Of all the American directors who came to prominence in the 1970s, Robert Altman is the warmest, the most democratic and the most disarming. The overlapping dialogue, shaggy plots, lived-in sets, and sharp characterization make nearly all of his films feel both like “slices of life” and something much more personal and unique — it’s just that the lives being portrayed are themselves theatrical and all over the place.

In the case of 1980’s consistently enjoyable, occasionally bizarre, and criminally underrated Popeye, he recreates the world in the image and vernacular of classic cartoons, made for kids, but peoples it with complicated individuals adults can recognize. Again like most of his films I’ve seen, the sets are characters themselves, that seem to have existed before we showed up and will continue once we’ve left its world. Harry Nilsson’s whimsical and wry songs form the basis of the structure, and serve as a kind of Greek chorus for the goings-on (and also a possible testimony to the amount of narcotics being consumed in the movie’s production).

For me, the whole thing peaks with Shelley Duvall’s song (as Olive Oyl), “He Needs Me.” It perfectly encapsulates the longing and celebration of the film as a whole, tinged with regret and inevitable awkwardness — her clunky feet and loping, lovely dance. It’s adorable from the start, but Duvall’s creaky delivery of “But he does!”, after Robin Williams mutters the same, sends it over the top.

I decided I’d watch 31 horror movies this SHOCKTOBER October, with the only proviso being that I hadn’t seen them before.

After consultation with the internet and input from friends, I put together this list, subject to change for literally any reason.

How am I doing? Not well. 19% down and it’s already the 18th. Also, An American Werewolf in London, which I have inexplicably still not seen, screened locally last Thursday, and I missed it because I had to “take care of my dogs and go to bed before 2 in the morning on a Thursday.” Uncool.

Here’s the list of what I have ended up seeing this month, horror-wise, so far:

  1. Bay of Blood
  2. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 (holy shit, this movie)
  3. Cat People
  4. Fiend Without A Face
  5. Frankenstein
  6. Kuroneko
  7. Onibaba
  8. Orphan
  9. The Bride of Frankenstein
  10. The Curse of the Cat People
  11. The Masque of the Red Death
  12. The 7th Victim

Some hustling seems like it will be involved if I’m going to get to 31 by the 31st.

Kaneto Shindo was a remarkably prolific writer and director who dabbled in numerous genres. His horror Kuroneko (full translation of the original title: “Black Cat from the Grove”) is a surprising, eerie film, shot in haunted black and white by frequent collaborator Kiyomi Kuroda, that draws together elements of Japanese folklore and period setting with very modern sensibilities – a disdain for authority and tradition, a Freudian uncanniness, a clear attention to the plight of “commoners,” and a feminist edge.

Kuroneko shares much with other interrogations of samurai culture and myth more generally (like Shindo’s Japanese contemporaries, and also like the revisionist American Westerns of the same period), but it also resembles the creepy melodrama of classic Hollywood horror and points toward the violent revenge narratives of exploitation.

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I knew none of this going in. I only knew that it’s a title which shows up on a lot of “important horror movie” lists. (I’ve since seen his Onibaba, which draws on the same myth to construct a very different story.) So the opening sequence – which, it should be noted, could be triggering to those who have experienced sexual violence – was pretty jarring. It’s not “I Spit On Your Grave,” but it was a lot more intense than I expected.

A group of 20-some samurai, famished from the road and far from their leader’s sight or their community’s awareness, emerge from a wooded area like a fog, like they are part of the landscape itself. They break into a secluded home occupied by a woman and her daughter-in-law, pillage their house for food and drink, rape them, and burn the house to the ground with the women inside, then fade back into the forest.

The images of different samurai grotesquely eating food with their mouths open while others assault the women are horrific, but make one thing very clear: these are not the noble warriors of myth, fighting for the common man and woman against lawless bandits. It’s an inversion of that mythology, and probably far closer to the truth of life on a battlefield in any country at war than the comforting stories of heroism we like to tell ourselves.

The women’s bodies lie, strangely intact, on the ashes of their destroyed house. A black cat walks between them, meowing, gently licking their faces. This at first seems forlorn – the cat has been abandoned, its loving keepers defiled and killed. Then the camera focuses on the cat lapping directly from their wounds. That forlornness is replaced with something eerier, and you wonder why it is, exactly, that their bodies weren’t engulfed in the fire.

Samurai start dying near Rashomon Gate, found with their throats ripped out and wounds that seem to be made by claws. A woman in white, shrouded in the darkness, asks men for help getting across a particularly shadowy and dangerous road, invites them to the secluded house she shares with her mother, gets them drunk, entices them to bed, and kills them in the heat of passion, drinking their blood from the neck. The emperor is displeased with the mysterious deaths – it’s implied that they tarnish the image of the all-powerful samurai warrior, which is unacceptable – and tells the local leader to put an end to this embarrassment.

