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I didn't realize that was her until after the movie. She looks different without werewolves nearby.

Drag Me To Hell (Raimi, 2009)

This review contains spoilers.

I didn't see Drag Me to Hell when it first came out, but I do remember there being a fair bit of anticipation in my internet circle around the return of Sam Raimi to the horror genre. You see, there was a fair bit of commiserating around the state of the horror genre at the time, what with all the PG-13 and torture porn (but alas, no PG-13 torture porn) and a general consensus that what horror movies really needed was for an old hand to come back and show the kids how it's done. (Of course, Wes Craven and George Romero had made well received movies within the decade, and there were good movies from the young'uns as well, but I suppose that's not enough. You will also forgive me for oversimplifying these discussions, as they occurred on the Rotten Tomatoes message boards, which no longer exist as they were unceremoniously flushed down the toilet a few years ago, so I can't exactly go back and check that I've characterized them accurately.) And looking back, I can see why this was the overarching sentiment. I wouldn't call myself a huge fan of Raimi's Spider-Man movies, but I do appreciate that they (at least the first two; never saw the third) manage to have distinct personalities despite being mass-marketed IP-driven studio product, which feels increasingly rare these days. (Also, full disclosure: seeing the first one eight times across four different flights during a summer vacation led a ten-year-old me to develop a Godzilla-sized crush on red-headed Kirsten Dunst. Okay, maybe I like the first one.) So now that I've seen it, and have spent all these words talking about things only tangentally-related to the movie, what do I think?

It's pretty good, but I'll cite some of the reception selectively before going straight to my thoughts if you don't mind. I'm seeing a lot of reviews referring to this being a morality tale and to Raimi's old school influences, which I think is on the money. I think by 2009 Universal productions had switched to a computer generated logo, so seeing the old, grainy filmic one telegraphed to me that it would be a bit of a throwback. But what I was not entirely prepared for (likely from limited knowledge of the film's premise) was how much it was grounded in our current economic realities. This was made in 2009, when the wounds of the Great Recession were still fresh, and the movie concerns a heroine turning down an old woman's request to extend her mortgage, dooming her to the loss of her house and financial ruin.

Raimi does a tricky thing here. The old woman is Romani, which is in line with his influences, and she's excessively othered and depicted even a bit repulsively, with her glass eye, chipped fingernails and habit of putting her teeth in a handkerchief on the table. In the wrong hands this could seem incredibly retrograde in its racism, but I think he wants us to see the character through the heroine's eyes. The heroine goes to her boss, who dangles a promotion over her and tells her it would be real good for the bank if she didn't extend the mortgage and he's sure she'll make the right decision. At this point, seeing her client as less than human, she decides to turn her down, leading her client to put a curse on her which we see play out over the rest of the movie. The queasy racial aspects are also redeemed by Raimi's more compassionate depiction of the woman's family during her funeral, leading me to believe he's actually interrogating the racism of his influences. Interestingly, many of the characters are people of colour, including a psychic to whom the heroine turns for help, and the heroine's rival. Ebert points out that the psychic is named after Ram Dass, who was actually white, and the rival, played by an Asian American actor, has the extremely Caucasian-sounding name of Stu Rubin. I'm not entirely sure what exactly the commentary is concerning these auxiliary characters, but there is something there.

Back in those days there was a fair bit of debate about the extent to which the financial crisis was caused by overarching systemic factors or the actions of individual bad actors. Raimi's movie doesn't depict explicit financial wrongdoing, but does show how the dehumanizing effects of capitalism and how it incentivizes people to **** each other over. (The concept of moral hazard was something that permeated public discussion at the time, and while Raimi doesn't depict it exactly, I think he captures the spirit of it pretty well and in terms most people can relate to.) But at the same time, this is a morality tale, and Raimi isn't so eager to let the heroine off the hook for her decision. The movie subjects her to all sorts of torture, not just viscerally in the vein of his Evil Dead movies, but also socially (bombing with her boyfriend's parents) and professionally (her boss shifting his preference to her rival in the office), the latter of which has a certain modern resonance perhaps not explored by Raimi's influences. I've seen references to the ending being cruel, but given that the heroine's attempt at an out involves trying to damn a dead woman's soul to hell (after screwing her over in this life as well), the outcome seems like she's being held accountable for her decisions. That she seems like a nice person makes it sting all the more, as Raimi astutely observes that most people making these decisions don't see themselves as bad people.

