Hey y’all, welcome to our THIRD installment of this year’s A JOURNAL OF FEAR! This is, well honestly describing it as late would actually be generous. This week I definitely took some, well lets call them short cuts. Basically, I added Crimson Peak even though that is not the kind of film I normally cover in this column. I saw it though, and I thought I would have something worth sharing about it. Turns out, I didn’t really. So I apologize for not only breaking the format, but then having no positive results from it. Secondly I included films which I had written up for a review. This was especially egregious as then I had nothing much to say in the journal. I apologize for this as well, but if you click through to the review it is pretty good, so I don’t feel that bad. This happens every year, I underestimate the scope of this project, and then I scramble to keep up. Such is life. I do hope that, what I do have, is worth your time!
Motel Hell holds a special place in my imagination. I, like many folks my age, grew up with the covers of home video releases holding a place in my mind. Motel Hell was one of those movies whose cover I always found enthralling, and yet for some reason I never pulled the trigger. I am not sure why, but something about the art for the film seemed menacing and intense. Strange, how despite my desire for frightening films, some movies I avoided because they seemed like they might be particularly unpleasant. I am sure for some folks this entire genre is unpleasant, but there were some images and ideas that worried me, and something about the cover of Motel Hell told me it would be particularly gritty and cruel. Which, of course, is nothing like the reality.
Motel Hell is basically a dark comedy, a satire of sleazy exploitation cinema, more humor than horror. That is not to say that there is not a good deal of horrifying stuff in this film. In fact, it is in some ways the charm of the film that got under my skin. Motel Hell is the story of good people running a small business, a small specialty meat business, and these fine folks just happen to be cannibals. Then again, with the popularity of their specialty meats, many of us are cannibals as well. Motel Hell, with its strange combination of down home charm and brutal implications, works as a strange parody. There is very little violence on screen, but what is presented is uncompromising. There are bodies, but we don’t see too much of how they got there. There is of course the chainsaw scene, a clear reference to TCM. What is disturbing for me though is in fact how casually the film addresses such gross ideas. That is, Motel Hell is a charming cannibal film. That charm unsettles me.
Sure, Motel Hell works as a parody, but I don’t think it is a straight parody of horror films. It has some gags, and there are clearly homages to other classic films. To be honest, if I had to parse the genre aspects of the film, it would be difficult. It certainly has some exploitation elements. There is a strange love story, which is of course ridiculous and purposefully so. Yet such a whimsical film, basically about murderous cannibals, has something just upsetting about it. I guess that is the basic idea, having a film which manages to balance a fun spirit with some gross content. Yet the film is in some ways the most sanitized cannibal movie one could find. There are some body parts and the garden of human bodies is certainly a creepy image. There are no gory deaths though, and only in the end is there one gushy moment. Such a sanitized film shouldn’t be creepy, but Motel Hell is still effective.
I guess what Motel Hell is about in some ways is expectations. The film plays with expectations of people, one of which is about the country and country folk. There are expectations about good wholesome people, and there is an expectation that there is something rotten under the surface that the film plays into. There is an element of southern exploitation here, playing off the fear in the rest of the country that the hills and valleys of the south are filled with human monsters. It also subverts expectations as well, combining the humorous and charming aspects of the farmers with their brutal murdering ways. It also plays with expectations about love stories, horror films, and how we assume narrative works. That subverting of expectations should not mislead you to look for something deep in this film. Motel Hell is mostly on the surface. It does some unexpected and fun things, but there is also not that much there. I was entertained by it, but most of all I was reminded how often cover art and the actual film do not match up.
October 13: THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW
Sometimes with a movie like The Blood on Satan’s Claw I wonder if this is also a kind of country horror. This is a film in which superstition is almost ubiquitous, and is perhaps in some ways the villain of the film. Of course, the eventual reveal of the evil bat creature corrupting the kids is clearly the focal point. Still, there is some real anxiety here about superstitions and the like. This film is part of a brief trend in British horror in the 70s called “folk horror,” often associated with films like The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General. The Wicker Man is another great example in which superstition and a particular place or people are conflated to effective purposes.
