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The Silence of the Lambs

(Directed by Jonathan Demme)

What else can you say about one of the most revered and award-winning genre films (and it IS horror, make no mistake) of the 90s? Its success, both on a critical and globally financial basis, gave horror a sheen of respectability and quality that it hadn’t had for ages, and it lost at least part of the sneering taboo that mainstream critics gave terror-flicks at the time. This feat is something that has been arguably accomplished by only a few other genre films since then (The Shape of Water, Get Out, etc.). Be that as it may, the lovechild of sadly-missed director Demme and cult author Thomas Harris gave birth to an unlikely franchise that culminated in a sequel, a prequel-remake, a cult TV series, and a huge dent on pop culture. The film itself had a slightly tortuous origin. Originally Gene Hackman took a shine to the 1988 novel of the same name and was driving the project so he could take the role of FBI mentor Jack Crawford (eventually played by Scott Glenn). When the Hackster dropped out, and Demme came on board, the hunt was on for FBI wunderkind Clarice Starling and classy serial killer Dr Hannibal Lecter.

Believe it or not, several actresses were courted and turned down the role of Starling due to the violence and gore. Allegedly this included the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer, Laura Dern, and Meg Ryan. But Jodie Foster was keen to play the strong female role after coming off her Oscar-winning turn in The Accused, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone else portraying the character in hindsight (with apologies to Julianne Moore). Of course, Lecter (or “Lecktor”) had already been impressively played by Brian Cox in 1986’s Manhunter. Actors considered for this interpretation were: Sean Connery (!?), Al Pacino. Robert De Niro, and Dustin Hoffman. But of course, Hopkins snagged it and made it his own. The story follows that of the book quite closely (screenplay adapted by Ted Tally, who went on to Dreamwork films in later years. Really.), with nascent FBI profiler Starling engaging with Lecter about an autogynephilic (look it up but clear your browser history afterwards) serial killer called “Buffalo Bill” (unnervingly played by a twitchy Ted Levine). “Bill” is currently holding a Senator’s daughter hostage, with the intent to kill and skin her. An unlikely “friendship” builds up between Starling and Lecter, as two killers near the climax of their frightening plans.

Lambs is the epitome of modern “gothic horror”. If Bladerunner influenced a generation of sci-fi films and art, then “Lambs” is the horror version of that. The grubby, imaginative, and surreal set designs would go on to influence everything from Se7en to Saw. The intelligence of Lecter and Hopkin’s inflexions on the character (lip-smacking, confident stillness, etc.) would become a benchmark. Even Foster’s nuanced, nervous, and brave take on Starling would lead to her becoming a female icon. After all, she is the “Final Girl” for the whole plot. The triple whammy of intelligent horror, perfect performances, and stunning visuals (and also a brilliant and underrated soundtrack from Howard Shore) meant it became a huge “sleeper” hit that no one saw coming. Demme, Foster, Hopkins, and Tally all won Oscars for their efforts, and Lambs won “Best Picture”. Unheard of for a film containing so much blood, violence, and deprivation, it gave horror a badge of honour for once. Admittedly the characterisation of “Bill” feels a little thin (despite Levine’s performance), and it didn’t go over well with some LGBT+ representatives at the time, so certainly would pick up controversy if it were released now. But overall, it’s an unmitigated classic. Standout moments include: Starling’s blind stumble through Bill’s dungeon, the aftermath of Lecter’s escape with the skinned cop and his “wings”, Lecter languidly beating the crap out of his tormentors with a baton, and any monologue scene with Foster or Hopkins dominating the screen. Sheer brilliance, and of course we wouldn’t have had Hannibal without it. BTW: Rumours about a revived season for Hannibal periodically surface and CBS is currently shooting a TV series based on Clarice Starling’s career after the events of Lambs, with actress Rebecca Breeds in the lead role. Presumably, this will ignore events from the “Hannibal” film and book…

The Pit and the Pendulum

(Directed by Stuart Gordon)

