Monday, October 22, 2012

The Iron Rose (1973)

AKA The Crystal Rose and Night of the Cemetery

As I sit down to type this, the Fall/Halloween season (the most wonderful time of the year) is officially in full swing. Over here at Hell Broke Luce, the tried and true statement of “everyday is Halloween” defiantly isn’t without merit, but the month of October will always be special. The constant sight of pumpkins, falling brown, orange, yellow and red leaves (not to mention the smell of said leaves!) and seasonal decorations everywhere will never fail to liven the spirits. Naturally, the best part of all, it’s the time of year where seemingly everybody celebrates all things horror, what with haunted houses and other attractions of that nature, the plethora of genre related programming on TV all month long, and of course, horror movie marathons. While it’s true that I watch these types of films pretty much on the daily, I’m sure other hardcore genre fanatics will agree with me when I say that there are certain films that fit the aura of the season so well they demand an October viewing. Jean Rollin’s 1973 masterpiece The Iron Rose is one of those films. Considered by Rollin himself to be his strangest film, it certainty does seem to be an anomaly in his filmography, most notably due to the fact that there are no vampires to be found. It’s been called by many to be Rollin’s most “personal” film, a labor of love for the filmmaker that has the tendency to polarize many viewers, and even some Rollin fans. Then there are others like myself whom hold the film near and dear, ranking it as one of Rollin’s very best, as it not only showcased that Rollin didn’t need vampires to fall back on, it’s a shining example of his uncanny ability as a filmmaker to take an incredibly simplistic concept and create something truly original. 

After meeting at a wedding reception, a young and girl and boy (Françoise Pascal and Huges Quester (billed as Pierre Dupont) referred to simply as “The Girl” and “The Boy”) make plans to spend the following day together. After meeting at the train station as planed, the two go on a bike ride through the town, eventually ending up outside the gates of a massive cemetery. Although The Girl is hesitant at first, the two decide to take a walk through the grounds. When the two come to one of the many crypts they decide to venture down into the tomb for a little rendezvous, although when they reemerge they realize night has now fallen and they’re unable to find their way out of the cemetery. The more they try to find an exit and the more they fail, the more their imaginations begin to get the better of them as The Boy becomes overtaken by fear under the guise of anger while The Girl’s emotions regarding the situation cause her behavior to become increasingly erratic.            

On the surface, The Iron Rose (La rose de Fer) is as minimal as a film can get, yet leave it to Rollin to take an idea as simple as “two people lost in a cemetery” and have it go places you’d never have imagined it to go, gradually taking a turn for the bizarre, and in pure Rollin fashion there’s a lot more going on thematically than one might expect by  simply taking the film at face value. With a film like this, in order to become fully invested in the characters and their situation the performances have to be strong, otherwise we’d be left with a great looking, but ultimately uninteresting film. Thankfully, Rollin struck gold with Quester and especially Pascal. Quester’s increasing fear about the dilemma the two are in masked by machismo and anger provides an interesting role reversal as it was originally The Girl who was fearful and he who was the calm and collected one, and the anger was authentic as apparently he was quite the difficult young man on the set, but it’s Pascal who easily steals the show, and to think, Rollin originally didn’t want her for the part! The more the film progresses it’s her performance that makes it so fascinating, as her character becomes overwhelmed by the cemetery, and she begins to feel a strange “connection” to it and it’s underground inhabitants. The odder her behavior gets, she carries the task of getting across the majority of the films themes, delivering numerous poetic monologues, musing on various topics such as love, life and death, or more specifically, metaphorically questioning who is really “dead” or “alive”, stemming from the feeling of alienation by way of societal pressures and standards. These speeches would make it appear that accidentally being trapped in the cemetery has “liberated” her in a way, culminating in mesmerizing dance through the cemetery and the films unforgettable final frame along with Pascal’s equally unforgettable delivery of the films final line of dialogue.

No offence to Pascal and Quester, but I think even they would agree that the real star of the film is the cemetery itself. With a setting like that, atmosphere comes with ease, and Rollin uses every aspect of the cemetery to his utmost advantage. The majority of the cemetery seems to be all but abandoned as it’s obviously very old, with the gravestones, gates, crypts and statues being covered by weeds, vines and other assortments of dead plants, which only piles onto the already morbid vibe the place gives off, but it’s also an interestingly laid out cemetery with a number of sections featuring beautiful gothic architecture and stonework juxtaposed with a series of graves consisting of nothing but crudely built wooded crosses that are hardly stuck in the ground. The way the film is lit makes every little surrounding seem imposing, especially the shots which give off an idea of the sheer size of the cemetery. Rollin’s taste for the surreal is on display as well with a sequence of a clown putting flowers on a grave which is unsettling in it’s oddness and the now famous shot of Pascal slowing raising a skull up to her face, as well as his knack for romantic imagery steeped in the macabre in the form of Pascal and Quester embracing on a pile of bones in an open grave, and of course there’s the shots of Pascal on Rollin’s favorite beach near Dieppe, France. Sound design is also essential in effectiveness of the film, with the focus being on the natural sounds of the environment such as the scuffing of feet against stone and gravel, the breaking of a headstone, and the sound of an old creaking and decrepit fence or the opening of a door to a crypt with some occasional goose bump inducing vocalizations popping up for good measure. Actual music is used sparingly, but when it is, it‘s with great effect. The films beautiful piano theme will haunt you for days. 

