George A. Romero made one of the most influential and profitable (esp. given its rock-bottom budget of not much over $100,000) horror movies ever made in 1968’s original Night of the Living Dead. That should have catapulted him to the A-list mainstream, which he certainly merited in terms of talent. But instead his career was as notable for underseen or unrealized projects as the few high-profile successes, most of which only became so in fervent fan retrospect.
When he died four years ago at age 77, having worked on various projects to the end, there was a melancholic sense that despite the handful of great films he left behind, the industry had failed to let him live up to his potential. And hardly because he was “difficult”—if you see the 1980 documentary Document of the Dead, about the making of classic sequel Dawn of the Dead, it’s striking what a generous, patient, and well-liked collaborator he was.
Some of his later films were disappointing, and some of the earlier ones, too—though those were generally logistically hobbled productions whose results he was dissatisfied with as well. Still, others that rate among his best (the vampire update Martin, the non-horror Knightriders) were commercial failures, while he was at times frustrated with the fact that financiers only seemed to want him to make more zombie movies.
Romero prepared numerous big projects (including the first attempt at filming Stephen King’s The Stand) that fell through. But a very small one he did complete is only now reaching the public, after nearly half a century. The Amusement Park is a 52-minute film that was commissioned in 1973 by the Lutheran Society to educate viewers about ageism and abuse directed toward the elderly, a subject then little-noted or debated. What Romero gave them in return, however, struck the non-profit church organization as so alarming, they preferred to shelve it. Thought lost for many years, the short feature has recently been restored from two found 16mm prints, and is available as of Tues/8 from the genre streaming platform Shudder.
It starts innocuously enough with plummy veteran actor Lincoln Maazel (whose only other screen role would be a memorable one in Martin five years later) introducing himself and inviting viewers to consider “some of the many problems of aging,” particularly “lack of compassion” from members of younger generations. After this prologue, Maazel appears in duplicate: As a bloodied, traumatized old man sitting in an eerie all-white room, and the spry doppelganger who ignores his warning not to go “out there.”
Which place turns out to be the titular park (a West Pennsylvania attraction that would soon close in real life) where our dapper, gentlemanly protagonist attempts to join in the “amusements.” Some of these are standard, if a bit overwhelming for his taste, like a rollercoaster ride. But others are weird little psychodramas that illustrate the callous treatment of seniors in society. We see them ripped off, ignored, caught in unfeeling bureaucracy, humiliated; our protagonist himself is beaten, robbed, chased, and laughed at by strangers until he’s a quaking wreck. The fadeout circles back to the beginning, making this a surreal nightmare without end.
Those poor Lutherans—they wanted an olive branch to encourage better treatment of elders, and Romero instead handed them a bewildered old man’s cruelly terrifying ordeal. Its supporting roles played effectively by volunteers (including nursing-home residents) and park attendees, the film mixes the qualities of both a quaint location-shot time piece and a horror movie in the mode of Carnival of Souls—or Night of the Living Dead, albeit without the gore. It’s no mere curio but a very strong miniature from a great director.
The genre Romero occasionally felt trapped by is more popular than ever at present, and there have been some interesting new horror releases of late beyond the multiplex mainstream:
My favorite horror flick of the year to date (which is also now on Shudder, regrettably bypassing big-screen release) is writer-director Damien McCarthy’s debut feature, shot in West Cork, Ireland. Scraggly, dazed, apparently amnesiac Isaac (Jonathan French) accepts an odd but lucrative offer from Barret (Ben Caplan), who claims they’re already “friends.” It’s to “babysit” for a few days his adult niece (Leila Sykes), a “confused but harmless” young woman who refuses to leave the home where her father died and mother went missing not long ago.
Barret neglects to mention that this house is on an island only accessible by boat—or that Isaac (who can’t swim) will be literally tethered by harness and chain to accommodate Olga’s paranoias. Most of the time, she stays catatonic and cowering in her room. But sometimes she talks and walks around like a normal person…albeit one who, ominously, wields a crossbow. But while her “psychological problems” may well induce worry, Isaac soon realizes there are other forces here, apparent in alarming noises and inanimate objects that keep moving around. There is something in the basement, where his chain is anchored. Something we’re pretty sure is going to be bad news for all concerned.
