Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Hallow

The Hallows (2015)
Dir. Corin Hardy
Written by Corin Hardy, Felipe Marino
Starring Joseph Mawle, Bojana Novakovic

When a cosmopolitan young family moves into the Irish countryside, they find the locals a wee bit standoffish. It starts to look a little STRAW DOGSish at first, but gradually we come to realize that cantankerous neighbors are the least of their problems. Turns out the ancient Irish forest is home to some mythic creatures who don’t take kindly to strangers entering their territory, and have every intention of taking the couple’s baby by way of restitution. Mom and Dad find this an unacceptable arrangement, and a grueling battle ensues.

THE HALLOWS takes a little long to get going, but once our supernatural antagonists turn up, it blooms into a terrific little creature feature, simultaneously legitimately scary and a hell of a lot of fun. The creatures are mainly practical effects, and they have a really unique design by British animatronics master John Nolan (HELLBOY II, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE) which gives them a look halfway between corpses and slime mold. Apparently there’s a smattering of CGI in there too, mostly subtle enhancements of the practical stuff, but the effect is tactile in a way not a lot of movie monsters can claim these days. Shooting actual creatures on an actual set makes it possible to do much more with lighting and composition than would be possible just shooting an empty room and leaving the rest to the nerds. Like most indie horror efforts these days, THE HALLOWS is shot with an eye towards gritty realism, but the confidence lent by the on-set monsters also seems to have freed director Corin Hardy to indulge in some subtly surreal lighting and handsome, iconic framings. It sounds weird, but it makes perfect sense for a movie which successfully blends a thoroughly mundane real world with the encroaching influence of fantastical, dark fairy tales.

Structurally, THE HALLOWS isn’t reinventing the wheel or anything; it’s mostly home-invasion, monster edition, with a smattering of THE THING providing some primo body horror and paranoia about how much the crafty forest sprites can mess with your mind. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but with its cool-looking monsters and subtle focus on crafting an engrossing mythology out of Irish folktales, it immediately stands out from the pack. These details give it a richer character, which then pays off in spades as the movie executes the hell out of the standard horror notes. SEAGALOGY author Vern has a terrific theory that horror movies are like blues songs.* The point isn’t to play something no one has ever heard before, the point is to play the same structure but imbue it with your own personality and style. HALLOWS is a perfect example of that: a pretty standard framework, played with superb technical chops, plenty of passion, and a bounty of terrific details which makes the form feel as vital and personal as it’s ever been. It makes the inevitable feel unpredictable and lively, which is about the highest compliment I’d feel comfortable offering to a first-time filmmaker.

Once the monsters show up, there’s very little downtime, and the movie bounds from setpiece to setpiece with an assured enthusiasm. It does run into some problems beforehand, though; considering the simplicity of the premise here, a bit too much time at the start of the film gets spent establishing the family and their ultimately kind of unimportant problems fitting into the community. The script and acting are uniformly strong, so it’s not like these scenes are badly done or anything, but there’s probably no reason to look in on their life so long before the chaos starts. Kudos to Joseph Mawle (RED RIDING: 1980, Game of Thrones), and Bojana Novakovic (EDGE OF DARKNESS, DRAG ME TO HELL) who are the only two actors on-screen in 90% of the movie and nail both their quiet, intimate downtime and their crazy horror histrionics, but wheel-spinning with strong acting is still wheel-spinning. Fortunately that’s all forgiven by the excellently-paced and relentless battle of wills which ensues, and the movie sticks the landing with aplomb. Besides, when the end teases an insanely dark twist but eventually backs off, I found myself actually relieved that at least our protagonists got some measure of victory. So I guess maybe all that time we spent beforehand wasn't such a waste after all. You could still probably stand to strip ten minutes from the first quarter of the film, but who can complain when the back end is so rife with greatness? Plus, even one of the more unnecessary scenes has a Michael Smiley cameo, which by definition turns it back into an extremely necessary scene.

