DVDanger: 'Devil's Pass', 'Die, Monster, Die!', 'The Whip and the Body', 'Birth of the Living Dead'
A modern shocker, two vintage terrors, and a history lesson in zombies
By Richard Whittaker, 8:00AM, Sat. Jan. 11
The years change, the decades fall away, but here at DVDanger towers, we're fully aware that the universal constant, our cinematic magnetic north, is a good old fashioned, clutch-the-sheets, double-check-the-locks horror.
Of course, the contemporary taste is for something with a touch of verite: like Devil's Pass (IFC), the latest from one-time action director de jour Renny Harlin. It's The Blair Witch Project equation updated and applied to one of the great true story mysteries of the 20th century – the Dyatlov Pass Incident. It's the Russian Marie Celeste or Roswell, a Donner Party with vodka and extra strangeness seeping into its veins: Nine hikers went up into the remotest parts of the Ural mountains in 1959. All nine died. That's not too weird – it's the Urals in Winter – but how the bodies were found – partially dressed, seperated, with bizarre wounds, traces of radiation, and a general air of mystery about their deaths.
Devil's Pass picks up decades later, with a group of three film school students heading to Russia to follow the Dyatlov party's ill-fated path. Accompanied by two more experienced hikers, they head off in the deadly depths of winter to recreate that final expedition, and discover whatever it was that killed the original team. Cue glorious snowscapes, suspicious locals and a crazy (or is she) old lady who claims there were 11, not nine, bodies found in the drifts.
There was a point when Harlin was one of the go-to Hollywood action directors. Between Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger and The Long Kiss Goodnight, he looked like a James Cameron in waiting. And then something went wrong. Deep Blue Sea was inane, while Exorcist: The Covenant was a studio-concocted disaster. Since then, he has been back on the mid-card and straight-to-VOD market.
But here's where it gets interesting. Devil's Pass doesn't play like the work of a 54 year old Hollywood reject. It's got an urgency and vibrancy that makes it feel like the work of an aggressive up-and-comer, combined with the experience of a more seasoned director. Aside from one botched shot near the end, it sticks resolutely to the found footage rules, and there are a couple of big moments handled with gruesome tension. One POV death in particular brings a creative new twist to the term 'camera close-up' without seeming like a tacky sight gag.
He's still not quite back in the Hollywood saddle. In this Russian-British co-production, most of the cast are British playing American students. Maybe it's the other end of the exchange program whereby the UK got loaned Melissa George, but the cast's adopted accents are strong enough for this not to be noticeable.
Shooting on icy location in Northern Russia, Harlin builds up the danger with some subtlety. Even without any supernatural or conspiracy components, the Urals in winter are unbelievably dangerous and treacherous. There's a telling moment when sound engineer Denise (British TV actress Gemma Arkinson of last year's Night of the Living Dead 3D: Re-Animation) finds her eyelids have frozen shut. Without overstatement or some grotesque frostbite scene (the go-to thermometer of peril in Arctic movies), Harlin makes it clear that, even without external menace, this place can kill you.
If there's one point of frustration, it's not with the film. It's with the publicity. Harlin keeps the film's central mystery (is it aliens? Yetis? The local tribe? Russian military operatives?) buttoned down until the final act, but the DVD cover gives it away (honestly, the original American poster, the UK one-sheet and the enigmatic Japanese poster all do a better, more mysterious job.) So the secret is spoiled. Well, sort of. For a straight-to-DVD release, it's pretty damn smart and twisty. Vikram Weet's debut script show no traces of his prior career as crew member on reality show pablum like Keeping up With the Kardashians and The Real World. It melds a plethora of conspiracies and found footage forebears (a pinch of [Rec], a dash of Frankenstein's Army) into something intriguing and unpredictable.
Another recent release, if of a far older title, features another unexpected collaboration between a continental European director and British acting talent. 1963's The Whip And the Body (Kino Lorber) is the most curious of meldings: Italian S&M gothic auteur Mario Bava and the king of the monsters Christopher Lee.
