Monday, October 29, 2007

"Experiments in Terror" DVD, J.X Williams, sort of a review

I first found out about "Experiments in Terror", a collection of experimental and abstract horror shorts, because a group called the "J.X. Williams Archive" recently found me on a social networking site, probably because I listed being the fan of some foreign and experimental films that they take a liking to. Luckily, I live close to "Scarecrow Video" in Seattle and so they not only had "Experiments in Terror", which includes Williams' "The Virgin Sacrifice", in stock but it was actually a featured Halloween selection. The films on the DVD are very high quality. It would probably be easy to find horror films that are successful as horror films but include pseudo-experimental elements in an attempt to be sophisticated,but these films hold there own on both the experimental and on the horror side. Beyond the J.X. Williams film which I'll describe below, "Outer Space" by Peter Tscherkassky is especially good, featuring ultra-fast cutting timed very well to the emotional response it's designed to produce. "Ursula" is good as well. Unfortunately it's so short that I can't really explain it without giving everything away. "Journey into the unknown" relies heavily on the symbolic content of the images it displays to convey the meaning of the story, which sets it apart from the other films, which rely on montage and visual effects, although there are plenty of those in "Journey" as well. The lazy person that I am I'll have to rewatch "Tuning the Sleeping Machine" before giving a decent informed review of it. The only downside of the collection was the "Dawn of An Evil Millennium" short, which unfortunately combined some experimental techniques with eighties style horror-comedy. Yeah. I'll just pass on that one. Now onto J.X. Williams.

J.X. Williams appears to be an experimental film maker who produced films from the sixties on, stopping sometime in the eighties, who has been almost totally forgotten and whose films have only recently been resurrected. He directed "Peep Show", a film making the claim that the Mob was responsible for the Kennedy assassination prior, then fled to Europe where he continued to make shorts before ending with some experimental films for music videos in the early eighties. A clip from a French TV show about Williams, available on the J.X. Williams Archive website, features sequences that I'm pretty sure resurfaced in Psychic TV's live visual show, as documented on the live concert video "Black". "Virgin Sacrifice" is the first film by Williams that I've seen.

It starts out, surprisingly, with a sequence cut from a cheesy '70s hardcore porn film called "The Devil's Due", about a girl who falls in with some sexy Satan worshippers, but soon moves onto the original material. Hallucinogenic effects, more filters, evocation of a coven performing a human sacrifice, the film is sort of the '70s occult horror film that you'd wish existed but haven't been able to quite find so far. There are only a few nods to fellow filmmaker Kenneth Anger, and surprisingly Harry Smith gets a quote through the animated skeleton sequence. But mainly it's very original and unique, in a strange way.

Although it's very much its own product I couldn't help but think that the film seemed very familiar, especially some of the special effects sequences. It seems like the same sorts of effects cropped up years later in more mainstream films and eventually got integrated into the accepted film cannon, with echoes of them being seen in psychological horror films today. I can't help but wonder if there wasn't some secret influence there, with film students who later went on to become directors viewing "Virgin Sacrifice" and taking some inspiration from it.

I hope the rest of Williams' films come on the market. Until then, "Experiments in Terror" will provide a good investment for both experimental film fans and those interested in Williams alike.

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