Category Archives: A Month of Horror on the Fringes – October 2017

Each day all through October, I’ll be writing my two cents on 31 horror films from the dark alleys, lost highways, and unexpected corners of cinema history. Here’s to the fringes!

A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 31): Kotoko (2011)

For the last and final entry to October 2017, for Halloween, is a film I have been wanting to share for a long time, a favorite and possibly one of the great unsung films of the last decade. Tsukamoto Shinya’s Kotoko is a film like an atom bomb. Witnessing it is like witnessing pure terror, and pure honesty; humanity stripped bare of all superficiality and left naked. Kotoko is that rare work that finds emptiness in the psyche left unnoticed, and starts working mental muscles long left atrophied. While watching it, I felt the cinema form expand ever so slightly outward. Tsukamoto somehow outdoes even himself by creating a film that is so real to the human experience it is genuinely alarming.

Kotoko (Cocco) is a woman that sees double. That is, she sometimes sees two of people – one benevolent, and one malevolent. And she is never truly sure who is who. In the film’s earliest scene, Kotoko sees a father with his child, and the father’s double; one of the fathers lunges towards her, and she screams. Parenthood is desperately frightening. The film Kotoko opens on a beach – a young girl dances in silhouette as a flute pleasantly plays in the background. The flute becomes violent, and the young girl’s dance less playful. She disappears in a flash, and the image – literally – screams in agony. This is all fine and in line with psychological horror films until we see Kotoko at home, where there’s a baby crying in a crib. Oh no.

Kotoko is caught between protecting a life not her own and contemplating her own self-destruction. Early on, we see her cut her wrists in a bathroom, then beat up a woman on the street she thinks is threatening her baby (she’s wrong. It’s the nice, real double). To protect them both from her own violent distrust, she tries to isolate herself and the baby in a new apartment, but her baby doesn’t take. They go to the roof for air, and Kotoko drops her baby off the side (it’s “so dangerous,” she tells herself). In horror, she runs screaming down the stairs at what she’s done. But there’s no baby to be found – her child is resting safely in her crib. The baby has now doubled, and Kotoko herself cannot be trusted with a life needing her protection. Let alone her own.

All is well if Kotoko is singing. In an early standout scene, Cocco provides a performance – just to herself, although the film’s camera is conspicuously present – on the roof of her building, in the rain. This is clearly a cleansing ritual: The lens of the camera itself is covered in water droplets, allowing for our voyeurism, immersion, yes, but also manifesting tears – happy or sad, I don’t think it matters. Singer/songwriter Cocco, in her first starring role, gifts her character Kotoko a piece of her personal vitality, her soul peeling off on the celluloid like the rain on the lens. Cocco’s urgency with the camera is equal to the masterpieces of the genre: Shelly Duvall in The Shining, Isabelle Adjani in Possession, Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist, but notably Björk in Dancer in the Dark. Her plight is painful because she, herself, is painful. It’s an all or nothing role, and we still get more than we bargained for. Cocco leaves nothing concealed – her eyes show bewilderment and horror in equal measure, like a human on an alien planet, or a rabid dog briefly aware of its surroundings. Tsukamoto said the idea for this “doubling” of characters in the film, and the anxiety is causes, actually came from Cocco’s personal experience – she suffers from this rare spiritual diplopia herself. Tsukamoto embraced this brilliant truth, and takes it to its far extremes.

To pry into Cocco’s and Kotoko’s internal states, Tsukamoto plays subtly with the film’s color palatte – we have not one but five different states of mind presented. Tsukamoto himself alludes to four of them: there is “the city, the landscape of Okinawa and the pinks of Kotoko’s room. White was also an important color because of her emotions, which I wanted to be “blank” at some point” – so, gray, green, pink, and white. And red. In an incredible one-take shot of Kotoko attempting to make stir fry with her baby in her arms, all her internal violence and danger bubbles up to the surface – it’s palpable – and she breaks down. Kotoko sends her baby to her relatives in the country (all the green) because she loves her daughter, but she also knows that with her screaming and writhing and self-imposed isolationist tendencies, she is the harm. At this point the picture dips into the darkest recesses of her psyche – reds and blacks, like the colors of the self-inflicted scars on her wrist.

At this point writer/director Tsukamoto enters the film as a character, seeing Kotoko in a state of despondence on a bus, singing to herself. Since Kotoko doesn’t see double when she’s singing, she at least trusts this stranger that much, and lets him into her life, but this is a life that accelerates her own masturbatory self-pain and self-hurt. Seitaro Tanaka (Tsuakmoto) and Kotoko here enter into a dance of torture and bondage, praying on their own doubts of themselves, one-upping their internal suffering by a gaudy and bloody display of one-upsmanship. The film stays here far too long for comfort, but it is a deliberate pain.

Tsukamoto here plays a similar role to his role in the brilliant A Snake of June – an outside instigator, a manifestation, of internal, repressed states of mind. He is a successful writer – his latest book is titled, “The Man Who Brightens the Moon.” In a way he understands her – each time he breaks into her apartment and finds her bleeding, or allows her to cut and beat his face to an unrecognizable mass of flesh, it’s a kind of connection that inhibits her fear of closeness. It helps her build callous on her fear of rejection. But eventually Kotoko starts to feel badly about his place as a self-sacrificial punching bag – during one harrowing scene (also one take), his statement, “I’ll be fine,” slowly becomes a repeated, “You’ll be fine,” sending Kotoko into a rage that he has to put down violently – it actually is the closest Kotoko gets to real connection, because it cuts right down to the marrow of her ennui and pity.

It’s much like Terence Stamp in Teorema (or since this is Halloween, Dr. Frank-N-Furter of The Rocky Horror Picture Show), where a character enters the fray of the character’s internal chaos for a one-night stand, adds sexual malaise, and leaves the place a mess without paying the hotel bill as thanks. All she has is the blood she licked off his cheeks before he eventually, disappears. The way its done leaves us to wonder whether he was ever actually there.

At this point, Kotoko’s child (now a toddler) arrives back home, and the film enters five-alarm terror mode. The stakes are real – besides the bodily harm we’ve seen Kotoko inflict on herself and Tanaka, one of the very first things that happens is the toddler accidentally stabs himself in the eye with a sharp pencil, the same one Kotoko has been using throughout the film. We see the eyepatch so it must have actually occurred. Soon, she starts to imagine all kinds of harm done to the child – reality and fantasy distort and conflate one another. Throughout Kotoko, Tsukamoto has been using long takes and to create discomfort, before resorting to extreme close-ups and quick edits to stop the heart. The climax of the film is a liberation through editing, building to an impossibility we always saw coming, but we (and Kotoko) refused to fully accept.

