With a few exceptions scattered throughout the past hundred years or so of feature filmmaking, the French never really embraced the horror film. Instead, drawing from a literary tradition capped by the writing of Gaston Leroux and Victor Hugo, the French response to what we in the United States (and Britain, and Italy, and Japan, and…well, most of the world) define as horror was cinema fantastique. Certainly it had elements of horror, sometimes more overt than others, but more traditionally recognizable characteristics of horror were mixed into a dreamy mist that also included romance, science fiction, mystery, and melodrama all spun with a disregard for logical narrative structure and progression in favor of a dreamlike (or nightmare) quality. It did not matter if one scene connected to the next, or if there was a rational explanation for a particular image or action. That was not the point. The language of cinema is vast, figured directors working within this nebulous genre of cinema fantastique, and the idea that film has to conform to a particular structure or style or storytelling — or that it need tell any story at all — is tragically limiting. Of the many films that make up the body of cinema fantastique, few have developed an enduring reputation, good and bad, quite like Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visage, aka Eyes without a Face.
When I wrote about L.A. Confidential, I confessed that I had never been to Los Angeles (well, other than Disneyland), and had a fascination with the city that could not possibly be the least bit reflective of the reality of L.A., born as it was by my knowingly incorrect assumption that the city is nothing but a strange, hypnotic amalgamation of Raymond Chandler novels, the romance of Old Hollywood, and David Lynch movies — in particular, Mulholland Drive. In many ways, I suppose this makes me very similar to Naomi Watts’ character in this movie, albeit one I hope comes to a slightly less tragic sort of ending. And it’s fitting that all these inaccurate elements should form my amalgamated notion of Los Angeles, because they all come together in Mulholland Drive. This movie is one of Raymond Chandler “Philip Marlowe” novel — only it’s missing Philip Marlowe.
“There is no monster in the world so treacherous as man.”
So we are reminded at the beginning of Larry Buchanan’s Creature of Destruction and, just in case we forgot, at the end of the film as well. I like a film with a message, but the message is considerably less interesting if the film has to print it out for you. But hey – at least the guy was trying, which is more than can be said for most films. And in the end, this film is made in the tradition of sci-fi and horror films of days gone by, when such films had messages and delivered them with all the subtleties of a stoic military general surveying some scene of mass carnage and reflecting on the follies of man. Creature of Destruction is Buchanan’s homage by way of remake. In this case, it’s a remake of 1956’s The She-Creature, a movie that never exactly called with deafening thunder to be remade.
Director Gordon Hessler is back for another AIP Poe adaptation, this one mildly clever in the way it incorporates the Poe elements into the film. As we saw with The Oblong Box and many others, it was common to take the title of a Poe short story or poem, apply it to the film, then have not the slightest thing to do with the Poe story of the same title in the plot. Murders in the Rue Morgue takes the title from Poe’s story, but instead of adapting it or discarding it, sets its action around a theatrical production of Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue that becomes plagued with murders and yet another vengeful disfigured madman who was buried alive. According to Hessler, this was done because Murders in the Rue Morgue had already been made into a movie, and everyone knew how it ended. Thus there was no suspense in the film — not that Hessler was all that great at creating suspense anyway.
There is a moment in Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, a relatively unimportant throw-away couple of seconds, where the nominal hero of the story catches sight of a couple of shadows — shadows with no physical source to cast them — creeping across a field. Either because of the particularly old source material or the specific intention of the director, the film is grainy, hazy, gauzy. And it captures perfectly the prevailing atmosphere of Vampyr and why I love the film so dearly. Ostensibly a vampire film — thus the title — the hypnotic power of the movie flows not from the more visceral terror of bloodsuckers and murderers, but rather it comes from a much vaguer, ethereal place, something to do with ancient beings glimpsed from the corner of the eye, from unnerving mysterious powers, from murky forests and glens that are at once idyllic and unnerving. There is something very pagan about Vampyr that places it, for me, not so much among the famous works of vampire film and fiction, but alongside stories like Arthur Machen’s “The White People” and films like The Wicker Man.
My latest on The Cultural Gutter is Punching Cthulhu in the Face. Pulp fiction writer Robert E. Howard is best known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian. His stock in trade were fearless, muscular super-warriors who feared nothing and loved the red rage of battle against foes both human and supernatural. He was also a friend and fan of H.P. Lovecraft and tried his hand from time to time at stories set within the “Lovecraft mythos.” But how does Lovecraft’s style of vague dread and horror experienced by perpetually terrified academics hold up when the main player is, say, a skull-cracking Pictish king who laughs at the eldritch horror of the Elder Gods?
