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by • November 12, 2012 • ColumnsComments (1)202

Mr. Knight’s Double Bills of Blood (Part Fifteen)

*Personal Note: I wanted to have this series done by the end of October but life, as it often does, got in the way. However, I am determined to publish all fifteen parts, so please accept my most heart-felt apologies that this did not hit before 10/31. 

I love October. The weather, the leaves changing color, the candy, the Halloween decorations…

…and the movies. Goddamn, you get to be a horror fan without anyone looking at you like you’re some bugged out dude sitting by the playground. For one month, fright fans are granted carte blanche because it’s “in the spirit of the season” (unless you’re watching the GUINEA PIG films, in which case you’re still just a “weirdo”).

In short, October is badass.

When I kept a personal blog, I used to watch a horror movie each day in October and then write about them at length, just like everyone else who isn’t the Osiris of this Horror Shit, Brian Collins of HMAD. Before that, I’d usually just jot down a list of the films I watched and on what day (fuck your judgement, I like lists). Now I bring this tradition to Very Aware, only I’ve put a bit of a spin on it.

Thirty double features in October — that’s what I’m going to bring you. The dual bills of horror, cult, sci-fi or exploitation that I’m using to ring in my favorite month. Most of these pieces will be quick (a meaty paragraph or so) while others will be full-blown reviews. It all depends on how much I love (or hate) the films.

All of this leads up to my favorite day of the year: the Exhumed Films 24-Hour Horrorthon (October 27th and 28th); an entire day where, from noon on Saturday to noon on Sunday, 35 or 16mm prints of great (or horrifyingly awful…depending on the group’s mood) genre films from the 60s, 70s and 80s are projected nonstop with trailers, shorts and other oddities in between. It’s all courtesy of the fine folks in Exhumed Films (Dan Fraga, Jesse Nelson, Harry Guerro and Joseph Gervasi), who have been putting on unbelievable double features for the past fifteen years, and the 24-Hour Thon for five.

The fifteenth and final installment of the series finds Jacob exploring a House of Psychotic Women and delving into two lost gems from the Outback…

Feature #29 – 10/29/12 – Enter the House of Psychotic Women! (THE ENTITY [1983] & THE MAFU CAGE [1978])

This past Fantastic Fest, there was a wonderful sidebar of programming hosted by Kier-La Janisse, author of an excellent book of the same name, the “House of Psychotic Women” series shone a spotlight on three films featuring strong female protagonists who, in Janisse’s own words, share a propensity for “a lot of shouting.Out of those three films, two called out to me as absolute must sees based on their synopses alone.

Misogynistic ghosts are, quite possibly, the worst kind, though it’s hard to argue that misogynistic psychologists aren’t a more frightening threat to the women of the world. THE ENTITY centers on Carla Moran (played almost too convincingly by Barbara Hershey) who, one night while preparing herself for bed, is attacked by an unseen force and sexually assaulted. Terrified of what’s happening to her and shunned by friends and family who think she’s absolutely lost it, Carla seeks help from a group of psychologists who proceed to insinuate that the terrorized woman is inflicting the wounds upon herself as a sort of punishment for abuse she suffered at the hands of her father years earlier.  It isn’t until Carla comes across a group of parapsychologists that she is taken seriously, and the researchers soon discover that the evil spiritual force has been drawn to Carla (though no discernable reason for the ghost’s choice is given), and believe that the poltergeist is responsible for the violent attacks. What results from this hypothesis is a relatively silly, GHOSTBUSTERS style conclusion to what is an otherwise harrowing story of paranormal abuse.

THE ENTITY is ostensibly based on the real life of Doris Bither, who claims that the attacks continued long after the the time period that is portrayed in the movie (though, in interviews just before her death in 1995, she says that the brutality ceased and simple visions of the ghost continued in their place). The film opened to across the board critical pans due to the perceived exploitive and misogynistic way that THE ENTITY portrayed Bither’s ordeal. Viewing the movie thirty years later, it is hard to understand why the “misogynistic” label was applied, though director Sidney J. Furie can’t be accused of making anything but a straight ahead horror picture.  In many ways, THE ENTITY could be viewed as an indictment of the male perception of female mania, as the majority of the doctors who try and diagnose Moran are men and seem hell bent on calling the poor woman “crazy”. It’s just that, once Furie changes gears and moves the film into a full-on “horror” mode, his perceived criticisms are diluted by the goofiness of trying to capture a specter in liquid nitrogen.