The film focuses on a small village which falls apart when the children and some of the elders are seduced into worshipping an evil creature in the woods. This begins with two events which feel unrelated but are loosely tied together. One is a local farmer unearthing something unholy in his field. The other is the local landed royalty bringing home a simple farm girl to be his wife, and she, unexplainedly, going insane. The film only loosely suggests a connection, but there it is. The children, once they find a piece of whatever remains the farmer has unearthed, suddenly start murdering other children in the woods. Soon, other children begin growing strange bits of hair on their bodies which are cut off to form this new creature. It is, perhaps, a bit convoluted.
Yet, despite the many desperate events in the film feeling loose, the overall film works well as a slow and steady sense of dread builds up. I was not surprised to learn that the film was originally conceived as three separate stories and, in development, was tied into one larger piece. What I was surprised by is the admission of the writer that he felt the central point of the story was the smashing out of old religions, suggesting perhaps some sympathy for these older, archaic faiths. This does NOT come across in the final product at all. Instead, much of the film feels like a condemnation of youth culture or any sort of rebellious new ideas. Granted, this is actually old ideas resurfacing, but by tying this into the youth, it creates a very specific connotation. I mean look, if you want to build sympathy, maybe leave out all the child murder. The reality is that every sympathetic character is a victim of this new cult, and while the perpetrators of prosecution of the cult are not sympathetic, they do feel necessary within the logic of the film. Granted, ending the film with no resolution other than the bat creature catching a giant sword to the chest creates some ambiguity, but not that much.
These children stand in for our own anxieties, or rather for the anxieties of British folks in the 60s, that the youth were planning something nefarious behind their backs. It is in a sense a pretty straightforward tale of maintaining the status quo, and the danger presented by stepping outside of it. Obviously, I can’t tell if that was the intention, but that is what comes out of the picture. However, the cult which the children develop is reminiscent of nature religions. It feels very earthy. For me, this makes me wonder: is there something inherently horrendous about the world? Or at least the natural world? I mean, I have two reactions to this idea, one personal and one intellectual. Let’s start with intellectual. Finding something horrid about “creation” seems, to me, to be some sort of leftover from a Christian/Western world view. I suspect it is related to some conflation of the spirit/flesh divide in which all of created matter is seen as somehow corrupt at its core. There is a response to the world we live in which sees “higher” (ie: abstract ideals and aspirations) as somehow obviously superior to material creation. This of course relates to complicated issues around class and race as well, which we do not have the space to fully unpack. Rest assured, in the European imaginary of a certain kind it is clear which folks are closer to the earth and what that means. I also suspect that this feeling that there is something horrid, or at least cruel to nature comes, to some small extent, from Darwin and his evolutionary theory. Of course, while Darwin’s science is, I hope for everyone, indisputable, he did have some gender bias which filtered into his conceptions. So while species clearly evolve, what is unclear is if competition or cooperation are actually the behaviors which most benefit species. Point is, the idea that nature is an unending blood sport among animals is not too far off from this Westernized version of the Christian world view. Thus, while the material world might in fact be far stranger than we give it credit for, I am intellectually skeptical about imagining nature at its core as a horrendous plane, one from which we are somehow divorced.
Emotionally though? Nature is fucking terrifying and I assume that, left alone in the English country side long enough, ANY random group of children would eventually raise a bat demon from hell using sex and murder. Anyone would, that is just nature.
October 14: CALVAIRE
Oddly, this movie is new enough that I feel inclined to warn you, the reader, of spoilers. Why? Well this is a film with some unexpected turns, and it is a film I would recommend watching. So, I would hate to ruin that experience for you in any way.
Calvaire has been associated with a movement known as the New Extremity or New French Extremity. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_French_Extremity) Considering that the film is Belgian, I guess the first term would be more fitting. This genre, if it is one, was, for a while, the new thing that everyone was discussing in certain circles. Like many new ideas and creations, The New Extremity was the sort of thing that the internet, and those scholars involved in the internet, obsessed over like a new shiny object and then just as quickly discarded. Perhaps this was because the films themselves did not last as long in the genre discussion as folks assumed they would. I also think that the thinkers that were loosely associated with having inspired this moment like Bataille and De Sade were also suddenly less cool. I mean, a French movie that moves from a slow character film to a truly intense extremity movie is no big surprise, right? I assumed these films, the ones I managed to catch during their mid 2000s heyday, were simply what Europe decided to do with a low budgets and some imagination, unlike the piles of slasher clones that at the time seemed to dominate the American low budget horror market. To be honest though, I just do not know that much about genres and trends to say, and I have seen a few but not all of the films associated with this moment.