It’s hard to imagine after his three Tetsuo body horror pictures, but Tsukamoto has crafted quite an oeuvre of supremely feminist texts in his short time as filmmaker. In Tokyo Fist, two suitors beat each other to a pulp for the love of the woman, while she transcends them both, left thrashing in their masculine banality. In A Snake of June, a depressed housewife finds her sexual awakening and inspires her husband to rediscover her on her own sexual terms. In Kotoko, we have the last of an unsaid trilogy – we’ve gone from dating to marriage to motherhood. The end of each, much like his body horror films, is emancipation from Self. After a heart-wrenching sequence where Kotoko’s fears are manifested against her will – and her worst and deepest ambitions realized in what is, perhaps, infanticide – she is able to stand outside an asylum’s walls and dance in the rain in white. It is cleansing, her soul at rest, the fear of failure of protection finally released in an interpretive burst of physical beauty. When she comes back inside, a boy visits her, and gives her a gift – an origami crane. The teenager leaves, calling her Mom. We are left to wonder if this is a double, a fiction, or her reality. As this horror series has proven, what is imagined and what seen is – both, together in their terrible dance – always the truth.

A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 30): The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds (1965)

A man on the run. A woman in chains. Cannibals in the swamps. Preserved corpses in a chapel. And a mysterious, naked female spectre slaying men who wander too close to her riches. All of this would make a much better film than The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds. Technically, The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds has all of these things, but in theory it never feels or accepts these things. The narrative unfolds in a hallucination of earnest indifference – so much so, that when the nasty bits come they lose any visceral quality they could have had. It is a film of such remarkable ineptitude that you mostly view it in slack-jawed awe, and when it has flashes of brilliance (and it does) you wonder for the briefest of moments whether you stumbled onto genius. The next shot always proves otherwise.

This took me at least 15 minutes of reflection while watching the movie to figure out so I’ll spare you the confusion: Johnson (writer/director/star/wunderkind Bert Williams) is a cop hot on the heels of some dangerous moonshiners when he is almost caught and escapes into the Florida swamps. In the retreat from gangsters and escape from the gators, he sees a naked woman – white as porcelain – dancing in the deep wood. Exhausted and mildly confused, he stumbles right into the Cuckoo Bird Inn, overseen by Abe Lincoln’s curmudgeonly inbred second cousin (twice removed) Harold (Chuck Frankle), and a Frau Farbissina archetype MRS. Patt (Ann Long). We never see an expository shot of the Inn, but it’s apparently large, although we only see about three rooms; one of them keeps Mrs. Patt’s secret daughter Lisa (Jackie Scelza) locked away from prying male eyes. Trying to escape from the Cuckoo Inn takes more effort than Johnson realizes, especially when the naked white woman keeps popping up in the dead of night.

It’s amazing how the film synopsis sounds way better than the film actually is – it takes effort to underperform to this level. According to Brian Albright’s “Regional Horror Films, 1958-1990“, the film was produced by the so-called Experimental Camera Workshop, located in an around Miami, Florida. One would hope, then, that any deficiency in The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds is purposeful, but this assumption only leads to more confusion. Bert Williams’ character Johnson never once looks anyone in the eye – every conversation, and wholesale scenes, are filled with dialogue that makes little sense, said by people who never look each other in the face. There is one amazing moment where Johnson and Patt try to explain the importance of having tea together to Harold, and their banal dialogue is intercut with split-second closeups of Harold looking confused. If it is purposeful, it is prodigious avant-garde, all right.

What does come across are two or three single shots of surprising ingenuity – when Johnson is hit on the head, the film itself seems to skip reels with the tail end of scratchy film stock. When the porcelain woman kills her first victim on camera, the murder occurs in a quick series of the actress posing in still shots, yet the film stock is still running, although she holds still. These quick-cut, moving pictures actually are pregnant with shock and doubt – and are far and away the best part of the entire film. The score for The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds’ was apparently thanks to Fulford Methodist Church organist Peggy Williams and the Florida Skyways Hotel house band, The Four Bits. The theme song pops up in the worst possible spots, while the rest sounds like Ennio Morricone on the Bongo Drums, doing the Goron’s Theme Song from The Legend of Zelda. So, I loved it.

But the lynchpin of The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds is the clear mastermind, Bert Williams. One would say he is clearly miscast and underprepared (some scenes he appears to forget his lines and make them up as he goes along, because, you know, film stock is expensive and you only get one take), but that would probably be disingenuous to his creative vision for the whole project. I have no doubt in my mind this is a fully auteuristic film, made by someone who truly cared, and shot in alignment to his fullest creativity. Johnson flails in the swamp with little grace; thrashes his arms in torment when he gets emotional; darts his eyebrows like a redneck John Belushi in razor-sharp confusion when he encounters taxidermied corpses and dreaded ceiling beams in the dark. Did I mention Johnson has a sexy girlfriend (Sherry Sax) pining for him back home? Of course he does – Johnson is the Floridian Superman. The high level of ego is so perfectly matched by the creative instinct, and so wildly unmatched by creative quality, it reminded me of Ray Dennis Steckler’s The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, with only a slight step downward in overall charm. At least you feel sorry for Flagg.

As the film ends, it is a kind of relief. A song cuts in, completely muting the reconciliation scene that was clearly filmed (their mouths are moving, but nothing is heard), and there is a slight pain of loss. Slight. That there is no more of this glorious inept delirium to witness. Bless you, NWR and the Harvard Film Archive, for showing us that any film can be appreciated, even if it is incompetent. Blissfully so.

A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 29): Even the Wind is Afraid (1968)

Mexican auteur Carlos Enrique Taboada has been cited in appreciation by the likes of filmmaker fanboys Guillermo del Toro and Quentin Tarantino, but his work is sorely underappreciated outside of his home country. Specializing in Gothic dramas with a fantastical realist bent, Taboada was prolific in both television and cinema, with an impressive list of filmed chillers to his name; in a way he had to adapt to these genre pictures, which were salacious enough to hold their own in international markets, especially true after the slow and painful collapse of the Mexican Golden Age of cinema. Par the course, Taboada often suffered bouts of depression that saw him retreat from the medium. Yet he always returned, like a ghost from one of his own pictures, to scare us again.

Even in work that was flawed, there was an honesty present to Taboada’s interpretation of character that provided universal appeal on the often cliche and arbitrary tales of ghouls and ghosts. This is especially true in perhaps his most famous picture, Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo (aka Even the Wind is Afraid) – a film that focuses on generational distance, young women navigating ownership over their bodies and sexualities, but above all, guilt. Perhaps it is the overwhelming presence of that guilt – one that, once discovered, cannot be exorcised from any of the film’s situations or frames – that gives Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo its continued attraction. This narrative focus on guilt no doubt justified Taboada’s final, visual personification of the film’s apparition. It seems strange for an avowed atheist and anticleric to show the supernatural in such a direct and objective way, unless it is human guilt – not religion – that manifests this evil.

Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo begins with a young woman writhing in a nightmare, only to awaken to an image of a human figure, hung by the neck, above her bed. As she screams, the camera pans to the trees, the manor, the grounds of the estate, giving us our bearings while also insinuating that this particular vision has its origin outside the girl. This is a boarding house – more of an exclusive school to teach welltodo women the household arts – run by the stern Bernarda (Marga López), who in mannerism and austerity directly resembles the Evil Stepmother from Walt Disney’s Cinderella. Both characters serve the same purpose – keep the young women subservient, repress their budding sexuality, and restrict their movements. On the other side of the gardens, there is a Tower that is Forbidden – but several of the young girls, including the lead Claudia, discover the lock left open, and their curiosity gets the better of them. When they explore the upper rooms, Claudia exclaims this is exactly the same place in her nightmares – where the image of the hanged woman is.

This spooks them enough to leave, but they are also discovered on the way out. As punishment, Bernarda forces them to stay at the school over Spring Break (cue horror music!). This encourages the squabbling and infighting among the girls as for whose fault it is, but also helps the ghost choose its victims more readily. As the girls help each other learn how to striptease and play the piano and pass the time, Claudia’s nightmares get worse. Her sleepwalking starts to spook the other girls – some start to imagination a voice on the wind (or do they?). And someone keeps unlocking the door to the Tower…

The legacy of Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo is definitely felt in del Toro’s early works, particularly The Devil’s Backbone, which follows the same trajectory of ghostly retribution that haunts the forgotten youth (it’s practically a remake in spirit of this film, even sharing its political subtexts). Both really have their sights set on the adults, who are truly culpable in the evil. The ghost is a strong memory, repressed but never forgotten, seeking release by personifying its evil onto unsuspecting victims, and the girls just happen to be there to get the brunt of it. There is a justifiable subtext to be made of the sins of the fathers (mothers) coming to host the sons (daughters) – and I cannot help but see it as a commentary on Gustavo Díaz Ordaz’ PRI party. After all, the Tlatelolco demonstrations and massacre took place the same year of Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo’s release.

At times the pacing in Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo seems to embrace its sidebars too long – in the middle, for example, the girls learn to dance and striptease from one of their more seasoned members. While I’m sure this helped in advertising, it somehow also demonstrates a certain care toward the characters. Each of their personalities shines forth, which helps us care once the ghost tightens its grip on the young women, especially the naive, pure-of-heart Claudia.

The film is shot in a direct, no-nonsense manner, in medium shots with plenty of primary colors. In horror films one gets used to the dutch angles and wide-angle lenses and visual panache – so its lack, here, is disarming. What adds to the spook factor is the score; it’s that bombastic old-fashioned type that comes in horns blazing and strings screeching. It fills a dark room – and by the end, the film is enveloped in darkness. Taboada embraces black voids in the frame for his introduction of the ghost, a young dead girl by the name of Andrea. This again furthers the idea of cross-generational guilt – Andrea to Bernarda to Claudia, or the ABC’s. But it ends there. Once Andrea and Claudia meet to serve their purpose to Bernarda, the cycle of evil is broken. That alone may be Taboada’s political statement – a call to action. The cycle of violence ends, here.

A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 28): The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)

There are two ways a joke can go too far. The first is when a good joke runs deliriously passed its own expiration, like a David S. Pumpkins animated special. The second is when a joke doesn’t even know it’s a joke, and takes its own naturally twisted premise to its logical end. Peter Weir’s directorial debut, The Cars That Ate Paris, falls comfortably into the latter category. There are moments of humor and moments of horror, but you never know precisely how to respond, or how to feel, throughout the running time. It’s a mystery of tone and function, but you are never quite upset, because it always stays true to its own twisted (metal) wavelength.

The film begins with a dapper, bourgeoisie couple on a holiday in the country, buying antiques and sipping Coke on their Australian provincial jaunt – complete with distractingly happy music. As they approach the backwater town of Paris, Australia, the wheel falls off their convertible and they go careening off the side of the mountain. A sound of an attacking cat is heard in the background. Cut to Arthur and Charlie Waldo, a couple of blokes looking for jobs traveling from job agency to job agency in the same back country. After seeing mysterious lights in the distance, they meet the same fate as the unnamed couple.

But not before they see, oddly enough, a cow being stuffed into the trunk of a small jalopy by four grown men. This is the thread of the film’s bizarre logic: the film is built on various polite perversions of consumerism/ing. It’s found in the Coke of the couple before they careen to their death; the steer being effectively “eaten” by one of the first cars we see; the way the townsfolk dismantle wrecked cars like ants on a carcass. The first shot of Arthur and his brother are of them eating by the side of the road. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, only one dog is people and the other are the cars.

After the wreck that kills his brother, Arthur wakes up in a hospital with a mysterious despot of a headmaster, who wastes no time playing psychological experiments on him – asking him to name objects from a series of photos, but interspersing pictures of car wrecks and his brother’s freshly mutilated carcass among the pictures. This scene ends with the doctor receiving some canned fruits from a nurse: “Oh, you’ll spoil me,” he says whimsically. Arthur is horrified. The Doctor is a schizoid.

The rest of the town shows some cursory sympathy to poor Arthur, but there is an ulterior motive behind their actions. At a town meeting, the Mayor (played by seasoned character actor John Meillon) tells the men ominously, Arthur will stay. “He’s a Parisian, now.” Every member of the community greets Arthur outside the courthouse like the villagers from The Wicker Man, and participate in his brother’s funeral. The Hearse leads the villagers like a shepherd to slaughter. During the eulogy, the Priest decries the fate that brings men to their untimely demise with these damned automobiles.

Only it’s not fate. It turns out each of the villagers has some kind of agenda or hatred of cars, and have built various psychological traps along the roads leading into the village, like a bug zapper. The people salvage all the goods in the vehicles; while the mad doctor performs experiments on the survivors (if there are any). It’s a curious arrangement of casual societal madness. Only every once in a while, the town youth cause a ruckus in their demolition derbies, various freaks of technology culled from the murdered cars. They are like the car undead – reminding the peaceful villagers of their bouts of nighttime sadism – and they must be disposed of. When they finally step out of their cars late in the movie, they look like Western villains – we’ve entered into a technological Wild West in the Outback.

