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by Bill Gibron

4 Apr 2009


It’s unique among fundamentalists - the decision to take Christianity into arenas where it previously could find little or no purchase. After all, musical mediums like punk and hip-hop would seem antithetical to giving God (and his celebrated son, JC) his due. And yet all throughout faith-based music, genres are retrofitted to provide a Good Book provenance and potential profitability. It also happens a lot in more “popular” entertainments. There’s religious comedians, religious cartoons, religious cooking shows - even religious sitcoms in which belief is as much a character as the wacky neighbor or the suspicious landlord.

Now, it appears, movies are the next medium to be explored. No, not the typical Passion Play recreations, or Revelations inspired End of the World. Instead, various heretofore untapped genres are being tweaked to take on all aspects of faith. Take the work of Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker. Both are noted writers of Christian fiction specifically aimed at the horror audience. When the latter’s solo serial killer effort Thr3e was made into a semi-success film in 2007, it looked like the floodgates were unleashed for literal stories of good vs. evil. Oddly enough, the adaptation of Peretti and Dekker’s collaboration, House avoids most of the religion for standard scares - and suffers because of it.

Jack Singleton is a writer who can’t get over the death of his young child. Stephanie Singleton is his rising country singer/songwriter wife, and the person he blames for his daughter’s drowning. While on their way to a marriage counselor, they come across an accident. The local sheriff directs them to a shortcut, but soon our couple is hopelessly lost. Stranded after a run-in with some random debris, they make their way to a rural mansion/motel run by Betty, her suspicious son Pete, and the mysterious maintenance man Stewart. There they also meet psychologist Leslie Taylor and her businessman boyfriend Randy. Unfortunately, everyone soon discovers that a killer named The Tin Man is in the area, and he has one small request - a dead body before the son rises, and everyone else will live. Without the sacrifice, they all will die.

Like most movies where belief makes up a good percentage of the narrative rationale and resolution, House has a very hard time with its dogma. No, it doesn’t fudge faith to fit some eccentric approach to God. But it does lack the bravery to put the Big Guy out there and up front. Under the guidance of stylish journeyman Robby Henson, what could have been a dark and demanding meditation on forgiveness and the power of Christ instead plays like a limp episode of Friday the 13th: The Series. There are moments of intriguing atmosphere and the performances support the attempted suspense and dread. But when you want to make a movie about angels battling demons for the souls of some obvious sinners, do we really need so much faux fright film finagling? Peretti and Dekker are trying to use the genre as a means of making a bigger point. Apparently, someone forgot to inform the rest of the production.

It’s a common problem with Christian entertainment. The balancing act between beating people over the head with the power of the Messiah and the need to tap into that secular pile of mainstream cash creates quite the dilemma. House talks a good game at first. We get foreboding, foreshadowing, and flashbacks that offer disturbing (if clichéd) character conflicts. The trio of twisted innkeepers come across as Addams Family odd at first, with only their true disturbing intent coming across later on, and while we don’t particularly like the quartet of guests shacked up for the night, the narrative doesn’t dwell on their selfish, senseless indulgences. Heck, we even buy the whole “Tin Man” element of the story, up to a point.

But once House goes Saw, meaning once it emphasizes the moldy green cinematography and traps everyone in an ethereal “game” of going back in time and confronting their past, the movie goes off kilter. The drowned child storyline has some initial intrigue, even if it is filmed in an annoying, ‘greenscreen as dreamscape’ manner. Here, Herman isn’t too obvious in his aims. But when Leslie is given over to her Something About Amelia rants regarding a pedophilic Uncle and the “pies” he brought as seduction aids, we lose all patience. It’s not because House hamfists this material. Instead, the notion of childhood sexual abuse is turned into a trick, a gimmick to get us to the next sequence of supposed scares. It feels manipulative and mean. 

The same is true regarding the introduction of trapped “child” Susan. We know she’s not real, the film treats her as a fiction, and yet Jack is so desperate for a daughter substitute that he’s willing to risk everything to protect and defend her. The random Satanic symbols mean nothing to him. Nor do the moments when Betty, Pete and Stewart go brimstone and start spewing black smoke. His obsession with the gloomy Goth girl is so disorienting (and so beyond the boundaries of basic horror movie survival norms) that we begin to doubt our interest. When the Tin Man finally arrives, in the persona of one Michael Madsen, the expected showdown never materializes. Instead, there are a few scripture-ish invocations, some semi-successful CGI, and that’s it.

