Mario Bava Double Feature

Even with my recent embrace of Italian horror, one of the big holes in my film knowledge has been the works of Mario Bava, who’s held up as one of the Big Three directors of the genre (the others being Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci). So when the Belcourt offered up a double feature of Bava films, it seemed like a no-brainer for me to knock out two of his films with one shot.

511qbkdvwelThat being said, despite its fame, Black Sunday may not have been the one to start with. Make no mistake: Black Sunday is beautifully shot, embracing the gothic nature of its story (which involves the resurrection of a medieval witch who wants vengeance on the family that killed her originally) and then some, using its black and white cinematography to incredible effect, and giving out some beautiful framing that I was in awe of. Yes, Black Sunday undeniably showed me the style that Bava brought to bear, and gave me a sense of what he would do once he threw color into his palette of tools. But as a horror film, Black Sunday moves at a snail’s pace, feeling far longer than its 87-minute running time might suggest. There are some incredible moments, and a (somewhat) surprising amount of gore, all done with style to spare and a gloriously gothic mood that you know I’m up for (I am, historically, very pro Gothic films). But from a story point of view, it’s a drag, stretching out every reveal to a point of tedium, and overexplaining every moment (at least in the English dub that I saw; perhaps the original Italian version is stronger there). Still, if you can get past that, there’s little denying the beauty of the film on display, nor the obvious talent behind the camera. It’s just the pacing that drags it down. Rating: ***

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Luckily, though, the next film was all I hoped for and then some. Often held to be the origin of the giallo genre, Bava’s Blood and Black Lace is a blast from its opening moments (a gloriously stylish set of posed opening credits that finds every actor striking a pulp noir cover pose next to their name), and that holds true through to the end. The film is pure giallo, with its gloved, behatted figure murdering (mostly) beautiful woman in stylish ways, for reasons that only sort of make sense by the film’s end. Not that that really matters; for all of its soap opera plotting, Blood and Black Lace is an exercise in style – and what style it is. Adding color into his toolbox, Bava delivers an incredible experience, with the standout being a thrilling sequence set against the backdrop of blinking green lights that give us only glimpses of the killer stalking his prey. Yes, Blood and Black Lace spends a bit more time on its labyrinthine story than the typical giallo film (complete with some gloriously soapy confrontations), and that definitely results in a few draggy sections along the way; that being said, the horror elements are so good – tense, sure, but also executed with such style and visual craft – that you’ll find yourself forgiving the film for any shortcomings.  Rating: ****

IMDb: Black Sunday | Blood and Black Lace
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Dead Aim, by Joe R. Lansdale / **** ½

imagesI’ve really come to feel that Joe Lansdale is all but incapable of writing a truly bad book, and that rule might just be doubly true if it’s one of his “Hap and Leonard” books. With a conversational style, an incredible ear for dialogue, beautifully noir plotting that never overshadows the characters, and humor that keeps everything feeling light even as the material goes dark, the series has been a treat throughout its run, and that streak remains intact for Dead Aim, a novella that follows the characters on a “simpler” case not long after the events of Devil Red.

The plot, as usual for Lansdale (and for noir), starts simply enough: Hap and Leonard are asked to help a woman who’s having some issues with a violent ex. From there, of course, everything gets complicated, as characters show up dead, motivations get questioned, and betrayals abound – in other words, it’s a typical noir story, with double-crosses and uncertainty everywhere. And as usual, Lansdale has a way of taking unexpected turns, or of taking familiar elements in unusual directions; here, while it’s not a surprise that the boys are being played, the reasons for it are more heartfelt and interesting than you might expect.

