Tag Archives: Horror

CAPSULE: STAR LEAF (2015)

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DIRECTED BY: Richard Cranor

FEATURING: Julian Gavilanes, Tyler Trerise, Shelby Trerise, Russell Hodgkinson

PLOT: Ex-Marine James Hunter is stricken with PTSD after a tour of duty in Afghanistan; back home, he finds a trek to discover the legendary “star leaf” strain of marijuana to be less relaxing than he’d prefer.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aliens, drugs, and psychedelia do not a weird movie make. But in the case of Star Leaf, they do somehow make a rather enjoyable exploration of redemption.

COMMENTS: I’ve watched a great many films over the years, both professionally and otherwise, deserving of their IMDb ratings in the low single digits. Some are gloriously inept; others, just straight-up inept. Despite this, it was without trepidation that I sat down to watch Richard Cranor’s stoner/horror/sci-fi outing, Star Leaf. Despite having attended one of those herb-laced, East Coast liberal arts colleges, I’ve never quite understood the allure of marijuana. Fortunately, while Star Leaf is heavy on the cannabis, the weed merely serves as the leafy wrapping over a heart-felt, and fairly funny, musing on PTSD.

James (Julian Gavilanes) is a Marine sniper in the Hindu Kush, stationed with his friend Tim (Tyler Trerise). During a hillside stake-out, Tim encourages James to embrace the “pink mist” and take a shot at a boy whom they witness being fitted with a suicide vest. Fast-forward two years to civilian life in the Pacific Northwest, James, still haunted by this event, joins Tim and his girl Martha (Shelby Trerise) on a different mission: to find, and smoke, the fabled “Star Leaf,” a powerful strain of marijuana allegedly left on earth by extra-terrestrials. Things get crazy and then a little sinister when a strange Park Ranger appears mid-buzz.

There is a lot that Star Leaf doesn’t get right. The extra-terrestrial angle is underdeveloped (or should have been ignored); grey alien-types appear from behind trees every now and again and hassle the drug seekers without much purpose and zero scares. A time-loop/stacked realities “thing” doesn’t stack up logically, even allowing for the speculative physics. And then there’s the final problem that I often have with horror films: having made some fairly interesting characters, the director seems happy enough to kill them off. Or does he?

That final ambiguity is also problematic, but I know I’m giving you the wrong impression. Star Leaf actually hits a lot of right notes: witty banter, a good message, and yet another of those great nightmare-vision police officers (or, as he repeatedly corrects the trio while tapping his shoulder insignia, “Park Ranger”). This sinisterly-stilted entity is played by none-other than director Richard Cranor, and his Ranger Dave goes a long way to making Star Leaf into an odd-ball mix of hipster/stoner “Twilight Zone.” Russell Hodgkinson even appears as the ex-biker, still-Jewish stoner guru (if that name isn’t familiar, he plays a doctor in The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle). And then there’s the underlying message: forgiveness of one’s self and others. Star Leaf has all the makings of a “throw-away” movie (as well as a “throw-away” review), but it’s one those gems that makes the trash heap worth sifting through.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the biggest qualm is in the form of the film’s second half… It’s unclear whether this is all just a part of the bad trip from the weed (judging from their weird trips after first smoking), or if it’s really happening. As such, there’s a question of whether the situation is a dangerous one or just head games. There’s just never a concrete feeling of real fear for the characters’ wellbeing, which is off-putting when there are aliens and terrorists after you.”–Mike Wilson, Bloody Disgusting (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE FOREST OF LOVE (2019)

Ai-naki Mori de Sakebe

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Kippei Shîna, Eri Kamataki, , Kyoko Hinami, Sei Matobu

PLOT: A group of young filmmakers make a movie about a con-man they suspect of being a serial killer, but he turns the tables on them when he offers to produce the film, then turns the crew into a sadomasochistic cult of killers.

Still from The Forest of Love (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Sion Sono doesn’t do “normal”; he goes for broke on every project. Forest of Love is overlong, ugly, perverse, masturbatory, and fascinating.

COMMENTS: The intricate plot of Forest of Love includes, among other things, a “Romeo and Juliet” centered lesbian love triangle, a schoolgirl suicide pact, a Svengali-like conman who seduces younger women into sadomasochistic relationships, an outlaw film crew who act like the Manson cult and run around Japan committing murders, bourgeois parents given a punk makeover, days of wine and electrocution, ghosts, and possible identity switches at the end. Sono purportedly based the screenplay on a real-life killer, but I’m thinking that he might have changed a few of the details.

