Day 13 (80s horror): Phenomena (1985)/Spookies (1986)/Fade to Black (1980)
On what proved to be one of the more difficult days to plan for, I found myself scrambling and changing plans, mostly due to the sheer number of options available. I knew I wanted to watch at least one new-to-me selection and catch up with a couple of old favorites, and I eventually settled on a trio that proved to be consistently entertaining. This is no small feat considering that Phenomena is arguably Argentoís wildest, most delirious effort, leaving those other two films a lot to live up to. Given what came afterwards in his filmography, it almost feels like Argento just emptied the fucking tank in an effort to see just what in the hell he could get away with on Phenomena. Iíll grant that he had some moments (mostly scattered throughout the likes of Opera, Trauma, and Sleepless) following this one, but it qualifies as his last great film. Argento is one of the few horror directors who could ever pull this one off with a straight face, much less craft it into a legitimate nightmare.
The presence of an unseen killer stalking a girlís school and its surrounding area is old hat, but it quickly veers off into screwy territory once a local forensic entomologist enlists one of the girls (Jennifer Connelly) to use her psychic connection with insects in order to track down the killer. If you are somehow unfamiliar with this movie, let me assure you that I am not fucking with you, nor am I bluffing when I say that isnít the half of it. Usually, I would even include cursory mentions of some of the insanity that awaits here, but Iíll refrain: just trust me when I say this is an essential Eurohorror, at least in the sense that it blends the genreís ultraviolence, whackadoo plotting, and an incredibly evocative score into an unreal, nightmarish frenzy.
Iím not even sure how I settled on following up with Spookies, but I do know this recent post over at Dinosaur Dracula had it lurking somewhere in my brain. Since the rights apparently rest with Lionsgate, itís a title I might as well give up on seeing a legitimate DVD/Blu-ray release (though itíd be a perfect Vestron title). Plus, I am a weak man and could no longer resist the allure of that killer VHS art. And as Matt over at DD insists, this is one of those movies that actually lives up to the artwork since all of those awesome creature designs actually make it into the film. Best described as a film in the vein of Night of the Demons and its ilk, itís about a group of dipshits who stumble upon a house inhabited by a warlock looking to keep his bride alive and eternally youthful. To do so, he needs to feed upon the souls of the innocent, so he dispatches a sweet-ass legion of various monsters to wipe out the aforementioned dipshits.
Look, Iím going to give it to us straight about Spookies: itís a good thing it does live up to the artwork because, in truth, itís mostly just an incredible production design masquerading as a movie. The human characters are a waste (but are thoroughly, bloodily wasted), and the plot is practically nonexistent outside of its setup. Itís the sort of movie where characters wander off so the director can unleash the next round of carnageóand thatís fine! Spookies is perhaps on the lethargic side whenever the title characters arenít on-screen (the rollicking energy and vibrant personalities from a Kevin Tenney film are sorely lacking), but whenever they are, itís a total blast. Hopefully Lionsgate (or some other label) will rescue it from the murky VHS depths, where all those wonderful effects are obscured by awful, dim transfers. Earmark this one if it ever is announced on Blu-ray, as itíll appeal that part of your brain that would have been most impressed by this sort of thing when it was only 9-years old and subsisted mostly on fantasies involving pizza and monsters.
Finally, I concluded the night with Fade to Black, which you can read about in full here.
Day 14 (Sybil Danning): Caged Heat (1983)
B-movie queen Sybil Danning is more than worthy of her own day, as evidenced by the fact that so many choices lay before me, from her early work in landmark giallo efforts to the, um, end credits of The Howling II. But one option was more intriguing than most of the others, as Caged Heat is often cited as among the best women-in-prison movies, another genre Iíve been (slowly) growing more familiar with during the past few years. If there were ever one to fully convert me on what has personally been a shaky, inconsistent genre, itíd be this one, though, as Danning stars as one of the baddest bitches in a thoroughly corrupt jail. Not only does she rule the yard, but sheís also running drugs for one of the officials as part of a labyrinthine racket that eventually involves prostitution.
Add in racial strife, crooked wardens, and a doe-eyed Linda Blair who has no idea what sheís in for, and Caged Heat is loaded with conflicts that are set to explode. Expectedly, it layers on plenty of sleaze, grit, violence, and gratuitous nudity on its way to a rousing, riotous climax. Less expected: a reference to Fellini and its weirdly heart-warming resolution to the race war that divides the inmates.
