Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1990’s
I’ve seen every episode of South Park. No, really. Every one. The first episode aired during my freshman year at college. Every week we’d gather much of the hall (and some other halls) and watch the magical filth spewed by children in South Park in my dorm room. We had a 32″ TV and mood Christmas lighting so naturally we were the viewing environment of choice. We also watched Dawson’s Creek religiously, which also dropped the same semester. Good lord did we watch the trials and tribulations of Dawson and Joey and Pacey.
Don’t judge. You weren’t there. You don’t know the power of Dawson’s Creek. We needed our stories. But I digress.
Why I’d never bothered to pop on this cannibal musical written and directed by Trey Parker, one of the creators of South Park, I’ll never quite understand. Maybe it’s because my experience with Troma has been hit or miss or miss. Maybe I just assumed that pre-South Park Trey Parker was just some warm up to something better. Still, though, I owed it to myself to check out a nonexistent-budget musical about cannibals from the mind of Trey Parker.
This should sum things up nicely:
No? Well, how about this?
So maybe that didn’t clarify anything. Wait. Are you looking at my eye?
Final Cannibal! The Musical Thoughts:
More hokey than gory, Cannibal! The Musical boasts a number of truly inspired gags at the expense of the Oregon Trail-era of westward expansion. Some of Cannibal! The Musical is half-baked, which is attributable to it’s $5 budget, but the cast and crew embrace the budget in creative ways that never cripple its aspirations. It’s unfortunate when you’re humming a tune called “Shpadoinkle” in public but that’s the price you pay.
30Hz Movie Rating:
Buy, stream, own, devour Cannibal! The Musical. It’s worth the indigestion and bloat.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1970’s
Country of origin: Greece
I’ve never seen a Greek horror movie. Come to think of it, the most Greek movie I’ve probably ever seen was My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I’ve had this movie on my shelf for a few years so what better time to toss it in and taste a Greek-style giallo. Maybe with some baklava because baklava makes everything better.
Because I’m still dropping #31DaysofHorror reviews in the middle of November, I’m going to start taking a few liberties with these “reviews.” Like copying plot synopses from the DVD distributors:
Penniless playboy Captain Jim is in hock to his rich older wife, Helen. She has even bought him the fancy yacht that now bears his name. But Jim does not want to be Helen’s toy boy any more. He wants to marry his lover, Laura. He pays a psychopathic killer of women to murder Helen so that he will inherit his wife’s millions. But the psycho killer has his own plans. Suspecting Jim will double cross him, he engineers a complex scheme that will give him the upper hand. Very much in the style of the violent and baroque “Giallo” thrillers from 1970s Italy, The Wife Killer is a twisted, shocking and brutal exploration of the devious male psyche. Previously only released to cinemas in a cut version, this is the first official DVD release of the film in the U.S., complete and uncensored.
Here’s the thing about “giallo” type thrillers: they can go a few different ways. The film must decide how it’s going to go about its business. The Bava and Argento school preaches hyper-stylization and the importance of visual setpieces over narrative. The alternative methodology leans on the Poliziotteschi (Italian police procedural) for its backbone and merely borrows giallo tropes.
What we have here with Kostas Karagiannis’ The Wife Killer (aka The Rape Killer, aka Death Kiss) is a film firmly rooted in the furthest reaches of the Poliziotteschi side of the spectrum. While the murders are frequent, the dry presentation offers no visual spectacle to alleviate the viewer from the difficult on-screen brutality.
So the murder’s favorite weapon? A knife, right? Every good giallo killer uses a knife. Maybe a hatchet? No? Okay, so he strangles them. Wait. He slaps them silly? You’re putting me on.
No, good sirs and madams, I am not. The Wife Killer’s favorite method of attack is the open-faced palm slap. And repeat. One slap murder is okay. Two is comical. Three is a crowd. I’ve never seen so much slapping in a movie this side of Airplane!
