Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Demonwarp (1988) [Petroni Fide!]




George Kennedy was a damn fine man and one hell of an actor. He was also the sort of working character actor that seems to be oddly diminishing these days. The type who could win an Oscar for Cool Hand Luke and go on to appear in dreck like The Terror Within nearly 20 years later, with no seeming complaints. Hell, the man kept coming back to the Airport movies even when they were clearly running out of ideas.

Hell, and it's a testament to the man's talent that he could so often nearly steal the show from Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun movies.

So naturally, while I was a bit shocked to discover the man was still alive--and had been working right up until 2014--I was definitely also sad to hear of his loss. And naturally I was eager to join the rest of my comrades in the Celluloid Zeroes when they suggested a roundtable devoted to his memory.

At first I struggled to think of a suitable film to tackle. I'd already knocked out The Terror Within, after all. Did I really want to tackle the killer cat puppet flick, Uninvited? Or did I want to go for one of the Airport flicks?

And then it hit me: hadn't George Kennedy starred in a truly whacked-out Bigfoot movie? Well, I simply couldn't resist satisfying my curiosity about that.

The film opens with one of the most frightening things you'll ever see:

Oh God, ABORT! ABORT!
I kid, I kid! Still, their distribution of Peter Jackson's Dead Alive notwithstanding, Vidmark did not exactly have a track record of providing the highest quality of entertainment. And usually they made you watch the trailer for Brainsmasher: A Love Story before they dumped whatever they had in your lap.

Anyway, back to the movie. After a rather woeful shot of a meteorite streaking towards the Earth as seen from space, we see a priest (John Durbin) leading a horse through the hills. He is boring the poor animal by reading from his bible or singing "Amazing Grace", when he reacts to the meteorite streaking past him.

I think. Either the cheap VHS quality of the only version available to me washed out the effect of the meteorite or there never was one, because we see him react to the sound of it but then are shown ordinary footage of the hills right before the priest recoils from the object's impact off screen. We do, however, see an adorable attempt at forced perspective as the priest stares at the meteorite before him, which dwarfs both him and his horse.

The object is also clearly not just a space rock, and the priest interprets it as the second coming and walks towards it, enraptured.

After the credits--which naturally give Kennedy top billing, credit the story to John Carl Buechler, and allow us to discover that the soundtrack (by one Dan Slider) will be a Casio synth score that wishes it was John Carpenter's work--we find ourselves at a little cabin in the woods. Inside, Bill Crafton (our dear departed George Kennedy) is playing Trivial Pursuit with his adult daughter, Julie (Jill Marin). It's actually a fairly charming little scene, but the encroaching POV tells us not to get too comfortable. In fact, after Julie teases her father about his mismatched socks, Crafton hears something grunting outside his patently flimsy door. No, seriously, the door could not be more obviously made of flimsy fake wood paneling if was just paper with "wood" written on it.

Sure enough, the door explodes inward, knocking Crafton down as a Bigfoot-type creature bursts into the cabin. Crafton can only watch helplessly as it attacks Julie before he passes out, and then the limp body of Julie is dragged away by the monster.

"Uh, Mr. Trump? You're on stage in five."
Fade to a car full of college students is making its way through the mountain roads. Fred Proctor (Hank Statton) is driving and Jack Bergman (David Michael O'Neill) is navigating since he's lived in the area. From the backseat, Tom Phillips (Billy Jayne, here credited as Billy Jacoby), asks Jack if he's ever seen anything in the woods, but he says he's just seen shapes moving around some nights but nothing more unusual than that. His uncle Clem used to own land in the area and he used to go camping there until his uncle built a house on the property to rent out to others.

Cindy Ossman (Colleen McDermott) then asks if they're going to the area where some people on vacation were recently attacked and Carrie Austin (Pamela Gilbert) jokingly says that will be exciting. Tom then brings up that the place is called "Demonwood." This starts the whole car chanting that this are woods of hell, to Jack's considerable consternation. When they arrive at their destination and begin unloading, Tom freaks out about the group being careless with unloading his "fragile shit."

"Yeah, I always knew you were a fragile shit," Fred quips. Tom, for some reason, responds to this by sniffing the air like he just smelled something revolting. That's...that's not a comeback. Meanwhile, the girls return to inform the lads that there's no door to the cabin. Then they dance halfheartedly when Tom whips out the boombox and plays generic rock that was pretty obviously not played on set during filming.

Inside the cabin, the group finds the place a shambles, the way it was left after the attack we saw earlier. Keep that in mind for a sec. Anyway, Jack dismisses it as the work of kids and goes out to finish unloading the car. Carrie comes over to talk to Jack as he unloads a series of guns. She points out that Jack's uncle had guns and that didn't help him, but Jack is adamant that he will be able to succeed where his uncle failed--though Carrie is more concerned that he hasn't told the others about why they're here. And then Tom comes and takes some sensitive electronic listening equipment from Jack, which further sets up that these yahoos are actually here because of the Bigfoot stories, not in spite of them.

In fact, Fred sees that Tom has a gorilla mask in his suitcase, which Tom was going to use to give everyone a scare until he saw how shook up Cindy was when they came into the wrecked cabin. Fred agrees that Tom should definitely not pull that prank--but that he should. You know, the prank that involves scaring the hell out of Fred's girlfriend. So, apparently Tom is not the group's biggest asshole after all.

At any rate, a gunshot from outside announces the arrival of Bill Crafton, now wearing a silly yellow hat. He orders all the kids to come outside, but before he can finish telling them why he ordered them out at gunpoint, Jack sneaks up behind Crafton with a handgun and makes him drop the rifle. Crafton explains he meant no harm, but is there to warn them about the creature that attacked him and his daughter months ago when he rented the cabin from Jack's uncle. Oh, and this means he knew uncle Clem, too.

It also means that the attack we saw happened months ago and was, in fact, the attack Carrie referenced--but nobody has bothered to clean up the cabin in any way since! Anyway, Crafton scoffs at the kids asking why he didn't go to the cops about his daughter, takes back his rifle, and departs with one last word of warning that they should all leave if they have any brains.

"Also, if you see a bear named Paddington, tell him I've got his hat."
That night, Jack reveals to his friends the real reason they're all here: a couple of weeks earlier, his uncle Clem went out to investigate the strange sightings that had been happening in the area. There had been sightings of Bigfoot and other strange phenomena for at least 100 years, but never as far North as this region and Clem wanted to know why. Except he vanished, and now Jack wants to find his uncle. The others are skeptical but agree to help, and Carrie is proud of him for finally telling them instead of just stringing them along.

So Carrie and Jack retire to their room for a romantic excuse to show breasts, while Cindy goes to take a shower and rebuffs Fred's attempts to join her even after he points out that there's no hot water. Frustrated at having his sexual advances twice spurned already, Fred decides to embrace his true douchebag and to puts on the gorilla mask to wait outside the bathroom window to frighten her. So when Cindy gets out of the shower to provide some non-romantic T&A, Fred knocks on the window and somehow produces a synthesizer-heavy growl to scare the towel off her.

Naturally, Cindy runs right into the waiting arms of Tom, who tells her it was a mean joke that Fred played. She seems oddly clam about the way he's creepily holding her and rubbing her arms when she has nothing but a towel on, but when they lean in for a kiss it becomes clear that they've had something on the side all along. Of course, they're interrupted by Fred pounding on the door. It seems that Fred has run afoul of the real Bigfoot. Of course, they take their time answering the door and by the time they do, Carrie and Jack have joined them to investigate the noise--and Fred is gone.

Well, most of Fred is. His flashlight is on the ground beside some bloody rocks. Worse, Jack and Tom see that their truck's hood is up and the engine has been torn apart. The group hurries back inside and barricades the door while Cindy throws on some clothes and Jack grabs the guns to load them up. Unfortunately, when Bigfoot crashes through the door, Jack's bullets don't seem to faze it that much. And when the beast starts to go after Cindy, Tom intervenes--and gets strangled for his trouble before having his neck snapped.

Jack raises his gun to shoot the creature, but suddenly freezes. Not even Carrie screaming at him to shoot the monster seems to get through and he just stares at it as it grabs some of his listening equipment and strolls out the door. Regaining his senses, Jack carries Tom's dead body up the stairs and then the surviving three huddle together on a mattress on the floor by the stairs, so they can watch the door.