And again, that’s the biggest problem with films like House. When you place God against the Devil and ask for them to bring it on, Big Willy style, the results need to be as apocalyptic as that sounds. Or if you can’t afford an F/X epic, at least be honest with your commercial constituency. Audiences will buy almost anything as long as it is proffered with a far amount of polish and determination. Here, Herman tries for something spectacular, and then pulls back, fearing a fundamentalist backlash. Light banishing dark just ain’t gonna do it. We need the literal flames of Hell licking at the fence posts of the Pearly Gates, and House just can’t handle this. Instead, it turns tail and runs. Up until this point, it’s an above to only average journey into terror. Once religion gets pushed into and then back out of the picture, the movie can’t man up - and that’s a shame.

by Bill Gibron

3 Apr 2009


When a novice becomes enamored with the post-modern preamble known as exploitation, their usual route in begins with a group of seminal figures. Herschell Gordon Lewis, David F. Friedman, Kroger Babb, Doris Wishman, Barry Mahon, Bryon Mabe, and Andy Milligan took the genre and ran with it, introducing subjects and storylines to the motion picture artform that mainstream Hollywood wouldn’t touch with a ten foot, well greased and dipped in antibiotic pole. One of the most prolific was producer Harry Novak. Not only did he make his own mark in the realm of sin and skin, but he introduced hundreds of foreign and underground titles to the market as well. One of his most notorious remains Danish import Dværgen. Retitled The Sinful Dwarf, Novak hoped this completely corrupt tale would become a classic. In some ways - he got his wish. Unreleased for decades, it’s become the stuff of lewd legend.

Young newlyweds Peter and Mary are desperate for a place to stay. Unfortunately, they have very little money. Luckily, former nightclub chanteuse Lili Lash as a boarding house that’s cheap, cheap, cheap. Unfortunately, it’s a front for a diabolic scheme involving kidnapping, drug smuggling, heroin addiction, prostitution, and other immoral acts. Overseen by her undersized dwarf son Olaf, Lash spends her days in a drunken stupor, entertaining her equally inebriated friend Winnie. At night, men visit the various victims they have chained up in the attic, these naked, nubile girls forced into unspeakable acts of white slavery to keep the Lashes in the lap of…well, near poverty. When Peter is forced to find work to supplement his failing writing career, he leaves Mary alone with the crazed clan. Sure enough, she becomes the next target of the Lash business model, a piece of meat to be traded like any other available whore.

There’s a moldy old maxim in exploitation that goes a little something like this - if you’re going to give potential audiences a title so titillating it overwhelms the entire notion of grindhouse gratuity, you better deliver on your implied debauchery. On the plus side, The Sinful Dwarf tries to live up to its lurid moniker. We get several shots of star Torben doing his best little person perversions, and the rest of the film offers nothing but nonstop nastiness. If you’ve never seen a raincoat crowd-pleaser before, get ready. This movie makes the basement pit sequences in Pink Flamingoes seem tame by example. Thanks to Harry Novak, that notorious cinematic entrepreneur of excess and erotica, worldwide audiences got a chance to appreciate this unhinged Danish dementia - and now, finally, it finds its way onto home video. The digital format is ill-prepared for such salaciousness.

Granted, The Sinful Dwarf will seem very familiar to anyone with a previous knowledge of the genre. It follows the exploitation recipe to a form-fitting (and breast enhancing) “T”. There’s so much nudity here that male members of the demographic get little time to reload, and the blatant misogynist tone is take to extremes in both the edited hardcore sequences as well as the moments when drunken old dames Lili and Winnie get their gin-juiced groove on. Director Vidal Raski certainly knows how to satisfy his proposed audience’s prurient needs. There are so many shots of star Anne Sparrow in clingy, mammary enhancing garments that he could be working for Maidenform - and that’s just when she’s dressed. The rest of the time, the camera never leaves her swollen, heaving ‘talents’.

