Monday, February 29, 2016

La casa de las muertas vivientes (1972)

... aka: House of the Living Dead
... aka: Il cadavere di Helen non mi dava pace
... aka: La noche de una muerta que vivió
... aka: Las noches del escorpión
... aka: Night of the Scorpion
... aka: Open Tomb... An Empty Casket, An
... aka: Una tomba aperta... una bara vuota

Directed by:
Alfonso Balcázar

Who pushed Helen (Gioia Desideri) over the staircase railing? That's the main question in this flashback-filled giallo. After losing both his father and wife some time earlier, Oliver Bromfield (José Antonio Amor) decides to move back into his familial home; a huge mansion atop a mountain and five miles from the nearest village. He's bringing along his new wife Ruth (Daniela Giordano) and warns her if she interacts with the locals to not pay any attention to what they have to say about the family. Upon arrival, they're greeted by Oliver's stepmother / the father's second wife, Sarah (Nuria Torray), whom Ruth immediately is leery of. Must have been the passionate way she kissed her husband on the cheek. Maid Clara (Alicia Tomás) is friendly enough but seems a little apprehensive about answering any questions about the family. Once glum sister Jenny (Teresa Gimpera) returns home from visiting Oliver's deceased first wife Helen's grave, she rushes right up the stairs and doesn't even say hello to Ruth. So much for a warm welcome. Things only get worse from there, not only for Ruth but for the viewer as well.

The Bromfield home is filled with depression, desperation, bitterness, mental illness and a few dark secrets. Sultry Sarah is deeply in love with Oliver and makes no qualms about it; attempting to seduce him any chance she gets. When that doesn't work, she vicariously gets her kicks spying on Oliver and Ruth's intimate moments through a hole in the wall that looks right through a clock and into their bedroom. Sullen Jenny hates her brother for moving on so quickly and seems to miss the dead first wife a lot more than he does. When she's not spearing butterflies to add to her collection, she's reminiscing about poor dead Helen because she was in love with her and the two may have even had a lesbian affair. Once a drunken Oliver caught wind of what was going on between the two, a fight ensued (“You're disgusting!”) and that's when poor Helen went over the edge. Or at least that's what Oliver remembers happening.

Worried about her husband's sanity if he stays in the house, Ruth decides to look into matters and goes to see Bromfield family physician Dr. J.F. Roberts (Carlo Gentili), who informs her that Helen didn't suffer from dizzy spells at all (what everyone in the Bromfield family said caused her fall). Oliver claims she may have been dizzy because she was pregnant, but it's revealed she couldn't bear children because of a medical condition. Ruth then begins to doubt her own sanity when she spills a glass of milk and the kitten who laps it up dies only to miraculously come back to life. A similar episode occurs about missing car keys that aren't really missing. Paranoia becomes the order of the day as Ruth begins doubting what she sees and everyone around her and what their intentions may be. She invites her Uncle Edgar (Osvaldo Genazzani) to the home to stay for a few days. Edgar turns out to actually be a private investigator she's hired to help her get to the bottom of things.

Pretty much everyone has a possible motive to have knocked off Helen, who's shown to be something of a manipulative bitch in the brief flashbacks. Due to his former wife's taunting and refusal to sleep with him (“You're a lousy drunk!”), Oliver had to seek out psychiatric treatment for severe alcoholism. And it's a simple case of unrequited love for the two ladies. Stepmom Sarah has desired Oliver since he was 14 and was never able to have him because of her own husband and then his two wives. Jenny, who's been known to get off on torturing animals (hence the current butterfly obsession), was in love with the woman her husband married. There's lots of eavesdropping, peeping in windows and through doorways, twisting doorknobs and lying. Eventually someone slaps on a pair of black leather gloves, grabs a knife and gets to work killing everyone off. Throw a sinister groundskeeper into the mix and you've got the formula down for an acceptable little giallo, right? Wrong!

