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!

A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 9): Inquisition (1976)

For someone who is currently writing about this subject and weird, obscure horror movies in general, I’ll begin this post with a bit of heresy of my own: I haven’t seen that much Paul Naschy (cue collective gasp). With that now out of the way, I’ll also say what I have seen is not just encouraging but impressive. Here on the underbelly of Spanish cinema – with the quickie exploitation ventures and their sensationalist scenes of depravity – is a unique voice, able to pry out just an inkling of beauty. And God help me, subtext. His first directorial effort, Inquisition may check all the boxes of the European exploitation scene – bodily mutilation, nudity, Satanic masses, certainly helping secure the movie’s budget – but it makes definite pronouncements on concerns both social and religious. It spites Francisco Franco’s fascist Spain, and spotlights the misogyny and human abuses that were a part of the Catholic Inquisition, the latter a difficult subject for the faithful. But Naschy’s film never condemns faith, belief, and principle outright. If anything, it is a kind of thought game on the subject of the consequences of faith, whether that is the blind and pure type, or the nuanced and seeking kind. The end result is not at all what you think.

In plague-ridden, medieval France, a Witchfinder General Bernard de Fossey (think: St. Bernard, played by director Naschy) is called to a rural village under some opaque threat of hints and rumors of witches and demons among its peaceful townsfolk. As he arrives, the lovely Catherine (Daniela Giordano, 1966’s Miss Italia, and actress in the scuzzy minor classic, and personal top-five film title, Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key), is in love with a local man of variable fidelity. He leaves the village and is killed by vagabonds. Bernard starts to burn witches. Catherine falls into despair, and under pressure, falls prey to Satan’s wiles…

…kinda. There is subtlety to the direction and dialogue nearly the entire time, planting seeds of doubt regarding each of Inquisition’s main players. The first true moment is when Bernard dines with the local mayor (and Catherine’s patron): Catherine enters the room, and there is lust in Bernard’s eyes for her. This is treated as a definite (and foundational) spiritual failing, especially because his gaze is associated later with very religiously demanding work, including reading from the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) and torturing the local townspeople into confessing their pacts with devils and Luciferian compatriots. At one point in this part of the film, a vision of Catherine comes to Bernard in a moment of weakness, and it is hard to tell whether this is his imagination driven by lust, or a genuine temptation.

This uncertainty underlies all such moments in Inquisition, and are its greatest asset. I would argue that they are both and none of these interpretations, at once. When one character awaits their execution, they are visited by the local physician, depicted throughout the film as the pragmatist and voice of reason. He tells the condemned, “You only dreamed what you wanted to see.” And this goes both ways, for the pious Catholic and Luciferian.

When Bernard and his Inquisitors arrive in town, Catherine could be called agnostic, for lack of a better word. She is not necessarily pious, but follows the social order well enough, which in this time was married to Catholic principles. But something awakens in Catherine once the Inquisition begins, and her good friends (often, falsely) start to go to God by fire. She starts to villainize Bernard in her mind. Once her betrothed dies violently at the roadside, something snaps. She simply has to know his killer, and revenge his death. From a strict religious point of view, this is her failing (“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care”). Catherine’s relentlessness to know and to have some action against the evil surrounding her, both of and about the Church, draws her to… Lucifer. Inquisition treats witchcraft as an empowerment for women, an act of social rebellion, and agent for change. Because, in a world ruled by religion and governed by men, it technically is.

Other films on witchcraft take the above heresy and treat it as an assumed, but Naschy’s film at least explores its consequences and adds degrees of nuance to the telling. Perhaps it’s Spanish Magical Realism. The one-eyed villager who rats out his countrymen for the sick pleasure of the stake engages in attempted rape (twice), but when falsely accusing one of his attempted victims of witchcraft, his report is thrown out by the second Inquisitor; showing his prudence. In another telling scene, a man reports on his own mother – only to find voodoo-like dolls, while she screams curses and wishes vile acts on the Priests. But this witchcraft is shown without the same care as Catherine’s narrative. Although out of a true character’s context, the old woman shows malice, and her son is genuinely pained.