Of course, as he starts to doze Jack is woken up by breaking glass. He goes upstairs to investigate--and finds Tom's body is gone. He declines to mention this to Carrie when he comes back down, but merely begs her to go back to sleep. In the morning, Jack takes the rifle, gives Carrie the handgun, and gives Cindy a knife. He explains that they'll have to risk travelling through the woods to get to town faster. When Cindy asks if they're just going to leave Tom's body, he dodges the question.

And now it's time for more expendable meat as a jeep carrying Betsy (Michelle Bauer) and Tara (Shannon Kennedy) drives along a dirt road. The two are telling funny stories about Betsy's ex-boyfriend as they go, since apparently they're heading to raid his "Secret Garden." Tara also makes sure to acknowledge the painfully generic rock song they're listening to with, "I love this song!"

Meanwhile, Jack proves so jumpy that when a pine cone falls from a tree, he whirls and shoots it with his rifle. He then suggests that they take a rest, while Cindy demands they keep moving--and then Jack almost attacks her. For some reason he is suddenly furious with Cindy and calling her a bitch despite her having done nothing but get frustrated with him because she is obviously scared. It really makes our hero look like an asshole, I gotta say. Sure, he admits to Carrie that he's largely angry because he sees this whole thing as his fault but...yeah, it kind of is.

Meanwhile, we see a random hiker (Larry Grogan) getting lost, before cutting to Betsy and Tara discovering that someone else has already beaten them to the "Secret Garden" and all the weed growing there is gone, Well, when life gives you lemons, you flash your tits as the saying goes. Which is why Betsy responds to this disappointment by taking off her top, because they might as well get a tan while they're in this shady section of wood. Tara follows suit--although she keeps her bikini top on--oblivious to the Bigfoot watching them from the bushes.

And at this point in the film I have no idea if the fact that its mask looks nothing like the Bigfoot we've seen so far is intentional or a foul-up.

"Rargh! My feet aren't the only thing that's big, baby! Raargh!"
After Jack just barely saves the trio from wandering into a bear trap that Crafton left for Bigfoot, Betsy and Tara's conversation is rudely interrupted by Bigfoot walking up and a twisting Tara's head off. Betsy runs to the jeep, but in her haste she forgot to grab the keys and is forced to continue fleeing on foot. Boy, though, that Bigfoot really gets around because we then see the hiker suddenly finding himself being pelted with severed arms, He responds rather nonchalantly to this turn of events until a pissed off ape man comes charging out of the trees at him and then he decides it's time to run.

And there is something inherently silly about the gait of this film's Bigfoot, I have to say. Like Ro-Man from Robot Monster took up fun running.

As Cindy ponders what they're going to tell people when they get back to civilization, Betsy manages to find a moment to put her shirt back on and break down crying. The hiker, having eluded the Bigfoot, suddenly runs into a zombie. Luckily for him the zombie isn't interested in attacking him, but that doesn't make the poor sucker feel any better and he takes off running again.

"Grraarrrgh! I'm voting Trump because Trump tells it like it is. Graarrrrggghhh!"
Let me tell you, this inter-cutting is not making any of this stuff any more interesting than it would be on its own, but we return to the Jack, Cindy, and Carrie wander the woods show as Jack helps them up a hill--and has a weird moment where he tenderly touches Cindy like he has romantic feelings for her. Maybe that's why he's been such an utter prick to her? At any rate, he breaks away from Cindy in order to narrowly tackle Carrie away from another bear trap. He then pulls his rifle out to shoot what he thinks is Bigfoot, but naturally he just barely misses shooting Crafton hiding in the bushes.

Crafton's righteous indignation is kind of hard to maintain when, after Jack has Cindy take away Crafton's gun, Carrie notices that he's wearing Tom's watch. Crafton claims he found it outside his camp and, at gunpoint, Jack demands Crafton take them to his camp. Meanwhile, the terrified hiker stumbles into a small clearing full of bones, severed limbs, and half-eaten corpses. As he tries to regain his footing, Bigfoot suddenly pounces on him and forces his arm into a bear trap before disemboweling him with a stick. Okay then.

At Crafton's camp, Jack demands answers. He also reveals to the others that he had been hiding the mysterious disappearance of Tom's body. Crafton reaffirms that he knows nothing about the attack the previous night, but simply found that watch by his camp. He explains that after he recovered sufficiently from his injuries, he came out here to find the monster that killed his daughter, He wears his silly yellow hat so it can easily find him and he riddled the woods with traps. Carrie snidely remarks they found several already, but then Crafton reveals they were lucky to avoid his biggest surprise--tripwires rigged to bundles of dynamite.

Unbeknownst to Crafton, however, Bigfoot is going around pulling the blasting caps out of the dynamite and tossing the sticks aside.

Crafton asks about the attack the night before, specifically if Jack noticed anything weird. In fact, Jack did notice that the beast acting like it recognized him. Crafton asked if it took anything and Jack mentions the stolen listening equipment, but Crafton doesn't get to explain why that's relevant because Betsy--having heard the gunshots--shows up at the camp and narrowly avoids setting off a dynamite trap.

Crafton sends Jack into his tent to get the first aid kit and water--but wouldn't you know it, our big hairy friend that can't ever seem to go anywhere without constantly growling audibly has learned stealth in order to wait inside the tent. When it comes out, wringing Jack's neck, nobody else can shoot it without risking shooting Jack. Cindy leaps onto it and begins stabbing it with her knife, but that just results in her taking Jack's place as Bigfoot's human shield--until Bigfoot proceeds to slap her unconscious and then proceeds to do the same to Cindy and Betsy.

Crafton then tries to lure it to a dynamite trap, only for it sneak around behind him and proceed to smash his skull against a rock over and over. After all, we're an hour in and George Kennedy's charisma was no doubt a bigger portion of the film's budget than all of its creature effects combined.

When Jack regains consciousness, he is completely alone. He gathers his guns and the dynamite before he sets off into the hills to try and follow the creature's trail. Instead, he finds a dazed Cindy staggering through the brush. However, she won't respond to him calling to her. When he runs up and grabs her arm, he finds out why--she turns around and reveals that half her face has been clawed away and she is growling vaguely like Bigfoot. Which, of course, would have been a much more effective reveal if we hadn't already had a totally random zombie earlier.

Misogynistic fanboys were up in arms after Drew Barrymore was announced to play Two Face in the new Batman movie.
Acting on a reasonable hunch, Jack follows zombie Cindy. Naturally, she leads him to Bronson Canyon, which makes my Robot Monster crack earlier even more apt. Inside the cave, Jack finds Bigfoot waiting for him and shoots the beast--and suddenly bullets can actually hurt it. The beast collapses and proceeds to undergo the old "werewolf turning back into a human" process to reveal the creature was Uncle Clem (Joe Praml) all along.

Coughing up blood, Clem apologizes to Jack, saying he never wanted to hurt anyone but they made him do it. Clem dies and Jack goes further into the cave and discovers lots of torn up radio equipment--again, feeling pretty Robot Monster here--and what appears to be the skin of a man's face. Jack trips over himself in shock and then runs deeper into the cave, only to run smack into a group of rotting zombies carrying electrical equipment around!

And here the movie's ambition really begins to outstrip its budget. The zombies are, to a man, obviously normal people in pristine clothes who are wearing really, really obvious rubber masks. So obvious, in fact, that when Jack finds an inexplicably still living Fred tied up beside a spaceship doorway that looks like it was borrowed from Star Trek, the rubber gorilla mask Fred is still wearing doesn't look any less convincing than the zombies.

Fred is bleeding from the nose and mouth and says he's all busted up inside, so Jack should leave him and go rescue Carrie inside the spaceship. Fred says the priest inside the craft wants to use Carrie and some other girl for some purpose and they won't be alive for long if he succeeds. Jack rests Fred's head on his jacket and turns to enter the ship, only to be confronted by zombie Tom. And to our great chagrin, zombie Tom is not only not mute like the other zombies, but is trying to do the hammiest of hammy Jack Nicholson impressions. After mugging for a bit with no real reason, Tom tells Jack that he should just come quietly--but Jack listens to the audience and shoots Tom.

Stupidly, he only shoots Tom in the shoulder so Tom continues advancing, summoning the other zombies to join him. Then, despite Jack's gun clearly having fired the last bullet in the clip a second ago, Jack fires again and mercifully (for us) hits Tom in the head this time. After killing three more zombies with headshots, Tom's gun runs out of ammo for totally real this time so he slams in another clip--and proceeds to miss every shot. After slamming a third clip in, Jack immediately abandons the whole gun idea and decides to go for punching instead.

