What Have You Done to Solange?

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What Have You Done to Solange is one of those movies that you used to see being sold at horror conventions on grainy videotape. This is a giallo, an Italian/West German (?!?!) thriller/mystery/horror film. It is dubbed, and the dubbing seemed good to me. To my knowledge What Have You Done to Solange has never been widely released in the United States, and it took me about ten minutes to figure out why.

Enrico teaches at a Catholic girls’ school (college?) in London. A handsome Italian, he’s like a peacock strutting amidst a flock of peahens. Enrico rents a swinging bachelor’s flat even though he’s married and is having an affair with Elizabeth, one of his students. Later in the movie Enrico seems proud that their relationship is ‘pure,’ even though he spends all his time onscreen pressuring her to have sex.

Enrico and Elizabeth are on a boat on the river when Elizabeth witnesses a murder. The killer wears a long black frock and might be a priest. He or she seems to be targeting students at Enrico’s school, which already employs two sexual predators (Enrico and the teacher who peeks at the girls in the shower). By the way, the school’s dean gives Enrico’s relationship an unofficial thumb’s up.

Enrico is what passes for the hero in What Have You Done to Solange, which is this movie’s first big problem (out of three). Things might have been different back in 1974, but today a guy like Enrico would be in jail. At the very least, he is an unsympathetic character. After a nasty twist halfway through the movie, he’s not even vital to the plot.

What Have You Done to Solange contains a lot of symbolism – a white cat, four red apples wrapped in white paper, pins, a red towel – none of which is subtle. The murders are extremely brutal, and the misogyny of this movie is pretty in your face (the second problem). There’s no secret code. According to the makers of this film the girls do evil things like go to parties and do drugs and date and even have sex, and thus bring retribution on themselves.

The third problem with What Have You Done to Solange is that it doesn’t work as a mystery. In Dario Argento’s Deep Red you can figure out or at least guess the identity of the killer. That’s impossible here, because the writers don’t play fair. Solange is the key to the mystery, and she isn’t even mentioned until the movie is half over. If you are a fan of giallo, What Have You Done to Solange might be of interest; if not, don’t bother.

John Dies at the End

John Dies at the End is about drugs. Even I know that, and I know as much about drug culture as astrophysics. The name of the drug is the soy sauce, and it gives you all sorts of weird mental and psychic powers. It also messes up your sense of where you are in time, because time isn’t linear, or something like that. Parts of this movie reminded me of the scene in Animal House when they smoke pot.

Our hero is Dave Wong, not John. Dave is not Chinese, but he changed his last name to Wong to make him harder to find. He and his best friend John, who may or may not be dead, are psychic investigators. To the unguarded eye they appear to be a pair of fuck-ups, but appearances can be deceiving.

When the movie starts Dave is telling his story to reporter Arnie Blondestone at a Chinese restaurant. There’s a girl, and her dead boyfriend is stalking her. John and Dave discover the girl looks different to them when they’re in her basement. She dissolves into snakes – not spiders – and all the meats in the basement freezer form the Meat Man, who has a raw chicken for a head. The Meat Man isn’t as impressive as the Sunflower Man of Temple Wood fame, but he’s still quite a sight.

This scene has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. The real story starts when John and Dave graduate from high school and a Jamaican dude named Robert Marley gives John and a bunch of his friends a hit of a drug called the soy sauce. Dave isn’t there, but he runs to John’s place when John calls him in the middle of the night. John’s all fucked up, so Dave takes him to the hospital. Enroute, he’s attacked by a guy who tries to attach a lamprey to his chest.

There’s more. We have a psychic guru, a girl with an amputated hand and a dog that can drive. The soy sauce is actually bugs. Why would anyone be crazy enough to inject bugs? I assume if you have to ask the question, you’re not meant to know the answer.

