Oct 25, 2020
Oct 20, 2020
I blame Mike Flanagan and his brilliant adaptation, The Haunting of Hill House, for how unimpressively 1999’s The Haunting plays in our modern era. Though both are based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, ironically, it’s the miniseries which strays far from the novel’s surface story that’s the most successful adaptation, whereas The Haunting, though sticking very close to its source material (until the stupid finale), totally dismisses Jackson’s moral – the implications of loneliness, the dangers of isolation, and the emotional damage inflicted by the inability to feel “part” of something – in favor of lame spookshow spectacle, lame third-act twists, and Owen Wilson. The Haunting didn’t enjoy high marks upon its release in theaters what feels like a hundred years ago, but it’s one of those perfectly reasonable titles to touch base with from time to time for some superficial popcorn entertainment – one of those late-‘90s relics which hails from that moment in cinetime where CGI was just starting to become front and center in large-scale genre filmmaking. There’s 1997’s Mimic and Spawn, 1998’s Deep Rising and Species II, and 1999 had so many examples that it would be obnoxious to list them all, but let’s take a quick stroll down Memory Lane with Deep Blue Sea, The Mummy, End of Days, and House on Haunted Hill. There are a reckless number of examples from this era where studios spent over a hundred million dollars on horror productions, and mostly because of their visual effects. This approach didn’t result in any good movies, but it did result in some fun ones, and for some audiences, that’s enough.
Because of this ‘90s CGI explosion, this era’s offerings all look, feel, and sound the same – 9-0-C-G-I might as well be its own zip code in Hollywood because of how hilariously primitive and concretely tied to an era its films look when compared to some of the visual achievements pulled off by the recent likes of War for the Planet of the Apes or The Jungle Book. This was the biggest complaint with The Haunting way back when, and that complaint not only remains valid, but it’s actually much more relevant because of how far CGI has come – this alongside the mini revisionist renaissance we’ve seen and enjoyed regarding the rebirth of our favorite horror properties, which had long succumbed to near self-parody, now rebranded as serious and mature storytelling. NBC’s Hannibal rescued Hannibal Lecter from the ho-humness of Red Dragon and Hannibal Rising, purging Anthony Hopkins’ increasingly toothless take on the title character; 2018’s Halloween wiped away 40 years of baggage-filled sequels and made Michael Myers scary, mysterious, and motiveless once again; and Mike Flanagan went back to the most famous haunted house story in the land to create something beautifully terrifying and terrifyingly beautiful. (Its follow-up, The Haunting Of Bly Manor, is streaming now on Netflix.)
If you’re familiar with Robert Wise’s adaptation of The Haunting from 1963, then you know his approach was built on a foundation of suspense first and terror later – without ever falling back on a single visual effect. Spooky offscreen noises, ominous pounding on oaken double-doors, and the creepy insinuation that the other living occupants of the house weren’t to be trusted – these are what made The Haunting so frightening. It’s tempting to dismiss this no-frills approach to genre filmmaking in the modern era, considering all the horror flicks that have since come down the path that relied heavily on visual imagery – The Exorcist, Suspiria, right up to the modern era with The Conjuring (also starring Lili Taylor) or Hereditary – but 1999’s The Haunting never had enough faith in itself to rein in some of the stupid CGI in lieu of the fantastic production design of the house itself and the character dynamics that still (somewhat) contained enough ambiguously sinister behavior that suggested not everyone had Nell’s best interests at heart.