But really, the reason you read Hap and Leonard books isn’t for the plots; those are the hook that draws you in, sure, but it’s Lansdale’s rich world and fantastic characterization that you really come for, and Dead Aim provides. I could read Hap and Leonard banter and verbally spar for hundreds of pages and never get bored, and the same goes here; there’s a lived-in feel to the characters and their friendship that’s hard to explain, but undeniably present throughout. Moreover, Lansdale manages to bring all of his characters to the same life; yes, everyone in these books has a bit of a smart mouth, but Lansdale makes them all stand on their own, giving each their own personality, even in a short page count. From the wronged woman who may be using those around her to a malevolent hulking man who may be misjudged, Lansdale sketches in his characters quickly and efficiently, bringing them to life so effortlessly that it’s easy to ignore how good he is at it.

Being a novella, Dead Aim by necessity feels a little slighter than the best “Hap and Leonard” books (Bad Chili, for me, holds that title), but in some ways, it’s also a gift for readers, who get something richer than a short story that still holds all of Lansdale’s gifts for pacing, storytelling, humor, and style. And the fact that I get to pick up a bunch of these novellas for a cheap price? That’s a steal for the amount of enjoyment these books bring me. A great read, whether or not you’ve read Hap and Leonard before – and if you haven’t, get on it.

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Possession / **** ½

possession_800The last time I saw Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession was back in 2012, at a midnight screening of what turned out to be the American cut of the film (something I didn’t know at the time). Watching it, I talked about how so much about the film shouldn’t work, but at the same time, it had a way of sticking with you, of haunting you with its insanity and surreal visions. And once I found out that what I saw was an attempt by American studios to turn the film into something more “conventional” (an insane idea, as you’ll understand if you’ve seen the film), I was even more intrigued by the idea of seeing the original film, to see if the flaws were in the film itself or a result of the re-edited cut.

So let me put this simply: if all you’ve seen of Possession is the American release, you haven’t really seen the film, any more than, say, if all you’ve ever seen of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil was the “Love Conquers All” version. Because what was a haphazard collection of moments and scenes surrounding a nasty divorce becomes far more cohesive and emotionally coherent when presented in order, and while the film would never in a million years be viewed as “conventional”, it’s far more understandable and emotionally constructed than my first experience.

Mind you, Possession is still a surreal, bizarre experience. Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani both start the film on an acting level of basically 9.5, and then go way beyond the pale as the film continues. So all the theatrical overacting that sort of overwhelmed me on the first time is still there…but when presented in a more coherent order, it all works better, giving a through line to the emotional development that makes it all work, with each scene building off of the last (more or less).

But even that emotional intensity doesn’t quite prepare you for how purely weird Possession can be, putting all but the most Lynchian of Lynch films to shame. This is a film that’s about a nasty, bitter divorce, yes, but it’s also got espionage, murder – oh, and tentacle monsters, deployed in some most unusual ways. It’s undoubtedly an art film’s approach to divorce – it’s using its theatrics and excesses to explore the hurt and the anger and the betrayal that comes with such an end of a relationship, and it uses its horrors as a stand-in for all of it, turning the emotional pain of abandonment and the need to control one’s spouse into something more operatic and nightmarish. It’s a film in the vein of Buñuel and Polanski (especially Repulsion), but also one that clearly paved the way not only for Lynch, but people like the Coens (whose cuckolding lover in A Serious Man feels heavily inspired by a similar character here).

The result is a film that’s incredibly hard to explain, and also hard to easily “recommend” in any conventional way. It’s an incredible experience, make no doubt about it, and the emotional heft that it conveys through its surrealism is far more effective than any more conventional method would ever be. But it’s also a film that’s cranked so far over the top, and can be so aggressively strange, that it won’t work for everyone. Indeed, even as someone who loved the film a lot, there are undeniably points that I just threw my hands up and gave up on following things, or felt like the film was so unrestrained as to be a bit grueling. So, no, it’s not for all tastes.

