Sunday, 17 September 2017

House IV: The Repossession (1992)

From https://gbhbl.com/wp-content/
uploads/2014/09/House-4.jpg

Director: Lewis Abernathy
Screenplay: Geof Miller and Deirdre Higgins
Cast: Terri Treas as Kelly Cobb; William Katt as Roger Cobb; Scott Burkholder as Burke; Denny Dillon as Verna Klump; Melissa Clayton as Laurel Cobb; Ned Romero as Ezra
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #118

[Contains Spoiler for a Plot Point Early in the Narrative]

The House series sadly ends with a less than stellar straight-to-video finale. Being a straight-to-video/DVD film doesn't denote lack of quality, as great films have been bumped from theatrical release or were for the bludgeoning home media market. The bigger issue is that especially in horror franchises, sadly this form of release method developed a negative reputation because of films like this one which lack full creative juices and mar the format, tainting it as a negative buzzword where everything falls over. Sadly it's the nineties and beyond in particular where so bizarre cases take place where franchises, once on cinema screen, dragged out into the tens in the number of sequels they had from embarrassing straight to video entries. This is where if House had lasted as The Howling or Amityville Horror franchise things might've gotten painful and even Arrow Video would've baulked at releasing the full series, rather than the four, unless a huge chunk managed to buck expectations and be good films. House IV in its favour is definitely better than The Horror Show (1989), which was a separate film slapped with being House III in the first place, but it doesn't rise that far above that either.

The problem immediately starts with casting William Katt from the first 1985 film, as the same character I loved from that film, only to squander him. Whatever the reason his character had to be removed after ten minutes and only seen in occasional scenes after, be it schedule or practicality, it doesn't help the film at all. By introducing him as effectively the same character as before, now with a daughter inexplicably instead of a son, only to remove him undermines the film in comparison when the films before were their own separate, closed in stories. It causes further problems as Katt was such a virtue for the first House and, after he's still good in the scenes he's in, his lack of presence after feels like an energy has be yanked out violently from the beginning.

After that House IV is built from boilerplates. Where Terri Treas' heroine, as a grieving widow, is the single mother with a precocious daughter in a wheelchair (Melissa Clayton). That her late husband's stepbrother Burke (Scott Burkholder) wants the old family home for nefarious reasons. That there's a friendly native American in the vicinity named who's part of the house's supernatural history. The Native American subplot in particular feels like the baggage of countless, pointless clichés being mercilessly dragged across films of all genres; like so many of this kind not just in the horror genre but others, its meant to be respectful to Native American culture, but with how such characters are usually depicted as token minorities spouting script improvised gibberish mysticism it can be as misguided as when white actors used to play roles in brownface in old westerns, noble or otherwise. Then there's the environmental message which feels arbitrarily crow barred in when said stepbrother wants the land to dump toxic waste in. Toxic waste, that pop culture symbol still around when I was growing up in the nineties let alone the eighties, an unknown colourful barrel with a skull on the side, usually fragile and prone to spilling, mutating the fishes into superheroes, and was a cheap emotional stand in for environmental messages not told with any depth but for a cheap enticement for viewers. The only difference, in the one odd moment of the whole film, is that the owner of the toxic waste factory the stepbrother works for is actually a dwarf who heads the indistinct mafia too.  One who constantly has to have fluids removed from his throat into what appears to be a milkshake glass. Abruptly in that scene, you realise that this film is slap bang in the nineties with how wacky its meant to be despite introducing this character late in the narrative and rarely using him.

Snippets of the old House films appear briefly when the rubber reality that became the early films' trademark is actually used. Where showers spurt out blood and an ornament literally becomes a guard dog with a lampshade sticking out of its head. But the rest of the film is incredibly obvious and deeply saccharine, managing even to make the sentiments in House II: The Second Story (1987) more jovial in their sweetness and like a boy's own adventure. House IV's sickly tone also has  a frankly a schizophrenic tonal presentation where there's Mafioso who have harmed and murdered people but they also are bumbling idiots who participate in cringe worthy slapstick. Where baring the more gentle tone, it still has the heroine having nightmares of having to sign the papers to end her husband's life after permanent, life debilitating injury which feel like a shock of cold water to the mood when referred back to. It reflects a sad end for what started off pretty strong as a franchise. Sadly it was the moment The Horror Show was added that things dropped off when, honestly, the franchise really exists in the first two films. House was a fun romp in a haunted house, maybe making little sense at times but with William Katt and a bucket load of practical effects to bring a smile to your face to sooth this issue, Katt reduced to a magical plot device in the fourth film and the practical effects combed back. And I confess the film that would have the most divisive reactions, The Second Story, was my personal favourite, managing with its rubber logic and silly characters to win me over. That at least made the viewing experience more rewarding than this one, which whilst the third best of the lot, is a significant drop from the first two films of the series. 

