Friday, 26 May 2017

Tokyo Psycho (2004)


Director: Ataru Oikawa
Screenplay: Ataru Oikawa and Noriko Tanimura
Cast: Sachiko Kokubu (as Yumiko Oosawa); Seiji Chihara (as Keisuke Kataoka); Yuka Hayashi (as Mika Nakahara); Mizuho Nakamura (as Moe Masumoto); Masashi Taniguchi (as Osamu Komiya)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #107

If it comes off as an inherent bias, I apologise, but I find the modern extremely low budget films from Japan to be more interesting than a lot of the ones from English speaking countries. I'm concentrating specifically, to borrow the name of a great podcast I listen to, on "no budget nightmares" from after the year 2000 which are shot on digital cameras and are genre films with whatever resources the filmmakers could get hold of. That's not to say as well there's no god-awful garbage coming from Japan either - hello Zombie Self-Defense Force (2006). It very much strays into how genre filmmaking in Japan always has an invention to it for me barring the worst cases and that, no matter how strange and pedantic it might sound on page, this virtue even goes to how distinct the films look in terms of what cameras were even used to film them in appearance.

A large part of its the tone. Sadly irony started to infect the Japanese genre films after the Millennium, bad style for the sake of a deliberate joke, tainting the sincerity of a lot of modern entries in contrast to the older ones (from Sushi Typhoon productions to the likes of Big Tits Zombie (2010)). Thankfully in most cases there's sincerity in most Japanese films still, a pervading sense even when there's material so bizarre it would be impossible to take seriously, or the films have broad slapstick and deliberately weird jokes in them, that its almost cultural custom to always take the material seriously and accept whatever happens on screen nonchalantly with a shrug of the shoulders. This inate quirk even manages to negate traits that could undermine extremely low budget productions from the US like bad CGI or wooden acting, even able to make these virtues or artistic flourishes on the most impoverished of budgets. Tokyo Psycho is far from one of the better examples of this, but expecting my revisit of this film to be a complete demolishing of my like of it on the first viewing, it's more meaning to enjoy it on its own wavelength than worry about its obvious shortcomings.

Effectively it's a lurid pot-boiler as made in pure minimalism due to its low budget quality. A young woman Yumiko Oosawa (Sachiko Kokubu) is receiving sinister letters and packages from a stalker, likely a student from her high school years she rejected, managing with small means to have charm, a word that's weird to say considering how nasty the plot gets, even as far as the aforementioned letters being woven with metal wire and blood like stains, but fitting for a film with its pluck that could've gone horribly wrong in production. It's only when its deliberately playing itself up as a lurid low budget nightmare - a body lunges forward to stare at the audience, a bad CGI switching of a character's face - where the worst associations I'd presume this sort of film would have are shown, something which doesn't try to be inventive regardless of its low budget and coming of as low rent and not taking itself seriously. Thankfully it's in a different place of a low budget film that isn't perfect but at least gets a lot more right than films three times its budget with well worn material.


Because of its minimalism it actually has a perversely distinct style to it. Where the characters are vaguely interesting even if some, like the single mother who lives next to the protagonist who may be abusing her young daughter, aren't fully delved into. A language barrier does admittedly exist in terms of whether any of these particularly performances are any good, but you do get a creepy psychodrama nonetheless that's got some grit to it. This is also as much to do with how the film looks and where it was shot. There's also an appeal in these films in terms of where they're actually located, the extremely low budget Japanese films I've see, even those shot almost entirely in someone's living room, utter fascinating for me and not just out of a curiosity of a country whose culture I absorb a great deal of.

There's inherently something that stands out in the type of environments in these Japanese films, even the back lots with more weeds than grass, and a large part of it isn't just the aesthetic for Japanese public environments, the signs to the placement of exteriors and interiors, but even in how they're shot, more colourful and brighter to an advantage even in the dullest of industrial environments. It might seem trite or borderline on the obsessively weird to denote a paragraph to this, but one of the biggest hindrances for a low budget genre film I've countered is that there's really a sense of immersion into these movies by where they're set, something any film can achieve on any budget if there's an thought put into it. With a long history of very lo-fi productions, especially in the pinku softcore industry, which took advantage of its disadvantages and minimal locations, it's not surprising even the non-erotic films like Tokyo Psycho are just as entertaining for this too.

Particularly with lower expectations revisiting this film, there's a sense of greater respect when Tokyo Psycho manages to accomplish skills films with significantly longer budgets fail with. There's an actual sense of grossness that tactile, and actually helped by being shot on digital on a low budget, letters and tokens sent to the protagonist with metal wire sewn through them or actual worms being found within them, the most distinct of these a shrine for a corpse which uses Christmas lights and a sinister music box chime. The side characters, even if their appearances on screen are slight, don't feel like ciphers with little of interest between them and are at least memorable for their tiny parts, from her likable boss who's between playfully mocking her and a possible flirtation, to a female detective whose more likely to be scared of an ominous isolated corridor than the heroine is. It gets together a group of actors just for one segment, set at a school reunion in the early part of the narrative, which looks like it would've been a challenge to organise even if the cast's within what looks like a darkened warehouse with an almost art installation minimalism in the decor and lighting.  At least the cast is willing to participate fully - the killer when revealed is played by an actor who decided to chew the scenery and stands out as the best part of the film because of it, whilst Sachiko Kokubu has to endure actual worms being inserted into her mouth and submerging herself fully, head under the water, in the sea at the beach regardless of how cold the location looks onscreen. At least the film is less than eighty minutes, avoiding a pitfall in many of these low budget films in being far too long. And at least the film is entertaining. 


