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Sunday, October 22, 2017

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017-Day 22: HUMAN LANTERNS (1982)

If this looks creepy, trust me, it is.

Lung (Liu Yung) is an arrogant asshole who has gained fame and fortune via his mastery of swordsmanship and general badassery, and he maintains a bitter and competitive rivalry with Tan Fu (Chen Kuan Tai), who's his equal in all ways. After grievously insulting Tan in public, the two vow to compete against one another to win the yearly lantern festival, so Lung seeks out the services of Chao Chun-Fang (Lo Lieh), an artisan of renowned lantern-making skills. Lung hires Chun-Fang and acts all arrogant about it, knowing full well that seven years prior he bested Chun-Fang in a sword duel and stole his woman. The lantern-maker accepts the commission, with the stipulation that Lung not come to check up on his progress during the work process. When Lung goes on his merry assholish way, Chen-Fang embarks on a murderous spree in which he murders and flays three women and an old man so he can use their skin to make the lanterns, the idea for which he got from a tall tale once told to him by the old man over drinks. 

The butchery begins.

Chen-Fang's defeat and the loss of his woman seven years prior has driven him completely and viciously insane, and he has used the years since his humiliation to train himself into a state of nigh-invincible martial arts mastery. Donning a demonic costume, he preys on the notorious local prostitute that Tan both Lung and Tan are involved with (despite Lung being married to Chen-Fang's former squeeze), Tan's huntress sister, Lung's wife — whom he rapes before flaying her alive — and the aforementioned old man. The abductions of their ones cause Lung and Tan to believe each other is responsible, and thus does Chen-Fang sow discord between them that he hopes will make them like him. Their animosity builds to a couple of kung fu throwdowns before they figure out that they have been set up — skilled they may be, but they are none too bright — and take the fight to Chen-Fang in the apocalyptic climax.

Collecting art supplies the hard way.

HUMAN LANTERNS (also known as HUMAN SKIN LANTERNS) is a very uneven gene-splicing of the horror and Shaw Brothers martial arts genres, and as such it's a very interesting work. On the the one hand it's a straight-up wuxia morality play whose message boils down to "Don't be an arrogant douchebag," and on the other it's a gruesome and gory shocker about a psycho who skins naked women alive, and though both are handled with the quality one expects fro a Shaw Brothers production, the two flavors never quite gel. Instead of the horror and the kung fu blending seamlessly into one another, in one scene it's a lush costumed martial period piece, and in the very next scene things jarringly transition into ultra-dark nightmare fuel. It's never boring, and even the aforementioned rape scene is handled in a palatable manner — what's happening is absolutely clear, though we are not shown any explicit nudity, and the act of violation itself is intercut with shots of the turning cogs in a bloody mill and the crying face of Lung's soon-to-be-skinned wife — but the end result is a film that tries to be please chopsocky junkies and gorehounds, and yet might not necessarily fully satisfy either audience.

The unbridled madness of Chen-Fang (Lo Lieh).

The film is populated with faces familiar to fans of Shaw Brothers films and other classic martial arts movies, including Chen Kuan Tai (THE FLYING GUILLOTINE, EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN), Liu Yung (FIST OF FURY, THE WAY OF THE DRAGON), Lo Meng (FIVE DEADLY VENOMS, THE KID WITH THE GOLDEN ARM), and Chien Sun (THE CHINATOWN KID, FIVE DEADLY VENOMS), but the movie truly belongs to the one and only Lo Lieh as Chen-Fang. LO Lieh was a prolific legend who appeared in around 200 films, several of which are martial arts classics, including the seminal FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (1972) — which, for those who may not be aware, was the film that launched the 1970's kung fu boom in the West — DIRTY HO (1976), EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN (1977), the genre-defining THE 36th CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN (1978), the spectacular MAD MONKEY KUNG FU (1979), fan-favorite FISTS OF THE WHITE LOTUS (1980), and many, many more. While he was great as the hero in FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, his true forte was playing some of the vilest villains ever committed to celluloid, and Chen-Fang just might be his most viciously insane role. The bastard is completely out of his mind and carries a grudge like nobody's business, which is especially bad when combined with the character's superlative ass-kicking acumen.

In a rare moment of reverie, Chen-Fang takes time to admire a "pretty" mole on the skin of the woman he just raped and flayed.

