Murder Mansion (1972)

MARCH 20, 2021


One valid criticism of the giallo sub-genre is that they tend to get a bit samey; the casual sex, the black gloves, the money schemes... if you take any half dozen at random you're likely to see the same plot points turn up in at least half of your picks. This is partly because they rarely cross with other genres, which can do wonders for what might actually be a fairly generic story; if I were to say "an unseen menace picks off a group of people one by one until there's only one female left" you might think I'm describing Friday the 13th but I'm actually thinking of Alien. So imagine my surprise when I picked a movie called Murder Mansion (Spanish: La mansión de la niebla) from Vinegar Syndrome's latest Forgotten Gialli collection and discovered it was less giallo and more... Old Dark House movie?

Things start off pretty typical for such a "yellow" film; there's a guy on a motorcycle, another guy in a car, and a lovely hitchhiker that the latter picks up and instantly starts rubbing her thigh (with black gloves, of course). Then we meet a guy who tells his wife he's waiting for a notary but he's actually in bed with another woman (a prostitute, maybe? She mentions him spending "all his money on women like her"), so within ten minutes or so we have all the proper ingredients: sex, money, gloves, and motorcycles. But then the hitchhiker, tired of the driver's advances, hooks up with the motorcycle guy as they head toward a town nearby, and things get a little more supernaturally charged.

Turns out everyone is heading the same way (and some are even involved with the same people!), but a thick fog and confusing directions leaves everyone lost. After some atmospheric wandering around in the countryside, everyone ends up at the titular locale (well, it's not ACTUALLY named Murder Mansion, as they probably wouldn't have stopped, but you know what I mean) and it starts to resemble James Whale more than Sergio Martino. I figured someone would just start killing everyone in the joint and it'd be up to our heroes (motorcycle guy and hitchhiker, aka Fred and Laura) to figure it out, but nope! Before long they're full on walking around dusty/spider-webbed basement corridors, and a pair of ancient ghouls seemingly rise from the adjacent cemetery to scare some of them into sounding crazy.

Hell it's even quite possibly the most chaste 1970s eurohorror film I've ever seen, with very little sex and even less violence. It's not until the climax that the body count really rises, and (spoiler for 50 year old movie ahead) it's just mostly bloodless gunshots as opposed to the usual knives and razors. The killer's motive still circles back to familiar giallo themes (money and daddy issues, in this case), but it's kind of remarkable how un-giallo it all is, to the extent that the reveal was the first time in close to an hour I even remembered that this was presented as that kind of film in the first place. If this was somehow the first "giallo" you ever saw, you'd have the weirdest impression of what these movies were like.

That said, I found it delightful all the same. Again, since so many of them are kind of similar, it was great to just get caught up in the spooky shenanigans instead of thinking "They stole that bit from What Have You Done To Solange!" or something like that. There's a great sequence where the two heroes are being shot at in the graveyard, and they think it's the guy from the car (who shrugs off Fred "stealing" Laura from him and hits on someone else at the house, but surprisingly takes no for an answer pretty quickly), but then they discover that his body was just being propped up and he's been dead for a bit - it's the sort of thing that adds to the mystery but without the usual abundance of exposition that usually just ends up complicating these movies. That Fred and Laura are actually pretty likable people is another perk; it's rare to find much sympathy in these movies, as even the heroes tend to be misogynist jerks (you usually end up feeling more compassion for the killer who is often a victim of childhood trauma or something).

The lone extra on the disc (no historian commentary, alas) is an interview with Evelyn Stewart ne Ida Galli, who plays the lady of the house. Fitting for such a PG-ish kind of movie, it's one of the more upbeat actor interviews I've seen from something from this place and time; usually these interviews are hilariously candid about brutish directors, co-stars who couldn't ask, scripts being rubbish, etc, but Stewart is pretty complimentary about the whole affair. She even says something to the effect of "I don't have any bad memories of this one!", and the closest she gets to any kind of dirt is something about the soon-to-be ex-husband of one of her female costars, who she bonded with. It's kind of sweet, though fairly dull if you're used to the more unabashed "I'm retired now so IDGAF" nature of these pieces.

