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The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism (Germany, 1967)

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Some films demand to be watched purely for their titles, be they Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood on Jennifer’s Body? or The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? While The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism definitely falls into this category, it offers many strange delights beyond a lurid title.

One drawback of having watched many hundreds of horror films is that I often find myself bored with the same plots, imagery and ideas coming up over and over. This why I gravitate toward European horror films from the 1960s and ’70s – they come from a place and time of experimentation, vivid imagery and outright bloody-minded weirdness. While I’ve come to expect this from Italian, Spanish and French films, it’s heartening to see that the Germans had their stab at vibrant lunacy as well.

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The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism (my fingers are going to cramp typing that out) opens with Count Regula (the Dr Sadism of the title, portrayed by a stony-faced Christopher Lee) in a dungeon, awaiting execution for the torture and murder of twelve virginal girls. His executioner, obviously a fan of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, hammers a spiked metal mask onto his face and then takes him outside to be drawn and quartered. We cut quickly from his death to a one-legged man 35 years further on (but still apparently in the 18th century or so) explaining the dark history of Count Regula to a rapt crowd.

The one-legged man turns out to be an agent of the supposedly deceased Count Regula, sent to pass invitations to the Count’s castle to a select group of guests. When the guests reach the nearest town, the townsfolk act with the fear and denial that is demanded of them by their role in the story, but a suspiciously streetwise and well-armed priest comes to their aid, and our protagonists are soon on the road to the sinister and bizarre castle of the Count.

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From this point onwards, it’s torture, deathtraps, twisted artworks, creepy crawlies and necromancy all the way, delivered in a style that is part Salvador Dali, part Edgar Allan Poe and part bad acid trip. The story isn’t incoherently surreal, but it is thoroughly dreamlike in its execution.

The credits and the original German title of the film (Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel) would have us believe that The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism is based on Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum, a claim as accurate as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre being based on a true story or the remake of The Haunting having anything but a passing resemblance to Shirley Jackson’s novel. Sure, there is a pendulum in The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism, but the rest of the script is pure hallucinogenic word abuse.

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It really is difficult to convey how weird a film The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism is. This weirdness isn’t apparent from a plot description, or even cataloguing some of the scenes; it’s a cumulative effect of snippets like a priest drawing guns on a cowardly coach driver to the complete lack of consternation of the other passengers; said coach driver passing between trees with human body parts hanging from them but only being upset by the presence of crows; a servant who wanders around a dark castle with an unlit candelabra; a random corridor in the dungeon filled with vultures; and an escape plan based on making a ladder from a wooden leg. Over time, you will start to wonder if you are really watching this or if you’re dreaming. If you don’t find yourself saying “What the fuck?” at least once every five minutes, you’re watching the wrong film.

All of this is made even weirder by the incidental music. Much of it is appropriate for the Gothic atmosphere, but every now and then a refrain will come in that sounds like it belongs in a Children’s Film Foundation short or a Carry On feature. It’s difficult at these points not to wonder if The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism is a knowing parody, or if it has simply pushed its genre tropes so hard that they have broken.

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I can’t imagine that it’s biologically possible to be frightened by The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism, but it is still a feverishly entertaining and memorable film. I’ll leave you to decide whether this is for the reasons the film-makers had in mind.

 

Viy (Soviet Union, 1967)

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This rare example of Soviet horror cinema is based on a short story of the same name by Nikolai Gogol, supposedly influenced by the folk tales he heard as a child in the Ukraine. Its title comes from the name of a demon that appears late in the tale, but the story is primarily one about witchcraft and revenge.

The story follows the misadventures of a seminary student who rejoices in the name Khoma Brutus. Khoma is a classic literary rogue, combining charm, cunning, cowardice and a complete disinclination to do the right thing until he is given no other choice.

Given a short break from their studies, Khoma and two similarly miscreant students travel from the seminary, get lost in the fog and are forced to seek shelter on a farm when night falls. An old woman they meet on the farm turns out to be a witch, who rides Khoma through the air like a steed. When they land, Khoma grabs a stick and beats the old woman half to death, at which point she turns into a much younger woman. Khoma flees in terror.

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Upon arriving back at the seminary, Khoma’s teacher instructs to go to the home of a Cossack chieftain whose daughter is gravely ill; the daughter has asked for Khoma by name, although Khoma has no idea who she is. Inevitably, he discovers that the daughter is the witch he assaulted, and she has died while Khoma was en route. The chieftain now insists that Khoma stands vigil over the body of his daughter for three nights and prays for her absolution. Khoma of course tries every way he can to get out of this, but he is outnumbered and generally hapless.

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As Khoma carries out his duties, it becomes apparent that the witch is seeking vengeance upon him from beyond the grave, calling upon the forces of Hell to achieve this. The assaults on his person and his faith escalate as his nerves fray, leaving him fearing that we will not survive until the end of the third night.

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Ukrainian termites are scary

There is a light, wry tone to Viy that continues even as the supernatural horrors mount. Khoma’s interactions with his hosts/captors have a bitter humour to them, and Khoma himself never loses his charm. No matter how bad things get, he is aways capable of sardonic wit or impromptu Cossack dancing, as long as he is fortified by enough vodka.

The special effects are a mixed bag. The makeup for the vampires, werewolves and demons is simple but effective, the flying coffin has a manic energy to it that would be at home in a Sam Raimi film and back projection is used in imaginative and disorientating ways. However, the demon Viy, when he appears, looks silly and shoddily constructed.

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They did the mash…

There is nothing about Viy that is even remotely frightening, but it is a fun, pacey romp with monsters aplenty, which makes it perfect Halloween viewing.

Gogol’s story also served as inspiration for the Yugoslav film, A Holy Place and Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, but Viy remains the only faithful adaptation to date. This is unlikely to change when the action movie Viy 3D is released next year. I wish I were making that up.

Viy is available on YouTube, and includes English subtitles:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=zyg0WUsY9HI

 

 

Hollow (UK, 2012)

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I almost turned Hollow off within seconds of starting it. While I love horror cinema in almost all its forms, I would be very happy if I never saw another sodding found-footage film. They have infested the genre since The Blair Witch Project, and the success of Paranormal Activity cemented the idea that these low-budget efforts can generate huge returns. A depressingly large number of recent horror releases have adopted the format, and my heart sinks every time I start watching a new film that opens with the jerky movements of a camcorder.

My main objections to the format are that the lack of artful cinematography, editing and incidental music tend to undermine their ability to create tension and atmosphere, and that I find myself constantly taken out of the film by wondering why the hell one of the protagonists is filming a scene when their priorities should be elsewhere. Too many sequences which aim to be horrific just end up being sounds of screaming and the blur of a camera being jerked around. I can’t think of a single found-footage film that I wouldn’t have preferred in a more traditional format.

While Hollow isn’t free from these problems, it does at least manage to generate some unease, and is largely saved by engaging characters, strong acting and atmospheric locations.

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Almost as wooden as Stephen Lack in Scanners

Hollow follows two couples visiting Dunwich in Suffolk (yes, it’s a real place, as Matt’s article on his visit there shows) to clear out the cottage of the recently deceased grandfather of one of them. Various articles in the cottage reveal the grandfather’s obsession with legends about a local tree where many couples have hanged themselves. As the friends explore the legend and the surrounding countryside, they find themselves increasingly disturbed by what they discover. Old secrets and resentments begin to taint their relationships. Ultimately these collide with the legend, resulting in tragedy.

It is in these relationships and their upheavals that Hollow is strongest. The characters are defined and portrayed well, and their disintegration is at least as compelling as any apparent supernatural threat.

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Hollow was produced in association with the Countryside Alliance

There is something of M R James to the legend at the heart of Hollow. Its use of a cursed tree brings to mind James’ The Ash-Tree, and Suffolk is home to a number of his stories. The horror in Hollow is less explicitly supernatural, though — the events are ambiguous, and lend themselves as much to rational interpretation as a ghostly one.

The use of a ruined abbey for a number of the outdoor sequences lends Hollow a goodly amount of atmosphere. The location is supposed to be Greyfriars Abbey in Dunwich, but the film’s IMDB page states that the film-makers used nearby Leiston Abbey instead. None of the film was actually shot in Dunwich, with most of it having been filmed in Lincolnshire.

The connection to the ghost stories of East Anglia adds a degree of depth, though, and the name of Dunwich will grab the attention of many horror fans. In fact, Dunwich was the original name of the film, which seems to have confused people on the IMDB, leading to the film being listed as a remake of The Dunwich Horror. This is not the case, and there are no Lovecraftian aspects to Hollow at all.

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Some BT payphones accept souls as well as coins

Despite the found-footage format, Hollow manages to build up a reasonable amount of tension. The climax is overlong and loses some momentum, but not fatally so. While Hollow won’t be a film I go out of my way to recommend to people, or probably even remember for long, I am happy that I didn’t hit the stop button immediately.

I’ve made a poor start to the challenge due to being ill this week. I started with Le Orme and commented with a few thoughts on Scott’s post.

Today I watched a double bill on Lovefilm, and one that turned out to be a surprisingly good pairing.

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Demons was released in 1985 and captures the 80s in all their horror, along with the music of the time; Billy Idol, Saxon and Motley Crue. Directed by Lamberto Bava, it is ‘presented by’ Dario Argento. The early scenes inside the cinema are quite effective. We see the film reflecting an event that has happened in the cinema foyer and soon the events on screen and those in the cinema become closely entwined. For a moment there I felt I was watching Berberian Sound Studio. It then develops into a romp of zombie gore and chases, along with some curious scene cuts, but who’s worrying about continuity at that stage.

The second feature was Rec 3.

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IMDB lists this film as a comedy and yeah, that’s about right. It seems a curious decision to follow Rec 1 and 2 with a comedy. Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza are both credited with directing the first two films, with Jaume Balagueró having a writing credit on both. On Rec 3, only Paco Plaza’s name is mentioned, so I think we can see who was the brains behind the operation, and sadly he’s missing on this one.

The film’s full title is Rec 3 Genesis, and I was expecting more about how it all began. What I got was a crazy zombie fest at a wedding. As I was watching it I realised that it was actually very close to Demons in its story. A bunch of people are invited and become trapped in a venue. They are forced to fight zombies. And to cap it all the male lead in both takes up a (presumably decorative but highly effective) sword.

Beyond the Darkness (Italy, 1979)

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Let’s establish something here: Italian horror films can be fucking weird. Whether it’s the dream logic of an Argento giallo, the outright surrealism of Fulci’s The Beyond or the dizzy mania of Dellamorte Dellamore, Italian film-makers often take unusual approaches to style and storytelling rarely seen from their British or American counterparts.

In Beyond the Darkness, Joe D’Amato (probably better known for Anthropophagus) tells us a classic story of boy meets girl, boy loses girl to housekeeper’s black magic death curse, boy digs up girl’s body in the dead of night, boy eviscerates and embalms girl before taking her to his bed, boy goes on to kill a lot of people for no very good reason. The meandering storyline takes in murder, taxidermy, necrophilia, cannibalism and torture. There is eye gouging, fingernail ripping and dismemberment galore, presented with unflinching, low-budget glee.

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Sure, let’s have a threesome with your dead girlfriend

As you might have inferred, this is not a subtle film. There are scenes of profound gore and violence, often involving free use of animal viscera. The end result is nowhere near as nasty as it should be, though, as almost every aspect of the film is deliriously demented. This includes a typically off-kilter score by The Goblins.

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No worse that the last time I cleaned my bathroom

My time watching Beyond the Darkness was pretty evenly split between recoiling, laughing helplessly and staring open-mouthed in disbelief. Characters take stupefying ill-advised action throughout, ensuring problems escalate or creating new ones completely unnecessarily. For example, Frank, our protagonist, leaves a stoned hitch-hiker sleeping in his nearby van (garaged in the next room over) while preserving his girlfriend’s corpse and then seems genuinely surprised when the hitch-hiker walks in on the act. This isn’t a film for nit-picking, though — you either have to engage with the wilful insanity or find another activity that won’t scramble as many neurons, like huffing glue or practising headers with bricks.

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I probably shouldn’t have watched this film while eating

This is the first D’Amato film I’ve knowingly seen, which is odd considering that he made 200 of them. Most seem to be soft core porn of some description, but he made a handful of other horror films as well. After looking through his page on Wikipedia (his IMDB page often fails to render properly, perhaps out of embarrassment), films like Porno Holocaust, Anal Paprika and Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals are calling. It may be too late for me.