31 Days of Horror - Week 4: Cannibals, Vampires and Killer Tires Edition

October 28th, 2011 12:33pm EDT

Vampyr Day 21: Vampyr (1932): Made in 1932, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr could be considered behind the times what with its\ sticking to silent movie tropes severak years after the advent of talkies, but if Charlie Chaplin made his best movies in the sound era, that’s no reason to hate on a film as beautifully shot as Vampyr. Dreyer is most famous for making The Passion of Joan of Arc, a movie I have had on my shelf for four years and haven’t watched, so this is my first introduction to the director. Spare on dialogue, Vampyr makes eloquent use of the camera, capturing troubling images like dancing shadows on the wall and the face of a woman who’s been corrupted by the vampire. At just over an hour long, Vampyr is a concentrated dose of, for lack of a better phrase, the willies.

Day 22: The Invisible Man (1933)

If The Invisible Man isn’t Universal’s most pathologically evil monster, then he’s certainly the most ridiculously dressed. Seeing him prance around in a house coat and pajamas with those silly sunglasses perched on his bandaged face makes taking his constant talk of world domination seriously a bit difficult. That and he has to take off all of his clothes in order to be invisible, meaning that when he’s at his most dangerous he’s flopping around naked. There’s something both unnerving and amusing about that.

I debated a bit on whether The Invisible Man counted as a horror film, considering it’s more of a sci-fi morality tale than anything, but Dr. Jack Griffin causes quite a bit of mayhem after dosing himself with invisibility seyrum, enough to warrant a horror label I think. He tosses a woman down a flight of stairs, sends a man in a car hurtling off a cliff and derails a passenger train off of a bridge. Frankenstein’s Monster threw a girl in a pond.

Regardless, I like that the core monster in this film is humanity itself. They say that it’s the invisibility serum that drove Jack Griffin mad, but what really corrupted him was the power. They say (and by "they" I mean an episode of This American Life) that if you ask someone if they could choose between two super powers, the power to fly or the power to become invisible, that it’s the ones who choose invisibility that you have to watch out for. Flight is bold and wonderful, those who wish they could melt away from the eyes of others—well, they’re up to something. Most of Universal’s monsters are sympathetic creatures, at least Frankenstein’s Monster and The Wolf Man are, but The Invisible Man reflects something sinister that’s in all of us. After all, we’re all just an invisiblity serum away from being monsters ourselves. Then again, maybe I’m just speaking for myself.

Day 23: Cronos (1993)

What would you do if your grandfather became a vampire? Not a horrible neck biting vampire, but kind of a doddering old corpse that happens to need human blood to survive. Would you help him? I probably would.

In Guillermo Del Toro’s feature length debut, the Mexican director takes the world’s nicest grandfather and turns him into a blue skinned, blood sucking beast. How it happens is a bit complicated. In the 16th century, an alchemist invented a device that elongates a person’s life as long as they replenish their bodies with fresh human blood. After over 400 years, this Cronos device disappeared until it landed in the antique shop of genial grandpa Jesus Gris, who tinkers around with the thing a bit too much, unwittingly subjecting himself to its power.

Not nearly as fantastical and grim as his later masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos still illustrates Del Toro’s skills as a horror director. I like the way, early on, that the Cronos device is treated like a drug, turning whoever uses it into a strung out blood junkie. One prick and a week later you have your face pressed against the bathroom floor, sensually lapping up blood that leaked out of some dweeb’s nose. And the movie boasts strong performances from Federico Lupi as Gris and a youngish Ron Perlman as an image obsessed thug.

Day 24: Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity may have tried the “what you are seeing is real” conceit, but those movies never ended with the director having to parade the actors out on television to prove to the Italian courts that he didn’t actually kill them. That’s what happened to Ruggero Deodato after the release of his film Cannibal Holocaust, a kind of proto-found footage gross out film with some interesting things to say about western culture and the media.