Despite its rather flimsy connection to the sub-genre, I'm super glad Vinegar included it on their set. You can't argue with its "forgotten" status (the IMDb page is pretty bare, and when you click on the title on Stewart's page, it brings you to the page for the '80s adventure game Maniac Mansion, which is another of its titles), and at the end of the day the main goal is preserving these movies and finding them the audience they deserve. Hopefully these volumes will continue; not only are they helping me expand my giallo horizons, but they're also given wonderful packaging that looks great on the shelf. Having survived the shoddy era of cheap cardboard boxes (remember that Omen set? Ugh!), I find myself in awe of how sturdy Vinegar's collections are. I'm all about that deluxe aesthetic!

What say you?


Nosferatu in Venice (1988)

MARCH 14, 2021


I recently revisited the 1979 Nosferatu at a drive-in screening, which is a weird venue for that particular film (it was paired with Ulli Lommel's even more bizarre The Tenderness of Wolves, so... wacky night!) as even after a year of it being my only moviegoing option, I still think of the drive-in as something suited for B-movies, not something one might deem "artsy". If I had known of its existence at the time, I might have wondered why they weren't showing Nosferatu in Venice (aka Vampire in Venice), the Italian produced "sequel" that brings back Klaus Kinski as the title character and absolutely nothing else.

In fact it doesn't even really bring back the same Kinski incarnation, as the notoriously difficult actor refused to deal with the makeup again. So apart from an occasional fang shot, we don't really get "Nosferatu" but simply Klaus Kinski wandering around Venice, doing things like kicking at the fences separating him from angry dogs, taking silent gondola rides just as dawn breaks, and having graphic sex. On occasion he shows off his superpowers, including a great bit where a guy shotguns him and we see through the massive hole (which then closes up), or tricking people into thinking he is someone else (or that they are him), but despite his top billing there are large chunks without him (he only appears I think once in the first half hour). Even if he had donned the makeup, I can understand that a fan would feel pretty ripped off by his limited appearance.

The actual lead of the film is Christopher Plummer (given the "and" credit!) as Catalano, a sort of Van Helsing standin (Plummer would play an actual Van Helsing in Dracula 2000, so this is like a trial run) who has tracked Nosferatu to Venice and seeks to destroy him once and for all. But, best I can tell from his scattered scenes, Nosferatu himself wants to be dead, having tired of immortality. At least that's how I interpreted it, as even by '80s Italian horror standards the movie doesn't make a lot of sense, something that was probably never the case but certainly made worse by the fact that they never finished shooting all of it (it was also shot a few years before finally being released). A documentary about Kinski called Creation is Violent is included on the disc, and it explains a lot about the movie's issues.

In fact the documentary (which is feature length) should be required viewing for anyone who watches the film, as it not only helps explain why it's so "off" but also adds some illuminating context to a few scenes. One key bit of hilarious trivia is that the production team decided to film lots of footage at the local Carnival, which took place months before Kinski was scheduled to arrive. So they used a double in the traditional Nosferatu makeup and created some exciting scenes with all that free production value, but when Kinski decided he would not be donning the makeup again, they had to toss almost all of it out, as it wouldn't match. But they didn't let it all go to waste, so occasionally they just cut to people celebrating in between scenes, even though the majority of the movie takes place in those same streets that are otherwise empty.

Here we also learn that a lot of that random footage of Kinski just sort of aimlessly wandering around Venice was directed by the actor himself, who kept complaining about the revolving directors on the shoot (there were, I believe, five when all was said and done). To get him to shut up for a bit, the producer gave him a camera and an operator and told him to go shoot whatever he liked. Apparently he shot around two hours of footage, of which Kinski handpicked around twenty minutes that could be used and the film ultimately included about 90 seconds or so of it. This caused a drain on the budget since all that film had to be processed and such; you get the idea Kinski would have thrived in a digital filmmaking world, but alas (?) he died in 1991.

So when you take all that information in and watch the movie again, realizing it's not by some unexplained design, it ends up in the "better than you'd expect" category. With Kinski's behavior and the constant change of directors (and again, a shoot that was never actually completed), it's surprising that the movie is even watchable, but it manages to overcome most of its messiness and become kind of mesmerizing in its own way, not unlike the original. Even without the makeup, the film ends up sharing a number of qualities with Herzog's take, and so what if it's accidental? Plummer's intro, for example, lasts several minutes as he rides as a gondola through the canals up to where he's staying (a church run by Donald Pleasence, who is largely kind of subdued here), and the music - by Vangelis! - droning on feels very much like a sequence from the earlier film, even if it was just a necessary bit of padding to make up for missing footage elsewhere.