He gets himself swarmed for his troubles.

Now we see the zombies doing repairs inside the spaceship, using all the stolen electronics to fix its insides. In garish chamber, the priest from the opening, now much paler, chants, "Azdreth is Lord!" He then raises a ceremonial dagger and advances on Betsy, topless again and strapped to a sacrificial altar.Meanwhile, a pretty cool slimy alien with metal claws, scorpion tail, and bat-like ears sits nearby, eagerly watching the sacrifice unfolding--presumably this is Azdreth. The priest says that his master is returning to the stars and then cuts out Betsy's heart and offers it to Azdreth, who mumbles alien gibberish and happily begins eating the heart.

Hey, what do you, know, Ted Cruz was in one of those "teen tit films" after all!
The priest gleefully assures Azdreth that there is more, and then we see a still-living Fred trying to rouse the unconscious Jack in the cave outside. Why didn't the zombies take Ted into the ship when Tom earlier told him to come quietly? Beats the hell out of me. Luckily, for our insipid--er, intrepid hero, Fred was able to grab his pack. So when the zombies walk back out, carrying the corpse of Betsy--and seriously, only eating the heart seems like a real waste of meat unless she's also being turned into a zombie--Fred ensures they have the weapons and dynamite with them as they are both dragged into the ship.

Now it's Carrie's turn to be strapped to the altar half-naked. The priest excitedly tells them that after over a hundred years of being trapped on Earth, the mighty Archangel Azdreth is ready to return to the stars and they will each feed him in turn. Well, it turns out that zombies make shitty muscle, because Jack instantly wriggles free and tackles the priest.

Jack then apparently shoves that dagger where the sun don't shine, which kills the priest. This angers Azdreth, but the zombies barely look up from their spaceship repair so I guess they don't have any particular loyalty to the priest.

"Azdreth don't pay nearly enough braaaaaiiiinsss to also fight college kids."
Jack shoots a couple zombies, but Fred takes a tumble while fighting another zombie and lands beside Azdreth's space recliner. The alien immediately buries the stinger on his tail in Fred's chest. Jack pauses in cutting Carrie's bonds in order to empty his clip into Azdreth. Turns out aliens aren't bulletproof. It's a bit too late for Fred.

Oh, he's still alive, sure, but after Carrie dresses herself in the dead priest's robe, she discovers that Fred is starting to turn into a Bigfoot. Guess that mask was foreshadowing, huh? After Jack sets a pile of dynamite down with an attached timer set to go off, Fred yells at them to leave him behind. Seeing his friend's hairy arms is enough to persuade Jack and he hilariously shoves aside a whole conga line of zombies as he and Carrie make their escape from the chamber.

The gradually transforming Fred clutches the bundle of dynamite to his chest as Carrie and Jack flee through the cave. Unfortunately, they bump into Cindy on the way and for some reason Carrie just flat-out refuses to abandon her clearly undead friend. So Jack, demonstrating the one reasonable instance of his assholishness towards Cindy, shoots her repeatedly in order to force Carrie to abandon her. At that range and angle he really would probably have hit Carrie, too, but whatever.

For some reason, once outside of the cave the couple ducks behind a large rock instead of, I don't know, just continuing to run away. Bigfoot Fred breaks out in air bladders and roars before the whole cave erupts in a fireball...

...and Jack suddenly wakes up in bed next to Carrie, in what is unmistakably a darkened sound stage with no furniture beyond their bed and the lamp sitting on its frame. Carrie rolls over and Jack explains he can't stop thinking about Tom and Fred (but not Cindy, the prick). Carrie comforts him and says it's about time they got back to their lives and makes a suggestion that they go to the beach, only for the zombies to suddenly appear out of the shadows and surround them...

...and then Jack finds himself in bed next to a zombified Carrie...

...and then Jack wakes up in fright, alone in the bed, the camera zooming in on his tense face and--roll credits?! Seriously, that's your fucking ending?

"Honey, maybe you should ease up on the exfoliating...:

Wow. Demonwarp is the kind of film that leaves me virtually unable to decide what to make of it. On the one hand, for most of the running time this is a rather dull "young people go into the country and get murdered" flick with a Bigfoot as the death dispenser. However, it wisely cast George Kennedy in a major role so there's at least one engaging character. Then, on the other hand it suddenly becomes an almost engaging sci-fi horror flick with the introduction of Azdreth, his zombie minions, and his Sasquatch Stinger. And then it immediately squanders that cool stinger with the laziest bullshit stinger ending this side of Breeders (1988). I mean, fucking Breeders, man! If your film in any way compares unfavorably to that film, you've taken a severe wrong turn.

In toto, then, I'd have to see this is a crappy movie. However, as anyone who has read this far probably knows that there are different levels of crappy movies. There are the crappy movies that are no good at all, the crappy movies that manage to achieve a kind of perverse goodness from being so crappy, and then there are the crappy movies that manage to actually be fun on their own merits while still basically being awful. Amazingly, Demonwarp is all three of those.

At times Demonwarp commits the cardinal sin of a bad movie by being boring, while other times it ventures into the delightful territory of leaving you pondering what the hell its makers were thinking, occasionally is so incompetent it becomes brilliant, and then in a few scenes it actually engages you in the way the filmmakers intended.

As I said before, George Kennedy is excellent even with the little material he is given to work with, and I actually rather liked Colleen McDermott as Cindy--and not just because she was willing to bare it all on camera, I might add. Hell, even David Michael O'Neill as Jack gets a few good moments in, but his character is just so poorly written and unlikable it's impossible to feel anything for him. The film's direction is nothing special, for that matter, and the score is not very good at all,

The film's creature effects, as I said before, are definitely a mixed bag. The zombies are, aside from the first one we see and Cindy, pretty much awful to a one--but the Bigfoot has a very expressive face, even if it still has that patently rubber quality to it. The alien Azdreth is definitely the highlight of the film, even if its metal claws look like they're actually silver cardboard.

Is this a film worth tracking down? Well, it's not yet on DVD or Blu-ray but the internet makes it easy to find until such time as Scream Factory, Kino Lorber, Mill Creek, or one of the other genre-heavy distribution companies get their claws on it to give it a proper release. (I can only imagine how awful the zombies will inevitably look in HD) Therefore it doesn't require much effort to find and watch it, so I'd say if you're in the mood for some genre fare you haven't seen before you could definitely do a lot worse.

In the end, I'd say the crazy alien plot just barely makes it worth viewing. It's definitely perfect for a Saturday night viewing with friends if your friends are the sort who make a habit of viewing obscure 1980s horror movies.

And really, those are the best kind of friends, aren't they?


This review is part of  Petroni Fide! the Celluloid Zeroes' tribute to the late, great George Kennedy. Check out what the other Zeroes did below!

Checkpoint Telstar took The Human Factor into account.

Cinemasochist Apocalypse was Uninvited, an unfortunate slight.

Micro-Brewed Reviews had a Nightmare at Noon.

Psychoplasmics joined The Delta Force.

Web of The Big Damn Spider got slapped into a Strait-Jacket.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Witch (2015)


The Puritans who came to this continent so many centuries ago were assholes. I don't think I'll get any argument on that score.

They were religious fanatics who were so obnoxious that they drove other religious fanatics up the wall, so they left themselves little recourse but to flee their homeland for The New World. There they could begin to spread their own ideas of oppression around instead of being on the receiving end.

Oh, but they weren't content to prey on the native people of the continent they claimed was their own. No, they began to turn on themselves--continuing the grand tradition of throwing around wild accusations of witchcraft as an excuse to murder women, children, and men that they disliked. Witches were never anything but a pretense, or possibly ergot poisoning.

Of course, the fact that the witches killed in these trials weren't real hasn't stopped horror stories over the years from trotting out the old trope of the lynched witch who turns out to actually be a witch and curses their killers. I've spoken of such stories quite recently, in fact.

I've known many a person who finds this distasteful, and it's hard not to agree. Innocent people died because of superstition and hatred. Hard to imagine something like Hocus Pocus, a relatively modern movie nominally aimed at kids, focused on showing that other purveyors of historical slaughters were right about their targets all along.

Yet, there is room for a Puritan-based witch story that doesn't blindly accept that those assholes were right, nor simply shows how evil they were because of their misplaced convictions. Rather than just implying the Puritans were right all along, imagine if a movie decided to accept that witches follow the rules and behaviors that Puritans believed they did--but decided to show how utterly unprepared they'd be to deal with an actual witch.

