Thursday, October 30, 2008

#107: Bay of Blood


Bay of Blood
Directed by Mario Bava
Written by Mario Bava, Filippo Ottoni, Dardano Sacchetti and Giuseppe Zaccariello (from a story by Franco Barberi)
Released September 8, 1971 (Italy)

While I've already covered legendary Italian directors Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento this month, I would be remiss not to mention the work of Mario Bava. Hell, the guy made the movie from which Black Sabbath took their name! Sadly, my education on Bava is pretty limited, so this probably won't be the last time you see me reviewing one of his movies in the next 8 or 9 months.

Also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve, The Ecology of Murder, Carnage and even marketed at one point as Last House on the Left 2 (even though it has nothing to do with that movie, and was made a year before it), seems to have been one of the biggest influences on the Friday the 13th. This is not only because it features a faceless slasher making short work of teenagers who party by a lake, but more specifically in a couple of the murder scenes which wind up surfacing years later in at least one of the 13th flicks.

I'm really not giving too much away by telling you that the teenagers who show up in this movie are in trouble. Anyone who knows anything about Horror movies knows that when Hippies show up, they're gonna die. Bay of Blood also employs what would become a convention of Horror movies: the old Killer's-P.O.V. cam that puts us behind the eyes of a stalking murderer.

Thank god for those Hippies, because some of them get some truly great hack n' slash deaths. As a matter of fact, these murders are pretty much the main draw, since Bava makes so many strange twists and scene changes that you'll find yourself confused at more than one point. Unlike those redundant Jason Vorhees movies, Bay of Blood has a plot that is far more convoluted, with an entire cast of characters -- from the Tarot card obsessed woman who looks like Marc Bolan of T.Rex to the insect collector or the guy who takes bites out of squid as he fishes them out of the water -- who may or may not be the murderer. Or, maybe there's more than one. . .

Look, maybe it's just best to not pay that close of attention. Put this on at a party as some great background footage, something that will constantly grab attention. You might as well play some music over it as well, since people aren't going to be able to follow it in any sort of linear fashion.

Honestly, I'm going to have to give Bava another shot on another day. Bay of Blood just wasn't doing it for me. Between the teenage hippies, the flashbaks and the land/estate dispute, I didn't know what the fuck was going on by the end of the first hour.

(Halloween fans: go check out my music blog, Pimps of Gore for a big old chunk of spooky mp3's...)

For more on Reazione a catena:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- The Wikipedia entry on Mario Bava
- Buy the DVD, or check out the alternate version, Twitch of the Death Nerve.

The stylish Bay of Blood trailer:

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

#106: El Espinazo del diablo (The Devil's Backbone)


The Devil's Backbone
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz
Released April 20, 2001 (Spain)

Honest to God, there is more passion, style and substance in the opening 5 minutes of Guillermo del Toro's El Espinazo del diablo than in most of the movies on this October slate (don't worry, Dario Argento, I ain't lookin' at you!). When you watch over 100 movies virtually in a row, you start to really be able to tell who is putting their heart into it and who is half-assing it (or just doesn't even have the skills to be able to record a memorable image to film).

When I sit down to a movie with Guillermo del Toro's name on it, I at least know I'm getting something that the dude put some thought into -- and yes, that even includes Blade II. After drudging through the almost frozen-in-place Tales from the Crypt, I looked forward to some sort of fresh vision. Or, at the very least, some mood lighting or a creatively composed shot.

Well, I got all of that and a lot more.

The Devil's Backbone is a ghost story that is on par with del Toro's heartbreaking masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth. It shares a similar tone, along with some parallel story elements (like the use of bookending narration that becomes far more enlightening at the climax). In the case of the latter movie, a child was escaping her terrible predicament through her own sense of fantasy. Unfortunately for the characters in The Devil's Backbone, both their predicaments and the spectres that haunt them are very, very real.

The man must have a knack for coaxing believable, natural performances out of children, because del Toro once again tells his story predominantly through the eyes of a group of orphans, and most specifically through the eyes of Carlos (Fernando Tielve), an innocent but brave young boy who is left at the doorstep of the orphanage, still unaware that his father has been killed in the Spanish Civil War.

Not long after Carlos arrives at the home, the ghost of another boy begins to reveal himself in the shadows of the secluded basement. Who is he? What does he want? What happened in that basement?

Labeling The Devil's Backbone as simply a Horror movie, or as a ghost story, isn't really giving the film the credit it is due. While there are elements of both, much like in Pan's Labyrinth, it's also a moral tale, a suspenseful yarn and a bit of a mystery.

Best of all, it's incredibly well made. From the cinematography, the lighting, the striking art direction (especially the creation of the ghost), the use of music, the almost palpable atmosphere and setting, it's about as perfect as an independently produced film can get. Kudos to del Toro, along with producer Pedro Almodovar, a visionary director in his own right who helped bring to prominence the vivid and seemingly bottomless creativity in the Spanish film industry.

As we near the end of this month of Horror filmmaking, I can say without a doubt this is one of the best films I've watched so far.

For more on The Devil's Backbone:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- The movie's Sony Classics site
- Buy the DVD.

The trailer for The Devil's Backbone:

#105: Tales from the Crypt


Tales from the Crypt
Directed by Freddie Francis
Written by Johnny Craig, Al Feldstein, William M. Gaines and Milton Subotsky (stories from The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt
Released March 9, 1972

One of the discoveries I made when watching the Tales from the Crypt documentary a few nights back was that there was actually a anthology movie made in England that predated the HBO series by almost 17 years and featured stories from those old EC comics. Here I was thinking Creepshow was one of the first of its kind...

While that movie was a little more faithful to the style and tone of the comic books, Tales from the Crypt still does a fair job of sticking to the ideas of those books, especially in keeping the character of The Crypt Keeper. In this movie, unlike the TV show, he isn't a rotting corpse puppet but rather a hooded, monk-like soothsayer who confronts a group of guests (including Joan Collins) and tells each one of them their ultimate fate.

Collins is given a premonition about herself as a murderous wife who kills her husband on Christmas Eve night as a mass murderer dressed as Santa Claus wanders the streets by her home. This same story, titled "And All Through the House," would eventually wind up being used (to better effect) in the very first episode of the HBO Tales from the Crypt series.

One of the drawbacks of this movie is that the vignettes look even more like they've been made for television than the actual TV show. Granted, special effects had come a long way in those years, but there's just something about the staging and the lighting that makes the film look less like a Horror movie and more like a bland episode of Masterpiece Theater.

By the second story in the movie, we begin to see cracks in the premise and its effectiveness (or lack of) in being terrifying. Because these vignettes are being foretold to the people in them, we know that none of them is actually taking place. There was a terrible suspense movie released a few years back starring John Cusack where, about 3/4 of the way through the movie, we the audience discover that all of the movie's events are happening inside the mind of a fat crazy man. Once this was revealed, I absolutely could not care about anything I was seeing because it held no weight at all. And yet the filmmakers dove back into the fat guy's imagination so we could see the outcome. Who gives a shit? We're still, at the end of all this, just in a fat guy's mind, right?

The third story is not just a take on the old "Monkey's Paw" story: they literally reference it within the story! When the characters know exactly what you know, there is no dramatic tension to be had. If this one had been played a little differently, it would have made for great comedy. When the story ends and they cut back to the group of people gathered around the Crypt Keeper, you half expect the lead in this story to say, "Come on now, that one was just bad."

I must admit that the fourth story (while a little slow), plus a twist at the end, both helped put to rest my annoyances with what came before as for as the "in a fat guy's head" complaint, but they didn't make up for how slight the movie seemed as a whole. It definitely put the TV series and aforementioned movies like Creepshow (but not that awful Creepshow 2) into a new and better light.

I honestly would have rather read the comics tonight.

For more on Tales from the Crypt:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The Tales from the Crypt trailer:

Sunday, October 26, 2008

#104: Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television


Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Movies
Directed by Chip Selby
Released 2004

I believe I mentioned, way back in my review of The Blob, that I used to write and draw my own comic books, most of which were based on Horror films, short stories by Stephen King or Horror comics. Naturally, almost all of these loves were done behind the backs of my parents, who were unaware that I had a hidden stash of comics like reprints of The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt.

