Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Capsule reviews: Cat Nine Tails, Maniac, Last House on Left

Happy Valentine's Day! In an attempt to totally forgo whatever warm and fuzzy emotions February 14th typically inspires, here are three reviews for films a colleague at work was kind enough to lend me on DVD, all three of which feature murder, mutilation, rape and torture. Enjoy!

The Cat O' Nine Tails/Il Gatto a Nove Code (1971, Dario Argento)

The Cat O' Nine Tails is celebrated Italian director Dario Argento's sophomore feature after The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, both of which fall firmly in the camp of Italian 'giallo', in other words, Italian crime and suspense thrillers. In Tails, the oddball team of an elderly, blind, retired journalist (Karl Malden) and a young, spunky reporter (James Franciscus), as well as the former's young granddaughter (Cinzia De Carolis) investigate the mysterious murders of people who all have links to a groundbreaking research programme in one of Italy's finest genetics facilities. The research concerns a previously unknown chromosome, XYY, which exists in only a select few humans and compels them to commit the most heinous acts of violence.

Suspiria is arguably this director's most revered work, but that film would only come some years down the road and is characterized by a entirely different tone, in which unbelievable lighting and the supernatural shroud the proceedings, creating a prevailing sense of wonder and fear. Tails is far more grounded, functioning essentially as a crime mystery. Such films are not obligated to rely primarily on the creativity and interest stimulated by the plot, provided they can muster strengths in other departments, which is exactly the case here. Notwithstanding the occasionally distracting dubbing which makes the artificiality of the speech too pronounced, the performances are rather charming, working on some stereotypes viewer's have undoubtedly encountered before in a variety of other movies. It is all in the fun of seeing two people who at first glance to do not appear to have much in common come form an alliance to satisfy their journalistic instincts. Thank goodness that the characters are as engaging as they are because the plot in of itself is not very memorable. Argento makes earnest attempts at punctuating the story with little unexpected flares here and there, such as having one of the suspected scientists be a gay man who enjoys spending his evenings in bars where men cross dress. For a film which plays out like a straightforward mystery, the director certainly demonstrates his desire to make the killings feel as painful and uncomfortable as possible. It is a tactic which can catch the viewer off guard in that these dramatically violent spurts are never hinted at and suddenly... All in all, The Cat O' Nine Tails is a decent little thriller.

Maniac (1980, William Lustig)

There is a sense of panic on the dingy nighttime streets of Manhattan. A crazed killer is on the prowl for pretty young woman, destroying them mercilessly. What the unsuspecting viewer might not anticipate is that the film, rather than adopt the vantage point of the victims or the police tasked with investigating the matter, chooses to have the killer (Joe Spinell) as its 'protagonist', if he can be described as such. At various stages of the film, actor Spinell narrates the ongoing mental dialogue the character struggles with. Evidently enough, this man is terribly disturbed, haunted by terrible memories and some sort of double personality.

From what information could be gathered prior to the writing of this article, it would seem director William Lustig's picture has gained the status of cult favourite, which is fair enough. Truth be told, evaluating such movies is incredibly difficult, for what makes exhibit A a good picture while exhibit B less so? Readers who have been around for a while know that on more than one occasion in 2011, Between the Seats showered praise on Kim Jee-woon's I Saw the Devil, a film whose notoriety is not far removed of that which Maniac wears proudly on its sleeve. Maybe it is the difference in craftsmanship, maybe the acting, maybe the possible themes the individuals movies explore (or only purport to explore, for those who remain unconvinced), but there is surely something, anything that genuinely differentiates films like I Saw the Devil and Maniac as far as overall quality. Devil is amazing. Maniac is a piece of garbage of the very worst kind. The worst crime a film can commit is to cast a spell of boredom on the viewer. There is nothing remotely interesting that transpires Lustig's film. The victims are nothing more than a series of pointless tarts, undeserving of the audience's sympathy (this is an addition to the fact that the film spends films about 10 minutes building up the kills. 10 minutes to spend with these bimbos, only to see them hacked and slashed? Good grief...), but then again, nor is the titular maniac. So he had mommy issues as a lad. And? The film lacks tension, it lacks any modicum of sophistication (and yes, such a film can, theoretically, exude a little bit). True enough, Maniac is an example of pure cheese from the early 1980s, although said details should never function as excuses for the endless, brainless scenes involving murders which are utterly devoid of...of anything quite frankly. It revels too much in the graphic nature of the violence. Bill at his Movie Emporium often calls out films that use exploitation merely for the sake of it. Maniac is one such film where the violence seems to be the all that matters. It was quite funny to read on the DVD back cover that Maniac supposedly features actor Joe Spinell's career defining performance. Now that is a bold claim, especially if the actor actually agrees with that sentiment. Just, wow.