But it's also got some of that 80s Italian wackiness you'd probably want, including a few ridiculous impalement deaths and out of nowhere things like belly dancers. I also nearly cried from laughing when Plummer just suddenly exits the movie before the climax, and no I don't mean he gets killed off. The character simply decides to leave, so the final showdown with Nosferatu comes down to a few random dudes whose grand plan is to shoot him with holy water bullets and then run away if/when it didn't work. They don't even cut back to Plummer arriving home or something; he just leaves and never looks back with 20 minutes of the movie left to go. It's kind of divine.

The Kinski doc (and a few deleted scenes from it, both of which focus on this film) is the only extra on Severin's disc, but that's not really surprising. And again, it's an essential doc if you're a fan of this film or even Kinski in general, as it mainly centers on his final years (including his sudden death at a time where he had apparently found peace) and features priceless anecdotes from some of his former collaborators (most of whom seem to have forgiven whatever insults/attacks he dished on them, but not all) as well as some interview footage where he's just rambling. I would suggest perhaps reading up on him if you're completely unaware of his transgressions, as they can be pretty ugly, but if you're already aware of what kind of person he was I think you'll find the doc highly engaging, not to mention a solid companion piece to the feature.

What say you?


Silent Madness (1984)

MARCH 9, 2021


As I've said before, someday my quest to see every slasher movie produced in the early '80s will come to an end. But when something like Silent Madness comes along it gives me hope that day will be later rather than sooner, because I never even heard of it! And while that's nothing out of the ordinary for random regional movies like Blood Beat or Satan's Blade, this film was shot in 3D, features a handful of recognizable actors, and even some Friday the 13th connections, all of which suggests it would have come up enough for me to remember hearing of it. If even this sort of thing can escape my attention, there's bound to be dozens more under-the-radar types waiting to be uncovered.

But in my defense, it was never properly released on disc (Amazon has a PAL release that seems... bootlegy), so it makes sense that it never got that same kind of rediscovery that has benefited so many other independently made efforts of the time. When Vinegar Syndrome teased a "3D slasher" as part of their Black Friday sale a few months back, I honestly didn't even have a guess that would make sense (the distributor almost never releases any big studio titles, so something like F13 3 would be silly to guess at; my closest thing to a reasonable answer was the not-great Scar from 2007). I know I sound like a broken record, but I'll keep repeating it until I no longer worry about it: this sort of release is exactly why we need physical media to not only survive, but be a profitable venture for boutique outfits like VS. While people will always be asking (and then buying) the big guns, it's these kind of things that offer the sort of win win situations that expand fans' horizons while also ensuring these films aren't lost to time.

As for the movie itself, it's kind of a weird one. After a delirious first reel that sees the obligatory escaped mental patient killing four teens (including a pair of Sleepaway Camp vets: Katherine "Meg" Kamhi and Paul "Ronnie" DeAngelo) in glorious 3D, the movie basically twiddles its thumbs for the next half hour or so, which means it would be an ideal midnight movie (start strong to give us the jolt we need to stay awake thru the soggy middle, then bring it home for the finale) but can try one's patience when watching alone at home. The script (by director Simon Nuchtern, an adult film screenwriter named Bill Milling, and - of all people - airport thriller extraordinaire Nelson DeMille) curiously spends more time not with the sorority girls our mute maniac is targeting, but a doctor at the hospital he escaped from trying to get to the bottom of the clerical error that set him free in the first place.

I'm not joking, by the way. The switcheroo is easy enough to understand - they were supposed to release a patient named John Howard and accidentally grabbed one named Howard Johns - but for some reason Nuchtern and co felt this simple explanation needed more than half the screentime to be explored. The heroine (Belinda Montgomery) becomes aware of the mistake and brings it to her (male) superiors, who dismiss her findings and then cover up their mistake by claiming the man wasn't released but actually died, prompting her to head to another town to track down the death certificate they claim they have for the man, first to the police station and then to the local newspaper who should have it on file as well.

