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)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Fake Criterion!

I love the Fake Criterions Tumblr. If you've never been there, do yourself a favour and check it out. This month, they've been posting submissions for '80s horror movies, under the banner of Faked From The Dead. I decided to throw my hat in the ring this year and submit one for one of my personal favourite horror flicks, Joe Dante's 1981 classic The Howling.

I wish I'd had time to make more, but it took me all month to get around to this one. Next year for sure!

Monday, October 24, 2011

31 Days Of Horror Movies, Part VI

Messiah Of Evil (1973)

Thirteen years before making Howard The Duck, Willard Huyck (who, along with Gloria Katz, co-scripted American Graffiti and Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom) directed this oddball little number. It’s mostly pretty slow and very rough around the edges (I also saw it on an extremely cheap DVD that didn’t do it any favours), but it’s got one or two great scenes that made it worth checking out. A woman named Arletty (High Plains Drifter’s Marianna Hill) visits the strange seaside burg of Point Dune to investigate her father’s disappearance. She soon makes the acquaintance of a tall, well-dressed lothario (Michael Greer) and his two girlfriends, all of whom promptly move into Arletty’s father’s house with her. They should have all just packed up and left, since Point Dune’s citizenry is slowly turning into robotic, hungry ghouls who cry tears of blood (years before Lucio Fulci would use that gag in Gates Of Hell). At least, I think that’s what’s going on. It’s pretty tough to tell at times. There are definitely some cool moments and creepy imagery here, like a rat-eating, crosseyed albino truckdriver, and an ill-fated attempt by the local constabulary to disperse the growing horde of ghouls. The design of Arletty’s father’s house is pretty memorable, with giant black-and-white paintings of crowds and escalators all over the walls for some reason (I got the sense that the house they were able to shoot in came like that, and they just went for it). The best scene--for me, the one that made it worth watching--is the one where one of the girlfriends goes off to see a movie alone (appropriately, it’s titled Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye). As she sits in the empty theatre, munching giant handfuls of popcorn while watching the coming attractions, the seats around her begin to slowly fill up with the creepy townsfolk. She doesn’t realize until the trailers are over that she’s surrounded, and that all the other moviegoers are bleeding from their eyesockets. By then it’s much, much too late. Not a great movie, but certainly unique.

The Amityville Horror (1979)

Wow, this is one high-strung movie. It’s just filled to the brim with screaming kids, whining Margot Kidder, swooning clergymen, and the sweatiest James Brolin you’ve ever seen. If The Amityville Horror were a person, it’s be that Panicky Idiot from every disaster movie--the one who spazzes out and needs to be shook by the shoulders & slapped until they’re inevitably killed by a falling piece of debris. Why is The Amityville Horror such a hysterical idiot of a film? I think it’s because its insistence that it’s based on true events (outlined in Jay Anson’s “nonfiction” bestseller) makes all the ridiculous shenanigans even more doubtful to any sane or reasonable moviegoer, so director Stuart Rosenberg and his cast metaphorically (sometimes literally) wave their arms and shout a lot and try to convince you that NO, THIS ALL REALLY HAPPENED AND IT WAS SUPER SCARY TOO…when it really comes off as a lot of horseshit. The supposedly true story of the Lutz Family taps into some interesting and fertile material on occasion; a lot of the horrors that befall them are all too financial, and the fact that Kathy’s three children are from a previous marriage adds an interesting dimension to the threat of the increasingly distant George doing them harm. But then, there’s also all the foolish business about the black crap pouring out of the toilets, and the horde of flies that just won’t buzz off, and the terrified priest (Rod Steiger, who must have been wondering how his storied career came to this) who is stricken blind for his interference. By the end of this movie, I imagined that Spielberg & co. made the far superior Poltergeist just to show these clowns how it’s done.