Monday, 22 May 2017

Illusion of Blood (1965)


Director: Shirô Toyoda
Screenplay: Toshio Yasumi
Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai (as Iyemon Tamiya); Mariko Okada (as Oiwa); Junko Ikeuchi (as Osode); Mayumi Ohzora (as Oume); Keiko Awaji (as Omaki); Eitarô Ozawa (as Oume's Father)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #106

One of the best things about Japanese genre cinema is that no matter how excessive and even sleazy they can be, many explicitly deal with social issues like class and politics as much as such subjects would be in films by the likes of Kenji Mizoguchi. Inherently with the period films set in Japan's past, the films end up even tripping over themes such as these, the historical periods and social mores especially of the Edo period of Japan giving enough material still for ripe storylines. Illusion of Blood is no exception to this - where samurai are masterless and destitute, even considering trading in their swords for money, one such figure Iyemon Tamiya (Tatsuya Nakadai) is willing to remarry into a rich family with prospects of a new master even if it means publically disgracing his wife Oiwa (Mariko Okada) by either a fake adultery accusation or even disfigurement, maybe even worse to get his way. Like Les Diaboliques (1955), it's a drama of backstabbing and betrayal, its worldview awash with as much a cynical tone as the more famous film. Like that film, the perpetrators of certain crimes may even be haunted by the dead.

It's very much a bleak worldview on display, samurai without honour, a friend of Iyemon's in his own scheme to claim Oiwa's sister for himself even if it means bloodshed and lying. There are a lot of Japanese films about the dead coming back to haunt the living transgressors especially in period settings - even in films not necessarily horror themed like The Sword of Doom (1966) - and it's understandable why, especially in a country still with deeply held spiritual beliefs, as it can reflect both a literal supernatural tale and a metaphorical moral drama at the same time. There's never a need to try to downplay the supernatural content in these films or even try to rationalise them as a lot of modern Western films do, and it's a breath of fresh air as a result to view this film where it's part of a brazenly bleak narrative with a deeply detestable main protagonist to follow. Stories themes which would still be pertinent to the modern day but without the context of a time period that is entirely different from the modern day and allows for different perspectives. An emphasis more on deliberate drama is helped when the acting is top notch. In this case you have Tatsuya Nakadai as the lead of Illusion of Blood, an actor who carried Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition trilogy (1959-1961) on his shoulders, alongside roles in the likes of Akira Kurosawa films, and is just as good here, as an utterly loathful figure here who is yet compelling here due to Nakadai's performance1.


Even when these films are conventional ghost stories as this one becomes, Japanese tales like Illusion of Blood are significantly more interesting than from other countries due to how seriously the tropes are depicted and played with. At nearly two hours long, it doesn't feel like its dragging its feet but building up a period drama which ebbs and flows with interest side characters, moments of broad humour that work and a slow burn intensity. The quality of the set design for many of these films, even when one if forced to watch an old grotty DVD copy like I had to, also shows an era of Japan so drastically different, aesthetically and literally, to Western medievalism. While there's themes that are universal here to other countries across any time period, I openly admit a lot of my love of Japanese cinema's period stories is that it's also a depiction of an entirely alien world to mine of hierarchies and behaviour that's different, even the dress of characters drastically separate from many modern Japanese genre films. That even the genre films from Japan could have the best technical crews and production designers on them, rather than a couple of coins to rub together only, really makes these obscurer horror films shine even more.

The horror itself is lingering. Even for the one or two fake rats that appear, they come off as amusing and not detract from the ghoulish macabre tone. This does show, even if more sedate than films like Jigoku (1960) that went even further, the more morbid side of Japanese horror that yet depicts the gruesome - a couple of corpses pinned on opposite sides of a door - with an air of sinister beauty that's rarely found in Western cinema barring the European output. When it's also willing to be openly lurid - from the facial disfigurement subplot to a corpse's face melting off with effects still surprisingly efficient - it doesn't detract from the Japanese Gothic tone that won me over on this viewing. It even has an air of melancholy, the ending of Illusion of Blood with Iyemon being plagued by ghosts that may or not be real in a white snowbound landscape, a type of poetic and lyrical moment you don't normally picture with horror films nowadays but capped the end of this hidden gem off perfectly.


1 In fact, looking into the films Tatsuya Nakadai has starred in for this review, he's now become one of my favourite actors now upon reflection of all the incredible films he's been in I've seen. Ran (1985) and countless Kurosawa films he's appeared in, Kwaidan (1964), The Human Condition trilogy, Belladonna of Sadness (1973) (voicing the Devil), The Sword of Doom (1966), When a Woman Ascends the Strairs (1960), enough films there to make him stand out both for the quality of his career path but that he's always incredible in all of them regardless of language barriers. And the best thing is he is so prolific, still alive as of 2017 and working, there's major films in Japanese cinema he's starred in I've still to see.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen (1973/2000)


Director: William Friedkin
Screenplay: William Peter Blatty
Cast: Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeil; Max von Sydow as Father Lankester Merrin; Jason Miller as Father Damien Karras; Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil; Mercedes McCambridge as the Voice of the Demon; Lee J. Cobb as Lieutenant William F. Kinderman
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #Bonus 1

Concluding my travels through the Exorcist franchise, the following will be briefer than the others. The director's cut of The Exorcist was a special case, like Francis Ford Coppola's 2001 "Redux" of Apocalypse Now, of an extended cut of a culturally important film getting a theatrical release decades later from the original version and having success. There was also something symbolic with this version's theatrical release, whether it had been released in British cinemas or not, knowing that in 1999 the original version was unbanned from video finally in the United Kingdom. One of the many embarrassing moments of the James Ferman headed British Board of Film Classification, it feels almost symbolic, like when another of Ferman's personal targets The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) was also unbanned soon after his retirement, of a new age we still live in now that, for all the moments that still raise eyebrows, the BBFC became more clearheaded from censorship bans and illogical cuts for the better. At least a victory lap for the better.

I was however too young to see this version until now. My experience with The Exorcist has always been the original theatrical version, both in the story of my uncle on my mother's side seeing it back in the early seventies and finding the shocked reactions to the film (and the film itself) funny rather than scary, and my own viewing of the 1973 theatrical release. The director's cut has not really replaced the theatrical version in the slightest; unlike the many butchered original releases of films buried by the superior director's cuts, the one for The Exorcist is more subtle in its inclusions and not that significant to outright obscure the original from existence. In fact baring one major moment which became part of popular culture cut off by itself, I find the director's cut of this more of a new perspective of the original for a change of pace.