While the film overall suffers from an extreme case of scene-by-scene genre flip-flopping, don't let that steer you away from enjoying Lo Lieh at his most reprehensible and unhinged. Believe me, if You've seen some of his films and know what he's like as a bad guy, you know that calling his performance here "his most reprehensible and unhinged" is not a statement to be taken lightly. HUMAN LANTERNS may not be perfect or a classic, but check it out for Lo Lieh (R.I.P.).

The titular light sources.

Poster from the original Chinese theatrical release.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017-Day 21: THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951)

First contact of the worst kind.

A United Sates Air Force team is dispatched to a research station at the North Pole, where the research team have discovered a recently-crashed and flash-frozen extra-terrestrial spacecraft. Though their recovery efforts accidentally cause the flying saucer to self-destruct, the crew manages to salvage a large block of ice containing an 8-foot-tall manlike alien life form. 

Frozen friend...or foe?

The military takes over the situation and enforces by-the-book protocols for handling the frozen alien, much to the dismay of the scientific research team. However, the researchers mostly see the wisdom in caution, so they agree to wait for the soldiers to receive further orders. While they wait, a mishap involving a heat lamp thaws the spaceman, and it's out of the ice, it proves itself to be one seriously tough and aggressive son of a bitch whose presence and continued existence could spell the end of the world as we know it.

I first saw THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD when I was ten years old and it played on Channel 9. I watched it with a classmate who was sleeping over at my house that night, and since both of us were fans of sci-fi and horror movies and had both heard of the film, it was something we expected to be little, if at all, different from the many 1950's flying saucer and aliens flicks we'd already seen at even so tender an age. What we absolutely did not expect was an intense shocker made for grownups that featured an intelligent script populated with characters who spoke and acted in a realistic manner. And once the titular "thing" was on the loose, the film became a study in true terror, perhaps the first horror movie I saw that was genuinely scary as hell.

Our all-too-relatable heroes.

The alien is tall and humanoid and we never really get a good look at it in detail, but believe me when I tell you that the motherfucker is very bad news indeed. It's deduced to be a highly intelligent vegetable-creature — an "intellectual carrot" — that does not contain blood and may not be able to die, as we know of the concept, is possessed of great strength and clawed hands, feeds on the blood of mammals, regenerates lost limbs, and rapidly reproduces via seed pods. In short, it's a formidable being and, unfortunately, we'll never know if it may have been benevolent as it was immediately shot at the moment it emerged from the ice, and was driven into the deadly cold where it lost an arm to a pack of defensive sled dogs, so its hostile actions may have been committed in self-defense. But an answer will never be had, for the soldiers and the research team must fight for their lives as the apparently invulnerable creature goes on a vicious and deadly rampage through the isolated station and its grounds, killing sled dogs and slashing the throats of humans, which it then hangs upside down like cattle in a slaughterhouse (offscreen, mind you).

Most man-sized monsters can be vanquished with fire. Not this guy...

If not the very first of the 1950's decade-dominating wave of flying saucers-and-aliens movies, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD early on defined the genre as a showcase in which plucky human protagonists must wage war against hostile invaders from beyond. But while this was a smart and groundbreaking work of great importance to the genre and to cinema in general, most of the Earth-meets-aliens films that followed in its wake focused more on special effects spectacle or shoving bug-eyed monsters in our faces, often minus anything resembling a story with a brain in its head or something that could satisfy adults as well as matinee-attending kiddies. As an exemplar of the smart science-fiction film, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD stands tall, while also simultaneously inventing the cross-bred science-fiction/horror movie. Without THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD to lay the groundwork, there would never have been IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958), ALIEN (1979), and of course the 1982 remake, John Carpenter's THE THING (but more on that later). Though perhaps tame by the standards of today's audience, this is string meat for its era and must be approached from the mindset of someone who's never seen this kind of film before. As such, it's a real kick in the head.

Poster from the theatrical release.

Friday, October 20, 2017

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017-Day 20: PIECES (1982)

Ah, the joys of PIECES...

Here's a textbook example of how to open a movie where the audience cares about nothing but graphic murders and naked female flesh:

We open in Boston, 1942, where we find a young boy assembling a jigsaw puzzle of a naked woman.

The catalyst for 89 minutes of savage butchery.

The kid's mother walks in, sees the nudie puzzle and freaks the fuck out, beating the kid, noting how he's just like his father — who is away fighting WWII — and ransacking his room, confiscating his stash of porno mags. (How nasty they could have been back in 1942 is open for debate.) She sends him out of the room to get a garbage bag that she can fill with his filth collection and burn it, but instead the lad returns with a fireman's axe and shows him mom what happens when one comes between a guy and his stroke material.

