June 27, 2008

HorrorHound Weekend: Pittsburgh - convention report

The HorrorHound Movie Convention
20th - 22nd June 2008

Return of the zombies to the shopping mall

It's a long way to Pittsburgh from anywhere, especially from England, but because of the zombie theme and being only a few hundred yards away from the original Dawn of the Dead shopping mall, I simply had to go to this particular horrorcon.

Only a few hundred yards across the parking lot from the Monroeville Mall, the convention took place inside the Expo Mart for a three day event.

The guests included actors, directors and make-up artists from famous horror films, as well as artists like Joel Robinson who provided the awesome poster art for the event (pictured at the top).

Besides the main room which housed the vendors and the guests' signing tables, there were special screenings in a nearby hall. Friday there was a special American Werewolf In London (1981) evening starting with the film itself. This was followed by a Q & A session with the director John Landis and the star David Naughton, together with Paul Davis who's just finishing work on his documentary about the film, called Beware the Moon.

He had first been impressed by American Werewolf when he saw it on VHS at the age of three! Two years ago, exasperated by the lack of extras on the DVD release, he set out to interview everyone connected with the project. John Landis observed that the project was potentially doomed unless he'd first cleared up the rights issues (which has since been sorted out). Other independent documentaries are currently in limbo because of this issue. For example, Landis had seen and enjoyed Spine Tingler, all about the director William Castle, but predicted it will only be seen at conventions unless about $4 million can be found to sort out licensing issues!

Paul Davis then presented what he called a 'director's cut', an extended 105 minute work-in-progress version. Of course, the fan in him wants it to be longer, but Landis is advising a shorter cut. Only one shall win! Beware the Moon will officially be completed in Los Angeles later in the year. It's an enjoyable look at a great film, full of surprising and interesting behind-the-scenes stories told by some great raconteurs. There are clips posted at their MySpace page. I'll review it properly shortly.

John Amplas and me

Pittsburgh is of course where George Romero shoots most of his films, and many of his cast and crew still live in the area. Besides a sprinkling of zombies from Dawn of the Dead (1978), actor John Amplas was there all weekend. I especially liked his character in Day of the Dead (1985) and it was a pleasure to talk to him at this his first convention appearance. Amplas appeared in many other Romero films, notably as the title character of the modern-day vampire film Martin (1977), but nowadays he teaches acting at a Pittsburgh university.

Al Cliver, me, and Ottaviano Dell'Acqua (wormeye!)

It wasn't all about American horror films - I also met a zombie and a zombie-slayer a long way from their homeland of Italy. Al Cliver and Ottaviano Dell'Acqua both appeared in the awesome Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979). Cliver, who sported a beard in his Lucio Fulci films back then, is now clean-shaven and speaks pretty good English, thanks to his American wife. Of course, I'm used to him being dubbed into English!

Far less recognisable was the poster zombie from the film, the fearsome worm-eyed creature who still ranks as the most nightmarish undead ever. In real life, he's a good-looking Italian stuntman who appeared with his five brothers as various zombies in the film (he no longer remembers which others he played). Ottaviano is now a major stunt coordinator in Italy and was working on the new James Bond film Quantum of Solace earlier this year.

The two performers were being looked after by Mike Baronas, who has put together many of the excellent documentaries on the DVD releases of Lucio Fulci's horror films. He has his own DVD out now called Paura - Lucio Fulci Remembered: Volume 1. Again, I'll be reviewing it soon.

Me and ex-zombie Lenny Lies.
Who knew a machete in the head could bring such fame?

Saturday saw Griffin Dunne join David Naughton and John Landis to sign autographs all day. Out of the blue I mentioned to Naughton that I'd met the Ladies of The Evil Dead at a convention and he said he'd just made a movie with them - Brutal Massacre, a horror comedy. I also talked to Paul Davis and discovered that he only lives a few miles away from me in south London.

