Sunday, March 31, 2013

Scanners




Scanners
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Horror/Sci-fi, 103min
Canada, 1981
Distributed by: SecondSight 

I really enjoy going back to movies that I haven’t seen in the region of twenty years. At one point in time David Cronenberg was making some immensely disturbing genre pieces, melding classic thriller structures with neo horror in his own realm of body horror. Cronenberg has since long back moved on to explore other areas, leaving body horror behind with the seminal work eXistenZ 1999 and dwelling into more psychological themes, but the good old gooey gore and shock films are still key movies and finally they are starting to hit BluRay releases, such as Scanners and it's two sequels.

Set in a possible future, this is the tale of war, psychic war between individuals with extreme mental powers. It’s also the tale of cooperation’s trying to control these individuals and the struggle against renegade fractions within that narrow circle of individuals with the powers. A renegade circle, with the intention of murdering all those who won’t join their cause. 

Scanners is a classic in all the right ways. A strict anti thesis to the horror films being made at the time it avoids the homicidal maniac lurking in the shadows, the teenagers rumbling around smoking pot and getting laid, the dorky dialogue and hip soundtrack. This is all, dark possible future, told through Cronenberg’s characteristic slow but progressive style of twisting and winding it’s way through the film with some serious moments of the grotesque. If you are amongst the few genre fans who never saw Scanners then you really need to add this one to your pre-book list as Scanners contains some of most amazing special effect work ever put on screen. Still not convinced? Try a head exploding into a thousand pieces with blood, brain matter and cranium pieces flying all over the place.

Scanners is a classic that deserves to be seen, and this BluRay presentation is fantastic. You can even see what LP’s the set designers placed on the shelves in an action scene that takes place in a record store – they must really have been into Frank Zappa’s Sheik Yherbouti!

Cronenberg sets the key ingredient of Scanners up with an effective initial attack, an initial attack that somewhat disorients the audience and creates a curiosity about character positioning. Cameron Vale is provoked by two women at the food court, tries to avoid it, but still torments one of the women, almost killing her with his psychic abilities. The trench coated men start to chase Vale through a fantastic looking mall before shooting him with a tranquilizer dart and taking him in to Dr. Ruth. So far we have learned that this is a movie with characters that possess psychic abilities, abilities that can be used in a negative way. We also understand that they are in some way persecuted, as that’s what the chase, tranquilizer dart and Vale being restrained to a bed and subjected to some for of experiment by Dr. Ruth. It’s easy to presume that Vale is the antagonist of the piece and we are lead on to think so for a while until the movie hits the ten minute mark and Michael Ironside’s Darryl Revok is introduced. The introduction of Revok also brings that iconic moment when he’s brought up on stage during a scientific display of “scanning abilities” and makes Louis Del Grande's head explode into a bloody

Revok is caught in a fashion similar to that of the initial attack with Vale, although he manages to use his psychic abilities to manipulate his way free and for a short while he almost comes across as a possible protagonist with all we have seen so far. Men in trench coats persecute the characters with psychic abilities, the Scanners. Exposition time, as the board of CONSYN discuss the violent events of the previous night. We learn that an underground network of Scanners are murdering all scanners not associated with them, that Dr. Ruth has one Scanner hidden away that the underground do not know of. Ruth also suggests that Vale be their assassin and terminate the leader of the underground, the immensely powerful scanner Darryl Revok.

It’s a great establishing of the ordinary world which Scanners will take place in. We now know that there are characters with psychic abilities, that there’s a cooperation involved, that there’s a lethal conflict between good and bad Scanners. Our two main characters have been explored and positioned at polarized ends of the spectrum and are now ready to be set against each other… David Cronenberg master at setting ends against each other and always hiding secrets within the narrative does precisely that with Scanners, where many surprise reveals are about to come forth.

This is where the investigation plot comes into play. Cameron Vale sets off on his mission to find the other Scanners and join forces with them in a struggle to stop Revok. It is an investigation plot as the search takes Vale through a series of encounters as he works his way forth. Each encounter leads to new knowledge and finally he stands face to face with Revok.

