Recently while flipping through an issue of Rue Morgue (a.k.a. the greatest horror magazine ever) I stumbled across a striking picture. The black and white photo showed an old man with his back to the camera. A bell fixed to a post hung above his head and he carried a sickle at his side. He looked kind of like , the angel of death meets the guy on the Quaker Oats box, but not as dumb as that sounds. The photo was actually a still from the 1932 film Vampyr. This eerie portrait was enough to get me on Netflix and add it to my queue.
Vampyr is a great example of style out doing substance. The films plot is interesting and compelling but it’s the look and feel of the film that truly makes the movie awesome and memorable. Directed by Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer, Vampyr feels like less of an old school horror flick and more like a surreal nightmare, captured and preserved on film. It’s an odd and atmospheric tale that follows young doctor Allan Grey and the strange, super natural events surrounding a secluded French inn. The movie does center on a vampire and a secret history of the creatures but the director never beats the audience over the head with obvious plot points. In fact many facets of the film are never out right explained. Instead we are treated to an unusual visual feast consisting of simple but effective in-camera tricks like film running backwards and the use of shadows. In one particularly cool sequence Dr Allan Grey seems to travel outside his body only to encounter a coffin, adorned with a window, revealing his own corpse. The camera then gives us a point of view perspective from inside the casket. It is as if the audience is lying in the box staring into the sky through the window over our faces. Even by today’s desensitized standards this scene is pretty creepy and it must have freaked the hell out of people 70 years ago. This movie is largely a silent film with only a few lines of spoken dialogue. This element only helps to create the pervasive sense of dream-like dread.
Vampyr is an incredible piece of film history but it can really stand on its own. This is not just a film that you watch to bone up on your knowledge of cinema history. The early special effects, grainy film stock and meandering plot all come together to create a dark world on par with more modern weirdo movies like the films of David Lynch. Seeing Vampyr may not win you a game of trivial pursuit or impress your film professor but you will experience an amazing example of a film pushing the boundaries of the medium.
This film also got me thinking. I haven’t seen many silent or early talkie horror films. Anybody have any suggestions? I’ve seen some Bella Lugosi and Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney but what else you got?
Guillermo Del Toro has been making art-film fans froth at the mouth ever since he blew our minds with Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006. Remembering that Hellboy wasn’t that bad of a movie, and that Blade II was actually better than the first, we all went out an rented The Devil’s Backbone and wept with joy that someone finally figured out how to make a really artistic ghost movie. Then we “Netflixed” Mimic and gave ourselves paper cuts on our eyelids, just to feel better after sitting through that crap. But hey, at least those creepy bug dudes looked really cool.
The next step in the search for Del Toro’s gold was to track down a copy of Cronos, which proved to be pretty hard to find. Luckily for me, my friend Jason Alley is kind of a freak when it comes to movies, and he happened to have a VHS copy of this unknown gem.
Cronos is the story of a sweet old man and his deep love for his granddaughter. Now, most reviews will tell you this movie is a vampire flick, but in the style of Del Toro, it is so much more than the simple plot. Jesus Gris, played by Argentinean actor Frederico Luppi, struggles with his desire to become young again and his love for his granddaughter, Aurora. Aurora can tell from the beginning that there is something fishy about this cronos devise, but she stays silently by his side, no matter how disgusting he gets. His dedication to the girl is what fuels him throughout the film’s story.
The best scene in the movie is when Jesus lies on his belly on a bathroom floor and laps up a pool of blood as if it were his lover’s naughty bits (for realsies).
Ron Pearlman plays the nephew of a rich, dying man who is searching for the cronos device. Pearlman’s portrayal of Angel de la Guardia is disturbingly violent, and yet, he cowers in fear all at the sight of his uncle’s cane. His mix of rage and fear juxtapose well and give a tease of more than just the two-dimensional thug that most films would have.
Although Cronos is far from Del Toro’s best film, it certainly was a suspenseful story, told through the eyes of a loving grandfather with a dark heart.
The film is in English and Spanish with subtitles and is currently only available on VHS in the United States. It’s not easy to find, but worth the effort if you search for it. Oh, and don’t let the cover deceive you. There is no naked hot chick with a golden bug on her boob.
The Spanish born Franco has directed literally hundreds of films over the course of a career that has lasted half of a century. Unless you are an unabashed cinephile or horror geek chances are you have never even heard of any of Franco’s films let alone actually seen any of them. Finding the great stuff in Franco’s vast collection of films can be a bit like beating your head against the wall. Without the proper guidance you can waste hours of your life watching poorly shot, horrifically acted, and abysmally scripted no budget movies that leave you wishing that you could find the assholes who actually chose to commit trash like that to DVD. However, if you go in with a little help you will be subject to some stunning works of cinema.
Fans of Jess Franco rarely agree which of his films are his best. Favorites include such solid titles as 99 Women, Venus in Furs, The Diabolical Doctor Z, Eugenie and host of others. While all of these films are enjoyable in their own right my favorite Franco movie would have to be She Killed In Ecstasy. She Killed may not be as violent or action packed as some of Franco’s other flicks but it never fails to satisfy.
In essence She Killed In Ecstasy is a revenge flick. It tells the story of a doctor who has been conducting experiments on human embryos. It is his morally questionable research which drives those in charge of a medical board to banish him from medicine (Interestingly poignant in a time of debate regarding stem cell research). The shame and disappointment pushes him to suicide. Broken hearted and devastated his bride seeks revenge on those who drove him out of medicine. She methodically seduces and kills each member of the board to avenge the death of her husband. Clearly there is not a whole hell of a lot of depth to the plot but it is not the story which makes this film such a gem. The bride and main character of the film is portrayed by the enchanting Soledad Miranda. Miranda has an uncanny ability to make even the worst films watchable. She is stunningly beautiful and exudes an unexplainable aura which makes it near impossible to take your eyes off the screen. In addition to a stellar performance by Soledad Miranda, She Killed In Ecstasy is a beautifully shot film. It is occasionally recognized as a visual masterpiece and with just cause. You could pick nearly any frame from the film at random, frame it and put it on your wall as a piece of fine photography. The film also boasts and amazing swinging soundtrack from Sigi Schwab and Manfred Hubler. The music works perfectly in conjunction with the colorful and crisp imagery.
Granted She Killed In Ecstasy is no Citizen Kane but it is a joy to watch none the less. It is a great flick with excellent cinematography, a wonderful soundtrack, a stunning female lead and gratuitous lesbian sex. How can you go wrong? While Jess Franco struck out at plenty of his cinematic “at bats” it is my firmly held belief that he knocked one out of the park with She Killed In Ecstasy.