Review: Vampir-Cuadecuc (1971)

Shot behind the scenes in high-contrast black and white film stock on the set of Jesus Franco’s Dracula film, Cuadecuc edits the filmmaking process – the funny faces, the tired Franco, the lights and the crew – into its own loose adaptation of the Stoker tale to haunting, provoking results. Director Pere Portabella mimics the look of a lost German silent film, making what could be an entirely humorous exercise – check out the crew spraying cobwebs onto Christopher Lee’s reclining body – into a disconcerting blurring of fiction and reality. Portabella reminds us of the power of storytelling by turning the process into the product, the performance into the truth.

When we are finally allowed sound for a brief moment at the end, it’s not someone calling “cut”, it’s Lee talking about what it means to become Dracula, his striking visage suddenly frightening in the low light – it’s almost as if he’s lying to us, a real vampire trying to convince us he’s an actor, not the other way around.

Review: We Are the Flesh (2016)

“Something like love doesn’t exist. Only demonstrations of love.”

In a vaguely post-apocalyptic Mexico, two siblings stumble upon an older, grimy gentleman (a fantastic Noe Hernandez) who offers them food and shelter on the condition that they give in to his sensual proclivities.

As with Swiss Army Man, We Are the Flesh is an exploration of bodily desire and instinct when removed from the confines of polite society. Unlike Swiss Army Man, which seems primarily concerned with the link between self-denial and unhappiness, We Are the Flesh seems concerned with the contradictions inherent to applying a system of morality upon the feral, animalistic soul of humanity.

As such, We Are the Flesh intends to shock. It features incest, possibly un-simulated sex, necrophilia, cannibalism, the exchange of fluids – all enacted with a sensual glee, intended to disorient the viewer by presenting these supposed horrors as desirable outcomes. Hernandez’s un-named man is unbelievably charismatic, a grimy God whose sheer will drives the dream-like narrative, almost every choice and action making sense as part of his seductive will. He gives a great monologue early on about loneliness and the way that he allowed himself to succumb to it. I’m paraphrasing here, but it comes down to this: “When you can longer avoid the grotesque thoughts in your head, you must embrace them. And after a while, they no longer seem so grotesque.” If, deep down in the parts we don’t like to acknowledge exist, if deep down there the mind desperately needs to enact something, how can we call it wrong just because society says so?

Writer/director Emiliano Rocha Minter makes his thesis palatable by injecting his film with gorgeous cinematography and a healthy dose of dark humour. The whole film is bathed in a haze of never ending caverns and deep blacks, luring you deep into the frame and into the world of it. The intimacy provided by the camera makes the occasional outright hilarity that much more surprising and welcome, such as the music cues, which usually occur at moments of extreme deprivation, and are so perfectly unexpected and real that I choked on my red wine a few times.

We Are the Flesh is not as disgusting as the buzz might lead one to believe. It is, however, an inaccessible and at times frustratingly abstract descent into debauchery – but it’s well worth the investment.

Review: The Beyond (1981)

Lucio Fulci’s bizarro nightmare The Beyond is so strange and delightfully gory that its many, many flaws somehow end up adding to its atmosphere and horror.
The plot moves forward with what could charitably be called efficient use of ellipsis but realistically be called a disregard for logic and pace. The dubbing (why don’t Italians use synched sound? Seriously someone tell me I’ve never understood it.) makes the disconnect from reality more palatable. The protracted death scenes, while never having any distinct sense of realism, have dream-like power that comes from their refusal to tether themselves to our world.
But these same flaws that create incidental moments of terror still took me out of the experience. Unlike the best film’s of say, Lynch, where the disregard for logic allowed me to get swept up in the experience, The Beyond’s broken narrative constantly removed me and forced me to intellectualise the film. So, while there is a great deal to enjoy here (and I’m glad I bought the blu Ray from a smelly guy at a film fair), my recommendation comes with a heavy limit.

Review: The Alchemist Cookbook (2016)

“You goin’ to hell for this shit, dawg, you know that?”

Joel Potrykus steps up his stylistic chops while retaining his empathetic characterisation of the fringe in this hilarious then disturbing story of the ways in which we often perpetuate our own miseries.

Tye Hickson (of Gimme the Loot) plays Sean, a perhaps mentally imbalanced young man living in the woods with his cat. He spends his days reading from a strange, occult notebook, doing experiments, and eating Doritos. Occasionally, he’s visited by family member of some sort, Cortez (Amari Cheatom, amazing in just three scenes) (seriously, his last scene shows an incredible range of comedy and terror) who delivers groceries and meds. Gradually, we come to realise that Sean may be trying to summon a demon. Whether what happens next is a true supernatural event or just the unraveling of Sean’s mind is a point of contention, but all that matters is that the descent into hell feels real and legitimately creepy.

Hickson mostly gives a one man show here, and he tackles a difficult role with aplomb, starting just far enough from madness to engender empathy without ever letting the audience forget that he’s perhaps past the point of help. And even as the film becomes increasingly haunting (there are a few scenes that recall The Blair Witch Project and Resolution in their ability to show just enough of the horrors to get us on edge), Potrykus never loses sight of his rhythms and fixations. There’s still scenes of characters eating with abandon, or heavy metal blasting out of cassette players, and of static, deep focus shots of people arguing in circles.

