Horror Movie Watch: Don’t Look Now

There's not a raincoat in the world with enough vinyl to survive a pond drowning.

There’s not a raincoat in the world with enough vinyl to survive a pond drowning.

This October, I’m attempting an ill-advised viewing of (at least) thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a day, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s movie is British art-house horror flick (and, according to some lists, one of the best British films of all time) Don’t Look Now (1973), directed by Nicholas Roeg (Performance, The Man Who Fell to Earth) and based on a story by Daphne du Maurier. It was recommended by friend and former Book City co-worker Carter West, who you might see working the makeshift Ben McNally bookstore at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto this and next week.

A big thanks to Queen Video, who provided the DVD of Don’t Look Now and have a dazzling horror DVD selection in general.

What happens:

I have to confess that I was well aware of the twist ending to Don’t Look Now, as it’s one of those things that usually appears on those ‘most shocking horror movie moments’ or ‘most surprising twist endings’ lists one finds on the internet, which is too bad, as that twist is by far the best part of a film that tries a little too hard (for my tastes) to be a capital-’F’ film.

Don’t Look Now begins in the idyllic English countryside: married couple John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) Baxter work inside their country home while their son and daughter play outside in the fall weather. John, a dead ringer for Alex Trebek’s taller brother, looks through photographic slides of a church while Laura researches the answer to a question her precocious daughter asked: ‘If the world’s round, why is a frozen pond flat?’ John notices a strange red-coated figure in one of the slides. He goes to prepare himself a drink and accidentally spills water on that slide. At the very same time, their son Johnny bikes over a pane of glass, and their daughter, Christine, plunges into a backyard pond. As the water makes the slide colours run and produces a red crescent shape, John senses danger and runs outside. Johnny is already running toward him. John Baxter trudges directly into the pond and retrieves his daughter. He howls in agony, clutching Christine to his chest, then conducts the weirdest method of CPR I’ve ever seen, to no avail. Christine has died.

The film jumps forward: John and Laura Baxter are temporarily living in Venice as John oversees restoration of a cathedral (which explains all those slides of churches). They meet for lunch in a restaurant, but John notices two older women giving them the stink-eye. He opens the window to blow dust in their eyes (which is both weird and overly passive-aggressive), and the women leave for the washroom. Laura follows and ends up assisting the one woman to remove the dirt from her eye. The women are sisters, one of whom is blind. (The one without dirt in her eye, as you might have guessed.) The blind sister, Heather, claims to be clairvoyant and – while talking with Laura in the washroom – tells Laura she needn’t worry: she’s seen her girl, Christine (whom she identifies by her shiny red Mackintosh), and she’s happy and laughing. Laura needs to be roused with smelling salts after Heather drops that bomb on her. (Whatever happened to smelling salts? They used to be a staple of movie plots.)


So many crescents in this movie: what do they all mean? (I'll just assume it has something to do with the Illuminati.)

So many crescents in this movie: what do they all mean? (I’ll just assume it has something to do with the Illuminati.)

When Laura returns from the washroom, she promptly collapses onto the table. She awakens in the hospital and explains to John what the two sisters told her. John, while skeptical of the sisters (the word ‘mumbo-jumbo’ gets major play in this movie), can’t deny that his wife seems much happier and more herself after talking to the sisters, like her heavy grief has been lifted. They take a water taxi home and Laura asks to stop at a random church, where she lights prayer candles for Christine. Laura begins to take an increased interest in religion, even kissing the cathedral overseer (and sort of John’s boss) Bishop Barbarrigo’s ring. Then: sex break. Our couple showers, and John lounges around their hotel room in the nude, assuming if he stays naked long enough, sex will happen (I guess). He’s not wrong, and an interminable, fairly graphic sex scene follows, all set to music that sounds like an extended remix of the Young and the Restless theme. The scene is intercut with John and Laura getting dressed and ready for a night out, which they plan to do after making the beast with two backs.

They get lost on the way to the restaurant and John accidentally takes them down a dark alley where he encounters a couple rats and a strange sense of déjà vu. He and Laura get momentarily separated, a horrible sound cuts through the night air, and John sees a child in a red coat (just like Christine!) running over a bridge about half a block away. Eventually, they find their restaurant. The next day, while he works on the cathedral, John notices the two sisters again, and watches as his wife follows them. Laura, in a private meeting with Heather and Wendy, explains how Christine died and how – strangely – her husband just seemed to know it was happening. Wendy, the non-clairvoyant sister, lost a child early, too, so she sympathizes. The sisters will conduct a séance of sorts to try to reach Christine. I say ‘of sorts,’ because the séance largely involves the blind sister, Heather, caressing her own breasts and shouting ‘Yes!’ John, meanwhile, has tailed the sisters and his wife, and tries to spy on them, but is chased out of the apartment for being a Peeping Tom. (If John Baxter had only known what the séance entailed, he’d probably be more inclined to let his wife attend.) Heather tells Laura that John’s life is in danger if the two of them stay in Venice.

Later, in their hotel room, Laura delivers the bad news to John, who becomes suddenly very ill. Laura thinks their daughter is trying to warn them to leave Italy, and John reacts poorly, swearing at his wife and reminding her that Christine is, like, super-dead. At this point, you might wonder what ever happened to their other child, that son with the bicycle. Apparently, they put Johnny in a boarding school in England, as they’re awoken in the middle of the night by the school’s headmaster and mistress, who inform the couple that Johnny’s had a bad accident. He’s okay, but Laura wants to visit her son as soon as possible. John works with the hotel to get her on the next charter flight back to England.

John Baxter, however, stays in Venice and continues working on the cathedral restoration. The Bishop learns about the Baxter son’s accident and is a little amazed that John decided not to join his wife. John climbs scaffolding to work on the mosaic, which – in an eerie parallel – looks a lot like the red crescent that marred the slide in the film’s very beginning. The scaffolding, of course, collapses, and John just barely survives by grasping one of the dangling ropes. Shaken, John takes a water taxi back to the hotel with the Bishop and tells him about the warning and the sisters. That scaffolding accident must have been what they had foreseen. Across the canal, they witness a police boat drag up a woman’s drowned body, which is probably rougher for Mr. Baxter to see than most. Later on, while on another boat, he passes a water taxi coming the other direction and sees the two sisters and his wife, Laura, all clad in black. But she’s supposed to be in England with their son!

The hotel has closed for the season (is that a thing that happens in Venice?), but John is undeterred, barging into the manager’s private area and questioning him about whether Mrs. Baxter has come back to the hotel. (It’s actually pretty rude, and – in retrospect – John Baxter doesn’t show a lot of respect to people working in the hospitality industry in this movie.) The hotel manager hasn’t seen Laura since she left for England, so John takes the next logical step: he visits the police and has a sketch artist draw likenesses of the two sisters. He takes the sketches to a detective, Inspector Longhi, and asks for him to (a) find the two women and (b) find his wife, Laura. The Inspector, who may or may not spy the two sisters out his window while he converses with John, is confused. What is it John really fears? John then says, ‘The killer on the loose, the murderer … my wife – she’s not a well woman.’ At that point, two things immediately sprang to mind. (1) There’s a murderer on the loose?! I have been watching this movie really closely for the past hour and a half, and I had no idea there was a killer on the loose. I guess that’s what that drowned woman was all about. (2) Way to throw your wife under the bus, you creep, John Baxter. I also started to realize I might understand this movie a lot more if I knew some Italian.

