Thursday, October 27, 2011

Italian Horror Blog-a-thon: Phenomena

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Italian Horror Blog-a-thon over at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies blog run by Kevin J. Olson. Please check out all the fantastic contributions over there.



Some fans of Dario Argento’s films feel that Phenomena (1985) should have been the third film in The Three Mothers trilogy and not the official installment Mother of Tears (2007). Structurally and, at times, visually Phenomena bears a striking resemblance to Suspiria (1977), the first film in the trilogy, in that they have a dark fairy tale vibe and feature young women battling against malevolent forces. Both films also begin with the brutal murder of a beautiful young woman. In Phenomena, a school girl (Fiore Argento, the director’s daughter) in Switzerland just misses her bus and looks for help at a nearby house. Argento cuts repeatedly to someone or something trying to free itself from chains attached to a wall. The killer chases the girl through the woods and then kills her with scissors in a way that evokes the first operatic death in Suspiria.

Inspector Rudolf Geiger (Patrick Bauchau) and his assistant Kurt (Michele Soavi) enlist the help of Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence) to help them solve a series of murders via a radical theory that involves using insects to tell them the time of death. Meanwhile, Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), an American student, attends the Richard Wagner Academy for Girls in Switzerland, chaperoned by Frau Bruckner (Daria Nicolodi). We learn that she has a natural affinity for insects. She’s also a child of divorce who has been dumped there by her globetrotting father, a famous actor, and her estranged mother who lives in India. There is a really nice scene where Jennifer bonds with her roommate Sofie (Federica Mastroianni) as she tells her about how her parents split up. This scene is crucial in that it personalizes the film as we go from an objective third person perspective to the first person, empathizing with this poor girl who has been dumped into a foreign world with no friends or family.

Jennifer experiences eerie nightmares scored to Iron Maiden and is prone to sleepwalking on the ledge of a school building where she witnesses a murder and is eventually hit by a car. Only Argento could get away with orchestrating such an audacious sequence. Much like David Lynch he is able to seamlessly blend the dream world with reality. To make matters worse, Jennifer’s habit of sleepwalking makes her an outcast among her fellow classmates and a guinea pig to her teachers who poke and prod her like a lab rat. She meets McGregor and he helps develop her telepathic power over insects and they team up to stop the serial killer. He is the father figure that she is looking to fill the void left by her absent parent. In a nice bit of casting against type, veteran character actor Donald Pleasence plays a kindly old man, an academic type fascinated with the pursuit of knowledge along with his trusty chimpanzee attendant Inga (Tanga). The professor’s relationship with Jennifer is quite touching even though they make for an unlikely pair of amateur detectives.

With only one film on her resume prior to Phenomena (Sergio Leone’s gangster epic Once Upon A Time in America) and a background in modeling, Jennifer Connelly delivers a grounded, naturalistic performance devoid of the acting tics she would develop later on in her career. Under Argento’s expert direction, she creates a fiercely independent girl who also has a vulnerable side as evident in the tour de force scene where her classmates tease and torment Jennifer until she lashes out with her powers and the façade of the school is enveloped by flies while she looks on. Your heart really goes out to her as she’s misunderstood by her teachers and ostracized by her classmates. In addition, she’s learning to use and understand her telepathic powers. It’s a lot for a young girl to deal with and this is all beautifully realized by Connelly who acts very mature and poised for her age.

The origins for Phenomena came from a German news item that Argento discovered about crime investigators studying the behavior of insects in a room where a murder had been committed, leading to clues pertaining to the crime. He was intrigued by this idea and talked to the police who were quite supportive of this technique even though it was mostly theoretical and had only been applied once and not in a serious way. Argento then went to France and met with a famous entomologist who told him about how the world of insects applied to the criminal world. Co-screenwriter Franco Ferrini and Argento came up with the idea not to make a horror film but rather a supernatural thriller with this element introduced via Jennifer’s ability to telepathically control insects.