Here’s the thing, though –  it’s telling that for those who can attune themselves to its rhythms and moods, it’s incredibly beloved, giving an emotional punch that few films can match. To me, it’s maybe one of the all-time great films about divorce, for all the pain and introspection that brings with it. But none of that makes for an easy watch – which may be part of why the film’s honesty and punch is so effective. And it says something that for all of my confusion, for all of my frustration, the film is packed with moments from the film that haunt me and I can still remember in pristine detail – a nightmarish mental and physical meltdown in a subway tunnel, the chilling reaction of a child to a crumbling marriage, a disturbing union between a woman and a monster, a brutal exchange of hatred between Neill and Adjani in the kitchen – the film bypasses all logic, all reason, and strikes right at the emotional centers of your brain. It’s the joy of art in that Lynchian sense, where you don’t need words or logic – just images, mood, and emotional heft. And that’s what Possession gives you in spades. Taken all in all, you won’t see much else like it…but you won’t be able to forget it either.

IMDb

Don’t Torture a Duckling / *** ½

220px-don27ttortureaducklingAfter a few stumbles with the works of Dario Argento, I began to wonder if Italian horror just wasn’t for me. But it wasn’t long after that that I was introduced to the work of Lucio Fulci, whose tendencies towards excess, gore, and an admittedly high level of grime all somehow made Italian horror click for me in a way that Argento never has.

Now comes my exposure to the film that put Fulci on the map outside of Italy, as well as the one which found him exploring gore and horror for the first major time in his career: the giallo crime film Don’t Torture a Duckling, about a series of brutal child murders in a small Italian town and the resulting hysteria that arises. All the usual Fulci staples are on display; bad dubbing, excessive gore, a fixation on eyes, and some (gratuitous) seediness. What’s not quite there is the sheer excess of his horrors; the grounded nature of the film, which is more of a traditional horror fil½m than the unchained horrors of The Beyond or Zombie, keeps it from hitting those splattered peaks that Fulci would attain later.

The result isn’t bad, especially if you’re a Fulci fan; while it’s nowhere near the magnificent mood and tension of his best works, Don’t Torture a Duckling compensates by having some of the more interesting ideas of the Fulci films I’ve seen. This is a movie that anchors itself in small town paranoia and judgment, using that to deliver a nightmarish sequence where the town citizens decide to dole out justice on their own terms. There’s also the film’s choice to grapple with religious fervor and mania – a choice that caused no small issue on the film’s release, but also gives it a punch that simple giallo didn’t usually manage.

For all that, though, it also feels like a director dipping his foot into a genre and realizing that it’s too narrow for his ambitions and ideas. Don’t Torture a Duckling feels like Fulci is trying on the giallo film for size, but pushes back against the restrictions and ideas of what it’s doing, and starts figuring out his own interests along the way. It’s not a bad film at all, but it’s more interesting as a stepping stone to better films than it is on its own, despite a few great moments and some intriguing choices along the way.

IMDb

The Witch’s List, by Andrew Cairns / ***

29006270One of the biggest gambles that first-time writers often take is the idea of first-person narration. It’s an understandable risk – first-person offers more chance for you to make a distinctive voice for yourself, to say nothing of the benefits for your characterization. But the risks are high ones to take, since first-person takes all of the same skills that good dialogue takes – a natural flow, a lack of reliance of overly formal speech, and so forth. Do it right, and you’ve established your character and a mood for your book; do it wrong, and your reader will end up suffering through your awkward, stilted flow before giving up.

So, it’s worth starting off by saying that Andrew Cairns’s The Witch’s List takes the gamble and makes it pay off nicely, plunging us into the mind of our hero as he grows up and navigates the complicated waters of his love life. Adding to that complication? When you’re a young boy from Scotland, and you find that your tastes run more to women from Africa and their descendants, that could lead to some self-consciousness. Luckily, Sandy Beech makes his peace with his tastes early in life and runs with it, drifting from woman to woman with all the passion you’d expect from a teenage/college-age young man full of hormones.