Terror In The Aisles (1984)

This weird little clips-show of a movie used to play on A & E a lot when I was a teenager. It features a theatre full of overacting “audience members” who are apparently watching Terror In The Aisles—that is to say, ninety minutes of horror movie snippets—while Donald Pleasance and Nancy Allen sit amongst them narrating to us the effects that these movies have on us. That part of it is pretentious and kind of ill-conceived, but this is a fun watch because it really does sample from the best of the best. Keep your eyes peeled for scenes from Jaws, The Exorcist, Halloween, Night Of The Living Dead, The Texas Chain saw Massacre, Psycho, Poltergeist, Alien, The Thing, Rosemary’s Baby, An American Werewolf In London, The Howling, and many more, but be warned—if you haven’t seen any of these (and if you haven’t, shame on you!), Terror In The Aisles spoils many of their key scenes. There are also a lot of dubious inclusions as well that no one in their right mind would consider horror movies. Nighthawks? The Silent Partner? Marathon Man? Regardless, if nothing else, this compilation (which is only currently available as an extra feature on the Halloween II Blu-Ray!) made me appreciate what a golden age of horror I grew up in. If Terror In The Aisles were made today, it would likely be ninety minutes of clips from Saw and Final Destination sequels, as well as the lackluster remakes of a lot of the movies I mentioned above.

Targets (1968)

Out of all the stuff I’ve watched so far this year that was new to me, this one was my favourite by a long shot. In Peter Bogdanovich’s directorial debut, embittered horror icon Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff) announces his retirement, stating that his brand of gothic horror isn’t scary in the modern world. A parallel story follows an ordinary, all-American family man who can’t contain his homicidal rage any longer, randomly shooting innocent motorists with a long-range rifle after killing his wife and mother (this part of the story was loosely based on Texas bell-tower sniper Charles Whitman). The two stories intersect in a gripping finale at a drive-in where Orlok is making a public appearance at a screening of his latest movie. Unbeknownst to everyone, the fugitive sniper has taken up behind the movie screen—all the easier to pick off the helpless moviegoers sitting in their cars.

The story of how Targets came to be is pretty fascinating. Producer Roger Corman gave Bogdanovich the job, insisting that Karloff owed him two days worth of work on a movie. He also instructed Bogdanovich to recycle twenty minutes of The Terror, starring Karloff. The rest of the story was up to Bogdanovich. The first-time director came up with the idea of using the footage from The Terror as a movie-within-a-movie—it appears as Byron Orlok’s latest film—and having Karloff more or less portray himself. He then fused this story with the Whitman-inspired sniper plotline, and Targets was born.
The result is a neat commentary on the end of an old kind of horror, and the beginning of a new kind. The final shootout at the drive-in a masterpiece of tension.

Snowbeast (1977)

You know how sometimes you stumble across a movie you’ve never heard of, and you hope against hope that you’ve found a hidden gem? Well, Snowbeast is not that movie. This 1977 movie-of-the-week is little more than a Jaws rip-off, set at a ski resort under siege by some kind of abominable snowman. The little-seen beast looks kind of like one of the Morlock costumes from the original version of The Time Machine…if it were left under a pile of wet, dirty rags and garbage for ten years. The cast includes Bo Svenson, Clint Walker, Yvette Mimieux, and Tim Burton favourite (and the original Mrs. Carlson from the WKRP In Cincinatti pilot!) Sylvia Sidney. Most depressingly, it was written by Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano! It’s not even one of the better Jaws knockoffs (give me William Girdler’s Grizzly any day), and it’s so poorly shot that some big reveals—like the corpse of a park ranger that falls out of the ceiling of a cabin—don’t even register. Being a TV movie, there isn’t even any gore to speak of. I’d say avoid it, but you’d probably have a pretty tough time finding it in the first place.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

31 Days Of Horror Movies, Part V

Troll Hunter (2010)

This Norwegian mock-doc follows an ill-fated camera crew who decides to document a grizzled old hunter who is charged by the government to keep the local troll population down. Seems the supposedly mythical beasties have been snacking on the local livestock—not to mention, the occasional German tourist—and the Quint-like Hans is the only man who can destroy them. When the trolls do show up, the special effects, presumably done on a tight budget, are impressive, and the troll designs are cool. However, I think this might have just been one found footage movie too many for me—there are a lot of scenes of the titular troll hunter and the documentary crew just driving around the mountains, and just as many scenes of them running through the woods at night from an unseen threat. This doesn’t bode well for [REC] and The Blair Witch Project, both of which I wanted to revisit this month. We’ll see.

Inside (2007)

Months after losing her husband in a car crash, a young woman whose baby is ready to pop finds herself besieged by a crazy lady who wants to cut the unborn kid out of her. People keep showing up, and consequently, they keep having their faces and bodies impaled by the crazy woman and her ever-growing arsenal of sharp objects. This was definitely not for me. I was going to watch Martyrs this year, another ultraviolent French flick from the past few years, but…I don’t think I’m much of a fan of this kind of stylized Gallic cruelty. It just seemed kind of gross and pointless to me. Does this mean I’m getting old or something?