And all that would be fine if she was pulling a Loomis, trying to find and help her patient, but no! When she finally encounters the killer late in the film the first thing she does is run and ask for help from a security guard. So none of this stuff is particularly involving, as she's trying to solve a non-mystery, taking up time we could be spending with the sorority girls (who get short thrift as a result) or even on random kill scenes that take advantage of the 3D format. The body count is pretty low for a post Friday the 13th slasher like this (and, goes without saying, lower than F13 3D), which would be fine if they were spread out more evenly, but when they're mostly confined to the first twenty and last fifteen minutes it's bothersome.

Luckily those parts are a lot of fun, even in 2D. To be clear, the set actually offers both types of 3D, both the digital kind for those with 3DTVs and the kind requiring the old school cardboard glasses (two pairs included), but I watched most of it in 2D. I have never been able to successfully enjoy watching anything with the cardboard glasses, so I didn't even bother with that, but I do have the Playstation VR system, which allows you to watch movies in 3D even if your TV isn't capable (because your TV is no longer part of the equation, really). And it looked quite good, but it's just not a comfortable way to watch a movie, with the helmet on your head and (in my case at least) sitting awkwardly on the couch because the cord wasn't long enough to get into my preferred position.

That said, for those who can get comfortable, it's a pretty great way to experience 3D at home, especially now that 3DTV's are basically extinct (and were far more expensive than the PSVR, though of course only one person can enjoy it). It also has a little bonus: (relative) total immersion the way a theater can provide, as the helmet covers your peripheral and blackens everything around the screen, just like you were in a theater. So that's pretty cool, especially now when theatergoing is such a risky (and in my case, not even possible) proposition. Nuchtern keeps "Comin at ya!" shots to a minimum (basically just the kill scenes; no yo-yos and popcorn here) and instead plays up the depth, constantly putting things right near the camera (books on a desk, for example) to show off how far away the subject is in the shot. It almost makes me wish he directed Friday 3 himself, as he'd have a more robust script to deal with but also some of the restraint that Steve Miner lacked. Watching F13 3 in 2D can be obnoxious at times due to all the "In 3D!" moments that have zero point when viewed flat, something that rarely occurs here (basically just the weapons flying at you).

And even with its pacing issues (which continue even when the action picks up; the final chase goes on forever), there's a lot to like here. Some of the stuff with the institute staff is so strange you almost wish this was simply an asylum set movie without any of the slasher stuff, particularly when it comes to a pair of attendants who are tasked with hunting down both the killer AND the heroine, and are clearly more deranged than the antagonist. The killer's motivation (which leads to a minor twist) is also one of the weirder ones I can recall, where our guy was humiliated in a spanking ritual by the sorority girls. Also, the house mother is a drunk named Ms. Collins, which (bias alert!) is the greatest thing ever.

In addition to the 3D options, the disc has a pair of commentaries as well as an intro from Nuchtern (which itself is in 3D!) where he thanks the fans for keeping the film alive and expresses his gratitude that it's finally available properly. He also provides one of the commentaries, moderated by the great Michael Gingold, who keeps him talking about the cast, the locations, etc while also offering some of his own observations (including an anecdote about going to see the film at a theater that put "IN 3D!" on its marquee despite showing the film flat), which is an ideal moderator approach in my opinion - it's annoying when they just ask canned questions and make no attempt at an actual conversation. Hopefully Gingold will continue to perform this duty on more releases, as he does a much better job than some others I shan't name here. The other track is from the Hysteria Continues folks, who do the same thing they usually do; if you've heard any of their tracks you've kind of heard them all, at least to my ears. That said, if you're a slasher newcomer they'll certainly leave you with a full list of titles to check out, and they also opine on 3D horror (plus some outliers; one goes to bat for Spy Kids 3-D, of all things), if that's another blind spot for you. So ultimately it's kind of hard to qualify; at times it feels like a "for completists only" affair, but on the other hand, the solid use of 3D and strange quirks in the storytelling make it an ideal film to watch for people who think slashers are sloppily made and/or all the same. I can't say it would exactly change anyone's mind about the subgenre, but it'll at least get them to begrudgingly admit that the people who make them do indeed have to know what they're doing. Long story short: it passes my own unique version of the binary thumbs up/down system: I will keep the disc instead of trading it in! That's gotta be worth something, right?

What say you?