The thing that stands out the most of Cannibal Holocaust (barring the animal mutilations, and scenes of torture, rape and cannibalism) is its weird film-within-a-film structure. It starts out like a traditionally cut movie, with a New York anthropologist heading off into the jungle to look for a group of young filmmakers who set out to make a movie about Amazonian cannibal tribes and never returned. After making his way through the jungle, he discovers that the crew had been killed, only leaving behind their boiled bones and cans of raw footage. He gathers up the footage and takes it back to the group’s film studio, where they screen the tapes for producers who want to make it into a film. We see the footage as well, sending us back to the beginning of the narrative, and shifting from normal film to faux-documentary. It’s kind of strange.

One thing that I think we’ve been spoiled by with our recent glut of fake documentaries or found footage flicks are more actors comfortable giving natural performances, something that Cannibal Holocaust direly lacks. Nothing in Cannibal Hollocaust’s second half feels authentic—reading more like a bad b-movie than real life. It takes away from the visceral horror of the whole thing. Not that Cannibal Holocaust won’t send you under the covers (or into the bathroom). Deodato and his cast actually hack up a number of animals on screen to make the later violence seem more real—a pretty thin excuse to take a tortoise and pry open its shell for the camera. Before watching this movie, I remained blissfully unaware of what was beneath a turtle’s hard shell, and now I know the answer: goop. Lots and lots of goop.

Despite everything, there’s a clever edge to Cannibal Holocaust that’s difficult to overlook. The footage of the filmmakers shows them as being repugnant monsters who set out into the woods to fabricate a documentary by terrorizing the local tribes. They rally the locals together and set their huts on fire, kill their livestock and rape their women, all for the chance to be on prime time television. After all, why try to capture tribal warfare when you can just do all of the plunder and murder yourself and then fix the footage in post? And what do the producers at home think of their filmmaker’s tactics? Well they love it, of course. Footage like that would sell like gangbusters.

Cannibal Holocaust might be sexist and racist and cruel, but it isn’t without its wits. Exploitive garbage that it is, at least it’s interesting garbage.

Day 25: Rubber (2010)

Rubber isn’t a horror spoof for everyone—heck, it’s a little iffy on how much of a horror spoof it is. A farce based around horror elements, maybe? Who knows? In any case, if you’ve heard of Rubber then you no doubt know it as “The Killer Tire Movie,” which is a bit of clever misdirection on the filmmakers’ parts. Oh, there’s a telekinetic tire in it that kills people, don’t worry about that, but Rubber being a genre send up is more of a bait and switch than anything.

Going into Rubber, I expected a lot of people running from a killer tire, or tires leaping out of closets, or the soul of an escaped convict possessing a tire—you know, the usual stuff. So, I was rather pleasantly surprised when the opening scene took things into the realm of full on pretentious art movie. Addressing the audience directly, the film’s closest thing to a lead actor (Stephen Spinella) lays out Rubber’s “no reason” philosophy: in every movie there is one random element of “no reason.” Why is E.T. brown? No reason. Why don’t the characters in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre ever have to use the bathroom? No reason. You see where this is going.

It’s a funny enough premise, though it’s stretched pretty thinly over the film’s 80some minute running time. And though director Quentin Dupieux pushes his philosophy pretty hard throughout the movie, you get the sense that no one involved is taking this no reason mantra all that seriously. The imperfections in the philosophy are part of what makes it funny—another film that’s cited in the opening scene is Polanski’s The Pianist, where Spinella says that Adrian Brody is forced into to hiding for no reason, breezily overlooking the whole “would otherwise get killed in the holocaust” aspect of that movie. And of course there’s a reason to make a tire the film’s villain as well, I can think of several right off the top of my head: it’s a goofy premise, it hasn’t been done before and it would attract attention. That and tires are mobile in a way that, I don’t know, a killer bag of potatoes isn’t.