As for the rest of the cast, they are caught somewhere between porn and implausibility. Since they are kept drugged up most of the time, their character’s escape appears impossible. Yet anyone with common sense can see that a group of semi-conscious sex slaves can easily beat up one crippled, cane-reliant dwarf. Even better, when Lili shows up to put the smack down, she’s usually so lubed up on Beefeaters that she can barely walk erect. Yet these women simply lay there, full frontals giving the camera the performance of a lifetime. When Raski gets down to the diddling, it’s borderline offensive in its realism. Those in the know understand that this XXX feature was carved down to get a more commercial release. Yet there’s enough blatant innuendo to keep censors up at night.

In fact, the most horrific thing about The Sinful Dwarf is how “tame” it is compared to other offerings from the era. At this point in exploitation, the Findlays were heading over to Snuff-ville, David Friedman was working on the soft to hardcore transition, and Deep Throat was making smut socially acceptable. Here, all we have is bargain basement depravity dressed up in human oddity histrionics. Critics have mentioned that the movie suffers from a lack of Torben, and it’s true. He’s by far the most intriguing character (elderly female winos aside) and he offers a unique and rather disturbing onscreen presence. The fact that he was the host of children’s shows in his native Denmark speaks a lot about his acting prowess. Still, we could tolerate much more ‘midget’ in this out of bounds effort.

There will be some who find this all too tacky and filthy to endure, a wretched experience without a speck of redeeming value or validity. Others will view it all through a cynical gaze that comes from decades of being desensitized to such seedy, slimy sleaze. Though it could probably never live up to its notorious nomenclature, The Sinful Dwarf is an excellent example of the extremes some filmmakers would go to in achieving a kind of kink immortality. Similar to the myth surrounding such previously unknown quantities as A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine and Year of the Yahoo, we once again find ourselves adjusting our expectations in light of reality. Come to this film expecting the worst and you’ll be gravely disappointed. Enter with a knowledge of all things grindhouse, and you’ll discover a genuine junk joy.

by Bill Gibron

1 Apr 2009


It’s safe to say that, with six months back in business and a wealth of wonderful titles hitting the market, Troma, once considered down and out for the commercial count, is truly back. With the hullabaloo and struggle to get Poultrygeist before the people now over and done, the company that made the Toxic Avenger a household word can not fully concentrate on giving the fanbase what they want - more oddball independent and homemade movie mania. Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen surreal Sasquatch sex epics, badass b-movie future shock, vampire bedlam, and the return of some classic redneck zombies. This time around, Troma is treating us to four fascinating titles. While there’s no need to discuss the multi-disc ultimate Tox Box set, the recent release of The Best of TromaDance Volume 5, Crazy Animal, and The Seduction of Dr. Fugazzi, deserve some individual attention.

Every year, Lloyd Kaufman and crew pack up their Manhattan (now New Jersey) digs, travel cross country, and take up residence in Park City, Utah to participate in the famed film festival held there. No, not the Sundance or the Slamdance outings, but the only truly free (no entry fees, no attendance fees) short film celebration in all of cinema - Tromadance. Spitting directly in the face of the mangled mainstream moviemaking ideal, this outsider event has celebrated such outright auteurs as Giuseppe Andrews, Ludovic Spenard, and Andy Bauman. For their fifth DVD volume, the independent giant digs deep into their vaults, coming out with all kinds of usual and eccentric fare. While not quite up to the standards of past collections, the films here focus on the future of truly independent art. They make grand statements out of personal drive, limited funds, and a plethora of paltry cheese sandwiches. 

First up is the fabulous, freaky The Mislead Romance of Cannibal Girl and Incest Boy. Tim Burton, this isn’t. Director Richard Taylor does a terrific job with some incredibly seedy material, making his grainy 8mm movie look like a snuff film without the slaughter. This is followed by the one joke novelty Chicken Ass. No matter how hard he tries, writer/director Joe Weaver just can’t make this shocking news exposé spoof work. The same can be said for Patrick Rea’s far more successful Bad Apples. While the laughs come from a single, predicable payoff, the monochrome manner in which the filmmaker gets there works wonderfully. Next up is one of the best films of the set. Bum Runners uses the homeless (obvious actors) as a means of making fun of action movies - and it’s terrific. Writers/directors Kurt Christiansen and Steve Herold do an amazing job with this oddball material, and fans of infamous ‘70s TV should be on the look out for Fred “Rerun” Berry in a minor role.

