Thursday, September 3, 2009

Celluloid Horrors Movie Reviews

Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales Of The Pale And Silvery Moon After The Rain) -1953
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
Starring Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyō, and Kinuyo Tanaka

In the post WWII days, ‘Ugetsu Monogatari ‘was one of the films responsible for bringing Japanese cinema back to the U.S. Photographed in starkly realistic black and white, it still manages to retain the sense of a fairytale. Better known internationally by its truncated title, ‘Ugetsu’, it’s still considered a classic of Asian film and should be added to any true horror fans collection.
With such a poetic literal translation as ‘tales of the pale and silvery moon after the rain’ there is an expectation of beauty and subtly: ‘Ugetsu’ does not disappoint. It is both of those things and more.
The film’s story is about two couples, Genturo and his wife Miyagi, and Tobei and his own demanding wife Ohama. Genturo wants to grow rich from sales of his pottery, while Tobei dreams of becoming a famous samurai warrior for a powerful warlord. Both wives warn their spouses against getting what they wish for. Soon, a nearby battle swallows up their peaceful village, forcing them to flee, and eventually sweeping the couples apart.

Genturo travels to a nearby village to hock his goods, where he meets a mysterious young noblewoman and her elderly handmaiden. They buy some of his pottery and invite him to deliver it to their strange isolated castle by the sea. It is mostly a dreamlike place, where Genturo is quickly ensnared by carnal wonders. He falls in love with the young woman and marries her, forsaking his lost wife and child.
Meanwhile his friend Tobei, now out from under the cautious eye of his wife, uses the last of his money to buy a suit of armor so he will be mistaken for a samurai warrior by the local fighters in a pitched battle for dominion of the land. He sneaks onto the battlefield and happens upon an enemy general committing seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment). He attacks the dead general’s second, killing him, and steals the general’s head, which he then brings to the local warlord, claiming victory over the enemy. The warlord gratefully declares him a top samurai warrior and gives him retainers, horses, and weapons.
Back at the dream castle by the sea, Genturo discovers his fantasy woman is actually a frustrated spirit, who died much too young and never got a chance to have true love. She tells Genturo he can never leave her. Genturo, fearful for his soul, narrowly escapes the castle, only to find it has disappeared by morning, leaving him destitute and alone. He races back across the river to search for his wife and child, and finds them in their nearly destroyed home, in a seemingly deserted village. He falls asleep in his wife’s lap, praising her, apologizing and sobbing. In the morning he awakes to find he and his son are alone. He searches frantically for his missing wife, only to come across a stunned villager who explains his wife has been dead for weeks.
Meanwhile Tobei, quite proud of his new stature as a famous warrior, struts through town with his faithful men in his wake, and wanders into a bar to find his wife has become a prostitute to survive after his desertion. Shamed at his betrayal, he falls at her feet and begs for forgiveness, tearing off his armor and throwing away his weapons.
By the movie’s end the survivors, Genturo, his son, Tobei and Ohama settle into a quiet existence in their old village and begin the process of rebuilding their homes and the pottery kiln, while reverencing the fallen Miyagi.
Director Kenji Mizoguchi’s cinematography and flawless camerawork creates a sublime dreamlike fairytale, but still manages to surprise his viewer with scenes of brutality and death amidst the floating sense of the narrative. It is a quiet and beautiful ghost story taken from a collection of short stories by Udea Akinari and Guy de Maupassant, intertwined into a seamless masterpiece of narrative and imagery.
Several years ago Criterion released a two disk version of this film, complete with tons of extras, but you may have to pay top dollar now because it seems to be out of print as of this writing. But even if you cannot find the Criterion version, get a version. Hell, you can even catch it on rare occasions on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). If so, set your VCR or your Tivo for this one—it is a must!

--Nickolas Cook

Headspace- 2006
Director: Andrew van den Houten
Cast: Christopher Denham, Sean Young, Larry Fessenden, Erick Kastel, William Atherton, Dee Wallace Stone, Olivia Hussey, and Mark Margolis

Independent film has changed so radically in the last fifteen years that it’s almost impossible in most cases these days to get a feel for the raw power that independent cinema once provided. HEADSPACE has got that rawness, but with the sense of professional productions values that usually only a large studio can provide. And in a decade of useless sequels and remakes of the classics of horror, this movie is a welcome breath of fresh air to the ailing genre.
From the very beginning, in a menace-laced prologue of a seemingly insane mother (played by Sean Young) going on a rampage against her husband (played by actor/director Larry Fessendan) and two sons, it taps into the sense of unease associated with familial secrets. Admittedly, the prologue is a bit of a red herring, but does add to the overall tone of the film, so its obvious misdirection can be forgiven.