Bottom line, this is the tense, stylish creature feature that THALE probably should have been. It’s a memorable horror premise augmented by great effect work, strong filmmaking, and exactly enough ambition to make it stand out, but not so much that it overreaches and can’t deliver. Stay through the credits for an elegant and elegiac implication of horror to come... followed immediately by a shameless jump scare. Which more or less perfectly sums up the movie’s aspirations. It’s a classy affair overall, but its not ashamed at all of its pulpy pedigree. It may not quite hit the sublime highs it would need to go down as a genre classic, but it’s a tremendously promising debut for director Hardy and as accomplished and successful a monster movie as I hope to see this year. Fortuitously, I got a chance to check it out before it hit theaters during the AFI's Spooky Film Festival this year, and by happenstance by the time I got around to reviewing it it's actually getting its theatrical release. If monster movies are your thing, get thee to a showing, and enjoy a rare moment where I'm writing about a current film you could actually conceivably see.

*From the "Hacthet" review: "I believe that slasher movies are a classic American artform not equal to but similar to the blues. There are simple, familiar tunes that you follow, and you put your own spin on it, but you don’t have to get too fancy, you still want it to be recognizable."


Play it Again, Samhain

  • TAGLINE: Nature has a dark side
  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: No, loosely inspired by Irish folklore
  • SEQUEL: None
  • REMAKE: No
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: This is hardly the first horror film for any of the cast, but I don't think they're quite iconic yet. Michael Smiley is certainly beloved, and has been in his share of horror movies, but I don't think he's really especially iconic in the genre.
  • BOOBIES: None
  • MULLETS: None
  • MONSTER: Yep
  • POSSESSION: Yes, and rather inventively.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: Not exactly, though based on folk belief.
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: None, although there is a live baby.
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Yes, and I'll leave it at that
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: High, small-budget indie.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: In America, you cut down forest. In Ireland, forest cuts down you!
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Yeah, there's a hallow in there, why not. Originally titled even more generically as THE WOODS, a pretty unmemorable name which the 2006 Lucky McKee movie had already denied to M. Night Shamylan's THE VILLAGE. Thankfully, this one turned out better than that one.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Ebola Syndrome

Ebola Syndrome (1996)
Dir. Herman Yau
Written by Ting Chau (aka Candy Cheng)
Starring Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Yeung-Ming Wan

The doctor's face says it all.
WARNING: If you’re a relative or friend of mine just checking out his blog for the sake of polite curiosity, for God’s sake, don’t read this. Don’t look this up. You don’t want to look at me sometime in the future and know I watched this. Moreover, if you suffer from any sensitivities of any kind whatsoever, including entirely justifiable sensitivities to legitimately horrible things, for God’s sake, DO NOT CONTINUE. If you have triggers, or strongly held moral views, or even lingering vestiges of genuine human decency, DO NOT CONTINUE. I’ll have some nice reviews about polite 60’s horror movies up soon, I promise. THIS IS NOT ONE OF THOSE. I’m telling you this for your own good and for our continued friendship. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

..................last chance.

.......OK, you can't say I didn't warn you.

Well, gulp, I knew this day would come. Time to lose some friends. The last time I posted about a movie this tasteless, it was the mondo fauxumentary about slavery, ADDIO ZIO TOM. At the time, I was averaging about 300 consistent readers for every one of my reviews. Since then, I’ve been averaging around 20. And that one was at least an unwitting disaster made earnestly by well-intentioned people who just had no clue. This one could only have been made by genuinely deranged lunatics with the express intention of creating something lurid and repellant beyond all conceivable bounds of good taste. You can’t even defend it by saying “well, it was a different time,” because it was fucking 1996.

I’ll say one nice thing about it. At least it’s upfront about what it is. It’s not one of these shady sleazy movies which tries to disguise itself in bland platitudes to entice nice old ladies from the Midwest into picking it up at the Safeway checkout counter, blissfully unaware that they’re about to get an unexpected window into a world they never wanted to know anything about. This isn’t something you can just come across. If you go out of your way to buy a Hong Kong category III import called THE EBOLA SYNDROME, you’re basically signing that waiver, buddy. You can’t complain that you didn’t know what you were getting into.

