Under the Shadow

Under the Shadow takes place in Tehran in the 1980’s during the Iraq/Iran war. Our main character, Shideh, is a housewife with a husband and young daughter. Shideh lives two lives, public and private. She exercises to Jane Fonda workout videos in her apartment, but must hide the VCR when outsiders come because VCRs are illegal. When she goes outside she has to cover her head.

After her mother’s death, Shideh tries to resume her medical studies. Her husband Iraj thinks she’s doing it because her mom wanted her to be a doctor. It’s a moot point because Shideh’s political activities in the 1970’s mean that no medical school will accept her. She’s pissed off about it, especially when Iraj tells her that maybe it’s for the best. Soon afterwards, Iraj is drafted to fight in the Iran-Iraq war. Iraq is bombing Tehran. Iraj wants Shideh and their daughter Dorsa to leave the city and live with his mother, but she won’t leave.

The djinn makes its entrance with a flair. A missile hits Shideh’s apartment complex but doesn’t explode and that’s when the weird shit starts. Dorsa’s doll vanishes. Shideh has bad dreams, and then starts seeing strange things out of the corners of her eyes. Under the Shadows has a slow build-up. The djinn takes its time revealing itself, but what’s scarier is the world Shideh lives in, where you can be flogged for not wearing a headscarf in public.

Under the Shadows has a few good jump scares, including one that made me shriek out loud. This is definitely an art house horror film. Shideh is human, and she is under an incredible amount of pressure. That said, not all the tension between mother and daughter is because of the djinn. This is a movie where the personal horror and the monster merge.

Under the Shadows is available on Netflix Streaming and is definitely worth a watch.

Ringu

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 Ringu is a hard film to watch, and I mean that literally. I saw The Ring, the American remake, a few months ago. But I couldn’t find Ringu streaming anywhere, ironic since this movie is about a piece of dead technology. I had to go through my library system to find it.

Ringu concerns a cursed videotape that kills you a week after watching it. The video contains a bunch of weird, almost Dadaist imagery, and ends with a shot of a well. Reiko, a reporter, gets her hands on a copy of the videotape and watches it. She knows the story of the curse when she does so. Spooked when she receives the obligatory phone call predicted by the urban legend afterwards, Reiko makes a copy of the videotape and shows it to her ex-husband.

This is something I don’t get about either version of the movie. If you found a cursed videotape that could kill people, why would you show it to anyone, especially if you started believing in the curse? The rest of Ringu is spent running around with Reiko and her ex trying to decipher the curse, which leads to an island, a girl with psychic powers and a well that isn’t empty.

Ringu isn’t scary. Looking back at my review of The Ring, I complained it wasn’t a scary movie. Ringu is even worse. There are almost no jump scares and we don’t see a lot of Sadako, the ghost girl. The climax is great, though. They wrote the subplot about psychic powers out of the remake, with good reason.

Reiko’s relationship with her ex-husband is strangely formal, and she doesn’t seem to feel bad about leaving her child home alone for hours at a time. I am not sure if the filmmakers are trying to make a moral statement, notorious in horror movies, but am guessing my confusion is due to me not understanding a different culture.

The best part of Ringu is the countdown to Reiko’s death. Her psychological journey from skepticism to total belief to existential dread is interesting to watch, but the movie’s plot isn’t dynamic enough to match her personal angst. Translation: not enough happens. I’d call Ringu a near miss. Dark Water, made by the same director, is a much better movie.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

Dario Argento’s directorial debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage introduces us to Mr. Argento’s visually striking style and fascination with voyeurism. Stuck between two panes of glass like a trapped fly, Sam – an American writer in Italy – witnesses an attempted murder at an art gallery. Soon he’s pursued by the killer, as well as an Inspector Clouseau type cop, through a grimy-looking Italy.

Sam decides to play detective, enlisting the help of gal pal Julia (Suzy Kendall). I am not sure why anyone sane would do this, but people did all sorts of bizarre shit in the 70’s. Shrugging off the attempts on his life, Sam’s amateur investigation leads him to a ghoulish painting. His visit to the artist is one of the highlights of the movie. While Sam’s away, the black-glove-wearing serial killer decides to play, threatening Julia in a plot development anyone who’s ever watched a thriller can see coming. Speaking of which: a few of the plot developments are ridiculous, but who cares? This movie holds together very well.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is well-worth watching, if you can find it (I watched it through my Fandor subscription). Since this is a giallo, there is a whodunit? element and a fiendish plot twist at the end. Be warned that Mr. Argento’s Deep Red, a better movie, is almost a remake of this film.