Lesson learned: Do NOT threaten your son's smut collection.

After rendering his mother exceedingly dead, the boy breaks out a saw and begins dismembering her corpse. 

Breaking down the evidence.

When the police arrive, they find the kid hiding in the murder room's closet, and he acts as though he were the witness to the killing instead of being the murderer. We then skip ahead to the present day of 1982, where a heavy-breathing P.O.V. stalker of the type common to early-'80's slasher movies embarks on a series of horrific and brazen murders/dismemberments. His first victim is an innocent co-ed who's studying on the sunny lawn of a college campus. She somehow does not hear the loud roar of a chainsaw as the killer runs up to her and divests her of her head in broad daylight (which apparently no one sees or hears).

"What a lovely day for studying outdoors...WHAT THE FUCK?!!?"

Insert "She won't be going to the head of the class" joke here.

All of this happens during the first five minutes of the film, so we, the audience, have a pretty good idea of what we're in for.

As per usual with this sort of film, the so-called plot is nothing more than something upon which to hang a slew of gruesome mayhem, so all one needs to know is that it chronicles an un-involving police investigation into the killings, in which they work closely with campus stud Kendall (Ian Sera, best known as the obnoxious band frontman in the MST3K classic POD PEOPLE), who may unwittingly know who the killer is, since the fiend targets hot young girls. You won't give a shit about any of the interchangeable characters and the already flimsy narrative bears all of the earmarks of being padded out to bring the run-time up to feature length. The most glaring examples of this are a "who cares?" tennis match, a couple of "sexy" aerobics numbers in a dance studio, and, most ridiculously, a scene where a random Chinese guy attacks the female undercover cop character with his kung fu skills. This occurs with no provocation whatsoever and the assailant is revealed to be the campus stud's "kung fu professor." By way of explanation, the low-rent Bruce Lee explains away his actions with, "Something I eat...Bad chop suey!!!"

Anyway, the killer goes around slaying young women and absconding with select body parts, so he can piece together a flesh jigsaw puzzle of his late mum. The road to that goal certainly does not skimp on the nudity, violence, and gore, and it could easily be read as one of the most misogynistic movies ever, if not for the story's lack of an agenda that has to do with anything other than catering to the bloodthirsty needs of the '80's slasher audience. 

The admittedly creative water bed murder.

Now, over thirty years since that dubious genre's heyday, it may be hard for those who weren't there to witness it to understand just how popular and lucrative this sort of by-the-numbers trash was, and it was that assembly line sameness of content that made slasher movies fun as unintentional sources of amusement. They were dumb, cheap to make, and were great for teenage date night (where the goal was to get one's squeeze to move closer in the dark and, if you were lucky, maybe cop a cheap feel or go in for a sly finger-bang).

Good luck getting away with a shot like this today.

A Spanish/Italian/Puerto Rican co-production, PIECES knew exactly what kind of movie it wanted to be and was unashamed about it, which was quite refreshing at the time. While the majority of slasher movies hit theaters with most of their gory content excised by censors, who suddenly became diligent after the outcry generated when major studio release FRIDAY THE 13th (1980) painted the screen red, PIECES openly bragged about its content in its advertising, proudly proclaiming "It's Exactly What You Think It Is!" If you shelled out the ticket price in 1983 (which was when it was released in the States), you got what you were paying for, thanks to it eschewing the MPAA altogether and going out unrated, and the points in which no murders were going on could be used for adolescent sexual fumblings, taking swigs from smuggled-in beers and hard liquor, and/or taking hits off of a fat joint.

The very definition of "charnel house cinema."

When it comes to '80's slashers, PIECES is a classic of sorts,  and should be included among the roster of the era's must-see efforts for scholars of the genre. It doesn't have a brain in its head, but at least it's a better movie than FRIDAY THE 13th. Oh, and it has a completely ridiculous from-out-of-nowhere ending that has to be seen to be appreciated.

 Poster from the American theatrical release.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017-Day 19: LATE PHASES (2014)

An ideal retirement community...NOT.

