Horror Film Review: Live and Let Die (dir. by Guy Hamilton)

I know what you’re going to say before you say it.

“Okay, Lisa,” you sigh, “I hate to tell you this but Live and Let Die is not a horror film.  Live and Let Die is a James Bond film.  In fact, it’s the first one to feature Roger Moore in the role of Bond.  It’s the one where Yaphet Kotto is the guy who’s both a Harlem drug dealer and a world leader and he’s planning on importing all this heroin from Haiti or somewhere and Bond runs off with his Tarot card reader who is played by Jane Seymour, who has mismatched eyes, just like you!”

“Thank you,” I say in my shy little way as my cheeks flush red and my mismatched eyes glance downward.

“However,” you continue, “it’s hardly a horror film.  Live and Let Die is just the James Bond film where they go to Louisiana and end up chasing each other in boats and then Clifton James shows up as this redneck sheriff and its just kinda embarrassing.”

“May I speak now?” I ask as I narrow my multi-colored eyes at you, “Now, to be honest, I’ve only recently started to really watch all of the old school James Bond films from the 60s and the 70s but Live and Let Die is actually one of my favorites, even with Clifton James as Sheriff J.W. Pepper.  I mean, the film’s actually a lot of fun, Yaphet Kotto made a great villain, and even if Roger Moore wasn’t quite as sexy and dangerous as Sean Connery was, at least he wasn’t all stiff and humorless like Daniel Craig.  In fact, I think it could be argued that Live and Let Die was the first — and maybe only — truly Grindhouse James Bond film.  I just find it interesting how the whole film is basically a hybrid of all of the big exploitation genres of 1973.   The scenes in Harlem and really the film’s entire plot is pretty much ripped off from blaxploitation while the voodoo scenes all have this kind of campy, Hammer feel to them.  Even the scenes in Louisiana are an homage to the southern car chase movies that were apparently big at the drive-ins back then.”

“That’s all good and well, Lisa, but how does that make Live and Let Die a horror film?  And don’t say it’s because Felix Leiter is played by David Hedison, the star of the original Fly because–”

“Hold on,” I say, “this is the point where we show the trailer.”

“Okay, Lisa Marie,” you say, “now that you’ve indulged in your bizarre trailer fetish, explain just how exactly this is a horror film and don’t try doing that thing you always do where you link it to some weird-ass thing that happened to you like ten years ago.”

My nostrils flare as I begin, “Ten years ago, me and my family were taking a vacation in voodoo country…”

“Lisa Marie, did you not read the previous paragraph?”

“Oh, sorry.”  I pause in order to get my thoughts straight in my head.  “Well, first off, let’s start with the opening credits.  Now, I’ll be honest here and admit that I’ve always kinda wanted to be one of those girls that are always dancing around naked during the opening credits of all the old school James Bond films–” 

“That’s a shock.”

“–so I always end up paying attention to those opening credits.  I mean, that’s my time to fantasize about being in a James Bond film.  And I have to say, the opening credits of Live and Let Die — Agck!  Seriously, everyone always spends so much time talking about how great the theme song is that they kinda miss just how freaky and nightmarish those opening credits are.  I mean, seriously, when you’re at home alone and you’re watching this in a dark room, these opening credits are genuinely unsettling.  Here, check them out.”

“Okay,” you say, “I can see how the credits might freak you out but that’s just like 2 minutes of a two hour film–”

“Oh my God, I’m so not even done yet!” I snap, “This film isn’t about James Bond fighting drug dealers.  All of that stuff with Yaphet Kotto and the heroin and all that — it’s all just an excuse to get to what the film is truly about: James Bond vs. Baron Samedi, the man who can not die!  As played by Geoffrey Holder, Baron Samedi’s only in a few scenes but he dominates the entire film.  I mean, it’s actually kinda funny because every time Baron Samedi shows up, someone dies but the film comes to life.”

“In fact,” I continue, now pretty much talking to myself, “when Baron Samedi first appears in the film, he’s killing this poor, terrified man by holding a poisonous snake up to the man’s face and oh my God, that scene freaked me out when I first saw it!  In fact, it’s the only scene from a James Bond film that’s ever given me a nightmare.  Even Eva Green drowning in Casino Royale didn’t freak me out as much as that snake scene did and you know I’m a lot more scared of drowning than I am of snakes.  Which is odd since I live in Texas and there’s a lot more snakes around here than large bodies of water…”

“Slow down and breathe, Lisa Marie,” you say, “you’re getting off topic.”