The Iron Rose
finally got the visual DVD treatment it deserves this past January via Redemption as part of it’s Rollin remaster series. The remastered print is phenomenal (the previous ones were ok but talk about an upgrade!) and it’s great to see and hear the film looking and sounding as good as it does. Along with the new transfer we also get a short introduction from Rollin himself (filmed in 1998 I believe), and interviews with  Françoise Pascal and Rollin collaborator Natalie Perrey who also has a brief cameo in the film. The Pascal interview is a real treat as she not only tells some cool stories about the making of the film (including anecdotes about Huges Quester’s bad attitude) but recalls a phone conversation between herself and Rollin before he passed where she told him, much to his excitement about the fan base The Iron Rose had acquired throughout the years as he apparently had no idea. She seems like a real cool chick. While brief, the Perrey interview is a welcome addition and an informative watch for fans. Perrey echo’s the feeling of many that the script for The Iron Rose was Rollin at his “purest”, the “real” Jean Rollin as she puts it. Not a bad package for a film that was a massive critical and financial failure upon it’s initial release. Not that Rollin was a critical darling beforehand but the reception to this film was exceptionally harsh. As is the case with so many great films it took some time for people to truly realize what a gem it truly is. Rollin in general is an acquired taste, and this film perhaps more so than any other in his catalogue, which is understandable. It’s true that there’s a good chance your patience will be tested, but if you stick with it I believe you will find it to be a very unique and rewarding experience. Like the majority of Rollin’s films, there’s really nothing else out there quite like it, and I can safely say that out of all of his works, The Iron Rose is my personal favorite. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

As important as Wes Craven’s contributions to the horror genre have been, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the man’s had his fair share of misfires along the way. It will always puzzle me a bit that the man behind such savage classics like The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) as well as the sheer brilliance of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and New Nightmare (1994) also be responsible for films like Vampire In Brooklyn (1995) and My Soul To Take (2010). Yikes. Still, despite the inconsistencies, I remain a fan and always will. I’d also like to add that I’ve always been quite fond of Swamp Thing (1982) as well, and no matter what your opinion happens to be on Scream (1996), it’s not exactly Craven’s fault that for the remainder of the 90’s the majority of genre fare coming from the major studio’s blatantly ripped it off, and when you break it all down, the man created Freddy Krueger, the character responsible for my discovery and subsequent love of the genre, and I have a hunch that life would be pretty damn boring had I not discovered Freddy when I did. When Craven’s on, he’s ON, capable of some of the most unique and creative horror out there, a fact that was ever apparent when he tried his hand at a little voodoo in 1988 with The Serpent and the Rainbow, as the results were anything but a misfire. Talk about flying under the radar, this film seems to be yet another “those who know, KNOW” type of situation. While I wouldn’t call this film completely anonymous as it does have it’s share of fans, it boggles my mind just how criminally under seen and underappreciated it still seems to be, and if it weren’t for the original Elm Street and New Nightmare, it would easily be my favorite Craven film. It’s that good.       

Harvard anthropologist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) is sent to Haiti by a pharmaceutical company to investigate reports of actual “zombies”, people who were pronounced clinically dead, yet are seen walking around showing full signs of consciousness. Upon arriving in Haiti Dr. Alan teams up with Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson) who has first hand experience with the so called zombies. After meeting face to face with one such zombie, Dr. Alan and Marielle discover the cause is a poisonous powder used by Bokors, black magic voodoo priests. Once the powder is administered, it mimics all the symptoms of death, leaving the victim completely paralyzed for a time, yet fully conscious, eventually becoming the Bokor’s slave. The more Dr. Alan and Marielle learn about the powder and it’s uses, the more they attract the attention of Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), the head of Haiti’s secret police, and himself a powerful Bokor who uses the powder to his advantage. Eventually forced out of Haiti by Peytraud, Dr. Alan returns to America but Peytraud’s voodoo is now fully embedded into his psyche causing horrific hallucinations. Fearing for Marielle’s safety, Dr. Alan makes an ill-advised return to Haiti, in an attempt to protect Marielle and ultimately his own soul from Peytraud’s black magic. 