Of course, that just makes it worse that I’ve reviewing it here. But you know my promise to you, I review every movie I watch in October, no exceptions. So, baring my soul, here we go.

I’m not as familiar with the deep, strange rabbit hole of Hong Kong exploitation cinema as I am with, say, the Hammer Studios films, or anything starring Steven Seagal (And judging from this one, my life is much better off for it). But I do know that EBOLA SYNDROME is one of the infamous “Category III” Hong Kong films, a rating that seems to sort of straddle both R and NC-17 films on the Hollywood scale. Some pretty normal-seeming stuff like Johnnie To’s ELECTION movies are Category III, but so are about a thousand softcore pornos that came out in the 80’s and 90’s. All well and good, but that Category III label is also a cover for a handful of truly infamous deviant works of grand guignol. MEN BEHIND THE SUN, DR. LAMB, THE UNTOLD STORY. EBOLA SYNDROME. These names are spoken in hushed tones even by people who think THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2 is a hilarious romp. These are not works of art for the casually interested, these are strictly for the pros. And, of course, the genuinely deranged.

Given that, I have to say that EBOLA SYNDROME is not the gorefest I was expecting given its reputation. It’s certainly morally repugnant --an assessment which I think the filmmakers would gleefully confirm-- but visually it’s not too much more disgusting than your typical Wayans brothers comedy. Unless you don’t like to watch rape. In which case you shouldn’t even be reading this review, let alone watching this movie. Let me state this clearly just so there’s no confusion: EBOLA SYNDROME definitely finds serial rape to be a pretty fun time at the movies in a wacky EVIL DEAD over-the-top sort of way.* If that’s gonna be a dealbreaker for you… well, you’re right. But as a journalist I have a duty to report on what I’ve seen, so let’s dive right in.

EBOLA SYNDROME centers around this guy Kai San (Anthony Wong, HARD BOILED, INTERNAL AFFAIRS, and more relevant to us here, Hong Kong Film Awards Best Actor for THE UNTOLD STORY) who is just... I don’t think there’s a word for what he is. He’s just the worst. Just the absolute worst. When we meet him, he’s murdering a family after he’s caught having sex with his boss’s wife. At first he seems more like a groveling, whiny maggot than a sadistic monster; when the husband catches him he snivels and weeps about how unfair everyone is to him. But the moment he sees an opportunity, he savagely and gruesomely murders both husband and wife, hunts down their young daughter, and douses her was gasoline -- she’s spared only when he’s interrupted lighting the match and has to flee. When you see the daughter turn up later in the movie as an adult, you’d assume she’d be the main character who will eventually get some revenge against this fucking prick. Oh, how little you understand Hong Kong.

Instead, the movie follows Kai to South Africa, where he ends up contracting ebola in the process of raping (and murdering, naturally) a dying Zulu woman from an infected tribal area. Then, he heads back to town and graphically rapes and murders his new bosses at a Johannesburg Chinese Restaurant. All the while, he never fucking stops bitching and moaning about how unfair the world is to him. You might be tempted to see his constant whining in the face of his vile behavior as a grotesque parody of psychopathic narcissism. Oh, how little you understand Hong Kong. Whatever you do, don’t look at the IMDB reviews where half these fuckin maniacs seem to side with him. Jesus Christ, internet. What the fuck. I’m not mad at this fictional character being flagrantly horrible, but I am mad at you guys for even entertaining any notion that he could be seen as anything else.

Anyway, Kai is an unambiguously and unrepentantly despicable rapist and murderer, but the funny thing is he doesn’t know he’s an ebola carrier. He is, the movie tells us, a rare genetic variant who can contract ebola but be asymptomatic, and consequently he spreads the disease unknowingly. He does lots of unpleasant things, mind you, like grind his victims into hamburgers and jerk off in the meat, infecting everyone who eats them. But he doesn’t realize he’s an Ebola Mary til the very end of the movie. So weirdly, the one thing which is sort of the movie’s hook isn’t really his fault, despite all the other reasons we have the hate him. In fact, by the climax, the movie seems to improbably sympathize with him. I know Hong Kong gangster films are famous for their sympathetic portrayal of both cop and criminal alike, but I hope we can agree that this particular guy probably goes far enough that we can agree to hate him. Right, internet?

