The Curse of La Llorona: cursed by cheap thrills and Hollywood horror film cliches

Michael Chaves , “The Curse of La Llorona” (2019)

As his full-length movie directorial debut, this horror flick perhaps shows all the faults as well as the potential that Michael Chaves has for a career in Hollywood. Chaves does a good job with the cinematography to create a sinister and dark atmosphere and instill a strong sense of dread in viewers as the film rockets along to an inevitable showdown between the protagonist mother Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini) and her nemesis who would claim her children as her own … forever. Chaves laps up all the familiar Hollywood horror film cliches, devices and stereotypes – the ones from “The Exorcist” stand out especially – and sprays them liberally throughout the film. At the same time, a weak and unoriginal script, full of plot holes, ensures that the film remains in hokey haunted-house territory with interesting ideas that stay frustratingly undeveloped.

We have the obligatory header which gives a quick potted history of how the Mexican folklore demon La Llorona came to be: way back, 300 years ago, a noble woman in colonial Mexico discovers her husband has a mistress and she takes her revenge on him by drowning the two young sons she and hubby had together. Overcome with remorse at her sin, she kills herself … Now let’s run 300 years later to Los Angeles in 1973, the year that “The Exorcist” was unleashed upon an unsuspecting public, and Anna Garcia is trying to run her two pre-teen kids Chris (Roman Christou) and Sam (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) to school, go to work at the welfare agency where she is a social worker, and keep her household together in the aftermath of her police officer husband’s death. Anna is a case officer for a woman, Patricia (Patricia Velasquez), who fails to send her two small boys to school. Anna forces Patricia to yield her two sons, hidden in a cupboard, to welfare authorities. Not long after, the two children are found drowned in a river and Patricia is arrested on suspicion of murder. Patricia knows Anna has two children of her own (that’s why Anna is her case officer) and curses the family. Still traumatised after the death of a husband and father, Anna’s family is soon plagued by the demon La Llorona and Anna herself comes under suspicion by her employers of abusing Chris and Sam.

From then on, viewers are subjected to typical haunted-house scenarios where La Llorona creeps up on and scares the bejesus out of Anna and the children repeatedly, until they consult a former Roman Catholic priest (Raymond Cruz) who now works as a curandero. Scares and chases abound, Patricia turns up for no reason other than to cause more trouble, and one character cops a bullet in the chest.

Somewhere along the way, interesting subplots about how innocent families can fall afoul of over-zealous social welfare workers and end up being torn apart, with dire consequences for everyone, or how people can learn to balance skepticism and rationality with faith and courage as opposed to fear and superstition arise but are thrown over for cheap thrills. Mexican beliefs about the dead and how to protect the living from chaos and evil are nothing more than a commodity to be mined for more profit and made to look laughable and cartoonish. Though the actors work hard to make their roles credible, their efforts, and Cardellini’s work in particular, can come across as over-acting. At least Cruz has the right idea about how to play his character … not too seriously.

If Chaves can get hold of an original script that does not lean on past horror films or horror film franchises for inspiration, he might become a director of note specialising in moodily atmospheric films with arresting visuals.

Last Year at Marienbad: a comic and often repetitive satire on the empty lives of the wealthy

Alain Resnais, “Last Year at Marienbad / L’Année dernière à Marienbad” (1961)

At times hilarious, and at other times maddeningly boring and repetitive, this film is notable for its deliberately ambiguous narrative, in which time and space are non-linear, and characters may be coming or going, living or dying at once – or have done so in the past, or will do so in the future. The whole film seems to take place in a hermetic dream-like world and characters are continually repeating themselves, in their thoughts, obsessions and memories as well as in their speech and behaviour.

The plot is very simple – but from this apparent simplicity, myriad possibilities arise and the film attempts to accommodate them all. In an opulent, baroquely decorated hotel, set in a converted country estate, where wealthy couples socialise, a man (Giorgio Albertazzi), known only as X, approaches a woman (Delphine Seyrig), known as A, and tells her that they had met exactly the year before in Marienbad. The woman has no memory of their ever having met but X insists that they have and that she told him to wait a year while she decided on whether to elope with him or stay with her husband, M (Sasha Pitoev). X constantly tries to remind her of their romance while she continually rebuffs him. In the meantime, M asserts his authority over X and various other men by beating them all at the same card game over and over. M may very well be a gangster or a spy. The various possibilities that arise in the plot include a rape, a murder and two figures running away together in the dead of night.

