Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2015 - John Portanova ""

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Film Discoveries of 2015 - John Portanova

John Portanova is an independent filmmaker based out of Seattle, WA. He moved to the city so he could be close to the world-famous Scarecrow Video, but it’s also where he makes movies with his production company The October People. These films have included the psychological horror story The Invoking and the alien abduction thriller The Device, both of which he worked on as a writer/producer. His directorial debut, the creature feature Valley of the Sasquatch, is currently traveling the film festival circuit. His next film as a producer, the supernatural drama Ayla, begins filming in March.  You can follow him on Twitter at @October_John


BRAIN DEAD (1990; Adam Simon)
The box art for this Roger Corman production has stuck with me ever since I first saw it in the video store as a child. And in true Corman fashion, the striking image of a disembodied face stretched out only appears in one scene of the film as little more than a background gag. The actual plot of the film revolves around a neurosurgeon (Bill Pullman) trying to prove the insanity of a man (Bud Cort) who may be faking his illness to keep his dangerous knowledge from ever getting out into the world. Bill Paxton shows up and gives his sleazy best as a corporate lackey for the conglomerate employing both Pullman and Cort. It is pure movie geek heaven seeing the two Bills share the screen for the first, and so far only, time. The script is atop drawer mindfuck that was originally written in the 1960s byTwilight Zone scribe Charles Beaumont. When director Adam Simon (currently of Salem) found it in Corman’s offices decades later he decided to adapt it into his inventive directorial debut. 

A COLD NIGHT'S DEATH (1973; Jerrold Freedman)
I first read about this Aaron Spelling production in David Deal’s book Television Fright Films of the 1970s. The plot centers on two scientists (Robert Culp and Eli Wallach) who are sent to an isolated research station in the arctic to investigate the mysterious deaths of the facility’s previous team. Thus begins a tale of psychological horror that sees the two men wondering if more than cabin fever sent their predecessors to their graves. Tensions run high as the men come to believe that someone is out to kill them. Has one of them gone mad from the isolation? Are they part of a secret experiment? Why are the monkeys they’ve been sent to study suddenly on edge? This chamber piece has never officially been released on home video, but is worth seeking out for the top notch performances and palpable sense of dread. 

DEAD OF NIGHT (1945; Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, and Robert Hamer)
Anthologies have always been a cagey proposition for me. I love the idea of a few short stories strung together to make a feature length film, but before watching Dead of Night I’d never seen one that worked so well as a whole. The first thing that struck me about this Ealing Studios production was that the wraparound story, usually the most throwaway part of any anthology, was actually the most engaging aspect of the film. The wraparound centers on an architect (Mervyn Johns) arriving at a country farmhouse and realizing that he’s been there before, in a dream. He proceeds to predict events before they happen and puts the guests, who have no recollection of ever meeting him before, on edge. Johns’ strange premonitions lead the guests to describe their own brushes with the unexplained and their five stories make up the bulk of the film. These stories feature early screen appearances from horror standbys such as the evil mirror and the ventriloquist dummy with a mind of its own. Nearlyevery one of the stories has been retold again in some form over the last 70 years, but the way they are presented here still packs a punch. The only time the film slows down is for a detour into comedy with a ghost story that was cut from certain prints of the film. Dead of Night has been long out-of-print in the U.S., but was recently released in nice UK Blu-ray edition by StudioCanal.

HARDWARE (1990; Richard Stanley)
Before this year I had never seen a Richard Stanley film. But upon viewing the outstanding documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, I knew I had to dig into the filmography of this eccentric filmmaker. Stanley’s debut feature could be explained very simply as “a killer robot stalks a woman in her apartment, but doing so would greatly undermine the writer/director’s amazing vision with which he tells his futuristic stalk-and-slash tale.Stanley does a marvelous job of world-building here, presenting a dirty post-apocalyptic world in such an effortless way that you wonder why so many low-budget sci-fi films fail to do the same.He also proves himself to be an adept master of suspense when the horror plotline kicks in halfway through the picture and a discarded military combat droid begins stalking Stacey Travis. In a world overrun with remakes and fanboy homages, Stanley’sunique vision is even more of a revelation now than I’m sure it was back in 1990. It’s nice to be reminded every once in a while that such strikingly original voices can be found within genre cinema.

WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? (1976; Narciso Ibanez Serrador)
Back in November I took part in my first All Freakin’ Night horror movie marathon at the Olympia Film Festival. AFN starts at midnight and presents five horror films until roughly 9 AM the next morningWho Can Kill a Child? was the fourth film of this year’s marathon. The fourth film is a very important piece of the all night movie marathon schedule. Only the real fans have stuck it out thus far and so you can slip something a little extreme in there to keep them on their toes as the sun comes up.And what better way to wake sleepy horror fans than an island full of murderous children where the adults can either try and hide or be forced to kill if they want to make it out alive? Like the best horror films, Who Can Kill a Child? doesn’t give us any easy answers. It’s not concerned with why the kids have gone crazy, it wants us to put ourselves in the shoes of the adult couple trapped on the island and question what lengths we would go to to survive if put in the same position. It’s a dark film with some truly shocking scenes that blew my mind in those early morning hours. Better than all of the Children of the Corn films combined; Who Can Kill a Child? is the unsung crown jewel of the killer kid subgenre.

THE WOMAN IN BLACK (1989; Herbert Wise) 
I was a panelist at Seattle’s Crypticon horror convention back in May. One of my panels focused on made-for-TV horror. During my research for this discussion, I discovered that many peopleheld the original television version of The Woman in Black in high regard. The film has unfortunately been out-of-print forsome time, but luckily I was able to rent a copy from Scarecrow Video and see what the fuss was all about. This period piece focuses on a British lawyer (Adrian Rawlins) in the early 20thcentury who is sent to settle the estate of an old widow. The solicitor makes his way to the woman’s isolated home and soon realizes that he is not alone. Having not seen the recent Hammer remake of this story, I was not sure what to expect with The Woman in Black. What I got was one of the best ghost stories I have ever seen from one of my favorite writers (Nigel Kneale, the Quatermass series). Instead of being a forum for shiny special effects, the magic and terror of this film comes from what we don’t see. The sounds of a horse carriage on a foggy morning or doors opening in the middle of the night provide asteady stream of chills that lead to the most surprising ending I witnessed all year. If you’re a fan of gothic horror, I can think of no better use of your time than to track down a copy of this stellar telefilm.

1 comment:

crispy said...

i feel, as ever, the need to defend the golf story in "dead of night". the film NEEDS the brief detour into comedy because otherwise the structure would be entirely off... it needs to nestle between the intensity of the mirror story and the hugo story because otherwise you'd just have a film that kept going from scare to scare. it needs to pull back a moment before it plunges into the last few minutes... it needs to lull you into a false sense of security before the final stories. remove it and the film would seem completely off kilter...