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Apocalyptic mood piece book-ended by a middling conclusion, 20 June 2017

"It Comes at Night" focuses on a family hiding out in a remote cabin home in the aftermath of an apparent viral outbreak that has been eradicating civilization. One night, a man attempts to break into their home. They decide to let him, his wife, and young son stay, but to their own peril.

In the vein of many post-apocalyptic horror films, "It Comes at Night" takes a simple and familiar premise and executes it with a considerable amount of grace. The plot is almost skeletal, but writer-director Trey Shults does a solid job at creating a pervasive sense of isolation and abandon that is quietly haunting—at times the film almost felt to me like an ode to Ingmar Bergman's "The Virgin Spring" set in a post-millennial end-of-times.

For a horror film rooted in a post-apocalyptic landscape, the film is remarkably quiet and the action is few and far between, but even in its focus on the minutia of pastoral life and the dynamics between two groups of strangers, the film is never dull. This is partly due to solid pacing, and largely due to standout performances from the entire cast. All are believable and the scenarios and the way they are played out ring true. I will admit that I found the conclusion to be a letdown, not necessarily on the grounds of ambiguity, but more in that the otherwise stellar pacing was throttled by an ending that felt uninspired, no matter how truthfully it may ring. That said, it's a forgivable shortcoming in my eyes as the majority of the film was legitimately engrossing.

Overall, "It Comes at Night" is a solid horror film that is maybe more of a dreadful meditation on survival and human behavior in extenuating circumstances than anything else that neatly fits within genre parameters. Truly commendable performances from Edgerton, Abbott, Ejogo, Harrison Jr., and Keough are reason enough to give the film a go in my eyes. If you like your viral apocalypse with a heavy dose of mood, this is a worthwhile watch in spite of its pyrrhic conclusion. 7/10.

Delusion (1981)
Middling pseudo-psychological slasher, 23 April 2017

"Delusion" (also released as "The House Where Death Lives") follows a young nurse who goes to work at the Langrock estate to care for a dying millionaire. After the arrival of the elderly man's troubled nephew, anyone connected to the home begins to die at the hands of an unseen killer.

This pseudo-psychological slasher film has mostly been forgotten, and registers as one of the more obscure of its peers, though not entirely for good reason. It's not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it is reasonably well-shot and captures a claustrophobic, isolated atmosphere. The film falls in familiar trappings and does little to distinguish itself, but it does drum up a bit of intrigue with a couple of its murder scenes (each of which are clobbering administered by a loose table leg, oddly enough) which are well-executed.

The acting is a mix of poor to decent, with Joseph Cotten playing the ailing patriarch, and Patricia Pearcy (of 1976's "Squirm"), who here seems to be overplaying catatonia a bit much, though she does a generally serviceable job. I actually found the letter voice-over narration an interesting way to frame the film, and certainly not one used often, especially in slasher films. The finale comes together a bit quickly and feels slapdash in nature, though it's mildly satisfying.

Overall, "Delusion" is a middling slasher film, part psychological thriller and part murder mystery. It's certainly not original, but it is relatively well-shot and has a few moments scattered throughout that drum up a bit of suspense. Its limited locations exhibit what I presume was a low budget, but there is a hazy air about the film that leaves it feeling a bit like a fever dream. Not great, not terrible—certainly unremarkable, but worth a watch from slasher completists. 6/10.

Atmospheric and psychologically nuanced, 16 April 2017

"The Night Train Murders," also known as "Last Stop on the Night Train," follows two teenage girls riding an overnight train on Christmas Eve from Munich to be home with their families for the holiday. Unfortunately, two thugs are also onboard, who happen to find an unlikely accomplice when they decide to brutalize the two girls in an empty car. Things, however, get increasingly complicated when they find themselves in the company of one of the girls' parents after de-boarding.

The Italian equivalent to Wes Craven's "The Last House on the Left" (or Bergman's "The Virgin Spring"), "The Night Train Murders" follows a familiar plot, so it needs to excel in other areas in order to set itself aside from its source material; and it more or less manages to do this, with some caveats. Where "Last House" took place in bucolic New England, "Night Train" sets itself within the confines of a train (a tradition dating back to Hitchcock's "Lady on the Train" running through rural Germany, and the film is extremely atmospheric for this. The Christmas Eve setting, though ultimately inconsequential to the narrative, does give the film another sinister layer.