Sometimes called The Inquisitor, this film is very loosely based on the classic Edgar Allen Poe story (since they take place roughly the same time, have the titular objects in the plot, and rats as the Deus ex Machina), this was an unusually serious (well, mostly) and grim offering from Gordon that is not without reward for watching. We’ll come to the goodies in a minute, but a little bit of background first. It was filmed at that point in Gordon’s career after From Beyond and before Space Truckers and Castle Freak. Originally it was to have been a historical extravaganza with Peter O’Toole in the lead before Anthony Perkins was considered, and then it went to Lance Henriksen. The rest of the cast is filled out with a mixture of some recognisable faces like the always welcome Jeffrey Combs, and the legendary Oliver Reed. It was filmed in Italy, although the plot takes place in 1492, Spain. The film’s leading lady is Rona De Ricci, who appears to have made this the last film in her career. Anyway, the plot is all about the Spanish Inquisition (which nobody was expecting obvs). Torquemada (Henriksen) is the hypocritical bastard who tortures and burns anybody who irks him in a religious or sexual capacity. With the semi-backing of the church and a following of goons, he terrorises the country, until a beautiful peasant girl begs for forgiveness. Unfortunately, Maria (De Ricci) stirs his loins and makes Torquemada subsequently believe that she is a witch and should be punished as such. This leads the dashing Antonio (Jonathan Fuller) to break into Torquemada’s fortress to rescue his innocent wife and face the hideous contraption in the title.

P&P sure ain’t subtle, and it’s bereft of the Lovecraftian shenanigans of Gordon’s previous work. However, it compensates for that with a reliance on nudity and gore, that sometimes feels uncomfortable (although that’s the point after all). The biggest feather in its cap is Henriksen, however. The actor (allegedly) used the project as an excuse to go “full method”. There are tales of him never leaving character and berating members of the cast (and members of the general public) as he gets to the root of his despicable character. Unable to accept his human frailties and forever punishing himself (and others) for perceived transgressions against the lord, it’s a startling change of pace from the actor’s usual roles. It is slightly OTT in places, with plenty of hand-waving, throwing “gang signs”, and grimacing. Still, the sheer force of his personality and conviction makes for some chilling scenes, such as when he reveals a girdle of spikes and commands a servant to whip him (while kneeling on broken crockery for good measure). The ridiculous backwards-mini-fringe on his bald head and delivery of lines like “Satan… was an angel!” and “In this place… death is mercy” make it a memorably eccentric performance that dominates the entire film. A tyrannical hypocrite with a Virgin Mary fetish! Bet the history books missed that bit out!

There is some awkward humour that sits amongst some scenes which have some valid things to say about persecution and torture. Bizarrely there’s even a water-boarding scene before that phrase was even invented. But lines like “One good turn deserves another” to a prisoner on … yes … the rack, occasionally induces groans. However, you’ll mostly remember and enjoy the clever details like; the literal sword of Damocles, the astral-plane escape for “true witches”, the burning victim taking revenge by scoffing gunpowder, Oliver Reed’s delightful cameo and cod-Italian accent (“I have-a da seal of da Pope!”), and a couple of swash-buckling fights, with the climax in the torture chamber containing the deadly invention of the title. It’s probably an acquired taste, but for Henriksen’s bonkers performance, the “Omen”-Esque soundtrack by Richard Band and the sheer audacity, it’s certainly worth a late-night screening.

The Borrower

(Directed by John McNaughton)

Ever wondered what John McNaughton did between directing Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Wild Things. Well, it was this nutty sci-fi horror that feels like a cross between The Hidden and Dark Angel (aka I Come in Peace). In no way should this be confused with the kids’ film and TV series about tiny people (that’s The Borrowers), as you could traumatise a few young lives. Nope, this movie takes a REALLY silly premise, runs with it and mixes it with the obligatory 90s synth n’ soft-rock soundtrack. There’s the usual 90s “hard-bitten” cop lead character, but at least this time it’s played by a woman. Rae Dawn Chong plays tough policewoman Diana Pierce in a refreshingly uncomplicated way so that her gender doesn’t stick out like as something unusual. There’s not even a forced romantic relationship for once. The film sat on the shelves for two years (mostly due to the level of gore and the premise), before Cannon grabbed it and it showed at TIFF that year. However, due to the mixture of tones and sheer nuttiness, it seems to be mostly forgotten these days, which is a shame.