Argento sent actress Daria Nicolodi to the United States to cast Phenomena but she was met with a lot of rejection because of the subject matter. Argento originally wanted to cast Liv Ullman’s daughter Lynn in the role of Jennifer but when her agent read the screenplay he turned it down because it was a “splatter movie.” Another woman threw the script in Nicolodi’s face telling her, “You can’t torture an adolescent with such violent images.” Argento was taken with Jennifer Connelly’s beauty, in particular her eyes, and Nicolodi organized a meeting between them. She even showed the young actress’ parents a few scenes from Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), which they liked. Nicolodi even became good friends with Connelly and they bonded over dinner. The two became close during filming with Connelly regarding Nicolodi as a kind of second mother.

Like most of Argento’s films, he creates an incredible mood and atmosphere and this is particularly evident in the way cinematographer Romano Albani photographs the forests that feature prominently throughout. For example, the establishing shot of Professor McGregor’s house shows trees blowing ominously in the wind at night – the elements at their most primal. Argento also employs his trademark saturated lighting in a given scene, like bathing Jennifer in cool blue while she dreams. Heavy metal and horror films have been linked together for a long time – both are marginalized genres within their respective mediums, never getting the respect they deserve and never being particularly interested in getting it. So, it makes sense that for Phenomena, Argento uses songs by Iron Maiden and Motorhead along with a creepy electronic score courtesy of Simon Boswell, Claudio Simonetti, the Goblins, and a slumming Bill Wyman.

As is typical with many of Argento’s films, Phenomena builds to an absolute batshit crazy finale as Jennifer confronts the killer along with the help of a straight razor wielding chimpanzee. At times, the film tends to defy logic (like how the chimp obtains said razor) but that was never one of his main concerns. Phenomena follows its own kind logic, which can be maddening sometimes (like the boneheaded choices Jennifer occasionally makes) but one ultimately has to surrender to the fairy tale vibe that Argento creates and enjoy one of the more original Italian horror films to come out of the 1980’s. Much to his chagrin, the film’s title was changed to Creepers in the U.S. by distributor New Line Cinema and almost 30 minutes was cut, including bits of gore and crucial character development. Thankfully, it has been restored in recent years and Argento considers it his most personal and best film to date.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Town That Dreaded Sundown


By 1946 World War II had ended and joy and prosperity returned to the United States. However, a dark cloud hung over Texarkana (a city that resides in both Arkansas and Texas) during the spring of that year as a masked murderer known as the Phantom Killer terrorized the inhabitants of the town, killing five of them and severely wounding three others. These series of murders became known as the Texarkana Moonlight Murders because most of them occurred late at night. The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) is an unsettling dramatization of the killer’s reign of terror and the authorities’ attempts to apprehend him. It was written in just-the-facts fashion by Earl E. Smith and directed with gritty, lo-fi style by Charles B. Pierce, both of whom had worked together previously on the cult film The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972).

Early on, Pierce presents an idyllic small town full of promise and hope as we see a couple getting married, people buying new cars and a house being built. This is shattered on March 3 when a young couple – Sammy Fuller (Mike Hackworth) and Linda Mae Jenkins (Christine Ellsworth) – drive out into a wooded area known as Lover’s Lane at night. A man wearing a hood over his face soon attacks them. What is so striking about this scene is the lack of music. All we hear is the heavy breathing of the killer and the chilling screams of Jenkins who, amazingly, survives the attack as does Fuller. She manages to crawl her way to the road and is found the next day. While there is no blood or gore, the attack is brutally depicted with quick, jarring edits and no frills camerawork that recalls The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). And like that film the violence in The Town That Dreaded Sundown is not as graphic as we think it is – there is only the suggestion of it but our mind fills in the rest.

Buddy Turner (Rick Hildreth) and Emma Lou Cook (Misty West) are the next victims on March 24. We don’t see the attack, just hear gunshots as Deputy Sheriff Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine) investigates, having decided to patrol Lover’s Lane. He finds the couple’s car and hears more shots off in the distance. Again, no music is used so that all we hear is the sound of the rain and the gunshots. When music is used it is done so sparingly.

A wave of fear envelopes the town with gun sales skyrocketing and locksmiths kept very busy. Soon, famous Texas Ranger Captain J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson) is called in and he takes over the investigation. Ben Johnson who brings all kinds of gravitas to the role-plays him with rock solid reliability. He also brings his trademark charismatic, good ol’ boy charm, which plays well off of Andrew Prine’s more laconic approach. Their eventual resignation to the fact that they’ll probably never catch the killer is discouraging but has a ring of honesty to it.

