Tuesday, March 6, 2018

School of Fear / Il gioko (1989)

‘80s Italian horror TV movies aren’t always the most memorable and have a tendency to be a little underwhelming in comparison to the classic gialli and Eurohorror films from the ‘60s and ‘70s golden era. By the late ‘80s, we were at, or were even beyond, the tail end of the horror boom, with many Italian directors making movies more for television. Lamberto Bava directed a lot of TV movies throughout his career. His ‘80s horror TV movies paid a lot of homage to the classic gialli and horror films that sculpted the genre like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Inferno (1980), House by the Cemetery (1981), his father’s Black Sunday (1960), and even his own Demons (1985). A lot of times his TV films could be a little mediocre and almost feel like near-pointless rehashes, like Demons 3: The Ogre (1988), but Lamberto Bava also had a tendency to catch you by surprise with TV movies like Demons 5: The Devil’s Veil (1989), the hilarious and ‘80s satirical Dinner with a Vampire (1989), and the (previously) hard-to-find School of Fear.

Aside from being an interesting take on the evil kid trope, School of Fear / Il gioko does present a lot to chew on, and like Demons 5: The Devil’s Veil and Macabre (1980) is a little more of what I prefer from director Lamberto Bava. Don’t get me wrong, Demons and A Blade in the Dark (1983) are awesome too, but I honestly lamented for a time that we never really got something as twisted, different, and well-made as Macabre. It’s still no Macabre, but School of Fear feels a little more in the right direction towards something twisted and different.

School of Fear was co-written by Dardano Sacchetti (whom you all should be well aware of), Roberto Gandus (who also co-wrote Macabre and Damned in Venice (1978)), and Giorgio Stegani (who co-wrote Cannibal Holocaust (1980)) and was scored by lucrative film composer Simon Boswell (Phenomena 1985) in the earlier phase of his career. The film was part of a television series consisting of four non-serialized movies directed by Bava, Alta Tensione, which also consisted of The Prince of Terror (1988), The Man Who Didn’t want to Die (1988), and Eye Witness (1990).

Diana Berti (Alessandra Acciai) is starting her first day teaching Italian literature to a class of twelve-year-old students at the Giacomo Stuz Private School in Pisa. No one bothers to tell her, at least not until later, that her predecessor died mysteriously, having fallen through glass from the balcony of the classroom (that broken frame, with sharp, jagged glass blades still looms dangerously near the entrance to the school, oddly enough).

The students' parents are highly conservative and influential people, as the headmistress, played by Daria Nicolodi, puts it to Diana. The children adhere to a strict dress code, with both girls and boys wearing dress shirts and ties with oversized broad-shouldered business coats with pinstripes that I thought looked like Gomez Addams’s outfit.

Diana is likable and I think would make a pretty cool teacher. Acciai does have a certain loveliness and plays Diana with a pretty even-keeled personality but can also elicit the right amount of concern and pathos from viewers when the situation calls for it. She’s friendly and approachable to the kids but becomes strict and serious for understandable reasons, but this gets her into trouble with the headmistress nonetheless. Diana’s love interest, the inspector (Jean Hebert), is completely useless and a real asshole for the most part, at least until close to the end.

The central plot mystery centers around Diana’s students’ secret club and their enigmatic and foreboding “game” they play. Diana starts to become privy to this game when she reads an older essay assigned by her predecessor from one of her students and starts to worry if something seriously wrong may be going on with the kids.

It starts to become a nightmare for her, as she starts to suspect this game may be related to the death of her predecessor and the times when certain children are absent or end up missing. Something serious is going on, and Diana struggles to get to the bottom of the mystery, with little help from her inspector friend, who doesn’t believe her since he feels children are not capable of such barbaric actions, a common theme in the movie regarding adults underestimating what children are capable of.

The writers of School of Fear seem to assume the worst when it comes to children, who in the film are suggestively portrayed to possess a dangerous mix of high intelligence and psychopathy and have a high potential for cruelty and evil, although they may not think so, and are really good at covering it up, especially when they stick together, using their childhood innocence, trivializing what they do as being just a game. The exact nature of this game in the film is not elaborated on fully, but there is much insinuation, and it seems to come about as a result of their desire to experience the adult world, a sort of reverse Peter Pan syndrome where children are tired of being children and grow up prematurely and are therefore dangerous, imitating what they read in the newspapers or see on TV, and are out of control, owing to the lack of conscience and because they can always hide behind their youthful, well educated, and properly mannered front.

