Monday, June 29, 2015

Edge of the Axe (Filo de hacha) (1988)

Edge of the Axe (Filo de hacha) (1988) can be seen as José Ramón Larraz’s companion piece to Rest in Pieces (Descanse en piezas) (1987), both American-style horror flicks, shot under his pseudonym “Joseph Braunstein.”  My expectations towards Edge of the Axe were seeing an interesting film directed by Larraz, tempered by the fact that Rest in Pieces was mostly average.  To its credit, the script of Edge is focused (by Pablo de Aldebarán), but its focus does not save the film from its overly-talky scenes, its mechanical nature, and lack of energy driving it.
Edge of Axe opens at the car wash.  A woman enters the automated car washing machine and as the suds of soap cover her car, she sees out of the periphery of her eye, a figure donning a hooded raincoat and wearing a white mask which is absent of any features.  This figure kills her.  Enter Gerald Martin (Barton Faulks), a young man with a penchant for fixing appliances and a deep love for personal home computers.  He lives in small rural cabin which he rents from an old man in an adjacent home.  His homey is Richard Simmons (Page Mosely), the small-town exterminator, and Gerald accompanies Richard on jobs for a little extra income.  Weird shit has been happening all over town:  a local couple, who raise their own livestock, become scared when an intruder raids their farm under the cover of darkness; decapitates a pig; and places it on the pillow of the farm’s young wife.  Gerald and Richard are heading to a local bar and grill to investigate a nasty smell which the barkeep says is coming from his cellar.  In a crawlspace in the ceiling of the cellar, Richard opens and finds the corpse of young barmaid, Maria.  The town sheriff is too cool for school:  he thinks the pig head is a prank and not worth investigating and would prefer for the medical examiner to label Maria’s death as a suicide.  He does not want to scare anyone in the town.  Although Richard is married to a very beautiful and wealthy woman named Laura (Patty Shepard), he thinks that she is too old.  Richard and Gerald arrive at another location to pick up Laura and while waiting, they meet sexy sisters, Susan (Joy Blackburn) and Lillian (Christina Marie Lane) Nebbs.   Richard takes a liking to Susan, and vice versa; while Gerald immediately captures the heart of young Lillian.  Gerald gives her a second-hand computer terminal, so the two can chat at a distance.  When Rita (Alicia Moro), the local hairdresser who moonlights as a call girl, agrees to meet a john at the local train yard, she is butchered by the hooded figure donning the lifeless white mask with a sharp axe.  The sheriff wants to rule this one an accident, too, but common sense is dictating the presence in the small town of a killer…
Gerald and Lillian become the focus of Edge of the Axe, and as they grow closer together, each reveals to the other some dark secrets in his/her past.  Meanwhile, life in the small town goes on as usual: the local church choir is still preparing for a performance (of whom Lillian is a member); the locals gather at the bar for drink and conversation; and the sheriff pursues whatever leads that he has at hand towards finding the killer whose body count is racking up.  There is a notable absence of dread in Edge of the Axe, the feeling that a town is in the grips of a brutal killer.  I have praised before Larraz’s ability to create unique visuals and, especially, atmosphere.  Those qualities are absent here.  It appears that Larraz is going to let the screenplay for Edge to do the talking for him:  hints towards the motive and identity of the mysterious killer are all given in characters’ dialogue.  There are, unfortunately, too many of these scenes, and they slow down the energy of the action.  The kill scenes do have a panache about them (they are competently done); but if you have seen a lot of slasher films from the 1980s (as I have), then the scenes seem unoriginal and tired.  The screenplay of Edge of the Axe is preparing its viewer for its surprise reveal ending.  The seventy five minutes preceding it, however, are not compelling enough to capture my total attention.
I would rank Edge of the Axe at third from the trio of American-style horror flicks that Larraz made at the end of the 1980s.  Deadly Manor (1990) has more weird shit and atmospheric visuals than Rest in Pieces and is the best of this trio.  However, even Deadly Manor has awful, detracting dialogue which really devalues the whole film.  I will reserve further discussion of Deadly Manor for another day.  A hungry fan of American slashers, especially those from the 1980s, would probably enjoy, at least for a single viewing, Edge of the Axe.  For fans of José Ramón Larraz, like me, we would be better served looking at his work from the seventies.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