“Right, sorry.  Anyway, it’s a scary scene precisely because Baron Samedi seems to be enjoying killing the man so much.  Then again, it could also be the fact that Baron Samedi had the most evil laugh ever.  Seriously, listen to it in the scene below.”

As you watch the scene, I continue to speak, my words tumbling one after another out of my mouth, “But the scariest Baron Samedi scene isn’t even on YouTube.  Seriously, YouTube sucks.  I hate YouTube.  I mean, you can find a thousand videos of silly people doing that Wii workout game in their underwear but you can’t find the freakiest Baron Samedi scene ever.  Seriously, forget about Occupying Wall Street.  Let’s occupy freaking YouTube and demand–”

“Focus, Lisa.”

“Sorry.  Anyway, the freakiest scene in Live and Let Die and I would dare say the freakiest scene of the entire James Bond series, comes towards the end of the film.  Baron Samedi pops up out of this grave and James Bond like shoots him and blows off half his forehead, right?  And Baron Samedi just stand there perfectly still and emotionless.  Then, his eyes slowly roll upward and stare up at where his forehead used to be.  So, Bond shoots him like three more times and Baron Samedi just collapses like a rag doll.  And then, suddenly, Baron Samedi — forehead intact — pops out of another grave and does that evil laugh of his!  Oh.  My.  God!  It is so freaky!  I was watching it and I was just like…AGCK!

“And that,” I conclude, “is why Live and Let Die is a horror film.”

However, now that I’m finished, you don’t reply.  I look up and I see that you’re gone.

And in your place…

Horror Trailer: Deadheads

Below is the trailer for the new zombie comedy Deadheads, which played to sell-out crowds at the Austin Film Festival.  I’m usually a little bit hesitant whenever I see horror and comedy being mixed together because for those two genres to mix, a perfect balance must be struck.  Otherwise, you end up with a horror film that’s too funny or a comedy that’s too scary.  Still, I’ve heard good things about Deadheads from my friends in Austin and the trailer would seem to suggest that, at the very least, the film has a good heart and I hope it picks up a national distributor in the near future.

(Special thanks to frequent Shattered Lens commenter Jake Moore for alerting me to this trailer!)

Horror Film Review: The Exorcist (directed by William Friedkin)

When I first read Arleigh’s idea that we devote October to reviewing horror films, I knew immediately that there was no way I could let the month pass without saying a few words about one of the true classics of the horror genre, the 1973 best picture nominee The Exorcist.

Based on an equally scary novel by William Peter Blatty and directed by William Friedkin, The Exorcist is one of those films that has become so iconic that even people who have never seen it know what the movie is about.  Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is an agnostic actress who is shooting a film about student protestors on a college campus.  Her 12 year-old daughter, Regan (played by the future Grindhouse queen Linda Blair), spends her time playing with a Ouija Board and talking to her friend “Capt. Howdy.”  Unfortunately, Capt. Howdy is actually a Sumerian demon who proceeds to posses Regan.  Soon, Regan is levitating, cursing, and masturbating with a crucifix.  After trying (and failing with) all the conventional methods of treatment, Chris desperately turns to the God she doesn’t believe in and tries to convince a troubled priest (Jason Miller) to perform an exorcism on Regan.  Unfortunately, this priest has begun to question his faith and he fears that he might not be strong enough to “cure” Regan.  An elderly priest (Max Von Sydow) is called in to help with the exorcism and, faster than you can say, “The power of Christ compels you,” the two priests are locked in mortal combat for Regan’s soul.

The ultimate test of any horror films is whether or not it’s still unsettling even after you already know what’s going to happen and when all the evil is going to come jumping out of the shadows.  In short, the test is whether or not the film holds up to repeat viewings.  This is a test that The Exorcist easily passes.  I’ve seen this film enough times that I now know exactly when Linda Blair’s head is going to do that 360 degree turn and I now know exactly when to divert my eyes so I don’t have to see possessed Regan puking on the priests.  (For all the terrible physical manifestations of Regan’s possessions, it’s always the vomiting that gets to me.)  Most of the film’s “shock” sequences aren’t that scary any more because we’ve all seen far worse.  However, watching this film remains, for me, a truly unsettling experience. This is due largely to director William Friedkin.  Today’s aspiring filmmakers could learn a lot from Friedkin because, for all the attention the film’s grotesque effects received, Friedkin actually devotes more time to setting up the situation and establishing a palpable atmosphere of doom.  This is a film full of grainy, almost gray images, the perfect visual suggestion of a world that has perhaps been abandoned by its God.  It takes more than an hour before Ellen Burstyn meets Jason Miller and Max Von Sydow doesn’t show up until the final 30 minutes of the film.  At first, it seems as if the movie itself is moving slowly but, by the end of it, you realize that what Friedkin has done is that he’s sucked us into the reality of his film.  For all the special effects and metaphysical concerns, The Exorcist almost feels like a documentary.  He’s also helped by a talented cast that makes the situation feel real, regardless of how extreme things may get.  I’ve read that a lot of people decided they needed to be exorcised after seeing this film and I can understand why.

