Karen Black at the Black House with the Black Fence: An Appreciation of “The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver”

You know how sometimes when you’re bored and kinda hung over on a Sunday, and you go poking around YouTube looking for some comforting 1970s horror to watch while you inhale your hearty lunch of homemade Swedish meatballs? And you know how every now and then, you fortuitously stumble across a made-for-TV movie from 1977 that you hadn’t heard of, and how sometimes that movie was written by Richard Matheson and starred Karen Black? Isn’t that fucking rad when that happens? I’m here to tell you that it is quite rad.

The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver is evidently something of a forgotten gem from the late 1970s, and despite its pedigree, hasn’t really gotten a great deal of attention; hell, I don’t think it’s ever even been released on DVD, at least in the U.S. The version I saw on YouTube had been transferred from a battered old VHS tape of the original telecast. It’s kind of a shame, because although this isn’t Matheson’s or Black’s best work, obviously, it’s still a really eerie mystery with a twist ending that totally blindsided me, which is not an easy thing for an ending to do.

Karen Black plays Miriam Oliver, an unhappy housewife straining under the controlling behavior of her buttplug husband Greg (George Hamilton), a hotshot lawyer who apparently wants nothing more than a wife who will dress like a Mormon schoolmarm, pump out babies at his command, and never leave the house or question his authority for any reason whatsoever.

As you might expect, Miriam is getting pretty resentful of the fact that she’s not allowed to work or go to college, and that Greg is pressuring her to have a child before she’s really ready (side note: Miriam’s character in the movie is supposed to be 26 years old, though Ms. Black was at least ten years older than that when this was filmed). She starts to rebel in little ways, like continuing to take her birth control pills on the sly; most significantly, she goes to the mall one day and is drawn to purchase a tight, low-cut red blouse, a blonde wig, some red lipstick, and some snazzy hoop earrings. She puts all the stuff on and is both enthralled and terrified by the fact that she looks like a completely different person. She even starts to act differently when she has her “costume” on, though of course Greg doesn’t really get it and thinks Miriam is losing her marbles. He does kinda try to be understanding, but it soon becomes apparent that Miriam is having a true identity crisis, and may in fact be “possessed,” just as the title of the movie suggests.

See, I neglected to mention that at the beginning of the film (and one other time subsequently), Miriam has been having these really creepy nightmares of attending a funeral and looking into the coffin, only to see herself lying there. She also has recurrent visions of fire, a small bouquet of dark purple or black flowers, and the sounds of a dog barking and a woman screaming. She also keeps seeing a dude with a gray sweatshirt and a sweet pornstache who drives a red pickup truck that inexplicably says “gasoline” on the side. Hmmmm.

On a whim, Miriam rents a cottage on the beach without asking her husband’s permission. He’s pissed, but after he sees how upset she is and how badly she wants it, he agrees that maybe they should rent a beach house so she can get away for a while, but of course he’s going to be the one to pick it out, because he can’t let her have one single thing. He also makes her an appointment to see a psychiatrist, and she seems relieved and compliant, though she tells him she wants to go to the appointment by herself, since he has to go out of town for a trial anyway.

Of course she skips out on the appointment, and instead puts on her slutted-up garb and heads for the beach house. A dog starts following her around, and seems to know her. She ducks into a bar in town, and as she does, she decides that because she has a new identity, she should have a new name. She sees a sign with the word “sandy” on it, and decides to call herself Sandy.

But oddly, as soon as she sits down at the bar, the surprised bartender addresses her as Sandy and asks where she’s been. Freaked out, she says her name is really not Sandy, but the bartender says she looks just like Sandy, a girl who always used to come in there. Even the drink she orders is the same one Sandy drank all the time. The bartender asks the two other shadowed figures at the bar whatever happened to Sandy, and one of them says that she moved away.

Then Miriam sits at a table near the dance floor to enjoy her drink, and who should sleaze up to her but Mr. Sweatshirt von Pornstache, the guy from her dream. She’s afraid of him, as well she should be, because he is crawling all up in her space, insisting she really is Sandy and she needs to stop lying about it. He won’t fuck off when she tells him to, but luckily Miriam is rescued by an extra from Saturday Night Fever, who asks her to dance. She tells him she can’t really dance, and indeed, at first she’s all awkward and shit, but then she finds her groove and starts disco-ing like a champ, just like those chicks on “Solid Gold.” Naturally, this makes Pornstache even more suspicious, because of course the way she dances is exactly the same way that Sandy used to.

So Miriam is getting more and more wigged out (pun very much intended) because Pornstache keeps stalking her around town, and she has the funeral dream again while she’s at the beach house, only this time the dream ends in a huge conflagration, through which Pornstache leers menacingly at her.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking the same thing, but I can assure you that what you are thinking is not actually what’s going on. And if you don’t want the ending spoiled, you might want to stop reading at this point. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

So, you are thinking, as I was, that Pornstache killed Sandy by burning her house down, and that Sandy’s ghost is possessing Miriam, right? I mean, the word “possession” is right there in the title.

This is not what is happening. Kinda close, but much weirder.