Once Morales arrives on the scene, the film takes on the feel of a police procedural as he and Ramsey visit crime scenes, question witnesses and search for clues. April 14 marks the next attack again at Lover’s Lane late at night. A couple is terrorized by the Phantom Killer who ends up stalking Peggy Loomis (Cindy Butler) through the woods. This is the most brutal and ferocious of all the killer’s attacks as we see him tie her to a tree and then repeatedly stab her with a knife tied to a trombone. There are no shots of blood, just the sounds of the knife stabbing her and her anguished moans of pain. We also see close-up shots of the killer’s eyes juxtaposed with Loomis’ terrified face, which are almost too much to bear. The next and final attack occurs in May at a couple’s home as the killer shoots the husband through a window and then smashes through a screen door to get at the wife (Dawn Wells). The striking point-of-view shots used during this sequence anticipate John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) by a couple of years.

If there is one glaring misstep in The Town That Dreaded Sundown, it is the odd bit of casting of Pierce as Morales’ inept driver and comic relief, complete with his own whimsical theme music. I imagine the director felt that the presence of this character would offer moments of much-needed levity to this grim story. Instead, it comes across as an unnecessarily jarring change in tone. Fortunately, the character is used sparingly and doesn’t distract too much from this otherwise excellent film.

Pierce and Smith present the events in the traditional, matter-of-fact style of a docudrama complete with an omniscient narrator, which only adds to the authenticity and was also used in contemporary television shows like In Search Of and later Unsolved Mysteries. Pierce does occasionally enhance his direction with stylistic flourishes like the use of slow motion during a car chase, which even includes spectacular crash. Another aspect that gives the film a real quality is the casting of largely amateur or non-actors. Aside from Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine and Dawn Wells, the cast consists of unknowns and so we have no preconceived notions of these people to distract us. The filmmakers use the rural locations very effectively. The lush, green countryside seen during the day conveys the arrival of carefree summer days with kids playing at the local watering hole, which is in turn juxtaposed with the creepiness of the forest on a late, rainy night.

Director Charles Pierce grew up in the area where many of the actual murders occurred. He remembered being quite frightened by the news stories when he was a youth. His intimate knowledge of the area and living through the actual events certainly gives The Town That Dreaded Sundown an authenticity that it wouldn’t otherwise have. When the film was released, Pierce was criticized for the graphic depiction of violence, in particular the trombone murder scene (the victim was played by his wife at the time) but he felt that this was necessary because the actual killing was brutal and he didn’t want to water it down. During the scenes with the killer Pierce created a suspenseful mood by filming with only essential cast and crew members. He made sure that they did not talk to each other while filming occurred and it certainly translates on-screen with incredibly tense scenes that are almost uncomfortable to watch.

This little-known film has a significant legacy with the look of the killer being adopted by Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981), referenced in Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), and the matter-of-fact killings of couples along with the hooded murderer were also referenced in David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007). Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the film, and of the actual events, is that the killer was never caught or identified. What happened? Did he perhaps get convicted of another crime? Did he move on to another town or state or did he go back to living a normal life in Texarkana? We will probably never know and it is these questions that nag at your brain long after The Town That Dreaded Sundown is over.


Many thanks to Christian over at the Technicolor Dreams 70 blog for turning me onto this film.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday the 13th: The Series

In the late 1980’s, Frank Mancuso Jr., then caretaker of the popular and profitable Friday the 13th series of films, decided to branch off into a television series but without the hockey mask-clad killer Jason, much like John Carpenter’s decision for Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) to not feature Michael Myers. Of course, we all know how well that went over with fans of that particular franchise so most were expecting history to repeat itself with the Friday the 13th show. After much publicized growing pains, the show hit its stride towards the end of the first season as it followed the adventures of a trio of antique store owners searching for cursed objects. It became the second highest rated first-run syndicated show for the much coveted male 18 to 49-year-old demographic, just behind Star Trek: The Next Generation. The show went on for two more season before being cancelled and now enjoys a dedicated cult following.