It's a version with a slightly different pace, slower but never feeling like b-roll has been pointlessly stuffed in. The inclusions are mostly new dialogue scenes which, admittedly, are not of worth in exposition as the theatrical version was exceptional enough trimming them out and still conveying information, but are worthy instead of re-inclusion as to adding new details on these richly woven characters of William Peter Blatty's script. Max von Sydow, though its only a few more lines, gets more screen time and with a cast like Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller and George C. Scott, even pointless additional exposition still works as character building instead. One of the only major differences in tone is the "happier" ending sequence with Scott, which Blatty wanted in the film to affirm that the story did end with a victory for good in spite of the finale tragedy. Either way, both the theatrical and director's cut versions have memorable ending shots, so you have two good ones instead of just one. There's little need to say ones better as the other, as the first is a potent image of stairs with no dialogue, the other a sweet end to a melancholic finale with loved characters.

The scene which is also distinct and the one the film is still remembered for is the "spider walk" sequence, which split off into being part of pop culture lexicon of something the demonically possessed act in horror films. Even wrestling fans have seen the influence of this scene on their entertainment if you google "Bray Wyatt". It's however a terrible scene in context of the film and actually comparable to Renny Harlin's terrible 2004 prequel in terms of being a crass jump scare I'd expect from that film. It's not only at the end of a major plot event which lessens its impact, but the type of scare is out of place as well for both the tone and the context in the narrative, having yet to progress to the more extreme supernatural incidents which are far more fittingly depicted through the infamous crucifix masturbation sequence. The irony that it's this small moment, originally cut out of the film for tone, that's remember is actually sad as, when the rest of this version of the movie is still excellent, it's stands out badly.

Baring this, the director's cut is actually a nice tribute to what qualities The Exorcist in either version has, appreciating it more now than before seeing these films in order. It also emphasises how well the franchise has been in spite of two sequels, only one of them legitimately bad in Renny Harlin's whilst even Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) has a compelling weirdness to it. Most of the films on this viewing of the director's cut actually fit within the world of the original, enough within dialogue and moments in both the original theatrical cut and this version that evoke the potential for all the films that would come after. Particularly how even exposition dialogue has a distinct personal style to them evokes how good William Peter Blatty would be in his directed script for The Exorcist III (1990). The greater testament, as this can qualify as an epilogue for viewing all the films, is knowing that barring Harlin's all the films, even John Boorman's, have this air of higher quality than a lot of horror franchises. Fittingly for an original film that was directed as much as a drama as it was a horror film, most of the sequels would share the same care with its themes, the respect future creators had far better than other franchises with greater results1.

1 For anyone curious, I'll gladly watch The Exorcist TV series from 2016 if it was easier to acquire, (and baring in mind a second series is also on the way as of 2017). Blind buys for a digital download only show is a bit of a risk unless it's something immensely special for myself. When it is easier to see, I'll add a new chapter later on after completing this franchise touching on it.


Monday, 15 May 2017

The Exorcist Prequels (2004-5)


Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)
Director: Renny Harlin
Screenplay: Alexi Hawley
Cast: Stellan Skarsgård (as Father Lankester Merrin); Izabella Scorupco (as Sarah); James D'Arcy (as Father Francis); Ralph Brown (as Sergeant Major); Julian Wadham (as Major Granville); Andrew French (as Chuma); Ben Cross (as Semelier)

Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)
Director: Paul Schrader
Screenplay: William Wisher Jr. and Caleb Carr
Cast: Stellan Skarsgård (as Father Lankester Merrin); Gabriel Mann as (Father Francis); Clara Bellar as (Rachel Lesno); Billy Crawford (as Cheche); Julian Wadham (as Major Granville); Ralph Brown (as Sergeant-Major Harris); Israel Aduramo (as Jomo)
A Night of a Thousand Horror Movies #104-5

The following is not just a review of either Exorcist: The Beginning or Dominion, but both at the same time. It's a truly curious, one-off viewing experience to see both films for the first time together in a double bill, an experience I actively recommend readers to try for themselves if they can. It actually justifies the auteur theory at least in terms that,  with the almost exact cast and same type of story, but a different director, the person meant to steer a film can chart its course an As this is going to be a large review, using bullet points was wiser in comparing the two movies:

- The history, for the uninitiated, was that Morgan Creek commissioned a prequel for The Exorcist (1973) fourteen years after they produced The Exorcist III (1990). As unconventional as that production was in hiring William Peter Blatty to both direct and write it, this new prequel had Paul Schrader to helm it,. A legendary screenwriter and director, from writing Taxi Driver (1976) to making films like Mishima: Life in Four Chapters (1985), he would immediately bring something different to the film alongside his Calvinist Christian background. However Morgan Creek balked at the film he made, wanting a lurid scare film rather than a serious work like the original Exorcist, so they hired Cliffhanger (1993) Renny Harlin to "remake" the prequel with almost the exact same resources. Paying for two films, a backlash lead to Schrader's actually given a release a year after their official version was critically mauled at the box office.

- I vividly remember, through reading the mainstream film magazine Total Film, all this history as it played out, from the negative reviews of Harlin's at the theatres to Schrader's getting a DVD release, and its ironic to think, whilst Schrader's had some negative reviews as well, that ultimately a weird folly took place and now both exist within a Exorcist blu-ray set on my shelves almost like mirror opposites of each other that yet share alarming similarities..

- Both set after World War II, with Stellan Skarsgård as a young and disillusioned Father Merrin in both, Harlin's has the character sent to an archaeological site within British occupied Kenya to retrive an artefact, signposted from the beginning as a typical Hollywood redemption story where he gains his faith back. Schrader's already has him as the main man behind the dig, with greater concern as the British soldiers in the area make their prescience more know and develop animosity with the native villagers nearby. An ancient church, out of time and place, is found in both versions - Harlin's a decadent mausoleum in dire need of being in a Lucio Fulci film instead, Schrader's more minimal - which was meant to bury a sinister site of demonic power below it. Schrader's film, unlike Harlin's, actually explains the events that are about to happen so everything makes sense before it's all set up, allowing you to gain more detail to help engaging with the narrative.


