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Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (USA, 1973)

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Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (Lemora from here on — I’m not getting paid by the word) really shouldn’t work as a horror film. It is amateurish, with needlessly murky day-for-night shots and dim lighting that is more obfuscation than atmosphere. The make-up looks like part of a junior school art project, and the fight scenes make the original Star Trek look like a Jackie Chan film. Some of the acting is passable, but most of it wouldn’t be out of place in an Ed Wood movie. Still, despite these handicaps, Lemora manages to be hypnotically compelling and really rather disturbing.

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One aspect of the sense of wrongness that Lemora imparts is that while Lila, the protagonist, is supposed to be thirteen years old (although played by an eighteen-year-old actress), the sexual attraction she holds for some of the other characters is a major plot point. While the story stops short of explicit seduction, there are a few scenes that made me squirm with discomfort.

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The story itself is a modern fairy tale. Lila, an innocent and devout choir girl, learns that her estranged gangster father is dying, and sneaks off to the remote village where she has been told he is being treated. This brings her into contact with various strange and lecherous characters, a number of disease-mutated villagers who live in the salt marshes and finally to Lemora, the seductive vampire cultist who has been tending to Lila’s father. Temptation awaits Lila there and she finds her Christian morals under constant assault.

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Stripped down to its essentials, the plot of Lemora would serve as a children’s story, but there is much more to it than that. It borrows elements from Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth and J Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, and maintains a timeless Gothic atmosphere throughout. Moreover, there is a dreamlike quality to the village and to Lemora’s home in particular that perfectly bridges the gap between fairy tale and Gothic horror.

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It would be unfair to describe Lemora as a frightening film — even if this were its goal, the bargain-basement production values and hammy acting would undermine it. Instead it sets out to be unnerving, and in this it succeeds. It took me back to the feeling of reading classic horror short stories as a child, and maybe missing the nuances, but feeling the chill they brought more deeply than any adult could. Childhood fears are always the strongest, and Lemora is made of them. Worse that this, though, it takes an adult’s perspective, and gives a window into the corruption and loss of childhood innocence.

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Lemora is, in most ways, the antithesis of modern horror films — it is slow, dreamy, messy and unprofessional. I imagine that this means it would alienate many contemporary viewers, and I would quite understand their reasons for this. If, like me, you enjoy dark fairy tales and can see past the papier mâché masks and plastic teeth, you may find Lemora to be a most pleasurable nightmare.

Pin (Canada, 1988)

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In the 25 years since its release, Pin has developed something of a reputation as an overlooked cult classic. I’ve read reviews which describe it as weird and disturbing, which made it sound very much like my kind of thing. Now, after having seen it, I can’t help but wonder if those reviews were for the same film that I watched. While there is a definite danger of an over-hyped film not being able to live up to expectations, the disappointment of Pin is something keener.

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The story is a relatively simple one of a mentally ill young man, Leon, his unhealthy relationship with his younger sister, Ursula, and his even more unhealthy relationship with an anatomical dummy, Pin. Pin, the doll, is named for Pinocchio, and like Pinocchio, Pin, the film, is largely wooden while exhibiting the occasional sign of life.

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The conceit of the story is that Leon, suffering from Hollywood schizophrenia (a mental illness which manifests none of the actual symptoms of schizophrenia, but gives the sufferer licence to act a bit weird and occasionally kill people) has become so convinced by the ventriloquist trickery of his MD father that he believes his anatomical dummy to be alive and an active member of the family. After the death of their parents, Leon and Ursula share a house with Pin, and Leon’s behaviour gets steadily stranger as he tries to convince everyone around him that Pin is real. And that’s pretty much it.

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Pin himself is a creepy presence, but this isn’t enough to lend the film any tension or sense of horror. On the whole, it feels like a 1980s TV movie, and barring the occasional frisson from the uncanny valley effect once Pin is made-up to look human, the film is about as frightening as custard.

David Hewlett turns in a reasonably intense performance as Leon, but the script and tedious pacing of the film stop him from ever being genuinely sinister. There are a few moments where his obsession with his sister’s sex life evoke shudders, and these are as close to real horror as Pin manages to get.

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While Pin isn’t a terrible film, it feels like a missed opportunity. Dolls and mannequins can be unnerving, as Dead of Night, May and Magic have proved. With a bit of imagination and daring, Pin could have been the stuff of nightmares. Instead it is forgettable, and while Pin’s plastic features may stay with you for a while, the rest of the film will pass out of memory like an idle daydream.