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We discover that the two women from the beginning of the film had been waiting for a man named Hachi to return – son to one, husband to the other – who was conscripted into battle from the fields he was working, and it was in his absence that they met their horrible fate. Now, they’ve been granted extended life by powerful forces, contingent on them exacting vengeance on all samurai. Hachi does return, after three years. But now he too is a samurai, with a new title bestowed, somewhat cynically, on him for battlefield bravery. He’s asked to deal with the ghostly murders, and ventures into the mist and the woods …

It’s a familiar enough tale, but one that turns in on itself, with tragic implications for all involved. The horror is in the sense of inevitability, as it is in all tragedy – of course it would be this way. Shindo’s approach to these stories – the way in which he ties together different traditions and senses of the uncanny – is what gives the film its resonance, along with the stunning cinematography and believable characters.

This is all paired with a deep distrust, on the film’s part, of those in charge, not just the lower-level functionaries committing atrocities when no one is around. This distrust even extends to the stories they tell: Raiko Minamoto, the grand leader in this corner of the forest, tells Hachi they will embellish his exploits for the common man, as he has done with his own in the past, so that they will be thought all the more heroic, and consolidate power in their realm. He is both contemptuous of the commoner, who he rather dramatically deems “unfit even to live,” and at the same time oblivious to the larger forces at work that mock his petty aims and delusions of grandeur.

With this angry swipe, Shindo announces that Kuroneko is definitely a ’68 film. In an interview accompanying the Criterion version, he isn’t comfortable calling himself a Marxist, but says, “I am a believer in socialism … If you have to look at society through the eyes of those placed on the bottom level, you cannot escape the fact that you must experience and perceive everything with a sense of political struggle.” His Kuroneko is a creepy, accomplished, sly movie that should be more widely known than it is.

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Bay of Blood (aka Twitch of the Death Nerve), Mario Bava’s 1971 giallo-trending-towards-slasher flick, is reportedly the goriest of all his films (definitely the goriest of those I’ve seen), and widely considered a major influence on many films to follow a decade later. It’s not hard to see why: it opens with horny kids goofing around who, one by (mostly) one, meet unpleasant ends, its camera slowly tracking victims from the killer’s POV. It devises somewhat inventive ways to dispatch its characters, with plenty of blood and horrified faces.

While the gore is pretty mild compared to fellow Italians Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci (not to mention in the genre movies to come), it’s substantial compared to classics like Bava’s own Black Sunday from a decade prior, which now seems downright stately. Bay of Blood apparently revolted plenty of critics, and previous Bava supporters, on its release.

On the other hand, while sharing the casual sexism, empty house in the woods, and POV shots of slasher movies, it’s also much more plot-driven – a good thing, in that there’s something to watch for besides the partial nudity and the death scenes at the hands of a maniac or monster, and a not-so-good thing, in that the plot driving it is kind of dumb. It’s essentially a “who gets the inheritance from the old lady?” picture, with more impalings and beheadings than usual.

It also shoehorns in something of an environmental and/or anti-capitalist subtext, with those who want to preserve the bay as it is (especially, for some reason, for its bugs) pitted against the rapacious greed of others who want to pave it over and turn it into a lucrative tourist paradise. None of this is very interesting. You also wonder how the deaths of absolutely everyone will affect getting that inheritance, since this would presumably attract suspicion that things might not be quite above board with the people left standing.

There are some effective scares, moody shots by the bay of its title, and a handful of cool effects, but the laughable dialogue doesn’t do it any favors, and the ending is absolutely ludicrous. You could do worse, but you could do far better.

The Dissolve commentariat has been posting write-ups of horror movies all month (which are amazing and which you should read). Here’s mine.

SCAREFEST: Val Lewton Marathon — Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942); The Curse of the Cat People (Gunther von Fritsch, Robert Wise, 1944); The 7th Victim (Mark Robson, 1943)

The original Cat People – Val Lewton’s 1942 production debut for RKO, directed by Jacques Tourneur – is justifiably famous for the absence of, well, cat people. On screen, anyway. The movie operates in shadows and insinuation, mood and dream-logic. But while the plot definitely revolves around cat people, no scary cat-person ever shows up, exactly. This was the product of necessity: there was no money for stars or costumes or effects, so monster-movie scares had to be generated without the monsters. Lewton and Tourneur delivered, through legitimate craftsmanship and two crucial insights – sometimes the creepiest thing is just out of the frame, and dread can be as effective as fright for drawing an audience.

