Monday, December 31, 2012

The Whip and the Body (1963)

AKA The Whip and the Flesh and What

Normally I like to start off these damned things with an intro of some sort, preferring to not jump right into a plot synopsis. It just seems more, I don’t know, “proper”, I suppose to me (I guess you could say that’s one good thing I took away from high school English class). Normally, I’ve been pretty lucky in this department but for the life of me I could not think of an intro of any kind for this film. I’ve even put off writing this on a few occasions in the hopes that something would come to me but alas, nothing. I know it’s just for a dumb blog and I’m probably over thinking something that I’m sure most would view as trivial but I’m weird like that. It is what it is. Therefore, in this instance, I’m admitting defeat (I can probably see this happening in the future as well). Consider this rambling a cop out for the lack of a proper intro. I think I’ve stalled long enough, so let’s get into it, my all time favorite Mario Bava film, The Whip and the Body!

After being banished for causing the suicide of a servant he seduced and subsequently abandoned, Kurt Menliff (Christopher Lee) returns to his family’s seaside castle upong hearing the news that Nevenka (Daliah Lavi), the woman that was once promised to him is now married to his brother Christian (Tony Kendall). It isn’t long after Kurt’s return that he and Nevenka find themselves revisiting their favorite pastime, with Nevenka being on the receiving end of Kurt’s whip, although later that night Kurt is mysteriously murdered in his room. Soon after Kurt’s funeral however, Nevenka beings to see Kurt appear to her in her room at night, and the whippings being again, and although nobody believes Nevenka and her ghost stories at first, soon Kurt’s presence begins to be felt throughout the entire castle.

A ghost story/murder mystery complete with major psychological and sadomasochistic overtones, The Whip and the Body (La frusta e il corpo) is certainly made up of an odd collection of ingredients seemingly on the opposite ends of the spectrum, but it works, and works well. One of the major keys to the success of the film is how well balanced it is, in the sense that neither one of the aforementioned elements override one or the other, they’re all working hand in hand to create a truly unique film experience, I doubt you’ll see anything else even remotely like it. The mystery element is pretty standard at first, following most of the classic whodunit motifs (it’s been said that portions of it could be considered proto giallo) IE who was where and with who when such and such happened, but as the film progresses it becomes something else entirely when taking the ghost story elements into consideration. Far from your average spirit haunting a castle story, the ghost story is unquestionably one of the most enticing devices of the film, as it’s simpatico with the psychological and S&M aspects. The character of Nevenka is a fascinating one, and Bava uses Kurt’s spirit as a primer of sorts to explore Nevenka’s complex range emotions regarding her relationship with Kurt and her masochistic personality, as well as the fear that, even in death, Kurt still seems to strike in those in the castle. On top of all that, Bava even manages to take the film into romantic and tragic territories at times, which both fit right in with all attributes of the story. One dimensional this film isn’t.

Do forgive me for using the tired saying the film looking like a painting come to life, but when taking into consideration the barrage of beautiful, beautiful colors which Bava showcases mere seconds after the opening credits, plus the lighting and cinematography, I’ll be damned if that saying wasn’t specifically invented for a film like this. Throughout the film Bava particularly shows an affinity for red, blue and green (amongst many others of course) using said colors to create some incredibly striking images, some of the most memorable in his entire filmography in fact, such as Kurt’s green ghost hand lurching towards the screen out of the darkness, or in one sequence choosing to present the face of Kurt as a sharp, ghastly yet gorgeous shade of crimson. There’s plenty of substance to go along with all the style as Bava took full advantage of the fact that when the events of the story take a turn for the delirious it gave the visuals and the sound design license to do so as well, such as Nevenka constantly hearing sounds resembling lashes of a whip, pretty much any scene taking place within Kurt’s tomb, and my personal favorite, the shot of a vine apparently “whipping” in the wind. The castle setting, complete with secret passages is not only prime for the whodunit subplot, but the gothic atmosphere that naturally comes with such a place couldn’t have been more fitting for the ghost story. Bava also threw in some nice beach shots for added beauty, the same beach by the way that he would later return to for the underappreciated Five Dolls For an August Moon (1970).

Along with the mystery going on in the story, there’s a few other things regarding the film that I’ve always found to be somewhat mysterious. First, why Christopher Lee’s lines were dubbed over post production, when it’s obvious they were done in English. To be perfectly honest, the dubbed voice doesn’t really sound all that different than Lee’s natural voice and it never affects the film or Lee’s performance in a negative way, but it just seems so unnecessary. Secondly, why the film was released in the U.S. under the alternate title What. Why? There’s been some strange alternate titles given to a lot of films over the years, but What sure as hell takes the cake for the most bizarre. Finally, just how badly the film was butchered by the censors when it was first released. Watching the fully uncut version today you’ll probably be left scratching your head wondering what was considered so offensive, but take offense people did, and certain scenes that were absolutely essential to the story were cut. What’s even more surprising is how lenient and more liberal Europe is considered to be when it comes to things of that nature, but I guess for 1963 the film went too far. As I stated above, The Whip and the Body is my favorite Bava film, as to me, every single one of Bava’s strength’s as a filmmaker are on display here. Couple that with the original storyline, one of Christopher Lee’s most imposing performances and Daliah Lavi’s dumbfounding beauty, you’ve got a masterpiece. It’s considered by many to be Bava’s best work, and while a statement like that is bound to cause debate, I share that mindset.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Castle Freak (1995)