When I was growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a massive resurgence of all things Horror related, especially in the world of comic books, where characters like Swamp Thing and even Dracula were the stars of their own series. What I didn't fully appreciate was history that existed behind the reprints of those old Horror comics, which began with a publishing company called EC Comics.

Started by a man named Maxwell Gaines and driven to prominence by his son William M. Gaines (whom you may remember as the man behind Mad magazine), the "EC" in EC Comics originally stood for "Educational Comics." The elder Gaines had been one of the comic book format's earliest pioneers, originally using his company to publish educational stories from history and the Bible.

Naturally, kids didn't want to read about shit like that in a comic book. What kind of escape can you find in the pages of a picture book that tells you the same stuff that kid is already being pummelled with in school and church?

The documentary Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television essentially tells the story of the younger Gaines inheriting his father's company and turning it into the highly successful, and eventually controversial, "Entertainment Comics," which published several lines of comics that dealt with Horror, Science Fiction, True Crime and war stories.

Obviously, this is a niche movie and a far step away from the Horror movies I've been reviewing this month. If you were a never a fan of Horror comics, the Tales from the Crypt TV show or anthology Horror movies like Creepshow or Tales from the Darkside, you might as well forget about reading the rest of this entry. For those who might be interested in the history of comics, this documentary, while cheaply made and featuring mostly "talking head" footage of interviews interspersed between archival photos and art from the comic books.

The talking heads include an impressive array of Horror legends, including George A. Romero, John Carpenter, Stephen King, and R.L. Stine, along with many of books' most famous artists. Seeing the links between these old horror comics and some of the most classic Horror movies in the past few decades is enlightening, especially when you see the obvious influence on directors like John Carpenter and zombie-king Romero (whose collaboration with King on Creepshow is also examined as an homage to the EC books).

The real dramatic meat of the documentary comes with the discussion of Dr. Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, which blamed the comics industry for causing juvenile denliquency in America's youth. A massive Congressional inquiry occurred, followed by federal investigations which lead to the dissolution of many of the comic book publishing companies and eventually Gaines' most popular books. The film also deals with the redemption of Gaines via his success with Mad and the eventual resurgence of Tales via the HBO series.

Clocking it at just under an hour, Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television seems a little slight. A more all-encompassing documentary about how the anti-comics culture war affected the entire industry (like the story told in David Hadju's book The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America) is definitely something I'd love to see.

For more on Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television:
- Movie information at IMDB
- For more on EC Comics, check out Wikipedia.
- EC Comics online
- Buy the DVD from the official site.

The intro for the Tales from the Crypt TV show:

#103: The Fearless Vampire Killers


The Fearless Vampire Killers
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Gérard Brach and Roman Polanski
Released February 1967 (U.K.)

Another Horror touchstone which I must touch on is director Roman Polanski, who directed Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby one of the most chilling and disturbing (especially to pregnant mothers) films of the genre.

Just one year before he made that classic, Polanski directed a Horror movie that was much different: The Fearless Vampire Killers (or, known in every country but the U.S. as Dance of the Vampires) is a sort of satirical vampire spoof, the kind of fright flick made for people who'd rather not take this fare so seriously. Clearly, Polanski was taking his biggest shots at the Hammer Studios films I've mentioned before.

The movie stars Jack MacGowran as Professor Abronsious, a wacky and esteemed ex-professor who has donated his life to searching Europe for signs of the existence of vampires. Polanski plays his somewhat dim and quiet assistant, Alfred, while Polanski's wife -- and future victim of Charles Manson's clan -- Sharon Tate, plays the daughter of a strange innkeeper in the small town where the professor and his assistant finally find possible signs of bloodsuckers.

After the abduction of the innkeeper's daughter, Abronsious and Alfred track down the castle of Count von Krolock, played by Ferdy Mayne as a much more convincing vampire than the man who played Dracula in the Hammer kung-fu Dracula movie I reviewed a while back.

The tone, which feels like a combination of fairy tale with hints of Mel Brooks and The Beatles' Help!, is fairly slapstick-y. If you're the kind of person who loves classic old Blake Edwards movies like The Party or some of his Pink Panther stuff, you'll enjoy this, but if you're the kind of person who believes that Horror flicks are capable of generating their own intentional or unintentional laughs, you'll probably be unamused.

I difnitely enjoyed the change of pace that The Fearless Vampire Killers allowed me, a welcome break from the dark evils of movies like Cannibal Holocaust or I Spit on Your Grave. There's a great scene near the end with a ballroom full of vampires that really shows off Polanski's skill at staging a complex scene with dialogue and dancing. I was most impressed with the attention to detail in the movie's art direction and set design, along with the off kilter and effective music score provided by Polanski collaborator Krzysztof Komeda.

For more on The Fearless Vampire Killers:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The trailer for The Fearless Vampire Killers:

Friday, October 24, 2008

#102: The Last Man on Earth


The Last Man on Earth
Directed by Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow
Written by William F. Leicester, Furio M. Monetti, Ubaldo Ragona and Richard Matheson (from Matheson's story "I Am Legend")
Released March 8, 1964

"Another day to live through. Better get started."

While clearly it would be impossible to hit every important figure in the Horror genre this month, I think I've done a fairly good job. However, failing to include Vincent Price in any October feature would be a tragic mistake.

With Price, there's so much to choose from that it's ridiculous. You could practically do an entire year of daily reports on his career as a Horror icon. In most of them, he plays the bad guy. But not in the 1964 adaptation of Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend." In this, Price plays Dr. Robert Morgan, seemingly the only survivor of a plague that has turned the world's population into one of two things: a pile of corpses or a surviving - and starving - group of vampires.

Morgan spends his days in a depressed funk, amassing his collection of garlic and wooden stakes, and then going out into the world to burn bodies and slay the vampires in their sleep. At night, he comes home, drinks and listens to records as the zombie-esque (George Romero apparently got his idea of the slowly creeping, flesh eating zombie from this movie) vampires bang on his windows and doors, howling out his name.

I'm pretty sure once a giant crew of vampire zombies knows me by name and hangs outside my apartment at night, I'm going to be spending my days finding a new apartment.

The constant narration at the beginning of the movie is almost maddening. I know I complain about narration a lot on these pages, and I should especially cut a movie like this, where there are virtually no other speaking roles, some slack. If there's one thing I will give the Will Smith version of I Am Legend credit for, it's in the way they got the story across without having Smith's voiceover explain his every move.

Luckily, that irritating device is abandoned for a lengthy flashback that tells us the story of how the virus started and how it overtook the world. Here, we learn about the tragic fate of Morgan's wife and daughter, and just who that vampire is that knows the Doctor's name.

Much like Romero's Night of the Living Dead, this movie putts along at a very slow pace. While I have to respect it as the inspirational material for Romero's flick, I just found it so much more boring. Unfortunately for Price, he was typecast as the personification of evil in most of his films for a reason: he just makes a better bad guy.

For more on The Last Man on Earth:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD, paired as a double feature with Ray Milland's Panic in Year Zero.
- Download the movie, which is public doman, for free here.

The trailer for The Last Man on Earth:

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

#101: The Shining


The Shining
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson (based on the novel by Stephen King)
Released May 23, 1980

Having crossed the century mark with Something Wicked This Way Comes, I wanted to celebrate with one of my all time favorite films, the absolutely unnerving Stanley Kubrick classic The Shining. If you were constructing a short list of movies to watch on Halloween night, this one has got to make that list. Hell, if you just upgraded to a high-definition TV set, there are few movies I could imagine that would be better to break in your new system.

The Shining, possibly even more than the original The Haunting, is the ultimate "haunted house" movie. It's just that in this case, the "house" is a massive hotel. The opening shots, which have the audience soaring like a vulture over massive Imax-style landscapes, immediately set the tone for the entire movie. I've seen this flick dozens of times and still watched these opening shots three times tonight before moving on.

When it comes to stunning imagery that is going to stick with you for years, The Shining is pretty much the high water mark. They way Kubrick composes his shots... the incredible steadicam work, revolutionary for its time, by Garrett Brown... the patience the film makers take it lingering on shots to make them unsettling as possible... this movie is a fucking masterpiece before you even consider other important elements like story, acting, editing or music. Just keep your eyes peeled for scenes like the elevator doors, or the sequence where Danny Torrance (played by Danny Lloyd) rides his Big Wheel through the halls of the hotel.

