Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Witches' Hammer (1970)

Director: Otakar Vavra

Starring: Elo Romanick, Vladimir Smeral, Sona Valentova and lots more familiar names

More info: IMDb

Plot: In a Czech town in the seventeenth century, an elderly woman enters a church to accept communion. Her true purpose is to collect the holy host for a midwife who needs it to treat an ailing dairy cow. The woman is caught and is forced to explain her sacrilegious actions. Religious and secular authorities agree that she is in league with witches and may even be a witch herself. This prompts an inquisition where confessions are obtained through threats and torture. A
tribunal is held to provide a legal facade. Though the hunt is initially confined to the impoverished fringes of local society, the hysteria soon expands to the point that no one, not even leading citizens, is safe. The ultimate target is a clergyman, Deacon Lautner, who defies the righteous men of the tribunal. Based on actual trial records from the 1678 to 1695.

My rating: 8/10

Will I watch it again? Absolutely!

Literally knowing nothing about this except the title, year and country of origin, I thought perhaps I was in for a Euro horror of sorts. Nope. Instead, it's a harrowing account of 17th century witch hunting that feels all too real. Though the film opens with this...

...it's not exploitative at all. It does, however, exploit the hypocrisy and greed of the church. The entire film is practically an expose on the subject. It's expertly done and you feel deeply for the women accused of witchcraft. That this is based on the trial records of that time period makes it even more grisly. I don't know how much liberty was taken but, again, it feels real and that this could've easily happen.

When I watched this last year or so it was around the time of "crackergate". There was a college student who was manhandled by the staff of a catholic church on school grounds when he attempted to walk out with a eucharist after communion. He refused to give it back and there was a huge uproar in the community for him to return it. He was charged by many as having kidnapped christ. He received threats on his life because of this...all over a fucking cracker. I realise these people are the fringe but it's not uncommon to find people who believe in religion so strongly that they will threaten peoples lives for it or, at the very least, say and do irrational things all in the name of it.

You sure said a mouthful, brother!

So when the old woman does something very similar at the beginning of the film, it had more resonance. Again, I don't know what aspects of the film are based on true accounts but the timing couldn't have been better for me to view it.

There are bits of torture throughout that are just awful to watch. What do you do when you don't get the confession you're looking for? Bust out the thumb screws. Ouch! It's so brutal and adds even more to this film that has relevance today.

Sadly the version available on Netflix is fullscreen. It's a magnificent film and probably the best I've seen regarding witch trials and of this time in history. It's brutal, unforgiving, frighteningly sterile and real. I highly recommend this in any form you can get it.

Five Graves to Cairo (1943)

Director: Billy Wilder

Starring: Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter, Akim Tamiroff, Erich von Stroheim, Peter van Eyck

More info: IMDb

Tagline: Did a Woman Start the Rout of Rommel?

Plot: June, 1942. Corporal John Bramble of the British Army, retreating ahead of victorious Rommel, is separated after battle and ends up on the Egyptian border after a long, dangerous trek across the desert. He finds refuge at a remote desert hotel...soon to be German HQ. To survive, Bramble assumes an identity which proves perilous. The new guest of honor is none other than Rommel, hinting of his secret strategy, code-named 'five graves.' And the fate of the British in Egypt depends on whether a humble corporal can penetrate the secret...

My rating: 7/10

Will I watch it again? Sure.

I digs me some WWII flicks. This is one of many I had heard of but never got to...until now (well it was actually about a year ago but I'm just now getting around to writing about it). It's a neat little WWII action thriller set in Egypt that takes great care with the locale and the set-up. The opening scene with the runaway tank and an all-but-one dead crew (Bramble comes to after a while and gets separated from the tank) is great. Once Bramble is on foot across the desert alone it gets hot, real hot.

So he finds his way to this all but deserted hotel which is about to be taken over by Rommel and his men for their headquarters. The moments with Bramble hiding while the Krauts establish themselves is tense. Again, toward the end when Bramble sneaks into Rommel's room looking for evidence, there's more tension. You genuinely feel for this guy. He's not doing anything your typical good guy wouldn't do but Wilder really knows how to make movies.

Those are the best parts. The other bits...maybe not so much. I typically LOATHE comic relief in a lot of movies. Sometimes it works but rarely does in flicks like this. The sole Arab in the film (Farid played by Akim Tamiroff) is a buffoon. I hate that shit. It seems like so many of the WWII movies of the 40s and 50s had to have comic relief and most of the time it was at the expense of the Arab character. It's so dumb and unnecessary. Stroheim is playing Stroheim. I'm not buying him as the real Rommel but as a standard WWII German general who's full of himself but that's OK because I'm not watching this in lieu of a history lesson. Everyone else, though, is great.

The film wraps up nicely until the last 8 minutes where upbeat, propaganda shit comes into play. Had the film ended before that moment I would have been happier. I understand why it was done and all but still. You know? I did dig (ahahahaha) the final moment where we meet up with one of the principles. That was pretty neat and was a nice coda to the required uplifting propaganda shit. Overall, though, it's a better than average WWII thriller that would be a great Saturday or Sunday afternoon flick you watch when the weather is beautiful and the windows are open and that breeze is creeping through the screens...ahhhhh. I love this time of year.