Through flashbacks, edits that jump from one time or location to another, and through repeated conversations and events, the film explores the relationships between the three characters. Beyond this though, the main characters remain undeveloped and mysterious, even a little sinister. The rest of the cast, playing the hotel guests, are robotic in their actions, expressionless and lacking emotion, and repeat their actions and speeches over and over. In this respect, the film may be seen as a criticism of the empty lives of the wealthy, condemned to living in an eternal present where there is no political, cultural or social historical context they can relate to and which would give their lives meaning and direction – because they have deliberately sealed themselves from reality.

The film’s cinematography emphasises the self-contained universe of the hotel: the camera glides over details in the elaborate furnishings; the architectural trimmings, architraves, arches and other extravagances; and tracks through the labyrinthine corridors towards bedrooms that are exactly the same. The gardens surrounding the hotel are laid out in a strict geometrical order, and the pools of water are mostly still and serene, but beyond the hotel’s boundaries, the forest is unruly and chaotic. The use of edits and panning conveys something of the sterility in which the characters seem to be trapped. The organ music is loud, droning and repetitive.

Though the plot and its events, and the entire nature of the hotel universe and its inhabitants, might suggest “Last Year …” should be a horror film, the whole creation proceeds with a light touch and the po-faced characters seem not to take themselves very seriously. There is plenty of comedy in the scenes in which M challenges X and others to play his card game. Even the accident in which X falls off a balustrade and part of it collapses on him is played for laughs in its deadpan minimalism. The most sinister elements in the film – M himself, the Gothic organ, even the hotel and its zombie cast – can be seen as very comic.

Climax: French society in microcosm with all its stresses, anxieties, hidden secrets and a dark puppet-master

Gaspar Noe, “Climax” (2018)

In the hands of Argentine-French director Gaspar Noe, a story about a group of young dancers hired to be part of a dance troupe to tour the US becomes a launching pad for a downward exploratory spiral into the deepest, most depraved chasms of human psychology. The young cast of hip-hop hopefuls, each individually interviewed and eagerly expressing their ambitions to take the dance world by storm, rehearse in an old school building for several days and then hold a party to celebrate. Too late they discover that the bowl of sangria punch has been spiked with LSD and they all succumb to the drug’s hallucinogenic and other more serious side effects. As the music throbs and pounds in the background, and coloured lights flash and pulse overhead, the young dancers’ psychological barriers and inhibitions give way, any desires, prejudices and grudges they hold for or against one another come out into the open, and they explode into physical and sexual violence.

Even though it’s not a long film at 96 minutes, “Climax” nevertheless can feel like an endurance test, due to the relentless, in-your-face intensity of the dancers’ suffering and helplessness under the influence of acid. It is cleverly structured in three parts: the first part, consisting of the dancers’ audition interviews, establishes who the youngsters are and their hopes and feelings about the great adventure they’re embarking on; the second part of the film, shot in one single take, showcases their energetic free-form krumping style, followed by a succession of quickly edited pieces where various dancers converse in pairs about others in their group; the third part of the film, when the dancers realise they have been drugged, is the most nightmarish and technically inventive section as the camera closely follows individual dancers, smoothly switching from one to another as they pass each other in dimly lit corridors or on the spinning dance floor. A definite narrative hierarchy is established, suggestive of a transition from stability or life through a portal into chaos and death, and investigating in cursory ways issues that evoke anxiety in modern human society: unwanted pregnancies, abortions, suicide, incest, mutilation, ostracism, death. Like the ritual it is, sacrifices are demanded by this narrative, and sacrifices in all their dreadful tragedy there are.

The cinematography may be disorienting, with the camera taking bird’s-eye views or hanging upside down, and usually following characters closely behind as they run and stumble for help, but the scenes are never jumpy or jerky, and the picture is always clear. I never felt nauseous at any time while watching the film (and I have had problems in the past watching films like “The Blair Witch Project” where the camera often jerked about). The intense, garish red and green lighting adds to the general sense of unease, disorientation, paranoia and the hellish surroundings of a school building that has seen better days.

