28 October 2022

52 for '22: The Seventh Seal

Movie: The Seventh Seal (1957)

Method: HBOMax

Why Did I watch this?

This had been on my list forever and I never summed up the courage to watch it. Halloween season seemed appropriate - what's scarier than DEATH, baby?! It's supposedly one of the greatest movies of all time and a huge cultural force. It's what this series was made for.

What Did I know ahead of time?
I mostly know this film from Animaniacs and Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991). A knight plays checkers to stave off Death and try to win his life. Or chess or whatever. I knew it was an Ingmar Bergman film and it was Swedish, hence why Death is always Swedish in contemporary pop culture and loves meatballs.

How Was It?

I'm a tasteless bore! I dunno, maybe it was the 1950s Swedish allegory, I had a tough time getting into this. I wanted to see more of Max von Sydow's Antonious Block, but it seemed like he just peaced out for most of the movie and we get these unrelated little vignettes of the town weirdos.

It's all cohesive at the end though, and it sure is bleak. Death comes for us all and God is silent. Yay. Along the way we get juggler harassment, a crazy woman burned at the stake, and the grim specter of the Plague at every corner. This is actually a well known documentary of the year 2020.

It's fun to see von Sydow, Lor San Tekka himself so young and showing why he'd go on to have a 60-year acting career. He's got insane presence, charisma as he thinks he can cheat death, and then true pathos when he realizes both that he can't and there may be not but emptiness in the Great Beyond.

The most compelling scene is when he and his squire begin to consider that possibility as they watch the definitely not a witch burn and her eyes are empty as she welcomes death. Death is so omni-present in their world that the only way to cope is to believe there is something better waiting for you. If not, it's true horror. HALLOWEEN, BABY!

I actually expected better film stock but it's shot wonderfully, especially a handful of scenes whith Death's exceptionally pale face lit amongst his black robes. It's a great budget dodge that relies on metaphor which increases its power. You'd just never see this in a modern film anymore, it'd be too self-conscious (and then ironically turn to CGI, which would make it hokey).

I'm always impressed with how efficiently old films move - the characters are so lived in that you get a sense for them immediately and they're all distinct. The film then challenges them with confronting Death itself, perhaps no greater reveal of character. It enhances each characters' reaction so much! I only wish when they start appearing on screen with no other context we had something to ground us, even if it's through Block's encountering them or something. That's what I call a block chain!

The film is great, not perfect, but really hits its subject matter down to the bitterest of bones. I need to let the metaphor wash over me more, but if you want a spooky movie to cuddle up with at a Halloween Party this weekend, there's no better!

21 October 2022

52 for '22: Re-Animator

MovieRe-Animator (1985)
Method: TUBI

You belong to Wernstrom now!

Why Did I watch this?

For some reason I watched Bride of Re-Animator (1990) a few years ago. I don't know why, maybe it was just the only one available on whatever streaming service I was using? Anyway, people seem to love Re-Animator, it's one of those well-regarded cult horror films that always escaped my radar. Maybe it's not that well known, but it exists in that perfect zone of popular enough to be notable but obscure enough to be cool. And it's Spooky Season!

What Did I know ahead of time?
I had seen the sequel, but I kind of forgot what happened. I remember the character of Dr. Herbert West and how he's just this insane autistic mad scientist who is very logical, pretentious, and determined. Just really compelling. I know it was about them bringing the dead back to life, and a bit of a Frankenstein riff, and as it was rolling I remembered the disembodied head stuff, but I didn't know about that ahead of time, either. I knew it straddled the line between camp and horror and horror-camp but I was pleased by how seriously it took itself.

How Was It?

Damn this movie starts out fast. Scientist eyes exploding, fun for the whole family. It really is a trip to watch. It's definitely a Frankenstein riff, but it replaces the new science that people feared most in the 19th Century, electricity, with the new science people fear most in the 20th century, pills and serums! It's this shortcut to ever lasting life, the neon glowing Reanimating Reagent.

