Thursday, August 29, 2013

Herz So Good

If you were browsing Netflix Instant last year and passed on viewing this film based solely on its incredibly generic title and tagline, I don't blame you. "What are you scared of?" isn't exactly the most conceptually brilliant marketing line and the name Darkness was used earlier in the decade in another haunted house film starring Anna Paquin. So it's completely understandable that someone would opt for something fresher sounding and original.  But let me retroactively try to entice you into tracking this one down by first offering a few screenshots...


The film, originally titled T.M.A. (and I have no idea what that stands for, yet it's still better than the unimaginative english release title), was directed by Juraj Herz who was part of the Czech new wave back in the late 60's. Herz's most critically acclaimed film, The Cremator, was made 40 years prior to T.M.A. and is a very unsettling look at a control-freak restauranteur and part-time mortuary employee who finds that he fits right into the late 30's Nazi party. That the protagonist (who is played beautifully by Rudolf Hrusinsky), appears a polite, unassuming, ever-smiling, pleasure loving, family man makes him all the more chilling as he increasingly rationalizes his growing megalomaniacal madness. The film is a brilliant understated work that reminded me thematically of Wolfgang Staudte's Der Untertan (Man of Straw) only with a much darker tone and the blackest of comedy leanings.

Born in 1934, Herz was obviously deeply disturbed by the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia during his childhood as it shows up in his work often, not only in The Cremator and his latest film Habermann, but in T.M.A. as well. In fact, the Nazi backstory wasn't in the original T.M.A. screenplay by Martin Nemec, but was subsequently added in by Herz and definitely elevates the movie to something more than the average haunted house tale.
The plot involves a Prague rock guitarist, Marek (Ivan Franek), who decides to return to his childhood home and start painting. This is probably not the greatest idea since he subsequently finds out his house has a worse pedigree than the one in Poltergeist and the townsfolk, with one notable exception of the local postwoman, are none to friendly. As Marek gets the house in order and begins painting, weirdness ensues from every quarter.
The film sports a solid Fulci-esque ocular intro intercut with Marek's band rocking out in a club. It also features some enjoyable sleaziness in the middle when Marek's bandmates visit him with a groupie in tow. Even the ending has a mystery twist, and if not for its haunted house aspects, the movie could be categorized as more giallo than horror. What kept me guessing and off balance, was the multitude of red herring characters and plot devices introduced in the first half of the film. There are creepy townies, a mysterious archivist, a one-eyed, asylum-dwelling woman, a man-tastic singer and her sleazy, party loving boyfriend/manager, a property where ritualistic human sacrifices were purported to have taken place, a house with the world's worst plumbing that was previously occupied by the SS, a haunted radio that only plays the Oh du lieber Augustin song and some gentle, spectral Down's Syndrome kids who appear intermittently. All of these elements may prove one too many for some, but Herz ties it all up at the end, albeit a little too neatly.
The direction is consistently strong and Herz is unafraid to move the camera around even going hand held when appropriate. He also mixes in some dutch angles, overhead shots and lens filtering, but sparingly, and never as an annoying gimmick that wears out its welcome as in much modern horror. There's an unnecessary gore scene in flashback near the end that felt inserted just for the sake of it and an unexplained disappearance of a body but otherwise, the film is a stylish and atmospheric horror/mystery.
For those whose only experience with Juraj Herz is T.M.A., I'd strongly recommend checking out The Cremator and his superb 1978 Czech adaptation of Beauty and the Beast:

T.M.A. 7.25
The Cremator 8.50
Beauty and the Beast 7.75

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Sunshine (Award) on my shoulder

Thanks to Dusty over at the Playground of Doom blog for throwing some light in my direction and nominating me for The Sunshine Award*. It's always a pleasure to receive such attention from a like-minded cinephile, outstanding writer and all-around, good egg.

10 Questions 

1. Favorite actor/actress who is not a household name?

Nick Damici from Mulberry Street, Stake Land and the upcoming Somos lo que hay remake. Damici, in addition to being a fine actor, has an old-school tough guy look very reminiscent of Charles Bronson or William Smith and is anything but the omnipresent generic pretty-boy of modern day cinema.

