Monday, October 31, 2016

Pánico (1970)

... aka: Panic

Directed by:
Julián Soler

We first see a nameless young woman (Ana Martín) staring blankly out of a window. She hears her baby crying, goes to the bassinet and pulls back the sheath to reveal that there's no baby there. This woman is clearly not right in the head, something further illustrated by the fact she thinks a baby doll is the real thing. As she's holding it, she's startled by a strange woman (a very intense Ofelia Guilmáin) in a purple dress staring her down from the side of her house. She drops her baby, it breaks and then she stuffs the remains inside a pipe and flees into the woods with the madwoman in hot pursuit swinging a knife around. As the frightened young woman keeps going, she spots three men standing around and either fantasizes about or flashes back to a time when she was gang raped. A baby doll rises from a pool of blood but she can't pull it out. The camera keeps panning up and down trees and doing 360 degree swirls at the sky. This almost entirely dialogue free 17 minute experimental piece (titled "Pánico") has some effectively creepy moments and several good startles and is a fittingly bizarre opening to this above average but seldom-watched three-story anthology.

Story #2, "Soledad" (or “Solitude”), opens with two men; the emotional Carlos (Joaquín Cordero) and his more level-headed friend Abel (José Gálvez), just finishing up burying the latter's wife (Susana Salvat). Unlike most of the rest of their village, they didn't get out when they should have as the yellow fever struck. Although it's too late for the wife, the men decide to take off down a stream by canoe to put as much distance between themselves and the plague as possible, eventually hoping to find a town that's not been effected. During their long and exhausting trip, both men have flashbacks. Abel only has bad memories of his wife and how she was stripped of her beauty as she lay on her deathbed. Carlos, however, remembers her being both beautiful and passionate; probably because he was having an affair with her behind Abel's back that his friend still has no clue about. While the two are lost in thought, their canoe capsizes and is washed downstream. Now they're forced to camp out and walk.

The swamp they're stuck in is rough and unforgiving terrain, something the gruff and hard-working Abel is accustomed to but not so much the weaker and more guilt-stricken Carlos. Carlos becomes paranoid they're going to die there, finally admits his affair, starts hearing his dead lover calling to him and soon is begging Abel to put him out of his misery already. Instead, Abel's the one who gets a knife in his back after a scuffle in quicksand. Carlos buries the body and now is left all alone in the jungle trying to survive, which isn't easy considering he's not only falling apart mentally but physically as well thanks to very likely being plague-infected himself. And there's the small added issue of Abel's corpse not wanting to stay buried.

Running 40 minutes, this is bleak, dark, slow and moody, with an outstanding central performance from Cordero, several effectively chilling moments and excellent use made of sound, setting and natural lighting. The solitude of the title, as well as the grim situation both men find themselves in, is driven home by filming this in a heavily-shaded forest where speckles of shadow heavily intrude into every frame as if constantly closing in on the protagonists.

After two completely serious and depressing tales, the third segment (“Angustia” / Anguish) finally offers up a bit of humor and levity. Having worked tirelessly for three long months, scientist Tiberius Hansen (Carlos Ancira) has just created a powerful, long-lasting narcotic that would make for an excellent surgical anesthetic. With just a few drops of this potent stuff, a patient can be put into a cataleptic state and have their bodily functions slow to a death-like rate while still retaining their cognizance. Just imagine what it'd be like taking even more of the stuff! Well Tiberius is about to find out since his pesky lab cat has knocked an entire beaker of his formula over onto his coffee mug. Soon after drinking it, Tiberius keels over onto floor. Hearing a noise, his wife Melody (Alma Delia Fuentes) rushes into the lab only to find him motionless and unresponsive.

