Beautiful Screamers

NEWS FLASH!

I’m pleased to announce the launch of the Weird Movie Village Tumblr! Be sure to visit every day for your dose of strange pics, videos and sounds.

And now on with the show…

Last year I wrote a post entitled “Smashing Birds.” Even though I said at the outset that it wasn’t about avian abuse, I still get an amusing—and annoying—number of visitors to the page whose average zero seconds of reading time tells me they’re Googling for bird torture and are sorely disappointed when they find that my post is about British starlets. I’m going to play it safe this time and give this post, which is similarly-themed, a different title.

Here’s a look at a few of the most intriguing and memorable actresses who’ve played parts in the realm of horror and fantasy over the last 50 years. The list is not in any particular order…they’re all great.

1. Barbara Shelley. Dubbed “The First Lady of British Horror,” this elegant actress is considered to be one of Hammer Studios’ greatest assets, and indeed she appeared in some of its most memorable offerings, including Quatermass and the Pit, The Gorgon, Rasputin, the Mad Monk and—my favorite performance—as Helen Kent in Dracula, Prince of Darkness.

After his appearance in the legendary Hammer Dracula (1958), Christopher Lee refused to play the part for nearly eight years, but was finally persuaded to come back for this film. However, he considered the dialogue that was written for him to be so poor that he refused to speak it, so he plays the part mute. Not to worry…Ms. Shelley picks up the slack as Helen, an extremely uptight and paranoid English matron who is traveling through the Carpathians with her husband and another couple when they have the bad luck to be ditched by their superstitious coachmen and are forced to spend the night at Castle Dracula.

Although Drac had disintegrated to dust in the first film, his faithful servant, Clove, has been hanging onto his remains, waiting for an opportunity like this. Helen’s husband is strung over the vampire’s coffin and exsanguinated, and soon the monster is bubbling back to life. Revived and hungry, he turns to Helen for refreshment, and she transforms from an almost Mary Poppins type into a sensuous, scary creature of the night.

Her attempted seduction of her sister-in-law (Suzan Farmer) is erotically twisted, and her snarling viciousness as she is restrained by priests in preparation for her staking by Father Sandor (Andrew Keir) is just terrific. The staking scene itself still resonates. Dressed in a flowing gown and being restrained by numerous male arms, even though she’s become a monstrous creature who needs to be destroyed, it still plays as a kind of rape, especially when the blood gushes out around the stake.

Another memorable role for Shelley was Anthea, birth mother of one of the creepy alien kids in the original Village of the Damned, whose fear of the little monster was tempered by her natural built-in maternal love. And who could forget her Sonia, the poor lady-in-waiting who is the recipient of the manipulative Rasputin’s lustful advances…until he doesn’t need her anymore, and then she snuffs it?

Shelley’s captivating beauty and rich, modulated voice enabled her to play a variety of roles and ages. After the Hammer films she did a lot of television, but it was good television: “Dr. Who,” “EastEnders,” “Maigret”—even a recurring role in a 1981 miniseries version of The Borgias. Although a recent stroke has slowed her down a bit, Shelley still makes appearances at fan shows when she can. I’d like to get the chance to meet her.

2. Ingrid Pitt. Another face of the “new Hammer,” Pitt was never a blushing flower. She is best remembered for two films: The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Countess Dracula (1971). The former is an important film, as it was released at a crucial time when the studio was trying to reposition itself to appeal to adult audiences.

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Hammer had always been reliable for delivering more extreme Technicolor violence, earning it the slogan “the studio that dripped blood,” but the liberated sixties, with films like Bonnie and Clyde, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Midnight Cowboy, showed the heads of Hammer that they were losing touch with their core audience, and they realized that they would have to reinvent Hammer as—to put it crudely—”the studio that showed tits.”

The Vampire Lovers is based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novel “Carmilla,” about a lesbian vampire, and indeed Pitt, playing the mysterious houseguest Carmilla/Mircalla, arrives at a small village and wastes no time putting the bite on the resident virgins. The always-reliable Peter Cushing plays the General who is unwittingly playing host to the vampiress until he figures out what’s going on and brings a halt to the proceedings with a well-aimed stake. This was the first Hammer film released with an “R” rating in the States, and it’s the first from the studio to have nudity and sex. Pitt has no problem taking her kit off and does so in several scenes.

In Countess Dracula, Pitt plays an aristocrat who finds that bathing in the blood of virgins preserves her youth, so she must procure an endless supplies of nubile beauties to support her habit. It was directed by Peter Sasdy, who helmed a few of the “new Hammer” films, including the very good Hands of the Ripper (1971) andthe interesting Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970).

