Tuesday, February 25, 2014

DVD Review: Hanging Shadows: Perspectives on Italian Horror Cinema

Text © Richard Gary/Indie Horror Films, 2014
Images from the Internet


Hanging Shadows: Perspectives on Italian Cinema
Written, produced and directed by Paolo Fazzini          
Elite Entertainment         
60 minutes, 2005 / 2013    

Before the VHS explosion of the ‘80s, it was rare to see an Italian horror films either on the screen or especially television.  What we did get was usually directed by Mario Bava, such as La maschera del demonio, aka The Mask of Satan, though it as more commonly known as Black Sunday (1960), and the terrifying I tre volti della paura, or as we knew it, Black Sabbath (1963), possibly Boris Karloff’s last truly scary role.

Of course, we kids didn’t know it was Italian, we just knew it was dubbed. Most of the films shown on this side of the Atlantic whatever the presentation medium, were highly edited, thanks to nudity, blood, and the last remnants of the Hollywood Code system. Besides, most horror viewers back then were teenage couples with the guys looking for reasons to put their arms around their dates.

In college, during the late 1970s, I was introduced to New Wave Italian cinema, such as Luchiano Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, and the realism auteur Michael Antonioni. They were great, technically superb, but the left me kind of cold. I wasn’t sure why I was supposed to care about many of the characters and left me asking, “che cosa?” But it wasn’t until a few short years later that I discovered the piasan niche for which I was looking.

Italian horror cinema, as I said, really came into its golden days in the 1980s, when video stores were springing up every few blocks, its clients hungry for new products, with the two biggest sellers being horror and porn. It was easy to walk into any store and find campy and bloody delights. Names started to be known, like Leo Fulci, Dario Argento, and Lamberto Bava. The posters alone would become iconic, such as Fulci’s Zombie (aka Zombi 2, 1979 .

What made these films so popular was the sheer audacity of them. Many of them were silly, campy, or made no sense, but we later found out that was because they were edited, and usually had multiple names with each version being slightly different. We were seeing lots of gore, but distributors seemed to think that the bleak endings would not fit well with Middle America. It took many years to finally see the real end of The Gates of Hell (aka City of the Living Dead aka Paura nella citta dei morti veventi, 1980); in fact, it wasn’t until it was released on DVD.

The gore effects in these films were stunning: maggots falling out of zombie eyeholes, eyes yanked into shards of wood, bodies pulled apart, bugs eating away at flesh, heads pulled through a drill press, and blood spontaneously pouring out of eyes. Again, they ran from realistic to “fakey,” but it was always mechanical rather than digital. I used to love to try and figure out how they did it. I remember seeing a film where a women spews out her entire intestinal tract and laughing, and then not being able to look at work the next day when someone cut her finger.

If you talk to most of the up-and-coming filmmakers I’ve reviewed, such as Sean Weathers, Dustin Wayde Mills and Richard Marr-Griffin, they will all proudly bear witness to their Italian horror viewing backgrounds. This genre’s popularity has not changed over time, either. Just this past fall, a pal had a day of zombie film viewing with his friends (I was included), and two of them (Zombie and Michele Soavi’s Cemetery Man [aka Delamorte Delamore, 1994]) were of Italian origin, and it was still visceral.

This hour-long documentary is an Italian import as well, created nearly a decade ago, but only recently released in a non-academic forum. We meet many of the directors, writers, and special effect artists that contributed to the field, most of them among the most cherished by the genre’s fans, such as Argento, Bava, and late-comer Soavi.

The film explores the methods behind the madness. For example Soavi explains he hates horror films, but is more into realistic images, so cannibals, rather than zombies, eating people is not horror, and he posits that he does not like the title of horror he is often labeled. .He interestingly comments on the comparative and real graphic images often shown on the television news.

Lamberto Bava tells how he came up with the idea for Demons (aka Demoni, 1985), comparing it to mass media: The first film takes place in a movie house where the demons come out of the projected images; in Demons 2 (aka Demoni 2… l’incubo ritorna, 1985), they come out of the even more accessible television; and in a planned but unrealized third film, it was to come out of the press.

In Italian with English subtitles, the talking parts are pretty short and jump from person to person often, though gratefully the subject’s name is presented often. It comes out a bit disjointed, but once you get the rhythm, it’s fascinating.

Mixed in with the taking heads are many shots from the films, usually the gore scenes and often with nudity, though it’s rare that any clip lasts longer than 10 seconds, and there is hardly any that have dialog.

There are two extras here, focusing in on one director each

The first is of my favorite director of the period, “Leo Fulchi, Italian Godfather of Gore.” Lasting a mere six minutes, it delves into the man rather than the movies, which is great. One of the three people discussing Fulchi (d. 1996) is his daughter, Antonella. The second short is “Mario Bava: Wizard of Fear” is slightly shorter, but again, three people describe Bava (d. 1980) and part of his process, such as his use of quick close-ups, that was copied into spaghetti westerns. The main clip they show is from Black Sunday¸ as they call it here, with the lovely Barbara Steele.  

If you’re a fan of these kinds of film, and we are legion, this is a must see. Otherwise, you might find the visuals quite shocking.

Bonus videos:



Thursday, February 20, 2014

DVD Review: Indie Director: The Director’s Cut

Text © Richard Gary/Indie Horror Films, 2014
Images from the Internet


Indie Director: The Director’s Cut
Directed by Bill Zebub                 
Bill Zebub Productions                   
142 minutes, 2013  

“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” – Mel Brooks

It’s been a while since I saw a Bill Zebub release, and I’m happy to have the opportunity to do so again.

To me, Zebub is sort of the modern Ed Wood. Now, now, don’t be mean, I’m serious. His output is meagerly acted, slimly written, doesn’t always make sense, the director is often the lead, and is almost always a hoot. Like Wood, Zebub does it for the joy it brings him, as well as a career.

In one of his early features, Assmonster: The Making of a Horror Film (2007), he uses the story to explain why he got into the indie horror industry; e.g., films sell at conventions for large mark-up, and you get to see and touch lots of naked women while you film them. Also like Ed, Bill looks at the dark side of life, sometimes by mocking it. It is not easy sticking to a conviction, but over the years Zebub has become one of the leading Jersey indie film auteurs.

Like Assmonster, this is sort of an autobiographical tale with Zebub playing himself after having made a number of films (which are mentioned – ergo promoted – frequently). You could arguably say this is actually a sequel in the sense of that British film that looks at some people every seven years.

While the storyline is written, I’m willing to bet that much of the incidents involved, such as distributors balking at some of his titles, which include the likes of Jesus the Total Douchebag, Jesus the Daughter of God, ZombieChrist and The Worst Horror Film Ever Made: The Sequel (actually, the latter is one of my Zebub faves). 

I’m not bothered by the anti-religion tone, the death metal music, the sheer amount of nudity, but there is the frequent – and I mean a lot – of homophobic comments that are used as humor, such as Zebub describing the difference between “jazz hands” and “gay fingers” (aka air quotes). Any time he wants to insult a man, he calls him gay. This part I’m not impressed. That being said, as I once stated, I’m not really sure if hanging out with Bill Zebub socially would be totally cool, or totally tool (yes, I used that as a verb…wanna make somptin’ of it?). If he is like he is in his films, well, I don’t know if I’d want to have a beer with him because he really does come across as an asshole (rather than assmonster).

There is also some “humor” talk about rape and domination. Again, I don’t mind film violence. Hey, pull someone’s arm out of a socket; stick a cleaver up somebody’s face; tie someone to two bound trees and then let them go…all good. But unless there is a revenge story on the other side (e.g., I Spit on Your Grave), or a point to it in the story, I find it hard when it’s a comedy, even if the rapist is Jesus (a common Zebub theme). To give you an example, the work title of the meta-project he is making is called Raped by a Rapist.

To be somewhat fair, he addresses this here. After a film of his is banned by “PayFriend,” he exasperatedly says to a pal, “I made a career out of doing everything wrong. Nobody else has blasphemy. Nobody else has racial humor. Nobody else depicts rape in movies, not even as a joke. I do things everybody else is afraid to do. … I wanted to test boundaries. ...The real balls are depicting the sexual sadist onscreen.” Despite finding it despicable, I also understand what he is saying. “Roughies” have a history in cinema, even dating back to James Cagney pushing a grapefruit half into Mae Clark’s face in The Public Enemy in 1931. There used to be an entire catalog of these kinds of films on a brand called W.A.V.E., in which some of today’s scream queens came to relative prominence such as the lovely Tina Krause.
Okay, enough with the moralizing and justifying. Let’s get back to the film, eh wot? Though quite pointed, this is still a comedy. Much of it relies on two things: one is an actor trying to keep up with Bill’s verbal bullshit and/or ad libbing, and the other is some of the stuff Bill says. Despite a number of repeated jokes (“See you later, crocodile” and jumping when his phone rings, for example), some of his word play is quite witty in that 12-year-old mentality; my favorite is when he says almost as a throwaway line, “I know you’re a methadone actress…” I wonder how many viewers actually caught that.

Unlike some of his other releases, there is no gore make-up and no laughable digi SFX (love the zomb-bees in an earlier film, or Jesus flying through the air still nailed to the cross). This is mostly set pieces of action, inaction (e.g., two guys talking while sitting on a couch), and any excuse to throw in some nekkid bodies, such as the bodacious Angelina Leigh, playing Zebub’s girlfriend, who we see the most – and most of – including on the throne (though her reading of putting that tail on words, like “I know-wah... It’s fine-nah” started to get to me by the end).

Ah, yes, let’s talk about Zebub’s women. As is common in one of his shoots, just about no women will be seen unless at some point they are not wearing a G-string (there is only one here). They range from very cute (such as the slim, braces-baring Sheri Medulla) to the big boobed and thick thighed. While not all stunning, he does have a wide range of body types, which I respect. However, one thing that is somewhat consistent (though not completely) is skin art. Most have multiple tattoos, including the very colorful ones of Stephanie Anders, who has a great one on her side that looks like her ribs are sticking through. Another actor has one of the worst tats I’ve ever seen. Seriously.

Getting away from all political comments about what is appropriate and what is not, the main weakness of this film is its length. There are too many scenes that could have been severely cut down which would have not made a hoot of difference to the story, such as Anders’ (purposefully) confused reading of what Bill was trying to say, or the scene where Bill is trying to film an actress, Svetlana (played by Clover St. Claire), who is completely distracted.

On the other hand, despite all the nonsense, if you pay attention to what is being said rather than how it is presented, this is actually quite a detailed primer on how (and how not) to not only make a micro-budget film, but how to deal with distributors, what to be careful of when it comes to picking financing and distribution, how not to get sucked into your own ego, along with some of the pitfalls of just everyday shooting and dealing with a cast who are more interested in their own promotion than the actual part. Amazingly, Zebub is the nutzoid voice of reason here. His nearly 10 years of experience of dealing with all these issues and frustrations are pure gold information for those wanting to follow the indie horror film path.

Just as a side note that has nuthin’ t’do wid nuthin’, I’m pleased there is an explanation as to why Zebub’s name is listed twice on the credits on the box. Plus, it’s cool that there is a death metal lesson at the end during the credits, as Bill Zebub has also directed some documentaries about the musical subgenre, such as Extreme Metal Retardation.

There are some jump cuts, but there is also some fine editing, including a nice slice between two actors saying the same words (“calm/down”).  Part of this was filmed at a horror convention, possibly the Chiller Theatre in NJ, I don’t know. There are shots of crowds in costumes, women doing hula hoops, creature feature miniature models, and I had a good smile when there’s a brief shot of the antichrist killer bunny puppet from Dustin Mills’ Easter Casket! 

There are a few extras, including bloopers and deleted scenes reel, each about 20 minutes long, and a bunch of Zebub’s trailers.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

DVD Reviews: Sean Weathers Presents: The Trade Off; Vault of Terror

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2014
Images from the Internet


The Trade Off: The Uncut Version That Goes All the Way
Directed by Sean Weathers        
80 minutes, 2009 / re: 2013

I’ve seen quite a few (all?) of director Sean Weathers’ released movies, and this one seems to be by far the most ambitious, and also the most accomplished. Weathers is, as far as I know, the only (Ghana-born) African-American auteur filmmaker, not to mention that he’s from the other side of the tracks of Brooklyn. But as he shows on his influential podcast radio interview show (HERE), he knows his indie genres in quite detail.
The Trade Off is less a horror film as much as, well, I guess the best descriptor I can think of is a Blaxploitation sex thriller. Casting himself in the lead role of Arthur, we meet him as he is involved in connubial relations with one of his paramours (Anna Brown). Nice way to set the tone of the film (sans sarcasm).
Arthur is a morally bankrupt person just oozing masculinist training (as feminist theory may say). He sees nothing wrong in dropping his pants for a two bi-women three-way, his ex-boss’s wife, and his best friend’s wife (he mentions it happens once a week). It is hardly surprising his life is in a bit of a tailspin. Early on he loses his corporate job at the age of 30, and thinks his live is “over,” which is ridiculous, of course. There is a scene where the person who takes over Arthur’s accounts asks him for his help. This actually once happened to a good friend of mine in the same situation, who rightfully refused.
My point is that wrapped up in this relatively explicit (softcore) film is a dressing of social conditions that come with living in the modern world. We see the calloused and self-centered view Arthur has for his loving and pregnant wife and, the corporatization of culture (his wife Rose, played by Stephany Ramirez, says upon hearing of his job loss, “The cold, hard fact is, this is par for the course in the corporate world, baby”), and the emotional detachment of a mediated world that focuses so hard on selling sex and instant gratification.  
Even though Arthur is no saint, he is hardly the only villainous (as it were) one in the film. There are no black and white roles here, everyone having various levels of flaws and cracks. That shows some development in characters from Weathers’ previous films.
Weathers is definitely betting better at writing dialog, especially for himself (yes, here I meant that as a snicker) such as, ”You see my back? Why don’t you get off of it,” and “Holy fuck. I ask you what time it is and you tell me how to build a clock.”
There is no real gore to speak of here, other than a bloody lip, but there is plenty of sex with a multitude of partners. Even in his love-making, if you want to call it that, Arthur is rough and ready.  There is no emotion, no care, just “wham-bam.” It also gives Weathers a chance to show off his six-pack, and be nekkid with a bunch of attractive women.
I also enjoyed the “establishment” shots of Brooklyn, mostly around Prospect Park, such as the Grand Army Plaza Arch and the main branch of the Brooklyn Library (down the block – Eastern Parkway – from the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden…I miss Brooklyn).
The shooting name of this film was Tortured by Regret, but Weathers was correct in changing the name. The Trade Off says much more of the direction of the story, and is certainly more accurate.
There are oodles of extras including bloopers, rehearsals, screen tests, podcasts, (female) cast interviews, and all of his trailers (thanks for using my quote in one of them, Sean!).
I see so much potential in Sean Weathers films, and I’m hoping he can focus his direction in stories like this, as much as the exploitation parts.

Sean Weathers Presents: Vault of Terror
Directed by Sean Weathers, Aswad Issa, George Romero, Abel Ferrara     
250 minutes, 1968 / 1979 / 2012 / re: 2013

It has been a year and a half or so since I interviewed Sean Weathers [HERE] about his films and life as a writer, director, and musician, and I am happy to see something (partially) new by now there is this collection of “4 nihilistic tales of dread & horror.” The two centerpiece films are public domain horror classics, and the two bookends are new. Let’s go in order, though for this review I am going to focus more on the new material.

The series opens up with the 41-minute “Maniac Too,” directed by Weathers. In a somewhat plotless story, we follow a serial rapist as he stalks and attacks a series of women, and then strangles them barehanded. Lots of female flesh is flashed, but none of the title villain. The women play scared, but don’t seem to fight very hard (especially the first one, who amusedly watches not to hit her head on a guardrail as she becomes horizontal. They all tend to stand in one spot and cry while the guy takes off their clothes and assaults them.

The box describes this as a “sex horror,” which is apparently accurate. It’s interesting that while the rapist is black, most of the victims are white. If a white person were directing this, I might think that he was racist portraying a black rapist attacking whites. If any other black director was making this other than Sean, I would say it was racist because all the women that are attacked are white. But from what I know about Sean, he is trying to make a comment on modern culture, using the horror theme as its vehicle, much like Romero so often did.

When we finally do see an interaction between the guy and an African-American woman, she is a hooker/prostitute, who spends five minutes stripping to some rap music and then meets a similar end, before he goes out again to perpetrate more attacks.

This seems to happen all in one night, and he must be some kind of superman to be able to be aroused through completion (in less than 15 seconds a time) within a one night timespan. In fact, there is actually nearly no threading plot line, just a series of set pieces of attacks. Because of this, I wonder if this is all meant to be inside the perpetrator’s head, much like in Russ Meyer’s much gentler comedy, The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959).

Sure he feels regret each time, but it sure doesn’t stop him. However, we have no idea why he is on this sudden rape and kill spiral, as there is literally zero character development, just the set pieces. Skill wise, Sean’s work has improved, even with the handheld running camera shot. Personally, I would have liked more of a story than just a series of unexplained violence. I’ve seen lots of excruciating brutality, including A Serbian Film (2010) and Weathers’ own They All Must Die! (1998), but even with that one, there was a motivation.

The second film is the public domain 1979 film called The Driller Killer, directed by (and starring) Abel Ferrara. It is introduced and ended by an audio discussion between Sean and Aswad. It makes sense that this film is included because like the first film in this collection, it deals with someone with a compulsion to commit horrendous acts.

While The Driller Killer can never be called a good film, it is important for a number of reasons. First of all, it was a lynchpin in the history of video in British history. Despite the space between the bloody murders, supposedly the VHS cover was considered so gruesome that it changed the laws of what was permissible to be shown in that country..

Another reason is that part of it is filmed at Max’s Kansas City (d. 1981). Sure, they moved the tables for filming so people can dance, but actually no one danced in front of the stage at Max’s in real life, which was one of the complaints of Eddie & the Hotrods when I saw them play there about 1977.

Lastly, it is a pretty accurate picture of what the Lower East Side was like at that time, before the whole Koch-Giuliani-Bloomberg sanitation/gentrification of the grittier parts of the city. Lots of artists, winos, drugs, black mold, and bad bands (the one at the center of the film, the Roosters, was typical at the time; the lead singer here sounds like Mario Cantone on helium). Plus there are little moments, like when pizza is eaten and the crust is left in the box - this was common when I was growing up - or the thick New York accents, especially the girlfriend of the Roosters’ singer.

The third film is Romero’s classic 1968 groundbreaker, Night of the Living Dead. I’m not going to discuss it because is there anyone reading this who has not seen it? Hell, not seen it numerous times? The one comment I will make is that I can understand why this is included here, because the interactions between races is a key component. As with The Driller Killer, Sean and Aswad discuss the film at the intro and outro, with the latter being the most interesting.

Last up is another original film, this time directed by Sean’s cinematographer, Aswad Issa. Lasting only 4 minutes, it tells a subway story of “no good deed goes unpunished.” Shot guerrilla style, this three-part fable is based on a true story, as we are told in the opening credits), and it’s not hard to believe if you’ve ever ridden the subways late at night as I have more times than I can count; I’ve been phenomenally lucky.

Sean Weathers acts in it as the titular character, as he swaps directing roles. Issa does a great job in that amount of time of telling a “postcard” story that is completely believable. Weathers and Issa make a good team, no getting around that. If I was to be assumptive and make any suggestions (as I’ve never made a film other than a couple of group super-8 nothings in college for a class), Weathers works better with long-form, full-length tales that tell a story. Some of his later stuff is super violent but sometimes feels gratuitous. I like the guy, and I like his indie style. I do wish he would go back to more straight horror stories, rather than gangster/gangsta or rape, violence and/or revenge. He’s a good storyteller, and I want to see more of his nightmares, not just slash and burn.