What makes THE ENTITY fascinating is that, if you replace Moran’s spectral rapist with a real-life, flesh and blood attacker, the reactions to her predicament might not change in the slightest. After Carla’s initial assault, her friend hides her skepticism while her husband shows his disdain for the woman in the background. Her lover, Jerry, cannot touch her when the incidents are revealed to him and even Carla’s own teenage son looks upon his mother with a borderline shameful gaze. This is actually one of the most compelling aspects of THE ENTITY as, even without all of the supernatural mumbo jumbo, it presents a fascinating portrait of how our society treats rape survivors. And once Carla seeks out “professional help”, she is treated to even more hostility as the white coated men who interrogate her about the titular spirit do so with Freudian theories that seem outdated and even downright combative. Take a second and imagine yourself being violated in the worst way possible and, when you seek help from those who are paid to do so, you are ridiculed, accused of being a fraud, and even blamed for the wounds that are inflicted. Most wouldn’t have the strength to carry on.

While we’re on the subject of “strength”, we should definitely talk about Barbara Hershey for a moment, whose incredibly brave performance as Carla Moran is the reason why any of this ugly camp works at all. Portraying a rape victim takes Hershey into dark, dangerous, difficult places, and she rises to the occasion with aplomb. Beyond having to appear in nearly every single scene of THE ENTITY, Hershey is asked to be violated and distressed in the worst way any woman could imagine. The fact the producers found anybody at all to play this incredibly complex part is kind of hard to fathom, and the way Hershey creates a three dimensional human being out of Moran is nothing short of a miracle. Even when the film takes its insanely silly left turn in the third act, Hershey’s professionalism makes you forget that you’re essentially watching a “Ghost Hunters” prequel or POLTERGEIST riff. It’s a female horror protagonist to end all female horror protagonists, and nothing short of canonization is in order to recognize Heshey’s achievements.

Ron Silver also lends an air of respectability to the proceedings as Paul Sneiderman, the only doctor to truly champion Moran’s case and question his peers’ voracious doubts. Silver’s “shades of grey” approach to Sneiderman is refreshing, as he is neither completely sold on Carla’s story, nor is he as skeptical as his colleagues. Instead, Sneiderman is presented as a man of great empathy, as he attempts to feel for Carla and understand just why this woman is doing what she is doing. It’s a performance of great subtlety and nuance and shows, when given the right material, how good of a performer Silver (may he rest in peace) was. There is no agenda to Sneiderman; rather, he is a man of science attempting himself to try and understand the unexplainable.

Visually, THE ENTITY has the feel of early career De Palma (and shares a cinematographer in Stephen H. Burum, who would go on to shoot BODY DOUBLE for the master in 1984). Utilizing the same deep and split focus shots that the auteur was so known for, THE ENTITY is given a unique aesthetic that is grades above its exploitation brethren. Also of note is the film’s usage of mirrors and glass, as Moran’s image is reflected or refracted multiple times, visually representing her unease, paranoia, dread and fractured state of being. And when you score these repeatedly unnerving visuals with Charles Bernstein’s thudding, industrial tinged score, the film reaches crecendos of almost unbearable discomfort.

While distinctly a product of the early ‘80s, THE ENTITY is, to this day, wholly unnerving. During her intro at Fantastic Fest Janissa described the film as a “difficult sit”, an apt description even in 2012. I can’t imagine being a woman and watching this film, as it must represent a strange fear that resides in all females: what if you were violated, over and over, and nobody believed you? It’s a hell of Promethian levels that Furie explores, and is still one of the most effective horror movies I’ve ever seen, preposterous ending or no.