At the midpoint in his brief run of early 1960s Italian period horror, Lee signed on with Bava to play Kurt Menliff, the sinister scion of a landed Italian family who reappears after years of mysterious absence. No-one is pleased to see him: His brother Christian (model-turned-horror regular Tony Kendall is furious at his return, while Christian's bride Nevenka (Daliah Lavi) is both drawn to the cruel, aquiline Kurt and disgusted by him. So when he gets stabbed in the throat with the same stileto with which another of his lovers took her own life, no one in the family seems that bothered.
However, this is Christopher Lee we're talking about, and so the grave holds little restraint or appeal for him. Nevenka keeps seeing Kurt's muddy footprints around the house, and is convinced that she hears the sensuous crack of his horsewhip.
With a constant droning, desiccating wind and a drained, indigo color palette, it's arguably the missing link between the aristocratic depravity of another Kino favorite, Jean Rollin and AIP's glorious grand guignol run of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations (In the fact, the film was a direct response to the massive commercial success in Italy of Roger Corman's The Pit and the Pendulum, caught in all its lurid splendor in the recent The Vincent Price Collection.) The isolated coastal castle is Usher-esque, and the family spends most of its time in funeral weeds. The only external characters are the coterie of masked pall bearers who appear as if summoned by death itself.
Bava leaps with gusto into the period drama. Madness, obsession, sibling rivalry, and an underlying plot of arranged marriage and repressed passion as Christian both rejects and depends upon his true love, family servant Katia (spaghetti western heroine Ida Galli.)
A decade later, this part might have gone to the equally shadow-cheeked Henry Silva, and with his odd bowl-inspired haircut Lee is a dead ringer for the iconic cinematic gangster heavy. However, he brings that glorious gothic twist that made him an icon. Kurt isn't just evil: He's a pureblood monster, rejected by his family and relishing every opportunity to make their lives as miserable as possible. However, Bava being Bava, he becomes an unlikely sex symbol, a cloak-wearing dom to Lavi's period sub. "You always enjoyed violence," he tells her during their first re-union/whipping on the beach. There is something weird about seeing Lee but not hearing him (he was dubbed in both the Italian and English-language versions) but he is allowed to bring the implied sadistic sexuality of Dracula right to the surface.
Its adult themes and melodramatic undertones have left The Whip and the Flesh in an odd cul-de-sac: Sometimes seen as Bava's best movie, it's less popular than other more lurid releases like Five Dolls For an August Moon and Baron Blood. His career-defining anthology Black Sabbath was put out the same year, and it shares some visual kinship to the candlelit terror of its third installment, "The Drop of Water." However, this is infinitely more darkly beautiful. In his commentary track, Bava academic Tim Lucas argues that the true auteur behind this project is not the director but screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi. Rather, it's actually Bava's favored cinematographer (and later Paul Morrissey cameraman) Ubaldo Terzano, who shoots the swan-necked Nevenka like an El Greco. The whole film is color coded, with the family surrounded with a blue St Elmo's fire as Kurt's deadly presence surrounds them. As the woman in his thrall, Nevenka glows lilac, as she is dragged closer to the grave's embrace.
Two years later, Bava's Black Sabbath collaborator Boris Karloff continued his return to the silver screen with Die, Monster, Die! (Shout! Factory). After a five year cinematic hiatus (during which he worked on TV), he'd returned to film in 1963. Yet he was no longer the vibrant giant of Frankenstein or the glowering malicious force of The Black Cat. Aging, graying and in increasingly poor health, in 1965 he signed up for AIP's extremely loose adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space.
Karloff play's Nahum Witley, the wheelchair bound patriarch and last son of the cursed Whitley line. Stephen Reinhart (TV bit-part player Nick Adams) is the American who turns up in the small English village of Arkham (bad sign #1) to visit his girlfriend (and Nahum's daughter) Susan (Suzan Farmer, who appeared opposite Lee the next year in Dracula: Prince of Darkness) and Rasputin: The Mad Monk.) He probably should take it as a bad sign when the Arkham locals refuse to help him get to the Whitley place. The taxi driver throws his suitcase on the floor, the bicycle rental (see, 1965 rural England was actually the model for Portlandia) won't loan him even a scooter, and the yokels in the pub clam up.