Donald Sutherland, naked once again.

Donald Sutherland, naked once again.

John leaves, tailed by an Italian man. He sees a red raincoat on a clothesline, and decides to investigate the adjacent apartment complex. Inside the building, he asks after the two sisters in broken Italian, but no one seems to understand him. His tail, at that point, introduces himself as one of the ‘murder squad’ from the police. John goes home and phones his son’s boarding school to find Laura is there with Johnny. (I’m no architectural restoration expert, but I’d have done this before involving the police.) It’s a bit too late, though, as the police have already rounded up the blind sister, Heather, and put her in police custody. (Police have a lot of power in Venice, I suppose, as they can detain someone based on a rumour about a disappearance that never actually happened.) Feeling bad about things, John walks Heather back to her apartment that night, and is met at the door by Wendy (who is wearing a brooch in that omnipresent crescent shape). Heather almost immediately has a seizure, and John – sensing things getting a bit too real – makes a hasty retreat. Despite the fact that the seizing sister begs him not to leave for his own safety.

Laura arrives back in Venice and drops by the sisters’ apartment. They say she has to find John. Heather has had a vision of Christine again and John is in mortal danger. John, wandering through the dark Venetian alleys, sees that same kid in the red raincoat on the opposite shore of the canal. He follows the kid, even locking a gate behind him. What follows is lots of running up and down the canals – the kid in red, John, Laura – until John reaches the top of a bell tower and finds the kid in red, a la The Blair Witch Project (though decades earlier) facing a corner. John calls out for Christine, saying he’s a friend (which is strange, because – more relevantly – he’s her dad), but the kid in red turns around. He is not a kid, however, but she is a murderous dwarf – no joke – who runs up to John and cuts open his throat. John’s life flashes before his eyes as he drowns in his own blood on the floor

The last thing audiences see is a funeral procession of boats, with Laura and the two sisters dressed in mourning as before (when John saw – or thought he saw – them).

John Baxter prowls the canals of Venice.

John Baxter prowls the canals of Venice.

Takeaway points:

    • More than a horror film, Don’t Look Now is a look at two parents’ grief at losing a daughter. And, as with many couples faced with the death of a child, they deal with it in very different ways: John throws himself into his work, Laura seeks guidance from the paranormal world. Just like in real life, their different coping mechanisms sometimes leads to estrangement and anger. (Many marriages don’t survive the death of a child.) However, I feel like a philistine when I say that I feel the much tighter, trashier Deathdream conveys the grief at losing a child way better than Don’t Look Now does. I wasn’t overwhelmed by this couple’s grief and was truly mystified as to why the parents took almost no interest in their son. I mean, work is work, but if you lose one child to an accidental drowning, you’d think you’d be a bit less cavalier about leaving your son to study in a different country. (Not to be armchair parent or anything.) If you can’t tell, I wasn’t too fond of Don’t Look Now: it was too self-conscious about being seen as an art film rather than a horror film, which explains its length (the longest horror movie I’ve watched this October) and the overly-involved sex scene. If you like rich people being a little bit sad, and really paranoid and unreasonable, you’ll enjoy Don’t Look Now.
    • The water symbolism is a bit much, too. I get it: Christine died in water, so water is symbolic of death in Don’t Look Now. So, naturally, wallowing in their grief, they go to Venice, where there’s more water than land. Laura meets the sisters in the washroom, she collapses onto a table and knocks over all the water, it constantly rains. Water, water everywhere. The filmmakers might as well have just had Johnny’s accident be water-related – maybe a swirly gone too far – for the pièce de résistance.
    • More intriguing than the movies rather banal – if I may be so bold – statements on grief is what it might say about predestination. After all, John Baxter, throughout the film, has premonitions of his own death. He sees his own funeral procession. He sees the red-coated figure blur into a slash of blood on the photographic slide. But it’s John’s personal actions that start the chain of events culminating in his death. He pursues the red-coated figure through the night, even though he’s been steadfastly skeptical of the sisters’ paranormal claims. In fact, it’s his actions (opening the restaurant window) that lead to Laura meeting the sisters in the first place! The movie is, quite literally, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
    • As I mentioned earlier, a good portion of the film’s dialogue is in Italian with no subtitles provided. I understand that this decision could be a conscious choice, to emphasize the confusion and loss the Baxters feel when trying to communicate in Venice. The ‘alien’ language enhances the unsettling feel and makes even the most innocuous exchanges seem sinister. That said, if I was a fluent Italian speaker, would that change my understanding of the movie entirely? Obviously some of the conversations – the hotel manager talking with his girlfriend, the tenants of the building who shoo John out – would feel completely different.
    • In a complete aside, I feel it’s important to point out that, even at the age of thirty-seven or however old he was in Don’t Look Now, Donald Sutherland’s moans of agony sound precisely like a hundred year-old man drowning in his own soup.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: All of British cinema history may turn on me for this, but I really didn’t like Don’t Look Now. I’ll admit: the final reveal is spooky and very effective, but the lead up was too plodding, vague, and self-consciously artistic for me to feel scared or really enjoy it.

I dare you to find a nicer sweater in any movie from the 1970s.

I dare you to find a nicer sweater in any movie from the 1970s.

Best outfit: I really wanted John Baxter’s navy peacoat and colourful scarf to be my pick. It’s a great look. So good, it’s hard to understand why he seems so eager to take his clothes off. And I can’t pretend that their eleven year-old daughter, dressed in a bright red vinyl raincoat like some extra from Repo: A Genetic Opera, isn’t memorable. But that sweater Laura is wearing when she faints at the restaurant? That is one fine sweater: beautiful pattern and fits her like a second skin.

Best line: ‘I don’t know … I’m kind to animals and children.’ – Laura, when asked point-blank by Bishop Barbarrigo if she was Christian

Best kill: There’s only one kill we see – there’s no way I’m nominating Christine’s pond drowning for this – but it’s a pretty great one. That’s a real whack in the neck with the knife. An expert cutthroat would have used more of a horizontal slashing motion, but clubbing someone in the neck with a blade like you’re trying to open a piñata seems to do the trick here.

Unexpected cameo: I think we all know Donald ‘President Snow’ Sutherland and Julie ‘Lara’ Christie, but most interesting is the appearance of David Tree, who has a small role as Mr. Babbage, the headmaster of Johnny’s school. David Tree was once a leading British star on the rise until he lost an arm during service in World War II. He abandoned acting to become a farmer, and wasn’t seen in any film after the war until this one.

Unexpected lesson learned: Communication is the key to guiding your relation-ship through stormy seas. So, like, maybe call your wife to see she’s still in England instead of notifying the police, suggesting she’s a serial killer, and having two old ladies arrested.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Murder Squad, the police unit who tried (perhaps?) to help John Baxter out, is also a great name for a punk band or hip-hop crew.

Next up: Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971).

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Horror Movie Watch: High Tension

You'll never look at a concrete saw the same way again after watching High Tension

You’ll never look at a concrete saw the same way again after watching High Tension

This October, I’m attempting an ill-advised viewing of (at least) thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a day, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s movie is one of the best known of the ‘New French Extremity’ horror movement, High Tension (Haute tension) (2003), directed by Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes remake, Piranha 3D). It was recommended by friend William Kemp, who co-runs Words (on) Pages Press and Editorial Services (and previously recommended Leprechaun: in the Hood), and seconded by Charmaine Pang (who got a shout-out in the Rigor Mortis write-up).

