Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Midi Minuit (1970)

Helene (Sylvie Fennec) and her beau Jacques (Jacques Portet) drive all the way out to the middle of nowhere to visit their pal Laurent Lorrain (Laurent Vergez), who is staying with his bizarro family of tortured/torturing artists.  Things get weird, to say the very least.

Pierre Phillipe’s Midi Minuit (aka Moon and Midnight) is excruciatingly odd and chaotic, yet it still manages to be captivating (probably because of its odd, chaotic structure).  It could easily stand comfortably next to the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky or Juan Lopez Moctezuma.  Not surprisingly, it also fits nicely in line with their Mouvement Panique which was founded on the idea of transgression surpassing the surreality in vogue at the time.  By that same token, Midi Minuit feels a bit toned down from something along the lines of, say, Alucarda.  Sure, there is the scene where Helene spies a woman held captive in chains, and later said woman is having sex with a man, suggesting in the way it’s portrayed that she is being used specifically as a sex object, just not necessarily unwillingly (these chains will come into play again later on in the film in a similar context).  But there are also scenes where characters, especially the creepy, quasi-pedophilic father Robert (Daniel Emilfork, perhaps better known for his appearance in City of Lost Children), will discuss things at length which feel both oblique and expositional.  

There’s no real plot to speak of, much like in Radley Metzger’s similarly-premised Score, but elements of one creep around the edges and cause moments in the film to happen that further reinforce its points.  Instead, the film is, first and foremost, about the discovery of Helene and Jacques that they, and by extension the audience, are all a bit mad.  They just need to discover it within themselves and allow it to blossom, and the Lorrain family is the key to this.  “Nympho” sister Elsa (the stunning Beatrice Arnac) goes through men like she goes through paint, and after she has them wrapped around her little finger, she dumps them in fickle acts of whimsy.  These jiltings typically involve her suggesting that her latest stud beat up her current one.  Sex and violence are inextricable to Elsa, because these are the only things she sees as useful in her self-centered world (the inspiration for her art, perhaps?), and she is up front about all of it.  Naturally, Jacques falls under her spell, and it costs him in more than one way.  Conversely, Laurent is sensitive on the outside, as evidenced by his wearing of a caftan and walking around shoeless like a hippie cult member.  He and Helene connect on a soulful, emotional level, but it won’t be until much later that his big secret is revealed (I have to say, it’s a doozy).  Elsa and Laurent share the same basic nature (read: insanity), just one is external and the other is internal.  It almost doesn’t matter which one of them draws in which of the outsider couple.  Jacques and Helene were going to be pulled in no matter what, because it’s all part of our base human nature.

Bearing this in mind, there is the metaphor of art as it relates to madness.  Robert enjoys acting out (non-sexual, at least onscreen) stories and/or fantasies with his coterie of young playmates, and he isn’t above getting a kick out of drugging someone (courtesy of uni-browed boy toy and all-around chemist Walerian [Patrick Jouane]) and watching the results.  His art is philosophical in nature; after all, he’s the ring leader.  The youngest Lorrain sibling (Veronique Lucchesi) performs pagan rituals involving pigeon sacrifices, takes and beats prisoners in militaristic roleplaying games, and revels in jesting about the “sadic of the garrigue” (basically, “the sadist of the Mediterranean region of Southern France where this film is set” … I think).  According to Elsa, she’s “on the right path.”  Speaking of Elsa, her paintings are High Renaissance in style (from what I could discern of them), especially in how they focus on the representation of the flawless (male) human form.  Laurent’s art is primarily in metalworks, perfectly shaped and alluring in its shininess while also having the ability to wound with its sharp edges and pointy ends.  In the same way that the insanity within Elsa and Laurent is displayed as external and internal, respectively, their art seems to be the opposite; Elsa’s is more traditional, while Laurent’s is experimental.  Even the “estate” the Lorrains live on reflects madness and art as lifestyles.  The place is in ruins.  The rooms are strewn with fur throw rugs and stuff that appears to be trash and lamp sculptures that have to be manipulated to operate.  The “family dining room” is more or less a cave with a large round stone table.  The images of decay are married to the images of art floating around the place, and they form a union between art and psychopathy that weighs heavy on every frame of the film.