If you know anything about it already, you know that hypothetical film I speak of exists in The Witch. Or The VVitch if you prefer.

Even among Puritans in the New England of 1630, holier-than-thou types are not tolerated well. And so it comes to pass that the Governor (Julian Richings) of one Puritan Plantation rules to excommunicate one William (Ralph Ineson). William doesn't exactly help his case by deriding his judges as "false Christians," but he also is perfectly happy to accept exile.

His family is less enthused about having to brave the wilderness because their patriarch decided he had to have the last word, but they have no recourse in a Puritan society but to follow. Thus William's wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie); eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy); son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw); and twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) are loaded up on the wagon and trundled off to the edge of a foreboding wood.

'Thanks a lot, dad."
Months later, the family has built a home, a small barn, and completed part of a third building. In addition to their horse and their dog, Fowler, they also have several goats and chickens. Katherine has also given birth to a son, Samuel. While William is struggling to get corn to grow on the property they are more or less contented--though they're Puritans, so contentment to them means lots of prayer and begging for God's mercy.

Of course, Thomasin is currently having the worst of it. She is a teenage girl developing into a woman in a household that views her very existence as sinful--her father may still have as much warmth for her as such a man can,but her mother long ago turned cold to her eldest child. So it does not help Thomasin in her mother's eyes when, while playing with Samuel on the edge of the property, the child vanishes impossibly before her eyes. William will later declare the culprit to be a wolf, but we saw a hooded woman (Bathsheba Garnett) conveying the infant through the tangled woods. Unfortunately for Samuel, witches don't treat babies any better than wolves do--it seems that babies are the prime ingredient in the ointment that allows a witch to fly.

The family understandably mourns for Samuel, especially Katherine. Thomasin suffers from nightmares, which Caleb wakes her from only after using her flailing as an opportunity to glance down her shift. While the rest of the family are in bed, William bemoans to Caleb that their harvest will not last them the winter and they must go into the woods to trap game. Caleb points out that his parents have told all of them that the woods are forbidden, but he follows his father into the wood just the same.

Their trap is empty, however. As he resets it, Caleb asks where his father got the trap, and William tells him to keep it secret--he traded Katherine's silver cup for it. Caleb then breaks down, crying and wondering if Samuel is in Hell and if he would also be in Hell if he died. William does what he can to calm his son in his own way, but the doubt remains in the boy's mind. And then--the rabbit appears for the first time.

I know you won't believe me when I say it, but this film manages what I thought to be the impossible: it makes a rabbit creepy.

Oh man, they're remaking Night of the Lepus now?
Of course, it may not actually be just a rabbit. When William prepares his rifle with Caleb's help, the firing mechanism backfires when he tries to shoot the rabbit. Despite how close his face was to the miniature explosion, William manages to avoid serious injury. His pride gets the worst of it, though we've already seen that that is where he is weakest.

Back at the homestead, the twins are driving Thomasin crazy with their constant running around and singing songs to Black Phillip, the family's large and aptly named billy goat, whom they have apparently liberated from his pen because they claim he talks to them. (I might add that the oddest part of the film, for me, was that a Puritan family would hear their children saying a black goat was speaking to them and ignore it as a simple child's game for so long) Thomasin is busy cleaning the stable and, like a typical teenager, is trying to ignore her obnoxious younger siblings. So she is not aware that Black Phillip is running free and acting erratically around the young children. William returns and is forced to wrestle the animal back into its pen, falling in dung for his trouble.

"Wouldst though like the taste of butter? Wouldst thou like to watch YouTube compilations of screaming goats?"
Katherine yells at William for disappearing with Caleb, but Caleb lies and says they went to the valley in search of an apple tree as a surprise, only to find no apples there after all. William goes along with the lie, and poor Thomasin is scolded by Katherine for letting the twins run wild--and sent to the brook to wash her father's soiled garments. Caleb comes to her later and she observes that he is acting strangely around her when she invites him to lie against her as he had done many times when they were younger. Of course, she also didn't observe him staring at the exposed skin of her chest when he walked up.

Being on the edge of adolescence and discovering your own sexual urges when the only woman for miles around is related to you must be horrifically awkward.

At any rate, the awkwardness of poor Thomasin trying to just innocently cuddle with her little brother is interrupted by Mercy appearing and announcing that she is the "witch of the wood." Caleb chides her for her childish games,but something dark comes over Thomasin. Thomasin advances on Mercy and declares that she is the witch of the wood and tells the increasingly terrified Mercy that it was her who took Samuel, and then she danced naked in the woods and signed her name in the Black Book. If her goal was to traumatize Mercy, Thomasin succeeds and then some--even Caleb is disturbed.

That night over their meager dinner, Katherine blames Thomasin for the missing silver cup, even as Thomasin insists she knows nothing about it. William takes Thomasin's side, but does not have the courage to confess he is responsible, so Katherine's ire toward Thomasin just grows. When everyone is in bed, the children pretend to sleep whilst listening to their parents argue. William does not confess his guilt, Katherine blames Thomasin for Samuel's disappearance, and William finally agrees they will take Thomasin into town the next day to work as a maid in another household.

This doesn't sit well with Caleb, and he decides to saddle the horse before first light, intending to go into the woods to check the traps and find meat and pelts to sell in the hopes of keeping Thomasin in the house. Thomasin catches him, however, and threatens to wake their parents if he doesn't take her along.

As Thomasin rides the horse and Caleb walks alongside, they talk about their house in England. Thomasin swears they had glass windows, but Caleb doesn't recall them. The first trap has a small rabbit in it, but Caleb insists they keep hunting. Unfortunately, the rabbit from earlier shows up. The horse is oddly spooked by the rabbit and then Fowler gives chase. Caleb chases Fowler and then Thomasin is thrown from the horse and knocked unconscious.

Caleb quickly finds himself lost in the tangling woods. He finds Fowler's mangled body and flees, only to shortly find a small shack made of earth of lumber. The door opens and a beautiful, voluptuous young woman (Sarah Stephens) in clearly immodest dress, slinks out. Clabe is drawn towards her and gladly accepts a kiss from her--only to find himself unable to break the kiss, and then the witch grasps him by the back of the head with her gnarled and wrinkled hand...

"Pumpkinhead? Is that you?"
There is a lot to unpack in The Witch, which is probably why it's such a divisive film. On the one hand, you can simply look at it as a simple horror movie that decided to simply tell us the story of what it was that Puritans feared would happen--why they so blindly believed that anyone accused of witchcraft must be judged and murdered--without any grander ambition than telling an effective horror story. And while it may not be the scariest film, as many promo materials would lead you to believe, there is no question that it succeeds at that goal.

This is a horrifying film that gets under your skin by following the slow burn format, rather than constantly throwing creepy figures leaping out of shadows at you. It doesn't rely on loud noises and gore to scare you, either. In fact, this film excels at knowing when it should leave its violence implied. With few exceptions, the majority of the horrors visited upon its characters happen off-screen, which actually makes them more effective.

After all, this film's first victim is a baby, and all we see of poor Samuel's fate is the witch lightly pressing a knife to his flesh--and then we cut to her furiously working a mortar and pestle, shrouded by shadows in flickering firelight, but clearly filled with something bloody. We don't need to see anything more explicit than that to know what has happened.

This is also a film that knows how to make use of its setting. From the extensive use of natural lighting, to filming in a forest so wild and overgrown that I began to imagine the trees were actually moving, ala The Evil Dead, there is no shortage of unsettling visuals. And, again, this is a film understands what he have to imagine will always be worse than what we can be shown. Even beyond the heavy use of shadows, there is barely any CGI in the film--and most of that was used to erase things from the frame, rather than add them. There are no digital phantoms, nor even mechanical ones--and there doesn't need to be.

The music is also excellent, almost contantly keeping you unnerved even when there doesn't seem to be anything disturbing happening on screen.

Of course, the question is: is this just a horror story? Is it just taking the witch stories of the Puritans more literally than most horror films do--there is a credit at the end stating that this film, which was clearly well-researched, used actual journal entries from the time period as the basis for its horrors--or is it making a grander statement? If it is, is that statement for or against the Puritans' fanaticism?

