© 2019 by James Clark

      Although this film, from 2018, proceeds with an English lexicon, it is most important to comprehend the French title. Une Vie en Hauteur, translates as, “a haughty, superior, arrogant approach toward others.” What sort of intransigence could be in play within our film today? There is, as we all know at some level, a distemper underway between amateurs of reality and those professionals regarding the former as having failed to digest the ultimacies already in full flower, namely, religion, humanitarianism and science. (All of which, seemingly, despite little tiffs, well embarking unconditionally all three of them at once.) With her film, High Life, filmmaker, Claire Denis, has squarely ventured into that latter buttress, science, whereby she stands (in many eyes) to be embarrassed by the “hauteur” of her betters. Moreover, let’s not kid ourselves that such “ladies” pastimes will be merely met with droll tolerance.

Our helmswoman here does have up her sleeve the resources of a guy who posthumously maintains a filmic action as far from “ladies concerns” as you can get, namely, Ingmar Bergman, an avatar of very high problematic. She has deployed for our considerations a film which, on the surface, has nothing to do with science, namely, The Seventh Seal (1957)—a biblical concomitant which leaves room for heresy during 12th century Sweden, bristling with witch-burning, flagellation and a far-reaching plague. A couple, Jof and Marie, itinerant circus entertainers, choose to be not fans of the regional leadership (just back from a crusade), who obsesses about living forever, by somewhat odd but actually usual means. The couple—but Jof definitely in the lead—see in their infant son a budding acrobatic genius and juggler the likes of which the world has never seen. Those latter gifts will reappear in our matter before us, in a scenario millennials’ into the future, whereby the march of (bored?) science has dreamed up travel far beyond the Solar System to transport death-row killers into the range of the nearest black hole, and others’ beyond, in hopes of some miracle. During this time-bending amazement, one protagonist, Monte, the highest flyer, another Jof, but very different, what with the bloody Jacobean melodrama blazing, encounters another such craft from that site of inspiration, but this time with a crew of dogs. Continue Reading »

by Sam Juliano

Russian Ark, a 2002 historical drama film directed by Alexander Sokurov presents at the outset an unnamed narrator who drifts through the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg.  He explains that he is a ghost drifting through the rooms, where he encounters various real and fictional people from periods in the city’s 300-year history.  A similar dramatic device was employed by Thornton Wilder in his classic work of Americana, Our Town, where a first-person narrative is sustained by an on stage narrator.  In Robert Burleigh’s biographical picture book Hi, I’m Norman: The Story of American Illustrator Norman Rockwell  the author negotiates a comparable expedient  by having the iconic artist escort the reader on a tour of his art studio, which segues into a breezy autobiographical account concluding with the artist -still alive and well- informing the reader he must step back to attend to his latest creation.

Americana and picture book master Wendell Minor are synonymous.  The veteran illustrator has imparted his ravishing tapestries in works written by astronauts, historians and environmentalists.  His focus is exclusive to nature, the world around us and iconic figures from our past who have impacted our culture.  He has collaborated with Burleigh several times, perhaps most memorably on Edward Hopper Paints His World (2014), their prior exploration of a seminal artist and purveyor of realism through oils and watercolor of modern American life.  The critical success of a book on a subject they mutually revered no doubt led the pair to move forward on another venerated figure, one equally as resonant in the national consciousness. Continue Reading »


By J.D. Lafrance

The creation of and subsequent use of atomic bombs in World War II had a profound effect on the world – one that is still being felt to this day. It had an immediate impact in the United States with the public being afraid of potential war with Russia in the 1950s as they sought to build their own nuclear arsenal in competition with America. There was also the fear of the effects that nuclear power would have on everyday life and this manifested itself in many ways.

In the world of film, Hollywood sought to capitalize on this anxiety by producing monster movies involving irradiated animals and insects that grew to massive proportions, threatening the lives of average citizens. These movies successfully connected with audiences and soon, Hollywood was churning them out on a regular basis. Of the many that were made, one of the best was Them! (1954) featuring giant ants mutated by radiation in New Mexico.

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by Sam Juliano

Halloween is just days away and Election Day is shortly thereafter in the lead up to the New Jersey Teacher’s Convention, Veteran’s Day and Turkey Day.  As always Jim Clark and J.D. Lafrance are leading the way with their extraordinary film writing.  My Caldecott Medal series has been temporarily derailed by my recent (extreme) grief over my father and then this past Sunday my favorite animal in the house, an 11 year-old cat named Dylan who passed away suddenly before we could even enlist a veterinarian.  My daily involvement with this lovable feline, when I constantly referred to him as “the Prince of Princes” has left me gutted on the heels of my Dad’s passing.  Jamie Uhler’s masterful 2019 Horror Fest reviews continue:

Lifeforce (T. Hooper…1985)
Ferat Vampire (aka Upir z Feratu/Der Autovampir) (J. Herz… 1982)
Recently I unearthed a conversation at work that I’ve had perviously herein—the idea that my favorite sub-genre in my favorite genre (Horror) is the Vampire film. I’ve said I find it (quite easily actually) the deepest in the Horror canon, probably two dozen deep in terms of masterpiece level films, and at least that many a slight tier just below that. It was quite wonderful then, when, upon completing the very silly but highly fun Lifeforce, that I thought another bizarro take on the vampire sub-genre could be done and interesting overlaps could emerge. Boy was I not wrong, as clear an indication of the malleability and breadth of the vampire idea as you’ll see should you want to throw an anchor and dive down deep.
Lifeforce is truly something else, a relatively big budget epic (it’d be the equivalent to a $60-65 million dollar picture now) that attempts to wrestle with larger themes, even going so far to be uttered as a ‘thinking man’s sci-fi film’. Nevertheless, it’s a very silly film, made more so because it does think larger and play it all so very straight. This obviously helps immensely, as there is no irony here, and the loving ode/borderline remake to Quartermass Xperiment/Pit run of films for Hammer a few decades prior fleshes itself out that much cleaner. If you know that touchpoint you know the plot; a joint British/US spaceship, the Churchill, finds itself adrift in space near an alien craft that it eventually boards. Finding entombed humans inside it, the crew ‘rescues them’ and brings them aboard only to find that once they’re on earth the humans are actually aliens in disguise, and that they need regular doses of human ‘life force’ every 2 hours to remain alive. Thus, they’re something like vampires, as once you get past the special effect electric hysterics of ‘sucking souls’ you understand them as bloodthirsty zombies meet Dracula, and that London could very easily dip the world into the apocalypse if not properly contained (the film’s final 30-40 minutes deal with just this scenario). 
On the other hand, Ferat Vampire is considerably smaller, but incredibly more bizarre. The tale of the fictitious sports car company, Ferat, who are attempting to seek buyers (and funders) for their new sports coupe, the Vampire. But they’re a shadowy, vile company run by a pale woman looking like death warmed over draped in Chanel, so suspicious takes are warranted. Oh, and the speedy car also runs on human blood, a fact they’re keeping under wraps. It takes our hero doctor and his conspiracy theory loving scientist buddy to unearth the scam as the film unfurls itself as a quite wonderful piece of anti-corporate subversion, which enough nodes to the diminishing returns of branding on our modern world to stimulate this particular lefty to high heavens! You chuckle as you hear, rather matter of factly, that, ‘under an oil embargo, blood is cheaper than gas’. Ha! It has as many issues with how cars mangle and kill as JG Ballard’s Crash does, but it’s darkly funny instead of wholly unsettling, and in the end does attempt to understand the joy that so many have motoring.
Taken together they’re a blast—it’s fun to see Hooper continue the career decline he lived for decades, while still doing almost nothing but highly entertaining trash. Seriously, you start with a genuine masterpiece trailblazer (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and then you just slide, for 40 years, into the garbage bin, but lovingingly never turning your back on the muck and grime you loved as a teen. It’s highly respectable in a way. On the other hand, I’ve loved Herz for quite some time, and not unlike David Lynch, his films are often excursions into the scary or the macabre, but generally never straight Horror works, but here he’s made his sole, definite Horror film. The results, as I’ve alluded too, are terrific, the film is full of glorious sarcastic wit with an artiness that never intrudes, it’d play for the grindhouse about as well as it would the arthouse. In laymen’s terms, that’s about the rarest, and best, of things. 

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by J.D. Lafrance

Widely regarded as unfilmable because it defied normal narrative logic and for containing some of the most perverse, often disturbing passages of sex and violence ever committed to the page, William S. Burroughs’ seminal novel Naked Lunch was the ideal project for filmmaker David Cronenberg. In many respects, the themes and subject matter the book explores parallel many of the preoccupations of his films: the merging of flesh with machines, human transformation, and secret societies. One only has to look at an early film like Videodrome (1983) to see Burroughs’ influence — the mix of pulpy exploitation with high concept ideas. The characters in Cronenberg’s films, like the characters in Burroughs’ fiction, are morally ambiguous. It is not as easy to identify with them as it is with characters in more mainstream entertainment.

As Cronenberg was the first to admit, a conventional adaptation of Naked Lunch is impossible as it would be banned in every country. So, he wisely merged key elements from the book along with bits and pieces from the author’s early novels, chief among them Junky and Exterminator!, with aspects of Burroughs’ life, tempered with black humor as we are taken to surreal places. The end result is a fascinating collaboration between two like-minded artists and a film that is ultimately about the writing process as it defines the film’s protagonists much as it did Burroughs – writing acts as a catharsis, a way of dealing with guilt.

