Review : Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood (1973)

Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood, directed by Christopher Speech, was released in 1973 and is the director’s only film. The film was thought to be lost for a long time until it was released on DVD in 2003. Since then, it has been restored and released by Arrow Video on the American Horror Project Vol. 1 boxset (which is how I watched it).

The Norris family arrive at an old, dilapidated carnival, looking for their son. Bad things begin happening and it seems to be attributed to the proprietors of the carnival. The entire thing appears to be a front, for some strange, cannibalistic, underground cult, who feast on the flesh of the visitors (source : Wikipedia)

Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood is a weird film, but not in a good way. Every aspect of the film lacks logic, from the story itself to the editing. The editing is probably the worst aspect of the film since most of the scenes make no sense given the way they are put together. For instance, characters are running around the amusement park at night, chased by ghouls (or are they zombies ? who knows !). After a rough cut which made me feel like the scene was abruptly cut right in the middle, it is daylight and another character is putting out a fire, with no transition from the previous scene.

The storytelling is poorly done and makes no sense and the story itself is poorly written. Though the family is supposed to have come to the amusement park to look for their missing son, they never do so. Another issue I have is characters who never fight back. It does look like they’re willing to let the ghouls kill them…which obviously makes no sense ! As expected from an exploitation film from the seventies, the acting is not very good but is decent enough not to put you off. There is one particular character who is laughable though, because he is portrayed in a ridiculous manner.

If that wasn’t enough, Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood has mediocre photography. I love movies which take place in somewhat original locations such as a mall, a factory or…an amusement park (which does seem like the perfect location for a horror movie). Unfortunately, the director never takes full advantage of the opportunities offered by the set designs. Whether a scene takes place in a tunnel or a spiral staircase, the camera is set in the most basic and easiest spot. 

I am understanding when it comes to special effects and make-up because there is so much filmmakers can do with a limited budget. However, Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood has poor writing, poor photography, poor editing and is overall a poorly made film. Obviously, I don’t recommend watching it…except if, like me, you are digging through Arrow Video’s American Horror Project Vol. 1 boxset.

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Review : Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was directed by Tobe Hooper and was released in 1974. The film is a classic, vastly considered one of the best horror films ever made. Let’s be a bit controversial : I am one of those rare people who dislike The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That being said, let me explain why !

The story is extremely simplistic : Two siblings visit their grandfather’s grave in Texas along with three of their friends and are attacked by a family of cannibalistic psychopaths. The plot is basic and it won’t get any more interesting than that. I have watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre twice. The first time, I hated it and thought it was very bad. I still have some difficulties understanding why it is held in such high regards. I watched it a second time for the purpose of this review (which is dedicated to my friends Brandon and Derek who were shocked to find out how much I dislike this classic).

First, the cinematography and directing are no very good and the camera work is rather amateurish. The documentary style didn’t give a realistic feel to the story, in my opinion. I thought it was a poor excuse for mediocre filmmaking. I especially disliked the excessive use of zoom-ins and close-ups. They are badly made and Hooper overuses them to the point where it is simply annoying to look at. “Excessive use” is the expression that best sums up Hooper’s directing : if he finds one gimmick, you can be sure he’s going to use it to death. And that is a shame really, because there are indeed some good shots and some good ideas in this film. But repetition kills it all. For instance, the sunset shot at the end of the film in which Leatherface is swinging the chainsaw is amazing. Problem is, Hooper has used “sunset shots” numerous times in the film before so when you reach the ending, the effect feels old and loses its full impact. Hooper also has a tendency to drag sequences out until it becomes so boring you want to bang your head against the wall praying that the film will finally move on. The best example of that problem is the sequence in which Leatherface is chasing Sally in the woods. At first, it is quite scary and you do feel Sally’s raw terror. But, as usual, the chase is so damn long that it gets really boring and you are just hoping Leatherface will catch up to her and kill her so she quits screaming so goddamn much ! Oh, and did I mention the editing is atrocious throughout the entire film ? Well, it is.