The film is really well shot and there are some fantastic overhead views and other shots of the narrow train corridors that make for claustrophobic chase sequences. There is some contrived social commentary pepper in from the doctor father in the film, who waxes poetic about contemporary violence, but what's more interesting is the involvement of an austere woman on the train who finds herself a voyeur, but ultimately, a participant, in the brutalization of the girls. The psychology behind this is truly fascinating, and Macha Méril plays the part perfectly. The violence inflicted on the girls is difficult to watch, and the anonymous woman's participation in it is riveting to watch. The conclusion, per the source material, is expected, but is also handled with stylish flair.

Overall, "The Night Train Murders" is a grim and stylish retread of a familiar story, but the material is handled well and the film boasts several disturbing scenes and a general atmosphere of foreboding and dread. Some people have tended to classify the film as an example of genre sleaze, though I didn't necessarily get that vibe from it. The violence here is more implicit than it is gratuitous, and the thematic overtones keep the film from edging into outright exploitation; it's more of a character study in the terrible things people are capable of in the most arbitrary of circumstances. 8/10.

Haunting portrayal of emotional and physical captivity, 10 April 2017

"Something Wild" follows Mary Ann (Carroll Baker), a young woman attending college who is raped in a park near her home in the Bronx. The assault traumatizes her and she becomes rapidly withdrawn, telling no one of what has happened. She becomes increasingly agoraphobic, drops out of school, and leaves her parents without notice, renting a room in the lower Manhattan and going into virtual isolation. One day, in a panic, she attempts to jump off the Manhattan bridge, but is stopped by a burly mechanic (Ralph Meeker) who takes her in—but doesn't let her go.

More or less left out of the history books aside from a small number of devotees, "Something Wild" is one of the weirder films Carroll Baker made (aside from her Italian giallo career, which is an entirely other story). Contemporarily, the film has been noted for its close connection to the Actors Studio (Baker was a student, and then-husband/director Garfein, a teacher) as well as for being one of the pioneers of independent American cinema. Tonally, "Something Wild" is a strange film in that it straddles the lines between psychological drama and psychological thriller; a catalog of sexual abuse trauma and a bizarre affirmation of "Leave it to Beaver" ethos.

What the film is consistent in is its sense of claustrophobia and depictions of New York City. As someone who lived in New York for several years, I can say the film captures the isolating elements of the city that are more oft than not underrepresented in films. The fact that the post-war New York depicted here is a far cry from the post-millennial New York I lived in makes a difference of course, but for being a film that takes place in a sea of people, the film is remarkably quiet and introverted—the narrative revolves entirely around Mary Ann's withdrawal into herself, which is mirrored in the disconnect she has from those around her. The film has little dialogue, and the bulk of the scenes take place in small, depressing rooms, and the cinematography evokes the claustrophobia of the interior spaces remarkably; other phenomenal bits include a horrific nightmare scene in which Baker is tormented by a group of faceless girls at a gallery, mirroring an earlier scene in which she is bullied by her co-workers.

Given the film is very lightly driven by dialogue, Baker's performance is integral, and she is fantastic in the part. What makes the part so complicated is that not only is the dialogue sparse, but the character's emotional world is so much suppressed that she is not necessarily able to perform with her face; while she retains a blankness for most of the film, she is still able to masterfully transmit a sense of suffering that festers under the surface. Meeker plays the burly mechanic and is perhaps even more of a mystery to the audience, though the characters are equal mysteries to one another. Their relationship as captor and captive is bizarrely drawn and the conclusion is baffling but strangely appropriate.

Overall, "Something Wild" is a phenomenal, under-seen psychological drama that deserves a wider audience. As a study of sexual trauma and urban isolation, the film was far ahead of its time, and Baker's understated yet powerful performance and the film's haunting, claustrophobic cinematography are true standouts. I'm not sure there's been anything like it before or since. 9/10.