Tough-as-nails blind Vietnam war vet Ambrose McKinley (Nick Damici) is moved into a charming retirement community by his son, Will (Ethan Embry). Ambrose is an embittered and unpleasant sort whose abrasive personality alienates all around him and led him to being a drag as both a husband (to his recently deceased wife) and father, but his son nonetheless does his best to try and be supportive of his dad while getting his own life and marriage underway. Upon moving into the community, Ambrose is greeted by a "charming" trio of resident women (one of whom is Tina Louise, aka Ginger from GILLIGAN'S ISLAND) who act as a welcoming committee, but he acts like an asshole to them, allowing them to glimpse his revolver and stating that he's a weapons expert in spite of his blindness, and immediately gains a rep as a jerk with possible violent tendencies. His only friends in the world are his service dog, Shadow, and Delores (SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER's Karen Lynn Gorney), the sweet neighbor lady whom he meets when moving in and who lives in the closely-connected residence on the other side of his living room wall. And it should be noted that the moment they cross the threshold into the retirement community, Shadow bristles and instantly assumes defense mode as something triggers his animal senses...

Ambrose's life in his new home veers straight into weird territory when he feels a torn area on one of his walls and finds a broken claw embedded in it. Then, on his first night there, he hears through the thin walls separating his place from Delores's and bears aural witness to her horrible disembowelment by what sounds like a ravening wild beast. The already on-edge Shadow is instantly up and on guard while Ambrose fumbles blindly for his gun, but the poor, brave pooch is simply no match for the monstrosity that bursts through the front door in search of prey. But Shadow does not die in vain, for he saves his master's life, and Ambrose puts his loyal companion out of his misery with a shot to the head. 

Once the police arrive and Ambrose relates what he heard, he overhears Delores's grieving daughter note that she'd heard ominous stories about the community and its monthly rash of pest turning up murdered, but did not believe them. Ambrose, being a tough motherfucker and not at all an idiot, pieces the evidence together after being told that it was a full moon the night before, and comes to the very correct conclusion that it was a werewolf that killed Delores and almost did him in. He tells no one of his deduction, probably realizing that saying a werewolf was on the loose would further brand him as a crank and a dangerous loony, so he spends the weeks until the next full moon preparing for Round 2 with the monster that killed his dog and neighbor. As the weeks go by, Ambrose trains himself physically, digs a deep hole in his backyard that is obviously a grave — but for whom? — and has a shady local gun dealer make him silver bullets and a single shotgun shell loaded with silver shot. None of his odd and intense behavior goes unnoticed by his neighbors and, unfortunately, the werewolf is a local and also not an idiot, so counter-measures are set in motion as the next full moon nears...

The beast emerges.

Werewolf movies are my very favorite flavor of horror story, and genuinely good ones are few and far between, so it was with great delight that I recently experienced LATE PHASES for the first time. It's a werewolf movie, yes, but it can more accurately be described as a tour de force character study about a bitter, alienating old man's handling of the encroaching end of a life that he has made dismal for himself and his loved ones while preparing to take on a supernatural menace in mortal combat without the benefit of sight. Think of Ambrose as Paul Kersey from the first DEATH WISH movie, only minus the conscientious objector attitude and with the level of personal intensity and toughness cranked up to eleven. Nick Damici's performance in the role is nothing short of stunning and once you see this film, you will ask where the hell he's been all these years and why is he not more well-known.

Ambrose (Nick Damici), utterly refusing to go out like some weak pussy.

The entire cast is solid, but it's Damici that will have you talking once you've seen the flick. His Ambrose is a bad motherfucker to the core, and I salute him as one of the hardest opponents a werewolf was ever stupid enough to fuck with.

As described, the film's first werewolf attack happens maybe five minutes past the opening credits, so there is no mystery as to what Ambrose is up against, but that's not the point. The point is getting to know what kind of a person he is and what goes through his head as he readies to put his military-trained boot up a big, furry ass, so we don't get more lycanthrope action until the climax. If you're coming to LATE PHASES expecting wall-to-wall werewolves like what you got with the superlative DOG SOLDIERS (2002), you won't get that, but the climax is riveting and very much balls-to-the-wall, plus it throws in some very clever and interesting surprises...

Bottom Line: LATE PHASES comes from out of nowhere to round out my list of the Top 5 best werewolves movies I've ever seen, and when that list features THE WOLF MAN (1940), THE HOWLING (1981), AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981), and the aforementioned DOG SOLDIERS, I think the merits of LATE PHASES speak for themselves.