Day 15 (Free space): The Dragon Lives Again (1977)
True story: a few years back, Brett H. and I planned out an entire grindhouse-themed marathon, carefully selecting notorious films from various greasy sub-genres for what proved to be a memorable night for many different reasons. One of those reasons involved a fuck-up with this title: see, we thought this was the movie we were about to watch when we loaded Bruce Lee Fights Back From the Grave into our respective DVD players, only to find out that was another Bruceploitation movie entirely. It goes without saying that this is one weird, prolific, and often misleading sub-genre. Anyway, years later, I have rectified this situation, and I have to admit Iím pretty ashamed it took me so long because, holy shit you guys, The Dragon Lives Again is a movie whose existence seems impossible.
Given that itís been confined to shady public domain releases for years leads me to believe that, legally speaking, it literally should not exist, if only for the brazen IP theft on display. In one of the coolest (and, again, certainly illegal) premises for the Bruceploitation cycle, the recently deceased kung-fu master finds himself in some kind of limbo underworld ruled by a sneering, domineering king. When faced with his mighty power (which involves literally shaking the pillars of the underworld), Bruce can only go about his afterlife, which looks a lot like regular life. Well, until you realize the company Bruce begins to bump into, which includes the likes of the One-Armed Swordsman, Dracula, James Bond, Clint Eastwood, The Godfather, and, uh, Popeye the Sailor Man?
I need not say any more other than assure you that, yes, this one absolutely lives up to the premise. The insane plot finds the Godfather and his minions plotting to overthrow the king, who eventually has to enlist Bruce and his buddies to come to his defense, and the resulting martial arts displaysósome of which feature fucking mummiesóare terrifically choreographed. The only shame here is that this movie will almost certainly never see the light of day outside of the shoddy, VHS-era pan-and-scan hell itís been stuck in for decades.
Day 16 (Westerns): Four of the Apocalypse (1975)
Only one movie would suffice on this day, as Lucio Fulciís most notable western is a movie Iíve been meaning to come back around to for a few years now since it really threw me for a loop*. Between Fulciís reputation and a fucking awesome title like Four of the Apocalypse, this one sets certain expectations that it likely wonít meet. However, that doesnít mean it still isnít one of the more remarkable spaghetti westerns, if only because itís quite unlike a lot of them (or the ones Iíve seen, at least). A far cry from the often bleak, savage offerings from Fulciís peers, Four of the Apocalypse is a surprisingly wistful, episodic tale of four strangers who happen to join up after theyíre tossed in a jail cell. With the exception of rugged gambler Stubby Preston (Fabio Testi), none are particularly suited for the rough-and-tumble old west, much less the sort of folks that youíd refer to as horsemen of the apocalypse. Lynne Frederick is a pregnant teenage girl scared out of her wits, while Michael J. Pollard and Harry Baird play a couple of simple-minded but good-hearted fools.
But together, they eke out something close to a decent existence, at least until they run into a band of thugs led by the ruthless Chaco (spaghetti staple Tomas Milian). After gaining the groupís trust, he blindsides them with an assault that ends with the poor girl being raped and the others left for dead. Youíd perhaps expect Four of the Apocalypse to become a rousing revenge tale, but itís actually anything but that. Somehow, the four just try to pick up the pieces and move on with their lives. By the time the film does eventually circle back around to Chaco and his gang, itís almost a perfunctory moment that offers little compensation for all thatís been lost.
What lingers after Four of the Apocalypse isnít the gruesome violence but rather the quiet, melancholy moments that trail in its wake: the death of a comrade, the realization that a damaged mind is too far gone, the birth of a child thatís undercut by immediate tragedy. Weirdly enough, the sentiment is best captured by a sort of Lite FM song youíd never expect to hear in a Lucio Fulci movie, wherein a singer croons about moving on. Sometimes, thatís all you can do in life.
*As an added bonus, Four of the Apocalypse ended right around midnight on the 17th, coinciding perfectly with what would have been Fulciís 90th birthday.