Let’s talk a little bit about the characters. First, we have Franklin, Sally’s paraplegic brother. The idea is that Franklin is annoying and a burden for his sister and friends, mainly due to his handicap (Hooper is an asshole for implying that handicapped people who don’t have a choice but to rely on others for simple tasks are an annoyance). The main problem is that, either by acting or writing, Paul A. Partain doesn’t portray Franklin as an annoying brother but as a cringe-worthy 4-year-old brat. His performance is laughable, not because there is humor in it, but because it ridiculous and embarrassing. Then, there’s Sally. Oh, Sally ! How I hate this girl ! I’m almost disappointed that Leatherface didn’t cut her into pieces. Starting at 52:00 (yes, I wrote it down), 98% of Sally’s lines consist in screaming, screaming and more screaming. Who thought having her scream for the majority of the film was a good idea ? I never want my poor ears to endure this torture ever again. The siblings’ friends are forgettable so let’s not waste time on them. Let’s focus on the infamous family of psychos. First, we have The Hitchhiker. It is hard to decide who gives the worst performance in this film, but he and Franklin are at the top of the list. His portrayal of a deranged man is over-the-top, stupid, cringe-worthy and his actions don’t make sense most of the time. He is a caricature of a crazed man. And then, there’s Leatherface, who is a horror icon. Visually, he is indeed quite scary. He has a massive stature, a terrifying mask and a freaking chainsaw. But, there is one thing that absolutely destroyed his aura : there is a scene where he talks. Well, not exactly talks but makes sounds and mumbles a few words. I really, really, advise you to find the scene online to see what I mean when I say that his voice is ridiculous. He has a high-pitched voice that you’d expect from a little girl, not a big dude like Leatherface.

There is also one character who I simply don’t get : the grandfather. I do understand he is supposed to be very old but is he some sort of zombie ? He looks like a corpse and drinks blood. If he is just supposed to be a very old man, then his costume and face make-up (or mask, rather) are horrible. If he is “something else”, then how does that fit in with the rest of the film ? A film, may I remind you, that presents itself as a documentary-like experience to immerse you in real terror (real as in realistic).

Now, let’s not be hypocritical : The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has good scenes. While I really don’t like that film and can’t see what is supposed to be so great about it, I can’t say it is the worst film I’ve ever seen (because it’s not). I do admire the fact that you feel like you’ve seen a very gory film when in fact, the violence is not often shown on screen. The sunset shot at the end is beautiful…and..that’s pretty much it !

Before concluding my review, here are a few other things I wrote down about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre while I was watching it : Leatherface’s entrance is underwhelming and badly edited ;  the dinner scene which starts out great by giving a sense of surreal madness lasts too long for its own good and ends up being boring, stupid and headache-inducing ; why does the dinner scene take place at night but when Sally escapes, it is daytime ? ; the ending is abrupt, there is no fade to black, did they forget to properly edit it ?

I know the majority of cinephiles will highly disagree with my review of this beloved classic. However, I think I have given enough reasons why I don’t like the film not to be called a simple “hater”. I know how important this film is and what it did for the genre. But I do feel a lot of people say they like the film just because it is a classic. I do not like Tobe Hooper’s filmmaking to begin with, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a good example why : I think it is badly made, badly edited, the characters are awful and so is the acting. I will certainly not be watching this crap ever again !

Review : Ju-On (The Grudge) / 呪怨 (2002)

Ju-On : The Grudge was directed by Takashi Shimizu and released in 2002. The film is part of the Ju-On franchise which consists in 12 feature films (9 japanese productions and 3 american ones). Ju-On is based on Japanese folklore and more specifically on the Kayako urban legend about a woman murdered by her husband who comes back as a vengeful ghost.

Volunteer social worker Rika stumbles across the curse when she finds an almost catatonic old woman in a shambles of a home, a spooky little boy with a froggy voice and a veritable black hole of a phantom that seems to be sucking the life from the old lady. The story then jumps back and forth along the timeline in a series of chapters named for the characters haunted and hunted by the unsettled souls. (source : Wiki Asia)

Ju-On takes the concept of a haunted house to a whole new level. As in many Japanese horror films, what stands out the most is the creepy and unsettling atmosphere. It is well-directed and every ghost apparition is shot in the most frightening way possible. The pacing is slow but it works much better than Ringu, in my opinion. The slow rhythm of the film only increases the fear in anticipation of what’s coming next. I thought it never disappointed. The scenes which were meant to scare…frightened me beyond belief ! You won’t look at staircases or beds the same way after watching Ju-On.

The story is told in chapters, each one focusing on different characters. This is a minor flaw as I found it sometimes difficult to sympathize with characters you know you’re not going to spend too much time with. The storytelling is overall a bit chaotic.