Its nominal sequel, The Curse of the Cat People, simply dispenses with the cat people altogether. It’s a strange and surprisingly moving film, and doesn’t really register as a “horror movie” at all, despite drawing on Sleepy Hollow, creepy imaginary friends, and featuring a little kid going into an old spooky house where a weird lady lives. Whether or not it’s a horror movie per se, you’ll still notice one item missing from that list. (It’s cat people.)

What the two movies definitely share, along with 1943’s The 7th Victim (also produced by Lewton for RKO), is the mood. There’s a sense that something is off; that while everything being shown and spoken is clear and understandable enough, there’s still something just below the surface threatening to rise. Compared to the classic monster films Universal was putting out at the time – and which led RKO to launch their production in the first place, hoping to cash in – these are bizarre experiences, more lo-fi David Lynch noir than creature-feature.

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In Cat People, Irena (French actress Simone Simon) draws pictures of panthers at the zoo, and surrounds herself with cat totems from her hometown in Serbia. Oliver, the man she meets and marries (but never once kisses, afraid of a prophecy that says her desire will unleash the animal inside), is an architect obsessed with boats. At dinner in a restaurant, a strange woman approaches, cloaked in furs, and addresses Irena as “sister,” before promptly leaving. (Roger Ebert’s excellent review finds a queer subtext in this exchange.) When Oliver’s co-worker Alice (the third point of their love triangle) is in danger from something unseen in the shadows, the street she runs along is simply a loop of the same brick wall, with the same lightpost again and again. She becomes frantic in fear of this invisible prowler, but is able to jump on a bus that shows up out of nowhere just in time, careening in from the right side of the screen in an early version of a fakeout jump scare. It plays extraordinarily like a bad dream.

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In The Curse of the Cat People, the focus shifts to a young girl, the child of two characters from the previous film, who is either sensitive or troubled, and her anxieties, attempts to fit in and do right, and her alienation from her peers. There’s a bit of a Carrie prototype here … or would be, if the film chose to go in that direction. I’m still not sure what direction it does choose – those peers, for instance, are never heard from again after roughly 20 minutes – but the evocative shadows that became the Lewton hallmark are everywhere. And there’s the added creep factor of a child protagonist: she’s a tiny person on a huge set, the staircases and dark halls are forbidding, and the camera invariably is pointing up at the looming objects or down at the small girl with whom we identify. It’s unsettling, even if nothing much seems to happen.

Of course, nothing much does happen in many childhoods, more often than not, or at least not in the ways we think. Elaborate fears prove unjustified; you usually don’t get eaten by a monster in the dark. But that doesn’t make it any less scary at the time, or any less awful when no one believes that you might. The film effectively touches on the disbelief, casual skepticism, and patronizing allowances with which adults treat children, who are certain they saw something … in the closet, under the bed, or, in this case, out in the yard by the swing.

As it turns out, the ghost lurking there in The Curse of The Cat People is more a protector from the living than a threat from beyond the grave, but what’s scary in the film is the child’s helplessness and total lack of power in a much bigger world. And her inability to explain herself, avoid misunderstanding, even when being completely honest and direct. The cat people’s curse, held over from the first film, might just be the way no one will listen to you about the presences, dangerous or otherwise, that you sense. The curse is awareness of the supernatural in a world predicated on its repression.

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The 7th Victim does not take place in this “Cat People minus cat people” world, although it’s kind of hard to tell if you watch all three in a row. This is especially true since Tom Conway keeps showing up, looking like Vincent Price, seeming deeply untrustworthy, and saying things like, “I prefer the left … the sinister side.” The film involves a missing sister in the big city, a curiously tolerated Satanic cult, a weird aside about evil beauty products, and a Rosemary’s Baby-esque meeting, except it’s more jury trial than baby shower. I actually don’t think much of this matters – once again, it’s the mood and the images. Particularly striking: a door is forced open and we expect something gruesome; instead it’s an empty room with a noose hanging from the ceiling above a chair. It’s a terrifying moment, and it cost exactly the price of a chair and a piece of rope to shoot. The 7th Victim’s meandering plot pays off with a brilliant, evocative, and rather disturbing ending, with the contrast of two characters, headed in different directions, going to the same place in the end.

The short documentary “Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy” points out that RKO simply handed Lewton the titles, and gave him the freedom to shoot a picture as he saw fit (although with barely any money, of course). That is, to use the technical term, fucking nuts. And even more amazing is that these idiosyncratic and sophisticated movies were the result.

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