Duke Tries A Halloween Marathon…Part Two.


This is part two of my attempt at partaking in a October horror marathon. The first part of which can be found here.

October 5th (Watched two because I didn’t have time on the 4th): ‘Frankenstein’s Army’ (dir. Richard Raaphorst)

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‘Frankenstein’s Army’ is a WWII found footage film with a weirdness and creativity that makes for one fun, goofy and clever experience…if you can get past the headache inducing sound design.

The film is about a small squad of Russian soldiers, behind enemy lines, who stumble upon an eerily abandoned church. What they find inside is a lab of a decedent of Victor Frankenstein, who has been experimenting with the bodies of soldiers (friend and foe) and turning them into mindless monsters mixed with machinery of all sorts.

The film is shot in a found footage style and it actually works. The explanation behind it is essentially they are trying to make a propaganda film. There is the usual question as to why they are still filming during certain scenes, but I actually think the film as a whole would not have worked as well had it been filmed conventionally.

The best thing about the film is easily the production, at least visually. There are some really well done long takes, often with characters in the background doing things that one might miss if they aren’t paying attention. The costume/monster designs are wonderfully weird and creative. They definitely had fun with the concept, and it shows.

The only issue I had was the sound design, which was mindbogglingly annoying. I mean really bad. So screechy, scratchy and just plain irritating. I understand that because of the nature of some of the monsters and their machine parts that it would require these sorts of sounds, but ultimately they add nothing to the experience except a headache. However, this might only be me. Others might not have the same response, so I won’t really hold it against the film – I just probably will never watch it again.

Overall this is a fun, if hollow, film worthy of at least one viewing. The performances aren’t great, and the dialogue is exactly what you’d expect from this sort of film. There is no subtext and no real scares. Still, it is so creative and so bat-shit crazy at times that it would be a shame to pass it up if given the opportunity. Especially when it is a lean 84 minutes.

‘The Midnight Meat Train’ (dir. Ryûhei Kitamura)

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‘The Midnight Meat Train’ is a brutal and violent horror film, that is unfortunately dragged down by some scripting and pacing issues.

The film stars Bradley Cooper as a photographer who, after being told to be a bit riskier in his search for great photos, finds himself face to face with Vinnie Jones, a butcher who is brutally murdering people on a train. Cooper begins to follow Jones in an attempt to gather evidence of the murders, all the while the darkness of the situation taking its tool emotionally on him.

The biggest issue I had was the pacing of the story as well as the characters. It is a weird situation in which I simultaneously wished it would slow down in terms of character development, while also picking up the pacing for the horror. There is such a rapid shift in the emotions of the characters that – although valid – happen way to abruptly. What is worse is that it isn’t like they don’t have enough time to draw this out. Because they do…almost too much so, to the point that I was also wishing they’d hurry up with the horror elements.

This wouldn’t have been too big of an issue if not for the fact that it made me lose interest in a lot of what was happening. I wasn’t invested in the characters or the horror because of it, and so any attempts at creating suspense were lost of me – leaving me with only the graphic and brutal kills on the train, which just aren’t my thing. I can handle gore, but find it utterly pointless – and distasteful – when there is little to no meaning behind it.

It wasn’t all bad though, with the stand out being the direction. There is some really great camerawork, especially in a scene set in an apartment. I also liked the visual contrasts between the surface and train scenes; and Vinnie Jones was cool, calm and terrifying. The ending was also great, where there is a reveal of a mythical plot line that is alluded to throughout most of the film. It is a very weird tonal shift, and goes a long way towards adding meaning to a lot of what came before it…sadly it is a case of too little too late.

Overall I didn’t hate it, but an hour in I was just ready for it to finally be over…and imagine my dismay when I realized there was another 40 minutes or so left. It is the sort of horror film in which its failings are harder for me to ignore, as I might in another film, given the content. If you are looking for just a gory horror film in which the shock value is simply the brutal violence, then this might be for you. If you are looking for something with a bit more substance, than you may want to look elsewhere.

October 6th: ‘Black Christmas’ (dir. Bob Clark)

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‘Black Christmas’, considered to be one of the first ever slasher films, is an efficient, effective and highly enjoyable horror film – one I will definitely revisit often.

The film is set during Christmas at a sorority, the members of which are being harassed by someone making creepy prank calls. As many of them leave for the holiday break, one goes missing, setting off a search for her and the person calling the house. As the remaining sorority sisters try to deal with this, they begin to be killed off one by one by a killer who may potentially be someone very close to them.