After their Uncle Lewis Vendredi (R.G. Armstrong) leaves them his antiques shop, distant cousins Ryan Dallion (John D. LeMay) and Micki Foster (Louise Robey) discover that it houses all kinds of supernatural-endowed objects. In the pilot episode, they attempt to sell off all the items in the store, not realizing their otherworldly properties. Pretty soon they meet Jack Marshak (Chris Wiggins), a friend of their recently deceased uncle and supplier of several of the items in the store. He informs them that the items they sold were cursed and together discover the store manifest. It turns out that Lewis made a pact with the Devil for some of the items in the store. And so, Jack, Micki and Ryan have to locate and retrieve each item before they do too much damage to their new owners.

First on the list is a possessed doll belonging to a spoiled brat of a girl (played by a very young, pre-The Adventures of Baron Munchausen Sarah Polley). Pretty soon the doll turns homicidal a la the killer toys in Stuart Gordon’s Dolls (1987). “The Baron’s Bride” features a cursed cape that transports a newly turned vampire as well as Ryan and Micki to Victorian England for striking sequences that are shot in black and white so as to evoke classic horror films with Bram Stoker featured as a prominent character. This is perhaps my favorite episode of this season and shows how the show’s producers were able to get a surprisingly atmospheric and cinematic look on a low budget.

“Faith Healer” was directed by none other than horror auteur David Cronenberg and features a smoke and mirrors miracle man by the name of Stewart Fishoff (Miguel Fernandez). In the opening scene, he’s exposed as a fraud by Jerry Scott (Cronenberg regular Robert Silverman), a friend of Jack’s. However, Fishoff discovers a magical glove that can transfer someone’s physical ailments to innocent people, killing them. Naturally, he abuses this ability for dubious personal gain, becoming famous on T.V. as a result. Jack happens to catch Fishoff’s theatrics on T.V. and discovers that the glove is a cursed item. Cronenberg’s trademark skepticism for power hungry public figures is channeled through the amoral Fishoff. This episode is anchored by a strong performance from Robert Silverman whose character, as it turns out, has his own agenda. He brings an eccentric style of acting that gives the episode emotional resonance, especially when he comes up against Jack and their friendship is put to the test.

“The Quilt of Hathor” is season one’s magnum opus, a two-parter about a cursed quilt that allows whoever sleeps under it to dream to death their enemies – Satan’s security blanket perhaps? However, it turns out that the quilt was created by Salem witches. Ryan and Micki travel to a village populated by Amish-like people. He even ends up falling in love with the preacher’s daughter in a forbidden romance a la Witness (1985), albeit with a supernatural angle.

Genre veteran Billy Drago stars in “Read My Lips” as Edgar, the owner of a supernatural ventriloquist’s dummy known as Oscar. The dummy forces Edgar to kill and before you can say Child’s Play (1988), their act has become a success. In an intriguing twist, Micki and Ryan discover that the dummy derives its powers from a cursed boutonniere that was actually used by Hitler in occult ceremonies. Edgar manages to break free from Oscar’s influence and the dummy latches onto a new owner, show biz wannabe Travis Plunkette (John Byner). Freed from playing one-note villains, Drago displays a refreshing amount of depth, imbuing Edgar with a twinge of tragedy.

“Scarlet Cinema” is an atmospheric homage to the classic Universal horror films with a geeky film student (Jonathan Wise) obsessed with The Wolf Man (1941), starring Lon Chaney Jr. and Claude Rains. He discovers a cursed movie camera, which allows him to realize his own lycanthropic aspirations and get revenge on some of his classmates. There are even clips from the actual film integrated into this episode in order to show how closely this guy identifies with it. Highlights include the footage that manifests itself within the cursed camera, shot in black and white just like The Wolf Man. The use of noirish lighting during the night time scenes on campus are excellent, enhancing the cinematic feel of this episode. The tense, final showdown between our heroes and the film student are juxtaposed with the actual film for quite an exciting finale.

John D. LeMay plays Ryan as an energetic goofball and a bit of a geek who is eager to believe in the supernatural, while Robey’s red-haired Micki is beautiful and the resident skeptic. In some respects they anticipate the dynamic between Mulder and Scully in The X-Files by a few years. Ryan and Micki’s relationship with Jack, the older wiser mentor and bookish type, also anticipates a similar one in Buffy the Vampire Slayer between Buffy, her friends and Giles, the school’s librarian. The Curious Goods antiques shop with its cursed objects that often fall into the wrong hands with disastrous consequences seems to evoke the one that all the stories revolve around in the classic British horror anthology film From Beyond the Grave (1974).

