Review: The Swamp of the Ravens, Zombie, No Survivors Please, Blood and Black Lace, Legend of the Witches
What sometimes makes for a fun Halloween movie experience may not always mean a frightening one. Although horror has reached a level of intensity and realism in today’s movies — as well as, some would suggest, sadism — the idea of zombies and vampires and monsters is silly. It used to be that horror films walked a delicate tightrope between the grotesque and the absurd, offering not only chills, but also some laughs — and sometimes sheer strangeness.
It was the tug of war between these two polar opposites that created the experience. Laughs made you unprepared for the frights; chuckles relieved you from the frights in order to trick you into falling prey to them later. Real horror we can get outside our doors, in our news reports — the kind of horror an old-fashioned genre movie offers is part of a world mostly gone.
There’s been a slew of DVD releases from VCI entertainment that pull from that missing reality. Sliding the quality scale, the films often show that making the horror real and vivid is not always the key ingredient to entertainment. Sometimes, in fact, the more realistic something is, the less like entertainment it begins to feel. I’d say the less realistic it is, the more opportunity for interactivity.
With that in mind, and with an eye toward choosing a DVD to stick on your television during a Halloween party, the “widescream” edition of the 1974 Ecuadoran bizarro-fest “The Swamp of the Ravens” reveals much potential. When shifty Dr. Frosta isn’t threatening to control his girlfriend Simone, he’s ranting and raving at medical boards, consulting with lepers at his swamp-side laboratory, obsessing about conquering death and having an orderly dispense of post-operation body parts in the marsh.
Meanwhile, the rival for Simone’s affection is a tuxedoed nightclub singer who places a mannequin by the stage and croons about killing his girlfriend — which makes poor Simone’s love dilemma really seem like a rock and a hard place. I haven’t even mentioned the looming flock of sinister black birds and the outraged, very hungry cop who’s trying to track down the source of various found body parts. If the film fails to deliver on chills in the more traditional ways, it does boast a supposedly real autopsy scene that will make you squirm — those are the most disturbing squishy sounds I’ve ever heard in a film.
Sharing the disk — and the theme of mad tropical doctors — is “Zombie,” also known as “I Eat Your Skin,” a 1964 film that wasn’t released until 1971. It might start out as a Rat Pack movie with its percussive jazz titles and cool poolside calypso band and womanizing humor, but “Zombie” soon reveals its real trajectory: The playboy author-hero finds out his next writing assignment is in a remote place named Voodoo Island, which is rumored to be riddled with poisonous snakes and walking dead — and, of course, available, man-hungry girls. The promise of the latter makes the warning of the former seem enticing, and our hero approaches the job with the same enthusiasm as Tony Rome upon discovering the whereabouts of Angie Dickinson’s houseboat.
The snakes and the girls appear first after a crash landing, but a zombie arrives on the heels of these — a decrepit fellow with big bug eyes and an oogly face. The movie threatens to transform into a Matt Helm adventure, but then zombies begin to attack, and it’s revealed that blond virgins are in danger. Does this mean hair dye stops zombies? Either that or a playboy author with smooth bedroom moves.
The chills never quite come, but the thrills are certainly there, especially in the form of a voodoo ritual production number with bikini girls — something sorely missing from the current crop of zombie movies. As a fable of its time, the message is clear: African culture is great when it’s confined poolside in the form of a merry calypso band, but things get out of hand in the jungle.
A film that requires a bit more concentration is the delightfully titled “No Survivors Please,” which shares a place on the Euro Fantastico DVD with crime noir film “The Black Widow.”
It might be an inherently silly premise, but its quirky technique mirrors Jean Luc Godard neo-realism more than Ed Wood neo-absurdism, with an ample bit of noir casting stark shadows around the faces and a weird John Frankenheimer vibe. The set-up segues the science fiction invasion film into the groovy early ‘60s spy genre — it’s a little bit “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and a little bit “Danger Man” — with the idea of a peaceful invasion that uses its brain.
That aliens take the bodies of important movers and shakers in the world scene rather than some guy in the American suburbs is pleasing — as is the subplot that the biological melding of alien and human wreaks havoc on the alien logic. The human emotions inherent in the biology are inescapable for the invaders and lead to a form of invasion fatigue that has them desperate to be reassigned. Sure, this is dated, but it’s clever dated — hopeful in its pessimism and complex in its simplicity. It’s not a bad way to spend a Saturday night at all.
At the top of the fictional heap, though, is Mario Bava’s “Blood and Black Lace,” which might seem like the spiritual ancestor to an awful lot of the torture porn that calls itself horror film these days, but at least it exists in that role with a certain amount of elegance and artistry. It might be a slasher film, but it’s one that at times seems directed by the likes of someone like Vincente Minnelli. Sure, you witness a woman’s face being pushed into hot metal, but you also notice the lovely, vibrant red that bathes the scene. Likewise, murders are committed in some stylish locations on women who might be about to die but are dressed fabulously.
The specific plot of the film is the same as so many others — mysterious serial killer targets multiple, beautiful victims — but the details make this one worth watching. The action takes place in a fashion design house where the models are getting picked off by a weirdo in a latex mask, and the police are on the hunt for a sex maniac. There’s nothing supernatural here, though, and the film unfolds as a melodramatic but suspenseful tale of betrayal. It’s quite of its time and doesn’t approach the clever suspense of the typical Hitchcock film, but it’s a great way to spend a night looking for some nervous entertainment. The DVD gives the film the lavish reissue treatment, an entire second disk devoted to all sorts of great extras, in case you become a fan.
The ultimate Halloween viewing, though, might be the documentary “Legend of the Witches,” a 1970 release that captures the night through the decor of historical chills — stone circles and ancient churches, gnarled trees, gargoyles and grotesques — as the eye candy in a history of witchcraft and its relationship with Christianity.
There’s plenty of basic history about the church supplanting pagan practices that goes into gruesome detail and employs visuals from the actual times, as well as a good attempt to place Christian rituals into a straight line with pagan ones, but it’s also the sort of movie that features naked young practitioners cavorting by campfire, going through their secret initiations and being doted on by lecherous old coven leaders. These scenes are creepy in an entirely different way than presented and speak to Wicca as more of an embarrassing alternative lifestyle than anything mystical — I’ve seen footage of wife-swapping parties that don’t look too much different other than their Colorado locale. On the other hand, maybe this sort of thing makes a good recruiting film.
It all ends up being some form of weird alternate history as related through a spooky mood piece. Don’t worry, though — remember that you do, at one point, get to see someone read the entrails of a rooster to divine the future. That certainly adds some rough edges without giving up the stunning, moody cinematography and is a whole other level of spooky fun. Stick on an old Bauhaus album, and you’ve got a the perfect combo for Halloween party ambiance.