Ultimately, it’s for these reasons that The Haunting fails to leave any kind of lasting impression: the distillation of the characters as presented in the novel, and the overreliance on (poor) CGI instead of trying to establish a mood and tone, are enough to keep The Haunting from being, at the very least, a sturdy addition to the haunted house sub-genre. For the most part, screenwriter David Self (Road To Perdition) preserves the novel’s character archetypes with commendable loyalty: Lili Taylor’s Nell is an outcast, ostracized and belittled by her sister (Virginia Madsen) and brother-in-law, and desperate to forge her own path in the world. Liam Neeson’s Dr. Marrow seems well meaning and genuinely motivated by good doctorly intentions, even if his “sleep study” is a manipulation that eventually leads to a situation he can’t control. Catherine Zeta-Jones maintains Theodora’s passive aggressive flirtations and socialite-like flamboyance, although her open bisexuality, which had been left purposely ambiguous in Jackson’s story (a surprising addition for the 1950s) is just as broad and obvious as the rest of her character. Lastly, there’s Owen Wilson, ably playing Luke the California mimbo, exorcised of his implied substance addict canon and his ties to the owners of Hill House that would’ve threatened to make him an interesting character. (I still remember our theater’s audience laughing every time Owen Wilson was on screen, even when he wasn’t vying for comedy relief.) Ironically, in concept, everyone is perfectly cast to capture their characters as presented in the novel: Neeson is esteemed and trustworthy, Zeta-Jones is airy and free-spirited, Wilson is fun-loving and free of responsibility, and Taylor is lost, lonely, and wanting nothing but to be accepted. The groundwork is there, but for whatever reason, the film can’t seem to lure the performers’ take on the characters across the finish line. The ensemble’s performances are fairly mundane with most of the cast not going out of their way to overextend themselves for a project that, in their estimation, didn’t call for it, despite this being one of Steven Spielberg’s earliest producing credits through his brand new Dreamworks Entertainment banner. Zeta-Jones’ Theo comes off as a teenaged girl, rattling off some of the film’s most bone-headed dialogue, especially as she refers to her boots as “savage kicks,” and poor Taylor does her best during the final act when she’s forced to spew the kind of confrontational dialogue that’s directed at the house’s main threat but is actually provided solely so the audience knows what the hell is happening in the very movie they’ve been watching for the last eighty minutes. If one of cinema’s Ten Commandments was Thou shall not have characters speak aloud unto themselves for the betterment of observers’ understanding, The Haunting would be the most blasphemous of them all.
Everything else aside, there remains the most important question for a horror film, especially a haunted house horror film: is it scary? Well, you guessed it: no. It’s not. In fact, except for the demise of Wilson’s character, in what remains one of the dumbest kill scenes in horror history, The Haunting is so neutered that its PG-13 rating almost feels like an insult to kids twelve and under. I guess we can blame Spielberg, who apparently hated the movie and had his name removed, for the inadvertent overblown spectacle, as he chose Jan de Bont, cinematographer-turned-director known for his previous unsubtle action-adventure hits Speed and Twister (and not-at-all-a-hit Speed 2: Cruise Control), to direct the update of a classic flick known for its low-key subtlety. That de Bont had never before (or since) directed a horror flick could certainly point in the direction of his hiring being a mistake, but to date, he only has five directorial credits, with a mere two of them enjoying solid reviews and healthy box office. (His last credit as a director was the awkwardly titled Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life waaay back in 2003.) While The Haunting does have a fair bit to boast about, mainly Jerry Goldsmith’s flourishing musical score, gorgeous production design, and Hill House’s foreboding façade (the opening flyover shot of the house complemented by sounds of massive and weathered preternatural breathing sets a tone that the rest of the film fails to live up to), they’re all soon upstaged by some embarrassingly dodgy CGI, as if the movie didn’t have enough faith in itself to rely solely on its intricately designed environments to captivate audiences. In 1963, Wise paid a grip to knock loudly on the other side of some bedroom doors. In 1999, Spielberg paid a visual effects team millions of dollars to turn a bedroom into an ominous face, complete with bloodshot window-eyes and a bed that sprouts spider-like legs. The first is scary, the second is not. High on visuals, low on creativity: that’s late-‘90s genre in a nutshell.
Neither time nor advances in approaches to classic material have been kind to The Haunting, which, even putting aside the CGI, very much feels like a ‘90s production, dated by its look, feel, and some accidentally hilarious moments like when Neeson reassures his sleep study group that, in case of emergencies, he has his “trusty cell telephone.” Old school audiences enjoyed the novel and the subsequent adaptation that came along four years later. Brand new audiences well acquainted with elongated storytelling as essayed by services like Netflix and HBO found much more substance to enjoy with 2018’s The Haunting of Hill House. This leaves 1999’s The Haunting lost entirely in no man’s land – not nearly frightening enough to command attention, nor “deep” enough to reach the audience’s hearts through its characters, The Haunting is just kind of there – a harmless but mediocre slice of popcorn entertainment that doesn’t come close to haunting its viewers.
