It’s unwise to watch more than two Italian horrors per SHOCKtober, but this caught my eye at Videodrome, and it’s been years since anything caught my eye at Videodrome since we haven’t lived close enough, so I rented it to celebrate being able to spontaneously pick movies off shelves again, rather than relying on my premeditated lists. Surprise: it’s really good. Almost seems like a parody of previous Italian horrors – “woman in a strange new house discovers gateway to hell in her basement” is the plot of half these things, and this one adds a Rosemary’s Baby element, with supernatural cultists enlisting the unwilling woman in their rituals.

If you see something suspicious in an Italian horror, always put your eyeball reeeeeal close to it:

Starts off shaky, with a mad prophet stumbling in from the desert, meeting some hippies, mis-quoting a Rolling Stones lyric to each other, making me wonder if the song was translated into Italian and back – then when night falls there’s a hippie slaughter, and I realize after Race With The Devil, I’ve accidentally programmed a satanist double-feature. In Germany years later, a balding dude follows a woman home and kills her, “why did you disobey?,” then on the subway a pickpocket pulls a human heart out of the balding dude’s jacket, and this is already crazier with more visual imagination than the other satanist movie.

A straight plot summary seems wrong for such a mad movie, but I’ll try, Kelly Curtis hits an old man with her car (Herbert Lom, Walken’s doctor in The Dead Zone), takes him home where his insects impregnate her with the devil, then he dies after a rabbit knocks over his meds, leaving behind a sentient death-shroud. Kelly is attacked by the reanimated body of her knife-murdered friend. A hot doctor helps her out, investigates the subterranean cult beneath her house, somehow ends up dying in an auto explosion, and the mom apparently survives the same fire, saved by her devil-baby. Whatever nonsense is happening, the camera is always up for filming it in bold color, with roving movements or in extreme close-up. There is bird tossing, voicemail from a dead man, a metal coffin unsealed with a can opener, a stork attack, a face transplant, and a basement with a skylight.

In a small town (interests: bullfighting, the local underwear factory), wimpy Armando del Rio gets his girlfriend Penelope Cruz pregnant, to the horror of Armando’s mother (Stefania Sandrelli of The Conformist), who hires virile Javier Bardem to seduce Penelope. Kinda weird and fun movie, with some uneven melodrama.

Quoting myself in an email: “Favorite part is how they emphasize that this is a nowhere town by showing tractor trailers blowing past in every scene.”

And again:

That scene [the battle to the death with legs of jamon] is the movie’s downfall in a nutshell. It all started out a wacky, bizarre comedy with nude bullfighting, topless Penelope Cruz, confused young lovers, bitchy feuding parents, oedipal complexes and lots of jamon… then gradually turns dark and serious, while still trying to remain focused on giant testicles. So in that final jamon-fight, one character is comically whacked in his comically huge groin area, and three seconds later another character is tragically killed and everyone is sad. We didn’t buy the tonal shift.

Marsha Kinder’s Film Quarterly review points out that we missed lots of cultural references:

In its violent climax, Jamón Jamón uses a pair of ham bones to parodically reproduce Goya’s famous painting, “Duel with Cudgels.” In the process it also evokes Saura’s serious adaptation of this image in Lament for a Bandit (1963), with its overly dramatic music and its stylized movements between distancing long shots and brutal close-ups – an alternation that makes it difficult for us to miss the studied allusion. Yet Bigas Luna’s bathetic choice of weapon also brings to mind Almodóvar’s murderous ham bone in What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984).

Luna won an award in Venice and Bardem was noticed for his acting. Nominated for all the Goya awards, but trounced by the other Penelope Cruz movie in her debut year in film, Belle Epoque. Luna figured his movie’s success was due to casting Javier Bardem as a guy with big balls, so he did that again the following year with Huevos de Oro.

Not the best fantasy English-language debut by a Cannes jury prize winning European filmmaker starring John C. Reilly I’ve seen in theaters this week. Hard to believe this was even worse than Reality. No atmosphere or rhythm, just a series of things happening to no apparent purpose. The colors and costumes looked nice, anyway.

I guess there are three nearby kingdoms. King John C. Reilly dies slaying a sea monster to cast a spell so Queen Salma Hayek can have a baby, but her substitute chef also has a baby and they grow up to be albino twins Christian and Jonah Lees, who send messages via water flowing out of a tree root. Second there’s King Vincent Cassel (Black Swan) who loves having sex with ladies and wants all the ladies to have sex with him. He likes the singing voice of Shirley Henderson so her sister Hayley Carmichael semi-competently fools him, then is thrown from his window and turned into young and beautiful Stacy Martin (Young Joe in Nymphomaniac) by a witch in the woods, after which she marries the king. And King Toby Jones is obsessed with his giant pet flea so absentmindedly allows his daughter Bebe Cave to marry a dangerous ogre.