The Forest of Love is a bruising movie. Its two-and-a-half hour length would normally only pose a minor challenge to the viewer, but the extreme level of emotional cruelty Sono wallows in makes it into more of an endurance test. The suicide attempts are particularly brutal, not only because of the squirmy gore, but also due to the callous reactions (the family here finds suicide shameful, and are more concerned with covering up the disgrace than empathizing with their suffering child). But although many stretches of the film are nightmarish episodes of physical and psychological torture that feel like they’re never going to end, there are also moments of incredible beauty (slo-mo schoolgirls in their underwear singing and dancing to Pachelbel’s “Canon”) and black comedy (Murata, taking on the persona of a rock star, hosts a concert with an audience stocked with his previous marks).

Sono mixes elements that are purely exploitative (and often frankly sick) with gorgeous mise en scene, expert style, and just enough intellectualism and self-reflection to overcome charges of pandering. In true Surrealist fashion, he attacks the basic institutions of society, showing Murata molding those in his orbit into an obscene mockery of a nuclear family. But he contrasts this caricature with a portrait of a real dysfunctional Japanese family that is even worse, because it is so real. There’s a lot of subtle mirroring in the plot; the teasing play between the lesbian trio in flashbacks reflect the sadomasochistic dynamics we see between Murata and the two girls, and between Murata and the two young male filmmakers. One figure is always playing off two against each other.

Sono also treads a fine line between realism and absurdity.  Murata manipulates his marks subtly, so that when they go along with his requests it seems almost reasonable at first; he then pushes them further and further until murder seems not only natural, but inevitable. Murata isn’t physically imposing and is greatly outnumbered, so all it would take to frustrate his plans is for any individual to stand up to him at any point. But cowering before his bullying seems reasonable; you see how they fear him, and feel their fear. No one wants to be the first to call him out, because he seldom dishes out punishment himself, instead commanding another to do the dirty work for him. As long as you are the one Murata asks to wield the electrical paddle against the disobedient, you won’t be on the receiving end. Of course, that respite only lasts until you displease the master; but you can see how easy it is for everyone to fall in line. By the time things get truly ridiculous, with the austere father sporting a mohawk and chugging a beer while assaulting his honored relatives, the audience has been brought along so slowly—like the proverbial frog boiled in a pot of gradually warming water—that it almost seems believable. (Of course, the finale will blow any claim to non-hallucinatory realities out of the water).

The fascist element of Murata’s charisma, coupled with the satire aimed at the Japanese family and society, suggests a political allegory. But I couldn’t help theorizing that Sono sees himself as something of a Murata… at least, recognizes that he has the potential within him to be a Murata. In the very first scene, in Murata tells a waiter he’s a screenwriter, and wonders out loud what it feels like to kill someone. The many generic references to other Sono movies and themes—the self-destruction pact like in Suicide Club, filmmakers documenting real crimes like in Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, the manipulative serial killer straight out of Cold Fish—only reinforce that sense of self-identification. “Crimes are fun in the movies and in real life,” muses one character. Does the impulse to film such dark fantasies say something about Sono? What does our desire to watch them say about us? Is Sono a con-man implicating us in his cinematic crimes? Sono fools around with those ideas, blurring the lines between representation and reality; he’s in a sadomasochistic relationship with his own demonic persona.

It’s a sign of Sono’s rising prestige that Netflix would sign him for an original exclusive production just like an Alfonso Cuarón or a , and give him carte blanche to make a movie so transgressive that people might think it really was made by a serial killer. It’s a sign of Sono’s continued outlaw status that Netflix would then hide the finished product away, not giving it a token theatrical release like Roma or The Irishman.

Forest of Love was Sono’s first film project after returning to work from a heart attack in February of this year. It was funded by, and screens exclusively on, Netflix (unfortunately, they did not give it even a token theatrical release). The dubbed version plays by default, so look around in your settings to switch it to the original Japanese with subtitles for a better experience.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sion Sono does not care that his movie is too long. He doesn’t care that it’s weird or gross or inconsistent or anything that a producer’s note might protest. We see so many movies every year that feel like the product of a focus group or marketing team. Not this one.”–Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TONE-DEAF (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Richard Bates Jr.

