Thursday, December 30, 2004

Horror Hotel (1960)

This film, also billed as The City of the Dead, has a finer pedigree than most of my selections, co-starring as it does horror legend Christopher Lee, known best to today's moviegoing kids as Count Dooku from Attack of the Clones and Saruman from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Even his presence, however, can't change this cliched, predictable re-hash of the Salem witchcraft legend into anything special.

Let's rush through the plot, just as the writers must have. Earnest college student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is fascinated by the pet topic of her favorite professor, Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee): witchcraft in early New England. Much to the derision of her boyfriend and classmate Bill (Tom Naylor), Prof. Driscoll seems to believe that the tales of witches and their craft were more than just hysteria and superstition - that pacts with Satan really were entered into, and that witches actually made blood sacrifices to the Dard Lord.

Nan decides to research her term paper on witchcraft over the winter school holiday at a real, honest-to-goodness creepy old New England village. Driscoll steers her toward the hamlet of Whitewood, Massachusetts, which we later discover is his home town. Nan promises skeptical boyfriend Bill and protective college professor brother Richard to return in two weeks to attend the birthday party of a mutual friend.

Upon arriving in Whitewood, she encounters weirdness at every turn, including the inexplicable unfriendliness of innkeeper Mrs. Newliss (Patricia Jessel). It seems Nan has arrived at the "Raven's Inn" on one of the two most important dates on the witches' calendar, one of the two festivals upon which they need to sacrifice the blood of a young maiden to appease the Devil and prolong their unholy lives. Wait a minute; Nan is a young maiden. And her witch-obsessed professor directed her to this town on exactly this night. Hmmmm.

After hearing droning chants coming from the basement and discovering a dead bird in her hotel room bureau, Nan decides to investigate the clumsily-hidden trap door in the floor of her room. After a fretful trip down a cobwebbed stone stairway, she encounters the big surprise: a room full of the town's inhabitants dressed in robes, celebrating a Black Mass. Nan is grabbed, thrown on a stone slab, and a knife brought down to her neck. After all, that's what happens to snoopy young coeds in weird small towns.

Cut immediately to a shot of party guests slicing a birthday cake and celebrating with noisemakers. Nan's boyfriend and brother are alarmed at her no-show status at the party and inform the police. As always, the police are worthless, which requires Richard and Bill to mount their own amatuer investigations. Will they discover the town's dark secret before the next young woman is lured to her doom and sacrificed to the King of Hell? As it turns out, yes. When confronted by the shadow of a cross in the cemetary the coven members burst into flame and are destroyed. New girl in town Patricia (Betta St. John) is saved at the last second and all is wrapped up neatly.

Now for the atmospherics. Whitewood is by far the mistiest town on earth. The boggy heaths of Scotland look like the Atacama desert compared to this place. The mist/fog starts about a mile out of town and continues throughout every outdoor space, frequently over waist height. Why no one seems to think this is the least bit odd, even people who have never been to the town and freely remark on other odd things, still puzzles me. The presence of unexplained mist has been a horror movie cliche for a long time (see the Treehouse of Horror VIII segment "Fly vs. Fly"), but this is just ridiculous.

The film also lost a little on the suspense factor once it became blindingly obvious that Nan was, in fact, to be the town's sacrifical victim. She picks up an elderly hitchhiking gentleman with a disquieting manner up the road, only to have him vanish from the car as soon as they make it into town. Could that old man have been - gasp - the Devil himself checking out the goods? Only someone with a double-digit IQ could tell for sure. Worse yet is a scene where Nan wanders into an antique store operated by recent transplant Patricia Russell who has moved to town to care for her aging, blind grandfather. Nan announces the object of her research trip, upon which Patricia produces a valuable volume of lost and forgotten witchlore. Reading through a random passage, they learn that in order to conduct an effective sacrifice, witches must acquire some special, very personal possession of the intended victim. In the very next sentence, Patricia admires Nan's locket bracelet and Nan acknowledges that yes, it is a very special personal possession of hers. If plot developments were telegraphed any faster they'd violate the Theory of Relativity.

Recommended to warlocks, H.P. Lovecraft fanatics, and fog fetishists.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Motel Hell (1980)

The "rural terror" genre is done to near-perfection in this tale of wayward motorists, smoked meats and gurgling heads planted in the garden.

The folksy brother-and-sister proprietors of the rural Motel Hello, Vincent (Rory Calhoun) and Ida Smith (Nancy Parsons), not only provide an out-of-the-way place to stay for travelers, but they run a company called Farmer Vincent's Smoked Meats which turns out an array of jerky and other vaguely sausagey products. Customers just can't get enough of that smokey gamey flavor; could it be that their curious appeal lies in a secret ingredient?

We soon discover that all is not harmless twangs and cornpone humor in this neck of the woods when a Mindy Cohn-esque Ida, clad in bulge-hugging denim overalls, repairs to the vegetable garden, where we see a row of small burlap sacks sprouting from the ground. When the bags begin swaying and producing wet moaning sounds, the Smiths' secret is revealed: they've been burying the still-living bodies of car crash victims up to their necks in the soil in preparation for including them in their celebrated meat products. Naturally they've severed their vocal cords first, so they can't call out for help. It never pays to be careless in the smoked meat business.

We see how the whole scam works in deatil when Vincent lays out a series of bear traps across the nearby road, waiting for late-night drivers to be forced into a ditch. Speeding along the highway is none other than a van full of pot-smoking hippie rock musicians, billed on the side of the van as "Ivan and the Terribles." Just as the Smiths' had planned, the van overturns and the dazed/unconscious members of the band are soon prepared for planting, along with the requisite throat surgery. The cannibalistic smoked meat business seems as successful as ever.

Like many family farms and small businesses these days, however, the Farmer Vincent line of pork'n'person treats is threatened. Once craggy, gray-haired Vincent falls for the much younger wife of one of his vehicular victims, his estranged little brother Bruce (Paul Linke), now a cop, decides to intervene. Since running away from the Smith home at age 11, Bruce has harbored dark suspicions about his family. Too young to have learned the horrible secret before leaving home, he dimly begins to process the relevant clues, such as a nearby man-made lake where Vincent and Ida have sunk a couple hundred wrecked cars. Could he, like the rest of town, have unwittingly snacked on their former occupants?

Soon even the paunchy, slow-witted Bruce makes up his mind to confront his deranged siblings and save the day in a climactic showdown with Vincent in the butchering shed. Just as Vince is about to finish up with the reckless band members recently retrieved from garden-tenderizing and now hung torso by torso with care, his little brother bursts into the scene. Each combatant finds his way to the most appropriate weapon at hand, and they are soon engaged in one of the most swashbuckling chainsaw fights in cinematic history. As in all truly life-affirming films, the doughy forces of local law enforcement triumph over the weathered forces of homicidal pork snack products.

Cast notes: Leading man Rory Calhoun had a long and mostly successful career specializing in gritty western roles such as Four Guns to the Border (1954) and Apache Territory (1958), though he also appeared opposite Betty Grable as a handsome forest ranger in 1953's How to Marry a Millionaire. Nancy Parsons, of course, is famous to generations of horny teenagers as Beulah Balbricker from the Porky's franchise. Also making brief appearances are semi-famous rock DJ Wolfman Jack as a sleazy televangelist (is there any other kind?) and John Ratzenberger, later of Cheers fame, as the drummer for Ivan and the Terribles.

The film mixes some truly filthy and bizarre scenes with plenty of oddball weirdness and fortunately, never takes itself very seriously. It's a genre parody that never becomes too knowing and self-referential and therefore manages to be truly entertaining. Recommended to horror fans, meat product enthusiasts and psychotic motel managers.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Beyond Evil (1980)

What to do when your asshole best friend involves you in a shady business deal abroad and puts you and your wife up in a haunted mansion stalked by the ghost of a Satan-worshipping Portuguese virago? According to the promo text, all you can do is try to STAY ALIVE!

Beyond Evil is your typical overwrought ghost story with its dramatic tension built off of the musical accompaniment of creepy strings, crashing kettle drums, and the throaty off-camera whisperings of 'demon' voices. Throw in some early visual effects and green rays blazing forth from characters' eyeballs and you've pretty much got the general idea.

The premise seems harmless enough: Sleazeball property developer Del Giorgio (Michael Dante) is building a hospital in an unnamed South Pacific island and invites his doormat best friend and structural engineer Larry Andrews (John Saxon) to join the project. Of course Larry brings his new wife Barbara (Lynda Day George) with him. Did we mention that the greasy Del and kind-hearted Barbara used to be an item? The stage is set for an awkward sexual triangle, but there is worse mojo waiting around the corner.

In an effort to impress his ex-girlfriend/best friend's new wife, Del arranges for the purchase of a giant colonial mansion outisde of town for the new couple, all for no money down and with rock bottom monthly payments. The only catch know.

It seems this particular haunting is courtesy of Alma Martin (Janice Lynde), a beautiful woman bethrothed sight-unseen to a wealthy island merchant a hundred years ago. His philandering ways and contempt for their marraige drive her (naturally) to the practice of black magic and a pact with Satan. When her disgusting husband decides to murder her before her powers become too great, he employs some I'm-sorry-it'll-never-happen-again sweet talk to lower her defenses and a carafe of poisoned wine to get the actual job done. Unfortunately, he was unaware of the depth of her alliance with the devil, who fulfills his part of the bargain by resurrecting Alma just as her husband is about to inter her body in the estate's crypt. She throttles him, them disappears permanently into the spirit world.

Well, it doesn't take a Gothic novelist to see what's going to happen to a woman forced to spend all day in a huge isolated house with an unsavory past. Alma Martin's spirit begins possessing Barbara's mind and body, acting through her to kill off the other main characters. It starts small, with the spirit forcing Barbara to stab her own hand with a knife (something Alma used to do for fun, since her psychic powers allowed her to heal herself instantly). Then inexplicable car crashes and industrial accidents down at the construction site - in addition to Barbara's bizarre moody behavior - begin to make her husband Larry suspect something not of this world may be to blame after all.

Just as Larry discovers best friend Del's dead body in a ravine not far from his own house and things seem to be spinnging out of control, he turns in desperation to local 'healer,' spirit guide and psychic surgeon Doctor Solomen (David Opatoshu). Having shunned the assistance of Solomen and his daughter Lea (Anne Marisse) previously as 'hocus-pocus' and 'mumbo-jumbo,' he finally asks for their help is exorcizing Alma Martin's spirit from his wife's body. In a climactic scene full of chaotic camera work, inhuman moaning and screaming, and rapid makeup changes, the spirit is finally cast out.

Interesting note about the lead John Saxon - he's been in more crappy movies than most people have even seen (over 120) and in true Hollywood fashion, changed his name to his extremely non-ethnic performing name from the decidedly swarthy-sounding Carmine Orrico.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Gummo (1997)

The world of Gummo has been described as "bleak," but that doesn't nearly do it justice; this film makes Roger and Me look like Oklahoma!. Set in the small town squalor of Xenia, Ohio, the movie features the progress of sullen teens Tummler (Nick Sutton) and Solomon (Jacob Reynolds) as they bike their way through town, killing stray cats with their air rifles. In an ever-expanding circle of perversity, they sell the dead cats to a restaurant-supply middleman, use the proceeds to buy sexual favors from what appears to be a mentally retarded woman, and eventually murder the grandmother of their teenage rival in the cat-killing business. All part of an average day in writer/director Harmony Korine's version of Xenia. Along the way we are also presented with the casual racism of a bunch of shirtless beer-swilling hicks, an arm-wrestling contest that degenerates into a drunken brawl with the kitchen furniture, and Solomon taking a bath in water that looks like untreated sewage. Bon appetit.

Try as I might, I can't find any real ideas beneath all of this willful perversity, except perhaps that all people in small towns are poor, ignorant rednecks who deserve the lives of cultureless filth in which they find themselves. This message is colored in part by the fact that liking Gummo (and films like it) is a kind of badge of hipster credibility - it you liked something this unusual and shocking to middle-brow sensibilities, you must be cool. To some perhaps, but just because something is outside the mainstream doesn't make it good. The real reason I think it works for hip urban types is because it represents a kind of aesthetic nightmare. The mullets! The baggy sweatpants with holes in them! That horrible floral print sofa! These people are evil not for any real moral transgressions, but for their unforgivable ugliness.

Finally, going into this I didn't realize that Xenia, Ohio was a real town. The "City of Hospitality" describes itself as "a church community" (strike one against them is the hipster ledger right there) that offers "a wholesome, enjoyable atmosphere to live, work, and grow in." The town recently celebrated its bicentennial, though one imagines mentions of its claim to cinematic fame were few.