The ethnic and religious diversity of the dancers, their varying sexual orientations, the French flag as a backdrop behind the DJ spinning the vinyl, and the anxieties, prejudices and fears the young people express as they are overcome by the combination of alcohol and acid may all symbolise 21st-century French society in microcosm, with all its hidden issues, stresses and problems, whose causes lie far back in France’s dark colonial or politically and socially conservative, often repressive past, and which threatens the delicate social balance that (now as never before) might break at any moment. One might discern that the LSD represents dark forces in French society – it has its own Deep State that may be at once separate from and linked to other nations’ Deep States – that manipulate different groups in France and pit them against one another in constant conflict and violence, all so they are easier to control and can never discover who their true oppressors are. The revelation at the end of the film of who is responsible for spiking the sangria suggests as much.

The film’s end credits are placed at and near the beginning of the film so that when it finishes, viewers are suddenly and unexpectedly thrust back into cold reality. One does not know when the nightmare really ends … or has it really just begun?

The Invisible Man’s Revenge: a messy plot and flat uninteresting characters underline this cheap film

Ford Beebe, “The Invisible Man’s Revenge” (1944)

It could have been an interesting character study about various individuals’ motivations and greed, and how far they’re prepared to go to get what they want, but this film, done cheaply and cynically to cash in on previous films based on the H G Wells’ novel “The Invisible Man”, turns out to be a mess in terms of its plotting and character development. The criminal Robert Griffin (Jon Hall) escapes from an asylum and pursues a wealthy couple, Sir Jasper and Lady Irene Herrick (played by Lester Matthews and Gale Sondergaard) whom he accuses of having left him for dead in Africa years ago and of whom he demands his share of the wealth they gained from discovering diamond fields during a safari trip. The couple trick him of his rightful inheritance by drugging him, destroying a document they find on his person that proves his claim and then booting him out of their mansion. Griffin finds refuge with a cobbler, Herbert (Leon Errol), who tries to help him with his claim but is unsuccessful. Griffin next comes across crank scientist Drury (John Carradine) who makes him invisible in an experiment. Griffin uses his invisibility to extort money and property out of Sir Jasper Herrick and to claim the hand of Herrick’s daughter Julie (Evelyn Ankers) in marriage; the fellow also helps Herbert win a game of darts at his local pub.

Griffin discovers how he can become visible again and murders Drury to regain his normal appearance. However this visibility is only temporary and Griffin must resort to killing another man to recover his appearance so he can marry Julie. The next man Griffin targets for death is Julie’s fiance Mark Foster (Alan Curtis), thus setting up a showdown between the two men for Julie’s affections.

The film intentionally makes all its characters unlikable and not at all heroic. Most characters are greedy and will stop at nothing to get what they think they deserve. Ankers’ character has hardly anything to do at all apart from looking pretty as the love interest. Hall as Griffin lacks charisma and is workman-like in portraying the deranged killer. As Griffin is already a deranged serial murderer, the film does not need to investigate the question of whether a person might remain moral if s/he has numerous opportunities to perform unethical actions without fear of punishment. (It’s possible that as a result, the film suffers from the lack of tension that such an issue would offer.) The Herricks manage to live another day but not without suffering considerable psychological trauma. Foster arrives late in the plot and bravely offers a fight but his character remains flat; he and Julie do not even get a chance to hold hands. Too much in the plot is told, not shown, violating a basic rule of story-telling. Even the sets used in the film look cheap and tired.

The film is not essential viewing for fans of horror unless they are keen to see the entire series of films (all independent of one another in plot and characters) on the Invisible Man.

Don’t Torture a Duckling: behind the sensationalism, a surprisingly thoughtful and critical film

Lucio Fulci, “Don’t Torture a Duckling / Non si sevizia un paperino” (1973)

Fret not, no ducklings, nor indeed any animals, were harmed in the making of this giallo film which, under cover of admittedly gratuitous nudity, violence and gore, is actually a serious examination of the Roman Catholic Church’s attitude towards sexuality and of the insularity and poverty of a small rural Sicilian village and the complacency, ignorance and corruption that exist as a result. A series of murders of young boys in the town attracts media attention from all over Italy and reporter Andrea Martelli (Tomas Milian) is sent by his newspaper employer in Rome to investigate. Police quickly find various suspects: the local village idiot Giuseppe (Vito Passeri) and gypsy witch Magiara (Florinda Bolkan), whom the police quickly find are innocent of the murders when more murdered boys are found. Martelli follows the police case and offers some insights to the main investigators; he also befriends a young woman, Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet), whom he recognises from having seen old photographs of her in newspapers back home, and who is currently lying low in her dad’s mansion in the wake of a drug scandal. The villagers dislike Patrizia for her modern fashions and she becomes a suspect in the murders in their eyes. Martelli also meets the local priest, Don Alberto (Marc Porel), who runs a boys’ group at the church and gets them to play football in the church grounds to keep them out of mischief; for this, the villagers admire him.