Arthur is made the town Parking Officer (he has a deathly fear of cars, thanks to an earlier vehicular manslaughter charge), which angers these young ruffians and their zombiemobiles. Each side escalates their violence against the other – the cars destroy the Mayor’s lawn; he burns one of the cars in murderous immolation; one of the drivers kills the village priest. It’s this moment that is particularly difficult to find an emotion as a viewer. The kid (Bruce Spence, in one of his first roles) strolls proudly into town wearing a bloody clerical collar, and the priest’s corpse is revealed in particularly gruesome fashion. Is this a joke anymore?

Cars are not just a family-friendly animated series, but a longstanding societal fetish. Ford’s Model-T drove American industry to world leadership; cars become the status symbol of the post-War American middle class. During the war, its vehicles were already talking, a cocombatant in the fight against Evil. Cars then became synonymous with rebellion, notably, a coconspirator in death in Rebel Without a Cause and Pit Stop. But something happened in the 1970’s – cars turned against their makers. Duel, The Car, Vanishing Point, Mad Max. Soon they were personifying our worst fears, whether it was puberty in Christine or sexual perversion in Cronenberg’s Crash. The Cars That Ate Paris came just at the tipping point from good to ill, possibly when the idealism of society itself fell apart – cars were the mirror. As the film begins, Weir carefully chooses his “Directed By” card superimposed on an image of a gas attendant sipping a Coke, flanked by signs like, “Arrests!”, “Big Oil Price Rise Coming”, “Love Baby Mother to Wed”, “Financial Crisis: Pope Prays.” This world is steeped in pessimism, wars and rumors of wars, real and imagined.

The film’s climax – where the town goes to hell during the most depressing town ball you’ll ever see – apparently inspired Roger Corman to make Death Race 2000, which is not a surprise given Corman’s wiles. But The Cars That Ate Paris may have more in common with Paris, Texas than Corman’s film or their inbred offspring (like the Twisted Metal video game series). Weir’s film is actually a careful examination of smalltown Australian life – the mild insanities communities sometimes participate in to survive, especially in a place just on the edge of disaster. The Mayor often invokes the Pioneer Spirit to justify his crazed actions (at a town meeting he quotes from an American President, but forgets just which one; the Sheriff holds up one of the Mayor’s racist lawn ornaments to the young hooligans after their rampage, “Look! You busted the Mayor’s Aboriginal!”) – which underscores the idea that they are on a mental threshold, not a physical one. When the cars come crashing into Paris, Australia, the “sane” members of the community are dancing at their ball with inmates of the psych ward – one of them in blackface, but all of them victims of their vehicular destruction. Weir’s direction is on point yet measured – just shy of anarchy. It seems to mirror the very subjects of these early films, which also includes The Last Wave and Picnic at Hanging Rock. The unifying theme is madness, kept at a distance by decorum.

The righteous retribution that ensues is, like the rest of the film, odd. It is rather tepid. The most famous car – the silver, spiked one, like a Knight decked out for a Crusade – gets one good moment to impale a good member of the community on its hood. But mostly, the cars destroy the town’s things, its outward trappings, and not its people. Like the now toppled Town Hall, the house of cards has fallen. The people scramble to gather their things and escape the town, on foot. Only Arthur, the victim once scared of vehicles, drives his car out of town. He murdered a car in the battle, and lost his fear. Arthurs mastery of himself mirrors his mastery of the car he drives – his animalistic instinct subdued, as he drives himself out of town. At least, for now.

A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 27): The Blood Drinkers (1964)

At the risk of sounding grandiose and literary, there truly is something to celluloid itself as an evocative medium. What I mean is, film has texture. It makes its presence known. It shows its age over time; it has a three dimensional quality to it that acts on the subconscious like a stereogram: if you cross your eyes, perhaps something will pop out. When the grain of film matches a moonless night, or backlit fog, it speaks volumes in silence. To best appreciate The Blood Drinkers is to embrace the evocative character of film itself. The medium elevates the material.

The Blood Drinkers is unmistakably a Filipino horror feature – its correct title is Kulay dugo ang gabi, aka Blood is the Color of Night, but neither title is really wrong. Although it is the first Filipino horror film shot in some color, that junk was expensive, so much of the film is shot in black and white but tinted into various monochromatic hues. The effect is directly addressed within the movie as a narrative device – it is, as a film schooler would say, diagetic. When the presence of the evil Dr. Marco and his vampiric minions reach proximity of the characters, the film itself will shoot to blood red, and the characters themselves will look around and exclaim, “It’s all red!” Tinting is a beautiful mechanism for generating menace, atmosphere, and meaning on a miniscule budget. If Guy Maddin thought of it, we would call it High Art.

So when we are in blue tint, evil has no power; when it is red, Darkness has dominion; when we shoot in color, God’s presence is invoked. Christianity is all over The Blood Drinkers, effecting its ultimate moral and even the reveal of the third act. Such a thing would seem out of place, until you reconcile the fact it is a vampire film, with striking integrity to genre tradition – while adding Filipino tradition to the mixture. The Christian philosophizing and narrative reconciliation seems forced into the narrative when taken out of its context. Indeed, it may turn off modern viewers. But something about its earnestness makes it refreshing (more on that in a moment).

The film is much the same as Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” – a mysterious aristocrat with a penchant for blood arrives on an unsuspecting community, and is stopped in his killing spree by a Van Helsing-ish religion and faith authority figure. But it is also a bit of the Coppola filmed version, as well – the Count (in this case, Marco) has his long lost love as emotional baggage (the voluptuous Katrina), and his aim in The Blood Drinkers is to resurrect their passion, and therefore her. Katrina is a vampire, but barely – she needs a new heart. Who better for a new one than Katrina’s estranged twin sister, Charito?

This introduces what may be the most interesting component of The Blood Drinkers: its tale of deep-seeded familial decay. Charito and Katrina have a mother, Doña Marisa, who is in cahoots with the vampire Marco, and actually wants to see him take Charito’s heart, and have Katrina live as a vampire. As long as Katrina is some kind of alive, that is all that really matters. Like Marco, Doña Marisa is a landowner and local royalty, so has political and social sway over the rural village people, including the police and Charito’s foster parents. When Doña Marisa left to go abroad, she could only take one of the twins – Charito stayed, and Katrina left. It was destiny that brought Katrina and Marco together abroad, but a cruel twist of fate that made it Katrina. One is left to wonder if the same thing would have happened anyway if the names were swapped. Regardless, Doña Marisa has a strange, unsaid contempt for Charito that allows her to offer this daughter for the other.

Soon, Charito starts to wander off at night, and is stalked by a giant rubbery bat – a minion of the evil Marco. She slowly starts to fall under Marco’s spell; the heart has to be turned, too, it turns out. This is made more difficult by the presence of the suave Victor, who is always there to bring her around, and get in trouble with the police in his pursuit of the evil Marco. Victor’s presence is clearly window dressing, but he does have on screen charisma – often resembling Nikkatsu Diamond Guy, Ishihara Yujiro. But despite all his efforts, it is not really he and his buddies that save the day, but the power of God.