Mindslime is one of the more ambitious of the mini-movies. Director Henry Weintraub tries to mix alien invasion, horror, gore, comedy, man/woman relationships, and random goofiness into his manic mayhem stew - and for the most part, it works. So does the video for Pizza Time Theater, a raucous retro treat featuring Maniac Mansion, the first Nintendo-punk band in the world.  Travis Campbell takes things into suburban ennui and individual alienation with his stunning, subtle Amnesia Party. Like a post-modern amalgamation of The Graduate and Parents, it’s the perfect antidote to all the 9/11 inspired jingoism. Rob Baniewicz’s Cold Feet takes the notion of marital fear a tad too seriously, while Jacob Hair’s The Courtesy Nudge is extreme Office Space like insanity. Wrapping things up is the pedophile themed home movie madness of Unicorn, the perplexing college creep-out P.S., I am Spaceface, and a terrific take on a particularly bloody Valentine’s Day. 


 
The full length feature Crazy Animal, on the other hand, pretends to be a summer sex comedy. It’s far from it. When she was in high school, prom queen Jen was date raped by her BMOC boyfriend Jeff. Now an equally hedonistic frat boy, the ‘anything goes’ a-hole is also responsible for the sexual assault (and eventual suicide) of Ricky’s Goth gal pal Veronica. Plotting her revenge, Jen gets a couple of sexy Slavic models, contacts her creepy ex, and suggests he come down to the family beach house for a little spring break excitement. Dragging along his dim bulb brothers Henry and Chris, the trio plans to party hearty. When they are kidnapped by Ricky and forced to listen to his god-awful hair metal retreads, it seems like Jen’s plot has gone astray. Little do they know that it’s all an elaborate scheme to get Jeff to confess. There will be no drunken debauchery - just pain and humiliation. 

Crazy Animal wants to wear it’s tell all title on its sexploitation sleeve. It wants to deal with desire, morality, sex, skin, revenge, death, and cult comedy craziness in one big fat rock and roll riot. It even digs deep into the camp kitsch cookbook by featuring porn legend Ron Jeremy and Troma’s own Lloyd Kaufman as polar opposite fathers delivering sage/slaughter advice to their oh-so impressionable offspring. So why doesn’t it work? Why does something that should sizzle with a kind of meat beat manifesto end up sinking like a sour guitar solo at a battle of the high school bands? The answer is quite simple - the script…that is, if there really is one. John Birmingham may be a lot of things - competent actor, decent director, acquired taste musician, shameless self promoter - but he can’t scribble his way out of a basic screenwriting class. The dialogue is dismal, the overall level of narrative competence swaying between dismal and brain dead. Only Brink Stevens manages to bring life to these lame words during her all too brief cameo.



Indeed, Birmingham has some decent actor delivering his verbal atrocities. Though his scenes are brief, Jeremy makes a genial father figure. Kaufman is also more controlled here, his anti-authority rants playing perfectly to the character he’s creating. All the leads are likeable, even if a few overstay their wanton welcome, and the two Russian/Eastern European babes are indeed hot. Yet all of this is not enough to overcome what appears to be a movie made in the editing room. Conversations go nowhere, narrative threads are left dangling without ever coming back and completing them. The songs (mostly written by Birmingham) lack the necessary satiric fire to be true comedy classics, and the resolution doesn’t “feel” right. Instead, we get the sneaking suspicion that it was thought up on the fly, formulated out of a desire to dig oneself out of a major storyline hole. While it earns points for trying, Crazy Animal has more cinematic demerits than credits. In some ways, it’s more of an incomplete attempt than an outright failure.



All of which makes The Seduction of Dr. Fugazzi all the more fascinating. Psychological savant Dr. Anna Fugazi is having a hard time with her burgeoning practice. Seems her patients, including a raging pedophile, an agoraphobic psychic, a true nutty professor, and a demented kleptomaniac are trying her mental mantle. Even worse, her home life with musician boyfriend Maynard is a wild ride of sex, parties, and disturbing dreams. You see, Anna is having nightmares involving bondage, discipline, blood, and vague metaphoric memories. While trying to keep it together, she feels like she’s literally falling apart. One day, a detective named Rowland comes to visit. She claims that one of Anna’s clients has killed his wife and left town. The cop wonders is she has any clues as to where the man might be going. Anna has a name - Grenwich - that’s all. Of course, she may have more knowledge than she even knows.