Still, I can’t deny that even here, in what ought to be a career nadir for most actors, Anthony Wong is kind of terrific. He plays Kai as a kind of over-the-top cartoon, a Looney Tunes character of pure Id, except instead of hunting rabbits or roadrunners or whatever it is that Porky Pig does, his thing is that he rapes and murders and whines and gives people ebola. Like that time Alexander Hamilton chopped down George Washington’s cherry tree and then raped it and gave it ebola, I cannot tell a lie, Wong is a dangerously compelling actor, instilling his performance with a frenzied energy and a truly wicked sense of comedy. He’s so entertaining I can almost see how those freakos on IMDB ended up on his side, which makes the whole experience that much more nauseating.

And nauseating it is. You’ve seen plenty of grim, gritty torture porn serial killer flicks, and they’re so dour and self-serious that it’s hard to get too worked up over them. But the same thing as a colorful, frenetic, over-the-top comedy? The cognitive dissonance between tone and content makes it feel more nightmarish, and it genuinely got under my skin a little (it sort of reminds me of the scenes from NATURAL BORN KILLERS with Rodney Dangerfield as teenage Juliette Lewis’ sexually abusive father, set to zany cartoon music and doused in an arch, sit-com style). I’m man enough to admit that I really felt kind of dirty after watching it, in a way I really didn’t after equally disgusting things like CHAOS. If the purpose of art is to provoke a reaction, this one definitely did have that effect, and to a large extent I think Wong has to be credited for that. You can only see so much violent depravity before you reach the saturation point and it just doesn’t really mean anything anymore, and EBOLA SYNDROME hits that point within the first 40 minutes. That it doesn’t just become an entirely boring, repetitive slog after that is entirely the result of Wong and director Herman Yau’s frenzied comic energy.

You could definitely argue that this film is morally reprehensible, and that would be reason enough to avoid it. Alas, I cannot agree with that simple reductive rule, because of course sometimes shocking, repellant, even morally reprehensible art is actually quite great. But fortunately, this is not one of those times. EBOLA SYNDROME has little aspiration to be great art; its loftiest aspiration is probably to get a giggle out of you over how obscenely over-the-line it is. So, given that goal, is it wrong to say that my biggest complaint is actually the crippling lack of narrative here? I know, I know, it's not the point, but still, narrative gives shape and context to the genre goods, and this one doesn't really have any kind of shape at all. It spends the beginning introducing us to this sleazy piece of shit, he murders some people, then he goes to another country, gets ebola and murders some other, unrelated people, and then unknowingly spreads it to various South Africans, then he gets on a plane for Hong Kong and, uh, does the exact same thing again, only in Hong Kong, except less.