Despite the slaps and tangled machinations, I found The Wife Killer to be an incredibly slow film without much payoff. That said, I’m not a huge deep-cut Poliziotteschi fan and I prefer my gialli in the hands of Bava or Argento or their hyperstylized disciples. But if a twisty and brutal Poliziotteschi film dressed in deranged marital disharmony sounds like your cup of tea, I encourage you to seek this one out.
Final The Wife Killer Thoughts:
The film’s alternate and seemingly more common title — The Rape Killer — suggests a kind of base depravity that’s just not present. The Wife Killer makes more sense because the film largely just concerns a violent, depraved misogynist. Occasionally uncomfortable, always 1970’s-brand grimy and gritty, but mostly forgettable. If you’re not familiar with Poliziotteschi or gialli films, seek something better. If you’re an expert devouring whatever world cinema has to offer, by all means sample this Greek slice of Italy’s genre cinema.
30Hz Movie Rating:
The Wife Killer is available wherever you find depraved world cinema.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1990’s
Country of origin: Latvia
I blindly support every Mondo Macabro release. I don’t love all of them, but this niche label has been consistently releasing some of the most unique and interesting films from around the globe. They’ve largely specialized in what one might call Euro-trash, but that belittles the aspirations of films in their catalog like Symptoms, Alucarda and the psycho-sexual Latvian thriller Spider. That said, there’s also plenty of Jess Franco.
A young and inexperienced teenager, Vita, ventures to the studio of Albert, a shady and potentially unhinged artist, to sit for a portrait of the Virgin Mary. She’s been coerced into this position by her Catholic school priest who wants to champion the great artist, but fails to acknowledge his face-value corruptive potential. If a guy looks like a lunatic and talks like a lunatic…
She arrives at the studio where nude models pose for a variety of lascivious religious-themed tableaus, apparently in perpetuity. He’s an important artist. He can’t be rushed.
When Vita expresses some hesitation about exposing her sexuality to this unsettling stranger, he confronts her and states that she will never escape him until his work has been completed. Then her visions begin and the film takes a greasy thumb and blurs the line between exploitation and art.
One particularly unsettling sequence has her being assaulted by a massive, revolting oozing arachnid — I hesitate to use the term “raped” because that paints the scene with coarsely broad strokes. As the film serves as a metaphor for female sexual awakening — the monstrous, looming specter of male penetration — this scene in particular represents Vita’s confrontation with fear, confusion and latent desire.
As Vita’s libido increases so do the frequency and severity of the visions. As she continues her path of sexual discovery she must confront the “evil forces” tied to her burgeoning womanhood and exorcise the hold the artist has over her.
Final Spider Thoughts:
This unsettling meditation on teenage sexual awakening requires a little patience until the metaphor clicks into place and the film takes decided steps to embrace the poetry beyond the exploitation.
The church’s supporting role in this film as the enabler of corruption and the source of Vita’s shame provides essential context to her journey from innocence. It’s this component in particular that delivers Vasili Mass’ Spider (his only directorial credit) from assignation into the realm of exploitation. What we have instead is a rough gem that ventures deeply (and often disturbingly) into the realm of Freudian pyscho-sexuality.
30Hz Movie Rating:
This little Latvian thriller arrives courtesy of the good people at Mondo Macabro who do yeomen’s work keeping us stocked with wonderful and quirky slices of the world’s wildest cinema.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1930’s
Some of my earliest moviewatching memories concern classic Universal Horror films. And if I had to pinpoint just one that propelled my interest onward, it would be James Whale’s The Invisible Man.
I’m quite sure I missed the finer points of Whale’s treatment of the material. All I knew was that Claude Rains’ invisible man did a lot of naughty things and laughed himself silly all the while. For an eight-year-old boy, that was plenty to warrant true love and adoration.
Chemist Dr. Jack Griffin has created an invisibility serum. The only trouble? He can’t find a way to reverse it and one of the components of the drug causes him to descend rapidly into madness. MADNESS, I SAY!
