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by Nikki Tranter

28 Oct 2007

Five years ago, there I was, sitting alone, away from the crowds, hating The Lovely Bones all by my lonesome. I hated that book so much, I threw it away upon completion. My contention was that Alice Sebold had transplanted Ghost into a poorly-written, horribly sugary teen drama where life (and death) is just heavenly. Her notions of family and pain, especially of the magnitude hinted at in the book, were nothing short of pedestrian – naïve, even. Every word of the thing made me cringe – was I reading the latest literary bestseller full of grand themes and poetic sentences, or a hunk of godawful trash slapped together by someone trying to rip off R.L. Stine?

I was then and remain still flabbergasted at the worldwide response to the book as some kind of gift from above. Every somewhat competent book-judge from Oprah to Michiko caught the Lovely Bones disease—sugar-shock, probably – and the few of us who doubted Sebold’s ability were slammed for so many things, among them sympathising with rapists (I kid you not). I’m sure I wasn’t the only one with a distaste for Bones, but damn if it didn’t seem like Sebold’s fans all chose me to rant at. Never have I received so much feedback on any single book review. Although, I guess they’re right—I should have used a **spoiler** warning. Sorry.

Still, vindication has come at last! My mum rang me this morning to read the Age review of Sebold’s new novel, The Almost Moon, published in the Saturday culture lift-out: “The Almost Moon is easily the worst second novel to follow a good first novel that I’ve read,” writes Michelle Griffin. “It’s almost baffling in its willful embrace of bad choices.” Ooh, wow.

Michelle is not alone. From USA Today to the Guardian and back around to the New York Times Sunday Book Review, most everyone is wondering what the hell happened to their favorite first-time novelist. And they’re doing it with vitriol. Lee Siegel at the Times musters up more grit than Griffin: “This novel is so morally, emotionally and intellectually incoherent that it’s bound to become a best seller.” And this, which I might just print out and peg to the wall:

Even the schlockiest popular novels of yore—By Love Possessed, Marjorie Morningstar, The Chosen—had accurate, if mundane, social and psychological perceptions. Danielle Steel has that. You and I have that! It’s beyond comprehension that Sebold can publish a novel pretending to reflect reality that’s so severed from reality.

Much the same could be said about The Lovely Bones. Man, what was it about that damn book that had the world so transfixed?

Anyway – time has revealed all, and Sebold appears to have much work to do to grab back her place in the book world as a name to watch. Meanwhile, can I say I told you so?

 

by Bill Gibron

27 Oct 2007

Ask any writer and they will tell you – titles are perhaps the most difficult part of the literary process. A great moniker can really accent the themes and subtext of what you’ve created, while a bad one belittles everything you’ve tried to accomplish. It’s the same in cinema. A great marquee tag like A Nightmare on Elm Street, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre can completely enliven an audience’s interest, while full blown fumbles like Strip Nude for Your Killer evoke nothing but guffaws.  Cannibal Man is a perfect example of the mishandled name dynamic. Upon first glance, one would expect a standard bloodbath, main character lunching on human flesh as part of a pathological pastime. In truth, this is a subtle, slightly unhinged character study focusing on a lonely individual who uses murder, and the subsequent disposal of his victims, as a way of dealing with his disenfranchised lot in life.

You see, by day, Marcos is a butcher at the local slaughterhouse. The random killing of animals and the making of the company’s signature soup (in a large mechanical extruding device) doesn’t bother him. But living in a hovel in the shadow of some luxury apartments drives him crazy. He hates being poor, seeing it as the reason he can’t get ahead in life. It also keeps his possible paramour – Carmen – at arm length. When an argument with a taxi driver turns fatal, the resulting death has Marcos starting to slowly unravel. Before long, he is killing his friends and family and hiding the bodies in his bedroom. Then, late at night, he cuts up the corpses and transports pieces to his job. There, they find their way into the offal that makes up the patented processed broths. As he further loses his grip on reality, a fey neighbor named Nestor befriends Marcos. Together, they enjoy late night swims and intimate company. But our murderer is incredibly paranoid, and with his new pal’s apartment overlooking his home, there may be more to the companionship than mere camaraderie.