Day 17 (Italian horror): Lisa and the Devil (1973)/A Blade in the Dark (1983)
And coincidentally (or notósomething tells me the F This! crew knows whatís up), Fulciís birthday was reserved for a day celebrating Italian horror. I was of two minds with the Bava and son double feature idea that sparked in my mind: should I go with two of their films I really love (something like Twitch of the Death Nerve and Demons), or revisit a couple that didnít completely grab me the first time around? Obviously, I settled on the latter, and not to the worst results. For one thing, itís not like either of these two movies are in any way terribleóitís just that theyíre not among the first batch of movies Iíd watch from the Bavas.
Lisa and the Devil is one of those weird efforts from Mario Bavaís weird, fidgety 70s phase that saw him moving through a host of sub-genres. Contrary to the misleading American title (and re-edit) House of Exorcism, this isnít much of a possession movie at all. Instead, itís Bavaís attempt at going full Old Dark House, as American tourist Lisa (Elke Sommer) stumbles onto a bizarre scene involving an aristocratic family hoarding a ton of secrets. A relatively low-key pot-boiler (especially compared to the previous yearís unhinged Death Nerve), Lisa and the Devil simmers with unsettling imagery, dreamlike flashbacks, and violent outbursts. Also, Telly Savalas plays a butler that may or may not be the actual fucking devil himself pulling all the strings. Iím happy to report I may have underestimated this one, especially its weird, hazy, nightmarish ending.
A Blade in the Dark, on the other hand, is mostly as I remembered it: a fine little late-period giallo thatís perhaps a tad too long considering its lack of incident. Andrea Occhipinti plays Bruno, a film composer who retreats to a rural villa to complete his score for a horror movie (a conceit that is mostly wasted since we only see one scene from the fictional movie). While there, he encounters a couple of girls who go missing, though viewers know something much worse is at hand since theyíve watched them be brutally murdered by an unseen killer. Wickedly, gleefully violent even by giallo standards, it smacks of the genre trying to keep up with its 80s slasher cousins, which would be fineóif there were more of it.
Instead, A Blade in the Dark only boasts five total murders, three of which are stuffed into the final few minutes. In between, thereís standard gialli nonsense, including a ridiculous red herring involving Brunoís girlfriend (thatís never resolved, naturally) and a few decent fake-out scenes before pulling a final twist out of nowhere. Admittedly, Bavaís direction is sharp and soaks in the rich, unsettling rural atmosphere to an evocative score, but it all feels so perfunctory, especially since Argento delivered the definitive giallo statement a year earlier with Tenebrae.
Day 18 (Code Red): Terminal Island (1973)
When Code Red isnít uncovering long-forgotten horror movies, theyíre doing the same for just about every other cult and exploitation genre imaginable, from teen comedies to skeevy nudie flicks to shoestring action flicks. Terminal Island is one of the latter, and a quite good one at that (as is the case with Code Redís horror selection, quality is not always guaranteed). Hailing from Corman alum Stephanie Rothman, it feels like a rugged precursor to the likes of Escape from New York or The Running Man. In the not-so-distant future, the United States has outlawed the death penalty, but that hasnít stopped California from shipping its worst inmates to an island, where theyíre forced to fend for themselves.
Ena Hartman is Carmen, the latest inmate to arrive on the island, and she quickly discovers some fucked-up gender dynamics. By day, all of the women are subjected to hard labor; by night, theyíre expected to let the men have their way with them, lest they incur the wrath of sadistic ring-leader Bobby (Sean Kinney). Soon, however, thereís a revolt, leading to divided loyalties that predictably spill over into violent encounters. Once the fuse is lit, Rothman revels in staging the violence, which escalates all the way from stalk-and-slash stabbings to full-on shootouts, complete with makeshift grenades. Thereís enough rousing explosions and one-liners (ďthat dude just took his last crap,Ē one guy boasts after watching an outhouse go up in flames) to make you forget that youíre rooting for a bunch of murderers. That&襊s a small hurdle for Terminal Island, which is the sort of film where the ďgood guysĒ boast a rapist among their number whoís on the receiving end of a comedic gag minutes after assaulting a woman.
Suffice it to say, this oneís a bit #problematic, even if it does wheel out hunky, young, bearded Tom Selleck as a Kevorkian-esque doctor with a heart of gold to disarm you and sand off the rough edges. Itís a shame Rothmanówho actually didnít always enjoy the schlock she directedónever broke out and had the sort of career she craved (and deserved). Hopefully, sheíll at least start to receive her due for films like this, Blood Bath, The Working Girls, Velvet Vampire, and Starhops. Not a bad resume from one of the exploitation circuitís unsung talents.
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