Monday, October 31, 2011

31 Days Of Horror Movies, Part VII: The Final Chapter

31 days, 31 horror movies. Good times. Here’s the last bunch of ‘em.

Alone In The Dark (1982)

What’s worse than an escaped lunatic on the prowl? How about four of them? Not to be confused with Uwe Boll’s 2005 video game adaptation, this largely-forgotten thriller features a quartet of psychopaths who bust out of the asylum during a power outage, hell-bent on killing their psychiatrist (Dwight Schultz, AKA Howlin’ Mad Murdock!). Among the crazies are Jack Palance as a paranoid war vet, and Martin Landau as a demented preacher. The touchy-feely director of the facility they escape from is played by Donald Pleasance, once again portraying a largely ineffectual psychiatrist (paging Dr. Loomis!). I’m not sure how a movie with such a great cast has gotten lost in the mists of history the way Alone In The Dark has. It’s not a home run by any stretch, but it’s pretty entertaining anyway. Landau in particular is very effective, with his creepy, lopsided grin full of giant teeth. This movie also features a psycho in a hockey mask, mere months after Jason’s first similarly-attired outing in Friday The 13th Part III. There’s also a fun punk rock club scene featuring a band called the Sic Fucks that maybe belongs in a different movie, but is a welcome diversion nonetheless.

From Beyond The Grave (1973)

Another Amicus joint. I don’t know if the EC license got too expensive for the British studio to continue with their adaptations, but this anthology flick goes its own way with a junk shop owner (Peter Cushing) and his store full of cursed items. Wasn’t that basically the premise of the syndicated Friday The 13th TV series in the Eighties? Anyway, the quality of the installments here is pretty varied, as we follow the buyers of a haunted mirror, an accursed medal of honour, a sinister snuffbox, and a decorative door from hell. The stories start out strong with David Warner in the first sequence as a man driven to murder by the malevolent spirit in the mirror, and continue with a creepy segment featuring Donald Pleasance and his daughter Angela as a blind father-and-daughter (mostly creepy because of how much Angela Pleasance looks like her dad!). The third story features a crazy exorcism sequence that must have seemed extra ridiculous coming out the same year as The Exorcist, and the final outing, about a doorway to hell or the past or something, is pretty dull. Maybe a bit better than the studio’s Tales From The Crypt, but not as much fun as their Vault Of Horror anthology.

Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark (1973)

I missed Troy Nixey’s Guillermo Del Toro-produced remake this summer, but I decided to go back to the original TV movie instead. A young couple move into their ancestral home, only for the wife to discover that the basement chimney is haunted by a clan of malevolent little demons. Much like Dark Night Of The Scarecrow, I can imagine that this might have been more effective as a segment in an anthology movie, or an episode of a TV series. The chimney ghouls are pretty silly-looking, and I spent most of the movie trying to figure out where I knew star Kim Darby from. Turns out she’s the star of the original True Grit, which to my shame, I still haven’t seen…but I knew her as John Cusack’s culinarily-challenged mother in Better Off Dead!

The Gate (1987)

I hadn’t seen this Canadian-made chiller in over twenty years, and I’m happy to say it held up just fine. A little boy named Glen (Steven Dorff, in his feature film debut!) suspects there’s something fishy about the hole in his backyard, and he’s right—it leads to the gate to hell, naturally. When his parents go away for the weekend, Glen, his teenaged sister Al and his cool metal-nerd friend Terry are left to fend for themselves as hordes of creepy demon midgets come spewing out of the hole. The effects on these guys is quite startling even by today’s standards; it looks to have been achieved through a mix of stop-motion animation and little guys in monster suits seamlessly composited with regular-sized actors. This is a really fun flick, which seems to belong to a lost genre of kids’ horror movies that are actually pretty scary (at one point, Glen walks by a previously-normal family portrait that now shows his family as a bunch of bloody corpses!). The 1987 fashions are a riot too, particularly during the inevitable teen party sequence.