So Miriam gets back into her regular Mormon drag, realizing that hubby Greg is gonna be home from his trip soon and she’d better skedaddle back to the unhappy homestead. But the dog that’s been following her won’t get out of her car, and finally she gets exasperated and asks a neighbor who the dog belongs to. He says it’s Mrs. Dempsey’s dog, and that Mrs. Dempsey lives a couple blocks away in “a black house with a black fence.”

Again, I know what you’re thinking. It’s a black house because it’s all burned, right? And Mrs. Dempsey is Sandy, and Sandy’s dead, right? WRONG. We really need to quit trying to guess how this is going to end, you guys. When Miriam finds the house, it’s just a regular un-arsoned house that for some reason is entirely painted black.

An old woman answers the door and says that yeah, the dog belongs to Mrs. Dempsey, who is away until later that evening. This woman is just house-sitting, apparently. The old woman calls the dog Henry, which freaks Miriam out for some reason, and then she’s freaked out even more when she sees one of those pots of black flowers on the windowsill. Then, as she’s leaving, she glances through a window of the house and sees a painting of a girl who looks very much like her, with blonde hair, a tight red blouse, and hoop earrings. Miriam loses her shit and asks the housesitter woman who the girl in the painting is, but the old woman doesn’t know. She says that Miriam should come back after seven and talk to Mrs Dempsey, so Miriam resolves to do just that. By the way, Pornstache has been lurking around this whole time, so there’s also that.

Miriam then passes another neighbor, and asks if Mrs. Dempsey had a daughter. The guy doesn’t really remember at first, but then he says that he thinks he recalls someone mentioning that Mrs. Dempsey indeed had a daughter who died five years before. AHA!!! See, Sandy IS dead!!! WRONG AGAIN. I TOLD YOU TO STOP TRYING TO GUESS.

Meanwhile, back at the Greg Oliver Prison for Matronly Breeder Wives, hubby has returned from his business trip and is calling around to try to find out where his errant wife has gotten off to. He finds out that she skipped her shrink appointment, and surmises, correctly, that she probably went to her beach house. So he heads on over there in order to give her a good talking-to.

Miriam, still being tailed by Pornstache, returns to the Dempsey house, and here’s where the big bombshell finally comes to light. Mrs. Dempsey answers the door and sees Miriam there, her face partially in shadow. She seems REALLY cheesed off, accusing Miriam of playing a sick joke on her. Mrs. Dempsey asks who she is, and when Miriam says her name, Mrs. Dempsey is all FUUUUUUUUUUUCK YOOOOOOOOOOOOU. Then Mrs. Dempsey turns on the porch light, sees Miriam’s face properly, and calls Miriam Sandy. Miriam protests, and asks about Mrs. Dempsey’s dead daughter in the painting. Mrs. Dempsey says that the painting isn’t of her daughter, but is a portrait that her daughter painted of her best friend Sandy. “THIS IS MY DAUGHTER,” Mrs. Dempsey shrieks, thrusting a framed photograph at Miriam. “THIS WAS MY DAUGHTER MIRIAM.” And right there in the photo is matronly Miriam, complete with librarian bun and giant seventies glasses.

What in the Samuel Langhorne HELL is going on here, you may wonder? Okay, pay attention. Five years before, Pornstache (whose real name is Mark) was supposed to marry Sandy, but she broke up with his ass and he didn’t take it too well. One night when Sandy and Miriam were at Sandy’s house, Pornstache showed up and set Sandy’s car on fire. The fire spread to the house. Sandy got away, but Miriam and Sandy’s parents died in the blaze.

So basically, the Miriam we’ve been following through this whole movie really WAS Sandy the whole time. She just felt so guilty that Miriam had died because of her that she dissociated and took over Miriam’s identity. As Miriam, she met and married Greg, and only after several years did fragments of her actual identity start filtering back to her. That was why, at the beginning of the movie, that “Miriam” kept telling Greg that she felt suffocated and that she wanted to be her “real self,” though she couldn’t articulate to him who that was. Deep down she knew she was really party-girl Sandy, but Greg had only ever known her as staid, conservative Miriam. So there you have it. No possession, no ghosts, nothing supernatural at all.

At the very end, Pornstache tries to kill Miriam/Sandy, but she is saved when Greg arrives just in the nick of time. She tells him who she really is, and he seems surprisingly okay with it, unless he’s simply planning on calling the men with the butterfly nets after the credits roll. That seems like the kind of dick move he would pull.

Gotta say, I really enjoyed this quite a lot, and I don’t think that was just the remnants of last night’s alcohol talking. The funeral scenes in particular were eerily surreal and creepy as hell, and the whole thing, while rather slow-moving, was intriguingly spooky and mysterious. Karen Black was absolutely great as the unstable Miriam, and George Hamilton was appropriately assholish, without seeming like a cartoon villain. And as I said, the ending, when Mrs. Dempsey handed Miriam the picture of herself, literally made my jaw drop. I didn’t even care that the whole “possession” title was a misnomer; I was just so pleasantly shocked by this bizarre twist that I did not see coming in any way, shape, or form.