His names are legion. His name is Legion. But maybe you know him as Scratch, or Ol’ Gooseberry. The Devil himself, if you will. He’s one of the most compelling literary figures of all time, despite, I imagine, the original intentions of the writers of the Old Testament. Poet John Milton turned the Devil into a brash anti-hero in Paradise Lost, and for many intellectuals who see religious fundamentalism as stifling to the pursuit of knowledge, he’s remained in his cool cat corner with lots of stories being written about him. Something about Lucifer lends to storytelling. It’s his unpredictability, perhaps. You never know if you’re getting the wretched evil Devil or the suave rebellious one. Or the witty one or the comedy one. With Jesus, you pretty much know what you’re going to get: Jesus. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Jesus — Christian or not, you can admire some crazy dude from Nazareth who took on both the Romans and the religious establishment, told people not to submit to a corrupt priesthood, and then said you shouldn’t always be bashing each others’ heads in. But where do you go from there? That’s why the only people who ever tried to write the further adventures of Christ were the Mormons.
There are those among us who, in a moment of moral weakness, find themselves unwilling or unable to turn away from a grisly situation. As to the psychological motivations behind this tendency, they are legion and vary from person to person. Perhaps it is a desire to affirm that someone is worse off than you, that even though your rent is overdue and your daughter is hopped up on the goofballs, at least you’re not a corpse being yanked out of some twisted, smoldering wreckage along the interstate. Perhaps, instead, it is little more than a reflex reaction symptomatic of the seemingly insatiable human hunger for spectacle, however grim it may be. And finally, it may be that some of us look out of guilt — that we are torn between not making a gawking spectacle of suffering and ignoring suffering. Whatever the case may be, the urge is there, commonplace, and hardly solely the purview of the misanthropic. It manifests itself in a variety of forms, everything from slowing down to stare at a traffic accident to greedily devouring the sensationalist news about the sordid downfall of a celebrity. Or, in my own peculiar case, it manifests itself in a complete inability to not watch Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf every single time I run across it on television.
Back around the turn of the century, there were few directors as committed to the maligned Hong Kong horror genre as Tony Leung. Unfortunately, Tony Leung wasn’t a very good filmmaker. And double unfortunately, he wasn’t a bad enough filmmaker. Everything he made had an air of middling, uninteresting near-competency about it, the work it seemed of a talented amateur or an untalented professional. Now before you fire off an angry email (do people still use email?) telling me how great Tony Leung is, keep in mind that I am not referring to the Tony Leung who starred in Ashes of Time. Nor am I referring to the Tony Leung who starred in Tom, Dick, and Hairy. Oh wait, that’s both Tony Leungs. Oh, you know the guys: Chiu-wai and Kar-fei. And maybe that third Tony Leung, action choreographer Tony Leung Siu-Hung (Bloodmoon, Superfights).
The Tillamook Indians call him “Yi’ dyi’tay” or “Wild Man.” The Spokane Indians referred to him as Sc’wen’ey’ti – roughly translated: “Tall Burnt Hair.” To the Colville these strange beasts were known as Skanicum (“The Stick People”) and to the Wenatchee they were Choanito (“The Night People”). The Nisqually people dubbed him “Steta’l” — the Spirit Spear — and to the Chinook he was simply Skookum – The Evil God of the Woods. The Yakama Indians, apparently seeing a quintet of such beasts, referred to them as Qui yihahs — The Five Brothers. From one tribe to the next, he had many names: Big God, Trickster, Brushman, Devil of the Forest, The Frightener, and Hairy Savage. His names ranged from the poetic (Misinghalikun to the Lenne Lenapi Indians — “Living Solid Face”) to the terrifying (the Zuni call him Atahsaia, The Cannibal Demon) to the just plain weird (The Nelchina Plateau Indians saddled him with the monicker Gilyuk, or “Big Man with a Little Hat”). There are names reverent (The Hoopa thought of him as Oh Mah, The Boss of the Woods), quaint (to the Pacific coastal Salish Indians he is See’atco: “the one who runs and hides”), and kind of chummy (the Lakota tribes called him Chiya tanka, or “Big Elder Brother”).