Speaking of Danny, I suppose we should get to the story. You know all those modern Horror movies where they use the weirdo kid who may or may not have supernatural abilities (like The Ring) as a creepy kind of protagonist? The Shining's Danny is like the template of that whole character idea. We find out early on that Danny has a strange psychic sense, along with an invisible friend who "lives in his mouth" who speaks to, and through, him.

This power really begins to manifest itself when Danny, joined by his mother Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and father Jack (Jack Nicholson, in a role that would come to define the rest of his career), move into a Colorado hotel to help with maintenance during the hotel's 5 month off-season. What seems like a simple job to Nicholson's Jack Torrance becomes slowly complicated by what goes on within the confines of the not-so-empty hotel. Unfortunately for Jack, who initially spends his days trying to write the book he intended to complete during the snowy winter, he soon becomes consumed by the strange draw of the hotel and its "inhabitants."

Unfortunately for Danny, he can see what the rest of his family can't. Unfortunately for us, we can see it, too. There's a particular scene with a woman in a bathtub that has been in my head since I saw it as a child. When I saw that I was nearing the scene during this viewing, I pondered skipping it or even stopping the film completely.

If there's a small weakness to The Shining, it's in the fact that Jack's descent into madness doesn't take very long. Stephen King was never a fan of Kubrick's choice of Nicholson as the father because he felt there were more sympathetic actors who would make Jack's character arc more tragic. In this case, King was maybe half right: Nicholson's Jack never really shows any warmth toward his wife and son. Hell, it's Nicholson we're dealing with, so it's like he's gone insane weeks before we even join the events of the movie.

In another regard, Nicholson still delivers a hell of a fucked up, crazy performance. The scene where we find out what Jack has been writing is one of Horror cinema's greatest reveals, and Nicholson eats up the screen in every shot he's in. And really, if you were paying any attention to those opening shots I was talking about, you'd know that Kubrick isn't trying to sneak up on us; he was sharpening his knives before the title of the movie had hit the screen. Who am I to quibble about how Kubrick chooses to tell this story when he does it so unbelievably well?

Sorry Mr. King. I see your point (and I'm sure having Kubrick fuck you around during the screenwriting process didn't help matters), but complaining about this would be like Bob Dylan complaining about the foot pedals Jimi Hendrix used when recording his version of "All Along the Watchtower."

NOTE: If you buy the DVD, make sure you get a version that includes the "Making of The Shining" documentary, filmed by Kubrick's wife. It's incredible behind the scenes footage, including some great stuff where Danny talks about how he couldn't wait to see what his parents were going to buy him with the "5 or 600 dollars" he thinks he's making, and the scene of Scatman Crothers brought to tears talking about how happy he was to be involved with Danny and the other actors on the film.

Plus, watching it is a great way to come down after having the shit scared out of you by the actual film.

For more on The Shining:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- A pretty interesting FAQ about the movie and Kubrick.
- Buy the DVD, or the BluRay DVD. Both are insanely cheap.

The awesome alternate trailer for The Shining:

#100: Something Wicked This Way Comes


Something Wicked This Way Comes
Directed by Jack Clayton
Written by Ray Bradbury
Released April 29, 1983

So, when you're thinking of the Horror genre, pretty much the last name that comes to mind is Disney.

Granted, Something Wicked This Way Comes isn't full of the blood and gore that most of the genre has come to rely on. It's smarter than that, but that figures: it comes from the pen of Ray Bradbury.

At the film's opening, we meet Will and Jim, two mischievous small town friends and next door neighbors who seem to really have only each other. Jim's father has gone missing for years, while his mother barely notices him while she entertains strange men. Will's father, played by Jason Robards, wanders around haunted by an incident in Will's childhood, when he's not locked away in the town library feeling old and close to death.

We follow the boys and are introduced to an entire town full of regret and broken dreams. There's the ugly shrew of a teacher who used to be the town beauty, the cigar shop owner who is obsessed with money, and the crippled bartender who can't forget the days he spent as a college football star.

Then, a mysterious train comes to town in the night, bringing with it a surreal carnival owned by the shadowy (and aptly named) Mr. Dark, who employs a smoking hot fortune teller (Pam Grier). As the townsfolk begin to see their dreams realized (but not without a hefty price tag attached) by the carnival's attractions, the boys begin to witness its nefarious underbelly. One night they are discovered sneaking behind the scenes, and Mr. Dark knows he must destroy the boys before they bring his scheme to an end.

Story-wise, it's all a little thin, with no real explanation of where the carnival comes from or why it has returned to this small town. What is Mr. Dark looking for? Why must they travel at all, if what they offer is so enticing to any town where they set up shop? Of course, almost any movie falls apart under that kind of skeptical scrutiny, so I guess sometimes it's best just to let a premise be a premise.

If you're a parent looking for Halloween movies that aren't going to traumatize your children with violence, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a perfect alternative. Of course, there's still plenty of potential for psychological damage, like a late night spider attack, or Jonathan Price's dark, if unsubtle, work as baddie Mr. Dark. Price makes more out of a scene where he tears pages from a book than half of the antagonists in this month's movies.

There's a dramatic payoff on the carnival's carousel that would satisfy anyones taste for revenge, so I suppose if you do wind up watching this with the young'ns, you might want to be handy to cover their eyes.

For more on Something Wicked This Way Comes:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The trailer:

Monday, October 20, 2008

#99: Dead of Night (aka Deathdream)


Dead of Night (aka Deathdream)
Directed by Bob Clark
Written by Alan Ormsby
Released August 30, 1974

"Okay," I thought, "this is my third movie tonight. This one had better not suck."

The elements were all in place for a good time: Deathdream was directed by Bob Clark, whose Black Christmas I enjoyed last week (and whose A Christmas Story is one of my all time favorite comedies), and the make-up was done by zombie expert and Horror legend Tom Savini.

Dead of Night is an especially edgy horror movie if you consider the time period in which it came out, the early 1970s, not long after the U.S. had pulled out of Vietnam (it was actually made in 1972 but unreleased until '74). It must have been especially strange for Savini, who claims to have learned more about Horror make-up as a war photographer than he did in his years of playing around with stage make-up prior to his time in Vietnam.

The movie opens with two soldiers surrounded by explosions in the jungle. Before we really even learn their names, they are shot and presumably killed. The credits roll and then we sit down to dinner with the Brooks family. There is a rapping at their door, and we learn that one of the soldiers killed was their son Andy (played by Richard Backus).

Mrs. Brooks does not take the news well, and her husband finds her awake at nights, denying her son's death and praying for his safe return. As a twist on the classic story The Monkey's Paw, soon Mrs. Brooks' wish comes true: her son returns home, seemingly alive but behaving much differently than she or her family remembers. Andy is a shell of his former self, barely speaking and almost unable to act human.

As a metaphor for the effects of the horrors war on an individual, their family, and even their community, Dead of Night couldn't be more apt. Andy spends his days rocking silently back and forth in a chair, observing his family from afar and scaring the family dog.

Speaking of the family dog, there's a confrontation between Andy and the adorable mutt -- executed in front of a group of neighborhood kids who idolize the Brooks boy -- that really sets the tone for how dark and dramatic of a movie we're dealing with. Dead of Night is fucking DARK. This isn't the kind of scary movie where you cheer the violent death of a bad guy or await the next morbid set piece.

The acting in the movie carries the whole picture, with especially good performances from Lynn Carlin as Andy's mother Christine, and of course Richard Backus as Andy, in what could have been an embarassing one-note performance.

By the end of the movie, you might just be blown away: Dead of Night winds up being a poignant, sad and ultimately thought-provoking movie, "horror" or not. While Clark wound up in his later years filming dreck like Baby Geniuses and Karate Dog (are you kidding me? Karate fuckin' Dog?!), you have to give the guy credit for making something as brave as this movie so soon after America was still tending to its post-Vietnam wounds.

I can't say I've ever really seen a Horror film like this one. It wound up being so much more than I expected, and more than made up for the two disappointments that preceded it.

For more on Deathdream:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The Deathdream trailer:

#98: Fiend Without a Face


Fiend Without a Face
Directed by Arthur Crabtree
Written by Herbert J. Leder (based on Amelia Reynolds Long's "The Thought-Monster")
Released July 3, 1958

Tonight we're jumping back the the 1950s to check out another black and white oldie but goody: Arthur Crabtree's Fiend Without a Face, which struck me as a must-rent when I read that it was one of the first film's to employ bloody/gory special effects.

