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Sunday, Oct 28, 2007


They’re the go-to ghouls when things get dicey, a bit of splatter spice when dialogue and characterization can’t save you. From their initial start as nothing more than a novelty – an unruly urban legend suggesting slaves and other island immigrants – to their present status as scary movie saviors, the zombie has become a main member of the macabre in-crowd. In fact, when placed alongside vampires, werewolves, and serial killers, they become the Fourth Horseman of the cinematic apocalypse. While historians can argue over when and where the undead made their first onscreen appearance, it’s clear that a plainspoken Pittsburgh advertising man made these monsters mainstream. When George Romero released Night of the Living Dead on an ill—prepared public back in 1968, he ushered in the first phase of the post-modern horror film. And we’ve been jonesing on these resplendent rotting corpses ever since.


So why do we love zombies so? Does it have something to do with how they quench our instinctual and omnipresent bloodlust, or is there something deeper to our dedication? One thing is definitely clear – the notion of human as evil is not new. Aside from extraterrestrials and otherworldly demons, most craven creatures are born of man. The vampire is a person poisoned by the need for blood, a werewolf the hapless victim of a passed along curse. Frankenstein was forged out of corpses, and ghosts are the spiritual remnants of individuals unstuck between dimensions. So turning the recognizable homosapien into a horror show is not such a stretch. Even the cannibalism angle derives directly from jungle legend and legitimate archeology. In fact, in the world of horror, the undead are perhaps the most logistically recognizable (if rotting) entities ever.



Similar to when the slasher barnstormed the genre, turning dreadfulness into a man next door dynamic, it’s the possibility of occurrence that could explain the zombie’s appeal. After decades of radioactive beasties and world war atrocities, the notion that people are one infected step away from being pusillanimous killers has a special, intrinsic truth. It’s the same with mass murders and our newfangled Dr. Lecters. The general perception has shifted from human’s being generally good to powderkegs waiting for the right psychological spark to set them off. While we might not initially imagine our friends feasting on our flesh, we can readily visualize them stabbing us in the back for a promotion, a prom date, or a piece of property. Call in cynical or paranoid, but we now think the worst of civilization first.


This could clarify the undead’s appeal. They reflect our inner beliefs, our need to know just how cruel the koffee klatch or the Glee Club really is. We take our own inherent fear, give it a decomposing façade, and night terror the world into a wicked, hideous mankind eat mankind paradigm. And when done well – as in the films of Romero, Danny Boyle’s brilliant 28 Days Later, or Zach Synder’s purely pathological Dawn of the Dead remake – we feel our apprehensions being supported and assuaged. A zombie film confirms our already razor sharp sense of suspicion, acknowledging that parents should loathe their offspring, friends fear their associates, and strangers believe that everyone is out to get them. And the solution couldn’t be simpler – a well placed bullet/implement to the head.



The ease of disposal is also part of the living dead’s allure. In the case of classic monsters, there is very little control. Dracula and the Wolfman require such a depth of knowledge, rituals and remedies and how to apply them, that their victims usually crumble from a lack of proper preparation more than anything else. In the case of the slasher, a supernatural aspect has been woven into their fatalistic fabric. When you kill the boogeyman, he’s not necessarily dead. Driven by his paranormal desire to destroy, his body is an immortal temple of terror. But zombies are different. Granted, a single bite and you’re screwed. But if you have the nerve, and the dexterity (fast running versions of the villains notwithstanding), you can utilize what’s around to stay alive.


It’s the foundation for the fanboy argument over slow vs. speedy corpses. In these post-millennial days, where everyone wants their needs satiated immediately, if not anticipated beforehand and remedied in advance, the concept of killers that can literally give you a run for your money may seem quite contemporary. But when viewed in hindsight, the articulated cannibal is not very frightening. Oh sure, their initial threat is as shocking as it is overwhelming. But with most of the human race as far from the President’s Physical Fitness regime as a McDonald’s drive-thru, the notion of outrunning your death appears impossible. While it surely fits our current omnipresent pessimistic nature, it’s a macabre facet that quickly exhausts all its steam. It also moves beyond our ‘there but for the grace go’ fear factor. When the monsters are more mobile than we are, the odds of survival - and the implied suspense - are reduced dramatically.