Oct 12, 2020
Before we get into the weeds with You Don’t Nomi, let’s be clear about one thing: You Don’t Nomi, despite its marketing and its cataloging on the World Wide Web, is not a documentary. And that’s because a documentary generally has two things: facts, and a goal. You Don’t Nomi has neither of those things. That’s not to say that it doesn’t offer its fair share of entertainment, or that director Jeffrey McHale didn’t set out with a specific goal in mind, but by film’s end, the goal you take away is the foresight you’d already obtained on your own before you ever sat down to watch. More on that in a bit.
You Don’t Nomi is less of a documentary and more of a visual essay and appreciation, comprised of folks from all walks of life either raining down actual praise on the infamous 1995 flop Showgirls, directed by Paul Verhoeven, or recognizing it for the over-the-top but entertaining piece of shit that it is, or dismissing it as trashy, immature, and misogynistic…well, trash. Obviously, your own opinion on this movie that everyone has likely already seen will determine what you take away from it. Having seen Showgirls a few times during my pubescence but not for a very long time since then, my opinion on it, over time, faded into indifference and dismissal. Just one more movie in a sea of movies that I saw, recognized wasn’t very good, and haven’t really thought much about since. Except for the occasional reissue of the flick on Blu-ray with some kind of included gimmicky swag, I assumed Showgirls was largely forgotten. I had no idea it went onto live out a second life as a cult classic, with theatrical tours and Q&A’s and live reenactments by actors both drag-queen and non-drag-queen alike. I had no idea, after all this time, it was a film people were still discussing at all.
You Don’t Nomi includes participation from film critics, Showgirls superfans and apologists, and pop culture enthusiasts, yet it doesn’t contain any active participation from a single person involved in its making. Whether this was purposeful, or because it was impossible to get anyone involved to go on the record within the confines of a discussion where 2/3rds of its participants recognize that Showgirls is a terrible movie, we don’t know. What that leaves, ultimately, are a bunch of people who had nothing to do with making the movie telling you that Showgirls is brilliant in ways you didn’t notice, entertaining in ways that were never intended, or without any redeemable value at all. Ironically, it’s those participants who deride Showgirls’ content as ill-informed, misogynistic, and immature who come away sounding the most level-headed and thoughtful, whereas those attempting to defend the film’s legacy really stretch the limits of legitimacy. One participant in particular, who has dedicated a good portion of his life to defending Showgirls and trying to make people understand that it’s a flick worthy of a second evaluation, completely invalidates his position by then going on to lampoon other much more well received films like Verhoeven’s own Basic Instinct, or the generally well-regarded Forest Gump and American Beauty, and calling critics who described Showgirls as being poorly made “fucking morons.” What’s supposed to come off as feisty and fun instead reeks of elitism, and it tarnishes the otherwise honest and fair point of “hey, you’ve misunderstood this movie;” and in almost the same breath where he lavishes praise on Showgirls’ cinematography, he calls American Beauty a piece of shit, which has been nearly universally renowned for that very same thing. (For the record, I don’t like American Beauty, and I recall being fairly unimpressed by Basic Instinct when I first saw it, but I also wouldn’t attempt to downgrade the legacies they’ve gone on to achieve, nor speak for anyone else and dismiss the people who enjoy them. Also, I love Forest Gump – fight me.)
You Don’t Nomi really only comes alive during the moments where we get to see archival interviews with Paul Verhoeven where he both defends and admits Showgirls’ shortcomings, and when there is an honest, critical analysis done by critics who avoid hyperbole and outrageousness by sharing their calm and honest thoughts. From a technical standpoint, You Don’t Nomi is engaging through its clever use of editing, largely incorporating clips from all of Verhoeven’s other films, either to highlight the director’s commonalities of sex, violence, the street-justice vengeance of abused women (and vomiting), or even through the use of editing clips of Showgirls into his other works, as if Verhoeven’s better received films are actually passing judgment on it. (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Quaid turns on the television in his apartment to see a news report of Showgirls’ miserable failure with critics and audiences, and the expression on his face says it all.)
