Sunday, April 5, 2020
Sunday, March 22, 2020
A lot of directors have taken a lot of liberties with Edgar Allan Poe's short story over the years, but it's easy to see why. The story itself is brief and a less than 30 minute read for your average person. There's not a whole lot of a plot per se as a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition tries to survive a pretty dire situation involving a deadly pendulum and red hot walls closing in on him that will eventually force him to fall into a deep, dark pit. However, as we learn at the finale, where there's life, there's hope. In the stories case, that “hope” comes in the form of the French Army. Faithfully extending just that into a full feature would be extremely difficult to successfully pull off, so most adaptations are either short subjects themselves or have had to greatly expand upon the story to even get us to the Pit / Pendulum stuff. Roger Corman added a plot about a man investigating the mysterious death of his sister in his 1961 adaptation. Harald Reinl's West German adaptation THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM (1967) aka Snake Pit and the Pendulum added the story of an evil. undead count seeking immortality. In 1991, Stuart Gordon used the setting as a way to point a finger at religious abuse and hypocrisy; adding torture, witchcraft, gore, ghosts and other horror elements to the works. Even though Svankmajer's version runs just 14 minutes, it also includes elements of Auguste de Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's “The Torture by Hope” (from his 1883 collection Contes cruels / “Cruel Tales”), which itself was inspired by the writings of Poe.
A succession of POV shots follow a man being dragged through a dark corridor and then awakening to find himself strapped to the ground. He looks up to see the titular pendulum emerging from the mouth of a skeletal Father of Time. Gears start moving to swing the pendulum while a continuously punctured sandbag starts emptying its contents, allowing the pendulum to be slowly lowered upon him. A bunch of rats emerge from a nearby pit, likely associating the sound of the contraption with another easy meal. With no time to spare before he's sliced in two, the man dips his hand into some spoiled food in a dish nearby and smears it all over the ropes. Enough of the rats chew through for him to escape. He next has to face an iron wall that's decorated with moving horned demons, monster birds, skeletons and screaming people; all lit from behind by a blazing fire. Since it rolls along on a track he's able to buy a little time by jamming his food dish under the wheel, but will he be able to escape the torture chamber alive?
Shot in grainy black-and-white, with no dialogue and not a single shot of a human face, this is dark, grimy, nightmarish and fantastic at both establishing a dreary, discomforting mood and capturing the bleakness of Poe's tale. It is also quite faithful to Poe's story up until the altered, more ambiguous ending, which is where the other credited story comes into play. Production design is excellent and Svankmajer employs his trademark stop motion animation very well here to bring the Rube Goldberg-style torture contraption to life, plus enhance other shots involving the rats and a moment where a blade punctures a hand. The director had previously applied his unique visual style to Zánik domu Usherú (1982); a narrated adaption of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher."
This debuted at the Kracow Film Festival in Poland before hitting the festival circuit in other countries, racking up numerous awards along the way, including the Critics' Aware at Fantasporto, the Don Quixote Award at Krakow and the Jury Prize for Short Films at Montréal World Film Festival. In the U.S., it opened at the Chicago International Film Festival in October 1984. This was included in the 3 disc, Region 2 BFI release "Jan Svankmajer: The Complete Short Films."
Saturday, March 21, 2020
Todd (Michael) Smith
Identical twin brothers John and Mark Polonia (born in 1968) started making their own no budget homemade horror films with a VHS camcorder while just teenagers living in rural Pennsylvania. Their one and only effort from the early years that received a legitimate VHS release and reasonable distribution at the time was SPLATTER FARM (1987), a backwoods gore flick that wasn't exactly well-made but managed to differentiate itself simply by being in extremely poor taste. Just how poor? Well, it includes necrophilia, incest, blowjobs with decapitated heads, anal fisting, man-on-man rape and torture with various bodily functions best reserved for the bathroom to go along with all of the cheap gore fx. Of course it's so amateurish and poorly acted that a lot of the content isn't exactly as shocking as intended, but at least they were willing to go that extra mile to offend. The Polonia's kept going into the 90s, making various films that were either barely released or not released at all. It wouldn't be until the 2000s that their efforts would be more widely seen when they were included on many of those cheap multi-film DVD packs everyone had.