FEATURING: Amanda Crew, Robert Patrick, Kim Delaney

PLOT: After losing her boyfriend and her job, young adult Olive takes a vacation by herself at an airbnb rental in the country; unfortunately, her landlord is a millennial-hating boomer with murder on his mind.

Still from Tone-Deaf (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A horror-comedy that’s allegedly a satire of generational conflict, Tone-Deaf is neither scary nor funny—and although it does get a little weird, it doesn’t get weird enough to overcome its other handicaps.

COMMENTS: For the record (and I don’t consider this a spoiler) the title refers to protagonist Olive’s literal tone-deafness, the source of a running joke about how she’s a terrible piano player. Since her parents and friends all tell her she’s a whiz on the ivories, she never figures out that she can’t play, despite the fact that her renditions sound only slightly better than a drunk cat crawling across the keyboard.

See the satire? Or is it too subtle?

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that, as opposed to deep-seated prejudices about race and sex, the present (and perennial) generational conflict is relatively genial and jokey: “you kids get off my lawn!,” “in my day we walked to school uphill—both ways.”1 Although there was a brief “participation trophy” furor a few years back, in general, the ribbings oldsters give youngsters, and vice-versa, aren’t taken too seriously by either side. After all, the Boomers were the “Me Generation” that the “Greatest Generation” accused of being soft; for them to turn around and make the same claims about millennials is an absurd (if inevitable) example of history repeating itself. The Boomer-millennial clash just isn’t that serious or rancorous, so satirizing it isn’t bold or dangerous; in fact, it seems like a deflection to avoid addressing the real destructive partisan divide in today’s America. And, in the end, Tone-Deaf‘s screenplay refuses to firmly commit to either side, making us wonder what the point of the entire exercise was.

That lack of focus wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the jokes were funny. I think I chuckled once, during an unexpected deadpan cultural appropriation joke. But for the most part you see the jabs coming; they’re all telegraphed, far too obvious to catch you off guard. Heck, Harvey even breaks the fourth wall to rant about kids today, so you couldn’t accuse the script of trusting the audience to be smart enough to get the point. And yet, Tone-Deaf isn’t a complete misfire. Although the high concept misses the mark, there’s enough going on that the movie becomes watchable. Since a feature length film has a lot of time to fill between the time Olive checks in and Harvey tries to forcibly check her out, the script has to find something else for the slasher and victim to do while waiting for the final showdown. That means some unexpected plot turns, including a Tinder date in a cowboy bar and a car wash that sells drugs. Demented killer Robert Patrick’s performance can be fun, in a crusty old fart swinging a tire iron kind of way. The best parts of the film are the left-field ian touches. Harvey has a series of psycho-sexual nightmares featuring art-installation models in blue latex body paint that are funnier parodies than anything else in the script. And a cameo by —looking a bit like the Amazing Criswell lit by a multicolored strobe light during an acid trip—is a highlight (the man’s a real pro). These bits suggest a better, wilder B-movie hiding somewhere inside this misfire.

The filmmakers had to know from the outset that reviewers were going to dub this a “Tone-Deaf satire.” (It’s probably a good thing they didn’t name it Ham-Fist, although that title would have lent itself to even more accurate critical quips).

Richard Bates, Jr. made a minor splash in the indie horror world with his 2012 debut, Excision, but has since failed to follow up on that success. Tone-Deaf won’t revive his fading reputation, but there are enough shiny baubles buried under the dross to make us not want to give up on him just yet.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Tone-Deaf’ is devilishly hilarious for the first two acts, diving into murky psychological waters to trigger some spooky and surreal stuff for genre fans, but also retaining a defined sense of humor, with amusing amplification of common generational issues, having a good time poking a stick at people of all ages.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE KILLER OF DOLLS (1975)

El Asesino de Muñecas, AKA Killing of the Dolls

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DIRECTED BY: Miguel Madrid (as Michael Skaife)

FEATURING: David Rocha, Inma de Santis, Helga Liné, Rafael González Jr.

PLOT: Expelled from medical school because of his aversion to blood, Paul moves back home only to succumb to murderous impulses.