Despite all my misgivings, you should give You Don’t Nomi a shot if you’re even marginally interested in Showgirls’ place in cinema history. You won’t learn a blessed thing beyond the fact that some people out there like it, and others don’t like it, which is something you already know, but you may find some value in seeing how the “world’s first mainstream NC-17 film” is enjoying a second life among the midnight movie crowd. Plus, if you’ve ever wanted to see a supercut of everyone who’s ever vomited in a film directed by Paul Verhoeven, you could do a lot worse.
Oct 4, 2020
[The below interview originally ran on Cut Print Film in October 2013 to celebrate Commando's thirtieth anniversary. It is reprinted here with only minor updates.]
Q: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you end up working on Commando?
Sep 24, 2020
Throughout his career, Alfred Hitchcock directed 55 feature films, along with numerous shorts and documentaries. That’s not a bad haul, nor a bad legacy to leave behind to the world. Having said that, even the most ardent film fan couldn’t possibly name you half of his films in total. In fact, if you look at his filmography starting from the beginning, it would take you seventeen films before arriving at 1935’s The 39 Steps, really the first film, chronologically, that still enjoys discussion to this day. I’m not picking on Hitchcock, though – this is more just a reminder of the reality. Not a single director has a flawless track record when it comes to output (and if the names Christopher Nolan or Quentin Tarantino just flashed in your mind as a challenge to that, I’m laughing at you). But by now, Hitchcock has reached legendary status, and not just from the strong crop of films he left behind: there’s his larger than life persona as a morbid spokesman for his work; there’s his reputation for being a hard-nosed director unwilling to compromise his vision; and there’s also his penchant for victimizing his cast for reasons both professional and personal.
Because of his infamy, he’s achieved mythic status, and as such, we assume everything he touched shocked audiences, changed cinema, and left an indelible mark. Not quite. If you asked that same film fan from before to name ten Hitchcock films, undoubtedly these four titles would be among them: Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. They are sacrosanct, legendary, backbones of their respective genres, and sterling examples of a director fully in control of his talents and resources.
Photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart) is in the midst of recuperating from a broken ankle and is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment. Sheer boredom leads him to watching his neighbors across his apartment complex’s shared courtyard, keeping up to date on the various comings, goings, and personal dramas unfolding in everyone’s tiny homes. It’s through this passive observing that L.B. begins to suspect that one particular neighbor across the way may have murdered his wife. With the assistance of his “girlfriend” Lisa (Grace Kelly), who L.B. uses as a mobile quasi-avatar, they investigate to see if L.B. really does live across the courtyard from a murderer.
Like the other films in this set, Rear Window would inadvertently create an oft visited trope in genre cinema going forward, either through presentation or in conception – in this case, the idea of the voyeur, and of large open windows serving as movie screens that depict the actions of those inside their own bubble, generally unaware of their being watched…or sometimes being complicit in their “performances.” John Carpenter would riff on this concept with a clever reversal in his 1980 television movie Someone’sWatching Me! with Lauren Hutton and soon to be wife/ex-wife Adrienne Barbeau. Australian filmmaker Richard Franklin, who would eventually helm the extremely undervalued Psycho II, would make a road-set homage with Road Games with Stacy Keach alongside a post-Halloween Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of Psycho’s Janet Leigh). Finally, following his accident that left him paralyzed and wheelchair-bound, Christopher Reeve would produce and star in a Rear Window remake in the late ‘90s for ABC, with Daryl Hannah taking on the Grace Kelly role of the adventurous troublemaker. It was…fine. Also like the other films in this set, Rear Window is one of many Hitchcock films that sees a pretty blonde girl (Hitch’s fave) really going above and beyond to make an impotent or uninterested man commit to her beyond mere petty flirtations and casual trysts. With L.B. prone and imprisoned in his wheelchair, he’s powerless to stop Lisa as she decides to take full control of the situation and break into the suspected murderer’s apartment in order to validate L.B.’s beliefs – and this after the film opens with Lisa basically nagging L.B. to marry her, which he declines with reasoning that makes the very concept sound entirely objectionable despite the fact that he’s twenty years older, has the physique of a snapped rubber band, and he’d be incredibly lucky to have her.
A near-death experience leaves former police detective John Ferguson (a returning Stewart) with acrophobia, a debilitating fear of heights, and very retired. An old acquittance, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), hires him out of the blue to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who believes that she’s the reincarnation of another deceased woman named Carlotta. Being we’re in Hitchcock territory, after Ferguson begins his reconnaissance, it doesn’t take long for him to discover, whether or not Elster’s beliefs have any merit, that he’s definitely not on a routine job. And he couldn’t possibly have anticipated how obsessed with Madeleine he would become.