Promotional image for the DVD release.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017-Day 18: THE MANSTER (1959)

In a nutshell: An American reporter in Japan encounters an unscrupulous scientist who uses him as a guinea pig for experiments involving evolution, cosmic rays, and shitloads of alcohol. The reporter begins sneaking around Tokyo at night to commit murders and eventually grows an extra head that separates into a hairy "new species" ape monster. 

Can you stand the sheer terror???

THE MANSTER is another flick that I saw during my formative years when it ran on Channel 5's iteration of CREATURE FEATURES., and I mostly watched it because it was a shot-in-Japan American production that looked and felt just like the Japanese films that I learned early to favor. Though not a city-stomping giant monster opus, it was worth watching to see how Americans handled Japanese-style scares, but it comes off like a monster movie as written and directed by a nine-year-old. The story's stupid as hell, not at all scary, and rather mediocre, so why am I bothering to call your attention to it? For one reason: the indelible and genuinely creepy moment when the reporter discovers an eye generating on his shoulder.

The best moment in an otherwise idiotic movie.

THE MANSTER is by no means a classic, but it's a fun way to kill 72 minutes and it has the decency to not be boring.

Poster from the Japanese theatrical release.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017-Day 17: TRICK 'R TREAT (2007)

Obey the rules of Halloween, or you will meet Sam...

The horror anthology film goes back at least as far as DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) and continues to this day, with largely uneven results, but one of the better and more fun of the recent crop is writer/director Michael Dougherty's TRICK 'R TREAT. 

Taking place on Halloween night in an Ohio suburb, the film follows the night's intersecting paths of several characters, connected only by the holiday and the recurring presence of wee Sam, a silent, pint-sized demonic entity whose origins and purpose are never stated, but it's made very clear that he is definitely the enforcer of the night's rules and lore, and may be the physical personification of the spirit of Halloween. Sam walks unnoticed among the legions of trick-or-treaters, observing their shenanigans and availing himself to offered candy, but may the gods help you if you disrespect this sacred night...

The tone is set with a short vignette in which a young couple returns home after walking the streets in costume. The husband is clearly into Halloween and has set up their front yard with all manner of spooky seasonal decorations, but his wife openly expresses her disdain for the holiday, much to her husband's sadness, and she demands that he take down the decorations immediately since her mother's coming over the next day, and she knows he'll spend the next day sleeping late and playing videogames. Instead, she lets her husband go inside to relax (in actuality he goes to jerk off to porn) and begins taking down the decorations herself. But her disrespect for Halloween has been noted by Sam, and let's just say that she won't have to endure another October 31st... 

"Give me something good to eat..."

The first of the intertwined tales of terror introduces us to Charlie (Brett Kelly), an obnoxious Jack-o'-lantern-smashing fat kid who also breaks the honor system and takes waaaay more than one piece of candy from a clearly-marked self-service bowl on a porch where no one is at home. Charlie is busted when the homeowner, local school principal Steven Wilkins (Dylan Baker) returns, but the pricipal sits Charlie down on the porch and says he was just like him when he was a kid, offering Charlie a candy bar. After scarfing down the chocolate, the kid falls victim to the principal's poisoned treat, vomiting up seemingly gallons of half-digested candy before he keels over. Wilkins hauls the lad's body inside and what ensues is a comedy of bodily disposal that gets interrupted by the principal's young son and the crotchety old man who lives next door. (More on him later.) 


Charlie and the chocolate toxicity.

And when all seems to be over, Wilkins goes into his house and brings his sweet little boy down to the basement, all the while concealing a butcher knife behind his back...

Next, we meet a quartet of very attractive young women who every year choose a different city in which to celebrate Halloween. The youngest of the group (Anna Paquin) is reluctant to join the others clad as she is in a Little Red Riding Hood outfit that she feels makes her look ridiculous, but her older, Cinderella-garbed sister gives her grief about her need to loosen up and the fact that she's still a virgin at age twenty-two. The girls cruise the town, inviting young men to meet them at a drunken bonfire party in the woods, but the youngest does her best to dodge the revelry and instead stays in town to blend in with other revelers. She gets more than she bargained for when she encountered a masked man with pointy fangs that may not be part of his costume...

While cruising for some Halloween cock, there's always that one killjoy.

But is the innocent Little Red Riding Hood as helpless as she seems? The answer is a resounding "NO."