John Dies at the End is directed by Don Coscarelli, who also directed Phantasm. If you liked Phantasm chances are you’ll like this movie. John Dies at the End has no coherent story, but is full of bizarre imagery and is as much science fiction as horror. A good portion of the climax is spent trying to explain the movie. It doesn’t take. Which is not to say that John Dies at the End is a bad movie. This is a film striving for cult status, and who knows? Maybe it’ll be regarded as a cult classic in twenty years. It’s certainly weird enough.

The Color Out of Space

The Color Out of Space is an okay remake of the Lovecraft novelette of the same name. Apparently it is the third such remake. I saw one of them (The Curse) in the movies back in 1987 and recall that it starred Wil Wheaton and nothing else. Since this is a German remake, it takes place in Germany.

The framing story concerns John Davis, an American trying to find his missing father, who has vanished in Germany. He meets a man who knew his dad during the Second World War, and that man tells him a crazy story. I’m assuming the only reason John sticks around to the end is because he doesn’t know much German, although his knowledge of the language seems to fluctuate throughout the movie.

The man tells of a meteor crashing in a valley. Months later the crops are enormous, but bad; the trees seem to move, even though there’s no wind; and the family of farmers who live there succumb to an unknown illness. Something’s wrong with the water, and that something lives in the well.

The Color out of Space is filmed in black-and-white. The titular color of the title is violet. The filmmakers make a number of changes to the original story, which is fine since there’s no way the novelette can sustain a ninety minute movie. Whether those changes work is another matter. Lovecraft’s story is about ecological havoc, and the movie works best when it sticks to that theme.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get the new ending of The Color Out of Space at all. I can’t say why, because spoilers. I’m not sure why I didn’t like this movie. It’s a serviceable remake, and maybe that’s the problem. When Lovecraft published his story in 1927, the concept of ecological devastation was groundbreaking, but there’s been about a million stories on the subject since then.

If you’re a Lovecraft fan, The Color Out of Space is worth a look; if not, I’d skip it.

V/H/S

V/H/S is a horror anthology that consists of a framing story and five different segments, each directed by a different person. V/H/S is long for a horror film, two hours. The format is found-footage, which means the movie looks grainy and amateurish. This feels like the type of cheap horror flick you’d pick up at your local video store back when video stores still existed.

The framing story is about a bunch of fuck-ups stealing a VHS tape from an old man’s house. When they break in they find the old man sitting in his armchair before a bunch of VHS tapes and TV sets. The old man’s dead, except sometimes he gets up and walks around. The F-Us need to find the correct tape, so they start watching them all, and that’s when the fun starts.

The first segment, Amateur Night, involves a bunch of drunk dudes on the prowl who end up bringing home more woman than they can handle. I’m not sure if the director realized that the dude-bros are about a thousand times scarier than the monster, but since the dude-bros in question seem to be V/H/S’ target audience, I’m guessing not.

Second Honeymoon, about a vacationing couple, is directed by Ti West (House of the Devil fame), which means the story meanders along until something totally fucked up happens. The foreshadowing in this segment is so well-hidden it kills any suspense. You could watch it again to catch everything you missed, but is that a fair trade-off for the twenty minutes of life you’d lose?

Tuesday the 17th is about a killer in the woods who can only be seen through a video camera. It’s pretty typical hack/slash stuff. The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger is the best of the bunch. It’s about a guy’s long distance relationship via webcam with his girlfriend, who’s having unwanted night visitors. 10/31/98 features a bunch of stupid drunk guys who go to a Halloween party at the wrong house that seems to be empty but isn’t.

I’d heard mixed reviews about V/H/S before I watched it. Some people thought this movie was too long and dragged, but I’m not one of them. V/H/S held my interest. I thought the look and feel of all the segments was pretty consistent, and the use of found-footage was creative and interesting. That’s the good.

The bad: the lack of respect for women in this movie borders on misogyny. V/H/S has a sleazy vibe that is really off-putting (to me, anyway). I’m not sure if they were going for a grindhouse vibe, but it really backfired. The movie feels like it was made by a bunch of frat boys. There are way too many shots of leering guys and bare breasts. The directors are all men. There are good female directors in the horror community. Why not invite a few of them to the party?

