Greetings my fiendish friends and welcome to the first week of A JOURNAL OF FEAR. This is Year Three of this little project, where I write about an activity I was already doing, that is watching a different horror movie every day in the month of October. For a brief but overly boring introduction you can click here and to read some of past years’ material click here. As usual, I am again running behind (this has been a theme of the project every year) so I thank you again, and always, for your patience. I wanted to start this year off with a series of films I had not seen rather than ones I was revisiting. I love the revisits but too often these turn either toward nostalgia or revulsion when the film does not hold up to my memory of it. OF COURSE, another theme of this project is my effort to create a schedule, and fate’s efforts to make my plans seem ridiculous. So, there were some shuffles that had to be made, and here we are. Still, I hope this is an auspicious start that gets you excited enough to stick with me, tell your friends, and, most importantly, watch some horror movies.
Why not start with the entirely unfamiliar? Madhouse is, in many ways, a meta exploration of a horror sub-genre which was on its way out at the time it was made. Madhouse is a film about film making, and in fact is a film about horror. It stars Vincent Price in one of many roles which function as a commentary on his own career. It is a confession, not only of the ways that what you love can limit and haunt you, but also a defense of the great power these movies hold for so many people. The film incorporates footage from his old films, and accredits them to his character Peter Toombes, a horror actor who has a breakdown after the murder of his finance. When he begins his return to the industry, the murders start again, and he must determine if someone is committing these crimes and framing him or if he in fact has had a psychotic break and is the perpetrator.
Madhouse is not just a meta commentary on horror, and specifically the world of gothic horror and its decline, it is also a giant mess. The special features on the blu-ray release from Kino Lorber has a wonderful featurette which highlights the absolute chaos that was underlying the creation and release of this film. The script was a mess, unfinished and under constant re-write not only from the scriptwriter but from the actors themselves. Much of the continuity in the film was created, almost whole cloth, in the editing room because the filming was so off course. The production was a co-production of Amicus and American International and these two companies were at it tooth and claw behind the scenes, leading to horrible issues between the producers and director Jim Clark. Honestly, I find tales of such on and off set intrigues entirely uninteresting unless it is evident on screen, so let me assure you that in this case, it certainly is. Madhouse is a strange mash up of ideas and plots, and while the central story somehow makes it through, much of the film is just a head scratcher for sure.
However, despite these obvious limitations, Madhouse still works in many ways, not least of which is as a serviceable vehicle for both Vincent Price and Peter Cushing, whose end reveal is played quite well. Not only that, while the film did not make the sort of money AIP was hoping to recoup from a Vincent Price picture, it did have a lasting effect on the culture. Madhouse is seen by many as a goodbye, as last hurrah even, for the gothic horror films that had been the home to actors like Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee. While it was in no way a death knell, it was perhaps a final climax, a last romp before these style of films wandered off into the twilight of obscurity. I am not sure. My research did not reveal any commentary on that time as aromatic about Madhouse‘s place in the horror cannon as the special featurette claims. Perhaps this idea is not really as strong as they suggest, but it is fitting for me.
Madhouse is in some ways a cynical commentary as much as it is a sentimental one, highlighting the extent to which greed and manipulation dominate an industry we prefer to think of as a dream factory where magic is made. The film itself is a strange cohesion of so many disparate elements, not least of which was the wonderful Vincent Price’s ego, but of course, deservedly so. While there was not much about this film that really got to me, it was entertaining for sure. In fact, I am not sure if any Vincent Price movie is not at the very least watchable, simply for his presence. However, this film interested me for two reasons. One was simply the commentary on its stars, a trope that I think happens more often then I realize. I am sure there are a few movies which do this with varying levels of skill, but I can only think of a few and I always find it interesting. I mean, sometimes interestingly bad, but still interesting. However, it is this aspect of the mess that coalesces into a passable film that I am also compelled by. Sure, Madhouse is no classic. It is, however, entertaining and fun. It also works as an interesting conversation on classic horror films, and the men who made them. Price has a line where he is describing, in character of course, why he would do such films. He describes these films as somehow going beyond normal life, to something more visceral and maybe real. That seems as good a place to start this experience as any other.
DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING
(NOTE: Each week I will be collaborating on the Friday post with the awesome Nick Spacek of Rock and Roll Journalist (link) and From and Inspired by podcast (link). We did this last year, in a less focused way. This year, every Friday, we will be doing FULCI FRIDAYS, focusing on a film by the master Lucio Fulci. Don’t Torture a Duckling is the first of our series)
The real mark of a zonkers Italian flick is being able to watch it over and over, reveling in its strange visuals and plot twists, and having fun with the absurdity of the violence. The first time through, Don’t Torture a Duckling is an enjoyable watch, but the second? Man, knowing the ending and all the twists just make for a slog. It’s good, solid, filmmaking, but Fulci hadn’t yet learned to be fun at this point. There are moments of ridiculousness, like a naked woman mocking a young boy, or repeated zooms on a Donald Duck toy, but nothing really goes into “nasty because we can” territory.
I appreciate that, at heart, this is proto-Fulci. Notably, it’s the gore effects that you’d see in his later works. When the villagers corner the village witch, Maciara, and attack her, take a look at the way she’s beaten with the chain: seven years later, in The Beyond, it’s pretty much repeated when the villagers attack Schweick. You also have your woman with no agency until a man takes charge — in this instance, Barbara Bouchet as Patrizia (you could also include Irene Papas as Dona Aurelia Avallone, the priest’s mother). That’s a pattern that repeats in each and every Gates of Hell movie, as well as the likes of The New York Ripper.
It does get delightfully fucked-up in the middle, while the witch confesses and speaks, but it’s otherwise a blip in the middle of an otherwise pretty bog-standard thriller. Once her very disturbing, and hallucinogenic death scene is over, it’s back to boring until the end. For the five minutes it lasts, it’s quietly disturbing violent intensity. The ending is a great pay-off if you’ve been watching attentively, but if you’ve seen it once, that’s enough.
Is it Giallo? There’s a mystery, there’s highly-stylized violence, very pointless nudity of very beautiful women, and strangely-framed shots. And, much like a Giallo, the actual plot is pretty negligible — but, in this case, not full enough of absurdly psychedelic imagery to make being able to ignore it a possibility. That’s what separates this from Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy: in the case of those films, you don’t need to know what’s going on to enjoy them. Don’t Torture a Duckling is too much detective story to be able to just sit back and zone out on the oddity unfolding in front of you.
But having watched it a second time, there is something a little more which can be sussed from the film, beyond the action highlights. For instance: is there something we’re supposed to take from the opening scenes of the town witch, holding a child’s skeleton in her hands, standing within view of the modern highway? Absolutely: the film’s as much about the battle of a small town against encroaching modernity as it is a search for the killer of these young boys.
If you really want to read into it, you can reduce the film to being about trying to freeze time in a specific milieu, be it the city trying to cope with modernity (even as they hide their own perversions or stone a witch) or the priest “saving” the boys from their own adolescence, or even when they intersect in the priest’s lecture on the people who watch TV or read the news, and how “certain magazines” don’t make it to town.
There’s a line in this old Video Watchdog review that sums it up perfectly, saying that Don’t Torture a Duckling “transcends glib finger-pointing to speak truth to a culture unbalanced by having one foot planted in an ancient world of saints and martyrs while the other is set in a modern age of lonely people without a vocabulary to express their sadness.”
I am not gonna lie, this is one of those Fulci films which, for whatever reason, I entirely missed. I am not sure if it is the “Giallo” nature of it, or perhaps the simple fact that it is an early movie which is more difficult to find. However, while I have seen the Gates of Hell trilogy so many times they feel like home, this film was not even on my radar to watch until you suggested it. Don’t Torture a Duckling is a real head scratcher when you consider the entire breadth of Fulci films, and I am not sure how I feel about it.
I agree with your basic idea that, while this movie is well made, it lacks a lot of the ridiculous aspects of Fulci’s later work, the strange and cruel elements that make those movie so unavoidably entertaining. I think, though, when it comes to questions I have about Fulci, this film is now at the top of my list of examples. In fact, if one is concerned about the ways Fulci depicts gender, an issue only further complicated by stories of his behavior on set, this film doesn’t help. I cannot think of another of his films I have seen in which women are so clearly objects of both fear and derision. Not to say that a film like New York Ripper does not have many of its own problems. What gets to me here is how many varieties of stereotypical female characters are on display, and how many of them are negative. From the loud and large prostitutes to the young drug addict, and of course the witch who is murdered so brutally, the film seems to have no little anxiety about women.
This of course bleeds into a second aspect of the film, which is its anxieties around sex. Here, though, I suspect your idea about the old/new dynamic, or rather the traditional smashing into the modern is really at play. Still, while Fulci wants to use sex in his film in the same entertaining and sultry manner of many Giallo, this film drips with a certain awkward attitude about sex. The scene which really stuck with me was the one of the hip young women with the young man. Yes, there is more going on in this scene, but there was also some really strange sexual tensions in it. I was impressed by it in some ways, but taken as a whole I am not sure what to make of it. I was reminded again of New York Ripper in that it is the only other of Fulci’s films I could think of in which sex plays such an important role thematically. Yet, it was entirely different.