The Blood Drinkers has its moments of vibrant color – but interestingly, these are left to un-horror moments of peace and, it is inferred, the presence of God, which in this film, is simply the absence of evil. It is a fascinating device and a kind of madness I have not seen in a film of its kind before. It is holy/wholly (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) unique, and serves the film’s entire climax. After Charito is brought out of her spell by a light exorcism at the church, complete with a heavenly chorus and a Divine Light, Charito urges the Van Helsingish Priest to say a prayer for Katrina. He does – and the whole film changes. The stained glass becomes vibrant, and Dr. Marco seems astonished – he and Katrina look at each other and they exclaim, “We’re free.” They literally frolic in slow motion in the woods and profess their undying love for each other. The film falls back into sin, of course, for its monstrous showdown, but this incomprehensible sequence is framed by the following pontifical narration:

“The power of prayer is beyond our comprehension. For a time it might have appeared that we had conquered and overcome the monstrous evil that was in Dr. Marco.” (emphasis mine)

“Yet there is no power in prayer without faith, and this faith must be in our own selves. And so the Devil again had his way.”

So The Blood Drinkers is often overbearing, sentimental, and frankly bizarre in its narrative execution. Yet, it is religiously a superior picture, trying to say something important in perhaps the worst possible environment. Whatever one may think of this religious turn of events, the cinematography revels in its inky blacks and chiaroscuro; the music is full of synthy goodness; and the memorable images are consistent. To quote from another film, I’m not even mad. I’m kinda impressed.

A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 26): Mindwarp (1992)

Stupidity, chaos, cruelty, pain. Reality, a failure worse than any nightmare. There was no fixing it. Nothing to be done, except… escape. 

These opening words of Steve Barnett’s Mindwarp sit ominously on top of footage of a nuclear explosion. Immediately, they create an internalized space for viewership, triggering more in the intellect than in your emotions. There is no longer a knee-jerk response to the ‘fight or flight’ feeling one would associate with the end of the world – if it were to really, really happen – because by now, apocalypse films are, frankly, blasé. We’ve become strangely accustomed to our own demise, whether this is provided by Dr. Strangelove, Mad Max, or George A. Romero. Part of it, I think, is that on a level of absolute logic, the post-apocalypse genre makes no sense. If there is a true End to All Things, there would be no narrative, because there would be no humans, and no human experience. The contradiction was astutely realized by Stanley Kubrick, as human experience literally ends to Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again”. The next notch down, and probably a better explanation of the genre, is that these texts exist as an apocalypse of the known, giving way to a new, unknown, reality. An old world has ended, and a new one begins – with its own logic and spirit, very naturally at odds with the humans that led us there with the stupidity of their actions. So, the human condition is in conflict with external forces, and has to crawl itself back to the top of the shit heap.

So Mindwarp the film begins with the end of the world and ends with a new beginning. It exists solely within that liminal space between the here and after – but a fairly violent and gory transitional space – both within the mind of its protagonist and in the “physical” “reality” it inhabits. Virtual reality is a primary component of this post-apocalypse. Our main character, Lucy, is introduced by directly addressing a soothing infomercial, and the film’s camera, with a firm, “Bullshit.” She is this internal conflict, manifest. Along with Lucy, we are then transported immediately to the mysterious System Operator, an overseer of-sorts for the manufactured, virtual reality used by the movie’s post-apocalyptic inhabitants.

But Judy, you don’t ever know what you’re fighting against.

We get the foundation of Mindwarp’s narrative from this interchange between Judy and the System Operator. She is unsatisfied with the virtual falsehoods presented to her in this faked reality to occupy her time – there is an intangible something that leaves her unsatisfied. Let’s call it the Human Condition. When she unplugs from the System (Infinisynth – get it?), Lucy does some push ups and tries speaking to her mother, with whom she shares a room, which doesn’t work out so well. Her mother is addicted to her dream state, but Lucy dreams of the outside. The great irony is that Lucy is also addicted to her own state of mind – of escape – she just isn’t aware of it yet.

So it should also be said that apocalypse films, in their exploration of humans coping with the unknown, are really about internalized spaces manifesting externally – often in a threatening posture. It is fairly obvious after The Walking Dead’s weekly bloody soap opera and mass appeal that the zombies in its origin text, Night of the Living Dead, are more about the people encountering the enigma of these undead, and the people coping with other people, as it is about ‘zombies’. At this point in Mindwarp, Lucy interfaces again with Infinisynth (the “plug” to virtual reality is the same as The Matrix – a physical interface in the back of the neck – but apparently, virtual reality was in VGA in the ’90’s) and injects herself into her mother’s dreams. Lucy kills her mom in her virtual reality. But when Lucy wakes up, her mother is dead. It’s all a dream, the System Operator said. You can play God, he said. After this healthy dose of accidental matricide, men in black come into Lucy’s room, bag her, and burn her Infinisynth I.D. She has now been cast out of Paradise, er, I mean, Inworld.

She wakes up on the Earth’s scorched and arid surface, what Inworld was meant to protect her from – a land ravaged by nuclear waste, Outworld. Everything is suspect. There are sinkholes leading to underground caverns full of cannibalistic mutated humans: Crawlers. Other Inworlders, like herself, that are also expelled are left curiously (for cannibals, anyway) crucified on the surface of the planet and bake under particularly harsh nuclear elements. During an initial bout with some nasty Crawlers, the legendary Bruce Campbell comes to save Judy’s day. After an expository montage of them getting to know each other, and fall in love, and establish a home life, they are sieged by Crawlers and Lucy is captured, like Persephone – taken down into the bowels of Hell and the Crawlers’ underground lair; Bruce Campbell’s character Stover dives in like Hermes to save her.

Mindwarp was the first of only three productions by Fangoria Films – the gore and horror magazine’s film production arm – and from what I’ve seen, the clear prestige project for the experiment. Mindwarp is lent a certain cult clout and even grace by the appearance of Bruce and His Chin, as well as the Phantasm himself, Angus Scrimm, in a dual role that is also a spoiler. Both give, unsurprisingly, admirable performances, even under narrative duress. The only time I’ve seen Bruce clearly distressed was in the pre-Samwise Gamgee rape of Die Hard: Icebreaker. There is class especially to Scrimm’s role as the ‘Seer’, a religious leader of an underground community of Crawlers. Himself, a ‘fallen angel’, as it were, from the heaven of Inworld, has become its Lucifer in the bowels of the Crawlers’ underground tunnel system, establishing an unholy religious system that keeps the cannibals placated, its community structured, and himself off the dinner menu. There’s an unsaid Fatherly element to Scrimm’s Seer that is always left unsaid even in moments of sexual nuance between Lucy and himself.