So Calvaire is much like these other films, in that it borrows from the past but in very specific ways. The plot is deceptively simple, but in its simple insistence on what is a ridiculous situation with almost no humor, it eventually leads to some dark places. In fact, the responses to the film I was able to find seem to revolve a lot around how one feels about the buildup of the film as compared to the payoff. Some describe it as darkly comedic, others as pretentious and lacking humor, still others as deeply cerebral in its politics. I have no idea. For me, the film is simply disturbing. There is a buildup of dread but nothing even closely hinting at what is going to come. That sounds dramatic, and I have no intention to suggest a volcanic explosion. There are a few really upsetting set pieces, but the results are as atmospheric as they are violent. There is, just like in the last two films, a deep anxiety about a group of people. Perhaps it should concern us how many films display a fear of country folk and how few display a fear of the city unless that city is NYC in the 70s/80s. Fair, but for me I find the country way more horrifying than cities so I get it. Calvaire is a film in which there are really just two characters: there is Marc Stevens played brilliantly by Laurent Lucas, and then there are the many people who desire him. Really, that is what the film is about. The title is a reference to the “ordeal” of the crucifixion, nnnbut I will be honest and see the ways the film applies to that specific moment, well I am unsure of. There is clearly a question of sacrifice, desire, and love. What does it mean though?
This is, of course, a problem I want to avoid. In graduate school I briefly became enamored of these films, partly because I became enamored with the thinkers who many critics associated with these films. So I dove in, and have read about many folks weaving grand theories regarding some of these movies. I think, because of the extremity of these films, there is a tendency to over analyze them. This is a strange comment from me as the entire goal of this series is, in a sense, over analysis. What I mean though is that there have been a variety of folks interested in continental philosophy who have delved into the films looking for some form of transgressive revelations. To be fair, I am no film historian and I barely count as a critic. However, given the papers and reviews I have read which do reach for some grander theory, I have often been left feeling like there was simply not much there. With a movie like Calvaire I cannot help but feel that the moment it depicts is not enhanced by further analysis. My analysis of this film is that, looking for double meanings and transgressive principles misses the ordeal itself. The ordeal unfolds, and it is disturbing. You feel it. It connects with you. I am not convinced I need more than that. That is not to say that there is not some deep thought behind the film, and that if one wanted to they couldn’t use the film to do some grand theoretical work. You surely could. However, in this instance I am inclined to simply respond to what I felt. There was a truth to the film which got under my skin despite the fact that so much of what happens in the film is ludicrous. This sincerity made the film more effective, more cruel, and in the end left me with an image I will not soon forget. It still has its flaws, specifically in some of the performances and the difficult way it handles some sexual issues. Despite that, I found the event of this film in my life one that I am still thinking about.
October 15: CRIMSON PEAK
Normally in this project I simply do not include current films playing in a theater. The reality is this though, I am way behind and I saw this movie on this day so I am gonna include it. That is how it goes when you do your own thing. Of course, I was also excited to do something a little different. Most of this project is me researching and finding movies I somehow missed, whether those are classic films I missed in my youth or films that I didn’t catch more recently. The fact that, in the month of October, there was a horror film in theaters I actually wanted to see had me excited to include it.
Of course that was before the internet intervened. You see, while I very much enjoyed the film, it turns out a LOT of people disliked it. Not only did they dislike it, but a few really needed me to know they did. Not to say that anyone should feel bad for their opinion. I am glad to interact with folks who have a variety of opinions and ideas about film. That is great. However, reading some folks’ thoughts about it puts me in an odd situation. That is, I am inclined to defend the film, or at least defend the reasons why I enjoyed it. That in and of itself to me is not a bad inclination, sometimes a movie needs someone in its corner standing up for it. The problem enters because I am not particularly interested in defending films in this column. I am simply reflecting on films, what they meant to me, how they made me feel, what I reflected on because of them.