Maybe it’s the gore. After all, we are a populace of traffic accident voyeurs. We voluntarily risk our own vehicular health to see any and all automobile atrocities, and NASCAR’s enduring popularity is frequently attributed to the everpresent possibility of on the pavement carnage. As the 24 hour a day news cycle brings us desperate people using blood soaked violence as a way of solving their societal problems, we get daily doses of arterial spray. So imagine how successful a movie could be when it places such grue in a clever cinematic context. It’s the main selling point of most zombie movies, from Romero’s classics to the most minor homemade romp. In fact, when a living dead movie fails to deliver on the human juice dreck, the audience typically reacts in abject boredom.


It’s a vicious viscous cycle of course. Once Dawn of the Dead set the bloodletting benchmark, followers and copycats were compelled to increase the ick. Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 was another nasty noxious benchmark, toppled by Romero’s own Day of the Dead. When Synder’s remake extrapolated on the many ways to vivisect a corpse, Georgie upped the offal with his Land of the Dead. Of course, what many outside the auteur fail to realize is that redrum is only inviting when combined with a proper collection of cinematic mixers. There are dozens of wannabe fright masters who simply grab the Kayro syrup and start splattering. They could care less about directorial flair, artistic vision, or motion picture acumen. To them, a successful zombie film equals gallons of the grotesque, the legitimate language of the medium be damned.



While it’s true that gore can get you past an abundance of filmic faux paxes, it cannot solely sustain an audience’s interest. Peter Jackson’s nonstop vein volley Dead Alive would never have succeeded without the filmmaker’s frisky sense of humor. Sure, it’s as dark as the brain matter flowing from the heads of his characters, but it’s necessary ballast to maintain the movie’s meaning. Without it, you might as well be filming autopsies down at the local morgue. Violence, whether real or created in the mind of a special effect wizard, can only take a viewer so far. Blow off someone’s head, or slice off their sinew, and it’s initially horrific. But without a sense of perspective, it becomes a one time terror, not something that sinks beneath your quickly goose-bumped flesh.


No, context is necessary to sell your undead scares, and it’s this complementary commentary that really underscores the genre’s continuing success. Scholars have even argued that our love of the zombie is tied directly to the current state of social, political and/or world affairs. When George Romero created the modern mythos with Night of the Living Dead, he was sure to add a hot button subtext to the narrative. He made his main character, Ben, a black man. Not only was it unusual for an individual of color to be the cinematic hero, but in the surrounding situation where everyone else was white, his implied leadership was sly and subversive. It made the ending all the more poignant as well. Similarly, the sequel took the growing materialism and sense of institutional distrust and reflected it in the survivors’ sense of post-apocalyptic entitlement. Watching them defend their mall mentality, as well as the monsters intrinsic need to ‘shop’, made Dawn a devious delight.



While many argue that Romero dropped the ball with Day, the message got even meaner. Smack dab in the middle of Ronald Reagan’s second term, the jaded jingoism of the storyline, its battle between the military and the scientific for an already dead planet played out like a corrupt Cabinet meeting. Romero had originally hoped to create an all out action epic featuring zombie soldiers battling each other in a kind of unwinnable game of corpse-tac-toe. When he couldn’t afford the elaborate effects, he turned the people into pawns and made the monsters sympathetic. The final facet in his ongoing love affair with the undead – Land of the Dead – was another political paean. In this case, the rich got richer and the disenfranchised just rotted. Mirroring another unrealistic Republican administration, it stands as the filmmaker’s final social statement – for now.