Lush and eerie Gothic trailblazer, 4 April 2017

"Kill, Baby, Kill!" also known under its original Italian title, "Operazione paura" ("Operation Fear") follows a doctor who is dispatched to a remote village in the Carpathian mountains to perform an autopsy on a woman who died under unusual circumstances in an abandoned church. When he arrives, he is met by superstitious locals who credit a ghostly young girl with the death, along with numerous others that have plagued the town.

One of Mario Bava'a greatest Gothic achievements, "Kill, Baby, Kill" has a wide-reaching influence that is almost unmatched in the horror genre. Not only has it been visually influential, but the narrative has functioned as a model for just about every Gothic "outsider enters supernatural situation" horror flick to follow it. Influence aside, the film has been credited by many as Bava's greatest achievement, and they may be right; I can't patently say one way or the other. However, I do believe it is undoubtedly one of the greatest horror films of its decade, and among the all-time greats.

As is the case with anything Mario Bava had his hands on, the film is visually stunning, but "Kill, Baby, Kill" seems even more colorful and striking than many of his other pictures—imagine "Black Sunday" in Technicolor. The foggy sets and baroque aesthetics of the village are immediate and steeped in atmosphere, while the motifs of the blonde ghostly little girl and broken Victorian dolls as arbiters of doom are legitimately chilling.

The performances here are by and large strong, with Giacomo Rossi Stuart as a suitable leading man, and Erika Blanc as the mysterious Monica. Fabienne Dali is also quite memorable as the vampy good witch. More than anything else, though, "Kill, Baby, Kill" has likely upheld its reputation because it simply has a compelling story that audiences still recognize (likely due to the aforementioned, wide-ranging influence). It's a classic story that boasts a substantive air of mystery and even a few unexpected revelations. The finale does feel a bit ham-fisted in that it relies on dialogue quite a bit and is also rather brisk, but this is more or less telling of the era in which it was made than a legitimate fault.

All in all, "Kill, Baby, Kill" is a deserved genre classic. Not only does it offer Bava's signature dreamy visuals and popping colors, but it also brings enough mystery and narrative intrigue to keep one compelled. It's a classic story told in a classic way, and it to this day presents some of the most chilling images the horror genre has ever offered. 10/10.

Madhouse (1981)
Atmospheric slasher mired by an anemic conclusion, 2 April 2017

"Madhouse," also released under the titles "And When She Was Bad" and "There Was a Little Girl," focuses on Julia, a teacher in Savannah, Georgia whose twin sister, Mary, has spent most of her life in a psychiatric institution. After an overdue visit to see her, Julia becomes increasingly paranoid about her sister's ominous warning that she will take revenge on her, and as their mutual birthday approaches, people in Julia's life start dying.

Co-written and directed by Italian filmmaker Ovidio G. Assonitis (who several years prior directed the fever-dream "Exorcist" ripoff "Beyond the Door"), "Madhouse" is a halfway decent slasher film that draws on a confluence of contemporaries, but doesn't quite manage to live up to what it sets out to do. The film has been credited by genre fans for its atmosphere and photography, and that is most definitely where I feel the film excels as well. The house it's set in is wildly eerie and the Georgia setting lends an additional layer of Southern Gothic atmosphere that is at times intoxicating.

At times the film feels like a straightforward slasher; at others, it seems like it's edging into the territory of the supernatural, and this lack of transparency keeps the audience on their toes for the first half. The film begins to lose this balancing act though in the last thirty minutes with a premature slipshod reveal and a conclusion that feels uninspired and lazily unfurled. It doesn't necessarily go where you expect it to—I'll give it that— but it's less about the nature of the revelation and more about how it's broached in the narrative. The film was notoriously banned in the UK during the "video nasty" era, and it does boast some considerable gore, though I did feel the bulk of the killings relied a bit too much on the canine dispatch (which itself seems to be a riff on "The Omen" and "Suspiria"). The cast is mostly made up of unknowns, but the performances are decent for a film of this type.

Overall, I found "Madhouse" to be a bit underwhelming, mainly because it sets itself up for greatness, and then handles its conclusion in a way that feels lazy and uninspired given all that precedes it. As sluggish as the last act is, I do have to praise the film for its curation of atmosphere and the moody cinematography. There are some truly unnerving scenes in the house that are memorable, and the film does manage to establish a sense of foreboding before it nearly undoes itself. 6/10.