A big thanks to Bay Street Video this time around, providers of the copy of High Tension. Do not read ahead if you (a) are triggered by descriptions of home invasions or (b) extreme gore. Also, I give away the big twist ending.

What happens:

High Tension (or Haute Tension or Switchblade Romance, as it’s known in the UK, but which totally spoils the ending) is a doozy of a film. You don’t so much enjoy it as you survive it. (That said, I kind of enjoyed it while I was happening.) I’ve been meaning to watch it for some time, largely because I’d heard it was brutal, and I’m depraved like that.

The film opens with a woman in the hospital (we only see her back, covered in scars), muttering, ‘I won’t let anyone come between us.’ Then we see another woman, Marie (Cécile De France), bloodied and staggering through the woods. She runs onto the highway and stops a car, pressing up against the window and begging for help. Marie wakes in the backseat of another car: she was just having a bad dream. She and her friend Alex (Maïwenn) are en route to Alex’s family’s house in the country, to focus on their studies. Marie tells Alex about her strange dream: she was chasing herself through the woods. They laugh about how they partied too hard the night before and how boring it will likely be on Alex’s family farmhouse. They crank up the Ricchi e Poveri on the stereo (which sounds like a French ABBA). But the laughter won’t last; the scene cuts to a rusting armoured truck, in which a disgusting man is seemingly giving himself head with a woman’s severed head, which he carelessly tosses out the window once he’s done. As one IMDB user asked, ‘what’s up with the bad guy mastubating [sic] using decaptivated [sic] head?’ What indeed? All the audience knows is we’re not in Kansas anymore (despite how much the landscape looks like a French version of Kansas).

Alex and Marie drive into the night, past endless farmland. Marie chastises Alex for hooking up with any man who shows an interest in her, and Alex retaliates by playing a nasty trick on Marie, pretending to drive off and leave her lost in a cornfield. They arrive at the farmhouse late, and Marie meets Alex’s dad, mom, and little brother, Tom, who is dressed like a cowboy. There’s also their trusty St. Bernard, Hendrix. Alex shows Marie to her guest room in the attic, and before long, the two friends are talking about men again. (Though there are two female leads in this movie, it, like, just barely passes the Bechdel Test.) Alex asks Marie when she’s going to find someone, and Marie responds by going out for a smoke. She sits on the creepy but well-lit swing set and looks back at the house, where she can spy Alex showering. We audience members begin to wonder if Marie has a thing for her best friend.

Marie and Alex, in happier times.

Marie and Alex, in happier times, and one of the few non-gory stills I could find.

Marie heads back inside and up to her room, where she takes a quick drink from the sink faucet (which is exactly how I drink water) and pops on her headphones to listen to some sweet reggae and dub. Given there’s not much else to do, Marie eventually gets around to masturbating, and as she does, that ominous armoured truck rolls up to the farmhouse. The driver rings the doorbell, waking the family up and causing Hendrix to bark. When dad answers the door, he’s promptly slashed in the face with a razor. As Dad falls back onto the staircase, the truck driver lets himself in and kills Hendrix. The driver (who I will refer to as ‘The Creeper’ from here on in) then proceeds to push the father’s head through the spindles of the staircase, and then – in one of the more disgusting horror scenes I’ve witnessed – shoves a dresser into the dad’s head, ‘decaptivating’ him. Blood shoots out like his neck were a garden hose.

The Creeper, who is a chubby middle-aged man dressed in repairperson coveralls, whips out a straight razor (killers love their straight razors) and moves on to the mother, who has just crept out of her room to see what’s happening. Marie, in the attic, starts to panic as she hears Alex’s mother scream. First, she tries to plug in the phone, but there’s no jack. Then she hides all evidence she was ever in the guest room – quickly making the bed, wiping the water out of the sink – and hides in the tub, behind the shower curtains. The Creeper comes into the bedroom, searching for more victims. He opens the shower curtains but no one is there (!). He then lifts the end of the bed, and finds nothing there, either. Marie is hiding under the bed, however; she’s just balled up at the other end, her hand over her mouth as she desperately tries not to hyperventilate. Eventually, the Creeper leaves and goes to Alex’s room. Alex sleeps with earplugs and hasn’t been woken by, y’know, the fact her house has quickly become a slaughterhouse. The Creeper wakes her with a razor to her throat. Upstairs, Marie hears her cries.

Somehow emboldened by a cracked doll in the guest room, Marie creeps down the stairs. (I’d have put shoes on first, but I’m sure there were other things to worry about.) She sneaks into the master bedroom and hides in the closet when she hears someone approaching. That someone is Alex’s mom, partially bloodied, who grabs the telephone. Before she can call, the Creeper walks in and slashes her throat in a particularly gruesome fashion. Marie, trapped in the closet, watches in horror as the mom’s eyes stare at her and blood sprays the closet door. The Creeper then saws off the mother’s hand for attempting to dial the police. After he leaves, Marie checks on the mother, who, with her dying breath, asks, ‘Why me?’ It’s around this time – oblivious to everything – that Tom starts running around in his cowboy suit. He runs outside and the Creeper follows him. This gives Marie the opportunity to check on Alex.

Marie finds Alex, gagged and chained in her room, and – understandably – freaking out. Unable to break her chains, Marie searches for a phone in the kitchen, but not before she witnesses the Creeper retrieve a shotgun from his truck and shoot Tom in the cornfield. The Creeper retrieves Alex and dumps her in the back of his truck. While he goes in to collect a souvenir – a torn-out face from one of Alex’s family photos – Marie takes a knife from the kitchen and hides herself in the back of the Creeper’s truck. The Creeper puts Alex’s face photo up with dozens of other girl’s photos on his vanity mirror and drives off. Marie tries to help Alex escape using the kitchen knife, but Alex is making too much noise, and Marie fears the Creeper will look back and find her there. Eventually, the Creeper has to stop for gas. (Seems like a forward-thinking abductor would fill up before conducting the home invasion, but whatever.) While he’s filling his tank, Marie, having used the knife to open the truck doors, slinks out the back and into the station to ask for help from the lone attendant. But before she can tell him much, the Creeper comes in to pay for his gas. Marie hides down one of the aisles.

Is there any conceivable way this is *not* the ride of a murderer?

Is there any conceivable way this is *not* the ride of a murderer?

The Creeper makes some sexually suggestive remarks to the gas station attendant, then requests some alcohol. When the attendant goes to retrieve it from the locked case, the Creeper buries an axe in his chest, then steps down on his back once he keels over, driving the axe further inside him. (Let that be a note to all gas station managers: if you insist on keeping the booze behind a locked case, you might want to do that with your axes, as well.) The Creeper realized the attendant was acting strange, looking at someone else in the store, so he goes to the washrooms to search the stalls. Luckily, he never searches the men’s stalls, which is where our heroine is hiding. The truck eventually drives off and Marie makes a call to the police. But she didn’t get a licence plate and doesn’t know exactly where the gas station is, so they don’t know how to help her. She lashes out at the police: ‘If I blow up this place, will you finally see it?!’ She – somewhat rashly – decides to take matters into her own hands. Marie takes the gas station attendant’s keys and gun and hops into a canary yellow Charger with racing stripes (yes, that exact same car from Death Proof) and bombs down the highway to the rocking sounds of Muse’s ‘New Born.’ (Which, if you’re pursuing a brutal killer, is a pretty great track.)

