Thursday, January 12, 2017

Manhattan Baby (1982)

Manhattan Baby marks the end of an era, which was Lucio Fulci’s most prolific filmmaking period that included classics such as Zombie (1979), The Gates of Hell (1980), The Beyond (1981), and The House by the Cemetery (1981). This isn’t to say these were Fulci’s best films; they were just some of the most commercially successful, not to mention big hits with the general horror audience. 

With Fulci being synonymous with gore, zombies, and various sorts of gateways to hell, viewer expectations of Manhattan Baby were probably different than what they got, as it abandons the gothic, supernatural zombie film altogether. It was scriptwriter Dardano Sacchetti’s attempt at moving away from what he considered conventional horror, to try and close up the gates of hell and open new gates of time and space. Although there are obvious influences from The Exorcist (1973) and The Awakening (1980) (and surprising similarities to Poltergeist which came out the same year), Sacchetti wanted to create something different, and for the most part he succeeded.

There ends up being something undeniably Fulci about it, yet Manhattan Baby isn’t what you’d call top-tier Fulci. In fact, I was quite disappointed by the film when I first saw it. The nightmare logic is there, the gore is there, the visuals are fantastic, and Fabio Frizzi’s score is as mood enhancing as ever. So, why does the film end up falling flat? 

Most of the blame seems to be placed on script problems, but it’s not like any of the films from Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy were without narrative problems. In fact, for those who weren’t nitpicking, the peculiar brand of plot incoherencies had this odd way of enhancing the nightmare world these films created. The gore sequences in Manhattan Baby are perhaps less effective and memorable than some of the crowd pleasers that preceded it, with Daniela Doria’s gut puking, Olga Karlatos’s wooden splinter in the eye, and Schweick’s crucifixion truly being the stuff of filmmaking legend. But a lot of people, including myself, have found a lot to appreciate with Fulci outside of the gore. The gore worked, but it wasn’t the only thing to praise these films for. Also, the dialogue and dubbing in Manhattan Baby is pretty bad, but again that shouldn’t be anything new to Fulci’s horror fans.

With The Beyond and The Gates of Hell, Fulci took the zombie film to a supernatural hell on earth, and the result was spectacular. You felt really bad for anyone in Fulci’s nightmare world. With Manhattan Baby, it’s a little difficult to become invested in any of the characters’ plights, because the threat is a little less tangible and hard to resolve. I guess this is supposed to work in a fear-of-the-unknown sort of way, but it comes off as a confused creation, with even the writers probably not sure of what’s going on. A couple of the characters use the term “inexplicable” to describe the threat, which just seems like an easy way for the film to not have to really explain anything. The threat of an ancient obscure deity could’ve been terrifying, but any kind of fear or unease the movie is shooting for is lost in the tedium of vague references to an ancient Egyptian ruler that’s somehow responsible for everything bad happening. It might’ve helped if this “Habnubanor” showed himself in some sort of recognizable manifestation instead of being talked about (the killer stuffed birds or the cobra in the X-ray doesn’t quite cut it). I understand that the metaphysical threat is supposed to be an abstract entity, but this is Fulci, and we expect a wormy, maggot ridden monster. Remember, show-don’t-tell.

I’ve always enjoyed Fulci’s particular brand of child-themed horror, such as in The House by the Cemetery, Sweet House of Horrors (1989), and here in Manhattan Baby, which is probably the film’s strongest trait. The faux Henry James quote at the end of The House by the Cemetery, “No one will ever know if children are monsters or monsters are children,” didn’t seem to entirely relate to that film, but it does seem to foreshadow the brother and sister lead characters in Manhattan Baby, Tommy (Giovanni Frezza) and Susie (Brigitta Boccoli), who kind of serve as a bridge from the metaphysical world to the real world, where the unseen deity can wreak havoc on the innocent, having a particular prejudice for men with beards.

Fans of The House by the Cemetery should be happy to see creepy child actor Giovanni Frezza back again. He plays the bratty and offensive Tommy Hacker. His performance here isn’t quite as memorable as his role as Bob in House, but he does have that peculiar “punish me” moment towards the end that does succeed in being quite disturbing.

The children’s dialogue is generally bad, but Boccoli does impressively give it her all at times; it’s unfortunate her screams are in weak context, kind of like a good actor in a bad movie.

There really are hints of genius here and there. During the intro in Cairo Egypt, Susie’s mother, Emily (Laura Lenzi), loses track of her, and there’s a beautifully ominous sense of isolation in the desert when Emily calls out to Susie, with her reverberated shouts reaching no one’s ears for a moment, as the film cuts to a wide-angle panning shot of a soulless, desolate landscape of a pyramid, a tomb, and an excavated relic. This brief moment is probably my favorite part.