The House by the Cemetery (Italy, 1981)

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If you watch a Lucio Fulci film expecting it to make sense, you’re in for disappointment. You may also experience nausea and confusion. Check the DVD case for known side-effects.

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The House by the Cemetery is not quite the exercise in full-frontal surrealism that The Beyond is, and it even has a relatively coherent main storyline, but Fulci balances this with enough strange characters, irrational action, and shocking and inexplicable imagery to save it from ever becoming predictable or mundane.

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The story follows the Boyle family as they move from New York City to New England to allow the father to continue a late colleague’s historical research. The local estate agent leases them the same house, which has the obligatory secret and dark history, a history which also seems to have been the cause of the colleague’s suicide. There is sort of a plot from this point onwards, but frankly it’s mostly pretext to allow Fulci to throw shocks, gore and bemusement at the audience.

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Much of the horror comes from the presence of the academic’s wife and young son in the house as weird things happen. The son is a tousle-headed moppet whose toy race car leads him into the dark and dangerous corners of the house. He is watched over by a babysitter who may also be a dismembered mannequin, and is befriended by a little girl who gets psychic warnings which she delivers pointlessly to the camera when no one else is around.

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This is not a film to watch for the story, though. Where The House by the Cemetery shines is in the utterly bizarre and often repellent set pieces and incidental details. The film seems to take place in some strange parallel universe where houses have gravestones on the lawn instead of garden gnomes, there is nothing remarkable about the babysitter cleaning up a huge pool of blood from the kitchen floor and it’s considered normal to have a tomb in your living room floor. The house itself is surrounded by so many incongruous animal noises that it sounds more like The House by the Zoo. At one point, the little boy speaks the line, “Anne! Mommy says you’re not dead. Is that true?”

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Many of these examples may sound like I am criticising or mocking the film, but I am not. Fulci understood something important about horror — it’s often more disturbing if the details don’t quite make sense. A Fulci film feels like a nightmare, and a nightmare doesn’t scare us because it is well-plotted and has all its loose ends neatly tied; nightmares frighten us because anything can happen, whether or not it is reasonable for it to do so. In some respects, Fulci’s finest work parallels that of Robert Aickman in that they both unsettle by making us feel that we are dreaming while awake. There are far more spilled intestines in Fulci’s work though.

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Many Fulci fans are drawn by the gore, and The House by the Cemetery doesn’t disappoint on this front either. There are murders, maimings and dismemberments galore, and some genuinely repellent images of a living dead monstrosity that bleeds pus and maggots when cut open. The House by the Cemetery also offers an ending which is both brutal and chilling, and will stay with you for long after the film ends.

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The House by the Cemetery is not quite the classic that The Beyond is. The pacing is poor in places and there are too many scenes that go nowhere. And as starling and bizarre as many of the elements are, it never quite lives up to the delirious promise of The Beyond. Still, it is unpredictable and never less than entertaining, which is more than I can say about most horror films.

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (UK1973)

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When I was around eight years old, I somehow got hold of a magazine that contained an article about Hammer films. The article was illustrated with many lurid photographs from Hammer productions, including the then-upcoming Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. The image of the creature having an eyeball sewn into its head entered my mind like some intrusive graft from the good Baron himself.

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It’s all fun and games until someone…

That night I lay awake in some half-remembered hotel room, watching the patterns in the wallpaper and the shadows cast from the streetlight outside turning themselves into a myriad of monsters, all with an insatiable appetite for the flesh of imaginative young boys. The night passed like a fever dream, with nightmares and imaginings stitched into one constant tapestry of terror. When the morning sunlight awoke me, I felt like I had survived an ordeal. The monsters had spared me, but somehow I would still be theirs for life. Forty years on, and this has yet to change.

Despite this, or maybe because of it, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell remained the only Hammer Frankenstein film I had not seen, at least until I watched it today. I was afraid that time would have been unkind to it, but like that eight-year-old boy, I need not have been afraid. While it certainly didn’t give me vivid waking nightmares, it was far from being a disappointment.

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Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (I need to start reviewing films with shorter titles) opens with the doomed exploits of Simon Helder, a young surgeon who has studied the writings of Baron Frankenstein and is attempting to replicate his work. His reliance on a drunken and cowardly grave-robber (a show-stealing cameo from Patrick Troughton) leads to his arrest, followed by his committal to an asylum for the criminally insane.