Fans of Karen Black, Richard Matheson, and eerie 70s mysteries would do well to give this a chance, and hopefully someday it will get a proper high-quality release, because it really is quite a good example of made-for-TV horror from that golden decade. It was a total accident that I came across it, but as Bob Ross would have said, sometimes there are happy accidents. 🙂

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

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Hulu Horror Double Feature: The Inhabitants and Wax

It’s another lazy Saturday afternoon, my horror honchos, and that means it’s time for another random double feature to while away the weekend hours. Today’s mix was a pretty strange juxtaposition, I gotta say, but it ended up a generally better viewing experience than last time, so let’s jump right in. Oh, and I know I usually forget to say this, but there will probably be some spoilers ahead, though I’ll try not to ruin anything completely.

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First up, The Inhabitants from 2015, directed by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen. Hot damn, this was a good one. It had pretty much everything I like: a spooky old house in New England, an atmosphere of increasing dread that never showed too much or went too far over the top, and best of all, Salem witches, you guys! Yay, I love witches!

The setup of the story is simple in the extreme. Jessica (Elise Couture) and Dan (Michael Reed) are a young married couple who decide to purchase the March Carriage Bed and Breakfast when the elderly folks who previously owned it died (in the husband’s case) or got sent to a nursing home (in the wife’s case). One thing I should point out that gave this movie an added bonus of historical eerieness is that the house where it was filmed actually once belonged to the Reverend Samuel Parris, whose daughter and niece kicked off that whole Salem Witch Trial thing with their crazy accusations. Nice job, girls. 😦

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So, pretty standard creepy shit starts to go down once the couple get moved in; floorboards creak like someone’s walking around, some kinda menacing teenagers hang out in the woods like they’re watching the place, and so on. Jessica begins to research the history of the house so she’ll be able to tell their potential guests some interesting anecdotes, and it turns out that the house was once the home of a 17th-century midwife who was accused of and eventually hanged for witchcraft. The couple find a “gently used” birthing chair in the basement, to boot. Eeeewwwwwww.

The festivities don’t really begin in earnest until Dan is conveniently called away for a few days on a business trip, leaving Jessica in the house alone. I won’t spoil too much, but when he returns, he finds that Jessica has…changed, and not necessarily for the better.

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The thing I loved most about this movie was its consistently tense, claustrophobic atmosphere. The house itself is so eerie and so effectively filmed that the whole movie just drips spookiness during its entire running time. I also liked the measured pacing of the film; steady, not in any hurry to get anywhere, but subtly ratcheting up the dread as it went along. Another thing I really liked was that everything was done through suggestion; there was no splashy gore, not many jump scares, and a lot of plot aspects were left ambiguous for the viewer to puzzle over. For instance, who installed those video cameras in all the rooms? What were those teenagers doing out in the woods, and exactly what were they planning to do when they broke in? What ultimately happened to Dan and Jessica’s dog Wylie? Where did the “children” originally come from, and why did they need to be “fed?” These questions are not answered outright, but it doesn’t matter; it all just adds to the overall ambience. I would recommend this film unreservedly to anyone who enjoys slow-burn haunted house flicks as much as I do; I thought it was really fantastic and effective.

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Next up was a film that was a whole different kettle of fish, and while I didn’t dislike it, it gave me a lot more mixed feelings than The Inhabitants did. Part found-footage, part torture porn, part self-referential homage, the 2014 Spanish movie Wax was directed by Victor Matellano and featured a bunch of genre-specific cameos, including Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of Charlie), Jack Taylor (who starred in some of Jess Franco’s films), and the voice of Paul Naschy. It was a fairly enjoyable movie on the whole, but I feel like it was a little unfocused and too long and drawn out to really ring my bell, if you know what I’m saying.

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The conceit is this: Muppet-haired smart-ass and horror geek Mike (Jimmy Shaw) is hired by a TV producer (Geraldine Chaplin) to be locked into a supposedly haunted Barcelona wax museum overnight, and film a documentary-cum-reality-show while he’s in there. Interwoven with this narrative is the story of the subject of the museum’s newest exhibit—a notorious and cannibalistic serial killer named Dr. Knox, who had a thing for gadding about dressed like Vincent Price’s character in House of Wax and eating his victims’ internal organs while they were still alive.

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So Mike is wandering around the dimmed museum, filming his reality show, and every now and then there’s an intercut of footage of Dr. Knox addressing the camera and describing whatever indignities he is visiting upon his current unfortunate victim. These interstitials are described in-film as being videos that were found in one of Dr. Knox’s hideouts after his arrest, and the museum has them playing on a loop near his wax figure. Fun for the whole family! These bits of the movie are actually fairly gruesome, but nothing to really put you off your lunch or anything, unless you’re super squeamish.

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At about the halfway point of the movie, some paranormal-type stuff starts happening around the museum, like figures seemingly moving, props falling over, mysterious lights, and a red ball that is significant to the plot turning up in the darnedest places. Then, during one of Mike’s scheduled phone calls with the TV producer, it comes to light that Dr. Knox has escaped from prison, and wouldn’t you know it, Mike soon starts seeing him lurking around the museum and understandably begins to freak the fuck out.

