I started this month planning to watch a bunch of movies from the late, great, Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune. I did watch a couple of his films and started a couple of more but then I had to review a film noir collection and that put me on a noir roll. At the beginning of the month, I was still fighting slow internet speeds with more people being home due to Covid-19. The Criterion Channel seems to have more trouble than most streaming services with slow internet and since they were the only service hosting films with Mifune in them, he continued to take a back seat.
Over the last couple of weeks, my internet has been fine as pretty much everybody around here is treating life as if the virus is completely gone (though of course it very much isn’t). But I remain in the habit of watching most of my movies upstairs, in my bedroom, where the Blu-ray player is (one of the many reasons why I still collect physical media is that when the internet is slow I can still watch what I want). But now instead of just watching my physical media I’ve been able to connect back to the internet to stream things. But instead of returning to Mifune, I wound up on a horror movie kick, which we’ll now talk about.
I’ve often seen this film listed in conversations about the subgenre known as “folk horror”. Others in that list include the original Wicker Man, Children of the Corn, and the more recently released Midsommar. But those films were all set in the present wherein some small group of people live as pagans with their ancient rituals. Witchfinder General is more of a historical drama focusing on real events (loosely), following a historical figure in 17th Century England who went about hunting and executing witches. I’m no expert on the subgenre so I won’t dare say it has been wrongfully labeled, but it did take me a moment to refocus my thoughts having come to this expecting something more like The Wicker Man.
Vincent Price plays Matthew Hopkins who traipsed about 1640s England putting accused witches on trial then summarily executing them (all for a hefty fee of course). He does so to a village priest and faces the wrath of a young soldier engaged to be married to the priest’s niece. What follows is, well honestly, it isn’t great. The story is exactly what you expect with this sort of thing and the production values are fairly cheap. But Price is excellent, giving Hopkins an interesting mixture of sadistic pleasure and calculating evil. The violence is heavy for a film of this sort made in the 1960s and it moves along nicely enough to keep things interesting.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet
Witchfinder General put me in the mood for more horror and I landed upon The Mother of Tears, Dario Argento’s 2007 film that serves as the final chapter in his “Three Mother’s Trilogy”. The other two films, Suspiria and Inferno, made in 1977 and 1980 respectively, were moody, beautifully designed, crafted films that rely more on mood than extreme violence for their scares. Not that they shy away from such things as Suspiria includes a scene in which a chest is opened up and a knife plunged directly into the heart, but Argento concerns himself more with lighting, camera angles, and sound design than he does with blood splatter. The Mother of Tears forgets all of that and gives us bucketloads of blood and dismembered body parts.
That left a bad taste in my mouth so I returned to the more idyllic times in Argento’s career with Four Flies on Grey Velvet, his third film, from 1971. One viewing in and it has become one of my favorite Argento films which put it in the top tier of my favorite horror films of all time.
A drummer, Roberto, notices a man following him around for several days. When he finally confronts him, the man dashes into a theater, produces a knife, and attempts to kill Roberto. Defending himself, Roberto accidentally stabs the man and pushes him off the stage. During all of this, a spotlight is turned on and someone wearing a mask begins snapping photos of the killing in progress. Later, those photos begin showing up in envelopes under Roberto’s door and inserted into a pile of records. But there are no notes, no demands for money or any other things. Meanwhile, Roberto’s friends start getting killed one by one.
Like so many of Dario Argento’s films, the plot of Four Flies on Grey Velvet doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Like his best films, you don’t really mind this fact. He directs the crap out of it. His use of lighting, set design, color palette, and music is like no other. It is a mesmerizing concoction of sex, violence, and style.
Continuing my horror roll, I switched from Argento to Lamberto Bava, Italian horror pioneer Mario Bava’s son. Like early Argento, Mario was a pioneer of style in Italian cinema. Like late-period Argento, Lamberto reveled in as much gore as possible.
I love that this movie just goes for it. That it tosses out all semblance of a cohesive story, or real characters, or anything really, and just says, let’s put a bunch of randos in a movie theater and kill them all off with zombies, er demons.
In the most grotesque, juicy way possible.
A dude that looks like a futuristic Phantom of the Opera reject hands out free tickets to the new movie theater that just opened in town. Though it is a rather large building in the middle of the city, apparently no one noticed them building or remodeling it. Though it is opening night and the masked dude is passing out free tickets only a few folks show up. Notice how small that screen is. It is this huge auditorium with a balcony and the screen is smaller than most modern television sets.
Anyway, the audience includes a goofy subsection of whatever town this is supposed to be. The movie is some b-flick about busting open Nostradamus’s tomb. Just as the characters in the movie within the movie start turning into demons or whatever, so do the regular movie characters.
The demons ooze from every orifice and kill in as gore-filled way as they can. I just love that Bava goes for the gross factor big time. I love that our heroes are two douche-y dudes. I love that the punks are snorting cocaine out of a Coca-Cola can through the straw. I love that a helicopter comes out of nowhere.