Lucy: I’ve never seen a real book before.
Stover: This is the Bible.
Lucy: I’ve heard of it. But who needs Bibles in Heaven?
Stover: Then what do you believe in? Have you no hope in eternity?
Lucy: If you want eternity, Infinisynth can give it to you. It’s just a sensation. If you want to shake the hand of God, you do it. It’s a program.

So, as Stover navigates the tunnel system, fighting off cannibals in gory fashion to save Lucy, Lucy starts to at least appreciate the Seer’s condition, even if they don’t see eye-to-eye on the religious methodology of grinding people into bloody pools and drinking their blood from hollowed-out skulls. Which is to say, it is a rather magnificent gore film, but its gore is always kept at arm’s length. It is just on the other side of a cartoon, allowing for some breathing room; and actually, some meditation on the surprisingly accomplished narrative themes. This is needed since the majority of the film wallows in these depraved depths, bathed in red and augmented by some truly great makeup work, and some definite emphasis on the color red. You do feel like you’re there too long, and you do feel like you are in Hell.

The film’s conclusion inverts our appreciation of many of our main characters – but what matters is, the Seer gets his appropriate due, after some narrative invention, by falling down the bloody, knife-covered slide, becoming ground meat for his congregation. Lucy escapes, and ends up back at Inworld, to take her Father’s place at the console of illusion for her fellow Dreamers. The whole experience of Mindwarp is an esoteric ritual, combined with the experiential philosophy of the (later, it should be said) The Matrix, but bathed in blood. For me, the gore is simply window dressing. Mindwarp is a straight-to-’90’s-video scholcker on the mind’s post-apocalypse, with an unbelievable fidelity to myth and initiation rituals, hiding beneath poor line readings and gory makeup effects. It’s everything you sign up for when exploring the netherworld of bad movies – because deep beneath the surface, there is so much more than first appears.

A Month Of Horror On the Fringes (Day 23): The Damned House of Hajn (1989)

When times are gone, they are not old, they’re dead. There aren’t any times but new times.

That line comes not from Jirí Svoboda’s gonzo gothic Czech horror The Damned House of Hajn (1989), but Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, which was in my mind nearly the entirety of the picture. What do we have in both but a crazy mother, an imprudent lover, and old aristocracy on the verge of collapse from their misplaced whims and whimsy. Ghosts reappear and madness takes their place in the recesses. The house of Hajn is truly a house of the damned, because it is a house in stasis; like the Ambersons, it is not moving with the times, but stuck in the past. They have so diluted themselves, that when the past comes up to bite them in the ass, they wonder why all the pain is behind them.

After a magnificent, scribbly and mad, title sequence (of a kind with von Trier’s Antichrist, something of a kind with this film) we are introduced to the House of Hajn through the eyes of Petr (Emil Horváth). Bathed in blue and yellow light from unknown sources, the Hajn’s can only be found behind deadbolted lock-and-key; a place beyond, and kept away. When the camera first interacts with our protagonist, he looks directly at it – and it retreats, as if in fear, or playful banter, back up in to the woods. We hear a dislocated voice: What is he looking for? Happiness! it cackles in mockery. The windows of the mansion shatter, and a dove flies forth. Which is to say, something else, besides happiness, succeeds where he will fail.

I cannot begin to describe just how exquisite – and brilliant – Emil Horváth’s cinematography is in this film. Horváth bathes the screen in primaries, then forces them into darkness, a constant violence that adds passion to the movie’s themes. In saturated reds, blues, and yellows, we clearly enter a demented world (like the similarly hued Suspiria) where reality itself must surrender to some furios logic outside our immediate perception – it can only be seen in exaggeration. Meanwhile, the filmed events are often forced against the camera in close-up and ultra wide-angle, but the canvas is larger than that, extending into the background and infinite distance. The events are directly in front of you, and then recede. Like waves crashing on a shore, one is caught in the cadence, but it has a weathering to it. After a while, it is exhausting, and the audience has to concede to what the film’s visuals have to say.

A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 22): Taxidermia (2006)

I first saw Taxidermia nearly a decade ago during its all-too-brief theatrical run, and it’s always been in the back of my mind – frankly, it’s not an easy film to shake. A Gilliam-esque comedy full of Jodorowsky symbolic musings, unsimulated sex, and the most vomit seen outside of Team America: World Police – but for a worthy cause. Its surrealist leanings are bent towards telling the history of Hungary from the Second World War on to the present: its sober message is of a once fertile land perverted by economy, affected by lies, and fallen into irreparable decay. Ultimately, Hungary has become sterile, both in the present and the future tenses. It has embalmed itself – into a kind of waking death.

The film takes the form of a narrative triptych – the first portion begins around the War, in a barren, fog-filled land. We are introduced first to the young soldier Morosgoványi in the dark, with flames coming out of his erect penis. (Immediately, we know it will be that kind of film.) We soon learn he is under the thumb of his superior officer, a stern man with a wife and a temper. To retreat from this living hell, he uses his imagination – he dreams he’s sleeping with the lieutenant’s wife, but he wakes up having made it with the corpse of a pig (both fantasy (?) and reality (?) are shown in unsimulated fashion). The lieutenant shoots him for the grotesquerie of it all. The lieutenant’s son is born with a pig’s tail. This is cut off in hideous detail.

The pig-son, Kálmán, in the second section of the film, becomes a master eater. It has become a sport of national pride – our character Kálmán comes in second in a national contest – he professes his love for his sweetheart Aczél during a post-gorge vomit session. He is sweet on the female champion, and together, after a period of wooing and a short subplot of Kálmán’s getting lockjaw during a speed-eating bout with a Soviet champion, they have a son, Balatony.

Balatony is introduced as a bird defecates on the screen – he is a taxidermist by trade. Balatony is so gangly he’s almost vampiric. His father, the once-great Kálmán, has become an incomprehensibly fat, bloated version of himself – like the fat immortal in Blade, muttering to himself about eating and vomiting technique to his cats and the television. The reconstruction period of Kálmán, the time of plenty, has eaten everything and receded into video and entertainment, leaving nothing for the generation of Balatony, who is uniquely consumed with the idea of death. Kálmán looks down on his son for being skinny – after all, he had a vomiting technique to his name! – while Balatony has done nothing… Eventually, his gluttonous father’s stomach explodes. I’m pretty sure he eats a cat. Now left alone, Balatony accomplishes his life’s work: embalming himself alive, with the help of an apparatus he built. This is an unbearably long, 10-minute sequence of Balatony cutting open his stomach, removing his bowels, and filling himself with chemicals – before, at the very moment of death, his machine chops his head off. (Try seeing this in a theater, where everything is blown up 100 times large.) As the film ends, a museum audience looks blithely upon Balatony’s creation in awe – a taxidermied corpse of his own body, before the camera retreats through his navel.