Viewers can smell from a mile away who the serial killer is likely to be: sure as heck, the killer turns out to be the one person everyone least suspects. Fulci throws in plenty of red herrings to keep viewers guessing as to who the killer might be: the young bored woman who flaunts her naked body to the wide-eyed youngsters? the reporter who tampers with the crime scene? the town idiot who buries one child’s body and pitifully tries to extort a ransom from his parents? the witch who makes voodoo dolls in the likeness of three boys and stabs the dolls? the mad woman with the mentally retarded daughter? Significantly, Fulci doesn’t play fair with viewers and the killer’s identity is only revealed with a plot twist. On the other hand, the plot moves smoothly and surely to the climax which fittingly takes place on top of a mountain with stunning views of the Sicilian countryside: quite literally, a place between heaven and earth, and the serial killer falling to his death (and by implication, to Hell) in a suitably gory way.

While the acting is average, and a couple of actors go over the top, the plot nevertheless is unsettling (even if some of its details don’t quite gel) and the cinematography is very effective in drawing out the horror, the violence and above all the ignorance and superstitious character of the villagers. Modernity at times is but a slim cover for the deeply irrational nature of the people, evinced in their hysteria over the boys’ deaths and their unwavering, unquestioning loyalty to the Church. Even the police, for all their supposed expertise, are not immune to arresting people simply because they are outsiders, despised by their community.

The killer’s motivation that children should be despatched to Heaven to preserve their innocence and prevent them from maturing and gaining sexual awareness (which might lead them into sin) might seem shocking to modern viewers but makes good sense in a film that dares to address the boundary between childhood and the sexual innocence associated with it on the one hand, and maturity and sexual awareness on the other, and how communities and institutional religion deal (or fail to deal) with the transition from childhood to maturity adequately. From failing to deal with this transition might emanate other social evils such as scapegoating others and social oppression, in particular the social oppression of vulnerable groups such as unattached women and the mentally ill. In spite of its tendency to sensationalism, this film proves to be surprisingly thoughtful and critical of unquestioned tradition and the human preference for following custom for its own sake.

The Wicker Man: a satire on religious bigotry and fanaticism

Robin Hardy “The Wicker Man” (1973)

In spite of a small budget and the set-backs it suffered during filming and the post-production process, this short movie quickly achieved cult status and has become a much-loved British classic in satirising religious fanaticism and control. Police sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a devout Christian, comes to the Scottish West Highland island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. He is astonished to find vegetation and fruits not native to the island growing in apparent abundance. He is even more horrified to discover that the islanders practise nature-based rituals and customs with clear sexual undertones that offend his Christian religious sensibilities. In his investigation of the girl’s disappearance, Howie comes to learn more about the island’s religious rituals and in particular its May Day ceremony, which the islanders are about to celebrate very soon. He also learns something of the island’s history from Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) who tells him that the adoption of pagan religious elements and rituals was a brainwave of his Victorian-era ancestor to motivate the local people to work at growing food in the island’s volcanic soils under temperate year-round weather influenced by the Gulf Stream. Howie soon becomes convinced that the girl is not dead and that the islanders have hidden her and plan to sacrifice her during May Day celebrations. He infiltrates the May Day parade dressed as a foolish clown figure and gives himself away to the islanders when he spies the girl on a hillside apparently dressed up as a sacrificial lamb and tries to save her. Too late he realises that the girl was part of an entrapment scheme, the result of which seals his own fate …

As a religious bigot, unable to appreciate the folkways of what turns out to be a very different culture in spite of the islanders wearing Western dress and leading a way of life not very different from other rural Scottish villages of their time, Howie should have been a very unlikable man who deserves what’s coming to him. Woodward’s excellent performance as the police officer grappling with his beliefs, his conscience and his uncertainty, however manages to elicit some audience sympathy for his fate. Increasingly confused by the islanders’ antics, the tricks they play on him (including sabotaging his seaplane) and their indifference to his orders and pleas, Howie resorts to spouting religious dogma in such a way that one wonders if his own faith is wavering and his courage is failing him. In this, for all his faults Howie becomes as much a victim of his own faith as he will be of other people’s beliefs.