The plot lays out the hook immediately as an intimidating and shackled figure (Robert Dryer) is transported by UFO to Earth. According to the insectoid pilot, the passenger is a serial killer from his race of such utter bastardy, that they thought execution was too good for him. Instead, they “devolved” him into a human being and are banishing him to Earth. The worst punishment they could conceive! Brilliantly, this “devolution” technique turns out to be deeply flawed as the unnamed killer alien (henceforth “Borrower”) find’s his body rejects the human form regularly, making his head explode! Not to worry though, as his still-alive torso can grab the nearest pesky human and meld that head to his body, reversing the transformation. Hence “The Borrower” … although the heads are never in a state to be returned at any point. So cue several bizarre murders attributed to someone called “The Head-hunter”, as “Borrower” goes bumbling around the mean streets of Chicago as he gets to grip with human society, and Detective Pierce and her partner try to make sense of it all.

By any stretch, The Borrower isn’t a particularly “good” film (watch out for that low-hanging boom!), but boy, is it entertaining. As you may expect, there are some neat SFX scenes and disembodied heads flying around, with some decent work from Kevin Yagher Productions Inc. Best of all though is the fish-out-of-water scenario acted by the cast who get their bonce purloined by the title character. Tom Towles (from Henry and The Pit and the Pendulum as well) is fantastic as he gets double-takes from genuine passers-by in Chicago streets, and stumbles around making noises like “Lurch” from The Addams Family. Antonio Fargas (Huggy Bear from the Starsky and Hutch TV series) also has a good tenure as the learning alien. In several nice touches, Borrower has a continued aversion to light (cue sunglasses) and loud sound, but gradually picks up habits and knowledge from his observations and brain-stealing. It nails the concept when he “becomes” an affluent doctor and compares his house to the homeless existence of his former heads. At this point, it’s a trippy, surreal snapshot of US society, but it doesn’t keep to that pithiness. The next choice of a skull is pretty dumb! Also, watch out for a very brief cameo from a young gun-toting Madchen Amick (Twin Peaks) at this point. There is some noticeable padding (garage band, the scumbag called “Scully”, and “The Garbage Pail Kids Movie”!), and the ending is a bust. However, this is a nifty little exploitation treat that could do with rediscovery

The Haunted

(Directed by Robert Mandel)

Ghost hunting couple Ed and Lorraine Warren often provoke quite extreme reactions amongst those who are aware of them. To some, they were the original Ghostbusters and were trailblazers for those seeking to investigate and document supernatural phenomenon. To others, they were opportunists who sought fame and fortune. A pair of charlatans. Regardless of where you stand, they have been involved with a number of famous historical cases and Hollywood has turned it's gaze in their direction of late. Two Conjuring movies (and another to be released shortly) have the Warrens portrayed as central leads and there are a shit load more of cases to cash in on...I mean, to cover.

The Warrens investigated the Perron haunting and the Enfield Poltergeist case (both of which are the focus of the first two movies) and they were also heavily involved with the Amityville case (possibly the most famous haunting ever). However there is another case file that they worked on that has not really had the big screen treatment as yet; the Smurl haunting. The (supposed) hauntings took place over the course of fifteen years (between 1974 and 1989) and the Warren's published a book on the case in 1986. In 1991, 20th Century Fox put out a made-for-TV movie titled The Haunted that depicted the events surrounding the case...

For those unfamiliar with the case, The Haunted tells the story of Jack and Janet Smurl who move to a duplex in Pennsylvania with their young family and and Jack's parents. For the first couple of years after their move, life was fine but before long weird shit started happening. You know the type of thing I mean. Loud noises, bad smells, mattresses shaking, family members being raped by demons – , textbook stuff really. After the Catholic Church give them a wide berth, Janet Smurl seeks the help of celebrity ghostbusting pair The Warrens. But even they struggle to sort it out...

We've featured a a couple of made for TV movies on this blog series before. Generally speaking, they are a slightly different proposition to theatrical releases. They tend to be be downgrades in terms of production value and overall quality but occasionally one of them bucks the trend. In the case of genre TV movies, their success often partly lies in the fact that they are more accessible to younger viewers. It's classic kindertrauma. The Woman in Black, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark and Stephen King's IT all had a big impact on a host of impressionable young minds when they were first aired on TV networks. The Haunted was another that spooked those that watched it nearly thirty years ago.

