Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Franco-Thon


*This article originally appeared in Fangoria Issue 325 (August 2013)


When news of Jesus Franco’s death emerged, fringe-cinema fans worldwide planned tributes to the master of erotic horror. Among them was Dear God No! director and exploitation historian James Bickert. On April 5th, his amazing backyard drive-in played host to the Dusk ‘til Dawn Memorial Franco-thon. Drinks flowed freely, mysterious smoked meats were savored Countess Perverse style, and the Atlanta horror scene praised Jesus under the stars all night long. It’s doubtful that any party could more perfectly capture the same perverse beauty, sleazy atmosphere, and propensity to veer into “what the hell just happened?” territory at a moment’s notice that exemplified the style of the euro-trash auteur.
The marathon kicked off with one of his glossier films, Venus in Furs (1969). The Franco-philes proclaimed their appreciation for the bizarre visuals and dream logic while failing miserably at explaining the barely existent plot to the uninitiated. The heavy doses of sex and jazz were enough to please both camps, eliciting repeated chants of “horns and boobs!” Following Venus was the incredibly sexy Eugenie De Sade (1974) starring the smolderingly gorgeous Soledad Miranda (Franco’s first muse).
Perhaps Eugenie set the bar too high as Sinner (1972), a flick surprisingly few there had seen, couldn’t follow and failed to impress. Despite also being known as Diary of a Nymphomaniac, it lacked sufficiently in both gore and nudity that mob rule led to the film being axed. At that point, the evening took a cue from Franco and careened into the unexplainable and absurd.
The next thing anyone knew, Bloody Bloody Bible Camp had somehow snuck into the playlist. Sometime during that movie, a pack of dogs… yes, actual wild dogs, tried to steal a pork shoulder from the grill. The meat was successfully defended, but it was obviously a sign that we had angered the cinema gods. How to Seduce a Virgin (1974) brought things back to the honoree, playing almost like a satisfying “greatest hits” package of tried and true Franco tropes. Then it was on to hardcore horror with Jack the Ripper (1976), one of his goriest pictures. It was also the nights’ first on screen appearance by the luscious Lina Romay.
After exploring Franco’s softcore and horror sides, and having been exposed to more Klaus Kinski than is probably healthy, we knew that there was only one facet of Franco’s career left to explore. In the wee hours of the morning, we went headlong into XXX territory with Entre Pitos Anda el Juego (1986). The things Romay does in that flick cannot be described in a respectable magazine such as this.
Juliette was to be the last film of the night. In a fitting call back to the way many of us first discovered Franco’s oeuvre, we watched a bootleg VHS with no subtitles. As the impending daybreak threatened to end the party, the grand finale was prepared. It was time to send the inflatable effigy of Lina Romay (think Bartel’s Private Parts) that had been our guest of honor all evening to meet Jesus in the heavens.  While it is true that she died in 2012, this was not a crowd that would let technicalities stand in the way of a grand dramatic gesture. The fact that a blow up doll filled with helium will not float wouldn’t stop the proceedings either. Anything will fly if you attach enough balloons to it, and fly she did. As a final toast was raised to Franco and his leading lady disappeared into the clouds, everyone felt exactly how one should feel after a Franco flick; a little confused, thoroughly debauched, strangely edified, and undeniably entertained.

Hall of Fame - The Hills Have Eyes


*This article originally appeared in issue 37 of HorrorHound Magazine


In the 2000’s, Wes Craven is considered one of the elder statesmen of horror.  In the 80’s and 90’s, he was known as a hit-maker and master of his craft.  In the 70’s, however, Craven was a young maverick with a cinematic mean streak who refused to pull his punches.  It was this Craven that gave us two of the genre’s most ferocious and visceral classics, Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes.  Both are tales of warring families.  In Last House, the violence stems from a desire for sick kicks on one side and vengeance on the other.  In Hills, the opposing clans are locked in a tribal battle simply for survival.  Last House may be horror at its most depraved, but The Hills Have Eyes is horror at its most primal.

It’s the story of The Carter family, three generations of which are traveling cross-country.  While traversing the Nevada desert, they ignore a local’s advice to “stay on the main road” (don’t they always?) and find themselves stranded in the middle of a hostile, barren landscape.  Even more dangerous than the terrain is the primitive, feral group of cannibals (led by Papa Jupiter) that is hunting them down.  Out of their element and backed into a corner, they are forced into a savage kill-or-be-killed battle; leaving this peaceful family no choice but to delve into their darkest primordial instincts to protect themselves, and their loved ones, from their animalistic attackers.