One thing I will say about the found footage aspects of the film, is that I thought the trope was pretty effectively utilized here, especially near the end, when Mike is being pursued around the museum by Dr. Knox and only has that creepy green night-vision mode to see by. The museum itself, which I’m guessing is probably a real one, also looks terrific and suitably unsettling, especially in Mike’s POV shots, because you can really get the palpable sense that you’re walking through this spooky-ass place in the dark yourself.

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But overall, I felt like the movie just didn’t hang together all that well, like it was trying to be too many things at once. And I was also left pretty confused by what was actually going on at the end of the thing. AHOY! SPOILERS AHEAD! Okay, so at the end, we’re led to believe that the TV producers had actually set the whole thing up, that Dr. Knox was not actually in the museum, and that they were deliberately trying to drive Mike crazy (or crazier) to make a good TV show. Were they actually planning for him to die of fright, or was that just a lucky side effect? Also, Mike’s wife and kid were killed by Dr. Knox? And he didn’t know it? I mean, he must not have known, because he didn’t seem any more squicked out by the Dr. Knox murder footage than a normal person would be. It wasn’t really made clear whether he even knew his wife and kid were dead, honestly. I mean, there was that one scene where he was kinda getting weirdly friendly with a wax figure of a prostitute and saying how much he missed his wife, but I thought that was because she had left him, like she said she was going to in that one flashback he had. If that’s not what happened, then what was the point of that brief flashback where she said she was gonna leave him? And when he showed the picture of his son Rob to the museum curator at the beginning, he referred to the kid in the present tense and didn’t act all sad or like the kid was dead or anything. So like, in light of the ending, were we supposed to interpret that as a symptom of his mental illness, or what? I just feel like that whole situation wasn’t conveyed effectively, and neither was the line between what was really in the museum, what was set up by the producers, and what was only in Mike’s imagination. It didn’t really ruin the movie or anything, but it was sort of frustrating nonetheless.

This one…eh, I could have taken it or left it. I wouldn’t really recommend it unless you think it’s the kind of thing you’d be into, but keep in mind that it’s kinda meandering and goes on way longer than it needs to. Not bad, but not great.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

We All Mask Our Desperation As Best We Can: An Appreciation of “The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail”

Buonasera, spaghetti horror aficionados! We’re delving back into the giallo pot for today’s delectable serving, so tie on your bib and chow down!

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The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (La Coda dello Scorpione, 1971) was the second giallo film directed by Sergio Martino, who also helmed one of my previously featured films, All the Colors of the Dark. Scorpion’s Tail isn’t quite as groovy and fun as Colors, but it’s still a tightly plotted and entertaining little thriller with some nice cinematography, a script with lots of surprising twists and turns, and some satisfyingly bloody kills.

At the beginning of the movie, we’re introduced to beautiful blonde Lisa Baumer (Evelyn Stewart), two-timing wife of jet-setting rich dude Kurt Baumer. While Lisa is busily banging her scruffy side-piece, she receives a phone call that informs her that her presumably Lego-sized husband has tragically perished in the explosion of his teeny toy plane (you’ll know what I mean when you see the effect, you guys). Into the phone, she’s all, “Yeah, I know all about thaaaaa…I mean, oh man, that’s a damn shame. I loved that guy more than life itself, yes indeedy.” Helping her through her terrible grief is the fact that poor ‘sploded Kurt had an insurance policy that will make Lisa a million dollars richer; all she has to do is fly to Athens, Greece to pick up the check, and cha-ching: baby you’re a rich man.

Since insurance companies are generally no chumps, they suspect that maaaaybe Lisa had something to do with the plastic plane explosion that shuffled off Kurt’s mortal coil, so they hire insurance investigator and rakishly suave motherfucker Peter Lynch (George Hilton) to follow Lisa’s tight ass around and measure the exact proportion of fatale to her femme.

Lisa groks to his game right away, but she’s got bigger problems than him to deal with, because it turns out that Kurt’s ogre-faced mistress Lara (Janine Reynaud) and her lawyer/one-man brute squad Sharif (Luis Barboo) want to get their hands on some of Kurt’s sweet death-cash as well, and try to kill the conniving Lisa after she refuses to buckle under their (admittedly pretty lame) threats of blackmail.

Planning on getting her money as quickly as possible and getting the fuck out of Dodge, Lisa cashes her million-dollar check and makes arrangements to meet current homme de commodité Scruffy D. Adulterer in Tokyo. Unfortunately, the security at her hotel isn’t quite up to snuff, and she is summarily sliced into ribbons and relieved of her ill-gotten gains before she can even finish stowing her slain-spouse money-bundles into her fetching carry-on valise.

