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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Five Films: Dante Tomaselli


Welcome to Five Films, a self-descriptive feature here at Cinema Arcana where I invite guests to contribute lists of movies they feel are underrated.  No rules, no limits -- just a quintet of motion pictures they'd love more people to know about.  Hopefully in doing so we can turn you, the fearless reader, onto a gem you've previously skipped or remind you to rewatch a past favorite you've forgotten about.

This installment brings us New York-based writer/director Dante Tomaselli, the man behind the surreal horrors of Desecration (1999), Horror (2002) and Satan's Playground (2006).  His newest film, the evil kid essay Torture Chamber (2012), recently had its world premiere at Spain's prestigious Sitges Film Festival. You can can keep track of the latest developments at its Official Website.  His next project is a highly anticipated update of Alice, Sweet Alice, co-written with Fangoria's Michael Gingold.

Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1943)
I first experienced this short film in a School of Visual Arts class called 'Women in Film', taught by Film Comment and Village Voice critic Amy Taubin.  It was an interesting class and I was engaged every step of the way.  A highlight was the screening of Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon.  I was hypnotized.  This was a hallucinatory journey, a trance-film, and it spoke to me in dream language.  Soon, I became very close friends with Cherel Ito, the executrix of the Maya Deren estate.  We met by chance, waiting in line at a post office.  Somehow we were drawn to each other.  At the time, we both lived in the West Village in NYC; I was in my early twenties and Cherel kind of took me under her wing and showed my strange short films to her friends at The IFFM, NY's Independent Feature Film Market, at Angelika Film Center.  Soon Desecration shorts were playing at S&M clubs, film festivals and Alphabet City bars.  Before long the money for the feature came.  Meshes of the Afternoon influenced me.  I understand it.  Its time/space dislocation.  The hallucinogenic sound design.  Its nonlinear storyline propelled by visual metaphor.  The experimental photography.  Its repetition.  The never-ending stairs and faceless, black cloaked figures.  The hazy intersection between life and death.

The House with Laughing Windows (Pupi Avati, 1976)
An unusual and disorienting film.  I never would have predicted the climax, yet all the clues were there.  This film gave me nightmares.  The director conjures an atmosphere of foreboding and dislocation similar to Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now.  It’s a '70s Italian horror movie about a religious painting of St. Sebastian in a church that holds macabre secrets.  Deliciously sinister, The House with Laughing Windows features dreamy, painterly compositions with lots of sunlight and beauty streaming through, yet what's underneath is ugly and grotesque.

Alice, Sweet Alice (Alfred Sole, 1976)
There is not one reason why I love Alice, Sweet Alice.  Like the movie, there are layers.  As a little boy, there was the realization that I had a cousin who was a director and he made this macabre and surreal picture.  I was especially thrilled since I knew I wanted to be a horror director myself, practically since birth.  Alice, Sweet Alice, originally titled Communion, was filmed around where my grandmothers lived in Paterson, New Jersey.  My father, who owned a jewelry and bridal store, provided the communion dresses, veils and white gloves.  My relatives were extras.  A real family affair.  I remember being 6 years old and peeking at the poster art of the white veiled little Catholic girl holding a glowing crucifix dagger.  I was so unnerved and intrigued.  Then there was the book adaptation by Alfred's friend, Frank Lauria, with an even scarier version of the masked figure.  I remember when the film made its big premiere in Paterson -- all the hoopla surrounding it, though I was too young to attend.  Now as an adult, I can still watch Alice, Sweet Alice over and over and find new details.  I admire its enigmatic heart, its elusiveness...its powerful religious imagery and, of course, that translucent doll-like mask!  Alfred and I are planning on creating an official Alice, Sweet Alice Halloween mask.  The film has a labyrinth storyline, eye-popping cinematography and stand-out performances, especially by Paula Sheppard as 12-year-old Alice.  Oh, and the whispery bone-chilling lullaby score by Stephen Lawrence is out-of-this world... horror heaven.  My cousin's stylish movie has so much going for it that it's bursting at the seams.  Alice, Sweet Alice is unrepentant, intensely personal, and extremely unsettling.

The Brood (David Cronenberg, 1979)
When I watch The Brood, I'm transported to childhood night terror-land all over again.  I feel the world as a mysterious puzzle. The little girl, Candace, is portrayed so effectively by Cindy Hinds, I can't believe she's not real.  Art Hindle as her concerned dad is convincing, too.  The scenario is pitch black.  Sensitive 10-year-old Candace witnesses deformed dwarfs viciously attacking her grandmother.  Soon these creatures show up at her school, killing her teacher and snatching her to an isolated cabin.  Meanwhile, a twisted mind war between her feuding parents is violently exploding.  As a disturbing metaphor for divorce, The Brood is thoughtful and genuinely frightening.  David Cronenberg, one of my favorite directors, is top notch, as usual. Oliver Reed, as the controlling doctor of a breakthrough therapy, is weird and creepy, and Samantha Eggar, as the unstable mother who gives birth to "children of rage," is electrifying.  Their bizarre role-play therapy scenes are vivid and reveal more strangeness.  The mutant children are a sight to behold.  Demons straight from hell. Also savor the moody, unsettling score by Cronenberg regular Howard Shore.  So many rumbling low-toned melodies, churning... and frenzied, screeching violins....

The Sentinel (Michael Winner, 1977)
I was 5 years old when I gazed at the cover of the book by Jeffrey Konvitz.  It belonged to one of my older sisters, or maybe my mother, but it found a permanent place in my bedroom where I just couldn't stop staring at it.  The cover art featured an old, withered priest sitting in a chair with a stern expression.  Over him there's an oval cut-out window revealing a Jesus-like figure with white eyes.  When you open the book, on the next page, a more complete picture emerges.  A snapshot of hell.  More damned white-eyed figures, but now in a cavernous, red, glowing space.  My imagination lit up; I was chilled and captivated and stared at it endlessly.  When I saw the actual movie a couple of years later with my family at a Drive-In, I was hooked.  The images from the paperback book, one of the first I actually read, bled into the movie.  On all my notebooks in grammar school, I'd illustrate The Sentinel in its exact font and draw scenes from the film.   I often dreamed of the old brownstone...a portal to hell.  I recently visited the locale in Brooklyn Heights, New York.  It's still there.

Thanks, Dante!  
For a look at our other Five Films rosters, click here!

© 2012 -- Bruce Holecheck / Dante Tomaselli. All Rights Reserved.


  1. jervaise brooke hamsterNovember 23, 2012 at 10:09 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Both The Sentinel and Alice, Sweet Alice are faves of mine. Neat that you have a family connection to Alice.