Amityville II: The Possession (1982)

Wow, this one was dark as all get-out. Basically a prequel, Amityville II (written by Halloween III’s Tommy Lee Wallace) follows the ill-fated Montelli clan, who moves into the famous house only to have older son Sonny get possessed by whatever evil lives there. There is some weird shit going on in this movie. The family—Mom, Dad, teenaged son & daughter, much younger son & daughter—is kind of a wreck already. The father (Burt Young, playing a slightly more malevolent version of Paulie from Rocky) is a drunken, abusive lout, whose long-suffering wife is on the verge of leaving him. Meanwhile, Sonny and his teenaged sister Patricia (Diane Franklin, another veteran of Better Off Dead!) are just a liiiiiiitle too close for brother and sister, if you know what I mean…although once Sonny gets possessed, it gets a lot worse. Eventually, under the evil influence of the house, Sonny shotguns the entire family to death, and it’s up to a heroic priest to try and drive the demon out of him. Directed by Damiano Damiani, Amityville II features some Evil Dead-style camerawork during Sonny’s initial possession, as the camera takes up the demon’s POV, chasing its victim around the house. The movie also features some incredibly disgusting makeup effects—the demon possession is usually portrayed by Sonny’s skin throbbing and bubbling, as well as pulsating veins all over his face, and during the final exorcism scene, his entire face breaks apart like a rotted pumpkin! Definitely an improvement over the original, if only for its go-for-broke craziness.

The Manitou (1978)

I have to say up front that I love director William Girdler. The man behind 1976’s Grizzly and 1977’s Day Of The Animals was not a great filmmaker, but his movies are very fun slices of Seventies cheese nonetheless, usually containing at least one or two bravura sequences that are genuinely original and scary (Girdler died in a helicopter crash in 1978). Based on Graham Masterson’s novel, Girdler’s final film is about an evil Native American medicine man who reincarnates himself as a fetus growing inside a tumor on the back of a woman’s neck in present-day San Francisco. Yes, you read that right. Tony Curtis plays a phony fortune teller determined to save her life, enlisting the aid of a modern day shaman (Michael Ansara). It takes a while to get going, but once the villainous Misquamacus (repeatedly referred to as “Mixmaster” by Curtis) gets loose in the hospital, things start getting ridiculous and fun. I love stories about modern science being confounded by ancient magic, but the only thing better than that is fakey 1970s science, which this movie has in spades. The finale features a naked lady firing laser beams at a midget, and if that doesn’t make you want to watch this movie, nothing else I can say will. Also, if you’ve ever seen The Room, you will find yourself fascinated by Misquamacus’s uncanny resemblance to Tommy Wiseau.

Funny Games (1997)

A family staying at a remote cottage finds themselves trapped in a series of sadistically escalating games with a duo of white-glove-wearing, fourth-wall-breaking, home-invading preppy psychopaths. Michael Haneke’s German language proto-torture-porn thriller isn’t so much gory as it is squirm-inducing; the real-time fallout after the first fatality leaves you more numb than scared, as does the creepy politeness of the two villains, who may be two of the most hateful antagonists I’ve ever seen in a movie. Haneke makes the audience complicit in the movie’s crimes, having one of the villains speak directly to the camera on several occasions, making the viewer question their own motives for participating (i.e. continuing to watch). In one startling sequence, it looks as though the heroes may have turned the tide, but their violent retribution is just as quickly undone when one of the invaders grabs a remote control and rewinds the scene. When the scene plays out again, they are free to change the outcome. As a viewer, the effect is immediate and shocking—not only have you just been completely manipulated into cheering on a brutal act of violence, you are then robbed of the victory when you learn who really controls the rules of the game. Not a fun movie, or a traditionally scary one, but a movie that stays with you nonetheless. Haneke remade Funny Games in English in 2007 with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, but by all accounts it’s an unnecessary shot-for-shot redo.

And that’s that for 31 Days of Horror Movies, 2011 Edition. Below is the completed list of movies—all caps indicates movies that I hadn’t seen before. I think out of the ones I hadn’t seen yet, Targets and Hausu were the best. Always a blast—let’s do it again next year!

House Of The Devil (2009)
Suspiria (1977)
THE STUFF (1985)
The Sentinel (1977)
HAUSU (1977)
House (1985)
THE THING (2011)
INSIDE (2007)
Tremors (1990)
Dawn Of The Dead (1978)
Duel (1971)
The Birds (1963)
The Amityville Horror (1979)
Terror In The Aisles (1984)
TARGETS (1968)
The Gate (1987)
The Manitou (1978)

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