Fiend begins as yet another 50s Sci-Fi movie that plays on the world's fears of the Atomic Age, with a U.S. Air Force base sharing occupation in Canada coming under fire for mysterious deaths that have begun arising in the local population. While the deaths appear to be related at first to radiation, the town coroner and the Air Force soon discover that something is sucking the brains and spinal cords out of these victims. On top of all that, the damn thing appears to be invisible.

By the time the movie was half over, four people had died and I still hadn't seen a drop of blood (granted, with a 75 minute run time, I hadn't waited that long). Since this long lost B-movie had been released by Criterion, I had been expecting something much more subversive... maybe something from the 50s that really crossed the boundaries of good taste for the era.

One lesson about making movies that Crabtree needed to take to heart is to give the audience a little taste early on of what they're going to get in the finale. The director saves all of the juicy stuff for the last fifteen minutes. In a way, these scenes of the creatures attacking are a kind of precursor to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, in that the menace is a mass of slow moving but persistent enemies which may be easily dispatched if not for their persistence.

I tried to put myself in the place of a viewer from the 50s, but I could only wonder how much longer I would have waited for a payoff among the stiff acting and silly script before putting the moves on my girlfriend at the drive-in theater. I wondered if my gal would have even lasted through the long-winded description of how the "fiends" were birthed, or if she would have slapped me and walked home in the night.

Now there's a set-up for a decent 50s Horror movie.

For more on Fiend Without a Face:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the Criterion DVD.

A scene from Fiend Without a Face:

#97: John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns


Cigarette Burns
Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan
First aired November 2005

In searching around this month for Horror movies I'd never seen, I stumbled upon a batch of really good reviews for an hour-long episode of the Showtime "Masters of Horror" TV series. This particular program, entitled Cigarette Burns was directed by one time Horror god John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing). Since I'd pretty much seen everything he had directed, good or bad, I figured it was worth a shot.

The plot was appealing, considering my own quest, for both this month and this project:

Udo "I Play Bad Guys" Kier plays Bellinger, a movie collector who specializes in horrifying images. Bellinger seeks the help of Kirby (the shitty Boondock Saints' Norman Reedus), a movie theater owner who helps collectors like Bellinger find high priced obscurities like movies, movie props, posters and more.

Bellinger's quest is to find the sole existing copy of a movie called La Fin Absolute du Monde, which had screened only one time and apparently had the power to drive the audience into a violent, murderous rage. Bellinger claims to be dying, and that his only wish is to view La Fin Absolute du Monde before he dies. For such a rare, infamous movie, it's kind of funny that Bellinger offers such a low price for its acquisition. By the time Kirby doubles the price, you'll be hard pressed to not think of Dr. Evil scheming for "One million dollars!"

Unfortunately, this is the least of the issues with this short film. I guess I should be fair, because for a television series with a low budget, Carpenter does manage to accomplish a lot here, especially considering that he shot Cigarette Burns in only 10 days. There's some great gore, especially a beheading, that will make even the most jaded Horror fan curl their toes.

One of the downfalls of the "movie" is the fact that the story is a bit too ambitious for how little time Carpenter is allowed to tell it. It takes place in three different countries and at least five cities (it all looks like Canada), as if this journey takes a bit of effort, and yet there's no time spent in any location. After making a few brief phone calls and a couple of visits, Kirby pinpoints the rather obvious location of the movie and walks away with it as if he was the only person to ever have the audacity to just ask for the thing. The ending also feels rushed, with characters making some idiotic choices even for people who may have supposedly "gone mad."

Carpenter does do a good job in showing only brief bits of the infamous movie, making it look effectively disturbing enough to have a power over those who watch it. For a short so heavy in exposition-via-dialogue, Cigarette Burns maintains an effective level of tension. As a Horror movie, it still winds up being a bit simplistic (Carpenter dissects the thing so brutally in the commentary that you almost wonder if he even likes the results).

For more on John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The Cigarette Burns trailer:

Friday, October 17, 2008

#96: Phenomena


Written and Directed by Dario Argento
Released August 2, 1985

The opening of Dario Argento's Phenomena is like a Greatest Hits tape of all of the director's trademarks: someone enters a room or house they were not supposed to enter, they get strangled, they get stabbed with scissors, and for some reason they go crashing through a window.

From there, it only gets better, with the introduction of Halloween's Donald Pleasance, thousands of insects and even a highly intelligent monkey wielding a straight razor. Did I mention that it also features the gorgeous young Jennifer Connelly, and the music of Goblin, Motorhead and Iron Maiden?

Did I just hear you say, "Fuckin' A?" Damn right.

Similar to Suspiria, Phenomena (which was released in the U.S. in a heavily edited version called Creepers) is about a girl who comes to a private school and immediately starts to interrupt the normal swing of things. In this case, Connelly is Jennifer Corvino, the daughter of a famous actor who has the strange ability to communicate with insects. As these insects start leading her to clues about the identity of a serial murderer, Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasance), an entomologist who uses his knowledge of insects to help the police solve crimes, tries to tap into her powers to find the killer before he/she finds Jennifer.

As Jennifer discovers the depths of her own powers, she is ostracized by her schoolmates and from the school itself. She immediately seeks help from McGregor, who (I'll skip the somewhat convoluted narrative here) pairs her with one of his insects, a fly that he believes will lead her to the missing victims' bodies and the killer. It, of course, does. Thanks for that bit of irresponsible decision making, Professor!

Once Phenomena gets to this point, with Corvino trapped in the killer's house, things get good and nasty (like that giant bowl of human soup that awaits our heroine). There's even a fantastic finale with not one but TWO murders you couldn't possibly see coming.

While a lot of 80s horror movies were busy making rehashes of Halloween like the Friday the 13th franchise, Dario Argento was still making skewed, original and creepy horror movies, some better than others, sure, but most of them seem to have elements of a real story and a real passion for the art of filmmaking. Bugs, blood and brilliant monkeys? Phenomena is scary fun.

For more on Phenomena:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD. While it is out of print and expensive to buy as "New," Amazon has several used copies for sale.

The Phenomena trailer:

Thursday, October 16, 2008

#95: The Brood


The Brood
Written and Directed by David Cronenberg
Released May 25, 1979

When you do a search on the Internet Movie Database for The Brood, the first thing that pops up in the search results is a link to The Brady Bunch. This would be like going to buy your niece a stuffed animal for her birthday and walking out of Toys R Us with a dead body. If you know anything about the work of director David Cronenberg (A History of Violence, Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers), you know he's about as far removed from The Brady Bunch as any director in the history of film.

The Brood is about family, and more specifically about the myriad of ways a family can pass along its scars and demons. . . in this case both literally and figuratively. It presents a few classic Cronenberg themes as well, including bad doctors, bad doctors and really bad parents. Oh yeah, and a good bit of physical deformity.

Oliver Reed plays creepy Dr. Hal Raglan, a psychiatrist who has invented some sort of new science called "Psychoplasmics." I'm not quite sure what is entailed in Psychoplasmics as it is never fully explained, but it appears to be the practice of fucking with a patient's head and making them confront their inner demons until their psychological symptoms begin to manifest themselves in physical form.

Raglan's star patient, the one with whom he has begun to focus most of his time, is the wife of Frank Carveth (Art Hindle), a dude who isn't exactly winning any Father of the Year awards by leaving his nearly mute, disturbed daughter with pretty much anyone within earshot who has an urge to babysit. That's because Frank is too busy trying to take his wife to court over custody.

In the meantime, Raglan is making some unfortunate breakthroughs with Mrs. Carveth and some of her enemies are beginning to wind up dead. What's more strange is just how the victims are being done in; let's just say that Nola Carveth has gone beyond scars and sores.

In other words, some of Frank's babysitters are winding up dead. While most of these deaths are relatively tame for the director who brought us the exploding heads of Scanners, Cronenberg gets real Cronenberg-y when he stages a murder in plain view of a classroom full of children. At first you think he's just using clever editing, so as to avoid traumatizing a bunch of kids, but no, there's a straight up murder and a bloody corpse laid out in front of these kids. Classy!

