Archive for the 'Movie Review' Category

Häxan by Benjamin Christensen

haxan-lady

A proper subtitle for exploitation/witchcraft history film Häxan (1922) would be “Witchcraft as a Social Ill -or- Mistreatment of Women Through the Millennia.” I just had the chance to see Häxan on the big screen at the Hollywood Theater in Portland, thanks to Filmusik. As a fan of silent movies and dark subject matter, I’ve been wanting to catch this movie in the theater for a long time. It was awesome seeing this movie with not one, but two live bands to accompany it. For those interested, the bands were Jaggery and Walter Sickert & The Army of Broken Toys.

haxan-3

The title Häxan translates from Swedish (it’s a Swedish film) to Witch. The film is broken up into several parts. Haxan begins with an introduction to medieval beliefs about the nature of the universe. How the universe rotated around the Earth, how the stars hung from a ceiling that was held in the sky by columns, and how hell could be reached by digging. During this part, the movie resembles instructional films from the 1950s, featuring a pointer which intrudes from off-screen to show what the narrative is talking about (and the viewer becomes worried that the whole film is going to continue in this vein).

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It’s my opinion that this first part of the film was aimed at censors of the time with the goal of justifying what was to follow as “instructional.” Fortunately, a very sharp left turn is made, and Häxan gets lurid fast. The second part of the movie is about witches rites as they were believed to happen in the middle ages, and approaches the subject of witchcraft as a social ill, like poverty or crime: Lonely old ladies make potions from birds, toads, snakes, and rotting body parts of hanged criminals. Lonely younger ladies want the potions to seduce fat monks who have terrible table manners. Unfortunate babies are sacrificed. In a telling key scene, a conga line of witches stops one by one to kiss the behind of a gleeful devil.

oppression

Part three continues the theme of witchcraft as a social ill by highlighting the ways in which accusations of witchcraft were used to oppress women. Once accused of being a witch, a person was screwed. It probably isn’t news to anyone reading this review that most of the “tests” used to expose witches were double-binds like the famous water test. A witch was thrown into a river. If the water rejected her, and the witch floated, she was found guilty and would be burned at the stake. If she sank, then everyone was happy for the drowned woman, because at least she wasn’t a witch.

The final part of Häxan is a meditation on how some things that were identified by superstitious people in the dark ages as “witchcraft” may really have been other problems like kleptomania, sleepwalking, or “hysterical women”. This part uses several vignettes to show parallels between women with these social ills in the middle ages and modern times. The modern woman being much more fortunate in that she is institutionalized or drugged instead of being burned at the stake. One of the scenes here was of a modern woman being caught red handed for compulsively stealing a ring in a jewelry shop. The shop keeper demands that she follow him into his office, where the viewer expects him to extract a (most likely degrading) price for her freedom. Instead, he lets her go with a stern warning.

!haxen

The best thing about Häxan is the lurid chiaroscuro imagery that plays out in each part. Many of the scenes are like folk automata as they would have been designed by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Häxan is populated by monsters, devils, animal people, and witches. The witches run the gamut from crones to young damsels in distress and/or various states of undress. Although Häxan portrays women in a number of compromising and unflattering positions, the men in the movie are worse by far. With only a few exceptions (such as the jewelry store keeper), the men are monsters, devils, torturers, accusers, and murderous zealots.

Creepy Factor: 3 out of 5
Suspense Factor: 1 out of 5
Weird Erotic Tension Factor: 3 out of 5
Funny and/or Strange Factor: 5 out of 5

Final result: Without a doubt the most lurid (non-pornographic) silent film I know of, Häxan simultaneously enchants and bores. It caused a lot of outrage during its own time, and as a result it was widely banned or censored. Besides the scenery, the most interesting thing about Häxan is its angle on witchcraft as a historical social ill, and yeah – that’s kind of dry, sadly. If you get a chance to see it in a theater, I would recommend checking it out, especially if you can see it with a live band. But the restored Criterion Collection edition? Maybe it’s a pass.

