Monday, June 30, 2014

Rest in Pieces (1987)

When talking about the films from the major figures in European cult cinema, more often than not the majority of the discussion is rooted in the films from the 70’s. Not surprising in the slightest seeing as said decade was easily the golden age for the style of filmmaking perfected by directors like Jess Franco, Walerian Borowczyk, Jean Rollin and José Ramón Larraz amongst several others. While the films to come from the 70’s were unquestionably important, some of the later output to come from these transgressive auteurs is equally worthy of the same attention and unfortunately has a tendency to get dismissed. The most obvious example would be the later digital films from Jess Franco with only the most devoted Francophiles coming to their defense. José Ramón Larraz is an interesting case. Larraz basically retired from feature filmmaking in 1992 so the late period films from him to get somewhat swept aside would be his last three horror films, 1987’s Rest in Pieces, Edge of the Axe (1988) and Deadly Manor (1990). The main criticism of these films seems to be that Larraz was trying to cater to the American rental market. Really a perplexing critique especially when the film in question is Rest in Pieces, one of Larraz’s most unusual and wacky horror films and a film that is certainly unlike any American horror film to come from the late 80’s.

Following the death of her Aunt Catherine, Helen and her boyfriend Bob move into the estate of the recently deceased Catherine which Helen has inherited along with Catherine’s remaining fortune. Almost immediately after arriving however strange occurrences around the house begin to plague Helen including seeing visions of her aunt. The odd behavior of their new neighbors, all of whom were very close with Catherine don’t make things any easier for Helen either. Bob however isn’t content with giving up his new life of luxury and talks Helen out of leaving, although he too becomes suspicious of the neighbors when questions are raised regarding Catherine’s money and their behavior becomes increasingly more antagonistic making it clear that there something the neighbors aren’t telling them, and Aunt Catherine has plans for Helen from beyond the grave.  

Aside from sharing a few very faint thematic similarities with films like Carnival of Souls (1962) and Jess Franco’s A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1971), Rest in Pieces is really incomparable to anything else. A strange meeting of supernatural and slasher components rounded out with instances of oddball humor, Rest in Pieces represents Larraz as his most offbeat while working in a genre. Obviously the film doesn’t take itself 100% seriously but it wouldn’t be fair to label the film as a true “horror comedy” as the horror elements far outweigh the comedic but when the film does go for laughs it works, particularly because most of the films humor is rather absurd and fits right in with the horror story. Even one of the films most memorable violent moments has somewhat of a comical tone to it due to the utter randomness of it. The story itself is quite original and becomes quite ambitious with Larraz throwing in all sorts of bits about suicide, cannibalism, and even a side plot involving a slight mystery dealing with the mental health history of Helen’s family similar to what he had done previously in La muerte incierta (1977).  At times it might seem a bit convoluted especially later on in the film but it takes some creative twists and the way Larraz eventually brings it full circle in the end is pretty unique and despite the films very slim budget Larraz was also able to conjure up his typical atmospheric artistry in select scenes.

It has to be mentioned that two of the neighbors in the film are played by (American born) Eurocult legends Jack Taylor who portrays a blind man with a retractable blade at the end of his walking stick and the late Patty Shepard. Unsurprisingly, whenever Shepard is involved in a scene she’s the most magnetic presence on screen. Shepard’s last role was in Larraz’s Edge of the Axe which also features Taylor although both are in considerably smaller roles. Edge of the Axe is also the one film Larraz’s last run in the horror genre to have been rediscovered as of late and has gained a decent fan base. What’s also interesting about Rest in Pieces is that it was the first time Larraz worked with Brian Smedley-Aston since Vampyres (1974) who edited the film. Aston of course was the editor on Symptoms (1974) and the producer on Vampyres and would go on to produce Larraz’s last horror film Deadly Manor three years after Rest in Pieces. With Rest in Pieces being a Larraz film obviously it doesn’t have a DVD release but it did get a VHS release and low priced used copies are fairly easy to find as are DVD-R’s. Its not Larraz’s best film to be sure, but it’s a fun and fairly creative horror film that not just Larraz fans but horror fans in general should give a chance.    

