Saturday, August 26, 2017

8/26/2017: Bad Places

The Last Warning (Paul Leni, 1929)
The final film of Leni (The Man Who Laughs, Waxworks, The Cat and the Canary) before his untimely death that same year from blood poisoning, The Last Warning is a return to The Cat and the Canary's whodunit blend of horror and comedy amidst stylish visuals and animated intertitle experimentation. This time, the murder at the center of the mystery is of a Broadway actor, mysteriously killed mid-performance, and the cast, crew, and theater owners who are all suspects. When a mysterious new co-owner reopens the theater and reassembles the original cast and crew for a revival of the play, things get weird. This is Leni in master entertainer mode, and though the film is not a staggering work of art, it is a fun, playful, and exciting visual experience with an almost postmodern approach to film style. A worthy career finale for Leni. I suspect he would have been one of those directors to successfully transition to sound films, but, alas, we will never know.
BTW, the cast list for this movie reads more like a list of 1920s character names than a list of actors. Check some of these names out: Laura La Plante, Montagu Love, Roy D'Arcy, Burr McIntosh, Mack Swain, Slim Summerville.

Blood and Lace (Philip Gilbert, 1971)
I'm a fan of this bizarre psycho-sexual horror oddity with a delightfully offbeat cast and unusual screenplay. Blood and Lace is director Philip Gilbert's only movie (his only other directing credit is an episode of a British quiz show), and his visual style is pretty crude and pedestrian, but Gil Lasky's weirdo script and the actors bringing it to life are anything but pedestrian. Teenage girl Ellie Masters (F Troop's Melody Patterson) wakes up in a hospital after surviving the arson of her home and the murder-by-hammer of her sex worker mother and one of her mother's johns by a large man with a "horrible face." She is soon placed in a group home for orphans run by the very strange Mrs. Deere, played by Hollywood legend, and one of my favorite actors, Gloria Grahame, and her pervert alcoholic handyman Tom Kredge (Len Lesser, best known for playing Uncle Leo on Seinfeld). Meanwhile, a detective, Calvin Carruthers (Vic Tayback), thinks something is up at the Deere home and starts sniffing around, though his motives are suspect thanks to his unhealthy obsession with Ellie. A very young Dennis Christopher is also in this film as a teenager living in the group home.  The whole thing is a swirling mess of insanity, murder, hidden motives, sexual urges, manipulation, double- and triple-crosses, and deception (and that's before the hammer-wielding weirdo with the horrible face shows up again), and it's funny, weird, suspenseful, and wraps things up before it starts wearing out its welcome. Lead character Ellie Masters is a far cry from the usual young women horror film leads. She's smart, sophisticated, has everyone's number but is also full of secrets, manipulations, and hidden motives of her own. She's hardly the virginal goody-two-shoes who survives by hiding and screaming. This movie is weird and fun and manages to overcome its lack of visual elegance.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

7/30/2017: Black Lace, Black Room

Blood and Black Lace (Mario Bava, 1964)
After the baroque Gothic horrors in black and white and vivid color, respectively, of Black Sunday and Black Sabbath, Bava went full swingin' 60s for Blood and Black Lace. Set in a high-fashion design company, Black Lace is about a mysterious figure in faceless white balaklava, hat, and trench coat murdering the company's catwalk models, one-by-one, possibly because of a diary written by the first victim containing scandals and secrets. Everyone living is a suspect; hidden alliances and rivalries form, disperse, and reconstitute; the diary moves from person to person, all with his or her reasons for hiding it, destroying it, or turning it over to the police. The body count stacks up, in colorful, stylish, suspenseful, and creepy ways. Bava's film is a rush of pure entertainment, color, suspense, humor, violence, and style, with a great opening credits scene. I liked it a lot.

The Black Room (Elly Kenner & Norman Thaddeus Vane, 1982)
Here's a weird, weird take on both the vampire and voyeuristic killer stories, and a West Coast companion film to Andy Milligan's Blood, reviewed here a few months ago. I'm going to try to describe the story in one sentence. Here goes. A married Los Angeles businessman wants to spice up his sex life, so he secretly rents a room (a black room lit only with candles) in the Hollywood Hills from a creepy brother and sister and uses it for his one-night stands (or one-afternoon stands), while the brother takes photos from behind a one-way mirror (which the businessman knows about) and then kidnaps the women with his sister in order to drain their blood and infuse his diseased blood with their youthful essence (which the businessman does not know about). Things heat up when the businessman's wife, a woman whose life is devoted to serving her husband and children, finds out about the room and starts expanding her own sexual and societal boundaries there, much to the chagrin of her sexist husband. (OK, two sentences.) The film is low budget but doesn't look cheap, and the actors aren't slick but they serve the material well. (The film features early-career roles for Linnea Quigley and Christopher McDonald.) It's not entirely successful and has a handful of clumsy or awkward moments, but overall, the movie is creepy and unusual and has its own style and point of view. I was pretty fascinated by it.
The Black Room is mostly unknown today, but in the '80s, it was singled out by decency crusaders in England as a "video nasty," one of my favorite British expressions. Much like Tipper Gore and company's crusade against explicit lyrics in pop music in the States, England's wealthy prudes with too much time on their hands targeted violent horror and exploitation movies on VHS, dubbing them "video nasties" and trying to get them banned. There's even a Young Ones episode about it. It goes without saying that this is a pro-video nasty web site. See you next month, and stay nasty.