A highway chase ensues. The truck turns down a forest trail, so Marie turns off the lights of her car, doubles back, and tails it. But the Creeper realizes she’s following him: the truck loops around and begins to ram Marie’s car from behind. After repeated rammings, Marie’s car crashes and she crawls out the wreckage, half-coated in blood. She uses a greasy rag as a tourniquet and hides from the bright light of the Creeper’s flashlight as he pursues her. Eventually, she finds a sort of greenhouse protected by barbed wire. Marie removes a fence post and winds the barbed wired around its end, making the nastiest bat ever. Armed, she moves toward the flashlight, but finds out, like Admiral Ackbar so many years ago and galaxies away, it’s a trap! The flashlight is just hanging from a tree branch. The Creeper is behind her, and he attempts to asphyxiate her with a plastic sheet. It looks like the Creeper may win, but he gets cocky and (really disgustingly) begins to finger her mouth. At which point, Marie smashes him in the head with a rock. She gets to her feet and beats him about the face with her barbed-wire bat – not a scene for the faint-of-heart, but what in this movie is? However, he’s not quite dead. In his final gasp, he attempts to choke Marie, but she chokes back and finally kills him.

The good guys win, right? Well, not quite. The police arrive at the gas station and find the attendant’s body. They check the security tape and it shows – did you guess the twist yet? –Marie killing him with an axe. Marie is the killer! Back in the forest, Marie unchains Alex, but Alex screams and tells her not to touch her. We then see flashbacks with Marie committing all the brutal heinous murders from before. Marie must have created this Creeper persona in her mind as a sort of second, murderous personality. Alex slashes and stabs Marie with the kitchen knife and runs away. Marie/Creeper, momentarily fazed, retrieves a concrete saw from the truck and chases after Alex. We again see the scene from the beginning with Marie running through the woods to the highway, but this time, it’s Alex who stops the man in the car. She leaps into the rear seat, but the man’s car won’t start. Marie hops on the car’s hood and saws through the windshield and the driver, dousing the car’s interior and Alex with buckets of blood. (It’s, like, super-gory.) Alex breaks out the back window and crab-walks backward along the road. A really nasty-looking shard of glass has stuck in her heel. Marie, still brandishing the concrete saw, towers over Alex and forces her to say she loves her. When Alex tearfully says she loves Marie, Marie kisses her, blood and gore still all over her face. Which is when Alex stabs her through the shoulder with a metal bar she took from the car.

The final scene of the film features Marie in a mental institution, repeating, ‘I won’t let anyone come between us.’ Alex, viewing her former friend through a one-way mirror, realizes that Marie can still sense she’s there.

Marie and Alex, in happier times.

Marie and Alex, in less-than-happy times.

Takeaway points:

    • High Tension is sometimes grouped with the category of films called the New French Extremity. Movies in this category are not limited to horror films (as movies like Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible have been labelled as such), but they include equally extreme and ugly movies like Martyrs and À L’Interieur. These films do not shy from showing severe violence and graphic sex, and – most of all – human suffering. High Tension is really just a slasher movie cranked up to eleven, with the violence taken to gruesome extremes. They show the scenes when other movies might cut away. As such, it makes for some harrowing late-night viewing. If I’d had any fingernails to begin with, they’d certainly be all gone now.
    • The movie can’t be discussed without exploring the twist ending and how it makes almost no sense. So, Marie, driven mad with lust for her friend, is driven to kill her family and abduct Alex. Okay. And it’s kind of interesting how Marie’s act of self-love, in essence, brings the truck driver to the farmhouse. The filmmakers tie this lust to the violent personality break. However, the movie doesn’t work for a large number of practical reasons. Where did Marie get this truck? I mean, it must be a real truck: Alex was put in the back of it, it fills up with gas, there are numerous tools (a shotgun, a concrete saw) that are used to kill people that are retrieved from the truck. So, did Marie drive it there after the rest of the family went to sleep? And who is the woman whose ‘decaptivated’ head we see at the beginning? Did Marie kill other women before the events of the movie? Or was that all a dream? It just seems like it’s not just the truck driver, but a lot of actual physical objects that would have to be part of Marie’s other personality. And it’s not like you can just imagine concrete saw wounds on a person. (And on a side note, wouldn’t have Tom seen his butchered father when he ran out of the farmhouse? You’d think it would have scared him a little bit.)
    • The whole ‘evil lesbian did it’ plot is a bit of a throwback. Obviously, Aja is referencing some of his favourite gritty slashers, but in 2003, to have a character driven to murderous rage because of a homosexual love that can’t be returned? It seems a little regressive. Like, it’s 2003 and France. This is a topic Marie and Alex could have broached instead of it turning into a catalyst for a violently jealous fugue state. Though it is fitting that Marie spends part of the movie literally in the closet. And her time spent in that closet results in death and terrible violence. It’s kind of a microcosm for the entire movie.
    • I couldn’t help but think that Marie’s closely cropped hair was an homage to Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. But they’re very different films and very different characters, so maybe it’s just the relative dearth of women with short hair in horror movies that confused me.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: It was pretty terrifying. I’ll admit, I was spooked. I’d inadvertently put stereo sound on and paused the film twice because I thought something was in my apartment. Then I went to sleep, figuring everything was fine, but when I noticed a concrete saw at a construction site this morning, I had a strong visceral reaction. So I think it’s something that will stick with me.

Dad's sunny robe: an example of ironic fashion in a horror film.

Dad’s sunny robe: an example of ironic fashion in a horror film.

Best outfit: Haute tension this movie may be, but it’s not haute couture. Marie, who we spend the most time with, is clad in a plain white T-shirt and jeans. The only real fanciful fashion flourish is the jaunty sunflowers on Alex’s murdered father’s robe.

Best line: ‘Being like everyone else is such a bore.’ – Marie, with the most French thing anyone has probably ever said.

Best kill: 100 points to Gryffindor Aja for one of the more creative decapitations in film history. You can’t un-see that scene (and it was actually cut in many countries). Who’d have thunk you needed to fear your dresser?

Unexpected cameo: It’s far from a cameo – she’s the lead actor – but Cécile De France is nearly unrecognizable in some of her Hollywood roles that followed, like Around the World in 80 Days and Hereafter.

Unexpected lesson learned: Wearing shoes is important. You can run better in the forest and it’s much less likely you’ll cut your ankle on some shattered class. Also, keep the axes locked up in the gas station.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Switchblade Romance, the alternate UK title, is a perfect band name.

Next up: Don’t Look Now (1973).

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Horror Movie Watch: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

'Listen, do you live here? I'm really not allowed to let strangers into the building.'

‘Listen, do you live here? I’m really not allowed to let strangers into the building.’

This October, I’m attempting an ill-advised viewing of (at least) thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a day, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s movie is the classic giallo The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), directed by Italian horror titan Dario Argento (Deep Red, Supsiria). It was recommended by good friend Jane Gutter (not her real name), who is, beyond a doubt, one of the best writers on film and pop-culture I’ve ever read. If you have any fondness for these horror write-ups I’m doing, you will love what Jane does over at The Cultural Gutter, a site for smart writing about ‘disreputable’ art. (Feel free to donate to the Cultural Gutter, too! It’s money well spent.)

A big thanks to Bay Street Video this time around, as they provided the copy of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Trigger warning for some sexual violence.