There then follows your standard giallo murder mystery, replete with world-weary, shit-talking investigators, a budding love story between two of the characters involved in the case, and a whole fisherman’s platter of red herrings. People who are suspected of some of the murders start to turn up dead themselves, and it becomes very clear that whatever it is that’s going on, it’s far more complicated than it seemed at first blush. Who is bumping off all these seemingly unrelated people? Is it the sketchy Interpol officer with the mysteriously injured hand? How about Lisa’s heroin-shootin’ and Mac Davis-resemblin’ ex-boyfriend? Did Kurt Baumer fake his own death to collect on his own insurance policy? Or is something even more convoluted and sinister going on? And why on earth do female characters in every single one of these movies insist on standing there and helplessly staring at the door while a murderer is busting it down? Honestly, ladies, you can run away; just because some dude goes to the trouble of breaking into your house doesn’t give you some kind of social obligation to allow him to stab you. You’re welcome for that tidbit of advice, by the way.

All in all, this was a serviceable giallo with enough plot curveballs to keep you guessing, and though I won’t spoil the ending, I will say that this film features an enjoyable subversion of some of the most common tropes of the genre vis-a-vis the resolution of the mystery. There’s also some added spice in the form of a fairly graphic eye gouging and the frequent appearance of two of Anita Strindberg’s boisterously bouncing…acting chops. Enjoy with a cappuccino and a nice biscotti, and call me in the morning.

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Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

Even Those Representing God Must Rely on Advertising: An Appreciation of “Seven Blood Stained Orchids”

It’s a stormy Saturday afternoon here in central Florida, and as I often like to do on wet weekends such as these, I decided to while away a couple of hours with a strangely comforting European cult flick from the 1970s and then tell the internet how I felt about it, whether the internet wants to hear it or not. Did I mention I’m back on the giallo kick? No? Okay, consider it mentioned.

Anyway, I’ve obviously written about a few gialli before, and the funny thing about the genre is that you don’t have to see too many of them before you start getting into what I call “endless giallo recursion,” or alternately, “The Giallo Small World Hypothesis.” To wit, the movie we’re discussing today is another one with bloody flowers prominent in the title and the plot (just like the subject of my older post, The Case of the Bloody Iris), and another one featuring Marina Malfatti (who was also in a couple of other gialli I wrote about, The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave and All the Colors of the Dark), albeit in a fairly small role.

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Seven Blood Stained Orchids (Sette orchidee macchiate di rosso) was released in 1972 and was the last of a series of four Italian/German co-productions (fun fact: in Germany, the equivalent of gialli is “Krimi”) based upon the works of prolific British crime writer Edgar Wallace. It was directed by Umberto Lenzi, probably most infamous (at least in the U.S. and U.K.) as the director of a couple of the most notorious “video nasties,” Eaten Alive and Cannibal Ferox. Now, before you go getting any ideas, Seven Blood Stained Orchids is pretty much a textbook giallo and has very little in common with Lenzi’s gore films; in fact, the violence here is exceptionally tame, with the bloodiest scene probably being a relatively mild murder with a whirring drill (and you know you’re a horror junkie when a grisly drill-through-the-heart scene barely raises an interested eyebrow). So whether that makes you more or less likely to want to watch it is entirely up to you.

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NEEDS MOAR NEEDLES TAPED UNDER EYEBALLS.

 

As I said, this movie ticks pretty much all the blood-spattered little giallo boxes: there’s a black-gloved killer stalking and killing scantily-clothed women with a knife, there’s a strange calling card left at the murder scenes (in this case, an occult-looking silver half-moon pendant), there is an investigation undertaken by one of the target victims when police prove less than useful, and there is the standard parade of shifty motherfuckers who drift through the story and serve as red herrings until the mystery slowly becomes resolved. Could the killer be the enigmatic old man babbling in German in the cemetery? The heroin-shooting Jimi Hendrix fan who does nothing but host open-door naked orgy parties at his zebra-print hippie pad? Or perhaps it’s his blouse-wearing boyfriend, who is a dead ringer for Rufus Wainwright? Or how about that hard-faced old battle-axe in the lunatic asylum who gives one of the potential victims a whole faceful of stinkeye and keeps a thermometer under her chair cushion, the way you do?

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“I DON’T CARE WHO IT IS, AS LONG AS THE STAB WOUNDS DON’T MAR MY CHESTICULAR PERKINESS.”

 

Briefly, the main plot revolves around a woman named Giulia (Uschi Glas) and her new husband, fashion designer and bossy-boots Mario (Antonio Sabato), as they attempt to get to the bottom of a mysterious series of killings, linked by the aforementioned half-moon pendant. After the murder of a prostitute (Lina Franchi) and an artist (Marina Malfatti), Giulia is targeted for death while she is on a train with Mario, heading toward their honeymoon destination. She survives, but because the killer beat cheeks before checking to make sure she was dead (rookie mistake), the police stage a mock funeral for her and keep her in hiding while they try to draw the murderer out. One of the repeated motifs of the film, though, is the general ineffectiveness of the cops, as they time and again fail to protect the marked women, even after Giulia and Mario have figured out the tenuous connection between the victims and helpfully provided a list of who is likely to meet the killer’s knife next. So fuck the police, the movie seems to be saying, since they apparently can’t manage to catch a cold even when all the legwork is done for them.