In the screening room, Doug Bradley, better known for playing the fearsome cenobite Pinhead in the Hellraiser series, presented the first completed episode of Spine Chillers, a successful attempt to bring the words of famous horror literature to life. In the first episode, Bradley reads H.P. Lovecraft's The Outsider, while it's illustrated by layers of impressionistic and evocative artwork. The effect was to bring the story to life without discarding the original text, like most screen adaptions do. A clip from The Outsider is online and Bradley hopes to tackle The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe next. He's also thinking of getting horror celebrity narrators to work on episodes in this proposed series - but I thought he was already perfect for the job.

Tom Savini (left) and Fluffy

Tom Savini then appeared cracking his bullwhip, VERY LOUDLY. He also brought along the animatronic head of 'Fluffy' (the monster in the crate from George Romero's Creepshow) newly restored by Greg Nicotero. Savini talked about how his gory make-up effects for Friday the 13th and Dawn of the Dead led to a decade of fabricating similar effects for splatter and slasher films. But nowadays he only consults on special effects work, concentrating instead on acting and directing - he talked about his appearances in From Dusk Till Dawn and the forthcoming The Lost Boys 2. I particularly like his remake of Night of the Living Dead (1990), which he didn't enjoy directing at the time, but has recently rewatched and thinks better of it.

Later on was the much-anticipated screening of Dawn of the Dead at the nearby Monroeville Mall where much of the film was shot. Hundreds turned up to the event, some dressed up as zombies. Some of the original zombie cast spoke beforehand, including Mike Christopher (the Hare Krishna zombie), Clayton Hill (the sweater zombie), Sharon Hill (the nurse zombie), and the very tall Jim Krut (no wonder he lost his head to the helicopter blades).

The charity screening was held inside, at one end of the mall where the big circular fountain used to stand. There were complaints about the fuzzy sound system and the projected picture couldn't always compete with the mall lights, which were supposed to have been dimmed. But it was still a first-time event that nearly didn't happen at all, so I was thankful to have been there. It was a treat to hear 'The Gonk' muzak being played inside the mall, and a great opportunity to do a live side-by-side comparison of how the mall has changed in thirty years.

Further photos from the weekend events can be seen on the HorrorHound website and
their MySpace page.

I'll soon review the documentary Beware The Moon - Remembering An American Werewolf in London at length, and will also post my own location tour of the mall.

June 14, 2008

THE CRAZIES, SHIVERS, RABID - nasty seventies virals

Three North American horror movies from the mid 1970's where people turn into mindless, predatory animals, decades before the fast-moving 'zombies' of 28 Days Later and I Am Legend.

(1973, USA)

George Romero had already laid down the rules for the modern zombie genre in Night of the Living Dead (1968). But before he started with the sequels, he made The Crazies, in which society breaks down in a remote town when a military nerve gas turns everyone into psycho-killers.

While the premise had horror potential - with innocent-looking children and grannies turning homicidal – the amateurish acting has always made this a tough one for me to sit through, even when it came out. Besides the budget being too low to do ‘a city in chaos’ properly, the gore effects severely lack Tom Savini, with fake-looking limbs and even unconvincing blood.

But the ideas were ripe for recycling, and the image of the military dressed head-to-foot in white gas masks, suits and hoods proved enduring, soon appearing again in The Cassandra Crossing (1976).

(1975, Canada)

David Cronenberg was obviously inspired by Romero’s film (he even cast Lynn Lowry from The Crazies), but added more inventive angles, like making people homicidal and sexual maniacs. Shivers was his first feature film, and he ladled out enough controversy to launch his career.

In it, a medical experiment to mutate parasites into missing organs comes to a tragic end when the doctor kills, disembowels and pours acid into the stomach of a naked schoolgirl. Little does he know, she's been sleeping around, fuelled by the parasites' sexual appetite. Now several men in her apartment block are breeding parasitic slugs of their own... internally.