Certainly, you can make this a  case for an indictment of the exceptionally misogynistic patriarchy that characterizes fanatics of the Puritan strain. After all, we in the audience know that there is an actual witch in the woods preying on this family and something even more sinister living in their own barn*, yet each horror visited upon them focues the blame more and more on Thomasin, whom we know is innocent. Thomasin's only crime is being a teenage girl and the increasing persecution of her by her family surely dooms her soul far more effectively than the wicked creatures around the family could ever have done on their own.

[* The reveal that Black Phillip is, in fact, not just a goat might be considered a spoiler if he hadn't been so heavily emphasized in the film's promotions. So if you somehow weren't aware of that: sorry, not sorry]

It's not hard to view the film as condemning the parents at the heart of it for dooming their children and themselves by ascribing wickedness to natural human behavior--at one point William even pleads with God for mercy on his children for being unable to control their natural inclinations, but far too little and far too late. However, is is actually condemning them? While the film has actually been endorsed by the Satanic Temple of all things, some reviews have actually spoken of how sympathetic the film is to the Puritan family.

I viewed the film as showing how the misguided priorities of the family doomed them, but I was seeing it from the perspective of someone who has never been religious. I was raised by my parents as a Unitarian-Universalist, and encouraged to choose whatever I wanted to believe. Naturally, aside from brief periods where I invented my own pantheons or believed in Santa as some form of minor deity, I gravitated towards atheism.

Meanwhile, my viewing companion for this film had a perspective that could not be more different than mine. She may be a smartass, bisexual atheist now, but she was raised in a very conservative Christian environment that left her with many mental scars. She finds herself on the verge of a panic attack any time she steps foot in a church. To her, the film was frightening because it was so familiar and the film seemed to lean too close towards outright saying the Puritans had it right all along.

Of course, as I said before, how many horror films can be claimed to have basically said, "Hey, those assholes who went around killing innocent people actually were killing evil witches"? From the aforementioned Hocus Pocus to City of the Dead to Season of the Witch and, of all things, The Brainiac there is no shortage of films that posit that some of those witches were the real deal and were genuinely evil. So what makes The Witch different?

I would say it's the quality of the witches and the Puritans.

First off, these witches are frightening and inhuman creatures that are still recognizably human. That latter is especially noteworthy because despite a large amount of nudity in the film, this may be one of the least male gaze-intensive films I've ever seen. And it's not just that the witches we see naked are largely not conventionally attractive--because this is a film that presents us with characters whose bodies never come across as that far too perfect quality of most Hollywood nudity--it's that the nudity is never there to excite the heterosexual men in the audience. It is merely a function of the story and the camera never leers at its female characters, except when it is showing us the point of view of Caleb.

Secondly, in the case of both witches and Puritans, this film feels authentic in a way your average pilgrim cosplay horror film does not. There is a clear understanding of actual life for the Puritans, just as the witch lore is as "accurate" as it can be. The archaic dialogue also feels real in a way that too few period pieces manage.

Some of this is definitely on the cast, who are all terrific. Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson both feel authentic and intimidating as the heads of the family and all three of the child actors are excellent. A bad performance by Harvey Scrimshaw could have made Caleb just insufferable instead of the complicated character he becomes; and Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson strike the perfect balance as the twins, not too aggravating and not too precious, either.

The real stand-out is Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin. While being constantly sympathetic, she still has enough subtle darkness in her performance that we can even begin to wonder if maybe her parents aren't so far off in their judgment. I really hope that this role leads to a lot more opportunities for her, because she is definitely a fantastic performer.

Every review of The VVitch is contractually obligated to include this promo still. I had to sign in a black Book and everything.
With all that going into the characters and film, and the rather removed quality the film has, it's hard to say what the filmmakers actually want you to feel about its characters. Sure, it wants you to be horrified of its supernatural terrors, but what about the mundane terror the Puritans represent? Ultimately, I think the movie wants you to decide--and that kind of ambiguity in its attitude towards such objectively awful people can be a hard thing to swallow.

In toto, The Witch is definitely a movie that sparks discussion. I have seen people rave about it, I have seen people slam it as awful, and when the lights came up on my viewing of it, both of the friends I invited along shot utterly bemused expressions my way and asked, "What the fuck did you just make us watch?" Yet, curiously, neither of them would say later that they hated it--in fact, they both found themselves thinking a lot on what they had seen.

So, in the end, this may not be a movie for everyone, but I am enthusiastically recommending it. Go see it, think about it, analyze the hell out of it with fan theories and what have you. There's no other film quite like it in today's cinematic landscape, and that alone is enough for me to say every horror fan should see it.

Even if for no other reason than to ponder the delightful possibility of a crass cash-grab sequel, The Witch 2: Return of Black Phillip, where everyone's favorite goat bedevils another community of Christian fanatics. "Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?"

"Wouldst thou like to host The 700 Club?"

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Love & Peace (2015)


As an outsider to a given country's popular culture, it's easy to see some unusual trends when you do dip your toes into said culture. One of the stranger aspects I've encountered in the Japanese movies and television shows that I've actually seen is the story line of someone--usually a child--having a beloved pet turtle that everyone around them conspires to force them to get rid of, particularly parents and authority figures.

The Gamera series sees this happen twice  in the original series alone, in Gamera The Giant Monster and Gamera The Super Monster, and there's the truly inexplicable "Grow Up, Little Turtle!" episode of Ultra Q. Naturally, Sion Sono's Love & Peace is another film that follows this bizarre pattern, though it does so in a way that is far closer to a feature-length Ultra Q episode than a Gamera film.

However, even that doesn't describe this film adequately. This is a rock and roll romantic fairy tale with living toys and a kaiju-sized turtle at its heart.

It's also disturbingly fitting that I saw this film the day that David Bowie passed away.
Ryoichi Suzuki (Hiroki Hasegawa) is a loser. Once upon a time, he was an aspiring musician, but nobody came to his concerts. It's now the summer of 2015 and he has become a clerk at a company that sells parts for musical instruments. (The compnay has the English word "Piece" in its name, which can only be intentional) Everybody laughs at Ryoichi--his coworkers, fellow commuters, and even the talking heads on television take time out from talking about the 2020 Olympics in Japan to point and laugh at him or interview people on the street about how much of a loser he is.

Even automatic doors and elevators think Ryoichi is beneath contempt. The only person or object that doesn't mock him mercilessly is his mousy coworker, Yuko Terajima (Kumiko Aso). One day, when Ryoichi is doubled over from stomach pain, Yuko not only pulls off the "Hazardous Waste" sign a coworker stuck to his back, but offers him a blister pack of pink pills to ease his stomach. Ryoichi doesn't take them, but instead keeps them as a treasure--one of the only forms of affection he has received in ages.

Exchanging Pepto-Bismol is probably how most office romances start, really.
However, that's all going to change in a way that Ryoichi--and everyone around him--could not possibly see coming. One day, while eating lunch alone on a rooftop, Ryoichi sees a strange man selling little turtles out of a dingy little tank and goes to investigate. Upon sighting an adorable, smiley turtle that looks up at him with what seems to be a smile, Ryoichi buys it on the spot.

"And when you grow to 99 centimeters, you'll take me to the dragon's palace, right?"
Taking the turtle home, Ryoichi tries to think of a name for it while playing his guitar for the turtl'es amusment--and then overhears the talking heads on TV going into the street and asking if anyone knows what "pikadon" is any more. Most think it sounds like a kaiju, but after Ryoichi decides that it's a perfect name for his turtle, the hostess explains that it is a reference to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki--"pika" for the brilliant light of the atomic explosion and "don" for the booming sound it created.

Well, it's as good a name as any for a turtle and Pikadon seems to like it. Ryoichi shows Pikadon the pills Yuko gave him, explaining that they're his treasure--and then he gets a strange idea and places the turtle on the board for the game of Life. To his delight, Pikadon takes him to fame and fortune as he follows the game board--only to decide on utter destitution at the last fork in the road. Undeterred, Ryoichi decides to build a miniature city around a progression of goals that leads to the big finale, playing a concert at the new Nippon Stadium. He places Pikadon on the goals, shouting, "Kaiju Pikadon," as the little turtle follows the path all the way to the edge of the stadium. Truly, Ryoichi has found the key to his success in Pikadon.

I have no idea if any of the band posters in his apartment are real, but I kinda want to listen to The Fuck Bombers.