The only issue I had was with a particular mannerism of the killer. The film took on a first person perspective whenever he appeared – which was effectively spooky- but there was quite a lot of moaning and weird grunts coming from him at the same time. They were meant to be eerie, and in the end worked because of the nature of his mania and the calls to the house – but it was ultimately more annoying than unsettling.

But I can easily overlook this minor issue because of just how well made the film is. There is a genuine feeling of suspense here, partly because of the whodunit nature of the murders; and also because of the closeness of the killer throughout the events of the film. You never know who it is, what will set him off, or who will be killed next – but you do know he is there, waiting.

That said, it isn’t necessarily a scary film per se, but an unsettling and bleak one. The sort that gets under your skin and sticks with you. However, with that, it has to be said that through all the bleakness, there is also a great sense of humor to the story. There is also actually a maturity and depth to the script that I wasn’t expecting. This might be set in a sorority, but it isn’t about partying and dim witted topless girls, like so many slashers that came after it. The women here are smart and mature, dealing with important family and relationship issues. This added a lot to my investment in the characters, and so made the fear of their potential demise all the more suspenseful.

The direction is great – Christmas makes for a perfect setting, at least visually. There is solid pacing and an effective slow build throughout. I was surprised how well the mystery it creates in its first few scenes holds up so well even when things slow down a bit halfway through. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that even when it might not be focused on its creepier slasher elements, it instead is focused on those previously mentioned characters – again making the suspense as the killer stalks them all the more effective. There is no real resolution to the story, but the film is less focused on the actual killer and more focused on building an atmosphere and a story that is almost mythical.

Lastly, as someone who isn’t too knowledgeable in regards to the genre, it was easy to initially think that a lot of the tropes in play were cliche…but once I took into consideration the fact that ‘Black Christmas’ came out in 1974, and was really the start of most of these, they actually added a level of admiration to my already high level of enjoyment. It might not be as good as something like ‘Halloween’, which clearly drew some influence from this, but it deserves to be considered just as much of a classic. This is easily the best film I’ve watched so far for this horror series, and one that I’d add to my list of favorite horror films of all time.

*Side note, it is absolutely hilarious that director Bob Clark also directed ‘A Christmas Story’.

Review: A Blade In The Dark (dir. by Lamberto Bava)


If you’re lucky, you remember your first time.  I know I do.  I was 17 years old and I was trying very hard to convince myself that I was an adult.  It had been less than a year since I was first diagnosed as being bipolar and I was still struggling to understand what that truly meant about me.  My days were spent wondering if I was crazy or if I was just misunderstood.  In the end, I just desperately wanted to be loved.  As for the event itself, I remember being more than a little anxious and, once things really got going, pleasantly surprised.  However, the main thing I remember is thinking to myself, “Wow, that’s a lot of blood.”

Yes, everyone should remember the experience of seeing their first giallo as clearly as I do.

Over the years, I’ve read a lot of different definitions of what a giallo is and none of them have really managed to capture what makes this genre of film so strangely compelling.  The simplest and quickest definition is that a giallo is an Italian thriller.  Typically (though not always), the film features a protagonist who witnesses and then proceeds to investigate a series of increasingly gory murders.  Often times, solving the murders means uncovering some dark and sordid sin of the past and, just as often, the film’s “hero” turns out to be as damaged a soul as the killer.  However, the plot is rarely the important in a giallo film.  What’s important is how the director chooses to tell the story.  When I watch the classic giallo films of the 60s and 70s, I get a sense of a small group of directors who were all competing to say who could come up with the most startling camera angle, who could pull off the bloodiest death scene, and who could pull off the most audacious tracking shot.  Giallo is a uniquely Italian genre of film, an unapologetic opera of mayhem and murder.  For the most part, the films seems to have a polarizing effect on viewers.  You either get them or you don’t.  (From my own personal experience, I think it helps if you come from a Catholic background but, again, that’s just my opinion.)

My first giallo was Lamberto Bava’s 1983 shocker, A Blade in the Dark.