The MADNESS! makes The Invisible Man stand out as a singular work in pre-code horror. The film’s tone, frantic pacing and the lack of the overtly monstrous, places it at odds against all of the other Universal Horror films of the period.
As Griffin slides into mania, his actions grow increasingly more violent. He begins by nudging chapeaus and tossing bicycles at townspeople but winds up as a mass murderer. The movie plans reparations, but not before we get to revel in a nihilist anti-hero making mischief.
The film differs from H.G. Wells’ novel in that when we meet Griffin he’s always well on his way to insanity and far more ruthless. Wells allows his business associates to survive; Whale gives his Griffin revenge carte blanche. Having read the book in close proximity to watching the film, Whale and his screenwriter R.C. Sherriff made the novel perfectly and efficiently cinematic.
Despite Rains’ Griffin embarking on a series of despicable acts against innocent bystanders, The Invisible Man plays almost like a British black comedy — tongue in cheek and blazingly cynical. Consider that every time Griffin embarks on a crime spree, he strips naked and runs around totally unencumbered. Pre-code creativity of the highest order made possible by the film’s groundbreaking special effects.
Final The Invisible Man Thoughts:
There’s nothing quite like The Invisible Man in the Universal canon. Even the “Invisible” films that followed lack the same bite. They lacked the bold direction of James Whale and they lacked the distinctive voice of Claude Rains. Not that they’re bad films; they’re fleeting entertainment, forgettable. The original Invisible Man endures because everyone loves gleeful, untethered mischief.
30Hz Movie Rating:
Universal has yet to release the Complete Invisible Man Collection on Blu-ray. Until then, the DVD set will have to suffice. The print on this DVD could use some tender love and affection. Here’s to hoping we’ll see that Blu-ray sooner rather than later.
I first saw Dario Argento’s Suspiria when I was 16. I backed into the Argento brand of Italian horror via the brief theatrical run of Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte Dellamore.
A one paragraph blurb the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette propelled me to see an Italian zombie movie playing at the Denis Theater. By this point, let’s say I’d… devoured… George Romero’s Dead trilogy so my interest in lumbering brain-hungry monsters had reached a crescendo.
In the part of my brain that might have otherwise been put to better use — by say, remembering a person’s name upon first introduction — I store information about the movies I watch. I can recall when and where I saw just about any movie, especially in a theater. Other cinephiles likely have similar powers, but muggles like my wife find this specific skill rather superfluous.
Built in the 1920’s and formerly a one-screen movie house, the Denis had divided its one large theater into four smaller ones. The upstairs house created using the balcony seats, where I saw Dellamorte Dellamore, provided the unique perspective of looking down onto the film. I only saw one other movie on that particular screen — David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996).
This viewing of Dellamorte Dellamore, or Cemetery Man as it was called during its US release, remains one of my most memorable theatrical experiences. Both the movie and the unusual experience contributed to this visceral memory. I detail this experience because as movie fans we always have those benchmark moments when our cinematic frame of reference suddenly and often violently gets thrown into flux. If movies like Michele Soavi’s poetic metaphysical Euro-trash zombie comedy existed what else might I find if I dig deeper into Italian horror?
In that Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review of Dellamorte Dellamore, the author called Michele Soavi a “Dario Argento disciple.” I went to Blockbuster Video the next day and rented the only Argento film they carried — Suspiria. I fell in love. I began ordering bootleg Argentos unavailable in the United States. In college I served up Opera (1987) to my unsuspecting friends one Halloween. 22 years later, I finally had the opportunity to see Argento’s masterpiece on the big screen.
American ballet student Suzy Bannon arrives in Germany to join a prestigious dance academy. Upon arriving late one stormy night, she’s denied entry, and a frantic girl exits the building babbling incoherencies. In the first of many troubling events, the girl is found murdered, stabbed and hung from the ceiling of a friend’s apartment building.
The next day, Suzy returns to the Academy and meets the staff and students. During her first session, Suzy faints and is prescribed a specific diet to “build up her blood.” Forced to reside on campus due to her illness, Suzy befriends a girl named Sara, who shares with her information about Pat, the girl who evacuated the building that first night, and the suspicions Pat held about the teachers and administrators at the school.