Häxan – directed by Benjamin Christensen – 1922Haxan (The Criterion Collection) on Amazon.

Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau

Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau - Count Orlok

This month as part of Final Girl’s SHOCKTOBER, I decided to review F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent horror film, NOSFERATU.

It had been a large number of years since I had last seen this movie and it was an interesting exercise, because the version I saw all those years ago was definitely not the “ultimate” restored version created by KINO in 2007, which I had my rat army secure from Amazon. I ended up wondering if this is a case where the “old, unrestored” version wasn’t better. I just frankly do not remember the movie moving so slowly. Make of that what you will. It is a fact that, in 1922, people had much longer attention spans.

The story itself is based on DRACULA by Bram Stoker: A young man is sent by his employer to conclude a real estate deal with a vampire and unwittingly unleashes the monster on his fiancee and friends. Murnau changed the names, some of the details, and the ending. The changes did not fool Stoker’s widow, Florence, who sued for infringement. The court decided that all copies of the film should be destroyed. Luckily for us, they didn’t get all of them. NOSFERATU was Murnau’s tenth film, and all but three of these first ten are currently presumed lost. It says something about the movie that it has not only withstood 90 years of history, but also a destructive court order.

And the main difference between DRACULA and NOSFERATU? In DRACULA, the women are mostly clueless and the men save the day. In NOSFERATU the men are useless and a woman saves the day. In the climactic scene, Ellen sends her dull husband, Hutter, on a wild goose chase while she has an erotic encounter with the Count. But first Ellen and Orlok gaze at each other from their windows across the street. Both of them know that what they want isn’t exactly the best idea. And yet they can’t control themselves. Witness:

The shots speak for themselves. If this film had been made in 1999, Thora Birch would have shown the vampire her boobs. As it is, there is a lot of chest-grabbing going on.

Let’s apply the Six Stages of Vampirism to our movie, shall we?

The Six Stages of Vampirism

  1. Foreshadowing or Warning (see note a.)
  2. Seduction
  3. Victimization
  4. Denial/Obliviousness (see note b.)
  5. Discovery/Realization
  6. Kill It! or Help Me! or Blarg I’m Dead (see note c.)

a. Warnings must be delivered improperly. For example, a warning might be delivered by a tongueless, scab-covered hag who jumps out of an alley and mimes a dire warning before falling under an oncoming carriage and being trampled to death.
b. Steps one through four actually form a loop that repeats until steps five and/or six occur.
c. Vampire victims usually require the intersession of a third party and may or may not ever reach step 5 themselves.

When considered under the scientific glass of the Six Stages of Vampirism, it is interesting to note that although Hutter realizes that Count Orlok is a vampire, he remains unable to move into stage six. He makes it back home in time, but then flounders as his wife confronts the vampire. Let’s see the numbers.

Creepy Factor: 3 out of 5
Suspense Factor: 2 out of 5
Weird Erotic Tension Factor: 3 out of 5
Funny and/or Strange Factor: 5 out of 5

Final result: It is an inescapable fact that a particular attitude is required to enjoy silent movies. That attitude being: “I love how overblown every gesture is, and also the fact that this moves a little more slowly than the last Bourne movie I saw.” Whether you can swing that or not, NOSFERATU easily joins the great silent movies, and deserves its place among the greatest horror movies of all time. I recommend seeing it in a theater if possible, and (even more rare but possible) with a live accompaniment.

Some last items of note:

  • The 1979 remake by Werner Herzog is worth seeing.
  • Legend has it that Murnau considered Max Schreck ugly enough to play the monster with just fake teeth and pointy ears added, but thanks to the miracle of film restoration, one can see that prominent fake eyebrows were added as well.
  • In 2002 Jill Tracy and The Malcontent Orchestra released a recording of their accompaniment to the movie, titled Into the Land of Phantoms
  • Ellen’s Victorian-style banana curls certainly are distracting

Here is where I use my handy vampire classification for this movie.