That’s they key to what makes this work, I think. Despite the turn towards psychological horror (with some really fantastic and sparingly used effects work), this is still a story primarily about the destructive powers of humanity, not the supernatural. Regardless of the veracity of the monsters in Sean’s woods, he’s the one dragging them into his world again and again, even as he recognises their damage. Is it because he’s gone too far to stop now? Is it because he knows it’s unstoppable? Or is it because he has based his identity on his self-destruction for so long that fixing himself feels like an erasure of the self?

Whatever the answer, I loved this movie.

Review: A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987)

“I’ve come across a lot of vampire bats up along the Yoanoke river. Them, I could kill. I just don’t like things that suck your blood and stay for conversation afterwards.”

My love affair with Larry Cohen continues. Cohen’s movies always feel super unpolished and kind of broken, but they’re also always so full of thematic depth and great lines that it doesn’t really matter.

In this nominal sequel to Tobe Hooper’s Stephen King adaptation, the always amazing and bizarre Michael Moriarty stars as an asshole/documentarian/bad father who is captured by the vampires of a sleepy Maine town and hired to write their Bible/documented proof of existence – theoretically his credibility as a non-fiction filmmaker will give credence to his words years down the line.

Pretty soon, one of my favourite directors, occasional actor, and all around lunatic Samuel Fuller shows up as an ageing, luger-wielding nutso who can be summed up in one line: “I’m not a nazi hunter, I’m a nazi killer.” As he’s arrived, however, he’s run out of nazi’s to kill, so vampires will have to act as a replacement.

From his appearance onwards, everything goes to hell as Moriarty and Fuller go about trying to save Moriarty’s son and murder all the vampires.

“You better sit down, you’re losing a lot of blood.”
“I got more blood than I need.”

Cohen uses all his genre trappings for a typically fantastic allegory – in this case that of sectionalism in the United States, and the bad sides of patriotism. These vampires give Moriarty a chance to live simply among them as long as he doesn’t infringe upon their way of life. Though we recognise that the vampires are arguably bad folk, that refusal to assimilate goes both ways; sure the vampires won’t follow the American way of life, but Moriarty and Fuller would rather kill them than let them live on their own as well. A climactic image of the film involves a vampire being staked with an American flag, and I think that speaks for itself.

Assimilate or die, die or assimilate.

But beyond all of the complexity and ideology at the heart of this, it’s just a fucking blast. Most of my notes are just choice lines from the thing. And the vampire effects aren’t too bad either.

As a last moment, I give you this:

“Suicide’s for nazi sonsofbitches.”

Damn straight, Samuel Fuller. Damn straight.

Review: Kin Dza-Dza (1986)

“We don’t need the violinist.”

A Cold War era, Gilliam-esque satire of linguistics and capitalism starring Russian Charles Grodin about two unlucky Soviets who end up teleported onto a barren desert planet and must find their way home.

It’s absurdist in a very low-key, melancholy way, as the protagonists must navigate bizarre language systems, customs, and rustic-futuristic technology to get off the hellhole upon which they have found themselves.

But underneath all this wacky satire is a true sense of sorrow and wistfulness. These are men lost in a world that seems utterly antithetical to their own – one built around a satirical semi-capitalist system – that ends up feeling unfortunately similar to their own. And through that subtle but powerful pain, they end up forming bonds, almost against their very self-serving nature.

In Kin Dza Dza I found a film about the uniting power of experience, and I found it incredibly moving.

It’s also hilarious, with a deadpan vibe I liken to the work of Aki Kaurasmaki.

Well worth seeking out – Mos Film has, as far as I can ascertain – the only English subtitled version made available, and it’s on youtube in two parts (there’s an intermission, and the second half starts with a goddamn glossary of terms). Here’s the link to part 1: www.youtube.com/watch?v=I47CNxwlt9U

Would make a great double feature with The American Astronaut.

Review: Birth (2004)

10 years after her husband’s death, a newly engaged woman (Nicole Kidman) is confronted by a ten year old boy who claims to be the reincarnation of her dead husband.

It’s a premise ripe with potential, but, unfortunately, writer/director Jonathan Glazer squanders it, essentially by failing to commit to a tone. ‘Birth’ starts off as a fairytale, a whimsical score in flight as we move around a winter New York. Then, it feints at going darker, threatening to explore the real, possibly sexual implications of such an event. The film see saws between the two until the final act, during which it takes a different route entirely: neither.

‘Birth’ wants desperately to be a film about the strength of love and obsession, of how it can transcend time. It wants to be about the power of memory and self delusion. It wants to be about the dangers of vulnerability. ‘Birth’ wants to be about all these things, but the strategy it chooses is to glance over all of them, never delving deep.

The one thing ‘Birth’ really has going for it is Kidman, who is able to convey so much information with just a flicker of her eyes, even if she never quite appears to be the sexless embodiment of grief Glazer wants her to be.

An intriguing but ultimately wispy failure, ‘Birth’ simply exists to make me appreciate Glazer’s masterpiece ‘Under the Skin’ even more as a once in a lifetime achievement.