Dr. West is a perfect Dr. Frankenstein analogue, he's cold, thinks he's above God, and wants to prove his science is correct in the face of all the stodgy haters. But it's remarkable that by the end of the movie he seems like he's the reasonable one! Sure he's insane and definitely killed his roommates' cat, but it's all in the name of science. His older rival, when he is reanimated shows us how easily this can be used for power instead, as he reanimates horribly disfigured corpses in a bit for pure power. It's not like Dr. West is great, but you know where is motivations and limitations are. The Head Guy is just maniacal and evil.

So it becomes a little more zombie movie than Frankenstein in that there's no singular monster risen from the dead, but many recently and not-so-recently deceased folks injected with the reagent. They don't really seem to have souls when they come back though. It's got a bit of a Pet Sematary (1989) vibe in that the people that come back aren't really the people we put in the ground. But this came out before that movie. But the book came out before this movie! But the book this is based on came out before that book! Oy vey.

I wouldn't go as far as call this a Horror Comedy but it definitely knows how ridiculous some of its scenes are and the edits are sometimes cut for laughs. The characters don't mug at the audience at all, despite how progressively insane the whole affair becomes. The gore is sincere, there is a tremendous amount of blood and guts everywhere. I started getting Dead Alive (1992) vibes when the intestines started wrapping folks up. It's got a bit of an edge and attitude to it in the wake of its horrific chaos. Not to the extent of like, a Return of the Living Dead (1985), but it knows that it's having fun in its B-movie pulp.

The effects are solid, too. You can tell that they used some old tricks to show the disembodied head, like sticking the actor in a table or making his shoulders look like a linebacker. It was really just the Headless Body of Spiro T. Agnew on display. There were other clear shots of just his face, not showing the neck down. I don't know, I almost prefer that to really cheesy 80s green screen effects that take you out of the whole affair.

Should we talk about that cunnilingus scene? Yeah. I don't think you'd see that in a modern movie. The titties were surprising enough, then this woman is bare-ass naked and unconscious while strapped in on the operating table. I appreciate that it generates this real visceral horror and vulnerability. Is it problematic? It didn't feel exploitative and the attempted oral rape is clearly presented as horrific and insane on the part of the severed head. I'm curious what ya'll think, I'm not going to call this feminist, but it's clearly wrong. It might have originally been meant as funny, which is a whole other thing, but it shows that this movie really goes for it.

This is also originally a Lovecraft story, which doesn't quite feel like a Color Out of Space (2019) kind of Lovecraft. It doesn't seem to have the racism, either, except that there is one black character, a security guard, who runs away when the zombies start rising. I mean, I'd Nope on out of there as well.

I enjoyed this quite a bit, I recommend for any Halloween viewing - stay spooky out there, friends!

14 October 2022

52 for '22: House

MovieHouse (1977)
Method: HBOMax

Why Did I watch this?

I haven't a clue about how this got on my radar. I added it to my Netflix Queue on 11/16/21, so almost a year ago. I saw it was on HBOMax instead, so I pulled that trigger for spooky season!

What Did I know ahead of time?
I knew it was a 70s Japanese haunted house movie. It turns out you can do quite a bit with that premise. Obvi it's going to get weird but I was extremely ill prepared for just how weird.

How Was It?

This is the weirdest movie ever made. Saying it right here, right now. The first thirty minutes are a flighty teen comedy, which doesn't really lead up, even when the horror elements eventually kick in.

The basic premise is that in order to not live with her father and new step-mother over the summer, a girl decides to live with her aunt instead. And bring six of her friends! But the aunt's a ghost and tries to use her house to eat them.

On that superficial level the plot and genre shift at will. Eventually the main protagonist becomes the main antagonist and all the one-note side characters are put in charge of the movie. It's fun to watch.

It's not bad but there are continuous baffling decisions. Clear oedipus stuff, cuts in the middle of scenes that then fade to the same scene, all sorts of wipes and scene transitions, and an aggressive array of horrendous green screen effects, sometimes just animation laid over what's happening on screen. There is no camera discipline, with zooms and pans and a chaotic maniacal drive that just places this wherever it pleases. Sets are purposely artificial and there's a heavy surrealty to everything.