From its inception, Friday the 13th: The Series was never intended to have ties to the series of films of the same name and was intended to exist in its own world. It was originally called The 13th Hour among other titles but the show’s creators – Frank Mancuso Jr. and Larry B. Williams – soon realized that to survive in first-run syndication they needed a title that created awareness and curiosity. So, they took the title Friday the 13th from the popular horror film series and came up with a whole new idea around it. This was the first time that Mancuso had produced a T.V. show and he admitted that it went through some growing pains during the first season as “it took the first three or four episodes to figure out what we did and did now want to be doing.” He felt that it wasn’t as cinematic looking as he would’ve liked and they didn’t get the right mix of humor either. Mancuso candidly admitted that the show’s three protagonists were not fully developed and were often overshadowed by the flashy FX. However, he did feel that towards the end of the first season the show became more character-driven.

However, there was plenty turmoil behind the scenes as the show had a very rocky start. The budget for the FX was not very large and so screenplays featured 10-60 effects shots with only ten days of pre-production, forcing the crew to work fast and improvise when necessary. In addition, filming in Toronto, Canada forced the production to adhere to regulations of 50% Canadian talent. To make matters worse, a disgruntled former employee claimed that the story editors took control of the show, dictating the amount of special effects used leading to a breakdown in communication. Head of the FX department Michael (The Dead Zone) Lennick left the show after four episodes during the first season because of the long hours he worked for wages that did not reflect the time and energy he put it in. FX artist Al (Brain Damage) Magliochetti also left around the same time for similar reasons and cited the conflict between Mancuso, who wanted an effects-heavy show, versus producer Iain Patterson, who did not, and this resulted in confusion as to the direction the show should take.

Friday the 13th: The Series was the second highest rated syndicated series male 18 to 49-year-old demographic after Star Trek: The Next Generation. For its second season, the show moved from late-night to prime time going up against the likes of Freddy’s Nightmares and yet another incarnation of the Twilight Zone. Friday also enjoyed a significant increase in budget allowing for more elaborate sets and a wider variety of locations.

Despite some cheesy effects (check out the floating monk in “The Poison Pen”), the first season featured episodes directed by notable Canadian filmmakers like Atom Egoyan and the aforementioned Cronenberg. Along with genre shows like War of the Worlds and Freddy’s Nightmares, Friday the 13th: The Series pushed the envelope for what was known at the time as “acceptable content” with its depiction of violence, gore and sexuality on T.V. It was also part of an exciting mini-invasion of Canadian T.V. along with Diamonds, Night Heat and Degrassi Junior High. Its legacy continues on with shows like Warehouse 13, whose premise seems like a thinly-veiled copy of Friday the 13th: The Series with a goofy young man and sexy woman duo seeking cursed items with the help of an older mentor type. Regardless, Friday has endured with many episodes standing the test of time, featuring thought-provoking ideas, clever premises and a striking cinematic look that anticipated shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files. I think it’s safe to say that the show has finally gotten out from under the shadow of its more famous cinematic namesake and deserves to be regarded among some of the best genre T.V. that the 1980’s had to offer.


Note: Check out this fantastic fansite dedicated to the show.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Devil Rides Out

Released in 1968, The Devil Rides Out (a.k.a. The Devil's Bride as it was known in America) is a classic Hammer horror film. It contains many of the elements that made the British movie studio famous: Christopher Lee's top notch acting, Terence Fisher's excellent direction, and James Bernard's atmospheric score. In the hands of these talented artists, The Devil Rides Out proves that horror films can be intelligent and do not have to rely on gore and cheap shocks to be effective.


The Duc de Richleau a.k.a. Nicholas (Christopher Lee) and Rex (Leon Greene) are old friends that reunite every few years. During their most recent reunion, Simon (Patrick Mower), the third member of their group, is absent. Nicholas informs Rex that he hasn’t seen Simon for three months. They decide to go to Simon’s house, which he bought recently, and notice a curious-looking observatory built onto it. They walk in on an exclusive party that he’s hosting for a group of rich socialites. He tells Nicholas and Rex that it’s a meeting of an astronomical society that he’s recently joined. Simon tries to maintain an innocent enough façade but he is acting a little strange – his mannerisms seem forced and he is evasive. The look on Nicholas’ face reveals that something’s not quite right. Simon introduces his friends to some of his party guests: a cross-eyed countess and Mocata (Charles Gray), a suave socialite who is polite enough but quickly excuses himself.

