Saturday, 27 February 2010

Video Nasty #8: Blood Feast

Synopsis: Local caterer and occult obsessive Faud Ramesis has been asked to cook for Mrs Fremont's dinner party. He's planning an egyptian feast, something which hasn't been attempted for thousands of years. Unfortunately Tescos is all out of female body parts, so he takes it upon himself to hunt the local free range birds.

In 2010 i'm attempting to watch and review all of the films on the DPP Video Nasty list. Click here for an explanation.

Blood Feast (1963) is the original splatter movie, making its director, Herschell Gorden Lewis, the godfather of gore. Lewis' previous films were mild skin flicks, and as such Blood Feast has the aesthetic and quality of a low budget soft-core porn movie; everything is shot on a single camera and the three wall sets are gloriously poor, spoilt by the sound stage making all dialog echo unnaturally for such a small room. The low-rent quality of filmmaking actually compliments the script, which is more camp than a carry on film made by John Waters. The dialog is dumber than a Michael Bay first draft and the actors would be relegated to 'second sheep' in a primary school nativity play. But that really doesn't matter, because Blood Feast isn't a serious film, it's a bloody, silly, splatter flick made to make the drive-in audience simultaneously scream and howl with laughter.

The gore is so ridiculously it's sublime. Legs are dismembered and skin-flick beauties are decapitated, all with the camera lingering on the gore for far longer than required, like a kid poking a dead body with a stick. My favourite sequence shows Ramesis ripping out a victim's tongue. After he's yanked it out we see an excessive amount of blood pouring from the victim's mouth, the flow clear helped by the actress' still attached tongue, clearly in cheek. It's obvious that the film's miniscule budget has gone into the special effects, and the film's better for it. It's in no way realistic, but then what fun gore film is?

Faud Ramesis is the star of the piece, hammed up wonderfully by Mal Arnold. As if his huge hypno-caterpillar eyebrows rendered purple by the technicolor wasn't odd enough, he has a Keyser Söze style limp, making escape from the scene painfully slow. Ramesis wants to bring his beloved Egpytian god Ishtar back from the dead, which requires a blood feast of women's body parts. When a customer asks him to arrange a dinner party, he can't belive his luck. 'It's a sign to begin' he effuses to his Ishtar effigy, ignoring the fact that as he is a caterer this is hardly an infrequent event.

The two inept detectives are on the puzzling case of the murders, spending most of their time on an echoey soundstage discussing how horrifying it all is. Serendipitously, Detective Thornton has been attending weekly egyptian history lecturers with his girlfriend Suzette 'All these murders take the joy out of everything' Fremont, which still doesn't help him solve the murder until the last few minutes of the film. The paucity of investigation could be excused if the book 'Ancient Weird Religious Rites' written by Ramesis hadn't been found at the scene of the first murder.

Much like the greatest film ever made, Evil Dead 2 (obviously), Blood Feast doesn't take itself seriously and manages to use gore in a fun slapstick way. There's little surprise that this is cult film, and it's definitely something I'll be watching again in the future (not a huge undertaking, considering the 65 minute runtime). It's a shame that much of the work in the genre this film defined only takes inspiration from the gore, leaving the fun behind.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Video Nasty #7: Cannibal Holocaust

Synopsis: Four young documentary filmmakers venture into 'The Green Inferno', an area of the Amazon inhabited by cannibal tribes. When they fail to return, an NYU anthropologist leads a rescue mission to find the missing group, or at least what's left of them. The professor returns to New York with reels of film that hold the horrifying and troubling truth of the filmmakers' disappearance.

In 2010 i'm attempting to watch and review all of the films on the DPP Video Nasty list. Click here for an explanation.

I really loved aspects of Cannibal Holocaust. It was far gorier and shocking then any of other nasties i've watched so far, and it was put together with aplomb. Although this wasn't the first film to use fake documentary footage, it's incredibly realistic and undoubtedly bought the technique to a mainstream audience influencing, if not directly, The Last Broadcast, The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield. Much like The Blair Witch Project, it was deliberately implied during promotion of the film that the four documentary filmmakers were not actors and that the recovered footage shown in the film was real. Unlike The Blair Witch Project, this claim is slightly preposterous as half of the film is shot in a traditional cinematic way.