As a coming-of-age novel, The Witch’s List isn’t bad. It’s aimless and drifting, but Cairns keeps things moving at a decent clip, following Beech’s romantic and social entanglements with a sense of humor and fun. The problem, though, is that The Witch’s List isn’t really a coming-of-age novel – or, at least, it’s not enough of one to sustain itself. Instead, the book dips its toes into horror every so often, teasing the reader with dark undercurrents before retreating back to love lives and dating.

The result is a book that feels like it’s kind of about nothing, and that’s an issue. It’s nearly 75% of the way through the book before the titular witch’s list is introduced, and its importance to the book turns out to be (maybe) a red herring? It’s hard to say, but whatever the case, the plotting of the book is so aimless and backgrounded as to be non-existent – that is, until a literal last page reveal that shows us some of what’s been going on this whole time. And that’s a neat reveal, in some ways, but it also ends up feeling like an effort to retroactively add some plot to a book that doesn’t have much of one.

The end result is a book that’s never quite sure what it wants to be. It’s not scary enough to be a horror novel; it’s not intriguing or complex enough to be a mystery or a thriller; and it’s not emotional or rich enough to be a coming-of-age novel. Instead, it marks out some weird “no man’s land” between all three of these, and delivers none of them in a particularly interesting fashion. (That it spends so much of the book’s first half building up a character and relationship that ultimately feels irrelevant is a big part of this; it’s the first inkling that the book is just sort of finding itself as it goes along.)

Mind you, none of this is to say that The Witch’s List is out-and-out bad; the writing flows nicely, and the characters mostly come to good life. It’s just that it feels like a book that would benefit from deciding what it wants to be, and embracing that genre, rather than trying to be too many different things and doing none of them satisfactorily.

Amazon

The Wind Through the Keyhole, by Stephen King / ****

windthroughthekeyhole_usI remember being both pleased and uncertain, simultaneously, when Stephen King announced that he had another Dark Tower book coming. Pleased, because these were characters and a universe I loved, and any excuse to return to it was a good one; uncertain, because the Dark Tower series ended, quite conclusively, and I wasn’t sure that we needed another entry, much less one that we would be throwing into the middle of the already completed series. The result, I feared, would either be overly clever (the bane of most prequels), or fairly arbitrary, an unnecessary entry that added little.

To be sure, The Wind Through the Keyhole hews much closer to the latter than the former; it adds almost nothing to the overarching story of the series, instead giving us the equivalent of a bottle episode of nesting stories. As Roland and the ka-tet seek shelter from an intense storm that besets them (not long after the end of Wizard and Glass), Roland tells them a story of his younger years, in which he and another young gunslinger were called in to investigate a series of brutal killings in a small town. And then, in the middle of that story, we find ourselves diving into a long fairy tale of Roland’s world, one that’s told within Roland’s story – in other words, a story within a story within a story.

That’s an appropriate choice for a series that has always been about the power of stories, and indeed, in many ways, The Wind Through the Keyhole is the most forceful expression of that theme, as stories are used for comfort, for knowledge, for distraction, for teaching, and for so many other purposes – entertainment not the least among them. More than that, though, King uses the stories of Keyhole for much the same purpose as J.K. Rowling used the stories of Beedle the Bard – to explore the mythology and folklore of a complex world that we’ve only ever gotten to scratch the surface of.

Much of that comes through in the titular folktale, a long tale about a young boy who goes on a quest to save his mother and deal with his abusive stepfather. Like so much of the Dark Tower series, the result is a fascinating mashup of influences, with elements of Arthurian legends, Western wisdom, Grimm folk tales, and more, all tossed together in a hodgepodge that shouldn’t work, but somehow does anyway – a testament to King’s ability not only to craft a story, but to focus on the emotional arcs that make the story work. And this folktale plays to his strength – it’s a story of coming-of-age, of innocence lost, and of heroic quests – all things that are well within his wheelhouse.