All of this is delivered in a highly entertaining manner, with Raimi proving that the PG-13 rating doesn't necessarily mean that horror movies will be neutered and lacking in potency. I recently rewatched the Scream series and was struck by how Craven was able to wring a visceral impact out of a slick studio production values. Raimi updates the Evil Dead approach for a studio context, with an emphasis on stuntwork, special effects, pleasingly disgusting touches (an eyeball in a cake, gumming the heroine's face, vomiting, bugs) and bruising camera moves, although in one of the movie's bigger set pieces, I was a little unmoved when a possessed character started dancing. Perhaps the joke was too obvious (full disclosure: I'm lukewarm on Army of Darkness, the broadest of the Evil Dead films), but I also think a little something is lost when you pour this much money into a style repurposed from movies whose low budgets induced a certain claustrophobia. That being said, that was maybe a single moment when the movie missed for me. For the rest of the runtime, it's a pretty relentless and surprisingly thoughtful work of visceral horror.

Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (Sexually)

Dracula Sucks is, as it sounds, a pornographic Dracula. It's not, in the vein of The Mad Love Life of a Hot Vampire, a porno with Dracula with a bunch of **** happening. I would also hesitate to call it a parody, even in that lazy modern porn sense (hey, do you want to see [pop culture character] ****? well now you can! I mean, people aren't exactly lining up to see Renfield ****), although there certainly is some humour. It's an actual adaptation, which is where much of its novelty comes from, for better or worse. It most recognizably borrows the template from the Tod Browning version and updates the setting to somewhere around the '30s, judging by the costumes. Why? My guess is that the filmmakers had access to costumes from that period and not from the Victorian era that the story is originally set in. But this does give it a welcome level of production values. The movie also benefits tremendously from being set in a real castle, even if it's one in middle of the California desert.

Now, part of the fun of of seeing a story that's been adapted this many times is to see what the cast brings to the table. As this is a '70s porn production and features, even by the standards of the genre, a pretty stacked cast. (Not a pun...although in the case of Kay Parker, I guess it is.) Now, some of the cast, like Annette Haven as Mina Harker, carry themselves with a certain elegance and look entirely at home in a Dracula movie, what with the flowy white robes and whatnot. (On average, the women fare better than men.) Others, like John Holmes, who plays a character named Dr. Stoker, absolutely do not belong in a Dracula movie. Were Holmes a more forceful an actor, he could have had the same effect as Joe Dallesandro in Blood for Dracula (whose thick New York accent matches his character's arrogance and sociopathy), but alas, he feels more like someone in a Saturday Night Live sketch. And yes, if you must know, the bite that turns him into a vampire is on his, uh, claim to fame. Some of the actors fall somewhere in the middle, like John Leslie and Kay Parker as Dr. Seward and his sister, in that they're good actors even if they never really feel of the period. (The two have a scene that anticipates Parker's landmark role in Taboo. It's still a shock to me how prevalent incest was in these movies, given that mainstream modern porn goes out of its way to avoid it.)

Which brings me to Dracula, who is played by Jamie Gillis with a beard. Gillis has been terrific in other films I've seen with him, but I never found he disappeared into this role. He models himself explicitly on Bela Lugosi and delivers much of the same dialogue in a decent approximation of his accent, but where Lugosi embodied a certain otherworldly quality, Gillis comes off like he's play acting the part. Let me put it this way: when watching Browning's Dracula, I can't shake the suspicion that Lugosi might be a real vampire, so Gillis, despite an admirable attempt, can't help but feel like a Dracula hired for a children's birthday party in comparison. He recreates Lugosi's confrontation with Edward Van Sloan's Van Helsing, the role here played by Reggie Nalder (who does not get to ****), and the result is noticeably campier. (Nalder is one of those people who definitely feels at home in this movie.) I must also make note of Richard Bulik as Renfield, who resembles Matthew Modine and is certainly no Dwight Frye but makes an admirable attempt at that kind of manic performance, and Paul Thomas as Jonathan Harker, who seems to actually play the piano and sing in one of his scenes.

