10/24/2018 – Romania: Domnisoara Christina (1992)
Directed by Viorel Sergovici
Romania represents the twenty fourth European nation we’ve looked at (and final one this year) which means that nearly half the continent has been covered. There’s been a distinct Euro-centric focus to this feature largely by necessity as it also makes up nearly half the covered countries despite my best efforts. Romania’s first films were medical shorts shot by Gheorghe Marinescu, transitioning to fiction with Grigore Brezeanu’s Amor fatal in 1911. Păcală pe lună would become the first animated film in 1921 made in the country while the 1930 movie Ciuleandra would become the first sound title. The early days of Romanian cinema were marked by a large amount of financial issues and competition from foreign films though the 1939 film O noapte de pomină and 1942 comedy O noapte furtunoasă were able to find success.
Following World War II, the country would move to a communist government and nationalize its film industry. In 1956, the animated A Brief History would win the Palme d’Or for Best Short Film and 1964’s Forest of the Hanged would become the first international success for the nation. 1966’s The Uprising would be their first film submitted for an Oscar while other the next couple years would see prominent releases in the controversial Reconstruction, the comedy A Woman for a Season, and the historical dramas Dacii and Michael the Brave. This brief burst of artistic acclaim wouldn’t last as the long banned Why Are the Bells Ringing, Mitica? from 1981 would be the only notable film in the next couple decades following that.
It would take until the fall of Communism in the early-1990s for the next generation of cinema to kick in. The Romanian New Wave movement would have its roots in a handful of films in the ’90s including The Oak (1992), Too Late (1996), and Terminus paradis (1998). Stuff and Dough and Occident from 2001 and 2002 respectively would start gaining festival attention while the dark comedy Philanthropy would go on to make the first serious inroads abroad in 2002.
2005’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is the film that launched the movement into high gear when it was awarded Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival and became the first movie to gain serious international attention for the country. The following year, The Way I Spent the End of the World would take the Un Certain Regard Award for Best Actress while 12:08 East of Bucharest would take the Caméra d’Or Prize as well as seeing the release of The Paper Will Be Blue and Marilena from P7 which is notable for its unusual not quite a short, not quite a feature length of 45 minutes.
The abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days solidified the country’s reputation when it took home Cannes’ highest prize the Palme d’Or while California Dreamin would take the Un Certain Regard. Neither one would be their Oscar pick however as it would instead go to The Rest Is Silence which remains the most expensive Romanian film to this day. Police, Adjective from 2009 achieved some acclaim but I can’t vouch for it since I didn’t care for it. Other acclaimed films since have been 2010 documentary The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, 2012’s Beyond the Hills which is the one film to make the January Oscar shortlist from the nation, the Golden Bear winning Child’s Pose from 2013, and the Silver Bear winning Aferim!, Sieranevada, and Graduation all from 2016.
Despite the critical acclaim achieved by the Romanian New Wave, Romanian horror is still marked by its defining trait of being a place to film crappy low budget foreign horror titles. Granted, not all of those are bad such as High Tension and Them, but those are the distinct exceptions. That Transylvania, the setting of Dracula and consequently an area inseparably tied to vampires in Western culture, is an actual region in Romania doesn’t help matters in drawing those looking to shoot their crappy vampire movie there. The first Romanian horror film (Trenul fantoma) is actually a Romanian version of a Hungarian movie, Kísértetek vonata (The Ghost Train), that had been made that year. The next one to the best of my knowledge wouldn’t be until today’s film, Domnisoara Christina in 1992 based on the novella by Mercea Eliade. In 2013, the film was remade by director Alexandru Maftei and 2016 saw the release of Jamil Hendi’s The Visitor.
Egor, a painter, goes to stay in a country estate with a family of three women. All three women have been having vivid dreams of a Miss Christina, the mom’s older sister who had died in 1907, thirty years before the events of the film. The mom has been practically living in those dreams while the older daughter is often left rundown at night by them. Miss Christina was the mistress of the cruel bailiff who killed her out of jealousy and ever since, her name has inspired fear in the town. What made her death even stranger was how before she went, she divided her money and goods amongst the townspeople and encouraged them to rape her, her body never being found. Now her painting stares over the house, locked away in a room that few are allowed in.