The Brood is a decent film that really picks up in the last 10 minutes, when Mr. and Mrs. Carveth confront each other and Mrs. Carveth reveals her latest, um... production. This is the one real point where it totally feels like you're watching a Cronenberg movie, and it's a hell of a payoff.

In the canon of Cronenberg horror, however, the movie is relatively tame and can't even hope to crack his top 10.

For more on The Brood:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The trailer for The Brood:

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

#94: Bug


Directed by William Friedkin
Written by Tracy Letts
Released May 25, 2007

Among directing many great films (The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A.) and a few bad ones (Jade?!), William Friedkin directed the absolutely chilling Horror masterpiece The Exorcist. Among supernatural thrillers, there's virtually nothing that can hold a candle to that movie; it's so effective that even if you turned off the screen and listened only listened to the sound, you'd have trouble sleeping. Throw in the taboo assaulting visuals and you've got a film experience that might literally change you.

Many years have passed, but Friedkin can still work his way around your brain.

Ashley Judd is in full unglamorous mode here as Agnes White, a waitress with a troubled past who spends her free time hiding out in a remote roadside motel. She's not doing such a great job of hiding, however, because her abusive ex (played with convincing menace by Harry Connick, Jr.) returns after two years in jail and almost immediately begins threatening and assaulting her.

White befriends a strange, reclusive man named Peter (Michael Shannon) and as their relationship progresses, he reveals details about his supposed past as a Gulf War veteran who fled the military after a series of medical experiments. What starts as a seemingly small incident -- Peter finds a tiny bug in their bed late one night -- turns into a downward spiral of paranoia between the couple. Is Peter delusional, or is his blood really full of these bugs? Perhaps the drugs that are ever-present on the dresser in the hotel room might have something to do with all of this?

Friedkin works here from a script by playwright Tracy Letts, and the director uses the spacial limitations of a play to his advantage by closing in on the couple and making us a claustrophobic prisoner in the cell they create.

The odd effect of this movie for me was that it really made me want to see the play. I felt like witnessing something like this in person would be far more intense (of course, I guess that's typically the effect of a good play). The cinematic experience falls apart somewhat in the last ten minutes, where the questions you may have had get answered so quickly that the time between the lifting of the veil and the climax might be a little disappointing.

Still, the work here is admirable, with some exceptional acting from the tiny cast, great use of proximity and camera angles, and adept editing by Darrin Navarro. Much like The Exorcist, it is based on a sort of possession or absorption, of the frightening and transformative evil that might be lying under our own skin. Even if the last few minutes, where your questions are finally and almost disappointingly answered, take away from the final product, the journey there is twisted and unlike most psychological horror movies.

For more on Bug:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- The official movie site.
- Buy the DVD.

The Bug trailer:

#93: The Thing from Another World


The Thing from Another World
Directed by Christian Nyby (and an uncredited Howard Hawks)
Written by Charles Lederer, Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht (from John W. Campbell Jr.'s "Who Goes There")
Released April 29, 1951

Nearing the top of my personal Greatest Horror Films list definitely has to be John Carpenter's 1982 gorefest The Thing, a remake of tonight's The Thing from Another World. A lot changed in the 30+ years between the two movies, namely the amount of blood and guts an audience could withstand.

I've always been interested in seeing the original, not only because of my love for Carpenter's flick but also because I wondered if the 1951 black and white relic could bring with it even a modicum of that version's suspense. The differences could definitely be seen at their beginnings, with The Thing from Another World taking many more minutes to introduce characters and let the mood build. From the moment Carpenter's Thing begins, you can sense that something is wrong.

Still, once the men in an Air Force Arctic expedition discover a possible flying saucer buried in the ice at the North Pole, things start to get interesting. While attempting to extract the saucer from its icy grave, the ship self destructs, leaving behind a strange passenger. A fast approaching storm forces the men to extract the "pilot" within a massive chunk of ice and leave it in a storage room while the scientists and soldiers argue about whether to thaw and investigate their find.

One notable and interesting detail that makes this movie ahead of its time is the realistic way in which the characters speak to each other. I don't necessarily mean the dialogue, which is very well written, but more in the way people interrupt each other or talk over one another. If it was unintentional, it definitely lends authenticity to scenes. Overlapping dialogue was always a technique that Robert Altman employed in his films, so it was somewhat interesting to see it in play in an older film.

One other notable detail: this movie kinda kicks ass, especially for being almost 60 years old. Once the Thing escapes, losing an arm to the sled dogs outside the Arctic compound, scientists discover that it is actually a form of plant life that uses human blood to feed and reproduce. Soon, "it" begins preying on the crew (it is here where this film departs from Carpenter's movie, with his creature inhabiting the bodies of its victims and using them as human disguises as he decimates his captors).

There's a tense scene with a Geiger counter, which the Air Force men use to track where the creature is, that definitely lead to one of the better scenes in James Cameron's Aliens. This is followed by what looks like one of the least safe uses of pyrotechnics in film history.

My only real complaint, and this is typically a good one to have with a film, was that I could have handled another 10 to 20 minutes of movie. It's probably just the modern moviegoer in me, but I wouldn't have minded a higher bodycount and maybe a more ominous ending, either. My loyalty still lies with the 1982 version, but that's probably because I'm a big fan of fucked up, nasty special effects and the always reliable Kurt Russell.

Still, The Thing from Another World deserves its status as a Sci-Fi classic. Make your grandpa proud and watch it with him some night in the coming weeks. You'll earn extra points if you throw in a little, "They don't make 'em like this anymore," too.

For more on The Thing from Another World:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD. Five bucks!

The trailer for The Thing from Another World:

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

#92: Demons


Directed by Lamberto Bava
Written by Lamberto Bava, Dario Argento and Franco Ferrini (story by Dardano Sacchetti)
Released May 30, 1986

I couldn't go to bed with the taste of Cannibal Holocaust in my mouth.

The above sentence would be awesome in a toothpaste commercial.

Seriously though, I had to watch something entertaining after traveling down Ruggero Deodato's shit-paved path earlier this evening. And, I owed the Italians a chance at redemption.

An Evil Dead-level wacky demonic possession flick produced and co-written by Dario Argento, directed by the son of Italian film legend Mario Bava, featuring music from Billy Idol, Motley Crue and Rick Springfield (huh?). Pardon the play on words, but the Italians deliver! (Okay, I'd like to apologize to my Italian ancestors for making a racist pizza delivery joke right there...)

The plot is so simple it's almost ridiculous: a pair of friends, along with a bunch of other strangers, get handed some free golden passes for an early evening movie at a spooky theater named Metropol. The movie starts, shit gets crazy, and the blood starts to fly. It's like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory went smashing into a movie pile-up with Die Hard and Return of the Living Dead.

The idea of character development is so lacking here it's almost respectable. Along with our two female friends, there's The Blind Guy, The Three Black People, Guy Making Out With His Girlfriend, and Grumpy Older Couple. and Two Seemingly Gay Guys Who Are Trying to Mack on Our Female Leads.

Again, we're looking at a Horror film employing the movie-within-a-movie device, and in this case these poor people are suffering through some goofball Horror movie about people unearthing some sort of Nostradamus book of evil, with awesome dialogue like:

Guy 1 (yelling at Guy 2 for almost putting a mask on his face): "Don't do that! You'll become a demon!"
Guy 2: "How do you know?"
Guy 1: "It says here, "Whoever wears it becomes a demon.'"

As the movie on the screen goes violent, so do the patrons in the aisles. Demonic possession starts to spread like a nasty case of chlamydia, and Bava uses it as an excuse to drop the majority of his budget on coming up with a million ways to kill his film's victims. Scalpings, gougings, slashes, scratches and bites ensue.

It's mindless violence with a hair metal heart, and it plays like a nonstop version of the second act of the Tarantino/Rodriguez collaboration of From Dusk Til Dawn. It's not a great movie, but it's that perfect kind of movie to watch with a bunch of friends on Halloween night, laughing at the haircuts and poorly dubbed dialogue as you take turns shouting at the screen.

If you really want to have a good time, take bets on how everyone in the room thinks the movie will end (saying "They escape" does not count). If anyone at your party can even come remotely close to predicting the escape route for the survivors, you should just crown that person your god and give them the keys to your kingdom. It makes that little sense.

For more on Demons:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.
- Trivia note: Bava worked as an assistant director on Cannibal Holocaust. Guess I had an unintentional double feature tonight.