The Boogens (1981)

The title of this one always lived in infamy for me—something about it always struck me really funny. Unfortunately, this tale of a mining explosion that lets loose a bunch of tunnel-dwelling turtle monster puppets is a pretty dull exercise. The Boogens, who aren't ever actually called in that in the movie, don’t really show up until the final fifteen minutes or so, and the human characters aren’t nearly interesting enough to maintain much interest until then. When your movie’s smartest and most compelling character is a yappy little poodle, you’re in big trouble.

Tremors (1990)

The unconvincing puppety oddballs of The Boogens made me yearn for this tongue-in-cheek exercise in subterranean predators. The desert town of Perfection—population 14—finds itself besieged by sandworm-like “graboids”, who enjoy yanking their prey underneath the ground to snack on ‘em. This one’s really more of a monster movie than a horror movie per se, but Fangoria covered it at the time of its release and that’s good enough for me. The monsters are cool, and director Ron Underwood successfully mixes humour and suspense, but the real reason to check out Tremors is, and always has been, the excellent chemistry between handymen/hetero lifemates/reluctant heroes Val and Earl, played by Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward…although Michael Gross and Reba McEntire (!) as a couple of survivalist wackos who maintain a rec room arsenal that would make Frank Castle green with envy, are pretty great too.

Dawn Of The Dead (1978)

The proliferation of zombies lurching across our shared pop-culture landscape these days made me hesitate to include any walking dead flicks in my lineup, but really, if you’re going to include one, you might as well make it the best one (for my money, Dawn is just a shade better than George A. Romero’s 1968 Night Of The Living Dead). Sure, the bright blue faces of the Seventies-model zombies and the goopy red nail polish-looking blood that splatters nearly every frame of this flick is very silly by today’s standards, but there’s no denying the power of Romero’s metaphor for a consumerist society that’s devouring itself. Tom Savini’s spectacularly gory makeup effects were unparalleled at the time, and are still shocking today (Death by screwdriver! Death by machete! Death by helicopter blade!). The pulsing, synth-driven score by Goblin takes some fun detours, particularly when a pack of rednecks turn a zombie hunt into a tailgate party (“Don’t believe in overworkin’/And I never treat a woman right/’Cause I’m a man/’Cause I’m a man” croons the soundtrack over this scene). Still one of the greats.


Stephen Spielberg’s feature-length debut may have been a mere TV movie, but its skillful suspense hinted at cinematic greatness to come. Based on a short story by Richard Matheson, Duel stars Dennis Weaver as a mild-mannered commuter who runs afoul of a murderous, never-seen truck driver on a lonely desert highway. The motives for the trucker’s homicidal tendencies are never explained, but we understand from early on that this is struggle is something of a rite of manhood for our hero; in an early scene, he argues with his wife on the phone about his inability to stand up for her when a creep at a party came on too strong (Weaver’s character name is David Mann—a bit on the nose). Shot on a shoestring budget over thirteen days, Spielberg shot right to the big screen after this; unfortunately, that movie was the forgotten Sugarland Express, but his next film after that was Jaws, so there ya go.

The Birds (1963)

Hitchcock’s beloved exercise in avian assault takes a while to get going, but it’s worth it. I first saw this movie when I was quite young, and I remember being bored by the soap-opera plot—Tippi Hedren’s flakey heiress more or less stalks Rod Taylor all the way from San Francisco to his family home in Bodega Bay, coming between him and his overbearing mother (Jessica Tandy)—but now, I appreciate what Hitch does here so much more. These characters are in the middle of their own various dramas when an extraordinary event—an army of killer birds descending on the seaside town—happens, derailing all their lives. It’s not like they’re just sitting around waiting for something to happen, they’re going about their business and all hell suddenly breaks loose to interrupt them. Albert Whitlock’s visual effects are still startling today, and Hitchcock does plenty with simple sound design as well (like when our heroes are barricaded in their house, and the sounds of the bird army seem to be coming from all sides).