The last act presents an interresting rush of insight, where we learn how characters, the various drug corporations and lives all intertwine. Perhaps not a complete surprise with today’s standards, but at the time a neat one, which I guess nobody, saw coming. The final battle showcases those great special effects once again and culminates with classic Cronenbergian mind game imagery. Scanners is a great movie, one that sometimes becomes forgotten in-between the run of successfull of horror flicks that Cronenberg made at the time. Scanners has passed the test of time and still is a damned good movie. Early special effects and a great Howard Shore soundtrack (Shore who Cronenberg started working with on The Brood back in 1979, and still to this day still uses as composer on his soundtracks) make a great time document, as does that superb Mall interior during the first ten minutes of the film, but the story of Scanners still works and engages. I’m sure that any filmmaker today wanting to show “psychic forces” in play would also have used non-diegetic sound. It’s a fun detail.

Cronenberg has a great cast come together in Scanners. Stephen Lack, who’d later reunite with Cronenberg on Dead Ringers a few years later as lead Cameron Vale, Jennifer O’Neil as Kim Obrist, Patrick McGoohan as Dr. Paul Ruth and Michael Ironside as Darryl Revok. Vale, Obrist, Revok, all names that have that mysterious Cronenberg ring to them.

The upcoming Second Sight release of Scanners is a superb edition, and I question if the film has ever looked better. As usual the Second Sight edition is filled up with extras in the shape of interviews with cast and crewmembers. Scanners II: The New Order and Scanners III: The Takeover are also making their debut on BluRay simultaneously with the original.


David Cronenberg’s Cult classic and mind expanding shocker Scanners is available on BluRay from Second Sight on the 8th of April.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Embodiment of Evil


Embodiment of Evil
Original Title: Encarnação do Demônio
Directed by: José Mojica Marins
Brazil, 2008
Horror, 94min


The final chapter, at least as we know it so far, in the saga of Zé do Caixão - Encarnação do Demônio (Embodiment of Evil) is upon us. The part that José Mojicas Marins himself refers to as his masterpiece, the movie he has waited all his life to make. A movie which sees his iconic character Coffin Joe make a final return to the screen in his search for a perfect woman to birth him the son who will continue his bloodline.
Forty years have passed since Zé do Caixão fell into that murky corpse ridden swamp at the end of Esta noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver (This Night I Will Possess Your Soul) 1967. A lot has changed in the world since then, but Zé do Caixão still has his conviction that he must find a woman to further his bloodline, which he tells us in his customary opening monologue. A murky prison, agitated police officials swearing loudly that they have to release a prisoner they have within their walls. Stern dialogue presenting exposition, the man they are about to release the beast! The characteristic nails protrude out through the tiny hole in the rusted iron door. The Prison Governor stares into the face inside the hole and proclaims Josefel Zanatas a free man, begging him to leave his alter ego, the murderer Zé do Caixão, dead within the prison walls.
Outside the prison gates waits the faithful servant Bruno [Rui Ressende], who escorts the greyed Zé do Caixão to his new underground lair, complete with coffin, skeletons and new disciples.The disiples line up and start to chant the by now well known mantra "What is Life? It is the Beginning of Death. What is Death?  It is the end of Life! What is Existence? It is the continuity of Blood! What is Blood? It is the reason to exist!" Zé do Caixão has not been left dead in the cell that held him for forty years, he’s alive and kicking and still on a mission!

With the main plot being to once again suffice a woman to further his bloodline, there’s a delicate subplot, which initiates the forces of antagonism and presents the threat of the film, after Caixão saves a child from being executed by the sinister Chief of Police Oswaldo Pontes [Adriano Stuart in his last screen performance]. This is key, as there’s always a scene where Caixão comes to the aid of a boy child in the two earlier films. It’s a metaphor for his desire to father a son and also a demonstration of his anger of not having succeeded at that.
This encounter triggers a vendetta from Oswaldo and his brother Miro [Jece Valadão, who sadly died during production]. There’s a surprise as Miro reveals himself to be the cop who Zé do Caixão blinded in the original censored ending of This Night I Possess Your Soul. The key scenes that where never possible to shoot due to external pressure and conditions put on This Night I Possess Your Soul (which you can read of in that earlier piece) are finally overcome as Marins reconstructs the ending of that film by the fantastic casting of Raymond Castile, a young American collector of monster figures and Coffin Joe impersonator. To spice up the plot further, it’s also revealed that the fact that the Zé do Caixão lawyer Lucy [Crista Aché] who managed to get him freed is Miro’s wife! Rounding up a right raggedy band of companions the Pontes brothers set out to destroy Zé do Caixão once and for all.
Obviously Zé do Caixão quickly becomes the anti heroic protagonist we empathize with. Partially due to the fact that the Police officials are such profound bastards, who wouldn’t flinch an eye at murdering a child or spouse if it came in their way of stopping Caixão, and also by the recurrent device of Caixão being haunted by his past female victims. Characters from both previous instalments make appearances as they taunt the elderly Zé do Caixão through a well-crafted mix of contemporary effects and actual footage flashbacks. 

