This Week in Geek (18-24/10/20)


Hey, I got the Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones (animated reconstruction) DVD this week! Just waiting on Fury from the Deep to come to Canada, now.



At home: The Rhythm Section (not a great title) kind of sells itself as Jane Bond, or Alias, or at least Nikita, but it's much grittier and grimier. Blake Lively (who shouldn't have been allowed to play it as British, I'm sorry) is looking for revenge for the death of her family in a terrorist act, and lets herself be trained as an assassin d'occasion. Unlike cinema's usual female assassins, she's barely holding it together, is way out of her depth, and when she succeeds, it's desperately rather than efficiently. And I like that take. In the middle of the movie is a great chase sequence that makes it look like Blake did all the driving herself in one go (and I hope she didn't!), though even that piece of action is grounded in reality. That's perhaps the film's weakness. The groundedness makes for set pieces that are a little duller than what the genre has made us used to, so adjust your expectations at the door. Embracing what it is - a gritty "what if a real person, scruples and all, had to become a superspy" revenge story - it's pretty satisfying.

I have only vague memories of the Fantasy Island television show from when I was a kid, because my mom didn't want us staying up past The Love Boat, and I think she once said she didn't like the show. But I do know enough about it to enjoy the first two-thirds of Blumhouse's movie version as an edgier remake, with guests getting the chance to live out their fantasies, not in the way they expect, but in a way that will give them catharsis and in a way, make the fantasy moot. The cast has several people I enjoy, including Maggie Q, Michael Rooker, and Michael Peña. Of course Peña as Roarke can't hope to achieve the charismatic grandeur of Ricardo Montalbán, who would have brought more sinister charm, but what can you do? It's in the third act and the need for a plot that the movie starts to fall apart, but I don't think it ever completely does. Dueling theories about what's happening, I like, but drawing room murder mystery reveals, not so much (I think the audience was lied to, personally). It does all keep to its own internal logic (and the shows, as far as I know), and while it's a little schizophrenic (because at its core, it's based on an anthology show), I still dug it.

It's been a while since I watched a movie with such a wide gap between the poster and what the film actually looks like, but The Witch Who Came from the Sea is certainly a contender for that prize. Leaving expectations at the door, I'm still not entirely sure what to make of this indie 70s experimental psycho-sexual horror film. There are upsetting flashbacks to child abuse to explain the lead character being unhinged enough to kill, or imagine killing beefcakey men. And it's hard to tell where the phantasmagoria begins and reality ends - living in what seems like a dead end seaside town, how does she get access to nominal celebrities? did she really get that tattoo? and if so why does she get blank stares when she talks about it - Millie Perkins's "Molly" is in a haze, and so are we. The eponymous Witch is an alter ego that seems entirely psychological, but there are hints that it might be a spirit of some kind (the first of which being the title itself). And is there any difference? The film enjoys an intriguing ambiguity and horror images aside, stands as a portrait of a victim whose swaying between living fantasies and raw denial seem perfectly appropriate to her situations.

A young Dennis Hopper harasses a woman until she goes out with him in Night Tide, so I'm not sure I feel too bad about her potentially being a killer mermaid. But seriously, folks... I can feel the 1961 in this thing, not just in terms of gender politics, but in the way an explanation is given at the end, like it's some Silver Age comic book story. Until that point, it's got a nice ambiguity going, and a jazzy atmosphere that, while not scary, is at least eerie. Is she a siren of some kind, luring men to their deaths? Or is it all a delusion? (And you don't need one to have the other, of course.) That Hopper is a sailor plays nicely into the theme, and the call of the sea that he himself heard, out there in landbound Colorado, isn't all that different from the pull Linda Lawson (as Mora) feels herself. The House of Mystery question mark at the end ("...or IS IT???!") is as clunky at the "reasonable" explanation we get, so yeah, the spell got well broke for me.

What if Roger Corman produced The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1980? Monster (Humanoids from the Deep) - as it is called on the title card - takes place in a fishing village out in California, but it gave me strong Atlantic Canada vibes (I had to check). The industry, of course, but also the conflict with Native fishermen, and the hoedown music too. Not so common around here is the race of killer fishmen coming to shore to steal our women (that last, rapey element is something I could do without, but the movie certainly doesn't skimp on gore and nudity, so it was perhaps inevitable). We were definitely warned this would happen. Genetically modified salmon eaten by some kind of predator (or something, comic book science isn't a science) has given rise to slimy and rather well-realized fishmen, and the OVER-FISHING of salmon in the area (which is part of the humans' plot) has forced them on land to rampage during the local festival. As icky as the sex'n'violence exploitation blend can be, this is pretty fun.

