Sunday, November 30, 2008

Dark Echoes (1977)

...aka: Curse of Captain Ghor, The
...aka: Dark Echo
...aka: Deep Echo
...aka: Maldiocao de Ghor, A

Directed by:
George Robotham

What we have here is an extremely hard-to-find Austrian / Hungarian / Yugoslavian 'underwater ghost / zombie' flick that, to my knowledge, was never released legitimately on DVD or VHS anywhere other than Argentina (who had a video released many years back through TVE), Poland (thanks for the info Humanoid!) and either Brazil or Portugal (judging by the Portuguese subtitles on the print I watched). I also can't find any verification online about whether it ever played theatrically or not. It's one of those movies that doesn't seem to have a poster or a video cover anywhere online. In fact, there isn't even very much information about this title over on IMDb either. Dark Echoes is very slow-going and is probably of minimal interest to most because of that, but still has some merit and parts of it are quite interesting. And since there actually weren't that many zombie movies released during the 1970s (LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE, DAWN OF THE DEAD and ZOMBI 2 being the three major ones), it's probably worth a look for die-hard zombie movie completists.

Watching a combination of American, British and European (French, Hungarian, German...) actors filling out the cast, all of whom speak English with varying degrees of success, makes it a bit hard to get a feel for the location. The plot (which reminded me of the later The Fog) involves a series of mysterious murders plaguing a small, lakeside village in Austria. The local police (headed by Wolfgang Brook) are aided in their investigation by American psychic Bill Cross (Joel Fabiani), local writer Lisa Brueckner (Karin Dor) and others. The killer turns out to be a skull-faced zombie / ghost sea captain who resides in wreckage at the bottom of the lake during the day but sneaks up to the village at night to kill off the descendants of those responsible for his death years earlier. There's also some old backwoods witch with a raven on her shoulder who secretly leads a cult of young villagers. These scenes didn't seem to have a lot to do with the main plot but they're colorful and do provide some gratuitous nudity.

First, the negatives...
- It takes about an hour to actually get a good look at the killer, and the first introduction of it (which should have been jarring) is a bit fumbled.
- It's extremely talky and some of the dialogue is terrible.
- The 'idiot plot' syndrome rears its ugly head quite a few times, especially when Dor's character - one of the killer's targets - is left alone out in the middle of a field while a mob goes off into the woods chasing after the killer.
- It's lacking in blood / gore aside from one underwater stabbing and a gory decapitation.

Now on to the better stuff...
- The acting is decent.
- It's well photographed, including some decent underwater photography.
- The village setting is atmospheric, and good use is made out of crumbling old buildings.
- The music score is excellent.
- The zombie design (from John Chambers and Tom Burman) is actually really good.
- Despite the fact the zombie is kept off screen until near the end, the POV camerawork of a growling, heavy-breathing killer is well done and creepy.
- Several of the deaths, while lacking blood, are still effective, including a woman pushed out of a window and landing on a rocky embankment below.

And finally a little bit of trivia...
The director was born in Germany, relocated to the US where he played on UCLA's football team and then went on to work in Hollywood as a stunt double for the likes of Rock Hudson, Clark Gable and John Wayne. Dark Echoes marks his first and only film as director. He was married to lead actress Dor from 1988 until his death last year from Alzheimer's complications last year.


La setta (1991) [filmed in 1990]

... aka: Demons 4
... aka: Demons IV: The Sect
... aka: Devil's Daughter, The
... aka: La secta
... aka: Sect, The

Directed by:
Michele Soavi

I'm through with Michele Soavi! Through with his horror-ography, that is. Finally seen them all, from the 1985 documentary Dario Argento's World of Horror to 1994's Cemetery Man. It always feels good to see everything a director has to offer, right? My last watch is his 1991 film La setta aka The Sect, which was filmed over a two month period starting in September 1990 so it can be included here. The film was released here in America under an awful and misleading title I don't even want to type out again. There are some awesome visuals in here, along with nicely done production design courtesy of Massimo Antonello Geleng, excellent cinematography from Raffaele Mertes and a great score composed by Pino Donaggio. In addition, this thing is filled with perplexing, off-the-wall ideas that will make most viewers go "WTF?!," but, I think, in a good way. It's the first time I recall seeing a woman getting raped by a bird or a bunny rabbit using a remote control, that's for sure!