Originally titled “Blood Relations: The Sun Wars” and inspired by the legend of Sawney Bean and his Scottish family of flesh eaters, Hills was slapped with an X rating by the MPAA when it was released in 1977.  Extensive cuts were made, and that footage is now believed to be lost, but the brutal power of the film still remains.  One needs look no further than the infamous “camper scene” to see the intensity Craven imbues his film with.  In one single scene a man is burned alive, a grandmother and a young mother are shot, another woman is raped, and a baby is abducted to be eaten later.  It’s as if Wes wanted to see just how many taboos he could break in one scene.  Today’s jaded horror audiences may have seen it all, but watch this film in a packed theater and see if it doesn’t still pack a wallop for the modern audience.  In ’77, however, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was really the only film that had even come close to this kind of merciless violence.  Interestingly, in addition to thematic similarities, these two films share an art director (Bob Burns) and some of the same set dressings. 

While 70’s horror was predominantly concerned with the demonic and supernatural, Hills offered up realistic human-on-human cruelty.  No stylized violence here.  The down and dirty murder and mayhem on display in Hills wasn’t meant to be observed, it was designed to be felt.  No one was safe.  The first death in the film is a German Shepherd.  The disemboweling of the family dog was Craven’s way of throwing down the gauntlet and letting the viewer know that he wasn’t playing by the rules.  The audience couldn’t help but wonder, “If he would kill a dog, would he kill a baby?”  In fact, infanticide was actually considered at one point, with the cast and crew threatening “if he kills the baby, we’re outta here.”

In addition to proving that this Craven kid was no one hit wonder, Hills kick started the careers of two other horror icons.  Dee Wallace, who previously had a bit part in The Stepford Wives, got her big break in Hills before going on to star in such landmark fright flicks as The Howling and Cujo.  After making his screen debut in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Michael Berryman made his first foray into the macabre with Hills.  He has since become a mainstay in the horror genre and frequent convention guest, but Pluto is still arguably the role he is best known for.  Coincidentally, his is probably the image most closely associated with the film today.

The Hills Have Eyes was a modest success upon its initial release.  It did well enough to spawn a sequel in 1985, which was directed and later disowned by Craven.  Mind Ripper, released in 1995, was marketed in some areas as The Hills Have Eyes 3 (or The Hills Still Have Eyes) despite having absolutely nothing to do with the series.  The original Hills has since become a revered cult classic, gaining a new following during the home video boom of the 80’s.  One interesting indication of the film’s place in horror history is the presence of a torn The Hills Have Eyes poster on the basement wall in The Evil Dead, although it’s unclear whether this is an homage to the film in general or a call back to the torn Jaws poster in the Carter’s camper.  Then, in 2006, Craven and original Hills producer Peter Locke (who also played Mercury) teamed with director Alexandre Aja for a hit remake.  The remake proved popular enough to spawn its own sequel and a comic book spin-off.

The impact of The Hills Have Eyes is undeniable even three and a half decades after its release.  While “rural survival horror” had been around previously, Hills laid out a lot of the template for the “you folks don’t belong ‘round these parts” style flicks that would follow.  The legacy of Craven’s classic slice of wilderness brutality can be felt in films from Just Before Dawn all the way up through Wrong Turn and, in a role reversal, The Woman.  As long as city slickers foolishly stray into unfamiliar territory - and as long as marauding inbred cannibals are there to terrorize them - the specter of The Hills Have Eyes will be there, warning us to stay on the main road.  For the sake of the horror genre, I hope mankind never learns that lesson.

Monday, July 17, 2017

George A Romero: My Tribute




I can say, without the slightest shred of hyperbole, that I would not be the man I am today had it not been for George Romero.  It would be the farthest thing possible from an exaggeration to say that, despite the fact that I never met the man, or was ever even in the same room as him, his impact on my life is equal to, if not greater than, anyone who has ever walked the planet.  The death of an artist can be a very bizarre and complex phenomenon.  Those who mourn are often looked upon with scorn for placing so much emphasis on the passing of a public figure that, in the strictest terms, wasn’t a physical part of their world.  But for those whose lives were deeply touched by that person’s art, it can feel like the loss of a family member.  A beloved friend.  A mentor.  A hero.  Even a sort of spiritual figure.  That is the power that lies in the essence of art.  Art changes lives.  And I can honestly say that I have never felt an artist’s passing as intensely as I feel this one because George Romero’s art, in a very real and literal sense, profoundly altered the course of my life.  There would never have been a Son of Celluloid without him.  More importantly however, had it not been for one fateful viewing of Night of the Living Dead, I’m not even sure who Nathan Hamilton would be today.