No less inflexible is Lord Summerisle, whose own fanaticism soon becomes apparent beneath the urbane exterior. Lee delivers a performance that ranges from friendly warmth and sophistication to cold, grim religious zeal in leading a group of people who initially seem New Age hippie-ish in their ideas and beliefs but turn out to be rigidly superstitious and lacking in genuine spirituality and compassion. The supporting cast ranges from good to mediocre; in particular, Britt Ekland as the innkeeper’s comely daughter should never have been advised to give up her day job, whatever it was in the early 1970s.

The cinematography captures perfectly the strange atmosphere surrounding the lush vegetation on farmland, the wild green plains and the mighty waves lashing the rocky coastlines. The pacing can be a bit slow for a police action thriller and perhaps some of the folk songs featured in the film could have been pruned back or even left out once viewers accept the pagan character of Summerisle. The film’s horror, at once astounding and horrifying, is revealed close to its end; but plenty of dread and unsettling strangeness was cultivated throughout the film, leading up to its unforgettable climax.

Significantly Howie warns Lord Summerisle that if the island’s crops fail again as they did the previous year – because they really are not suited to the island’s physical environment – then the Lord himself may be subjected to the same fate as Howie. Here is a lesson in having humility and accepting that your own religious system has its limitations and cannot be applied to all possible situations. There are many ambiguities in the film due to its tight budget and corresponding tight production schedule. The pacing can be a bit slow, at least until the film’s climax. Apart from these details, the film does well in slowly revealing the full Gothic horror behind what would have been a normal police procedural drama.

Equus: a psychodrama of outstanding performances and troubling philosophical questions about individuality and creativity

Sidney Lumet, “Equus” (1977)

He never won an individual Academy Award for Best Movie or Best Director but surely Sidney Lumet is one of the greatest film directors – in particular of films focusing on anti-hero characters battling with obsessions or guilt, or finding themselves at odds with social expectations and the pressure to conform, with the result that they end up cut off from their true aspirations and become hollow robots – ever to grace this undeserving planet. Unafraid to tackle issues of social justice, and using a classic realistic style of telling his story, Lumet attracted fine actors and drew strong, complex performances from them. His film adaptation of Peter Schaffer’s play “Equus”, for which Schaffer himself modified his play, is an excellent example of Lumet’s oeuvre: an excellent cast featuring Richard Burton, Peter Firth and Joan Plowright among others; themes of religious obsession and of a man wrestling with his conscience over remolding young mentally disturbed and troubled people into robots like himself acceptable to society; and a straightforward realist approach that forces audiences to confront the issues raised by the original play about psychoanalysis and its uses.

Child psychiatrist / psychoanalyst Martin Dysart (Burton) has reached a crisis of burnout, disillusionment and uncertainty after a long career treating adolescent and young adult patients with mental health issues and disturbances. A new patient, Alan Strang (Firth), is referred to him, Strang having entered the mental health facility where Dysart works after committing a bizarre crime. Initially Alan resists Dysart’s probing questioning but after the two agree on a bartering system where Dysart must respond to a question from Alan when Alan answers his question, Alan begins to open up about his family background: his mother Dora (Plowright), a fanatical fundamentalist Christian believer, and his father (Colin Blakely), a determined atheist, have improbably combined to impose a highly restrictive and repressive family life, complete with a rigid religious tradition heavy on ritual, upon their only son. Imagination, fun and laughter, and genuine love, freely and unconditionally given, are absent from the boy’s life and in their place are religious obsession bordering on the fanatical and a fear of sexuality combined with hypocrisy and furtive voyeurism on the father’s part.

A childhood incident directs Alan’s focus of worship of the divine and channels the creative and sexual urges he is forced by his parents to suppress into idealising horses. A young woman Jill (Jenny Agutter) helps him get a job as a stable-hand caring for six horses but the constant physical contact with the animals brings out Alan’s obsessions which he acts upon. Jill is attracted to Alan and attempts to have sexual intercourse with him but Alan’s failure brings intense anguish which results in extreme violence to his beloved animals.