It cannot be unsaid that, without the Inquisitors’ introduction to the French provincial town, Catherine would not have her spiritual awakening, and the characters’ downfall would never have taken place. This ‘violence begets violence’ is an uncomfortable yet needed subtext to any Christian viewer. Catherine starts her initiation and enters a few choice scenes of witches’ sabbath – pretty inflammatory sequences of blasphemy done with at least some degree of European decorum. The makeup for Lucifer/Behemoth is rather excellent, when one condescends to the film’s budget and level – like a either low-rent Kenneth Anger, or at least on par with the satanic initiation in Roger Corman’s criminally underrated The Masque of the Red Death. In these scenes, The Dark One is also played by our Grand Inquisitor Paul Naschy. It appears to be hubris until they are compared to correlative scenes in ‘real life’, and the viewer has to ask, Is Bernard complicit in this? Is his lust for Catherine and constant focus on Satanism influencing his judgment? Regardless, after her initiation into Satan’s cadre, her lover’s killer is finally revealed to Catherine in a dream, as Bernard. Did he do it out of sexual jealousy? Did Satan plant a lie in her heart that she wanted to see? If it’s true, did Bernard know what he was doing? Does it matter?

The seance scenes of Catherine with Satan have an eerie parallel once Catherine starts to seduce him. She assumes a role of power in a world devoid of assertive female figures. And the scenes of her enraptured with Satan (both played by Naschy) allude to an initiation of a dual nature: Satan got to have his cake and eat it too. He prepped her to seduce the Grand Inquisitor, destroying and condemning him; and God lost a servant doing his work ridding the world of Satan’s faithful, even if this faith (and retribution) is often misplaced on the innocent. The film somehow works on this meta level even in its more tepid moments. The message is driven home thanks to a rather devoted performance from Giordano. Her Catherine is indicative of William James’ first-born: a spiritual devotee holding a powerful religious (in this case, Satanic) experience within the core of their being. Naschy’s Bernard is the Jamesian second-born: the “ordinary religious believer, who follows the casual observances of his country;” a religion, in a way, “made for him by others.” Through the films’ events, his belief is, ironically, the faith by fire. Catherine’s devotion is passionate, but blind.

Inquisition’s visual design is often superior for these low budget features, and certainly for a first-time director. Often, the camera dollies to reframe static shots and breath new meaning into various lengthy dialogue scenes. The book Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) shown in the movie in all its subversive glory is, actually, a real copy of the medieval text, loaned by a Madrid museum. The same museum even loaned the production the various torture devices used in the film – a perverse and subtle ode to historical accuracy. In the few write-ups on the film, Inquisition is often compared subserviently to Vincent Price’s Witchfinder General; while I have no doubt to the allusion, I am surprised no one has yet brought up the debt to Ken Russell’s The Devils. Miguel Mila’s cinematography often makes use of colorful stained glass on bare white walls, like Russell’s film. As Naschy, as Bernard, is brought to the stake in the film’s conclusion, he is also stripped of his distinguishing facial hair and clad in all-white, much like Oliver Reed in penance. And like Russell’s profoundly essential religious film, the State’s abuse of religion, and vice versa, is rebuked (again, for Naschy, an appropriate critique of Franco’s regime), while religion is never truly demonized. As both Bernard and Catherine stand condemned, Bernard asks for forgiveness, kisses the cross, admits the depths of his sin and need for God. He greets the flames in silence. Catherine screams for the master she thought would save her.

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!

postscript: Saint Catherine of Alexandria, famed in the middle ages as an exemplar of Christian chastity and female obedience, was thought for centuries to have been martyred by Emperor Maxentius, a pagan. But modern scholars believe that, in a cruel irony of history, she may never have existed. Her story is based off the tale of the Greek philosopher Hypatia, who was killed by a Christian mob. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a Frenchman of noble birth but inhuman humility, helped resolve the schism of potential Popes after the passing of Pope Honorius II; but died having believed the failure of the second crusade, which he championed, was his doing.

A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 8): The Dorm that Dripped Blood, aka Death Dorm (1981)

The Dorm That Dripped Blood was one of the recently-viewed films that inspired me to further explore this periphery of horror cinema. From a certain perspective, it certainly is one of those ‘college kids stuck in a location and offed one by one from an unseen enemy in gruesome fashion’ staples of the post-production code, drive-in era. Yet it stands out due to a certain narrative inventiveness that rewards as the credits roll. The third act completely upends your expectation for this throwaway schlock, rightly earning it a certain cult status among the obscure offerings of the time.