- Harlin's film exemplifies the hyper stylist tone of early 2000s Hollywood cinema, which still gets inflicted on viewers now in horror cinema with its over use of editing and a grim grey look that's yet glossy and sheen. Whilst it's still a drama at first, it begings to follow the trope with this type of filmmaking of treating any non-action genre as an action film in pace and bombastic music. Even with legendary director of cinematography Vittorio Storaro on board, giving his version some morbid beauty like his Italian genre work of the seventies, its washed out by the heightened gloomy tone. In comparison, Schrader's is incredible sedate.

- It's understandable why some viewers might find it dull, but in lieu of Harlin's over produced version, the quieter more apocalyptic tone Schrader uses, with legendary Storaro's work much more rewarding as a result. The gradually paced plotting of Scharder's as various factors build up - doubt in God, the looming ghost of World War II, tensions between the local black African tribe and the white British colonists - works a lot better than Harlin's which eventually ends [Spoiler Alert] with nearly everyone being killed off for the sake of it.

- Noticeable, an entire character and plot point was erased from Harlin's, the character of Cheche (Billy Crawford), who starts off as being a trite stereotype of the physically disabled young boy who the viewer is meant to sympathise with, only for his apparent "miracle" healing which even heals the permanent birth deformities to start to become more supernatural and at odds alongside the other strange incidents taking place at the archaeological site. At least it stands out more than the horror clichés of evil  that takes place in Harlin's. If the film wasn't meant to be an Exorcist film and trying to take itself seriously, it would've been a great Italian schlock demon film, with butterflies on a pin board suddenly turning into a crow's corpse and its ghoulish revelling in blood and goo. It's actually a surprise the film still gained only a 15 certificate in the UK because it manages to be so lurid in tone and gory, as almost the same script from the Schrader film gets turned into one of the Italian Exorcist rip-offs from the seventies like The Antichrist (1974).


- Sadly Harlin's still has pretentions to being serious, and coupled with the over stylised tone, what could've been entertaining in its brazenly luridness actually borders on the tasteless even for a desensitised horror fan like myself. Having a young boy mauled to death by CGI hyenas, especially as Schrader doesn't need to resort to such a thing in his version, becomes an overindulgence alongside scenes of gun assisted suicide or conflict. There's a lack of even justifiable ghoulishness from how much editing and shock value is placed into these scenes; rather than just a bed becoming alive and a room become ice cold like the original, the wall's smeared with gore and God knows what at one point as a pitch perfect example of how over the top it is. The entire film because of its portentous tone become distasteful rather than lurid in a fun way. It doesn't help either that, in both versions, the Nazis and the Holocaust are an explicit part of one character's back-story - nurse Rachel Lesno/Sarah (Clara Bellar in Scharder's, Izabella Scorupco in Harlin's) - Harlin at first trying to take it seriously but with the ramping up of demonic obscenities and CGI aided gore becoming problematic when the character is a concentration camp survivor with the number code permanently tattooed on her arm and mental scarring from the incident. Schrader's tries well to bring some great weight to this, whilst its shrugged to the side with deeply problematic outcomes in Harlin's for the sake of the shocks in the finale.

- The different casting of this nurse character is the only really drastic change in terms of the casts. Scorupco, in fairness, has a lot more going for her in performance than being cast (in a problematic move) as the more sexy, super model version of this character in Harlin's, but frankly Clara Bellar is a much more interesting actress and more charismatic onscreen. Ironically Bellar is in less of her version of the film, not central to it as Scorupco is in Harlin's, but has more weight to her lines because Schrader's is more subtle and juggling countless characters' dramatic threads within a  demonically possessed environment. Harlin's is the only one of the two which replicates the possession of the original film, Scorupco made up in grotesque make up and screaming (in dubbed in demon voices) sexually explicit comments at Father Merrin; not played as intentionally ridiculous it's terrible, emphasising the risk the original 1973 film took in having this content but still being able to be a serious drama.

- In terms of the rest of the cast, most of them are in both films, presenting a curious scenario (regardless of the quality of one film compared to another) of the same characters existing in two different parallel universes with different fates, which would've made both films existences worthy if Harlin's was any good. Stellan Skarsgård, though, is good in both, able to overcome any issues with either with the same intent as Max von Sydow, as the older Father Merrin in the original, can in any film no matter how bad.


- Schrader's, if there's any criticism to it, is not a scary film, instead a drama within the trappings of horror, occasionally leaping into horror with some good creepy effect (such as when cows have killed hyenas, rather than the other way around, and started eating the fresh corpses in one particularly sinister moment). The CGI is also worse than even Harlin's, though that could be as much its unfinished nature due to its production history. Where it succeeds however is as a fascinating character study which builds and escalates in tension to an almost apocalyptic tone. At first its significantly more subdued in visual look and tone, but gradually builds to a greater sense of intensity with Merrin's religious doubt in the centre properly built up for effect. Schrader is also willing to be stylish, such as a strange dream sequence almost tipping the hat to The Exorcist III, or its apocalyptic tone of the finale where the African landscape under a fantastical lowering sun has great impact thanks to Vittorio Storaro's work. Whilst Harlin's should've become the Lucio Fulci rip-off it clearly wanted to be on a Hollywood budget, rather than the misfire where an exorcism leaves invisible blows on a demonically possessed person like a Stephen Chow film, Schrader's for its flaws is a deeply underrated work. Especially in context to most horror series sequels, it's a peak above many in actually wanting to be serious and of artistic worth, succeeding in most places.


Friday, 12 May 2017

The Exorcist III (1990)


Director: William Peter Blatty
Screenplay: William Peter Blatty
Cast: George C. Scott (as Kinderman); Ed Flanders (as Father Dyer); Brad Dourif (as The Gemini Killer); Nicol Williamson (as Father Morning); Scott Wilson (as Dr. Temple); Nancy Fish (as Nurse Allerton); George DiCenzo (as Stedman)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #103

[Spoiler Warning Throughout]

After the critical debacle of Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), a thirteen year gap took place which led to film production company Morgan Creek gaining the rights to The Exorcist franchise. They had the inspiration, as the author of the original source material of the first film, to not only have William Peter Blatty again adapt one of his novels, Legion (1983), but also direct it, having back in 1980 made his directorial debut with The Ninth Configuration. Sadly The Exorcist III was tampered with violently for theatrical release, the original version only able to be rebuilt from VHS footage and released in 2016. However this is a rare case of a film so unique that none of its later additions in footage ruined it. In fact it's an even rarer case of tampering with the production, when the theatrical version was put together, where the result created its own virtues.