As quick as a lot of people are to dump on the 90’s referring to it as a “down” time for horror, I’m always as quick to jump to said decades defense. On one hand, I can somewhat understand the discouragement if we’re talking post-Scream (1996) when it literally did seem like every genre film being released was a copycat featuring the hottest teen stars of the day. On the other hand, prior to Scream there were basically no bandwagons to be hopped on and the early to mid 90’s had more than it’s fair share of gems. The thing was though, looking back a lot of these films didn’t fare so well in theaters and therefore had to wait until they hit home video to really find their audience, or they went direct to video, a market which was in fill swing by the mid 90’s. That was one of the coolest things about going to video stores, finding these aforementioned gems that you might have missed in the theater (most likely due to poor distribution, a number of films that were actually lucky enough to have a theatrical run may as well have just gone DTV) or stumbling upon a DTV flick out of the blue. Enter Castle Freak, one such discovery. Directed by Stuart Gordon and staring cohorts Jeffery Combs and Barbara Crampton, Castle Freak went DTV courtesy of Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment, (who had the DTV market cornered and were really at the forefront of it), and it would subsequently become not only my favorite stand alone Full Moon film, but also my personal favorite of the Gordon, Combs and Crampton collaborations.

John Reilly (Combs), his wife Susan (Crampton) and their blind daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide) travel to Italy after receiving the news that John has inherited a castle which he was an heir too from the Duchess who had previously lived in the castle. Although arriving as a family, relations between John and Susan are tense, with Susan holding a deep resentment towards John as some months prior John, a recovering alcoholic, was involved in a drunk driving accident which not only resulted in the blinding of their daughter but the death of their son JJ. Not long after arriving, the Reilly’s realize their not alone in the castle when Giorgio (Jonathan Fuller), the hideously deformed son of the late Duchess has broken free from the castle’s basement dungeon where the Duchess kept him chained and whipped him on a daily basis for 40 years, and begins making his presence known, bringing to light a dark family secret in the process.

I love it when a film not only exceeds expectations but takes whatever preconceived notions you may have had about it and throws them right out the window. I’m fairly certain that most would assume a film entitled “Castle Freak” released by Full Moon to be B movie schlock, but it’s the kind of film that just might have you asking yourself “just where the hell did that come from?!” by the time the end credits roll. Castle Freak is as well rounded as they come, serving up it’s horror with a surprising side order of drama and tragedy, and the one thing that always stands out every time I watch it is just how strong the dramatic elements are, never once coming across as ham handed or spilling over into overly melodramatic territory, which is quite the feat considering some of the subject matter. John’s alcoholism, the death of JJ, the blinding of Rebecca and John’s guilt over everything, the domestic issues between John and Susan and the way it effects Rebecca, not to mention the titular freaks tragic back story and the way it intertwines with John’s emotional pain and memories of his son. It’s pretty heavy stuff, and in the wrong hands could have easily been fucked up royally, but this is Combs and Crampton we’re talking about here. Combs in particular puts on a clinic, really showing what he’s made of delivering not only a heartfelt but dare I say complex performance. The same could be said about Crampton in the sense that while you’ll legitimately feel for John, yet all the while understand where Susan is coming from, never forgetting just why she harbors such  harsh feelings. Together, the two are the definition of chemistry, coming off like a legitimate dysfunctional married couple, and it’s performances like theirs that help put Castle Freak on another level.

Make no mistake though, even with the dramatics Castle Freak is first and foremost a horror film, a grim and at times quite nasty one at that. While the film as a whole isn’t a wall to wall bloodletting, when the violence does hit, it stings, including the unfortunate fate of a cat and the now infamous encounter between the freak and a prostitute which I’m sure will temp a few viewers to look in a different direction. The full body freak make up is absolutely phenomenal, still one of the best make up jobs I’ve ever seen on film. To paraphrase Combs from the making of Videozone segment on the film, if you’ve ever wondered what someone who was chained in a basement and routinely beaten for 40 years would look like, this film gives you pretty good idea. Gordon was wise to wait until exactly the right moment to showcase the freak in full, opting to obscure portions of his frame using shadows,  projecting his figure as a silhouette on the walls or just having him covered by a sheet, gradually building anticipation, and man does it pay off big time when we finally get a good look at Giorgio. Even when the freak is fully exposed Gordon still cleverly plays around with the lighting, even staging the finale during a thunderstorm complete with heavy rain, a masterstroke as the freak manages to look even more incredible in the blue light which is so prevalent during the sequence along with the rain and flashing lightning. Nothing but respect is deserved for Jonathan Fuller, the man behind the make up who not only spent around 6 hours in the make up chair, but who’s mannerisms as the freak will make you ache just watching, and despite having no lines of dialogue, his vocalizations and agonizing moans are more than enough to give you shivers.

Another thing to point out about the film is that the humor that Gordon is known to inject into his film is virtually absent here (aside from one instance where the freak pretends to disguise himself as a piece of furniture), and understandably so. Honestly I’ve always felt that had Gordon tried to sprinkle on some comic relief it would have came across as distracting and would have felt out of place considering the films overall bleak tone. As much as I love the film, I do have to admit that there’s always been one small aspect of the film that I think I’ll forever take issue with, and it’s a perfect example of just how crucial the soundtrack is to a film. Late in the film there is a segment where the music in question is way to upbeat, almost playful sounding for it’s own good and doesn’t mesh with the intensity happening on the screen at all. It should have been way more ominous sounding. Aside from that bit of nitpicking I’d say Castle Freak is a damn near flawless film, bringing so much more to the table than most “creature features” in terms of performances, directing, make up and effects not to mention dealing with certain thematic elements that most films of it’s ilk don’t even attempt to touch. All things considered, Castle Freak is unquestionably a cut above the rest. Not just one of the best direct to video horror films, not just one of (if not THE) best Full Moon films, not just one of the best horror films of the 90’s, but one of the best horror films in general that any genre fan should seek out if you’ve yet to see it.