Unfortunately, like most of Michele's other movies, the dialogue is diabolical(ly awful), some of the lead actors are terrible and much of the story seems swiped from a popular movie directed by Roman Polanski. I'm sure you've heard of it before. While Polanski's film was a solid piece of work from top to bottom, Soavi's can be referred to as "ROSEMARY'S BABY: All dressed up with no place to go." Sometimes I get the impression that certain directors try to be weird for the sake of being weird, but lack the focus or talent to bring it all together in a cohesive, satisfying way, and Soavi has seemed to straddle that fence throughout his career.

Things start with a bunch of hippies (cue "Horse With No Name") being killed by cult members in California during the 1970s before jumping ahead 20 years to Frankfurt, Germany. Jamie Lee Curtis' sister Kelly Curtis stars in this one as an emotionally unstable school teacher. You can certainly see a family resemblance, though Kelly is more beautiful in my humble opinion. The major difference between the two is that Jamie Lee can act and Kelly cannot. Herbert Lom co-stars (and gives one of the film's only good performances) as an elderly, dying man Curtis almost runs over and then lets stay in her home. Lom carries around a mystery box he won't let anyone else touch, keeps drinking water and has special drops he keeps putting into his eyes. He sneaks a beetle into a sleeping Curtis' nose and from then on out things go all kinds of bat shit weird as her tap water turns an unnatural color of blue, her pet bunny starts watching TV, a piece of cloth starts trying to smother people, she starts hallucinating about wind chimes and a long tunnel leading about a mile underground is found in a secret room in her cellar (which she didn't know was there despite being in the home for eight months).

Describing the plot or trying to make sense out of it, is pretty much fighting an uphill battle, but it's best to describe this one as the aforementioned Rosemary's Baby spiced up with odd, sometimes surreal flourishes. There's a cult at work here, and Curtis is the innocent target, and people she knows and trusts are actually conspiring against her and the birth of the Antichrist may be a chief objective of the bad guys and, yeah, you know the rest. The ending tries to tie it all together, but it's muddled and lacking in motivation. The film is devoid of the characterization, strong performances, suspense, increasing paranoia and claustrophobia of Polanski's movie, even though there's plenty to enjoy from a strictly visual standpoint. But at the end of the day, it did manage to keep me both interested and entertained throughout.

La Setta was written by Soavi, Dario Argento (also one of three producers) and some other chap and features supporting performances from Euro horror regulars Mariangela Giordano (Peter Bark's generous mama in Burial Ground) as Curtis' friend, Giovanni Lombardo Radice (aka John Morghen aka the guy who doesn't really like horror flicks but gets typecast in them anyway) as a guy who cuts out a woman's heart for some reason or another, Tomas Arana (star of Soavi's The Church) as a bearded cult leader, Donald O'Brien (Dr. Butcher, Medical Deviate) and more. Soavi appears in a cameo on a TV set and supposedly Daria Nicolodi is in it (at least according to IMDb), even though I don't recall seeing her anywhere.

A brief overview of the films of Michele Soavi:

Il mondo dell'orrore di Dario Argento (Dario Argento's World of Horror) (1985) - Ironically, this documentary about the films of that other popular Italian director (whom Soavi obviously is heavily inspired by and used to work for) is among my favorite of Soavi's work. It's very well done. ★★★

The Valley (1985) - A horror-ific 4-minute music video for Bill Wyman's piece from Argento's Phenomena, complete with a young Jennifer Connelly. Cheese-city baby, even for the 80s. ★1/2

Deliria (Stage Fright) (1987) - Sometimes visually interesting, but otherwise routine Italian slasher (or "giallo" if you think everything made in Italy involving a killer is a giallo). It's been awhile since I last saw this one, but it didn't wow me much when I did. I may give it a re-watch sometime. ★★1/2

La chiesa (The Church) (1989) - An excellent first half (including a great period-set prologue of Teutonic knights slaughtering villagers) becomes way too silly in the second as a bunch of annoying people become trapped in an ancient cathedral where demons take over. Strong visuals and score, but indifferent acting, leaden pacing and poor dialogue keep it from greatness. There's also a silly direct copy of a scene from ROSEMARY'S BABY. Does Soavi love that movie, or what? ★★1/2

La setta (The Sect) (1991) - Looking over my other ratings, apparently I saved the best of Soavi's horror flicks - which seems to be his least talked about, for last. Color my surprised.

Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetery Man) (1994) - I could write a thesis paper on the many ways this film simultaneously irritates me and leaves me colder than the corpses Rupert Everett keeps taking down, but I'll pass. ★★

*Mr. Soavi has seemed to turn his attention to Italian made-for-TV movies in recent years. I'm not sure if any of those qualify as "horror" or not.