The Serpent and the Rainbow
sees Craven firing on all cylinders, thematically and visually. One of his greatest strengths as a filmmaker has always been the way he uses common societal fears as a catalyst for the happenings in his films, and with Serpent he makes great use out of what I would assume to be one suffered by a good number of folks, that of being out of your comfortable element, in a culture that seems completely alien. Not simply just the culture, but getting in way over your head in a certain aspect of it, just as Dr. Alan does the deeper he goes into the world of voodoo. This also allows for some Haitian superstitions (or are they?) to be played upon, as one character cryptically tells Dr. Alan "Beware, my friend, in Haiti, there are secrets we keep even from ourselves.” More than anything though, the ideas explored in the film are downright creepy. Voodoo in itself will always be ominously mysterious, and the general idea of being helplessly buried alive while having full knowledge of what’s happing to you, with the end result being becoming a zombie slave will I’m sure make a fair amount of folks skin crawl. Craven was also smart to set the story against a backdrop of political unrest, a Haiti with revolution in the air, as there is always a feeling of lingering danger coming from more than just the voodoo throughout the entire film what with the secret police (the “Tonton Macoute”) cracking down one anyone presumed to be a threat to the government. Couple that with the main villain being the head of said secret police doubling as a powerful voodoo Bokor and you’ve got one hell of a recipe, and what a villain he is. While both Pullman and Tyson do excellent work here, Zakes Mokae easily delivers the best performance in the film as well as one of the most convincing villainous portrayals that I’ve seen in any horror film as the (legitimately) evil Dargent Peytraud. The scene wherein Pullman’s character is “interrogated” is a testament to this, when he tells Dr. Alan “I want to hear you scream”, he means it, and we know it as he is obviously getting great enjoyment out of making it happen.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say The Serpent and the Rainbow is the overall best looking of Craven’s film. For starters it was actually filmed on location in Haiti (plus I believe the opening segments were shot in the Dominican Republic) which gives the film an extra feeling of authenticity. There’s a particularly gorgeous looking segment where Dr. Alan and Marielle follow hundreds of others on a religious pilgrimage through ancient ruins and the Haitian mountains which naturally is phenomenal looking but the film isn’t one sided in it’s presentation of Haiti, Craven gives us a good glimpse into some of the more improvised areas as well. The films real treat for the eyes is, of course, Pullman’s surreal nightmares and hallucinations. The visuals on display in this film are a shining example of what Craven is capable of when he really lets his imagination run wild. Very early on we see a shot of a seemingly dead man in a casket shed a tear, a sight that instantly gives off a feeling of unease, a feeling that never lets up for the remainder of the film. Most, if not all of the visuals in this film are some of the most memorable and unsettling that Craven’s ever came up with, some that may even make the most jaded of horror fans wince including (but not limited too) a serpent spewing literal corpse bride, decrepit hands coming out of a bowl of soup, Pullman being dragged underground, and my personal favorite, Pullman’s bungalow being transformed into a coffin filling up with blood. Even little things such as a photograph of a dazed looking “zombie” or Peytraud’s right hand man wearing skull-like face paint during voodoo ceremonies are eerily effective, and of course Pullman stumbling around the streets pleading “Don’t let them bury me, I’m not dead!” with whomever he comes in contact with leaves quite the lasting impression. Admittedly the film does go a tad bit over the top towards the end (ever see a man decapitate himself via his own hands?) and the light effects may seem dated but it’s not a hindrance to the film in any way.  

The Serpent and the Rainbow
was loosely based on the 1985 book of the same name by anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis about the authors real life experiences in Haiti. To put it mildly, Davis didn’t like the film. I haven’t read the book so I’m not exactly sure just how many liberties Craven took with the material but I will say that it does make one scratch their head a bit to find out that Davis was surprised that a film based on his book about VOODOO and ZOMBIES directed by a GENRE filmmaker would focus on the more fantastic and supernatural elements of the book. People are funny that way. This film turns 25 next year, now I know there is a perfectly fine DVD readily available for a reasonable price but if a special edition were to ever the light of day, I personally wouldn’t hesitate to part with some cash for it. I’d love to hear a Craven commentary track for the film plus a documentary detailing the making of the film as from what I understand some complications arose as a result of filming in Haiti. Not that I’m holding my breath for such a release, although stranger things have happened. I know I’m repeating myself here, but there’s really no reason for this film to be as underrated as it is. As far as films dealing with “real” zombies go, this is one of, if not the best of the bunch, and that goes for films in the voodoo subgenre as well. The Serpent and the Rainbow is the work of a master at the very top of his game, complete with imaginative ideas and incredibly jarring, lasting visuals. No jokey one liners, no bullshit. Not to end with a cliché phrase for a film that is basically entirely devoid of clichés, but for lack of better words, this is how it’s done.