What happens:

The film opens in a dark room as a black-gloved individual types away on a typewriter. (Very stylish for a stenographer!) The manuscript appears to be some sort of stalking instructions. We then watch as the typist (for we’re in his point-of-view) secretly photographs a female student. A selection of knives is presented on red velvet. Then a scream, and a cut to a newspaper headline of the third homicide of a young woman within the week. We’re then introduced to our protagonist, American writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), who moved to Italy upon the suggestion of a friend. He’s walking with his friend, Carlo, through some sort of ornithological institute. Sam, running short on money in Italy, was given a writing assignment by Carlo to write a book on rare birds, and the two of them are there to pick up the cheque.

That night, as Sam walks home, he witnesses an attempted murder in an art gallery. Through the large glass window at its entrance, he sees a woman struggling with a figure in black raincoat, black hat, and black gloves, who is then stabbed in the stomach. He runs over to intervene, but can’t get through the locked door, and soon finds himself trapped in a glass vestibule as the bleeding young woman crawls across the floor. Sam is helpless to watch her agony. (The man in black has since escaped.) Eventually the police arrive, and it appears that the woman, Monica, who works in the gallery, will live. Her husband, gallery owner and ascot enthusiast, Alberto, arrives and whips himself into a tizzy. A police inspector, Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno), begins to question Sam as the sole witness to the crime. He takes Sam down to the station and seizes his passport to prevent him from leaving Italy (as he was planning to do the very next day). Morosini suggests that maybe Sam was the stabber, and got trapped during his escape.

Our happy couple, who can't wait to leave Italy.

Our happy couple, who can’t wait to leave Italy.

Inspector Morosini eventually lets Sam leave. On his walk home through the fog, he’s nearly attacked by an unseen figure, but is fairly unconcerned about this. (Much less than I would be.) He arrives back at his apartment, where his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) awaits. He informs her of what happened, and as he snuggles her romantically, he can’t help but have flashbacks to the terrifying scene he witnessed in the gallery. Sam is brought back to the station to review a lineup of local perverts (and we learn that transvestism was apparently as crime in 1970s Italy, so that’s depressing). The attempted murder Sam witnessed matches the M.O. of three previous murders, all of young women. Morosini then takes Sam to meet their forensics guy, who wears sunglasses indoors and stands behind an impressive row of data tape machines that generate a profile of their murderer: male, about 6 feet tall, smokes expensive cigars, and is left-handed. (Isn’t that, like, 95% of murderers?) Shortly thereafter, Sam visits gallery owner Alberto at his apartment (Monica is there, but under sedation), and determines Alberto is 6′ 1″ and left-handed. (Hmmm.) Meanwhile, our killer stalks his next victim at the horse races.

Julia and Sam spend a lazy afternoon going over the gruesome details of the previous murders – improbably, the police gave them the full files of these open cases – and Sam begins his own investigation. He visits the antiques shop where the first victim worked and hits up the overly flirtatious shop owner for info. He tells Sam that the last thing the victim sold was a rather macabre painting. Luckily, he has a copy of the painting and hands it to Sam, who – first thing – pins it up to his apartment wall. Julia comes home and notes it ‘looks a bit perverted,’ which is an understatement. The painting is an idyllic winter landscape interrupted by a man in a black hat murdering a girl in the top corner. (Modern art, right?) The woman we saw earlier at the horse race heads home and changes into some stylish sheer pyjamas. She’s startled when a figure in a black coat and hat appears at her bedroom doorframe. The figure then pushes her down on the bed and – in a fairly disturbing sequence – forcibly disrobes her before stabbing her in the gut.

Sam continues his investigation, much to the chagrin of Julia (who was totally into it at first). ‘He isn’t even Italian and you’re making him risk his life!’ she complains to Inspector Morosini. But Morosini has other problems: the killer is calling him after his TV appearance, taunting him about when he’ll murder next. Sam goes to the art gallery again, where a remarkably recovered Monica thanks him for saving her life. Alberto, her husband, doesn’t seem to like Monica speaking with Sam, however, and he shoos her away. The second victim was a sex worker, so Sam asks to visit her pimp (currently incarcerated). The pimp thinks the killer must have been ‘a rich guy, a gentleman.’ That night, Sam is mansplaining the pimp code of honour to Julia (really) as they go for a night stroll when Julia suspects they’re being followed. She’s not wrong; Sam explains that Morosini has put a police tail on them, to keep them safe. But their tail is promptly run down by a car, which races after Sam and Julia next. Eventually, a person gets out of the car: a grim looking man (think Jackie Earle Haley) dressed in a bright yellow jacket with a ‘B’ on the back. He takes out his pistol and a silencer and pursues Sam into what appears to be a bus parking lot. A heated chase around the hulking buses ensues, which eventually turns into an intense speed-walk as Sam makes it onto the street and loses himself in the crowd. Sam spots his pursuer head into a hotel and follows him, only to find himself lost in a crowd of dozens of people dressed in bright yellow jackets marked with a ‘B.’ The shooter dressed himself as one of the many people in town for a convention of ex-prize-fighters (of all things).

That night, the killer finds his next victim: some woman we’ve never seen before! The elevator is out, so she has to take the stairs to her apartment. As she reaches the door, she’s attacked from behind by the killer, clad in black again, who slices her to ribbons with a straight razor. Sam and Julia receive a telephone call at home from the killer, who warns Sam to go back to America and makes specific threats about Julia. But they act quickly and are able to tape-record part of the conversation. (Like all young urban couples, they have a tape recorder close by the telephone, and can hook it up within seconds.) Shortly thereafter, Sam gets a tip from a local stoolie and investigates a farmhouse, eventually finding (a) a hypodermic needle, and (b) the body of the man in the yellow jacket who tried to kill him the night before.

Really, how much could a train ticket have cost?

Really, how much could a train ticket have cost?

The police analyze the tape recording Sam and Julia made, and compare it to the tape they made earlier, when the killer called Inspector Morosini. They determine – using science, ‘natch – the voices are different! There are two killers, or the killer has an accomplice. Still, as interesting as this all is, Sam suddenly decides he and Julia should head back to the States. (Maybe he’s worried, after the personally threatening phone calls, but this isn’t explicitly mentioned.) Sam’s old bird-enthusiast friend Carlo comes by while they’re packing and asks to hear the tape. Something about the tape stands out to him He asks to borrow it, and Sam and Julia – already partially unclothed and making out – are fine with that. But mid make-out, Sam spies the reproduction of the painting on his wall and has a Sherlockian epiphany. He should talk to the painter! He calls the antiques dealer, gets a name (Berto Gonzalvi) and address, and realizes he lives just an hour and a half outside of the city. He leaves Julia in the apartment to take a train to Gonzalvi’s. Julia, understandably, throws a tantrum, given that (a) they have a plane to catch and (b) there’s a killer on the loose who’s made specific threats on her life. But, like, writerly curiosity can be stopped.

Sam arrives at the artist’s farmhouse, only to find the place has no doors. When Sam mentions he wants to buy one of his paintings, Gonzalvi, who looks like an evil Bob Ross, drops a ladder down from the window and lets him in. Gonzalvi is a weird character, mentioning that he doesn’t paint ‘that crap’ (presumably, landscapes featuring gruesome murders) anymore, and that he’s in a ‘mystical period’ now. He also raises cats for meat. However, he is able to tell Sam that the painting is based on real events. There was a girl he knew that was attacked by a ‘maniac,’ but the man was stopped just in time and sent to an asylum. Sam races back to the city, but is stalled by a railway strike. (As every schoolchild knows, Mussolini was the only Italian leader able to make the trains run on time.)

