Paracinema #12 (June 2011)

Were that there more genre magazines with as sharp an eye for design, with as wide-ranging (and, dare it be ventured, populist) a taste in films, and with as much enthusiasm for all shapes of cinematic treasures as this one.

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Terror at Tenkiller (Ken Meyer, 1986)

Remarkably, as much (if not more) screen time and dialogue is given over to the domestic violence narrative of this pedestrian low-budget killer-in-the-woods film as to the generic slasher-stalks-his-prey narrative. Yet herein lies two strange disconnects: the real-world subject of abuse is much more serious than its cinematic treatment here (the two protagonists talk endlessly and banally about relationships, victimhood, and confidence, making each self-realization sound as cathartic as the act of picking up an empty tote bag), and the cinematic representations of what is supposed to be horrific mayhem are unbloody (in spite of one generous slicing) and (worse) uninteresting. There does exist, to this film’s minor credit, an attempt to connect the verbal and physical abuse done by the Final Girl’s loutish shouty boyfriend with the violence committed by all the male characters (whether it be with peeping eye, degrading words, or stabbing blade), but this connection is buried under script, direction, acting, lighting, and sound design that veers between nonsensical, trite, and amateurish.

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Messiah of Evil (William Huyck, 1973)

A cabal of ghouls lurks bloodily in the meat section in the neon-lit supermarket. A shadow perches in the front seat of the dark Buick in the garage. A vermin-eating giant waits in anticipation behind the unbuilt facades of the beachfront properties. Swarming clawing bodies clot the skylight and the picture window. The haze at the end of the hallway coalesces into the shape of a screaming madwoman. The painted image of the bespectacled man walks out of his mural and into your bedroom. Less a muddled zompire picture than an atmospheric immersion in spaces and suspense, this film reminds us that what makes a deserted location skin-crawlingly eerie is not the fact that it’s empty, but that it might not be.

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Smiley Face (Gregg Araki, 2007)

Rather than a capitalist economy driven by the dream-engine of aspiration, wherein what is promised is that work (whether one is an un-unionized sausage factory worker or a university economics professor who relies on the contingent labor of a graduate student) inexorably leads to the consumption of goods and services, or a gift economy driven by a different dream-engine (where the labor-intensive construction of a batch of pot cupcakes leads to the adulation of one’s fellow B-movie geeks), this film imagines a smoke-engine of aspiration, where unkind kind dealers and the unwilling good deeds of unwitting strangers might somehow lead to the ingestion of Tostitos and orange juice.

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Alucarda (Alucarda, la hija de las tinieblas) (Juan López Moctezuma, 1978)

Considering the shrieking and bug-eyed gurning that the titular Tina Romero does in this film, one would be forgiven if one thought she was actually possessed by Beelzebub or trying desperately hard to convince someone off-screen that they made a big mistake not casting her as Abigail Williams in the naturist production of The Crucible earning rave reviews the next village over. It’s a confusing move to have such a compellingly unhinged character like Romero’s at the center of your film and yet be nominally interested in the rational hypocrisies of religion and the cruel paternalism of medicine. Perhaps that is why, in a gesture meant to compensate for this contradiction, everything and everyone explodes, melts, or bleeds in a (ho-hum) climactic inferno.

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Never Let Go (John Guillermin, 1960)

Obsessive desire is written on the faces of all the characters in this unpretentious British film. The teddyboy’s (Adam Faith) pugilist-ugly mouth worries itself into squishy confusion at not being quite smart enough to take the bird (Carol White), with the sparks of innocence at the corners of her mascara and wishes for better things at the pouty corners of her lipstick, away from the hard man (Peter Sellers), whose bulbous grins and oily leers can’t cover up his need to tell others he is a legitimate businessman, when all evidence to the contrary says otherwise. It is the visage of our protagonist (Richard Todd), though, whose floundering career (in cosmetics!) leads to an encounter with the former trio, that works the best at telegraphing this desire: his doughy jowls, sweaty brow, furrowed eyes, and aging-heartthrob profile tell us more about the weight of his dreams and their perpetual nonfulfillment than any dialogue can.

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Sledgehammer (David A. Prior, 1983)

This film deserves to be seen as the ne plus ultra of slasher films not only because of its content (one-note teenager-manqués obsessed with sexing and partying, single-setting remote location whose locale is described via tedious explication, flimsy origin story, gratuitous gore), but in terms of its form. It might be beyond amateurish, but the facts of its being shot on video (complete with inappropriate slow motion, baffling dissolves, and ill-timed freeze-frames), scored with sinus-headache-inducing Casio drones, and punctuated with performances that veer between hysterical and wooden, all add to the deeply unsettling feeling that what’s unfolding is found footage of a lunatic artist trying to create a slasher film having never seen one before, and relying only on the tones, shapes, and voices he sees in his head.

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Birdemic: Shock and Terror (James Nguyen, 2008)

The terror in the title is not avian in nature; it’s a terror that’s telegraphed by the seemingly-interminable opening, where we take the point of view of a passenger inside a traveling vehicle. It’s the gradual terror of realizing you’re stuck inside something heavy and deadly and that you are powerless to do anything save stare at the silent trees and the scolding sky outside the window; to stare anywhere other than at your clueless driver-captor-director with the shaky hands and dodgy hearing and a weakness for either tuning his radio to the Captain & Tennille station or speaking in idiot-cliché-tongues when he wants to convey something “meaningful.” What is worse that this film’s awfulness is its apathy, its laziness, and its blandness, qualities which even the trashiest films manage to avoid.

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Office Killer (Cindy Sherman, 1997)

Flat and affectless like the time-browned photo taken of your parents after they’ve heaved their frames out of their smoke-choked station wagon during a rest stop break on a cross-state doom haul to grandma’s house, this film attempts to make satirical work out of office dronery, but is never sure if it wants to be a gory American Psycho-tic dig at consumerism (the rag at which the titular copyeditor/killer works is Constant Consumer) or a bleak distaff, bridge-and-tunnel version of Maniac. Fortunately, Sherman’s rewrite of the maternal melodrama is full of claustrophobic framing (people’s faces and bodies are dismembered, bisected, and trisected by furniture and props) and is enlivened by a committed (in both senses of the word) performance by Carol Kane. (Read Dahlia Schweitzer’s amazing piece on the film here.)

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The Velvet Vampire (Stephanie Rothman, 1971)

Hard to read either as a winking deconstruction of the vampire film or as a sun-fried reimagining of its tropes, this film both giggles in its hands—tittering at its characters named (Carl) Stoker and (Diane) Le Fanu; smirking at its inane dialogue about dune buggies, dead miners, and marital strife; and sniggering at its desert-swept Harlequin dream sequences—and presents some inspired, albeit half-baked, hypotheses about a well-worn genre. Unfortunately, the whiffs of necrophilia and pedophilia, the mention of blood disease, the hints at a connection between vampires and Native Americans, and the efficient sequences that bookend the film (a penetration of a would-be rapist and a bizarre tableau of a mob of cross-wielding Los Angelino longhairs) add up to dust in the wind.

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