 

Archivo 253

Archivo 253 is a movie that slavishly follows the found-footage formula. Group of paranormal hunters? Check. Group makeup: two or three guys and one woman? Check. Abandoned hospital/mental institute/house? Check. Demonic presence haunting the premises that we hardly see because no budget? Check. Lots of night-vision footage in that puke green light we’ve all come to know and love? Check!

Archivo 253 takes place in an abandoned lunatic asylum, just like Grave Encounters. Like most found-footage movies, the best part is the beginning as we watch interviews with people who bullshit about the legends behind the place that will soon kill our hapless heroes. An ex-patient mentions they used to hold exorcisms in the mental hospital, one of several interesting elements never followed up on.

Our amateur ghost hunters – three guys and a girl – break in. I think they are supposed to be students, but one of them is going bald. The place is falling apart, as usual. Our heroes wander around the premises in the dark (night vision footage, yay!) while we wait for something to happen, and that sums up the plot.

Archivo 253 looks like it was filmed on a micro-budget, so one expects the effects to be cruddy to nonexistent. Unfortunately, the writing is bad also. Nobody has a personality. I forgot everyone’s name but Diego, and the only reason I remembered his name is because the other characters spend the last twenty minutes of the movie screaming it.

On the plus side, Archivo 253 has a few good jump scares and one eye-opener when everyone’s sleeping. This movie also has the single greatest gadget in the history of found-footage films, beating out the lost map in The Blair Witch Project.

The Ghost Detector is a handheld device that looks like something you can buy at Radio Shack, which is probably where the filmmakers bought it. When ghosts are nearby, the Ghost Detector’s buttons flash. So our heroes get to say things like – ‘if you can see us flash two buttons.’ When you don’t have any money, creative touches like that go a long ways.

Unfortunately, even the Ghost Detector isn’t enough to save Archivo 253. This movie is for lovers of found-footage films only. Since I watch one of these movies every month, I guess I qualify…

The Iron Rose

The Iron Rose is the rare Jean Rollin movie that misses its mark, and I say this as a fan of his work. There are elements of an interesting movie here, but it’s way too slow. I don’t mind films with a leisurely build-up, but you can skip the first twenty minutes of this and not miss anything.

The Iron Rose follows the trials of a pair of adult lovers, labeled The Boy and The Girl. The Boy returns for a wedding, where he reads a bad poem to a room full of drunk people. For whatever reason, The Girl is impressed by the Boy’s literary efforts. They make a date to go bike riding and end up frolicking in the railroad station amongst the trains, he play-chasing her. Foreshadowing!

Afterwards, our lovers go on a bike ride and stop at the local cemetery, which is huge. One of this movie’s neat touches is that the tombs are better cared for than the city’s buildings, which are falling apart. After walking the grounds, they clamber into an underground tomb to rut. Cut to a clown entering the graveyard and leaving flowers. The Iron Rose’s symbolism isn’t exactly subtle, hitting you over the head like a sledgehammer. By the time The Boy and The Girl are done with sexy-time night has fallen and they can’t find their way out of the cemetery. And that’s your plot.

As someone who got lost once as a kid, I can tell you it’s no fun. Still, these are adults we are talking about and it’s only a graveyard. That’s the point. There is nothing there, just the lovers and a bunch of headstones and tombs. The dead don’t rise, but tempers sure do. Soon The Boy and The Girl are acting like frightened children.

The Iron Rose has an interesting premise, but it takes too long for anything to happen. That’s because Mr. Rollin has made an 85-minute movie out of 40-minutes of material. The acting is so-so and there are way too many close-ups of the characters’ faces. We also have a scene at the beach that will be familiar to watchers of Mr. Rollin’s movies, as that same stretch of beach shows up in many of his films. It’s his version of Roger Corman’s burning chicken coop.

The best thing about The Iron Rose is the setting, an enormous unkempt cemetery that feels like a city of the dead. Lest fans of Mr. Rollin worry that he’s turning into a highbrow indy director, this movie contains lots of sex and tasteless nudity. Unfortunately Mr. Rollin might not be the right person to handle this kind of material. He is a wonderful director, but he’s not subtle, and psychological nuance isn’t his thing. An interesting failure, The Iron Rose is for Jean Rollin fans only.

Gurozuka

I watched Gurozuka on my brand new Fandor subscription. Fandor has an interesting collection of horror films, many of which I’ve never seen before, and I’m hoping I’ll like their offerings better than I liked Gurozuka. This is the first Japanese slasher flick I have ever seen and it features a few wrinkles on the slasher trope. All the characters are female and the movie contains no sexual element or even subtext.