The gore in Cannibal Holocaust is at times incessant, but still manages to maintain its realism and shock factor. One infamous scene shows a woman impaled on a tall wooden stake, the spike protruding through her mouth. The effect was so realistic the filmmakers had to explain how it was achieved in court to avoid a murder charge. The marketing trick of blurring the line between fantasy and reality obviously worked on the Italian authorities.

Cannibal Holocaust is a damning criticism of the media's tendency to focus on horrific images when covering war and violent conflict. At the time various news agencies had been accused of faking such images to improve ratings. More broadly, the film questions who is more uncivilised, the cannibals with their unusual and primal rituals, or the civilised filmmakers who exploit them for ratings and cheap shocks?

Although often lacking in subtlety, Cannibal Holocaust's script makes its point well, especially during the last half of the movie when the viewer is shown the recovered reels of films. These scenes are narrated by the disapproving Professor, ensuring that even a ten year old can understand the underlying point of the film. The documentary makers not only exploit the tribes by filming their day to day rituals in a lurid manner, but they also interfere, terrorise, murder and rape the tribe's people to elicit responses for them to film. When the documentary makers discover the woman impaled on a spike the cameraman has to tell one of the men on film to stop smiling; he can't help showing his glee at finding something so horrific to capture on celluloid.

The original cut of the film lingers on a depressing amount of animal cruelty, presumably because it's a cheap way to make the viewer question what is real and what is fake. After all, these crazy uncivilised tribes will cut anything up for some wacky ritual or a quick bite, the film's just showing what happens in the real world, right?

And this alludes to my problem with Cannibal Holocaust. How can one point the finger at media for exploitation when the filmmakers themselves think it's acceptable to film an extended sequence of giant turtle being caught, decapitated and gutted, just for a cheap thrill? How can they justify cutting a live monkeys face off (twice, to get all the shots required) in the name of art or to make a political point? The filmmakers are either completely naive or, worse, making a film they know is exploitative and immoral, using the political message as a get-out clause, something to excuse the barbaric and stupid, stupid, stupid animal cruelty. It's heartening to read interviews with the directors and actors expressing remorse for using animal cruelty, but this doesn't excuse it.

Cannibal Holocaust is in parts a fun film, but it can't escape its own hypocrisy. It's a shame that the animal cruelty happened, because without it the film would be a sure fire classic.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Mini B.

This year was my tenth valentine day with Jen and to celebrate we spent a long weekend in a cosy cottage in Dorset. Sometimes I forget how beautiful this country can be and thanks to the Internet one can find some pretty amazing accommodation for the same price as a shitty chain hotel (someone should tell Lenny Henry).

Jen found a fantastic cottage near Lyme Regis which according to a fountain on the grounds was built around 1826. The main room had an open fire which, despite being lovely to sit by, contributed to my ongoing emasculation as all fire building was begrudgingly conceded to Jen. My scout leader would be very disappointed.

We were warned that the grounds was the domain of a human hating pheasant which had a habit of attacking anyone who got near it. Luckily we avoided the misanthropic bastard and instead stumbled upon a deer resting a hundred metres from our cottage. Of course it bolted as soon as it saw us, but it really was something to behold.

On the way back we stopped in Wells, the smallest city in the UK and also the setting for the fictional 'Sandford' in the movie 'Hot Fuzz'. Wells cathedral domineers the surrounding landscape and it's a little awe inspiring to see it rise on the horizon when driving towards the city. We managed to find most of the major locations from the film - the village square, the church where Tim Messenger lost his head and, most importantly, the local supermarket. At this point I realised I could no longer call myself a film geek as I had too much self respect to take a photo of the busy Somerfields car park. Wells is a small city yet a big village and it's interesting to see how the geography a film creates can be completely different to real life.