Maggots rain from the ceiling. Sara disappears. The blind piano player that scored the students’ practice is killed by his seeing-eye dog. Suzy starts to put the pieces together and unravels a centuries old mystery.
Dario Argento champions style over substance. Argento critics recite the phrase ad infinitum. But what if style is the substance? Filmmakers generally — as visual storytellers — must use an aesthetic to serve their narrative. But is it actually a negative when a filmmaker wraps narrative over an aesthetic to the extent that the story itself seems like the accessory?
The criticism arises most frequently when flaws can be found in other aspects of the production. With regard to Suspiria, I’m not blind to the inadequacies of the screenplay or the narrative simplicity; however, Suspiria‘s flaws do not detract from the tension as Suzy delves deeper into the bowels of the estate and they certainly do not tarnish Argento’s phantasmagoria of color and haunting soundscapes.
The weary “style over substance” criticism has been applied to films as long as projector gears have been turning. Critics hid this negativity behind layers of formal, ornamented prose, but their intent remained clear. Upon its release, German critic Herbert Jhering said of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920): “If actors are acting without energy and are playing within landscapes and rooms which are formally ‘excessive’, the continuity of the principle is missing.” Jhering could have said the same about Suspiria 57 years later. Filmmakers as widely disparate as Sergei Eistenstein and Jean Cocteau echoed similar sentiments about Wiene’s masterpiece of surrealist cinema.
The most troublesome aspect of the modern use of “style over substance” isn’t its omnipresence. It’s a phrase that professes sincere criticism but offers none. I return to the thought that style in a visual medium is nothing short of substance. However, that a film values aesthetics first neither betrays nor necessarily elevates other aspects of filmmaking. A beautiful film may be resplendent, but it might also be vapid. The question must be: Does style contribute to the success of the filmmaker’s vision?
Nicolas Wending Refn dwells in that perverse balance of style and substance. Consider the differences between Drive (2011)and his latest Neon Demon (2016). Where Refn uses substance to propel and embellish a standard narrative in the former, a similar overall aesthetic fails to support the labored metaphors of the latter. Speaking of “labored,” this has been a convoluted way to state the obvious fact that the value of a film is a subjective verdict weighed against dozens of different aspects of filmmaking working together to unite a collection of signs and signifiers.
With regard to the production of Suspiria, Dario Argento clearly set forth to produce a visual and aural spectacle that titillated the senses and immersed the viewer into an otherworldly atmosphere. He bathes the viewer in an unnatural palette of gaudy blues, purples and reds. Blood spurts orange. Any individual frame could be used in a master class on composition and lighting, and these stylistic choices all contribute to the instability and visceral unease that the audience shares with Suzy Bannon.
Final Suspiria Thoughts:
Before heading off to see Suspiria on the big screen, I tossed in my old Anchor Bay DVD. I wanted to take one final look at the traditional home video color palette for this film before basking in the restoration work done by Synapse. Even though I’d only seen glimpses of the new images, it felt bleak.
I’m happy to report that everything I loved about Suspiria has been magnified. The big screen immersion just cannot be replicated at home — and maybe not even by the pending Blu-ray release. The colors envelop you — Argento’s grip is firmer, the tension more present. You’re properly captive. If you’ve never seen Suspiria on the big screen — or better yet, if you’ve never seen Suspiria at all — I cannot properly convey without a string of expletives how strongly I feel that you must see this film theatrically to properly judge Argento’s “style over substance.”
And do me a favor, if you still default to using “style over substance” as a criticism, follow that up by discussing how that style fails to support the filmmaker’s intent. Only then can we have a proper discussion about the value of Suspiria.
30Hz Movie Rating:
Pre-order the Synapse 3D Limited Edition Suspiria Steelbook from Diabolik DVD. This will, without a doubt, be the definitive version of the film on home video.