Unfortunately, Ryoichi's happiness and success in life are about to take a dive. After several days of happiness, during which even his neighbor notices that he and the turtle are inseparable, Ryoichi decides to bring his pet to the office in his pocket. All seems to be starting off promisingly enough, since with Pikadon with him even the doors and elevators seem to acknowledge Ryoichi. However, he doesn't hide the turtle well enough and Yuko sees Pikadon.

Now, Yuko thinks nothing of it, of course. She's a good person, it's a cute turtle, and as far as she's concerned it's nice that Ryoichi has a pet. However, Ryoichi's tormentors in the office realize she's noticing something at Ryoichi's desk and they promptly begin taunting him mercilessly, even his boss. In a panic, Ryoichi flees to a public bathroom and tosses Pikadon into a toilet--and flushes him away. He instantly regrets it, and is haunted by that last look on the turtle's face, but it's too late.

Ryoichi wanders the streets in grief. He see the turtle vendor and falls to his knees, screaming for forgiveness when the man innocently asks how his turtle is doing. Worse, Ryoichi sees a long-haired guitarist (Eita Okuno) performing on the street and tearfully accosts the confused man when he sees that the guitar's base depicts three elephants atop a turtle that looks a lot like Pikadon.

And where is Pikadon in all this? Well, I doubt you'd ever guess this, but the little turtle has just washed up into a little sewer alcove that is home to some unique denizens. No, they aren't also turtles. Rather, Pikadon makes the acquaintance of an animate, talking doll named Maria (Shoko Nakigawa), a talking plush cat named Sulkie (Inuko Inuyama), and a talking robot named PC-300 (Gen Hoshino). The three living toys share their lair with an entire menagerie of other animate toys, as well as talking dogs, cats, and other animals. They all eagerly greet their new friend, but realize he can't speak yet. However, Papa (Toshiyuki Nishida) can fix that.

No, he's not this film's version of Fagin, but now I kind of wish he was.
Papa is a mysterious, frequently drunk old man who has the ability to make magical candies that can bestow speech upon animals and life upon inanimate objects. Pikadon wasn't the only new arrival, since there was also another toy robot--the others lament that it was smashed beyond repair, but Papa is determined to fix it. It takes him most of the day, but before he's ready to sleep the toys and animals beg him to give Pikadon the talking candy. Papa finally relents and feeds a glowing orb to Pikadon before heading to bed, since it will take until the morning for it to take effect.

The Spice is life.
Yet, it doesn't take long for a different effect to take hold. While mourning for his lost Pikadon, Ryoichi begins strumming on his guitar--and suddenly, he begins to have the notes to a song in the lost turtle's honor. Pikadon begins to glow strangely, as Ryoichi wanders the streets and begins to see lyrics for the song appear in the signs around him. Soon, he has a full song written--and in the morning, Papa and the others awake to find that Pikadon has grown into a dog-sized turtle that contently "la la la"s the melody of Ryoichi's song.

Pikadon is a rare beast--the intentionally cute kaiju that is actually cute.
Papa is despondent, for he realizes he mixed up and gave Pikadon a "Wish Candy." The others are furious and jealous when they realize that Papa had such a thing and never shared it. But Papa explains to the them the trouble with wishes--if he gave them all wishes, wouldn't they just go right back to the masters who abandoned them? And wouldn't they gladly grant the wishes of said masters, too? It would never end, Papa explains, for none of them understand how greedy humans can be. Look at Pikadon--if he's already grown so big, who knows how big he will become by the time his master's wishes are all granted?

Well, Papa is right, because Pikadon's wish-granting is just beginning. While mourning on the street, Ryoichi gets recognized by the guitarist, who turns out to belong to a band called Revolution Q (Dai Hasegawa as the bass player, Yukimasa Tanimoto as the drummer, and Izumi on keyboards). The band are driving around in their van when the guitarist spots Ryoichi and they effectively kidnap him and take him to a park where they're playing a gig. The guitarist riles the crowd up by telling them how insane Ryoichi goes whenever he sees his guitar, which represents how ancient people viewed the world.

As part of the lark, the guitarist puts the confused and weeping Ryoichi up to the mic and gives him a guitar and tells him to play a song for the audience. Well, Ryoichi goes ahead and plays the song and the crowd eats it up--and among that crowd is a record producer (Miyuki Matsuda), who was scouting Revolution Q, but she's found what she really wants in Ryoichi.

Before Ryoichi knows what hit him, he's being ushered to a recording studio to meet with that producer as well as a manager (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) and being told that he is going to be "Wild Ryo," the front man for Revolution Q. Then the producer says she loves the anti-war, call for peace message of his song--but wouldn't it be better if it was called "Love & Peace" instead of "Pikadon"? Ryo's barely processed that when the manager tells him that not only should he quit his job, but by the end of the year he should announce he's going solo from Revolution Q.

Ryo needs to sleep on it, so the manager happily shows him that they've painstakingly recreated his dingy little apartment as a compartment in the nice waterfront flat he now has, courtesy of the record company. (The reveal is a great exchange, where the manager first says they moved it all and then laughs and admits they actually just paid a lot of money to recreate it from scratch) Well, the next morning Ryo gets a rude call from his boss for being late, sees that he did not dream his sudden success, and decides he will go ahead and be Wild Ryo after all. We don't actually see him quit, but we do see him offering flyers to his incredulous former colleagues--and a stunned Yuko,

"Actually, all my boyfriends have been rockstars. I just seem to be the type they go for."
Well, "Love & Peace" is a hit, all right. It rockets to the top of the charts and even Pikadon and his new friends hear it in their lair, and they even sense that the song is meant for the turtle. But Papa was right about the way wishes pile up--because soon Wild Ryo needs a follow-up hit and Pikadon has to play his muse again. And wouldn't you know it, playing the muse means he gets even bigger...

"Yes, it's adorable, but I still think maybe we should run!"
I had no real idea what to expect of Love & Peace going in, even based on the strange promotional materials for it. I knew it would be odd and I knew it would be silly, but I didn't expect just how odd and silly--and I certainly didn't expect it to be so moving. You might be a bit confused as to what I'm referring to, since I deliberately only touched on it briefly in my synopsis, but I'm referring to the B-Plot about the toys in the sewer.

While the film is having a lot of fun with a magic turtle and luckless nerd suddenly becoming a rock god, it also tells a story about the abandoned and the cast off. It tells this story with toys that were outgrown and pets that stopped being sufficiently cute. On the one side you have gentle, hopeful Maria who believes that surely her owner never meant to misplace her; on  the other side you have the aptly named Sulkie, who is bitter and spiteful of the owner who got tired of playing with him. Yet, for all Sulkie's bitterness, it's he who has the surprising capacity for warmth and compassion, and it is he who becomes closest to the turtle that can't even speak to him.

And the story behind Papa is truly strange and yet perfectly fitting that I would just come right out and spoil it--especially since it's a delightful selling point for the film--except I think it is best experienced firsthand.

Oh, and I did say this was a kaiju movie in there somewhere, too, didn't I? Well, yes it is. And the kaiju set-up pays off delightfully. Not only do you have Toru Tezuka, the mad game developer from Gamera 3 in a cameo as a possibly mad scientist, but the kaiju sequence in this film is one of an unfortunately rare breed: the parody that realizes you don't always have to tear something down in order to mock it.

This is a kaiju rampage that is hilarious, but it's not hilarious because "hur hur, rubber monsters and cardboard buildings and toy tanks are so stupid." No, this is a really well-realized sequence, with really good effects--that is hilarious because it's an adorable giant turtle rampaging through a city. One of the jokes is that there haven't been any casualties because Pikadon is so slow that everyone can easily get out of his way. And it culminates in the glory that is a giant turtle tearing through a skyscraper to the tune of "Ode to Joy."

If that doesn't warm your cold, dead heart, then I pity you.

I must also give serious praise to Hiroki Hasegawa as Ryoichi and Kumiko Aso as Yuko. Aso is thoroughly engaging as the person who saw the potential in a loser before anyone else, and the film never forces her character to have to change to match Ryo--it just accepts that if she wants him, she deserves him exactly as she is, even if he's the biggest pop idol in Japan. And Hasegawa is amazingly charismatic and constantly convincing in his role, which is a hard thing to pull off when your character has to be believable as both a gigantic loser and, well, David Bowie.

I hope Bowie saw this movie and loved it, seriously.
If you get the chance to go see this film, I highly recommend it. It was my first theatrical viewing experience of 2016--even if the Chicago Cinema Society's showing of it was technically more a screening room than a theater--and I could not have picked a better choice.