The Exorcist III is a respectful sequel in context to the original. But Blatty's film by itself is also an exceptionally different, stranger film. You are immediately hit by both how serious it is, with its gristly narrative of a series of copycat killings with gruesome and elaborate staging of the bodies, but how between this and Blatty's obsession with good versus evil you also have borderline surrealism not found in the original Exorcist in the slightest, beginning with an evil form invading a church and the representation of Christ on a crucifix opening His eyes in alarm of the evil invading His sanctuary. Whilst aspects do evoke the original 1973 film there's aspects from the original in terms of characterisation and tone which are amplified far more here to the point this second sequel becomes very different.

There's also a noticeable jump in humour, Blatty taking a very risky tightrope walking between the dark contemplation on morality, the murders all based on a long dead figure known of the Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif) who is yet inside the mental ward of a hospital in the present day, whilst having moments of lightness and eccentricity. It succeeds because Blatty is an incredible writer, from the class of figures in seventies New American cinema who desired to created complex characters who spoke nuanced and elaborate dialogue that fit them perfectly. He's helped further by the cast themselves. George C. Scott, reappraising Kinderman from the first film, gets to take centre stage after being a side character and the risk succeeds, absolutely engaging and the central lynchpin in how both humorous he is with his constant sarcasm, but also powerful as a cynical, agnostic person facing against a supernatural entity that evokes his nihilism about society. Orbiting him is as strong a cast. Ed Flanders as Father Dyer, sparring off Scott perfectly in their characters' friendly bickering. Scott Wilson as Dr. Temple, a small but utterly memorable role as the head of the main hospital setting whose body language and tone of voice are so distinct the way he has a cigar held high up in his hand in one of his earliest scenes immediately helps to flesh the character, as does the moment we seen him having to rehearse his words for Kinderman in a memorable moment. The dialogue is rich enough to help the cast immensely, brisk and to the point when needed, elaborate and powerful when the film can stop and bask in both lightness and darkness.

As a director, Blatty was also exceptional here for a man who only directed two films in his entire life, the gap from the previous one to here the entirety of the eighties. He has ambition, especially as the result is completely different in tone to the original. You don't come into a sequel like this expecting a whimsical dream sequences set in heaven, with an angel brass band and Samuel L. Jackson in a cameo, but it's here and used as much for emotional effect, giving a clear sign that, like in snippets from the original Exorcist, when something very odd or unconventional takes place its deliberately put there by Blatty for effect. Were it not for exorcism added in the studio version, it's an entirely different reflection on the original's subject matter, good having to be found in the world by Kinderman, an entirely different struggle not as a priest but a regular man on the street with a family. Even the demon from the original is fleshed out into a different direction, the demon of Christian mythology now fully based on "Legion", a figure of multiple beings within the form of only one, the struggle less against purely demonic forces but also human evil in a serial killer found within this maelstrom of voices.


And, while Blatty would be more concerned with tackling his philosophical themes, he still makes a horror film in terms of entertainment, managing with this to have generated one of the best jump scares in the genre. Considering his inclinations it's even better, knowing a writer-novelist-director with interests in dogma and existential questions still manages to out do a lot of seasoned veterans of horror cinema in how he presents it - a deliberately long, even patience testing scene of quiet, a long shot showing space to catch you off guard, a cheat scare to knock you off guard, then hammer the impact in with all the shock of an incredibly put together scene. It's sad actually that Blatty only directed two films before his death - The Ninth Configuration as well - as here he shows not only a talent for putting a film together, but with his dialogue and plotting, an idiosyncratic writer's voice entirely his that's a rare gift to have acquired.

In talking about The Exorcist III, it's impossible to ignore the significant tampering in post production which I'll end this review on. The only aspect which feels awkward in the Frankenstein-like creation is the titular exorcism, where Nicol Williamson as Father Morning feels completely distant from everyone else, even when sharing scene space in re-shoots, and suddenly appears out of nowhere into this already complex narrative. His scene introducing him, where a bird he's taking care of sadly dies and an evil form makes itself known to him in his apartment room, does stand out as a highlight but he's like Scott Gleen in Michael Mann's The Keep (1983), a mysterious figure whose existence is only to defeat the evil, and has even less time to be fleshed out in personality. The only tragedy of the theatrical cut, the one real sin, is knowing most of Brad Dourif's performance was left on the cutting room floor. Dourif is an actor who has had a healthy cult and genre cinema career, but as one of the best character actors of his era one wishes he had at least one more major role in the One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) template in his later career. Even with voice manipulation here, it's terrifying how his character is depicted with body language, entirely within a straight jacket restricting the actor's arms, dragging the franchise away from the absurdity of the locusts of the first sequel to someone real and legitimately twisted.

But whilst Dourif is only in a few scenes, an accident with how Morgan Creek attempted to replace him in scenes only for a compromise to take place, brings something incredible in the version mostly known to the public. Jason Miller, returning as Father Karras, was brought in only to be able to do some of the scenes, leading to both footage of his and Dourif's performances to be melded together. This leads to making the "Legion" character far more powerful in cutting between the two like multiple personalities of the one person. It adds a dark tragedy in knowing Karras, thought to be dead at the end of the original Exorcist, suffered as a living corpse in a brain damaged body with demons and a serial killer living in the same space. The decision to switch between Miller and Dourif with Scott in both sets of footage gives  a phantastical nature of immense power where, as visual shorthand for the viewers, a literal physical change take places between the two sides. What was reedits for the additional footage became an incredible artistic flourish, one notion rarely found when usually studio tampering just butches good material. 