The length the children go through to protect the secret nature of their game highlights a surprising lack of innocence in the face of their outwardly highly principled and strict moral upbringing. They are pseudo-moralists, as they will openly condemn the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini for immorality, but they are themselves worse than what they condemn. Their game is compelling at first; it seems to involve one of the kids going missing, and the missing kid is usually shown travelling alone through some dark place, presumably underneath the abandoned wing of the school. These dark scenes are fun and had me initially thinking there was some sort of dark fantasy element to it, but the actual nature of the game is not fun or cute at all but dead serious. (During the part when the children wear masks and act cruelly, I was reminded of Rule of Rose (2006) for the PlayStation 2.)

I do like the moments at the abandoned wing of the school since it comes off more like a decrepit old haunted mansion, but it’s never really explained or expanded upon, almost like the janitor’s abnormal son Giacomo who wanders the school at night. Neither element has a payoff of any sort and are there more for horror aesthetic purposes, possibly to add a darker fantastical element. You’ve got to love how nonchalantly the janitor mentions Giacomo after Diana expresses concern about having the feeling that someone watches her at night when she’s at the school, coincidentally to the janitor, who is like, “oh that’s just my son Giacomo. I let him wander around at night when everyone is gone; he’s not normal”. Of course, the prospect of the "deformed kid" idea had me thinking of Phenomena, but it ends up feeling a little pointless here even if Giacomo is supposed to be for added suspense and a sort of red herring. It’s a silly addition to a pretty serious film that is otherwise lacking in camp, which I find welcoming.

For being young kids in the ‘80s, Diana’s students are surprisingly adept with technology, as they manage to hijack a television signal in order to broadcast some disturbing footage they put together to frighten Diana with on her home TV. This reminded me of the unsolved “Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion” from 1987, an incident where a television signal was hijacked in Chicago, and bizarre and disturbing, as well as funny, footage of someone in a Max Headroom mask was broadcasted. The incident only happened a couple of years prior to School of Fear, so it’s interesting to think it may have had an influence on this particular highlight of the film.

Major Spoilers: 

When Diana discovers what goes on during the kids’ game, it agitates her past traumatic memories, resulting in a flashback to when she was chased by three people in carnival costumes and raped as a child. She suffered a nervous breakdown for it and was in the hospital for a time. Diana’s students somehow discover and learn from an old newspaper article that Diana is a rape victim and even use that as leverage, thinking no one would believe her if she attempts to expose their “game.” When she does, her colleagues don’t take her seriously, saying she is too sensible and impressionable. In the end, Diana is dismissed and her accusations are discarded, poignantly illustrating the folly of not believing rape victims or taking them seriously and how the problem will just continue if nothing is done about it. Because the school is accepted as so pure and clean on the surface, it cannot afford any kind of scandal to shatter that façade. After Diana is dismissed, the headmistress’s assistant asserts that their students are not monsters, drawing attention to them while they sing so innocently in the church-like choir. Even after everything they are all smiles and the perfect outward image of piety. Their game will likely go on. 

End Major Spoilers  

Daria Nicolodi isn’t in it as much as I would’ve liked, although she plays a pretty important role as a kind of unintentional antagonist in that she wants what’s best for Diana, but at the same time goes against anything Diana has to say, maintaining her tunnel vision on her strictly principled and moral private school where nothing bad could possibly happen. Also, Simon Boswell’s synth score is appropriately ‘80s sounding with a nice mix of melody and doom that succeeds at giving the whole mysterious school of secrets theme a bit more substance.  

School of Fear ends up being pretty heavy-handed and isn’t really the violent killer kid movie one might necessarily anticipate, as it is a lot more subtle and psychological. A large portion of the film is a drawn-out mystery investigation that’s rather slow paced with little action save for the third act, but it’s all quite dramatic and unsettling. It doesn’t have the best script and certain additions try to make it seem a little like a fun horror movie, but those elements are discarded for a finale with grave implications. 

© At the Mansion of Madness

Friday, December 29, 2017

Count Dracula's Great Love / El gran amor del Conde Dracula (1973)

Paul Naschy had a lot of success in a wide range of film genres, playing an even wider range of characters, but he is mostly remembered for his brand of gritty and beautiful Spanish gothic horror films. These movies had their low budget and pacing issues, but there was still something so attractive about them, with a reverence for the classic monsters, most especially the wolfman, and the inclusion of plenty of female vampires and femme fatales in general. Plus, with his charisma and sincerity to the material, it’s always a joy just seeing Naschy; whenever he makes an entrance in these movies, he causes viewers’ eyes to light up like they’re seeing a dear old friend. For me, it was always interesting to see what a zombie movie, or a mummy movie, or a cannibal movie, or even a giallo would be like after getting the Paul Naschy treatment.

It was my tendency to read other people’s takes on Paul Naschy movies, be they positive or negative, that inspired me to eventually take up the quill to see if I’d have anything interesting to contribute as a genre film blogger.

With Count Dracula’s Great Love, a costume horror drama with a satiable amount of violence and eroticism that according to Naschy in his memoirs was a critic and box office success, we have one of my favorite classic monsters done by one of my favorite filmmakers. It was directed by Javier Aguirre (Hunchback of the Morgue) but was written by Paul Naschy who also stars as Dr. Wendell Marlow and (forgive the spoiler) Count Dracula. I believe it is also the first in a short but notable line of horror films with Naschy and actor Victor Barrera (sometimes credited as Vic Winner or Victor Alcazar); the other three Naschy movies with Barrera are Hunchback of the Morgue (1973), Horror Rises from the Tomb (1973), and Vengeance of the Zombies (1973).

Monday, November 13, 2017

Lips of Blood / Lèvres de sang (1975)

With his first four full length films, between 1968 to 1971, Jean Rollin forged his own brand of erotic and poetic vampirism. The one of a kind auteur painted over the ‘in vogue’ gothic horror tropes, changed up the rules, and gave his vampires reign over dark and melancholic vistas far removed from the familiar world. The experience ends up being fantastically vampiric while also seeming at odds with the classic notion of a vampire movie.
Rollin would shed his brand of tragic vampire lore for a time to experiment with new dark takes on death (The Iron Rose (1973)), adventure, and revenge (The Demoniacs (1974)). To compensate for box office failures, and in order to have steady work between more personal projects, Rollin also directed several porn films under a different name (Michel Gentil).

In 1975, Rollin returned to vampires with the exceptional Lips of Blood, which also ended up being a commercial failure, and so to try and bring in money, Lips of Blood was reformatted with new hardcore pornographic inserts and transformed into the more exploitative movie Suce moi vampire (1976). For me, the existence of Suce moi vampire undermines the significance and spirit of Lips of Blood, and, kind of similar to my feelings on House of Exorcism (1975) (the reworking of Bava’s masterpiece Lisa and the Devil (1973)), I don’t have much interest in seeking it out.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Terror Creatures from the Grave / 5 tombe per un medium (1965)

The onset of the Halloween season this year has really put me on a black-and-white horror kick for some reason. I’m looking forward to checking out some classics I haven’t seen yet, such as City of the Dead (1960) and Eyes Without a Face (1960), and revisiting some favorites like Carnival of Souls (1962) and Night of the Living Dead (1968).

I used to approach black-and-white movies apprehensively, thinking that they would likely be a boring chore to sit through. I missed out on discovering a lot of classics when I was younger with this mindset, a mindset that surprises me considering that I had always been able to enjoy black-and-white TV-shows as a kid like Lassie and The Three Stooges, which happened to give me the false perception that the world must’ve been in black-and-white back then. I had always preferred color, but nowadays I really have no preference. There’s something both oppressive and romantic about black-and-white cinematography, a separate experience with its own charm that I don’t think is inferior to color cinematography. What finally gave me a taste for black-and-white film and caused me to not see it as a diminished experience due to technological limitation was Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960), which also turned my interest to the black-and-white Italian horrors of the ‘60s that I probably would’ve had no interest in otherwise.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Fruit of Paradise / Ovoce stromů rajských jíme (1970)

After realizing film was her true calling, the first lady of Czech cinema Věra Chytilová enrolled in the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) in 1957. At the time, she was the only woman at the school and was faced with resistance. She was pushed back, but she wanted to direct and had ambitions to make different kinds of movies. Chytilová recalls potentially upsetting the directors at the academy when she told them the reason she wanted to study was because she didn’t like the films they made, feeling that they were predictable and arranged. When the Academy wanted to throw her out, it was a major blow for her that resulted in depression and a suicide attempt. She ultimately resisted being driven out and graduated, in the process directing successful medium length films Ceiling (1961) (of which she also wrote) and A Bagful of Fleas (1962). A Bagful of Fleas and her first feature length film as director Something Different (1963) both won film critics awards.
Chytilová married cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera (Morgiana 1972); they worked well together and collaborated on The Restaurant the World (1965), Daisies (1966), and Fruit of Paradise (1970).
Daisies is Chytilová’s most popular and well-known film. It is a staple in the Czech New Wave movement that’s a fun, technically impressive film with an unconventional narrative about two young, disorderly female leads sticking-it-to-the-man, with copious amounts of style and entertainment ensuing. The movie is supposed to be a cautionary tale on the consequences of destructive behavior, but for me, it’s one of those films you fall in love with and get hooked on.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Mania (1974)

When it comes to the unique definitive Renato Polselli experience of histrionics, eroticism, violence, and sadomasochism, movies like Delirium (1972), The Reincarnation of Isabel (1972), and even The Truth According to Satan (1972) are the best examples of Polselli films that have created a small but loyal fanbase. These have long been some of my favorite cult films, but I also adore the romantic black and white early Italian horror efforts from Polselli The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) and The Monster of The Opera (1964). The seed for this auteur’s characteristic style of madness and set spectacles was planted in Monster of the Opera, the film itself still planted in the fun dance-meets-classic-monsters gimmick featured in Vampire and the Ballerina, but something wildly unhinged was taking shape. The entertaining delirium, screaming mad characters, and disorienting editing that is Polselli’s signature would essentially be fully realized in Delirium and Reincarnation, but for the longest time there was a missing piece of the filmography that Polselli fans were literally deprived of for many, many years, a once lost film called Mania.

Sanitized by the censors and given a limited theatrical run in 1974, Mania quickly disappeared and was long considered lost until a 35-mm print surfaced in 2007 in a film archive in Rome, Cinema Trevi – Cineteca Nazionale. It was going to be released on DVD by No Shame soon after, but they went out of business before that could happen. Miraculously a crude version of Mania showed up on YouTube without English subtitles back in September of last year. Thankfully, just recently, Terence linked me to a decent version with subs (which is also now on YouTube), and I honestly now feel like a significant void in my life has been filled.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Byleth – Il demone dell’incesto (1972)

I’m not much in to demonology; I only remember a couple names of demonic entities off the top of my head, like Beelzebub, Belial, and Astaroth, but I had only heard about the demon Byleth in reference to the Italian horror film Byleth – The Demon of Incest (1972), and with the title to go off of, I pretty much thought of Byleth as some sort of ghastly, incest inducing demon. I tried to look in to it a little, but other than this film, I found very little relating Byleth to incest. The connection of the theme of incest to Byleth in this film is perhaps more in reference to the belief that the demonically possessed display sexually deviant behavior. 

As far as lore goes, the demon Byleth (sometimes spelled Beleth or Bilet) is a monarch of Hell and a fallen angel. He rides a pale horse and commands eighty-five legions of demons. The sounds of trumpets and melodies precedes his presence when he is conjured. His pale horse suggests he could possibly be one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Death.

When summoned, Byleth will test the courage and worthiness of the conjuror by appearing most intimidating, frightful, and extremely pissed off, and if they are too inexperienced and unprepared, the ritual will likely result in the conjuror’s death (although it’s said that Byleth can be softened with a bottle of wine). If through all manner of advanced esoteric ritual, they manage to subdue Byleth, he reveals his true form, which is supposed to be that of a beautiful young girl who has the power to make someone fall in love, kind of like a love genie.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Devil’s Wedding Night / Il plenilunio delle vergini (1973)

For me, The Devil’s Wedding Night is kind of like a Dracula movie but with Rosalba Neri playing Dracula, which is just a prepossessing idea. However, that’s not quite what it is, as it plays more like a spinoff, fanfic, or sequel to Dracula, where Count Dracula is the stuff of legend, with his power being the focus of archeological research. It’s interesting that in the film’s story Edgar Allan Poe seems to be an upcoming new sensation, which sets it around the first half of the 19th century, making it predate the events in Bram Stoker’s novel that occur around the 1890s. So, The Devil’s Wedding Night could actually be a prequel to Dracula. I mean, who was that mysterious smirking man in the woods, at the tavern, and on the castle grounds we kept seeing? The mysterious man is a nice touch who’s most likely a servant to the ring, but there’s nothing ruling out that he could have been Dracula the whole time, perhaps a powerless Dracula who needs the black mass wedding ceremony to be reborn.
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