This delay is unfortunate news for Julia, because the man in black has decided to make her his next victim. She sees him outside her apartment door, and locks herself inside. The killer cuts the power and phone line, then attempts to drill a hole in the door with his knife. (In retrospect, it seems really inconsiderate – given the circumstances – that Sam didn’t just buy two train tickets and take Julia with him to see Gonzalvi.) Sam comes back just in the nick of time and killer scurries away before he can access the apartment. But they’ve definitely missed their plane back to the States. Carlo arrives the next day with some helpful information: he realizes what the weird sound on the tape recording was a bird call: the call of a rare bird with feathers that look like glass and is native only to Northern Siberia. There’s only one specimen in captivity in Italy. Everyone, to the zoo!

At the zoo, they find this rare bird and see that an apartment overlooks its enclosure. It’s an apartment that Sam’s seen before: the apartment of gallery owner Alberto and his wife, Monica! Sam, Carlo, Julia, Morosini, and two policemen race upstairs where Alberto is brandishing a knife at Monica. A struggle ensues: one police officer is stabbed and Morosini and Sam knock Alberto off the balcony. They struggle to keep hold of him but he falls to his death on the pavement. With his dying breaths, Alberto confesses to the murders, and Morosini – for no real reason I can fathom – is all like, I feel sort of sorry for him. (Why?!) Anyway, things get really confusing then, as I thought Sam wondered where the killer’s wife, Monica, went, and he starts asking around for her. But he asked for a woman with long blonde hair (and Monica, very distinctly, has red hair). Julia has blonde hair, so maybe he’s looking for his girlfriend? But she is, literally, two paces behind him when he starts his search. (I was mystified, really.) Eventually, a street vendor says the woman went inside a certain door. Sam follows into a darkened room.

Unable to see, Sam knocks over a bunch of tables (and doesn’t notice that Julia is bound and gagged on the floor). He eventually sees Carlo, seated in a chair, but then realizes he’s been stabbed in the back. The killer reveals herself as Monica. (Huh?) Turns out, she was trying to kill her husband in the art gallery, and Sam completely misread the situation. He inadvertently helped the murderer. Monica chases Sam and they wind up in the art gallery again, where Monica pins him under some painful looking sculpture. (Consider it Chekov’s modern art: if you see a strange sculpture in the first act, it will be used to incapacitate our hero in the final act.) Monica laughs maniacally and toys with the pinned Sam, but Inspector Morosini eventually sneaks in and subdues Monica. We then learn, over the closing credits, that Monica was the subject of that awful painting: she was that girl. And when she came across the painting in the antiques shop, the trauma flooded back and turned her into a killer. Alberto was helping her cover up the murders. With the case closed, Sam and Julia leave the den of iniquity that is Italy for their safe home in America.

This killer's hand could just as easily be your hand. Assuming you're left-handed ... or ambidextrous.

This killer’s hand could just as easily be your hand. Assuming you’re left-handed … or ambidextrous.

Takeaway points:

    • What stands out most in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage – and what is something of a staple of giallo films (and their American slasher descendants) – is the central aspect of the male gaze. The film puts the audience members in the seat of the killer: they see what the killer sees, they stalk the female victims and focus longingly on various aspects of their body. The women have – for the most part – no identities save their appearance. They are objects to be lusted over and killed. (Most of them don’t have names.) The killer wears black gloves and is faceless for most of the movie to suggest that the viewer is, him- or herself, the killer. Without any doubt, the movie (and gialli as a rule) delves into misogyny at worst and sexual objectification at best, but it also is critical of this misogyny. By implicating the viewer in these murders, it indicts the viewer: you are just as responsible for these violent crimes as whoever the real killer is. You wanted to see this. And so, it introduces that key ingredient of many a horror film: shame. I would argue, however, that in making the in-film killer a woman, Monica, the film sophomorically attempts to free itself of accusations of misogyny. (It can’t be misogynist: it was a woman killing other women!) It’s a weak symbolic argument.
    • Glaring plot holes pepper The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, but that’s totally fine. For, as with almost all gialli and Argento films in particular, the style and music take precedence. The film is overloaded with beautiful, artistic shots – abstract designs, lush colour, incredible settings (like the art gallery itself) – and the music is a great blend of hot jazz and weird contrapuntal piano sounds. The music is particularly interesting, as it’s such a departure from the staccato strings and atmospheric sounds of so much other horror. Argento would go further with atypical horror music when he started using prog rock group Goblin in later movies. So what if it doesn’t really make sense that Alberto was wearing a black raincoat, black gloves, and black hat when his wife tried to kill him? So what if the motivation of that accomplice in the yellow jacket is never explained? So what if it’s almost impossible that Monica would tie up Julia and kill Carlo in the very short space of time during which Sam is in hot pursuit of her? The movie looks and sounds amazing.
    • Anyone who watched The X-Files as much as I did as a youth will retroactively note a clear homage in the creepy fourth-season episode ‘Paper Hearts‘ (in which a child murderer claims to have killed Mulder’s sister Samantha) to the chase sequence in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. That episode’s climax takes place in a bus graveyard, as our agents race to find a missing girl and child murderer. I half expected David Duchovny to jump out from behind one of the buses while watching this!
    • Once again, an ornithologist saves the day! Well, sort of. He certainly provides a key clue. (I have a fondness for ornithologists as unsung heroes. Did you know: there were a few ornithologists who used their science as their cover to act as conductors on the Underground Railroad?)

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Neither. I suppose there are some chills and thrills to be hand, but nothing that will creep you out after the final credits roll. And it’s too expertly shot and assembled to be a ‘bad’ movie. It’s more like an incredibly stylish, violent art film with some excellent music.

Our first victim, all male-gazified. But she didn't wear that killer outfit for your male gaze.

Our first victim, all male-gazified. But she didn’t wear that killer outfit for your male gaze.

Best outfit: If there’s one thing gialli have, it’s great fashion. How can you decide on just one look? Julia’s canary-yellow cardigan is incredible, as is the one victim’s stylish sheer nightwear. Even the villains have great clothes: shiny black vinyl raincoats and bright yellow bomber jackets. But my favourite clothing combo is that of our first male gaze (and murder) victim: the unnamed student who dies first. In a visual homage to Little Red Riding Hood, she wears a bright red coat, knee-high boots, and skirt pattern that recalls the shopping bags of Honest Ed’s. No bird can match her plumage. (Sorry, that was terrible.)

Best line: ‘Bring in the perverts!’ – Inspector Morosini announces, as the police lineup starts. Or maybe he’s just welcoming the film’s audience. (I kid, I kid.)

Best kill: The murders are largely of anonymous women, which makes them (a) problematic, and (b) somewhat devoid of feeling. (That is, when we know a little about the characters, it creates a stronger reaction when they are horribly murdered.) In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the women don’t exist prior to their murder. All that said, nothing beats a good straight razor, I suppose.

Unexpected cameo: You might remember Suzy Kendall, who plays Julia, as Gillian from To Sir, with Love. Or maybe as the lead from another horror movie: Torso. The outstanding soundtrack was done by Ennio Morricone, one of the most acclaimed film composers in history, best known for his work on Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy.

Unexpected lesson learned: All homes should be equipped with telephone-adjacent tape recorders.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Hornitus Nevalis, the titular bird (which doesn’t actually exist).

Next up: High Tension (2003).

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Horror Movie Watch: Rigor Mortis

Our hero, Chin, on a move-in day like no other.

Our hero, Chin, on a move-in day like no other.