A doctor (Aldo Monti) is called in, does an examination and pronounces Tiberius dead. He doesn't even give the body a chance to get cold before signing the death certificate and trying to get Melody to make burial arrangements. Seems like he, as well as Tiberius' good friend Elias (Eduardo MacGregor), are secretly excited there's a sexy new single woman on the market. But there's something strange about the corpse. His eyes won't stay closed. The doctor chalks that up to rigor mortis, but Melody's cousin Vilma (Pilar Sen) would rather be safe than sorry and recommends they slit his wrists. Melody passes on her suggestion. After all, she doesn't want her hubby's corpse to be desecrated. Tiberius (whose thoughts we hear as a voice-over) is certainly relieved. However, he may end up being buried alive if the drug doesn't wear off in time.

An amusing spin on Poe's The Premature Burial, this features some very funny moments, a rather morbid (yet amusing) conclusion and clever camera shots, like a “corpse” POV as various characters unsuccessfully try to close Tiberius' eyelids. Even more cleverly, it traces the scientist's slow awakening period through his cat, which has fallen into a similar dead state after lapping some of the formula off the floor. However, unlike the scientist, it managed to crawl under a table and hide to avoid detection.

A nice surprise, this obscure anthology manages to pull off what few other horror anthologies have: Presenting numerous stories that all work about equally well while each offering up something different content-wise, visually and tonally. Even most of the more famous films of this type can't say that. The first story, albeit somewhat predictable, takes an arty, imagery-based psychological approach. The second, while perhaps too slow going for some viewers, is all about creating mood and atmosphere. And the third is a black comedy that doesn't completely forget the genre during its final act. Clearly filmed on a very low budget and it often shows, but Soler and screenwriter Ramón Obón put real care and imagination into this one and the actors put in solid if not exceptional work.

IMDb currently has this listed as being released in 1966, though a date on a tombstone (and numerous other more reliable sources) says in was made in 1970 and played in theaters in 1972. It was released on VHS here in the U.S. in 1987 on the Esco-Mex label.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Perfect Bride (1991) [copyright 1990]

... aka: Die Alptraumbraut (Nightmare Bride)
... aka: I död och lust (In Death and Lust)
... aka: La fiancée (The Fiancee)
... aka: Mariage de sang (Blood Wedding)

Directed by:
Terrence O'Hara

One of the most important and influential films when it comes to the development of the modern day psycho-thriller is undoubtedly Fatal Attraction, which became the #2 highest grossing film of 1987 and was also showered with awards, including six Oscar nominations. The film focuses on happily married breadwinner Dan (Michael Douglas), who has a casual weekend fling with the mysterious Alex (Glenn Close), who then refuses to go away and begins to terrorize both him and his family. Many intellectuals dug deep beneath the surface of Attraction to find an offensive underlying subtext where a sexually aggressive single career woman is demonized and ultimately punished while the loyal, forgiving, stay-at-home wife prevails. Nevertheless, the movie struck a chord with audiences and became extremely influential in developing the “psycho bitch” branch of the psycho-thriller, leading to other highly successful films like Basic Instinct (1992), The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), Single White Female (1992) and many others. For every theatrical release, there were probably 50 that went direct-to-video or cable. The Perfect Bride is one of those.

Stephanie Peters (Sammi Davis), she of the lovely golden locks, dimpled smile and refined British accent, wants nothing more than to have the perfect wedding and then perfect marriage to the perfect man. Unfortunately, there's no such thing as perfect and when things don't go as she wants, she murders the disappointing fiance and moves on to greener pastures. (For the record, this is the exact same set-up as The Stepfather right down to her changing her appearance and name.) A nurse by trade so you just know she's must be caring and compassionate, Stephanie now has her hooks sunk into nice guy Ted Whitman (Linden Ashby). The two met in Denver at a hospital after he had a skiing accident and got engaged after a brief three month courtship. The wedding is to take place in Ted's hometown, so he brings Stephanie back to Ohio to meet his friends and extended family and prepare for their big day.

