Thursday, February 06, 2014

The horror movies of Bowen Island: Food of the Gods, American Gothic, The Uninvited

February 4th was the late Ida Lupino's birthday, as Vancouver punk historian Scott Beadle noted on Facebook. I thought fondly of her having been on Bowen Island, when she acted in Food of the Gods - an ugly movie, and not a good one to see if you have any fondness for rodents, since rats were very visibly harmed in its making, but it's one that I have some personal history with and feel obliged to acknowledge (besides, it's probably the only geographical location that Lupino and I have in common). Since re-visiting that film a few months ago, I have been somewhat more attentive to movies filmed on Bowen Island - especially scary ones. These include Hideaway, which I wrote about just a few posts ago (tho' had not realized then that part of it was shot on Bowen; I'm taking Wikipedia's word for it) and the not-so-very-good remakes of The Fog and The Wicker Man, which I have nothing much to say about.
Two underdogs from the history of Bowen Island deserve mention, however. American Gothic is a silly, visibly under-budgeted, but still very entertaining variant on the urban-rural horror movie, in which a float plane of attractive young people find themselves in a remote location, where they find a deranged, backward family living in what they first presume to be an abandoned house. Of course, the situation eventually degenerates until people are killing each other. The cast is a mixed bunch: Rod Steiger, as the Bible-thumping patriarch of the island, attempts to bring a method actor's gravitas to what should be a hammy, tongue-in-cheek role, and thus calls all sorts of unwanted attention to himself. However, Lily Munster herself, Yvonne DeCarlo (of Point Grey!), is terrific fun to watch as she stabs people in the ears with her knitting needles. Of their three warped, insane offspring, Michael Pollard is highly entertaining, too, bringing his whole range of quirky Pollardisms to bear on the role; Canadian actress Janet Wright (of Corner Gas and McCabe and Mrs. Miller) also makes an unsettling impression. There are all sorts of goofily executed scenes, as when the deranged adult children are taunting one of the stranded newcomers; she yells at them, "you're a bunch of weirdos!" and they take up the chant and begin to skip around her, binding her with the rope they'd been jumping, singing in tandem "we're a bunch of weirdos! We're a bunch of weirdos!" It's the sort of thing you might expect to hear sampled between songs on a Golers record, between snippets from Deliverance and announcements that you've arrived at Gateway Skytrain station. Great cinema it isn't, but in the right mood, it's still a lot of fun.
The weirdest thing about American Gothic, however, is that it was directed by John Hough, famed for The Legend of Hell House, the Cassavetes-centric Gothic horror film The Incubus (see here), and the likeable Disney UFO movies Escape to Witch Mountain and Return From Witch Mountain (among other films; I've yet to catch up with The Watcher In The Woods, but have great fondness for Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and no doubt will someday catch up with his other film with Cassavetes, Brass Target). American Gothic is probably Hough's worst, of the films I've seen, and ironically, is by far the least Gothic-feeling of all his movies, since it apparently did not have the budget to give it much in the way of atmosphere (though there are some creepy mummified babies around). Film buffs with an interest in Bowen Island should still seek it out.
Also likeable, if not actually good: The Uninvited, which makes Bowen Island a land mass I have shared with the great David Strathairn, whose career I have followed pretty much in sequence, with a few gaps. The first film I ever saw him in was, in fact, his first film, John Sayles' Return of the Secaucus Seven, which I caught on home video a few years after it was made, because Roger Ebert compared it to The Big Chill, which I'd enjoyed. I haven't seen everything he's done since that film, but I've seen him in a lot of roles, with special fondness for his performance in Sayles' later film Limbo - the last Sayles film I loved, in fact, though I have missed a couple of his recent ones...
Strathairn's character is not really the focus of The Uninvited, however. He plays a concerned father, in love with the nurse who took care of his now-departed wife, trying very hard to do right by his damaged young daughter (Emily Browning), who is returning home after having been institutionalized. The film is a whiteface remake of the Korean horror film A Tale of Two Sisters, which I missed; it has one of those narratives that cannot be recounted without ruining its surprises, though its surprises are the sort of things that anyone with an investment in the horror genre will see coming from a mile away, especially if you've been appraised of the fact that there's a twist ending, or that there's any debt to the cinema of M. Night Shyamalan. (I mean, at this point, having just said all that, I might as well just spill the whole thing - you'd have to be a fuckin' block of wood to not figure it out - but I will restrain myself on principle). The main character, played by Ms. Browning, is mentally ill; she has strange dreams, has attempted suicide at least once, and harbours what may be delusions about some of the people around her, which her "bad girl" sister confirms and encourages. The interest value of the film is akin to that of David Cronenberg's Spider, in that you get somewhat intimate with a damaged brain; there's also a little bit of Hamlet that creeps in, with gender-roles reversed. If you go to the film expecting surprises, you will be disappointed at how unsurprising they are, but if you so salty in the genre so as to be unsurprisable, you may well find the psychological explorations interesting. Browning is really good, too - and Bowen Island looks lovely.
What I really want to see again, though, is The Trap - a 1966 adventure-in-the-wilderness movie starring Oliver Reed that was among the very last films I bought on VHS. Alas, it didn't survive my escape from Chez Bedbug. I used to occasionally play the wolf attack scenes in my ESL classes, though I don't recall what they were apropos of. It is the first film I can find listed anywhere as having been filmed on Bowen! No region 1 DVD release, as yet, but I bet it can be found online somewhere...

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