Of course, I am reading far too deeply into this one, as is my tendency. Unfortunately, what Don’t Torture a Duckling suffers from, for me, is more plot turns and reveals than interest. Giallo are deliciously lurid, disturbingly violent, and stylistically masterful. For a director who, in many ways, is one of my favorites specifically in his stylistic mastery, I was disappointed at how bland the film is. The small bursts of gore are very satisfying, and the murder of the witch is as you described. A nightmare scenario hinting at some of the beautiful insanity that was to come later in Fulci’s career.
The final reveal (spoiler: the priest!) speaks for me very much to this anxiety around the old Italy and the modern. In this I am not referencing the most recent scandals around the Catholic priesthood, though this film may remind any of us of that for sure. No, but they are also not unrelated. In Italy, if not around the world, for many the priesthood represents some sort of holdover from another time. An entire class of people living off of superstitions that for many seem not only irrational, but archaic. The reveal of his murderous rampage is not entirely unsympathetic, but it does hint at this feeling, that old Italy must make way for the new. In this case, the old is literally killing the future, in the form of the very young men it was meant to protect and prepare for the future.
TWO EVIL EYES
Two Evil Eyes is one of those movies I have heard about forever and just never been able to catch. The film is actually two sorts of films combined, one by George Romero the other by Dario Argento. This lineup may get anyone in the know stoked until you realize the film is a 1990ish release so, we are talking later period for both directors. Both films are based on stories by Edgar Allen Poe. This alone would be enough for many folks to give this film a shot, but I have never been a huge Poe fan. When I was a kid I liked some of his stuff, but for some reason, later in life, a lot of his short stories stopped appealing to me.
The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar is the Romero section, it stars Adrienne Barbeau as a trophy wife who, colluding with her dying husband’s doctor, seeks to cash in early on her inheritance from her marriage. The doctor, who doubles as her lover and co-conspirator, uses hypnosis to get her dying husband to perform all sort of tasks designed to get them at his money. Of course, something goes wrong, and her husband passes away while under hypnosis. Things soon spin out of control as creatures from the other side use her husband’s not quite dead body as a bridge to our world. It is a creepy re-imagining and works on quite a few levels. Unsurprisingly, some research revealed that Argento had hoped originally for a series based on Poe’s stories, and this segment was the pilot. I mean no insult to say the entire section feels like a reasonably well done episode of Tales from the Crypt.
The anxiety underlying this film seemed at first to me to very much be related to fidelity and relationships. Humans, at their very core, are untrustworthy. Thus the film works as a bit of a morality tale. Those who do ill are themselves subject to forces of evil who are also quite cruel. There is something, historically speaking, very religious about the horror morality tale. Passion plays in Europe throughout christendom were often violent and disturbing stories, designed to frighten a populace into obedience. Of course, they might also have been traditional horror stories adapted to have moralistic aspects to satisfy a controlling christian moral authority. Hard to say. The moral aspect of this story, though, seems like only one way to see it. Granted, it is an interesting one. I personally have always preferred nihilistic or heroic scary stories more then bad characters coming to bad ends. I know bad things happen to the righteous and the wicked, so to speak, and watching bad stuff happen to bad people has always seemed a little boring to me.
The part of this film that got me was the anxiety around consciousness. It may seem hokey, the idea that dying whilst hypnotized might lead to some sort of between state, a state between life and death. However, if you stop and think about the complexities of consciousness, it is not what I would call “plausible,” but it is interesting. How do we know exactly what hypnosis is? Sure, if you are a strict materialist the idea that consciousness “is” anything is problematic. That is a problem you have to face though. Not that I am claiming Romero has any insights here. Rather, it feels like such a strange throwback to a different time to even have this as an element. That I guess is what I find more fascinating, remembering what a problem consciousness once was for us. It is, for me, very interesting even if I also have no insight on it. I am not sure that all we are, that our unique individual dreams and hopes, are all just reactions in a bodily organ. That doesn’t mean, though, that I think hypnosis is some deeper state of existence. At least, I don’t think so.
The Dario Argento installment has many of his classic, nightmarish elements, but manages to fall mostly flat. The Black Cat has a young Harvey Keitel which I freaking love, especially his ridiculous beret. The story itself though? Sure, it combines elements from a variety of cool Poe narratives with The Fall of The House of Usher, but honestly it left me cold. I could use more Keitel in my life, but not like this. Two Evil Eyes in the end is one good and one not so good story. Still, I am glad I was able to mark this classic off my list.