Egor is asked to do another painting of her and despite growing closer to the eldest daughter, upon hearing the story of Miss Christina, he starts having romantic visions of her. His dreams intrude on more on his reality and the film takes on an otherworldly dreamlike feel to it. His story is accompanied by a voiceover which starts out largely extraneous but taking on a more poetic quality later on as it becomes clear just how much this is a story from his perspective and not one of a more neutral view or of the whole mansion.
The Euro made-for-TV look is very apparent visually and while the film does the best it can later on given its limitations and building a more traditional gothic atmosphere, it’s one I’ve never keyed into. The cheesy synth heavy soundtrack out of an old Skinemax film ages it terribly. The acting isn’t much to speak of, though Medeea Marinescu as the younger daughter makes for a captivatingly enigmatic figure as the film goes on. And yet, despite the intangibles being so-so at best, I still found myself mostly drawn into it from an experience point of view. The romantic and SPOILERS1 elements are integrated well with the psychological elements. It’s definitely on the slow side and it’s a bit too rough to be considered something I’d wholeheartedly recommend, but it is an interesting title.
Bonus Episode #34 – A – 1960s: Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)
Directed by Alec Mills
King Ghidorah is perhaps the definitive villain of Godzilla and yet I’ve never seen his debut. In fact, there’s a lot of whole in my kaiju watching knowledge perhaps because of my stubbornness when it comes to subs vs. dubs, Godzilla dubs continuing to be inexplicably still dominant when shown on TV. Thankfully, this was one I didn’t have to watch a dub for. There’s nothing quite like Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla intro themes (though Godzilla’s theme does have a way of getting Pharoahe Monch’s “Simon Says” stuck in my head) to get you excited. It’s just going to be a fun film.
During a heat wave in the middle of winter that reaches 82 degrees (thankfully this has no relevance to the present days), strange things have been happening throughout the galaxy with meteor showers occurring all over the world. Princess Selina of Selgina (who the successor to the throne) is visiting Japan and seeking to keep a low profile due to a domestic dispute at home and a police officer is assigned as her bodyguard. On her way there, a bomb is planted on her flight by her opponents, but before it can go off, a mysterious light appears from the sky and tells her to flee, causing her to walk off the plane in a trance.
Later, she shows up claiming to be from Venus starts speaking in a park demanding that Earthlings start changing because the Earth is on the brink of destruction and making specific prophecies about what will happen next. She promises the return of Rodan, awakened by the volcanic gases beneath the surface and later warns people not to board a ship. A ship that Godzilla rises from the sea and atomic breaths the shit out of. Meanwhile a group of hikers go searching for one especially large and inaccessible meteor which draws in their tools like a magnet and grows. A meteorite which is actually an egg that hatches in an explosion into King Ghidorah who wastes no time in laying waste to Japan, having already done so to Venus.
Ghidorah’s design and associated effects, a giant golden three headed dragon that shoots lasers out of its mouth and flies at incredible speed are wonderful and the highlight of the film. Godzilla and Rodan’s fighting often descends into silly comedic bits of slapstick, but Ghidorah makes for a convincingly formidable foe that it would take both of them and Mothra, SPOILERS2 to team up and take out SPOILERS3.
There’s plenty of monster fighting action, but as always, the film can’t just be monster fighting and the film crafts a story that doesn’t drag when it’s on the screen. The movie largely avoids the usual human plot of “how do we stop the big stompy creatures” by instead just focusing on the mysteries of them and eventually in getting Mothra to sort this out (which offers a chance for the miniature Mothra twin fairies played by The Peanuts to return) because they know full well no tanks are going to stop Ghidorah. In fact, there’s a larger concern paid towards protecting and trying to cure the princess and I like this change of pace. Plus, the cast includes Takashi Shimura in support best known for being the most frequent Akira Kurosawa collaborator and fantastic star of Ikiru, one of the greatest films ever made.
Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster is an essential for fans of giant monster movies and a movie that leans into the pure fun factor.
Next up: We head to the 2000s for, assuming Tubi actually works as promised, the anthology horror film Three… Extremes.