Elsewhere in town, a number of mean kids orchestrate a cruel prank on "Rhonda the retard" (Samm Todd), a girl who's described as an "idiot savant." (Though from her behaviors and way of speaking, I'd peg her as autistic.) The kids her to an abandoned rock quarry that 30 years early was purportedly the site of "The School Bus Massacre," in which a bus carrying eight "disturbed" kids in Halloween costumes were chained to their seats as their driver, who had been paid by their embarrassed and fed-up parents, sought to drive the bus into the lake so that the kids would drown. The eight children drown and the driver escapes to no one knows where, but the mean kids tell the Halloween-lore-savvy Rhonda that they are all going down to the edge of the quarry's lake to set down eight Jack-o'-lanterns as an offering to the souls of the drowned children. What follows is a textbook example of when a prank goes horribly, supernaturally wrong.

Rhonda receives the fright of her young life.

Lastly, we meet the aforementioned crotchety old neighbor of Principal Wilkins, the nasty Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox, who was also the screen's original Hannibal Lecter), who hates trick-or-treaters, scares them away from his property, and absconds with the candy they drop while fleeing in abject terror.  The guy's a mean asshole who disrespects Halloween, so he's about due for a visit from wee Sam.

Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox) meets Sam, and what a meeting it is...

While not an instant classic nor particularly scary for grownups, TRICK 'R TREAT is a good way to introduce younger viewers to the Halloween anthology sub-genre. It's not overly gory (though there are some moments that look quite painful) and there's no nudity aside from a very brief flash of naked breasts, so I say expose your 10-and-older kids to it in order to get them into the spirit of the season. Trust me, that'll keep you on Sam's good side.

Poster from the theatrical release.

Monday, October 16, 2017

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017-Day 16: HEBI MUSUME TO HAKUHATSUMA (1968)

When the shrine  stares back.

Sweet young Sayuri (Yachi Matsui) has been raised in a kind Catholic orphanage since infancy, with fellow orphan Tatsuya (Sei Hiraizumi) acting as her adored more-or-less brother, but now, after years of searching, her biological father has found her and has come to take her home. During the drive home, her father warns Sayuri that her mother (Yuko Hamada) was in an accident a while back that rendered her somewhat mentally ill, so she should keep that in mind while around her. Upon arrival at the house, her mother addresses Sayuri as "Tamami," a gaffe that is swiftly corrected by the father. The mother hazily acknowledges her mistake and welcomes Sayuri to the household, which also includes Shige (Sachiko Meguro), the housekeeper.

Just as Sayuri is about to settle in, her father is called away to Africa for a two-week research trip as part of his studies of venomous creatures, many examples of which he keeps in his private study/lab. Once dad's out of the picture, Sayuri tries to sleep but is awakened by a snake being dropped into her bed. Her shrieks bring the housekeeper, but Sayuri's claims about the snake are disbelieved. The next day, her mother shows Sayuri the house's Buddhist shrine and encourages her to pray there (apparently ignoring the fact that the girl was raised Catholic). While humoring her mother's wishes and beseeching the Buddha to be kind to her, Sayuri glances up at the shrine and sees an eerie and none-too-friendly pair of eyes staring back at her. Startled, she tells her mother what she saw, and her mother oddly advises Sayuri not to tell her father of what she saw when he returns. That night, Sayuri leaves her bed upon hearing her mother stealthily wandering around. Her mother leaves food in the shrine and leaves, which Sayuri observes, but when she enters the shrine she notes that the food is gone. She confronts her mother about this and it is revealed that the shrine has a secret room that houses the aforementioned Tamami, whom Sayuri is told is her hitherto unmentioned older sister, and who also bears an unsettling "plastic" aspect to her face....

Sibling disharmony.

No explanation is given for Tamami living in a hidden chamber, but Sayuri just goes with it and agrees to share her own room with the cold Tamami. Tamami immediately is found to be a mean and vicious little bitch who wields control over her mother and the housekeeper, but the real horrors start once the sisters begin rooming together. As she tries to sleep, Sayuri notices odd things about Tamami, such as her obsessed focus on frogs in a biology textbook, a strange cut on the side of her face, and the fact that Tamami's back is covered in scales like a snake. 

Night terrors.

Sayuri suffers weird nightmares filled with imagery of attacking snakes, and on one night Tamami leaves the house, with Sayuri convinced she's left to search the nearby swamp for frogs. While their mother and housekeeper search outside, Tamami, in a move worthy of any ghost or spirit, manifests inside the house, revealing herself to indeed be a snake, and she savagely latches onto her terrified little sister's neck.

Tamami: Snake monster?