While this is far more interesting than The Crazies, the amateur quality of acting is still pretty distracting, though queen of Italian horror, Barbara Steele (Mask of the Demon) is a welcome exception. Her bathtub scene is still squirmingly effective, and was the basis of many poster campaigns.

By his own admission, Cronenberg was still learning to direct during the production, but the film was still an international hit. He pushes the concept way out, and it's unusual to see sexual horror outside of the realm of vampires for once.

(1976, Canada)

Cronenberg tweaked and expanded the same concept of infectious psychosis for his next, far more assured film. This is the easiest of the three to recommend, with a more able cast, and a bigger budget.

Another medical experiment misfires, this time using skin-grafts. After a bike accident, Rose (Marilyn Chambers) finds herself with a vampiric spike in her armpit and a lust for human blood, not realising that she's infects her victims with rabies.

The stage is set for random violence, with Cronenberg dreaming up kills more creative than the story or the characters. Not many horror films feature a pneumatic drill as a murder weapon, or Santa Claus gunned down by a hail of machine-gun fire.

This is efficient, unusual, indie horror mayhem, from the heyday of Canadian horror, with buckets of subtext only if you want it. Watching this again, I noticed that there's no original soundtrack music, just a few library tracks repeated to exhaustion! It certainly worked at the time. Shivers and Rabid then made perfect partners on a double-bill re-release in cinemas. Check out any trailers you can find - the voice-over is a classic.

(Cronenberg then continued with a run of interesting horror films - The Brood, Scanners, and the marvellous Videodrome, before hitting the big time with his 1986 remake of The Fly).

These three quasi-zombie films were labelled as 'body horror' in the eighties, and lumped in with the remakes of The Blob and The Thing - today they're the fore-runners of today's 'fast and furious' genre of the undead.

Incidentally, the US DVD of Shivers (from Image Entertainment) looks good in 1.33 aspect ratio, but my UK edition of Rabid (from Metrodome) is severely cropped on all sides of the 16:9 frame, cramping the action and even clipping off parts of the opening titles - a case of 'widescreen edition' meaning less rather than more... but there's an interesting introductory talk from Cronenberg on both discs.

June 09, 2008

ANATOMIE (2000) - gutsy German thriller

(2000, Germany, Anatomie)

Go up the lab, and see what's on the slab...

Franka Potente is reason enough to watch this slick slasher from Germany. The actress scored an international success with Run Lola Run (1998), then starred in Antomie before a short run of Hollywood parts - in Blow (2001) opposite Johnny Depp, The Bourne Identity (2002) and The Bourne Supremacy (2004). She also starred in another horror, Creep (2004) in the UK.

Paula and Gretchen are two medical students who get the chance to study anatomy at an old revered college in picturesque Heidelburg. But while they dissect dead bodies during the day, two masked maniacs are using the same high-tech facility at night to carefully cut up victims while they're still alive.

(These scenes reminded me of the unfortunate runner in Scream and Scream Again (1970) who wakes up without a leg, then another leg, then his arms).

As the two roommates start to get popular with the male students, Paula starts to suspect that something nasty is going on in the college...

This is gripping and enjoyable while it lasts, but the climax arrives a little too quickly, leaving enough loose ends for a sequel (in 2003).

The special effects all look exactly like the squishy nastiness, though it's far less bloody than I anticipated. Plasticised bodies that look like those made famous by Dr Gunther Von Hagens, are used as exhibits in the research wing of the college. I felt they were under-used by the director and would have liked a closer look at these extremely creepy replicas. For instance, a huge set of shelves decked out with skulls deserved far more attention.

To ease the tension, and almost dissipate it, there are one too many scenes of upbeat college life, with an intrusive pop soundtrack - indeed Paula’s roommate Gretchen is played my German singer Anna Loos, who gets an unlikely sex scene on a metal dissection table.