The Exorcist is a film that benefits from debate and it’s also one that is open to multiple interpretations.  Quite a few critics have argued that the Exorcist is actually a very reactionary film in that Regan’s possession can be seen as a metaphor for adolescent rebellion and her exorcism is actually more about the establishment regaining control than any attempt to save her eternal soul.  I actually think this interpretation is pretty much spot on correct though I also don’t think the filmmakers were intentionally trying to deliver that message.  Instead, I think that the Exorcist — like all great films — is simply filled with the subtext of its time.  While the filmmakers may have unintentionally created a document of then-contemporary fears, I think the film is even more interesting as an argument about the origin of sin and evil.

Ultimately, for a horror film to be truly timeless, it has to do more than just scare you.  The supernatural and/or otherworldly forces have to serve as more than just a cinematic threat; they have to stand-in for our own universal fears and concerns.  The Exorcist attempts to answer one of the most basic questions: why is there evil in the world and why do people sometimes behave in such terrible ways?  For all of the film’s notoriety, the answers it provides are surprisingly simple.  Evil is because of the devil and people behave the way they do because they’re not individually strong enough to resist the lure of sin.  The only way to defeat the world’s demons is through sacrifice, suffering, and martyrdom.  You don’t have to come from a Catholic background to “get” the Exorcist but it helps.  (To be honest, it probably helps even more to be a “fallen” Catholic like me because wow, this movie really knows how to exploit all that lingering guilt.)  Thanks to this film, it sometimes seems the only time that priests (and Catholicism in general) are portrayed positively in the movies is when they’re exorcising someone (which, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t really happen all that much).  Fortunately, you don’t have to agree with the answers provided by the Exorcist in order to find both the questions and the film itself to be intriguing.

Horror Scenes I Love: The Beyond

The good thing about AMC’s The Walking Dead is that it puts zombies on the forefront of the public’s cultural consciousness. They’ve become the monster that still remains scary. The show has also allowed for new fans of the genre to seek out other classic zombie films and stories that they wouldn’t have bothered to check out if it hadn’t been for this show. One such classic zombie film would be another of Lucio Fulci’s gorefests from the early 80’s. It is a film which also has my latest “Scenes I Love” and one that continues this month’s horror theme.

Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (aka Seven Doors of Death) has one of my favorite scenes in horror. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that I love pretty much everything Fulci has done and each of those films always have several memorable scenes that would imprint themselves on fans. My favorite scene from The Beyond has to be when the film’s two protagonists (played by regular Fulci actors in Catriona McColl and David Warbeck) find themselves under siege by zombies in a hospital. Warbeck’s character tries to fend them off with his trusty six-shooter, but seems to have forgotten to read the memo about shooting them in the head.

Every miss lessens their chance and when the creepy little red-haired girl suddenly makes her appearance as she attacks McColl’s Liza then the payoff in the scene finally happens. It looks like Warbeck’s character suddenly remembered what will kill them undead and decides to test it out on the little red-haired girl. To say that this scene was shocking when seen by a 9 year-old boy would be an understatement. I think even now that soon to turn 38 years of age young boy would still react with utter shock at this scene.

Horror Film Review: The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (dir. by Joseph Green)

Hi!  Do you know what today is?  That’s right, it’s October 24th!  That means only one more week to go until Halloween.  And what better way to observe this important date than with an old, low-budget B-movie that’s fallen into the public domain?

I first discovered The Brain That Wouldn’t Die through the Drive-In Mob on twitter.  It first came out in 1962 and it’s 82 minutes of medical malpractice, bitchy disembodied heads, and a scary monster hiding in a closet.  Well, not really that scary.  However, the monster does rip-off of one guy’s arm.  Luckily, the guy has another arm obviously tucked away underneath his lab coat.

As a sidenote, this is a low-budget film and you can tell just by looking at it.  However, I kinda think that the harsh lighting and the stark sets add a little something to the film, the key word being little.

Anyway, if you’ve got 82 minutes to kill and a strong tolerance for bossy heads, check out The Brain That Wouldn’t Die