Monday, 8 May 2017

Aenigma (1987)


Director: Lucio Fulci
Screenplay: Lucio Fulci and Giorgio Mariuzzo
Cast: Jared Martin (as Dr. Robert Anderson); Lara Lamberti as Eva Gordon); Ulli Reinthaler (as Jenny Clark); Sophie d'Aulan (as Kim); Jennifer Naud (as Grace O'Neal); Riccardo Acerbi (as Fred Vernon); Kathi Wise (as Virginia Williams); Milijana Zirojevic (as Kathy)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #102

Synopsis: When the daughter of an all-girl school concierge is hit by a car during a cruel prank, leaving her comatose in a hospital, a new student Eva (Lara Lamberti) immediately starts to act strangely. That hospitalised girl Kathy (Milijana Zirojevic), with the help of a mother with supernatural powers, can control Eva with psychic powers that distort reality, using the transfer student as a puppet to gain revenge on all those involved with Kathy's accident and the cruel prank against her.

Late era Lucio Fulci is an area of his career rarely looked upon well and only getting reconsidered now with Blu-Ray restorations. Whenever this point was reached - I'd argue its 1982 with The New York Ripper, a notorious and offensive film for many but still one of his most well known - the films after are viewed with less interest. I love Conquest the year after in 1983, but after that it's a combination of negative critical thought amongst Fulci fans and the lack of availability of the films at points which has not helped them. Honestly, as an unapologetic Italian genre film fan who even now loves the crass and dumb entries, there's a cut off period where the lowering budget and TV's death grip on the Italian entertainment industry was slowly suffocating the country's wonderful genre boom from the sixties to the early eighties. The late eighties has some gasps of kitsch joy, but for the few films which stood out critically - Opera (1987) to Cemetery Man (1994) - the Italian genre film industry was dying painfully, symbolically shown in some way when Fulci himself finally died  in 1996. The extras for 88 Films releases in the UK - even outdoing Arrow Video in documenting this period with the directors, production technicians and actors from the period - have started to paint for me a fascinating chronology of this period in Italian genre cinema, sandwiched between optimism (Joe D'Amato starting up Filmirage) and the grim foregone conclusion of the industry. Fulci himself, as the industry was trying to survive, had to cope as much with his declining health, and considering how uncomfortably thin he is in his Alfred Hitchcock-like cameo in Aenigma, it's not a surprise to learn a year later in Zombi 3 (1988) he could only complete part of a film shot in the Philippines where the heat effected his ill health significantly.  

The films themselves? So far from the Fulci films of the late eighties, kitsch schlock of erratic qualities concluding with A Cat in the Brain (1990), made from clips from existing films from the "Lucio Fulci Presents" series, a group of horror productions including two directed by Fulci himself, alongside new footage for a truly weird meta movie. However, as someone who has come to love Italian genre cinema, even the late eighties films now have a compelling nature to them, stuck between the last gasps of artistry and absolutely enjoyment vulgarity. They are a curious drug to take - between the eighties perms and gaudy colour - not for everyone but strangely addictive. Fulci's own films, as a fan who thinks he exists as his own singular figure above many other Italian genre directors, also possess virtues if you're willing the panhandle through their absurdities. Especially in the context of the kind of terrible, cheap films made nowadays on video, the late eighties films are still a significant notch higher in quality that you can still appreciate.  


Technical Quality:
Riffing on Carrie (1976) amongst other films, the late eighties seeps over Aenigma so much that it can be divisive even for fans of The Beyond (1981) and earlier Fulci films. It's amazing how, even outside of Italian horror films to ones from around the world like the US, where the baroque or grounded artistry of a lot of the movies from the early eighties suddenly morphed into neon, aerobics and unisex perms. There's a drastic shift in tone even next to some of cheesier earlier eighties movies coming from Italy when they got to the late eighties, when fads like aerobics get their own scene in Aenigma to the failed attempt to pretend it's set in Boston, USA with its various pop culture posters on the walls. As the hair got noticeably bigger, horror films from various countries, even in the US, started to have a gaudier tone than ones from only a few years earlier, something that can be found in slasher films to Fulci's work over in Italy, all of them still engaging in their colourful camp but an abrupt switch from the more decadent artistry of low budget horror films from before to something more chintzy.

Noticeably, failing to look like it's on American soil, the cold Eastern European architecture especially for the central school actually helps the film immensely rather than hinder it, blending with this late eighties aesthetic with unexpected results. Considering only a year later Fulci partially shot Zombi 3 in the Philippines, and seeing how that film looks so different from this with its jungle locations and sweltering atmosphere, Aenigma at least has its own distinct personality. Being a Yugoslavian co-production, with cast members both from there and other European countries, does stand out against a lot of other Italian horror films, and even if Aenigma is undeniably campy in tone, the more muted colours and all the stark white of the rooms is effective on a low budget, a curious mix of Fulci's gothic films and septic, modernism. There is even some great ambition with use of model buildings, noticeable but leading to aerial shots that not only stand out, particularly for anyone who has sat through A Cat in the Brain from three years later, but emphasises a sense of artificiality that gives Aenigma Fulci's trademark dreamlike quality.

Even the tackier aspects have now becoming charming for me knowing what to expect from these late eighties Italo-genre films. Sadly the English dubbing is more variable in these era of the country's genre filmmaking, as Aenigma also shows audibly, but especially knowing the struggles the industry had to deal with there's an undeniable charm through most of them unless you're truly scraping the barrel. I'd never thought I would see a Lucio Fulci film whose first scene is scored to yacht rock, but it's impossible for me either to hate it. In fact there's an amusing game in just spotting all the licensed figures on the posters in the background and recognising them alone, Tom Cruise making a recurring cameo that, with a strategically used thumbs up after a certain death scene, is actually hilarious even if it was unintentional.


Abstract Spectrum: Mindbender/Psychotronic
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
A large portion of Aenigma has to be taken, to fully appreciate it, as if viewed through a hazed stupor, one of those cases where frankly, for every good moment, the others have to be viewed for how silly they are, where even cheesy dialogue is part of the strange tone the whole movie has. Also helping is that this is still Fulci which has an illogical nature to its world, redeeming the film immensely. It's only the romantic subplot, where Eva falls in love with Dr. Robert Anderson (Jared Martin), the doctor keeping an eye on Kathy in hospital, when the film does grind to a halt and there's the sense I'd presumed these later Italian films as having of being asinine and flimsy. In truth, even a film that's technical "bad" can still sustain itself, even if for a smaller audience, if it can generate a sustained air of heightened momentum. The problem usually stems from most films deciding instead to put all its eggs in a basket for an emotional drama, like romantic subplots, which aren't well written or compelling. Thankfully Aenigma is more like an odd funhouse of gristly weirdness but you do have to put up with the drama even if you appreciate the gaudier taste to it.