Midi Minuit is at constant odds with itself, the same as the characters embody the duality of beauty and madness.  We get Hitchcockian moments like in the shot where Helene is stripping down to go skinnydipping, and the camera pulls back to reveal a dead man lying on the hill overlooking the water.  Then we get constant smash cuts to things which may be only tangentially connected to the scene they’re cut into, may be some portent of things to come, or may be just images intended to shake up the viewer from traditional modes of watching films, fragmenting linear narrative with non-sequitur symbolic images.  For example, as Laurent, Helene, and Jacques are driving around, there is a quick cut to an image of the same person in chains Helene saw earlier (or maybe it’s someone else), only this time the person is in a car which is being driven around.  There is no other reference to this image in this context in the film at all.  Helene and Robert have a conversation that is loaded with metaphorical subtext (both in what’s said and in what’s seen; Helene is explicitly included in Robert’s childish theatrics, and she either plays along or gives in to it) but relates directly to Helene’s feelings for Laurent.  The film jumps around like mad (no pun intended), and even though I honestly couldn’t say precisely what’s going on at a given moment or what it necessarily means, I still found myself ultimately following along and rather enjoying the ride.  For me, it appeals just enough to the avant garde and the exploitative sides of my cinephilic character (there’s that madness creeping in?).  It’s as visceral as it is elliptical, and while I would say it won’t appeal to every cinematic taste by a long stretch, it’s very much recommended by me to those with more adventurous filmic appetites.

MVT:  The film is so bizarre.  Yup, that’s about it.

Make or Break:  The first dinner scene will fully let the viewer know whether or not Midi Minuit will play to their fancy.

Score:  7/10            

Friday, January 13, 2017

Cold Sweat (1993)

This is weirder than you would expect from a 90’s erotic thriller. I mean yea of course you get a handful of Shannon Tweed sex scenes and yea there's a glow in the dark body painting scene and of course breasts and long-butts get popped out willy nilly but there's something extra happening in this. First of all, we got Dave Thomas (of SCTV and Strange Brew fame -or Grace Under Fire fame if you're a sick fuck) as a conniving lowlife which he plays rather lethargically but it's good to see him nonetheless. Animal Mother himself Adam Baldwin shows up here and there as someone? I think he's a hitman or a bodyguard (?) and he’s also one of Shannon Tweed's umpteenth lovers, this movie is pretty convoluted. But the real standout here is Ben Cross who plays a British hitman that is being haunted relentlessly by his most recent target (the killing of whom happens within the first 3 minutes of the movie and yes she is naked and having sex). By haunted I don't mean brief hallucinations or flashbacks I mean having long conversations with her, inspecting the bullet wounds he inflicted, coming pretty fucking close to having sex with her in a hotel, and the ghost takes a bubble bath at one point. THE GHOST TAKES A BUBBLE BATH AT ONE POINT.  It's a damn strange plot beat that ultimately takes backseat to a confusing series of double crosses.

I'm still not sure I have a handle on the ending because my brain had been running comfortably at about 25% throughout so when the twist kicked in I couldn't get the engine warmed up in time to completely follow. Too laggy and lumpy overall to be anything really special,  cut down to 75 or 80 minutes it would fare much better. Definitely recommended if you want to see a ghost lady take a bubble bath though.

MVT: Overall tone. Cold Sweat manages to transcend its Skinemax by-the-numbers veneer by being a little more oddball than most others of its ilk. 

Make Or Break: First appearance of the ghost lady. If that isn’t enough to get you to stick around then don’t bother with the rest.