Though Ted's oblivious father (John McLaughlin) doesn't seem all that interested in the upcoming nuptials, his mother (Marilyn Rockafellow) really throws herself into it. She instantly takes to her future daughter-in-law, appoints herself the organizer of the entire wedding and can't wait for her to become a new member of their family. A void has been left by the death of her other other daughter, Catherine, who was killed in a bicycling accident after she swerved to avoid hitting Ted's other sister, Laura (Kelly Preston). Laura, blaming herself for the accident and never the favorite child anyway, moved away and barely kept in contact afterward, but now she's back per her brother's request to help get things in order.

It isn't long before Laura suspects something is off about Stephanie. She's extremely clingy, insecure and possessive, insanely jealous about other women and proves herself to be a pathological liar who can't keep her various stories straight. After watching her go off on a bridal shop employee and hearing a caterer comment that she looks exactly like another woman she worked with whose fiance mysteriously died the night before the wedding, alarm bells start going off. Against her mother and brother's demands she not to start trouble, Laura begins looking into matters and is soon at the library feeding change into a microfiche reading through old newspaper clippings. She also tries to bait Stephanie to catch her lying so that everyone else will see what she does but it always seems to backfire on her. However, being the black sheep with failed relationships in her own past puts her at a disadvantage since she's written off as merely being jealous.

While Laura investigates, Stephanie goes around town murdering anyone who threatens to expose her, giving potassium shots directly into the jugular of a reverend, the old lady caterer (after a hilarious stunt double cat-fight) and others so they have heart attacks. Wearing a black wig and glasses and doing a terrible American accent, she intercepts a disgruntled ex-girlfriend (Cheryl Arutt) of one of her earlier victims at the airport, who ends up as easy prey in the hospital after being run over by a car. Will Ted go too far at his bachelor party with former fling “The Delectable Deirdre” (Tamara Clatterbuck)? Well, considering Stephanie stops by and sees a shirtless Ted and bathing suit clad Deirdre wrestling on the ground, I'd say that's affirmative. And God forbid if you mess with her precious music box! It's all because as a little girl Stephanie saw her mother slit her wrists after being abandoned by her fiance on their wedding day.

Though this is derivative, unoriginal and destined to fill 2 hours programming slots on channels like Lifetime, Bride still manages to avoid the subtext trap the aforementioned Attraction and many of its clones fell into by presenting a psycho bride-to-be who's glamorous, beautiful and mannered countered by a single Plain Jane who, more than anything, strives for acceptance and connection with a family she already feels on the outs with. By the end of the film, the Laura character has her mother irate and both her brother and his cop best friend (Ashley Tillman) convinced she's losing it. Preston is miscast in her role as the “mousy” sister and giving her a plain / baggy wardrobe, straight dark hair and (sometimes) glasses doesn't make her look any less beautiful, but it's still pretty impossible not to take to her determined character. The highlights of the film are undoubtedly her catty dialogue exchanges with Davis, who has great bitch-face.

Whoever cast this movie must have also been a big fan of 50s sci-fi and horror flicks because small roles are played by Louise Lewis (Blood of Dracula) as an aunt, Jered Barclay (WAR OF THE SATELLITES) as the reverend and, best of all, John Agar in a delightful performance as the senile old grandpa, who usually says things that make no sense whatsoever... but not always. French-Canadian producer Pierre David also backed countless similar thrillers and psycho bitch films. This was his first of many with "Perfect" in the title. Later came The Perfect Nanny, The Perfect Tenant (both 2000), The Perfect Wife (2001), Her Perfect Spouse (2004), The Perfect Neighbor (2005), The Perfect Marriage (2006), The Perfect Assistant (2008), The Perfect Teacher (2010), The Perfect Roommate (2011), The Perfect Boss, The Perfect Boyfriend (both 2013), The Perfect Girlfriend (2015) and The Perfect Stalker (2016)!

There were numerous VHS releases for this one and it strangely got an R rating despite having no nudity, no graphic gore and minimal swear words (Preston does say “Fuck you!” to hell bride at one point). The DVD release is perfectly watchable, though it's full screen and uses the video master.

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