The trailer for Demons:

#91: Cannibal Holocaust


Cannibal Holocaust
Directed by Roggero Deodato
Written by Gianfranco Clerici
Released February 7, 1980 (Italy)

I've honestly never been more hesitant during this project to not watch a film than I was with Roggero Deodato's infamous, notorious pseudo documentary Cannibal Holocaust. I actually thought of just sending the movie back to Netflix without even putting it into my DVD player. I was that worried about being permanently scarred. Once the disc was in the player, I still avoided watching it for over two hours, flipping around to see what else was on TV.

What was making me so hesitant, you might be asking? Well, first there's the fact that Deodato was forced, after the movie's release, to prove that the actors in this movie were not actually murdered. No kidding. He literally had to produce the living actors to avoid being charged with multiple counts of murder. Second, a number of animals were actually murdered in the making of the film. Supposedly, the natives involved in the making of the picture ate the animals, but that still doesn't excuse Deodato's disgusting decision to murder animals to make the other horrors of his picture seem all the more savage.

Eventually, I gathered the courage and intestinal fortitude to hit Play.

There's no doubt that Cannibal Holocaust had a massive influence on the makers of The Blair Witch Project, as the primary conceit of the movie is that it presents the lost footage of a film crew whose fate is only learned upon viewing of the film they were trying to make. In the case of the former, four young and cocky film makers make an ill-fated trip into the Amazon jungle (constantly referred to in the film as "the Green Inferno") to document the lives of natives.

The first half of the movie focuses on the recovery of the footage, making the crew's documentary a movie-within-a-movie something we hear about but don't actually witness until later. The expedition to recover the footage is lead by Harold Monroe, an anthropologist, and two jungle guides who help him navigate the dangerous tribes inhabiting the jungle and keeping the remains of his film team in a shrine. He negotiates a trade and returns to New York with the footage.

As Monroe views the footage, he also begins to talk to the colleagues of documentary director Alan Yates. It seems Yates was known to be a provocateur, staging scenes for his films and even paying his subjects to commit horrible acts for better footage. Everyone Monroe encounters, from his father to his ex-wife, hates Yates with passion.

It won't take long for you to hate Yates -- or, more aptly, Deodato -- as you watch the first reels of the "lost" footage. The film crew enters the jungle and quickly dispatching animals they cross, whether it be a turtle they disembowel for food or snakes and spiders that threaten them. By the time they get to a certain scene with a monkey (which Deodato filmed two times, meaning two monkeys met a horrible fate), you won't have to be a card-carrying PETA member to want to seriously fuck up the director and anyone else who had anything to do with these sequences. Then again, that organization is so twisted that they could actually hold this up as a positive, making meat eaters confront what happens to their dinner every day.

Soon, the film crew has stumbled upon the same village where Monroe recovered their film, and they waste no time in pushing the villagers around and threatening them with their weapons. Then, they inexplicably force the villagers into a hut and set it on fire. What the fuck?

It doesn't take an intellectual road map to figure out where Deodato is going with these scenes: the Westerners are the real savages. The most retarded thing about Deodato's heavy handed thesis is that he is the one setting up scenes where actors murder animals, and he is the one making a racist movie about people in uncivilized regions eating people (the tribes in the film are actual tribes, who behave nothing like this in real life). He's perpetuating the very thing, the savagery, he's pretending on which to comment.

The documentary crew's film gets more and more ridiculous by the minute. Who would act like this, especially on camera? Killing animals, having sex in front of the villagers they just terrorized, even gang raping a woman from another tribe? It's preposterous, and then Deodato heaps insult on top of everything by then trying to make the retaliatory acts of the tribespeople horrifying.

The movie's final line, "I wonder who the real cannibals are," would have made me laugh out loud if I hadn't been so disgusted by what preceded it. If I could have put up with a second viewing, I would have watched it with the commentary track on to see how the director justified making this exploitative hunk of shit.

For more on Cannibal Holocaust:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD. Then, tell no one you own this thing. If you find this in your boyfriend or girlfriend's movie collection, dump his/her ass.

To watch the trailer for Cannibal Holocaust, follow this link.

Monday, October 13, 2008

#90: Sleepaway Camp


Sleepaway Camp
Written and Directed by Robert Hiltzik
Released 1983

As Sleepaway Camp opens, the audience is presented with the quintessential setting for a 1980's Horror movie: a camp site. Like you can't have Jaws without the ocean, you can't have a slasher movie set in the era of Madonna without a lake and a bunch of cabins.

Unfortunately, you can't have a 80's Horror film without some horrendous acting, and the beginning of Sleepaway Camp has got that in spades. Just watch the way the water skier reacts after her boat drives over the face of a father swimming with his two children. I realize the situation is fucked up, but even in the case of a horrible accident like this one, I can't imagine someone being THAT melodramatic.

By the time you meet the mother of our "heroine" Angela Baker and her cousin Richard, you'll probably find yourself thinking, "They're kidding, right?" If Hiltzik is making an intentionally hilarious flick, he's already knocking it out of the park 5 minutes in.

Part of the marketing campaign for Last House on the Left was the tagline, "Keep telling yourself 'It's only a movie.'" When you're watching Sleepaway Camp, keep telling yourself, "They're trying to be funny."

Angela, who doesn't talk and stares at her more popular cabin mates, isn't exactly quick to make friends. Soon, one of the counselors, who thinks he's doing Angela a favor, introduces her to the beer swilling pedophile cook. She barely escapes being molested when her cousin steps in to save her, and then in the next scene we watch as that same cook is horribly burned by an offscreen "kid." Could the kid have been Angela or her cousin? Is this really going to be that easy?

Regardless, this has to be the worst summer camp in the history of camps. You've got openly hostile pedophiles running the kitchen, kids playing homoerotic pranks on one another, and counselors who spew obscenities at the kids when they aren't wagering on their games or physically assaulting them. At one point during a baseball game, one counselor shouts at a camper, "Fuck a man, asshole!"

What kind of parents would send their kids to a shithole like this? There are virtually no actual adults or authority figures. At one point, a fistfight breaks out between a dozen kids and no one stops it. Almost everyone in this dump is psychotic. It's like Meatballs meets Lord of the Flies up in here! This place is full of so many idiots that I'm only disappointed that everyone didn't get killed.

Sleepaway Camp has a massive cult following, and I can't understand why. It's fucking terrible. The acting is so bad that you have to wonder if everyone just learned to speak English phonetically and never really knew what words were coming out of their mouths. Then, you've got the script, written by a man who apparently barely understands either human behavior (even when a character takes a shower, it's not believable) OR murder. I mean, a guy dies almost instantly from a series of bee stings. Never mind the fact that we don't even see a bee during this entire scene. The budget of this movie can't even produce a BEE.

The only pay-off for the entire film, which also happens to be the only reason why this movie is on DVD it all and not faded into oblivion, is the "twist" at the end. I won't blow it for you, but it's one part obvious and one part mind-blowing. Still, 20 interesting seconds does not make up for 85 minutes of complete ineptitude. And when you really think about it, the twist is totally irrelevant to who the killer is or why they've done what they've done.

Just... crap.

For more on Sleepaway Camp:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- A Sleepaway Camp website announcing the arrival of a new sequel, filmed by original writer/director Robert Hiltzik.
- Buy the DVD box set. I mean, if you're going to drop coin on this turd, you might as well get something cool out of it.

The Sleepaway Camp trailer:

Sunday, October 12, 2008

#89: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre


The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Written by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper
Released October 1, 1974

I have a hard time deciding what the best Horror movie of all time is, but that's only because I consider it to be a tie between Tobe Hooper's 1974 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. While Kubrick's film is a masterpiece of mood and composition, Hooper's classic is even more frightening because its low budget and cast of unknowns makes it feels so much more real.

The film plays on that realism with an opening text crawl that falsely claims that what you are about to see is based on true events. From there, the harsh, stabbing soundtrack jumps out as us in between flashbulb-lit imagery of of an unearthed corpse. After a creepy retracting shot of a morbid graveyard "sculpture" left rotting out in the Texas sun, we meet our unlucky cast of victims, a group of young adults traveling in a van. Among the characters are the completely annoying wheelchair bound Franklin Hardesty and his sister Sally.