Score: 6/10

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Nothing but the Night (1972)


Adults use a lot of rather creepy threats to keep children in line.  “The boogeyman will get you.”  “You’ll shoot your eye out.”  “You’ll go blind if you keep that up.”  My grandmother used to say she’d put me outside for the gypsies if I didn’t behave.  True to her word, one night she did, in fact, lock me out of her house at night, and I was left to wait (for what felt like hours but was likely only a few minutes) in sheer terror for the gypsies to snatch me up.  I swore I could hear the clip-clop of their horses’ hooves (no doubt engulfed in the very flames of Hell) on the then-brick road leading to her place.  Needless to say, I was scared shitless but pretty well-behaved after that.  But what we also had in my area was the Kis-Lyn reform school for boys, and this was the place where the bad kids were left to fend for themselves from the other bad kids, according to popular gossip.  The mother of a friend of mine even packed his things in a suitcase and dropped him off at the doorstep of a different local boys’ home which he believed was Kis-Lyn to put the fear of God in him.  Even though the school had been closed for eight years by the time I was born, you would still hear the name bandied about as a form of punishment for some time.  It’s funny, most parents today wouldn’t dream of intimidating their children with some of the things with which we were coerced into good behavior.  But the impact was immediate and undeniable (at least in the short term).  The kids at the Inver House orphanage in Peter Sasdy’s Nothing but the Night (aka The Devil’s Undead aka Castle of the Living Dead aka Devil Night aka The Resurrection Syndicate) get the double whammy of being menaced not only with death but also with the far worse fate of becoming adults. 

On the Scottish island of Bala, various elderly people are murdered, all of whom are trustees of the Van Traylen Trust which funds the Inver House orphanage.  Colonel Bingham (Sir Christopher Lee) calls on acquaintance and pathologist Sir Mark Ashley (Peter Cushing) to help him investigate after a busload of children crashes with more trustees aboard.  One survivor, the young Mary Valley (Gwyneth Strong), holds the key to all the answers.

Nothing but the Night is a deceptively simple thriller with a rather dark underbelly.  The greatest and clearest piece of that seedy dark side is in how the children in the film are treated.  Kids in this film are little more than pawns.  For the trustees of the orphanage, they are vessels to be filled with their selfish venality.  For Mark and Bingham, they are clues to a deeper mystery.  Bingham even admits that the whole reason he wants the case is because a friend of his was involved; the deaths of the children on the bus are “incidental.”  Mark resents being pulled into the whole affair, only getting involved because he doesn’t like being put in his place by the hoi polloi.  For Dr. Haynes (Keith Barron), children are painful memories screaming to be dragged out into the light of day.  For reporter Joan Foster (Georgia Brown), they are a hot, tabloid-y story to be exploited and splashed across the front page.  For Anna Harb (Diana Dors, in full-on late stage Shelley Winters mode), her daughter Mary is a piece of property, her ownership of which is more important than the girl’s well-being, and this isn’t the only reason that Anna is a poor candidate for motherhood.  Never are the children really treated as individuals, Mary being the exception as she’s the sole clue to what’s going on.  Despite the protestations of the adults who claim to have the children’s best interests at heart, they are more intent on probing them to satisfy their own ends.  It’s a tragic statement on the callous abuse of children as things, and it’s all the more terrible in this instance, because the children are already considered castaways, unwanted by society, and therefore, prey.

In this vein, but to a lesser degree, are issues of identity and maturation.  The orphans are a collective.  We see them playing, and that’s about it.  Mary, as the focus of the narrative, is the exemplar for the film’s depiction of the aforementioned themes.  On the fateful bus ride, she is the cheerleader, conducting her fellow children in a variation of “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”  She usually has the innocent exuberance we expect from a girl her age.  This is the genesis of the person she should grow to become; it should be a process.  Her “repressed memories,” then, are the loss of her childhood identity/individuality and the domination of a new identity, an adult one.  That these two actions are instantaneous and simultaneous is indicative of their nefariousness.  There is no development.  There is only the loss of childhood, and this absence is what produces monsters.  The juxtaposition of virtuous children with iniquitous adults and the unification of the two is where the film derives its horror.