Willy's Wonderland (2021)

MARCH 1, 2021


Since it was announced, Willy's Wonderland seemed like a can't miss bit of B-movie nirvana: Nicolas Cage trapped in a Chuck E. Cheese type place where the animatronic mascots came to life and started murdering people. No, it probably wasn't going to be a masterpiece, but something you could knock a few drinks back and enjoy the silliness of the plot and also what would almost certainly be some choice bits of Cage screaming or delivering a few "Put the bunny back in the box" type howlers. Unfortunately, it seems the people behind the film came up with the concept and then set out with one goal in mind: to misappropriate the budget and make every wrong choice they possibly could in a mere 85 minutes.

The first bizarre choice is that the nameless hero doesn't speak. As a fan of Cage (legitimately, not ironically) I was dismayed to hear that he wouldn't utter a word in the entire film (for reasons never explained; a few grunts proves he is at least capable of some kind of vocalization), because it seemed to be denying him one of his strengths. To his credit, he actually gives a pretty good performance, and even offers a few gems for the people who love to meme him to death; his "Janitor" seems to have an affinity for pinball, and he stops a few times to go play an old machine, dancing and gyrating as he plays while guzzling an energy drink (a running gag in the movie is that he will stop everything he is doing - including fighting the monsters - when his watch alarm reminds him it's time for another break). It also never stops being funny when he stares down the animals, who look back at him in equal silence with their idiotic faces.

But if you're going to have a silent hero, why spend the money on Cage? They could have gotten someone cheaper with some cache in this VOD realm and spent a little more money on the set and creatures, or at least to come up with some variation on the action. Another curious decision is that the animals waste no time making their "alive" status known to Cage, and he kills one of them within minutes of being locked in the restaurant - only to nonchalantly go back to cleaning it (he is hired to do so in exchange for getting his car fixed, more on that soon). Without dialogue to mix it up a bit, this means that after 20 minutes they've kind of already exhausted their movie's tricks when it comes to the one-line premise of "Cage vs Chuck E Cheese". Some local kids who are trying to burn the joint down are thrown into the mix eventually, but when it comes to Cage's matchups, they're all the same: he silently tussles with one of them, eventually subduing it, and then rips out its gears to kill it while getting covered in blood. Then he puts on a fresh Willy's staff shirt and starts cleaning again. Rinse and repeat. It's funny the first time, sure, but when the climax of your movie could be swapped with the very first action scene and it wouldn't matter (as the angle is usually just on Cage's increasingly bloodied face/chest, the animal largely off-screen) there's a big problem.

It also curiously leaves the movie without much of a reason for him to even be there. The premise is that the animals (brought to life from some kind of satanic ritual) were offing people throughout the town until the sheriff, the guy who owned the building, and the mechanic all made a deal of sorts with Willy and the rest of his band: leave the townsfolk alone, and they'll bring strangers to them to satisfy their bloodlust. So the mechanic throws a dragstrip out on the road nearby to disable anyone that passes through, then tells the car's owner(s) that he can only accept cash but will call it even if they clean up Willy's. But the local kids who are tired of hearing the stories (and worrying about Willy perhaps not being satisfied with the random motorists) have decided to burn the place down, and then they get trapped there too. They provide Willy and pals with their kill quota, so not only is there no in-movie reason for Cage to be there anymore, but with him not speaking/not really caring about the situation, he's almost a non-entity within it. Without him, this would be a silly but entertaining time-killer, as opposed to a disappointment.

I mean, I'm sure he's not getting the same paydays he used to, but I guarantee he accounted for a hefty chunk of the film's budget, and I spent most of the time wondering what they could have spent that money on instead (ditto for however much they paid to use "Free Bird" near the end, another weird choice). Maybe they could have improved the set, as despite the fact that most of the movie takes place within the restaurant I never got any kind of good sense of its layout, and more than once the characters were in a room I for the life of me couldn't quite place as being a normal part of this kind of joint. And/or maybe they could have had a few more exterior scenes, which would not only draw less attention to the confused interior, but also mix it up a bit since the movie shows us pretty much everything it has to offer before the halfway point.