Placing the zombie within a certain recognizable structure has been a long standing logistical strategy. Bob Clark’s Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things branded the counterculture, while Dellamorte Dellamore found Dario Argento apprentice Michele Soavi using the recently deceased as a reflection of Rupert Everett’s emotional detachment. On the other end of the spectrum, a director like Lucio Fulci uses his cannibalistic creatures as a geek show sentiment, to shock and sicken without much inferred meaning. It’s the way in which most underground and independent filmmakers treat the terror. It’s also the reason why most knock-off horror films fail to leave an impression. With perspective comes permanence. It’s what separates the Romeros from the retreads.



Still, all of these reasons don’t sufficiently explain our fascination with zombies. Some will argue the innate need for people to feel fear, the necessary valleys in the human’s emotional rollercoaster. Others will argue escape and leave it at that, feeling all film is nothing more than 90 minutes of vicarious entertainment experience. There’s always the “double dare” concept of facing your fears, walking directly into the gorge of blood drenched death and coming out the other end unscathed. And then there are those who merely love a good shiver now and then. Though the ease of realization can also play a part (Romero rendered his Dawn corpses with some green face paint – now that’s horrifying), there must be a single factor that endears us to the dead.


Maybe it’s the monster’s malleability, its ability to be anything to anyone at anytime. Vampires and poltergeists come with certain situational truths, be it nighttime only visitations or projections placed within the ethereal plain. In order to accept them as terrifying, we have to fall into their traditions and buy into their entire heritage. Not true with the undead. Aside from one or two simple rules, they remain transient, capable of taking on any form we feel is necessary. And they keep on coming – never giving up or lessening their resolve (quite a capitalist conceit, when you thing about it). In truth, we love zombies because they are flawless reflections of our own inner fears. No other creature can claim that mantle of meaning. Like their prehistoric need to feed, the undead are forever – and we will always celebrate them as such. When other monsters have lost their snap, the living dead will continue to haunt our darkest nightmares. And we can’t get enough.


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Saturday, Oct 27, 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.


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Saturday, Oct 27, 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.


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Saturday, Oct 27, 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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Friday, Oct 26, 2007

SAW IV (dir. Darren Lynn Bousman)


It’s interesting how the Saw series has progressed since James Wan and buddy Leigh Whannel came up with their punk rock homage to Alfred Hitchcock and ‘80s horror. While Part 2 was nothing more than a puzzle box of gore, Part 3 gave audiences (and fans in particular) a nice bit of closure to end things proper. So when Saw IV was announced (a more or less certainty since each installment more than makes its budget back), the question for those in the know was – where could the franchise possibly go? The main character is dead, several of his cohorts on both sides of the law have also kicked the proverbial bucket, and Whannel specifically fashioned the last installment to tie up as many loose threads as possible. So how does this latest sequel deal with such narrative roadblocks? By taking things sideways and backwards, to be exact, broadening the movie’s mythology while laying the foundation for all future films to come.


As the movie opens, Part III has just ended. Jigsaw is indeed dead, and during his autopsy, a tape is found in his stomach. It indicates that the games are not over – in fact, they have only just begun. Almost instantly we meet dedicated cops Rigg and Hoffman. Investigating the death of fellow officer Kerry, who met her end at the hand’s of a deadly rib spreading device, they recognize that Jigsaw must have had help with his crimes – and Amanda was too petite to do the job. This means another accomplish is out there. Obsessed with catching this self-proclaimed ‘scientific terrorist’, Riggs is soon embroiled in the madman’s latest complicated puzzle. Meanwhile, FBI agents Strahm and Perez are called in to oversea the case. Their focus is Jigsaw’s ex-wife, a drug clinic director named Jill. While she may not have information on the continuing crimes, she can definitely shed some light on what made this one time celebrated civil engineer into an unhinged man obsessed with death.