Zé do Caixão plays his game by the book that he wrote, He kidnaps and beds a series of women and put’s them through his archetypical sadistic trials which gives the police officials a moral carte blanche to put a stop to his terror. Aided by Padre Eugênio [Milhem Cortaz], a frantic monk – also a victim of Zé do Caixão’s previous activities also sworn to have his vengeance, they set up the biggest manhunt since they last chased Zé do Caixão into the swamps. Following the pattern of the earlier instalments, the road to ruin goes through these tests, the desire, the frustration, the hauntings and the visions of hell before Zé do Caixão is run out of town by an angry mob led by the Pontes brothers. Hot on his heels, he leads them through the cursed swamp to an abandoned amusement park, where Zé do Caixão, his antagonists and the ghosts all gather for a last showdown.
Keeping it contemporary, the key scenes of mayhem are all pretty intense and obviously graphic. Marins holds back on nothing and one can clearly see why he considers Embodiment of Evil his masterpiece as he get’s to show and enact all the stuff censorship restrained him from putting up front back in the day. People have their mouths sewn shut in disturbing detail, there’s the classic Zé do Caixão devices, spiders, snakes, cockroaches. But also cannibalism, baths taken in entrails, giant rat’s rammed into orifices, self-mutilation as once scene shows a young woman eating her own buttocks and the crown jewel of the film shows a woman being reborn from the belly off a huge pig as Zé do Caixão slices the beast open and she crawls out of the carcass! Where the earlier films where received as provocative visual and offensive, they a fade in to the full onslaught of Caixão this time around, all in full graphic, naked, gory detail. Embodiment of Evil is nothing less than one of the most beautiful pieces of trash cinema ever put on screen. It’s a true masterpiece of the grotesque and sordid depravity. I salute the team Marins has assembled for this must see film, as their work is top notch! One thing that has changed though is the dark comedic undertone of the film. A lot has changed since Zé do Caixão was locked in his dark cell, and Marins uses that fact to add some amusing cultural crashes along the way. It brings a sort of “Fish out of Water” tone to the Zé do Caixão character and in many ways it’s apparent that the times have passed him by.
Just like the earlier films, Zé do Caixão is an existentialist. His atheism and goal keep him alive, but as previous films taught us, it’s when he strays from his philosophy that evokes his ruin. Falling for the beautiful Elena [Nara Sakarê], a young woman obsessed with Caixão he falls into a deadly plan. Elena is the niece of two witches who propose to Zé do Caixão that they can release him from his curse childlessness and also lift the threat of his previous victims coming back to avenge their deaths on him. Remember, this is the curse that was cast upon Caixão in the very first film, À Mela-Noite Levarei Sua Alma (At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul) 1964 and a curse that still torments him almost fifty years later. The only catch is that they want Zé do Caixão to acknowledge his faith, turn to god and they only then will grant his wish.
Remember when I talked about how some movies feel like a summary and bookending of plot, story, traits and work back in the piece on Jean Rollin’s Perdues dans New York (Lost in New York) 1989? Well, Embodiment of Evil has that feeling too. Many references to the two earlier Coffin Joe films are noticeable, such as the Witch being present a mere five minutes into the film. Or as Zé do Caixão’s apostles line up in front of him upon his return from imprisonment, he has them recite the opening monologue – which I previously pointed out to be his philosophy – from This Night I Steal Your Corpse. Flashbacks to the two previous films are used to make points about his philosophy, and finally Marins got to shoot his intended original ending from This Night I Steal Your Soul with Raymond Castille a spitting image of  the young Zé do Caixão. In many ways this brings the arc of the three films to a culmination. The film does end as the other did, with a Zé do Caixão presumed dead, but for once, just this once, Zé do Caixão may actually have won! 
I’ve previously mentioned that one should explore these three films of the Coffin Joe series in a chronological manner. I stand by that, as through watching them in this way, you will see how the arc follows through the films. You will also understand the impact the ghosts have on Zé do Caixão in a better way. You will also understand just how wild José Mojicas Marins actually goes with this final part when you have the previous two in mind. Embodiment of Evil is a superb finale to a string of fantastic films, and undoubtedly one of the few examples of a last instalment making the largest bang. 
Do yourself a favour take the time to follow the chronicles of Zé do Caixão as they where meant to be seen and enjoy the naked, violent and strange world of Coffin Joe in all their grandure.



