebrating a big result when she decides to give him a spontaneous (and ill-advised) blow job. That’s one way to tear his mind away from food. Understandably distracted, Billy knocks over and kills an old gypsy woman. Being personal friends of his, the local police chief and the judge conspire to have the case dismissed, and Billy walks free. Outside the courtroom, he is accosted by the old gypsy woman’s 104-year old father, who touches Billy’s face and whispers one word, “Thinner,” before leaving the scene. Almost instantly, Billy starts losing weight. At first, he is elated, then starts to worry about his health. He undergoes medical checks, which come back clear, leaving him in no doubt that he is being afflicted by a gypsy curse. He investigates and finds that the police chief and the judge have also been cursed, the former with the word ‘leper’ and the latter with ‘lizard.’ As Billy’s health wanes, he comes to the realisation that he needs help and enlists the services of one of his old mobster friends to track down the gyspies and make them lift the curse. From there, the situation escalates to a thrilling, and shocking finale. At the movie’s end you’ll be left with two, ahem, take-aways.

1: Never attempt oral sex when you are in control of a vehicle.

2: Don’t eat the cherry pie.

Thinner (originally titled Gypsy Pie) was first published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman in 1986. Though it garnered some good reviews, it wasn’t an immediate hit, selling ‘only’ 28,000 copies. After being outed as King, sales jumped to 231,000. Ultimately, it is a story of revenge, and the lengths people will go to in order to get even. Contrary to most King books, Thinner benefits from a very downbeat ending, something typical of King writing as Bachman. Burke (Robocop 3, Tombstone, Simple Men) is superb as Halleck. Okay, he looks a bit silly in the first quarter of the film when he is parading around in an outrageous fat suit pulling funny faces, but once that is out of his system and the horror sets in, he plays the part a bit too convincingly. The dialogue is passable, and the tension expertly built by director Tom Holland who cut his teeth in the horror world on films such as the original Fright Night (1985) and Child’s Play (1988). It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s all campy fun.

Reviews of the film were mixed. Noted critic James Berardinelli claimed, “Thinner could have been an opportunity to examine the ethics of a slick lawyer who refuses to accept responsibility for his actions. Unfortunately, questions of morality are of secondary importance to a film that emphasizes its Death Wish aspects.”

It didn’t exactly set the box office alight, either. In fact, it barely broke even. But this is another example of a film overcoming an indifferent initial reaction to slowly evolve into an underground cult classic. In a 2011 review, www.horrornews.net said, “Thinner, commonly mistaken for a mediocre movie, is in fact a crap-tastic masterpiece.”

I concur.

Trivia Corner:  

Thinner is partly based on an episode in Stephen King’s own life. He weighed 236 pounds and was warned by his doctor that he needed to lose weight and stop smoking. He began to contemplate what would happen if someone were to lose weight and then be unable to stop.

For the previous entry in the RetView series, please see here.


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