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Sex, Death And Witches: Movie Frights For Halloween In Vancouver

10/24/2013 07:41 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Halloween is a great time to be a horror movie buff. For a few weeks every year, cinemas, movie channels and video stores cater exactly to your tastes and you get to feel normal for awhile, and get a few good deals on scary DVDs to boot.

People like me who get excited about poring over the cheapie bins for bargain-priced cult classics should be positively ecstatic about the October programming at the Vancity Theatre -- the amazingly comfortable and classy high point of Vancouver cinemas, which houses film festival fare year round and regularly hosts some of the most exciting events in town for cinephiles.

I talked to VIFC programmer Tom Charity about the late October schedule -- including the Vancouver-shot porno chic Sexcula; the inspired decision to have Vancouver's Funerary Call -- see here for more -- do a live score for Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages; and the two films paired with Häxan: Ken Russell's The Devils --a serious favourite of mine -- and Dario Argento's Inferno, as yet unseen by me.

As Charity notes, there will also be Vancouver's first official Day of the Dead event -- and no, we're not talking about saying hello to your Aunt Alicia, we're talking the Mexican festival in honour of the departed -- with a screening of the Mexican film Macario, more on which below.

My apologies to Barbara Steele, Mario Bava, and the film Black Sunday, but I didn't even think to ask Tom about it. Classic witchcraft film from Italy, 'nuff said. All told, the perfect Halloween program.

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Allan: So I've been watching a bunch of Hammer horror films lately... and thinking about how horror films used to always be set in the past, with elaborate costumes and sets. I've been kind of feeling nostalgic for it, like we're missing out, you know? Camp Crystal Lake's got nothing on a good Frankenstein's lab. Anyhow, it seems like a lot of the films in the Hallowe'en program, Inferno aside, are period pieces, so is that a style you're also fond of?

Tom: I guess I have a taste for the Gothic, yeah. I suppose when Bram Stroker wrote Dracula and when Frankenstein was written these were present tense, or very close to it. So it's interesting that when the movies started, they did look backwards and go for that kind of exotic atmospheric. Perhaps that's something that the European immigrants brought over with them? Certainly a lot of the Universal horror movies are set in Europe, old Europe... But I think for this series the starting point was Häxan. That was the first film that came up, and that led me to think about linking them through the theme of witches. That tends to automatically take you into the past. You can point to The Blair Witch Project , but not that much else... a film I would have liked to have included would have been Lars von Trier's movie, Antichrist, just to bring it up to date. It really would have pulled it all together, I think -- because it does bring into focus a more modern sensibility, but also delves into the past and the study of witches through the ages. I just didn't have space to do that.

Allan: I know there are groups out there -- maybe not so vocal these days -- but there are Wiccans and so forth who are concerned with the representation of witches and witchcraft on screen. Were you concerned at all about placating these groups in choosing the films on the program? They don't seem that politically correct.

Tom: (laughs). Well, you know, I think it's always a consideration, but I think over the course of the four films, you get different shadings, and a film like The Devils is very much about how prejudice and hysteria can be whipped up against any group; so I would think any serious Wiccan would find valuable things in these films -- alongside caricatures and simplifications and stereotypes that they would probably object to.

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Allan: I don't know Inferno -- how does that film represent witches and witchcraft?

Tom: Well, that's quite a question. I mean, Inferno is an extraordinary piece of cinema, but it's also a deeply incoherent text. It kind of makes sense from minute to minute, just in terms of the symbiosis of camera and lighting and sound, but if you were to try and write a synopsis, even, you would think, 'what was he on when he came up with this film?' I'm not sure you could really look to it for a coherent attitude towards witchcraft and sorcery. Or you'd have to be much cleverer than I am.

Allan: Are you an Argento fan? I've never really gotten into him deeply. I've tried a few of his films, but none have really stuck; they seem lushly visual, but I think I've encountered some of the incoherence you're speaking of before.

Tom: I kind of like the decadence of him. He was at his best in the 1970s, up to, probably, Opera, then kind of peaked and lost his way. I enjoy him for the aesthetic qualities I was talking about, and take the rest with a large grain of salt. I think Inferno is certainly one of the highlights of his career. These films, in a way, are much diminished on a home screen, especially on a computer monitor, God forbid. I think it's a full cinematic sensory experience that you get with a film like Inferno.

Allan: Right. Tell me a little bit about the decision to screen Sexcula?

Tom: I suppose you could say it stands a little to one side of this program, though it does take in questions of female sexuality, which was perhaps at the root of much of the persecution of witches through the ages...

