Friday, February 17, 2012

Heroes of Horror: New Blood & Old Hats Part 2


On the opposite end of the spectrum, Europe has produced a great many genre filmmakers passionate about their craft in ways not always associated with the commerciality of their product. Guys like Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodato, Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino and Antonio Margheriti have contributed works that, while often designed for overseas markets, have left a bloody brand that remains seared into the minds of numerous modern cinema directors. In the Italian market of today, horror directors are essentially a dead breed, having yet to rise from the dead to feast on the flesh of the living once more. Dario Argento seems to be the only one left in the coliseum even if his cinematic sword has dulled rendering his output more and more ridiculous. His newest, DRACULA 3D (2012), looks to be the single most unintentionally hilarious adaptation of Stoker's novel yet. There's CGI aplenty, Rutger Hauer as Van Helsing and a giant preying mantis of all things. I've never been the biggest Argento fan, but I do enjoy some of his earlier works. His films are generally consistent in that they seldom make much sense, but benefit from dizzying camerawork and nightmarish imagery.

Dario and his daughter, Asia.


Michele Soavi seemed to be the last great hope for Italian horror with his stylized slasher debut, STAGE FRIGHT (1987). This movie took the tired and all too familiar 'stalk and kill' machinations and made them appear fresh again all the while creating a visually satisfying canvas with which to place his characters in peril. In America at the time, the slasher was nothing more than a parody of itself, bogged down in redundant sequels and meandering shot on video schlock. Soavi reportedly left the industry to take care of family matters, but he left behind an impressive, if small body of work that showed a good deal of promise. Meanwhile, Argento continued his downward spiral...What's most fascinating and ironic about vintage Italian genre cinema, particularly those of the 70s and 80s, is how brazenly close they copied American movies to the point where it became impossible for some of them to be shown in North American theaters. The irony of all this is how American filmmakers clone and copy foreign product these days, only under the guise of a "remake", to which the original can be frequently, and conveniently swept under the rug, so to speak. The rest of the Cloners who aren't always shy about the location of the well from which they've drank, ultimately drown themselves in an adolescent pool of imitation. In most cases, this non stop barrage of homage to far better movies is just laziness that passes for originality these days.


"I'm never going to explain the spelling....When you do an artistic flourish like that, to describe it, to explain it, to take the piss out of it would invalidate the whole stroke in the first place."
--QT describing, or not describing his Inglourious reasoning behind the misspelling of his INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, a title borrowed from Enzo G. Castellari's 'Men On A Mission' movie, THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (1978).

American directors today like Quentin Tarantino, and Eli Roth were greatly influenced by the heavyweights of Italian genre pictures and have paid homage to them in their movies. Both of these directors have similar styles, but approach them in vastly different ways. The former prefers to take his influences and mangle the hell out of them, adding puzzling nuances and topping his movie cake with the most arrogant of icing that reached a pretentious pinnacle with the glorious misfire that was GRINDHOUSE (2007); a truly wretched movie that purported to have the best of intentions, but instead came off as some sort of vanity project for Robert Rodriguez and, especially, Tarantino. Mr. (Q)T is likely the prime suspect for the spate of "Hip Talent" that are responsible for an ever growing number of craptacular, self referential movies that spends more time winking at the audience as opposed to scaring them. Tarantino has shown his adulation for the works of Italian cinema directors in such films as KILL BILL (2003), THE INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2010) and the upcoming titanic turd bearing the name of DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012); a film that bears little to no resemblance to Sergio Corbucci's DJANGO (1966), a seminal ballet of mud, blood and violence starring Franco Nero.

Roth, on the other hand, took a different route. He has directed relatively few films at this point, but his pictures were rife with gruesome mayhem sprinkled with subtle paeans to pictures past. CABIN FEVER (2003) was a peculiar viewing experience and a rare film that, despite being shot in 2003, occasionally had a feel of a much older movie. HOSTEL (2005), a movie that made an enormous splash both on the big screen and in box office receipts, recalled the groundbreakingly graphic sex-gore-torture movies popularized by Teruo Ishii in the late 1960s starting with JOY OF TORTURE in 1968. Aside from a palpable sense of dread, there was little substance in the HOSTEL. However, for HOSTEL 2 (2007), Roth "matured" and fashioned a superior sequel that met with a surprising amount of backlash from fans. A bigger story, better performances, richer characterization and some awfully disturbing imagery (the Bathory sequence is a major highlight) showed Roth to be a promising talent. In addition, a thick European aura permeates this entry even more than the first time around; not just in its locations, but cameos by Edwige Fenech, Luc Merenda and a choice appearance by Ruggero Deodato enhance the proceedings. These recognizable faces are used in a far more restrained manner than anything Tarantino has done. After a great many people illegally downloaded the movie prior to it tanking at the box office, a seemingly frustrated Roth fell off the directing radar and has been content with producing and acting roles ever since. Hopefully Roth will get back in the game at some point.