At 130 minutes, Vertigo is one of Hitchcock’s longer features, and most of that running time is filled with heavy exposition and twisting/turning developments that, at times, feel almost more appropriate for a James Bond caper mixed with brooding noir. Hitchcock once again reigns over his use of cinematography to deeply unsettle his audience, using camera tricks and extreme points of view to take away our balance and feeling of stability. The opening scene has Stewart’s Ferguson hanging for dear life from the top of a very tall building as the gutter he’s grasping slowly tears off the wall, and as a nearby officer reaches down to help him, the poor schlub slips and plummets to his death – in just one sequence, both Ferguson and the audience confront the ultimate fear: not just impending death, but our front-row view of our only salvation being whisked away.
Look, no one needs the plot breakdown of Psycho; considering it’s widely considered Hitchcock’s crowning achievement as a director (these things are subject to opinion, of course, but…it is), Psycho is a masterclass in filmmaking in just about every way – from expert casting (Martin Balsam!) to maximizing low budget filmmaking (the crew was almost entirely comprised of Alfred Hitchcock Presents personnel) to wrenching tension out of every scene through the use of slow-moving cinematography and off-putting angles. Psycho should be taught in film classes exclusively for its use of the camera. There’s the slow opening push into Marion and Sam’s hotel room window (which, while possibly borrowed from 1955’s Dementia aka Daughter of Horror, is still expertly crafted), and obviously there’s also that whole shower-scene thing, but my favorite shot comes as the camera slowly pushes in on Norman standing by the side of the swamp and listening in the dark as Sam calls out for him back at the motel. It’s chilling and perfectly engineered. Honestly, I could go on and on about the 1960 classic that inspired four sequels, a (failed) television show, a remake, another successful television show, the next generation of filmmakers (Brian De Palma, John Carpenter, Richard Franklin, Brad Anderson), and a perpetual mark on the genre, not to mention the permanent ruination of the sense of security one feels while taking a shower in a motel room…but we all know this already. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano improve the well written source material in every way. Stefano’s screenplay changes Norman Bates from a monstrous killer to a sympathetic figure, and Hitchcock had the forward-thinking idea of casting someone with charming, boy-next-door features instead of someone who more closely matched the unsightly, stocky, balding, and frustrated virgin present in the novel. Even the shower scene is a complete rebuilding, in which Marion Crane’s demise is limited to a few sentences: “Mary started to scream, and then the curtains parted further and a hand appeared, holding a butcher's knife. It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream. And her head.”
Loosely based on the 1952 short story by Daphne Du Maurier, Hitchcock’s adaption depicts a world being overtaken by angry hordes of birds, atypically flocking together in every species to wage an unexplained revenge against mankind – presumably for being the earth-raping assholes we always are. One of many folks caught in the swarm are Melanie (Tippi Hedren), who’s attempting to charm her way into the life of Mitch (Rod Taylor), who lives in an isolated coastal home. The attacks from the bloodthirsty birds increasingly mount until they find themselves trapped in Rod’s house and fending off the birds that manage to find their way in. Who will survive, and what will be pecked from them?
Truth be told, and in spite of its (deserved) reputation, The Birds is a mixed bag. As a youngin’ obsessed with JAWS and all the animals-run-amok films that it introduced me to, I used to consider The Birds my favorite Hitchcock film, but later viewings re-introduced me to a kind of silly film that’s actually at its best when the birds aren’t on screen (school playground scene notwithstanding, because that’s the kind of thing Hitchcock did so well). However, once the opticals of marauding flocks are overlain into the sky and birds both real and dummy are being thrown into Tippi Hedren’s face, it all seems pretty nonsensical. It’s also hard to mentally dismiss how much Hitchcock mistreated Hedren on set, which was the stuff of Hollywood legend for years before HBO’s The Girl made it mainstream knowledge in the earliest beginnings of the #MeToo movement.
