Monday, April 21, 2014

Down to the Cellar / Do pivnice (1983)

Down to the Cellar is a short film from Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer that I’ve grown fond of. I remember feeling a little underwhelmed when I first watched it, but it stayed with me, for some reason, and now it’s one of my favorite short films (I wonder if there’s a name for that kind of art). It was the same with Svankmajer’s Alice (Neco Z Alenky), a creepy vision of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland complete with Svankmajer’s disturbing but fascinating characteristics. For me, the last quarter of Alice became a battle to stay awake. I thought Alice just wasn’t the film for me, but that couldn’t have been more untrue. Alice ended up planting itself in my mind before slowly taking its hold on me, and, as if a bug had just bit me, I spontaneously ordered off for the DVD and, on a whim, read for the first time Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. As those of you that follow my At the Mansion of Madness fan page on Facebook might have noticed, I have endeavored to watch as many AIW movies as I can slowly but surely come across. This is all primarily thanks to Jan Svankmajer’s vision of AIW. Not bad for a movie that I struggled to stay awake during on first viewing.

Down to the Cellar feels a lot like a precursor to Svankmajer’s Alice, for superficial reasons, and is most certainly recommended to fans of that movie. It features a little girl’s (Monika Belo-Cabanová) apprehensive journey into a deep, dark cellar to load her basket with potatoes from a crate in a certain room 37. This would’ve been a simple task, had the story been set in reality, but in Svankmajer’s world, it’s an odd adventure into an underground nightmare, where whatever tricks descending a stairway into an old, dark, spooky cellar plays on the imagination manifest and take form.

The entire story is told in a dialogue-free fashion, not counting the cat meows or the usual exaggerated oral sounds, which are a nuance of Svankmajer’s that seem related to his frequent obsession with focusing on food. The little girl’s responses to the situations and characters she meets are translated mainly through facial expressions and silent gestures, most notably her head shaking, denoting her fearful apprehension to the beckoning gestures and offerings of the old man (Aleksandr Letko) and old woman (Ol’ga Vronská), who despite possessing a weird unease, don’t seem to pose any kind of definite threat, but a feeling of mistrust still pervades.

A nice avant-garde approach to exploring imagined fears, paranoia, anxieties, and mistrust, Down to the Cellar could be thought of as a possible Cold War allegory. I think the use of coal (the woman using coal as a primary ingredient to bake cakes and the old man using coal to blanket himself in bed) in this film was saying something about coal pollution and its health concerns, as coal was a primary source of heating as well as a power source for industrial plants in communist Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and the result was a toxic pollution that even contaminated the tap water and was a major health hazard.

Of course, being a Svankmajer film, there’s puppetry and stop motion animation (although less than usual in this case) to make this dark journey a fun and perplexing one. It won’t blow any one’s socks off, but it does somehow lay dormant in the memory for a while before being fondly recalled and revisited.

A reviewer (Timothy Damon) on the IMDB very aptly described the little girl’s task in this movie as being Sisyphean. My abnormally lengthy time in college, for both undergrad and grad school, has felt very Sisyphean, and although it is finally coming to a close this semester, I had many times felt like the little girl at the end of Down to the Cellar, descending the dark stairs once again, having to do it all over again.

© At the Mansion of Madness
Down to the Cellar / Do pivnice (1983) full video posted by YouTube user Carminuz: Total time 14:44


Monday, April 7, 2014

Morgiana (1972)

Morgiana, by Slovak director Juraj Herz, is a seldom spoken of curio from the Czechoslovak New Wave that’s heavily stylized with regards to its visuals and mood but is straightforward with its story and might feel a little influenced by the ‘Grand Dame Guignol’ horror of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Much like Poe’s The Black Cat, there is an escalating sense of guilt in its protagonist, aristocratic villainess Viktorie (Iva Janzurová), that’s not particularly out of remorse or regret for her crime, but from paranoia, constant annoying reminders of her misdeed, and fear of being found out, which is where I think a lot of the suspense comes from.