Good Looking: No
Superhuman strength: Yes
Changeling: Yes
Sparkles: No
Erotic neck biting: Yes
Drink blood: Yes
Can turn victims into more vampires: Unknown
Must be killed by decapitation or stake through the heart: Unknown
Reflection in mirrors: Yes (Orlock casts a reflection in his final scene.)
Scared of crosses and/or garlic: Unknown
Burn in sunlight: Yes
Goth nightclub visit: No
Mind control: Yes
Ah! I love classifying vampires.

NOSFERATU, A Symphony of Terror – directed by F.W. Murnau – 1922
NOSFERATU on Amazon

Portland H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and Cthulhucon Notes

Still from Die Farbe

Last weekend was the H.P. Lovecraft film festival in Portland Oregon, and although I didn’t manage to get it together and attend the first night, I was able to sneak in without scaring anybody on the second evening.

Here’s a list of the short films that were playing at this event:

Night One

Call of Nature by Rick Tillman
Flush with Fear by Christopher G Moore (site)
Doppelganger by Theo Stefanski (site)
The Ritual by Will Wright (director’s showreel)
Idol Worship by Theo Stefanski (site)
Dirty Silverware by Steve Daniels (trailer, stuff)
Ethereal Chrysalis by Syl Disjonk (site)
Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ by Christopher Saphire (site, trailer)
Apartment Eleven by Mark Player (trailer)

Night Two

Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ by Christopher Saphire (site, trailer)
Window Into Time by Thomas Nicol (animated short by same director)
Haselwurm by Eugenio Villani (watch!)
Black Goat by Erik Wilson (watch!, official site)
The Island by Nathan Fisher (watch!)
Static Aeons by Gib Patterson (watch!)
Shadow of the Unnamable by Sascha Renninger (official site)

Also playing were two feature films. These were The Whisperer in Darkness an HPLHS effort directed by Sean Branney (trailer) and Die Farbe (“The Color” in English) (trailer) directed by Huan Vu.

It actually turned out that the sound was off when they tried to play The Raven on the first night, so they played it the second night. The shorts were judged by Guillermo Del Toro, who declared a tie for the winner of the festival. The winners were:

  • First Place: Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ by Christopher Saphire
  • First Place: Static Aeons by Gib Patterson
  • Runner Up: Black Goat by Erik Wilson

So the good news is that I got to see all of the shorts that Guillermo Del Toro liked the best.

In The Raven, a man is haunted by the memory of Lenore and his dread and sorrow are personified by (duh) a raven. I really liked this interpretation. Saphire did a great job on everything, especially the mood of the piece.

Window in Time follows a scientist and his shyly amorous lab assistant as they investigate an ancient chemical formula and unlock a horrible evil. This poetic and atmospheric short was my favorite. It had humor, horrible fates awaiting scientists who are investigating things they shouldn’t, and lots of juicy unheeded warnings.

A private hunt for a giant worm, (the Haselwurm) whose meat confers supernatural powers, goes horribly horribly wrong when one of the hunters is bitten and something happens that you’d rather not think about too much.

Man vs Wild meets Lovecraft in Black Goat, not a short but a trailer for a planned feature-length film. A monster hunter with a plan for avoiding certain death at the hands of a Lovecraftian monster. Short. Funny. Poetic. Six minutes!

I’m worried that I’m using the words “poetic” and “atmospheric” too much here. This is the last time, I promise! Despite being difficult to understand most of the time, atmospheric and poetic computer animated short Static Aeons successfully delivers its payload: The End of the World.

What drives the psyche of a man who would lock himself up in a well-stocked backyard bomb shelter, and who would listen to the world end outside as he tries not to go crazy on his tiny Island? Loneliness. Barbarism.

I will give a grudging “I see what you did there” to Shadow of the Unnamable for using a dialogue between two characters to Be The Story. But it didn’t work for me.