The movie is directed by Phillip Marshak, whose Night Train to Terror I did not enjoy and left me with the most maddening, painful earworm I can remember in quite some time ("Dance with me, dance with me..."). That being said, he does have a decent handle on horror imagery and produces some of the visuals you'd expect from a vampire movie. Lots of fog and bluish lighting, vampire women in white, flowy robes, and of course the castle giving everything a touch more atmosphere. The comedic elements feel awkwardly inserted in comparison (hence why I feel it's a stretch to call it a parody), but I did chuckle regularly, particularly the manner in which Dracula dispatches Harker. There's also a running gag involving the radio, and I did like the use the dialogue from another Lugosi film (I think it's The Devil Bat, but I could very well be mistaken). Truth be told, the movie is kind of a mess, but also more committed to being a Dracula story than you might expect, given the genre's track record. I understand there is a shorter, more explicit cut available (the version I watched runs 95 minutes and trims most of the sex scenes, although I wouldn't call it softcore given that penetration is shown), but given that the best parts of this are outside the sex scenes, I suspect that one is only preferable for the raincoat brigade.

Dracula Exotica I've seen referred to as a follow-up to Dracula Sucks, but aside from Jamie Gillis returning as Dracula (this time clean shaven, as he normally was; O Gillis' beard, we hardly knew ye!), it's a completely unrelated movie. This one starts centuries ago, when a pre-vampiric Dracula was courting a woman played by Samantha Fox, whose family didn't approve of him so she turned to God and he turned to debauchery. But one day in a drunken rage, in the middle of a debauched gathering (featuring such wildly ill-fitting actors for the period as Marlene Willoughby, who I liked as the dowdy neighbour in A Woman's Torment, and Ron Jeremy, who I instinctively try to shoo off the screen whenever I see him, although he does juggle in this), he rapes her, and then after she commits suicide, wracked with guilt, he condemns himself to vampirism. Now, rape scenes can be uncomfortable to watch and their presence in pornography has an added nauseating quality given that they're often meant to arouse, but I must note that I found Fox's performance in this scene dramatically effective.

The movie then jumps to present day (or 1979/1980, whenever this film was shot), and Dracula's home has been turned into a museum visited by another woman played by Samantha Fox. As we find out, Count Dracula is alive and well (or as alive and well as a guilt-ridden vampire can be) and finds himself in the middle of some international intrigue involving Romanian intelligence, the CIA (sorry, "F.I.B.", which stands for the "Federal Intelligence Bureau") and a smuggling ring run by Vanessa Del Rio. This is further complicated by the fact the Dracula develops feelings for Fox, who happens to be tasked with killing him. Will love conquer all? Or will Dracula's immortality end less ceremoniously? I wouldn't dare reveal the outcome, but will hint that a little bat guano goes a long way.

Now, as you can guess, this is far from a conventional vampire movie, but what surprised me was how well it fit together. Certainly, there are the requisite elements (spooky vampire women, crypts, fog; a few more foggy movies and I finally get that decoder ring), but they blend surprisingly smoothly with the thriller elements and seedy pre-cleanup NYC atmosphere. The mix of elements and modern setting also mean that this movie doesn't have the same issues with incongruous casting as Dracula Sucks aside from the first few minutes. I actually liked Gillis a lot more in this than in the other movie, largely because he seems to be playing an actual character in this rather than just doing a Bela Lugosi impression. Samantha Fox provides the film's emotional core, and is a performer I've grown increasingly fond of merely for her presence in movies (I've developed a fondness for certain vintage porn actors the same way I like seeing the same group of actors pop up in Italian horror movies). Eric Edwards plays her CIA (sorry, "F.I.B.") superior in the movie's shrewdest bit of casting, his square-jawed, slightly stodgy quality a perfect fit for the contemptible authority figure he's supposed to be, and he delivers lines like "Goodbye you ****ing commie greaser" like he's spitting out chewing tobacco. (In a nice touch, he plays the entire role behind aviator sunglasses.) And of course, I must acknowledge the extremely forceful presence of Vanessa Del Rio, who does an exaggerated accent but later puts a racist cop in his place in a scene where she sports a corset and bat wings. She also wears a well chosen pair of glasses when disguised as Dracula's secretary, and folks, I'm not made of stone.