Contrary to others in the filmmaking field, Eli Roth has been more successful at paying a gory debt to the films that inspired him. Regardless of what some may think of him, he has taken elements from some of Europe's most sadistic motion pictures and made an entirely new dish out of them. Unfortunately, very few others have done that. It also does the current crop of horror filmmakers little good in that they all blend together. There's little, if any defining signature to differentiate one directors movie from the other when they're all doing virtually the same thing. Europe's impact (among other influences) on American horror filmmakers is unmistakable. There's one man from Italy who is arguably solely responsible for the majority of movie makers living their dream whether in horror, or in other styles of cinema.


Bava photo from BLACK SABBATH (1963); Insert: Fulci and Bava.

Mario Bava was truly a horror fans movie director. He seemed to have just as much fun making his films as the audiences that continue to view them to this day. His films were rife with imagination and a child-like wonder. Just as a kid would build a castle in his sandbox, Bava played with the look of a scene inserting assorted colors, fog and any haunting imagery his vivid mind could muster. The actors merely enhanced this visual playground and all with extremely limited means. Atmosphere encrusted pictures like BLACK SUNDAY (1960) and BLACK SABBATH (1963) are two supreme examples of Bava's magic, while films such as BARON BLOOD (1972) attempted to capture that earlier whimsy, but to less effect as changing trends demanded a different, more grim look to horror. Papa Bava also bears a degree of responsibility for influencing the slasher craze that stalked the 1980s with every sharp implement imaginable through his goriest effort, BAY OF BLOOD in 1972. All the components are there including such necessary ingredients as youngsters engaging in sexual activities and creative death scenes.

As the 70s lingered, Bava seemed to lose a bit of that luster that made his 60s films so memorable. Still, he was a unique talent that hasn't been tapped in quite the same way since. The list of directors influenced by his dark fairy tales is a long one and some of these aren't filmmakers indigenous to the horror genre. Guys like Tim Burton and Guillermo Del Toro are the closest approximations to Bava's style, only they have more money to work with. Both directors have utilized the fairy tale aesthetic to great effect in their films and far more successfully than some of the current crop of slop artists who portend to pay "loving tribute" with their interpretation of throwback cinema. Curiously enough, a Bavian touch of macabre elegance resides in both directors works that aren't full blown horror. Gothic horror was on the wane during the 70s and Britain's Hammer Films, the leading progenitor of the form were vainly trying to stay relevant with their vampires, hulking monsters and busty women in diaphanous gowns while EXORCISTs and CHAINSAW MASSACREs occurred all around them. Bava's output during this time suffered, but Italian horror in general prospered and succeeded in turning the Gothic into gore drenched wastelands. The more imaginative, fanciful Gothic has yet to enjoy the sort of renaissance it had during the second wave ushered in by Hammer Films in the late 1950s.


Out of all of Hammer's talent pool, arguably the best of the ghoulish bunch would have to be Terence Fisher. The guiding force behind the reinvigoration of the Dracula and Frankenstein franchises, Fisher was one of Britain's finest horror directors. His terror trifecta of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) and THE MUMMY (1959) made Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing major icons of horror all around the world. Oddly enough, the spooky aspects seemed to interest him less than the romanticism he often tried to convey in his movies. Under the Hammer umbrella, Fisher was first in terrorizing audiences with Gothic horror dripping in blood red color and managed to crank out somewhere in the ballpark of 20 horror movies including the likes of THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL (1960), THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968) and FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1973).