When Rex makes an obvious social gaff – Nicholas’ annoyed reaction to his friend’s blunder is priceless – Nicholas rightly assumes that something is off about this "meeting of a little astronomical society" and decides to investigate further. He expertly mingles through the crowd and looks pretty suave lighting a cigarette off a candle (nice touch) as he checks out the various members of the society. The way Nicholas messes with Simon, admiring the décor in his observatory when he obviously knows its true purpose, is amusing. It becomes readily apparent that Simon is under the influence of Mocata, who, it turns out, is the leader of a Satanic cult. Nicholas then confronts Simon and tells him, “I’d rather see you dead than meddling with black magic!” Nicholas tries to reason with Simon but when that doesn’t work out, he knocks him out with a punch and with Rex’s help they take their friend back to Nicholas’ house.

The driving force of the movie is Christopher Lee who is wisely cast against type as a thoughtful protagonist who relies on his wits and his extensive knowledge of the occult to battle the forces of evil. There are several moments in the film where Lee is shown thinking, which suggests that there is something going on behind his intense, captivating eyes. Nicholas is a smart and savvy protagonist determined to save his friend and take down the Satanic cult that has recruited him into their ranks. After playing so many villains during the course of his lengthy career, The Devil Rides Out remains one of my favorite films of his because he was so good as this endlessly fascinating character that fought for good instead of evil.

Leon Greene is the square sidekick to Lee's suave protagonist. Rex is something of an idiot. He leaves his car running with Tanith Carlisle (Nike Arrighi) in it – a follower of Mocata who already tried to escape while the car was moving. His ineptitude balances out Nicholas’ skill, I suppose. Greene is clean-cut and wears a brown suit like some stuffy college professor, which is in sharp contrast to Lee's black suit, goatee and European cigarettes. Greene's character is the audience surrogate, our window into this strange world and he plays off Lee with a wonderful Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson dynamic.

The Devil Rides Out was originally a novel written by Dennis Wheatley in 1934. It used Satanism as a conduit to Communism and a hatred of foreigners. In September 1963, Michael Stainer-Hutchins and Peter Daw bought the film rights to a collection of Wheatley’s black magic thrillers, including The Devil Rides Out. Up to that point, the author’s agents had resisted attempts to adapt his books into films and so Stainer-Hutchins and Daw appealed to Wheatley directly. Actor Christopher Lee was a neighbor of the author and also wanted to see his novels turned into films. He asked Hammer studios to strike a deal with Stainer-Hutchins and Daw, which happened in November 1963. Lee knew Wheatley personally, told him of his desire to turn his books into films and got the writer’s blessing.

Initially, Hammer was worried that the subject of Satanism and black magic wouldn’t get past the censors or that the Church would object. However, the story showed the evils of Satanism and ended with good triumphing over evil so the filmmakers ran into no problems in terms of content. Tony Hinds commissioned a screenplay written by American John Hunter but it turned out to be “far too ‘English’” and it was rejected. In September 1964, Hinds asked Twilight Zone scribe Richard Matheson to take a crack at it and Hammer ended up using his script. His final draft was submitted in July 1967 and was very faithful to Wheatley’s novel, although, he did change Mocata from a foreigner to a suave, British socialite. This made the film all the more subversive as the evil comes from within.

Principal photography began on August 7, 1967 and wrapped on September 29 of the same year at Elstree Studios with a budget of 285,000 pounds. From the start, Lee only wanted to play Duc de Richleau but the studio was tempted to cast him as Mocata. The actor was so into the role and the film that he went to the British Museum to find an authentic black magic incantation to use for the Sussamma Ritual in the film. Director Terence Fisher wanted to cast Charles Gray as Mocata but Hammer’s first choice was Gert Forbe, the villain of Goldfinger (1964).