A newly reformed high school film club returns to the cabin in the woods where the previous high school film club made a movie named Gurozuka. One student died during the making of this film and another was institutionalized. The grainy footage – recovered by Maki, the head of the film club – is spooky, featuring a Noh-mask wearing figure wielding a meat cleaver.

There are seven girls, six students and their teacher. The trouble starts when Natsuki –queen bee and aspiring model – quits the production when she learns that Maki and Ai – who organized this little jaunt in the woods – are planning on making a horror movie. Natsuki isn’t nice about quitting, but you can’t blame her for feeling misled. After that, the bad mojo comes fast: stolen food, poison mushrooms and a Noh-mask wearing killer with a meat cleaver. One similarity Gurozuka shares with American slasher flicks is its brain-dead characters, as the girls are too busy bickering and sniping to notice the killer in their midst.

I cannot say I liked Gurozuka. I didn’t guess the identity of the killer, but on the other hand I didn’t care about the identity of the killer. The idea that the student film is cursed, filling whoever watches it with the urge to kill and perhaps reenact the events of the movie, is an interesting idea that is never fully explored. Too bad.

Here are a few things I liked about Gurozuka: the Noh mask killer was freaky. A few scenes scared me, and the video footage was effective. I think my problem with this movie has to do with the fact that I didn’t like any of the characters. I’m not crazy about movies whose main attraction is rooting for all the annoying people to die. Gurozuka doesn’t even get that right, as most of the deaths occur off-screen. The Final Girl twist at the end is intriguing, but not enough to save this movie.

Videodrome

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Videodrome isn’t my favorite Dave Cronenberg movie – that would be Rabid, warts and all – but it is one of his best. This is a film that predicted the rise of easily accessible pornography and the packaging of sex & violence (really sexual violence) as mainstream entertainment. Mr. Cronenberg missed the advent of the Internet, but everything else about Videodrome is spot-on.

Max (James Woods) runs CIVIC-TV, a cable TV channel. Most of his programming is sex and violence, and he is always on the lookout for new talent. When Max’s tech guy intercepts a cable transmission that consists of hardcore S&M he’s intrigued. All he has to go on is a name: Videodrome.

Max meets Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) on a talk show, where he tells the world he’s doing it a favor by giving people a harmless outlet for their fantasies. Max and Nicki are made for each other. She’s into piercing and he has sadistic tendencies. Their sex scenes are more hair-raising than the special effects which come later; I’m amazed Videodrome got an R-rating, but this was the early 80’s.

Max soon starts seeing things. That’s because watching Videodrome gives you brain tumors. Unphased, he follows a trail that leads to the Cathode Ray Mission, founded by Brian O’Blivion. Mr. O’Blivion is dead, but he’s recorded hundreds of hours of videotape of himself so he’s still around, a sadomasochistic Casper the Friendly Ghost. His daughter is now running the shop. Videodrome and the Cathode Ray Mission are at war, and Max – whose hallucinations grow steadily worse as Cronenberg’s bizarre skin fetish rears its head – is stuck in the middle.

Videodrome was way ahead of its time. My only quibble is that a few of the special effects are cheesy and don’t do this movie justice. James Woods does a great job playing Max, a sleazy operator and pornographer who samples his own wares. Max isn’t nice, but here’s a dirty little secret: lots of times people aren’t nice. In a way having an unlikable hero makes Videodrome easier to watch, as Max loses his agency and becomes a meat package ripe for programming, deprogramming and reprogramming, a victim of the boob tube.

Blood and Black Lace

Watching Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace reminded me of an episode of Charlie’s Angels. The music sounds like TV show music and the girls look like TV show actresses. In a way, that makes the violence that much more shocking. This is a very pretty movie with a few very ugly moments, including a short but nasty torture scene.

A man wearing a cloth mask over his face strangles a fashion model and dumps her body in a closet. When the dead girl’s co-workers discover her diary it sets off a daisy chain of murders. The killer stalks his prey through mansions stuffed full of rugs, fancy furniture, exotic art and marble statues. I never knew modeling paid so well! Maybe the killings are the work of a sexual psychopath, but the slayings seem too calculated for that. The modeling world has a seamy side, with drugs and money and sleaze, and the killer seems right at home.

Blood and Black Lace is a giallo, and thus has both mystery and horror elements. What this movie doesn’t have is a protagonist. None of the characters in the ensemble cast are all that likable. The players display a distinct lack of morality, or perhaps it’s personality. Since they live in a superficial world dominated by looks, that’s not much of a surprise. But it is a fairly sophisticated bit of writing/filmmaking.