But when Sayuri awakens and finds herself uninjured, things just get weirder. Was Tamami's monstrous form and attack all just a dream? And what the hell is up with Tamami holding up a large, freshly-caught frog, with one leg held in each hand, graphically tearing it in half down to the crotch, and throwing the gory mess into her sister's shocked face? Whatever the case, Sayuri's recounting of the weird happenings is met with disbelief from mom and the housekeeper.

The clearly unhinged Tamami, jealously concerned that Sayuri is usurping her place in the family, demands that Sayuri be moved from their shared room to the attic, which will be kept locked at night. Once relegated to the attic, Sayuri spies on her sister through a hole in the ceiling and sees Tamami peel off her "face" before a mirror, revealing scaly patches festooning her features. 

Tamami reveals herself.

In a jealous rage, the older girl cries out in anguish, asking why she can't be beautiful, and tears her sister's clothes out of their shared closet, littering them all over the room. Seeing this fills Sayuri's heart with pity, but it's all wasted compassion as Tamami's bitchery is kicked up a notch when their mother leaves the girls alone in the house while she goes away for observation by her doctors. Tamami physically drags Sayuri into dad's lab, where she demonstrates the efficacy of a tank of acid by throwing a live snake into it and forcing Sayuri to watch in horror. Retrieving the snake's skeleton, Tamami notes that if left in the acid long enough, even the bones will be eaten away, saying it with a distinct undertone of threat. She then orders Sayuri to move out and never come back, or else she may come to serious harm. But, having promised her father to make the best of things until his return, Sayuri refuses to knuckle under to Tamami's bullying, which does not sit at all well with the elder tormentor. And as if all of this wasn't enough bizarreness to deal with, from out of nowhere a hideous, fanged, silver-haired witch shows up to pile more torment upon poor Sayuri.



With nowhere else to turn, Sayuri seeks help from the kindly nun who runs the orphanage, and upon telling her of all that she's been through, the nun begins to fill in the pieces of the puzzle with information about why Sayuri was left in the orphanage in the first place and exactly who Tamami really is. The nun, who had received a letter from Sayuri's dad asking how things were going between the girls, promises to send the father a response that outlines all that has gone on in his absence, which fills Sayuri with hope. But that hope is shattered as the nun is brutally murdered by the witch before she could pen to paper. With only Tatsuya to turn to for help, Sayuri and her surrogate brother soon discover the truth of it all and find themselves in grievous danger.

Let's hear it for nightmare fuel!

Starting off like a horror story for the kiddies (and based on a manga by Kazuo Umezu), HEBI MUSUME TO HAKUHATSUMA — which roughly translates as "The Snake-Girl and the Witch with Silver Hair" — at first seems like it could fit in with the majorly kiddie-aimed Gamera flicks that its company, Daiei Film, cranked out on a yearly basis, only much better-made. It's shot in moody black and white and it milks its monochromatic palette for maximum atmosphere, and the visual set pieces display imagination that knows what being creepy is all about. Its monsters are very much in keeping with the Japanese aesthetic for its era, with their look echoing traditional block print depictions of legendary Yokai and how such creatures would be interpreted in live productions — a style that most Westerner viewers might find "fakey" when not approaching it with cultural context in mind —and they are guaranteed to give youngsters the frights. But the story's narrative content is a study in jealousy, cruelty and outright madness that veers into quite gruesome territory, such as the aforementioned rending of the frog and the stabbing of the nun, plus some truly harrowing edge-of-your-seat mayhem during the climax. There are several "HOLY SHIT!!!" moments that are quite jarring for a film of its vintage, and even taking into account the harsher aspects of what's acceptable in Japanese storytelling for youngsters as opposed to our Western consideration of such material, things get majorly hardcore toward the ending. And though all is revealed by the end, some of the story's more fantastical elements are not explained, and those omissions appear to be a case of sloppy screenwriting that assumes the viewers will fill in those plot/logic gaps themselves.

Nonetheless, HEBI MUSUME TO HAKUHATSUMA is very strong meat for what can be considered a kiddie horror, and as such it is very much recommended. (It also makes one wonder what the Gamera movies might have been like if Daiei hadn't so flagrantly cheaped-out and half-assed that series pretty much from the beginning.)

Poster from the Japanese theatrical release.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017-Day 15: HARD CANDY (2005)

The start of an unforgettable date.