But then a strange thing happened: A very small but very loyal legion of nostalgic viewers sprung up who were hungry for very cheap, very amateurish, very bad obscure films few (if any) saw during the VHS days. Small distributors then started releasing the previously unreleased, which included a handful of the Polonia's early films like Church of the Damned (1985) and Channel 13 (1987), both SRS (Sub Rosa Studios) Cinema releases, and this one, which was picked up by Camp Motion Pictures and Wild Eye Releasing. Attractive new posters were made to try to rope people in and they didn't even have to remaster these shot-on-video efforts because the bad / blurry quality, picture rolls, bad sound and other imperfections were supposedly just part of the charm. The market however has remained minuscule. Often they will release just small runs of a few hundred copies.
With their mother away working a double shift, her three dopey, mustachioed teenage sons - the normal (well, as "normal" as a Polonia can be, I suppose) John, the slow and sensitive Mark and the thoroughly unpleasant, adopted Todd - are left alone for the evening. Mark, who'd previously spent some time in a mental asylum, wrecks a tractor, while John whips out his Gallery magazine and calls a 1-900 "Phone Freak Fantasies" sex line. Mark claims to have seen a man dressed as a monk lurking around and they then start getting threatening phone calls ("You know who this is. You know what's going to happen!") from a deep-voiced man. After they go to sleep, John has a nightmare that his cat is killed with a chainsaw. When Mark goes into the basement to investigate, he finds the bloody chainsaw and the remains of the cat, which then disappear when he attempts to show his friend.
The mom doesn't come back the following day (actually she never comes back period) and the two twins continue to have strange hallucinations. Mark keeps seeing the monk and envisions a zombie decapitating him with a machete. John pukes all over the place and then has a toilet nightmare where he starts spitting up blood, shits out a knife (!) and then starts pulling his intestines out through his mouth. Todd even gets on in the action, having a bizarre vision where a masked man ties him to a bed, rips open his shirt, gags him with a tie, whips him, straddles him (!), slowly runs a razor up his leg to his crotch before slicing his nose and then whacks his crotch with a huge sword (!!) This thing positively seethes confused teenage sexuality. In addition to Todd's man-man S&M horror dream, our heroes seldom wear shirts and run around in tighty whities and one of the guys gets slow-mo attacked in the shower by a creature that resembles a large mutant penis attached to a dryer hose (!) and makes him puke up a white foamy substance.
The brothers find themselves facing "some untangible terror;" a supernatural force that turns the lights on and off, throws pillow around the room, invisi-slaps the shit out of one of them and also manifests itself as a variety of monsters, including a toaster oven demon baby doll, a putty-faced Freddy Krueger knock-off, an elf doll that pisses in one of their mouths (!!) and the aforementioned phallic shower critter. There's also a severed leg in the fridge, torture with a blowtorch, disembowelment and decapitation.
It pretty much goes without saying that the acting, special effects, sound (dialogue is even sometimes inaudible) and all technical credits are terrible, so I don't even really need to go there. What I will say is that taking into consideration this was made by a few teens in their home with no budget, a three person cast and the most primitive of equipment, this thing is surprisingly watchable at times. They were at least smart enough to mix up the camera angles and do a variety of close, medium and long shots so they had enough raw material to edit the footage into a fairly proper movie. (I've seen worse editing from experienced adults who should know better). However, the plot, little more than a disjointed series of monster scenes mixed with pseudo-gross out stuff, grows repetitive and tiresome and the amateurism, enthusiastic and charming as it may be at times, starts wearing off after awhile. Considering this only runs 59 minutes, that's not a good thing.
By the time 1991 rolled around, the bros were shooting some of their movies on Super 8, starting with Lethal Nightmares (1991), which is a remake of this one. John and Mark continued to work as a duo until John passed away in 2008. Smith (who co-directed most of the other Polonia Bros. films up until the mid-90s and I've read also passed away ) also branched out to make his own (usually gay-themed) independent horrors.