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Screen capture from Bong-Ho’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Parasite”

by Sam Juliano

I want to thank all those who have sent on heartfelt condolences on the loss of my Dad, they are appreciated more than you know.  A special shout out to my longtime friend Tony D’Ambra of Sydney, Australia for his exceedingly kind words via private message.  But so many have expressed themselves in a manner I won’t ever forget.  Thank you to Jamie Uhler for his generous gift and to the many who sent on mass cards and/or flowers.  The Wonders in the Dark community in general has gone above and beyond in every conceivable manner.

Jamie Uhler’s extraordinary Horror Fest 2019 series highlight the 1973 genre masterpiece The Exorcist:

The Exorcist (W. Friedkin… 1973)
Today, I provide capsule of a rewatch that is long overdue, a negligence that led me to often slag this film off, probably unfairly*. It was somewhat understandable, I’d first seen The Exorcist as a pre-teen on vacation in New Jersey at my Aunt and Uncle’s home on an evening where they succumbed to my badgering and pleading to rent some Horror videos on a day where rain unexpectedly kept us indoors. We met somewhere in the middle of a compromise; my Uncle letting the youngsters pick one and he pick the other, which led to me being more scared of our trashy, childish excursion (the original Child’s Play) than his, the titanic film in question today. It wasn’t hard to see why I’d pass it by then, I was much too young for its themes, instead giggling in glee at split pea soup projectiles, spinning heads and little else. I’d catch up with it again freshman year at Kent State, but, though it was the recently released 2000 edition that had that extended crab walk in reverse down stairs, the sequence I always recalled most vividly, it was a time in my life where a (free to students) university theater was regularly blowing my mind with the first genuine Art films I’d ever seen. Next to Jean-Luc Godard, who I had never even heard of, a film as blasé as a 10-time Oscar nominee seemed immensely lame. It’s the ignorance of youth of course, a trait matched only by youthful hubris, but that’s more or less how my opinion shuffled the Exorcist. Until now. 
Its story is iconic, so we need only paint the barest of outlines; when a young girl Regan (Linda Blair in a breakout role she’d never have the opportunity of matching) begins exhibiting surreal symptoms her actress mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn, who is tremendous as the grief stricken, desperate single mother) begins seeking prognosis. Eventually, a full team of Georgetown doctors (where the film takes place, the campus looking forebodingly colonial) are stumped, finally turning to exorcism as a last gasp attempt. Father Damien Karras is asked to perform the ritual, a task he does so with the help of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow, in makeup to age him 40 years), eventually casting the devil aside, but giving up his life to do so. In-between all this the movie is constructed in both quiet and incredibly incendiary moments; Karras’ guilt-stricken mourning over the recent passing of his mother forms the shell over the movie, a moving plot line you could miss (I certainly did as a younger man) amidst the pyrotechnics of Regan who shouts profanities, performs head-turning hysterics and spews chartreuse colored vomit at anyone who challenges the demonic forces that have taken up inside her (I never realized Mercedes McCambridge voiced the demon, which I found incredible hilarious—being the Johnny Guitar fan that I am). The film follows this idea in its construction too—Karras scenes are allowed to breath and become contemplative, while Regan’s ride is often cut off before scenes even resolve themselves, adding alarming unease whenever we return to the home returned to a state of relative normalcy (‘relative normalcy’ is a strange way to put it I understand, but when a scene cuts as a hall tree, that is under the control of the Devil, is rapidly approaching Chris, who sits shaken on the floor bleeding, we don’t know how it ends. It can’t end well? But the next time we see the house, Chris is fine, and the room is in the most orderly state we could expect given the circumstances).
The film is revered, and I understand why now. For maybe the first time fully, I see how it’s said that it did for Horror what 2001: A Space Odyssey did for science fiction. Taking the earlier, monumental works like Psycho, that blazed Horror into the modern world even farther. Others had done it sure, but virtual none of those had the ability to latch so deeply into the mainstream. It’s as if the earlier, deeply psychological work on Pinter’s The Birthday Party matched with the filmmaking chops exhibited on The French Connection two years prior gave Friedkin his see-saw aesthetic, his last real gasp into masterful filmmaking. He’d touch it here and there afterwards (To Live and Die in LA, about half of the trash classic Jade) but he was over almost as soon as he’d arrived. You can call is a shame, but it hardly matters, as for more than 2 hours he masterfully remained in the air, performing a high-wire act for all times. 

