Monday, October 8, 2007

from beyond the grave

It's not just unseasonably warm in New York this fall, it's disgustingly extra sticky and humid, and just generally kind of sweaty and unpleasant. I woke up on Sunday and looked out my window and was greeting with the distasteful sight of grown men walking down the street in shorts. In October. Really, it's kind of depressing. My friend was telling today about how she and her boyfriend had just in the past week or so driven through some reasonably rural parts of Pennsylvania and Maryland and were shocked to discover that even out there, all of the leaves were still green and summer-y. Part of the joy of fall has always been the sense of renewal, and the subtle pleasure of gradual chilling of the air, darkening of the skies etc. How long before we're down to just two seasons, hot-ass summer and cold-ass winter? And then, presumably, winter will become less and less cold...And yet somehow there are still people out there who can claim there's no such thing as global warming, that it's all some kind of left-wing conspiracy, that this is all perfectly natural. Well, fuck 'em. I guess that's all I have to say about that. I'm just sick of feeling like a sweaty disgusting stinky fatass trying to make my way around the fucking city...

At least last night's movie was really good. "From Beyond the Grave" was another selection from the Twisted Terror box set, and another one I had seen before, only this time one I remembered quite fondly. I'm a huge fan of the Amicus horror anthology films of the 1960s and 1970s, of which this 1973 was the seventh and last (unless you count 1980's goofy entry "The Monster Club," which was Amicus' final film I believe). Though Hammer is largely considered THE name is UK horror productions of that era, I think Amicus, despite not being around nearly as long and thus having a considerably smaller output, had a stronger modern sensibility than Hammer really ever achieved (their strength being in more Gothic adaptations of "Dracula" and [especially] "Frankenstein"). Amicus specialized in anthologies, hitting their stride with adaptations of EC Comics' "Tales from the Crypt" and "Vault of Horror" (recently released as a double feature as part MGM's Midnite Movies series). "From Beyond the Grave" isn't quite as great as those, or "Aslyum", Amicus' 1972 masterpiece, but it's still pretty great, even if most of that greatness is loaded up in the front of the film, with the second half not holding quite as much interest, despite a great ending.

UK horror icon Peter Cushing (for my money, far more appealing than his contemporary and frequent co-star Christopher Lee, who does not appear here) stars in the framing story as the doddering, absent-minded (one of Cushing's secret specialties) proprietor of a London junk shop. A series of customers comes in an either swindles or steals (or attempts to steal) from him and each winds up going home with a cursed object (perhaps this was the inspiration for the cursed antiques shop in "Friday the 13th- the series"?).

In the first story, the tragically underrated David Warner (what the fuck ever happened to him? He should be up there with Michael Caine and Peter O'toole, but he seems largely forgotten and relegated to small roles in large productions and lots of made-for-tv and direct-to-video stuff, including the stupefyingly odd "Ice Cream Man" with Clint Howard for about 10 years back) takes home a cursed mirror which possesses him to kill. The story itself isn't terribly interesting but Warner really drives this one, projecting a real sense of despair as the stumbles about his wrecked apartment, unable to control his murderous impulses, too preoccupied to even think to change his bloodstained clothes. It's a masterful portrayal of a sympathetic, tragic killer in the vein of Anthony Perkins in "Psycho," if less developed, given the limited screen time. Also the spirit in the mirror effects are quite effective in this one and the "twist" at the very end is somewhat obvious but still manages to be pretty satisfying.

Even better is the second installment is even better. Ian Bannen stars as a henpecked husband (his wife is played by former UK sexbomb Diana Dors, here quite middle-aged and no longer all that sexy, but an excellent actress) who befriends a poor veteran, played by the great Donald Pleasence (from "Halloween", of course). The Bannen character comes to fall for Pleasence's witchy daughter (played by Pleasence's real-life daughter, Angela), who seems to offer him an otherworldly way out of his unhappy marriage, except, of course, for a twist ending that I won't spoil for you. This one has a slightly better story, as it is difficult to ascertain what Donald Pleasence's intentions are, sinister or sincere. His performance is masterful here, working with incredibly subtle changes of facial expression that can completely change the tone of a scene in an instant. It's miraculous that he is able to say so much by doing so little, especially given that he's an actor best know for a very unsubtle performance, as the doctor in the "Halloween" movies who goes around screaming to anyone who will listen that evil is upon them. Obviously Pleasence had a very wide range and wide-ranging talents as an actor and was clearly never above exercising his full talent even when in genre productions. Bannen, meanwhile, mixes a certain oily desperation with sincerity that makes his doom inevitable, but somewhat regrettable. Angela Pleasence is exciting and ethereal. She possesses very fine, birdlike features and expressive eyes, and like her father is able to express a lot by doing very little. Dors, as previously mentioned, is also pretty great, as is John O' Farrell, who plays Bannen and Dors' son.

The second two stories, one about a man who discovers he has an invisible demon perched on his shoulder and the other about a cursed door, bear less praise than the first two. They are less compelling but even so not exactly a chore to watch. Things do pick again at the very end, for a brief scene in which Cushing, revealing himself to be possibly more than the old shopkeep he appears to be, confronts a robber in his store. It's just a bit of grim, "Tales From the Crypt"-ish gallows humor, but it serves the film well and makes for a fitting finale. In all, this is really the kind of film that's tailor made for Halloweentime viewing, full of spooky atmosphere and dark humor, and should be a treat for frick flick fans. Until next time...

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