Keeping these collegiate casualties in the Death Dorm for the duration of the film is the pretense of a Dormitory that will soon be torn down and replaced with upscale units for the students. If there is a college, we never really see it – the high rise seems to exist in the middle of God’s nowhere, although the place is frequented by a mysterious drifter nearby lifting various items from the premises, and a decisively white trash dude buying leftover furniture from the dorm (which begs the question, who the hell buys leftover dorm room furniture, and can he be trusted??). The four students (and a stow-away waiting for a ride home, one young Daphne Zuniga in her first film role) start to pick up the place, as an unknown assailant starts to pick them off in traditionally grisly fashion.

One moment with a drill apparently earned TDtDB a place on the Video Nasty list, although it was never successfully prosecuted. Frankly, there is a moment (extended beyond proper reason) with a bat covered with nails that has my money over The Walking Dead for most terrifying bat-to-the-head killing, and is much more affecting. The deaths do this genre proud, although perhaps on purpose, the grotesquerie deescalates as the film goes on. And that is probably because the question of who really is the killer becomes more pronounced, and the answer really is a shocker. Once the explanation scene occurs and all the pieces fit into place, you start to backtrack the film in your mind, and it actually does make sense. The killer’s sociopathy was always on full display, and all the hints were there, but we simply never realized it. This is the film’s greatest asset, on par with the great early giallos. The end of the film then, somehow, actually one-ups this reveal, by having its last man standing be the last person you expect, or want, to be alive.

The film is full of that low-light cheap film stock grittiness, only better on bigger screens (and Synapse Films’ Blu-Ray edition). The interiors are shot in rather effective claustrophobia, good use of low and source lighting, and above all, perspective. The film is punctuated by point-of-view scenes from the killer, or are they?, that revel in voyeurism and a kind of enigmatic sadism that fits the themes perfectly. The score is distractingly in line with Herrmann’s Psycho – but it’s hard to disagree with the homage. And frankly, actress Laurie Lapinski, as the lead heroine Joanne Murray, does an admirable job earning our respect and compassion in the early scenes; and is downright impressive when under threat of violence. Her character never retreats into either the unbelievable idiocy or the manic aggression seen in postmodern attempts at the genre. Lapinski remains appropriate to her character both before and after the slashing begins.

One’s appreciation for TDtDB ultimately rests with whether one accepts the plot twist; and this is dependent on whether one thinks these films actually can have some kind of plot of character to care about. I will always say these films (all films, really) should have a firm foundation in character to be effective; but this is still tempered by the limitations of production and genre (the latter means appreciation is also tempered by expectation). So, TDtDB is no masterpiece of cinematic invention. But it is a worthy effort, doing the absolute best with everything it’s given, and is a success by at least that small measure.

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 7): Cropsey (2010)

Last year I had the privilege to do some research writing for a film info startup – one of my projects was a blow-by-blow of American Horror Story in all its campy ironical hideousness. While doing some digging on the series’ second season, Asylum, I ended up stumbling onto an obscure bit of trivia: show creator Ryan Murphy casually mentioned an obscure documentary, Cropsey (2010), as an inspiration for his show without providing any other commentary or context. Falling down the rabbit hole further, I was able to get my hands on a copy. And I understand it. Cropsey may just be a formative text for today’s hyperventilating media. Here, like the similarly undiscovered documentary Dear Zachary, is the true-crime subgenre (or as South Park would end up calling it, “Informative Murder Porn”) before the popular revolution of Making a Murderer. It is also every episode and theme of American Horror Story, condensed into one hour-and-a-half whirlwind of modern American Legend, suburban macabre, and eventually, the true occult.

The urban legend of Cropsey – the mysterious, mad doctor (or patient) with a hook for hand, stealing children off the streets to exact some unknown revenge – has inspired at least two fiction films (Madman and The Burning) and has been in the collective unconscious of American children probably for as long as there have been American children. This is part of the continued allure of urban legends: they speak to us, yet we don’t know why. Though with all legends, there probably was an element of truth. But the truth eventually fades into the unknown of the past, and the myth becomes fact. It hardly matters where one ends and the other begins. And so it goes that any documentary on the subject is going to indulge in some mythmaking of its own.

Cropsey’s filmmakers, Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio, both grew up in Staten Island, New York, with the local tales of Cropsey among their local mythology. They also grew up near the remains of the Willowbrook State School – a compound of sorts that housed a TB Ward, contagious disease quarantine house, a cemetery, and famously, an asylum. This asylum was the one that gave the young, quaffed, and mustached Geraldo Rivera his big break with his documentary expose Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace. Portions of this Peabody-Award-winning featurette are included in the film Cropsey, and are as unnerving and afflictive as any great horror film. Unwanted and mentally ill children are shown naked, covered in blood, bruises, and feces. But what hits you most are the faces of the attendants and the inmates: vacuous and arid, drained of life and pallor, resigned to their fate and the evil that surrounds them. My first thought was a later circle of Dante’s Hell, the circles further away from God’s Grace. This was the ‘last disgrace’ at the institution, of course, because it was also the location of Saul Krugman’s earlier, infamous hepatitis studies – you know, the one where the doctors gave hepatitis to mentally disturbed and unknowing children, to see how the disease spread in humans. (Suffice it to say, he later became president of the American Pediatric Society. So much for work that has been called one of the most unethical medical experiments in American history.)

This evil history rubbed off on Willowbrook. Although decrepit and decaying, the grounds became the haunt for neighborhood kids looking to scare each other with tales true and imagined. Willowbrook also became a gathering place for the local homeless – a secondary community of American untouchables. When researching the site, the filmmakers discover that Willowbrook holds an underground history, quite literally: a network of tunnels lie obscured under the complex, and who knows what evil it hides. Especially when neighborhood children, all mentally handicapped, start to disappear.

The location of Cropsey is principal when compared to its people – the documentary is more about exploring community mood and myth than assigning guilt or finding justice in the truest sense of the word. More than once, the interviewees say justice can never really be found: “These cases never go away.” So, yes, the filmmakers do try to engage and uncover more of the prime suspect, one Andre Rand, already serving a sentence for the kidnapping of murder victim Jennifer Schweiger. When Cropsey opens, Rand is charged in a case 23 years cold, of Holly Ann Hughes. The fact that cameras are not allowed in New York courtrooms actually helps filmmakers Zeman and Brancaccio – instead, they have to craft their story from historical footage and a little investigative reporting of their own. Their ultimate inferences are infinitely more fascinating than any courtroom drama. As they say, the more they try to learn about Rand, the more confused the stories become – the man and the myth in tango.

The tunnels beneath the negatively-charged Willowbrook is a wonderful correlative for the documentary’s themes that many an American neighborhood is merely topsoil on a subterranean, malevolent, history. When exploring the backwoods of Willowbrook with former search volunteers, the filmmakers stumble on a trash bag, holding a child’s shoe, some duct tape, and dirty clothes. The interviewee says this is the kind of place they would dig for bodies because it “looks a little funny” (but is actually objectively terrifying). Their exploring the Willowbrook grounds at night has all the charm and inherent voyeurism of the better of those Youtube amateur ghost hunters. The walls are covered with Satanic symbols.

This is where, reading online reviews of the film, Cropsey starts to lose people, and I don’t necessarily blame them. It certainly indulges in some superstitious hyperbole. But this investigation, one interviewee says, is full of too many coincidences. And as it’s been established, American Crime is always Fact stewing in Legend. That Cropsey eventually embraces the rumors of devil worshipping and human sacrifice is par the course. Even the most seasoned investigators profiled in the documentary mention an Occult underground to their neighborhood – like it is some kind of unspoken, open secret. Rand, it’s said, may just be a patsy for a sinister cabal of dark magick practitioners: perhaps, Rand merely provided the children for their human sacrifice and other dark practices, taking place deep under Willowbrook, in its tunnel system, also their makeshift churches. Or, Rand is in fact the ringleader, a “White Trash version of Jim Jones” among the neighborhood’s destitute and disturbed. The Church of the Process is mentioned. It has all the sensationalism of Pizzagate with none of the trendiness.

In a rare interview, the Pastor who housed Rand before his first indictment gives his account of the man. He says without any embellishment: “He’s possessed.” Soon after, the detectives recount showing the Geraldo’s documentary to Rand during questioning (Rand was an orderly at Willowbrook at the time the expose was filmed, and took part in these horrors). The detectives recount how Rand started to weep, his eyes rolled into the back of his head, and he started to drool and mumble to himself illegibly. Seeing the scenes of Willowbrook caused Rand not to speak for days; in inference, he is a walking remnant of human hell, a demon of spirit. It hardly maters whether this is a result of terrestrial or supernatural design. Although in the correspondence the filmmakers have with Rand, he does extensively quote from scripture.

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!

American Horror Story is back in the news this week. The latest episode (disclaimer: I have not yet seen this season) was originally meant to open with a horrific mass shooting incident, a byproduct of a Trump fan’s manic cult. Murphy himself, apparently, decided to edit it out after the most recent tragic events in Vegas. This bit of AHS trivia was what reminded me again of Cropsey. The American media has become obsessed with trying to find motive behind these horrific events – as if finding a motivation will prevent future horrors, or understanding the villain will make the events easier to swallow. Cropsey alludes to the hard fact that the media crafts narratives that are inherently mythbuilding, fueling the confusion and sick allure of evil deeds. While concurrently, sometimes, the truth of the matter will never be revealed, since we are looking in the wrong place for the evil in men’s souls.  

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 6): Litan (1982)

Litan begins with a dream sequence, that is also a premonition, simultaneously a memory, and gives away the ending. Then it wakes up from its nightmare with a scream and proceeds to stampede its own narrative thread like a bull (off its meds) in a china shop. It is one of the most patently odd films you will ever see – never quite scary; it’s probably unnerving, although I can’t decide on that, either. Litan remains a curiosity even after multiple viewings, which is either a compliment or an insult. Maybe both.
A city couple, Nora and Jock, are in the town of Litan to do some kind of geological survey with explosives that never quite makes any sense. But they are here on ‘Litan’s Day’ in Litan, a kind of Day of the Dead celebration of local heritage and culture. Or at least we think the day is associated with Death, because Death is everywhere. The threat of Death hangs over the entire film like the thick fog of a European provincial town. A group of boy scouts plays a ritual game (“Like every year on Litan’s Day, we’re gonna chase the monster and catch it”), so one of them runs off in a mask, falls into a cave bog, and is attacked by a luminescent, worm-like creature, rendering him comatose. Nora and Jock take him to a hotel, he disappears, and a chase ensues. Along the way there is a mad doctor, bumbling policemen, sleepwalking villagers, and a traveling band in malevolent uniforms playing the same darned song all Litan’s day long.
Masks are an ever-present visual motif in the film. This alludes to quite a few meanings and emotions: the evil hidden inside each person waiting for release, the individual safety found within a crowd of masks, the loss of personal identity, the freedom from self-reflection and self-imposition. It is all of these and none of these. At the very least, the masks provide a visual shorthand of constant threat and unease. The film is overwhelmingly oppressive. In addition to the mask/(masque?), Litan is peppered with visual flourishes – flashes of red for violence, skulls for death, water for the creative principle – subtle and very unsubtle to hit home at this idea of unrelenting menace and inner perversity. I don’t believe there is a single establishing shot in the entire movie, adding to the loss of one’s bearings, and lack of personal space.
There is something off about our Nora and Jock. The characters are unmarried (a couple times, the villagers scoff at their sin), but we never really have a quiet moment with both together to establish them as either caring or loving. Both are in a near-constant state of mania or panic. Nora feels a sense of dread from her nightmare, which starts her search for Jock among the Black Rocks he’s surveying. Once Jock takes the boy scout to the hospital, he begins a flipped out series of chases not unlike Nicolas Cage in The Wicker Man, running from scene to scene screaming about bees and punching people. Here, Jock is running from scene to scene screaming about lights in the water, and punching people.
The lights in the water may be souls. The villagers seem keen on blowing the graveyard into the water, which they do. Once the mad doctor and his assistant attach the boy scout to their machine, he is eventually revealed to be the host for a former deceased associate of the doctor’s. When they ask him about the afterlife, we get this particularly brilliant non sequitur:
“Is that all? No heaven, no hell? Nothing?”
“Nothing. You’re just there and you wait. Sometimes you dream for a while, then you wait again…. to see the living die, and join us in our dream…
We’re dreaming your life and when the dream stops, you die.”
But these souls, when in the same body, start to lose their individuality. Eventually, their distinctiveness dissolves into a collective memory, housed in the same corporal form. In a way it’s a terrifying prospect. But Litan never slows down enough for a proper meditation on the theme. The mad doctor wants to reunite with his comatose wife, who also happens to be loved by the colleague stuck in the comatose boy scout. The mad plan goes mad, especially when Nora and Jock come barging in.
There was never a better filmed version of the first Silent Hill video game than this film. Besides the bugs-and-creatures thread, Litan is a series of Hitchcockian threads: of the wrong, wanted man, and a successive series of McGuffins forcing the narrative to follow a gonzo but still linear path. In line with Silent Hill, Litan is a town on the edge, stuck in a timeless fog, whose mystery is only revealed after running to the Black Rocks, then the hospital, then the police station, then the plant, then the sewers, then the cave where it all began, and ending in a church. It also shares Silent Hill’s peculiar view of personal apocalypse, that of the mind influencing the spirit of the place; while coinciding with the social apocalypse of The Purge, where no one can be trusted, and the book on decorum has been drafted by The Mad Hatter. As the luminescent creatures grow in strength, the townspeople fall under the influence of the recently dead, and hell breaks loose. My favorite moment is one of the weirdest: At the beginning of the film, a bus driver, as if in a daze, runs over a pedestrian; the witnesses scold him and let him go. Drifting in and out of the film, he finally ends up at a house of a young widow and two kids. He grabs a picture of the dead husband with his family, and approaches the widow with a small semblance of longing. The woman shoots him dead. Then, she cries over the body, in a knowing embrace.
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 5): Schalcken the Painter (1979)

Full disclosure: my Dad is a painter. The sight of oils in a damp, well-lit room typically brings me straight back to a childhood in my Dad’s studio, where I would watch him paint out of the corner of my eye, listen to Led Zeppelin, and read his oversized art books on Michelangelo and Leonardo. While I cannot currently hope to achieve his level of visual artistry, I do have an unusual, melancholy appreciation for this kind of work. It changes and challenges a consumer of art to see firsthand the creator of the work in totality; to witness stages of the art in realization, experience the routine of the studio vis-a-vis the artist’s daily routine, and see their distractions and doubts in play. When Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits last made their worldwide tour and I was finally able to experience them in person, in all their overwhelming, emotional immensity, I just sat and cried for an hour in the middle of the gallery. There is so much more to pictorial works of this kind. Paintings come to us out of the peculiar lens of an artist in a day and time, within and without the social mores, and then through historical trial and provenance. The physical texture of the canvas only reveals a portion of the tale in the frame.

And so is the context of Schalcken the Painter, a perverse horror gem of the gentile and aristocratic kind. It is a horror film in the true sense of the word – about the evil in men’s hearts, the corruption of innocents, and ghosts of the past destroying the minds of the living – but it’s couched, purposefully, in a narrative that is difficult to penetrate. Schalcken’s framing device is that of a British art critic, mightily and dynamically providing running commentary on… Dutch Golden Age painting. This device is a bait-and-switch of the highest order – I am sure many of channel surfers, late December 23, 1979 on the BBC (when this TV film, based on the 1839 gothic story, “Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter” by Sheridan Le Fanu, was first broadcast), would no doubt have been confused when a ghostly apparition appears in a biographical reconstruction of Godfried Schalcken and Dutch portraiture. But his perspective – that of a Dickens, perfect for a Christmastime production – alludes to a mystery in the art we are seeing, a hidden purpose behind what truly is a cryptic, real painting: as he says, Schalcken’s work has “roots in some private world of dreams, perhaps otherwise unexpressed.”

The opening narration over real paintings segues brilliantly into a filmed still shot of a real still life, of hanging animals and dead geese – an innocuous subject, and one normally passed by in galleries. But even this first, true shot of our costume drama is an ingenious allusion to the themes of the film: that of decadence, dismissiveness, and death. In this scene we are first introduced to our key players. There is a young Godfried Schalcken, toiling at his sketch in the back of the class; the master Gerrit Dou, imperious enough to refuse eye contact with anything; and his ward Rose, exquisitely framed to the back and the side of the group. She is clearly the subject of the cinematography, lit in that archetypal Dutch style, although every other character is focused instead on the dead things hanging on the wall. The film’s direction treats Rose passively in this manner throughout the film. Soon after this introduction, Schalcken and Rose retreat into another room to have a conversation, only to have a maid interrupt their dialogue with a banging pail. The shot then cuts away to follow the damned pail, and returns to the two young lovers after all has been said.

Although Rose’s violation is the film’s central theme, very little of her is heard or seen – again, the film’s moral and its function in harmony. As our narrator says when they cut away from a key dinner scene in mid-argument, this is not a happy tale, but a record of heartlessness. The direction never errs from this rather dark course. As a matter of fact, once she is married off under sinister circumstances, the way Schalcken and Dou treat her memory is as terrifying as her ghastly suitor. They both rarely saw her or thought much of her when she was around; how could we possibly expect anything more in her absence?

The film hinges on the decisions of both Schalcken and Dou in their response to a potential marriage of Rose to a macabre bridegroom. His lips are blood red and left constantly agape, while his pallor is a sickly green gray. He always arrives on the hour (unholy punctuality is always a red flag), interrupts inner monologues by repeating the characters’ thoughts, and recedes naturally into the shadow of the film’s frame, whatever the shot. Importantly, his first appearance is in silence behind Schalcken, as Schalcken addresses his very first oil painting in frustration, damning all his characters to Hell. So Hell, it seems, comes to lay claim.

The mystery man presents a heavy box, covered in calcium and lime, which when appraised, is ‘richer than the young man’s wildest dreams.’ All he asks for is an immediate marriage to Rose. After all, he says, Rose is Dou’s property, and he can sell her as he wishes; her wiles have no bearing in the transaction. Marriage is merely an act of “traffic and calculation.” Rose knows she is lost when at dinner with Schalcken, Dou, and this strange man. A prized bird is carved – and you can see it on her face. She knows in one terrible instant she is merely equity between the balance sheets of the men at the table. She is married to the Grave and soon recedes into the distance.


Rose’s innocence and chastity, which Schalcken and Dou robbed of her with their indifference, is either a faded memory with little personal gravity to the two men, or worse, an ambivalent state of affairs in society. The Narrator alludes to this in a mid-film analysis of Schalcken’s paintings. His subjects are bound by the “expected conventions of society or by commercial transaction. Without warmth or passion.” Before the wedding day, when Rose pleads with Schalcken to run away with her, he dutifully says he will merely work harder and buy her from her unholy marriage. When she’s gone, Schalcken gives himself “wholly to ambition.” In the conflict between duty and love, duty is the clear victor within a world devoid of emotion. One of the key phrases in the picture occurs when Dou feels regret at not hearing from Rose after her betrothal: he does not feel sadness, only, “defrauded, although he did not know why.”

The sound of gold rummaging within pockets and seen trading hands (always in relation to women, from this point forward: either with the whores at the whorehouse Schalcken frequents or to pay the semi-nude models he uses as props) is a near-constant in the narrative. When Dou finally dies, gold coins are placed dutifully over his eyes. This monotony is only broken when Rose appears, with no warning, in hysterics and covered in bruises from an unknown source, desperate for food and drink and protection. She screams, “the dead and the living can never be one,” mumbles some key words on sleep and sleepwalkers and the darkness, asks for a minister of God, and when left alone, disappears into nothingness, yet again. She only appears once more, to Schalcken, at the film’s most terrible moment in the crypt of a church. The experience is too terrible to give away here, but it is hidden deep inside the film’s central painting.

At a brisk 68 minutes, Schalcken covers a ton of narrative and thematic ground. And, it looks gorgeous. Although made for TV, the film begs to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Each frame is meticulously detailed, with impeccable lighting simulating the work of the Dutch masters – especially Johannes Vermeer. It may be one of the best examples of this kind of cinematography I have seen. While it is true the images stay with you, it’s the ideas that haunt. Early in the film, before Schalcken simultaneously achieves his success and collapses into despair, Dou presents his students with two human figures, and a lesson to depict ‘The Temptation of St. Anthony.’ Dou mumbles his students some half-hearted direction: “Eh. Vanity. Temptation. Devils. You will imagine the devils.”

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 4): Marebito (2004)

When I first saw Shimizu Takashi’s Marebito in college – during that stage we all go through in life where I inhaled all the films on the Tartan Asia Extreme DVD label in one, delightfully wacky, bender – I was admittedly not all that impressed. ‘Unreliable narrator films vaguely sinister unreliable footage, witnesses a horrible event, finds naked girl chained underground, unreliable narrator uncovers more of his own mystery, ends up underground‘ or so would go a poor plot synopsis. Yet, my many DVDs came and went; Marebito stayed – in the deep, dark recesses of my collection for only the more curious of my friends. Other films were seen and receded into the impenetrable past. Marebito lingered. Against my conscious knowledge, this particular film crawled under my skin and started paying rent. When I do rewatch it now, it may be the best overall film in Shimizu’s oeuvre, and one of the unsung gems of the 1990s J-horror wave. And it’s infinitely inspirational to filmmakers as a text to emulate.

One of Marebito’s (translated loosely to ‘a rare man’, I believe; or ‘a rare beauty’. Neither translation would make me sad) best qualities is its synergetic marriage of form and function. The film is shot on DV tape stock – which, when combined with a horror film’s requisite low light and this film’s subterranean chambers, means an increased gain to capture the most available image. The result is that digital video noise, in abundance. It generates something sinister in the mind. Faces far away are blurs in motion. Darkness has a moving, liberal texture. Lights in the frame are out of control and jitters as the camera dances. After viewing this film (and Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s sinister Cure)one of my college films was shot on DV, at night, with the gain in a state of madness. It manifests visually one of horrors great archetypes: a sense of trespass. Like watching a thrice-dubbed VHS of a rare horror gem; or a creepypasta on Youtube; or a snuff film on the Dark Web. Part of the experience of watching is the uneasy feeling you get knowing you shouldn’t be watching. And this becomes part of the film’s narrative.

Unreliable narrator Masuoka (played by one of our greatest living filmmakers, Tsukamoto Shinya) is a man “without a steady income”, as he puts it, quite a self-depreciating cultural jab. He is a renegade, freelance videographer – always carrying a video camera, and recording whatever he sees. After a paid shoot, he stumbles into a subway station and films a man committing suicide in a state of absolute terror, stabbing himself in the eyes, out of either fear or penance, or both. Furthering that idea of trespass is a wonderful shot of Masuoka in his apartment, viewing the news footage he sold to a local station (blurred to obscure the gore – this isn’t basic cable) and his unedited footage side-by-side. We as a viewer want to know more, in a sick and twisted way. It calls attention to the dark, natural side of human curiosity that violates the other human’s natural need for privacy. Within this contradiction is one of the scariest film moments I have ever seen: we’ve already seen our crazed, unknown suicide victim stab himself. During one of the replays, the image breaks the fourth wall and the man unexpectedly looks right into Masuoka’s camera in a Shock Cut. Masuoka receives from this one moment a flood of terrible images, telling him somehow to delve deeper into Tokyo’s underground labyrinth of maintenance tunnels, WWII shelters, and undiscovered terrors.

It’s at this point Marebito becomes far more literary than one would think. Richard Sharpe Shaver and Madame Blavatsky are mentioned esoterically in the same breath, in an encounter with a Homeless Ghost. This journey deep under the bowels of Tokyo’s Economic Miracle reveals a hidden world “at the Mountains of Madness” – an obvious nod to Lovecraft. Major megalopolises all over the world are built on unseen ruins, it is said (perhaps with some truth; as a quick aside, check out this legitimate article from the Los Angeles Times, during a taxpayer-funded expedition to find the untapped wealth of the Lizard People underneath 1934 downtown L.A.). In this underground mystery, Masuoka finds a young, naked, pale woman chained to a cave, either not quite alive or not quite human. He takes her home.

And who was that mysterious woman at the film’s opening point-of-view moments?

Within Masuoka’s trek forward into madness, there are obvious allusions to the Powell & Pressburger classic Peeping Tom. Masuoka becomes obsessed to capture on film the horror of that suicidal man, and the journey takes him somewhere close to home, yet quite unexpected. With a quick detour into cannibalism and bloodletting. Tsukamoto is used to playing these types – as in Bullet Ballet, Tokyo Fist, and the Tetsuos – these are men we only think are normal, but this is propriety in operation; societal decorum obscures vapid, vacant souls with a fast pass to Hell. He is always believable. As is Miyashita Tomomi, the unknown woman known only as “F” – an object of obsession, animalism and barbarism with a timid nature. When the two natures finally meet, Masuoka gets that moment of absolute terror he was always seeking.

“Madness is contagious. Recently I attract madness. I wonder why…”

Marebito’s down and dirty technique (apparently, it was shot in eight days in between some Grudge movies, an admirable, old-school V-Cinema accomplishment), using DV footage to tell a story about DV footage, and the underbelly of Tokyo to allude to the darkness in a man’s spirit, is effective because of its wit and brevity – there is some genius in the madness. It is also one of those films you have to take a shower from afterward. But like Lady Macbeth, you can never quite wipe the blood off. As one of the more mysterious characters in the film says to summarize its theme, “The feeling that we know as terror is actually ancient wisdom, sealed in our subconscious mind.” Sometime wisdom bubbles to the surface.

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!