Franka Potente ensures the character of Paula is as realistic as the medical mayhem around her. Benno Fürmann is also impressive as the self-obsessed muscle-boy, Hein. Fürmann has a long list of credits in Germany, but recently appeared as Inspector Detector in Speed Racer.

Anatomie avoids most of the cliches of modern horror, using more Hitchcockian suspense and a steadily-unfolding story, which is all the more creepy for remaining in the realm of the very possible.

What makes it different from American horror is the mixture of nudity, sex and death. Most of the corpses are young and good-looking, adding a necrophilic edge to the flesh on display.

The UK DVD from Columbia Tristar is presented in anamorphic 2.35 widescreen, and has plenty of extras (including an Anna Loos pop video and interesting interviews).

June 08, 2008

OTOSHIMONO (2006) a creepy Japanese GHOST TRAIN

(2006, Japan, Otoshimono)

Even after 10 years of Asian horror films riffing on the scary elements of the original Ring (1998), I really don't mind yet more ghosts with long black hair, as long as they are scary. Besides, the ghost in this one is wearing a black dress - that's completely different!

Ghost Train delivers the chills, and attempts to add a new dimension of its own, enough to set it apart from the rest. I'm very partial to movies set in subway systems, and I've actually had nightmares about London's Underground stations. This film taps into scares that I didn't feel during horrors filmed down there, like Death Line (1972) or Creep (2004).

Otoshimono has been retitled several ways in other countries, but it's not to be confused with the South Korean 'ghosts on a train' movie, Red Eye.

The story starts in the busy Tokyo subway system, when little Takashi picks up a train pass off a platform, only to be told to "give it back" or he will die. He later tells a schoolfriend Noriko, and her older sister Nana, of the warning from a woman in black. He soon disappears off the face of the Earth, and the train pass re-appears on the platform. This time Noriko unwittingly picks it up...

On the same line, train driver Shunichi sees a bloodless mangled corpse lying on the tracks in the tunnel ahead. But when he stops and looks underneath the train, the body has disappeared. His boss is concerned that he's not only seeing things, but that he keeps making emergency stops. On another subway train, Kaeru gets a cursed bracelet that she can't remove. What is going on?

This story has its roots in the Japanese custom of leaving lost objects precisely where they were lost, so that the owner can find them if they retrace their steps. In Japan, I even heard stories that wallets will be respectfully left alone, wherever they were dropped, until claimed again by their owners.

The creeping camerawork and carefully orchestrated sound mix help keep the film constantly and effortlessly scary, right from the start. Though some of the shock moments are needlessly cranked-up by repeat edits and zoom-ins, for anyone who missed them the first time. But for once, the scares are all for genuine reasons, and not false starts. The pace is kept rolling by the constant intercutting between the parallel hauntings - Nana and the train pass, Kaeru and the bracelet, Shunichi and the train company.

Early in the story, Nana is trying to decide on her higher education and is reading a brochure from the Miskatonic University - a hint at where the story could be heading - a startlingly different ending to other long-haired ghost movies. I even detected a slight trace of the Underground station horror Quatermass and the Pit (1968). Writer/director Takeshi Furusawa previously worked on the influential Kairo (Pulse), but this film is a far more straightforward chiller than anything by Kiyoshi Kurosawa.

The cast are engaging, with Erika Sawajiri (from Shinobi) as Nana, and Chinatsu Wakatsuki (from Ju-rei) as Kaeru. Shun Oguri as Shinuchi the train driver is a familiar face from Azumi, Azumi 2, Takeshi Shimizu's Reincarnation, and (a possible in-joke) the Train Man TV series (a romantic drama about a manga geek defending a 'normal' woman from bullying on the subway).

Ghost Train isn't very gory, and uses a few cliches, but it's an enjoyable story packed with scares, in a setting ripe with possibilities. I watched it on DVD from IVL in Hong Kong, and it's currently available on DVD in the US from ADV.