The protagonist of A Blade in the Dark is Bruno, a popular young composer who has been hired to score a horror movie.  The film’s director has arranged for Bruno to stay in an isolated villa while he works.  Every night, Bruno sits in front of his piano and searches for the perfect note.  Occasionally, his actress girlfriend calls him from the other side of Italy and demands to know if he’s cheating on her.  He’s not despite the fact that he has two attractive neighbors who tend to come by at the most inconvenient of times and who make cryptic comments about the woman who lived at the villa before him.  Bruno would probably be even more frustrated if he knew that, on most night, he’s being watched by someone outside hiding outside the villa.  One night, Bruno listens to the movie’s soundtrack and hears a menacing voice whispering on the recording.  Meanwhile, the mysterious watcher begins to brutally murder anyone who has any contact with Bruno.

(Despite all these distractions, Bruno continues to vainly try to create the perfect score.  Much like Kubrick’s Shining, A Blade in the Dark is as much about the horrors of the artistic process as it is about anything else.)

As it typical of most giallo films, the plot of A Blade in the Dark makes less and less sense the more that you think about it.  However, this is a part of the genre’s charm.  One doesn’t watch a giallo for the story.  One watches to see how the story is told and that is where A Blade in the Dark triumphs.  Wisely, director Lamberto Bava keeps things simple.  Working with a small cast and one main set, Bava fills every scene with a palpable sense of dread and uneasiness.  As Bruno finds himself growing more and more paranoid, so does the audience.  Watching the movie, you feel that anyone on the screen could die at any moment and, for the most part, that turns out to be the case.

A Blade in the Dark is probably best known for the brutality of its violence.  Even after repeat viewings, the murders are still, at times, difficult to watch. In the most infamous of them, one of Bruno’s neighbors is killed while washing her hair over a sink.  The violence here is so sudden and so much blood is spilled (and spurted) that its easy to miss just how well-directed and effectively shocking this scene really is.  In this current age of generic cinematic mayhem, the violence of A Blade In The Dark still packs a powerful punch.

(The scene is so effective that, for quite some time after seeing it, I actually got uneasy whenever I found myself standing in front of a sink.  A Blade in the Dark does for the bathroom sink what Psycho did for showers.)

Bruno is played by Andrea Occhipinti, an actor whose non-threatening, Jonas Brotheresque handsome earnestness was used to great effect by Lucio Fulci in the earlier New York Ripper.  Since I’ve only seen the dubbed version, it’s difficult to judge his performance here.  He’s never quite believable as a great composer though you could easily imagine him writing whatever syrupy ballad that James Cameron chooses to play at the end of his next blockbuster.  However, Occhipinti does have a likable enough presence that you don’t want to see him killed and that’s all that the film really requires anyway.

A far more interesting presence in the cast is that of Michele Soavi.  Soavi plays Bruno’s landlord and, even with limited screen time and even with his dialogue dubbed into English, Soavi is such a charismatic presence that he dominates every scene that he’s in.  Before being cast, Soavi was already serving as Bava’s assistant director on Blade in the Dark and, of course, he later went on to have a significant directorial career of his own.  Soavi is perhaps best known for directing one of the greatest films of the 1990s, Dellamorte Dellamore.

While Soavi would go on to great acclaim, the same cannot be said of this movie’s director.  Among fans of Italian horror, it’s become somewhat fashionable to be dismissive of Lamberto Bava.  It’s often pointed out that the majority of his filmography is actually made up of cheap knock-offs that he made for Italian television (and, admittedly, A Blade in the Dark started life as a proposed miniseries).  Most of the credit for Bava’s most succesful film — Demons — is usually given to producer Dario Argento.  Perhaps the most common complaint made about Lamberto Bava is that he isn’t his father, Mario Bava.  With films like Blood and Black Lace, Lisa and the Devil, Black Sabbath, and Bay of Blood, Mario Bava developed a deserved reputation for being the father of Italian horror and Lamberto is often accused of simply trading in on his father’s reputation.

It’s true that Lamberto Bava is no Mario Bava but then again, who is?  Blade in the Dark was Lamberto’s second film (as a director) and its a tightly constructed, quickly paced thriller.  Bava makes good use of the vila and creates a truly claustrophobic atmosphere that keeps the viewer on edge throughout the entire film.  Even when viewed nearly three decades after they were filmed, the film’s murders are still shocking in both their violence and their intensity.  There’s a passion and attention-to-detail in Bava’s direction here that, sadly, is definitely lacking in his later films.  If most of Bava’s film seem to be the work of a disinterested craftsman, A Blade in the Dark is the  work of an artist.