No protagonist ever materializes; the movie spends most of its runtime following Kai’s antics, but he has no conflict, and doesn’t even know he has ebola, so there’s not much story there. The young daughter of his first murder victims sporadically turns up, but I notice she never actually does anything (and in fact, later on has to bite him to escape and presumably contracts ebola for her troubles, although we don’t know for sure because she is never mentioned again. That’s some cold blooded shit, Hong Kong!) The treatment of this character is kind of emblematic of how ambivalent the whole enterprise is about conflict; it seems like a revenge storyline should write itself, but the movie barely even bothers to use her as exposition, let alone a protagonist or antagonist. Extremely bad subtitles may have lost some of the nuance, so I can’t criticize the writing (unless the transaction was exactly accurate and it was just written by an illiterate) but come on, is it too much to ask for us some kind of character arc? This guy starts out an asshole, unknowingly gives people ebola, murders and rapes a few people unrelated to the ebola, and then unknowingly gives more people ebola, and in the last 20 minutes he gets in a fight with his wife over a totally unrelated issue (custody of his daughter, who was never mentioned before) and gets shot by police. Wha? That’s not a “story,” it’s barely even a connected series of incidents. Wong’s got some real sleazeball charisma and drags the whole enterprise along behind him, but jeez, he’s unpleasant, and --crucially-- kind of uninteresting. The pace is energetic, but the lack of story defuses any real momentum before it can start.
The narrative is directionless and completely free of any kind of motivating conflict, so by default is ends up episodic, a series of vaguely related vignettes. These lurch uncomfortably between broad slapstick, insanely black comedy, and insanely dark drama, without a lot of consistency (a characteristic fairly typical of Southeast Asian cinema, but particularly jarring here). The movie delivers what it promises in terms of prurient concepts, but aside from a handful of bloody moments it barely even pretends to be a horror movie, even of the splattercore grossout variety. In fact, for a movie whose only reason to exist seems to be to parade out a bunch over-the-line setpieces, it really isn’t all that imaginative or especially dense with craziness. The second half, where he goes back to Hong Kong, is honestly pretty tame. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there’s some pretty graphic rapes and murders in there, but considering the runtime of nearly 100 minutes and the fact that there’s no story to speak of, it’s actually kind of uneventful. It relies on sadism more than twisted ingenuity for its kicks, which makes it a lot less fun than it need to be to maintain a heady sense of transgression all the way through. This needed to go full-on EVIL DEAD if it was gonna totally connect, and instead it’s mostly just a vapid semi-comic HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER. Still in plenty poor taste, but a little dry for a work with literally nothing else to offer.

Case in point:  for a movie whose whole hook is that ebola is bad, we virtually never see any of the actual horrific effects of the disease! People seizure and sometimes projectile-vomit onto others (which, in point of fact, are not Ebola “syndromes”), but we never really see what happens after that. No bleeding, no boils, no weeping blood, nothing. If we’re seriously going to go down the road of making a queasy comedy about ebola, it’s a pretty unforgivable oversight to neglect milking some sicko mileage out of the actual syndromes of the title. What, were they trying to save on the makeup budget? I have no idea. But it definitely was not done in the name of taste. I can forgive a movie devoting itself entirely to the cheap thrills of irresponsible,  transgressive button-pushing, but I can’t forgive it for being so unimaginative about it.

*Lest you think too harshly of us men, note that this was written by a woman, screenwriter Ting Chau who also penned stuff like THE RAPIST BECKONS (sounds pretty classy, what with “Beckons” right there in the title!) and, even worse, Hong Kong Hollywood knockoffs like “ADVENTUROUS TREASURE ISLAND” and “CHINESE MIDNIGHT EXPRESS.” She also did another horror movie with Herman Yau called THE GHOST INSIDE (2005), apparently the most expensive Hong Kong horror film up to that time.


Play it Again, Samhain

  • TAGLINE: None apparent, but come on, what's the tagline going to offer that the title doesn't?
  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Loose adaptation of The Book of Moron Musical
  • SEQUEL: None
  • REMAKE: None, and I think it may just be safe to say this is one we don't have to worry about getting remade.
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Anthony Wong has had major roles in some classic Hong Kong pictures
  • BOOBIES: Yep
  • MULLETS: None
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Total graphic dismemberment.
  • THE UNDEAD: None
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): Absolutely
  • EVIL CULT: No.
  • VOYEURISM: Uhhh... I feel like the has to be a scene where this guy creepily pervs on someone, it just seems sort of inevitable in a movie like this, but damned if I can give you any specifics.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Fairly high, thank Jesus.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: If intentionally giving people ebola is only the fourth or fifth worst thing you do, you just may have what it takes to be a main character in a Hong Kong comedy.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: There is ebola, although weirdly the "syndromes" seem a little off.