From https://scontent-amt2-1.cdninstagram.com/t51.2885-15/e35/19932399_113888489235332_4380168696849498112_n.jpg

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Masters of Horror Season 2 Part 2

From http://www.theofficialjohncarpenter.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/
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Pro-Life (2006)
Director: John Carpenter
Screenplay: Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan
Cast: Caitlin Wachs as Angelique; Ron Perlman as Dwayne; Emmanuelle Vaugier as Kim; Mark Feuerstein as Alex O'Shea; Biski Gugushe as Kiernan
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Shows) #19

Openly Pro-Life is superior to Cigarette Burns (2005) from the previous season. A contrary statement but whilst the Season 1  episode from John Carpenter reduced a great idea for me to dull didactic series of exposition, Pro-Life takes an idea (the moral quandary of abortion), and through adding Satan to the proceedings, creates a story that doesn't need to be paused constantly but climbs in event fully to the ending. I will openly admit that, from Carpenter, it's still not as good as it should've been, and in terms of a story tackling abortion, barely gets out of the gate in terms of tackling it with any depth. Probably the best thing about Pro-Life however is that, whilst Cigarette Burns felt like any other person could direct it, the tone of Pro-Life evokes the more nihilistic entries that formed Carpenter's series of "apocalyptic" films; even if it's not up to the quality of even Prince of Darkness (1987), that same streak of grit missing from Cigarette Burns is appreciated and gives this episode a closer bond to the director's career.

It's a broad film in tone, in which the daughter of an anti-abortionist preacher named Angelique (Caitlin Wachs) enters one such clinic with a conscious desire to terminate her unborn child only for said father (Ron Perlman) to follow with her brothers and firearms in tow. It's a pretty liberal leaning film in its politics on the subject although the real issue is entirely the lack of subtlety without all the teeth being in its mouth to make a nasty bite. Lack of subtlety, as with films in the director's filmography like They Live (1988), doesn't detract from their worth in the ideas still sting. It tries - a father of another young girl in the clinic is utterly loathsome and the head doctor of the clinic immediately snaps when threatened, going immediately to his own firearm cabinet - but this proves to be the less interesting aspect of the episode. It does thankfully have Ron Perlman as the anti-abortionist preacher which softens how blatantly sociopathic the character becomes. Even a viewer like myself pro-choice will appreciate Perlman's ability to give the character's arguments some weight even if he's a stereotype. The slithers of moral greyness are far more interesting, despite being jettisoned early, when it comes to the fact the daughter's unborn child is likely Satanic in origins but the father has voices in his head he believes are heavenly and asking him to protect it, leading to all manner of existential devastation even for his character is a one note figure.

It's also interesting to see how it also evokes Carpenter's filmography in general. The action director in its scenes of gunfire which are solidly handled. And of course the apocalyptic tone within the main clinic setting as the deaths start to pile up. It gets more gruesome than even Carpenter's previous episode, with Ron Perlman experimenting with some of the equipment in the clinic, but there's also a more tragic and severer tone which benefits Pro-Life. Whilst Cigarette Burns felt like it was trying too hard to surf on its trendy cine-literate plot without fully fleshing it out, Pro-Life is entirely within a morally complex subject that strays outside of cinema into real life, and even if it could've done so much more, it stands out more inherently for this for the better. Even if it leads to at least one ridiculous full body costume I appreciate what starts off with a tantalising start and leads to a fully successful conclusion of what would likely happen if this type of event ever took place. Where the ending is technically happy but with a terrible emotional aftermath that you never see as, like in a classic Carpenter film, he's cuts immediately beforehand and deprives you of a comfortable denouement.