I saw Blood and Black Lace on Fandor, where it was advertised as ‘retro VHS style,’ not a selling point for anyone who remembers VHS. Despite this, Blood and Black Lace is still a very pretty movie. It’s dubbed, and the dubbing is good, but don’t look at the characters’ lips when they are talking. Despite all the positives, to me this movie gives off a Charlie’s Angels/Murder Mystery of the Week vibe. There are classics that don’t age well, but perhaps that isn’t fair. Blood and Black Lace was influential and it’s not Mr. Bava’s fault other directors imitated him.

Ju-On: The Grudge

Writing a review of Ju-On: The Grudge is tough for me. This is a movie I avoided for months because I’d heard it was so scary. After actually watching it I was underwhelmed, but that might be because of my expectations. Or maybe I’m spoiled. Ju-On: The Grudge doesn’t hold a candle to Dark Water. I don’t know how it compares to Ringu, because I’ve only seen the American remake.

A man kills his wife, the family cat and his son. He dies soon afterwards. The house becomes cursed, meaning that anyone who steps foot inside dies. It might take awhile – even years – but eventually the ghosts will get you. The vengeful spirits in question are the wife Kayako, her son Toshio and the family cat. Sometimes the husband makes an appearance.

Rika is a social worker who enters the house to check on an elderly woman. It doesn’t take her long to meet the former occupants. The point-of-view switches to Kazumi, the elderly woman’s daughter-in-law; and then to Kazumi’s husband; and then the husband’s sister; and so on. This movie has no main character, which gives it the feel of a series of short films spliced together. It also makes it hard to view the characters as anything more than cannon fodder.

That would be okay, except Ju-On: The Grudge isn’t scary. It didn’t scare me, anyway. Parts of this movie are bizarre and freaky, but the jump scares didn’t make me jump. Perhaps that’s because I’m conditioned to respond to Hollywood type jump-scares. I give them points for creativity. Kayako crawls around on her belly and hisses like a rattlesnake and Toshio does a great cat imitation.

I wouldn’t describe Ju-On: The Grudge as a bad movie, but it has problems. It isn’t scary. The time shifts aren’t in chronological order, which is disorienting. I also didn’t care about any of the characters. This movie did hold my interest; my mood as I watched can be described as mildly interested. Perhaps my expectations were too high, or perhaps I’m not the intended audience and this is a movie for a younger audience.

 

Berberian Sound Stage

Is it a bad sign when you go to Wikipedia because you aren’t sure what the movie you’ve just watched is about? That’s what I did after watching Berberian Sound Stage. I gather from the reviews I’ve read that a lot of people think this film is a work of genius, which means maybe I’m missing something. Maybe.

Gilderoy is an English sound engineer who travels to Italy to work on a movie he thinks is about horses. Too late, he discovers that the film is a giallo (an Italian thriller with mystery and horror elements) about witches. Berberian Sound Stage is set in the 70’s – the heyday of giallo – and the sound is dubbed in later, which is why Gilderoy’s services are needed. Members of the tech crew wear black gloves, another tribute to giallo.

Gilderoy is a pro. He’s also a little middle-aged man who lives with his mom in the English countryside. He doesn’t understand the language, so when the Italians speak amongst themselves he thinks they might be talking about him. Sometimes they are. They’re also trying to cheat him out of his plane fare; at one point the producer lectures Gilderoy about the joys of working for free.

Berberian Sound Stage begins with two plots. The giallo’s plot involves witches, torture and murder. The producer has fits making his starlets scream convincingly because the director – who does nothing but party – chooses his girlfriends as actresses. This leads to a subplot about sexual harassment that casts Gilderoy in a sympathetic light, but that plot never goes anywhere.

Gilderoy spends his days making skillets hiss and smashing watermelons with hammers to simulate the burning and piercing of human flesh. Since Gilderoy is a sensitive soul this bothers him. Why he doesn’t just quit is unclear. At Berberian Sound Stage’s halfway point a third storyline unfolds, which is when the plot fractures and this movie falls apart for me.

There are many things to like about Berberian Sound Stage. The movie looks great, with a spooky, atmospheric vibe, and Toby Jones’ performance as Gilderoy is excellent. I found the behind-the-scenes stuff about 1970’s movie sound work mildly interesting. I like movies, but – aside from the writing – don’t care about how they’re made.

The problem with Berberian Sound Stage is the plot; by the end I had no idea what was happening. I do think that sometimes plot can be overrated, but another element of the movie needs to step up, and that doesn’t happen here. Like the dubbing in a giallo, where the moving lips and the voice coming from the mouth don’t quite mesh, Berberian Sound Stage never quite comes together as a movie for me.