THE MAFU CAGE explores a different kind of Hell: one which is created by another’s kin. But where THE ENTITY is genuinely terrifying, THE MAFU CAGE is just, well, sort of odd. The tale of two sisters who never quite escaped from the shadow of their famous, zoologist father, the film features an utterly bonkers central performance from Carol Kane (who most know from the Andy Kaufman starring sitcom, TAXI) and no signs of filmic restraint.

Based on a play by Eric Westphal, Don Chastain’s screenplay contains the majority of the action within the grounds of a large, aging home, where older sister Ellen (Lee Grant) keeps a watchful eye on her younger sister, Cissy (the aforementioned Kane). After growing up in Zaire, the two were forced to move back to the States following the death of their father. Ellen moved on to a successful career as an astronomer, while Cissy stays at home, putzing about the mansion, painting murals and caring for her “mafu,” the latest in a long line of monkeys obtained for her by kindly family friend and zookeeper, Zom (Will Geer).

From the moment we meet Cissy, we know that the elevator doesn’t exactly go to the top floor. To tell the truth, I actually feel bad using that phrase when describing her because, for the majority of the film’s running time, I was wondering if the woman was truly mentally handicapped. While Carol is completely well-adjusted, her sister is a series of tics and spastic outbursts, and her sibling caretaker approaches every move with her sister as if it were some game of familial chess, in which the object is to simply not set Cissy off into another fit of rage. Unfortunately, Carol’s absence one day leads to Cissy beating her “mafu” to death, and the two women bury it in the backyard amongst a row of other graves with headstones marked plainly: “mafu”. Cissy then demands to be brought another monkey, a request that Carol first denies until Cissy threatens suicide. So it’s up to Zom to provide the girls with another pet for the damaged girl to destroy. It’s a cycle of death that Cissy, in her fragile mental state, doesn’t seem to comprehend and Carol isn’t driven enough to stop. She loves her sister dearly and can’t help but give into her insane demands time and again, hoping that maybe the next “mafu” will be the one that Cissy finally cherishes as much as she does the shrine to their deceased father.

THE MAFU CAGE is a simmering portrait of sisterly discontent and, if you were to strip away all of its weirdness, would come off as a rather straightforward domestic drama chronicling a troubled caretaker for the mentally disabled. But director Karen Arthur (who would go on to work mainly in television) plunges the movie headfirst into the bizarre, making it hard for the viewer to fully connect with the sisters’ plight. We know, after too long, that Cissy’s outbursts will eventually work their way toward hurting another human being, it’s just a matter of dramaticalluy getting there. And if it weren’t for Kane’s manic, unhinged performance, the movie might be a bit of a slog. Fortunately for us, every time THE MAFU CAGE threatens to get dull, Cissy flies off the handle once again and destroys something she or her sister loves very dearly.

There is a subtext of lesbianic connection that’s thrown in and feels slightly forced and exploitive. Cissy will creep into her sister’s room at night and lay beside her, stroking her sibling until she awakens. While the acts transforms the subtext into text, you can’t help but feel it a little unnecessary. But again, THE MAFU CAGE is rooted very much in psychotronic filmmaking and makes it readily apparent that the film wants to shock and enrage you just as much as it wants to engage you emotionally. And while I’ve heaped superlatives onto Kane, I can’t help but also take a moment to recognize Arthur, who very much is the audience’s emotional anchor during the batshit proceedings. If it weren’t for her very real, heartfelt portrayal of Carol’s love for Cissy, the movie would fall falt on its face. Instead, there’s a connection and chemistry between the two actresses that’s palpable and provides THE MAFU CAGE with a blood filled, beating heart.

While both of these films are very much staples of the “psychotic woman” subgenre, I can’t help but feel that THE ENTITY is the easier of the two to recommend, despite its ugliness and difficult subject matter. Where THE MAFU CAGE will try the patience of some viewers, THE ENTITY is scary and contains enough tried and tested tropes that makes it simply the more “accessible” of the two.  I can’t wait to dive into my copy of Janisse’s book, as I’m sure there are subtexts I missed upon my first (or in the case of THE ENTITY, sixth or seventh) viewing, and I would encourage any readers of this column to do the same. Both are idiosyncratic bits of cinema that are captivating for very different reasons.