If the original Saw was the kernel of a potential terror universe, Saw IV is, by this time, a series of satellites and lesser celestial bodies bound together by some of the best bloodletting in modern macabre. Call this the “fill in the blank” film, a movie made to specifically address the minor issues still hanging from the previous three installments. While Wan and Whannell didn’t leave too much to work with, new screenwriters Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton (fresh from the Project Greenlight sleeper Feast) flesh out ancillary characters and simultaneous situations while going the prequel route to give returning actor Tobin Bell some intriguing origin scenes. Yes, Saw IV shows us how John Kramer cracked, and the reasoning is pretty intense. His goofy demonic doll is also explained, as is the pig mask and Jigsaw’s mechanical and monetary abilities. Without giving much away, he was a wealthy eccentric, obsessed with moral order and Eastern philosophy, who suffers such a devastating personal loss that he turns on a society he sees as not appreciating life. The devil, as usual, is in the details.


The secondary storyline brings back Swat team leader Rigg (a peripheral person whose been in the last two installments) as the latest catalyst in the main craven cat and mouse, and it’s a tad less successful. Like most of the movie, hints are dropped as to why this policeman is placed inside these brutal, efficient murder machinations, but the connections are cloudy and unclear this time around. In essence, obvious deviants and drug heads are presented to the peace officer in hopes that he will learn the “real” way of helping. Like Donnie Wahlberg’s Eric Matthews, it’s a lax lesson in patience and paying attention. Still, without these vile vignettes, we wouldn’t have many of the saga’s sensational splatter setpieces. It seems like, just when you thought the Saw gang had explored every possible way of folding, spindling, or mutilating the human body, the next sequel comes along and amplifies the sluice.


There is incredibly nauseating stuff here. Jigsaw’s autopsy is an over the top exercise in surgical swashbuckling, while the first few games are fantastically gruesome. Of particular note are moments as when our killer originates his automated tortures (it involves a dope fiend, a trick chair, and a spring loaded face gate made up of butcher knives – tasty!) and a couple connected by large rods penetrating both their bodies. It will be interesting to see how much more graphic the deaths will be come Unrated DVD time. As with the recent release of Saw III, director Darren Lynn Bousman always has some added atrocities up his sleeves. How the MPAA said “yea” to what’s already there is amazing in and of itself. It has to be noted that, unlike previous installments that he’s helmed, the filmmaker goes a little goofy here. Every game sequence is handled with shaky camera jerks and oddball editing beats. While it definitely gives this movie a different style, it can hinder some of the suspense.


In fact, Saw IV is much more of a police procedural whodunit than your typical slice and dice serial spree. The plot definitely wants to add further finishing moves on top of what Whannell did last time, and there are more clues and connections than in any edition since the first. This will definitely drive some audiences bonkers. The last thing you want from a horror film is a mandatory need for prior knowledge of personnel and context. This is not a sequel that can be enjoyed by people who’ve never seen the Saw films, and the casual viewer will definitely feel a sense of who/what/where/when/why whiplash. In fact, it’s pretty clear that this is a movie made exclusively for the obsessive and the fanatical. And let’s not forget the mandatory twist at the end. It’s the kind of reveal that takes a moment to sink in, one of those ‘hold on a minute’ instances that ask you to remember what you witnessed before and how it plays into the overall storyline. It’s not that the movie is complicated. Instead, it’s playing a trick on you, and some people don’t like being purposefully played with.


There are also some handy unanswered questions, issues left open and available for Saw V and VI (both already greenlit by Lionsgate). For example, someone gets puppet shrapnel in their face. They are not dead, though they are never addressed again. Someone with a connection to the crimes is given no explanation for their participation. During the first game, we see someone who is never properly introduced or explained, and several ancillary individuals are left stuck in the status quo, obviously positioned as pawns for placement later. Still, those smitten with this particularly potent scary movie monopoly will definitely enjoy Saw IV. It ranks third of the four movies made (Saw and Saw III besting it easily). By this point in the legend, we clearly know how Jigsaw works, what he hoped for with Amanda, and how his apprentice ended up violating his own rules for her own selfish gains. Where everything goes from here should be interesting – if not necessarily iconic. The original Saw series is officially DOA. Long live the new blood breed.



 


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