Monday, June 16, 2014

Stigma (1980)

Earlier this year, January 12th to be exact, cancer sadly took the life of actress Alexandra Bastedo who was 67. A classic beauty if there ever was one, Bastedo is perhaps best remembered by mainstream audiences for her role as Sharron Macready in the British sci-fi spy series The Champions which ran from 1968 to 1968. To fans of European horror however, Bastedo is legendary for her role in Vicente Aranda’ brilliant Le Fanu inspired The Blood Spattered Bride (1972). She also had a role in the 1975 Peter Cushing vehicle The Ghoul. On two occasions Bastedo served as the muse for the late, very great José Ramón Larraz, first in Larraz’s 1977 marital drama El mirón (The Voyeur) and again in 1980 for Stigma. Along with Bastedo, Stigma is also notable for being the first Larraz film to feature Eurocult goddess Helga Liné whom Larraz would cast again as the titular Madame Olga in Madame Olga's Pupils (1981) and more infamously in Black Candles (1982). When compared to some of the more well known titles from this mid-point in Larraz’s directorial career, namely The Coming of Sin (1978) and Black Candles, Stigma seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle a bit. Like the majority of Larraz’s films, Stigma is yet another deserving of more recognition, a fascinating little film and one of the most original horror films to come from Larraz.

Following the accidental death of his father, José, the older brother of Sebastian (Christian Borromeo) expresses concern to their mother (Liné) over Sebastian’s lack of empathy for their fathers death and Sebastian’s odd behavior in general. Sebastian is indeed not like other teens as he has the ability to cause death with his mind. All he has to do is wish it and the target of his thoughts perishes, an affliction which causes him to bleed from the lower lip once the death has occurred, as well as hallucinations, a stigma  Sebastian claims to neither understand or accept, although it doesn’t stop him from using it whenever he feels wronged. After being introduced to José’s girlfriend Angie (Bastedo), Sebastian is immediately taken by her and the two immediately hit it off, so much so that Sebastian confides in Angie about his condition who agrees to try and help Sebastian discover the origin of his curse.

Far from the derivative Carrie (1976) riff that most would assume due to the troubled teen with supernatural mental abilities angle, Stigma (Estigma) is a rather ambitious film in the way it presents itself. There are essentially three stories going on at once in Stigma. The first obviously being Sebastian’s ability to murder with his mind. The second being Sebastian’s relationships with his mother, José and Angie and the third being the actual cause of Sebastian’s titular stigma which Larraz uses to craft a mystery that becomes more and more bizarre with the inclusion of psychics and hypnosis until Larraz really turns the tables and eventually has the film switch time periods! Par for the course with Larraz, Stigma is as moody as they come, especially when dealing with Sebastian’s contentious family life with Larraz throwing in some seriously uncomfortable incestuous overtones which also play a major hand in the films central mystery, and Larraz’s trademark atmospherics coming into play during the hallucination sequences. The films third act also sees Larraz channeling the threatening countryside aura found in previous films such as Scream and Die (1973), Emma, puertas oscuras (1973) and Symptoms (1974). Of course also at the heart of the film is the believable friendship between Sebastian and Angie and the film wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as it does without the casting of Borromeo and Bastedo. Dubbing aside, Borromeo is fantastic making Sebastian much more than just a one note teen with issues and he and Bastedo were perfectly matched.

Astonishingly Stigma did have a DVD release at one point in time as part of a 3 disc, 5 film set released as “Crypt of Terror: A Collection of Nightmares” along with Black Candles, the Tiny Tim (who happens to grace the sets box art) film Blood Harvest (1987), Evil Eye (1975), which was also released as a double feature with Black Candles, and interestingly Naked Dreams which is an alternate version of Black Candles. This set seems to have gone out of print almost as fast as it was released and is now damn near impossible to find for a decent price. For a while Stigma was also made available on DVD-R from Amazon made on demand via Mr. Fat-W Video, the same as Black Candles and Larraz’s final horror film Deadly Manor (1990) although Amazon no longer seems to be selling it, and the instant video streaming option is no longer available for the film either which is a shame seeing as those were the easiest ways to get a hold of the film. Surely there must be some other way of tracking this film down. Euro horror fans, and Larraz fans especially are a persistent bunch so if there’s another way of discovering the film they’ll be the ones to do it, and it’s a film that’s well worth discovering, one that showcases just how versatile a director Larraz was.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Serial Mom (1994)