Or they could have improved the animatronics, of which there are also too many (eight! The actual Chuck E band only has four or five). The designs are pretty good and in line with the things they're spoofing, but they don't DO much. Their faces have some expression, but their body movements are just as limited as their normal robotic counterparts, which is perhaps part of the joke but never comes off as particularly funny. Worse, it reduces how threatening they can be while also leaving you, the viewer, wondering how it is they've managed to do this for so long and even start to wipe out the town at one point. Once again, this thing that has been happening for years is finally stopped because someone knocked them over and punched them a few times? No one ever tried that? Or did it just need someone as badass as Nic Cage to do it, an idea that would work if he was doing anything more interesting than... knocking them over and punching them a few times. If it's supposed to be part of the joke, why isn't it funnier?

As for the teens, they're, you know, whatever. Each are given one trait and you can probably guess the order in which they'll be killed. And apart from the lead one (Emily Tosta) they rarely interact with Cage, so most of their scenes just feel like the result of someone realizing that their jokey premise could barely sustain a short film, let alone a feature, and added them in at the last minute. It also sadly wastes Beth Grant as the town sheriff (and Tosta's adoptive mother), who allows all this to happen even though it seems pretty easy to stop it since (spoiler) the climax makes no suggestion that Cage's actions had no effect and some supernatural force would keep them coming back again and again. So why did she do it? She even stops Tosta from blowing the place up early on, suggesting a "it's not that simple" type reveal later that never comes.

And the kicker? I could have forgiven so much of this if not for the presence of one of its producers: Grant Cramer. If that name sounds familiar, it's because he played Mike Tobacco in Killer Klowns From Outer Space, a film with a similarly silly concept that works infinitely better. That film found a way to balance the campy ideas with some genuine menace, and after seeing his name among the 45 other producers (including Cage himself) at the top of the film I couldn't help but feel disappointed that they had a bonafide veteran of this sort of thing right there and still kept fumbling. Again, I wasn't expecting a great movie, but I also wasn't expecting them to coast on the elevator pitch and nothing else. Even with a concept as silly as this, you gotta try, and I just wasn't seeing that effort.

What say you?


The House of Usher (1989)

FEBRUARY 28, 2021


I've seen a few adaptations of Poe's The House Of Usher, and the fun thing about all of them is that they're all different, for better or worse. And furthermore, all of them take liberties with the original story; the closest adaptation has been the Corman/Price one because it at least retained all of the characters, even if it changed their dynamic around. This one basically only keeps Rodrick Usher, the character Price played in that earlier (and best) version and is portrayed by Oliver Reed here. His character more or less remains intact to the one you'd know (mysterious ailments, lives in a crumbling house, etc) but everything else about it is so different it almost doesn't even register as an adaptation.

For starters, there's no Madeline here, or any other sister. Instead, Rodrick has a brother named Walter, and he is played by Donald Pleasence, so you get two legandary English drunks for the price of one. In fact it was one of two reasons I was excited when I saw the film was coming out from Vinegar Syndrome, because I had never seen the two together on screen and figured their scenes - whether they were partners or enemies in whatever madness the plot required - would be a hoot. Sadly, Pleasence doesn't appear until the 50 minute mark, and it's only in the last twenty minutes that he features prominently, so his interactions with Reed are pretty brief. It's a delight when it happens though, so it's kind of like Heat in that you might be drawn in by the "two legends together!" appeal but thankfully can find lots to like elsewhere since their time together is so short.

The other draw was because I thought it might be the movie I started watching as a kid because "Loomis was in it", only to be completely baffled and not finish it. I can't recall the title, but it was from around this time; Pleasence made a lot of junk in the late 80s/early 90s so it's not easy to narrow down from his filmography. Though now that I know it's not this, Buried Alive is my main suspect, so I'll pencil that one in and just appreciate that I wasn't confused by this one until the very end, when (spoiler for 32 year old movie ahead) there's a suggestion that the whole thing was a premonition from the main character. Unusual for a VS release, there's no commentary track to discuss it (either from someone who worked on it or some historians), but it's a shame that it has to end on such a weak moment.

