Women at War: Onibaba (1964)

Onibaba (1964)  Directed by Kaneto ShindÙ

To view Onibaba click here.

In feudal Japan, war is being waged between Imperial forces loyal to the reigning emperor and those who support the shogun. Samurai warriors wearing expensive armor and carrying powerful weapons fight side by side with peasant farmers conscripted into military service. Amid this bloody chaos women, children and the elderly suffer unimaginable horrors including rape, disease and widespread famine.

This is the grim backdrop of Kaneto Shindô’s Onibaba (1964), a bleak, sensual and bone-chilling horror film currently available on the Criterion Channel at FilmStruck. Some critics disagree over the classification of Onibaba but there is no escaping the film’s callous brutality amid its otherworldly beauty. Shindô’s nightmare-inducing vision, depicting the ravages of war on an isolated rural community, is rooted in Buddhist tales and Japanese folklore where terrifying demons haunt the living and possess the dead.

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The Sad, Soulful Shivers of The Others (2001)

The Others (2001) Directed by Alejandro Amen·barShown: Nicole Kidman

To view The Others click here.

A couple of weeks ago, British newspaper The Guardian provoked some vocal reactions from more than a few film fans with an article called “How post-horror movies are taking over cinema,” which made the case that the recent spate of indie films dealing with supernatural tropes represents some evolutionary step within (or beyond) the genre. The argument here is that films from the past two years like It Comes at Night (2017), A Ghost Story (2017), Personal Shopper (2016), The Witch (2015), or Get Out (2017) take a disreputable type of film and make it palatable for critics and art house audiences because they’re trying to say something about the human condition or, you know, not actually stooping to traditional scares.

Of course, anyone familiar with horror films beyond mega-franchises like Saw (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2017) or the spate of toxic remakes of 1970s and 1980s hits will recognize how ill-founded this claim is. Since the silent era the genre has been fertile ground for complex ideas, visual experimentation, unorthodox character development and more social commentary about feminism, race issues and class struggles than just about any Best Picture winner you can name. It’s also the perfect territory for filmmakers to find their voice and take chances that would have been absolutely forbidden elsewhere. Case in point: The Others (2001), directed by Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar. [...MORE]

Set Your Clock for Hour of the Wolf (1968)

Hour_Of_The_Wolf_1968_2

To view Hour of the Wolf click here.

It’s still a bit of a kept secret that almost every great world director from the 1960s and 1970s made a horror film at some point. Fellini and Malle did it. So did Kubrick. And, yes, Ingmar Bergman has one, too, even if you don’t count the supernatural eeriness of Fanny and Alexander (1984) or the harrowing revenge tale The Virgin Spring (1960). I’m talking about Hour of the Wolf (1968), an often overlooked tangent in between his bigger and more traditionally dramatic arthouse hits, Persona (1966) and Shame (1968), which stars two of his most reliable and powerful repertory members, Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann. This was one of seven features the stars made together, though only three were for Bergman.

Hour of the Wolf, or Vargtimmen in Swedish, also happens to be one of the granddaddies of the “isolated artist/writer loses his mind” subgenre of horror film, a now-storied tradition that includes The House that Dripped Blood (1971), Seizure (1974), The Shining (1980) and Secret Window (2004). Here Von Sydow has the honors as Johan, who lives on a remote island with pregnant wife Alma (Ullmann). We know from the start that something terrible has happened since Johan has gone missing with only his diaries and his wife’s memories delivered to the camera as evidence he lived there, and we soon come to learn that he was perpetually haunted by nightmarish visions during the title hour – the darkest, deepest time of night when, according to Bergman, the highest number of people are born and die. (More poetically, “It is the hour when most people die, when sleep is deepest, when nightmares are more real.”) Johan draws the various apparitions that plague him, who look like people except for unnerving habits like removing their faces and eyeballs. He’s also accosted by an aggressive art critic and seems drawn to an enigmatic baron on the other side of the island, where strange denizens like to congregate. [...MORE]

Animal Passions: Cat People (1942)

CAT PEOPLE (1942)

To view Cat People click here.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Cat People (1942) and subscribers can currently catch this spine-chilling classic on the Criterion Channel of FilmStruck through June 30, 2017. Cat People is one of the most influential horror movies made during the 1940s and due to its reputation among film historians, it has been studied and written about extensively with plenty of praise rightfully being heaped on its producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur. With FilmStruck and TCM currently celebrating Pride Month, I thought I’d turn the spotlight on DeWitt Bodeen, the gay American scriptwriter who was responsible for Cat People as well as its sequel, Curse of the Cat People (1944). Bodeen scripted many other classics including The Seventh Victim (1943), The Enchanted Cottage (1945), I Remember Mama (1948) and Billy Budd (1962) but he has often been overshadowed by his esteemed collaborators. To his credit, Bodeen’s work subtly addressed gay oppression at a time when homosexuality was still considered a crime in Hollywood and Cat People is arguably one of the best examples of this.