For which to say the film is working on a different sort of operating table. It is a horror film, sure, if not for its extended periods of gore and general repulsiveness. But it is beautiful in its disgust – framed elegantly, shot acutely (it was entered into the 2006 Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival). But it is easy to see why it has never achieved a DVD distribution deal in America. Taxidermia is superbly unrelenting in its distorted visual correspondences on the social and political horrors it addresses. I would need a PhD in Hungarian post-war history to understand it to its fullest – but that doesn’t necessarily mean I need it. One is able to grasp its themes without being spoonfed, because it is all-too visceral at times.

Taxidermia is particularly transcendent in its use of visual analogy – an emblematic cinema tool of Griffith, Eisenstein and Kubrick – to get its philosophical and political points across, with the juxtaposition of images instead of words. The result is a unique magical realism that marries the true-to-life situations, and the fantasy it presents as this truth – of a kind with Bunuel and Pasolini. It may also be a perfect film, in so far as its images and themes match each other in repulsive harmony. Taxidermia is ripe for critical appreciation and rediscovery – at least, among the certain kind of crowd wiling to risk its sordid rewards.

 

Each day all through October, I’ll be writing my two cents on 31 horror films from the dark alleys, lost highways, and unexpected corners of cinema history. Here’s to the fringes!

A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 21): The Testament of Dr. Cordelier (1959)

Fun fact: the primal tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde arose from a true story. In the late 1700’s, a woodworker of impeccable craftsmanship, one young furniture maker by the name of William Brodie, rose to such professional esteem around his hometown in Scotland, he became Deacon of his local guild – and a man morally untouchable. His honor was in such high standing, local leaders entrusted him with the keys to their estates, so he could go in while they’re gone and touch up the furniture. But Deacon Brodie was also a talented locksmith. How strange was it, then, when their stuff started disappearing under cover of night. This was, as it turns out, thanks to Brodie’s talent for copying keys, and an insatiable coveting of his neighbor’s wares. He was eventually hanged in 1788 (they say, on the gallows he built). Brodie’s was a double life: one of aristocracy by day, and orchestration of nefarious plots with a cadre of miscreants by night. He was a bit of Dr. Mabuse, a pinch of Professor Moriarty. And Robert Lewis Stevenson was aware of the story: as a young boy, an ominous cabinet sitting in his bedroom was crafted by none other than the same villain, Deacon Brodie.

The origin for Stevenson’s novella, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is a bit of this history, and a hint of the legend, but intermingled in a nightmare. Stevenson once told a reporter the idea for the story came to him during a dream, where “all I dreamed about Jekyll was that one man was being pressed into a cabinet when he swallowed a drug and changed into another being.” In the same alchemy by which coal, under enough pressure, can be transformed into a diamond, man, left to his own devices and with enough pressure, can find himself transmutated into another state. It is a curious thing that Stevenson dreamt of a cabinet, and that probably Brodie’s cabinet: an internal hiding place for a person’s external items; a holder of trinkets that can, visually, transform a man naked into a man of means. The source of the Jekyll and Hyde story is an agent built to perpetuate propriety, built by a criminal.

This elemental angle to man’s internal states is what no doubt inspired Jean Renoir’s take on Stevenson’s narrative, with his television film, The Testament of Dr. Cordelier (yikes, remember that Dr. Mabuse name drop, from before?). In other filmed versions of the classic tale (I am thinking primarily of the Barrymore version), the evil in Jekyll personified in Hyde is almost an external force of nature – a demon invited into the heart by weakness in man’s soul, and let loose in the property – the Evil is not, ultimately, his fault. In the aforementioned silent version, Hyde is set upon the sleeping Jekyll as if by a spider casting its web – Jekyll is merely a fly caught in a larger intrigue attacking his spirit. But Renoir gives us no such moral safety net. His Jekyll, Dr. Cordelier, is eventually revealed (in his Testament) to be as despicable as his Hyde, Mr. Opale. Renoir’s version becomes a means to explore the inherent state of human Evil; but here, the pressure, the drug, the catalyst, is social propriety’s suppression upon men, and the violent expression that this eventually reveals. Evil begets evil. The evil in society begets the evil in men.

Renoir’s film begins with Dr. Cordelier (Jean-Louis Barrault) revising his will to leave his inimitable estate to an unknown character – and new assistant – by the name of Opale. Cordelier’s lawyer, Joly (Teddy Bilis), is an old friend so does as he says, but is baffled by this turn of events. Smelling a blackmail attempt, Joly inserts himself into his friend’s plot to save his friend’s reputation, and unravel the relationship between this new assistant of his and the Good Doctor. Within only a few minutes of tailing Opale, the strange, apelike Opale picks up a young girl off the street and beats her with his cane. The brutality of the sequence, really does, come out of nowhere. Which is kind of the point. The tailend of this scene is a chase through the streets, leading straight to Dr. Cordelier’s residence. In the most French propriety moment possible, the lawyer Joly covers for his friend’s assistant – and scandal to Opale’s employer – by paying off the beaten girl and placating the crowd. They see this as virtuous: a girl was beaten, but at least a scandal was averted! “He did a good thing,” says a member of the incensed mob.

Joly eventually comes to one of Dr. Cordelier’s “colleagues”, one emotionally volatile Dr. Severin, who has fallen out with Cordelier over the nature of his experiments. Cordelier’s aim is to unlock consciousness – and change the soul – by introducing an outside agent, allowing his patients to literally change any deficiencies in their preterconscious character. Severin believes consciousness and the soul are one and the same; while Cordelier believes the soul lies somewhere else, and moreover, can be mutated. In a beautiful reversion of dialogue, Severin tells Cordelier he should be “burned at the stake” for “blaspheming” against Claude Bernard, and Charles Darwin, and sophist moralism. Cordelier’s belief offends the gods of science, but not necessarily the Gods.

How little do both the scientists actually know of the eventual transformation from Cordelier into Opale. Renoir’s Hyde is not a man torn in two between Id and Ego, but a perverted harmony between the two. In a tape-recorded statement that frames the second half of the film, after Opale is discovered as Dr. Cordelier by Joly, we learn the whole sordid tale. Dr. Cordelier is a self-hating hypocrite. In a flashback, he rebukes one of his patients from sleeping with the family Maid; but Cordelier is in a love affair with his own. He scolds his colleagues who take advantage of the young girls under their care, but eventually, he succumbs to this temptation (the result hints of rape). His experiments with drugs, hoping to heal these deficiencies in his soul, actually release the part of it in hiding for so long.