This isn't just bad, it's downright awful. The director, who is best known for spaghetti westerns, comedies and soft-core sex movies, proves to have absolutely zero talent for building suspense, generating terror or putting together an interesting mystery where you actually feel invested in what's happening. The pacing of this one is insufferable. The killing spree (all neck slashings with blood clearly squirting out of a prop knife) doesn't even begin until the final twenty minutes and the murder sequences themselves are so devoid of filmmaking craft and ineptly staged they have no impact whatsoever. Worse yet, the entire first hour is filled with shots of glum, uninteresting characters posturing and trying to look suspicious while chain-smoking cigarettes and talking about the most mundane things imaginable. Why did you go on a walk? Why were you in your bedroom? Why were you in my bedroom? Why were you in the library? Why were you outside? Why did you go into town? Why do you have your breakfast in the kitchen? After a straight hour of this empty blather, most viewers aren't going to give a shit who did what and why. I know I sure didn't.

The only interesting thing going on here is that this somehow seems to have influenced certain aspects of Psycho II (1983). There are numerous scenes of voyeurism from a hidden peephole, bloody towels used to clean up a murder scene being stuffed into a water tank (in Psycho II it's the toilet but essentially the same thing), a body discovered beneath a pile of coal in the basement and other similarities. The script is based on a story co-written by the director and José Ramón Larraz. A few nicely-composed / lit shots and a decent score from Piero Piccioni are all that save it from my lowest possible rating. It's really that bad.

Never released theatrically or officially on home video in the U.S. The Italian version (credited to “Al Bagran”) titled either Una tomba aperta... una bara vuota ("An Open Tomb... An Empty Coffin") or Il cadavere di Helen non mi dava pace ("Helen Is Not Resting in Peace") has a lot more nudity than the Spanish version, La casa de las muertas vivientes ("The House of the Living Dead"), which has no nudity. I ended up with a copy of the latter, which runs 82 minutes. The Italian print is 5 minutes longer and includes a few additional scenes of dialogue as well (gee, just what it needed!) but you have to sacrifice the better picture quality to see it. Ditto for a rare English-dubbed print floating around out there.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Hills Have Eyes, The (1977)

... aka: Blood Relations
... aka: Quadrilha de Sádicos (Sadistic Gang)
... aka: Slagterbanden (Butcher Boys)
... aka: Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes

Directed by:
Wes Craven

When your directorial debut is a film as notoriously graphic and shocking as The Last House on the Left (1972), audiences expect a lot from you. With Hills, Craven was able to give those who enjoyed Last House the gritty realism, brutality and shocks they wanted plus edge himself a little closer to the mainstream in the process with a more commercial, better-made, less alienating film. Conceived as Blood Relations (the initial script title), this was originally going to be a modern retelling of the Sawney Bean legend set in the future; an idea Craven happened upon while reading a true crime book at the New York Public Library. According to the legend, Bean led a incestuous cannibal clan in rural Scotland who robbed, murdered and ate “over 1000” people in the late 15th / early 16th Century. Since they lived deep within an undiscovered sea cave, they were able to hide out there during the day and only attacked at night. After a reign of terror lasting upwards of 25 years, their crimes finally caught up with them. A manhunt was organized by the King James VI and they were located, captured and executed in ways every bit as ghastly and sadistic as what the clan did to their victims. (This irony of violence and how it debases victim, perpetrator and vindicator alike would be an elemental theme in both Last House and Hills).

Sawney Bean art; the man (above), the Bean cannibal clan having dinner (below).

Scholars to this day still debate on whether or not the Sawney Bean story has any validity, but most seem to think it's a work of complete fiction designed to move copies of a travel journal (James Boswell's 1785 book The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D.) and allow the Brits to smear the Scots during a time there was a lot of friction / class distinction between the two. Either way, it seems highly unlikely that if it did occur that the earliest printed account of the events wouldn't be until 100 years after it happened!

Once the Blood Relations script was reworked for the slim budget, with a change of location and a much smaller number of cannibals than originally planned, Hooper turned to Tobe Hooper's masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) to fill in the gaps. A huge fan of the film, Craven stated in interviews that he intended Hills to be a partial homage of sorts. He even hired Chainsaw's production designer Robert A. Burns, whose brilliant work on Hooper's film was robbed of an Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction if you ask me. Unlike with Last House (which had an X-rated print working the rounds along with its heavily cut R-rated version), Craven decided to go ahead and appease the schmucks at the MPAA by removing numerous gory moments from the film to secure the R for its release. As a result, the film did fairly well at the box office and its status as a cult classic only grew into the video revolution.

Hills appears to have been very successful in Japan, going by these very cool posters.

