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 19): Incubus (1966)

 

Incubus is a film lost to time. For a while, this was quite literal – from 1966 or so to 1996, no print was known to exist (it was eventually found with forced French subs in the archives of the Cinematheque Francaise, after enough prodding). The story takes place in a mysterious provincial town, Nomen Tuum (looks like Latin, quacks like Latin), wherein there is a well whose water is said to grant youth and beauty. Nomen Tuum could very well be a rural European town now, or 1966, or 1936, or 1636. Inescapably, Incubus is spoken in the intellectual, artificial language Esperanto – so we have no hints of cultural dialogue or inflection. It sounds vaguely Latin, while the whole film looks vaguely Swedish. All we know as an audience is this is a preternatural world is filled with God and demons, malevolent woods and empty churches. The world of Incubus may as well be Atlantis – primal, mysterious, and surrounded on all sides by myth.

Its enigma makes it a perfect vehicle for a simple moral tale. We are introduced to Kia, a succubus and servant of Darkness lurking by Nomen Tuum’s well, looking for stray and desperate souls, leading them to death instead of extended life. Hers, we come to discover, is a forlorn existence – she is unsatisfied only leading the ugly souls to Hell. What about the virtuous and pure? Would the Dark One not prefer to receive an uninvited guest? (I’ll never forget what a film professor, once a Jesuit understudy for the priesthood, once said of the matter: The souls of the Faithful yield the ripest fruit.) Kia’s succubus sister Amael absolutely forbids it – the truly virtuous have an uncontrollable power, Love, that can destroy the naive demonic. Of course she pays no heed, and on her search for a saintly man, stumbles across William Shatner.

People often forget Shatner was an understudy of Lawrence Olivier, and a young Shakespearean actor of promise (did he not reach it?). He had a memorable role in a true filmed masterpiece, Judgment at Nuremberg. Heck, many Star Trek Original Series season one episodes (The Conscience of the King, Balance of Terror, Court Martial) show remarkable restraint for a man known to many now as a cartoon of himself. And Incubus is pre-Star Trek – and therefore a kind of pre-Shatner (if you can’t tell by now, I’m an apologist). His presence is overwhelming to the film now, because Shatner is such a youthful force, but here without that characteristic self-awareness that currently defines him. I’m no Esperanto enthusiast, though, so whatever mistakes he does make (apparently, “native” speakers hate this film) fade into that archetypal cadence of his. It works. Shatner succeeds as a leading man, of one so selfless within his surroundings, his integrity becomes the moral wellspring of the movie.

 

It only takes one extended encounter for Kia to fall in love with Marc (aka Captain Kirk), so her sister has to pull out the big guns by summoning an incubus in the dead of night to revenge her now sullied depravity. The pithy yet dense dialogue, inverted to call attention to the perversion of perversion, is a standout – full of all the subtleties of great moral myth (and Bergman films, from which Incubus unapologetically apes). So, Milos Milos rises from the ground as our titular character, and soon, Hell breaks loose on Marc and his poor sister, Arndis. Incubus is most difficult at this point, because its Satanic Black Mass, involving the unsuspecting Arndis, is so despicable and potent it detracts from the major themes of light and darkness found throughout the film. There’s so much beauty, Hell appears as a confusing aside.

Here the themes come into greater focus. Kia begins as a blind servant of the Lord of Darkness, but by the end, proclaims, “I belong to the God of Light!” in her own struggle with Hell’s minions. Meanwhile, Arndis begins in the light but, after looking at an eclipse although told not to, loses her sight and becomes more comfortable seeing in darkness (alluding to her fall, which is fairly callous since it has no moral grounding. Like Kia’s turn, it is derived from superficiality and naivety). Marc is driven to murder in self-preservation against the incubus (not self-lessness), while the incubus has to feign failure in order to succeed. It is a lot of subtext for a short, subtle picture, supported by keen black and white cinematography by none other than the legendary Conrad Hall (In Cold Blood, Cool Hand Luke, Fat City). The film’s short shooting schedule inspired quite a bit of visual inspiration – one of its more striking moments is Kia knocking down the camera in her haste out of a church (the kind of thing later picked up by Darren Aronofsky, who explores similar themes). The first murder by Kia of a wayward soul, pressing his face into the sea before burying him with one hand sticking ominously out, is striking. She is like a child, building a sandcastle; but a child of death, not yet come of age. It also reeks of The Seventh Seal.

The isolated plot, place, and space is no doubt the doing of Leslie Stevens, Incubus‘ director and the creator of The Outer Limits. At times it feels like the Fantasia for the man behind The Zanti Misfits – of a kind but aiming for a much higher artistry. There are many detractors of Incubus – its Esperanto’s not quite right, it came after Milos Milos’ scandal and death, it’s too copycat, it has William Shatner – but gosh darn it, I like this movie. The unapologetic simplicity of it all, with no special effects of note, no gruesome gore, no scandalous monster (just a goat head), fits just right. Film economy goes a long way. And 50 years on, its economy is refreshing.

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 18): The Demon (1978)

I’m drawn to genre film because I am often terrified by chamber dramas. Nothing is more awkward – and direct – like a room full of people with malice and selfish motivations, fueled by desire, setting to destroy one another in the banalist terms. Polanski’s Carnage, for example, I could barely sit through (but two days ago, I sat through BoardingHouse!). The focused intensity of everyday experience is terrifying for me – it is immediate, yet so within the realm of possibility. So when it comes to horror cinema, there are the everyday subgenres I am completely accustomed to by now, such as the Horror of the Apocalypse (“End of the World”), the Horror of the Mind / Psychological Horror (“End of Oneself”) and the Horror of the Others (“End of Others”). But what of the Horror of the Everyday (“End of Existence”)? I can barely handle it. Without monsters, zombies, occultists, slashers, terrorists, ghosts, spectres, witches, demons, haunts, or aliens, what terrible outside force can we appropriate horror to, and then easily dismiss? The shortest answer is, we have only look to ourselves for evil, and these works force us, as best we can, to transcribe the Hyde we see in the mirror to the Jekylls we are. It is a terrible proposition. So although The Demon is not what could be called a horror film per se, it is one of the undiscovered masterpieces of horror, because it is a masterpiece of everyday horror – a horror on parenthood, and on children not as the object of horror, like a Bad Seed or an Omen, but its subject. It is the kind of horror you see in the park or at Disneyland, at a restaurant or on the bus or (heaven forbid) with your friends, when you witness the release of Id onto the impressionable psyche of children, and pretend you don’t see. Because social propriety says that’s none of your business. It was once said it takes a village to raise a child, but The Demon makes the saying fade deep into impossible mythology.