Émilie Dequenne - a Belgian actress who made an impressive debut as a desperate underclass working girl in the Dardenne brother's Rosetta and followed this up playing royalty in Christophe Gans' fantastic genre mash-up Brotherhood of the Wolf. She continues to mix it up nicely doing horror like 2010's, The Pack, mysteries like 2006's, Fissures and more serious stuff like The Girl on the Train from 2009.

2. Favorite Animal?

The California King Snake -

There are a lot of rattlesnakes in Shasta County where I live. However, there are none where I work and it's due to this guy, who is a natural predator of the rattlesnake, but not a danger to people. Thanks for keeping me safe on the job California King snake, you do indeed rule. 

3. Favorite non-alcoholic beverage?

Almond chocolate milk - mmm, low calorie and delicious.

4. Favorite music?

I've got pretty eclectic tastes which is probably why movie soundtracks take up the majority of my ipod space. Everything from Bollywood to 70's Italian genre cinema.

5. Favorite TV show? 

Robin of Sherwood (1984-1986)  The weird thing is I don't like any of the Robin Hood cinema adaptations at all. This Richard Carpenter creation did it right though by filming on location, using Clannad's music and throwing in just a pinch of mysticism for flavor. Plus, Ray Winstone is the coolest Will Scarlet ever. Yes, the cheap film stock is grainy as hell, but it's still enjoyable despite this and quite different than any other incarnation of the story.

6. Favorite sport?

Baseball to watch, bowling to play.

7. Movie that most people love that I dislike?

Gone with the Wind is so melodramatic but still incredibly dull and plodding. Inglorious Basterds was a tonal mess with a ridiculous climax and the most unbelievable WWII film ever made.

8. Favorite short film?

Suspicious (1994) An urban legend-like, shaggy dog story that works thanks to Michael Rooker. Don't believe the insanely low rating on IMdB, this short is solid.

9. Passion?

No doubt about it, it's film. I'm averaging about 700 a year and watch virtually no TV nowadays. I've been getting into a lot of older films of late and am amazed by how much quality stuff I still haven't seen.

10. Favorite soundtrack from 2013?

Haven't seen any films from 2013! However, my favorite soundtrack of all time is from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Night of the Comet are two of the funnest pop soundtracks.

Blog Picks

There is no shortage of great movie blogs written, but the first two of the choices below are so good, they inspired me to start up my own humble effort.

  1. Hans' Quiet Cool is an intelligent, incisive and gloriously esoteric look at the heyday of European genre cinema. 
  2. Emily's insightful, humorous and very entertaining Deadly Doll's House of Horror Nonsense delves into some of the most obscure gourmet fromage horror films you've never heard of.  
  3. Brian's Rupert Pupkin Speaks features some great lists of forgotten movie gems by knowledgable guests and Brian himself.
  4. K.H. Brown's incredibly comprehensive Giallo Fever blog has covered about every giallo film ever made and many other Euro treasures as well. A great resource if you want to dig deep into the genre.
  5. Although the posts are few and far between both Dean Brierly's Fifties Crime Films and Sixties Crime Films are quality looks at under-seen crime films from these decades.
  6. The Euro-western genre is covered in extensive detail by Tom B. in Westerns... All' Italiana!
  7. A blog that's relatively new to me, but I love the choices of films reviewed thus far is Jeffrey Canino's Nessun timore.
  8. An old favorite, written by the Mill Creeps podcaster and GGtMC contributor Aaron is The Death Rattle blog.
  9. Mykal covers many of my favorite classic sci-fi films from the golden age at the Radiation Cinema! blog
  10. Another blog I'm new to written by a guy named Jeff who has outstanding taste in old movies (sounds familiar) is The Stalking Moon.
Thanks to all who take the time and make the effort to share their love of cinema. Some of the best movies I've viewed in recent years have been because of your writings.

*S.A. Rules -

Participation is strictly voluntary.
1. Include the award’s logo in a post or on your blog.
2. Link to the person who nominated you.
3. Answer 10 questions about yourself (use these or come up with your own).
4. Nominate 10 bloggers to pass the award on to.  (This is as much about sharing as it is about receiving.)  
5. Link your nominees to the post and comment on their blogs, letting them know they have been nominated.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Clean My Shoes, Oscar Madison!