I couldn't recommend the cottage enough and the owners were lovely. Click here to find out more.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Video Nasty #6 : Night Train Murders (AKA Late Night Trains)

Synopsis: Two friends are on a long distance train journey to visit parents for Christmas. Unfortunately they choose to share a carriage with a couple of psychopathic thugs and a nympho who subject them to rape and fatal torture. When the murdering trio find themselves in one of the dead girl's parents' house the newly bereaved are left with a choice - either hand the murderers over to the police or make them suffer like their daughter.

In 2010 i'm attempting to watch and review all of the films on the DPP Video Nasty list. Click here for an explanation.

If the synopsis to Night Train Murders sounds familiar, that's because it's a slightly smudged carbon copy of Last House on the Left, a film that was made 3 years earlier and also features on the DPP list. Last House on the Left is itself a retelling of Bergman's The Virgin Spring

'Rape & Revenge' is a genre that despite some recent attempts at resurgence has been relegated to exploitation infamy. There are variations on the above plot (see I Spit On Your Grave), but the films all claim to explore the old testament notion of an 'Eye for Eye'. Is it right to reciprocate a violent act with more brutality, or does that just further perpetuate the notion that violence is ok if the person committing it believes they are morally justified? No where is this question more contentious than the scenario of a parent having the chance to avenge the rape and murder of their daughter.

It's an interesting yet tough subject to explore, especially when the film will most likely end up being labelled horror, immediately restricting its primary viewership to adolescent teens and film geeks (i'm guessing i'm the later). Unfortunately, one has to question the morality of the filmmakers when most of the movie is slick stylised violence and the little dialog that addresses the central thesis could of been written by a fourteen year old emo.

Technically Night Train Murders was fine and the cinematography exceeded most other films on the list. The characters were introduced efficiently and, where required, likeable enough. The fact that the upper class female instigates the violence and eventually avoids persecution due to misplaced preconceptions of the parents provides an interesting commentary on how we judge others with respect to class.

I especially enjoyed the way the two male villains were introduced, robbing Santa Clause in broad day light. The only more ham-fisted way to exemplify their evil trait would be to have them beating up the Easter Bunny, or possibly punching a nun.

I suspect Night Train Murders was banned for the same reason Straw Dogs was out of circulation for so long. An early scene in the film shows what begins as a rape turning into consensual sex, which is clearly obscene given the DPP's definition. It should be noted that the equivalent scene in Straw Dogs was far more ambiguous and regardless, that was a really good intelligent film.

As i've alluded, my biggest problem with The Night Train Murders was the lack of intelligent exploration of its supposed thesis. When the violence in your film is more despicable than most exploitation movies (which I think is required to elicit the required response from the parents and the viewer) it has to be balanced out with something approaching intellectualism. If it isn't you end up with a film that is far more offensive than any of the so-called unintelligent nasties. Despite the interesting social commentary on class and preconceptions, the film doesn't really address the central issue of revenge.

The parent's discover they are harbouring the murderers eight minutes from the end of the film, giving very little time to explore the key issue. In fact there were only two instances of dialog that came close to exploring the theme. The first was at a smug dinner party, where there was a brief discussion about society breeding violence (this was the point when I knew exactly how the rest of the film would play out). The second was just before the father executed the second man. His wife screamed the utterly cheesy line 'Hasn't there been enough violence?'. Yeah, she's right. There was enough violence. Just not enough of anything else.

After thought: On reflection I think i was expecting too much from the film, after all, it is an exploitation revenge movie. With this in mind, the pay off is surprisingly tame and just wasn't satisfying enough.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Video Nasty #5 : Don't Go in the House

Synopsis : After Donnie Kohler's mother dies, the voices in his head tell him that he is free to do all the things he's always wanted to do. He can turn music up loud, jump on the furniture and lure women back to his house, cover them in petrol and light them up with a flame thrower. Ah, the incandescent joys of being young and single.

In 2010 i'm attempting to watch and review all of the films on the DPP Video Nasty list. Click here for an explanation.

Making a good film about a serial killer is difficult, especially when the murderer is the protagonist. The lead character of a film normally has to be engaging and interesting, something which is easily achieved by making them likeable or somebody the viewer can identify with. Unfortunately it can be difficult to empathise with someone who thinks a normal night in is hosing down his next victim and then slapping on some makeup and tucking his cock'n'balls between his legs.