After getting to know 14-year-old Hayley Stark (Ellen Page) during three weeks of flirtation on an internet chat room, 30-year-old photographer Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson) takes her back to his house, where the girl makes them screwdrivers. After a few drinks, Hayley suggests that Jeff take sexy pictures of her and she begins to dance suggestively on his couch. As Jeff breaks out his camera, he begins to feel woozy and soon keels over unconscious. Upon coming to, Jeff finds that he's securely tied to a chair and Hayley's innocent and precocious demeanor is cast aside to reveal a cold and vicious sociopath with an agenda.

To give away more would be grossly unfair to curious viewers, so I won't go any further with the plot particulars. What I will say is that as the story unfolds, the audience is taken along on a journey into every man's very worst nightmare. Is Hayley insane? What is her motivation? Is Jeff actually a predator of underage girls? 

HARD CANDY is a nail-bitingly intense psychological battle wherein the seemingly weaker opponent wields several clear and very strong advantages, so Jeff's situation is a steady descent into hopelessness. Basically a two-character study (though three other characters make very brief appearances), the film is a tour de force of performances from the leads, both of whom are utterly believable in their roles, but Page's Hayley comes from out of nowhere to join the short list of cinema's all-time most terrifying psychos, and she only gets more fear-inducing with each passing moment. She's brilliant, methodical, and veers between overwrought adolescent histrionics and icy coldness as she torments her captive and plays with his mind and body in the most cruel of ways.

Believe it or not, this is the relative calm before the storm...

Psychological horror is far less easy to pull off than narratives showcasing rapacious monsters or implacable slashers, and HARD CANDY succeeds at its horrific flavor in every possible way. It's a true make-you-squirm thriller, especially for males, and if there is any justice it will eventually be rightly recognized as the classic that it is. This is movie with very, very sharp teeth and you had better believe me when I tell you it is not afraid to go there. HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.

Poster from the theatrical release.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017-Day 14: THE SHALLOWS (2016)

When a surfing holiday goes horribly, horribly wrong.

Medical student Nancy Adams (Blake Lively), takes a surfing holiday to Mexico while grieving for her recently-deceased mother. Her mother's death has led Nancy to consider leaving med school, but serious consideration of that decision is put on hold as Nancy, following hours of surfing with friendly locals, is attacked by a massive great white shark that has been feeding on the nearby carcass of a humpback whale. Nancy's surfer athleticism and medical training allow her to survive and make her way to an exposed rock outcropping in the shallows, a mere 200 yards from the beach and safety, where she's just out of the water enough so that the apex predator cannot reach her. But the shark is mindlessly relentless — to put it very mildly — and it's only a matter of time until high tide renders Nancy easily obtainable...

Let's face it: When it comes to shark movies, JAWS (1975) was a rock-solid masterpiece of suspense and terror that defined the genre and set the standard, so pretty much every shark movie that came in its wake could not help but come off as feeble or a pale imitation by way of comparison. With that stated, I'll go out on a limb — or an isolated rock — and name THE SHALLOWS as probably the very best of the post-JAWS shark-centric shockers. Its premise is the very model of narrative simplicity, set as it is in one remote location and peopled with an absolute minimum of characters, so what we really focus on is seeing just how Nancy will survive against what is for all intents and purposes a voracious sea monster of the most implacable order.

"Those goddamned Beach Boys are a pack of fucking liars!!!"

Seeming even more consumption-minded than the shark in JAWS, the great white found here just will not stop in its efforts to eat every fucking thing in its path succeeding in devouring three other victims as it awaits its chance at taking Nancy. It's big, it's terrifying, and, thanks to modern special effects, it's a beautifully realized and downright nasty antagonist.

And since the other human characters are pretty much ancillary shark-fodder, Blake Lively is given a terrific showcase in which to shine. She imbues Nancy with a relatable humanity and disorientation in the wake of the character's mom's death, which only makes her clearing-the-mind-via-surfing-holiday gone wrong seem all the more terrible. It's also a very physical performance, and while Lively spends the film in a bikini and a subsequent leg-exposing body-glove, the hot chick factor is almost immediately forgotten as the shark enters the picture and Nancy proves herself tougher and more resourceful than you will ever be.

I love sharks and shark horror stories, and THE SHALLOWS easily makes it into my roster of Top 5 shark flicks of all time. No small feat, that, so give it a look. And bear in mind that it manages to be riveting and scary as hell with only a minimum of PG-13 gore. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Theatrical promo poster.