Alan’s opening up unexpectedly forces Dysart to admit to his own sterile personal life and confront the paradox in his own life, in which to deal with young people’s mental health issues and return them to normal (dysfunctional) society he must destroy their natural creative urge and zest for living. After hearing Alan’s admission of his crime, Dysart once again faces what he most dreads doing: to “heal” Alan and return him to his dysfunctional family, he must rob the boy of that which gives him his individuality, creative being and reason for living and turn the boy into an emotionally hollow robot … just like himself.

Both Burton and Firth give impassioned and intense performances as the doctor who envies Alan for his vitality and the troubled boy himself, beset by obsessions he barely understands. Through these two actors and their dialogue, the issues of how an individual must suppress his/her creative being, to the point of suffocating it altogether, in order to fit into and function within a rigid, repressive society. Plowright and Blakely acquit themselves well as the parents who confuse their son and set him on the path of idealising and worshipping the Dionysian (chaotic) elements within and without him. Agutter has very little to do but makes her character real enough.

While Lumet is a straight-out realist director, and a number of scenes in the film may be over-dramatised and horrific for most audiences, his direction allows the narrative to flow fairly easily and Burton’s monologues, in which he envies Alan as the personification of that which is dead within him and agonises over the treatment that he must give to Alan that will kill the boy inwardly and turn him into an “adult”, sit easily with the action in the film. The dream-like scenes in which Alan rides naked on his favourite horse can be confrontational and intense but they are done fairly tastefully; less so the scenes in which Alan mutilates the horses in his care, which (to me) show far too much and don’t seem very realistic.

The film raises important questions about human freedom and individuality, and how the individual yearning for freedom, creative being and fulfilling one’s potential can be accommodated in a society that prizes conformity and fears the passion and intensity required to achieve full freedom and creativity. Religious obsession, and how it combines with sexual suppression and directs it into channels that fling both religiosity and sexuality into people’s faces in the most confronting ways – Plowright as the fanatical mother fails to make the connection between the way she has brought up her son and his obsession with horses – is dealt with less successfully and Alan’s self-flagellation may come across to audiences as rather bizarre and theatrical, rather than as something to be pitied. While perhaps Lumet’s realist approach does not suit “Equus” very well – it originated as a stylised play after all – it does a great job delineating its psychological themes and portraying one of the most important philosophical questions about how far individuality and freedom can thrive in society.

Innocent Prey: lightweight slasher film with an improbable soap opera plot and hammy acting

Colin Eggleston, “Innocent Prey” (1983)

Maybe the problem is her southern Texan drawl or the overly bouffant permed hair but Cathy (P J Soles) does seem to attract weird men who want to kill her rather than get down on bended knee, put a ring on her finger and pledge to protect her. Well, one fellow, Joe (Kit Taylor) actually did go through that routine but only to get his hands on the insurance money paid to Cathy after her parents died in an accident. Accosted by two businessmen who warn him that they know of his fraudulent activity and are on his trail, Joe goes out after work, picks up a prostitute (Deborah Voorhees) and takes her to a motel where they have sex. Joe then proceeds to kill her in the bathroom. Unbeknownst to Joe though, wife Cathy has seen his car (after dropping her Australian friend Gwen off at the airport) at the motel and spies on him through – as it turns out – the bathroom window while he was killing the prostitute. Cathy calls the police and they come to the couple’s house to set a trap for Joe – but not before he threatens to kill Cathy herself.

The police bundle Joe off into prison but in the great tradition of Australian horror exploitation flicks, Joe promptly escapes and goes back home to finish off Cathy. Again, the police arrest Joe (but not before three of their finest meet their maker) and put him into an asylum. On the advice of a fatherly senior police officer (Martin Balsam), Cathy escapes to Australia to stay with friend Gwen in rented digs near Sydney Harbour. She comes under the attention of young millionaire landlord Phillip (John Warnock) who is a social misfit and spends all his time in his apartment voyeuristically watching his tenants on TV through security cameras hidden throughout his family mansion. Phillip observes Cathy befriending a divorced man, Rick (Grigor Taylor), and his estimation of Cathy as initially a pure and wronged woman quickly falls to that of a slut who must be punished for her sins – just as he punished his mother for being a loose woman by sending her to the grave.

On top of this malarkey, which owes more than just a debt to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” in characters, plotting, the prominence of the bathroom and the shower, and a theme of escape to a new life (only to have one’s old life intrude and force one to face consequences), Joe escapes the asylum, covers his tracks and flies to Australia to … well, finish an uncompleted job.