Still from Killer of Dolls (1975)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Dolls has more than a normal movie’s share of “WTF?” moments, but its overall tenor is more of poor (but enthusiastic) execution than weirdness.

COMMENTS: If there is one takeaway from Killer of Dolls, it’s that director Miguel Madrid really wanted to make something special. If there’s a second takeaway from Killer of Dolls, it’s that Miguel Madrid really liked his lead actor’s body. Alternating between being waifishly coy and flailingly bombastic, David Rocha’s performance as Paul, the would-be surgeon and definite-murderer, involves more shirtlessness and short-shorts than perhaps any movie I’ve ever seen. In fact, if there was any excuse to get Rocha nearly naked, writer/director Madrid took it.

This artistic choice’s bearings on the proceedings is at least nominally explained: Paul was his parents’ second child, born after his sister had passed away. His mother treated him as a little girl when he was quite young, going so far as to call him “Catherine,” the name of his erstwhile sibling. Grown up, Paul is too squeamish for medical school, to the point of being expelled. Moving home, he takes up some tasks at the public garden his father tends on behalf of the countess who technically owns the grounds (?–one of several unclear background points). While mincing around the plant life, he begins an altogether questionable friendship with a prepubescent boy while somehow simultaneously seducing the countess and her comely young daughter. However, he is haunted by his sister’s spirit (?), and despite his inability to cope with blood in a medical setting, he overcomes this difficulty by donning a woman’s mask and wig in order to kill various sexually precocious park visitors.

The movie begins with a doll being dismantled by a young fellow who goes on to explain the psychological nature of the feature to follow. This dalliance with feminine fetishization and psychological hokum goes unabated throughout as Paul has screaming-running fits when distressed, takes very strange showers (his writhing and vocalizations suggesting anguished arousal), wanders around his home in (short) shorts, towel, or y-fronts, or when he gears up to kill a traveling band of singing, dancing hippies who break into the park after hours for what seems like a musical intermission. It is somewhat grudgingly that I haven’t nominated this film for our Apocrypha, but in the end I had to ask myself if Dolls was any good. Alas, it falls into an awkward category; I could only screen this for someone as a lighthearted punishment, or to illustrate the kind of things 366’s reviewers are obliged to dive into. At least Rocha was easy enough on the eyes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an effectively weird film…”–Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (Blu-ray)

A GIALLO HALLOWEEN DOUBLE FEATURE

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Here in the States, we associate Halloween with the colors orange and black. Naturally, in the haunted house biz, we tend to ramp up the horror quota by adding  several gallons of splattered red. But since many of the holiday’s customs spring from Italy, let’s head there and focus on the color yellow—“giallo,” in the native tongue—for this 366 Halloween. It’s more apt than one might suspect. While both van Gogh and Gauguin utilized yellow to convey a pacifistic warmth, they also used it to convey sheer horror. Leave it to the Romans to stylishly hone in on the visceral symbology of the pigment and craft an entire genre around it.

I’ll start our giallo Halloween with Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971, directed by Paolo Cavara), which features three Bond girls:  Claudine Auger (Thunderball), (Casino Royale), and Barbara Bach (The Spy Who Loved Me). The plot is about a serial killer who dips his weapon of choice in tarantula venom and pursues the ladies, all of whom can be seen in various stages of undress. Despite it’s paper-thin misogyny, Cavara composes with stylish precision. It is paced well and a grisly enough affair to satisfy genre geeks (let’s just say that the antagonist mimics the black wasp). Composer Ennio Morricone lends a helping hand, as he always does. It’s one his wackiest scores, which is saying a lot.

Still from Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971)Tarantula is a virtual smorgasbord of giallo clichés: primary colors, rubber gloved killers, knife-wielding POV, subtle-as-a-pair-of-brass-knuckles eroticism, animal motifs a la Bird with the Crystal Plumage, intense chase scenes, razor sharp cinematography, big windows, modish apartments and spas. This makes it something of a starter kit for newcomers, although it is hardly the best giallo. In fact, it’s kind of like the Airport or Towering Inferno of giallo (we’re in for the treat of seeing celebs get whacked… in this case, the celebs being Bond girls).

I have never subscribed to the cult of . He is grossly overrated by his fanatical following, but still he has a few bright spots in his oeuvre. We have already covered A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, so let’s go with Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) instead. Together, they are probably his two strongest early films. 