The Seduction of Dr. Fugazzi is indeed a triumph for first time filmmaker October Kingsley. Wearing her exotic erotica on her Suicide Girls inspired façade, she’s a creative and confident artist. Sure, the last act “twist” is about as unsatisfying as they come and we don’t always understand or follow the sexual symbolism involved. Still, for a movie that includes anal rape with a broom handle, child molesters dreaming of laughing children, and a post-plastic surgery, pre-apocalyptic disaster Faye Dunaway, Kingsley keeps things from going completely bat dance. She’s also an intriguing onscreen presence, her slight accents and petite stature giving way to moments of madness and murderous desire. Still, not everything about this oddball experience works. Kingsley is anything if not self-indulgent, and the actors appear lifted from the struggling local Los Angeles scene. Yet the minute Dunaway walks on the set, everything changes. Everyone’s community college level performances suddenly start attending graduate school.



There’s also no denying the look of this film. Kingsley loves to experiment with style and form, taking elements from the fetish scene and mixing them with standard cinematics. The moments of physicality are graphic without being profane and there’s an orgy sequence that shows how effective and arousing suggestion and careful editing can be. Still, there’s that uneven ending to contend with, a finale that falls short of the ambitions Kingsley shows elsewhere. Some will probably be able to predict the outcome the minute Fugazzi falls into her first “trance”. Others will witness the reveal and still wonder just what in the Hell is going on. There’s definitely a desire to play with reality and the dream state here, and Kingsley’s history as a psychology and philosophy major do come into play. If you’re willing to accept 5/6ths of a great film, you’ll truly enjoy The Seduction of Dr. Fugazzi. Even with its unsuccessful climax, this is a film and filmmaker worth watching. And that’s the main reason why Troma’s continued commercial output is so important. Without them, where would truly independent art be?

by Bill Gibron

31 Mar 2009


In retrospect, it should be no surprise when major talents collaborate, clash and crash. With each one being a giant in their own particularly way, an attempted meeting of the minds becomes something akin to planets colliding. Nothing good can come out of it, with an artistic triumph a fading reality and the apocalypse a distinct possibility. So when it was announced that George Romero, fresh off his mainstream thriller Monkeyshines, would team up with Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, fright fans were overcome with anticipatory joy. The notion of what were arguably the most talented of terror titans coming together to take on the schizoid fiction of one Edgar Allan Poe seemed almost too good to be true. And when they got the opportunity to finally see the resulting project, entitled Two Evil Eyes, there worst fears were mostly realized. Not only did the directors underperform individually, but there was a sense that neither brought their best to this anemic anthology.

Divided into two one hour films, Two Evil Eyes centers on the stories “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and the legendary Poe parable, “The Black Cat”. In the first tale, a gold-digging wife and her doctor lover concoct a plan to keep her terminally ill husband alive long enough to liquidate his assets. Using hypnosis, they get the man to do what they want. One day, he dies while in a trance, and the couple panics. They put the body in the basement freezer and wait. Suddenly, they hear sounds. Apparently, dying while under the spell traps the man between life and death - and there are “others” who want to use him to cross over. “Cat” offers a crime scene photographer who’s desperate to find a new direction in his life. His live-in girlfriend, a violin virtuoso, doesn’t make things any easier for the high tempered cad. In a fit of jealous rage, he kills her and walls up the corpse in their apartment home. Too bad he trapped her favorite cat in there with her as well.

As an experiment in narrative revision and reinterpretation, Two Evil Eyes (new to Blu-ray from Blue Underground) could be called a minor success. Romero takes the tale of a dying man and his eventual transformation into a “nearly liquid mass…of detestable putrescence” and turns it into a revenge narrative complete with double crosses, noir-like nuances, and a last act bit of splatter. Argento, on the other hand, drops so many Poe references into his work (his main character is named Roderick Usher, after all) that some of the story gets lost. Still, what we wind up with is a gory Gothic barnburner including witch trial impalings, freak show feral kittens, and a finale so anticlimactic it makes us wonder why the main characters even bothered. Again, there’s a feeling that both Romero and Argento overcomplicated their often potent macabre muse. Instead of following Poe to the letter, or merely updating him to the present day, there’s a real effort to rewrite the master, which may just be Two Evil Eye‘s biggest mistake.