I like that there is a lot of appeal to its detestable, unsympathetic villain. Viktorie (Viki) is probably one of my new favorite villains. She emanates a wicked aura, primarily due to her excessively evil gothic look that pretty much gives away the nature of her game at first glance. Janzurová's performance is frightening, stellar, and versatile. I say versatile because she also plays Viki’s sister, Klára. The personalities and appearances between the sisters are like night and day, and I don’t know if I was a bit naïve at the time, but after watching the whole movie for the first time, I had no idea the same actress played both sisters.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Sex of the Witch (1973)

Witchcraft, tainted family history, and murder mysteries are very agreeable story themes, but writer and director Angelo Pannaccio, hitherto unknown to me, gives these horror hallmarks an attractively perverse edge with Sex of the Witch.

This is one of those films that brings a substantially large group of shady relatives together in a family mansion for the reading of a will, with the inheritance being split equally among the relatives, with an added stipulation that if any beneficiary should die before a certain time, their share must be split among the surviving heirs. Of course this will inevitably create a murderer or two, amongst the family. I’ve seen a similar plot device in a couple other movies, One Body Too Many and Legacy of Blood, but something different with Sex of the Witch is the inclusion of a perverse, evil witch relative with a good measure of hate and malice for the family, which gives what could’ve been a routine plot device a rather demented and supernatural spin.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Love and Death in the Garden of the Gods (1972)

Being a conversation heavy drama mystery with a bit of a dreamy languor about it, Love and Death in the Garden of the Gods may require a little focus from viewers if they hope to get absorbed in its compelling story, beautiful scenery, and tragic characters, but it is worth it. The plot is more or less structured to be an exploration of a hazy backstory that slowly crystalizes before eventually catching up with the present.

The film is directed by Sauro Scavolini, a prolific screenwriter (All the Colors of the Dark, amongst many others) with few directing credits. He is the brother of director Romano Scavolini (Nightmares in a Damaged Brain), who also helmed cinematography for Love and Death in the Garden of the Gods.

The story is fed to us in fragmented bits and pieces from an inquisitive Professor of ornithology (Franz von Treuberg), restoring and listening to a heap of tangled audio recording tape he discovered in the forest outside the villa he’s rented to study the non-indigenous birds of the region. As the Professor listens to the tape recordings, the film cuts to flashbacks of the previous inhabitants of the villa, making the place seem haunted by a past that is both alarming and fascinating. While the past is the primary setting of the story, the film still emphases events in the present, particularly the relation between the professor and the seedy estate administrator, Dominici (Vittorio Duse), giving the Professor dimension and making him more than just an avenue of backstory disclosure.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

News Update: Lord of Tears

The astounding gothic chiller Lord of Tears is an official selection for the 32nd Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFFF), one of the biggest genre film events in Europe. Lord of Tears will be screened against some of the best independent and studio-based films. The event runs from April 8th to the 20th. 

In other news, Lord of Tears' very own Owlman has been making the rounds stalking users on the chat roulette site Omegle, a site that randomly pairs people around the world to have a go at a webcam-based conversation. Watch the amusing responses from terrified users who found themselves face to face with The Owlman, on the video clip below. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Delirium / Delirio caldo (1972)

At first glance, Renato Polselli’s stylistic S&M fever nightmare, Delirium, might feel like an interesting case study of psychopathy, but I’m hesitant to call the film’s protagonist a psychopath. He’s definitely a sadistic maniac of sorts, but a psychopath has no conscience and therefore cannot feel empathy and remorse. Our maniac, here, feels remorse and is at odds with himself. After doing harm, he gets emotional and curses his reflection before shattering the mirror. Just to stop the monster, he tries to set himself up to be caught by the police.

No sir, he may be a serial killer, but the highly respected, criminal psychologist and police consultant Dr. Herbert Lyutak (Mickey Hargitay) is no psychopath.

He actually makes for a compelling lead, thanks to a fair amount of charisma and outward charm that contrasts with his hidden sick side. It’s made known early on that Herbert’s a particularly nasty fellow, with a pitch black disturbing murder sequence involving a young lady (Stefania Fassio). In making its protagonist a murderer, we have something more unique from the get go. Though we know Herbert’s a killer, murders still continue in the traditional ‘whodunit’ giallo style, which imposes the question of Herbert being the only killer. The multiple murder scenes of pretty girls getting killed are cruel, which isn’t surprising for a giallo, but Polselli really seems to be trying to outdo them all.

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