During principal photography, Tony Hinds was worried that the film wasn’t going to be very good. Composer James Bernard remembers Hinds telling him, “you have to do all you can because I’m not sure the film is working out as it should.” He was asked to come up with music that the Satanists would dance to but actually came up with the title them first. The Devil Rides Out had its premiere on July 7, 1968 and was given a general release in the United Kingdom on July 21. It was released in the United States in December of the same year.

The Devil Rides Out is an intelligent alternative to the overabundance of hack 'n' slash horror films. This film demonstrates that Christopher Lee didn't always play nasty bad guys bent on world (or universal) domination for the forces of evil. Unfortunately, it didn’t do well enough to generate a sequel, thus sinking the hopes that Lee would continue to play Nicholas – a character that appeared in ten more novels written by Wheatley and remains one of the great missed opportunities. Perhaps someone else could resurrect this character and tackle some of the other books in the series but I doubt whoever is cast as Nicholas would bring the same amount of gravitas and intelligence to the role as Lee did.

 
Note: the production information for this article was taken from the excellent book, Hammer Films: The Elstree Studios Years by Wayne Kinsey. It is a must-read for any Hammer studio fan.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

DVD of the Week: Carlos: Criterion Collection

Notorious international terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal came to prominence in the 1970’s and 1980’s with several politically-motivated bombings, kidnappings and hijackings in Europe and the Middle East. He eventually became a popular culture icon with thinly-disguised depictions in films like Nighthawks (1981) and gracing the cover of Black Grape’s debut album. His image was used as a cultural touchstone rather than an accurate depiction. Incredibly, it wasn’t until Olivier Assayas’ ambitious five-and-a-half hour miniseries Carlos (2010) that the man and his times were finally done justice. Assayas wisely doesn’t pass judgment on Carlos but rather depicts how he influenced the political climate and how it, in turn, influenced him. Far from a stuffy history lesson, Carlos is an epic political thriller with a charismatic performance by Edgar Ramirez as the infamous terrorist.


Carlos is presented in three, feature-length episodes that track his rise to power and notoriety; the man at the peak of his powers and his greatest triumph; and his inevitable decline and capture. Early on, Assayas establishes his take on Carlos (Edgar Ramirez), presenting him as a vain man who, at one point, is seen admiring his own naked body in a mirror to the strains of “Dreams Never End” by New Order. We also see him espouse his personal philosophy, that true glory is “doing one’s duty in silence. Behind every bullet we fire, there will be an idea because we act in harmony in our conscience.” And initially, he seems to adhere to this but once he becomes a superstar among international terrorists, he embraces and cultivates his inflated reputation.

In the first episode, Assayas shows Carlos’ clumsy attempts to impress Wadie Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour), co-founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), with a bungled assassination and a failed bombing. This segment builds towards an intense showdown between French domestic intelligence agents and Carlos at one of his girlfriends’ apartment in Paris where we see just how dangerous he is when cornered. The second episode starts off literally with a bang as Carlos and his group arrives at the OPEC headquarters in Vienna and takes oil ministers from all over the world hostage in 1975. This was his highest profile operation done at the height of his powers.

By the end of the second episode, Carlos has been kicked out of the PFLP and he starts up his own terrorist organization, effectively becoming a mercenary. The third episode tracks his inevitable decline as he wages a war of terror on France in the early to mid-‘80s after they arrest his wife and a close associate. It’s costly battle for both sides but more so for Carlos who can no longer rely on his reputation to get jobs or find safe haven in countries that used to be sympathetic towards him. He becomes more vulnerable to attacks because he has more to lose, chief among them a family.

Edgar Ramirez’s magnetic presence really comes across early on as he exudes the cocky confidence of the man and conveys his complete commitment to the cause he espouses so brazenly. The actor has Carlos’ terrorist swagger down cold, showing us the smooth ladies man with his perfectly coifed looks and stylish attire. Known prior to Carlos mostly for his strong supporting turn in Tony Scott’s Domino (2005), he finally gets to be front and center, playing the role of a lifetime: a larger than life historical figure in a sprawling epic. Assayas and Ramirez’s fascinating take on Carlos is that he viewed himself as a kind of rock star, a charismatic personality who clearly saw himself as someone of importance, destined to do great things. This is evident in the way Carlos idolized and emulated Che Guevara during the OPEC raid, sporting the iconic revolutionary’s trademark beret and scruffy facial hair look as if making a statement. Also, the rock star analogy is further explored in the use of post-punk music along with the third episode, which could be seen as Carlos' “fat Elvis” period of decline. Ramirez commands every scene he’s in, especially the OPEC raid where he prowls around rooms and hallways, expertly orchestrating this attack in order to get what he wants.