Still, somehow he finds his way there (probably guided by Susan's brilliant pink sweater, which seems impossibly out of place in the fading splendor of her family's crumbling mansion.) However, the welcome is far from warm. There's something sinister going on in cellar, and a weird glow putting the green into green house.
Where The Whip and the Body is innovative while being undoubtedly vintage gothic, Die, Monster, Die! is both Stokeresque and part of the British sci-fi wave of the mid-1960s, a twisted cousin to The First Men in the Moon and the Quatermass franchise. While other AIP productions tried to disguise Lovecraft as the more fashionable Poe (most noticeably turning The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward into The Haunted Palace ), this catches his sense of eldritch fear about the place that science and superstition meld. It may also be the first film to truly show Lovecraftian creatures as the twisted, pulpy mass of tentacles that he described.
It's nowhere near as lusciously shot as The Whip, but Shout!'s Blu-Ray transfer justifies this re-release. There are subtle details revealed, like the hints of ribs on the shawled monstrosity skulking in the woods, or the ribbon of candle smoke that swirls above Reinhart's bed as Nahum spies on his unwanted guest.
Karloff's performance is a man in transition: A one-time action man, contending with the advent of time, but with a few good performances left in him. He understood that cinema was changing, so three years after Die he appeared as a post-modern version of himself in Peter Bogdanovich's controversial sniper horror Targets. That same year, the Gothic tradition was effectively put out of its misery (or at least temporarily re-interred) by one little independent horror movie. Night of the Living Dead was contemporary grand guignol with an undoubted political bent, and Birth of the Living Dead (First Run Features) tries to encapsulate the birth of the undead phenomenon.
An homage to the little indie flick that changed the world, former Front Line and Bill Moyers editor Rob Kuhns examines its global impact and its humble roots. As director George A. Romero puts it, no-one really expected the film to be finished, never mind released.
There's an intriguing little cottage industry of retrospective docs: Daniel Farrands, for example, has produced near-definitive histories of the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises, and considering how vital Night was, the only disappointment is that Kuhns cuts this so short.
It may only be 76 minutes, but every second is enthralling. Visually, it's stunning. A composite of modern interviews, period and archive material, and new animations to stand in for behind-the-scenes footage, Kuhns packs a masters thesis into this doc.
It's not just that Night created the rules of the modern zombie (slow, dead, cannibalistic.) It's that it's a cinematic statement. Most horror fans know the big cultural story about how the film was a metaphor for the revolutionary urge of the era (per Romero, "The 60s didn't work") and its cultural relevance. Yet there's a clear value to seeing it all laid out. Plus there are unexpected corners of Romero's history, like the importance of Mister Rogers and Pittsburgh beer commercials.
Most importantly, Birth re-enforces Night's position as a leading light for independent film makers. Just as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre established the viability of provincial cinema a decade later, as indie auteur Larry Fessenden explains, Romero and company proved that you could grab a camera and some friends and put the finger to Hollywood. Sadly, it also clearly shows how easy it is to fuck up your distribution, as Romero recounts the painful story of exactly why you keep seeing all these cheap DVD releases.
But it's not just the cultural impact or the political statement or any of that academic insight. Kuhns' greatest statement is that, strip it all away, and Night of the Living Dead is a great, simple, effective horror film. That's re-enforced by the footage of a bunch of grade school kids watching the film as part of a class, and intelligently discussing its power, meaning and impact. Consider how Elvis Mitchell compares his first childhood viewing to the first time he heard Public Enemy. He ain't wrong.
Die, Monster, Die! (Shout! Factory), The Whip and the Body (Kino Lorber), Devil's Pass (IFC Midnight) and Birth of the Living Dead (First Run Films) are available now.