YBCA offers up a bloody cinematic antidote to holiday smarm
FILM There is probably nowhere in the Christian-majority world where it's as OK to wax hum-buggy about Christmas and all it entails as San Francisco. Allergies to carols (admit it, they're horrible), frantically enabled shopaholicism, and forced contact with those people you moved here to get away from are all tolerated, even encouraged here.
In the rakishly Grinch-like spirit such sentiments allow, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is observing "the season" with "Go to Hell for the Holidays: Horror in December." This series might just as easily have been titled "Grievous Bodily Harm" since it serves up a six-program lineup of film and video features whose common thread is excess of a highly splattery kind. Included are a few variably antiqued golden oldies, as well as newer titles unlikely to get local commercial runs anytime soon (if ever). Some are fun, some deliberately unpleasant, and a couple manage to be both. All provide a sort of palliative effect for those seeking refuge from the suffocation of wholesome holiday cheer.
Because Jesus probably would, let's approach "Hell"'s contents tactfully, in ascending order of assault on any delicate sensibilities. The sole double bill on offer is also hands-down winner in terms of camp value, providing unintentional laughs in bulk for every intended scare. In fact, these two underseen gems of bright and shining awfulness comprise one of the more genius programming matches of 2010.
First up is the barely describable, let alone explicable, 1985's Night Train to Terror, which alongside They Saved Hitler's Brain (1968), Al Adamson's ouevre, and a handful of other oddities personifies that most secret, least natural of genres: the Frankensteinian film. By which we don't mean anything directly related to Mary Shelley, but rather movies crudely, grotesquely composed of parts harvested from other movies abandoned as dead.
Few are as triumphantly, energetically, and entertainingly arbitrary as Night Train, which stitches together bits of three features variably orphaned by legal trouble, runaway funding, aborted shooting, or all the above. Linking them — or desperately trying to — are scenes in which "Mr. Satan" and a white-bearded God gamble in a private car for the souls of their fellow train passengers. The latter are an ensemble of ultra-perky "New Wave" youth in Flashdance (1983) garb singing and kinda dancing in a neverending MTV video for synthpop non-hit "Dance With Me."
Familiar B-flick faces like John Phillip Law and Cameron Mitchell surface sporadically in the wildly condensed "case histories" our biblical antagonists debate, drawn from individual films otherwise known as Cataclysm, Carnival of Fools, and Scream Your Head Off. That this bastard 1985 anthology was assembled, let alone actually shown in theaters, restores your faith in predictable mankind's ability to occasionally touch the truly, inspirationally senseless.
This feeling one could apply to virtually anything by the late Doris Wishman, whose decades of bottom-rung exploitation work left miraculously intact an approach to such basics as continuity, camera coverage, and synch sound so primitive it achieves a sort of abstract impressionism. Her 1983 A Night to Dismember was stab at the slasher genre after almost a quarter century selling softcore sex. She brought to it exactly the same WTF aesthetic and narrative perversity she had to Nude on the Moon (1961) and Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965). If you're a Wishman newbie, Dismember is a great place to start since its saga of the compulsively homicidal suburban Kent family is awesomely clumsy without being too dull or claustrophobic.
The mayhem she contrives (no doubt most "gore" was thriftily broiled for stew after each day's shoot) looks even more laughable alongside the too convincing graphic ugh-liness of Thai cinematographer Tiwa Moeithaisong's directorial debut Meat Grinder (2009). Its protagonist is a Bangkok noodle shop proprietor whose extremely abused history triggers a Texas Chainsaw style attitude toward fresh victuals, and whose threadbare grip on reality provides our brain-scrambling POV. Starting out like just another exercise in "Asian Extreme" excess, this grows both more outre and controlled as it goes along, balancing jet-black comedy with a certain grotesque pathos.
Charting a reverse trajectory is Red White & Blue, the first U.S. feature by Brit writer-director Simon Rumley, whose 2006 The Living and the Dead is one of the most original films (horror or otherwise) in recent memory. For 80 minutes, it's a chillingly fine portrait of some well-marginalized characters in Austin, Texas, culminating in possibly the most alarming home invasion since Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). But the rest degenerates into rote revenge-fantasy torture porn, further weakened by deliberate story mystifications more enervating than enigmatic.
There are excuses for horror fans who've missed Living and Dead — it was barely released in the U.S. — but none for those as yet unbathed in the blood of Wolf Creek. Allegedly based on actual events (a fib), Greg Mclean's 2005 first feature takes exactly half its length to let nothing happen. Nothing, that is, save our getting to know three young people just ordinary and interesting enough to grow concerned about as they drive across Australia at summer holiday's end, halted in the middle of nowhere by what at first seems routine bad luck. Several long dread-accruing minutes later, it turns out what's happening to them is something far, far worse, unrelated to either luck or anything routine. Brilliantly atmospheric and visceral, Creek justifies YBCA's hyperbolic claim as "possibly the best horror film of the decade."
Also on "Hell"'s menu are two films I could say more about, but won't. Regarding Mladen Djordjevic's Life and Death of a Porno Gang (2009), that's because this all-outrages-inclusive tragicomedic mock-doc road flick was only available for preview in its original Serbian language. Still, it's recommendable. Whereas Marc D. Levitz's U.S. documentary Feast of the Assumption: BTK and The Otero Family Murders (2008), about a serial killer's capture and impact on victims' families 30 years later, would merit further discussion if it didn't wobble between tabloid TV and home movie — all the while raising serious questions it doesn't address, or perhaps even notice.
"GO TO HELL FOR THE HOLIDAYS"
Dec. 2–18, $6–$8
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF