Tag Archives: Horror

FANTASIA FESTIVAL 2021: HOTEL POSEIDON (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Stefan Lernous

FEATURING: Tom Vermeir, Anneke Sluiters

PLOT: The reluctant owner of a decrepit hotel deals with an incoherent nightmare of sultry guests, a sketchy pal who’s turning the ballroom into a happening nightclub, and a “sick” aunt.

Still from Hotel Poseidon (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Although it may be lacking in narrative, if a movie can be honored as one of the weirdest ever made based purely on art direction, Hotel Poseidon is a shoo-in.

COMMENTS: Hotel Poseidon is where you go if you die in Hotel Earle and your soul can’t find its way to Heaven. The building looks like it’s been underwater for fifty years and has only recently surfaced: the daily mail arrives already soaked and caked in mud, electrical fires are so frequent they’ve become only a minor annoyance, and the lobby is so cavernous that at first you don’t even notice the body tucked away in the corner. The visual sensibility is dingy, dirty and grungy, and you half expect to see a strand of seaweed fall across the lens every now and then. The Hotel is the main character, while lead actor Tom Vermeir, in the role of depressive and put-upon owner Dave, acts as its sad-sack sidekick. Hotel Poseidon is a crumbling edifice waiting for a movie worthy of its magnificent setting—a movie that, unfortunately, never arrives.

Though Hotel Poseidon doesn’t have much story to tell, it does feature two exhibitions of inspired camerawork to showcase its astonishing set. The first is the opening shot, a spiraling pan around the hotel lobby which starts on a dead fish in a half-empty tank and spins around to survey the room’s clutter of decrepit knickknacks, peeling wallpaper, dying plants, malfunctioning equipment, and unattended fires, giving you a sense of the purgatorial landscape you’ll be inhabiting for the next ninety minutes. The other lasts for about four minutes, as the camera weaves through Dave’s encounters with the pasty-faced grotesques attending some sort of prom of the living dead that’s broken out in his newly-renovated ballroom, a sequence that somehow involves him winding up on an autopsy table before escaping into the elevator; it’s the capper to a succession intricately-choreographed shots that comprise the central “party” sequence,  the film’s best segment (which could have been a winner as a standalone short film).

If this all sounds pretty weird to you, then you’re not wrong. Hotel Poseidon trends towards a “” tag. And, in terms of art direction and cinematography, the movie is far above normal standards. Unfortunately, it succumbs to a common ailment afflicting full-length surrealist features: a failure to provide a meaningful plot structure, thematic tissue, or characters we are capable of empathizing with. There is no real story, and the few recurring subplots—a sexy young visitor who insists on renting a room despite being told the hotel is permanently closed, Dave’s ailing aunt and her pension—-circle a clogged drain for ninety minutes before the film ends up back where it started. Hotel Poseidon is simply a long succession of unsettling scenes in a common setting, many of which work on an individual level, but fail to build upon each other, leading only to a downbeat experience that’s too one-note to support the film’s length. Hotel Poseidon is the first film venture financed by the Belgian avant-garde theater company Abbatoir Fermé, and there there is great talent involved; but the technique and atmosphere languish because the film doesn’t give us much reason to care what happens to its characters.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a celebration of the weird, the absurd and the surreal, constantly adding new layers of wonder, forcing its audience to sit back in submission and let the film wash over them.”–Niels Matthijs, Onderhond (festival screening)

FANTASIA FESTIVAL 2021: AGNES (2021)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Molly C. Quinn, , , Hayley McFarland, Sean Gunn

PLOT: A demon possesses a sister at a conservative Carmelite nunnery, causing a crisis of faith for one of the nuns.