From http://film.thedigitalfix.com/protectedimage.php?
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From https://4.bp.blogspot.com/-blMz701kOpg/Vi82ymPGqhI/AAAAAAAAbRQ/u-O0Vz8P6Ao/s1600/MastersOfHorrorFamilyMoviePoster.jpg

Family (2006)
Director: John Landis
Screenplay: Brent Hanley
Cast: George Wendt as Harold Thompson; Meredith Monroe as Celia Fuller; Matt Keeslar as David Fuller; Haley Guiel as Sarah; Kerry Sandomirsky as Jane; John B. Scot as Grandpa; Nancy Whyte as Grandma
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Shows) #20

John Landis, as of seeing Deer Woman (2005) from the first season and Family now in Season 2, is two for two for great segments in Masters of Horror. Again, like with Deer Woman, it's surprising that whilst he is known for An American Werewolf in London (1981) his career is mainly been outside of horror, and yet within the series named Masters of Horror he's been the figure the most consistent out of the old guard. It may however be that discrepancy which has helped with these episodes of his. Deer Woman was a comedy first within the horror genre, likely sneaking in more serious material within the farce, but still a comedy. Family is a grim, nasty little tale but there's still a streak of gallows humour presiding it, and with at least a cast member from Cheers helping him out in the lead.

Structurally, from screenwriter Brent Hanley (most well known for the script of the late Bill Paxton's Frailty (2001)), the story's a simple and low key tale with an easy to understand set up. A middle aged, single man Harold (George Wendt) lives in peaceful Americana suburbia, only for it to be immediately revealed that he's been kidnapping people, murdering them and with the help of a bathtub of acid building up his own perfect family from their bones and clothes they were taken in. His world is idealised - wife, daughter, even grandparents - with the episode cleverly depicting this through having actors in the roles for his delusions but also intercutting the prop skeletons in the same costumes during these conversation scenes. Very simple, easy to accomplish things which should be obvious for a good story, which even a layman like me who doesn't work in the film and television industry would know would help lead to a good production. The flashiest things about the entire episode is just how Landis decided to be more flamboyant in visual style, with swooping cameras, and in terms of music with the curious (but rewarding) choice of old, beautiful gospel songs chosen in a rather sacrilegious ways. The rest of Family is deceptively simple in presentation.

And that's actually why it's one of the best episodes of both seasons so far, as this basic and well thought out plotting succeeds as expected. Harold takes interest in a younger couple (Meredith Monroe and Matt Keeslar) who have moved in across the street, having interest in the wife much to his skeleton wife's chagrin. This obviously leads to a sting in the tail, but everything fleshed up around this (pun not intended) is done well. The most important factor is how George Wendt excels in the lead. This is not his first time in the horror genre - he was in House (1985) in a major role [a review is available HERE], but most of his career is outside of said genre. But it feels as if this helps allow him to really flesh out the character from a career that includes playing Santa Claus in a TV movie the same year as this, giving him the ability to depict a character who comes off as actually lovable were it not for the fact of how horrifying his behaviour is outside his warm, family valued hallucinations. There's been a little disappointment in how, in spite of Season 2 being far more consistent and better in terms of the quality of the episodes, the stand out character performances haven't been as noticeable yet, but out of both seasons Wendt is going to be amongst the best particularly in the lead.

His delusions talking back to him, even as far as potential victims speaking directly to him (and to us) from afar in one sequence all simplistic and yet credible way to depict this. And also, considering where the story goes, there's definitely moments where the viewer would question on a rewatch what was within Harold's head and what was actually said, having some clever whit to the material from Brent Hanley. Between him and Landis, the story never overcomplicates itself with subplots and plays its tone as both humorous and dark before the ending. Said ending, which I won't spoil, is as twisted as you can get, and even if you guessed it before the end, it still has that aforementioned sting because of the quality of everything built from beforehand. In general Family will rank amongst one of the best of the series and its simplicity is the reason.

From http://cps-static.rovicorp.com/2/Open/Hulu_1693/Program/5939882/_
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Tuesday, 12 September 2017

House III: The Horror Show (1989)

From https://image.tmdb.org/t/p/original/
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Director: James Isaac
Screenplay: Allyn Warner (as Alan Smithee) and Leslie Bohem
Cast: Lance Henriksen as Detective Lucas McCarthy; Brion James as Max Jenke; Rita Taggart as Donna McCarthy; Dedee Pfeiffer as Bonnie McCarthy; Aron Eisenberg as Scott McCarthy; Tom Bray as Peter Campbell
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #117

After falling in love with the Cata-Puppy of House II: The Second Story (1987), and won over by the whole film itself being a sweet natured supernatural adventure romp, The Horror Show is such a violently drastic shift in tone. As mentioned before, The Horror Show was the first and only entry in the House franchise I had seen before these reviews, completely cut off from context from the rest. Now with full context, watched in order including the fourth film from 1990 viewed, it jars so much from the entire series completely to the point of being a sobering shock in comparison to the others. To see the change from the nice, humorous tone of the first two films, especially The Second Story, to a film which begins with dismemberment, a woman being found in a giant meat grinder, arm removal and blood everywhere on the walls is dark change of direction to experience, hard to even imagine someone renting this back in the day expecting another horror comedy only for this to be what they got. Not surprisingly The Horror Show was never meant to be a sequel in the House franchise in the first time, slapped with the title for marketing purpose which a complete lack of logic to that decision. Even under the banner that every House film was a separate story, even the more infamous sequels in other franchises (like Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)) shared the same tone as the films before.

