Friday, 12 October 2012

From the Archives: Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965)

Dr. Terror's House of Horrors was the first in a series of anthology films from the Amicus studio, and the one that launched them for a time to the same dizzying heights, at least at the box office, as their arch rival Hammer. But it is a film that prove Hitchcock's maxim about a film needing three things: a good script, a good script and a good script, as the poor quality of the writing is the factor that stops this from becoming a masterpiece.

Read the full review at

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Parents (1989)

A favourite trick of horror films is to take something that should be familiar and comforting to a character, such as family, and subvert or corrupt it. In Parents, we see a little boy begin to suspect that his oh-so-perfect Mom and Dad have some very nasty secrets in the refrigerator, and director Bob Balaban has created a film that is a slow burner, building an atmosphere of ambiguity and dread, punctuated with moments of jet black comedy. The ending does slightly spoil all the hard work, but, despite this, Parents is still creepy, funny, and highly memorable.

Young Michael Laemle is anxious enough, being an only child who has just moved to a new town and a new school. Now, he is getting nervous about dinner, because the family are having leftovers again. In fact, he is always having leftovers - but never what they were left over from.

The opening credit sequence sets us up perfectly for what is to come, in both style and content. The first shot is of Michael's head sliding into view accompanied by menacing rumbling and clanking sounds. This then cuts into a montage of the family driving to their new house, waving and smiling at their new neighbours who wave and smile back, the parents dancing around the living room, Mom making a cake and Dad practising his golf swing, all to the upbeat strains of a Rumba song.

Stylistically, Parents owes much to David Lynch, especially Eraserhead, with its black-and-white moodiness, periods of silence, and ominous background sound effects, and Blue Velvet, with its depiction of a bright happy suburban town hiding dark disturbing secrets.

Throughout the film, we are constantly shown this contrast of opposites in two ways. Firstly, the repeated cutting from Michael's disturbing nightmares (usually involving gallons of blood and body parts), to the garish cheeriness of home life; secondly, by taking the sort of events that should be a normal part of growing up for a child, such as Dad carrying his son to bed, or sitting down to eat dinner, and draining them of any pleasant overtones. Instead, we get long awkward silences, more of the aforementioned rumbling sound effects, and the fact that Dad (played by Randy Quaid), with his growing, barely disguised contempt for his quiet, imaginative and non-meat-eating son, cannot seem to say anything to Michael without it sounding like a threat. Quaid deserves a special mention, as he is completely convincing as both a Ward Cleaver style dad, and the sort of guy who WILL rip your head off and bury your corpse if you disobey him, and he switches effortlessly between the two.
The script takes a dark approach to children and the family, with nods to the theories of Sigmund Freud. The first of these is explored in the infamous theory of the Oedipal Complex, where the son wants to usurp the father by murdering him. The tensions between Michael and his Dad are what drive the plot, but there is a specific allusion to Oedipus in one scene where Michael is seen aiming and firing an imaginary gun at his dad. The theory also refers to the son wanting to consummate a sexual relationship with the mother, and although this is not explicitly referred to, the relationship between Michael and Mom is much closer than with Dad, and much more obviously affectionate.

The second Freud reference is to what is known as the primal fantasy, where a child is left traumatized by seeing or hearing his or her parents having sex, which is what happens to Michael in one scene. This is given a twist here by the hint that Mom and Dad might have been introducing something from the kitchen into the bedroom - is that blood they are rolling around in? There is certainly something red smeared on mom's lips - but is it just lipstick?

This scene is a perfect example of the ambiguity that makes Parents so intriguing. Although Dad is undeniably sinister and unpleasant on the surface, there is nothing, at least to start with, that could not be explained as the hallucinations of a boy with an over-active imagination and bad dreams. Incidentally, the repeated references to dreams may be another nod to Freud, who used them as a therapeutic tool, and whose book on the subject is one of the seminal works of psychoanalysis.