In an intriguing break from tradition, Assayas eschews a traditional orchestral score for source music, predominately post-punk rock. The opening track is “Loveless Love” by the Feelies, which sets the tone of the film. As the song builds so does the tension of the scene it play over – that of Carlos attempting to assassinate a pro-Israeli businessman in England. Assayas also uses a few tracks by Wire, one by A Certain Ratio and a memorable action sequence scored to “Sonic Reducer” by the Dead Boys. The attention to period detail and architecture is also excellent as Assayas takes us on a perverse travelogue through Europe and the Middle East with Carlos as our guide.

With its color-coded sequences and its objective direction that is slick and confident, Carlos resembles Traffic (2000) and Syriana (2005). These films are all ambitious and expansive in scope as they expertly blend personal politics with bigger political movements. Carlos is a towering achievement, a fascinating study of a man who was a reflection of the times in which he lived in and is embodied by Ramirez’s powerful performance spanning several decades. Assayas’ film is very relevant to our times as it examines the complex machinations of international terrorism with the agendas of terrorist groups clashing with that of the governments of countries all over the world. Carlos sees the struggle of the oppressed against imperialist regimes as a war that he helps fight. With the end of the Cold War, he is marginalized and considered a relic from a bygone era. Assayas has crafted an incredible film that is smartly written, well-acted and masterfully directed.

Special Features:

The first disc includes a theatrical trailer.

The second disc starts off with “Shooting the OPEC Sequence,” a 22-minute featurette examining how Olivier Assayas shot Carlos and his team’s raid on the OPEC headquarters on December 21, 1975. The director offers his thoughts on what he hoped to achieve with the film over footage of the cast and crew working on location. This extra provides some insight into his working methods.

There is an interview with Denis Lenoir, one of the film’s two cinematographers. He shot the second half of Carlos and talks about his approach towards the job. He didn’t prepare much for the film because he came in halfway through and goes into some of the technical aspects (i.e. film stock, lighting, etc.). Lenoir also talks about how Assayas works.

Lenoir also provides a selected-scene commentary, going into detail about the technical aspects of six scenes from the film. For example, he mentions the kinds of lenses he used, the lighting scheme and whether he used hand-held cameras or not.

The third disc features a 43-minute interview with director Olivier Assayas. He gives his take on Carlos and the times that shaped the man. The filmmaker talks about his intentions for the film. He admits that it did not originate with him because he would’ve considered too complicated a task to undertake and was actually approached to direct. Assayas talks about growing up during Carlos’ heyday and also about making the film itself.

There is also a 20-minute interview with actor Edgar Ramirez. He was drawn to the film because it dealt with the mechanics of terrorism and politics. The actor speaks eloquently about his take on Carlos and how the OPEC raid defined him. Ramirez also speaks about how he prepared for the role, including all kinds of research he conducted as well as gaining and then losing weight for the various periods of Carlos’ life.

The fourth and last disc starts off with “Carlos: Terrorist without Borders,” an hour-long documentary that aired on French television in 1997. It fleshes out many of the events depicted in the film and provides some background into Carlos’ politics as well as his rise to prominence. The doc mixes compelling news footage (including actual footage of Carlos) with talking head soundbites to paint a fascinating portrait of the man.

Also included is a 1995 interview with Hans-Joachim Klein, the German left-wing militant that was conducted by Daniel Laconte who went on to help produce Carlos. Most interesting, Klein wears a disguise and talks about how he must lie on a daily basis lest he be discovered by those who want to get him. At times, he comes across as more than a little eccentric.

Finally, there is “Maison de France,” an 88-minute documentary about the 1983 bombing of the Maison de France in West Berlin that was orchestrated by Johannes Weinrich for Carlos. It puts the incident in context with the political climate at the time. There is pretty gripping news footage of the bombing and the location is revisited in recent years to see how it has changed.