Of the two, it has to be said the Romero’s has not aged well. At the time, his tepid retread of a dozen crime drama clichés just couldn’t come together, the ending sparking the most controversy with its decision to skip all the suspense and supposed plot contraventions to dive directly into grue. Today, it’s merely dull. Andrienne Barbeau, so good as the bitchy shrew wife from Hell in Creepshow seems low key and laid back, so much so that when she turns on the angst, she appears off kilter. Ramy Zada is not much better as the doctor. His line readings appear lifted from a soap opera and his love scene with Barbeau exudes little or no chemistry. Tom Savini, on hand to provide the mandatory autopsy level F/X, also underperforms. The frozen Valdemar couldn’t look more fake, and the finale feels excessive for excess’s sake.

Not that Argento shows any subtly. His film opens with an homage to “The Pit and the Pendulum”, a dismembered body doing its best Black Dahlia impersonation as Harvey Keitel clicks off a frame or two. A little later on, a female head is shown sans teeth, jaw spreader exposing a mouth filled with hollow, bloody holes. Toss in the main story reveal, a surreal nightmare including a reference to fellow Mediterranean madman Ruggero Deodato, and various visions of animal abuse, and you’ve got one uncomfortable experience. Argento clearly has a hard time with his American actors. Keitel is given over to massive mood swings, playing it for laughs one moment, as loud as humanly possible the next. He’s matched in physical unattractiveness by Madeleine Porter, who gives new meaning to the term “washed out red head.”



In fact, in both cases our intrepid filmmakers fail to see the fright forest for the terror trees. They overindulge in details when the bigger picture is far more powerful. There are endless conversations in the Romero piece that do nothing except take up time, while Argento seems so Hellbent on squeezing a 90 minute movie into his allotted hour that many sequences are rushed. Subplots purposefully added don’t pay off, the inclusion of famous character actors like E. G. Marshall, Martin Balsam, and Kim Hunter doing little to lift the material. It’s not that Two Evil Eyes is bad. It’s a thoroughly watchable and occasionally entertaining experiment. But when viewing the creative convergence between the men behind Suspiria, Night of the Living Dead, and Dawn of the Dead, you really do expect more than acceptability. 

Of course, viewing in the film in the updated Blu-ray format reveals elements lost on previous home video releases (including Blue Underground’s own 2003 DVD presentation). The 1080p image is striking - facets both unnerving (Savini’s accomplished corpses) and unrivaled (Argento’s color pallet) brought to vivid life. As for the audio, this English only production also gets a revamp. The 7.1 DTS-HD, 7.1 Dolby TrueHD, and 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX all sound marvelous. Bonus features are taken from the Big Blue U’s original digital package. There are interviews with Romero, Argento, and Savini, as well as a brief snippet of Barbeau from the Document of the Dead documentary. Toss in a tour of Savini’s studio and the standard trailer and you’ve got a decent, if slightly derivative set of extras.

Oddly enough, Two Evil Eyes appears to be the tipping point in both Romero and Argento’s post-superstar careers. With The Dark Half, Bruiser, Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead, the king of the zombies has struggled to remain relevant. His foreign counterpart has been a tad more successful, with both The Stendhal Syndrome and the final installment of his trilogy, The Mother of Tears, reminding fans of his previous penchant for greatness. Like Grindhouse, or New York Stories, the merging of masters is almost always a recipe for oversized expectations and unceremoniously dashed realizations. Two Evil Eyes should have been much more than it is. After all, we expect more than serviceability from such astonishing terror icons. 

by Bill Gibron

27 Mar 2009


One of the great things about art is its ability to make you see the common and the familiar in a totally different and unique light. Painting puts a stylistic impression on the world, while music translates ideas and feelings into sound and sonic expression. Film is perhaps the most endemic of the many formats. It allows for the greatest combination of facets, plus is relies on reinvention and reinterpretation to stay fresh and alive. This is exactly what happens to the horror film in Ben Rivers deconstructionist delight Terror! As part of Provocateur DVDs new Experiments in Terror 3, this brilliant breakdown of the standard fright flick is so radiant, so drop dead eye-opening in what it says about the genre, that it should be required viewing for all scary movie buffs.