But it kind of works? It owns its chaos. Characters have names like Mac, Sweet, Fantasy, Prof, and Kung Fu. There is this descent into horror based on an exploration of national trauma. It's never boring and the pace is furious. And are the main girls lesbians? It sure seems like. I think one dude was turned into a pile of bananas.

It's a movie that just doesn't follow any rules of any kind. It's hard to say if it makes it a "good" movie or not. Usually I like using conventions to break down why movies do or do not work. But this is a great example of how that sort of criticism doesn't actually have merit. Because following convention isn't what makes a movie good. It's based almost entirely on feel and vibe, and this sucker vibes, even if on every other level it borders sheer incomprehensibility.

07 October 2022

52 for '22: HAXAN

MovieHaxan (1922)
Method: HBOMax

Why Did I watch this?

Hey! Happy 100 years of Haxan! I forget what got this on my radar. I think it may have been the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die book. It just sounded interesting to me, especially for such an old film, and hey - it's October! Time for something spooky. Nothing spookier than tracking the origins of witches and hell and the Devil and all kinds of fun.

What Did I know ahead of time?

I guess I did know what was up with this, but I sort of forgot. I wasn't exactly prepared for just how much of a documentary style this was going to take, but I had read the synopsis and knew pretty much what I was in for. Like witches, spooky, the whole thing. I was cautiously optimistic that it would be on the better side of bonkers and go for everything I hoped it would. It did.

How Was It?

First, to be clear, the first twenty minutes are literally a lot of reading. It's like this presentation about the history of witches and superstition, and then the movie continues on like that, except with extended dramatical re-enactments (that are all just fictional) that bring us all the way up to the present day of 1922.

The whole thing reminds me that this was so early on in filmmaking. We didn't really have set rules or structure yet so this thing just kind of does whatever it wants. Is it a horror film? Documentary? Mockumentary? I dunno, it just sort of is itself. It can be whatever it wants as the moment serves it. It even slides into animation at some point, with some impressive stop motion for 1922.

Its content feels radical at times. It basically postulates that people of the past were stupid and conflated natural feelings of anxiety, hysteria, and superstition with fear of the Devil, and then specifically focused that fear against women, poor women in particular. It's not wrong at all, but it is funny to see them still in a 1922 mindset that says, "These woman weren't possessed, they just had a touch of hysteria!" The film clearly isn't siding with doctors and clinicians who lock those suffering from substantial neurodivergent disorders away from society, but it'd be fun to continue to track this all the way forward to today to really realize that even the films Freudian, psychoanalytical take has become outdated.

There is also a lengthy bit about medieval torture, which yes, is as horrifying as that sounds. It is all very scientific and analytical, but also critical. At one point the director even admits to one of his assistants wanting to try the machine and how many fun confessions he got out of her. It's startling to realize that most of the apocrypha we associate with the occult and witches stemmed from random women confessing to made up rituals to get out of torture. That's why torture doesn't work, people!

I did enjoy that a lot of these rituals, as bogus as they actually are (I guess we knew that...), showed up in The VVitch (2015) like the ointment flying, midnight dances, and eating unchristened children. It's fun to realize how much homework Robert Eggers actually did. Or maybe he just watched Haxan.

I'm the devil I can do what I want! Whatever I got I'm gonna flaunt!

There are a few bits worth pointing out. First is when all the nuns go insane. And then there's the director, Benjamin Christensen himself as the Devil. He's got the tongue, the crazy eyes, the lurid attitude. It's iconic. I'm surprised we haven't seen more of this depiction find its way into pop culture, or maybe it has in its own subconscious way. But the demon masks in this film are so on point.

Haxan needs a remake, it's a good zone for that - there is such brilliant iconography on display here! But I'd kind of like it to retain its genuine documentary feel. We'd just screw this up. There isn't really much of a story to sink into, it could be fun as an anthology. Anyway, I liked it, it's definitely for some specific tastes, but I feel like I learned about witches and horror, and it was surprisingly feminist. Go Haxan!

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