The Last House on the Left (1972, Wes Craven)
Wes Craven exploded onto the horror film scene in 1972 with one of the most shocking, disturbing films ever: The Last House on the Left. Mari (Sandra Cassel), as a celebration of her 17th birthday, tags along with her good friend from the city, Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) as they plan to head into town for a concert. However, little do they know the night has drastically different plans in store for the both of them. Everything goes haywire from the moment they encounter a terrible foursome, escaped convicts wanted for vile crimes against humanity (played by David Hess, Fred Lincoln, Jeramie rain and Marc Cheffler). The quartet kidnap Mari and Phyllis and engage in the utmost cruel acts on them in the woods and against their will. When Mari's parents find out however, the game changes completely. All the while two bumbling cops attempt to track down the villains.

For so many unexpected reasons, The Last House on the Left is incredible. It begins with making the two female leads sympathetic. They are young, lively, and overall simply decent people, as opposed to the brash, annoying characters which populate horror slasher films in our current day and age. The duress they are go under is extreme, yet all through it the actresses are capable of producing solid performances. The viewer does honestly want to see them make it out alive. Even more surprising are the performances from the villains, with special mention going David Hess, as Krug, the leader of the gang, and Fred Lincoln, the paedophile. Both are outrageously mean spirited, yet just when the film looks to make them out to be nothing but grim monsters, they are given personalities beyond their villainy. They are actually funny in some scenes. Granted, their brand of comedy is vulgar, but if it manages to tickle the viewer's funny bone, one can be in for a fun ride. Sometime the laughs emerge from lines of dialogue, others times mere looks and movements. Speaking of comedy, Wes Craven is intent on making Last House a quintessential horror-comedy. Unlike how some of the recent blends fully merge those two elements seamlessly together in a very close marriage (Shaun of the Dead being one such example), director approaches it in a different, far more shocking manner. One moment, the action depicted on screen is horrific and depressing, and the very next the laughs are piled on in a completely different scene which seems disconnected from what happened moments prior. But they are connected in the weirdest fashion, either because it involves the police who are after the criminals or the criminals themselves who enjoy strange little moments of tranquillity and rest just after either mutilating or raping a victim. It's tough work being a rapist, after all. Obviously, this may appear very strange to anyone reading this who has not seen the film, and rest assured, that reaction is justified. Last House is a strange movie, make no mistake about it. To top things off, actor David Hess was also a singer songwriter. Craven had him contribute to the soundtrack, which features several songs played with a banjo type instrument and Hess' singing as if telling a great old amusing folk tale. They're raping these innocent teenagers! There are definitely moments in the film when even this writer had to ask himself 'What in heaven's name is going on here?!' People all encounter, at least once or twice, films that work for inexplicable reasons. There are plenty of reasons why Last House should not work, but it continuously defies expectations and does work.


Bill Thompson said...

Interesting, I loathe Craven's version of Last House and greatly cherish the remake.

edgarchaput said...

@ I cannot offer comment pertaining to the remake. I haven't seen it. Why don't you like the Craven version?

Bill Thompson said...

I felt the Craven remake went too far with little to offer in the way of content. Outside of that it's just a film that's never worked for me, although my memory of it is slipping as I haven't seen it in a good ten or so years.