It takes little time for Helder to discover that despite reports of his death, the doctor at the asylum is none other than Baron Frankenstein, now calling himself Doctor Victor. Helder insinuates himself into the Baron’s life and work, and assists him with a continuation of the experiments that made the Baron infamous.

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While Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell follows the classic template of Frankenstein’s experiments in creating life going violently wrong, it differs in a few important respects. This is a poignant film that treats the Baron’s creation as a victim more than a brute — the subject whose brain is transplanted into the hulking and repellent shell (portrayed by Darth Vader himself, David Prowse) that the Baron has fashioned is horrified at what he has become, and his degeneration is as heart-rending as it is frightening.

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell is also the goriest film in the series and from the classic age of Hammer. The surgery scenes, while relatively tame in comparison to modern horror films, are far more graphic than anything Hammer had offered previously, and there are scenes of bloodshed and evisceration that still retain some power to shock.

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The setting of an old-fashioned lunatic asylum is an atmospheric one, and the script treats the inmates with surprising sympathy. They are portrayed as broken human beings, with their treatment at the hands of their captors and the Baron eliciting pity and horror.

Peter Cushing puts in an exceptional performance, chilling in its good humour and dissociation from the horrors that the Baron has wrought. More than any other Frankenstein film that comes to mind, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell reminds us that the Baron is more of a monster than anything his experiments could create.

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Despite the higher degree of gore, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell is very much a classic Hammer film. If you find their style campy and dated, this film is unlikely to change your opinion. If, like me, you find charm in lurid colours, larger-than-life characters and Gothic horrors, you may find this exactly what Herr Doktor ordered.

Antiviral (Canada, 2012)

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When Joe Hill, the son of Stephen King, started his career as a writer, he did everything he could to distance himself from his father’s work — he took up a pen name, worked initially in a different genre before giving in to his love of horror and fantasy, and developed a style very much his own. Even now, there is no mistaking Hill’s work for that of his father. This is not quite the case with Brandon Cronenberg, son of David.

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In an ideal world, it would be possible to discuss Brandon Cronenberg’s feature début on its own merit; Antiviral cleaves so strongly to the themes of his father’s early films that it is impossible to do so. While the style of the film is very much Brandon’s own, the subject matter would allow it to fit in anywhere in his father’s work of the 1980s.

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Antiviral tells the story of Syd March, a young technician and salesman for The Lucas Clinic, a biotech company that sells celebrity diseases. In the near-future world of Antiviral, celebrity culture has reached bizarre extremes — it is possible to buy meat made from cloned cells of your favourite celebrity at a specialist butcher shop; news broadcasts cover nothing but celebrity gossip; full-body clones of celebrities are close to market; and companies like The Lucas Clinic take blood samples from celebrities when they are ill, isolate the pathogen, and sell it to fans who wish to become closer to their idols by sharing their diseases.

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March uses his position at the clinic to smuggle diseases out within his own body, using illegal equipment in his home to crack the copy protection on the modified diseases, which then returns them to an infectious state. March then sells these diseases to a pirate organisation which distributes them on the black market.

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Complications arise when March injects himself with a blood sample from the celebrity Hannah Geist, only to discover that the disease she carries may be more unusual and dangerous than he anticipated. From this point on, he is a pinball bouncing around in a game of deceit, betrayal, failing health and a breakdown of his own reality, ultimately leading him to fight for survival and seek revenge. The parallels with Videodrome are unmissable.

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March is played by Caleb Landry Jones, who brings a sinister, dispassionate and thoroughly alien grace to the role. You are left in no doubt that this is a man capable of anything, and he is never less than a compelling presence. This dispassion fits perfectly into the stark, antiseptic tone of Antiviral, with its stark white sets and harsh lighting. The film is deliberately paced and filled with subtle menace.

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While body horror is very much at the forefront, elements of Antiviral also owe much to the Cyberpunk movement. The story of intellectual property theft and back-street pirates using modified technology to refine and mutate corporate products could have come straight out of a William Gibson novel. Cronenberg also uses science fiction to parody the lunacy of our own celebrity-obsessed culture by taking it to ludicrous extremes. The more macabre aspects of this reminded me of Vaughan in JG Ballard’s Crash and his need to create the perfect death for himself by engineering a fatal car accident involving Elizabeth Taylor.

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While Antiviral hasn’t allowed Brandon Cronenberg to forge an identity separate from his father, it is a thoughtful, beautifully shot film that offers a sharp critique of celebrity culture, leaving us wondering who is the disease and who is the host in this relationship.