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“YEAH, THEY’RE STANDING RIGHT HERE…YEAH, THEY JUST ASKED ME TO WIPE THEIR ASSES FOR THEM TOO.”

 

During the course of the film, we learn a great number of interesting facts. Among these are that serial killers become infinitely less sympathetic when they stoop to poisoning a bunch of kittens; that “The American Hospital” actually refers to the name of a medical facility in Rome and is not an admission that the Italians think there is only a single hospital on the entire American continent; that confessional booths in Catholic churches really need a better security detail; that a drugged-up sex soiree can’t be complete without poorly-applied body paint and a poster of Marilyn Monroe somewhere in the mix; and that not wearing a kicky purple scarf with your mod ensemble will make everyone think you’re a straight-up hooker who deserves to be bludgeoned to death in a cornfield.

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All in all, this was a fairly solid example of the genre, not mind-blowingly awesome, but quite enjoyable, well-paced, and rather elegantly shot. The central plot device of the authority figures in the movie being powerless to protect the victims added a nice little undercurrent of dread to the entire affair. While the reveal of the killer was something of a surprise, the untangling of the murderer’s motive was not as splashy or madness-fueled as in other examples of the genre, so it frankly fell a little flat for me, since I’m more into the excesses of Argento. But I would still recommend this to giallo fans as a decent, middle-of-the-road entry into the annals of Italian crime thrillers.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

The Limit Has Finally Been Transgressed: An Appreciation of “Hour of the Wolf”

Hälsningar, minions! Today we’re delving into the surreal and arty waters of the Ingmar Bergman oeuvre, and even though I’m gonna try REALLY hard to not make any Swedish Chef jokes, I’m not going to promise anything, because y’all know how I roll.

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Hour of the Wolf (or Vargtimmen in Swedish) was released in 1968, and is probably the closest thing to a straight horror movie that Bergman ever did. That said, it’s still miles away from a traditional horror flick of the era, being more like an intensely eerie, psychological mindfuck with some really, really disturbing imagery; essentially, it’s film as wide-awake nightmare. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my love of ambiguity and surrealism in horror, and here is one of the best examples I have yet seen; in execution and implication, it’s absolutely skin-crawling. It’s also fairly obvious that this film was a pretty big influence on David Lynch’s Eraserhead, and in its themes of spiraling madness it also bears something of a resemblance to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.

The story concerns an artist, Johan Borg (Max von Sydow), who is vacationing at a remote island cottage with his pregnant wife Alma (Liv Ullman). At the beginning of the movie, Alma is talking directly to the camera about the disappearance of her husband, as if she is being interviewed for a documentary. The remainder of the film is told in flashback; we see the bizarre disintegration of Johan’s mental state, and wonder how much of what we’re seeing is real.

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What makes this film so unsettling is its resolute refusal to explain itself. Johan interacts with strange people as he walks around the island, and he seems to think that they are demons, even though Alma can see them too; and for most of the movie, they seem like real people, albeit really skeevy ones. Johan has drawn all of them in his sketchbook, though the viewer never sees the drawings, but only Alma’s horrified reactions to them. He also has names for them, like the Bird-Man, the Schoolmaster, and The Lady with a Hat (about whom Johan once tells Alma that you don’t want to be around when the lady takes the hat off, because the whole face comes off with it. NOPE).

At one stage, a man named Baron von Merkans invites Johan and Alma to his nearby castle for a party, and when they attend, it’s the trippiest get-together ever, as all the guests laugh bizarrely, yammer on about meaningless topics, and overpraise Johan’s art to a really uncomfortable degree. Everyone seems hostile and cruel, as though they’re mocking him, but no reason for this is apparent. One of the women at the party shows Johan and Alma her bedroom, in which hangs a huge portrait of a woman named Veronica Vogler, who was apparently Johan’s ex-lover, though it is never clarified if she was a real person, or another figment of Johan’s crumbling imagination.

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Johan suffers terribly from insomnia, and Alma often stays awake with him in support. During the long nights, they have some extremely disturbing discussions. In one very eerie scene, Johan tells Alma about a trauma from his childhood in which he was locked up in a closet with what he thought was a small person who wanted to gnaw his toes off. He also confesses to a possibly fictitious incident some time before whereby he murdered a little boy while out fishing. During this conversation, he clarifies the meaning of the phrase “hour of the wolf,” which according to folklore is the hour in the middle of the night when most deaths and births take place. Much of the horror in the movie is conveyed in these weird conversations, though there are plenty of uncanny visuals to highlight the nightmarish narrative, like a man suddenly walking up a wall and across a ceiling, or a woman pulling off her face and popping her eyeballs into a wine glass.