And The Horror Show is not actually good either. It was the only The Horror Show I saw in my youth, and my original opinion as a dumb teenager that it was dull hasn't actually changed as an adult, giving my younger self some credit for once. The problem for my adult self revisiting the film is that its a terrible rip-off of one of the Nightmare On Elm Street series, beginning with a terrible villain. The late Brion James is doing his best to be animated, certainly having the face that should be in films, but Max Jenke is the worst kind of clichéd villain you can have. A type of serial killer who only exists in horror films like this, so brazenly painted as a mass murderer it was comical for me how the character was depicted in spite of the nasty tone of the whole film. Sadly as well James plays him like later Freddy Krueger with puns and a nails-on-the-chalk board mad laugh. Baring one scene where he gets to be subtle, when Jenke is playing a lawyer to mind screw the protagonist, the rest of the character in tone deaf and obnoxious even in context of being a serial killer. The detective who caught him, Detective Lucas McCarthy (Lance Henriksen), is not as interesting either in spite of who's playing him, the generic troubled cop whose family is plagued by Jenke when he overcomes death at the electric chair, becoming a vague entity able to manipulate reality(1). That McCarthy's family is a generic stereotype of suburban characters - especially the teenage daughter and the precocious son - doesn't help either in terms of emotional connection.

The connection to the House franchise is tentative as this continues the rubber reality of before. When it's following with this, the film is interesting and even sooths over how irritating the villain is. Brion James as a diseased looking, mutant turkey, (related to the chickens in Eraserhead (1977)), is the one other moment where the character, even his jokes, do work in a sickly humoured way. Most of the film however is never like this, following the previous films playing with bizarre prosthetic effects Instead of those strange effects in quantity, where a home in this franchise's world is where strange reality bending events takes place, most of the work focuses on gore effects which are far less interesting than even the cutesier puppets in The Second Story. Without this gimmick baring one or two shining moments, it even feels like the one film out of place within the franchise. Even when you include how it feels the most like the eighties out of the four films - the hair to the references to bands like Megadeth but with b-movie license hair metal on the soundtrack - it doesn't cover for the lacklustre tone of the movie.

From https://horrorpediadotcom.files.wordpress.com/
2013/10/horror-show-3.jpg

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(1) - And yes, in the same year (the year of my birth of 1989), Wes Craven also had a serial killer come back from the grave from the electric chair able to manipulate reality in Shocker. It's the one thing about The Horror Show that's actually compelling to think about.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Masters of Horror Season 2 Part 1: Pelts (2006)

From https://image.tmdb.org/t/p/w300_and_h450_bestv2/
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Director: John Carpenter
Screenplay: Matt Venne
Based on a short story by F. Paul Wilson
Cast: Meat Loaf as Jake Feldman; Link Baker as Lou Chinaski; Emilio Salituro as Sergio; Ellen Ewusie as Shanna; John Saxon as Jeb 'Pa' Jameson
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Shows) #18

I return back to Masters of Horror for Season 2, which had a surprisingly quick turnaround as whilst the first season ended in the spring of 2006, the second started in late 2006. Even swifter than this is how, not far from viewing Dario Argento's Jenifer (2005), I'm now viewing his second addition to the TV series Pelts. Jenifer was an immense disappointment, having the potential for a great psychosexual drama but given to the wrong director. Pelts is an immediately better episode. Not great, but better. 

The one advantage Pelts has, for all its silliness, is that it relies on the tone of ancient folklore to justify anything that happens in the plot. Meat Loaf is Jake Feldman, a greedy fur merchant with an obsession with a stripper/former model Shanna (Ellen Ewusie) who thinks he can bribe her affection and succeed in life when he acquires a set of suspicious fur pelts from a trapper Jeb Jameson (John Saxon, whose return to an Argento film after Tenebre (1982) is still awesome even if his role is brief). The pelts are cleared hexed the moment they were acquired, taken from a sacred raccoon shrine in the woods, with a tendency to woo people into committing suicide in utterly ridiculous ways.