The most important part of Ju-On is, of course, the ghosts. Their “design” is so simple that it is genius. They are just people with white make-up on. But Shimizu focuses on one element, which alone constitutes the scariest feature of the ghosts : the eyes. Oh, those eyes ! Oh, the horror ! I still get chills just thinking about them. Every single scare is accompanied by effective sounds which will make your skin crawl.

Though the structure of the film is all over the place, Ju-On is a fantastic film. It is, along with Ringu, a great entry to discover J-Horror. I highly recommend it.

 

Review : Pet Sematary (1989)

Pet Sematary was written by Stephen King in 1983 and was nominated for a World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1986. The film adaptation was directed by Mary Lambert based on a script written by King himself and was released in 1989.

The Creed Family (Louis, Rachel and their two children) move from Chicago to a small town in Maine. They become friends with their neighbor, Judd, who lives across the road from the new Creed’s house. One day, Judd shows them the nearby pet cemetery (misspelled sematary by the children who created it). The legend says that beyond the pet cemetery, remains an old indian burial ground. When the deceased are buried there, they come back to life. When the daughter’s beloved cat is killed, Louis decides to bury the pet on the burial ground…soon after, the cat comes back to life but does not seem to be himself. Not long after, the Creed face the greatest tragedy of them all : their young boy, Gage, is hit by a truck and dies. Devastated, the father decides to perform the same ritual. But just like Church the cat, Gage isn’t himself anymore…and the horror ensues !

Pet Sematary deals with a heavy subject and is the saddest King adaptation I have watched thus far. Mary Lambert did an especially good job at mixing a sense of realism with fantastical elements, which blend perfectly and emphasize the story. 

Dealing with the loss of a loved one is always a difficult time. Losing a child might just be the greatest tragedy anyone could face. Wouldn’t you try bringing a loved one back if there was a slight chance it might work ? Even knowing the person wouldn’t be the same, wouldn’t you still hope and try anyway ? Those are some of the questions raised by Pet Sematary. 

Though the film has great characterization and a story revolving around grief, it also gives us all that is needed to be a great horror film. For example, there is a story about the mother’s past which offers frightening scenes and haunting imagery. And let’s not forget the disfigured ghost who is haunting Louis.

Pet Sematary is well directed, the locations are great, the performances are stellar and the story is both tragic and scary. It is not only one of the best Stephen King adaptations, it is also one of the best horror film of the 80’s.

Review : Graveyard Shift (1990)

Graveyard Shift is a short story written by Stephen King and first published in a 1970’s issue of the Cavalier magazine. In 1978, it was included in King’s collection of short stories, Night Shift. The film adaptation, directed by Ralph S. Singleton, was released in 1990.

In an old textile mill infested by rats, a worker dies during his night shift, attacked by an unknown assailant. A drifter passing through town and looking for a job is hired to replace him. The sadistic mill owner gathers a crew of workers to clean the rat-infested basement to avoid permanent closure. While there, they find a tunnel which they believe will lead them to the rats’ nest. When they go down there, they find something entirely different and far scarier than rats.

The premise of the film would let you expect an entertaining creature feature but unfortunately, the result is a disappointing and frustrating experience. Let’s get the obvious out of the way : Graveyard Shift is among the bad films based on Stephen King’s work. Its main problem resides in its characters. While the main character, his love interest and most of all the exterminator played by Brad Dourif are interesting enough to keep you watching, the rest of the characters range from stupid to incoherent.

The one (and only) memorable aspect of Graveyard Shift is its setting. Once the characters go down inside the tunnels, you are greeted by a great set. This labyrinth of tunnels with rooms filled with skeletons creates a creepy atmosphere.

The creature captures the essence of the film : disappointing and poorly made. The giant rat/bat hybrid works in earlier scenes when we only get a glimpse at the creature and I actually really liked the scene where the shape of a victim is visible through the monster’s transparent wing. However, once the creature is fully revealed, it loses its appeal and the climax falls short.

I could write more about Graveyard Shift and list all its flaws such as the worker screaming every time he uses a hose (I genuinely wanted to kill him myself) or the mill boss’s actions which made no sense. But I think you already have a general idea of the quality of this film : while not the worst movie I have seen, it is still pretty bad.