The film’s tonal shift from giallo-esque thriller, a la What Have You Done to Solange? (sort of), to science fiction/horror film is rather jarring, even though the groundwork is laid out from the beginning.  Said groundwork, however, is cleverly disguised with a few guileful twists you probably won’t see coming because the filmmakers wisely don’t emphasize them.  Lee and Cushing get to play on the same side of the moral coin, much like in the superlative Horror Express, though Cushing infuses his character with just enough of his classic Baron Frankenstein portrayal to give yet another in a long, long list of fantastic, fully-realized performances.  The locales are all gloomy, casting a predetermined pall over the proceedings.  Sasdy (primarily a television director [most notably responsible for the 1972 production of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape], though he directed a few films, such as Hammer Studio’s Taste the Blood of Dracula, one of the less traditional offerings in the series but no less worthy) brings a workmanlike sense of direction that grounds the film in a reality which is both straightforward and twisted.  Overall, the film is satisfying, and the aftermath is chilling, but I can’t help but think what could have been had Sasdy and company played the story straight.  I know I would like to have seen more entries in a franchise featuring Bingham and associates (this was the first and the last film produced by Lee’s Charlemagne Productions; it was adapted from a series of novels by John Blackburn, and the original plan was to produce more of them).  Especially if the dynamic lead duo from this one starred in them.  Alas…

MVT:  It’s Lee and Cushing all day long.  It usually is when they appear onscreen together, and this is no exception.

Make or Break:  The finale slaps all the pieces together, but I could see it not working for some people.  That, and that the reveal of a certain character’s fate made little sense to me, considering the timeline of the film.

Score:  6.5/10

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Dark Dungeons (2014)

Directed by: L. Gabriel Gonda
Run Time: 40 minutes

A disclaimer before the review. I backed the Kickstarter for this movie. Please keep this in mind while reading my review. With that out of the way let's move on to how the 80's satanic panic lead to the creation of this movie.

In 1983, Patricia Pulling founded Bothered About Dungeon & Dragons (B.A.D.D.) after her son tragically committed suicide a year earlier. She claimed that Dungeons & Dragons was the gateway game to the occult and Satan. A message that resinated with Jack Chick and his ministry. They make cartoon tracts that are meant to be left in random places in the hopes of saving people from evil and hell fire. These tracts are full of religious righteousness but lack logic, research, and real facts. So when Chick Publications made Dark Dungeons tract 1984 it was made in that same spirit. The tract claimed that D&D spell were real and could be used to corrupt and effect others, meetings with robed cult members at higher player character levels, and committing suicide if your character dies are just a few of the evil things about D&D.

Now the end of this story should be that the tract was a joke in role playing circles but J.R. Ralls had other ideas. After winning a thousand dollars in the lottery, Ralls wrote Jack Chick to buy the movie rights to Dark Dungeons and adapt the tract as close as possible into a movie. For some reason they said yes and then the magic of making a movie happened.

The story follows Debbie and Marcie. Two born again freshmen university students who are looking forward their time at school. After their orientation session, an older student Mike, warns the girls about the popular kids on campus and how getting involved with them will only lead to problems. At this university all the popular students play role playing games. Despite the warning the girls accept an invite from the role playing group to attend a party. It starts out like another normal party with loud music, alcohol, and photogenic people showing off how photogenic they are. With the party this exciting, everyone feels it's time to shut off the music and quietly watch a group of people describe what they are doing while rolling dice.

This starts Debbie and Marcie's corruption into Satanism and evil. Also, Debbie and Marcie's friendship starts to have problems as Debbie is selected to learn real magic and be one of the popular role players. Things get even worse when Marcie's character gets killed, kicked out of the role playing group, and ends up killing herself. Distraught over her friend's death, Debbie is at a loss as to what she should do next when Mike comes back into the picture. He has been praying and fasting for Debbie and he has a way to free her from this evil. She has to accept Jesus into her life and burn all her D&D stuff in a big bonfire.

Overall it is an okay movie. There is a lot of inside jokes in the movie that detracts from the overall enjoyment of the movie. Examples would be knowing about the insanity that are Chick tracts and various incidents that people have blamed on D&D. It's worth a watch but don't go out of your way to find this unless this sounds like your thing.

MVP: Possessing the balls to buy the rights for this thing and make just as insane as the original source material.

Make or Break: The unexplained references and inside gamer jokes did a lot to take me out of the film.

Score: 4.5 out of 10