Review: The Entity (1982)

Scorsese called this one of the scariest films ever made, which makes sense, because this is maybe the most Catholic horror film ever made. The sexually violent ghosts attacking Barbara Hershey (who really is amazing in this movie, absolutely stunning work) externalise classic notions of Catholic guilt into their most extreme form. While these scenes of sexual-assault are quite scary, The Entity finds the most power in its (sadly still relevant) depictions of systemic patriarchal abuse. Ron Silver’s dismissal of Hershey’s experiences as “hysteria” is more bone-chilling than any of the lightning fingers or green-glowing monsters.

Unfortunately, The Entity gradually seems to lose interest in the misogyny at the heart of its story and turns into a goofy ghost-hunting procedural, complete with para-psychology students and a lot of pseudo-scientific technobabble. There’s a braver, more uncomfortable movie here than what it turns into, and in brief moments – like when Hershey’s boyfriend calls her “tainted” by the rapes – it holds onto that potential, even as it morphs into nonsense, but it’s all too little too late.

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: The Grapes of Death (1978)

The set-up is simple. A young woman wanders into a fog-shrouded country village, searching for her lost fiancé. Instead, she finds the the townsfolk rotting (the makeup unconvincing but nonetheless effective), the few remaining with any conscious thought having turned into murderers.

The set up is simple, but Director Jean Rollin’s approach is not. Where my last encounter with Rollin (Fascination) left me feeling a bit cold, his Grapes of Death snapped his style into place. Jean Rollin is not a horror director. Even at his most grotesque, like in the sequence in which a blind woman is crucified before getting decapitated, he invests his works with a dreamlike melancholy. You get the sense that he’s searching for something with his work, something the audience can never quite ascertain. Every long take wide shots held in washed out castles and crumbling hills suggests a certain regret, a certain inability to find a secret hidden in the past. As such, every one of villains is a vampire, draining the heroes sense of purpose and hindering their movements. But every hero is a vampire, too, stealing their loved one’s lives away to find some semblance of hope in their own.

The story here is slight, almost irrelevant. Superficially, it explores notions of class and regionalism, but only in the vaguest terms. But all of that nothing fades away when Rollin holds on a barren room for just a second too long, the silence more terrifying than the shambling, simple zombies.

Review: The Love Butcher (1975)

“No one loves a cripple!”

Erik Stern holds this together in the dual role of Caleb and Lester, the split personalities of a creepy gardener; the former a relatively harmless simpleton with a hunchback, the latter a suave misogynistic killer with a sweet toupee. Stern makes both personalities completely distinct without losing the connection between the two, and he manages to make conversations with himself resolutely compelling. He’s relentlessly threatening, but also the major source of levity in this greasy bastard.

The film surrounding his bravura performance is a mess of police procedural and stomach churning misogynistic mayhem. Unlike Donald Jones later Murderlust, The Love Butcher is gory and over the top, the hateful actions and words presented much harder to swallow because they are presented with such glee. In the world of The Love Butcher, hate is the closest thing any of these men have to affection, and every single one of them justifies their actions by a past sin of a woman. It’s really upsetting stuff, but, for a while, it’s also a really fun slasher, full of maniacal speeches and piles of bodies. The tone gradually shifts from semi-comedic to maliciously disturbing, and that shift isn’t completely successful.

But when you’ve got such delectably insane monologuing like “Your feminine pulchritude is detestable, and you were trying to drain the energy from me!”, it’s hard not to have a little uncomfortable fun.

Review: Awakening of the Beast (1970)

I realised pretty early on that this wasn’t a Coffin Joe film of the nature I presumed, and that watching it prior to my viewings of the others was probably a bad idea. But I only had the DVD for another day, so I did some quick research and powered through. This may have been a mistake.

What I assumed would be a B-grade horror film actually turned out to be a masturbatory meta-commentary on the nature of transgression and also the power of Jose Mojica Marins’ artistry? Awakening of the Beast is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some strange shit.