Because otherwise, it's actually pretty good! Director Alan Birkinshaw was also responsible for Killer's Moon and even co-wrote some of Don't Open Til Christmas, so I was expecting some sleaze and some total nonsense, and I was not let down. Nor was I ultimately left overwhelmed by it; there's *just* the right amount of said elements, opting for a more slow burn kind of pacing until Pleasence enters the story and things get more murder-y. Our hero is Molly (Romy Windsor, who had a bit part in Face/Off and is therefore royalty), who is enjoying a vacation with her fiance Ryan when he is summoned to the house of his uncle Rodrick. Along the way they get into a car accident near the house (of Usher), leaving Molly relatively unharmed but Ryan in critical condition. Or at least, so Rodrick says. He, along with his creepy butler Clive, don't let her see him in the hospital or leave the house at all, so it only takes about eleven seconds for her to get that classic "something's not RIGHT" suspicion that has driven half of the horror movies ever made.

Though I doubt she ever could have guessed what was happening: her would-be uncle arranged to have his nephew killed so he could take her for himself, planning to plant his seed and continue the Usher bloodline. This is another change from the material, where ENDING the bloodline is Rodrick's usual motive; instead, those duties are assigned to Walter, but he's so crazy and murderous that any nobility of his mission is hidden deep within Pleasence's dialed up to 11 performance. He made this around the same time as Halloween 5, and he comes off the same as he did there (far and away Loomis' most insane appearance) as he wipes out the butler's family and then sets his sights on his brother and Molly, often using this little contraption he has strapped to his arm that looks like a cross between a handheld sewing machine and a bootleg of Freddy's glove.

So it's a movie about a woman who is trapped with one guy who wants to rape her and another who wants to kill her, and it's a shame Pleasence wasn't introduced earlier so she could make efforts to play them off each other while planning her escape, since both mean her harm but also occasionally (inadvertently) are in a position to protect her from the other. As a result it gets a little repetitive in the middle, focused mostly on her half-hearted escape attempts (most of which just involved asking any other party - the butler's wife, a random doctor, etc - to help her leave). Unless their schedules only allowed for a few days of filming (again, a commentary really could have helped here!), I have to assume Michael J. Murray wrote the script assuming two less interesting actors would be hired to play Rodrick and Walter and never bothered to update it to take advantage of these two titans of scenery chewing. I mean, this is a movie about a house that is falling apart - they could LITERALLY devour the sets if they wanted!

Long story short, Poe fans will probably be aghast (the "fall" of the House elements are limited to a few moments), but fans of the two actors are given just enough to enjoy here, and I was charmed by the low-key "erotic thriller" approach to the material. And by "erotic" I mean there's a wedding scene where Reed smashes the cake in his bride's face and then shoved his tongue in her mouth, licks some of the cake out/off, and eats it himself. If that isn't #cinema I don't know is. An interview with Birkinshaw (the disc's lone extra, though the package comes with a foldout poster) doesn't shed too much light on the proceedings, but he does admit that he rewatched the movie as prep for the interview and found it to be better than he remembered. He's right! It's pretty good!

What say you? P.S. This German trailer was the only one I could find, which perhaps explains why the Blu doesn't have a trailer. Maybe they never made one for the US? Also, it's part of Vinegar Syndrom's "Archive" line, and very limited, so the only way to get it is from their site. You can find it HERE.


Centigrade (2020)

FEBRUARY 26, 2021


My heart sunk when Centigrade began and it showed our two protagonists already trapped in their car (that's the one line plot of the movie, for those unaware), because I feared the never-welcome "12 hours earlier" text would come along any second to show how they ended up in that predicament. But thankfully, that moment never came! Writer/director Brendan Walsh instead opts for the lesser of two evils: characters telling each other what they already know in order to convey information to the audience, and in turn he is able to keep the film confined to the car and his cast confined to just the people in the car - no flashbacks, no third party appearing as a would-be savior when we know damn well they won't be rescued halfway through the movie, no nothing. Even Buried had a bigger cast list.

So how DOES our hero couple end up trapped in their own car? Turns out they were driving back to their hotel and got tired, so they pulled over to rest, underestimating both how long they would sleep and also how brutal the storm was/would get. It takes place in Norway, so maybe this is just how it is there, but the scenario doesn't quite make sense as they seem to be in the total middle of nowhere despite returning to their hotel from a book signing - wouldn't these things be relatively close together? Or at least within a fully developed part of the country? Since they are trapped in the car (the ice/snow has frozen the doors/window and also covered it up) it seems setting it super far from anywhere was just kind of overkill - the plot would work even if they were just in a parking lot of an abandoned gas station or something.

