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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Manhattan-based horror

I spent a few days in New York this week working a conference but stayed an extra day to have some fun. Last night I wandered the Village and Chelsea for hours, heard some good blues and saw this guy with a cat on his head. I also rented a bike to ride Central Park as well as the Upper East Side. Inspired by the movie Premium Rush, I decided to take on Broadway, Columbus and some of the side streets. My Premium wasn't quite as rushy, but cars swerved in front of me, doors suddenly flew open and people made right turns in the least opportune moments. It would definitely take some getting used to, commuting this city by bike on a daily basis. But I'd be willing to give it a try.


Premium Rush was certainly the action film for us urban bicyclists but maybe not a whole lot of other people, which may have explained its demise at the boxoffice. Nevertheless, this being Weird Movie Village, carousing the streets of Manhattan day and night, on foot and wheel, put me in mind of some Manhattan-based horror films.

Of course, there's the previously-discussed Rosemary's Baby, which gave us a peek into what really goes on inside those massive old apartment buildings, but you have to go back 25 years earlier to the Val Lewton-produced chiller The Seventh Victim (1943) to find another satantic cult raising hell in Greenwich Village where Kim Hunter goes in search of her missing sister and discovers that she's secretly married to Beaver's Dad (Hugh Beaumont)! The horror!

Praised as one of Lewton's classic low-budget RKO thrillers along with 1942's Cat People, but the producer thumbed his nose at the Production Code by having a main character commit suicide and a lesbian theme running throughout the picture.

Another sinister residence (but on a much goofier level) was the apartment building in the absolutely ridiculous The Sentinel, most notable for its Gil Melle score that doesn't shut up, a plethora of over-the-hill actors in small roles, people with real deformities playing creatures from the underworld, and Beverly D'Angelo playing cymbals topless, which really makes you concerned for her bazooms (considering their size).

70s and 80s TV actress Cristina Raines plays a young woman who moves into a great Brookyn Heights apartment, thinking she's gotten a great deal, only to realize that her snazzy loft is situated just above the Gates of Hell with old John Carradine as the old blind priest serving as the gauardan of the gate but looking like someone dumped a bag of flour on him.

Melle was a jazz musician and artist who did some film and television work, most memorably the theme from Rod Serling's Night Gallery, but with The Sentinel he seems to be going for an experimental long-form kind of improvisation. It seems like every single frame of the film is scored, and it's pretty strange.

More vigilante drama than horror film, Abel Ferrara's Ms. .45 has enough strangeness to classify for the Village. Zoe Tamerlaine (neé Tamerlis) plays a deaf mute seamstress at a fashion house who is brutally raped — twice — and sets out for bloody revenge on the male of the species. Scenes of her hacking up one of her victims in her bathtub and disposing of the body parts in black trash bags linger in the mind, as does her murderous rampage dressed as a nun during a Halloween party. Very much in the vein of Polanski's Repulsion, it deals with the violent untethering of a withdrawn young woman's psyche.

Street Trash (1987) is a bizarre horror-comedy hybrid that gets the ball rolling when a liquor store owner finds a case of Viper in his cellar and sells it to local hobos for a dollar a bottle. When they consume it, however, they melt in various messy ways. But that's just part of it. True to its name, the film also features rape, necrophilia, abuse by cop, sexual organ dismemberment...the works. It's directed by Jim Muro, an in-demand Steadicam operator, so all those scenes of debauchery are filmed with style.

Cult director and cult film preservationist Frank Henenlotter is a Manhattan boy through and through, so his key films are all set in the Apple — Basket Case, Brain Damage and Frankenhooker. Basket Case is so incredibly low-budget, shot on 16mm, you just know those are real sleazy 42nd Street hotel rooms they're filming in. But it all adds to the charm. Speaking of 42nd Street, I was heartened the other night when I was walking back from Times Square to my hotel in Herald Square to see that there was still a peepshow hanging in there.

I remember seeing Frankenhooker at a midnight showing at the sadly missed Rialto Theater in South Pasadena. What perfect subject matter. The audience roared when the lovely Elizabeth was re-animated into a Times Square prostitute with a fatal touch, and they loved it when the super crack-smoking hookers exploded.

A discussion of Manhattan horror would not be complete without mention of William Lustig's n'est plus ultra of sleaze, Maniac, with the late Joe Spinell as a really greasy, really sleazy murderer, and Lucio Fulcio's sleazefest, The New York Ripper. They must've played plenty a double feature up and down the Deuce in the day.

Larry Cohen brought an ancient Aztec creature t the Chrysler Building with his film Q (1982), as the mythical Qetzecoatl, or flying lizard, snatches up victims from the streets and roofs of Manhattan. Michael Moriarty is the crazy guy (big stretch) who's found a huge egg on top of the aforementioned building but can't get the cops to believe him. They've got distractions of their own — some lunatic cult is running around town skinning people. For all its low budget, Q has some good gore and a nice sense of offbeat humor.

For more classy fare, poor Tony Scott's artsy The Hunger (1983) interestingly dealt with themes that vampire movies and television shows are all tackling nowadays: love, loneliness, the sheer boredom of eternity. When Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie bring home the young punks and start to sex 'em up, only to whip out their sacrificial knives and lay them open (as opposed to just laying them), the way they lap up the flowing streams of blood is far more sexual than what they'd been doing just moments before. And Susan Sarandon, who falls under Deneuve's spell even as she realizes she's falling into a trap from which there's no escape, gives a good performance as the surrogate audience member asking us to believe the impossible.

2007's John Cusack starrer 1408 is a fun ghost story about a "debunker" (Cusack) who goes to the Dolphin Hotel in New York and stays in the supposedly-haunted room 1408, only to be driven mad by the horrific visions he sees there. Kind of like a modern, hipper Ghost and Mr. Chicken, Cusack does a pretty good job in what's essentially a one-man show. Adapted from a Stephen King short story, the prolific author must've seen Antonio Margheriti's 1964 Castle of Blood beforehand.

There seem to be a preponderance of haunted-building films in the New York horror genre, and with good reason. There are lots of old buildings. The hotel I just did a conference at was one of the hotspots during the glory days of glamorous nightclubs and live bands in the '30s and '40s, but now it's full of gloomy corridors and darkly-lit ballrooms that you swear — if you stay really quiet — that you can hear the ghosts of decades ago whispering in the murkiness...and maybe the strains of a swing tune or two.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow! Rush of nostalgia. I want to watch the whole Henenlotter canon again.

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