31 Spooky Movies in October: 2012 Edition, Part 5

by kdlough

15.  The Ghost (Riccardo Freda, 1963)

We’re halfway through this month’s movies and only just now getting to Barbara Steele?  I know, it’s about time.  There’s something about Steele that’s fascinating to any male horror movie fan (whether you’re, ah, interested in women in general or not; she’s a better Liz Taylor than Liz Taylor), her angular face at once icy and fragile.

Since I still haven’t been able to find an English version of The Terror of Dr. Hichcock, I decided to revisit its semi-sequel, The Ghost.  It was especially nice to watch a copy that didn’t look like it was duped from VHS, because the lighting and camerawork are quite good in this one.  The story is an old warhorse: a woman tires of her crippled husband, and conspires with her lover, the local doctor, to murder him.

Luckily (for us), they’re one of film’s most hilariously unstable couples, so much so that not even 24 hours after committing the murder, they’re already wildly paranoid to the point that Steele orders the doctor to shoot a random dog for no real reason.  If you’re not sitting up and taking notice by this point, just wait; soon they come to suspect that they may be haunted by the dead man’s ghost (IF HE’S EVEN DEAD AT ALL!!) and it all comes to a head with a murder that has blood literally running down the screen.

Director Riccardo Freda keeps the camerawork fluid and the occasional flashes of primary colors are great (Freda gave Mario Bava his start, and it shows).  As a whole it’s pretty handsome and atmospheric if you watch a quality copy, and almost makes you forget that it was shot super quickly and on the cheap.  Some folks may not have the patience for this sort of Gothic horror that was so briefly profitable, and there’s plenty of better examples of the genre, but hell, I like this one.  Maybe it’s just nostalgia talking.

SCORE: 8 plaster skulls out of 10

16.  A Bay of Blood/Twitch of the Death Nerve (Mario Bava, 1971)

Speaking of Bava, here’s one of his more infamous films as a director, one of the major inspirations for the slasher genre.  Bava’s reputation is mainly built around his expressive (to say the least) use of color and artful approach to gory horror in films like Blood and Black Lace.  This one doesn’t really look like that; it’s grimy and there’s only occasional glimpses of flashy camerawork or lighting.  For the most part, Bava entertains himself by endlessly zooming in and out.  ENDLESSLY.  It’s not unusual for several shots in a row to pull at least two zooms.  We’re not talking Oasis of the Zombies seasick inducing levels of zoom here, but it’s a lot.  I might have just been watching too many non-Italian movies recently…

But anyhoo.  This movie is very weird.  My favorite aspect of other Bava films is their ability to put you so far into the mind of a madman, you go beyond just sympathizing with them to actually feeling a bit crazy yourself.  Hatchet for the Honeymoon is great for this, as is the scene in Kill, Baby… Kill! when the hero runs through the same door again and again and again.

But A Bay of Blood is something different.  The plot is so endlessly convoluted that we never even begin to understand what’s going on until 10 minutes before the end.  Up until then, we watch scene after scene of people being gruesomely murdered.  Sometimes we know who the killer is, and sometimes we don’t; but since there’s no comprehensible mystery going on, knowing who’s killing who doesn’t make much difference.  There’s no one to root for: characters are either evil, stupid, or some combination of the two.  All are equally unsympathetic.  About halfway through, two new characters show up who seem like they might be the heroes, until they kill off the rest of the cast.  Then there’s the ending, which is so hilariously arbitrary and nihilistic you can’t believe it.

The overall effect, an oddball gut punch, is what really separates the film from imitators like the Friday the 13ths and other “unlikable characters get killed” flicks, despite their similar traits (a distillation of the giallo formula to murder set-pieces, use of creative weapons like spears and machetes, random teens to add to the body count, a woodsy setting, etc).  Later movies feel like cash-in variations on a popular formula, but Bay is something different.  It’s like a movie made by a crazy person, so honest about its total misanthropy that it forces you along for the ride.  Creepy.

SCORE: 8 dying bugs on a mounting board out of 10

17.  The Crazies (George Romero, 1973)

It’s hard to watch The Crazies without thinking of it as an awkward middle child between Romero’s more widely seen Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead.  The documentary-like story of a small town accidentally exposed to a chemical weapon that causes insanity, it shows how the situation effects everyone from the expendable military men sent in to control the situation, to the average citizens, to the top government officials desperate to cover the whole thing up.  It’s reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s recent Contagion (in theory, at least, and with added gore).

The Crazies attempts a much wider scope than the more claustrophobic Night and Dawn, but unfortunately it’s still in the smaller, almost amateur budget range of Romero’s pre-Dawn films.  It’s a bit weird that most of the runtime is taken up by military brass talking about how much crazy mayhem is going on that we never see much of.  Not that I don’t like the dialogue scenes; they’re tense enough to hold attention, and in fact I prefer them to the scenes of anonymous soldiers getting shot.

It’s an obvious Vietnam allegory (at one point, a character exclaims “How can you tell those who have the virus from those who don’t?” and we know he’s really talking about Viet Cong), but there’s not much to take away in the end besides “everything/everyone is crazy.”  Maybe that’s all there is to say about the situation?  I can accept that as a valid thesis, I guess.

But I think that film’s biggest problem is that as a political statement, it’s dated in the worst way.  I’m not sure how Romero intended the many, many scenes of soldiers getting brutally killed to be taken by the audience, but the fact that they’re so anonymous and dehumanized by their chemical protection gear is a good indication.  I’m honestly inclined to think that we’re meant, on some level, to cheer for their deaths.

Even worse, I feel like the scenes of cruel U.S. soldiers stopping the townsfolk from running to their overstuffed gun cabinets has a VERY different meaning for audiences of 2012.  It doesn’t help matters that the lead military character is black, to the obvious shock and near-disgust of the locals.

To put it bluntly, I’m sure this movie plays great to the far-right wing, racism/anarchy/guns crowd, far more than the more mainstream liberal Romero intended.  It’s a worthwhile, valuable film, but it’s hard to not get a nasty taste in your mouth when you watch it.

Still.  At least it’s better than the remake.

SCORE: 6 possible stills for far-right militia recruiting posters out of 10