While at 100 minutes, it runs a little longer than I like from the genre, it clips along at a pretty steady pace, even if it takes over half the movie for Dracula to board the ship and come to America. This is the first film I've seen from Shaun Costello, and while I can't attest to how this compares to the rest of his work, I did feel the presence of a sure hand who'd made enough of these movies to know how to keep them engaging. Even when delivering the obligatory sex scenes, which seem devised for maximum variety (there's even one that caters to those who enjoyed the morgue scene in Bad Boys II), there is an enthusiasm and imagination present that makes them feel far from perfunctory. I must confess that I didn't find a lot of them arousing personally (and the aforementioned rape scene I found quite hard to watch), but the climactic scene between Gillis and Fox combines the emotional throughline of the story with the vampiric atmosphere in a way that's surprisingly erotic and artful.

Dracula Sucks

Dracula Exotica

Samantha Fox provides the film's emotional core, and is a performer I've grown increasingly fond of merely for her presence in movies
Are you aware that she had a legitimate career as a pop singer? Not trying to sound like an old guy, but I honestly don't know if that's common knowledge anymore. I don't hear her mentioned often, probably because her songs were terrible.

I will admit that I didn't know she was in porno films. I was always under the impression that she was no more than a "Page 3 Girl" in England.
Captain's Log
My Collection

Are you aware that she had a legitimate career as a pop singer? Not trying to sound like an old guy, but I honestly don't know if that's common knowledge anymore. I don't hear her mentioned often, probably because her songs were terrible.

I will admit that I didn't know she was in porno films. I was always under the impression that she was no more than a "Page 3 Girl" in England.
I think that's actually a different Samantha Fox.* (I think you're talking about this one?) (This is the one I'm referring to)

Samantha Fox is also in Crumbsroom's favourite movie, A Night to Dismember, which I haven't seen.

Which Samantha Fox? We will never know.

WARNING: spoilers below
It's the porno one.

It's all porn if you set your mind to it.

Even Microwave Massacre.

WARNING: spoilers below
Especially Microwave Massacre.

The Thing (Carpenter, 1982)

This review contains spoilers.

A heartwarming tale of characters listening to science and banding together in a time of crisis. That's right, I'm talking about The Thing, John Carpenter's 1982 sci-fi horror splatter classic. Okay, that's a weird takeway from a movie where even the most optimistic read of the ending has the heroes freezing to death. But the last two years or so have had me reflecting differently, and perhaps more warmly, on movies I've seen many times, and the methodical, common sense approach taken by the characters against a great threat seems refreshing when such behaviour has evidently not been the norm in the real world. One thing I like in movies is seeing smart, capable characters work together and use their wits to tackle a problem bigger than themselves. The heroes in The Thing are in a constant state of reassessing their assumptions, taking in new information and factoring that into their solution to the best of their ability. The famous blood test scene (which sets off one of the tensest final half hours in the movies) is devised after seeing part of the Thing split away from its body and behave as a separate organism, to take one example. Even when characters make the standard horror movie "mistake" of going off on their own, it's out of sheer necessity due to their dwindling numbers.

Another thing I like in movies are truly formidable threats, those that truly put the defense or coping mechanisms of the heroes to the test. While the science fiction angle prevents the movie from having a truly irrational threat, its shape shifting, contagious nature means that it gets pretty close, and seems deliberately designed to resist the heroes' attempts to apply logic to the situation. This is a movie that I thought was only "pretty good" the very first time I saw it and took at least one other viewing to truly click. That viewing was in the middle of the night, when I was a little sleep deprived and having a trouble keeping track of the characters and specifically who the Thing had gotten to. Most movies are not conducive to being seen when one is short of sleep and prone to forgetting plot details; The Thing rewards that state of mind by using it to fuel a sense of paranoia. The most common complaint I've seen about the movie is that the characters are a little forgettable and there are maybe too many of them, but I find that an asset, as it prevents you from getting to know any of them terribly well and therefore from being able to deduce with any confidence who's turned into the Thing at most points of the movie. (The aforementioned blood test scene provides a rare moment of clarity.) And the movie compensates for the possible resulting lack of human interest by casting a murderer's row of male character actors: Kurt Russell (hiding his movie star charisma under his tremendous facial hair and coiffure; it's an all-time great movie mane), Keith David, the walrus-like Wilford Brimley, Richard Masur, President Donald Moffat, Fat Christopher McDonald, the guy who looks like Spalding Gray, the list goes on. Okay, I don't know all their names, but I do remember their presences, and if it weren't for the apocalyptic stakes of the proceedings, they'd be a fun group of guys to hang out with, even if Russell's character seems like a sore loser if you beat him at chess.

The movie also matches the tension on an audiovisual level, with cinematography by Dean Cundey and a score by Ennio Morricone. Cundey and Morricone are both greats in their respective fields, but so distinct is Carpenter's hand that I think of both elements as primarily products of his sensibility. The visuals in particular are full of paranoid compositions heavy with negative space, emphasizing the fallibility of these characters in the face of the threat at hand and hostile environmental conditions. What also stood out to me on this viewing was the ominous early shots of the approaching helicopter from the Norwegian group, marrying a sinister quality to this piece of machinery, presaging similar images in They Live and serving as a rebuke of sorts to the valorizing images of military hardware in action films of the era. (One can imagine Carpenter vomiting at least a little after a viewing of Top Gun.)

This is my first viewing of this in a few years and probably the first since I finally got around to Assault on Precinct 13, and I think the two can be viewed as companion pieces. Not just because they're Howard Hawks homages (Assault is an update of Rio Bravo, The Thing is an outright remake), but because the movies seem to be the inverse of each other. Assault has the heroes find strength by banding together against an external threat. The Thing has a threat that undermines any attempts to band together. Both films have the characters stuck in a single location, but while Assault allows the characters to benefit from the location in defending themselves, The Thing basically turns it into a prison for the characters, and at best for the Thing as well. Both movies also find moments of disarmingly poetic dialogue from characters with no illusions about their dire situations. From Assault:

"Two shots. Should I save them for the two of us?"

"Save 'em for the first two ******** who come through that vent."
And from The Thing:

"Fire's got the temperature up all over the camp. Won't last long though."

"Neither will we."

"How will we make it?"

"Maybe we shouldn't."

"If you're worried about me..."

"If we've got any surprises for each other, I don't think we're in much shape to do anything about it."

"Well, what do we do?"

"Why don't we just... wait here for a little while... see what happens?"
That final exchange will strike few as reassuring, but this time around, I was a little moved. Maybe I'm getting soft. Great movies have a way of sneaking up on you.

I deserve a medal for not mentioning Kurt Russell's sweet bomber jacket in my review.

Did rewatches of Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead over the weekend, and meant to write something new about one of them, but got lazy, so here's an old review of Day from my blog instead.

Day of the Dead (Romero, 1985)

This review contains spoilers.

Day of the Dead has never been my favourite of George Romero’s original Dead trilogy (Dawn holds that spot), but it’s the one that’s grown on me the most with repeat viewings, and upon hearing of Romero’s passing, the one I felt most inclined to revisit. It’s a movie with some obvious problems (some of which tempered my enthusiasm on my initial viewing), but one that hits a specific tone with such force that these shortcomings are excusable and indeed work as legitimate artistic choices. It’s also, in a way I only grasped with this latest viewing, the most optimistic of the trilogy despite its thick veneer of nihilism.

Like the other films in the trilogy, Day is defined by its setting. Zombies outnumber live humans 400,000 to 1, as one character estimates, and “all the shopping malls are closed”, as another remarks, making it unsafe above-ground, so almost all the action takes place inside a bunker inhabited by a group of soldiers, scientists and some peripheral staff looking for a solution to their predicament. (The original script featured an above-ground fortress and a small zombie army, but the smaller scale is one of the finished film’s assets.) The characters are positioned as stand-ins for different ideas: military might, represented by a teeth-gnashing army captain played by Joseph Pilato looking to assert his authority; amoral science, broadly portrayed by Richard Liberty’s mad scientist/butcher; and the blue-collar bystanders played by the thickly-accented Terry Alexander and Jarlath Conroy. They are pitted against each other in increasingly tense confrontations, as supplies dwindle, communication with other outposts ceases, and scientists’ research (which requires the retrieval of fresh zombie specimens) yields minimal progress and mounting collateral damage. The heroine is Lori Cardille’s scientist, who navigates uneasily between the different factions as a voice of reason.

Romero filters a lot of this tension through shouting matches between the different groups, and the performances aren’t the most subtle. One expects some inconsistent acting when it comes to low budget productions, but a lot of the acting here is in a loud and shrill mode that I found quite off-putting with my first few viewings. Night and Dawn aren’t exactly masterclasses of acting, but the former has a strong leading man in Duane Jones and the latter has some very affecting work from Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross and Scott Reiniger. Especially in Dawn, I got the sense that these were complete, well-rounded people whom I grew attached to, while the most nuanced performance in Day is a not-quite-braindead zombie played by Sherman Howard. Peak histrionics are delivered by Pilato, who attempts to break some kind of record for volume when he declares that he’s “running this monkey farm now” and wants to know what “the ****” the musically-cadent Liberty is doing with his time. (Surprisingly, he turns in fairly naturalistic work in Effects, an underrated horror film that features the only other major performance I’ve seen from him.) However, the exhausting pitch that Romero plays these interactions at has become increasingly clear to me to be an intentional choice.

Night and Dawn have plot arcs that could be divided fairly easily into three acts. The same could be done for Day as well, but I think it’s best viewed as an extended third act. The uneasy alliance in the bunker is already at the breaking point when the film opens, as Pilato’s captain has taken command after the death of the allegedly more sympathetic previous top-ranking officer, and within the first few scenes is ready to use violence to maintain his authority, to the shock of even his subordinates. One character has already had a mental breakdown and it seems others are close, and the tension inside the bunker is thick enough to cut with a knife. With this in mind, the performances are significantly easier to gel to and accumulate to a caustic, nihilistic tone, enhanced by the film’s harrowing, claustrophobic use of space. Yet, there are moments of levity (even if one is provided by a callback to Dawn’s“Gonk” on the soundtrack), and Cardille, Alexander, Conroy and Howard bring a nice humane counterpoint to the proceedings, with a speech given by Alexander revealing the film’s covertly optimistic worldview.

And as tonally oppressive as the film can be, it reveals an underlying humanism, one that provides the clearest happy ending in the trilogy. While Night ended with a dour gut-punch and Dawn concluded on a note of uncertainty, the characters in Day have escape and find some sort of peace. The tensions in the bunker come to a boil and zombies overrun the bunker in a sequence that provides some landmark contributions to the art of churning stomachs (the gore effects are career-best work by Tom Savini). As the institutions of gung ho militarism and ethically-compromised science corrode from within and collapse completely in the face of the zombie assault, only the characters played by Cardille, Alexander and Conroy with their clear-eyed perspective emerge from it alive. The film’s transition from its earlier dourness to the worldview of these characters feels genuine and the conclusion is well earned, and the closing shots of the island paradise our heroes reach are presented free from irony.