Caveat is not densely plotted, but its atmosphere could be cut with a knife, from the marvelously decrepit house itself to the sense of dread that makes this slender, elusive narrative uncommonly creepy. Not much “happens” in the stock horror sense of ghouls seen, or blood graphically spilt. Yet what does happen—and the anxiety induced by waiting for it—may well set your hair standing on end. If you liked the impressive Relic last year, or were among the few who saw Possum the year before that, you will know what you’re in for with this fellow chunk of UK mouldy-cottage horror, in which ambiguities abound but the clammy tension gets right under your skin.
Also from thereabouts is Welsh writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond’s own feature debut, which played SFFilm a couple months ago. It plays off the “video nasties” controversy in Great Britain in the early ’80s, when the proliferation of home-viewing VHS tapes raised alarms that children could be disturbed (or driven to copycat violence) by grisly horror films that the ratings system barred them from seeing in cinemas.
Prim but pragmatic Enid (Niamh Algar) is a censor who determines such ratings, and also demands cuts of particularly revolting material. But when she thinks she spies her own long-missing sister in a new movie by a reclusive schlockmeister, she plunges down a rabbit hole of paranoia and eventual murder in which reality, celluloid fiction, memory, and delusion increasingly blur.
A mixed bag that partially pays tribute to the original “video nasties” themselves, Censor is stylish if not quite as immersive a nightmare as it means to be—there’s something a little academic and removed about it, even as events escalate toward bloody madness. Still, it’s ambitious and accomplished even within its limitations. The film opens this Fri/11 in theaters (including Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas, plus a one-day Roxie run June 19), becoming available On Demand June 18.
Skull: The Mask
There is nothing remotely academic about the schlock horror being proffered by Armando Fonseca and Kapel Furman’s Brazilian film, though it too is a sort of homage to yesteryear’s genre trash. A mystery box once stolen from Nazis by a masked kickboxer in an Amazon forest bunker winds up decades later in the hands of various Sao Paolo residents, starting with the lesbian couple foolish enough to open it. Umpteen victims later, a police detective finds herself faced with a very angry, shape-shifting pre-Columbian god wreaking vengeance on humankind.
Gory, silly, and lively, Skull: The Mask moves along at a brisk clip with minimal dialogue, sheer energy hurtling it past the constraints of an equally minimal budget. The washed-out color and spaghetti-western-redolent music evoke another era’s exploitation cinema, though the sensibility here is as close to Troma smart-assery as vintage acid-horror. Fun as it is, however, the movie fast grows repetitious as one over-the-top, blood-fountain mayhem sequence follows another, making an impression more dumb than the faux-dumb aimed for. Your viewing pleasure will be enhanced by beer consumption; sobriety is to be applauded, but it may not go well with this film, which is also (already) on Shudder.
These days audiences are ready for just about anything at Frameline (whose latest edition starts this Thursday), but back in the day they tended to take offense rather easily. One little-remembered controversy almost 40 years ago was the inclusion of Self-Defense aka Siege, a low-budget Canadian thriller in which a fascist gang slaughters gay bar patrons during a police strike, then pursues the fleeing sole survivor to an apartment building where he finds refuge. There, the tenants (who include a blind man and other minority representatives) barricade themselves in, using resourceful means to combat their attackers. The still-obscure 1983 feature is one of the best “Canuxploitation” films of its era. At the time,, however, SF gay audiences found its violent genre content distasteful, even if the political message was progressive.
That movie came to mind watching this new Canadian feature by Pat Mills, who wrote, directed and starred in a very good gay comedy called Guidance in 2014. He did not, alas, write this new effort, in which a newly minted lesbian couple (Tommie-Amber Pirie, Sarah Allen) show up at a rented rural cabin, only to find the gay male friends they’d planned to meet there missing. Soon they realize that there are homophobic, extremist far-right militia types in the vicinity who may have already wreaked terrible harm, and will not spare our heroines from more of it.
The Retreat (which is currently available On Demand from Quiver Distribution) gets pretty rough pretty fast, in a nasty way that recalls the profoundly unpleasant original Wolf Creek. Yet once the tables begin to turn against the bad guys, it pivots from dead-serious sadistic torment to cartoonish wisecracks and other cheap shots. Mills’ direction is fine, the actors are decent. But Alyson Richards’ screenplay is tonally all over the place, making for a movie that seems to eventually make a joke of content with which it’s just genuinely upset us. Not exactly bad, The Retreat nonetheless offended me in ways Self-Defense didn’t, and still doesn’t.