As for the Roland section of the tale, it’s an enjoyable one, if slight; it can’t help but to suffer when compared with the larger scope, ambition, and emotional heft of the similar “Roland’s young Gunslinger Days” story of Wizard and Glass. And yet, it’s still a solid, enjoyable story, one that works both on our desire to see more of this world before it “moved on,” as well as giving us a bit of unexpected emotional to Roland’s relationship with his mother. Is it essential reading? Far from it…but that doesn’t mean it’s unenjoyable or uninteresting. And that’s the book in a nutshell, really; while it’s hard to argue that this is another Dark Tower book that we really “needed,” the pleasures here are undeniable, and the richness of King’s imagination on full display.

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Reincarnation Blues, by Michael Poore / *****

51hmlljnwil-_sx327_bo1204203200_A good portion of the books I read are review copies, and while I’ve come to enjoy the chaos and unpredictability of reading books where I have zero expectations, there are definitely times where I’ve considered giving it up. (Why, yes, these times often correspond with long streaks of bad books – how did you know?) All of which goes to say, the joy of reviewing is that sometimes you get a book like Reincarnation Blues that can completely blindside you, coming out of nowhere and blowing you away with its imagination, humor, style, and richness.

Trying to describe Reincarnation Blues is a bit of a rough task; the best I can do is to say that it combines the millennia-spanning reincarnated souls of Cloud Atlas with the untraditional but rich love story of The Time Traveler’s Wife, with a rich sprinkling of humor that’s oh so welcome. But even that description doesn’t really do the book justice – it doesn’t convey the richness of the storytelling, the quiet silliness, and most of all, the pure warmth of the whole experience.

Reincarnation Blues is the story of a soul named Milo, who’s among the oldest souls in the universe – he’s been reincarnated nearly 10,000 times. That’s given Milo an incredible amount of experience and learning, with lives lived in the ancient past, the distant future, and everywhere in between. But Milo’s favorite parts of existence are the parts in between his lives, where he gets the chance to reunite with the love of his “life”: Suzie…also known as Death. And once you add to that the impending threat of oblivion – because any soul that hasn’t achieved enlightenment by incarnation #10,000 doesn’t get another chance – and there’s a lot of pressure on Milo to figure some things out.

And yet, Reincarnation Blues never feels like a high pressure book. Yes, there’s this deadline looming, and yes, there’s this complicated idea of having a romance with the incarnation of Death, but Reincarnation Blues remains focused, both in plot and thematic terms, on the nature of the human experience – on learning to be kind, on listening to other people, on trying to accept the universe for what it is. It’s a book that’s never really about all of Milo’s lives, despite the way it weaves in and out all of them, giving us scenes of combat, of peace, of future science, of primitive tribes, and every possible combination of all of those. It’s about what Milo did and learned in those lives, and the experiences that shaped him into the person he is.

And yet, there’s no denying that Poore’s incredible imagination gives the book a life that’s undeniable, and maybe all the more effective for how he backgrounds it throughout. More than that, the way he weaves all of Milo’s lives into one complex history – with actions in one life being referenced in another – give the sense of a complex mythology behind the book, a carefully planned out reality that we only get glimpses of. Add to that his quietly funny, sometimes silly writing style, and you have a book that succeeds in no small part to the authorial craft on display in every page.

But more than the imagination, more than the humor, what really made Reincarnation Blues work for me was the warmth of the whole novel. This is a book where the stakes revolve around finding a successful relationship and achieving some sort of internal peace and calm with the universe. And to that end, for all of the drama, for all of the stakes in each individual life that Milo leads, the book is more about connecting to other people, about learning the importance of how we relate to each other and the legacies we leave behind. That’s a great message to receive, but also a rich one, one that’s so welcome in days where we feel constantly pushed against each other. And it’s the thing that really sold me on this book – that, and the great writing, and the rich imagination, and the wonderful characters, and the great humor…well, maybe I just loved all of it, and loved it so much.

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