Detective Big Bob Carter (Russ Grieve) has just retired from the Cleveland police force early due to a heart condition and decided to take his All-American extended family on vacation to California. Since he and his wife Ethel (Virginia Vincent) have recently come into possession of a plot of land where there used to be a lot silver mining (but is now being used as a nuclear testing site by the military), they decide to take a detour through the Nevada desert to check it out. First stopping at a run-down gas station to refuel, they're warned by jittery old attendant Fred (John Steadman) to stay on the main road, but naturally don't listen. Fighting over being lost, noisy aircraft overhead and a hare running out into the middle of the road send their vehicle into a ditch, breaking the car's axle. Now stranded out in the middle of nowhere, Big Bob and his son-in-law Doug (Martin Speer) decide to hike in different directions to try to find someone to help, leaving younger son Bobby (Robert Houston) to look after his wife, daughters Brenda (Susan Lanier) and Lynne (Dee Wallace) and baby granddaughter Katy (Brenda Marinoff). They will soon have worse things to worry about than roasting in the sun and becoming “human french fries...” namely that they'll be the burger instead.

Bob arrives back at the gas station just in time to catch Fred nearly hanging himself. Fred then tells the story about the misfortunes that befell his own family. His first son was born “weighing twenty pounds and as hairy as a monkey” and grew to be a vicious child who'd torture and kill animals. At ten years old, the boy burned their house to the ground, killing his wife and daughter. Fred split his face open with a tire iron and drove the boy out into the desert and left him, thinking the heat would finish him off. Instead, the boy lived. He eventually went and got himself a whore from the nearest city and raised his own cave-dwelling family of savages who do whatever it takes to get by. That includes robbing, murdering and eating any travelers passing through that they can get their hands on. After all, Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth) has his own family to take care of. Besides, he takes great pleasure in “fixing people good.”

After murdering Fred, Jupiter and his three sons; Mars (Lance Gordon), Mercury (“Arthur King“ aka producer Peter Locke) and Pluto (Michael Berryman), orchestrate an unexpected nighttime attack on the terrified sleeping family. Using Bob as a fiery distraction, they invade the waylaid camper, raid the fridge for raw ground beef, steal what they can, eat a parakeet, rape one of the girls, steal the “fat and juicy” baby (and plan on eating the “young tenderloin” later on) and take off, leaving two of the family members dead and one nearly dead. The following day it's a clash of the two very-different families, with the more normal and civilized family having to tap into their own primitive savagery in order to survive and rescue the baby. A pair of dogs – Beauty and Beast – also factor heavily into the action, as does Ruby (Janus Blythe), the cannibal clan's daughter, who is sickened by her family's ways and wants out.

Almost 40 years after it was made, Hills holds up surprisingly well even after scores of later imitations. It's tense, scary, well-directed, atmospheric and suspenseful, with moments that still rattle viewers, a palpable sense of isolation, enough subtext to keep things interesting under the surface and that wonderfully gritty 70s low-budget feel many of us would take any day of the week over today's more “polished” product. In fact, this may be Craven's best film ever. It's certainly one of my favorites of his.

Cast with mostly unknowns (aside from veteran actress Vincent), many of the cast members went on to do bigger (though not necessarily better) things. The memorable-looking Berryman, who suffers from a rare, incurable condition called Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia, which prevents the formation of hair, fingernails, teeth, and sweat glands, became the poster boy for the film and began his long career in horror flicks right here. After starring in a few other junky films like Cheerleaders Wild Weekend (1979), Houston gave up on acting and became an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker instead. The biggest success was the talented Wallace, who was starring in the likes of The Howling (1981), E.T. (1982) and Cujo (1983) soon after.

The Hills concept has proven to have legs over the years. Prior to the career-altering success of Elm Street, Craven was desperate enough for money to make the awful THE HILLS HAVE EYES PART II (1984); which brought back Houston and Blythe to reprise their roles and is perhaps the worst film of the director's entire career. Into the remake-heavy 2000s, Craven produced a popular yet dumbed-down and extremely gory remake directed by Alexandre Aja. (For the record, a lot of people seem to think the remake is better than the original... I just don't happen to be one of those people.) A few years later, Craven got on board to produce and write a sequel to the remake, but the second Hills II (God... what an age we live in!) disappointed fans and failed to match the box office. The official films stopped right there.

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