Of course, this is where I began to suspect that maybe folks had a point. As I reflected on the movie I knew I could go on and on about how it looked, which I loved. There were definitely some things I loved about the set design and the performances. Yet, I didn’t have much else to say. The film didn’t really inspire much reflection in me. Granted, the film is somewhere between a gothic romance and a murder mystery, with only a few intense moments which feel distinctly horror. I could maybe write a genre parsing of the film, or discuss to some extent the ways that Del Torro enjoys employing ghosts in such a way that frustrates expectations. I am reaching for all that, though. In reality, it is a simple tale that most genre fans will be able to parse pretty quickly. I knew what was going to happen for the most part. In reality, the most I can say about it is that it was entertaining.
Then again, for a genre film, especially one made now, is that so bad? I guess so. I should demand more, demand greatness, especially from a director who is making his career by being a genre master. I understand why people find him overrated, and why there will soon be a serious backlash against the guy. Still, while I am not overly in love with the film, I am also not annoyed by it. There was nothing I hated at all about the film other than blondie mumble mouth from Sons of Anarchy and Pacific Rim. That dudes sucks.
Basically, when I saw the film I was enamored with the spectacle of it. It looked good, and I was entertained. Now, though, attempting to write about it, I am left with how ephemeral it is. There is just not much there. The ghosts are pointless in many ways, the designs are neat but derivative of some of Del Toro’s other films. There is not much to really latch onto and think about. Still, I cannot trash a movie which had me wrapped up in it most of the way. I also, however, cannot pretend I have thought much about it since.
October 16: A CAT IN THE BRAIN
(NOTE: Each week I will be collaborating on the Friday post with the awesome Nick Spacek of Rock and Roll Journalist and From and Inspired by podcast. 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.)
It’s astonishing that this late in Lucio Fulci’s career, he managed to turn out a film that exceeds his earlier work. You can look at just the first five minutes for examples both in terms of oddity — a herd of cats devouring a brain — and in regards to casual brutality — a man carving up his mistress and eating part of her thigh.
Of course, you find it’s all just a scene from a movie: in fact, a Lucio Fulci movie. Fulci is actually in A Cat in the Brain, playing himself. The movie repeatedly calls back to Fulci’s past work, commenting on it, making this sort of a meta fin-de-sicle sort of thing. I’ve read a lot comparing it to Fellini’s 8 1/2, but can’t really comment, having never seen it. However, it does remind me quite a bit of Vincent Price’s 1974 film, Madhouse, which also used clips from the lead’s actual films to present a fictional basis for murder. That, too, was sort of a career retrospective at the end of things (sidebar: I am aware that Price would continue working up until his death in 1993, but pretty much everything after Madhouse was mostly voiceover work).
Back to the ways in which A Cat in the Brain exceeds Fulci’s earlier work with which I started. In addition to starting out with a scene that manages to be weird, excessively violent, and encompasses casual nudity, one must really give points to the director for one-upping past depravity with Nazisploitation in this one. That particular scene gets supremely weird, and manages to disturb without a single drop of blood.
Still, the movie’s basically a clip show of the director’s greatest hits. Even with the frequent hallucinatory asides, it’s actually the easiest to follow of all of Fulci’s films. Strange to think that this amalgamation of past work allows for a fairly straightforward plot without too many points or aspects of it requiring you to suspend your disbelief to the point of exhaustion.
Random thought: is the use of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” before the good doctor Schwarz kills the prostitute an homage to Fritz Lang’s M? I mean, it has to be, right, especially given that it pops up again?
Lucio Fulci takes a variety of kills and scenes from other films, some of which he made and many of which he did not, and films wrap-around sequence to accompany them in which he plays himself. This should be truly awful, no? So, why does it work? I have to be honest, this does not actually play better for me than the early and in my mind masterful works of the great maestro. The pieces fit together too sloppily, and the gore, most of which was not actually filmed with Fulci’s involvement, lacks his sense of style. Is it better than most of Fulci’s later output? Of course. It is in fact a strange shining gem in this later half of his career, in what is otherwise a sea of dreck. Not that all of these later films are unwatchable, but many give off a sense of boredom and a lack of concern. This film though, even with some of its rougher elements, largely makes sense.