In 1992, I was a very mixed up kid.  As the son of a Southern Baptist minister and a member of a traveling evangelistic family unit as a child, I had been fully indoctrinated.  Some would call it brainwashing.  From birth I was being groomed to carry on the family business.  But there was a side of me that I didn’t understand.  I had always found myself attracted to the darkness.  While others were preaching about Jesus healing lepers, I was enamored with the seven headed apocalyptic beasts in Revelations.  While my father talked about the resurrection from the pulpit, I was rendering the best gory-as-hell depictions of crucifixions my five year old art skills would allow on the back of church bulletins.  More than one concerned Sunday School teacher called my folks in for a conference when, upon being tasked with drawing a picture from a bible story, I turned in an image of David holding Goliath’s dripping, severed head aloft.



I was just doing what came natural to me, but it was always treated as some sort of derangement that needed to be fixed.  I was sick.  These urges were of the devil.  Why are you like this?  Why can’t you be normal?  Do you think this glorifies the Lord?  What’s the matter with you?  When your entire world view is based on sin and salvation, if you are told enough times by those you believe to be spiritual leaders that there is something deeply wrong with you, you start to believe it yourself.  If an impressionable child is prayed over to “take this wickedness from him” enough times, it will inevitably get inside their head.  And this is where I found myself in early October of 1992; with a deep seeded inner turmoil.  I was torn between my honest proclivity towards the macabre and the fear that these urges very well may be the work of infernal powers after all.  I didn’t know what to think.



Then came a night that, 25 years later, I still remember as vividly as a snapshot.  On my little black and white TV in my room, I discovered that some now long defunct and forgotten UHF station was about to show a movie called Night of the Living Dead.  I had heard the name somewhere before, and I knew I had to see it.  That night, basking in the glorious monochrome glow, I saw my first horror movie.  I wasn’t afraid.  I was mesmerized.  As the movie progressed, I slowly came to the realization that if this kind of entertainment existed, then there were more people out there like me.  Lots more.  Enough that they made movies just for them.  I was reveling in the things that fed my soul, the very things I had been taught to hate and fear, and nothing bad was happening.  I felt no satanic command to kill people.  My soul wasn’t being dragged to the abyss.  In fact, I was the happiest I had ever been.  Watching that movie felt… it felt like home.



When it  ended, I laid down in bed and thought long and hard.  Everything I had ever been taught said that what I had just done was wrong.  But everything within me had never felt so right.  It was in that moment that I decided that I no longer wanted to be what I was being made into.  I wanted to be who I actually was.  As I drifted off to sleep, that inner turmoil was gone.  In its place, I felt truly at peace for the first time I could remember.  The person that I would eventually grow into was born in that moment.  That’s why I call myself the Son of Celluloid.  Because I feel like that singular movie experience gave birth to the real me.  And although I now know that it takes a small army to make a film happen, in my 12 year old mind that realization, that conversion, was thanks to one man; the director.  George A Romero.  I guess, in a way, you could call him the Father of Celluloid.



About a year later, the first horror movie I ever purchased was, of course, Night of the Living Dead.   That beat to hell VHS still sits in my collection as the cornerstone of the horror obsession at the core of my being.  I couldn’t begin to count how many times I’ve watched it.  For years, I watched it as I went to sleep nearly every night.  The first thing I’ve done on my last 20 or so Halloweens is put that movie on.  When I went to film school, about 75% of my projects and essays were about his body of work (the other quarter were about Argento).  I always hoped, one day, that I would get to meet the man who changed my life and thank him.  When I started getting involved with the Days of the Dead conventions, I always hoped he would be there one year.  Sadly, our paths never crossed.  He was supposed to be the keynote guest in Indianapolis a couple of weeks ago.  I had that old VHS tape ready for him to sign.  I was finally going to meet the man who had meant more to me than he possibly could have ever known.  Truth be told, I probably would have blathered like an idiot or just frozen in the face of a man who, in my mind, had been built up to damn near Godlike status.  It was not to be, however.  He cancelled due to health reasons.  I was crushed, but held the hope that he would be healthy again when the next con came around.  Sadly, there will never be a next time.



This may have all sounded very maudlin and melodramatic to some of you, but my words are the only tribute I have for a man who, in a way that cannot be overstated, set me free.  It’s strange knowing that I now live in a world where the godfather of independent horror no longer walks among us.  I’m sure he knew his stature in the horror world.  I’m sure he’s been told countless times by countless filmmakers that he was their inspiration.  I’m sure he knew that, by creating the modern zombie, he changed the landscape of the genre forever.  I’m sure untold numbers of fans have made him uncomfortable professing their admiration for him just like I probably would have.  But I wonder if he knew just how far his influence transcended horror entertainment and touched the very hearts, minds, and lives of his fans and, in cases like mine, was a guiding force in who they would come to be.  My fondest hope is that he somehow did.