Friday, October 14, 2011

31 Days Of Horror Movies, Part IV

Tales From The Crypt (1972), The Vault Of Horror (1973)

These two anthology movies, produced by British studio Amicus, can probably be counted as two of the lesser-known entries in the ever-widening field of comic book adaptations. Both feature five short depictions of stories from the classic EC horror titles, as told either to or by five strangers in the titular Crypt or Vault, as it were. In Tales From The Crypt, a group of people on a tour of a series of historic catacombs find themselves detained by a mysterious Cryptkeeper (Ralph Richardson, not nearly as bony or puppety as his more famous HBO counterpart would be several years later), who spins creepy yarns specific to each visitor (said stories feature various ghouls, ghosts, and escaped lunatics dressed like Santa Claus). In The Vault of Horror, five strangers on an elevator are alarmed when the doors open to reveal a nicely-appointed parlor with five chairs, where each of them sits and recounts their recent nightmares (involving vampires, voodoo, and vengeful blind men). The framing sequences to both films also have shock endings that aren’t particularly shocking. Both of them were also written by Milton Subotsky, but handled by different directors—Freddie Francis helmed Crypt, while Roy Ward Baker took the reins on Vault. This might account for the disparity of quality between them; Crypt suffers from a weirdly stilted pace, maybe because the first two installments seem too short while the last three seem too long, and all of them are fairly dull. Vault, on the other hand, moves along nicely, and seems to understand the pitch-black humour inherent in the original EC stories. A fun double bill to be sure, but make sure you save Vault for last.

House (1985)

This tongue-in-cheek exercise, directed by Steve Miner (Friday The 13th Parts II and III, Halloween: H20) from a story by Fred Dekker (Monster Squad, Night Of The Creeps), was a staple of 1980s cable TV, which is probably the last place I saw it. A Stephen King-esque writer, Roger Cobb (The Greatest American Hero’s William Katt!) moves into his deceased aunt’s allegedly haunted house, following both his divorce and his young son’s mysterious disappearance. Cobb is skeptical, but he’s soon besieged by all manner of rubbery ghoulies and malevolent floating garden tools. The haunting may be connected to Cobb’s own experiences in Vietnam, conveyed through a series of flashbacks that feature a very unconvincing Vietnam set (as well as a William Katt who looks exactly like he does in the present-day scenes, right down to the hairdo). House doesn’t try hard enough to be either funny or scary, and as a result, it’s neither. The makeup job on the lead ghost at the end is still pretty cool, but everything else just looks like a puppet.The cast features NBC-in-the-Eighties Thursday night funnymen Richard Moll and George Wendt. Was Michael Gross unavailable?

It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958)

This Cold War-era schlock classic begins with a cool locked-room murder mystery; all but one of the members of the first manned mission to Mars have all been killed shortly after their arrival on the red planet, and the solitary survivor is accused of doing them in. A rescue mission picks the astronaut up to return him to Earth for his trial, but the real killer—a carnivorous alien being who is the last of his race—hitches a ride and begins bumping off the latest crop of humans one by one. Sound familiar? The filmmakers did too, when they saw an extremely similar plot turn up in 1979’s Alien. There’s no doubt that Ridley Scott’s chestbursting classic is the superior movie, but both films definitely owe a debt to A.E. Van Vogt’s 1939 short story “The Black Destroyer” anyway. This is a very dated movie in a lot of ways—the mouthbreathing monster consists of a guy in a pig-nosed, overbite-laden mask wearing a rubber suit that resembles a burlap unitard. The heroic astronauts have no compunctions whatsoever about firing off round after round of explosive ammunition inside the pressurized hull of their spacecraft, and even in what must have seemed at the time like the far-flung future of 1973, the lady astronauts still have to bring coffee and breakfast to the men astronauts. Finally, even though they do it in Alien as well, it struck me as really funny that the astronauts pause from the action for a smoke break.

The Thing (2011)

I had gone on record for a long time now as saying that the newest version of this classic sci-fi horror tale was going to stink, but I secretly hoped I might enjoy it anyway; after all, it was produced by the folks behind the 2004 Dawn Of The Dead update, which, while not nearly as great as the original, was still a pretty good time. Sadly, though, my initial instinct was correct—this lifeless retread, billed as a prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 monster mash (itself a remake of the still-great 1951 version, The Thing From Another World), adds little or nothing of interest to the already familiar story. Set in the ill-fated Norwegian camp that first encountered the horrific alien shape-changer, the latest model tells largely the same story, tweaking a few details along the way (not in any way that’s interesting or better than Carpenter’s take). Rob Bottin’s fantastic, imaginatively disgusting practical effects work has been replaced by average-looking CGI, with the new alien beasties all managing to look like nothing more than crazy messes of tentacles and teeth. Important details from the Carpenter version, like the idea that every cell of the creature is a living thing that could infect and replace a host, are never discussed but the characters act as though they have been. And, worst of all, this supposed “prequel” has to all of a sudden rush a sloppy end-credits epilogue into the mix in order to match up all the details of where the Carpenter film picks up! Do yourself a favour and watch either of the earlier versions instead of snoozing your way through this cash grab.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