A couple of decades ahead of its time, and so era inappropriate that it threatens to logistically implode, Cannibal Man is not the movie you think it is. It has more in common with foreign fright epics like Nekromantik and Dellamorte Dellamore than your typical early ‘70s horror. Like most of the movies coming out of Franco’s Spain, this is an anti-fascist screed masquerading as macabre. The main theme of the movie is not flesh feasting. In fact, the cannibalism is implied and never actually shown. Instead, what director Eloy de la Iglesia wants to focus on is the rising gulf between the classes. On the one hand, you have Marcos. Living in a rundown hacienda and existing hand to mouth, he’s barely managing. While he puts on a good façade, poverty is destroying him from the inside. It makes him angry and defensive. On the other end of the spectrum is Nestor. The spoiled son of wealthy parents, he spends the summer spying on the locals from his luxury apartment balcony. There is more to his voyeurism than mere curiosity. As a repressed homosexual who can’t express his feelings, he uses his position as a means of endearing himself to men.

That their conflict and collusion comes late in the film highlights Cannibal Man’s multifaceted approach. At the beginning, we get actual animal slaughter (never a good thing), the bled cows symbolizing Spain’s gutting of its people. The argument that leads Marcos to his first murder is based solely in morality, the cabbie unwilling to let our hero and his honey make out in the back of his hack. In fact, all the crimes here are based in inherent social unease. Carmen can’t be with Marcos because of her father’s overbearing paternalism, while his brother’s lack of familial cooperation leads to his demise. Eventually, our antsy antihero stops killing, and it’s at this point where Cannibal Man goes a bit wonky. There are some incredibly evocative moments, as when we see the silhouette of our lead butchering his victims. But there are also sequences of forced lunacy, as when a rotund, effeminate drug store owner coos and minces over Marcos’ purchase of air freshener and perfume.

In fact, it’s fairly obvious that de la Iglesia was far more interested in the suppression of same sex sentiments than playing with fear. Before he befriends Marcos, Nestor is shown staring, longingly, at shirtless boys playing soccer. When he speaks, it’s in a soft whisper that seems to imply something sinister, or sad. Whenever he runs into his neighbor, the tension is so thick it practically stifles them both, and a late night swim at a local spa is all wet torsos and longing looks. As if to amplify this undercurrent, Marcos has several quiet moments where he flashes back to his night with Nestor. When the two get together at the end, playing possum while avoiding the obvious attraction, it’s meant as a instance of solidarity. For 1972 Spain, this was all subversion as high treason. Perhaps the random murders were necessary to remove the stigma of social commentary from the film. After all, had Cannibal Man been categorized as something other than scary, the government would have stepped in and shut it down.

Yet because of the title, and the concept of human flesh eating, many will come to this film expecting nonstop hack and slash. And while we get a gruesome collection of kills (including a nasty axe to the face that predates such F/X prosthetics by at least a decade) and a Sweeney Todd style manner of disposal, there is very little dread in Cannibal Man. Instead, it is more of a psychological study with political subtexts than a full blown fright flick. De la Iglesia really pours on the proposed suspense, constantly hinting that Marcos will eventually be found out. But some of his stunts are far too obvious. Dogs are seen sniffing around his front door, and coworkers play a game of ‘keep away’ with a gym bag loaded with body parts. Much better are the times when local barmaid Rosa constantly thrusts herself into Marcos’ life. All she wants is physical companionship. But we know loverboy’s bombshell secret, so their sexual back and forth really gets the anxiety flowing. While the last act ennui faced by our lead can feel overwhelming, dragging everything down with it, this is still a very inventive and intriguing film.