Pitt worked regularly throughout the years in every genre, even appearing in several episodes of “Dr. Who.” She was also an author and an early adapter of the Internet, launching her “Pitt of Horror” Web site back when it was rare for celebrities to do such a thing. She also loved her fans and was a tireless participant at conventions, giving autographs and talking about her career with eager fans. Sadly, she died last year at age 73. She is missed.

3. Caroline Munro. With her deliberate voluptuousness, Munro embodied the “new Hammer” starlet for the 1970s.

As Hammer moved into its R-rated decade, innocent-looking beauties like Yvonne Monlaur and Veronica Carlson were replaced by harder-edged actresses like Munro and Stephanie Beacham. Even Joanna Lumley (“Absolutely Fabulous”) checked into Hammer for Dracula A.D. 1972!

I don’t mean to suggest that Munro always essayed tough girls, however—she played her share of maidens in films like the odd Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (1974) and even Vincent Price’s beautiful—but dead—wife in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971).

And what an incredible career she’s had! She was a Bond girl in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), she fought dinosaurs in At the Earth’s Core (1976), and she even appeared in Jess Franco’s trashy but fun Faceless (1987), starring an unhinged Helmut Berger.

Probably her most notorious film is William Lustig’s sleazy, adults-only Maniac (1980), in which she plays New York photographer Anna who develops a hesitant romantic relationship with Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) who, unbeknownst to her, is a serial killer. It strains credulity that she would be attracted to this greasy, pockmarked guy, but the film is so awash in 42nd Street grime that it fits…somehow.

I remember seeing posters for it everywhere when I first moved to Los Angeles. The distribution company, Analysis, had gained notoriety with the hardcore Caligula the year before, and Maniac was also touted as an “adults only” release. With Tom Savini’s over-the-top gore, it’s a disgusting experience, but it also serves as a valuable time capsule of the era. Just as Last House on the Left killed the “flower power” sixties, Maniac disemboweled the disco 70s.

Munro is still working regularly, and when I met her at a “Monsters Among Us” convention in Los Angeles in 2003, I found her to be utterly charming.

4. Stephane Audran. A French actress with unusual beauty, Audran’s career has spanned more than fifty years. Of course, my favorite Audran performance is as the titular character in Gabriel Axel’s Academy Award-winning Babette’s Feast (1987), but she also appeared in several genre films, including Le Boucher (1970) for her then-husband, the noted directed Claude Chabrol, known as the “French Hitchcock.” In it she plays a schoolteacher who falls in love with a murderous butcher.

Also for Chabrol she played a dual role in The Champagne Murders (1966), a confusing psychological thriller starring a sexually ambivalent Anthony Perkins. In Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon (1981), she plays the wife of a cop-turned-serial killer. And in Franco’s previously-mentioned Faceless, she plays a patient at a plastic surgery clinic who gets a hypodermic needle jammed into her eye!

She was also in a neglected giallo, The Spider Labyrinth (1988), and it sounds like a film I need to seek out. With special effects by Fulci favorite Sergio Stivaletti, it’s been compared favorably to an Argento film by those who’ve seen it. Oh—and she was also in Luis Bunuel’s classic The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and the Jean-Claude Van Damme starrer Maximum Risk (1996)! Now that’s variety!

Still active, Audran’s latest role is in 2008’s The Girl from Monaco playing—you guessed it—a murderer!

Red Snoring Hood

Late post this week. I was in Manhattan managing an event. Of course, a trip to the Big Apple is always so welcome. There’s such a great energy in the air.

I did manage to set aside time to see Green Day’s “American Idiot” at the St. James Theater on Wednesday night. I’d really been looking forward to it, as I’m a major fan of the band. I wasn’t disappointed. The book was kind of cliched, but it was really a rock opera with minimal spoken lines, emphasizing the great music.

There were some cast changes—John Gallagher Jr. (Spring Awakening) left the cast, but his replacement, Van Hughes, is good as Johnny. Rebecca Naomi Jones, who I also saw in Passing Strange, is Whatsername, and she’s great. Sadly, I missed Billie Joe taking over the role of St. Jimmy by five stinkin’ days! It’s closing on the 24th, so I’m glad I was able to catch it anyway.

And now for our feature presentation…

I went to a screening of the much-derided Red Riding Hood tonight, and I have to say it richly deserves its paltry 11% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, the helmer of the first Toilet—er, I mean Twilight—movie, it’s designed to appeal to the same audience that flocked to those sparkly vampire flicks. Unfortunately, it fails on all counts. It’s not scary enough, nor does it have enough of that lip-biting teen angst that the Twihards seem to respond to.

This is Amanda Seyfried’s second horror film after the dreadful Megan Fox starrer Jennifer’s Body (well, it’s actually her third horror film if you count Mamma Mia!). You’d think with her big blue bulging eyes she’d be able to communicate a variety of emotions, but she runs the gamut from A to B, as Dorothy Parker famously said.