Expecting a deeper message of Pelts being anti-fur is absurd, but what stands out for the better is how the pelts as an item of symbolic meaning evokes common folklore in various cultures of the dangers of transgressing nature. In this case, the curse generated against those who transgressed over a sacred animal shrine allows the episode to get away with such ludicrous deaths as witnessed throughout the episode. Sewing one's face close is absurd, but using the logic of this taboo in human myth makes it more acceptable, as such folklore stretched into the fantastical.

Aside from this, it's Argento making a lurid story for the sake of it, which varies per viewer in reward. Whilst his golden run of films were lurid too, especially on gore, they were also filtered through a rich aesthetic and stories which twist and turned with invention and spark. Here, in later year Argento, its having everything ramped up to an exaggerated extent with that content itself the main dish being served. Where Meat Loaf chews scenery. Where the gore, including the most impractical of suicide methods including animal trap, are as visceral as possible and not stylised. Where sex and nudity is up front, including random lesbianism. Stuff you'd expect more from an Andrea Bianchi or one of the other more infamous Italian genre directors of yore. Not Argento who combined the hyper violent and sensual with a bit more class than this.

From https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/M/MV5BYmQ4NTRhNzctMjlmNS00NTQ3LT
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Saturday, 9 September 2017

House II: The Second Story (1987)

From https://image.tmdb.org/t/p/original/pdiKr
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Director: Ethan Wiley
Screenplay: Ethan Wiley
Cast: Arye Gross as Jesse; Jonathan Stark as Charlie; Royal Dano as Gramps; Bill Maher as John; John Ratzenberger as Bill; Lar Park Lincoln as Kate
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #116

Haunted house horror....to a cuddle Cata-Puppy and undead cowboys? Remembering my initial warning to myself that the House series jumped off the rails from the first sequel onwards, I was prepared for The Second Story to switch the pace up greatly. Its still, like the first film, a comedy with elaborate practical effects but it's entirely to question House II qualifies as a horror film at all. Thankfully, rather than what happened with Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), producer Sean S. Cunningham and those involved decided to make the series an anthology of separate stories immediately from the first film. This doesn't neuter how drastic the changes in tone would be between films, but it at least gives a chance for this particular sequel even if it took a drastically different direction from before.

Urban professional Jesse (Arye Gross) returns to his family home only to learn of a crystal skull his great-great-grandfather acquired, leading him and his friend Charlie (Jonathan Stark) to encounter said great-great-grandfather (Royal Dano) when they open his grave to find said skull. Left immortal due to its power, he's far from angry about the near grave robbing but appreciative of his great-great grandson finally removing him out of his grave after a hundred years. The story in which random figures of different time eras, including Kane Hodder as a caveman with the physic of a pro wrestler, attempt to steal the skull through various pocket dimensions that pop up in the house is really a boy's own fantasy adventure that just happens to have a little salt on it. Baring one use of the word "fag" which dates a minute of the film to its time badly, the film could be shown to children but also appeals to me as an adult because it never becomes morose and dumb like it's surface could suggest. I usually find this type of twee happy adventure cinema from the eighties intolerable. Born in 1989, nostalgia for the era is nonexistent, with the added issue that growing up in Britain there's a visible cultural different between me and these type of American films which would've raised me as a miserable bastard, gladly popping the balloon of love of the era like a killjoy and preferring the horror and cult films from the time with an edge. But I openly confess House II was heart-warming and fun. The rubber reality of the first film returns with a vengeance, with complete disregard for realism with elaborate effects, surprisingly elaborate effects for what would've been a small budget film I can't help but praise. Where a door in Jesse's new home leads to a prehistoric environment where dinosaurs and giant rodents co-exist, and in the another you can stumble into a Western abruptly.

From http://media7.fast-torrent.ru/media/files/
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Instead of chills alongside the laughs of the first film, its sweet and full of slapstick farce, able to get away with material I would find sickly and emotionally cheap in another context. The Cata-Puppy, alongside a baby pterodactyl, the later the stereotypical puppet which causes mischief as in many a family film, would've been irritating in any other film, but immediately they stand out here due to how there's adults in the lead to bounce off them. As practical effects they, alongside everything else in the film, is treated as if this is still a horror movie like before, firing on all cylinders in terms of the quality of the animatronics and practical effects. The humour as well is also funny, helping to not only make such strange inclusions rewarding, the Cata-Puppy legitimately adorable and deserving its own plush toy for fans to collect, but emphasise that this is still a little bit more mature about its romp rather than playing to cheap laughs meant to aim for children.