31 Days Of Horror Movies, Part III

Three more down. You’ll notice that a pattern of movies about houses, and others about devils, sometimes both, is emerging; I noticed this myself when I was compiling my list, and I decided to just go with it (it’s the reason I started with The House Of The Devil). Lots more of these coming, some in this very entry!

The Devil Rides Out (1968)
This classy production from Hammer Studios, scripted by Twilight Zone legend Richard Matheson (from a novel by Dennis Wheatley) and directed by Hammer mainstay Terence Fisher, might be the only time I’ve ever seen Christopher Lee play a good guy (other than Airport ’77, that is). The former Dracula, along with Leon Greene, battles Satan worshippers (led by Charles Gray, best known as Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever and the criminologist in The Rocky Horror Picture Show) to rescue a family friend from the irresistible sway of the powers of darkness. Not really very scary by today’s standards, The Devil Rides Out is a lot of fun regardless. I’m not sure why Lee’s character knows so much about the mystic arts and how to combat the forces of evil, but it comes in handy about every five minutes or so. This is one of those Sixties horror films where the scares are buoyed by a brassy score—every scene featuring a shock of some kind is accompanied by a deafening blast from the horn section. Most of the dark powers on display are of the hypnotic kind, although there are some cool scenes where cult leader Mocata conjures apparitions from the pit to torment our heroes, like an oversized tarantula, a goat-faced devil, a hooded spectre of death on horseback, and, most confusingly of all, a smiling, bearded dude in a red diaper.

The Sentinel (1977)
In the wake of the runaway success of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, movie studios in the Seventies scrambled all over themselves to produce the next blockbuster supernatural thriller. Sometimes this led to hits like The Omen, but more often than not, it resulted in turkeys like The Sentinel (not to be confused with the Kiefer Sutherland/Eva Longoria thriller from a few years back). A young model (Cristina Raines) moves into a surprisingly affordable New York brownstone to gain independence from her lawyer boyfriend (Chris Sarandon). There’s a reason why the rent is so cheap, though—the building sits on the very entrance to Hell itself, guarded by the sightless priest who lives on the top floor. The building’s other tenants are all apparently ghosts of long-dead murderers, embodied as a bunch of wacky seniors and a couple of kooky lesbians (one of whom is played by a young Beverly D’Angelo!). Weird reaction shots, an insistent and inappropriate score, and endless, boring exposition scenes abound, and the controversial climax—where director Michael Winner chose to use people with real physical deformities to portray the denizens of Hell (!)—is more sad and depressing than terrifying. To its credit, this movie does boast a shockingly prestigious cast, featuring Ava Gardner, Eli Wallach, Martin Balsam, Burgess Meredith, Jose Ferrer, John Carradine, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken, and, strangely enough, a Hitler-mustachioed Jerry Orbach. It also features a birthday party for a cat. Go figure.

Hausu (1977)
Man, where to begin with this one? Hausu is a crazy Japanese haunted-house flick that truly feels like a small child was given free rein to make a movie, along with a small army of actors and craftsmen to make it happen. Former commercial director Nobuhiko Ohbayashi apparently asked his preteen daughter to contribute lots of ideas, so that explains a lot. Seven Japanese schoolgirls, all with names like Gorgeous, Melody, Prof, and Kung Fu, spend the weekend in a remote house inhabited by Gorgeous’ spinster aunt. The house then proceeds to devour them one by one in increasingly crazier ways. Hausu is a dizzying funhouse ride of freeze-frames, fadeouts, flashbacks, painted backdrops, Little Rascals-style iris edits, dancing skeletons, hungry pianos, carnivorous mattresses, talking severed heads, evil cats, and guys getting turned into piles of bananas for no apparent reason. I have no idea if Sam Raimi saw this film before making the Evil Dead movies, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a fan. By the way, this movie is often called by its North American title, House, but I'm not calling it Hausu for any kind of pretentious reason or whatever--I'm planning to watch the unrelated 1986 American film House later this month, and I wanted to avoid confusion.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