The Nude Vampire

You think you’d know what you are getting when watching a movie called The Nude Vampire, but Jean Rollin is a man who subverts expectations. The Nude Vampire isn’t about vampires and the vampire isn’t nude. It is, however, one of the better movies Mr. Rollin has directed.

The opening sequence of The Nude Vampire is visually striking, with no dialogue for the first ten minutes. A man in a hood draws blood from a topless woman, also hooded, in a lab brimming with test tubes full of brightly colored dyes. Cut to a woman fleeing three men wearing bizarre animal masks. She runs into a man – our hero Pierre – who tries to protect her. The masked men shoot the woman and take her body to a tenement. Pierre follows the murderers back, eventually gaining entrance to a private party where the guests kill themselves so that the selfsame woman can drink their blood. Which means *gasp* she’s a vampire. Or is she?

Pierre’s dad Georges is an evil industrialist. Think Obadiah Stane of Iron Man or Mr. Lodge of Archie comics. He has a female sidekick, Solange, who does his dirty work and he keeps a pair of female twins as pets/sex slaves. At one point the twins dress Pierre – who’s supposed to be our hero – but whatever.

Pierre soon uncovers his father’s plot. The woman his dad’s keeping locked up is immortal, and he’s trying to uncover the secret of her immortality. The purpose of the suicide club is to provide the woman with blood, because they think she’s a vampire. After Pierre crashes the party Georges and his flunkies move to a chateau in the country. This turns out to be a big mistake.

The second half of The Nude Vampire isn’t as good as the first, mostly because the answers aren’t as interesting as the questions. The plot is quite complex, and this movie does stand up as a decent 1970’s science fiction movie, even if the special effects aren’t great in places.

I believe I stated in an earlier review that Jean Rollin movies don’t have plots. Many of them do. The first Jean Rollin movie I saw was Requiem for the Vampire, which starts with a big chase scene and ends in a vampire den with not much plot in between, but that movie is the exception rather than the rule. If you like Eurotrash and/or Jean Rollin movies, The Nude Vampire is a must-see.

Temple Wood: A Quest for Freedom

 The first time I watched Temple Wood: A Quest for Freedom I figured I was missing something. So I watched it a second time. Now I’m thinking this movie’s mode of linear storytelling is a trap and Temple Wood isn’t supposed to make sense. For example: the Quest for Freedom part of the title means nothing in the context of the movie.

When Professor Martenson disappears his (graduate) student Martin decides to investigate, contaminating a crime scene and finding a book in the professor’s study about Temple Wood. Despite it being the 21st century, Professor Martenson writes using a dip pen. Martin himself uses a Walkman instead of an iPod. Could this be a clue?

For reasons I don’t understand Martin decides to visit Temple Wood. He treks to the town of Kilmartin, which is, as his landlady points out, an unfortunate name for him. Martin’s rented attic room is bright yellow and full of kids’ books and toys. Some of the movie’s imagery suggests that Martin himself is a child. There are also weird sexual images; the most disturbing sequence in this movie is sexual.

Martin enters Temple Wood, a stone circle covered in rocks. Was the site decommissioned by the ancients – or are they trying to imprison something? Beats me! Martin visits Temple Wood a second time that night in his dreams and sees a group of cultists performing a ceremony. He runs away from the cultists in a goofy-looking scene and then meets the Sunflower Man. I’m not sure if the Sunflower Man is supposed to be scary, funny, stupid, or all of the above. The Sunflower Man is surreal, which I like. The Sunflower Man is part of a dream, and dreams aren’t supposed to make sense.

The plot moves on, but it doesn’t really matter. In the end what we have is a hodgepodge of bizarre imagery: the Sunflower Man, a yellow room, a pair of shoes with the laces tied together and Martin waving his weenie around and yelling. It’s possible Martin is crazy. He sees people appear and disappear. He doesn’t interact with anyone but his landlady, whom he sees as a mommy/lover figure. Martin resembles a Lovecraftian hero in his total isolation. He wears a single set of clothes, carries around a copy of the Necronomicon and is a social outcast.

