Death Laid an Egg – This giallo by the virtually unknown Giulio Questi is one of my favorite films in the genre. A twisted love triangle on a mechanized chicken farm, this is what a murder mystery melodrama might look like directed by Jean Luc-Godard. Jean-Louis Trintingnant stars. Beautiful women and cinematrography meet ugly revelations about murder and infidelity and even uglier boneless, limbless chick blobs. The story, acting, set design and themes are exactly what I look for in a rare horror gem, but the skeptics are unlikely to bother tracking this down in the back-alleys of the internet.
Death Race 2000 – Cyborg celebrity frontrunner Frankenstein (David Carradine) goes head-to-head against Machine-Gun Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), cowgirl Calamity Jane, neo-Nazi Mathilda the Hun and gladiator Nero the Hero in The Death Race, a dash across America where points are issued for running down civilians along the way (bonuses for women, children and old folk). Annie Paine, Frankenstein’s sexy new copilot/mechanic is secretly a spy for an underground resistance group, but finds herself falling in love with the enigmatic driver. One of the most perfect 1970’s exploitation films, Death Race 2000 has an inimitable blend of style, violence, camp and fan service. The casting, vehicle design and script are just right.
Death Walks at Midnight – It’s hard to make up my mind between this and its sister film Death Walks on High Heels so plan on a double feature. Susan Scott (who, next to Edwige Fenech, is probably the best actress in the giallo genre) plays a feisty scene-stealing model who ill-advisedly takes a hallucinogenic drug and ends up in some embarrassing photos. The odd thing is that the visions from her bad trip match up with a murder that took place next door six months in the past. Some great suspense sequences and no-one-believes-me tension build towards a fine denouement. Villains include a killer with a spiked gauntlet and a giggling knife-throwing hitman.
Deep Blue Sea – Unfairly bashed before the gates even opened just for not being Jaws, this is still one of the best shark thrillers that money can rent. Saffron Burrows plays the requisite conspicuously-hot scientist who genetically alters sharks to increase their brain mass (which no matter how you explain it, still sounds stupid) and then must team up with the combined badassery of Samuel L Jackson, Stellan Skarsgard and LL Cool J to escape the resulting monsters and her slowly sinking ocean research lab. The script isn’t Shakespeare, but it keeps things fast, tense and peppered with convention-defying surprises.
Demolition Man – A supercop (Stallone) and his nemesis (Snipes) are cryogenically unfrozen in a ‘utopian’ future where all crime, vices and awesomeness have been eradicated. They immediately head to a museum to load up on guns and bombs. Things blow up. Sandra Bullocks is there. Stallone teaches her how cussing and unhealthy stuff is great. Shameless, gauche and tons of fun.
The Devil-Doll – Tod Browning became a household name on the strength of Dracula and Freaks, two films that defined the horror genre in the early 1930’s. However, I prefer his less-beloved silent circus melodrama The Unknown, about an armless knife-thrower, and The Devil-Doll, about an escaped convict who uses a shrinking serum to wreck vengeance on the Parisian bankers who framed him. Lionel Barrymore is incredible as the criminal mastermind, performing most of the film in drag. Despite the sensational story, his relationship with his estranged daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan) provides a touching emotional core that few horror films ever achieve. The special effects were decades ahead of their time and still impress me today.
Doppelganger (2003) – One of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s lesser known films, Doppelganger is about a scientist working on an artificial body. Exhausted from stress, administrative skepticism and creative stagnation, our lead is on the verge of suicide when he is visited by a mysterious doppelganger who isn’t burdened by the same moral scruples. Of course, this type of devil’s pact never ends well, but Kurosawa’s last act genre shift into slapstick comedy wasn’t the ending twist the critics wanted. Koji Yakusho is, as usual, excellent in the lead role. Part of my love for this film comes from its moody, formalist use of triple split-screen (I’m a big fan of unconventional editing). Kurosawa’s little-loved existential eco-thriller Charisma could just have easily made the list, but I’ve written about it before.
Dr. Jekyll and His Women – Director Walerian Borowczyk was a Polish surrealist animator turned art-house novelty pornographer. His rarely seen (and even more rarely liked) adult-film adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde stars Udo Kier as a doctor stifled by the trappings of civilization and hesitant about his impending marriage to a loving society ingénue. His transformation into a sex crazed monster who kills with his… member, gives vent to his primal needs. Arguably a failure as art or porn, it still succeeds as a bracing, unique and profoundly disturbing horror film.
The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On – A brilliant and still criminally unsung Japanese documentary about Kenzo Okuzaki’s investigation into mysterious deaths in the wake of the WWII New Guinea campaign. Though the truth is revealed to be devastatingly macabre, the sensational subject matter is gradually eclipsed by Okuzaki himself, a man clearly driven mad by righteous hatred. Utterly devoid of objectivity, restraint or fear, he is willing to beat the truth out of his interviewees (including his former military superiors) ultimately going so far that he loses the support of the victim’s families and, perhaps, the sympathy of the audience. Okuzaki eventually finds the man he hold responsible and, off-screen, guns down his son. The final title card tells us that Okuzaki has been sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Enemy at the Gates – At a certain age in every American boy’s life he plays a videogame that lets him snipe and he believes he’s found his calling in life. I was about that age when Enemy at the Gates came out and it reinforced my conviction that snipers were cooler than astronauts. Jude Law and Ed Harris stalk each other through rifle scopes. Rachel Weisz is pretty. Bob Hoskins is Russian (whaaat?). And of course Ron Perlman shows up, as he does for every movie like this.
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