Shot by Peter Suschitzky (Cosmopolis, Lisztomania) and edited by tossing rough-cut scenes in the air and picking them up in any order.

M. D’Angelo:

One tale will be abandoned for so long that its return is like suddenly remembering last night’s dream in the middle of the day. Guy Maddin employed that device masterfully in The Forbidden Room (which premiered at Sundance earlier this year), but he did so by burying dozens of stories inside others, like Russian dolls. Here, Garrone just randomly cuts to someone else every so often, killing the momentum every time.

The CLF in Cinema Scope:

Thanks to very good CGI and a diligent DP, the film looks pleasant if you’re into Middle Ages fetishism, dragons, albino twins, abusive ogres, and that sort of thing. The way Garrone elaborates the source material is pedantic in its refusal to give a moral dimension to the stories (something missing from the original). What is the point of drawing on archetypical forms of storytelling if their transposition fails to meaningfully relate to the present time? Like many films these days, the only good question Tale of Tales raises is: Why was this film made?

Not gonna write much because this needs to be seen again. Sort of a surrealist fairy tale, reminding of The Color of Pomegranates and Raul Ruiz. Valerie is stalked by a vampire called Weasel, who may be hitting on Valerie or her girlfriend, and may also be Valerie’s father. She is protected by a boy called Eagle, who may be her brother. The grandmother is in love with priest Gracian, who is also hitting on Valerie. There’s more, involving a just-married neighbor, magic jewelry, self-flagellation and lots of birds.

Learned from the extras: It’s based on the novel by a 1930’s Czech surrealist poet. Director’s name is pronounced YEER-a-mel YEER-esh. Heavily influenced the movie The Company of Wolves, and I am guessing Moonrise Kingdom and maybe Eagleheart.

E. Howard:

Despite this unsettling feeling [that the movie tends to leer at Valerie], the film is a sensual phantasmagoria, exploring the strange netherworld opened up at the junction point between childhood and adulthood. Jireš marries his dazzling imagery to a continually shifting score (written by Lubos Fiser and Jan Klusák) that encompasses tinkling music box circularity, jaunty folk melodies, and haunting religious choral hymns. This mix of disparate musical moods and sources mirrors the film’s uneasy blend of fantasy with a child’s eye view on reality.

D. Cairns:

Some book or other on the Czech New Wave compared the storytelling to Rivette’s fantastical films: you can tell there are RULES to the magic in these films, but you DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY ARE.

Great to watch this again in high-def. I remembered it being interesting, but not looking this spectacular. Morose knight (Max Von Sydow) and his charismatic squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand of Winter Light, hard to adjust to him not being the morose one) are heading home through the plague-ridden country, accumulating other characters along the way. It’s both very serious about life and death and also full of jokes and lighter moments, so maybe the first Swedish horror comedy? Along the way, Jons has folksy/philosophical conversations with townsfolk, and the knight has religious/philosophical conversations with Death.

First, Jons rescues an intense, silent girl (Gunnel Lindblom: Sydow’s servant in Virgin Spring, his wife in Winter Light) from a dangerous thief. “I’m a married man, but with any luck my wife is dead by now, so I’ll be needing a housekeeper.” Then they come across actor/jester Jof (Nils Poppe of The Devil’s Eye) with his wife Bibi Andersson, sexy maid in The Magician), who’ve just been ditched by their more serious companion Jonas and need protection. Jonas has stolen the blacksmith’s wife (Inga Gill of Miss Julie), but the smith (Ake Fridell, Monika‘s dad) gets her back and Jonas wanders off to meet Death.

It’s been established that jester Jof can see spirits, so he’s the only one who realizes that the knight’s solo chess games are actually with Death, and that the knight is losing, so he escapes with his wife. The rest of the gang continues to the knight’s castle where his wife Karin (Inga Landgre, recently in Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Remake) is waiting. The six of them are just having dinner when Death catches up, and out in a field with their young son, Jof sees Death leading them all away.

Peter Cowie calls the actors “medieval ancestors of those troubadours, those traveling musicians who are still so popular in Scandinavia today.” I’ve meant to ask Trevor how often he runs across troubadours. Cowie also calls this “the high point of Bergman’s symbolic period.” I’m pretty sure the sudden parade of self-flagellating religious nuts was a Monty Python influence.

Woody Allen:

His big contribution was that he developed a vocabulary to work on the interiors of people. He would choose these great and gifted actors and he would guide them so they could project these inner states of extreme emotional intensity. He would use close-ups and keep those close-ups going longer and longer, and he never let up. Gradually the psychological feelings of the character the actor was portraying just sort of show up on the screen. He was so unsparing with the camera. Finally you start to see the wars that are raging inside the characters, these psychological wars and emotional wars, and it’s no less visual in the end than the movements of armies.