So why make a movie like this? The comparisons to 8 1/2 I think are quite fair, is actually a bit gruesome in its humor. Ok, a lot gruesome. The film plays in some ways like a tour of awful things, with only the faintest plot line to tie it all together. Yet that plot line is so meta, so reflexive on Fulci and his art, I am sucked in. What has his work been about? What has his life been about? What has he even made? In fact, in a larger sense, what does the work of any horror director mean?
It is difficult, knowing as I do Fulci’s real life emotional and health struggles, not to see something terribly maudlin and sad about the film. Yes, it is filled with gags here and there. The gore aspect is played gruesomely, but still with a sense of how fun it is to be so very gross. Yet, at its heart I sense a brilliant man making a mockery of himself. When one does something like this from a space of certainty, that is one thing. Fulci, though, is creating as a man past his prime, struggling with horrible diabetic complications which I am sure pained him in every moment. He did participate in a few films after this one, but nothing that gained him the kind of attention I am sure he would have wanted.
So do I revel in the fact that perhaps Fulci did have a sense of humor about his unique and strange life before he died? Or do I feel despondent that A Cat in the Brain is perhaps a dark joke, a feeling of failure? Is this a kind of death’s head humor before the end, or an embracing of something wonderful in the man’s life? Honestly, it doesn’t matter. A Cat in the Brain is a film that works despite having everything going against it. Perhaps, by injecting the personal into this final grand guignol exploration of death and art Fulci hit some sort of magic mixture? What do you think? How do the rumors surrounding Fulci’s death affect how you see the film? I will be honest, I did not make the Lang reference you did, and I feel less cultured for having missed it.
Well, if it makes you feel better, I just had to look up Lucio Fulci’s death in order to answer your question. That just seems like such a sad possibility, and a strange departure after this film, because it seems like the director is actually having fun with this picture. His character, despite the repeated wondering as to what’s it all about, ends up with a happy ending twice over — he gets the girl, and he successfully finishes a film.
Yes: the film’s such a reflection on the man’s work that as a meta work (the director reflecting on himself in a film in which he stars), it succeeds. The unfortunate aspect of that is that as a viewer, you start reflecting on the films he made and wonder why they show clips from terrible movies he put his name on, rather than going further into the Madhouse vein and explicitly referencing his earlier work.
The only “explicit” references to that early work are a sad reliance on nudity that just seems crass and an appeal to the inevitable home video market at the time. The film’s fun, to be sure, but the fact of the matter, while I enjoyed its ridiculousness, it’s a film that’s surprising in that it’s better than I thought it would be, but not nearly as good as it could have been. You always wonder what makes a director lose their mojo, and I can’t imagine what being pigeonholed, on top of a near-constant level of pain, could have done for the man. Here he took a chance to make a movie that reflected where he was, as well as where he’d been, and I think the fact that it absolutely shines through is why this movie is as compelling as it is. Do you think that Fulci succeeded in the grand guignol career summation for which it seems he was aiming?
Well, reading about this film on Wikipedia and the recent Fulci feature by my boy Jacob Knight over at Birth Movies Death (link) I get the feeling that some of the footage was made available to him as part of a settlement. It seems that some companies had started putting his name on movies without even directly asking him, and the footage we are seeing in this film is mostly cutting room floor gore, stuff that was left out of other films. So, Fulci is given access to a bunch of someone else’s gore — some he approved some he did not — and he pieces it together to make a fun and weird commentary on his career? Yeah, I think this does work as a commentary on him.
Isn’t that, in some ways, what Fulci has done? Taken what was made available to him and done his best with it. No one, I do not think, would describe any of his films as art films. Yet, especially in his earlier career, Fulci had a knack for taking what was essentially pedestrian material and raising it up. No offense to the grand Italian tradition of ripping off other film maker by making unauthorized sequels, but Zombi 2 has to be the GREATEST unauthorized sequel I have ever seen. The City of the Living Dead is a triumph, to me, because of the directing. Now, I do not want to make my case too hard. Clearly his partnership with long time collaborator Sacchetti was an important aspect of his work. In fact, this film is maybe the lone movie from his work without Sacchetti that is kind of great. However, nothing he made with Sacchetti that I have seen is great only because of the script. Between them existed some alchemy where exploitation was elevated to new heights, and their films were somehow still their gritty core but also something more. The Beyond is still a grind house level horror film. It is also sublime.