Lighting, ambiance, sound, and music are all ace here. Frizzi’s original theme to Manhattan Baby, an ear-grabbing electronic, multilayered piece complete with bells, does breathe a life and identity into the ancient Egypt / New York crossover element (which does make for one of my favorite DVD menus for the older Anchor Bay and Blue Underground releases). Tommy whistles it at one point. A number of sequences would be far less dramatic without it.

One of my gripes with the soundtrack was the recycled Frizzi score from The Beyond, and some cues from The Gates of Hell. I felt that the music for The Beyond was so powerful and characteristic that it belonged only in The Beyond. It isn’t generic enough to be shamelessly recycled. However, I have come to accept it over time. 

Fulci’s characters here are both nuanced and stereotypical. The children are bratty, with their noses in comic books, sassily chewing bubble gum, but at the same time they have this otherworldly strangeness to them. It’s uncertain if they are a threat or in any real danger themselves. The parents are perhaps the least memorable, pushing the investigational stuff along, not understanding what’s going on with their kids. The father, George (Christopher Connelly), has a subplot where he loses his vision in an Egyptian tomb after the cursed amulet shoots blue beams into his eyes. Blue is frequently the color used to symbolize the abstract deity that is terrorizing the family and those around them (in ancient Egypt blue represented birth, creation, and the universe). George regains his vision back home in New York just as inexplicably as he lost it. It ends up feeling a little pointless but is interesting for being a subtler exploration of eye trauma than what Fulci is known for. Fulci’s obsession with the eyes are of course prominent, with plenty of Fulci trademark eye close ups, reminding us that they are such precious, vulnerable organs that could so easily suffer irreversible damage. One character does get a spike through the eye and out the back of the skull unexpectedly in a cruel booby trap.

The most entertaining character is Andrian Mercato (Cosimo Cinieri) who’s a bit of a saving grace. Cinieri appropriately chews the scenery as an antique store owner and parapsychologist expert. He’s also a counterpart to the heroic exorcist figure. He has these red lines under his eyes that make it look like he rarely sleeps.

Carlo De Mayo from Gates of Hell is rather briefly on hand as an amusing man-child writer, Luke, who has a childlike tomfoolery about him and seems to have a thing for those cheap prank catalogue items. His death scene is the most out-there, being killed after teleporting to the desert from entering the kids’ bedroom (?!), a kind of space swapping with New York and Egypt, just because… desert sand in the kids’ room, why not?

Time travelling kids, Egyptian symbolism, and an eccentric parapsychologist substituting for an exorcist, it all sounds more intriguing than it really is. It’s fair to say, it’s one of those films that is more interesting to talk about than watch. 

The elements of Fulci’s direction, the lighting, Sacchetti’s script, and Frizzi’s score do still crystalize into a comfortable experience for those fond of Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy. Even given its flaws and inferiority to many other Fulci films, it’s still hard to hate it. I had my issues, but I eventually developed a soft spot for Manhattan Baby

(I originally wrote this article for Fang of Joy #4 Fanzine (an all-Fulci issue) released October 2016, and it is reposted here with Richard of DM’s permission. Be sure to click here and head over and order a copy.)

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Something Creeping in the Dark / Qualcosa striscia nel buio (1971)

Mario Colucci’s Something Creeping in the Dark has been off the radar for a long time. I didn't even know about it until recently, and this is the kind of stuff I live for. This might be because it is rather mediocre in certain aspects, some might even say a little boring if this isn't your kind of thing. It's a curious little low-key Italian horror, and even though it's not that scary or original, it has its creepy moments. The ambiance and familiar setting is comforting if you’re in the mood for this type of movie. Also on the plus side, all the genre traditions we know and love are here: séances, portraits, fleeting shades of black magic and the occult, contrived gathering of suspicious characters, spirits, candles, storms, murders, babes, a spooky but marvelous gothic mansion, and night gowns. It really is a beautiful looking gothic thriller despite being routine in the story department, but there’s a lot to chew on with its concept, and there’s so many nice touches that keep it afloat. At times, it’s got a strange charm to it, with near Polselli-like moments with actors looking spaced out, standing around like model figurines.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

S & M: Les Sadiques (2016)

It seems like only yesterday when we were checking out The Devil of Kreuzberg (2015), a respectably accomplished modern gothic horror film directed by Alexander Bakshaev that’s gotten a lot of due praise, and now, seemingly out of nowhere, Alex and the great folks involved follow it up with a killer Jess Franco tribute S & M: Les Sadiques.