I mean this movie terrible in every normal way to think about movies, but good golly, is it fun in its over-the-top low budget horror way.
Stick with me for a moment. The original Demons (let’s call it Demons 1) had a film within a film (which we’ll call Demons A). The sequel Demons 2 (which we’ll call Demons 2 because that follows my naming system logically, and it is the actual title of the movie) also had a movie within a movie (which we’ll now call Demons B). Are you with me so far? Good.
Demons B takes place within the same universe as Demons 1. What we see of the film takes place sometime after the events of Demons 1 and follows a group of people walking around in the ruins of the Demons 1 movie theater. It is unclear whether or not Demons 2 takes place in this same universe. So either it does and the Demons B movie is a fictionalized version of the events that happened in the Demons universe, or Demons 1 was actually a movie inside the Demons 2 universe and Demons B is the sequel. Would that make Demons B a movie within a movie within a movie? Is that then a cinematic first? None of that really matters and Demons 2 doesn’t give it a second thought, but these things run through my head while watching bad movies.
Demons 2 feels more like a reboot or a reimagining of Demons 1 than a direct sequel. The plot points are very, very similar. Demons 2 takes place inside a large apartment complex rather than a movie theater, and there is no masked man setting it up, but the rest of the plot feels exactly the same. Most of the apartment dwellers are watching Demons B on their televisions. A woman is having a birthday party but is mad at her boyfriend for not showing up so she sneaks off to her room to watch the movie. Eventually, the demons inside that movie notice her and comes out of the TV like the evil spirits in The Ring movies. Or considering the other David Cronenberg influences on this movie maybe I should say it comes out like something out of Videodrome. The demons turn the girl into a demon then she runs into the party, converting all of her friends. They, in turn, convert others, and soon enough, it’s a mob of demons versus the other humans trapped inside the complex.
Similar to Demons, there are characters who crawl through a ventilation duct only to be attacked, others try to escape by smashing through a wall. There are some punks driving around the outside getting up to no good (though here they listen to New Wave bands rather than Hard Rock). But whereas the punks actually broke into the theater in Demons 1, here they serve no purpose at all. Some of the same actors star in both films though they play different characters.
Etc. and so forth. Demons 2 does tone down the gore quite a bit, and it uses some pretty excellent puppets for some of the demons, but mostly, it is the same film done over. Which is to say if you liked Demons, then you’ll want to watch this sequel. All others should not apply.
Demons 2 made enough money that Bava (and Argento who produced both Demons films) planned to make a third film. But things fell through and instead Michele Soavi (who played the masked man in Demons) took up the reigns. He rewrote the script quite a bit and thoroughly toned down the gore.
The first two Demons films threw out the plot almost entirely so that they could have endless amounts of demon-created violence. The Church spends a great deal of time trying to create an interesting story with well-developed characters. There’s even a back story as to how the demons came into existence. Almost all of it fails spectacularly.
A prologue shows us how a group of Teutonic Knights declares an entire Medival village to be under the influence of Satan and systematically slaughtered every last person living there. They bury them all in a mass grave and decide to build a church right on top of it. Fast forward a few hundred years and naturally, some dummy accidentally releases those satanic forces, unleashing hell upon all who happen to be in the church.
The film spends an awful lot of time bringing in various characters and trying to tell an actual story before the slaughter begins. There is a librarian who has just been hired to catalog the church’s various books. He gets romantic with a woman who is there to restore some old paintings. The Bishop is a crotchety old man who does nothing but grumble. Then there is the sacristan, his wife, and young daughter (played by Dario Argento’s daughter, Asia). She’s fond of sneaking out at night through a crack in the church’s basement wall – a plot point that will come in handy later and proves to be that character’s only reason for existence. A group of school children is there on a field trip the day the demons get loose, as is a couple of models who come inside for a photoshoot.
Any of these characters could create interesting story ideas, but none of them are developed much at all. Children being attacked by demons could make for excellent horror movie fodder for example, but we hardly see them on screen and the demons to little to them. The film takes so long to get to the actual demons that there doesn’t seem to be enough time (or perhaps budget) to allow them to wreak real havoc. There are enough interesting moments, mostly kills and creepy satanic rituals, to keep this horror enthusiast watching, but unless you are invested in this trilogy, I can’t recommend it.
I have vague memories of watching the old Perry Mason television series at my grandparent’s house when I was a kid. It was a show I’d normally not watch but on long summer afternoons at their house when it was too hot to play outside and cartoons weren’t showing, it would do. I don’t remember much about it other than Raymond Burr standing in a courtroom proving his client was innocent and some other person was guilty. But while those memories are vague, they transport me to a happy time and place. So much so that I’m excited to see that HBO is making a new series out of those old stories. Taking place in 1931 Los Angeles, it follows Perry Mason, a defense attorney who acts more like a detective trying to solve a big case. It has a great cast including Matthew Rhys as Mason, plus Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow, Lili Taylor, Robert Patrick and Stephen Root. Consider me guilty of being very interested in this show.