La cruz del diablo (The Cross of the Devil) (1974)

Alfred Dawson (Ramiro Oliveros) is a writer who is being plagued by nightmares of a young woman (Emma Cohen) beckoning for his help as she is being attacked by a group of Templar knights.  Dawson does not know if the dreams are a premonition or the result of his now regular hashish use.  Maria (Carmen Sevilla) loves Dawson very much but she does not believe that he truly loves her.  Dawson receives a letter from his sister, Justine (Mónica Randall), from Spain, detailing her fear that her husband’s drinking has become violent.  She desperately wants Dawson to visit her.  Unbeknownst to Dawson and to her husband, Enrique (Eduardo Fajardo), Justine has been making the beast with two backs with her husband’s secretary, Cesar (Adolfo Marsillach).  She calls off the affair; and upon arrival in Spain, Dawson learns that Justine has been murdered.  Her corpse was found at an old monastery which houses the Cross of the Devil.  It is a region loathed by all that live near it.  A suspect has been captured and is sitting in jail; but Dawson believes there is more to her murder.  The answer lies in the fearful region in the mountains where on All Saints Day it is rumored the knights Templar rise from the grave.
La cruz del diablo (The Cross of the Devil) (1974) pales in comparison to Amando de Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972), the quintessential horror film about the Templar knights (also a quintessential European cult horror film).  La cruz is sluggishly paced and extremely talky.  The film only really starts cooking in the final act when Dawson has convinced Cesar and Enrique to accompany him to the old monastery on Hallows’ Eve.  Even during the final act, sequences, like the swordfight confrontation with the Templars, are haphazard and poor.  The director, John Gilling, helmed some interesting flicks prior to La cruz such as Hammer films, The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and The Mummy’s Shroud (1967).  The pacing and atmosphere of La cruz had the potential to be adeptly handled by Gilling.  Here’s an example:  Dawson, Maria, Cesar, and Enrique stop at an inn en route to the monastery.  The inn is run by Ignacio (Fernando Sancho) and young Ines (Silvia Vivó).  Ines gives bedroom eyes to Dawson while serving dinner.  After most have retired to bed, Dawson confronts Ines and asks if she knows anything about the murder of his sister.  As an inducement, Dawson offers her a ruby ring for her information.  She agrees to tell him what she knows in her room later.  Ines attempts to seduce Dawson but he holds steadfast and demands to hear her story.
She says she saw the murder but cannot identify the assassin.  Dawson demands that she accompany him to the monastery that very evening, although it is late.  The couple are halted in their journey when Dawson has a vision of Justine being chased by Templars.  Back at the inn, Ines is murdered in her bed, wearing the ruby ring that Dawson gave her.  Not only does this lengthy, mechanical sequence pad the running time of the film, but it also shows the missed opportunities by the crew of La cruz:  there is nothing sexy about Ines’s seduction scene; Dawson’s vision of Justine is mere seconds and wholly uninteresting on a visual level; and finally, Ines’s murder serves only as a denouement for the final act.  The execution of the murder, like Dawson’s vision of Justine, lacks any pizazz or fervor.  The cardinal sin committed in La cruz is the underutilization of both Sevilla and Cohen, two of the finest actresses working in Spain at the time.  To have cast them and not made them focal was a serious error in judgment.  Sevilla’s character has little dramatic weight, and Cohen, like Sevilla, has precious little screen time.
Successful films have multiple parents, and failures are orphans.  I will conclude this review with three quotes from Paul Naschy, the credited co-screenwriter of La cruz del Diablo with Juan José Porto.  I will list them in order of their brevity as Naschy echoes the same sentiments in all three:

“I had a project some time ago in which I attempted to bring the legends of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer to the screen, but this project was ruined by both Juan José Porto and an English director, John Gilling, who didn’t know enough about them to be able to rise to the occasion.  They cheated me and took over full control of the script just because I had signed a contract which read as though they had acquired it outright.  They changed everything, and the result was La cruz del Diablo which had little to do with what I originally envisioned.  The film was a complete fiasco, which is a pity because it could have been a great opportunity for doing a genuinely Spanish horror film.”  (Videooze.  Number 6/7.  Fall 1994.  Ed. Bob Sargent.  Alexandria, VA.  p. 17.)
“The marvelous idea occurred to me of bringing the legends of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer to the screen.  Becquer represented to me the best poet in Spanish history, and furthermore, they were wonderful Spanish tales of terror.  I chose three legends:  ‘La Cruz del Diablo,’ El Monte de las Animas,’ and ‘Maese Pérez, el Organista,’ and I wrote a very complicated script.  The actors I had in mind for the film were Peter Cushing, Samantha Eggar, Barbara Steele and James Franciscus; I had already contacted some of them, and they were willing to do the film.  When Enrique Herreros (an associate of Juan José Porto) came to see me, he told me that in order for him to be able to move ahead with the picture, he needed to have a contract in which I yielded the script to him.  After some doubts, I signed the script over to him, which immediately left me on the outside.  John Gilling then threw me off the film, and so I was left without a script, without a role, and without a film.  I brought a lawsuit against them and won two things: 1) that they would pay me for the script, and 2) that my name would appear in the credits.  The latter I regretted since they destroyed the script.
“The film, unfortunately, is one of my major frustrations.  Even today I would give anything to be able to bring Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer to the screen, and it’s possible that I may attempt to do so.”  (Videooze.  Number 6/7.  Fall 1994.  Ed. Bob Sargent.  Alexandria, VA. pp. 30-31.)
“In 1974 I suffered one of the most traumatic and depressing experiences of my career.  I had always loved writer Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer’s Leyendas and I came up with the idea of making a totally indigenous horror fantasy movie by adapting some of Bécquer’s works for the big screen.  The tales I chose were El miserere, El monte de las ánimas and La cruz del diablo.  I set to work and wrote a script which took me a long time and a lot of effort.  At last I was satisfied and offered it to John Gilling, a workmanlike director who could lay claim to the considerable prestige of having worked for Hammer films.  Gilling, who was then living in Spain, was delighted with it and I started to get in touch with actors of the stature of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom and James Franciscus and a number of first-rate Spanish actors.

“Everything was coming up roses, and it seemed that this was going to be a major motion picture.  But, alas, I went to my close friend, my brother Juan José Porto and offered to let him have a hand in the project.  He accepted the offer enthusiastically and soon he was telling me about Quique Herreros, Jr., a man with great prestige in the film business.  Without a doubt he was the man who could bring it all together for us by having his company Bulnes Films produce the movie and then making a deal with one of the top distributors.  I knew that Quique was the son of the great artist, painter and talent scout Enrique Herreros. 
“I was in Barcelona and the project was underway when Quique turned up and asked me to sign a contract for the screenplay with Bulnes, as if the company had already bought it and owned the rights.  This was indispensable in order to get things moving since we didn’t have any funding.  I was suspicious, but then the fellow, in an extravagant display of theatricality, went down on his knees—much to the amazement of the customers of the café where our meeting was taking place—and with outstretched arms swore his total allegiance to me.  And I, like a prize idiot, went ahead and signed.
“I finished my work in Barcelona and went off to the Stiges festival feeling quite confident.  One fine day Juan José Porto turned up in the beautiful Catalonian city and told me that John Gilling had broken his ankle and that shooting would be held up.  He also mentioned that the producers had made a few small changes in the cast, but that everything was going ahead.
“Some time later I returned to Madrid.  By pure chance I happened to buy the magazine Triunfo and imagine my surprise on seeing three color pages about the making of La cruz del diablo (The Devil’s Cross, 1974).  My name was nowhere to be seen in the credits and Gilling was now claiming that he didn’t consider me as a star of the genre.
“I managed to get hold of Porto, a smarmy devil who could have sold ice to Eskimos, and he managed to convince me that he too had been an innocent victim of the underhand machinations of the treacherous Quique.  I felt humiliated, cheated and miserably deceived.  I had been stripped of my role, my script and, worst of all, my self esteem.
“I hired a lawyer and got Herreros to pay me 100,000 pesetas and to include my name in the credits—below Porto’s, of course.  I’ll always regret getting a billing on this picture because after seeing the film I came out of the cinema feeling ashamed: They had ruined the script and Gilling’s direction was deplorable.  La cruz del diablo will always hang like a weight around my neck, even though I had nothing to do with the end result.”  (Naschy, Paul.  Memoirs of a Wolfman.   Midnight Marquee Press.  Baltimore Maryland.  2000:  pp.127-128.)