Alfred Hitchcock is part of cinema history, taught in universities and film schools, still the subject of modern documentaries like the Psycho-deconstructing 78/52, and conjured in the modern descriptor “Hitchcockian.” The four films above are the top reasons why. Even if Hitchcock had directed four or four hundred films throughout his life, the merits alone of Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds would’ve been more than enough to secure his legacy.
Sep 22, 2020
If David Cronenberg had a sense of humor, he would’ve made something like Dead Dicks. Pushing aside, of course, the obvious connection that Dead Dicks is a Canadian genre production, I’m actually focusing more on the large, otherworldly, interdimensional vagina that’s growing out of the apartment wall modeled after the opening that protrudes from James Woods in Cronenberg’s Videodrome, but which acts like Phantasm’s space gate. In the same way that the Tall Man sees his comeuppance throughout the Phantasm series and a fresh copy of the Tall Man re-enters the world through said space gate, removes his corpse, and takes over for him from there, Richard (Heston Horwin) is caught in a never-ending cycle where he’s desperate to end his own life inside his cramped apartment, but each time he does, a fresh copy of him is borne from this giant vaginal opening in his bedroom.
Written and directed by first-time feature directors Chris Bavota and Lee Paula Springer, Dead Dicks is a wild way to break onto the scene, and that it’s being distributed by Philadelphia label Artsploitation Films is both a minor victory for the filmmakers and a way of labeling Dead Dicks as certainly outside the norm. In case you’re unfamiliar with the label (and you should really dive deep into their catalog if you are), Artsploitation Films releases uncompromising international titles that defy genre conventions and will never be caught dead screening at your local multiplex. While some of their titles veer way outside normality at the expense of the story being told, their most successful titles are those that play with strange and wild ideas while infusing their stories with real, relatable, emotional backbones that make such wild ideas wholly approachable. Germany’s Der Samurai, a previous acquisition from the label, is a perfect example of this balance (and, honestly, is a favorite of my own), and Dead Dicks eagerly follows in its footsteps. A little bit horror, science fiction, comedy, and drama, Dead Dicks is obviously hard to categorize. What it very much is, however, is about something – in this case, mental illness, depression, suicide, and how those things can affect a family that’s not prepared to deal with it. Bearing the brunt of Richie’s burden is his sister, Becca (Jillian Harris), who has spent her adult life trying to offer support to her sullen brother but feels her patience running out and wanting nothing more than to, for the first time, focus on her own life. The giant vagina and an apartment filled with copies of Richie’s dead body certainly puts the kibosh on that.
Based on the collection of genres that it bandies about, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Dead Dicks’ tone gets a little schizophrenic at times, exacerbated by inconsistencies with how “serious” the characters are taking the very surreal events of the story during certain times. Through a weakness in the writing or a strange choice to convey Becca’s initial ambivalence over Richie’s shocking reveal, it’s hard to tell, and harder still, whether or not to determine if this was intentional to maintain the film’s point about a family’s failure to notice the warning signs about suicidal behavior, but once we move beyond this initial point, the amount of seriousness over the siblings’ surreal new reality begin to take centerstage, which allows for moments of perfect humor to balance out the story’s darker themes. Indeed, unlike most genre films, Dead Dicks’ second act is the most effective in the film, allowing the audience to settle into the film’s surreal concept and also allowing them to find humor in the situation. (There’s a pretty great moment when Richie looks down at one of his own dead bodies and laughs immaturely at how it looks – you’ll have to see the film to understand why.)
Horwin and Harris are capable leads, with Horwin having to do much of the emotional work. He proves himself highly capable of carrying such heaviness in his performance even in the midst of the R-rated cartoon his life has become, while Harris struggles at times to offer a consistent performance. I wouldn’t ever describe her role as being poorly presented, but she seems more comfortable with the smaller moments than the ones dependent on dramatic bravado. (Her comedic timing, however, is perfect.) Still, being that we’re dealing with low budget filmmaking, the ensemble is up to the task in ways you might not expect from reading the plot synopsis, and that goes for every performer. In keeping with the wackiness, the last few moments of Dead Dicks are, to be honest, befuddling, and I’m not sure how the ending will land with most viewers (I’m still working it around in my head), but one thing is for sure: if the out-there breakdown of Dead Dicks’ plot appeals to the part of you that’s become bored with mainstream genre filmmaking, then you’re already the intended audience and likely more willing to put the extra work into determining what it all means. If you can and do, be sure to drop me a line and tell me because I’m still in the dark.
Dead Dicks is now on Blu-ray and DVD from Artsploitation Films.
Sep 20, 2020
Second only to Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci is likely Italy’s most infamous and highly regarded director of horror, murder, and the macabre. Though Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling is considered to be the director’s masterpiece, it never achieved the same amount of adoration as Argento’s own masterpiece, Suspiria. Having said that, the bulk of each director’s filmography has very different goals. While Argento was more interested in sexualized murder-mysteries, Fulci, though his earlier work explored similar material, eventually became indebted to the “monster” sub-genre. Perhaps best known as having directed the famous unofficial Dawn of the Dead sequel Zombie, he also helmed what’s known as the unofficial “Gates of Hell” trilogy. Not quite zombie movies, City of the Living Dead aka The Gates of Hell (1980), The Beyond (1981), and House by the Cemetery (1981) tread familiar ground about a remote or infamous location concealing a literal doorway to hell that becomes inadvertently open, unleashing sentries of the dead to kill in extremely gruesome ways. This theme and the presence of lead Catriona MacColl in all three entries are the sole ties that bind them together, along with Fulci’s unrelenting dedication to executing the goriest and most surreal deaths you’re likely to see in Italian horror.
As usual with “trilogies,” every fan has his or her own favorite (I’ve always been partial to City of the Living Dead, even with its hilariously nonsensical and unfinished ending), so I honestly don’t know where House by the Cemetery lands with fans. I do know that it’s among the director’s most unintentionally amusing, mostly thanks to the character of Bob (Giovanni Frezza), an unnaturally cherubic looking young child dubbed in post-production by what sounds suspiciously like a grown woman putting on a “kid’s” voice. A line of dialogue as simple as “My name is Bob” shouldn’t be as funny as it is, but it’s part and parcel with how charmingly clumsy all of House by the Cemetery is. Each film in the trilogy isn’t known for its concrete and fluid storytelling (The Beyond is downright befuddling), and House by the Cemetery continues the trend by presenting a story that somehow feels both incomplete and overstuffed, seemingly propelled by the movie operating by its own rules. Zombies, ghosts, potential and otherworldly co-conspirators – Fulci is ready and willing to throw them all against the wall to see what sticks – if it does: great, and if it doesn’t: whatever. This is and always has been the Italian way: directors feeling more indebted to atmosphere and style than presenting an air-tight story with every t crossed and i dotted; so long as there is forward momentum that eventually leads the audience to the conclusion, even if they stumble through the dark for most of their journey, then that’s good enough.
As far as generating genuine terror, there are moments that work as intended, and sometimes, it would seem, in spite of the flick’s clumsiness. None of it ever makes much sense, like young Mae (Silvia Collatina) hallucinating walking nightmares of headless, bloody mannequins or the extended bat attack that goes on forever. When Bob has his final-act encounter with the walking terror that haunts his new country house, the sequence goes on for so long that the action turns from suspense to tedium before turning back to suspense again, and it’s because Fulci reinvents the sequence with added horrific imagery during a chase scene that is already horrific enough. (I’m just speculating, but this sequence seems to have informed how James Wan directed one of the creepier scenes in The Conjuring, featuring Vera Farmiga’s Lorraine Warren cowering from a hanging specter in a farmhouse cellar.) Also helping the scary agenda: Italian horror has never shied away from not just gore, but from committing on-screen taboos. Children aren’t safe from their film’s respective boogeyman threats, and neither are the lead characters whom we are brainwashed to believe that just because their names are first in the opening credits that they’ll walk away terrified but relatively unscathed. Anyone can bite it at any time, and when it comes to Fulci, everyone normally does.
Italian films, especially horror films, have their own look, feel, and complete disregard for a cogent story. Because of this, the style is upped significantly to at-times overbearing degrees. Characters rattle off more extraneous dialogue than is necessary; the camerawork, though fluid and beautiful even when capturing moments of the grotesque, can sometimes come off as excessive. Take that, add in all the aforementioned gore, and there you go: Italian horror. There’s nothing like it, and that’s both good and bad. House by the Cemetery, for better or worse, is the prime example of that.
[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]