Still from Agnes (2021)

COMMENTS: Perhaps it would be better to go into Agnes knowing nothing about it beforehand; I won’t give major spoilers, but if you’d prefer to be surprised, stop reading now. OK, for the rest of you, all I will really say is: be prepared for a drastic tonal shift around the middle of the film. Agnes‘ most important characters will not be those you initially assume, and some questions may go unanswered. What appears to be a rambunctious exorcism spoof evolves into something far more thoughtful. Agnes gets crazier and crazier, then gets less and less crazy, until it ends on a note of pure emotional earnestness. Although it flows from a single incident, the film is split into two parts; this procedure will frustrate some. But I found looking at the connections between the two halves, and thinking of reasons why the material might be handled with such stylistic polarity, to be a fascinating exercise.

With that said, I think it’s safer to describe the film’s “fun” first half, and leave the viewer to experience the more serious back nine on their own—except to advise you to stick with it all the way to the final scene. The first thing to note is that, although it plays its humor pretty close to the vest, Agnes is never really a scary demonic possession movie; it’s a comic take on the genre. The Church here is so riddled with clichés—hints of pedophilia, scheming monsignors concerned with public relations, an institution embarrassed by its own exorcism rites, a crusty old priest undergoing a crisis of faith contrasted with a pious young initiate, a sexually repressed nunnery—-that Agnes could almost function as a satire of movies about Catholicism. Then there are the plentiful campy bits sprinkled throughout: too-thick horror music cues at inappropriate times. An action-movie style montage of determined priests and nuns marching to exorcism. A nun named Sister Honey (!) It all seems to be heading into territory with a renegade cowboy priest who comes complete with a chain-smoking groupie in a beehive hairdo and too much bronzer. And then… well, I leave it for you to discover the rest for yourself.

Agnes is so unique, I can’t really decide if it’s firmly within the weird genre, or not. The film’s hemispheres are aimed at different audiences: the first half at a savvy genre crowd, the second at the arthouse set. It will probably appeal most to those with a religious mindset. I don’t mean people of any particular faith—I believe atheists can get as much out of it as devout Christians—but people who are concerned with and interested in the questions that religion seeks to address, questions about meaning and suffering. Seen in that light, the movie’s movement from ironic caricature to clear-headed sincerity feels like a legitimate spiritual journey. Agnes is justified by faith.

Giles Edwards adds: Agnes makes a promise to go full Ken Russell on the viewer, as Greg remarks. Of particular note is the rogue exorcist, one of those mystifying characters that I hope is based on a real-life person, but is more likely a bold combination of the Dude from The Big Lebowski and Bobby Peru from Wild at Heart. The sleek cinematographical maneuverings of the first act could have built into something wonderfully nuthouse, but the thrill of exploitation gets cut off at the bite of the face and an almost mystical exhalation of smoke. The second act—very nearly its own second movie—is slowly paced, and dwells on kitchen-table dramatic musings of identity, financial solvency, and relationship power dynamics. The bombast of the foundation kept me on the edge of a chuckle throughout, with its repressed mother superior, sketchy-swain mentor priest, and the excommunicated demon specialist; the melodrama built on that foundation wasn’t nearly as entertaining in my view, but it was much more respectable as a cinematic outing. It’s as if the director had designed a bondage fun-house basement and felt oddly compelled to hide it from the world with a factory line split-level ranch above ground level.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…as specific as it is almost uncategorizable… while the first half of Agnes takes place in the hermetic, often bizarrely humorous world of the convent, it’s the second half that gives the film its resonance.”–Matt Lynch, In Review Online (festival screening)

CAPSULE: THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM (1967)

AKA Castle of the Walking Dead

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DIRECTED BY: Harald Reinl

FEATURING: Christopher Lee, Lex Barker, Karin Dor

PLOT: Count Frederick Regula sought eternal life by sacrificing thirteen virgins, but he only made it up to twelve before the authorities nabbed and executed him; years later, descendants are haunted by his spirit, contrived by a sinister inheritance.