From https://i0.wp.com/www.badmovies.org/movies/houseii/houseii7.jpg

That in particular is a big reason why I don't like some films from this decade outside of the eighties or am indifferent. Admittedly the eighties still allowed for more mature films aimed for children to take place but people forget that even in a film as notirously grim as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), you still had Short Round and Kate Capshaw's entire performance added as "hijinks" and laughter for families. There were still a lot of cases of utterly annoying stereotypes of children and bland, white collar families peppered between the more realistic ones. (Even more accurate depictions could've lost translation to a Brit like myself as American culture of the time, even if imported, would stand out drastically from us). Here, there's an immediate success in having two adults in the lead to bounce this madness off, a straight man in Arye Gross and his comedic sidekick in Jonathan Stark to follow. Neither of their characters of perfect and its for the better in emotional engagement. Royal Dano as Gramps, an old guard of classic Hollywood cinema in elaborate makeup, makes up a trio for fun, adding as much to the proceedings in charisma even if his character spends most of the time sat or laid down.

From https://iscfc.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/2966.jpg

House II
at least scores legitimately with an extended sequence. One which manages to completely disconnect from real world logic with a cameo by John Ratzenberger, playing a professional adventurer and electrician, frankly terrible as an electrician but surprisingly well versed in parallel universes and proficient with a sword he always carries in his toolbox. It's the sequence, involving a Mayan sacrifice being interrupted, where you either hate House II or like it, managing to be hilarious and gleefully strange at the same time for those who are the later. It's within sequences like this, or teaching an undead cowboy how to drive a modern car, that I came to fully appreciate House II. It really doesn't qualify for a horror review in the damned slightest;  barring a couple of undead characters, it only makes sense to have covered the film because it's in the midst of the House series. But considering both its prequel, which was also good, and where the franchise sadly drops off in the third and fourth entries, this will turn out to be the best of the quadrilogy for me. Because what usually breaks out a rash for me is actually fun and sweet to experience in this context, including the cheesy happy ending. The sort of film, including the prequel, that younger viewers could get into horror during their childhood and still have spice to them an adult like me can appreciate. Having never seen them for the first time until now, because of their creative decisions and hard worked craft a film like House II is utterly rewarding.

From https://i2.wp.com/www.adventuresinpoortaste.com/wp-content/
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Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Death May Be Your Santa Claus (1969)

Director: Frankie Dymon Jr
Screenplay: Frankie Dymon Jr
Cast: Ken Gajadhar as Raymond; Donnah Dolce as the White Girl; Merdelle Jordine as Georgina; Second Hand

Synopsis: An experimental work following a young black militant (Ken Gajadhar) and the various concerns he has, shown as both events around him and the truly strange incidents breaking out into reality too. Of his place as a black man in Britain at the time, and his romantic relationship with a white woman (Donnah Dolce) as a white associate of his is dating a black woman.

The title Death May Be Your Santa Claus will perk up the eyes of certain music connoisseurs, who would've heard of that bizarre title like I did from an album of the same name by Second Hand, one of many bands of the psychedelic-progressive-garde-experimental soup of the late sixties and seventies whose work developed a cult following from vinyl collectors. The little titular ditty, in a different form, however originates not from the 1971 of the same name, but this 1969 experimental short film of the same name. What has, until recently when the film was rediscovered1, been a film that's not been easy to ever seen since its original screenings is just as fascinating, one if not the only works from the British side of the Black Power movement of the time. Its director-producer-writer Frankie Dymon Jr decided with this short film, rather than a mere documentation, to channel his thoughts on the political climate surrounding him in a more metaphorical way, pulling his own personal concerns including that on the subject of miscegenation. Dymon Jr had brushed against cinema a year before, having a major part in Jean-Luc Godard's One Plus One (1968). Renamed (and reedited) into Sympathy for the Devil, the film intercut the genesis of the titular song by the Rolling Stones in the recording studio whilst Godard intercut meta-textual digressions and skits (for a lack of a better term) about the political climate of 1968. Dymon Jr was one of the black militants in a vignette at a junkyard, talking directly to the camera as various tasks were taking place around him, and Godard manipulated sound and visuals in the midst of his speech.