Like Delicatessen without Caro and Jeunet’s flair for the visual, or Tobe Hooper taken Continental, there is much more to Cannibal Man than death, dismemberment, and digestion. As a matter of fact, once you realize that this isn’t going to be your typical fright flick, the political and cultural agendas become painfully obvious. This makes Eloy de la Iglesia a very interesting filmmaker, one not afraid to mix genre, metaphors, and meaning to get to the heart of his obsessions. Those looking for a grue-laden, lunch loosening exercise in nausea will be sadly disappointed. Others who don’t mind a little message with their menace will find Cannibal Man a refreshing forgotten gem. It’s very good, in a very odd and insular way. It’s just too bad about that title, though.

by Bill Gibron

27 Oct 2007

When DVD began delivering exiled entertainment from the vaults of heretofore uninterested distributors, several forgotten names in the annals of exploitation prospered. Such noted grindhousers as Herschell Gordon Lewis, David F. Friedman, Andy Milligan, Radley Metzger and Joe Sarno saw their names go from footnotes to forefathers, especially in the minds of the uninitiated and the aesthetically open minded. Yet no name has become more shockingly celebrated than Jesus “Jess” Franco. The mad monk of the foreign quickie has a creative canon that’s as large – and as loopy - as the list of pseudonyms he’s used over the years. And now thanks to the new digital medium, he’s being distinguished as a groundbreaker. Sadly, he’s nothing but a soul stealer, if wretched works like Cannibals is any indication of his overall output.

Our silly story begins when Jeremy Taylor travels to the Amazon on a vague expedition. One night, his boat is seized by local cannibals. They kill the captain, eat Taylor’s wife, and kidnap his young daughter. Barely making it out alive (they cut off his arm as a souvenir), Taylor returns to New York and rapidly ages. About ten years go by, and our hero is still hankering for his offspring. He contacts a rich witch and her old man boyfriend, hoping she will fund a return trip. Through factual flip flops too pointless to mention, an entire party of possible entrees heads out into the bush. There, they discover that little Lana has grown up to become the White Goddess, topless Queen of the legendary long pig lovers. She’s also in love with the equally Caucasian chief’s son (no explanation for his WASPishness). A few people die. Some organs are consumed. Dad kicks his daughter’s boyfriend’s butt. Former human eating gal goes back to civilization where she belongs. The end.

So repetitive it feels like a rap hook and lacking anything remotely resembling the greatness of goona-goona movies past, Cannibals (original title: Mondo Cannibale) is Franco’s unflattering response to such brilliant jungle atrocities as Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox. As part of the new DVD release from Blue Underground, the director admits that this entire enterprise is nothing more than a reaction to the “repugnant” kind of taboo-busting title that made the subgenre famous. But instead of delivering something novel, Franco just farts around. Substituting cultural shortcuts and pasty faced hippies for actual native flesh fiends, and the standard softcore paradigm that has come to cloud all his films, this is skin snacking for dullards. We are never once scared by the boring travelogue feel of the film, and once mouths start munching on people, it’s all slow motion sickness and fake red rummaging.

The story also makes no sense. When we first meet Taylor (essayed by Italian horror staple Al Cliver) he goes on a long jag about how dangerous this part of the world is. He warns of marauding bands of baddies, and their proclivity towards people pâté. Within seconds, his shrewish wife shows up, and our hero explains her presence this way – “she wouldn’t take ‘NO’ for an answer”. Hey buddy – next time try using the facts of ancient headhunter practices on the little lady. Maybe that will dissuade her from using the South American jungles as a family outing. Then, after the Missus is munched on and Lana is lost, it takes Taylor several years before he can get funding to make a return expedition. Apparently, back in the early ‘80s, little girls grabbed by local tribesmen didn’t warrant a rescue mission. Even when he’s begging for help, rich folks scoff at him for such parental overreacting. Right.

When we move into the humid tropical rain forest setting, Franco’s failings as a filmmaker become even more apparent. We get endless scenes of hiking, monotonous dialogue involving “man, is it hot” declarations, and the single whiniest woman to ever trudge through the underbrush. She gives spoiled rotten divas a permanent black eye. Luckily, she doesn’t last long, and this allows Franco to revisit the same cannibalism footage he provided the first few times. While fairly gory, there is no menace to this mastication. The clown-faced fiends eat. People scream, then they die. Ta-da! It results in the kind of mindless moviemaking that makes the rest of the narrative pointless. We don’t care who lives or who dies. We aren’t interesting if Taylor saves his daughter. The last act fisticuffs are laughable, and the lack of anything remotely interesting renders any entertainment value inert. Sadly, it’s a similar sentiment that one can express about any Franco film.