The first 2/3 of the film present themselves as a bizarre TV program about an experiment involving four individuals who are injected with LSD and then enact a series of sexual perversions, with the film occasionally cutting to a board of people (including the scientist in charge of the experiments) commenting on the validity of the findings. Marins in there as well, and everyone, including himself, are confused as to why he’s present.

This section is mildly compelling and hypnotic, a gently surreal dive into sexual mores and desire, Bunuelian but more intent on shocking the audience. There’s no narrative as such, but there is a collective force blooming, even if its point seems nebulous. Gradually, however, we cut more and more to the panel, where Marins begins defending himself, and his Coffin Joe character, as an artistic statement, using mockumentary footage of an obscenity trial to justify his art. A strange thorough-line regarding Marins (and by extension, Coffin Joe’s) place in the public consciousness becomes visible.

That thread culminates in the final sections of the film, a breath-taking, full colour nightmare sequence that occurs when the test subjects are shown a Coffin Joe film. There’s no continuity or arcs here, just 30 minutes of hellish, hallucinogenic imagery. It’s wild and disturbing stuff, and, without spoiling anything, reveals the film as essentially a big jerking off by Marins, who claims to be exploring the necessity of transgression in a politically closed minded country, but is really just saying that he’s pretty fucking cool.

Having seen the first true Coffin Joe film by the time of this writing, I can agree that Marins is a talented, probably pretty cool motherfucker, but Awakening of the Beast is still ridiculously self-indulgent.

Review: Punisher War Zone (2008)

Shame this idiosyncratic, female-directed, action/horror superhero movie didn’t make money, because … well that sentence speaks for itself.

Director Lexi Alexander and Screenwriters Matt Holloway and Nick Santora understand that the Punisher and heroes of his ilk – tortured antiheroes with simple motives – should basically be grounding forces in a movie like this, not the central focus. So, instead, most of the film deals with the villains – Dominic West’s (impressively ugly) Jigsaw and his brother, Doug Hutchinson’s Looney Bin Jim, who have this delightful warm dynamic. My favourite scene in the film is where Looney Bin Jim tells his brother that he “won’t ever have to see [his] reflection again.” And then he throws his body into every mirror in a hotel lobby. That’s nuts, but it’s also really sweet.

Everyone is playing way big here (save, strangely, for Wayne Knight, who brings a lot of pathos into the corners), which is the right choice for Alexander’s brand of hyper-unreality. This is the perfect empty neon sleaze, all night time, all backlit, all blood-soaked alleyways. It’s all so wonderfully tacky – like the montage of our villains gathering up allies in front of a projected American Flag, perverting Patton, obviously, but also calling to mind Blow Out. Everyone is a cartoon, but they’re all extremely endearing cartoons – West and Hutchinson are so ridiculous and awful that they become loveable. When the Punisher starts picking people off (in various gory fashions), it’s kind of scary and kind of weighty, because he’s literally killing off the life that surrounds his solemn centre. This is a goofy film, but one that doesn’t quite lose its edge.

Review: Raw (2017)

Rather than the gore-endurance test the marketing suggests, Raw shows its hand early as a startlingly intimate coming-of-age story centred around a complicated sororal relationship that is spiced up considerably by Julia Ducournau’s delightful gallows humour. The most upsetting moments in the film are not the moments of cannibalism (which are generally just hilarious), but the emotional pain inflicted through the semi-incestuous rivalry at the heart of the picture. Raw is about one woman trying to balance what it means to be a mature human person and what it means to be a mature human animal – and it’s also about her sister, trying and failing to be a teacher.

I mean, this was basically made for me, the tone is exactly my bag, and I guffawed multiple times in the theatre, especially when cued by the guttural, heavy metal organ soundtrack. Ducourneau has an eye for detail and character (she’s willing to go on these little amazing narrative detours just to add a flavourful side character, like a sassy old man with dentures), and this is a hell of a debut.

After the screening I saw, there was a brief discussion with a few female critics, and the best thing that came out of it was when one of the critics (whose first name I remember but of which I will refuse to butcher the spelling) said, “Heteronormativity is the true monster.” And the whole audience started hooting and hollering.