The horror scenes themselves are what makes the film entertaining - in many ways, while it would've been the trait of Fulci's films that'd typecast him negatively in his career for many years, it's how he creates his scenes of terror and gore which make his horror films stand out, dipping the stories with unconventional, dream tones. A film like Aenigma is more a series of them on a loose thread of narrative, making it self-defeating to criticise the film on that level next to more dramatic, serious entries in the genre when Fulci's cinema was constantly lapping into the irrational over the eighties.

Death by snails is the infamous moment of Aenigma, making it a perfect double bill with Juan Piquer Simón's Slugs (1988) in spite of the scene actually being a nude woman being smothered by living escargot on mass, immediately sympathy for the actress gained from having to shoot such an awkward, gross scene for real laid under them. All the deaths, following the lack of rules allowed through Kathy being able to manipulate reality from her hospital bed, follow an elaborate and original way between all  of them. From death by mirror doppelganger to living statues in a museum, even if they have somewhat cheap effects they still stand out for their unnatural qualities. One sequence is actually one of the strongest in Lucio Fulci's career, a person trying to escape a bedroom where a decapitated corpse is only for each door they go through to go back to the original bedroom, firmly entrenching Aenigma in a nightmarish tone for one brief moment, the moment within the film, for all its silliness before and after, that's legitimately well executed and makes the rest of it worth sitting through. That this is also the scene where Tom Cruise's cameo sticks out perfectly just adds to it, making the film's existence worthy for it.

Whether Aenigma is abstract enough to go on the list was to debate, only to remember however that The Black Cat (1981) got on; if it can, Aenigma had to. It's not as surreal as the likes of The Beyond or A Cat in the Brain, those films by various qualities possessing the right mix of atmosphere or absolute weirdness to stand out more. But even with a lesser entry in his career, Fulci's movies always stood out in how more delicately obscurer they were in tone for the better; knowing full well how he would go off script a lot with his films is testament to this, but an even bigger aspect is knowing even here, with complete honesty that Aenigma is ridiculous and exceptionally flawed, there was still the weird magic of his earlier, best work still here.


Personal Opinion:
Definitely a film for hardcore Fulci fans first, not newcomers to his filmography unless you appreciate late eighties camp greatly. Contrary to negative reviews of it, and a lot of the late eighties Italian horror films, there's still a compelling excess and style to them even with the visibly restricted look Aenigma has. It's not high art even in Fulci's career, where there's actual candidates earlier in his career for great genre films, but having always been warned about his later career after the late eighties being lesser and lesser quality, Aenigma is a higher bar above the expectations even in terms of trashy cinema with personality to it.


Saturday, 6 May 2017

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)


Director: John Boorman
Screenplay: William Goodhart (and Rospo Pallenberg)
Cast: Linda Blair (as Regan MacNeil); Richard Burton (as Father Philip Lamont); Louise Fletcher (as Dr. Gene Tuskin); Max von Sydow (as Father Lankester Merrin); Kitty Winn (as Sharon Spencer); James Earl Jones (as Kokumo)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #101

Exorcist II is infamous. I've memories of one of its scenes, set in the artificially depicted, red hued African locations and locusts flying in swarms in the air terrorising the locales, at a young age but its only now like with the rest of the sequels to The Exorcist that I've taken a bullet and viewed it as a film. Crucified by Harry and Michael Medved in The Golden Turkey Awards book. A terrible release history including being pulled from theatre screens and being recut, only for the film to still fail. An infamy alongside its few brave defenders that, even next to the complicated production histories of the future sequels, still resonates the most. It's no way near as bad as its reputation suggests, but from the initial idea of hiring John Boorman, who morally hated the original film and decided to take an entirely different direction, this was going to be a strange detour entirely from the first film. It could've worked...but while it's not an ungodly misfire, it's so far from being a sensible, financially costly expenditure. Four years after the original Exorcist, where young teenager Regan (Linda Blair) was violently possessed by a demon, she's living back in California and a little older, vague on what happened to her due to memory loss and having counselling from Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher), a psychologist who works with pioneering techniques, including a machine that allows trances where memories can be shared between two people, whilst running an organisation that helps the kids with physical and learning disabilities.

When The Exorcist was almost timeless barring some fashion, William Friedkin's gritty realism not inherently stuck in its time period but a depiction of when it was shot, Exorcist II is so seventies some viewers might grow a perm mid-viewing. It means some delectable, gorgeous production design with lots of wood paneling and walls being replaced with glass without regard for privacy, a pigeon feeder also doubling as an art installation on the roof for the sake of extravagance. It also means diving head first into the era's obsession with parapsychology. Not inherently a negative subject to tackle, but between a TV screen showing a man bending spoons with his mind to the narrative having psychic links, the jump to the extra-ordinary is so alien to the world the original novel's author and the first film's screenwriter William Peter Blatty set up, at odds with the Catholicism still permeating this sequel and the two sides never properly connected. Even when the first film hinted at a greater universal depth, the demon Pazuzu an ancient demon who plagued one world before terrorising Catholic priests in the prequels, this sequel suddenly goes into psychic powers that don't hint at Boorman wanting to purposely avoiding everything from the first movie on purpose, but like one of those other infamous sequels to popular movies which fall off the rails in bizarre ways.

The midst of this stumbles forth Richard Burton as Father Philip Lamont, a disillusioned priest who comes to question an older Regan to defend the legacy of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow reduced to flashback and dream sequence cameos, but any excuse to crowbar von Sydow into any film is welcomed). New problems for the girl are brought forth as Burton's character believes she's still under the haze of Pazuzu. Richard Burton s someone from a certain generation of British actor (Peter O' Toole, Oliver Reed) who stand tall and proud no matter what film they are in, no matter how bad everything else is onscreen. Even as the cinematic ship sinks into the mire they draw the viewers' eyes to them with full magnetism. However even here there's periods where his lush Welsh voice falters and becomes occasionally unstuck within this film's convoluted reality. He looks prematurely aged in this role, and even with the knowledge of his alcoholism and health problems a few years before, that sense of concern I had feels like the camera betrays him with incredibly unflattering sheen, betrayed further by the story itself, having to struggle with a character in Father Lamont who's the centre of a plot so illogical that it's in an entirely different dimension let alone a complete hundred and eighty degree head turn from the first film.