THE LORD OF ILLUSIONS
I was really committed to watching a new movie this week, as well as watching something I had not seen before. And I did. However, turns out I have to write a real review of that movie. Such is life. So, I went to the next thing in my blu-rays to watch pile, and that was the Scream Factory release of Lord of Illusions.
I came to this one with more than a little bit of trepidation. I mean, maybe you share my love/hate relationship with Clive Barker? His books shaped a lot of my high school reading. I found them engrossing and interesting, and so, when I realized he directed too, I of course wanted to jump on to anything he was a part of. The story which inspired this film, The Last Illusion appeared in the Books of Blood series, a series of books I was obsessed with and read through multiple times. Why then do I find Barker’s films such a mix for me? Hellraiser is of course a masterpiece in every way. Barker just created a nightmarish world with that film, depicting images that still haunt me today in my 30s. Nightbreed begins his slide into things I cannot wholly back, and yet I kind of love. I am not sure which I prefer more, the original theatrical cut or the director’s cut, but both appeal. Sure, both are also a mess of ideas and poorly executed concepts that never quite coalesce around all the potential that is there. Yet it was his last feature length film, The Lord of Illusions, that I actively disliked as a kid. I saw it on TV again and again, and I rented it shortly after it came out, and yet it never clicked.
Now, returning to it, and specifically watching the director’s cut, I found myself really enjoying it. I know part of that was finally understanding what Barker was on to stylistically. Not claiming he gets there of course. Barker wants to import film noir elements into a supernatural horror film, and it does not always work. I like it though, the effort that is. I want that film to exist. Maybe I want it to have better acting, to be smoother, to have more disturbing visuals and less awful CGI. Yet, I still want it. I realize, too, the similar DNA between D’Amour as a character and John Constantine. I also realize how often I have imagined my own version of these two, somewhere between them. Someone as noble as D’Amour but with the skills and know how of Constantine, a world where Moore era Constantine and the fucked up imagination of Barker mix it up with a little bit of Fulci visuals mixed in.
I am getting off topic. Point is, while I am not sure how different this version is from the original, this version clicked with me. It is likely not the film which has changed that much, but rather me. I want this mix up, this melding of magic and horror and noir conventions. Why do I want it so much? I am not sure. I guess I also went in on this viewing with far more skepticism. Lord of Illusions was not a purchase. It was sent for me to review and I just never had the heart to revisit that sense of disappointment I had as a kid. Watching it this time, I expected to be let down, to not see the world I loved reading about so much embodied the way I needed it to be. Yet, so much of what little I remember was there, as well as new creepy things. The film is never horrifying, and lacks many jump scares, which I am glad of. It does though have a deep creepiness to it, a sort of insidious imagery, that invades the psyche. I found myself occasionally pausing it and taking a shot in to see how meticulously arranged it was, and how awful. Granted, this is not at Fulci level disturbing, but Barker is no slouch in the nightmare department. D’Amour is perhaps just a bit too, mopey? As D’Amour I wanted a more bitter, hard nosed detective, and maybe that is beyond Scott Bakula’s capabilities? Then again, he is endearing enough, and his performance never spoils the film. For my money though, the movie belongs to Daniel Von Bargen and Barry Del Sherman, two underrated character actors whose work vacillates between place holding and scene chewing. Both were perfect for this film, and their performances add just the right level of ludicrous creepy that the movie needs.
In the end, Lord of Illusions is still not great, even in the director’s cut. The ideas underneath and the story it comes from are so good that it is almost impossible not to feel a sense of regret after the film. Not for watching the film, but that such potential ends up being underutilized. If any movie is ripe for a rewrite, remake, and a much larger budget, it is this one for me. The world of D’Amour has so much visceral strangeness to it, and Barker has created such a strange metaphysics that deserves a deep exploration on screen. For me, I am in a space lately where walking that line, between heaven and hell, as D’Anour puts it, really appeals. Barker never suggests that what he is writing about is anything more than an exploration of human desire. That is fine. In fact, Lord of Illusions excels in blurring the line between believing in magic and believing in people. What actual magic can either Swann or Nixx really do? Not much. Yet what little there is may be enough to open another world. I know this story goes further in future books, books I read and plan to return to. But for now, Lord of Illusions reminds me of a desire to see someone walking that line, between gritty reality and more fluid magic. Someone who will not be fooled, but can risk believing, if only a little bit.