Review : Needful Things (1993)

Needful Things is based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, published in 1991. It is the first novel Stephen King wrote after his rehabilitation from drug and alcohol addictions. The adaptation was directed by Fraser C. Heston (the son of Charlton Heston) and stars Max Von Sydow and Ed Harris.

Leland Gaunt, having recently moved to the small town of Castle Rock, is the owner of the “Needful Things” shop. The peculiar shopkeeper seems to have anything your heart desires but the price to pay is as strange as the man selling the items : a small amount of money and a deed (more specifically, a prank to be played on other town folks). It doesn’t take long for the simple pranks to take a deadly turn as everyone in town is slowly destroying each other.

Needful Things is mostly receiving negative reviews, which I completely disagree with. While not being in the top Stephen King adaptations such as Misery or Stand By Me, it is still a very good film. Some critics disliked the film because they found it not funny, not scary and depressing. Well, I would argue that the film doesn’t try to be funny, doesn’t pretend to be scary and is intended to be a bit depressing. 

The highlight of the film is evidently Max Von Sydow as The Devil (no spoilers, it is pretty clear from the beginning who the character truly is). I especially enjoyed his performance because of his mystical aura. There is also a heavy Vincent Price vibe in his portrayal of the strange shopkeeper. Ed Harris also gives a great performance as the reluctant hero and the supporting cast helps create a good ensemble to carry the story.

Stephen King readers are familiar with the writer’s tendency to set his stories in small town. And this one takes place in the most famous one of them all, featured in numerous of King’s work : Castle Rock. Heston did a very good job at creating the small town look and feel.

One might assume that a story involving the devil should have a grand scale but the strength of the film is taking the opposite route and depicting the influence of evil on the lives of normal people. After all, Leland Gaunt never does anything directly to hurt people, he simply gives them a nudge and human nature does the rest. It truly shows how everyone has violent tendencies buried inside and sometimes, it doesn’t take much for them to come out.

Critics have argued that it seemed rather pointless for the devil to waste time in a small town when it is made clear that he was no stranger to catastrophes such as WW2. Personally, I viewed his stay in Castle Rock as a recreation for him : between two major disasters, he attempts to destroy small towns to entertain himself.

Needful Things may pale in comparison to films like The Shining or The Shawshank Redemption but it is indeed one of the better Stephen King adaptations. It is a well-crafted film with great performances and an interesting story. The two-hour runtime flies by so do yourself a favor and watch Needful Things !

 

Review : Misery (1990)

Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Misery was released in 1990 and stars Kathy Bathes and James Caan as the main characters. The novel, written by Stephen King, was published in  1987. Stephen King intended to release the novel under the Richard Bachman name but his secret identity was discovered before publication.

Paul Sheldon is the successful writer of the best-selling series, Misery. Having completed his new novel, he drives to meet with his editor. However, on the way, he gets into a severe accident. He is rescued by his self-proclaimed “number one fan”, Annie Wilkes, who nurses him back to health. Paul, unable to leave the house because of his injuries (and more injuries inflicted by the number one fan herself), is forced to write a new story while the local authorities try and find him after discovering his body is not at the scene of the car accident.

Good adaptations of Stephen King’s work are unfortunately a rare occurrence. Rob Reiner’s Misery is not among the good ones : it is among the few great ones. The film is simple and straightforward but it works impeccably. The tension is palpable and keeps increasing until the final confrontation. There are no twists or unexpected turns of events because the story doesn’t need them. 

Kathy Bathes really shines as Annie Wilkes and her Academy Award was well-deserved. Watching her go from a caring nurse to a psychopathic fanatic is scary and unsettling. It takes only one second for her to become enraged. James Can, however, is more passive and while he gives a good performance, he is no match for Kathy Bathes.

Stephen King explained that his novel is an allegory for drug addiction, which he struggled with for many years. The film definitely demonstrates the inability to escape someone (or something) who has a firm grip on an individual. But more than the underlying theme, the most interesting and compelling aspect of Misery is its characters.

Annie Wilkes is terrifying, especially when she has psychotic fits of rage. Paul Sheldon, who is trapped in his own success, must now fight to escape (literally). There are two minor characters who I absolutely love : the town sheriff and his wife. I loved their cute relationship and was surprised that the sheriff is not a simpleton (as small town authorities are often depicted). He is the only one who gets very close to finding the missing writer. 

Misery is a character-driven story which will keep you on the edge of your seat. It is an absolute classic which everyone should watch.