This October, I’m attempting an ill-advised viewing of (at least) thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a day, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s movie is Hong Kong vampire homage Rigor Mortis (2013), directed by Juno Mak (his directorial debut), and recommended by friend Charmaine Pang. (I knew Charmaine and I would get along when – while at Centennial College together – one of the first things we did was decide who would among our class of 47 would win in a Battle Royale death match.)

A big shout-out to Queen Video, who provided the DVD of Rigor Mortis, and who has currently been recommending it over their Twitter account. (And before we get into the plot too much, I issue a trigger warning here for rape.)

What happens:

Rigor Mortis, while a serious horror/action movie, is a tribute of sorts to the more comic series of ‘hopping vampire’ Hong Kong films of the 1980s (the most well-known of those being Mr. Vampire). While I’ve seen at least one of those Hong Kong vampire films, my background in them is not extensive. Though I surely missed many references to the earlier films, I still really enjoyed this very spooky and different take on the vampire genre.

Like Sunset Boulevard before it, Rigor Mortis opens with the end: a tableau on a concrete street block – one man bleeding to death on the ground, the other injured and smoking while propped up against a wall. We then return to the beginning, where our narrator – whose name I never caught, but according to IMDB is named Chin Siu-Hou (which is funny, as that’s the actor’s real name) – says he used to be a fairly successful actor, but has fallen on hard times. He’s moved into a crumbling apartment block, and Chin is a little depressed. As he says, ‘Smiling is tiring. I’m very tired.’ It’s not fully explored, but he’s estranged from his wife and son, and he sometimes listens to a phone message recording of his son when he’s feeling blue. The apartment’s super, Uncle Yin, greets him and lets him into Room 2442, assuring him, despite the derelict look of the building, it’s a safe neighbourhood. Inside the apartment, Yin – after remarking that they’ve never had a famous tenant before –conducts a ritual with incense to pay respects to the spirits.

The next we see Chin, he’s about to hang himself from the ceiling fan. He listens to the phone message of his son one last time, looks at the watch his son drew on his wrist in ink, then suddenly has a dark vision of his son and wife in the kitchen, flooded with blood. He panics and falls off his chair, slowly hanging himself. As he does, he experiences disturbing visions. Dark spirits begin to infuse his body. That’s when, from out of nowhere, a neighbour in his underwear and robe busts through the door, frees Chin from the noose, and forces the evil spirits out of Chin (through a combination of kung fu and making the spirits look in a mirror). The neighbours gather as Chin recovers, but they’re a bit spooked by the apartment. It probably doesn’t help that Chin vomits black ink for minutes – a lengthy sequence second only to Team America: World Police – immediately after coming to.

Chin reaches out to Li'l Andy Warhol.

Chin reaches out to Li’l Andy Warhol.

Now would be a good time to describe some of the tenants of this unusual apartment building. I’ve talked quite a bit about Chin and Uncle Yin already. The robed man who saved Chin from the spirits is Yau, the manager/owner of a noodle place on the apartment’s ground floor. The building also is home to Auntie Mui, who does a lot of sewing for the apartment tenants; her husband, Tung; and a mysterious man named Gau, who everyone seems fairly reverent to. A woman, Feng, and her albino child Pak also roam the hallways of the apartment building. Chin often finds them stealing food left outside his door by Yau. The apartment complex doesn’t allow for a lot of privacy: people are always going in and out of other people’s apartments, and doors are rarely closed. Brother Yau, who wears what you or I would consider pyjamas at all times – even when manning the cash register at the restaurant – gives Chin the lay of the land while he’s visiting the restaurant. Chin befriends Auntie Mui and asks if she might repair some of his old film costumes. That night, while taking down the garbage, Tung is startled by ghost child, and – in a cringeworthy scene – breaks his neck falling down the stairs.

A later conversation between Chin and Yau about glutinous rice reveals that Yau’s father was a vampire hunter. Glutinous rice was once used to protect against vampires, but since there are no vampires left, the vampire hunters all became cooks. Chin thanks Yau for saving his life, but Yau points out that he just prevented Chin from doing what he wanted to do: commit suicide. Auntie Mui, having found her husband’s dead body, takes Tung to Gau. Gau is a practitioner of black magic: he tells Mui to bury Tung’s body in soil in the bathtub, sew his wounds closed (including a nasty gash along one side of this face), and feed him crows’ blood. She is to keep him in a raised coffin overnight and to never take off his mask of coins for any reason. Gau says Tung’s spirit should return in seven days. Other tenants wonder where Tung has gone, but Mui says he’s just been ill and she has to take care of him in her apartment.

When Chin finds Feng and her son Pak again stealing his food, he invites them in, but Feng is terrified of his apartment. Chin asks the super, Yin, about the two of them and he tells them their very sad (and disturbing) story. Feng and Pak used to live in Chin’s apartment, Room 2442. Feng’s husband tutored twin sisters, but one day, he attempted to violently rape one of the twins (even pinning her hand to the table with a knife). The other twin came upon this scene and stabbed the husband to death with a pair of scissors. When Feng came back to the apartment that night, her loathsome husband was dead, and both twins had killed themselves. (This seems like it would be an important story to tell the new tenant before he moves into the apartment.) Feng’s mental state has suffered ever since, so Uncle Yin houses her and Pak and watches out for them. Meanwhile, Mui spends her nights in her apartment pleading with the unresponsive body of Tung to come back to her.

Chin goes over to restaurateur Yau’s apartment for dinner and notices the place is full of ghosts; Yau calls them his ‘flatmates.’ Peering over his wooden Harry Potter glasses, Yau says the ghosts have been here much longer than he, so he made sure they developed a good relationship. Chin shows Yau some of Pak’s spooky drawings and asks if he’ll help him aid the troubled family. Yau says he’s tried and Feng can’t be helped. Plus, he adds, going for Chin’s throat, how is Chin in a position to help anyone? He’s a mess, fresh off a suicide attempt, still wearing his child’s watch drawing on his wrist. Disheartened, Chin trudges back to his apartment and gets a bucket of blood splashed in his face the moment he opens the door. Gau was hiding in his apartment, and he chokes Chin and puts a paper spell (or fu) on his forehead. The actions bring out the spirits of the dead twin girls, one of whom possesses Chin. Gau and Chin then engage in fierce hand-to-hand combat. Yau senses the altercation downstairs and runs up to aid Gau. Together, they are able to free Chin from the one spirit and, using blood-soaked twine, bind the twin ghosts and trap them in a wardrobe. When Gau thanks Yau for his assistance, Yau slaps him for using the actor as bait. Gau says he’ll take the wardrobe and set it on fire in a special ceremony.

Things look better for a short while. Chin washes off the watch on his wrist (he’s moving on), and Pak and Feng are able to visit him in the old apartment (though they have to get rid of the furniture first, because of the terrible flashbacks). Mui begins to grow impatient and complains to Gau that his magic isn’t working. Tung’s spirit hasn’t come back. Uncle Yin, now really suspicious about Tung’s disappearance, starts to believe Feng’s earlier claim that ‘some guy with a bunch of kids’ killed Tung. He visits Auntie Mui, who – surprise, surprise – has Gau over, and asks them a bunch of leading questions (while surreptitiously dropping candy on the ground to see if any ghost children pick it up). Suspecting Gau is still ‘messing around with that black magic shit,’ Yin confronts him, and is quickly (and viciously) bludgeoned to death by Mui and her stone bowl. Mui continues her journey to the dark side: when Pak starts hanging around her apartment, she traps him in the storage room with her now vampiric husband. The resulting screams and banging on the door are haunting.