Seyfried is Valerie, a young woman who lives in a generic European village on the edge of a dark forest inhabited by a werewolf. The villagers have been terrorized by the werewolf and its forebears for generations, which raises the question: “Why the hell don’t they just leave?” It’s like the old Sam Kinison line about the starving people in Ethiopia—“Why don’t you move to where the food is???”

Valerie loves her childhood sweetheart Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), but her mother (Virginia Madsen) has arranged for her marriage to Henry (Max Irons), because he’s better off financially and can give her a good life. Now why Henry is richer than Peter is a mystery, because everyone in the village seems to be eking out the same miserable existence involving woodcutting, hunting and hanging out in the village tavern. But when Valerie’s sister is killed by the werewolf, she discovers a bunch of family secrets that would be interesting in a better movie, but come off here as simultaneously ridiculous and boring.

Madsen, a television and direct-to-video stalwart from the ’80s and ’90s, restarted her A-list career with the alleged comedy Sideways (2004). I don’t dislike her, but in this film she’s wearing a mass of blond curls that make her already-large face even bigger. The younger actors are graduates of the “Gossip Girl” school of performing arts, delivering the dull dialogue with a kind of smug irony. And despite the foreign locale, everyone speaks with a flat midwestern American accent.

Gary Oldman gets a Big Entrance as Father Solomon, a Horace Hill-type traveling werewolf hunter. For some reason, he has a giant cast-iron elephant in tow that serves as a portable prison, as well as two black guards who should’ve been far more fascinating to the all-white villagers than a boring old werewolf. He brings out unnecessarily complicated contraptions like a clockwork planetarium as he delivers his spiel about blood moons and wolves and stuff, and the townsfolk (not the brightest bunch) gawk in wonder.

The marvelous Julie Christie plays Seyfried’s grandmother (“What big teeth you have!”) and I’m completely perplexed by her decision to take the role. Mostly she’s involved in the alleged “pop-up” scares—you know, when the music does a sudden crescendo and there’s a false scene of terror? There’s a pop-up when she’s carrying a huge fur coverlet to a bed, and then there’s another pop-up when she herself pops up out of bed and says “Good morning!” to Valerie. It’s ridiculous.

After the male townsfolk kill a regular gray wolf and carry its hilariously snarling decapitated head around on a pike, they have a celebration that looks a helluva lot more like Burning Man than an isolated village’s party. The music is avant garde, they wear bizarre animal masks, and they all act like they want to have sex right away. This sequence is made even more incongruous when, in the next scene, Valerie is accused of being a witch. What the hell does that mean? You were all dancing around like horny pagans a minute ago, and now you’re getting all Christian and damning ol’ Bulgy Eyes?

Oh, yeah—Lukas Haas, looking like he was plucked off of skid row to play his part, is a bible-thumping type who had summoned Father Solomon to the village in the first place. And there’s a village idiot (of course) whom Solomon falsely accuses of being the wolf’s accomplice. But all these diversions are just so much balloon juice…you really don’t care.

The art direction is hilarious. Hammer Films did so much better with Curse of the Werewolf and, well, any of their other period pieces. And Neil Jordan’s 1984 Company of Wolves did so much more with a fraction of this film’s budget. Here, the running theme seems to be pricks. The trees are like rose stems with huge thorns sticking out of them, and the houses also have sharp thornlike appendages. There’s also a scene set in a grove of what seem to be bales of hay or the business ends of brooms with violet flowers growing out of them. What the hell are they supposed to be?

Father Solomon sentences Valerie to sit in the village square wearing the “mask of shame”: it looks like a World War II gas mask with funny ears, and all you can see of Seyfried is her goggly eyes. The effect is hilarious. A Gossip Girl shows up to berate her and say that she’s getting what she deserves because she was always the pretty one, the most popular. It makes absolutely no sense. And the werewolf! Oh, boy. It changes color from scene to scene, and when it finally confronts Valerie, it’s a big, black, dorky-looking dog-like creature that speaks to her telepathically. They really had to push for a PG-13 rating, too, because the killings are quick and bloodless, and aside from the bizarre festival, there’s really no adult content to speak of.

Spoilers, here…if you care…

It turns out that Valerie’s father is the beast, and Peter is bitten in the fracas (where is his fracas, you may wonder), so now he is cursed. He and Valerie rush off into the snowy wilderness, stopping to have brief, nonexplicit sex in the freezing snow. He tells her to return to the village; he’ll come back for her when it’s time. He finally returns as the doofy werewolf. She leers and him salaciously and they take off together. Huh?

If The Situation and Snooki do “Romeo and Juliet” I will move to another country, I swear to God.

Toronto International Film Festival News

Now, I personally didn’t attend the Toronto International Film Festival (running until the 19th of this month), but some films of great interest to Weird Movie Village are screening there that are receiving early critical praise and are worthy of previewing.