He can give lines, like other members of the cast like Fletcher, an incredible weight to them, but even a great actor like him starts acting with a disconnect to his performance, only for the garbled nature of the film's plot to really hit the viewer if they stop and think about it. His character pushes forward the idea that Regan is still "touched" by the demon of the original film, an idea that would've been conventional for a sequel but a great way for a producer to capitalise off the original's success, but there's the fact there is never any point through The Heretic Regan is ever possessed again or threatened by Babylonian demon Pazuzu. With only a (badly made up) doppelganger of her demonically possessed self and locusts being the symbolic form of any threat, Father Lamont's constant prodding into her subconscious become more blamable for any potential harm to her and others, and the only reason the film even exists in the first place with immense contrivance. It's a film which has actually has a Straw Man Argument to justify its existence. 


From there, Exorcist II eventually stops making sense, but not in the realm of the surreal and dreamlike. Snippets offer hope of an escape into the fully irrational, the artificial African setting where Burton travels to metaphorically and literally having the sheen of classic Hollywood decadentce and artificiality that's compelling; even James Earl Jones in a locust costume forcing Burton to step over a pool lined with spikes has a mystical quality that's worth the film to immerse oneself within. Aside from this however there's a significant difference between its desire to explore the subconscious, as Regan and Lamont are pushed into a metaphysical form of evil, and dull monotonous plotting. Plotting that makes no sense practically in what it's saying but keeps elaborating on said plot in an attempts to make sense of it regardless, so un-confident in itself it has to elaborate itself over and over again to appeal to the viewer. Exorcist II is a stream of consciousness which hasn't the courage to fully embrace the sub-consciousness. As a result its drastic shift from the prequel is even more nonsensical for a sequel narrative, where Pazuzu is no longer really a demon of considerable threat but mainly depicted as a swarm of locusts who causes people to go mad if they "touch their wings", without sense of any real destructive qualities to it. There's talk of a good female locust who can prevent this that means nothing, and the only real change to Regan barring a telepathic link to Lamont is the sudden psychic gifts to even make a young autistic girl talk for the first time, which never goes anywhere further in terms of narrative1.

Exorcist II is actually closer to Giulio Paradisi's The Visitor (1979), one of those Italian knock off films of this type of seventies cinema, as stuffed in cast like Hollywood films from the time from director John Huston to Shelley Winters, Sam Peckinpah in a dubbed cameo to Franco Nero as Space Jesus, not that absurd compared to the likes of Richard Burton to James Earl Jones in Exorcist II. However,  The Visitor is undeniably a superior film to this like a lot of said Italian films of its ilk, their moments of silliness not detracting from a visual beauty at less of the cost than the notoriously budgeted Exorcist sequel, but also with a film like The Visitor also having the wherewithal to embrace its luridness and utterly weirdness with artistic craft,  giving the viewers their money's worth. A film like it pains itself to go forth with its premise sincerely and as bombastically as many decadent Italian productions do, shutting down the dialogue to let scenes of shock and unintentional camp take place just by the visuals. 

Exorcist II, whilst the cinematic quality is there in production and Boorman's visual eye, is po-faced and constantly has to justify itself in dialogue over and over again in comparison. It's as well a startling reminder, seeing them only a couple of days after each other through these reviews of mine, that the original Exorcist film whilst a serious dramatic film first was such a visceral film up front too. Even if Boorman despised the original material, going as far away from the violence and blasphemy depicted as possible, the first film was both a serious, artistically minded narrative but also visually opulent when needed, pushing boundaries in horrific supernatural imagery alongside its grounded reality. Exorcist II, whilst having momentsof the fantastical which are compelling, such as the ancient temple which needs to be perilously scaled to by way of inching up between tower like natural rock pillars, is so restrained even its desire to be more paranormal isn't properly depicted. Even having Ennio Morricone compose the score, including the cringe worthy disco theme tune from the original trailer, isn't allowed to stretch its (locust) wings due to the plodding tone.

There's a sense instead that I've encountered for the first time a side of the seventies in cinema we'd like to bury in favor of lionising Taxi Driver (1976) over and over again alongside the other New American Wave cinema. That which was likely the films funded more and did well at the box office but also tanked the worse. The type of cinema that gave the Medved brothers and kitsch connoisseurs plenty of ammo -  disaster films like The Swarm (1978) with Michael Caine, follies full of older stars cashing in on memories of films of decades before, excess that had no taste, didn't reign in the scripts enough to make them work, or spent too much on the budgets without having real imagination. How Exorcist II went from Catholic dogma and a priest having to rediscover God, through the evil of demons possessing the innocent, to James Earl Jones having to deliver illogical dialogue about how a good locust would avoid the swarm mentality, and Burton seemingly being able to nearly knock a airplane into turbulence with his mind, is impossible for me to understand unless it was simply the case of producers having too much money to burn. Its further history, the recut version as previously mentioned, or how disastrous it was for public expectations wanting a sequel like the original monster hit, just adds to this dumbfounding moment, of failed pop culture I'm too young to fully understand but look afar at with morbid curiosity. It's not the worst film ever made but still a literal turkey in how garbled it is. Even Zardoz (1974), another of Boorman's infamous seventies films, looks like Citizen Kane (1941) in comparison for its ambition and personal stamp.


1. As an autistic viewer, whilst its far from the most egregious depiction of the learning disability, whoever thought autism and difficult for autistic people to talk aloud, to express themselves, equated with stuttering deserves to be chastised. It's a tiny scene in a film which also shows the real issue with Exorcist II on paper. Boorman wanting to make a metaphysical work of overcoming obstacles but chucking in so many details, like psychic powers helping an autistic girl, without any depth and even muddying the surface level in kitsch it falls like a lead balloon on screen.