After a nastily sodden matriarchal death, we flash ahead to contemporary NYC as a young man sits for a chess game with a sardonic older man in the park. This is our first clue that there might be a connection between Alex (played by stage actor Christopher Denham) and Harry (played by a brilliant talent, Erick Kastel) about which we know nothing.
Later Alex seeks help from doctors (played by Dee Wallace Stone and William Atherton) about his agonizing headaches and his sudden ability to speed read and know secrets about people he’s never met before.
The mystery deepens when we find out that Alex sees demons in his nightmares…and they’re soon coming through to the real world.
Enough said, or else we might spoil the experience of viewing this excellent film.
The strengths of HEADSPACE far outweigh the weaknesses, but while I’m discussing them…let me say it does suffer a bit from the MTV sickness. You know what I mean, right? You know…those video montage flash-cut editing tricks. I’ve always found them annoying. It does nothing for the narrative in most cases, and tends only to call attention to the director, not the story. It’s when HEADSPACE loses these childish pretensions of mock style that it becomes a truly good horror movie.
The musical score keeps a surprising balance and unity to the narrative, blending seamlessly into the background, despite the jarring rock music thrown in as an afterthought. Without the rock music montages this might have been one of the most perfectly constructed musical scores for a horror film since THE SIXTH SENSE. It was subtle and winding, like a Harold Budd/Brian Eno album for film.
And I don’t usually commend an editor because I feel the less conscious we are of the editing the better the editor has done his/her job. But I’ve got to give some kudos to Elwaldo Baptiste for his condensed style of editing, especially when it comes to trying to fill in all the background we need for the story. It couldn’t have been an easy task to get two movies worth of stuff in an hour and half film. But this came off pretty well in the end product.
The special effects are real, folks. No freakin’ overused watery CGI crap here. Used sparingly, but to great effect to the end product, I found the only letdown was actually seeing the creatures full on. They suffered a bit from the rubber suit syndrome. But still it does work very well up to that point. Creepy cinematography helps keep them in shadow and just out of focus.
There’s a complexity to the story that the packaging belies. Trust me. Don’t go by the pathetic synopsis that the packaging provides, or else you’re never going to watch this film. And any horror fan should definitely see this. It’s not a prefect movie by far--what with the scattered midstream story, the frustrating red herrings tossed in as an attempt to obfuscate an already convoluted narrative, and the useless sex scene thrown in for those who can’t seem to find a true demarcation between horror and sexual taboos. But if you can set those minors flaws aside, you’ll find a diamond in the rough with HEADSPACE. I’m definitely going to be looking for more from Andrew van den Houten in the future. I think if he can get a few more years of filmmaking under his belt, he might have something powerful to say in this genre.

--Nickolas Cook

Waxwork- 1988
Director: Anthony Hickox
Cast: Zach Galligan, Deborah Foreman, Miles O’Keefe, Michelle Johnson, and David Warner.
It’s hard not to have fun while watching WAXWORK, especially if you’re a horror fan. Hell, the movie’s really nothing more than a tribute to the classic monsters of cinema and literature. And as long as you go into it with the sense of fun that’s intended, you’ll have a great time.
A mysterious stranger (played superbly as usual by the great David Warner) moves his waxwork into a small town, invites some local teens to hang out for the opening midnight show, and uses them to open a doorway between the real world and the world of terror- a world, of course, peopled by the likes of Jack the Ripper, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, a man-eating plant, zombies, various other evil baddies, and the Marquis DeSade (huh?).
I didn’t say it made sense, did I?

Zach Galligan and Deborah Foreman play the courageous protagonists who find out his evil plan and bring in a group of ancient keepers of the doorway to bring down the villain and his horror baddy henchmen.
A special word of note about Deborah Foreman: if her scene with the Marquis DeSade doesn’t get you ready for the whip and torn lace…well, something ain’t right. She is one of those major hot-as-hell horror scream queens. After appearing in several classic 80s horror films around that time, she now seems to have disappeared from the world of film, and I am sadder for it.
WAXWORK is by turns funny, scary, bloody, and erotic, so it works from all angles. Director Hickox knew his movie monsters and how to make a sweet little horror film with no pretensions to anything but that. The effects are good, but not great. The music is synth-crap, but mostly in the background, so it’s not intrusive enough to get in the way of the film. The acting is cheesy and fun.
So grab the popcorn and beer, order up a pizza, turn down the lights, and give it a shot.

But, wait…there’s more. See below…

--Nickolas Cook

Waxwork II: Lost in Time- 1991
Director: Anthony Hickox
Cast: Zach Galligan, Alexander Godunov, Monika Schnarre, Bruce Campbell, Michael DesBarres, David Carradine, Joe Baker, and Jack Eiseman

The great thing about Artisan is the fact that they included the hilarious sequel to WAXWORK on the same disk. WAXWORK II: Lost in Time is just plain fun. Nothing mind altering, nothing too intellectual going on, just fun.
The story picks up from the end of the original, as Zach Galligan and the character played by Deborah Foreman, now played by less than Deborah star quality actress, Monika Schnarre, stagger home. Monika’s followed home by a severed zombie hand, which kills her abusive father, and winds her up in the poke. After a needlessly long court scene, she is released on bail, and she and Zach hurry back to his attic, where his grandfather kept some ancient magic items (again, I didn’t say it was going to make sense, did I?). They stumble across a cronometer that gives them the ability to travel through time and space. So they go leaping through a cheesy green screen doorway and into one hilarious bloody adventure after another.

Folks, you’ve got it all here. Nods to Alien, The Haunting of Hill House, Frankenstein (ala Warhol’s version), Nosferatu, The Blob, and even Godzilla. You could have a great time just picking out the references if you’re a horror fan.
But Hickox was at his peak during this period and had some pretty strong connections, so he peppered his movie with the likes of Bruce Campbell (who is fucking hilarious, as usual), Alexander Godunov, and the delightfully effeminately evil Michael DesBarres. His turn as the evil sidekick is great stuff, and I guarantee you’ll love it.
The special effects are nostalgic, pre-CGI shite, and give the film even more of a sense of 80s cheese-fest fun. The music is that crappy synth stuff that every horror film from 1982 on had to have to be considered horror. You know the sound, right? The acting, if anything (despite the missing Deborah Foreman, dammit!) isn’t bad at all. The movie’s is played mostly for laughs, and that’s it strong suit.

--Nickolas Cook