The group makes the ill advised choice to pick up a hitchhiker, a complete freak of a man played by Edwin Neal. Neal's character, who talks with awe about how cattle are slaughtered before threatening the people in the van with a razor, serves as a warning to the others that they should rethink their journey and head back the way they came, and he plays this weirdo so believably that you wind up amazed to find out he's an actor and not just some extra that Hooper thought would make a good character.

It doesn't take long after the group pulls over for some rest that a few of the other young adults stumble upon the character who would become the basis of the Chainsaw franchise: a mentally handicapped butcher/serial killer who wears a dead skin mask. He would come to be known as Leatherface. His first appearance in the film is as iconic of an entrance as any bad guy could ever get, and if you don't know what's coming, will absolutely scare the bejesus out of you.

Within those same few minutes, we are also introduced to some of Chainsaw's incredible art direction within Leatherface's house, a mess of skulls, feathers and hair, with pieces of furniture fashioned out of flesh and animal bones. You know you're watching a great fright-fest of a movie when a living room can give you chills. Don't worry though, because if you find yourself too tough to get spooked by that, there's a scene with a meat hook around the corner that will make your toes curl.

While Leatherface makes short work of the majority of the cast, it's the final half hour where the real twisted, terrifying shit goes down. Marilyn Burns, in the role of Sally, pretty much spends the remainder of the movie screaming her damn head off. It's really a remarkable performance, and she gets her ass kicked over and over again. She gets put through the ringer so much that you have to wonder if she wasn't permanently disturbed by what she had to go through.

One of the most epic horror setpieces comes at the Leatherface family dinner table. While there is maybe a drop or two of blood shed in this entire sequence, it is probably one of the most batshit crazy sequences in film history. As scary as it might be, you still can't help but laugh at the intentionally dark comedy of scenes like Leatherface's older brother chastising him, "YOU BROKE THE DOOR!"

One of the strangest pieces of trivia about Chain Saw is the fact that the movie uses very little fake blood or gore because Hooper had been trying to score a PG rating. He still wound up with an R rating, and really, thank God for that because I can't imagine people taking their kids to see this thing. The dinner scene alone would pretty much disturb them for life.

I have to add that people should really avoid the sequels to this movie, and especially the remake from a few years back, which is so disgustingly soulless and violent that it is totally without value.

For more on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- The house in the movie is now a restaurant
- Buy the DVD.

The trailer for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre:

#88: Day of the Woman (I Spit on Your Grave)


I Spit on Your Grave
Written and Directed by Meir Zarchi
Released November 3, 1978

Alternately titled Day of the Woman, Meir Zarchi's I Spit on Your Grave is a horror/exploitation "classic" in the same vein as The Last House on the Left, with more than a hint of Deliverance thrown into the mix.

The story is pretty simple: a young female author named Jeniffer Hills (played by Camille Keaton) moves to the country to try and find some peace and quiet away from her hectic life in New York City. Of course, country life in a horror movie can mean only one thing: deadly rednecks who don't take kindly to city folk.

Hill isn't 5 minutes into her journey before she makes horror movie mistake #12: going skinny dipping. The movie gods have spoken, and Hill is in for some trouble. Really, her only mistake is in being nice to a small group of dumb hicks when she comes into town and buys gasoline. Oh, and maybe lazing around in a bikini while she works on her first novel. For an exploitation movie, that's all it takes.

Soon, Hill is abducted by the gang, dragged into the woods and repeatedly raped by each of the four men. Yeah, this ain't entertainment. The attacks are filmed in an almost documentary style, with very few camera movements and no music whatsoever. It's unsettlingly realistic and brutal, complicated even more by Keaton's believable performance. Anyone who finds any moment of her attacks enjoyable should immediately seek psychiatric help, because you are an incredibly fucked up person.

By the time of Jennifer's third and final attack, I was pretty much defeated. The only real value or relief one might get after getting through these scenes is watching Keaton get her deserved revenge. No matter what fate awaited these guys, it wouldn't be enough.

I Spit on Your Grave, as a piece of film making, seems at first to be almost hilariously inept. One great example is the fact that all of the "country" boys talk like the closest they've come to the South is being from the South Bronx. But by the time Zarchi gets to Jennifer's attacks, which are as uncompromising and depressing as almost anything I've ever seen, this initially silly little horror movie becomes a firebrand of controversy that even today will shock any viewer.

Some critics have said that Day of the Woman glorifies violence against women, but I just don't see how that is possible. You'd have to be a complete animal to not side with Jennifer, especially in the second half of the movie when she seeks out her bloody revenge. If anything, this movie is brutal revenge therapy.

Don't get me wrong, though: there's virtually no reason for you to see this movie. There's no entertainment value to speak of, and very little production value to redeem it as art (although some might say, and I might agree, that the lack of production value makes it that much more disturbing). If you invited friends over for a viewing of this on Halloween, you'd probably lose a few friends. Possibly before the movie even ended.

As a revenge movie, however, it's probably one of the most honest and realistic ones ever made. When Jennifer steps into a church to ask for forgiveness for the crimes she is about to commit, you'll find yourself thanking God that you didn't shut the movie off because her revenge will hopefully help you feel a bit cleaner after the things you just saw.

As I noted earlier, Day of the Woman is Deliverance for women. By the film's end, I felt like I would write a massive essay on a number of themes, the main one being how the catharsis of cinematic violence (and whether that cathartic notion be good or bad) can so easily be changed by the context in which it happens. When you get to the bathtub scene -- and you'll know what scene I'm talking about when it happens -- you'll really know what it feels like to be internally conflicted about the positive or negative effects of violence in the movies.

I've seen dozens of Horror movies, but few of them have really fucked with my head, gotten under my skin or been more true to the meaning of the word "horror" than the way this one did.

For more on I Spit on Your Grave:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Wikipedia information about the "video nasties", a series of movies banned unde the UK's Video Recordings Act of 1984.
- Buy the DVD.

The I Spit on Your Grave trailer:

Saturday, October 11, 2008

#87: Profondo rosso (Deep Red)


Profondo rosso (Deep Red)
Directed by Dario Argento
Written by Dario Argento and Bernardino Zapponi
Released June 11, 1975 (US)

Any fan of the genre knows you can't talk about horror movies without talking about Dario Argento. I previously reviewed Argento's super-creepy masterwork Suspiria, making special note of the director's affinity for the use of bright, striking colors as themes in his movies, along with his appreciation for grotesque violence and use of intense music to heighten tension.

In Deep Red, all of those things are in play. Argento paints this picture in many shades of rich color, with a heavy reliance on black, grey and especially red. Argento was known as a innovator in an Italian genre of film called giallo, which is essentially the Italian version of pulp crime fiction. He infused these movies with elements of horror and the supernatural. Deep Red is one of his most celebrated and well-known giallos.

Marcus Daly (Daving Hemmings) witnesses the murder of a famous psychic in his apartment building, and thinks he may have seen the killer. He meets up with a reporter (played by future Argento wife Daria Nicolodi) at the crime scene and the two work together, in between comedic scenes that play like an old classic Hollywood romantic comedy, to try and find the killer. Of course, the further the two get into their investigation the more strange occurrences -- and murders -- stack up.

Why must he find the killer? Well, I don't really know. I do know from one conversation in the movie that Daly feels conflicted by his inability to remember certain details of the crime. One of the most bizarre things about the DVD release of the movie, and the thing that makes me hesitant to recommend it to anyone, is the fact that the dialogue is not fully dubbed. In other words, it slips from English to Italian (with NO SUBTITLES) constantly throughout the movie, sometimes several times within the same scene. There's no alternate audio track available, nor any subtitle options of any kind. How in the hell does it get released like this?

Honestly, it gets pretty maddening. Without the ability to understand the majority of the dialogue, the element of the detective story here is pretty much neutered. You're left at several points wondering why characters are lead to certain locations, especially when Daly stumbles into what seems to be the killer's old childhood home. Without dialogue, it would seem he just drove by a strange house and thought, "I should break into that place!"

With the unreliability of the dialogue being in a language I could understand, I had to take Deep Red in on a purely cinematic level. Fortunately, in this regard, the movie is an absolute knock-out. The sets and locations are exquisite. Where does Argento find so many great windows? Plus, his camerawork here (stalking tracking shots, intense close-ups that make even a tape recorder seem ominous) is masterful.