The ambiguity starts to lessen when we are introduced to the Michael's school counsellor, who is convinced that his fears over his parents are all in his head, but on paying a visit to the family home, finds, in the worst possible way, that this may not be the case after all.

It is at this point that the film switches to more standard slasher film scenes, with Dad finally losing his temper and stalking Michael around the house, before coming to a grisly end underneath a wine rack.

The final scene sees Michael trying to put recent events behind him, and start a new life being brought up by his grandparents. However, any notion that he is now safe and sound from the mystery meat he was subjected too by his parents soon evaporates, with the appearance of a bedtime snack consisting of - the dreaded leftovers. This twist ending suggests that his parent’s culinary habits are inherited, and Michael may himself be doomed to repeat the cycle of cannibalism. This could be interpreted as the final allusion to Freud, who wrote of the concept of "Repetition Compulsion", where people ceaselessly repeat distressing patterns of behaviour from earlier life.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

Steeped in the sexual and violent films coming out of Italy in the 1970s, collectively known as Giallo, Berberian Sound Studio is a confused and frustrating mess, which sees writer/director Peter Strickland on one hand seem to want to celebrate the genre, while on the other, want to look down at it.

Toby Jones plays a character called Gilderoy, an English Sound Effects artist who flies out to Italy to work on the audio track of a fictional Giallo film, The Equestrian Vortex. Initially, uncertain about working on something so violent and disturbing, his mind starts to unravel as he gets sucked into the oppressive world of the studio, and the images and noises facing him every day; can he keep his sanity and make it back home in one piece?

A good chunk of Berberian Sound Studio is based around Gilderoy and his interactions with the film crew. The contrast between the outgoing, garrulous and tactile Italians and the shy, repressed and awkward Englishman are played for laughs, with polyester shirts, big moustaches and testosterone on one side, and meekness, hesitancy, and cardigans on the other. The differences are there to provide tension, via the dramatic staple of the fish out of water and this starts to build from awkward comedy into more sinister mind games, with Gilderoy trapped and penniless, forced to stay and finish the film. Frustratingly, these are never properly resolved, as the film breaks down into David Lynch style weirdness before fizzling out, as if Strickland had simply run out of ideas. A shame, as Toby Jones delivers a great performance, giving the dorky and awkward Gilderoy, a likeable vulnerability.

Aside from Jones, there are some things to enjoy, at least for genre fans and audiophiles. For the former, a host of in-jokes, from the opening credits of the fake film, The Equestrian Vortex, a perfect and believable parody with its lurid animated credits and prog-rock soundtrack, to the studio projectionist, who remains unseen apart from his black gloves, and the end credits which list Suzy Kendall as "special guest screamer".

For the latter, the other big star, apart from Jones, is the sound itself. Screams, gongs, squashed fruit and vegetables, and, eerie singing are recorded and then manipulated and distorted into a disorienting cacophony. Very cleverly, the origins of the sound are obscured or played around with, blurring the line between the soundtrack of the fake film, the soundtrack of the film that we are watching, and soundtrack going on in the head of Gilderoy.

Unfortunately, Berberian Sound Studio does not give us anything other than clever, and disappointingly, considering the genre the film is set in, we also get no real horror, of either the psychological or cheap shock kind. Instead, we get a lot of, at times, fascinating, disturbing and baffling sounds and images, that ultimately add up to nothing.

Ultimately, Strickland seems to want to have it both ways, celebrating the outre elements of the Giallo genre, but then suddenly seeming to remember that by contrast, Berberian Sound Studio is also a "proper" film, and that we are supposed to be tut-tutting at this trash for what it is doing to Gilderoy and his morality and mental state. By the way if you are not sure what it is doing, the repeated close ups of the rotting vegetables used as sound effects for the violent on-screen deaths MIGHT GIVE YOU A VERY SUBTLE CLUE.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Holocaust 2000 (1977)

Made to cash in on the success of The Omen, Holocaust 2000 mixes a goofy premise, heavyweight actors, and a loud and dissonant Ennio Morricone score to produce a silly but thoroughly entertaining film.

No less a legend than Kirk Douglas plays Robert Caine, a millionaire businessman whose latest bright idea, building a nuclear power plant in an Unnamed Generic Middle Eastern Country, is starting to come unstuck. The plant itself has some odd links to an apocalyptic biblical prophecy, and anybody who points this out and tries to get the project stopped mysteriously dies. The only person who does want it to go ahead is Caine's son Angel, who may have a sinister agenda of his own.

I have no idea how somebody of the status of Kirk Douglas ended up in nonsense like this, but his presence and charisma is a vital part of the film, as he lends gravitas and dignity to some increasingly silly or confusing situations. He is helped by the supporting cast, particularly Simon Ward as his (literally) demonic son, Angel (that may be short for Angelo, but I donít remember that ever being explained), who plays the character as charming and coolly sinister. We also get, Anthony Quayle as the head of the laboratory that is building the power plant, and who, like Douglas, brings an air of sobriety to some really stupid dialogue.

The script by director Alberto De Martino (responsible for the films on two of my favourite MST3Ks, Operation Kid Brother and Puma Man) and Sergio Donati (who had earlier worked on the likes of Once Upon a Time in the West and A Fistful of Dynamite) is a mess. It has some rather obvious plot twists, such as a mathematical formula that spells the name of Jesus backwards, and the improbable design of the power plant, which helps it tie in to Revelations 12:3. Things start to go bizarre when we get to the scene of Caine going to a mental hospital to confront the madman who murdered his wife, apparently as part of some radical new therapy for the murderer(!). The hospital seems to have gone for the novel approach of abandoning traditional padded cells, in favour of lots of Plexiglas and bright antiseptic white walls, predating Hannibal Lecterís cell in Manhunter by several years. There seem to be no beds either, and the patients shuffle around like zombies, occasionally attacking staff and visitors. Adolfo Celi, best known for playing Largo in Thunderball is cast in the role of the head psychiatrist - if a Bond super-villain is your shrink, you know you are in trouble.

There is also a wonderfully nutty nightmare sequence where Caine (bear in mind that Kirk Douglas was in his 60s when he made this) runs around in the nude, while strange things appear before him, thanks to the magic of back-projection. If that is not enough for the weak of stomach, Holocaust 2000 does not skimp on the gore either. Caine's wife is stabbed in a torrent of blood, and the killer later has his skull caved in by Caine. We also get to see the Prime Minister of the Unnamed Generic Middle Eastern Country get his head cut off by a helicopter blade, just like in Dawn of the Dead (the two films were made around the same time, so the similarity is most likely to be a coincidence).

The only real disappointment for me was the conclusion. After a frenetic burst of scenes, which see Caine bust out of the aforementioned mental hospital, and a mass poisoning at a neo-natal ward, we end with him hiding out in the Unnamed Generic Middle Eastern Country with his new girlfriend and baby daughter, while his son has taken over the company and is pressing ahead with the nuclear plant. While this might have been setting things up for an Omen-style saga, this could also be a practical rather than artistic decision, where the production ran out of time and/or money, before a conclusion could be written or shot. (There is an alternative version of the film with an ending that sees Caine take out his son in a suicide bombing mission, but this was not on the version that I watched.)

Holocaust 2000 is impossible to take seriously, but the star power of the actors, the ludicrous plot and the energetic, lurid tone stops the film from ever getting boring, and is highly recommended for fans of trashy Italian horror cinema.

Monday, 1 October 2012

From the Archives: The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

In the 21st century, when just about any kind of sex and violence can be downloaded at the click of a mouse, and torture-packed films such as Saw pull in plenty at the box-office, I often have a tendency to forget how brutal and kinky horror films have always been to some extent, even those made 80 years ago. The Most Dangerous Game is a classic example, a tightly paced mix of cruelty, grisly horror, and deviant sexual desires.

Read the full review HERE