Werner Herzog's take on Dracula, Nosferatu the Vampyre (or more properly "the Phantom of the Night") is hugely atmospheric - those night scenes! that fog! - and dream-like - that ascent to the castle! those eerie empty streets! - and more introspective too, with a grotesque Count who sees immortality as a curse, What sets it apart for me is just how impotent the male characters are, leaving Lucy Harker (classic Lucy-Mina switcheroo, I guess it's only ever about which name you prefer) to risk the ultimate sacrifice to rid her city of the plague (a well-realized element taken from Murnau's Nosferatu). In contrast, Harker succumbs to madness, Van Helsing evokes reason and science where neither has hold and spends all his time telling Lucy she's delusional, and Dracula himself is a pathetic worm with a death wish. It ends up being a bleak, deconstructionist vision, but it adds something to the canon. And it features what I found the be the most viscerally effective neck sucking scene in vampire cinema. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

The Vampire Lovers is Hammer Horror's adaptation of Carmilla and it stars Ingrid Pitt seducing beautiful women so she can feed on them, including Kate "The Rani" O'Mara? Yes please. And it's quite watchable even if it doesn't really hit any heights in terms of implied vampire erotica. The problem is that even though Carmilla may be the first vampire novel, it's not Hammer's first vampire movie, and it feels a little bit like some of the others. Having Peter Cushing as a vampire hunter in there doesn't really get us away from that feeling. There are also a couple of enigmatic characters in the film that I wondered about, but on which I never got any closure. Who is Carmilla's mother, pawning her off to rich households if she's the last of the family? (A familiar?) And what about that strange vampire cavalier who rides through the story without a word? Hammer goes on to make a couple of sequels, so maybe all will be revealed. But for now, just strange shadows in the night.

2012's Vamps, directed by Clueless' Amy Heckerling, and starring Alicia Silverstone and Krysten Ritter as virtuous vampire maidens in love is a bit silly, a bit cheesy, and has a couple of tonal hiccups, but it coasts pretty smoothly on the charm of its two stars and its immensely recognizable supporting cast. Truly, the first act could have been a pilot for a kooky high-concept sitcom, working on the same level as something like 30 Rock, where the characters are caricatures, and sometimes terrible, but you still want to watch them in their world, spotting sight gags along the way. Bright colors, smash cut flashbacks, modern sitcom idioms, plainly. And I quite like what they do with the vampire lore in this, modernizing it, exploring how current-day technology and sociology would have impacted the lives of these immortals. Winks at Dracula appreciated. But of course, it's not a pilot, it tells a complete story, and possibly the vampire gags would have gotten stale in a more serialized format (high concept comedies aren't very easy to pull off, The Good Place is a rarity). Fun and cute.

According to some sources, Stephanie Rothman's The Velvet Vampire is the first horror film directed by a woman, and I guess that's true if they mean full-length features (as there were a lot more female directors in the silent era, and many horror shorts made) and they require a supernatural element (as I think Ida Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker certainly has a claim to being called horror). Be that as it may, this Roger Corman production has, on the one hand, pretty wooden acting and a lot of needless nudity, but on the other, a very intriguing ambiguity and an unusual take on vampire lore (while still making some overt winks at the Gothic novels that started the fashion). For example, this is a rare example of a sunlit vampire film. VERY sunlit, in fact, taking place in the desert, mostly during the day. It toys with you about Diane's status, whether she is undead or not, and just what she wants from the young couple she's invited to her house. An slight art house feeling is obtained from surreal shared dreams, but its power, I think, lies in the sexual subtext of the piece. Diane is a tragic figure who can't let go of a past romance, seeking love in a century-long dry spell (the desert), and perhaps ready to find it one or both of her tentative victims. And in Susan, we might see a closeted lesbian who doesn't feel very attached or attracted to her beefcake husband (rejecting him several times), but soon intrigued by the Carmilla-like Diane, and yet afraid of her and of the feelings she's awakened (through this lens, the climax is even more tragic). More generally, men in this are violators (a desert snake may also act as a phallic symbol), while female pleasure is an idyll. I'm not entirely sure Rothman and her husband thought of all this when writing the picture, but the final result gives me strong, if loose, vibes.

La main du diable ("The Devil's Hand", though it's English title is Carnival of Sinners) propose a Monkey's Paw fable where a failed artist buys a hand that gives him great talent in, well, anything one puts it to. Hey, all it costs is your soul if you happen to die with it. Metaphysical musical chairs, anyone? His quest to escape the Devil will lead him to discover the hand's origins. Director Maurie Tourneur, seemingly inspired by silent era horror cinema, mixes 1940s realism with older forms, often evoking German expressionism, and Cocteau at times too. Thematically, it ties into the painter's work, which approaches surrealism, taking us into a kind of dream-like phantasmagoria in the climax, a vision that transcends the solidity of the art world and the man's marriage, which could have belonged to straight drama. There's a wry humor to the proceedings, but few real chills, perhaps more in the realm of the Twilight Zone than it is true horror. Nevertheless, it's a quick, effective, Faustian tale, well designed and acted.


Ryan Blake said...

Excellent reviews and I know have a few ideas for Halloween...


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