A few of the elaborate murder scenes could scare even the most jaded horror fans. Throw in another unsettling soundtrack by Argento's band of choice, Goblin, and you've got as close to a work of art as you're going to find in a horror movie.

I'd recommend this even more to those of you who can speak and translate Italian. Apparently, I would have been wise to seek out the Anchor Bay release of the DVD, which at least features the Italian version of the film with English subtitles.

For more on Deep Red:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Deep Red vs. Freud
- Buy the DVD, in Italian with English subtitles.

The Deep Red trailer:

Thursday, October 9, 2008

#86: From Beyond


From Beyond
Directed by Stuart Gordon
Written by Brian Yunza, Dennis Paoli and Stuart Gordon (from a short story by H.P. Lovecraft)
Released October 24, 1986

You know the old saying: another day, another H.P. Lovecraft adaptation from the director of Dagon and Re-Animator. This time Stuart Gordon directs Re-Animator star Jeffrey Combs as Dr. Crawford Tillinghast, a scientist assisting Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel) in the creation of a resonator that was supposed to be able to stimulate a 6th sense in the human pineal gland.

The experiments go horribly wrong when the machine begins to conjure up worm-like creatures from another dimension. After Dr. Tillinghast is bit on the face, he runs to get Dr. Pretorius, who is attacked by the creatures and supposedly killed. Tillinghast is incarcerated for murder, but is released into the custody of psychiatrist Dr. Katherine McMicheals, one of the few people who believes his story, along with a police officer played by Ken Foree (the original Dawn of the Dead).

From Beyond comes near but can't match the hilarious, campy brilliance of Re-Animator (come on, that fellatio scene will go down in history), but it certain gets points for trying. When the two doctors and Officer Bubba return to Pretorius's house and start tinkering with the resonator, things start to get truly weird and disgusting. One of the most hilarious lines in the movie comes after Pretorius has made his first return from the dead, his head exploding into a mass of slime and tentacles. Dr. Tillinghast slams the power switch on the resonator into the Off position and yells:

"That will be quite enough of that!"

Of course, for Dr. McMicheals, who has become addicted to the sensation that the resonator brings about, once is never enough. She not only becomes obsessed with the resonator, but also becomes sexually drawn with the constantly mutating Dr. Pretorius. Throw in a little S&M, some brain eating and some nudity and you've got yourself a bloody, fun little horror movie. As with most of Gordon's Lovecraft adaptations, the short story pretty much gets burned through in the first 5 minutes, so who knows what the author would have thought about where the movie goes.

For gore freaks, the DVD includes many restored scenes originally cut by the MPAA 20 years ago. Of course, compared to movie violence today, it's all seemingly tame by comparison. The science behind the ideas in the movie is a little silly, and is barely examined enough to hang a movie plot on. Regardless, From Beyond becomes a damn good time.

For more on From Beyond:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The From Beyond trailer:

#85: The Last House on the Left


The Last House on the Left
Written and Directed by Wes Craven
Released August 30, 1972

It's funny that Wes Craven would go on to write and direct Scream, a meta-horror movie as much about the story it tells as it is about the trappings and cliches of the horror genre. There's a scene in that movie where a character spells out all of the ways that people wind up becoming victims in horror movies: namely, partying, doing drugs and having sex.

At the beginning of The Last House on the Left, two teenage girls get ready to head to nearby New York City with every intention of doing all of those things. Sharing a bottle of alcohol by a stream, they talk about scoring some grass and fantasize about what it would be like to "make it" with the band they're going to see.

On their way to the city, they hear but ignore a police report about a group of escaped killers, one woman, two men and one of the killers' heroin addict son. I'll give you one guess who the two teenagers bump into on their quest for marijuana before that concert. You don't have to be a horror afficionado to get this one right.

Where Bob Clark may have arguably given rise to the slasher movie as we know it today, films like The Last House on the Left used violence to a horrifying extent in frighten and shock viewers. For its time, Last House was brutal and controversial. The killers don't just use physical violence, but also humiliation and rape. There are points where it seems like even they know they've gone too far.

More offensive than the crimes the killers commit is the constant change of tone in the movie, which I don't think was any accident by Craven. He's playing with post-Hippie America here, vacillating wildly from goofy scenes of comedy, feminism, sexual liberation and inter-generational commentary and even the use of ridiculously silly music, including a hillbilly banjo tune that hilariously spells out plot points in the film.

When the killers seek refuge in the home of one of their victims, things get even more twisted. After one of the killers accidentally reveals who they are, the conservative parents becoming sadistic , deceptive and violent. Sure, they could just call the cops, but when you see how stupid the police are in this movie, you'll understand why a little of the "do it yourself" ethos comes in handy.

Actually, everyone in The Last House on the Left, from the good guys to the bad guys, is pretty fucking stupid. While many people were shocked by the movie upon its release, it's such a goofy movie that it almost plays like some sort of really dark comedy. Watching the the DVD's commentary track, which features Craven and his producer, makes this idea seem even more likely, with Craven interjecting pretty hilarious thoughts every few minutes.

It's notable that Craven even admits that once the film takes its turn into intense horror, even he doesn't feel right making jokes during his commentary. It becomes even too real and merciless for the man who directed it.

Still, the movie is a mess. After everything I've read about what a classic, groundbreaking film it is (it's often mentioned in the same breath with Tobe Hooper's Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which I consider perhaps the greatest horror movie of all time), it was definitely a let down. Maybe I need to take the advice I gave with Black Christmas and consider the era in which the film was made, but for the ugliness on display in Craven's film, it's not really worth such consederation.

For more on The Last House on the Left:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The trailer:

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

#84: Black Christmas


Black Christmas
Directed by Bob Clark
Written by Roy Moore
Released December 20, 1974

John Carpenter gets a lot of credit for birthing the modern day slasher film as we know it because of his seminal holiday horror classic, Halloween. Obviously, we can't forget Hitchcock's Psycho as the progenitor of the genre, but it wasn't until the late '70s that this style of film really started packing people into theaters before becoming a such a parody of its former self that it would virtually die off until Wes Craven infused it with a heavy dose of irony in his Scream films.

The grandaddy of the slasher film revival, however, came from a guy named Bob Clark, who would go on to direct another Christmas-themed film that would become a family favorite: A Christmas Story. Long before Ralphie would nearly shoot his eye out, Clark made Black Christmas. Aside from the Christmas theme, the two movies couldn't be more different.

Black Christmas contains two devices that would become major hallmarks for two other movies. First, there is extensive use of footage shot from the killer's point of view, which would be put to use in Halloween. Second, the film has the killer making threatening phone calls from inside the home that he has targeted, which would become the major plot point of When a Stranger Calls.

The house, in this case, is a sorority house filled with some of the oldest-looking college students to ever try and pass as teenagers, including a pre-Superman Margot Kidder and Saturday Night Live alum Andrea Martin. Inside, the girls are having a Christmas party before many of them go home for the winter break. The house mom sneaks sips of booze from multiple hiding places. The phone rings repeatedly, sometimes bringing the voice of a family member or boyfriend, and other times a frightening, menacing voice.

Soon, the bodies begin to pile up. It's almost disappointing that the DVD uses one of the film's scariest shots (one of the girls in a rocking chair with a plastic bag over her head) as its menu screen. The reveal weakens the effect of the shot in the movie itself. Still, the creepiness factor is high, especially because Clark keeps not only the identity of the killer but also many of the murder scenes out of the open, making the audience wonder if they're ever going to find out whose eyes they're looking through.

Compared to the films that would follow in its wake, Black Christmas is fairly slow moving (but does not feel overly long). It's strange that the phone calls -- and the killer's final line -- are the scariest element. Future slasher pictures would make big, bloody productions out of every kill, but in Black Christmas the murders are the least crucial element in creating the tension. There's even a great downbeat ending that involves a long retracting camera shot and the ringing of a phone.

Black Christmas still holds up as a horror film, but suffers a little because of the trappings of the genre that it helped create. If you can watch it and try to remember that this came before all those movies that made the slasher film tired and laughable (there's a particular scene where you'll find yourself thinking "Get out of the house, you idiot!), it is even more enjoyable.

For more on Black Christmas:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- It's Me, Billy
- Buy the Special Edition DVD.

The unsettling trailer: