Sunday, June 06, 2010

Movie Mini-List #2: Euro-Horror

When I first started counting down my 100 favorite movies, in October 1972, the plan was to have occasional posts by guests writing about their favorite movies in particular categories. Alas, I’ve only featured one to date, my friend Dez’s look at De Niro’s best movies not directed by Scorsese. Now, another writer with a pen name, Ranylt Richildis, has been kind enough to contribute. The five movies below are some of her favorite “Euro-horror” flicks, taken from a series she has at her own terrific blog, Roughen.
And Soon the Darkness (1970, dir. Robert Fuest)

Hands down one of Fuest’s best pictures (and an unsung gem of a ’70s chiller), And Soon the Darkness relies on evocative minimalism and clean, uncluttered shots to make both daylight and the wide-open French countryside sinister. When two female tourists get separated near a menacing little town, the breathing space generated by Fuest and director of photography Ian Wilson is cloying rather than comforting — almost agoraphobic by design. There’s too much open field and too much dead air between Jane (Pamela Franklin) and her missing friend (Michele Dotrice), and the only hiding places to shelter in are bushes that probably conceal perverts or ramshackle cafes that attract brutes. The situation is complicated by a too-eager-to-help hep cat (Sandor Elès) who trails the girls on his moped, then force-teams himself with Jane when she finds herself alone on the deserted route. The way Jane is ordered around by men or bossy elders is part of the day’s horror — And Soon the Darkness is a meditation on the dangers of being young and female in an objectifying world, and the tension mounts with every leer or warning, as does Jane’s exasperation. The movie benefits from capable performances and realistic dialogue, but the real star is the production design and how well it lends itself — even and especially in broad daylight — to our growing sense of dread.

The Grapes of Death (1978, dir. Jean Rollin)

If horror movies are merely the kitschy manifestations of humanity’s greatest fears, then a tale about a toxic wine harvest might point to an anxiety particular to the French. Regarded by some as Jean Rollin’s best film, and generally considered a fine entry in the Walking Dead genre, The Grapes of Death plays off French oenophilia and the importance of the industry to the nation. When an experimental pesticide used on a grape harvest winds up poisoning the brains and bodies of all who imbibe this year’s vintage, zombie-like maniacs wander the countryside lusting for the blood of the living. Our unsuspecting heroine (Marie-Georges Pascal) hurtles straight into Romero country by train and must fend for herself in a region where pretty much everyone enjoys their vino (with grave consequences; alcoholics metaphorized into zombies?). The film has a distinctive look with its mossy, misty, stony countryscapes, and the acting is above average for both Rollin and Euro-horror. The pace is rambling, like the ruins that dot many of the film’s exterior shots. Watch for French porn star Brigitte Lahaie and a surprisingly convincing severed head dummy (in a film with both very good and very weak make-up effects). Grapes is a nice eco-horror piece in the vein of Jorge Grau’s Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and others from the 1960s and 1970s.

To the Devil a Daughter (1976, dir. Peter Sykes)

Many Hammer fans prefer the studio’s earlier films and cold-shoulder the later ones produced as it struggled to keep in step with the times. But some of us appreciate this final entry in the original Hammer pantheon. (I add the word original because Hammer Studios climbed out of its coffin in 2008.) To the Devil a Daughter has naturalistic acting, a bit of edge, and the need for audience deconstruction — all unexpected positives. But it can’t match Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and other popular occult films Sykes was emulating, tasked as he was with making Hammer Studios a guaranteed pound sterling. Dependable Christopher Lee is an excommunicated priest who points his faith in a more sinister direction, towards a satanic god. His church raises Nastassja Kinski, who grows up to become a nun marked to bear the seed of the devil. High jinx ensue when the nun’s father (Denholm Elliott) and an occult writer (Richard Widmark) try to protect her from that destiny. Enjoy some nicely claustrophobic framing shots from very low and very high angles, and a disturbing birth scene wherein a mother’s legs are bound together, sealing off the birth canal. Women will squirm, and some viewers will get a chuckle out of the clerical costumes the Satanists sport, identical to Catholic uniforms.

[Ed. Note: I couldn’t move on to the next movie without sharing this still from To the Devil a Daughter, which Ranylt featured on her blog.]

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971, dir. Robert Fuest)

Fuest’s talent for art direction helps to make this the best of the Phibes movies. He’s crafted a series of dreamlike tableaux and suffused them with sumptuous color, art deco tucks and corners, and the generally peculiar. The story: a grieving theologian/organist (Vincent Price) exacts revenge on the medical team that let his wife die on the operating table. He designs executions around the mythic ten plagues of the Pharaoh and secures the collaboration of one Vulnavia (Virginia North), the Audrey Hepburn of psychedelic assassination. Joseph Cotten rounds out a skilled cast as the corny inspector. There’s no need to argue that this one’s deliberately campy — what with Price in the lead role — but it’s camp with an engaging, unique difference that’s hard to define. Among the unforgettable images: death by frog-mask at a masquerade ball, and Phibes’ surreal operating theatre.

The Virgin Spring (1960, dir. Ingmar Bergman)

Some might consider it a stretch to classify a Bergman film as “Euro-Horror,” but The Virgin Spring is by now so tied to the exploitation flicks it inspired that I can’t help but watch it in this light. The movie’s plot has grown into a lasting horror trope: a daughter is raped and murdered by drifters who make the mistake of sheltering in her family’s house and pay dearly. In Bergman’s version (based on lore, like so much of our horror literature and film), the daughter (Birgitta Pettersson) is attacked by three men as she makes her way to a Sunday sermon. The killers find themselves in her parents’ home later that afternoon, and father Max von Sydow takes his revenge with anguished, oh-so-Scandinavian precision. Sink into Bergman’s pristine medieval aesthetic tinged — like the scene with Max and the tree — with remarkable expressionism. The Virgin Spring is nearly too quiet, too stately, and too pretty for the revenge horror genre, but that revengeploitation seepage can’t be contained by Bergman’s socio-religious frame, nor has it ever been handled so masterfully. Knockoffs include Craven’s The Last House on the Left, Deodato’s The House on the Edge of the Park, Lado’s Night Train Murders, and Hayer’s Revenge. Make a day of them.


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