John Waters has certainly made his fascination with true crime no secret. In addition to having a massive collection of true crime books and various items of memorabilia which includes a jar of dirt that allegedly came from John Wayne Gacy’s crawlspace (which he proudly displayed during for the camera during the episode of The Incredibly Strange Film Show UK documentary series dedicated to him), Waters has also shown his films in several Baltimore, MD jails and has admitted to being an audience member at many a trial, although he admits that came to an end once he started becoming more recognizable. In addition Waters has also been a vocal advocate over the years for the release of former Manson family member Leslie Van Houten. While the concept of criminal as celebrity was nothing new to Waters, having brilliantly utilized the idea in Female Trouble (1974), the concept for a film like Serial Mom couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. 1991 saw the debut of Court TV which meant constant trial coverage in real time and the more sensational the trial the better and sure enough thanks to the trial of the Menendez brothers ratings were through the roof and America couldn’t get enough, naturally making it the perfect fodder for Waters to lampoon. The result was 1994’s Serial Mom, one of the funniest and most spot-on parodies to come from Waters.

On the surface, Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Tuner) appears to be the archetypal suburban housewife. Loving mother to her son Chip (Matthew Lillard) and daughter Misty (Ricki Lake) and devoted wife to her dentist husband Eugene (Sam Waterston), Beverly is small town USA personified. There is however, a hidden side to Beverly, and for those who slight her family in any way or offend her high standards of decency the consequence is death and when more people turning up murdered in the Sutphin’s Baltimore suburb, Beverly becomes the main suspect, is eventually arrested and her subsequent trail becomes a media sensation drawing attention from across the nation as the public just cant get enough of “serial mom”.    

Along with sharing a kinship with the previously mentioned Female Trouble due to the celebrity criminal angle, Serial Mom could in some ways be considered Waters’ over the top riff on ideas found in films such as Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). To go along with poking fun at America’s obsession with high profile trials Waters also satirizes so called boring suburban “normalcy” and the hypocrisy that is normally associated with such, all done with a sarcastic wink of the eye naturally. Of course this being Waters behind the camera the film as a whole is absolutely hysterical for those who share Waters deranged sense of humor and even those who haven’t seen the film should by now be well aware of the driving force behind the film, that being the performance of Kathleen Turner. Without Turner, who for lack of a better term “kills” every aspect of Beverly Sutphin, from enthusiastically singing along to Barry Manilow or bludgeoning someone to death with a leg of lamb, there would be no Serial Mom. Alongside Turner is one of the most impressive casts Waters ever assembled including the rest of the Sutphin clan, that being Sam Waterston who nails the “proper” suburban dad role, Ricki Lake and Matthew Lillard. Also making appearances are Waters regulars Traci Lords and Patty Hearst and the amazing Mink Stole who’s character of Dotty Hinkle lends herself to one of the most hilarious and quotable scenes of crank calling in all of cinema.

As if all that weren’t enough to make Serial Mom a perfect film, the great L7 even make a memorable appearance as “Camel Lips” performing “Gas Chamber”, a song the band wrote with Waters. Waters also pays tribute to H.G. Lewis by making Chip a fan of gore films and clips of Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963) are seen in the film which gives Waters an opportunity to take a jab at hyper moralists who feel horror films are a bad influence on kids. There is also an entire special feature on Universal’s fantastic DVD release of Serial Mom dedicated to Lewis and producer Dave Friedman with both men discussing their history and legacies with Waters chiming in on their influence. One of the most interesting things regarding Serial Mom mentioned by Waters on one of the features on the DVD is again, how perfect the timing was for a film like this to be made as it almost seemed to predict the fiasco that was the OJ Simpson murder trial, and there’s one particular scene in the film where which would come to resemble Simpson’s infamous Bronco chase witnessed on live TV, the irony of which was not lost on Waters. Any fan of the film should have the disc in their collection as its a more than commendable release for one of Waters’ best films. Absolutely brilliant satire from an undisputed master.