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If you’re getting the sense that this is a really bizarre, disjointed film, then you’re entirely correct, but its inexplicable strangeness is very, VERY effective in making this one of the most haunting and genuinely unnerving films I’ve ever seen (and that’s saying a lot). The underlying themes of the film seem to tie in with the fine line between artistic genius and madness, with the power of deep-seated fears and shameful desires to unhinge the mind, and with the possibility that insanity may be contagious, as Alma wonders at the end whether her love for Johan caused her to share in his delusions. There is also a repeating motif of eating or biting—the demonic people that Johan sees are portrayed as something akin to vampires or birds of prey, and during the flashback scene where Johan is recounting his murder of the boy at the seashore, the boy bites him several times during the struggle. Indeed, the working title of the manuscript was “The Maneaters,” so perhaps there is some reference here to the way that fears and traumas, whether real or imagined, can eat away at one’s sanity.

All in all, not a film for everyone, obviously, but I found it an intense experience, so disquieting and ominous that it was sort of distressing to watch. Its slow pace and stark cinematography only added to the uncomfortable atmosphere. If you haven’t seen it, and are a fan of Bergman’s other films, or just like surrealistic horror in general, I would definitely recommend it, even though it legit creeped me the fuck out. In fact, I know I said I was gonna try not to, but I need a laugh after watching it, so here we go.

Sorry, Sweden.

Goddess out.

Strange Men Have Been Following Women Since the Stone Age: An Appreciation of “All the Colors of the Dark”

Welcome back to our regularly scheduled programming, horror hounds. We’re traveling back to Italy for this one, and back to the giallo genre; we’re also revisiting some familiar faces from previous blog posts, because today’s movie features Edwige Fenech and George Hilton (from The Case of the Bloody Iris), as well as Marina Malfatti (who starred in The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave). So, without further delay, let’s jump right into the psychedelic cauldron of Satan, shall we?

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All the Colors of the Dark (Tutti i colori del buio, 1972) was an Italian/Spanish co-production, but set in London, and directed by Sergio Martino. It’s essentially a groovier, less satirical, and WAY more surreal take on Rosemary’s Baby, with similar themes of black magic, ambiguous reality, and crushing paranoia.

Beautiful but mentally fragile protagonist Jane has been going through some shit; not only was her mother murdered when she was five years old, but a year before the events of the film, she was in a car accident in which she suffered a miscarriage. Her boyfriend, pharmaceutical rep and raging jackwad Richard, was driving the car, and sorta feels responsible for the whole losing the baby thing, although he still kinda treats Jane like crap anyway. Ever since the tragedy, Jane has been plagued with horrific, Fellini-esque nightmares in which toothless old ladies cackle in close-up and a mysterious man with ice-blue eyes repeatedly stabs women in their beds.

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DAVID LYNCH TO THE WHITE COURTESY PHONE.

In true “Yellow Wallpaper” fashion, Richard has been pooh-poohing Jane’s wishes to see a psychiatrist, insisting she just needs to keep ingesting the weird blue toilet-tablet vitamin concoction he’s giving her to flush away the crazy, since he clearly subscribes to the Tom Cruise School of Psychiatry Is Evil and Scientology Solves All the Things With Vitamins and OT Powers. But since playing with the Ty-D-Bol Man doesn’t seem to be doing her any damn good, Jane finally takes her sister Barbara’s advice and goes to see the psychiatrist Barbara works for, a kindly old man called Dr. Burton. Doc seems more understanding, but her nightmares are not going away, and what’s worse, she’s starting to see the blue-eyed man stalking her in real life, or so it would appear.

Fearing she might be going batshit insane, she finally confides in foxy new neighbor Mary, whose first suggestion, obviously, is for Jane to accompany her to a black magic ritual, which should clear that whole mental illness thing right up, with the well-known healing power of Beelzebub. Jane gives this course of action about ten seconds of thought before going, “Sounds like a plan,” and after a festive afternoon of dog-blood drinking and gang rape, she seems right as rain again.

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BLACK CANDLES AND WHITEFACE: THE CURE FOR WHAT AILS YOU.

 

But not so fast! In a stunning twist, it turns out that demonic cults headed by fey bearded men wearing fabulous gold Lee press-on nails may not actually be conducive to one’s overall well-being! Who’da thought? From here on out, the movie takes on the aspect of a fever dream, as we’re not really sure who we can trust and what is really happening. Is the blue-eyed psycho real or imaginary? Is everyone Jane knows conspiring with the cult to push her off her rocker for good? Has Richard fucked every woman in the immediate vicinity, including Jane’s sister? What’s the over/under on how long it would take to murder a couple of German senior citizens and prop them up at the breakfast table as though they’re still alive? Will Jane ever learn to cook bacon and eggs properly? The surrealistic touches come hard and fast, and the viewer will be left confused and on edge until the very end.

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WAKING UP ON THE LAWN OF A SATANIC MURDER MANSION; WE’VE ALL BEEN THERE.

 

I really dug this one a lot; I loved the psychedelic weirdness and the ambiguity, and it had a really unsettling undertone of claustrophobia, as the world seemed to close in around poor Jane, leaving her with no one to trust. The cinematography was also lovely and strange, if a little heavy on the wacky camera effects. Definitely one of the more unique gialli, and one I’d definitely recommend to fans of Satanic cult movies as well.