Allan: Indeed. I like that it has such, um, assertive female characters -- it was one of the real surprises of the film. But is this the first first venture into porno chic that the Vancity Theatre has attempted?

Tom: I don't know if I can be definitive, but I think so -- I like to think so.

Allan: I confess, I put off watching the film until last night.

Tom: How did your Mom like it? [Tom knows that in recent years I share most of my home video consumption with my 82-year-old Mom].

Allan: I did not share it with my Mom. I actually had started it some weeks ago, but -- there's a sex scene fairly near the beginning of the film, and I think it's there to reassure your typical pornography audience that the film they are about to see is a normal porno. It obviously is NOT a normal porno...

Tom: (laughs)

Allan: .. but what is meant to reassure the masturbator initially put me off as a cinephile. It's like, 'oh no, this is just a porn film.' Once you get past that scene, though, there's a lot else going on.

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Tom: Yes, well, it's certainly trying to have its cake and eat it. I think it's a film made with mixed agendas. Apparently they had to go back and add more hardcore sex, after the producers got wind of what they'd been up to, and I think somebody in there -- I'm not quite sure who -- clearly did want to make a genuine horror film, albeit a campy, Paul-Morrissey-esque horror film. It's got traces of that. I don't know if you made it through to the end -- it's almost like a different film. Some of it reminded me of Borowczyk and even a kind of lurid Buñuel. Buñuel would never have done anything this explicit, but there's some very wild goings on, say when you get to the wedding sequence.

Allan: Like the priest trying to deliver the vows while the bride performs fellatio. Yeah, it's quite startling.

Tom: I think so. I think there are many different reasons for showing films here, and obviously a very important one is artistic quality. And that's not necessarily the most important one in programming Sexcula.

Allan: (giggles)

Tom: But I think the backstory appealed to me. I probably wouldn't have shown it if it hadn't a local angle, as a B.C. film. But I do think porn movies are the illegitimate unrecognized offspring of the film industry and film culture in general. Not only the film business, but all the other businesses that come out of it, including exhibition and criticism and DVD and academia and all the rest. We all pretend it's not there, but in fact it's been a vastly profitable area for filmmakers since the beginning of the 20th century. It seems silly to pretend that just because there's explicit sex in these movies and that's their raison d'etre that they don't exist. Why shouldn't we show one? This film was made at a very interesting time, when the way sex was being shown in North American movies was becoming far more explicit. There could have been a genuine social change in the way we talked and thought and looked at sexuality -- I'm talking about Last Tango in Paris and Deep Throat and the impact of those films. Society was on the brink of adopting a much less puritanical, less inhibited view of what we do when we get together, when we make make love. Then it pulled back from the brink, for all sorts of different reasons, but this film was made at that point, when the mainstream and porn were coming together, and you can see that in the film. You can also see some of the reasons why society did pull back.

Allan: It seems to me that looking back at early 70s porn, including Sexcula, that there's something quite idyllic, even Utopian about these films. They're so not hung up -- there's something about some of these films that seems very, very healthy. I know that AIDS had a huge impact on how society thought about sex, but that came years later, so it doesn't explain what happened with cinema -- because by 1975 or so, porno chic was dead, and this adventurous attitude seemed to mostly disappear... What do you think happened?

Tom: That's a really hard question. I think what happened was that Nixon was re-elected in a landslide and there was the recession of the early 1970s and there was a massive conservative backlash in the US. And the social forces unleashed in the late 1960s went into retreat.

Allan: That makes sense. But it's strange how no one has really taken up the gauntlet. Are you excited about Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac? Have you seen it yet?

Tom: I would be curious to see it.

Allan: I'm glad he's doing it. I didn't see the Paul Schrader film, but I'm glad there's a few filmmakers trying to go back there.

Tom: I didn't see the Schrader either, but I agree with you. But it's interesting that guys of that generation are doing it. I wonder if the kids feel that it's like 'old men who are missing the point?' I mean -- there's a whole history where the appeal of European and subtitled films in general was tied to how much more sexually adventurous they were in the 1960s, and the '50s too, for that matter. And Schrader, and von Trier to some extent, are part of that generation... That's the other thing that happened in the 1970s, too: home video. You didn't have to go through the embarrassment of going to the movie house to get your jollies watching a sexy movie, right? These days obviously -- my teenage son can watch any fetish he wants with the stroke of a keyboard. That function of cinema is redundant, in a way. Schrader's film really had no box office impact, despite what he might have hoped. Although with all this talk of post-theatrical cinema he was clearly aware that that was the conundrum, the paradox. It will be interesting to see if von Trier can make something that does draw people in.