Argubly, he took inspiration from Godard's films of that time like One Plus One to create Death May Be Your Santa Claus. The short work, less than forty minutes, is closer to a sketchpad or diary of an individual's thoughts than a structured narrative. One that (represented by the individual segments) don't necessarily for a modern viewer connect in a thru-line but do build up an emotional state instead. It cannot help, in the era of Brexit and debate on immigration, but bluntly remind a complacent modern viewer how little's actually changed in how we're still dealing with subjects like racism, opposition to immigration and culture that's not that of an orthodox Angle-Saxon white Britain still, something that particularly stands out here amongst other existential concerns and, whilst a dissertation from the position of Afro-British culture, could be expanded to other issues involving ethnicity.

On 20 April 1968, only a year before, was when Enoch Powell's infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech delivered. Far across the other side of the Atlantic, the sixties was the era of the African American civil rights movement which ended with the horrors of the Malcolm X and Martin Luther King assassinations, and the development of groups like the Black Panthers to motivate equality and black rights in ways which were seen as terrorist groups by the FBI. That chronological placement really helps fish out a pertinent emotional connection to what could be an odd curiosity, that in the midst of this a lot more of the film makes sense in connection whilst still feeling greatly relevant to the modern day still. The dialogue, openly discussing these existential concerns, do stick out and the absurdist tone, right from its title, has a delirious edge appropriate for a period, in terms of merely affording rights for all regardless of ethnicity, could've felt like being inside a madhouse. The subject of the main protagonist dating a white woman, and how it leads to flights of the unreal, doesn't feel dated either if you bear in mind that in an era where black and minority rights were being fought, concepts like miscegenation were still a taboo and a film like Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967) with Sidney Poitier was a major Hollywood production tackling the subject. That the subject still rears its ugly head - such as a Louisiana justice of the peace called Keith Bardwell refusing to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple in 2009 - does mean that even this extensive theme of the film deserves to be reflected on. Only the fact that our protagonist's love interest is a pale, ethereal figure who only wears a thin cloth with a cape, like an elven hippy, or the brief moment of her in blackface with an afro seems absurd whilst the rest feels like its director, through the cast, channelling emotions on the issue.

Most of the film is a didactic work, one which is intentionally meant to be a springboard for the viewer to react to the material with their own opinion. There's a lot of scenes of talking and a lot of passages quoted from various texts, evoking the Godardian method of not going for conclusions but comparing and contrasting ideas to force a viewer to think for themselves rather than demand a blatant explanation. The scene of a public debate, where the black speaker is heckled by a white crowd before he can even begin his first sentence, whilst an older non-Caucasian man eventually joins in the debate heckling the hecklers, is probably the most rewarding scene of the whole film as if feels captured for real. An uncomfortable scene still to watch, opening up a sore with its depiction of a mass of arguments and jabs thrown about undercutting any sense of intellectual thought. Taken more for emotional and psychological effect rather than a linear text, this material is effective even if you think the rest is too vague. Where the film gets unconventional, more dreamlike and abstract, is when it hits the one scene in the park many know the film from. It starts as an act of violence against a black man, two white men flipping him over a railing into a pond, evoking a cruel victimisation. This reading becomes deliberately muddled as, in the infamous moment in Death May Be Your Santa Claus, the three individuals join together as if nothing has happened and assault a nearby male bystander randomly, proceeding in an act of castration and cannibalism that blatantly involves penis eating followed by his guts being chewed on by the three happily. The scene, played out as a farce, is where everything onwards becomes more stranger and more symbolic, with the intercutting of scenes more dreamlike onwards for the most part. This scene itself is also far more extreme and daring than even some of the grubbier British exploitation films from the seventies, just for the butcher shop organs straight from a Herschell Gordon Lewis splatter flick. Unexpectedly, it's this experimental film from a black rights activist that makes something like House of Whipcord (1974) look like a Carry On movie, and clearly on purpose to express a (possibly?) a metaphor for the protagonist's sense of sexual anxiety that director staged the moment as a broad piece of Grand Guignol.

From then on the tome and structure of the short film is more unconventional, growing to include increasing odder moments that clearly have to be read as more metaphorical. Probably with the exception of Second Hand's own cameo in the film in a dilapidated house in various stages of undress, which adds a dose of the hectic to the material, the scenes all have a striking effect. That, whilst dated, the protagonist's girlfriend is the aforementioned elf hippy, strolling together in the countryside offering the happiness that the hippy ideal was meant to bring about. Or, another personal favourite, when what is effectively the Pope merely offers a prayer to a bare chested female beggar in the street, cradling two babies in each arm in distress, only for Che Guevara of all people to force the Pope to care for the one of the children, forcing the old man in holistic white uniform to crouch down in the middle of a London street like the beggar. Death May Be Your Santa Claus could be viewed as stereotypical of late sixties experimental cinema, in danger of pretentiousness, but I admire this era for even the most obscure of underground films having something unique or inspired in them. A film like this, whilst I do find it immensely compelling, also proves that in even the most stereotypically pretentious of the experimental films of the era they are tolerable for me as, even if it's one scene, they can all still have something of worth in their attempts of improvisation. Here in particular, Frankie Dymon Jr decided to not only tackle subjects of importance in terms of race but also in context of a visibly personal nature. For all the more extreme moments, it's more grounded document scenes still sting with some horrible sense that little's changed from the sixties in terms of racism and topics within its fold barring the fashion.