When his vampire hunter father’s weird heirloom disc thing starts moving on its own, Yau realizes something dark is happening in the building. He visits Gau and finds the apartment covered in blood. Gau, who was already dying of lung cancer, has had his throat torn out. He confesses to Yau that he helped Mui turn Tung into a vampire, and was planning to put the dead twins’ spirit into his body. (That is, the wardrobe with the twin ghosts hasn’t been destroyed.) Looking around the apartment, Yau sees white-blond hair and realizes that the vampire has completely torn Pak apart. Feng, wandering the halls, searching for her son, encounters the wardrobe, rocking and rumbling. She opens it up hoping to find Pak, but inadvertently frees the ghost twins. She continues her search (unable to see the ghosts) and encounters the vampire. The vampire (Tung) looks very Nosferatu-like (bald head, long nails), but with a really nasty open scar on the one side of his face. He both glides across the floor and occasionally leaps to get around. A fight between Feng and the vampire ensues (during which Feng somehow picks up a spiked baseball bat), and Feng is impaled and killed. The actor, Chin, comes across this and tosses a firebomb at the vampire. The vampire and ghosts meld into one to make a super-monster, and skewer Chin with a long metal rod.

The actor, leaking, like, a literal river of blood, staggers to Yau’s apartment, where he’s been prepping for vampire battle. Yau does some emergency triage on Chin, then (a) writes a spell in blood on his chest, and (b) mops a spell in Chin’s blood on the hallway floor. He tells Chin he’ll have the length of a cigarette to defeat the vampire/ghost hybrid: after the lit cigarette meets its end, his time is up. Yau will conduct spells using that weird disc thing while Chin battles the vampire, hand-to-hand. What follows is an epic kung fu battle, rife with special effects that look like they came out of The Cell: Chin fights the vampire as Yau works the spell disc (which eventually twists off his right arm with its endless revolutions – yikes!). Finally, using the fire spell, Yau turns the vampire to ash as he, it, and Chin fall off the side of the apartment building (which is where our story began). Auntie Mui walks up to what remains of her husband and slashes her own throat with a large piece of glass to join him in death. However, that’s not the end, readers! What we see next is Chin again moving into the apartment complex (which looks a bit nicer and sunnier this time around). He encounters a happy widow (Feng) and her son in the elevator. Mui lives on her own; a picture of her dead husband, Tung, sits on the mantle. Chin is successful in committing suicide, as Yau discovers him too late, and Gau is the doctor who declares him dead at the hospital. The final shot of the film is Chin’s son identifying his dead body.

Tung as one of the scarier vampires I can recall.

Tung as one of the scarier vampires I can recall.

Takeaway points:

  • As you may have gathered, Chinese vampires (or jiangshi) are a bit different from the vampires of Eastern European folklore. Popularized by films like Mr. Vampire, jiangshi are usually depicted as reanimated corpses dressed in garments from the Qing Dynasty who move about by hopping with their arms outstretched like a traditional zombie. And like the Eastern European vampires, they have a particular set of rules and methods of protection (such as mirrors, items made of wood, glutinous rice, and fire, among other things). While the vampire in Rigor Mortis doesn’t exactly hop in the traditional fashion (see this clip for some of that), it does leap and glide! But this vampire is much more serious business than the vampires in those mostly comedic movies. The film also – in a nice touch – uses the actors from many of those 1980s films in the principal roles of Rigor Mortis, much like Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle featured now middle-aged or older legends of Hong Kong martial arts films. Most spookily, Chin Siu-ho seems to be playing himself (a la Jean-Claude Van Damme in JCVD), which must be strange for him, as he commits suicide in the movie.
  • Though it’s an action film, in essence, what struck me about Rigor Mortis is how much the movie is about loneliness: everyone in that apartment is so incredibly lonely. Chin is driven to suicide by his estrangement from his family. Feng and Pak have each other, but are treated mostly as pariahs by everyone save Uncle Yin. The death of Tung makes Mui so lonesome she turns to Gau and the dark arts to get him back, in a plot similar to that of Pet Sematary and even – to some extent – my last film, Deathdream. Mui’s monologue about growing old alone as she circles Tung’s vampiric corpse is terribly sad. Loneliness makes us do strange, sometimes awful things, Rigor Mortis seems to tell us. But companionship, such as when Chin reaches out to Feng and Pak, can be life-saving.
  • One thing I love about Chinese hopping vampires is the power of the written word has in their legend. In European folklore, writing down some words won’t help you one lick in combating the undead. But with jiangshi, you can write a spell on a strip of paper and stick it to a vampire’s forehead to stop them in their tracks. It’s like a spooky game of Headbanz! As someone who works with words, I am fond of the reverence the written word is given in Chinese supernatural folklore. Plus, it makes for some great visuals on film. How cool did it look when Yau wrote hanzi on the hallway floor using a mop and the gallons of blood that Chin had recently lost?
  • What does that ending mean? Right? It’s a real Wizard of Oz thing, where all the characters from the more fantastical story appear in the ‘realistic’ story that follows. Tung was dead, not a vampire. And Gau wasn’t a dark occultist, just a doctor. Was the entire vampire story Chin’s mind coping with his own incredible despair and eventual suicide? Was it his personal dealing with the heady concept of death, though the scrim of his own vampire films? It’s left fairly open-ended – like that spooky episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when she’s in a mental institution – with the audience left to either believe the legend or the grim reality.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Truly terrifying. In reality, Rigor Mortis is more of an action movie than horror movie (like Underworld, but way better). Still, there are some genuine scares. The vampire (or jiangshi) is one of the scarier movie vampires I’ve seen, and the ghost twins move in an unearthly and creepy fashion – think of the staircase scene in The Grudge or that unsettling surveillance video of Elisa Lam. (But don’t click that link if you ever want to sleep again.)

Brother Yau, normcore for life.

Brother Yau, normcore for life.

Best outfit: The fashion in Rigor Mortis is totally normcore. Everyone is wearing white T-shirts and gray sweatpants. Anything fashion that can be considered interesting or unusual is kept wrapped up in plastic: Chin’s old film costumes. Brother Yau should be singled out for taking normcore to the next level, though, walking around in his underwear, slippers, and robe, whether he’s managing his restaurant or in pitched battle with vampires. The fact that his wooden glasses look like they could be sold by Rapp Optical is a nice contrast to his steadfastly normcore and ultra-casual look.

Best line: ‘The cigarettes I smoke are made from the ashes of the unborn.’ – Gau, prophesying the next step after vaping.

Best kill: Auntie Mui’s stone-bowl braining of Uncle Yin is so sudden and unexpected, it left a strong impression. It was particularly affecting, as Yin was such a pleasant and sympathetic character.

Unexpected cameo: As mentioned in the ‘Takeaway Points,’ almost the entire cast appear in the more comic Mr. Vampire film series of which Rigor Mortis is a sort of tribute. Chin Siu-ho is sort of playing himself as the former star of those movies. But Anthony Chan (Yau), Richard Ng (Tung), and Fat Chung (who plays Gau) were also featured in that film series. Fat Chung was also in another Hong Kong classic horror comedy, Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind.

Unexpected lesson learned: It couldn’t hurt to have glutinous rice on you at all times. Just in case. Also, a good realtor can give you a full account of an apartment’s history.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Room 2442

Next up: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970).

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