Allan: I have high hopes, though I wouldn't be surprised if we're getting another Eyes Wide Shut, here -- I like the film, but it wasn't exactly the hardcore extravaganza hinted at. But let me ask you a bit about Harlow, though. Have you had any chance to sneak preview what the plans for the Funerary Call live score to Häxan?

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Tom: Very little. He's sent me some work, and we've done one preliminary soundcheck. I've only heard a few minutes. I think it's going to be loud and dark and twisted!

Allan: Yeah, probably! Is it the short cut of the film?

Tom: It's the longer cut. It's going to be quite the sustained assault -- it's quite demanding to play for 104 minutes; it's quite a challenge.

Allan: It's certainly longer than I've heard him perform, for sure.

Tom: But it helps that the film is more than an eyeful. There's certainly a lot going on in that movie. So it's not going to be all about the music, but I think it's going to be a great combination. Some things are just meant to be, huh?

Allan: Yeah. I know Harlow and I are both really excited that Häxan is running in a double bill with Ken Russell's The Devils, on the 26th. I love that film. But I'm wondering -- I noticed there's a disclaimer about the film on the Vancity website, saying 'some scenes may cause offence.' I've never really understood the fuss about that film -- it's a strong film, to be sure, but it's hardly an act of blasphemy. Do you really think that The Devils still has the power to offend people?

Tom: (inhales). Well... heh... It depends. I don't think many people are as sensitive as they were. Clearly in 1971, many people were deeply offended by this film. I think they misunderstood the film and misread the film, but I think it's also easy to see why they were shocked. It hasn't been widely seen in recent years, so it's hard to say how people are going to respond to it. I do think Warner Brothers, who still have rights to The Devils, consider it a film they're reluctant to have been attached to. They haven't brought it out on DVD; they licensed it to the BFI, so it wasn't put out under their name. They refuse to let the BFI put out a Blu-Ray. So I think those sensitivities are still there. Now whether the people with those sensitivities will be coming out to see it on a Saturday night at 10:30 -- probably not! But also, let's be frank, it's a good marketing trick, to say, 'hey, there's offensive stuff here, guys!'

Allan: (laughs) It is, it is!

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Tom: I remember when I ran a film society at college, and when I had first taken it over from the guy who'd set it up -- he decided he needed to get serious about his exams -- he had programmed a slasher movie called He Knows You're Alone, which is one of Tom Hanks' first roles. And at the time, I had zero interest in slasher movies. This was in the mid-1980s, and there were a lot of them, post-Halloween. So I had to market this thing -- we drew up posters and stuck them around the college. And I did a poster and I put a quote on it to the effect of, 'sexist, morally repugnant, without redeeming features.' And of course the place was packed!

Allan: Of course. Well, let's hope The Devils gets the same sort of appreciation, it certainly deserves it. Anything else we should mention?

Tom: Well, on the 30th, we're doing a Day of the Dead event which involves a local mariachi band and a Mexican horror film from 1960 -- a kind of supernatural film, more than a horror film -- called Macario. I think what It's a Wonderful Life is to North American Christmas TV, Macario is to Mexicans at this time of year. It's like a staple -- the film that really gets Day of the Dead, what it's all about. It was made in 1959, nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film -- it lost, in fact, to Bergman's Virgin Spring -- and it was photographed by Mexico's most celebrated DP, Gabriel Figueroa, who worked with John Ford, among many others. And it's based on a story by B. Traven, who of course wrote The Treasure of the Sierra Madre -- though he based it in turn on a Mexican folktale. It's a late addition to our program -- it has nothing to do with witches. It's proved very hard to get a copy of this film! We're also going to be setting up an altar in the theatre for this event, to which people can bring photographs of their deceased loved ones, and there will be explanation of what this festival means in Mexico. There will also be artworks -- an exhibition of paintings celebrating Day of the Dead -- and there will be some prayer. There'll even be hot chocolate, which is part of the tradition, and a set of traditional folksongs played by the Mariachi band. All that sounds like it might be a lot of fun!

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Allan's note: I will be on hand on Saturday before the screening of The Devils to give away a DVD doorprize, and, afterwards, to play a scene cut from the film on initial release, which remains so controversial it has been left out of all official DVD releases...! See you at the Vancity Theatre!