Cordelier actually has some unholy agency in his Opale disguise, and it’s this revision of the Jekyll and Hyde story that is most shocking. His slimy charade is merely a physical mask he can use to not get caught for the satisfaction of his innermost, deplorable, state. (At one point we are introduced to Joly’s favorite whorehouse, and what is left unsaid is quite a grave silence for a television film. “He’s a monster,” the girls say.) Opale is not a demonic reflection of the man; just a reflection. Perhaps a reflection through a cleaner mirror.

Renoir made use of minimal sets and a traditional lighting setup for this film, so The Testament of Dr. Cordelier relies instead on the strengths of the moral fable at hand, and the actors to tell it. It took me two viewings to realize Barrault was both Cordelier and Opale, which is a deficiency in my own viewership, perhaps, but also a real compliment to his work. Opale’s physicality, however, is quite troubling – he has a Chaplinesque Tramp buffoonery, but a look that has the subtext of an immigrant caricature. This would not be surprising for a popular production, but it comes from Renoir. So giving the benefit of the doubt, something more is at play. The music cues that fallow Opale on his rampages may be considered humorously out of place, but again, this is Renoir we’re talking about. Perhaps Opale is a bumbling correlative for his society’s worst and most childlike impulses. Regardless, at the end of the film, Barrault gives his Opale a sympathy reserved for a sick and dying dog, one you know you have to put down to save it any more pain.

But there is no such sympathy for Cordelier, and this is probably Renoir’s purpose. It is a clear indictment of the state of society that confines men to untenable standards (a running theme from Renoir works including, Boudu Saved From Drowning, The Grand Illusion, The Crime of Monsieur Lange), but also an indictment of society’s disposition toward leaving the dark corners of men’s spirits unchecked – merely pressing them down into the cracks and recesses, instead of ever truly healing them. Like Jekyll against Stevenson’s cabinet, if you keep pressing, eventually, a man’s true character is revealed.

Each day all through October, I’ll be writing my two cents on 31 horror films from the dark alleys, lost highways, and unexpected corners of cinema history. Here’s to the fringes!

A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 20): The Body Beneath (1970)

Apparently the word auteur gets kicked around a lot when it comes to writer-director Andy Milligan. It’s true that his films have a signature vision, and there are similarities between his films that echo a singular creative impulse – at times, resembling festering neuroses that only filmed drama can appropriately express. But, to echo Milligan’s biggest fanboy, writer-director-Milligan collector Nicolas Winding Refn, Milligan’s films are distinguished “first by their crudeness, and then by how difficult it was to sit through them.” The Body Beneath is possibly one of the crudeness-est, and difficult-est, to sit through of the fringe cinema that Milligan has come to define. It’s quite probably an impossible film to view without drifting into unrelentingly bored distraction; then ennui, then mild contempt. It’s the kind of film that leads you from the first to the third person – encouraging you to drift out of your body. Soon you’re seeing yourself seeing the film, transcended, and wondering just what about it made you escape your body.

It’s remarkable just how little actually happens in The Body Beneath. In the prologue, a young woman is set upon by three vampires in blueface in a graveyard. At the same time, we are introduced to the Reverend Alexander Algernon Ford (Gavin Reed), a man whose clear disdain for others is matched only by the length of his family tree – “Did you know the Fords go back to Roman times? 98 B.C. in fact,” he says with a nasally sneer. “I know everything, Dear Boy.” He is a priest who does horoscopes – and can guess one’s planetary alignment with pinpoint dismissiveness. It’s apparently a source of pride to pigeonhole others so readily into neat, little, tiny boxes. Reverend Ford has come back to town to reopen All Soul’s Church (of course) and Carfax Abbey (doubly of course – a place that only exists in Dracula texts), but it’s clear from the get-go there’s more to his story.

Or at least you hope there is, but we’re thrust into a love scene just when a plot starts to appear. Now it becomes clear that Milligan is more comfortable shooting characters with their clothes off than on. In the throes of passion we are introduced to Susan (Jackie Skarvellis) and Paul (Richmond Ross), two young lovers without too much to go on (I suppose Susan kind of has an Amy Winehouse vibe). Susan is kidnapped by the Reverend for reasons first unknown, and Paul has to save her.

It turns out Reverend Ford is a vampire, and the blood they need can only come from “pure” blood from within the family – rather incestuously so. Over the centuries, the purity of the Ford blood has been diluted through inbreeding. I think. The plot is preposterous, and it doesn’t help that it’s often couched in nonsensical dialogue. Here’s a token piece of narrative fidelity: The Reverend tells his prey at one point, “Words mean nothing, my dear. ACTIONS speak louder!” The very next sentence, he segues into his evil Seven Point Plan! (Like an evil PowerPoint presentation, and just as dull.) There’s a hunchback named Spool who tries to help Susan escape, but he’s discovered and crucified in the garden. The end of the film is a yearly meeting of the Ford souls, including a Caesar, probably in the basement of the Abbey, where they muse about going to America, since the curfews in London don’t encourage their stalking for prey. Spool is fed to the spirits. Susan wakes up a vampire, infests Paul, and they embrace.

It is hard not to see The Body Beneath outside of Milligan’s is-there-isn’t-there homosexuality. I also think it’s safe to say Gavin Reed completely owns the picture with a camp performance that could best be described as a self-hating gay man, whose contempt for others is a thin veil for his own internal loathing. He sees others as a means to an end, parasites; but he’s the vampire. The Reverend acts out a part (much like being a Reverend, now that I think of it) but hasn’t come to accept himself . Even the “courtroom” scene at the end is a kind of trial for Reverend Ford to act out his leadership in the Ford vampire community, and his proposal to exile to America feels half-baked. But if it’s read as a refuge for their status as outsiders, and the filmmaker’s own outsider sexual status, a subtext is found:

“But to go to America?! What is America? What is it made of? Pimps, prostitutes, religious fanatics, thrown out of England but a few short centuries ago. They are the scum of the earth!…”
“Look around you. All of this may end if we do not leave to this new continent. Our relatives living in Canada and America are remarkably healthy specimens. We cannot exist another 100 years unless we bring them into our family.”

But to get back to Refn’s point, this is all accomplished with such cruelty of cinematic form one can barely get to this point without ambivalence. Visuals are collected from dregs of better films, while the narrative propels itself on fumes, according to expected motions. Milligan’s focus was not on making a film that could, through even accidental quality, conceal and augment his own subversive aims – but to give the audience what was expected, and complain about it during the telling. The way it rails against a system, pick one, was the message. So, much like the viewership itself, when you find Milligan’s films angrily screaming against their lot in life, this is probably when they’re most honest.

Each day all through October, I’ll be writing my two cents on 31 horror films from the dark alleys, lost highways, and unexpected corners of cinema history. Here’s to the fringes!