And let me tell you, it warms my heart that subtitlers no longer feel it is necessary to translate the word "kaiju."

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Haunted Palace (1963) [Hex Appeal, A Vengeful Witch Roundtable]


If there's one thing many of us fear, it's becoming like the generations before us. This takes many forms such as becoming "uncool", losing our ability to understand technology, our politics becoming frighteningly regressive, or maybe finding ourselves in a loveless marriage that will either end in divorce or both partners longing for the release of death.

And who can forget becoming possessed by the vengeful spirit of our warlock great-great-grandfather who used to summon elder gods?

You may be a might bit confused as to how elder gods fit in to a movie ostensibly based on Edgar Allan Poe. That particular trope wasn't really one of Poe's trademarks--but it was a trademark for one H.P. Lovecraft. However, at least in the early 1960s, it seems that H.P. Lovecraft's name just did not have the cachet that Edgar Allan Poe's did. Frankly, I'd argue that's still true today: name me a middle school English class where students have to read "The Call of Cthulhu" or "The Colour Out Of Space" and I'll eat my hat.

Not only that but, in 1963, schlockmeister Roger Corman was enjoying great success with his cycle of films based on Poe's stories. If you're familiar with any of the stories and poems Corman chose to adapt, you're aware that many did not have much of a story to begin with. The Masque of The Red Death is showing stretch marks even with additional Poe stories added into it.

So Corman can definitely be forgiven for deciding to take an appealing title from an Edgar Allan Poe poem, have Vincent Price recite a few lines from it here and there, and then base the bulk of it on H.P. Lovecraft's "The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward."

The film's opening credits play over footage of a spider building its web, before a Monarch butterfly lands in the web and the spider sets upon it. I have to conclude that the scene of ants devouring a Monarch in Crimson Peak was at least partly inspired by this, given the definite attempts to capture the essence of a Corman Poe film.

We open in the port village of Arkham, on a suitably stormy night in the 18th Century. At the local pub, Ezra Weeden (Leo Gordon) is restless, despite Micah Smith's (Elisha Cook, Jr.) assurances that nothing is going to happen on a night like this. Well, Ezra is not convinced and he turns out to be in the right, for he catches sight of Miss Fitch (Darlene Lucht), a young woman from the town, walking through the darkened streets in a fugue state. Ezra gets Micah to accompany him as they follow the girl through a cemetery to the gates of the Curwen palace. Micah, previously skeptical, agrees with Ezra now that the palace is the home of Satan himself and they hurry back to town to form a lynch mob.

If that's what they do when merely seeing a girl walking up to the house, imagine if they'd seen inside. Hester Tillinghast (Cathie Merchant) presents the girl to her master and lover, Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price). The two then lead her down to a dungeon, where she is tied up before a huge grate. Curwen chants a rite in Latin and then lifts the grate to reveal an unseen creature that growls as poor Miss Fitch screams in terror at the sight of it.

"She's fine, I assure you. 'Aaaaaaugh!' is just our safe word."
Yet when the mob arrives, Hester and Curwen happily answer the door and present a seemingly unharmed Miss Fitch. She happily tells the mob that she came to visit Curwen and Hester of her own free will. However, Ezra asks the girl what her name is--and she cannot answer. So that's all the proof the mob needs and Curwen finds himself tied to a tree in his front yard, a pile of dry straw soaked in oil at his feet. Ezra begs Hester be spared because she was bewitched, but since he clearly desires her for himself he might not actually know what he's talking about.

As is typical of this kind of story, the townsfolk allow Curwen a chance to confess his sins and beg for mercy. Curwen uses that opportunity, instead, to curse the town of Arkham so that for generations to come the families of Ezra Weeden, Micah Smith, Benjamin West (John Dierkes), Priam Willet (Frank Maxwell), and Gideon Leach (Guy Wilkerson) will suffer for the insolence of turning against Curwen. Worse, Curwen swears that he shall one day return from the dead. Well, he has to be dead first, so Ezra goes ahead and takes care of that for him by tossing the first torch on the pyre.

"Killing me won't bring back your damned apples!"
One hundred and ten years later, Arkham has indeed languished in the shadow of the Curwen palace. So the townsfolk are not going to be thrilled to discover that Charles Dexter Ward (also Price), the great-grea-grandson of Joseph Curwen has just arrived with his wife Ann Ward (Debra Paget) to claim his inheritance of the Curwen place. The carriage drops them off at the local tavern, The Burning Man. Ann remarks that the name is quaint, but Charles seems oddly discomforted by it. Perhaps he's afraid the patrons will be white people in dreadlocks and feather headdresses.

"All right, dear, but you know how I feel about hipsters."
Well, he needn't have worried on that score. However, he does find that an uncanny resemblance to previous generations is widespread in Arkham as he makes the acquaintance of Peter Smith (Cook, again), Edgar Weeden (Gordon, again), and Mr. Leach (Wilkerson, again), The group are outwardly hostile to Charles, having recognized him on sight, and refuse to tell him the way to the Curwen place. Weeden explains that the palace was brought over stone-by-stone from Europe, and evil was a part of its very fabric. Leach tells them to tear up the deed to the place and never look back. Only Dr. Marinus Willet (Maxwell, again) defies the others on account of his rejection of superstition and directs them on how to find the palace on the cliff overlooking the sea and the town.

Yes, they probably should have been able to figure that out on their own once they knew they were looking for a palace, but just you never mind that. Dr. Willet invites them to visit him some time, but Charles informs him that they won't be staying in Arkahm once they've had a look at the palace--the welcome they received was quite enough for him. Ann is somewhat more willing to stay, but she is happy to go along with Charles if that's his decision.

On their way to the place, the Wards happen upon a woman leading her daughter along--and witness that the young girl has no eyes. Indeed, we shall soon see that deformities, birth defects, and madness afflict many of the people of Arkham. Peter Smith has webbed fingers on one hand, and Edgar Weeden has a bestial son that he keeps locked in an upstairs room--and the boy becomes increasingly riled up after the Wards' arrival.

At the palace, which the Wards have been told was uninhabited, they make a series of bizarre discoveries. First, that the painting of Joseph Curwen looks identical to Charles. Second, that a secretary desk has a harmless snake inside it, which startles Ann so Charles kills it with a handy blunt instrument. (The death blow thankfully happens just out of frame, so I feel certain the snake was actually unharmed) Third, Charles senses that a certain passage in the palace leads to noewhere, despite having no way of knowing that. And finally, the two make the shocking acquaintance of a man named Simon Orne (Lon Chaney, Jr.) in the upstairs bedroom.

"Why yes, you did see me walking with the Queen."
Simon explains that he is the caretaker and was trying to tidy up the place before they arrived. He claims that he received word from their lawyer, but that doesn't explain why he was cleaning up in the dark. Simon shrugs it off as people who live around Arkham just get used to the dark. He also advises that supper will be served at eight, and Ann is surprised that Charles now wants to stay. He assures her it's just for the night, at least.

However, as Charles smokes downstairs by the fireplace that night, something comes over him as he stares at the painting of his great-great-grandfather. As Charles's face turns cruel, Simon watches knowingly from the shadows. The next day, Ann finishes packing--only for Charles to tell her that he has decided that they shall stay, just long enough to fix the place up. He claims that about two to three weeks of work should make it far more attractive to a potential buyer and it will fetch a high price.

Ann senses something about Charles is off, especially when he snaps that she can go home when she casually mentions not being happy about staying. However, it passes and he seems to return to his noraml self. However, as the two attempt to go shopping for supplies in town, they find most of the shops locked--and then they are suddenly surrounded by the town's deformed citizens. Several are missing eyes or ears, and they have distorted faces and limbs. They crowd the Wards in tight--until the bell tolls, and they turn just as suddenly and disperse. From a nearby window, Edgar and Peter have been watching this unfold.

"Give to The Human Fund!"
The Wards have Dr. Willet over for dinner that night, and he helpfully explains a few things. One, the people that accosted them are all the mutants in town, which Willet is sure Edgar gathered together in one place to scare the Wards off. He explains that the townsfolk want the Wards gone because Arkham is haunted by the guilt and terror of a single night. One hundred and fifty years ago, Willet explains, Joseph Curwen moved to Arkham and built the palace. His wife, unfortunately, died in childbirth so he took Hester to be his mistress. Except Hester was engaged to Ezra, which meant that Ezra had it in for Curwen.