I had viewed a lot of compelling images of this film when it was in production, and one of the images, which did not end up in the cut of S & M that I watched, displayed lead actor Nadine Pape channeling an iconic image of late ‘60s, early ‘70s Franco lead Soledad Miranda, and I thought it looked cool. It captured the original spirit but also had a different energy about it that was trying to impart a new vision, something that’s not only a great tribute but also works on a number of other levels, which is something that could also be said about the overall film.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Night of 1,000 Sexes / Mil sexos tiene la noche (1984)

Despite there being a finite number of Jess Franco films, it virtually feels like I won’t ever run out of Franco movies to choose from, since there are so many (over 200) and from many different eras (from the ‘50s up to 2013). I’ve explored and hunted for Jess Franco films for close to a decade now and still have quite a journey ahead of me, which will probably only end for me if I ever lose interest. The selection pool is deep enough to be a lifelong endeavor, especially if you plan on really absorbing, studying, and digesting most of them. I’ve got my favorites that I return to when I can, but more frequently I always get an itch for a new one, but the list is long, which is equal parts comforting and overwhelming.

When it comes to the large selection of erotic Lina Romay featured Franco titles, it can be difficult to make a selection. You want something that goes beyond just lengthy porn scenes; you want something worth keeping, something that’s erotic but also dark, ethereal, metaphysical, with a dreamy ambiance, emotion, and artistic merit. Well, if you haven’t seen it yet, and you’re looking for a sweet Jess Franco and Lina Romay fix, the film I’m pulling out for you tonight, Night of 1,000 Sexes, will meet your demands.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Horror Rises from the Tomb (1973)

I first saw Horror Rises from the Tomb many years ago (around 2003) as part of a four movie bargain set of zombie movies, and my initial thoughts were, “too slow and not enough zombies.” I had no idea who Spanish filmmaker Paul Naschy was at the time, nor would I have probably cared. I was disappointed I didn’t get the zombie movie the misleading box cover promised. I then cast it aside as an irrelevant film that was best forgotten. (Boy is adult-me really annoyed at teenage-me right now.)

In the midst of my giallo collecting craze around 2008, I eventually came upon a Naschy thriller called Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1974). Needless to say, I dug it and finally became interested in director/writer/actor Paul Naschy. My next Naschy film was Human Beasts (1980), which to me was an even greater experience. Then, after having fun with a couple of Naschy’s werewolf movies, I thought, despite my disconcerting memories of the film, I’d give Horror Rises from the Tomb another go with a new perspective as a Naschy fan and without my zombie film bias.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Blow Job – un soffio erotico (1980)

Not to be confused with Andy Warhol’s Blow Job (1963), Alberto Cavallone’s Blow Job is a witchy Italian horror film with a fairly meagre start that escalates into a reality transcending experience that was influenced by Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1952) and the shamanistic writings of Carlos Castaneda. One similarity between both films is the titular blowjob and its ambiguous nature. Warhol’s Blow Job is a thirty five minute still-shot of a young man’s (DeVeren Bookwalter) face while he is supposedly receiving fellatio, allegedly by experimental filmmaker Willard Maas. Because the sexual act itself takes place off camera, it is never absolutely certain if the fellatio is legitimately happening, which along with conflicting accounts of the filming itself adds a curious air of mystery to it.

The blowjob in Cavallone’s film only makes up a fraction of the movie during the third act and coincides with a mescaline (the main active hallucinogen in peyote) trip, and so the fellatio is also presented indirectly. The mescaline aided “blowjob” sort of doubles as a gateway act to a higher form of perception, but the fascination in this case comes more from how the filmmakers choose to represent “suchness” or “the absolute”, the ultimate nature of reality without reduced awareness. One of our lead characters Stefano (Danilo Micheli) transcends reality, under the guidance of an erotic witch Sibilla (Mirella Venturini), to take a trip through the spirit world, aka tripping balls. It involves dancing and low budget experimental set pieces and was more memorable than I was anticipating it to be.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Ten Films That Describe My Aesthetic

Terence from Chicks with Candles has tagged me to “list ten films that describe my aesthetic.” I believe this is a Tumblr game that has leaked into Blogger in my case. Before me, Terence was tagged by @alfredsnightmare. So what does it mean to say “my aesthetic”? With movies, I think of it as a familiar visual and emotional theme that still resonates with me irregardless of how many times I experience it. 

But perhaps the included images might speak a little more than words.