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Fear of Flowers: Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees (1975)

UNDER THE BLOSSOMING CHERRY TREES (1975)

To view Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees click here.

“Without people, a forest of cherries in full bloom is not pretty, just something to be afraid of.”
- Ango Sakaguchi

Although typically described as a horror film, Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees (1975) defies simple categorization. This grisly adult fairy tale, currently streaming on FilmStruck, is a strange amalgam of traditional Japanese theater, folktales, ghost stories, social commentary, anti-war sentiment, dark humor and existential philosophy based on a story by Ango Sakaguchi titled In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom. Sakaguchi was a bold libertine and like many postwar Japanese writers and artists, he was also a proponent of the European decadent movement that found beauty in death and death in beauty. His wartime experiences deeply affected him and Sakaguchi’s thought-provoking essays and stories expressed his distaste for authority while embracing and eroticizing the destruction that had consumed his country. It’s not surprising that director Masahiro Shinoda (Pale Flower [1964], Samurai Spy [1965], Double Suicide [1967]) was motivated to adapt one of Sakaguchi’s subversive stories for the screen. Much like the author, Shinoda was also a devotee of the decadent movement and his best films incorporate similar ideas and themes. Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees may not be a conventional horror movie, but like the transgressive literature and art that inspired it, this violent tale of carnal desire and obsession contains plenty of horrifying moments.

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An Actor’s Revenge: Theatre of Blood (1973)

THEATRE OF BLOOD

To view Theatre of Blood click here.

“It was a marvelous role because I got to play eight Shakespearean parts in it, which is a feast for any actor. And I got to knock off eight critics. It was a story dear to the heart of any old actor. It was a dream to make and very real to me. I really understand the man who is doing his very best and yet is unrecognized.” – Vincent Price, discussing his starring role in Theatre of Blood (1973) from The Price of Fear: The Film Career of Vincent Price, In His Own Words by Joel Eisner

In 1970 Vincent Price became discouraged by the state of his career. He was acting regularly, writing cookbooks, appearing on stage and in a variety of television programs while generously supporting the arts as a member of the Royal Society of Arts, the Arts Council of UCLA and the Fine Arts Committee of the White House, but he agonized over his reputation. According to his daughter Victoria Price and author of Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography, her father worried that he wasn’t taken seriously by his fellow actors due to his career choices. The lack of respect from his peers encouraged the 60-year-old actor to embrace the monstrous roles he had made famous. From mad doctors to witch hunters and a plethora of Poe villains and antiheroes, Price had perfected the role of a sympathetic scoundrel.

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The Curse of Eternal Life: Cronos (1993)

CRONOS (1993)

Guillermo del Toro was still in his twenties when he wrote and directed Cronos (1993), a horror movie, yes, but also a movie about time and age and what it means to live forever. One might think 29 too young an age to tackle such subjects but when it comes to horror, in particular, and moviemaking, in general, del Toro could easily be the subject of Count Dracula’s famous response to Van Helsing, “For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you are a wise man.” Since then, del Toro’s reputation has grown and his movies have become blockbusters at the box office but his first one out might still be my favorite.

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Devil’s Advocate: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby (1968), which is streaming on The Criterion Channel at FilmStruck throughout the month of March, is rightly hailed as one of the best American horror films of the 1960s. It begins and ends with a mother’s lullaby but the unsettling story of Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse is anything but soothing. Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes star as a young married couple who move into an antiquated apartment building in New York with an unpleasant history. After reluctantly befriending some colorful and intrusive elderly neighbors (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer), the Woodhouse’s lives are gradually transformed into a Faustian nightmare.

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Every Day Is Like Black Sunday (1960)

BlackSunday1960_6

Okay, it may technically be Wednesday, but there’s never a bad day of the week to pay a visit to Black Sunday (1960), the grandmother of Italian horror films. Sure, the country produced a few movies with horrifying or macabre elements, most notably Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1957), but here’s where the magic really kicked into high gear and set the stage for a dazzling wave of phantasmagorical creations that would run well into the 1990s. [...MORE]

A Double Dose of Boris Karloff

Haunted_Strangler_1958_0

Life has been throwing me lots of curveballs lately and when I’m feeling low, I tend to gravitate towards what I like to call “comfort food films” and my comfort food tends to be classic horror films. During the cold winter months, cozying up on the couch with a warm beverage and a couple of creaky old black and white horror movies can make even the worse week seem manageable. Fortunately, I found exactly what I required streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, The Haunted Strangler (1958) and Corridors of Blood (1958). Both of these low-budget British thrillers were directed by Robert Day and feature standout performances from William Henry Pratt aka the one and only Boris Karloff.

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