Still from The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism (1967)

COMMENTS: First, let’s get Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” out of the way. It’s a very short story serving as an exercise in building suspense through dread. There’s no plot to it; it is literally a stranger in a cell menaced by various torments until he’s rescued by a deux-ex-army at the end. Take note, lest you think I disrespect the Master of the Macabre, that Poe himself would go on to mock his own story with the satirical A Predicament, about a curious woman getting slowly decapitated by the sharp minute hand of a clock. “The Pit and the Pendulum” is about a man getting slowly sliced up by a descending blade. If you want to blow this up into a whole movie, you’re going to have to pad it out. Well, Poe does mention (“Nobody expects… !”) the Spanish Inquisition, so there’s our padding right there.

So now that we’ve dialed our expectations back from Eurotrash to Euroschlock, we can start with the pleasant surprises. The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism is actually a stylish (but very outdated) Gothic-period horror flick of the kind that Hammer Films, Amicus Productions, and Tigon were cranking out at the time. In fact, it is exhaustively derivative of the European 1960s horror genre, to the point where you could assemble this movie out of pieces of other movies and get the same result. There’s a mad scientist’s alchemist workbench with bubbling beakers of vegetable glycerin, there’s a carriage ride through the woods with wolves howling in the background, there’s a castle full of deadly booby traps and no OSHA compliance, yada yada. And boy howdy, do they ever love skulls as a decorative element! This movie could serve as a shopping list for a trip to a Spirit Halloween store.

Christopher Lee is Count Frederick Regula, the gluten-free equivalent to Count Chocula. The evil Count is executed for murdering twelve virgins—but this was decades ago, and we switch to the movie time frame proper where Roger Elise (Lex Barker) and Baroness Brabant (Karin Dor) receive mysterious letters inviting them to a castle. One is to receive an inheritance, and the other is just a “find out the secrets of your past” deal. Turns out they each have a connection to the castle’s former owner; Roger is a son of one of the executioners, while the Baroness is the descendant of Regula’s intended 13th victim. You see, the whole murdering-virgins bit was so the Count could achieve immortality by brewing blood into an elixir. Not that Count Drac-oops Regula is a vampire (Christopher Lee playing a vampire? Preposterous!), but because he just dabbles in the black arts that way. Well, he did before he got executed, but never mind all that, because a member of the Count’s loyal staff has sworn to finalize his resurrection plans, and has a whole castle dungeon full of diabolical weapons at their disposal.

Before we get to the castle, there’s a whole half-movie worth of set-up to plow through. First, they have to ask directions, because the letters didn’t include a Google Maps link. All the townspeople have to scowl about the sinister rumors around the castle. Then they have to have a not-quite-trusted monk along for the ride to act as a guide. Then they get waylaid by a gang of bandits on the road, since locking doors for horse-drawn carriages hadn’t been invented yet. We also tour the most haunted woods ever, populated by trees that sprout corpses and skeletons willy-nilly. After all this, the castle turns out to be subterranean, entered via a spiked iron door. Minutes later, we hear the line “I knew it! We’ve fallen into some sort of trap!” Darn it, if only there had been any ominous events and signs along the way to warn us.

On the plus side, The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism is filled with gorgeous sets and atmospheric practical effects. The performances are capable and even though the whole story is one big Gothic formula, they do the genre proud. One downside is the music, which is way too whimsically “spooky” and lighthearted for the intended tone. The soundtrack becomes a sarcastic commentary punctuating every major scene, like if you had Frank Zappa score a Batman episode. You will also need to rub some liniment oil on your jawbone so you don’t hurt yourself yawning at the dragging pace, despite its 79 minute run-time. This is the part where we’d normally call it a vintage Euro-horror treasure, but let’s be honest: there are so many movies exactly like it that we’d like to sign some kind of Pittman Act where we opt to melt a bunch of them down to reclaim the celluloid. The weirdest thing about The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism is its ridiculously misleading title. The promotional art for this film hypes this image, setting you up for an Ilsa She Wolf of the SS exploitation boob-bath. What you get is a hum-drum, if stylish, West German Edgar Allan Poe “adaptation.” We already have so much Poe around here that we have to scrape the raven crap off the index periodically.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… an odd one; the basic plot is very familiar indeed, but it has bizarre and decidedly eccentric touches to it.”–Dave Sindelar, Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings

CAPSULE: THE MASK (1961)

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AKA Eyes of Hell; Face of Fire

DIRECTED BY: Julian Roffman

FEATURING: Paul Stevens, Claudette Nevins, Bill Walker, Martin Lavut

PLOT: A South American mask causes its wearers to have 3D hallucinations when they wear it, and then to strangle women afterwards.