Wouldn't the 70's TV sitcom reprise of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple have been so much better if Felix and Oscar had been hit men? And wouldn't Henry Silva have made a much more interesting clean freak than Tony Randall? And wouldn't it have been great if they'd have had to go on a road trip together to France to rub out a potential mafia stoolie? Just think of the comic hijinks that would have ensued as an angry Silva frustratedly explained to an apathetic Klugman that he likes it clean just before they go in to kill a guy. What's that? You want to see such a show? Unfortunately, that version of the TV show never existed, but there was this little French film from 1965...

Based on the novel by Pierre Lesou, who also wrote the Melville adapted Le Doulos three years earlier, Je vous salue, mafia! (Hail, Mafia) is a serious, low key, existential trip involving two seemingly disparate hit men assigned to silence a potential mob informant in Marseille. Complications arise, however, when the mafia kingpin in jeopardy from the possible testimony is unexpectedly released from jail and calls off the contract. Ubiquitous 70's TV star, Jack Klugman, plays mafia soldier, Phil, who has personal reasons for wanting in on the hit and talks his way into the contract over the obvious disapproval of fellow button man and prospective partner Schaft (Henry Silva). The two men ultimately team up and fly to Paris to meet their contact (Micheline Presle) who has made arrangements to expedite the hit. Meanwhile, their target, Rudy Hamberg (Eddie Constantine), who has already eluded one attempt on his life, makes his own preparations.

I initially watched this film knowing only the title and that Silva and Klugman starred. I wasn't expecting much and the poor quality of the print I was viewing only served to dim any optimism. But by the end of the film, I was stunned at just how strong the story, atmosphere and characters were especially in the the last act which provides a truly sublime and fitting denouement to the proceedings. The plot is simple yet deceptive in its subtle execution. Developments that will serve as complications are casually introduced into the story in such an ordinary, slice-of-life fashion that their import can almost be missed amongst the banality. While the leads do everyday things like shave, bathe, read the paper and dine out, the plot still inches ever forward toward the inevitable. The stripped down, moody style of the film feeds right into this slow walk to oblivion with high contrast, stark, yet very bright, monochromatic photography, a crazy jazz soundtrack and a desolate rural setting in the final act. Silva and Klugman's hit men characters are the principle focus of the film and though they are anything but a squabbling Odd Couple, there is a fundamental difference in personal make up. Silva's Schaft is the erudite type as evidenced by his book loans to Klugman's Phil and his occasionally donned, thick-framed glasses. Despite admitting to speaking "not one word" of French, Schaft nevertheless uses the correct enunciation when giving directions to places like Dijon while Phil apathetically struggles with the foreign pronunciation. Phil, despite hailing from the same neighborhood in New York as Schaft, appears much less polished and more low class than Schaft by virtue of his bull-in-a-china-shop attitude, rumpled look and penchant for horse racing. Klugman's hangdog, schlubby physical appearance feeds right into this persona. There seems to be differences in personal philosophy between the two as well. At one point, Silva's character states simply "I like clean"  meaning he prefers the orderly, clear cut, structure and code of the mafia hit man. Klugman, who apparently disregarded the rules when he insinuated himself into the contract for his own reasons, doesn't appear to care about this, but nevertheless wants Silva's approval. This conflict between the two men causes an undercurrent of tension throughout the film that only surfaces in the beginning and near the end culminating in an almost Jules and Vincent-type time-out just before the hit when the characters stop and verbally hash out their differences. It's a climactic moment in the relationship that occurs just prior to the climax of the plot itself and serves its purpose well given how the story plays out.

There are some bumps early in the film including a few mediocre supporting performances by very minor characters, some choppy editing and a Manos-style, metronome-like section in an otherwise solid jazz score. The target's mistress and accompanying subplot were completely disposable as well. But these flaws were brief in duration, and believe me when I say, all is forgiven by the end of the final act when everything comes together perfectly to bring home one of the strongest and most satisfying endings I've seen in a crime film.

Score 8.25/10