Duckling is only marginally giallo, although Fulci’s worshipers swear it is one, so we’ll go with that. Fulci’s trademark misogyny is on hand here, and while there’s no denying its repugnance, there’s also no denying he was aesthetically skilled in displaying it—as he was in mocking the pedestaled traditions within Catholicism and expressing his loathing for its perversions and hypocrisies. These themes are full-blown in this murder mystery that begins with a series of brutal child murders. The bourgeoisie Catholic locals blame the societal misfits, including town whore Barbara Bouchet and voodoo priestess Florinda Bolkan—who is erroneously blamed, tortured, and savagely butchered by the ignorant male vigilante swine. But lo and behold, when there’s pedophilia and murder involved, it leads right back to the patriarchy. 

Still from Don't Torture a Duckling (1972)Don’t Torture a Duckling was a box office and critical success, but it cost Fulci much, and he was more or less blacklisted for years for criticizing the Church. This is a film that could not be made today, and although it is not as well-known as the director’s later, more surreal efforts, it’s beautifully horrific and has something to say.  Fulci says his piece with a level of subtlety that would be appropriate for .

CAPSULE: SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)

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DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton

FEATURING: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, , Christopher Walken

PLOT: Constable Ichabod Crane is sent from New York City to investigate a string of murders in Sleepy Hollow only to find that there are grisly supernatural machinations afoot.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If Tim Burton maintained the off-kilter, whimsical bloodiness of the film’s first half throughout, it might have stood a chance. Unfortunately, the tone and narrative collapse together as the movie progresses.

COMMENTS: We’ve spilled a fair amount of ink writing about our mounting disappointment in Tim Burton—a director who had such promise starting out, with a string of odd-to-weird hits including Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Apocrypha Candidate Beetlejuice. The end of the last millennium also heralded the end of Burton’s dalliance with weirdness, and Sleepy Hollow acts, appropriately, as the gravestone to his career in weird cinema.

After its haunting introduction, the story proper begins down by the docks, in a young New York City, as Constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp, in perhaps his last role before the living ghost of took full possession of him) pulls a bloated corpse from the waters. Irked by his cleverness, but bowing to his investigative acumen, the authorities send him packing to the gloomy town of Sleepy Hollow, as a string of murders there has left a terrified populace along with a growing stack of headless victims. He immediately is smitten by the fey Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), the daughter of the town’s chief farmer, magistrate, and all around patriarch Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon). Crane soon begins his twitchy investigation, uncovering a conspiracy involving some very dark arts.

With Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton reaches the peak of his storybook, Expressionistic powers. Smoke and clouds are used to the most sinister of effects. Dark dreams filled with white magic and black torture batter the hero’s consciousness. The movie’s wicked ambience—gloomy landscapes, stunted buildings, and colorful townsfolk—seems impossible to maintain. And so it turns out to be. The strangeness of seeing Michael Gambon, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, and Michael Gough as the gaggle of terrified and powerful officials is undercut, unfortunately, by two serious casting errors. I am a big fan both of Christina Ricci and Miranda Richardson, but in Sleepy Hollow the former is too childlike, and the latter too modern.

Obviously, Christopher Walken helps—he always does. His dialogue-free performance as “the Hessian” would have been a major selling point had the marketers not (commendably) opted to keep his presence hush-hush. But as I said, the whole venture starts crumbling as we learn more about the conspiracy (all these machinations for what is, effectively, a mere cash grab) and as Ichabod Crane develops his increasing fancy for Katrina (who is simultaneously fascinating and charmless). While it’s not a high water mark for Burton, Sleepy Hollow is his last good movie. (This position is perhaps affected by my own nostalgia, having seen it in theaters in my younger days.) Had he gone full tilt, it could have been a great movie.

Speaking of tilting, there is that fiery showdown at a windmill, an apt metaphor for the film. Tim loses his nerve, and crashes and burns.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Heads roll, bodies pile up, and the horseman — played in flashback by a mega-weird Christopher Walken — rises from the dead. Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote Seven, turns Irving’s Sleepy Hollow into one fucked-up farm town, filled with adultery, theft, murder and witchcraft. It’s a Burton kind of place.” -Peter Travers, Rolling Stone (contemporaneous)