The TV production values actually work in the film's favour. There's something almost disarming about the almost soap opera style and the narration that makes the horror feel more uncomfortable and unwelcome. The suburban setting and the laid back family dynamic also add to the sense of things being grounded and not too fantastical. Like the Enfield haunting in The Conjuring 2, this is about real people living in an ordinary street and this makes it doubly effective. Haunted houses don't have to be creaky old mansions or stately homes or castles, they can be three bed semi's in ordinary towns and cities. The restricted budget also means that we don't get too much in terms of visual effects and those that we do get are actually effectively ambiguous. What we do get is some classic poltergeist like activity and voices etc. There's one scene where Janet goes into the basement to do her laundry and hears someone calling her voice. She thinks it's her mother-in-law but it isn't. Goosebumps!

It all ends rather abruptly and there's a bit too much religion in there for someone as secular as yours truly but it's still a bit of a hidden gem that's worth digging up. It's only a matter of time before the case gets a big budget reboot.

The Sect

(Directed by Michele Soavi)

Italian Director Michele Soavi is best known for two things; firstly, his connection and collaboration with horror maestro Dario Argento and secondly, a film called Dellamorte Delamore (aka Cemetery Man) – a unique blend of horror, comedy and romance which has a bit of a cult following. It looked as though he was going to go on and cement his place as one of Italy's brightest film-makers but he retired from the industry within a year or so of that films' release, for family reasons. He has since made a return behind the camera but his most recent projects have been TV movies and serials. However, before Dellamorte Delamore, he made three feature films. The first two were Stage Fright (a stylish slasher), and The Church (a visually arresting but flawed film about an unholy supernatural evil beneath, well, a church obviously) The other was a crazy little movie called The Sect (or The Devil's Daughter) which was released in...yep you've guessed it, 1991!

The Sect starts out with a couple of murder scenes. The first involves a drifter killing a bunch of hippies in 1970's California (whilst invoking Lucifer) and the second, set in present day Germany, where a woman is stalked through the streets by a stranger who then kills her in her own home. Before he kills himself he claims that he was forced to carry out the crime. I mean, these two opening scenes let you know that no good is afoot! We then follow a teacher named Miriam (Played by Jamie Lee-Curtis' sister) nearly runs down an old man in her car. She invites him to stay and recuperate at her home. I mean, what could go wrong huh? He's just a sweet little old man! Well actually, he's an elder member of a Satanic cult and he's been faking it all along. Whilst she's out looking for a doctor, he winds up in some tunnels beneath the house (that Miriam isn't aware of) and performs a Satanic ritual. When Miriam returns home with the doctor they follow the old man's trail underneath the house and find him dead, covered in a shroud. There's not much point telling you what comes afterwards but suffice to say it's all rather enthralling and mesmerising.

It's true that some Italian horror (especially from Argento) is guilty of being a bit 'style over substance'. There are a wave of movies from the 70's and 80's that are all fascinating and interesting from a visual perspective, but yet fail to nail down the story elements. Yet, Soavi was a film-maker who was methodical in his storytelling and had no qualms about taking his time developing characters and plot. The result can feel a bit slow burn – as it does at times during The Sect, yet the plot here is not lightweight and flimsy. Slightly absurd, sure – but this film takes itself quite seriously and as a result, so does the viewer.

Saying that, the film doesn't ignore the aesthetic side of things either. A protege of Argento is of course going to have some visual flair and he shows some of it off in The Sect. We have the classic POV shots (even from a rabbit's perspective!), we have some surreal stuff and there are a handful of shocks too. On top of that he manages to build a pretty heavy atmosphere too. Sure, some of it doesn't make much sense but it's wildly imaginative stuff and the dreamy score from Pino Donaggio is a perfect partner to the general weirdness of the film. The cast all do a fine job too, with a special mention for Herbert Lom (who plays the cult elder) who delivers a deliciously hammy performance.

Is it too long? Yeh a bit. Is the ending a bit of a hot mess? Perhaps. Is it a bit like Rosemary's Baby? Kinda. However, the fact remains that this is probably the last great Italian horror film made and certainly better than anything Argento conjured up in the 90s. Track it down, sit back and enjoy!


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