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Tanz der Kürbiskӧpfe (1996)

I have a fascination about Andreas Bethmann’s late-90s, S.O.V. horror film, Tanz der Kürbiskӧpfe (literally, Dance of the Pumpkinhead) (1996). 
Tanz begins with two dudes sitting by a moonlit fire and drinking beer, under a tree where a decrepit Jack O’ Lantern sits above.  They start bullshitting and are visited by an old man who stops by their fire and is welcomed with a beer.  The old man tells them a story, probably an evil legend, about the location where they are sitting.  Cut to a dungeon where a young woman is bound in chains, and a mysterious figure brandishing a spiked dildo defiles her.  After the credits, a daylight sequence begins in a cemetery where a junkie kneels at the foot of a grave to have a fix.  He is accosted by the old man from the campfire scene at the beginning of the film.  The junkie cooks, fixes, and passes out; and Tanz cuts to the bus stop where a young man passes and notices a sexy woman waiting.  He stops to linger at her; the camera strobes; and he has a fantasy about the woman:  she gyrates slowly in her underwear before spilling blood out of her mouth.  The young man goes back to his house and reads a pornographic magazine.  His girlfriend arrives, presumably from work, and the two have an argument, resulting in the young man leaving.  Cut to the street during nighttime and a young couple emerges.  One of the young men from the opening campfire scene appears with his girlfriend and he is carrying a pumpkin on his shoulder.  They have costumes on, as it is Halloween.  They each drink a bottle of beer in the street.  The young woman has to take a piss, so the couple ducks into the cemetery.  The young man puts the pumpkin on top of the wall.  The young couple pisses in each’s respective spot, and while their pissing is going on, a skeleton in the cemetery emits smoke from its eyes and mouth.  This smoke possesses the pumpkin on the wall of the cemetery, and the pumpkin becomes a Jack O’ Lantern.  It flies around the cemetery and finds the junkie at the base of the grave.  The junkie wakes up and is promptly decapitated.  This is just the beginning…
I believe in order to appreciate Tanz, as a prerequisite, one has to love weird cinema, be willing to cross the S.O.V. threshold, and relax a little bit when anything amateurish or logic-defying occurs on screen.  I met this criteria years ago, and as a reviewer, I feel Tanz is my bread and butter.  Tanz der Kürbiskӧpfe feels like Andreas Bethmann’s homage to John Carpenter, in the same way a wayward son is towards his distant father.  The campfire scene is reminiscent of the opening scene of The Fog (1980) where John Houseman’s Mr. Machen tells an evil legend which unfolds over the course of the film.  The music of Tanz seems a synthesis of Carpenter’s scores for both The Fog and Halloween (1978) except the score for Tanz is more ambient and removes the rhythmic tempo of Carpenter’s scores.  There is a lo-fi elegance to the scenes where the possessed pumpkin flies around:  against the grainy backdrop of the video quality, the camera glides around the tombstones, accompanied by the score.  The pumpkin is actually in the foreground of the screen, somehow mounted to the camera.  In an amazing scene, almost an exegesis of Bethmann’s screenplay, a man (presumably this is Bethmann) sits in front of his television in his apartment watching Carpenter’s Halloween.  There is a knock at the door, and the man answers, greeted by a door-to-door salesman selling sex toys and pornography.  The young man buys a videocassette, and the salesman ascends the stairs of the housing complex.  He enters the door of a darkened attic where he encounters his death.  This meandering route to arrive at a gruesome murder scene is Bethmann’s deus ex machina.  In fact, the junkie in the cemetery is only present in the film to fix and pass out to awaken at night to become a victim. 
I also love the amateurish scenes in Tanz.  When the old man receives his second beer during the opening campfire scene, he toasts the two gentlemen and also to the camera.  When the sexy woman from the bus stop gyrates during her fantasy sequence, she seems to be on the verge of busting out laughing before the blood spills from her mouth.  The young girlfriend, abandoned at home by her boyfriend, is visited by the Jack O’ Lantern in a sublime scene.  She defends herself from an attack with a butcher knife but as she is stabbing, she is grinning, perhaps at the thought a pumpkin is attacking her.  The dungeon sequence where the bound woman is defiled with the spiked dildo would be offensive or provocative, if only for the fact that the special effects look like a Barbie doll set.  Despite being amateurish, however, the majority of the special effects in Tanz are quite good and credible. 
I can see myself watching Tanz der Kürbiskӧpfe during Halloween.  Tanz is also the kind of film that is only going to interest those who seek it out.  For those that do, have fun.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Phantom of Soho (Der Phantom von Soho) (1964)