Still from The Mask (1961)

COMMENTS: The Mask is short, weird, good movie covered up by a shoddy B-movie. The premise is simple: a bunch of Canadians wanted to rake a bundle of Canadian dollars by making a 3-D horror film, but the 3-D process itself was expensive, so they didn’t want to shell out cash to make the entire film pop. Therefore, we get three short (four to five minute) scenes set in the third dimension, with a flat, lame wraparound story about a cursed mask that causes its wearer to hallucinate. Whenever the 3-D segments are about to begin, a voice commands the mask’s victim (and the audience) to “put the mask on now!,” and the stereoscopic horror show begins.

Fortunately, the brief hallucination sequences are memorably bizarre and surreal—proto-psychedelic, truth be told. The mosaic Aztec mask appears floating in the air, and turns into a skull with two eyeballs popping out. Later, the eyeballs melt away and snakes crawl from the empty sockets, coming straight at the viewer. A zombie walks through a haunted forest. Hooded and cowled figures flank an altar over which the now-giant mask floats. Pillars spout claws. Charon takes us on a boat ride. The mask shoots fireballs. This dialogue-free stream-of-archetypes is accompanied by one of those noisy period horror/sci-fi scores, full of futury noises, shrieks, and heavy reverb. These scenes are straight-up coolness.

The problem comes with the majority of the movie, a formulaic horror scenario where nothing makes much sense (in a thoughtless way, not a surrealist way). The cursed mask is passed from a young archeologist to his psychiatrist. A contrived chase scene where the psychiatrist’s fiancee wrests the mask away from him and runs off with it, get into a cab, tip the cabbie enough so that he takes the forbidden artifact and hides it in the Natural History museum for her, only for the psychiatrist to walk in and find it in an office almost immediately, burns up about five minutes of screen time. The mask itself doesn’t seem to have given much thought to its end game: it possesses scientists, one at a time, makes them hallucinate and strangle, sure, but what’s it all leading to, really? There has to be more an evil entity could do with its incomparable supernatural powers than gaslight the occasional idiot. There’s a perfunctory attempt to portray the mask an allegory for drug addiction, but the story’s still a yawner.

The soapy acting is only slightly better than the script: the first victim is a poor excuse for a hand-wringing  , the lead cop is solicitous and ineffective, the psychiatrist breathlessly recites silly lines like “I must experience the greatest act of a human mind: to take another life,” and the fiancee leaves no impression whatsoever.

It’s not that the narrative section doesn’t show some directorial talent; the camera swings the angle where a trembling sapling blocks our view of a too-gruesome-for-the-day strangling. In a similar vein, the camera cuts away from a suicide to focus on a nodding  bobblehead. Touches like these imply that Roffman’s talents lay entirely with visual storytelling; he doesn’t have much of a way with actors, dialogue, pacing, or the other elements in a filmmaker’s toolkit. Or, maybe, Roffman (whose only other feature credit is the unremarkable juvenile delinquent B-movie The Bloody Brood) really was a complete hack, and the credit for the movie’s successes should go the art department and to one Slavko Vorkapich, who is credited with “script for the dream sequences.”

This unevenness—boring, senseless exposition wrapped around three relatively brilliant experimental shorts—puts The Mask in an odd category of movies that aren’t all that good, but which you should hunt down anyway. It’s a bucket list movie, but it’s at the bottom of the bucket.