Let Me In, the highly anticipated (or dreaded) English-language remake of the Swedish masterwork Let the Right One In, premiered last Monday at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the good news is that writer/director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) has not desecrated the original. As a matter of fact, a lot of critics are reporting that he’s made an adaptation with enough invigorating twists to elevate it above mere “remake” status. That’s all good news.

For those who don’t know, it’s the story of a lonely, bullied boy who befriends the mysterious girl who moves in next door and gradually comes to the realization that she’s not a child at all but a vampire of undetermined age.

The action is moved from Scandinavia to Los Alamos, New Mexico, but it’s still a period piece, set in the 1980s. Richard Jenkins plays the vampire girl’s caretaker and Elias Koteas is a new character, a cop trying to track down the source of the mysterious murders occurring in his town. In a big departure from the original, these are the only prominent adult roles. All the others are ciphers. The young leads are the focal point in Let Me In, so it’s vital that their performances merit such attention.

The critics agree that Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road) and Chloe Moretz (Kick-Ass), now named Owen and Abby, are perfectly cast. That’s more good news. And the filmmakers didn’t wimp out and shoot for a PG-13 rating; it’s a full-blooded R. Even though this is a film about children, it’s not a children’s film. Anna’s attacks are appropriately vicious as they were in the original, and the situations are far more adult than your typical Twilight scenario.

I’ll certainly be in line when it’s released on October 1st, and I hope it’s a hit for co-producer Hammer Films, the granddaddy of the vampire genre.

Another one I’m looking forward to is the Guillermo Del Toro-produced Julia’s Eyes, from the team that made the impressive The Orphanage in 2007. There’s no U.S. distributor yet, but Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir thinks it’s only a matter of time. Like The Orphanage, this film is set in gloomy Northern Spain, and Belén Rueda once again is the female lead.

She plays Julia, a woman suffering from a degenerative eye disease that had caused her sister to go blind. And when said sister hangs herself in the basement of her gothically creepy house, Julia suspects murder and conducts her own investigation, fighting her failing eyesight and the encroachment of evil. It sounds like this film is dripping with atmosphere, and if it pulls off the brooding darkness of The Orphanage, it ought to be pretty gripping.

Trainspotting director Danny Boyle screened his latest, 127 Hours, and audience reaction was strong—one viewer even required medical attention! It’s based on the true story of a mountaineer who managed to free himself after being trapped by a boulder in a Utah canyon for five days by severing his own arm.

James Franco plays the mountaineer, Aron Ralston, and his performance is being acclaimed as one to watch when the Academy Award nominations roll around. I really love these kinds of intense character studies, and Boyle is the right director to pull this off. And it’s only 90 minutes long, so it doesn’t seem like it will outstay its welcome.

Director Stuart Gordon pulled off a similar feat—though in a much more macabre vein—with 2007’s Stuck, also based on a true story, about a retirement home nurse (Mena Suvari) who drunkenly runs into a homeless man (Stephen Rea) and leaves him trapped in her car’s windshield in her garage while she tries to decide whether to kill him, free him or ignore him altogether. And there are scenes of Rea trying to pull his battered body out of the glass that are absolutely agonizing.

Evidently the buildup to 127 Hours‘ self-amputation scene is so excruciating and the sequence rendered so realistically that the audience freaked out. And since you can’t spend 90 minutes showing someone crying for help with their arm stuck under a boulder (unless you’re Andy Warhol), other story elements must be added. In this case, Ralston reflects on his life—invoking multiple flashbacks, I’m sure—and I hope they’re compelling. I think they will be. We’ll know on November 5th. Oh, and there’s a masturbation scene that’s causing some buzz in the community…

After making the magnificent but more-or-less straight The Wrestler, eclectic filmmaker Darren Aranofsky (Requiem for a Dream) seems to be returning to his surreal roots for Black Swan, which was well-received at TIFF. The film stars Natalie Portman as a repressed ballerina who is offered the lead in a production of “Swan Lake,” and the psychological toll she must pay.

Word is there’s nothing black and white about the film. Aranofsky mixes genres audaciously, with lots of “Is it really happening?”-style sequences. When this material is handled well, it can be riveting, and Aranofsky has already proven to be an expert at it.

I happen to be a fan of his 2006 The Fountain, a film that many dismissed as New Age claptrap, but I found fascinating with its disconcerting shifts of time and place and bizarre visuals. It’s a mystery you can’t wait to solve. Swan seems to be traveling in a similar orbit, although costar Vincent Cassell, upon seeing it for the first time in Venice, said “It’s a Polanski movie, and then it becomes a Dario Argento movie. And maybe a little bit of David Cronenberg too.” Sounds like fun to me.

Black Swan will be released in selected cities on December 1st.