While the action is based in Dallas, “Innocent Prey” is creepy and seriously gory enough, with real tension in a modern 1970s house made sinister by good use of lighting and shadows; but once the action flies out to Phillip’s mansion in Sydney, the plot becomes more hokey and improbable with most murders occurring off-screen. Viewers are left to guess as to how Phillip takes care of Gwen (Susan Stenmark) and Joe. Several scenes (notably the climactic one where Phillip threatens Cathy) could have been lifted right out of “Psycho” – after all, Balsam himself was lifted out of that film (he played the detective Arbuckle) and into this Psycho-wannabe number. The action seems to slow down as well. At least Phillip’s mansion is a very spacious and attractive house, full of light and featuring doors with stained glass patterns.

At least Eggleston furnishes his male characters with motives for wanting or wanting to kill Cathy – even Rick may be a closet psycho-killer in the making – but viewers never find out why Cathy attracts such men: Soles can’t seem to make Cathy a character for viewers to sympathise with though she does try hard. Part of the problem is the film’s dialogue which makes Cathy appear stupid, even callous; surely she should know that the police protecting her from Joe would never play jokes on her? – and her conversations with Rick, which Phillip listens in on, can easily be construed as nasty towards people who are different from others because of some disability. Unfortunately for Soles, Kit Taylor and John Warnock easily steal the film as the respective unhinged psycho-killers: once killing women gets into his head, Joe just can’t seem to stop; and Phillip (in a performance of virtuoso hammy acting by Warnock) smoothly transforms from gauche social misfit into a velvet-tongued psychopath capable of electrifying murder.

With a lead female character who is very much helpless throughout and completely reliant on men who turn out to be dangerous, often in outrageously silly ways, in an improbable story-line straight out of soap opera universe with too many unbelievable twists and turns, “Innocent Prey” remains firmly in lightweight slasher genre territory. The film refers rather too much to character stereotypes and plot tropes from “Psycho” to stand on its own. After the tight scenes set in Dallas, the film becomes more distracted and loses momentum in parts. After the last scene, which suggests that poor old Cathy is locked into a vicious cosmic cycle, viewers really don’t care what happens next to Cathy or who she latches onto next.

Kadaicha: a forgettable teen horror flick from the late 1980s

James Bogle, “Kadaicha” (1988)

From the early 1970s to the late 1980s, thanks to increased Federal government investment in the Australian film industry, there was truly a Golden Age of Australian Film at both the high-brow art-house level and the low-brow, low-budget level of genre exploitation films. While many of the latter category of films have now been forgotten, a few have acquired cult glory and some have even been elevated to national icon status. One Ozploitation film not likely ever to attain such an elevation is the silly teen horror flick “Kadaicha”. The film does have an interesting theme which saves it from complete wastepaper basket oblivion.

Set in Sydney, the film revolves around a group of high school students (all of whom look at least 10 years older than they should be as secondary school students) who discover that they have similar nightmarish dreams in which each and every one of them goes into a cave behind a stormwater drain on the local beach and sees a skeleton of a long-dead Aboriginal shaman come alive and dance around the fire. The shaman turns to face the youngster and hands him or her a stone and the kid wakes up screaming in fright. A mysterious stone, looking exactly like the stone in the dream, is usually found on the pillow beside the teen. Later in the day, the teenager dies a violent and bloody death.

Two teenage girls and a library worker at the school die after having the same dream. The girls’ friend Gayle (Zoe Carides) and her boyfriend do what research they can on this phenomenon and discover that all victims live in the same street as she does. Further digging for information reveals that the  street and the residential development around it lie on top of a sacred Aboriginal burial ground. It was here that, during the colonial period, a group of teenage Aboriginal youngsters was massacred by white people. Now a mystery force that can only be understood by local Aboriginal people who remember their religion is taking its revenge on white teenagers living in the street. Gayle confronts her father (a property developer) for going ahead with building the residential development when it had been opposed by Aboriginal and other protesters and for walling up the cave with the skeleton of a kadaicha man (the shamat who appears in the kids’ dreams). Needless to say, one night Gayle has the same dream that her friends had and wakes up in terror to find a kadaicha stone on her pillow. She realises she has very little time left as she and her boyfriend try to find the Aboriginal elder living in the neighbourhood who knows the old stories and beliefs, and who may be able to help save her life.