But those shots showing how covered their car is/how far they are from civilization are among the only shots in the film that are set outside the car; without spoiling any particulars, there is less than five minutes in the 90 minute movie where the camera isn't inside the six-seater SUV (or similar; I'm not a car guy) with our two heroes. The leads are Naomi (Genesis Rodriguez) and Matt (Vincent Piazza) and I truly hope they liked each other in real life, because their characters are at odds from earlier events and - unless the film employs the most convincing split screen technology in history - are stuck together for just about every frame of the film, as where can they really go? Even when the focus is on one character, you can usually see the other behind them. If the two actors couldn't stand being near each other, this must have been the least pleasant shoot in history.

Naturally there's an even bigger complication: Naomi is pregnant and just about to pop, and if you don't think she will actually have to have the baby inside a frozen car with no medical supplies, you haven't seen a movie before. Amusingly enough, Rodriguez is an old hand at this; she was the mom in Hours, which was one of Paul Walker's last movies and also involved her character having to give birth while also battling the elements (Hurricane Katrina, in that one). I hope she does another one during an earthquake or something so we can have a makeshift trilogy. But if you've seen Hours I want to assure you that's where the similarities end; Ms. Rodriguez is around for much longer in this one, and gets to deal with the ickiest use of placenta since the song "Lightning Crashes".

Unlike most movies of this type, there's a built in excuse to stretch it out for several days (weeks, in fact), as they're eventually able to open the window a crack and get some water, and since they're on vacation of sort (she's an author doing a book tour) they have extra clothes to bundle up. Frozen is one of the gold standards for this kind of movie in my opinion, but with that one there was a five day timer (when the ski lift reopened) that the characters simply couldn't wait out due to not having access to any water or lengthy protection from the elements. Here, with an unlimited water supply and ironic insulation from the ice that's keeping them stuck (it's called "The Igloo Effect"), Walsh is able to keep them in there for nearly a month without it being too ridiculous (it's supposedly based on a true story, but as is often the case that should be translated as "We got the idea from a few news stories about people who were in a very minor version of this situation"). Hell, in 2012 a man survived twice as long, so implausible as it might seem when "Day 24" appears on screen, you can't say it's impossible, and the lack of a definitive "this is when we will die" mark keeps the tension high.

This situation also keeps armchair quarterbacks from having too many opportunities to scoff and say "I'd just do this". They don't have any tools (the headrest for one of the seats is their closest thing to a "shovel"), and the risk of smashing a window that's butted with who knows how much heavy snow/ice on the other side has them wisely opting to play it safer and just try to dig a hole through the open part of the window, because if they just smash it and still can't get through they've also lost part of their insulation. In many of these real life situations, it's the people who basically did nothing that survived, so each sort of "OK, I'm going to get us out of this!" type of move is foolish.

It also helps that the characters, while not in perfect harmony, aren't insufferable either. Their occasional spats are mostly out of panic and frustration as opposed to their deep-seeded problems; their biggest blowout is probably in the first scene when they first wake up and realize that they're stuck. The most unlikable character is probably the damn baby, who (naturally) cries a lot, increasing their frustration while also reminding parents of how miserable they were when their own newborn arrived. Anytime you feel your little one has grown up too fast, this would make an excellent movie to remind you that no, them being able to talk and sleep through the night and feed themselves is a wonderful thing.

Like all films of this type, you'll probably never want to watch it a second time, and IFC/Shout hasn't bothered to make it any more enticing to buy as the disc has no extras beyond the trailer (it also has a descriptive audio track, which is nice to see and hopefully becomes a standard), but it's certainly worth a rental if you enjoy such films. I recently watched another one called Breaking Surface, about two women who go scuba diving and one of them gets trapped by a rockslide, and while it had its share of nail-biter moments it also kept deflating the tension since the one who wasn't trapped kept leaving to go get air, tools, etc, which made it more of a routine ticking clock rescue movie, focusing on things like "She can't find the key to the trunk" instead of her sister, stuck under a rock with dwindling air supply. The best of these types stick with the situation you at home will hopefully never be able to identify with in the slightest, and in that regard Centigrade hits all its marks with the added bonus of being impressively boxed in from the production side of things (which makes a lack of a commentary or making of fairly disappointing). And it reaffirmed that I never ever want to drive in snowy conditions again, so: win win!

What say you?


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