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Monday, Oct 29, 2007


By its very nature, the short film has a hard time lending itself to horror. While the simple shock, the gross out gag, and the briefest of interludes between the supernatural and cinema can all find a home within the truncated format, creating macabre in such a tight logistical span seems almost impossible. Dread relies on mood, atmosphere, premise, follow through and other nebulous elements to be effective, and getting all that across in seven to twenty minutes is tricky at best. Those who’ve managed such cinematic slight of hand deserve praise for cracking one of the artform’s most complicated puzzles, said success translating into an equally deserving example of the medium.


In 2003, Other Cinema, an independent DVD distributor, collected several fine examples of these horrific mini-movies, including corrupt classics by such insane savants as Damon Packard and J. X. Williams, and released them in compilation form. Experiments in Terror proved that, though minimal in running time, the short film could be massive on imagination and meaning. Four years later, the company is back with Experiments in Terror 2. Expanding the selections while bringing back frightmare favorites (Packard and Williams both have new offerings), the expanded technological options provided by the digital revolution argue for a renewed viability. But there are specific pieces picked from four decades before that illustrate the necessity for artistry first, artifice second.


Viewed in one huge 95 minute hunk, or screened separately, this is avant-garde fear at its most mesmerizing. For anyone sick and tired of sloppy slice and dice or visually muted ghost stories, these optical wonders, bursting with retrospective revisionism and meticulous montages, creates a compelling overview of what people find frightening. There are very few examples of standard narrative story structure here. In face, aside from Angel Nieves 2001 effort The Fear and Bill Morrison’s borrowed plotline from the 1927 film The Bells (for his 2003 work The Mesmerist), everything else here is handled in an evocative, suggestive manner. The aforementioned shorts are sensational, Fear playing like a perfectly formed summary of late ‘70s/early ‘80s moviemaking. Morrison’s found footage, combining decay and remastering to offer up a disturbing sense of psychological parallelism, is a wonder to behold.

Thematically, there is a constant sense of backwards glancing here, a look at how dread past remains resonant in contemporary terror. Between 2 Deaths (2006) offers an intriguing look at San Francisco locations used by Alfred Hitchcock for his masterwork Vertigo. Director Wago Krieder does his best to line up shots exactly as the Master of Suspense did, and his morphing back and forth between the modern material and the Jim Stewart/Kim Novack gem stands as a stunning archival stunt. Similarly, Amor Peligrosa takes the age old symbol of death – the skeleton – and turns it on its frisky, fornicating head. Michelle Silva’s silly sexual congress remains compelling, if only because it seems so metaphysically apropos.


But it’s the actual works from the 1960s that help us understand the post-modern movement in Experiments. Opus 5 (1961) is a celluloid collage, a collection of unsettling images – fire, lights, religious iconography – that suggests a primer from hence all horror has originated. Lloyd Williams’ skilled juxtapositions give the presentation a creepy, unearthly aura. Similarly J. X. Williams’ Psych-Burn (1968) is the love generation unhinged, a compelling cock-up between go-go dancers and gory backdrops that even finds a way to turn the psychedelic acid rock of the era on its head. As the imagery bombards us with its death and debauchery subtext, the music is mindlessly interrupted, classic fear beats and shrieks inserted to remind us of the yin yang nature of man.


Oddly enough, when modern filmmakers attempt the same thing, the results can be less than impressive. Usama Alshaibi’s equally scattered Hold My Scissors tries for the Hellspawn head trip, and yet can’t quite pull off the impressionistic hat trick. It comes off as minor Shakespearean – full of sound and fury, and signifying very little. Similarly, Clifton Childree and Nikki Rollason’s She Sank on Shallow Bank wants to recall the early shorts of David Lynch (an auteur who truly understood the format) with their monochrome meandering. But for every provocative moment – a woman suggestively drowning on a sound stage seashore set – we get ghostly shoes shuffling around a boat. If there is sense to be made of such accidental imagery, it gets lost here.


The remaining masterpieces more than make up for any cinematic slack, however. Damon Packard, one of the undeniable masters of retro-revivalism, has utilized his entire catalog of Me Decade macabre to manufacture the dead-on dementia of The Early ‘70s Horror Trailer. A nine minute amalgamation of various damsels in all manner of ABC Movie of the Week distress, we keep waiting for Burt Bacharach’s “Nikki” to start up in the background. Luckily, Packard is one step ahead of us. He utilizes underscoring from such diverse sources as Escape from the Planet of the Apes and peppers the entire project with as many Super-8 stunts (prism lens, double exposure, slo-mo) as possible. Some may see it as nothing more than a massive gimmick given over to self indulgence. But when viewed through the eyes of someone who lived through the era, it’s absolute genius.


So is the aforementioned Fear. How a modern filmmaker like Angel Nieves managed to accurately recreate the look, feel, performances, and overall dread dynamic of an early ‘80s exploitation schlocker in 2001 is unnerving. From the sets to the storyline, you never once guess this is a post-millennial production. Instead, its old school scare tactics that feel fresh and innovative, carefully controlled pacing providing the right amount of suspense. It’s a very disturbing experience, one that leads to an instant reflection on the films it faithfully mimics. With The Mesmerist, the effect is different, but equally devastating. While The Bells is often dismissed as a well acted, half-formed morality play, director Morrison digs the meat out of it, using the original, racially insensitive title cards, to offer a comment on stereotypes and human sin. While it’s great to see Lionel Barrymore and a young Boris Karloff in full genre mode, it’s the underlying message about intolerance and redemption that’s far more effective.


As an added treat, Other Cinema includes a pair of compelling bonus features. The first is an interactive ‘Closet of Horrors’. By using your remote and clicking on the illuminated doorway, you are transported to one of a random collection of trailers, clips, and fright themed commercials. It’s an unfathomable delight. By contrast, the rant-oriented Warhol Beyond the Grave (from a longer piece known as Pleromadromadhetu) finds the long dead pop art phenom rising from the tomb to take on his legacy, as an anti-Andy screed plays in the background. It’s a weirdly compelling combination, both a declaration and denouncement of the 20th Century’s leading limelighter.


An appearance by the man - or the image of same – who once declared the disposability of fame is an excellent end note to this compelling collection. With its devotion to former frighteners, Experiments in Terror 2 appears to suggest that post-modern fear is too throwaway to warrant commemoration. For many in the creative community, the siren song of what came before is far more compelling than the simulated superficiality of current CGI creepshows. While these may be mere trials in the lexicon of fear, they are far more fully formed than much of today’s takes. As curator and compiler of this remarkable overview, Other Cinema deserves a lot of credit. While they won’t satisfy everyone, these short film scares deserve their moment in the sun. Experiments in Terror 2 gives it to them, and we couldn’t be happier.


 


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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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