Temple Wood is short, about an hour long. I couldn’t figure it out, but I’m not sure that’s a valid critique. The movie may be satire, or perhaps it has a deeper meaning I’m missing. Maybe I should watch it a third time…

Definitely worth a viewing, but watch at your own risk!

Pyega, aka The Haunted House Project

Question: what kind of horror movie do you make if you have no money? Answer: found-footage! Filmed on a budget of $300,00 (according to IMDB), the South Korean horror movie Pyega (aka The Haunted House Project) is yet another entry in the found-footage file bin. This is a case where I’d suggest viewing the trailer; if you do, there’s no reason to watch this movie.

Pyega does get a few things right. The haunted house/factory is falling apart and looks like a genuine health hazard. I like grit in my movies, so that’s good. The ghost story isn’t bad, either: a man opens a cookie factory, has an affair with his secretary, kills his secretary and dumps her body in a big puddle. Soon afterwards, her vengeful spirit slaughters him and his family.

With the help of a film crew, a paranormal club investigates! Let me say that I love the idea of a paranormal club; if my high school had a paranormal club back in the day I would have joined in a minute. The cast is your usual mix of nobodies, which befits cannon fodder. One of the female cast members falls or is pushed into the big puddle, which must have been fun for her.

Unfortunately, since the filmmakers don’t have any money for special effects nothing happens, and we’re reduced to sitting around waiting for the ghost to kill them. The makers of The Blair Witch Project solved that problem by arguing over the map, but Pyega drags. If you want to see all the jump-scares watch the trailer. We do catch a glimpse of the ghost contorting her body into impossible angles, so apparently this evil spirit does yoga!

I am not sure why I watched Pyega. Sometimes I’m just in the mood for a bad movie, and Pyega scratched that itch. And how.

Psychomania

The thing is, you can’t hesitate. If you don’t want to die you can’t have eternal life. That’s the premise of Psychomania, aka The Death Wheelers, an English horror movie that isn’t a horror movie at all. Yes, the name of the motorcycle gang is The Living Dead; yes, the members of that gang come back from the dead; no, it’s not a horror movie. More on that later.

Tom is the leader of a motorcycle gang called The Living Dead. Even though he’s all grown up now, Tom wears leather pants and a weird helmet and drives around with his motorcycle gang terrorizing the squares. He’s an overgrown child, the kind of kid who pulls the wings off flies. His mother is rich, which is why he’s not in jail.

But Tom wants more from life. His mom made a deal with a toad that gave her eternal life, and Tom wants in. Discovering that the way to immortality is to die, he drives off a bridge. The funeral is awesome. Tom’s biker pals prop him up on his motorcycle, which they put in the grave and then bury. Because it’s the early 70’s, one of the bikers sings a groovy folk song.

Tom doesn’t stay buried long. Back from the dead and endowed with supernatural powers,  he’s a bigger asshole than ever. It’s not long before Tom’s buddies all want in on the fun. Indeed, the best part of Psychomania is watching the creative ways they off themselves. Pretty soon The Living Dead live up to their name. The only party pooper is Tom’s girlfriend Abby. Instead of doing something cool like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute or throwing herself into traffic, she takes a bunch of pills and doesn’t die. Wimp.

Psychomania isn’t a horror movie; it’s a black comedy. Why do I say that? Well, that’s what I say when a movie is funny instead of scary or gory or upsetting. Psychomania is full of funny scenes, but my personal favorite is a reborn Tom revving up his motorcycle and driving it right out of his grave. Psychomania is an early 70’s film that with a bit of editing could be an episode of The Avengers. John Steed and Emma Peel would make short work of these bozos.

House of the Devil

A summary of House of the Devil: nothing happens for the first seventy minutes, and then holy shit. The plot riffs off the Satanic Panic of the early 80’s, involving a babysitter, a total eclipse of the moon and a ceremony to Say-Tan. This is a movie meant to throw you off your game. For instance: the halfway scare is important in horror films, the point halfway through the movie when you can count on something fucked-up happening. The halfway scare in House of the Devil happens fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. It’s just one of the things that’s off about this movie, and I mean off in a good way.

College-student Samantha (Sam) wants to move into her own apartment. She doesn’t get along with her roommate, who is a slob and maybe even a sex-addict. Sam finds the perfect apartment but needs cash for the first month’s rent. Luckily, she finds a Babysitter Wanted flyer hanging on a billboard. On the phone the guy seems weird, but Sam needs the money.

Sam’s friend Megan drives her to a house in the middle of nowhere, where the creepy Mr. Ulman reveals there is no child for her to sit. He wants Sam to watch his wife’s elderly mother and offers her four hundred dollars to do it. Mr. Ulman is the family member who interacts with Sam because he’s the best at imitating a normal human being, and he’s not too good at it. Megan thinks her friend is nuts, and tells her so, but Sam needs the money. I mean, she’s stuck in a house in the boondocks without a car, and the people pretending to own the house are probably related to the Manson Family. What could possibly go wrong?

Supposedly inspired by the horror films of the early 80’s, House of the Devil has more of a 70’s vibe. Sam looks like a combo of Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith on Charlie’s Angels. Despite wearing mom jeans for the whole movie, Sam is very attractive. She’s also…I don’t know what you’d call it. Naïve? She’s not stupid. Sam catches the house’s bad vibes right away. As the movie goes on the sense of wrongness grows, and pretty soon she’s peeking around corners armed with a butcher knife.

House of the Devil will either scare or bore the crap out of you. Nothing happens for long periods of time, and this movie foregoes the usual practice of having nameless somethings lurking out of the corner of your eyes. The third act of this movie pays off, big-time, but it all depends on whether you think the ride is worth the wait.

House by the Cemetery

Young Bob utters the best line of House by the Cemetery when he goes into the basement in search of his babysitter, Anne. A few scenes earlier Bob saw Anne’s severed head rolling down the steps. As he walks down the stairs Bob says (paraphrasing) – “Anne. Are you dead? Mommy says you’re not dead.”

I’ve seen enough horror cinema to know that House by the Cemetery, directed by Lucio Fulci, is an influential movie. It’s an important entry in the Monster in the Basement subgenre and contains an element of sadism that was way ahead of its time. This is not torture porn, but it’s close, and nowadays you can see about a hundred horror movies like this: threadbare plot, cutout characters, sadistic killer and lots and lots of blood.

House by the Cemetery opens with a guy and girl, post sexy-time. Instead of treating his date to a nice motel, maybe with mirrors on the ceiling, the dude takes her to a disgusting, grungy basement. He dies and she gets a knife through the back of the head. Cut to Dr. Norman Boyle, his wife Lucy and their son Bob, who are off to the same house in New England.

We meet another little kid, a girl named Mae who doesn’t want Bob to go into the house. Bob sees Mae’s face in a picture, peeking out of the window of the house they’re about to move into. The house the Boyles are renting – which is a piece of shit – was owned by Dr. Freudstein, a half-assed mad scientist who performed medical experiments on people in the basement.

You couldn’t pay me to spend the night in that place, but the Boyles are made of sterner stuff. The results are predictable. Norm and Lucy hear children crying in the middle of the night, even though their son is fast asleep. There’s an honest-to-God tomb in the hallway hidden under a carpet. A bat attacks Doc Norman and he stabs it about three hundred times before it dies. Bats don’t act that way unless they have rabies, so anyone sane would leave the house, post-haste. The Boyles stay. Of course they stay. They’re begging to be killed, and the thing lurking in the basement is more than happy to oblige.

I’m sorry to say that House by the Cemetery wasn’t to my tastes. It has lots of gore, but the script is a mess and the characters are dumb even by horror movie standards. This could be a translation issue. House by the Cemetery is an Italian movie, and maybe the dub isn’t too good. Still, if you want to see the flick that helped inspired the latest hack ’em up streaming on Netflix, check out House by the Cemetery.