Abstract Spectrum: Avant-Garde/Expressionist/Weird
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low

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1 - And made available through the British Film Institute's Flipside physical media series, as an extra on their release Joanna (1968), a film made by the same director of the infamous Myra Breckinridge adaptation. 

Monday, 4 September 2017

House (1985)

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Director: Steve Miller
Screenplay: Fred Dekker and Ethan Wiley
Cast: William Katt as Roger Cobb; George Wendt as Harold Gorton; Richard Moll as Big Ben; Kay Lenz as Sandy Sinclair; Mary Stavin as Tanya; Michael Ensign as Chet Parker
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #115

So begins a film franchise with an exceptionally odd tone between entries, producer Sean S. Cunningham having made his name with the likes of The Last House on the Left (1972) and Friday the 13th (1980) before beginning House. All with the director of Friday the 13th Part II (1981) Steve Miner at the helm and with the story from Fred Dekker. Ironically it's the entre least like the others, House III: The Horror Show (1989) that was the sole film I had ever seen of this series before, during a period when DVD was a new thing and my parents rented and bought discs from a long gone company known as Global Video. So to investigate a series which for the most part is more the ghoulish haunted house variety barring that entry was always going to be a curious prospect. The series even in terms of the other films is known for its shifts in tone, the original House as drastically different from the 1989 sequel as you can get. It's the cinematic equivalent of a funhouse thrill ride, one in which divorced writer Roger Cobb (William Katt) finds himself living in his late grandmother's home only to soon realise its maleficent nature, openly trying to torment him with bizarre sights.

The film's openly a spectacle first, which is as much about letting its special effect creators flex their muscles as it is a movie with a story. But I can openly appreciate it in this case as this is a film which tries its best in doing so. Noticeably, as much a virtue as it's a potential hindrance, is how much the story's trying to bite off in terms of plot within only a ninety minute running time. Tackling a character in the centre divorced but still connected to his actress wife. Whose son mysteriously disappeared years ago. AND was a Vietnam War veteran, finally much to his publisher's chagrin putting his hit horror literature aside to exorcise his experience on paper, the ghost of a soldier he was with called Big Ben (Richard Moll) to be amongst the many monsters haunting him in his new home. It's as ambitious as you could get for what is popcorn horror cinema, especially as this openly embraces a rubber realism of eighties American horror movies where, with practical effects, you anything no matter how weird it is. With the house itself an openly evil entity that can manipulate reality in whatever way it wants, the film has carte blanche to try anything and that thankfully means, whilst it can feel like vignettes rather than a cohesive narrative, that you boarder on actual surrealism here even if its pop surrealism. Where behind the bathroom cupboard mirror there's an alternative dimension with stop motion flying monsters and a fleshed out Vietnam flashback you can step into. Where one's wife turns into a monster and back again, causing emotional distress to the hero. Where various, inexplicable creatures suddenly leap at your closet.

The film openly plays a lot of this up for humour, succeeding particularly with the drawn out ones such as Cobb having to hide a body from police called to his house, tense and humorous at the same time. A significant factor which also adds some humanity to these special effect scenes is that William Katt as the lead is great, utterly likable in the main role and also good with his comic timing comedic timing. Paired with George Wendt as his neighbour Harold, who Cobb first dismisses than starts to bond with as he lets him in on the strange activities in his house, the duo carry the weight of the film on the shoulders well together, keeping it connected with their warmth as characters. The only complaint with House is how easily it wraps up all its plot threads by the end so cleanly. I find that films which do this, for the sake of happy endings, do undercut the qualities they had before. House would've succeeded more in taking a bit more time with its ending, including the final confrontation with Big Ben and various subplots to deal with, having more of a sense of being hard earned with what happens than being a little abrupt and contrived in the final product. That however, especially with how House II: The Second Story (1987) continued in its own quirky direction the virtues of the first film, doesn't detract from the good in the original House

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