The feature that night was a German film, Die Farbe. Based on Lovecraft’s The Color Out of Space. The movie is faithful to the basic story, but sets the main events in World War II Germany, and I can’t help but see it now politicized. Horrible things happened to some people: Many people forget (or at least pretend). Some can’t believe something like that would ever happen. Others struggle to forget and fail. A few are driven mad. The movie itself is creepy and… and… atmospheric (sorry) but I found the long slow burn trajectory of the bulk of this film a little tedious. It has one really delicious scene where someone nudges a corpse with a broom. Best use of dust in a movie, ever.

Movie Review: House of Dark Shadows

Sometimes movie titles are wrong. For example, a better title for The Fly might have been She Didn’t Like How the Accident Left Him. Or Boris Karloff’s The Mummy might have better been titled After All That, She Still Escaped. Hmmmmm. I can feel a real roll coming on. How about this for the first Alien movie? Only Her Underwear Made the Terror Pause. Seems like a lot of monsters have girl trouble, doesn’t it? I sure know how that feels. Then a better title for House of Dark Shadows would no doubt be: Woman Trouble Again for Barnabas.

Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall)

Problem #1: Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall)

Problem #2

Problem #2, Seen Here Being Ignored by Barnabas

The movie very roughly follows the Barnabas Collins book I reviewed not too long ago. Of course, Barnabas originated from the popular gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. Barnabas Collins (played by Jonathan Frid) is awakened by a grave robber, and approaches the Collins family in the guise of a long lost cousin from England. Naturally, before long, all the ladies of the house are fawning over him. For better or for worse, Barnabas falls for a different girl who reminds him of his lost love, Josette (who threw herself off a cliff when she discovered the secret of his curse.)

Most of the characters spend the bulk of the movie unaware that Barnabas is a vampire. The only person who puts two and two together has such an annoying speech affectation that nobody will take him seriously. Dr. Julia Hoffman, however, manages to put the pieces together. Here is her “Aha!” moment:

dr-puts-it-together-1-DSCN4849

Barnabas Collins - Dr. Puts it Together.

Barnabas Collins IS A VAMPIRE!I see!

It turns out that the good doctor lets her emotions get in the way and devises an antidote to the vampiric cells in the bloodstream of Barnabas Collins. Before long, she is administering shots to Barnabas, who, of course, uses her like a door mat.

Barnabas is in love with Maggie Evans (played by Kathryn Leigh Scott) and the shots the doctor has been giving him allow him to walk around in daylight for the first time in hundreds of years.

Problem #3

Problem #3

Such a cute and seemingly carefree couple. But can Barnabas find true happiness? One would hope so. Now that Barnabas has found his love again, he will stop at nothing to make her his bride. Barnabas is my man. The movie is admittedly kind of a stinker. Netflix doesn’t carry it, and my rat army could only find it in VHS. There are, however, some great atmospheric shots, a lot of bad drama, a dash of fakey medical jargon, some shooting of silver bullets, and a really excellent vampire staking scene.

Barnabas Collins Atmosphere

It just so happens that the folks at The Obscure Hollow have posted some great shots from the movie, and it looks like they got their hands on a better copy of it than I did. So you should go check it out.

Creepy Factor: 2 out of 5
Suspense Factor: 2 out of 5
Weird Erotic Tension Factor: 2 out of 5
Funny and/or Strange Factor: 4 out of 5

Final result: Truly, the world should have a taste of the Real Thing before Tim Burton and Johnny Depp give Dark Shadows a try.

Wait! Here is where I use my handy vampire classification system on Barnabas.

  • Good Looking: Yes
  • Superhuman strength: Yes.
  • Changeling: Yes
  • Sparkles: No
  • Erotic neck biting: Yes!
  • Drink blood: Yes
  • Can turn victims into more vampires: Yes
  • Must be killed by decapitation or stake through the heart: Yes
  • Reflection in mirrors: No
  • Scared of crosses and/or garlic: No
  • Burn in sunlight: Yes
  • Goth nightclub visit: No
  • Mind control: Yes

Ah! I love classifying vampires.

House of Dark Shadows – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) – 1971
Dark Shadows Soap Opera and Barnabas Collins on Amazon

Thanks for reading another one of my movie reviews. Hopefully next time I review a nice juicy horror novel with loads of Weird Erotic Tension.