So, in deep pain and even a bit of shame, Fulci manages to string together a moving bit of magic. A last spell if it were, a minor miracle. He takes other folks’ rejected violence and with it makes one last romanticized version of himself to almost say goodbye to his audience. I dunno, I am likely looking too deeply again, but there is in that something maudlin but also victorious. Good for you maestro, and thank you.
October 17: DEMON KNIGHT/ BORDELLO OF BLOOD
I took another shortcut and added films I had to write about anyway. My idea was to review the movies at the link, and then in this piece write an extended essay on how I have a love/hate relationship with Tales From the Crypt and how I feel like these two movies exemplify the best and the worst of that series. Then I just put it all in the review cause I didn’t have much to say otherwise. Sorry y’all, didn’t mean to short change you twice in one week. Basically, Demon Knight represents how awesome it is when the 90s got the mix of humor, horror, and self awareness right. Bordello Of Blood is what happens when you do not take your audience seriously enough to try and get it right. Oddly, neither film really has too much to write about thematically. Bordello of Blood is just a reminder of how crappy Dennis Miller is. Demon Knight is a straightforward narrative, and the metaphysics of it just never made much sense to me. Anyway, as I said in my review, one movie is way worth owning and revisiting and the other really is not.
October 18: NEON MANIACS
What exactly IS this movie? Neon Maniacs makes no apologies for its lack of explanation, exposition, or even character development. Teens in San Francisco like to party like anywhere else. Whilst partying, they are attacked by what feels like violent cosplayers. By that I mean, the Neon Maniacs (I assume the title refers to the murderous creatures), look like people dressed as a wide variety of various monsters: monkey creatures, Native Americans, witch face samurai, cyborgs, a mad doctor. There is less logic to the maniacs’ get ups than there is to the plot itself. One young woman escapes the murderous rampage, but soon becomes their target. She spends her time not running from maniacs swimming and going on dates with her new boyfriend. Also, ignoring the only person in the city inclined to believe her story. This young horror film maker investigates the creatures and thus also becomes a target. Yet she brings the only insight to the film, that is that the creatures can be destroyed by water. They decide to go to a dance, even though the maniacs are after them, but they arm the dance goers with water guns. This plan goes wrong, and chaos ensues.
I actually hate doing full synopses in these write ups. However, I wanted to give you, the reader, an idea of how sparse this film is. That is basically the whole movie, interspersed with lots of chase scenes and the maniacs killing various cops and teenagers. There is really not much to this film, and yet it is so entirely entertaining. Granted, some of that is my inclination to laugh at the film rather than with it. I hate when I do that, but there are so many ridiculous moments. For example, our heroine Natalie seems somehow both stressed about the assault of the maniacs but equally unemotional. She shifts between freaking out and then relaxing in her pool as if nothing is happening. Yet, the film is not just a joke. It isn’t frightening at all, but it is so much fun. All of the action is compelling, the chases work, and the creatures are as fun as they are nonsensical. In fact, the film works so much better because there is no grand theory of how and why the maniacs exist. They simply do, and they attack, and we have to spray them with water to survive.
Neon Maniacs simply accepts that everything else is just edifice. Of course, that is not entirely true. Some horror works because of its story, or performances, or mythology. Even character development, when done right, can help a film go from interesting to terrifying. Yet Neon Maniacs eschews all of that. On purpose? Hard to say. The film is definitely a low budget affair. Some of the action and character design are obscured by bad lighting and camera work, and the production had to shut down so long that multiple maniacs are played by multiple people. Still, there had to be some thought on the part of the film makers. Someone decided the film worked without a back story by simply saying there are creatures who mean us ill, and the world will not accept that they are real. In fact, in that way the film still resonates for me. Yes, primarily the film is just a fun romp, with some violence and some goofy elements. However, the central theme is not the maniacs themselves. The film is about a system that will just not listen, will not accept, will not react to what the characters see as a danger. No one will believe you. When the maniacs come it will just be you and them. No forces, official or otherwise, will save you. You just have to help yourself. This anxiety underlies this film, and though it is more ridiculous than visceral, I felt it.