Sunday, March 17, 2013

Howlers of the Dock


Howlers of the Dock
Original title: Urlatori alla sbarra
Directed by: Lucio Fulci
Italy, 1960
Comedy/Drama/Music, 83min

It may seem odd that Lucio Fulci, the guy most of us associate with gruesome gothic shockers of the late seventies, early eighties – or lush thrillers and Gialli of the mid sixties, late seventies, started off as a director of comedies. It may seem even stranger that he started off with a string of musical comedies, showcasing young talent breaking out in song and dance at any given moment… or is it? Well not really, as the more you learn about Lucio Fulci, the more you learn to understand his versatility and perhaps foremost, appreciate the immense talent this true master of cinema held. For example, did you know that he only ventured into filmmaking as his girlfriend of time ditched, him making him take up film studies instead of medicine instead? Did you know that not only wrote and directed a bunch of fairly successful musical comedies for Italian pop star Adriano Celentano, but also wrote a couple of his most successful songs!
Let me put this into context for you. As a young man having left his initial passion of medicine behind and taken up studies at Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, Fulci graduated in 1948 and headed straight for work as an assistant in the world of cinema. Apart from assisting directors such as Max Ophüls, Marcel L’Herbier and his mentor Steno, Fulci frequently wrote art and film criticism for local papers. After a few years of working his way up, co-writing scripts, assisting second unit, shooting second unit for his mentor Steno, and comedian Totò, Lucio finally got the opportunity to direct his first feature, the comedic crime flick I ladri (The Thieves)1959. Using his connections within in the industry, he managed to get Totò to star in this debut film, and undoubtedly hoped for some of his popularity to rub off on the film, possibly generating a success similar to those earlier of Totò’s films… although this was not meant to happen. I ladri bombed and made no major imprint at all. Instead Lucio set sights on a new target audience, the youth of Italy, and what better way to captivate them but with rock’n’roll and rebellion!
The same year of the disastrous I ladri, Fulci set pen to paper, came up with a script, stepped behind the camera once again and directed Ragazzi del Juke Box (The Jukebox Kids), a light hearted comedy with loads of swinging tunes, upcoming musicians like Celentano, and hot young talent like Elke Sommer. Ragazzi del JukeBox also starred the song Il tuo bacio è come un rock, with lyrics written by the Fulci and performed in the film by Celenato, and also featured on his debut album of the same name. On that album Fulci co-wrote the tracks Blue Jeans Rock and Nikita Rock (Blue Jeans Rock featured in Howlers of the Dock). Fulci would later write yet another track for Celentano - 24 Mila Baci, which still to this day, turns up on summer compilations in Italy. Bet you didn’t know that did you? Pretty fucking cool right! Just more reasons to love the maestro.

Ragazzi del Juke-Box was a decent success for Fulci and led to him teaming up with the same co-writers and talent for a second spin at the musically oriented comedy. This time Urlatori alla sbarra (Howlers of the Dock).

Howlers on the Dock uses what is kind of a typical Fulci trait, a satirical approach to politics of the time. (If it wasn’t politics, it was religion) I with no doubt in mind consider this film, despite it’s light-hearted tone to be a satire, as the government try to change something that they can not control and fail miserably…
Howlers of the Dock, starts off with a board of executives demanding an investigation into how to stop and control the provocative Teddy Boys that are roaming the streets bringing a bad reputation to “The Blue Jeans Company”. Guessing that sales of Jeans will drop if associated with wild hoodlums, they try to ban the gangs and their music. After establishing what we could call the threat of the film – the banning of fun – Fulci brings on the bunch of swinging hepcats, or misfits if you will, through a bitchin’ party where both Adriano and Mina (another at the time upcoming artist) as they take turns singing a few tunes, whilst Gianni Di Venanzo’s camera circles the party showing us the who’s who of the gang. This opening sequence also introduces the peculiar – or genius – casting of Chet Baker! They sing, the dance, they goof around and do the shit that kids with a rebellious streak do.