It’s all very silly and meta to the dickens. There’s a kind of frame narrative where an audience watches the Tire’s story unfold through binoculars in the desert and all of the actors are all players in their little film, or something like that. It’s funny, but in a creative writing class short story kind of way. There was a lot of sniggering on the blog circuit that Rubber was about half as clever as it thinks it is, which I think is a bit off base considering how blithely everything is treated. Rubber is well shot, has a strong comic performance from Spinella, and boasts a pretty killer soundtrack from Gaspard Augé of French electronica duo Justice and Dupieux himself, who moonlights as the DJ Mr. Oizo.

Day 26: The Innocents (1961)

About half way through watching The Innocents, I thought to myself that if Deborah Kerr’s tightly wound governess could just pop a couple of Xanax and calm the hell down then everything would be just fine. But as Jack Clayton’s adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw draws to a close, it becomes clear that, be they ghosts or manic visions, something terrible happened in the walls of that spooky gothic mansion and the supernatural explanation is less chilling than the one rooted in reality.

When the caretaker of a pair of precocious orphans winds up dead, the pair’s wealthy, but aloof uncle hires on a new governess (Kerr) to watch over them while he galavants around Europe. When Kerr comes to the countryside manse where the children live, she begins to notice something strange about them. The older boy is sent back early from school after being expelled for bad behavior, and the smaller girl is prone to wandering off on her own, humming a mysterious tune. Kerr, a pastor’s daughter, begins seeing mysterious people wandering through the house and in the marshes, and deduces that the children’s odd behavior means that they’ve been possessed by the former caretaker and her lover.

In a movie full of strong performances (even from the kids, which is pretty rare) Kerr’s performance is beautiful. When she first arrives at the mansion, her relentless cheer is discomforting—the desperate look in her eyes makes her seem paper thin and fragile. She seems like a woman on the brink, trying desperately to cling to the light.

So it’s no real surprise when she starts having visions. The visions themselves are simple, just shapes moving in the distance, but spooky. A face in the window, a shape standing amongst the reeds—like I said with Session 9 earlier this month, with a setting like a gothic mansion, it doesn’t take much to turn things scary.

But ghosts and shadows are far from the most dreadful thing in The Innocents. For a film of the early 60’s there’s a surprising amount of sexual subtext that leaks into forefront. It’s said that the caretaker and the former head of house would use rooms “in daylight as though they were dark woods”—which may be the most eloquent way to describe public displays of deviant sex I’ve ever heard. Worse yet, it’s not certain how much this sex play the children witnessed. Their strange behavior may not be rooted in supernatural corruption as Kerr fears, but more perhaps out of some sort of abuse. The setting is perfect for it, big empty house, distant father figure--and the lingering, adult kiss that the older boy plants on Kerr near the end of the film leads your mind to troubling conclusions.

Of course, I’m always going to leap towards the most graphic and disturbing explanation. There are only wisps of clues in The Innocents that hint toward the children having experienced some sort of sexual abuse—so if it makes you more comfortable, there are no ghosts and there was no abuse. Kerr's governess is just crazier than a bag of wet cats.

Day 27: Daughters of Darkness (1971)

A creepy, steamy vampire tale, Daughters of Darkness follows a newlywed couple that checks into an out of season Belgian hotel to put off having to travel all the way home to England. Aside from the aged concierge, the only other guests are a ruby lipped countess and her pouty *ahem* “secretary.” While this is the young couple’s first visit to the area, it’s not the first time that the countess has passed through. In fact, she was there nearly 40 years ago, strange then, that she looks to be, oh, 30, 35. Seemingly lacking in other things to do, besides killing some youths in nearby Bruges, the Countess drives herself into the heart of the pair’s newly formed marriage, splitting them apart pretty much for the hell of it.

With a smart, vibrant use of color and a creepy score, Daughters of Darkness feels like a less wacky predecessor to Paul Morrissey’s sexed up Dracula and Frankenstein films. There’s plenty of homoerotic tension going on and some memorable images (like the above image of the Countess’s companion looming outside the couple’s window), but beyond that Daughters of Darkness is an effective mood piece and not much else.

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