The Phantom of Soho (Der Phantom von Soho) (1964) is an above-average Krimi film. (Krimi refers to a genre of German mystery films made primarily in the 1960s, set in London, and based upon the novels of Edgar Wallace and, to a lesser extent, his son, Bryan Edgar Wallace.)  While I have not yet seen a great Krimi film, I have seen some very good ones; and The Phantom of Soho is one of those few:  admirable detail is given to the sets and costumes, giving an appearance of a very credible-looking 60s London; the English dubbing and the jazzy score by Martin Bӧttcher are well composed; and finally, there is a panache to the direction by Franz Josef Gottlieb, especially (and unsurprisingly) in the phantom’s kill scenes.  However, and again like most krimi films, Phantom suffers from poor characterization sacrificed towards its formulaic plot.  Its story never allows for a particularly good performance; and when Phantom is not enticing the eyes, its talky bits become repetitive and dull.
The Phantom of Soho, based upon the story by Bryan Edgar Wallace, concerns the titular area in London, where a group of important men, like members of Parliament, are being killed by a knife-wielding phantom in its dark, shadowy alleys.  A cabaret located in the area is seemingly focal to the killings where many of the important gentlemen are seen shortly before their murders.  Not only are all of the murders linked to the doings at the cabaret, but the victims themselves are linked to an event in the past.  Chief Inspector Hugh Patton (Dieter Borsche) and Sergeant Hallam (Peter Vogel) are on the case.
Most of the characters in Phantom are pawns in service of the story:  nearly all are interchangeable and have no weight until the drama determines his/her function: red herring; genuine suspect; or investigator.  Two of the best characters are a mystery writer named Clarinda Smith (Barbara Rütting) and a pretty photographer at the cabaret named Corinne Smith (Helga Sommerfeld).  Phantom begins with Clarinda fireside with the head of Scotland Yard, Sir Phillip (Hans Sӧhnker), and their cozy fireside chat is interrupted by a phone call, detailing to Sir Phillip the finding of the first murder victim.  Over the course of Phantom, Clarinda appears auspiciously at key locations uncovering clues or in possession of insider information.  It is difficult to tell throughout the film whether Clarinda is playing Sir Phillip for a fool by extracting information from him to inform her new mystery novel or whether she is a genuine suspect or a budding amateur sleuth.  The screenplay of Phantom by Ladislas Fodor does not really flesh out her aspects of the story.  Helga Sommerfeld who plays the pretty photographer Corinne is as charismatic and captivating as krimi favorite, Karin Dor; yet she does not move beyond eye candy. Sommerfeld appears adept at comedy and drama in her few scenes. Unfortunately, Corinne appears early on and disappears just as quickly, not so much a character but a plot device.
The allure of Phantom is in its visuals and its atmosphere.  The smoky, dark alleys; the gliding, always moving camerawork (by Richard Angst); and the first-person camera kill scenes show this krimi is a definite distant cousin of the giallo and undeniable inheritor of noir cinema.  The cabaret sequences with their dance sequences are wonderfully risqué without being lewd.  There is an especially interesting and daring action sequence late in the film at a train yard.  Typically when I watch a krimi film, at some point I will zone out for a few minutes and miss a plot detail (which I have learned is not so much a big deal as plot holes are quite common in the cinema).  In Phantom, the plot is so mechanical it plays out with little need of focused attention.  When a little twist appears towards the motive of the killer, it results in either revenge or money.  I could have cared less.  I wished there would have been less talking and exposition and more focus on the characters and the visuals.  By no means is The Phantom of Soho a waste of time:  it can easily serve as representative of the genre; a standout; or a fine introduction to the krimi. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Zombie Army (1991)