So wasn't it convenient then, that strange things had been happening in Arkham ever since Curwen arrived. Horrible noises in the night and young girls disappearing at night, only to return in the morning with no memory of where they'd been, Ezra contrived to place the blame on Curwen's doorstep, convincing the townsfolk that Curwen was a warlock. "One who raises the dead," Willet explains when Ann is ignorant of the term. Actually, that's a necromancer, doc. Willet explains that Curwen was burned alive one night and placed a curse on the village.

Charles scoffs, as surely every witch or warlock killed in America left a curse behind. Why should his ancestor's curse be taken so seriously? Well, not every witch or warlock killed in America was thought to have gotten their hands on the Necronomicon, now were they? Willet explains that the Necronomicon was though to hold the key to absolute power--and a means to summon the Elder Gods. Gods like Cthtulhu and Yog-Sothoth.

And, to my unending amusement, Frank Maxwell pronounces Cthulhu as "Thoo-Loo" instead of the more commonly accepted "Ka-Thoo-Loo."

At any rate, the Arkham townsfolk believed Curwen was conspiring with two other warlocks to open the gates that bar the Elder Gods from this world by mating them with human women. That's their explanation for all the mutants: failed experiments. To the Wards' alarm, Dr. Willet doesn't have an explanation of his own--but he tells them to flee Arkham before the townsfolk decide to destroy him.

They're just jealous of that sweet matte painting.
That night, a thunderstorm rolls in and Charles is awakened by the storm and then, oddly, the sound of voices. He follows the voices out to the front yard, to the tree where Curwen was burned as they scream out, "Kill the warlock!" Simon startles him by appearing to offer him a coat. When Simon tells Charles he didn't hear any voices, he oddly follows that up by telling Charles he ought to ask Mr. Curwen about it. Well, Charles oddly follows this advice--and one look at the painting is enough to put Curwen in the driver's seat.

He asks Simon how long it's been and is told one hundred and ten years. He is delighted to discover the body he's possessing is his great-great-grandson, and further delighted to see his other companion, Jabez Hutchinson (Milton Parsons) has joined them, Yep, Simon and Jabez are the other two warlocks Willet spoke of, who both look amazing for their age. The reunion is brief, though, because Charles is fighting for control. Curwen implores Simon to keep Charles in the palace a little longer so he can take full control. He then asks for the book, and to my delight it turns out that the Necronomicon is an embossed leather-bound tome that is labeled "Necronomicon" on its face.

"You'll never guess what I found at the flea market!"
Curwen orders the others to leave him just in time, as Ann comes down to find her husband. He has no idea why he came downstairs and he responds to her plea that they leave by saying he'd like to, but can't. When she begs him to explain why he can't leave, a flash of lightning is bizarrely followed  by the film cutting to Curwen digging up the grave of Hester. Skipping out on a scene before it's actually done is one way to advance the plot, sure.

At the Burning Man, the descendants of the mob that killed Curwen are arguing about what to do. Willet dismisses them all as superstitious fools. Of course, he's not aware that Curwen is currently bringing Hester's coffin into his palace with the help of Jabez and Simon. Ann catches him alone after the others have gone through the secret passage to the dungeon and she demands to know why he's acting so strange and begs him to leave with her for Boston. He snaps at her, but after she pleads with him to at least go see Dr. Willet, he replies that he will pay the doctor a special visit within the week. After Ann leaves, momentarily satisfied but still obviously hurt, Charles breaks through. Unfortunately, his freedom is short-lived and as the voice of the painting calls to him, Curwen takes control again.

Realizing that Ann was spying on him, Curwen orders her to leave for Boston tomorrow and then chases her off to bed so he can return to his late night sorcery. In the secret dungeon, Curwen helps his companions open the coffin of Hester. Meanwhile, Ann wakes up again and wanders the palace in search of Charles. This means she runs afoul of a few rats and a tarantula--as you would expect in a New England castle--before encountering Simon lurking in the shadows. She faints in his arms and Simon takes her back up to her room and locks her in before returning to the dungeon as Curwen recites the spell to reanimate Hester. Well, it works for a moment, but as Simon advises Curwen, it's just been too long.

"Nonsense, a little rubber cement and she'll be good as new!"

The effort to unsuccessfully revive his lost love has the effect of allowing Charles to regain control, He goes back to his room, confused as to what has been going on. He declares that he and Ann shall leave the following morning. Unfortunately, Simon is crafty and delays Charles from leaving just long enough for him to be forced to look at the painting again. So when Willet pulls up and Ann tells him they were just leaving, she's mistaken. Still, Willet tells her that he had come to warn them that they ought to be leaving--seems someone dug up old Hester's grave and stole the body. And the townsfolk believe Charles is responsible.

"Charles" comes out and claims that it was Weeden and his friends who dug up the grave to try and drive him away. To Ann's horror, he tells Willet that he is not leaving and he can tell the townsfolk that. After Curwen returns to the castle, Ann confides to Willet about what's been happening. He just assumes it to be psychological, but inside Curwen is telling Jabez and Simon that he has control and "Charles Dexter Ward is dead." To their consternation, however, Curwen doesn't want to get started on the work just yet. Simon begs him to forget it, but Curwen refuses to forgive the slight of being burned alive.

Oh, no. Before he starts raising Elder Gods again, Curwen has one hundred and ten years of revenge to catch up on...

"Wait'll they get a load of me!"
I have to say that I have never actually read the short story upon which this film is based. Lovecraft is published in so many different varieties of collections that getting a truly complete collection seemed impossible back when I actually gave a shit about trying to read most of his work. So this was one of the stories I never got around to.

So I came to this film with no expectations of what it would deliver on beyond what I knew to expect of a Vincent Price performance and a Roger Corman film. As such, I find this film delightful.

The atmosphere of the film, for one thing, is marvelous. You'll never for a minute believe it's taking place anywhere but on a set, but that actually adds to its appeal. The cemetery set, for instance, looks like something from a German Expressionist film. Everything outdoors is perpetually smoky to indicate fog. And the matte paintings, while obvious, are exquisitely done.

The only time the film's artificial nature works against it is in the rendering of what's in the pit of Curwen's dungeon. The strength of Lovecraft's Elder Gods and other beasts lies in the inability to describe them. Therefore, a film version of Lovecraft would do well to not show its monsters at all. The Haunted Palace does not learn that lesson, and the way it goes about showing an Elder God is truly, hilariously risible. The creature is blatantly a plastic statue of what appears to be a four-armed goblin with a hasty distortion filter placed over it. If you were to go mad at the sight of this creature, it would be from laughter.

"Grr! Rargh! Stop laughing!"
The monster, however, deserves to be an afterthought. The true monster of the film is Curwen, and holy crap is Vincent Price more than up to the challenge. Not only does Price do a wonderful job of creating the character of Curwen, he does an amazing job creating the character of Charles as well. You can tell immediately when he switches between the two personas. And he makes it effortless, too. It doesn't hurt that he gets some wonderful dialogue in both personalities,

Corman knows what he's doing in the director's chair, too. Apart from a few abrupt transitions, the film builds wonderfully to its climax of a beautiful woman being offered as sacrifice to a monster, as an unruly mob marches on the castle. And it wisely ends on a note that leaves you not quite sure of who actually survived the fire that destroys the castle--though you have a pretty good idea just the same,

The Haunted Palace is not exactly a lost classic. Apart from the silly monster, it also features a score that--while quite good--is incredibly repetitive. Yet, it doesn't have a single performance that doesn't fit the film's aesthetic. Price may be the film's strongest point, but everyone in the cast handles their roles well. And there's no question that it's damn entertaining.

I highly recommend The Haunted Palace. It sometimes gets forgotten amongst the rest of Corman's Poe films, but it is every bit as good as the rest and better than several--which is high praise, indeed.


The Celluloid Zeroes are delighted to present Hex Appeal! We all took a look at a movie about vengeful witches, and several of us completely forgot the witch part! (I chose a vengeful warlock, so I was in the right ballpark)

Check out the other reviews:

Checkpoint Telstar enlists the aid of The Witchfinder General

Cinemasochist Apocalypse dabbles in Black Magic

Las Peliculas de Terror got a bad case of Asmodexia

Micro-Brewed Reviews takes part in some Midnight Offerings

Psychoplasmics reminds you, Don't Torture a Duckling

Web of the Big Damn Spider joins up with Ator, The Fighting Eagle