The Demon begins with Kikuyo, a clearly exasperated single parent with three young children – an older, rambunctious boy Riichi, a young daughter, and small toddler. She is on the search for something in a strange, unknown village. We come to find her at the steps of the Takeshita Printing company – a small mom and pop operation in the shadows of a burned building. Under the cover of night, she storms the place with the three kids in tow. Soon, we get the backstory: she is the mistress of the owner of the place, Sokichi (Ogata Ken). Sokichi and Kikuyo have a row outside, but Oume, Sokichi’s wife, invites her inside. To Oume we get the backstory – Sokichi has been meeting Kikuyo on the side for seven years, the three children are probably his, the hush money / child support stopped flowing her direction, and she can’t take care of their kids any longer. As they stay the night, Sokichi tries to plead and/or have sex with Oume but she pulls a knife on him. Kikuyo leaves as if a spectre from some traditional Japanese ghost story, and the unhappily wedded couple are stuck with the kids. Kikuyo is never seen again.

There is a brief period where the couple tries to care for the three children, but this doesn’t last long. Oume starts to personify her hate of the mistress onto the three kids, in particular the oldest, Riichi. “He’s evil,” she says to his face. “He looks just like his mother.” She takes to beating them mercilessly – during one beating off-camera, even the hired hand says, “That’s like living in hell.” The whole while, Sokichi does nothing and subjects his children to this abuse. Eventually, out of hate for her situation, Oume ends up force feeding the toddler, and he’s hospitalized. But at least he’s out of the way. The reprieve gives Oume an idea… her gaze later turns from the sleeping toddler in their home, eating and sleeping away their precious funds, to a blanket she’s putting away. There are moments of intense pause, intercut with scenes of Sokichi’s printing business failing. Soon the youngest, the toddler, has suffocated in his sleep.

At this point you know where the film is going although you really hope you’re just making it up. As the two surviving older kids water their younger brother’s grave, the whole gravity hits you. Children are remarkably resilient, brave, and resourceful. Adults are frail, weak, and cowardly. Oume has become a kind of Evil Godmother, and the three kids are the three fantastical trials of legend… that must be overcome. To save their finances, their sanity, and their marriage, Oume and Sokichi spend the rest of the film wrestling with – and removing – the two remaining children from their lives. It is done from their perspective in all its Hitchcockian perversity. The Demon’s director Nomura Yoshitaro is not well-known in the West, but is very much so in his native Japan, where he ended up making a name for himself in very Hitch-esque mystery thrillers like Zero Focus and Castle of Sand. The Demon may be his most accomplished piece, though: a hat-trick of audience manipulation, and domestic, awkward terror. Nomura lets his leads (especially the incomparable Iwashita Shima as Oume; the same Iwashita of Harakiri, An Autumn Afternoon, Silence and Himiko, among distinguished other works) and Ogata wallow in self-imposed pity and self-righteous hatred in a manner that scares the bejeezus out of us because we’ve seen it before. When Sokichi finally results to violence to rid himself of his eldest son Riichi, you’re not at all surprised. And that scares you deep down.

But like Abraham and Isaac, this sacrifice is spared miraculously, but there is no supplemental Lamb – eventually, the game is up on the gangly Sokichi. Here, Ogata looks twenty years older here than he would in the rather contemporaneous Vengeance Is Mine, where he plays a more overt force of pure, Biblical evil. It’s a true salaryman nightmare, and behind his every gaze are a thousand lost opportunities. It is a performance of grace, covered in blood and dirt and hate. The performances carry the picture, but Nomura’s framing and use of middle-and background is equally impeccable, building tension in harmony with the dialogue in front. Sound design is confined, as if trapped in the wall of the screen – the children’s innocence, meanwhile, is kept personified in a music box from their mother – the only real gift in the film. Its tinkle sounds like Grieg’s Peer Gynt, just a few notes off. Now, it sounds most like Williams’ Harry Potter theme song, which is way, way worse.

On that note, the Demon of the title is never quite explained – but that could be because it is a subtle mistranslation. The kanji “鬼畜” for the title is not necessarily the overt “demon” we Westerners think of as demons, like Oni (鬼), although the symbol is certainly involved. But it is only one of two characters. The Demon, or the Kichiku, translates to something more of a brutal sadist – it is the character of the demon/oni combined with that of livestock, herd, cattle. The demon in all of us.

At the police station, the detective tells the now-profoundly abused boy, on his way to the orphanage to cheer him up:

“The place where you’re going is filled with children like you.”

The Demon The Film now becomes a mouthpiece of Japanese social ills: there is a recapitulation scene of some grander moral psychological message, blah, et al. No one’s listening at this point – it’s like trying to explain away Norman Bates’ state of mind after he’s caught in Psycho. We’ve seen all we need to see – any scholarly explication is an insult to our intellignce.

So we get one. On his way to the orphanage, the child care nurse tell the young boy, “You’re a man, be strong,” and the irony sticks in the back of your throat like sandpaper. He’s strong, but he’s no man. Where he’s going, there is no return. The nurse waves like she’s seeing a friend to the airport. Every life has been ruined, and the boy cries – there is no adult to save him from his future. His coming reality is far, far worse than where he’s been.

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 17): The House of Seven Corpses (1974)

The House of Seven Corpses has one of my favorite horror movie beginnings, and one of my favorite endings. The beginning is legitimate; the ending is purely a matter of personal taste. As the title credits roll, we are introduced to the ghostly denizens of some unknown estate – a zoom into their portraits before each character’s grisly murder. Then we find an empty canvas, ominous music, and a black candle illuminating Gayle Dorian (played by Faith Domergue – one of Howard Hughes’ former flames). She says some random words that are tangentially esoteric and/or spiritual. Ah, yes – a satanic ritual. The candles disappear and then reappear (an effect I do not believe was intentional). Domergue really gives it her all, screaming and stomping on some unseen demon’s face. The scene runs entirely too long. Right before she blows her brains out, a voice from out of frame: “That’s not how it happened. Put that down. Cut the scene!”

This is one of the first forays into meta-horror I can think of (here, a film crew accidentally conjures the dead while making a film about conjuring the dead), with an almost whimsical tone that has no place for little things like facts. Those random words during the seance? These are merely cobbled together from not-scary sources. The whole instigator of the plot, the Tibetan Book of the Dead (aka the Bardo Thodol, ‘Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State’) is apparently what causes the shenanigans in the first place, but anyone who’s read it (including myself) knows full well its purpose is not to resurrect the dead. Far from it. When the characters in The House of Seven Corpses read from it, they read Latin chants and Hebrew names, which is so patently hilarious it reaches a point that is disarming, and hell, practically charming.

In this way the film is almost a love letter to cheapo programming fare, knowing exactly what it’s gotten itself into. The film comes at a turning point in horror cinema, well after independent distribution came off the rails but just before the home video revolution opened the floodgates. It’s like a last breath of a certain style of horror cinema. But one made in a way that isn’t scary much at all. And this passing of the torch is led by the film’s three leads: the director-within-the-film is played by John Ireland, the proprietor is none other than John Carradine, and the aging star-lover is of course Domergue. (Apparently, Ireland smoked marijuana nearly the whole production; Carradine, in dapper form, would put on a suit and tie after the day’s filming and drink himself to sleep at the bar, telling the crew Hollywood tales of yore.) The relationship between Ireland’s director and Domergue’s lover-actress is fraught with this tension of fading movie stars, better times, and lost opportunities. The casting is a coup. As Ireland says skimming the Tibetan Book of the Dead left on the premises: “Well, it’s garbage, but it’s better garbage than what the writers gave us.” The film succeeds in these quieter moments, because the extra-cinematic weight of the leads is heavy, indeed.

Once the lights go down, members of the set start to get picked off, as well as the actress’ cat. The film makes no functional distinction between the horror onscreen for the film-within-the-film – with its slight mugging and camp – and the actual film we are watching. The music cues are very much the same, the jump scares fall in line. When Domergue discovers the remnants of her now-dead cat, she’s on camera in a scene (her scream will most definitely make it into the final cut). A real, important death happens concurrent to the death of a dumb, fake one – and when the actor begins to bludgeon one of the actresses for the shot, we are left with some anxiety as to whether a character died for their Hammer ripoff. It is almost as if the director is orchestrating the real horror, while the real horror takes over the production. We’ve gone passed the point of truth or fiction.

Director Paul Harrison does an admirable job wrangling the meta-logic of The House of Seven Corpses while leaving the usual stuff (gore, frights) by the wayside. The film makes great use of color and darkness (not unlike the Hammer films it mocks), thanks to the rather spacious and objectively odd locales of the Mormon Church’s Historical Society as its backdrop (!!). But the bombastic music really sets the tone. It’s outrageous. For me it seems to purposeful, as if it’s a form of humorous self-mockery.

The ending is a personal favorite of mine simply because the nonsensical reveal of the true villain is directly related to my own family history. As the name of the evil character and last of the seven corpses (or whatever) is finally revealed, I immediately had to message the person under suspicion. You finally found out! he replied in text. Then the film’s director gets killed with an Arriflex.

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 16): BoardingHouse (1982)

Early on in BoardingHouse (aka The Hoffman House) there is a moment where some random dude we don’t really care about starts to writhe because of some supernatural horror guided by an unknown hand, and all of the sudden his guts miraculously appear on the outside of his body. He holds them knowingly to the camera (which, I suppose, is totally something I would do if I saw my guts all of the sudden) before collapsing ever-gingerly backwards. It’s so funny, I found myself laughing out loud. Pretty soon, there are women in bikinis prancing about a pool like they’re in either a sitcom or a porno, while the house is starting to kill people with poltergeist activity, and a sleezeball executive tries to keep them all together. Leave it to a film like BoardingHouse to make me revisit Linda Williams’ seminal essay, “Film Bodies: Gender, Body and Excess.” To both butcher and summarize Williams’ thesis, there are three ‘body genres’: pornography, horror, and melodrama, and each of these fantasies is acted out to varying degrees of bodily response (cumming, bleeding, and crying, respectively) in order to perpetuate and release tensions related to gender/sexualized anxieties. So they’re all of a kind, but accomplish their sensations at different stages of emotional release (“on time”, “too early”, “too late”, ideally, er, I mean respectively). BoardingHouse made me both reflect and perhaps even question this thesis. There is no doubt that the film is absolutely all three of these genres thrown into the blender of cinematic no-budget invention. But BoardingHouse made me do one thing Williams never mentioned: laugh. To laugh is always the correct audience response to the unsuspected, the outlandish, and the unknown – a response common to elements found in all three of the above. Perhaps laughter is hidden beneath all these of these body genres, and keeps them united. I don’t know what else possibly held BoardingHouse together – a film of such rare confusion laughter seems the only appropriate response.

It starts off well enough. BoardingHouse uses… wait for it… Horror Vision! As the announcer says, when you hear this sound or see this image, something too gruesome for words will appear! This is for the safety of the theater owners and distributors, they say. It’s for your health, they say. Sure, you say with a knowing smile. Then we get the background of the story from a talking computer like we’re plugged into the terminal in Verhoeven’s Robocop. Some famous occultists owned a house and committed suicide in said house, and then people started dying when they move in. I wonder why. And, it begins with my own personal worst fear: a hand pureed in the garbage disposal.

This whole attitude, when combined with its old-school, impetuous title card, is dare I say charming. It’s a charm that lasted about 45 minutes in, then something else started to happen. By then we get our cast of characters: the new owner of the establishment, Jim (writer/director/man of mystery with four credited names John Watergate/Johnn Watergate/Hawk Adley/Hank Adley), a student of Trump-era business tactics, real estate, and taste in women; the mysterious Gardner (see: Jim), a Vietnam vet with a peevy eye; and a bunch of girls. I truly wish I could tell you the characters’ names, but frankly I don’t think the film cares that much. Two rise to the top: let’s call her the Blonde, who is the initial love interest and has a unique pull to the house’s powers; and the other one the Brunette (played by Kalassu/Kalassu Kay/Mrs. Watergate), who then takes an interest in the owner Jim and starts to develop powers of her own. I almost forgot, Jim is developing some telekinetic powers, and at his prompting, the Brunette rents some books from the Los Angeles Public Library and starts to get pretty good at it, too.

The BoardingHouse starts to attack people by dropping electronics in bathtubs and causing hallucinations of pig heads and bloody showers and eyes poking out. In the meantime, the girls plan a party and sleep around and rub down Jim by the pool. Frankly, I was bored (in a way, I still am) but that’s because BoardingHouse doesn’t really have characters or a narrative to latch onto. Call it an anti-narrative. The film forgets whole people and places and thoughts it once had. That doctor who holds his entrails at the beginning? My days consist of watching films and I could not tell you what he’s doing in this movie. I’m fairly certain BoardingHouse even forgets to add the shock image and sound when people die. So it is also an anti-aesthetic. I would say it’s half-baked but I’m pretty sure that’s precisely what they were when they made this. It’s almost talented how this movie can be put together in a way where the audience’s remembering of scenes – during viewing – make them question their present reality.

The director’s cut is almost three hours long, and I was simply not brave enough on my first go to fall into that much of its wacky wonderland of woe. Much of it is visually and musically offensive (ah, 1979). The score sounds like it was crafted when a guy passed out on a keyboard and his cat ran across the keys. The film’s no-budget background (the first horror film shot on video, apparently) and, let’s call it, laissez-faire approach to cinematography, direction, acting and story, lends BoardingHouse that feeling of watching a porn director’s evening home movies, shot ad hoc while rehearsing for a horror film after the working day was done. It is, literally, a bunch of scenes strung together, almost tenacious in their banality. It is horror film on a bender, revealing a happy drunk. I laughed, I cried, a jump cut worked, and the whole time, I was trying to figure out just what the heck was going on. If that was the goal, it succeeded with commendations.

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 15): Frailty (2001)

Nothing so clearly discovers a spiritual man as his treatment of an erring brother.
-Augustine

Frailty may be the best-released of the films covered in this personal series, but I believe it has never been given proper due. A horror film with God’s wrath as a theme, nostalgia as a backdrop, and kids having their innocence shattered with a series of grisly murders is already a difficult proposition. And being a horror film released two short months after the 9/11 terror attacks is an almost impossible burden. There was little reason for most audiences to reach out to Frailty’s fairly unsettling depravity; the world was already overwhelmed with it. There were a dwindling few positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave it a fairly rare 4 of 4, praising its obstinate vision (“Perhaps only a first-time director, an actor who does not depend on directing for his next job, would have had the nerve to make this movie. It is uncompromised. It follows its logic right down into hell”). But a quick pass at aggregate sites and other reviews take the film to task for two main reasons: placing children in such a brutal and unforgiving mindscape; and its third act theological reveal. The latter is precisely why I praise Frailty; the former makes this a palpable vision. Frailty takes a cold, dead look at the farthest extent – the tenuous edges – of faith and the nature of sin (and therefore, evil) in daring ways that makes everyone uncomfortable with its conclusions.

In an idyllic Texas suburb, young brothers Fenton (Matt O’Leary) and Adam Meiks (Jeremy Sumpter) live a quiet life with their father (also the film’s director, Bill Paxton, in his only directorial credit), an auto mechanic of modest but not poor means. Without warning, in the middle of the night, he wakes the two kids with an extraordinary tale: God, by way of an Angel of the Lord, came to him in a Vision. He has set the family on a path of righteous vengeance. Their task: to kill demons, hiding behind the guise of everyday people, set onto the Earth by Satan to prepare for the coming Judgment Day. The slightly older Fenton is immediately skeptical, and clearly scared of his Old Man’s twisted word choice. The younger and (possibly) more impressionable Adam believes his Father in fawning reverence. “So we’re like superheroes?” he asks Dad. There is a pause.

“That’s right. We’re a family of superheroes who are going to help save the world.”

“So, what are our superhero powers?”
“Well… we can see the demons, when other people can’t. And the Angel told me that God would be sending us three weapons to destroy them with.”

Paxton reads all such lines with a peculiar melancholy that is difficult to shake (even Moses was reluctant with his Call). But whether you are Christian or not, his words do not pass the smell test. God asking a modest family with two young boys to kill, I mean, “destroy” demons? But is God not Love? We soon see that these demons look like humans and die like humans. The three weapons are two garden gloves, a steel pipe, and an axe. Their task is to hack these demons to death.

This holy war is principally “off” for Christians for a few glaring reasons. Principally, aforementioned: God is Love, a refrain repeated in both the Hebrew (Exodus 34, Psalm 89, Daniel 9, Micah) and Christian (nearly all of 1 John, Galatians 5, the very nature of the Gospel) scriptures. The worldly appearance and violent dispatching of the demons is a direct contradiction to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms). So Biblically, it doesn’t make sense (admittedly, from a certain point of view). If you are not a believer, the above doesn’t have to apply. There is no Christian God, no Vision, and no Demons. This is sociopathic killing hiding behind religious fervor – a theme, perhaps, too easy to grasp and understand.

Involving children. This is, again, where the film loses people. Adam and Fenton are implicated at all times in his father’s actions, and witness his ‘destruction’ of these demons in the shed behind their house. Before he sends them back to Hell, the father Meiks is supposed to lay hands on them – this reveals their true sins and heinous acts, giving him the strength to chop their heads off with his axe. The boys are used as bait during the demons’ ensnaring, and are witness to this hand-laying ritual as well as the destruction of these wretched souls. It is later revealed that the young Adam can see these visions alongside his father; the older Fenton cannot. His lack of faith has blinded his powers. During one of the Angel’s appearances to the father, the Angel said that Fenton is also a demon, and the father needs to kill the son (see: Abraham and Isaac). Instead, father Meiks tries to turn his son back to the true faith by locking him in the cellar. This doesn’t turn out so well, when Fenton fakes his newfound faith, going slightly mad with hunger and hate, and turns against his Dad with terrible consequences.

All of this is technically flashback – Frailty takes place in the present day, recited by the now-adult Meiks (now Matthew McConaughey) to FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe). McConaughey believes his adult brother is the “God’s Hand Killer,” a serial killer whose modus operandi sounds strikingly similar to all of the above. The flashback framing device, set against the use of visions and even a hallucinogenic state or two, plants a powerful seed of unreliability in the audience. Things are left curiously unsaid by McConaughey; sometimes, he knows too much. The plot twists to a conclusion that angers everyone…

…that the events in the film are really guided by God. While the unreliable perspectives of the camera can be interpreted to be logically falsified and dismissed, there is one crucial moment near the end of the film (punctuated by a Dolly zoom, better known as the Vertigo effect) that says, without a doubt, that the Meiks were truly protected by God, all the murders were Divinely sanctioned, and the film’s gruesome events were part of a larger Holy Mission. Here we are back to a believing audience and the non-believing audience: if you call yourself Christian, this is deeply disturbing, bringing a host of questions about the character of God and the nature of faith to surface. If you do not believe, well, Frailty just told you you should. And this can be infuriating.

It’s a similar (but not identical) conclusion to those drawn in God Told Me To and Knowing – that the spiritual powers working behind the scenes in the film can no longer be dismissed. They must be addressed. But addressing these issues plainly and without emotion can be trying – especially when presented as a bait-and-switch in a horror movie. The vehicle of the message is so unsuspecting, I could empathize with those who never wanted to be asked these questions in the first place. But Frailty goes there, all the way there, whether you want it to or not.

This hurts all the more because Frailty is such a carefully crafted film – the young leads are empathetic the entire way through, and the camera placement and movement is often beautifully understated (in the scene where Dad reveals his Vision to his two sons, the camera slowly pulls back from Fenton’s point of view, although he is stationary in bed. He is drifting spiritually and emotionally apart from his family – a subtlety better left unsaid). In crucial early moments, you realize the kids are literally surrounded by churches and Bible schools and Christian iconography, hiding in plain suburban sight. In one scene, when Fenton enters the house after a day of punishment, his father and brother are surrounded by darkness in the living room, yet bathed in a single stream of “holy” light – from the television. The use of browns and reds at night surrounded by black, in contrast to cool and steady daytime scenes, are used to invoke a real Hell, now visible to the initiated. Or hiding from those who simply do not wish to see. And this truth is what Frailty really understand about cinema, which often goes unsaid: what you see is what you get. Film’s gaze is literal. If you see a dream, it happened in the mind. If you have an unreliable narrator, this is their subconscious at work. When you see a Vision from God – God has spoken.

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
-John 3:36

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 14): God.com (1998)

A couple years ago I went through a prolonged, impulsive Anthony Chau-Sang Wong period bordering on delirious obsession. It is easy to do. One minute you’re watching him as a steady, virtuous police captain in Infernal Affairs, then you’re seeing him freewheel into his comic supervillain routine in Heroic Trio. Before you know it, you’re watching him as a demented serial rapist spreading ebola and cannibalism in The Ebola Syndrome or as a god come to life in the best gonzo cameo I have yet witnessed in the criminally underrated Jiang hu: The Triad Zone. It can happen to anyone. This was a deep rabbit hole, though, given the rather prolific nature of Hong Kong cinema production – soon I strayed ever further away from Johnnie To’s gangster film classics into a darker and dirtier back alley of a more insipid breed of film. Be warned, intrepid explorers. Anthony Wong is the only reason I ever found myself to God.com. The title was a bonus – delightfully enigmatic and indescribable. How disappointed I was to discover not only is there no website – or Internet – at all in God.com, but it wasn’t even scary. Heck, it’s hardly a movie.

Not that it doesn’t try. The title sequence sets the film off to a running start – of a mysterious man arrested, as he chips away with a knife in flash cuts at an Icon of Christ, who bleeds until a ribcage is exposed (!!). Then it tries to have a plot, which is its greatest failing. Officer Chan (Louis Koo, apparently slumming it before his big break) is on the case of a Doomsday cult of sorts – the typical kind, you know, with a clearly nefarious, charismatic leader who local people follow blindly while he siphons their personal savings and they get to look forward to the End of the World. He calls himself the Pope and his church is The Church of the True God. There are moments of surrealism alluding to his mystical hold over people – he may be using animal magnetism, it may be hypnotism. Whatever it is, it is not explained fully enough to be anything other than infuriating, a device used by the plot to get itself out of a jam when it confuses itself.

See, it turns out Officer Chan’s parents died along the same lines of the current victims, which are now linked to The Church of the True God. When of course, he is placed in charge of the investigation into the group suicide linked to this cult, he enlists the help of the person in charge of his parent’s case, the eccentric Officer Chiu (our Anthony Wong), an “expert” in the “occult”. With his few books and posters and lines of indecipherable dialogue, he comes off as more of a Youtube disciple of Fox Mulder than an expert in the paranormal. As a matter of fact, he mostly insults people instead of contributing to the story in any meaningful way. Chan also turns to the leader of the previous cult (the Pope was his disciple) in a kind of advice mode clearly Hannibal Lecter in overall approach. He also seems to have an obvious conflict of interest.

Instead, a roommate of one of the current victims, Blonde Ying (actress Grace Lam – whose IMDb is mostly mid-tier smut like Emmanuelle in Hong Kong and Tortured Sex Goddess of the Ming Dynasty) is persuaded by Officer Chan to help by… infiltrating the cult to uncover the Pope’s dark secrets, and becoming his confidant. It is a rather tasteless move, because whatever respect you are trying to have with either character is thrown out the window. Chan appears heartless, throwing her into the lion’s den, and Blonde (what a name) will of course be hypnotized/brainwashed to become one of the Pope’s sexual playthings. Chan now has to save her. It’s like Notorious without feeling.

The film really falls off the rails here. I’ll even forgo the fact that God.com seems blissfully ignorant of Christian iconography and its appropriate use – even in horror cinema. The beginning of the third act is one extended sex sequence or such poor taste it is mind-shatteringly repulsive. So goes: Chan enters The Church of the True God, Chan falls under the Pope’s weird, never-explained spell, Blonde is crucified on a cross, Chan finds himself having sex with Blonde against both their wills; then Blonde turns into his mother mid-coitus after some throat-cutting. It’s one thing to allude to Freudian impulse in movies – film is full of it, of course – another to just show it, especially with such callousness. While you’re trying to recover from the Ew, we get even more scenes of sadism and orgies. In the end, there is a montage of stock footage and the world ends. The soft-porn seance and eventual mass-suicide caused the end of the world, since the Pope was some kind of Chosen One. Yay?

Outside of one or two ideas that never quite take off, a slam-dunk title sequence of heresy (which, let’s face it, is a fluke given the use of Christian imagery in the remainder of the film), and some expressionistic lighting, little here is worth a recommendation. And if you’re here for Anthony Wong, Hong Kong’s Nic Cage, this is his equivalent to Season of the Witch – a dry and embarrassing montage of better films (here, Fallen and Silence of the Lambs and definitely Se7en, which came out the year before. How is it God.com looks 20 years older than Se7en?) strung along to satisfy a director’s worst impulses. God.com doesn’t even have the accidental charm of Drive Angry. Hell, I may just watch that now, to scrub God.com from my brain.

 

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 13): Axe! (1974)

What is in a name. Director Frederick Friedel’s debut film title, Axe!, is the kind of exploitation title doesn’t just insinuate – it screams there will be at least one gruesome murder, probably with a sharp instrument. Its confrontational nature appeals to a base instinct. But Axe! is also the kind of title whose inherent anonymity doesn’t necessarily stimulate one’s imagination. Friedel’s original working title, Lisa, Lisa, suits the themes a bit better by appealing to that universal curiosity with horror pictures. Its repetition invokes a kind of seance, an invocation of a spirit or idea. If one were to go Biblical, any repetition of a name elevates the person to a position of power. It might also allude to a double identity – two Lisas either at odds or in union. Or no identity at all – the loss of the surname, alluding to an orphan, an outcast; one forgotten and dejected. Trapped. So, there is more to Axe! than one would initially assume, and the reason why I chose this special film for October’s Friday the 13th entry. It may be my favorite of the unsung Video Nasties.

That brings up a point. I’ve been doing my best to figure out just why Axe! was considered to be on the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) 39 list – those that were consistently on every iteration of the DPP list, and successfully prosecuted. By any comparative, salacious measure, it is rather tame. Friedel himself in Nightmare U.S.A. says he took the Hitchcock approach by imparting the more gruesome moments to the audience’s imagination – suggesting rather than showing. There is never any moment of an axe and a person ever actually connecting on camera. But Friedel, through clever ellipses and narrative ambiguity, leaves a lot of unanswered questions and manipulates the imagination in unsettling ways. What probably bothered the DPP (I have been trying to figure out just what was edited for release, but can’t at the moment), is the way we assume things about the lead character Lisa. When interviewed about the film, Friedel says the contemporaneous Los Angeles Times review attacked him for allowing so much depravity towards an underage girl (when Leslie Lee starred in the film, she was 22); the U.K. box synopsis says she’s 13 (more proof that the Video Nasty backlash was more about taming the Wild West of distribution at the time than the films themselves). This is another one of those times where the exact age of the character does not necessary matter – what does matter is how Lisa represents youth and innocence, vis-a-vis what she does with this innocence, and what is done to her.

But we do not even get to Lisa until about 15 minutes into the 65 minute feature. We begin on a stakeout with three hired goons (there is Steele: the depraved, dangerous one; Lomax: the seasoned veteran who has numbed himself to his surroundings; and Billy: the inexperienced, naive one still uncomfortable in his own skin). Dressed in the black-suit-black-tie ensemble, their employer is never quite stated. All we need to know is they are professionals in violence and abuse. There are five glorious, inexplicable minutes of their small talk waiting for their target to show up. Here, the reverberations to Tarantino’s similar archetypes in Reservoir Dogs are inescapably strong. When they do shake down and accidentally kill their target in his apartment, it is all Pulp Fiction. When they eventually retreat to hide out in a random stranger’s house (Lisa’s), only to get their retribution, From Dusk til Dawn comes to light. Axe! is an essential fever dream of exploitation film texts.

The three criminals are shown, through their various deeds and dialogue, to be scared and confused man-children in a perpetual state of masculine one-upsmanship; which points to their insecurity. So when they do succumb to torture (especially in an extended sequence at a convenience store with a clerk, so incredibly uncomfortable it could be called refined) or attempted rape, Axe! says these deeds are desperate attempts to assert power when they feel most powerless. It is a remarkable subtext to a 65-minute amateurish film. This creates just a hint of sympathy with these deplorable hitmen, a feeling more subversive than any gore could be.

So when we get to Lisa, Lisa, isolated from society in the secluded southern Gothic house she shares with her invalid “Grandfather”, we are more confused than anything. Lisa is shown emotionally vapid and aloof – when she breaks an egg, she stares at it for a few seconds invoking a Kuleshov-esque mystery to her inner state of mind. Then she chops a chicken’s head off. This off-screen violence is intercut with some her Grandfather in close up staring just below camera. Throughout the film, the Grandfather’s gaze is his expression – he cannot move – and this one expression is connected with violence through ellipsis: with film language, the Grandfather may have summoned the criminals to the house. He later directly witnesses the attempted rape of his young caretaker, and then a murder. When he is not seeing these acts through Axe’s clever editing construction, he’s watching a TV, showing only static. A part of me whenever I watch this film wonders if his paralytic state is self-imposed, a kind of sick restraint – as if through inaction, he is the true villain.

So it is that, God help me, Axe! is of a kind with Nicolas Roeg, Terrance Malick, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and David Lynch’s impeccable distortion of temporal space to access internal and primal states of their characters. When Lisa does finally comeuppance her captors, it feels natural. The criminals, the Grandfather, and Lisa all share a state of depravity, and serendipitously interact in this house in gruesome fashion. When Lisa cuts one of the criminals into pieces to fit into a trunk, another criminal unknowingly helps her lug it up the stairs. When Lisa is almost raped, the Grandfather watches. When the most ‘innocent’ of the criminals, Billy, feels most safe, Lisa puts a ring from a dead man into his soup. Axe! says the heroes and villains are cut, violently, from the same bloody cloth – that perversity hides in the most unexpected of places. It’s actually everywhere.

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 12): Surreal Estate (1976)

Argentinian writer/director Eduardo de Gregorio remains largely unknown to even well-seasoned cineastes, although his portfolio includes luminaries like Jacques Rivette and Bernardo Bertolucci, and directing five films among his many writing credits. His most famous contribution to cinema is no doubt Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating, an absurdist take on fantastical realism, told plainly – basically, it defies easy pigeonholing into genre, tempo, or mood. And it is the same with his first directorial effort, Surreal Estate. It might be a haunted house tale, a Gothic ghost story, a descent into madness, or all of the above. But it is also a pensive meditation on the creative process, and the desire for logic in a narrative. It is a theme it attacks directly, but doesn’t win.

Essentially, the plot boils down to one British writer Eric Sange, first seen wandering the French countryside looking for a villa to settle into, at the behest of his publisher, as a retreat to write his next novel. He encounters one large but rundown estate kept behind a stone wall with no gate (wasn’t that also in Hourglass Sanitarium?). Inside, a young woman of frantic intelligence and scattiest wit shows him around the place, which may be for sale, all the time trying to seduce him through opaque and banal means, like she’s making it up as she goes along (taking off her pants in the background as Eric comments on mold). Eric’s voiceover says he noticed, but let her do it anyway, but did he. There is one room that’s Forbidden.

When he comes back the next day, the Estate houses a groundskeeper Céleste (Leslie Caron) and the owner/matron, Agathe (Marie-France Pisier), who show him around but don’t answer any questions about the place or any other woman ever lives there. Agathe recommends he take a key and show up alone, when they are out. When he follows the instructions, the bizarre Ariane (Bulle Ogier) shows up again, as if out of the shadows, to make up stories about pictures that aren’t on the wall and sleep with him. These women are starting to drive Eric crazy, but at least he comes up with a killer idea about his next novel. He moves in to finish it.

So Surreal Estate is a particularly literary picture – obsessed with inner states (there are many empty rooms in this mansion), and the deconstruction of character (each of the protagonists is explained, then explained away, then reintroduced as new enigmas). But the central theme, if it even has one, is Eric’s obsession with trying to understand the three women – if only he could fully grasp what makes them do what they do and act as they are, he could complete his novel to satisfaction. With his highly limited perspective, he tries to play God, desperately hoping his novel can be written in the third person. The whole while he misses the point.

The existence of the three women is always in doubt, and at least by this measure, Surreal Estate could be called a ghost story, and their Estate a haunt. Each seems to appear and reappear without warning – Eric seems to think they spy through secret passageways and two-way mirrors, but one moment of violence with a mirror proves there was nothing hiding behind the facade. When alone, the three women speak in riddles that are never fully resolved. Although Eric becomes the new owner of the Estate and creeps through the grounds late at night, he never once goes into (or tries) to enter the forbidden room; but he does violate Agathe in a moment of sexual pique. It is a moment Agathe and Ariane seem to anticipate as if a ritual (Ariane was supposed to take her place that evening, they muse). It is as if they’ve done this before.

Surreal Estate is not a horror film of shock scares and gore, but definitely a constantly tense and patently odd journey into the subconscious – a journey it never quite comes out of. It is almost a kind of French farce with a punchline: Writer goes mad trying to understand women. There is an intensity to even moments of quiet and solemnity, one that could be called horror, in the same way a dark wood invokes silent menace. The film’s one crutch is that the three women are infinitely more interesting than Eric because they are so idiosyncratic – Eric is so plain, and so obsessed with objective reality, film making itself cannot help but throw him to the wolves. The film uses light to great effect, reflecting inner states (as Eric talks to his publisher at an Inn early in the film, the light dissolves out of the room as if to escape his lies. Late in the film, as his psyche crumbles, de Gregorio reaches instead for a vivid fuchsia that has no place anywhere but Suspiria). By the film’s end, Surreal Estate ends with a character dissolving into nothingness, and one left alone. I don’t really think it matters which one it is.

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 11): Remote Control (1988)

Remote Control is a film so of its time it improves with age. For a film about a film beamed to Earth from another planet, much of Remote Control does feel like it has visited us from another Earth – an Earth of neon sweatpants, lightning-silver jackets, and Flock of Seagulls hair. Oh, the hair. Deborah Goodrich’s askew up-do looks like it’s trying to pick up satellite footage. Over 25 years on now, Remote Control probably works better now than it did in 1988 because nearly everything about the production – the technology, the film’s distribution, the character stereotypes, the visual design – is no longer possible, let alone vogue. It offers a glimpse into a simpler time of narrative and character, and frankly, because of these characteristics, I probably enjoyed this film too much.

The film opens on a typical eighties couple – you know, the man working out and smoking weed, the woman putting on retro-bondage wear for some kinky upcoming Flash Gordon-ish S&M session (cue Freddie: “He can do the impossible!”). She’s rented two films from the video store (ah, the video store, c’et la vie): a porno for today’s sex games, and a “bad” 1950’s sci-fi film, Remote Control. Of course, he pregames with Remote Control. This Remote Control shows the domestic life of the future as seen from the 1950’s, and a black-and-white character about to view a film, also called Remote Control, at home (“Look! They predicted VCR’s!” our 1980’s man exclaims). But the alien film in Remote Control in the VHS copy of Remote Control (that we’re seeing in our film Remote Control) starts to play tricks on the 1950’s future-woman. She falls pray to the evil movie-film, kills her husband brutally with her knitting machine, and stares into the screen. At this point the cathode ray tube breaks its fourth wall, and the 1980’s characters appear on the 1950’s screen. This is fairly disconcerting for everyone – after all, I’m being filmed?! What wizardry is this?!, says the 1980’s. We soon learn, once this meta-straight-to-video interpretation of Lacan’s Mirror Stage takes hold in the mind of the 1980’s viewers, they fall under the remote control of some unknown puppet master, and begin to commit violent, evil deeds. So, the wife in Jem and The Holograms bondagewear now kills her husband with a whip, watching herself do it in black and white.

This excellent open sets the stage for our Nic Cage-as-James Dean video clerk named Cosmo (Kevin Dillon), as he is accidentally framed for one of these Remote Control murder, and his escapade from the law as he travels from video store to video store, VHS replication facility to hip club, tracking down copies of Remote Control and destroying them, while discovering more about the aliens’ nefarious plot to enslave humanity through their unknown 1950’s sci-fi feature. It is high camp and it knows it. Along the way, Cosmo is paired with the alluring Belinda (Deborah Goodrich), a patron of his video rental location who happens to know what Stolen Kisses is. Theirs is a cross between that film’s subdued madcap and the wronged-man-on-the-lam of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and North by Northwest, with just a hint of the alien invasion from They Live. The production design is uniformly excellent with modest means – one explosion scene made me wonder if that’s where the budget went. Which is not a negative at all. If anything it’s a compliment to the effort on display in the final work.

Writer-director Jeff Lieberman was probably onto something (or at least high on something) when he wrote this. The 1980’s are depicted with a certain level of loving scrutiny – almost as if he’s saying, In 25 years, no one will believe people lived this way. And he’s right. By treating the 1980’s in an otherworldly fashion in the 1980’s, Remote Control becomes a time capsule of an era lost, seen through a funhouse lens (Ozymandias wore Aqua Net). It is the same as the 1950’s guessing the future from its biased perspective. Seeing the film 30 years on (and 30 years on), creates a narrative equivalent of an infinity mirror. The space between time recedes and collapses, while calling attention to itself as it self-destructs. (There’s film semiotic Articulations for you, care of Kevin Dillon.) The film’s narrative of loss of identity through video is not new; Remote Control is just in between the abysmal TerrorVision and the masterpiece Videodrome. By that measure, Lieberman’s movie does provide enough threat to its protagonists with some fairly clever editing, alluding to the omnipresent threat of the CRT TV screens peppered throughout the film’s world. One wonders what a modern equivalent of Remote Control would be, with our ever-greater saturation of technology, the omniscience of the Screen, and the threat upon consciousness that filmed fiction brings. 30 years from now, I’m sure Remote Control will be even more accidentally creepy – and fun.

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!

P.S. Jeff Lieberman, true-to-form, is self-releasing Remote Control – and he repressed additional Blu-Ray discs!, again available at his personal website! The print is almost as good as any VHS version. Get it before it gets you!

P.P.S. The images aren’t mine, they’re Jeff’s (Copyright Jeff Lieberman, 2013). Thanks Jeff for making them so fun.

A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 10): Island of the Fishmen (1979)

I absolutely love Roger Corman. I saw the man at a retrospective of his work in Los Angeles a few years ago, and even at his age, he’s still a consummate showman; still pitching old dreck like Cockfighter with enthusiasm and hyperbole, like it’s the best action movie about cockfighting in the American South you will ever see (see what he did there? Not wrong). He made Gunslinger sound like it was everything Johnny Guitar failed to become. Corman was the filmmaker who could rent a diving suit on credit to drudge pennies off the sea floor, and then pay for the rental with the proceeds, leaving with a few extra quarters in his pocket. But nothing for me reaches quite the heights of his B-Movie era like the trailer for Screamers (below). Coming just off the coattails of Cronenberg’s mild masterpiece Scanners, Screamers offered audiences one better: see a man turned inside out! It’ll turn you inside out, too! Screamers is rated R for Restricted, kids, so save your ice cream money to pay off the doorman and get in without your parents.

The beauty of the technique is, the movie Screamers is actually renamed from an earlier dud Something Waits in the Dark, and Something Waits in the Dark is actually the Italian horror-adventure film Island of the Fishmen, with a prologue and insert shots of gore added in because, well, something has to get the movie an R rating to get the kids to sneak in. For those keeping track at home, no one gets turned inside out in Island of the Fishmen. But someone does get turned into a fish, so you only get a partial refund.

I at least appreciate Corman for never taking no (box office) for an answer – see Blood Bath, or at least one of Corman’s four movie versions of that footage. From a certain perspective, it is also admirable how Corman purchased largely forgotten foreign films, with a few exceptions, and gave them a little flair before introducing them onto young, impressionable, audiences. It is the same technique Miramax would do years later: poorly dubbing Police Story 3 as Supercop, or butchering Iron Monkey and The Legend of Drunken Master and giving some semblance of the film a decent domestic release. Was I introduced to Donnie Yen and Yuen Wo-ping and Jackie Chan through Miramax’ box office chicanery? Yep. And so it is with Screamers… er, Island of the Fishmen.

The largely available edit of the film making the rounds now (on a recent-ish Blu-Ray version) begins with Audrey Hepburn’s first husband Mel Ferrer as a gentleman on an island with a bosom blonde looking for treasure among gooey corpses – frankly, it doesn’t matter. It’s only there to get the R rating to get into the trailer to get the film an audience. Let’s move along.

It’s actually 1891, and the film actually opens on a lifeboat filed with some motley bandits and a military doctor, Lieutenant Claude de Ross, survived from a shipwreck of a prison boat. They are carried ashore to a strange, uncharted island, where they stumble onto booby traps, evidence of voodoo, and killer water – while some criminals are picked off if they stray too far from the plot.

Eventually, de Ross discovers the Kurtz-like figure of Edmond Rackham, somehow in charge of the local island inhabitants, who practice the voodoo arts; and the young Amanda, who has an odd relationship with her father-figure captor. As his friends disappear, de Ross discovers an underwater cavern hiding the spoils of Atlantis, a mad doctor (Joseph Cotten!), and the fishmen, of course.

Island of the Fishmen has all the charm of the now-archaic Jules Verne adventure tales of men under extraordinary circumstance, and science untempered by the will of nature (or God, depending on how you relate the two). The production value is fairly decent, especially when de Ross finds one of his friends altered by the forlorn doctor’s experiments. This is helped a great deal from the effective cinematography, framing the exotic locations, costumes, and faces to great effect with a kind of a dynamic, chiaroscuro-by-accident lighting style. The makeup and set design are believable and to period, ,never taking you out of the film; and Cotten proves that even when he’s sleepwalking through a scene, he’s having quite the dream. There is also a perverse undercurrent of sensuality throughout the film, no doubt encouraged by Barbara Bach, who was both a Bond girl and Ringo Starr’s wife. The fishmen are strangely attracted to her, drink milk from a jar in some unexplained ritual with her, and await her commands (it is a wonder how she was not able to make use of these powers when the evil Rackham tries to take advantage). It builds to just the right kind of fever, although it is never quite believable.

Then again, I don’t think believability was ever the point. It is an old-fashioned good time, with old-fashioned archetypes, old-fashioned adventure, and old-fashioned body horror. What moments of gore do exist (mostly squeezed into the plot by Corman and his distributors) never work, because they, ironically, feel cheaper than the film as a whole. The enigmas in the story string you along just enough to hold interest, and there is an ever-present sense of menace, somewhere in this dark. It’s OK if you don’t scream.

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!