Indeed, the man’s biggest crime is how horribly hackneyed everything he attempts turns out. Instead of hiring extras who resemble South American inhabitants, he finds a bunch of Woodstock rejects, smears on the grease paints, and let’s them boogie like Canned Heat has taken the main stage. When our natives break out the weaponry and start attacking, the arsenal appears forged out of random sticks and tree bark (bent shapes and ancillary twigs left intact), and while our heroes carry guns, they can’t be bothered to actually fire them. Franco is so disturbingly cheap that he can’t even come up with realistic local color. He believes, quite incorrectly, that filming in areas with lots of trees, and tossing in occasional shots of monkeys and alligators will render his backdrop believable. All it does is make us wonder why we never see these wildlife elements at any other time in the film – even when a character dies in a (supposedly) reptile infested swamp.

While diehard Franco-philes probably have a creative response to every one of the flaws mentioned before, only the certifiably insane would find Cannibals recommendable. Clearly the Big Blue U didn’t think it worthy of a full blown special edition. Aside from the director defending himself, the only other bonus feature is a goofy French trailer (stuff ported over from when Anchor Bay owned the rights). It’s not any more mindnumbing than the movie proper. DVD can be commended for a lot of things. But if there is one byproduct that they’re required to take to their eventual format change grave, it’s resurrecting the career of this cinematic incompetent. Jess Franco is, perhaps the worst moviemaking of all time. Uwe Boll and Ed Wood can rest now.

by tjmHolden

27 Oct 2007

Although they are not fully under control, the wildfires are becoming more manageable. This has allowed more and more residents in these here parts to return to the natural rhythm of things. And, being late October, this means metric measures like this:


That’s right. ‘Tis the season. For all kids—good and less than—time to go a-haunting.

In preparation for this annual rite, to try to peer inside and fathom the thing that is All Hallow’s Eve, I took a neighborhood stroll. It being years since I’ve partaken of the American version of this event—the one where “the invisible veil that separates this world from the realm of the dead supposedly (becomes) permeable,” where we seek to guide the wandering dead through the shadows, and steer them to a place of mental and spiritual rest. And here is what I found . . .

I wonder if this looks anything like the haunted bogs and balconies and ballastrades around you, wherever that may be.

by Bill Gibron

27 Oct 2007

While it’s unfair to over-generalize them so, the Italians were once the kings of copycat genre films. From the Exorcist inspired Beyond the Door to the Zombi 2/Zombie/Dawn of the Dead entanglement, the routine ripping off of Hollywood horror was, at one time, the foreign fright flick’s sole reputation. Thankfully, home video came along and opened up the doors of motion picture perception. Soon, for every example of blatant bootlegging, we got dozens of delirious, original efforts. This doesn’t mean that the tendency toward mimicry totally left the industry. In fact, filmmakers like Lucio Fulci still traded on previously delivered dread to make their movies. A perfect example of this is 1987’s Ænigma. Nothing more than a 90 minute combination of better scare subject matter, there is still no denying this perplexing paisan’s way with a camera. As an artist, Fulci is admirable. As a macabre maestro, he’s downright aggravating.

Poor unattractive Kathy – she’s the butt of every cruel joke at the exclusive St. Mary’s College. When the in-crowd gets together and hooks her up with the resident lothario – muscled gym teacher Fred – it seems like the answer to her prayers. Of course, the whole date is nothing but a cruel joke, and the resulting embarrassment sends Kathy into a hasty retreat…and her personal collision with an oncoming car bumper. One coma later, and the school is back to snickering over the stunt. As she lies dying, Kathy prays to live on, and sure enough, her ‘spirit’ possesses the college’s new girl, a sly slut named Eva. The offspring of wealth and snobbery, the newbie is out to have any hunk she can manhandle. Yet, all of a sudden, wherever Eva goes, death follows. Students and faculty systematically suffer fatal accidents or previously unknown terminal physical conditions. Of course, it’s just Kathy, with the help of her slow-witted yet sinister mother. They’re getting revenge for the child’s persistent vegetative state. A middle aged sleazebag neurologist may be the only one able to stop the slaughter – that is, when he’s not scoping on the student body.