In defense of veteran horror filmmakers/icons...

I've recently noticed a lot of director bashing going on, so I just wanted to throw my two cents in... Of course, this is all my personal opinion on some of the most talked-about horror filmmakers...
Say what you want, but Dario Argento's Mother of Tears was greatly entertaining to me personally. Yes it's fairly stupid (then again, so was Suspria), but some of the old magic - more prevalent in MOT than it has been since 1987's Opera - is still there. I also like The Stendhal Syndrome quite a bit, but MOT is undoubtedly more fun to watch. I also might enjoy it a bit more than Inferno, just because the tone of Inferno has always rubbed me the wrong way even though it's far classier and artier than MOT could ever dream of being. So for what it's worth, MOT renews my faith in Argento after being disappointed in most of his newer offerings.
Again, say what you want but I will continue to defend and admire George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead. People expect a lot out of George. I do, too, since Night and Dawn are two of my favorite horror movies. I was let down by Land, I hated Bruiser, so I was about over Romero before I watched this, but Diary has single handedly renewed my interest in him. In my opinion, it's his best film since the late 70s. The immediacy found in early Romero but lost to budget over the years has been found once again with his newest, lower-budgeted effort. It's also a hell of a lot better and more ambitious than either Cloverfield or [REC].
It seems Wes Craven does a movie or two each decade that's obscenely popular and hugely influence. In the 70s it was Last House (or The Hills Have Eyes), in the 80s it was A Nightmare on Elm Street and the 90s it was Scream. I hated Cursed, but Red Eye wasn't the end of the world. I still have faith in Wes as a director, as he seems to at least knock one out of the park every ten years or so, with some interesting moments in between.
I also don't really get the Tobe Hooper bashing. In my opinion, he's made more quality horror films than John Carpenter has. Carpenter's The Thing seems to be a rare film whose popularity transcends generations (the high amount of gore and its reliance on special effects a likely reason), while Hooper's TCM seems to be less impressive to the younger generation; many of whom proudly proclaim the remake or "The Beginning" is better. Personally, I think TCM is superior to anything Carpenter has done, but that's me.
I've never been a huge Stephen King fan but it's futile to critize someone so important to the genre over the past 30 years. I do enjoy some of his novels (though he's far from my favorite), and have enjoyed many films based on his writings; Carrie, The Dead Zone, Cujo, Misery, The Shining, etc. I don't think anyone I listed above deserves to be called a "hack."
I really can't comment much on the likes of Alexandre Aja, Rob Zombie, Eli Roth or whatever flavor of the month people seem to be obsessing over as they have not made enough films and perhaps need time to discover themselves. I'll just say that all have kept me at arm's length so far. I see some promise at times, but they've all fallen short of being able to impress me with any of their films and I already see a lot of repetition from them. If you look back at the likes of Romero, Craven, Hooper, Argento, Mario Bava, etc. you will notice they all struck gold and made revolutionary films right out of the gate, which are what ensured they'd even had careers in the first place. In other words, they achieved success the hard way - by earning it. If they'd made a couple of awful films to start as most of these new guys do, who knows if they'd even have the opportunity to make a third...
Many of today's genre filmmakers have careers based on hype and image, not on talent. If these guys had been around thirty years ago, they probably would have been chewed up and spit back out. You have to wonder where some of these newer fellas even get their juice from. I think Roth exploited the internet and his genre knowledge to win people over (riding Quentin Tarantino's coattails also proved beneficial, I'm sure), while Zombie obviously already had a tailor-made army of fans left over from his music career ready to embrace his filmmaking career regardless of whatever he put out. I think both still have a lot to learn, so hopefully they'll be able to grow as filmmakers instead of falling into traps.
I was startled that Zombie chose Halloween as a project after the success of The Devil's Rejects. He had to have done that strictly for the money, especially in light of the fact he'd publicly ridiculed remakes and those who made them. His "reimaging" excuse was simply horse *beep* and now I see people throwing that word around all the time, which gets on my last nerve. I have less faith in Roth, though. He's a mixture of ass kissing (to get projects off the ground) and half-assed (when it comes to the actual films). Hostel II was nothing more than a sex switch on the original and the exact type of cynical, soulless $$$ grubbing venture that I consider creative bankruptcy. I was really happy to see that film flop. The fact Zombie's Halloween did well (which I am still convinced boils down to brand name recognition alone) makes me hope he's able to parlay that success into something worthwhile. I'm still waiting on it.
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