Zombie Army (1991) is an American shot-on-video horror film, directed by Betty Stapleford and written by Roger Scearce, filmed in Pennsylvania and Delaware (as per the credits).  It takes as its influence popular eighties zombie films, Redneck Zombies, Return of the Living Dead, and Day of the Dead (the former 1989, the latter two 1985).
Zombie Army begins with a classroom scene where a young scientist gives a lecture on the psychology of a serial killer, showing an adeptness at his subject.  In a nifty twist, at the conclusion of his lecture, a gentleman in a white coat reveals that he is not the lecturer’s colleague but his doctor; and this lecture has been a form of therapy for his patient.  The patient at the end of his lecture becomes violent and refuses to leave and is forcibly removed to the patients’ ward.  At the ward, the young scientist attempts to start a fire with one of his textbooks and audaciously tries to fuck one of the female patients in his room.  The orderlies escort both he and his consort to seclusion.  The instant the door closes upon the patient couple, the director of the asylum informs his workers that the government is shutting down the facility and moving the staff and patients to a new one. 
After the asylum is abandoned, soon after the United States Army arrives to prepare to occupy the facility.  Soldiers are divided into pairs and ordered to reconnaissance the facility.  An inventive pair of soldiers, with a fondness for bending the rules and smoking a little bit of weed, lumber through the asylum, playing with the patients’ abandoned toys and opening the seclusion room.  The smell emitting from the room is fetid, and the duo scatter while leaving the door ajar.  The patients locked in seclusion are still alive and are now free to roam to the facility with impunity.  The two soldiers, undaunted in their task, stop at the local tavern and pound a few beers.  They return to the facility to fuck around a bit more and are killed by the newly-loose patients.  The patient with the aptitude towards science rigs a makeshift reanimating unit and creates the first in an army of zombies.
Zombie Army is an artifact of its cinematic era; has a distinct charm in its DIY enthusiasm; and benefits from being truly focused and displaying its strengths well.  One has to bear in mind, at the time of the video release of Zombie Army, zombie cinema was scarce (unlike today’s saturated horror market).  Despite a huge desire from horror fans for more zombie films, Hollywood and its elk was silent.  Unsurprisingly, as the nineties progressed comics like DeadWorld, novels like Brian Keene’s The Rising (1999), and the emergence of new zombie films, like the famous trio of Japanese films, Wild Zero, Junk, and Versus (the former 1999, the latter two 2000) were heartily enjoyed by horror fans, opening the current tidal wave in today’s horror market.  Zombie Army, like a lot of DIY, shot-on-video films, was created by horror fans for horror fans.  In fact, almost the entire ethos of the direct-to-video horror genre was driven by horror fans who made films that they wanted to see.  Zombie Army does not shirk from the staples of the zombie genre:  the practical makeup effects are quite good.  The zombies have a blue tint to their faces, ala Tom Savini’s special effects work in Dawn of the Dead (1978).  However, one can see in Zombie Army the prosthetic detail in and around the eyes, making the zombie army look more like monsters.  There is plenty of intestinal chomping and exploding body parts, all of which look quite professional.  Once the army gets hip that soldiers go missing every time a unit patrols the hospital, they emerge with weapons and vehicles in tow, ready to do battle.  There is a standout scene where the army mows down a group of zombies in an underground tunnel with really excellent red lighting.  All of the weapons, vehicles, and fatigues look genuine and totally add an authentic feel to the film.  Zombie Army even includes a quite a sexy seduction scene where a hitchhiking soldier gets picked up by a sexy lady.  After becoming aroused, instead of fucking on a pile of trash, the two decide upon a classier place, the abandoned asylum.  The pair meet their end in the style evocative of the ending of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968).

Zombie Army is recommended for fans of the original shot-on-video era of horror and old school zombie flicks.