Offbeat and occasionally unsettling, 27 March 2017

"Tragic Ceremony" follows a group of hippies (three men, one woman) whose car dies during a rainstorm in the English countryside. They end up at a large estate where the lord and his lady offer them fuel for their car and a place to sleep. Unfortunately, the house guests are subject to a black mass and attempted human sacrifice that goes awry; they escape the event, only to be picked off one by one in the ensuing hours.

This generally weird and largely unknown horror flick was briefly unearthed by Dark Sky Films, who released it on DVD in 2008, but it's still one of the lesser-known oddities of early seventies Italian horror. The film starts out rather orthodox with its young adult characters stumbling into a large mansion, but it doesn't follow the narrative trajectory one would expect. The film's centerpiece is undoubtedly the explosively gory black mass sequence, but rather than occurring at the climax, it instead happens about midway through; this gives the film's narrative arc a remarkably unusual shape that destabilizes the audience's expectations, be it for better or for worse.

While this central scene boasts some creepy imagery and surprising gore, the dreamlike second act of the film is what I found to be most unsettling. After the surreal black mass sequence, the audience follows the four characters in the aftermath of it, which plays out with heady overtones. The heightened black mass scene seems to have the effect of unsettling the audience as much as the flummoxed characters who are trying to piece together what they witnessed, and from there onward the film begins to unravel in the style of a supernatural slasher flick. Their retreat to the country house offers a few chilling scenes, but perhaps most memorable are the one-on-one scenes between Jane and Joe in the penultimate sequence in the woods. There is a quiet, unsettling tone that is rather masterfully achieved in the last half of the film, and this sequence in particular offers some chilling images and atmosphere.

Camille Keaton stars here as the female lead, just after she'd completed her debut work on the giallo "What Have You Done to Solange?" She has an ethereal but disquieting screen presence as always, and the performance is understated but effective. She is surrounded with three Italian/Spanish male actors, each of whom play off of both her and each other fairly well as disaffected hippies. The film has a clever twist at the end that is unfortunately marred by a slipshod imitation of the conclusion from "Psycho," which feels totally unnecessary and tacked on with little forethought.

The silly handling of the conclusion aside, I still found "Tragic Ceremony" to be a weirdly unsettling film. It is certainly not a masterpiece, but the bizarre narrative arc combined with the moody cinematography and Keaton's haunted performance really lend some vitality to the proceedings. The last half of the film plays out like a dream (or a nightmare), and there is an appreciable sense of foreboding that can't be shaken by the audience anymore than it can the characters on screen. 7/10.

The end of high school, or the end of your life, 19 March 2017

"Graduation Day" centers on a southern California high school where the track team's star athlete dies during a race. Her Navy sister arrives in town after the event, and the remaining track athletes begin getting picked off one by one leading up to the high school's graduation day.

An early follower of the slasher trend that dominated the early eighties, "Graduation Day" has the distinguishing element of being anchored in a significant event in any teenager's life—their graduation—but the truth is, the film could have realistically taken place at any point in the school year, as, save for one plot point, the graduation date plays a very insignificant role in the narrative. Its commitment to the "graduation day" event is more a spin on the slasher trend to set films on holidays or around significant cultural calendar dates; "Graduation Day" takes its cues from the following year's "Prom Night" rather significantly.

As much as the film is in imitator, that's not where its issues lie; rather, the film is styleless to a fault. Save some hokey synth pieces and a couple of effective POV shots, the film is aesthetically bland, and also suffers from distractingly sloppy editing that detracts from even the most tense of scenes. There are a handful of amusing and relatively violent murder scenes, but the general tonal pallidness of the film is ever present. Christopher George plays a sleazy coach here, with Patch Mackenzie who is mildly likable as the overbearing elder sister of the deceased track athlete. The finale has a couple of grotesque moments, but the showdown is ultimately anticlimactic, all things considered.

Overall, "Graduation Day" is one of the more middling slashers of its era; it's certainly not the worst, but it's not among the best either. There are a few moments that are worth seeing for genre completists and fans, but the film generally feels uninvolving and stylistically lazy. I'd recommend fans give it a go at least once, but it's one of the less memorable of its peers, and with good reason. 5/10.