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Circus of Horrors (1960)

by Jamie Uher
Spookies (B. Faulkner/T. Doran/E. Joseph… 1986)
I sometimes can’t believe how the trashy Horror of my adolescence has grow into a cottage industry as I approach 40. Most readily, I occasionally see the exorbitant prices VHS tapes go for, tapes that a half decade ago I unloaded for free to clear up space in rental units I suddenly found myself sharing. Suddenly fetching 20 to 80 dollars on mere kitsch value, buyers never realizing that often times the films sat in better DVD releases. But that wasn’t the point they (and me, only years before) would argue, that the blown out analog tape was the whole point, damn the film! At some point, the actual film became the whole point to me, and if I watched it once, or even twice, and its charm gone, the VHS, no matter how much hipsters deemed it worth, didn’t matter to me. That so many of the films were outright bad to unwatchable, only made me realize that I was decidedly in the right.
Spookies would have been one such film. I’d seen it arrive onto my radar this year when a site that releases 80’s Horror soundtracks on vinyl—that have never seen release previously on any form!—released its soundtrack. I’d never heard of it (or so I thought, upon finishing it, the ending recalled something I might have seen decades ago), but the description seemed interesting enough. But can you imagine an economy for such an item? Made even more insane when the film is actually put on, the images and soundtrack experienced for yourself. It’s the tale of two carloads of dickheads (male and female) being marooned near a large white estate that we quickly learn is inhabited by a ghastly collection of Horror cliches. The film, cheaply made but fun in bargain special effect, nonetheless only has enough plot for about 20 or 25 minutes, but we instead strain our eyes through dimly lit, barely distinguishable action for another 75 (for a total runtime eclipsing 85 minutes). It’s a cult movie now, for a cult who’s brains are about as dead as the zombies we see aping Night of the Living Dead at the films close.
It took me several pauses and attempts to get through this, a very short film by most standards. People love it, but those people are not me. Pass.

Horrors of the Black Museum (A. Crabtree… 1959)
Circus of Horrors (S. Hayers… 1960)

Anglo-Amalgamated Productions, the great rival to Hammer in late 50’s/early 60’s British genre cinema, has largely been absent from discussion when great works of the period are debated. Hammer had the heavies in front of the camera (Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley and Oliver Reed) as well as behind it (Freddie Francis, Terence Fisher, Jimmy Sangster) and, in the subsequent years, lucrative home video distribution deals, always insuring that their films were easily available in VHS or DVD packages across region. I wondered if that was why Hammer has so lapped AAP in genre fans opinions, as outside the two Corman UK Poe films made with AAP (Masque of the Red Death and Tomb of Ligeia) you don’t often hear the films uttered positively with the greats. Perhaps when you look through their catalogue you begin to see why: nearly half are Carry On films, the British version of National Lampoon; cheeky humor, often made solely to cash in on poking fun at prevailing popular movements and genres elsewhere (akin to ‘spoof’ movies). Then there are all the dramas: kitchen sink/angry young man films that they made about about a dozen of, many of which are masterpieces of their type, but decidedly not Horror. Criterion’s release of Peeping Tom (1960) more than a decade ago helped expose it to many American fans, myself included, but it was often stated on the back of Michael Powell’s shoulders, and not anything to do with AAP’s assistance. Taken all together, it’s not hard to see why they’ve lagged against Hammer then, Hammer was committed to one type of film and they poured out variations, some having more gore than others, all having a baseline in quality insuring they were the high-water mark (still) for British Horror. But AAP, at the dawn of the 60’s, managed three films in stark relief to Hammer’s supernatural hysterics and spooky period films. There’s the earlier mentioned Peeping Tom, one of Horror’s darkly subversive and perverse masterworks, and then there’s the two being considered today. Taken as a trio, remarkably, they’re nearly able to challenge the first wave of Hammer films that grossly outnumbered them.

It’s because they’re that different. Hammer initially made inroads by remaking the Universal Monsters canon, while AAP attempted lurid, pulp modernity. Horrors of the Black Museum, the tale of a horror writer and yellow journalist who, in so being enthralled with death and mayhem, begins committing murders on his own and with his understudy accomplice (who he’s drugged to become a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-type fiend) so that he can have fodder for his weekly crime columns. Similarly, Circus of Horrors posits a brilliant facial plastic surgeon who sees a case go bad and, in fleeing arrest must live undercover (via a facial reconstruction) as a circus promoter outside Britain on mainland Europe, stocking his show with single women who have no ties, but are suddenly made beautiful after his scalpel has done its brilliance. Both stories are fronted by British gentlemen of impeccable taste—Black Museum sees Michael Gough limp around as the astute Edmond Bancroft while Circus of Horrors has Anton Diffring’s debonaire Dr. Rossitor/Dr. Schuler—but who are also very clearly deranged psychopaths living both on the margins of perverted sensibility just as they travel freely amidst the wealthy caste elite. They’re modern monsters, and the violence both films illicit is at time nightmarishly brutal (certainly for its time) and sexually titillating in equal measure. Here is truly British giallo, but a decade before the party started in earnest a few thousand kilometers away in Italy.

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