If you took the concept of Carrie, married it to the circumstances of Patrick, ladled in copious amounts of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, and seasoned it all with a generous helping of fake Euro-trashing of iconic American locales (in this case, a badly rendered Boston), you’d have Ænigma in a nutty, infectious shell. Burdened by many of the subpar cinematic facets (lame scripts, bad cinematography, budgetary restraints) that came to exemplify his last years as a director, this plagiaristic potboiler is comatose nerd revenge at its most arcane. The aforementioned list of narrative references is really unfair to what Fulci creates here. While it’s true that he borrows liberally from the premises that preceded this descent into girl’s school schlock, his unique take on the material, filled with inappropriate doctor/patient canoodling, a green ghoul zombified heroine, and ultra-sloppy dubbing, remains an intriguing failure. We hope the man notorious for pushing lumber through ladies’ eyes, drilling holes through heads, and having the undead routinely show up in places they’re not welcome will continue his exploratory entertainment surgery. What we wind up with instead is peer pressure as paranormal surreality.

Let’s face it – you have to love a movie that has a character named Crazy Retard Mary as a major plot point. As the brain-addled maid for the snooty St. Mary’s College in Sicily…sorry, Massachusetts, this disheveled woman is picked on, scandalized, and metaphysically brow beaten. Seems anything that goes wrong in the institution – rooms are messy, grades are low, random undergrads are turning up dead – Crazy Retard Mary is to blame. It’s not grand enough that she is constantly referred to in such a non-PC manner, the prissy witches walking around campus treat her torment as a birthright. Fulci really does go overboard with the ‘cash equals cruelty’ routine (no matter how true it may be). From the opening prank that sets up the story to the last act showdown between our psycho student and her former roommate, Ænigma can best be described as trust fund tramps gone gonzo. Unlike fellow Mediterranean filmmaker Argento, who used the privileged skirts at his upper crust dance academy as mere murder fodder, Fulci clearly identifies with gender equity bullying.

Those looking for the director’s standard blood bathing will be highly disappointed, however. Aside from a headless torso that apparently turns up in every room in the dorm, and a cartoonish scar worn by the unconscious Cathy, the rest of the film is unfathomably clotless. In its place are deaths so deranged that only a master of mass murder could consider them clever. A beefy gym teacher is strangled by his mirror reflection while another student is smothered by…snails. That’s right, slimy, slow moving snails (and, naturally, our victim fails to struggle throughout the entire escargot ordeal). In other instances, a baroque painting comes to life before a marble statue slams a gal, while another takes a swan dive out of her third story dorm room window. Perhaps the best bit of supposedly scary nonsense has our possessed babe Eva beating her roommate with a yellow jacket. After trashing her closet, she grabs the coat and starts flailing. It’s like a male fantasy pillow fight without the jiggle jollies. Between this slicker slasher sequence, and the hilariously bad miniature work used to show Kathy’s spirit “floating” above her school, Ænigma is a glorious goof. 

Perhaps the most perplexing element of this film is its last act decision to drop the paranormal and go with perversion. American actor Jared Martin, who was 44 when the movie was made, is seen making out and fornicating with gals over half his age (this is college, so we’re dealing with 18 to 22 year olds here). There is a weird vibe of inappropriateness generated throughout his scenes. Even the movie references it a couple of times, which is oddly self-referential for a story selling sex and violence. Granted, his costars aren’t exactly jailbait in the looks department, but the notion of much older men manipulating younger women does come across as incredibly sleazy. Without the typical grue, minus the man’s ocular fixation and way with supernatural showboating, Ænigma feels like second tier Fulci. It is indeed indicative of much of the man’s latter career. Unlike other filmmakers of his ilk who seemed capable of generating nothing but novelty throughout their life, the patron of pus was a journeyman first, an auteur a decided second. Ænigma is actually pretty effective in a few instances. Sadly, it’s completely laughable most of the time.

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