So now here I sit, watching Night of the Living Dead for the only god knows how many hundredth time.  In the past, I have watched this movie and thrilled.  I have watched this movie and marveled.  I have watched this movie and laughed.  I have watched this movie and been comforted.  I have watched this movie and learned.  I have watched this movie and adored every second of entertainment it has given me.  But tonight, for the very first time, I watch this movie and weep.  Thank you, George.  Not just for what you did, but for what you meant.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Review: Death-Scort Service



You may find this hard to believe, but the Son of Celluloid has, once or twice, been accused of being a movie snob.  I know, right?  Usually it’s when I’m proclaiming my love for something artsy-fartsy and high-concept.  Now don’t get me wrong.  While I have always loved the grindhouse, somewhere in the process of getting a film studies degree I developed an appreciation for the arthouse.  Sure, I love Jason and Freddy.  I love Kwaidan too, though.  Maybe a little Santa Sangre.  Even pretentious as hell stuff like Hour of the Wolf.  But sometimes, you want to dispense with all of the fancy bullshit and bask in as much gratuitous nudity and violence as possible.  We all love a good steak, but dammit, you’re craving a Whopper.  In other words, you want the simple pleasures.  And that’s where Death-Scort Service comes in.
Synopsis: Someone is killing hookers.

Yep.  That’s all the synopsis I’m giving you.  Why?  Because you’ll know from that if this is your type of flick.  Death-Scort Service isn’t particularly long on plot.  It doesn’t need to be.  It delivers exactly what you want from a flick like this, naked chicks getting dead.  And let me tell you, it offers up just that in abundance and to excess.
Let’s start with the nudity, shall we?  I would say that there is an at least semi-naked woman on screen for about 87% of the movie.  Yeah, I just pulled that number out of thin air, but it’s a pretty good estimate.  It’s definitely the “beyond R-rated” variety of nudity.  Not XXX, but pretty graphic.  Most of the actresses playing the non-clad ladies of ill repute are of the “Suicide Girl” variety, which is right up my alley.  Hell, this was a collaborative effort between Gatorblade Films and Sleaze Box.  With the SB boys involved, you know what you’re in for.  Naughty bits on display.  What’s not to love about that?
As for the gore, it’s exactly the kind of stuff that fans of low budget splatter (like me) eat up.  Low-fi and practical, just the way we like it.  A copious amount of the red stuff goes flying, dripping, and running.  Skin and entrails too.  This is the gore you loved in all of your favorite video store nasties.  Besides, Marcus Koch is involved, so you know it’s gotta be good.  I don’t want to get into details so as not to give any of the kills away, but suffice it to say they’re quite satisfying.  Well, except for one.  SLIGHT SPOILER:  There is one scene involving barbed wire.  Unfortunately, they used the same bad $5.99 fake barbed wire that you can get at any Party City.  It’s a shame, too.  Otherwise it’s a really cool, depraved scene that could have been legendary.  It might not bother some, but as a bit of an authority on barbed wire from my deathmatch work, that stood out like a sore thumb to me.  There is better prop barbed wire out there, guys.
Having discussed the gory and sexy stuff, the other aspects of the film are better than your average underground filth fest.  The acting is about what you’d expect from a flick like this.  Performances from the ladies range from “Damn, she’s pretty good” to “Damn, it’s a good thing she’s pretty.”  There are also appearances by two guys that are always welcome additions to any flick, Sleaze Box stalwart Bob Glazier and indie legend Joel Wynkoop.  The final twist/reveal of the killer’s identity works well.  I actually didn’t see it coming, which is saying something.  79 minutes is an optimum length, and the pace is pretty much perfect.

This movie manages to do exactly what a lot of the films of its ilk attempt but fail at; go to extremes with the graphic nudity and violence while capturing the feeling of a late 80’s/early 90’s shot on video gem.  As we saw with Die Die Delta Pi, director Sean Donohue has a firm grasp on what it takes to make an enjoyable slasher flick.  We’ve all been burned by films with great names that don’t live up to the promise of their titular glory.  I know exactly what you’re looking for from a flick called Death-Scort Service, and you need not worry.  It delivers the goods.  Death-Scort Service is sleazy, dirty, bloody, mean, nasty fun.  Nathan says check it out.
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