1) The Forbidden Photos of a Lady above Suspicion (1973): Colorful liquor bar carts, ‘70s giallo glamor, Euro-nightclubs, Technicolor, small cars, cigarettes, Edda Dell’Orso, Ennio Morricone – So these features could describe a lot of movies, but this one has one of my favorite titles and Nieves Navarro in a black high split open side dress. I thought that Navarro’s proud and confident sexually liberated character Dominique felt like a proto-Samantha from Sex and the City.

2) Succubus (1968): Provocative muses, looming castle destinations, mannequins, inner personality conflicts, nightclub faux torture scenes, dream sequences, trippy acid parties – The hazy soft-focused sequence when Janine Reynaud’s Lorna Green drifts out of bed and ventures to the limestone river castle in Lisbon and the questionable perspective of dream or reality remains a gold standard for surreal film experiences for me. Is she mad, or just not of this world?

3) The Reincarnation of Isabel (1973): Erotic madness, mountainous terrain, spaced out looking actors standing around the Castle Balsorano, Eastmancolor, expressive sadomasochism, comical sex scenes, day and night merging, excessive use of grandiose set pieces – This movie’s a chaotic mess, but it’s also an expressionistic masterpiece that thrives on account of its aesthetic and not its narrative.

4) The Blood Spattered Bride (1972): Ancestral mansions, sapphic vampires, Carmilla influenced, bloody daggers, blurred line between dream and reality, bloody mariticide, gothic candle lit dinner scenes, sylvan settings – Beautiful but disturbing with several uncomfortable parts, The Blood spattered Bride still works as a great Spanish horror film despite being pretty heavy with its tones of misogyny and misandry.

5) The Spider Labyrinth (1988): Conspiracy theory – How can conspiracy theory be an aesthetic? Well, have a look at the included screen grab below. That realization that you were in the lion’s den the entire time makes for a uneasy experience in denouements to films such as The Perfume of the Lady in Black, Short Night of Glass Dolls, and Rosemary’s Baby.

6) Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night (1987): ‘80s Filmation nostalgia, inappropriately scary for intended kid audience, creepy carnivals – This unofficial sequel to Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio did give me nightmares, particularly on account of one scene with Pinocchio at The Neon Cabaret, some sort of kid disco (the Playland counterpart), where the kids' faces start to horrifically distort after he drinks the sparkly green liquid, which I like to think is carbonated Ecto Cooler spiked with absinthe.

7) All the Colors of the Dark (1972): Black Masses, Edwige fenech (yes, she counts as an aesthetic), looming mansion destinations, Bruno Nicolai, staying classy and fashionable (like something out of a JCPenny’s catalogue) while being stalked by your killer. I love black mass scenes and All the Colors of the Dark easily has my favorites.

8) The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman (1971): Vampires moving through space in slow motion, classic monster mashups, Paul Naschy, gothic ambiance – With the right amount of fog and dread, slow motion framing can make your monsters seem to exist outside of space and time, and the effect is quite startling, so much so that Amando di Ossorio would mimic it for his Blind Dead Templars.

9) Queens of Evil (1970): Horror movies with a fairytale exterior, provocative situations that aren’t what they seem, ancient witches in touch with modern ‘70s fashions, Snow White, free spirited hippies with a lot of crazy ideas about free loveQueens of Evil is a fantastic horror film with a biting social message.

10) Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988): Classic cel animation juxtaposed with reality, nourish style set in 1940s LA, inappropriate for kids despite being one of my favorite movies as a kid – There couldn’t be anything more awesome than cartoons being real and the existence of a place like Toontown and not to mention a chance to meet Betty Boop.


Friday, April 1, 2016

Adrift / Touha zvaná Anada (1971)

Adrift was one of the last, if not the last, Czechoslovak New Wave films before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Filming was actually interrupted by the invasion, with a military bridge being temporarily erected at the filming site on the banks of the Danube River. Adrift’s co-director and co-writer (academy award winning filmmaker Ján Kadár) then fled the country and made another film in the US, The Angel Levine. After the loosening of Soviet control in Czechoslovakia in 1969, Kadár returned, and, after getting everyone back together, filming for Adrift resumed.

I became interested in Adrift (or my preferred title: A Desire Called Anada) at random while scanning for new older foreign films to watch. One drew me in by its poster design (I know, typical) that put me in the mood for a haunting, surreal fantasy about a water nymph. I also saw that it was Czechoslovak, which had me recalling At the Mansion of Madness favorites Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) and Morgiana (1972). I’ve also been meaning to explore more Czechoslovak New Wave films, especially for this site, so I kind of committed myself to Adrift for review before even watching it. I decided not to read anything about it and go in fresh without knowing what it was about or if it was any good. (Yep, that’s how this blogger sometimes picks movies). Spoiler: it’s good.

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