Flat but mildly amusing melodramatic horror, 18 March 2017

Tony Trelos is a club singer at a seaside bar. Wanting more out of his career, he is approached by a woman on a beach who owns a record label with her crippled husband. Tony's involvement and exploits with her are more dangerous than he's aware of, however, as she's guilty of a murder, and capable of another.

The second piece of celluloid sleaze that Peter Carpenter wrote and starred in after the atmospheric (and underrated) "Blood Mania," "Point of Terror" is a significantly less thrilling picture—far more talky and significantly less moody. It also seems to be cribbing elements of "Blood Mania" in a lot of ways, as it follows borderline identical plot arcs that have been minutely tweaked: Man becomes involved with wealthy woman. Woman is unstable and a murderess. Family member enters the picture and complicates matters further. Same formula, different canvas.

The film is peppered with some of the most ridiculously "seventies" musical numbers you'll ever see, and also boasts a significant amount of skin from a buxom Dyanne Thorne and the hunky Carpenter. There is a nice doubled-over twist at the end of the film that is clever but rather cheap, and the general impression I got after it was over was that Carpenter seemed to have wanted to do-over "Blood Mania," but this time invoke as much of Jess Franco's "Succubus" as he could.

All in all, "Point of Terror" is a middling thriller that, while mildly amusing, is more or less a rehash of Carpenter's prior (and better) film. It is, like "Blood Mania," relatively well-shot, but it lacks the performances and moodiness that made the former so watchable. For a piece of grindhouse sleaze, "Point of Terror" is watchable, but it's lacking both in spirit and inventiveness. 5/10.

Shockingly good, 17 March 2017

"Blood Mania" focuses on an unhinged heiress who murders her terminally ill father, a doctor—not to keep the money herself, but rather with the intent to help get his younger, attractive colleague (Peter Carpenter) out of fifty thousand dollars' worth of debt to an extortionist blackmailing him over his past work as a covert abortionist. Things get complicated (and violent) when the woman's sister arrives for the reading of the will.

I'm not going to sit here and pretend that "Blood Mania" is high-brow cinema; it's many things, but it's definitely not that. However, I feel this film has taken a bit of an undeserved lashing from genre fans that it may not necessarily deserve. With a title like "Blood Mania," the film inherently makes promises it doesn't necessarily deliver on, but does that mean it's the disaster the many have painted it as? I don't think so.

The film, as many have noted, does play out like a sordid melodrama for much of its middle and latter half, but there is a constant sinister undertone beneath it that follows it through to the conclusion. This is largely helped by Maria De Aragon's performance as the sex-crazed, sociopathic femme fatale. Where the film does deliver is in the skin department, but it does have the distinction of being indiscriminate; for every shot of the svelte De Aragon, Vicki Green, or Reagan Wilson, there is a corresponding shot of the film's hunky lead, Carpenter, who bares just as much for the camera (and is also as morally corrupt as De Aragon).

Sex and soap opera aside, what I found especially fascinating about the film was its psychotronic and truly commendable cinematography, something one rarely expects out of a film like this. It opens with a hallucinatory sequence of a woman running through the darkness, stalling in freeze frames lit with various colors, which invoke Mario Bava and predate Dario Argento at his height. The film is colorful and richly detailed in terms of visuals, and the mansion setting is true California Gothic at its finest. The writing itself is actually not half-bad either; there is a bit of stilted dialogue, but there is a backbone to the film in terms of narrative that is often more noir than it is horror. The promotional material for the film in 1970 promised an explosive and shocking conclusion (ala William Castle's "Homicidal"), and while it doesn't necessarily shock, there is a trippy murder scene followed by an even trippier closing bit. Masterful? Not necessarily. Memorable? Sure. Punctuating the entire film is an equally psychedelic and often unnerving score.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this film, and truly feel that it's gotten the reputation it has due to mismatched expectations. I'd liken the film more to a "horror noir" if anything. I think if audiences can go into the film without the expectations conjured up by the sensationalistic title, they will find an amusing, relatively well-shot psychothriller that has more in common with the thriller and noir films of the forties and fifties. While it's not high art, I can say "Blood Mania" is one of the more skillfully-made (and entertaining) pieces of seventies sleaze I've seen. 7/10.

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