As they have in the past, the Experiments in Terror series collects unusual and outsider examples of sinister short films from around the world. Past participants have been Damon Packard, Bill Morrison, and J.X. Williams. This time up, we are treated to six sensational examples of avant-garde artistic invention. Williams shows up again with the Christmas themed Satan Claus, while famed underground legend Mike Kuchar conjures up the mummy mania of Born of the Wind. Rivers’ Terror! costars with Jason Bognacki’s The Red Door (more of a trailer for an upcoming feature than a full blown film), Carey Burtt’s toyland expose of The Psychotic Odyssey of Richard Chase, and the silent film fascination of Marie Losier and Guy Maddin’s Manuellle Labor. Add in Clinton Childree’s It Gets Worse and a pamphlet describing each offering, and you’ve got a killer compendium - both figuratively and literally.
 


It all starts with the animated atrocities of insane maniac Chase, a real life criminal who believed he was a vampire. Inspired by Todd Haynes and his Barbie doll based Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Burtt using basic stop motion techniques and some careful framing to tell the sensational story. There are moments of high comedy and sequences of unsettling psychological damage on display. By using the innocent items associated with youth, Chase’s crime become more compelling - and disturbing. Similarly, the black and white turn of the century cinematic techniques displayed by Losier and Maddin, as well as Chidree, change the entire nature of the horror film narrative. Both feel like malformed comedies, humor derived from death, birth, and the mutations that accompany each.

Elsewhere, Williams works his magic on the Mexican kiddie classic (and Mystery Science favorite) Santa Claus. Taking a subplot involving the rich boy and his inconsiderate parents and turning it into a tale of devil worship and demonic possession - with a little Profundo Rosso thrown in for good measure - we wind up with a wicked Yuletide treat. Even Kuchar manages a bit of bedevilment in his typical homage hysterics. This 1964 farce features the standard company from the underground icon and a plethora of his peculiar motion picture style. There’s high camp, over the top sexuality, significant gore, and a last act reveal that’s so outrageous it hurts.



Oddly enough, the only outing which lacks true impact is Bognacki’s Red Room. There are hints of incest, abuse, spirituality, and murder in this music heavy promo. Just as things start to sort themselves out, we get that most dreaded of creative con jobs - the tag “to be continued”. In fact, much of this prostitute vs. John vs. phantom presence plays like a music video for a forgotten ‘90s Goth act. All we need is Marilyn Manson showing up with a jaw spreader in his craw and we be rockin’! This is not to downplay Bogmacki’s talent - the material looks fantastic, and the post-production touch of placing an animated scar across the ghost’s eyes really works. Too bad it’s all in service of something insignificant and incomplete.

But everything here, no matter its value, is raised several substantive notches by the inclusion of Rivers’ genius dissection of modern fright. Terror! takes several recognizable films - everything from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween to City of the Living Dead and Friday the 13th to showcase the standard cinematic stereotypes and formulaic filmmaking techniques involved in manufacturing fear. We get the simple set up, the shot of feet stumbling in the dark, the unexpected reveal of the villain, the last girl struggles, the inept desire to explore the unknown, the sudden shocks, and most significantly, the gruesome, gory end game. This last facet is the most fascinating element in Rivers’ routine for many reasons - many of them very telling indeed.



Like pornography, horror’s unwholesome relative, there is a definite desire on the part of scary moviemakers to start out somber and build to a climax. All throughout Terror! , we anticipate the killings to come (especially once the individual films reveal themselves) and then spend nearly 20 minutes waiting for the payoff. All the while, the normal beats that keep us on the edge of our seats become delayers of our gratification. As Rivers randomizes the edits, drawing us closer and closer to the blood orgasm to come, we truly want the relief - and when it comes, it’s almost sickening in its satisfaction. Of all the films made about fear and the movies that monopolize said emotion, this is one of the very, very best.

And that’s par for the course when it comes to Provocateur and its itinerary of titles. One should simply sit back and expect the unexpected, whether it’s action figures and crayons creating blood-drinking dread or a famed filmmaker using his love of antique Tinsel Town for a fabulous play on words. No matter the age, ability, or aspirations, all of these ‘experiments’ succeed in showing that talent in any form - feature length or substantially shorter - can lift even the most mediocre of overdone genre. Horror definitely fits into such a mangled category. For all the good work done, there are thousands of genuine junk piles. This trip into terror is significant for many reasons, the least of which remains their artistic integrity. Like all good masterworks, they mean as much in retrospect as they do in reality.

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