June 04, 2008

KAKASHI (2001) - everyone's got a creepy SCARECROW

(2001, Japan, Scarecrow)

Not as scary as it should have been

Junji Ito’s many horror manga have also inspired the Tomie series and the wonderful Uzumaki, but this film is less well known, and I’ve not had the chance to see his original comic book version either.

In it, Kaoru travels to the remote Kozukata Village high in the mountains. She’s trying to find her brother, who in turn went there looking for his girlfriend, Izumi. Approaching the village, Kaoru turns off the main road, up a dirt-track and through a long and daunting tunnel.

(This is very similar to the start of Spirited Away, and I’m sure that in Japan a tunnel can symbolise a passage to the afterlife.)

Beyond the tunnel is a little farming village nestled in a deep valley. Even though Kaoru is missing a close relative, the local people are unfriendly, unhelpful and obsessed with an upcoming festival. They are all building scarecrows, and planting them around a huge windmill.

Kaoru visits Izumi’s parents, where she think she sees a woman in a red dress, but they warn her to leave immediately or "she won't want to leave". As the local policeman helps her investigate, she discovers that some of these scarecrows are not what they seem...

There’s a long, slow, atmospheric build-up, that's eventful but with no really effective scares for until near the end. Creepy characters in red are more usual in European horror, and there’s also a moment directly lifted from the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But this is still an unusual piece, reminiscent of, but more successful than, the similarly situated Kidan.

Director Norio Tsuruta went on to direct the third Japanese Ring, Ring 0: Birthday, which I’m very fond of, especially for the humanisation of Sadako’s character. But his more recent Premonition (Yogen) wasn't as successful.

The cast were largely unfamiliar, though the policeman had a familiar face - Yoji Tanaka also appeared as the boy's father in The Great Yokai War and Ju-On: The Grudge.

I watched Kakashi on a Hong Kong DVD (from Universe Video, cover pictured at top), and while it's still not been released in the US or UK, the HK region 3 disc can still be found here on HK Flix, for instance.

June 02, 2008

PRINCESS AURORA (2005) - more vengeance from Korea

(2005, South Korea, Orora gongju)

If you’re getting withdrawal symptoms from not getting any more Vengeance movies, and I’m A Cyborg didn’t work for you, here’s another tale of revenge from South Korea…

As a scenario, this is superficially similar to Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, as it certainly doesn’t pull any punches revenge-wise. But unlike the Vengeance trilogy, rather than analyse the nature of revenge and the resulting cycle of violence, Princess Aurora has a more one-sided viewpoint as a film, and more single-minded than Dirty Harry as a character.

From the very start, we get the full brunt of the raw violence of the central character, as she mercilessly murders a step-mother for beating her little girl. Then she snuffs out another young woman who has been verbally cruel to a pizza delivery woman. This is extremely rough justice for the respective crimes, but the police are immediately on the case.

Little does one of the detectives know, just how involved in the case he already is. As the killing spree continues, the police are still clueless about her motive or identity, except for a Princess Aurora sticker left at each crime. Though it’s not shown in much detail, it looks like the Disney cartoon character from the animated classic Sleeping Beauty (1959).

This is a compelling thriller from the start, and just as it looks more like a typical cat-and-mouse detective story, the plot starts twisting. It’s not a whodunnit, but her motivation is more of a mystery - not a shallow Friday the 13th explanation, but the core of the film. This is a slickly-made, bloody thriller, with intelligent well-rounded characters. The plot gets a little far-fetched towards the end, but it doesn’t spoil the intensity of story.

Jeong-hwa Eom has the toughest role, showing the turmoil of her character, and having to play-act various other roles to infiltrate her way into her victims’ lives. Sung-keun Moon plays the Detective on the case, while he’s trying to study to be a Pastor!

Gorgeously shot in 2.35 widescreen, Princess Aurora is being released on DVD in the UK by Tartan at the end of June.