The second main narrative focuses on a romantic tale between Guilia Giommarelli [Elke Sommer in one of her first starring roles] and Joe il Rosso [Joe Sentieri, who at the time was though of as the leading man, although in the wake of Celentano’s success to come, the film became a Celentano film and Sentieri secondary when it was reissued in later years].
With the "adults/government" trying to ban the rocking kids, Guilia, who’s father, not only is part of the board of executives seen earlier, but also a producer of a successful variety TV show on RAI, introduces him to the gang during a party thanks to Guilia. Her motif is obviously to help make her love interest Joe a star. Here's where that great Fulci irony comes into play. Following some daughterly manipulation she persuades him to give Joe a shot on his show – Adriano get’s one too – and hey presto. Joe is showcased too millions of viewers, although his song is a safe croonery one, and Adriano’s a shit kicking Elvis inspired number. The ban is shattered, the kids win and rock’n’roll is unleashed upon the nation - state fails again.  
The bands of friends are more or less a comic ensemble, one guy has a Marlon Brando fetish, one dresses as Davey Crocket, another two as cowboys. The women sing, dance and flash jazz hands en masse as everyone get’s at least one number during the course of the film. One spectacular number see’s the kids racing mopeds down the streets to a backdrop of projected city images, although the highlight in my opinion is the park make out session where Chet Baker sings and plays his trumpet in the way only he can.
There’s not really much of the Fulci we are familiar with here, apart from the irony and satirical approach to the theme. Howlers of the Dock is very much a nice and safe musical with all the trimmings. Bursting into song and dance, strutting spastic moves and catchy tunes in Italian may not be what the gore fans of Lucio Fulci want to watch. But it’s still a decent movie and if nothing else it’s a fun time capsule. This is Lucio Fulci’s version of a Cliff Richard film or a Jerry Lewis comedy. Adriano Celentano continued to have a successful career as a singer and as an actor in Italy. Apart from his collaborations with Fulci, he also held the lead in Dario Argento’s failed satirical period piece Le cinque giornate (The Five Days of Milan) 1973.
Personally  this movie is appealing to me is because of the fact that infamous bad boy of Jazz, Chet Baker, holds a part in the cast. His presence is commonly referred to as a cameo bit, but it’s much more than a cameo, he’s definitely a supporting cast member and is even credited in the titles – as Chet, the American. A few noteworthy facts/stories about Chet Baker's time in Italy are well worth sharing, such as the one that he was supposedly wasted on heroin throughout the production. Or that he was busted by the cops for heroin possession and spent a year in prison (most likely after the filming). During his time in Italy he also recorded several tracks together with the great Piero Umiliani! The film I Soliti Ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street) 1959 features the first appearance of their collaboration and it’s also the first Italian comedy to experiment with the use of Jazz on the score. 1961 saw the release of Smog, where Chet again is featured and is considered to be a highlight of Jazzbased soundtrack productions. Many of the tracks they made together would later surface on the albums Italian Movies, released in 1999 – something worth checking out if you dig Umiliani and/or Baker's music. Despite said to have been a wreck on set, Chet has a few small scenes where he’s present in more than a cameo appearance way, he interacts with cast, has a few lines and even manages to sing a song. Although the film primarily featured a score by Umiliani, Baker sings Umberto Bindi’s Arrividerci. This scene is also the one that closes Bruce Webber’s Chet Baker documentary Let’s Get Lost released in 1988.
Howlers of the Dock, the third ever feature film from the master of the macabre, Lucio Fulci, is quite a novel film. I like it for it’s harmless charm, silly comedy and rather catchy soundtrack. Never the less, the film and it’s theme of revolt and satire earned it a “E” rating from the Catholic Church and nobody under 14 was admitted into cinemas screening the film. Being a fan of Umiliani’s work and a huge admirer of Chet Baker, this is an essential Fulci film for me as it sees’ three very different creative forces melding. Three forces that all stand at their polarized corners in an assortment of ways, but still housing uncanny similarities.

I’ll leave you with the song Arrividerci as sung by Chet Baker in Lucio Fulci’s musical comedy Howlers of the Dock in 1960...



...and Adriano Celentano, always the goof, singing Blue Jean Rock (with Fulci lyrics) on some TV show in the eighties.