Such films normally address this problem by making the killer so dislikable and abhorrent that the viewer is determined to see them die in a way far more grissly and torturous than his victims endured (Night of the Hunter, Death Proof, Eaten Alive). Another approach is to make the killer likeable or even justifiable, but the film is then walking a fine line between good gory fun and material that is at best morally questionable and at worse (to use a very loosly defined term) obscene. Basically, the film becomes the sort of thing Mary Whitehouse and her cronies were, in their eyes, trying to protect us from.

Most of the low budget serial killer films exist because it's an easy way to get the blood flowing and to scare the audience silly. To avoid the moral quandary of making a serial killer the leading role the filmmaker normally throws in some half arsed exploration of what drives the person to kill, mother issues being the pedestrian but oft-used explanation. In this case you can almost guarantee that the dead mother is decaying in her Sunday best in her favourite chair in the basement, bedroom or attic.

Given this, I had to groan when five minutes into Don't Go In The House the main character's mother dies and he starts hearing voices. Regardless of how good the film is, in my mind it was never going to recover from this tired cliché.

Donnie is obsessed with fire. But unlike most pyromaniacs he's only happy when using a human being as an organic tinderbox. The idea was kindled by his mother, who burnt the evil out of him as a child. When she passes he's set free to carry on her good work, and converts a room of his house in to a metallic fire proof chamber. His victims are women he lures into his solitary house on the hill, and he keeps their flambéed remains like his decaying mother, in a comfy chair in a pretty dress. His house becomes reminiscent of a life size doll house that's been set on fire by a kid playing with matches.

There is very little violence in Don't Go In The House, but the few moments of violence are particularly shocking. There is one scene that undoubtably got the film listed on the DPP's array of nasties and it has now been burnt into my memory, laying dormant for when horror films finally turn me into a murdering nut job. If videogames don't do it first. Or comics. Or the Internet. Or the next big technological advancement that our moral guardians don't understand and don't want to understand.

Donnie's first victim wakes up stripped naked, her hands chained to a hook in the roof. Wearing a flame retardent suit he covers her in petrol and despite the woman's pleas he sets her alight with a flame thrower. The camera then lingers on the poor women dying with surprisingly effective special effects. This is a horrible act of violence and is filmed effectively well, immediately making me hate the previously mild mannered and quiet Donnie.

How anyone could watch something so totally repellent and be inspired to go out and do the same is unimaginable. The whole point of the DPP list was to stop this 'filth' corrupting children's minds. One has to question why it's deemed unacceptable to show something that is filmed to make the violent act so clearly abhorrant when its ok for people to watch Schwarzanneger heriocally mowing down 100s of people with a machine gun.

Despite this truly effective moment, the rest of the film is relatively dull. The Donnie character is played well, but I found him too weedy and pathetic to be a really interesting character. The highlights of the film has to be the fleeting shots of his decaying mother's corpse watching over him, or a dream sequence where he's dragged into a hole by his crispy victims. In a fun sequence at the end of the film the mother and victim's corpses return to life to ensure Donnie's inevitable fire based demise.

The only other thing of note about the film is the Disco soundtrack. Films that use popular music on the soundtrack date fast, especially when the music is in a relatively new genre (disco, electro, grunge, metal etc.). The film was made in 1980, such that the soundtrack probably made the film look dated the day it was released. Despite the music showing the film's age the disco was a fun backing to the seriously demented main character. In one memorable scene he smashes a glass candle holder in a woman's face at a disco because she was coming too close to seeing his childhood burns. The brutal act becomes slightly surreal because it's soundtracked by the most upbeat music ever written.

Don't Go In The House isn't a bad film, it just isn't particularly good. It's quite dull, which is impressive for a film that's 80 minutes long. Coincidentally, Don't Go In The House is one of many films with instructional titles on the DPP list. We're not just told to avoid the house, but also Don't Go In The Woods, Don't Go Near The Park, Don't Go In The Basement and Don't Stick Lego Up Your Bum (I may of made the last one up).