Since it's not even really making an effort to be "good," it's a little hard to assign an objective rating. I mean, seems like the freakos online who sought this thing out were satisfied with what they got. It definitely is unrelentingly repellent, which seems to be the only real objective here. Even so, I wish it were a little more well-structured and more creatively depraved. Gun to my head, I'd give it a C-.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Long Hair of Death

The Long Hair of Death (1964)
Dir. Antonio Margheriti
Written by Tonino Valerii, Antonio Margheriti, story by Ernesto Gastaldi
Starring Barbara Steele, George Ardisson, Halina Zalewska

Unfortunately, THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH is not about an evil Rapunzel who strangles people with her pony tale. It’s Italian, so that was not out of the question; if it had been Japan, they’d have just done it, no questions asked, and you know it  (in fact, there’s a 2007 film called EXTE with that exact premise). But no, sadly, it was not to be. Instead, this is a pre-giallo black-and-white affair, a relic of the brief flowering of Italian Gothic Horror that began with Riccardo Freda’s I VAMPIRI in 1957 and took off with Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY in 1960. By the mid-1960s, they would be superseded by the more titillating, explicit sex and violence of the giallos, but in the meantime we got films like THE WHIP AND THE BODY, NIGHTMARE CASTLE, CASTLE OF BLOOD, THE GHOST. Classy, atmospheric affairs which achieve their horror through suggestion and subtext rather than gory bloodletting, but which still pack just enough debauched insanity peeking through the cracks to leave no doubt that they could only be from the mind of Italy.

As is customary in this sort of film, we begin with Barbara Steele. John Lennon once said, "if you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry.’” Well, if you tried to give 60’s Gothic Horror another name, you might call it 'Barbara Steele.’ There’s something about her eerily luminous presence which animates a comfortable majority of these films. She has a distinct kind of beauty, of course, which is part of it, but there’s also something magnetic and compelling about her persona, a mysterious sort of charisma. Her eyes are sharp and alert, but strangely unreadable. It gives her performances a haunting, ambiguous and fluid quality which is perfect for the shifting, baroque nightmare world of the gothic thriller. We never know quite what she’s thinking, but that doesn’t make her any less compelling a performer. A rather rare ability. Plenty of gothic thrillers were being churned out during the 60s --by Hammer, Amicus and their lot in England, and Roger Corman in America-- but with the possible exceptions of Christopher Lee and Vincent Price, I don’t think there is another performer who so perfectly captured the essence of this curious type of horror. Having a lead as potent as Steele is crucial, because by their very nature these films can be a tad lethargic and turgid. Without resorting to histrionics, she manages to make these slow-moving tales of repellant intimation seem lively and engrossing, through the sheer power of her presence. To see what I’m talking about, just compare her to poor Halina Zalewska (THE UGLY ONES) in this one. Zalewska gives a perfectly fine performance in arguably the lead role, but barely registers next to Steele’s alien magnetism. It’s simply the perfect alchemy of a particular talent and a particular cinematic vibe, and the combination is rather electric.

Anyway, we begin the movie in the olden days of Castles and such. Helen (Steele) is pleading for the life of her mother, who is about to be burned to death as a witch by the sadistic Count Humboldt (Giuliano Raffaelli, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE), courtesy of his even more contemptible son, Kurt (George Ardisson, “Dolores’ model,” JULIET OF THE SPIRITS). Humboldt agrees to listen to her concerns that mom has been falsely accused, and then rapes her and burns the old woman alive anyway. Not cool, bro. But it gets worse; unable to save her mom, Steele knows that she’s on the outs with the rich guys, and tries to flee. But really for no discernable reason other than sheer nastiness, Kurt kills her anyway and throws her body in the river. Steele’s daughter Lisabeth, now an orphan, is left in the care of her mother’s killers, and, years later as an adult (now played by Zalewska), literally can’t refuse Kurt when he sadistically demands she marry him.

Wait, years later? What about the revenge?

Don’t worry, I’m getting to that.