At the least the film has a message about the consequences of greed and self-interest, and how innocent lives can be lost as a result. Lack of respect for Aboriginal lore and sacred territory, the history of past conflicts between white colonialists and Aboriginal people, and the generation gap between parents and their teenage children buoy up a forgettable film that lacks suspense and substitutes cheap laughs in the place of growing horror. The scene in which the library worker is killed by a funnel web spider leaping into his eye is more hilarious than frightening. If the acting overall is unconvincing, the direction by Bogle and the cinematography look very amateurish. The result is a rather flat film that does very little to explore and investigate Aboriginal culture and beliefs about the dead or the place of the kadaicha man and his stones in their Dreaming, and what value indigenous stories might still have for Western society and culture in Australia.

The music is creepy in parts, with didgeridoo-playing a significant element within the music, though it could have been better used during moments of high tension when the monsters preying on the teenagers would have struck. Some plot strands (such as a young teenage boy aspiring to become a rock musician) remain undeveloped. The plot overall barely sustains a full-length film of some 75 minutes plus.

Over Your Dead Body: an extreme, almost cartoon-ish horror ghost film homage where life imitates art

Takashi Miike, “Over Your Dead  Body” (2014)

From the incredibly prolific director Takashi Miike, who never met a film genre he couldn’t make an insanely extreme film for (and with the body count to prove its perversity), comes this homage of sorts to the famous Japanese ghost story “Yotsuya Kaidan”, horror films featuring vengeful or hateful female ghosts generally and the theatre. Toss in a love triangle involving three actors appearing in a drama production and we have a recipe for an almost Shakespearean work in which vengeance, the quest for happiness in a sterile world and life that imitates art revolve around each other as surely as the circular stage set on which the theatre troupe presents its interpretation of “Yotsuya Kaidan” rotates to emphasise the dark, disturbing atmosphere and the intensity of the emotions and actions of the characters in the play.

Star Miyuki Goto (Ko Shibasaki) is cast as the tragic heroine Oiwa in a new production of “Yotsuya Kaidan” and schemes to get her lover Kosuke (Ebizo Ichikawa XI) cast as Iemon, the unfaithful ronin husband of Oiwa. Other actors in the cast soon lust after Miyuki and Iemon, who themselves are having difficulties in their relationship, both of them emotionally remote from one another in spite of their love-making. The actors’ obsessions with one another and the love affairs that develop and which are conducted secretly lead to a situation in which the murder and mayhem rehearsed continuously on the stage spill over into the cast’s lives offstage.

The film begins ordinarily enough and the first half-hour is a character study in which we come to see how distant Miyuki and Iemon are, and how their emotional remoteness is reflected in the elegantly and minimally furnished modern apartment where Miyuki lives. Much attention is given over to the elaborate stage set-ups, the care with which the cast of actors act out their roles in the play, the costumes and hair fashions of mediaeval Japan, and their rather stylised actions. Curiously the director of the play is a very minor character indeed and one gets no sense of when rehearsals for the play started, when they will finish and when the play itself will have its opening night. Once there is a hint that a doll used as a prop is possessed by a demon, the pace quickens, the action becomes brisk and the film detours from delineating ordinary everyday scenes (albeit with some eccentricities on the part of Miyuki: she boils several saucepans of pasta all at once in one scene, for example) into a wacky direction in which nightmare dreams that afflict people spill out into their waking lives, a woman mutilates herself to find her unborn child and actors start disappearing from the production as they fall victim to the ghosts of the play.

The extreme and intense violence contrasts strongly with the minimal style of various background sets, with the suggestion that beneath the po-faced facades that people present to the outside world lurks roiling emotions that they have difficulty accepting and which they cannot name, yet which eventually must have their outlet. Shibasaki, Ichikawa and the rest of the film’s cast perform their roles capably as people more or less divorced from their emotions and feelings which erupt through the medium of the ghost play and play havoc with their lives, to say nothing of the play itself as the most significant cast member disappears. Audiences may breathe a huge sigh of relief when Kosuke gets his just desserts both in the play and outside the play but horror fans might feel a little cheated at what “horror” has actually emerged and that Kosuke’s executioner literally gets away with murder.

The film closes off in its own hermetic world and seems much smaller than it ought to have been.