That’s all for this installment, so until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

Revenge of the Deathless Guinea Pig: An Appreciation of “The Asphyx”

Cheerio, old chaps! Today’s movie is another kinda obscure 1970s flick from Europe, but we’ve temporarily travelled from Italy to Old Blighty. Bizarrely, and completely coincidentally, it also concerns a fucked up aristocratic family by the name of Cunningham, just like my last entry on The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave. I swear I did NOT do that on purpose. Clearly, mysterious cinematic forces are at work here.

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Directed by Peter Newbrook and released in 1972, The Asphyx was also known under the titles Spirit of the Dead and The Horror of Death. Set in 1875, it explores many of the same themes as Frankenstein, what with all the hubris about scientists tampering in God’s romaine and suchlike. Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) is a widower, a gentleman scientist, and a cheery, progressive sort of bloke, using his money and expertise in service of the betterment of mankind. At the beginning of the movie, he is bringing his fiancée Anna (Fiona Walker) back to the family estate to introduce her to his two grown children Clive (Ralph Arliss) and Christina (Jane Lapotaire), as well as a young fella named Giles (Robert Powell), who he introduces as his adopted son, but who also has a thing going with Christina, so…huh. Yeah, technically they’re not blood relatives, but still, eeeewwwww. Moving on.

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One of Sir Hugo’s main scientific pursuits involves working with a psychical research society, photographing people at the moment of their deaths. A few of their photographs seem to show a strange black smudge near the dying people, which the psychical society believes are the souls leaving the bodies. Sir Hugo is excited about the implications of this research, but his ward/assistant/daughter-banger Giles is all kinda meh, skeptical of the society’s conclusions and not really seeing the point of it all.

Things start going to shit about twenty minutes into the festivities. Clive and Anna are killed in a freak boating accident, and Sir Hugo happens to capture their deaths on his newfangled video camera. Beside himself with grief, he insists on watching the footage to see his beloved Anna and his only son Clive one final time. He is simultaneously horrified and ecstatic to find that he can clearly see that telltale black smudge appearing on the film right before Clive gets beaned with the fatal tree branch, but now that he can see it as a moving image instead of a static one, he can’t help but notice that the smudge is not moving away from Clive, as his soul presumably would, but toward him. Dun dun duuuuuun.

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This doesn’t seem like a great deal to go on, but from this single piece of evidence, Sir Hugo formulates a theory that obviously, this black thingamabob isn’t really a soul per se, but an entity from Greek mythology called an asphyx, something like a grim reaper deal that comes to claim your ass when you’re fixing to bite the big one. He’s eager to do more research into the matter, and fortuitously, an opportunity soon presents itself: the president of the psychical society, Sir Edward Barrett (Alex Scott) arrives at Sir Hugo’s house, all in a lather because the barbaric British government has decided to reinstate public executions in order to try to stem the tide of a supposed explosion of violent crime. Sir Edward and Sir Hugo are both vehemently anti-capital punishment, and Sir Edward wants Sir Hugo to film the first hanging, hoping that the horror of the images will rally the public to their cause. Sir Hugo pretends that he doesn’t really want to do it, but secretly he’s all like AWWWW YEAH and metaphorically rubbing his hands together in anticipatory glee. He finally agrees, though he doesn’t tell Sir Edward what his true intentions are, vis-á-vis recording dying people’s repo-demons.

During the hanging, Sir Hugo uses a “light booster,” essentially a spotlight using phosphorous crystals, to illuminate the gallows as the condemned man meets the noose; but to the surprise of himself and everyone assembled, the criminal’s asphyx is clearly visible to all, and seems to be trapped within the phosphorous beam. When Sir Hugo reviews the footage later, both he and Giles realize that if a person’s asphyx could be halted by the phosphorescent light, and further, if the asphyx could then be transferred to a purpose-made lock-box with a phosphorous beam shining indefinitely into it, then a person could, theoretically, never die, provided the asphyx is never released. They try the experiment on a guinea pig and meet with rousing success, so of course the next logical step is that Sir Hugo, growing increasingly mad with the potential power of everlasting life, decides to immortalize himself, because his awesomeness cannot be contained within a single lifetime, goddammit.

If you know anything about this type of movie, you’ll know that the situation is going to go drastically, horrifically sideways from that point forward, and you may find yourself asking the following questions: Is it ever morally justifiable to toy with immortality? What lengths will a man go to to preserve his family and his legacy? Is it really prudent to have to live forever when your noggin is hanging on by a single sinew like Nearly Headless Nick? Some pretty fucked up shit happens at the end of this, folks, and here is yet another example of a Cunningham family who really, desperately need some kind of psychiatric intervention. Happy Days this ain’t.

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As with a lot of British films from the early 70s, this one moves at a snail’s pace and is ridiculously talky, so it’s definitely not for all tastes. The characters, further, are all intensely twee, upper-class-twit types, but I found myself kinda liking them in spite of myself. Plus I was so interested to see what new, profanely impious schemes Sir Hugo was gonna come up with next that I was utterly transfixed through the entire two-hour running time. I also found the ending wonderfully cruel, ironic, and immensely satisfying.

That’s all for this installment, so until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.