The cardboard red-blue glasses that come with the Kino Blu-ray or DVD worked a treat. The disc even provide a sample image for you to calibrate them. The DVD also includes an audio commentary, twenty minute documentary on Roffman, and a twenty minute 3-D introduction to the film. The Blu-ray includes all the above plus the 2015 3-D animated short “One Night in Hell.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an exercise in strangeness, but only in spurts… Surreal horror meets television procedural in the mediocre feature, which carries an abundance of eeriness, encountered through the display of some truly unsettling visuals.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Nick,” who elaborated that it “incorporates really surreal nightmarish visions throughout the entire film when the ‘mask’ is put on; it’s very strange, especially when the year it was released is put into perspective.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: KILLDOZER (1974)

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DIRECTED BY: Jerry London

FEATURING: Clint Walker, Carl Betz, Neville Brand, James Wainwright, Robert Urich, James A. Watson Jr.

PLOT: Construction workers on a remote island inadvertently unearth a meteor containing a malevolent spirit from beyond the stars, which proceeds to possess a Caterpillar D9 bulldozer and stalk the men.

Still from Killdozer (1974)

COMMENTS: We rely on our machines, but we don’t trust them. They function in ways that produce the illusion of sentience, but most of us can’t begin to understand how they work. Particularly unsettling are the ones that we operate like beasts of burden. They are faceless, eyeless mammoths that dwarf us, and the damn things move. The Car… Duel… Christine… big soulless behemoths that girdle the globe clearly tap into a raw, soft spot in our primal brains. So it only stands to reason that a particularly powerful beast – like, I don’t know, say… a bulldozer – would prove especially stimulating to our amygdalas.

The title, therefore, does a lot of the work. Killdozer is a magnificent portmanteau, forcing a chuckle at the pure chutzpah of the enterprise. Like Snakes on a Plane or Sharknado, it promises delightfully absurd levels of bloodlust and mechanized mayhem. Alas, it ultimately cannot deliver on that promise, and doesn’t really seem to want to.

The possessed crawler would seem to have a lot going for it as an unstoppable killing machine: it’s very big, it’s made entirely of impenetrable metal, and it can level anything in its path. One thing that the possessed earthmover does not have in its arsenal is speed, and that probably results in the greatest disconnect between terror and reasonable fear. Lacking even the handling and acceleration of a Roomba, a grisly fate at the hands (treads?) of the Killdozer seems eminently avoidable. Perhaps that’s why it spends so much of the film biding its time, watching from the underbrush or peering down from lofty hills, somehow clothed in stealth despite being enormous and bright yellow and spewing black smoke and deafening noise.

Does that sound dumb? Well, the Killdozer turns out to be well-matched against its prey. The cadre of construction workers frequently runs directly into harm’s way. One dives for cover inside a metal pipe. Another stares into the vehicles headlights like a deer, waiting patiently for the lumbering killer to reach him. And leading the way for humanity is Clint Walker, with his modeling-clay voice and taciturn visage. We’re told that he is suffering from mortal blows to his credibility and self-assurance thanks to bouts with the bottle. Ultimately, though, he displays about as much personality as his opponent.

Perhaps most surprising – and to the film’s great detriment – is the extreme earnestness with which it treats this remarkable situation. No postmodern irony for Killdozer. It’s deadly serious, this tale of an enormous piece of construction equipment gone mad. Which is extraordinary, because if you can’t flash a wry smile at a movie called Killdozer, what else have you got?

So Killdozer doesn’t have much to offer (except possibly as promotional material for Caterpillar, should they ever wish to extol the destructive power of their products). As a title, it’s a cute punchline. But as a movie, it’s probably best left buried.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Despite having a place in the bad movie vernacular, Killdozer is really a crushing bore of a film that never lives up to the cheesiness its title and premise promise. The film is very slow going, even more slow moving than the titular bulldozer itself.”  – Jon Condit, Dread Central

(This movie was nominated for review by James Mendenhall. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)