Hammer loved their women, and the curvier the better. Actresses like Veronica Carlson (at left and above) and Ingrid Pitt enriched the company's product tremendously adding a great amount of sex to compensate the sadism. There was a sexual subtext in many of Fisher's films that was considered overly offensive by critics of the day. Looking back now, it's difficult to see what the fuss was about. However, one can appreciate that subjects such as infidelity, necrophilia and sexual liberation would be hidden within a Gothic framework of what are essentially monster movies made by grown up kids. These subjects were also featured in the Italian Gothics, too, but were usually a bit more explicit. Looking at the Italian and German Gothic horror films, there's a noticeable difference from their British counterparts. There's a grittier look and darker mood that lingers emitting an aura that's unmistakably European. Possibly because the foreign language films utilized many real locales as opposed to a dominance of studio sets; this gives the British productions a heavier accent towards emulating fairy tales with added blood and violence. Bava melded both in his movies creating a style uniquely his own. Hammer has made something of a comeback recently, so here's hoping their renewed success will lead to the resurrection of the serious Gothic horror picture.


Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo

In the early part of the new millennium, the genre received a point blank shot to the head when Euro horror once again began to blossom and bloom, but this time in dark red brush strokes. Armed with an understanding of 70s cinematic brute force and a Hitchcockian sense of playing on audience perception, Alexandre Aja marched on international shores with the intriguingly savage HIGH TENSION (2003). Rarely had a single horror film caused so much rejoice and anger as this one did during its release. Armed with an array of juicily spectacular gore effects by famed splatter master, Gianetto de Rossi and a daring and shocking turn of events towards the end, Aja's movie was one to be reckoned with. The olden days of folks passing out in theaters or nervous patrons exiting screenings in disgust were about to dawn once more bolstered by the French New Wave. While America was busy remaking Japanese and Spanish horror pictures with rapidity, France was embarking on their own brand of stylized, extreme horror. Paying tribute to the savage sinema of the 1970s and splatter opuses of the 1980s, guys like Aja and the deadly duo of Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo took their influences and made them original again.

Despite relying on dollops of gore, these French fear specialists showed themselves proficient enough to wring the right amount of tension to accentuate the graphic cruelty on display. Aja in particular made a big enough splash for Hollywood to offer him the opportunity to remake Wes Craven's cult classic, THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) in 2006. Aja not only respectfully acknowledged the original, but also expanded on it, crafting one of the most impressive remakes of the current avalanche of 'do overs' raping movie theaters across the country. Sadly, Aja's directorial skills have so far only been used in the remake arena. His MIRRORS (2008) was a remake of a Korean horror film while PIRANHA 3D (2010) mined territory from the Joe Dante directed original, one of the best and most famous of Roger Corman's New World Pictures product.

The aforementioned Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo threw a couple of fast upper cuts out of nowhere with the dark vision that was INSIDE from 2007. This sincerely disturbed horror flick ended up being one of the most fiercely original concepts to come along in some time. Watching the picture, it's obvious John Carpenter was influential on these two filmmakers. There's a strong sense of impending dread before all the gore sets in. Essentially of the 'home invasion' style of horror film, the finale features one of the most nightmarishly outrageous endings of all time. I remember rewatching the movie immediately after the first viewing to make sure I hadn't imagined it all. Now doubt impressing Hollywood suits, the double team were offered some North American propositions. Attached to various horror projects such as HALLOWEEN 2 (the sequel to the Rob Zombie abortion that the Z meister ended up directing himself) and HELLRAISER, these were yet more remakes as opposed to original productions. The two decided to remain in France and their new movie, LIVID (2011) is an original feature as well, and looks to be another winner.

Pascal Laugier is another French filmmaker who has recently been courted by Hollywood to helm yet more remakes after his dangerously sadistic movie MARTYRS (2008) raised a serious storm of controversy on the festival circuit. A difficult movie to sit through, it's violence is powerful and Laugier packs his film with as much disturbing imagery as possible. Again, it's yet another impressive, if beautifully reprehensible European horror picture that puts the glut of immature American horror to shame. Meanwhile, Hollywood, weary of remaking popular Japanese ghost movies, decides to remake the magnificent goosebumper, REC, a Spanish zombie scarefest from 2007 as a note for note clone under the title of QUARANTINE (2008). They also felt the need to give away the ending in both the trailer and on the poster. Currently, Laugier is reportedly at work on an original work entitled THE TALL MAN. While Aja has seemingly succumbed to the remake machine for the time being, hopefully Laugier will be able to formally introduce himself on these shores with an equally stunning work of grotesque art.



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