The Ghost Writer (2010)

Director: Roman Polanski

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Tom Wilkinson

More info: IMDb

Tagline: Read between the lies.

Plot: A writer (McGregor) stumbles upon a long-hidden secret when he agrees to help former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Brosnan) complete his memoirs on a remote island after the politician's assistant drowns in a mysterious accident. In director Roman Polanski's tense drama, the author realizes that his discovery threatens some very powerful people who will do anything to ensure that certain episodes from Lang's past remain buried.

My rating: 7.5/10

Will I watch it again? Yeah.

So far I haven't seen anything by Polanski I didn't like...except of course that whole child rape thing in the 70s. I just finished his latest and I'm impressed once again. He's delivered an interesting thriller that has that Hitchcock vibe from long ago. It moves along at a good pace until about the last twenty or so minutes when it really ratchets up into high gear and shit starts happening all over the place. The sequence that starts just before the last trip on the ferry is terrific.

I liked how we as an audience, like McGregor's character, don't know who to trust so that when he makes blind decisions on who to (or not to) trust, we're in the dark just as much and that creates tension. The casting works. Brosnan's presence brings weight to his Adam Lang, the former Prime Minister of England, McGregor has that everyman quality about him and the supporting casts does very well. It was neat seeing some familiar faces I hadn't seen in a while like Jim Belushi and especially Eli Wallach (who'll be 95 in December!!!). Throughout the picture I kept thinking that the score (very nice, btw) was either by Ennio Morricone or Wojciech Kilar. Nope. It was Alexandre Desplat, a French composer I've heard of but I'm not familiar much with his work. This guy's been cranking out more than four scores a year for 25 years! And here I am babbling on about movies. I feel so insignificant. And the ending? Nice! I was very satisfied and ready to dig into some Polanski I haven't seen.

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

Director: Mario Bava

Starring: Barry Sullivan, Norma Bengell, Ivan Rassimov

More info: IMDb

Tagline: This was the day the universe trembled before the demon forces of the killer planet!

Plot: In the near future the two spaceships Argos and Galliot are sent to investigate the mysterious planet Aura. As the Galliot lands on the planet her crew suddenly go berserk and attack each other. The strange event passes, but the crew soon discovers the crashed Argos - and learns that her crew died fighting each other! Investigating further, the explorers come to realize the existence of a race of bodiless aliens that seek to escape from their dying world.

My rating: 6/10

Will I watch it again? Very doubtful.

#234 on Drive-In Delirium Volume 2 (part of the TRAILER TRASH PROJECT)


As you can see by the trailer, it's a great looking 60s sci-fi flick with cool-as-hell outfits, giant, open sets and nifty special effects - especially for the alien world. The story's not that bad, either. I dig the concept of a dying alien race tricking our ships to land so that they can go live on our planet. Nicely done. That's about it, really. Slick production values and cool concepts can only go so far.

Space babes! Groovy!

One of the positives is the obvious influence it had on ALIEN (1979). Our heroes leave their ship to investigate an alien ship where they find the skeletal remains of some of its former inhabitants. Hmmmm...that sounds awfully familiar. Hell, even the rest of the story about the alien race killing off the Earthlings follows ALIEN to some degree. It just goes to show that even some of the greatest films stole from someone else.

The problem's in the pacing. There are too many spots where it drags. The two ship interiors are the same (shot from different angles) and that doesn't help curb the occasional numbness. It just needed some pep, you know, which is a real shame as it's got so much going for it. Oh, and if you go into this expecting real vampires you'll be disappointed to learn that they aren't the monster ones we have on Earth but vampires as parasites. It would have been cool to see a bunch of capes and fangs running around.

Monday, September 27, 2010

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Starring: Frances Dee, James Ellison, Tom Conway

More info: IMDb

Tagline: See this strange, strange story of a woman whose lure set brother against brother; whose love caused hate - and whose beauty bowed to the will of an evil spell in whose power we must refuse to believe - EVEN IF IT'S TRUE!

Plot: A young Canadian nurse, Betsy (Dee), comes to the West Indies to care for Jessica (Christine Gordon), the wife of a plantation manager, Paul (Tom Conway). Jessica seems to be suffering from a kind of mental paralysis as a result of fever. When she falls in love with Paul, Betsy determines to cure Jessica even if she needs to use a voodoo ceremony to give Paul what she thinks he wants.

My rating: 8/10

Will I watch it again? Yup.

Val Lewton produced a good handful of horror/thriller films for RKO back in the forties on a very small budget, his most famous being CAT PEOPLE (1942). I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is one of the early greats. There's no singular, over the top monster like in the Universal horrors of the 30s. No. Here the horror is in the atmosphere and in the unknown. And that's what Lewton knew best.

What really works for me is the sounds in the distant, the wind, the chanting and the constant voodoo drumming. It gets under you skin. I would LOVE to see this in a theater. That would be an experience. They do such a good job with the sets and sounds that you feel like you're there with them in the West Indies. It's a remarkable vibe.

Alma (Theresa Harris) needs to have my voodoo babies.

The acting is quite good. It's the forties so some of it is going to be a bit melodramatic but that's forgivable. At barely over an hour you're in and out lickety split. You might not have walked with a zombie but you will have walked away from one hell of a atmospheric thriller that is sure to take your nerves to the edge...if you let it.