One night, out of the fuckin’ blue, Barbara Steele shows up again, fresh from the grave, not looking a day older than when she died. The Count and his son are understandably rattled by this development, but Steele claims her name is Mary, and she doesn’t know anything about any “Helen” or have any idea why they’d look similar. She has a whole backstory that seems to check out, and no obvious connection to Helen or her past. We’re pretty sure she’s back for some sweet saucy revenge, but her exact plan is unclear, and everyone seems to accept that it’s just a happy coincidence that this new lady is an exact double of their former victim. Kurt, obviously still very pleased with himself for murdering this woman years ago and then bedding her orphan daughter, is predictably obsessed with this doppleganger for his previous conquest, and resolves to seduce her and make her his new wife. That’s a problem, because of course he’s already married to Lisabeth -- so Mary and Kurt hatch a plan to kill her off without anyone suspecting foul play.

Wait, again, what about the fuckin’ revenge? Helen comes back from the dead only to kill her daughter and fuck her murderer? What the shit is this?

Don’t worry hombre. There’s gonna be some revenge, and it’s gonna be a doozy. But to explain, I’m going to have to reveal the ending, which is a great one. So I recommend you go and watch it first and then come back here. So, SPOILERS ahoy.

(SPOILERS) So, here’s the thing. This has to be one of the most convoluted and ridiculous revenge plots I’ve ever heard of, but I love it. See, Mary’s been playing the long, long, long con all along. She and Kurt conspire to murder Lisabeth in the most labor-intensive way imaginable: they poison her, but just enough to render her unconscious so they can carry the body through the castle, down a flight of stairs, into the crypt, and put her in a casket, and seal it off with wax (suffocating her), and return an indeterminate amount of time later wearing different and nicer clothes to pick her body back out of the crypt, carry it back upstairs, and set it back in bed so it will appear that she simply suffocated to death in her own bed while lying upright for no reason, all without anyone else noticing, which they reason will allay all suspicions. (There is a certain brilliance to this plan, because come on, who would guess they would go through all that effort, when all they had to do was poison her slightly more at the outset to achieve the same result?)

Fair enough, that all makes perfect sense, wink wink, but still, I don’t see how this brings us any closer to our revenge.

Ah! That’s the great part. Once Lisabeth is dead, they keep seeing her around. The body disappears from the tomb, and Kurt starts to panic that she’s returned from the grave as a ghost. But as you’ve no doubt already guessed, just like every single other goddam gothic horror movie from this period, they’re gaslighting him. Lisabeth and Mary are in cahoots, and they’ve faked Lisabeth’s death so Kurt will panic and they can trick him into a horrible death. But here’s the thing -- Lisabeth, remember, is not a real ghost, they set the whole thing up. But Mary IS a ghost! She’s the spirit of Helen, who returned from her grave and set up this whole elaborate secret identity, just so she could enact this ridiculous gaslighting plot by pretending it’s her daughter who’s the ghost! So, to summarize: An actual ghost set up a convoluted gaslighting plot to fake a haunting by her living daughter! Man, you can’t make this shit up. It’s all in good fun, though, and it’s totally worth the long, long, long, long wait for revenge, because Kurt’s ultimate fate is by far the most satisfying comeuppance in Gothic Horror history. Usually these guys just get shot or something and don’t really get to squirm. Here, Kurt gets some time to really think about just how bad he fucked up -- the camera lingers on his eyes as he waits, helplessly, for a horrific death which he knows he richly earned. It’s a hilariously convoluted way of getting there, but I guess Barbara Steele knew what she was doing because movie revenge just doesn’t get a whole lot better than this (END SPOILERS).

Anyway, THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH is a pretty quintessential example of early 60’s Italian Gothic horror. As with most of its peers, it’s handsomely photographed and nicely acted in the arch, stilted style of the time. It has a sweeping, moody score by Carlo Rustichelli (KILL BABY KILL, DIVORCE ITALIAN STYLE, SEDUCED AND ABANDONED), which, combined with the torchlit castle sets and vivid black and white, produces exactly the kind of perverse melodrama you want out of something like this. And of course, as with most of its peers, it does get a little draggy in the middle, at least in part because of its unnecessarily overbusy plot (I don’t understand why the film bothers to establish the older Count Humboldt or Helen’s mother as characters; they’re unnecessary roles that just diffuse the conflict).