Movie Review: Coraline

Welcome to another movie review at darkinthedark dot com. At some impressionable point in my young monsterhood I had the distinct misfortune to be exposed to a virulently wholesome substance known to mankind as the “After School Special.” These were TV shows where kids would learn that people who misbehave are fated to be confronted by their parents and later be treated in a stern but ultimately loving and forgiving manner. I know I’m not the only one to bear scars from these shows. I recently heard a grown woman complain that every time her mother hugs her, she gets an After-School Special flashback and pulls away. What does this have to do with Coraline? We will soon find out.

Screen shot from Coraline 5

Before I get too deep into the review, I have some things I have to make clear:
1) I read Coraline when it came out and enjoyed it.
2) I avoided all the hype about this movie to the point where I refused to read anything about it or watch any of the trailers. I didn’t even know it was in 3D!
3) Thanks to Pixar and Aardman studios I expect BIG things out of animated movies.

The basic story is that Coraline has just moved with her parents into a rental house that also contains some strange neighbors. Coraline is bored with everyday life and feels neglected by her busy parents. While exploring her new house, she ends up discovering a passage to a sort of mirror world where everything is magical and everyone loves her. In the other world there is an “other mother” and “other father.”

The Other Mother (also known as the Beldam) is a very interesting character. In the beginning of the movie, the Other Mother is actually pretty hot, and seems loving and friendly. The Other mother cooks delicious food and does special things for Coraline. But as the movie goes on, the Other Mother changes, and not for the better.

Coraline Screenshot 4

I think the number one problem with this movie (and with the book) is that its baked-in wholesomeness kills the suspense and makes the proceedings inevitable. While it is offbeat and creepy, underneath all that delicious darkness is a cloying After School Special morality-tale flavored sweetness. I was also left wishing we could find out more about the Other Mother. How old is she and what is she really? At the end the Beldam changes into something resembling a spider.

Here are the good things:

It’s in 3D. This made it really fun. There were parts of the movie where people in the theater (including me) were ooh-ing and ah-ing out loud at the cool 3D. Definitely awesome.

It has some insane and magical spectacles. Whenever I see a Pixar movie or something by Aardman Studios (who do the Wallace and Gromit films) there is inevitably some point where I am shocked and amazed at how imaginative and brilliant they are with their medium. With animation, the sky’s the limit. Coraline has several scenes (all orchestrated by the Other Mother) where they really take full advantage of the medium, especially one featuring the crazy neighbors from downstairs in their theater playing a mermaid and Venus from Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” Just brilliant.

It has some darkness. There is a lot of darkness. Rats, rot, and general darkness. For example, the “other father” becomes imbecilic at the end. Half in a sad way and half in a creepy way. If you know me you know I love the dark.

Coraline screenshot 3

And that’s kind of the way it is. It was good. My friend the Diabolical Doctor Francois liked that one of the main characters was a cat. And this is definitely a movie where if you’re even considering seeing it, you have to have to have to see it in a theater. Otherwise you may as well just not see it. (Update: Go here to download my Papercraft Coraline Doll.)

Creepy Factor: 4 out of 5
Suspense Factor: 2 out of 5
Weird Erotic Tension Factor: 1 out of 5 (unless you’re into old ladies with enormous bosoms in body stockings) Also the Other Mother is kind of hot in a Jan Svankmajer-meets Cruella DeVille way.

Coraline – Based on a book by Neil Gaiman – Directed by Henry Selick – 2009

Purchase Coraline DVDs on Amazon

Don’t miss my central source for information on Coraline: Coraline Central.

The flying monkeys let our technician out for a minute and he snuck away into the light of day. Thanks for your patience during this difficult transition.
I ated Tinkerbell.

Fhtagn Spoken Here.

... the attic, a vast raftered length lighted only by small blinking windows in the gable ends, and filled with a massed wreckage of chests, chairs, and spinning-wheels which infinite years of deposit had shrouded and festooned into monstrous and hellish shapes.
The Shunned House
H.P. Lovecraft




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