Feature #30 – 10/30/12 – A Pair of Forgotten Ozploitation Gems! (NEXT OF KIN [1982] & THE DAY AFTER HALLOWEEN [1979])

It’s rare that you get to see a movie that so completely blows your mind that you cannot wait to tell everyone about it. NEXT OF KIN is just one of those films; a stylish “SHINING in the Outback” riff that has been inexplicably lost for years on home video both in the US and its native Australia (well, New Zealand if we’re being honest). To say that NEXT OF KIN is “good for Ozploitation” does the movie a complete disservice – the film is good for ANY genre – and the final fifteen minutes are among some of the best filmmaking I’ve ever seen. In fact, when the movie finished, all I could think was, “if I ever get to make a movie, I will rip NEXT OF KIN off mericilessly”. And, to me, that is the highest compliment you can pay any piece of art, as it speaks to your very core so deeply that you can’t help but to want to draw influence from it for the rest of your life.

NEXT OF KIN’s narrative hook is simplistic enough: Linda, a young woman who has just lost her mother, travels to the country hospice that the woman helped run. After discovering a strange diary that outlines some sinister goings-on (including the suspicious deaths of several elderly patients), the events she begins reading about in her mother’s text begin to re-occur, driving Linda to wonder if she is going mad. Along the way, she sparks a romance with an old friend (Aussie hunk, John Jarrett, who most modern audiences know as “that crazy, old fucker from WOLF CREEK”) and finds that the dark, old mansion her mother and aunt once called home is a shelter to some seriously wacked out stuff.

What makes NEXT OF KIN so hypnotic is writer/director Tony Williams (who would sadly go on to direct NOTHING ELSE after this film), and his usage of Kubrickian tracking shots. Most of the film is contained to the elderly rest home, and Williams’ low angle tracking make it seem sprawling and labyrinthine (not unlike the Overlook Hotel). But where Kubrick’s horror masterpiece was brightly lit and multi-chromatic, the rest home is cloaked in dark browns and burgundy carpeting. The lights are low and the corners are dusty, not unlike how most remember their childhood grandparents’ home being. You can almost smell the mothballs and mohagny that make up the estate’s furniture, and it’s this sense of age and preservation that make the home just as much a character as any of the flesh and blood humans that are slowly dying inside of it.

NEXT OF KIN is definitely a “slow burn” horror film, so those looking for a cheap scare fix are going to be sorely disappointed. Linda’s horrific odyssey isn’t made up of jump scares or gory attacks; rather, a sense of dread overtakes nearly every scene, and her dreams at night become more and more lucid. A long, spellbinding sequence finds one of the elderly patients floating outside of her window at night while Linda sleeps, tapping on the glass not unlike one of the pre-teen vampires from Stephen King’s SALEM’S LOT. Another traces the discovery of an old man’s drowning in a bathtub, his bloated body floating just beneath the surface before rising as if it were alive. These are the images that Williams’ film is interested in: the creeping flesh and the way outside influences can make our dreams seem that much more real while we experience them. And while we never question Linda’s sanity due to an overarching mystery revolving around her long-deceased aunt (any audience member well versed in “old dark house” films can see where Williams’ story is headed), there’s enough cracks in her psyche hinted at to keep us on edge and wonder just how reliable our protagonist’s mind really is.

Then the final fifteen minutes happen. Good Lord, how do I even describe the torrent of emotions these seemingly endless moments brought on? One long, slow motion tracking shot is amongst the greatest I’ve ever seen (though was wholly spoiled via Mark Hartley’s NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD doc) and, in the final moments, he does a 360 pan that will take your breath away. This isn’t the work of some minor, exploitation amateur who happened to luck out and grab funding. No, Williams proves himself to be a bonafide artist and master of suspense with just these two shots. And when you tack on the other, perfectly constructed and paced seventy minutes before the finale, you have a film that I dare to say is damn near perfect.