Still, little details give it personality and, I think, elevate it enough to put it in the company of the best examples of this subgenre. It’s one of Steele’s very best performances, playing to her strengths by offering a very ambiguous character who must command the whole movie despite her motivations being completely opaque. And Ardisson, as Kurt, crafts a splendidly loathsome villain, whose smug sadism is matched only by the brutality of his final comeuppance. Getting those two elements right goes a long way -- plenty of equally handsomely crafted Gothic thrillers feel a bit bloodless and listless. This isn’t any more narratively focused, but its central performances give it definition and purpose, even when we’re not really sure where it’s going. That pays off in the final act, which builds a momentum as feisty and diabolical as any comparable film I’ve seen, and builds to a bravura finale.

Don't get too excited, that thing on the left is an effigy, not a friendly bigfoot.

Most importantly, though, there’s an unmistakable hint of that old Italian perverse insanity bubbling just below the surface here, and occasionally bursting through into a few scenes of genuine shock. I doubt the maggot-strewn corpse which crops up here was something audiences were expecting to see at this point. Then there’s a body which ickily rebuilds itself through various stages of decay, and there’s even a little nudity thrown in (sorry fellas, I think it’s a body double) which would never have flown in a Hammer film in 1964.* It’s not exactly titillating stuff by modern standards, but it adds a shade of grotesque danger into the proceedings, powers the whole enterprise with a growling motor of madness and decay which lingers in the air, coloring even the most banal scenes of archly repressed castle life.

The same year would bring BLOOD AND BLACK LACE to Italian cinemas, the first unmistakable giallo and a definitive statement about the direction Italian horror would take for the next few decades. But it didn’t come out of nothing. As you can see from the plot here, the impulse towards the sick, the surreal, the sadistic was already deeply ingrained in the cinematic culture. Director Antonio Margheriti had already been quite a prominent figure in Italian horror (he’d already directed THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG and CASTLE OF BLOOD) and would have no problem seamlessly segueing into the increasingly manic underworld of Italian slashers over the next few years. The days of moody black-and-white castle sets were numbered by the time this one hit cinemas, but even so, the more of these early 60’s film I see, the more I’m convinced that the psychotic spirit of the giallo was present almost from the start. Like Steele’s character here, the giallo would return from the grave of 60’s Gothic horror, different, but the same. And just as hungry for blood. THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH might be something of a tombstone for this era of horror  --or at least a definitive summation of it -- but Italian horror was just getting started.

*I believe, but cannot conclusively prove at the present time, that Hammer’s first foray into nudity would be THE VAMPIRE LOVERS in 1970.


Play it Again, Samhain

  • TAGLINE: Alas, I can't find any evidence of one. The poster just says "Terrifying"
  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: No, from a story by Ernesto Gastaldi, who now that I'm looking at his output, was himself something of a icon of Italian horror, having had a hand in everything from THE HORRIBLE DR. HITCHCOCK to THE WHIP AND THE BODY to YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY.
  • SEQUEL: No
  • REMAKE: No, although NIGHTMARE CASTLE is a virtual remake.
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Barbara Steele
  • BOOBIES: Yes
  • MULLETS: None
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: It's Italian, so yeah.
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Some gross corpse effects and burnings, but nothing severed
  • HAUNTED HOUSE: There is a ghost, but it's not the castle specifically which is haunted
  • THE UNDEAD: Ghost, and also a fake ghost.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): Yes, that bastard Kurt and his dad.
  • EVIL CULT: Ye Olde Tyme religion in this town seems pretty harsh (they cut off the hair of local women to build a Chewbacca effigy)... but there isn't much evidence that they're evil. I guess they were complicit in the burning of the "witch" at the beginning, but the movie makes it clear it was more the fault of Humbolt and his son.
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: Still no dolls!
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Nah, unless you want to count alive into ghost
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Fairly high, not one of Steele's better-known efforts, alas.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: The more convoluted the plot, the sweeter the revenge. And also if you could manage to involve a giant flaming bigfoot effigy, that's a definite plus.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Pretty weak. There is a minor point about hair being involved in the revenge, but it's hardly worth mentioning in the title.