When NEXT OF KIN ended, I looked to my wife and said, “I want to start my own distribution company just so I can bring that film to America”. And I mean it. This movie needs to be seen not only by horror fans, but by film fans at large. NEXT OF KIN is the kind of forgotten masterpiece that you only stumble across two or three times during your life, and the fact that it took me twenty-nine years to find it makes me sad. I can’t wait to watch this movie again and again and study it’s perfectly placed moments of suspense. And I haven’t even gotten into the evocative synth score by Klaus Schulze (who would go on to write music for Michael Mann’s MANHUNTER) or Alex Scott (who most will know from Truffaut’s FARENHEIT 451 adaptation), perfectly playing Dr. Barton, the residence’s secretive head physician. There is just too much to love about this movie and one essay won’t do it justice.

See NEXT OF KIN. Don’t look for trailers or other reviews, just seek the film out (if you can find it at all) and experience this beautiful, haunting work of horror for yourself. It’s one of the greats, and deserves far better than obscurity.

THE DAY AFTER HALLOWEEN isn’t really called THE DAY AFTER HALLOWEEN. The real title of the film is SNAPSHOT. The reason the film was retitled THE DAY AFTER HALLOWEEN following its inital release was simply to capitalize on the John Carpenter classic that was, at the time, killing at the box office. But I have another theory as to why SNAPSHOT had its name changed: it isn’t really a horror film.

Not that this automatically makes SNAPSHOT a bad film. In fact, SNAPSHOT is quite good. It just offers very little in the scare department and, to tell the truth, isn’t even trying to be a scare picture. Instead, SNAPSHOT is a rather straight ahead drama about Angela (Sigrid Thornton) a young hairdresser who is plucked out of her shitty parlor and thrown into the sleazy world of commercial modeling. Her friend, a low level ad girl named Madeline (Chantal Contouri), edges the girl on to become bigger and bigger, teasing her with the idea of easy money, disco dancing, and escaping her controlling mother (not to mention an ex-boyfriend who stalks her in his ice cream truck). Like NEXT OF KIN, it’s a relatively basic setup that breezes along for the first half hour, and the exploitation of Angela comes bit by bit. First its her shoot at the beach, where her seemingly coked out photographer asks her to take her top off as she frolics in the waves. Angela goes along with it and ends up earning herself a bit of a name with the resulting magazine ad. As a result, more deals come in — along with more men asking for her to disrobe in front of them.

On the surface, SNAPSHOT is a rather straightforward cautionary tale and a bit of “be careful what you wish for” moralizing, and while the stalking seems perfunctorily thrown in to give the film a bit of a thriller edge, it all sort of works in a “movie of the week” sort of way. It’s no masterpiece like NEXT OF KIN, but the chemistry between the two models is solid and their blooming friendship feels real. Truthfully, when combined with the huckster title change to rake in cash, SNAPSHOT actually feels like a lesson in exploitation marketing. Horror fans are baited with promises of slasher mayhem and then, once their seated in the theater, are treated instead to a dark drama revolving around the abuse of a naive girl. It isn’t until the final ten to fifteen minutes of SNAPSHOT that the action kicks into gear, but by that point it seems kind of late and slightly out of place. It’s as if the producers realized they had to give the audience they were selling to SOMETHING or there were going to be the ashes of burnt down movie house scattered all over the Outback.

While it doesn’t come close to reaching the heights of NEXT OF KIN, SNAPSHOT is a solid drama sure to please fans of ’70s B Cinema. Just don’t expect an Aussie Michael Myers when you sit down with the movie, for you’ll be cursing the film’s creators for the entirety of its running time.

*And that’s it, y’all. Thanks for tuning in. I know that it was long and winding and most of the movies were obscure, but if you stuck it out ’til the end, I truly thank you. This was a labor of love that became quite difficult toward the end, but I hope that you (whoever YOU are) enjoyed reading it as much I enjoyed writing it. — JQK

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