31 Days Of Horror Movies, Part 2

And now, two that were new to me:

Dark Night Of The Scarecrow (1981)

Dark Night Of The Scarecrow is one of those vintage made-for-TV movies that came from an era that didn’t give two shits about traumatizing younger viewers. This golden age stretches from about the early Seventies to the mid-Eighties, and gave us movies like Trilogy Of Terror, the original Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, and my personal favourite, 1982’s Don’t Go To Sleep. I guess I can see why Dark Night Of The Scarecrow might have been upsetting to little kids of its day—1981, to be exact—but it’s pretty tame by today’s standards. The final scene is a little creepy, but otherwise it moves along like a lackluster feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone (or, more appropriately, one of its lesser imitators—Tales From The Darkside, perhaps, or Monsters).

This slice of Southern gothic begins in a small farming town, with your standard Faulknerian idiot-man-child, Bubba (Larry Drake, in a role that pinpoints exactly where the typecasting began), playing happily with a little girl while the local mailman (Charles Durning) watches suspiciously. When little Marylee is nearly mauled to death by a dog, Bubba is immediately blamed, and the mailman leads an angry mob to dole out some sweet vigilante justice. Bubba’s kindly mother believes he’s innocent, but implores him to hide anyway. Bubba disguises himself as a scarecrow, but is gunned down by the crazed postal worker (is this where that stereotype comes from?) and his redneck pals before his innocence can be proven. The mob is exonerated in a court of law, but before long, weird stuff starts happening—a mysterious scarecrow keeps popping up, then disappearing, usually heralding the death of one of the vigilantes at the hands of some rogue farm machinery. Is it Bubba, back from the grave to avenge his own death? Is it his sainted mother? Or is it some other, ill-defined, unsatisfactory explanation? Prepare to be disappointed.

Dark Night Of The Scarecrow is a veritable who’s who of “Hey, it’s that guy!” guys, character actors like Drake, Durning, and Lane Smith (AKA Perry White from Lois & Clark). It’s an interesting example of a bygone era in network television, but there isn’t a lot else to recommend it. I guess if I had stumbled upon it when I was eight or nine and just trying to find out what Arnold was up to that week on Diff’rent Strokes, it might have freaked me out a bit, but not now. The fuzzy, sorta-spooky ending raised more questions than it answered. The biggest unanswered question of all, though, is how a small-town mail carrier came to wield such power and influence over his peers.

The Stuff (1985)

Writer/director Larry Cohen was kind of like an alternate John Sayles in his heyday. Like Sayles, he wrote (and directed) movies that were unabashed genre pictures, dabbling in Blaxploitation (Hell Up In Harlem, Black Caesar) before settling comfortably into horror movies like It’s Alive, God Told Me To, and Q: The Winged Serpent. Cohen never quite morphed into a full-fledged dramatic auteur the way Sayles would (after scripting chores on fun monster fare like Alligator, The Howling, and Piranha, Sayles would achieve respectability with mainstream flicks like Lone Star and Eight Men Out), but the two were great at writing horror movies that were tongue-in-cheek without being stupid, and vastly entertaining besides.

The Stuff was Cohen’s great dig at the rabid consumer culture of the Reagan years, tucked away into a movie that works like a cross between The Blob and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. A mysterious white goo bubbles up from the ground, and is soon turned into a tasty dessert treat that America can’t get enough of. When a colourfully southern corporate saboteur named Mo Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) is hired by a conglomerate of dissatisfied snack-food competitors to learn the formula behind the titular treat, he soon discovers that The Stuff is a living organism out to take over the world. In his campaign to save humanity from The Stuff, Rutherford gathers a team of allies, including a kid whose entire family has become zombielike “Stuffies”, the guilt-ridden advertising wizard who helped make The Stuff a hit, a crazed militia leader (Paul Sorvino, five years before Goodfellas), and a rival snack-food proprietor (SNL’s Garrett Morris!).

The Stuff suffers a bit from an obviously low budget—the ambitious effects aren’t quite up to snuff, especially in the finale—but Cohen’s cheeky script makes up for it. Loads of popular brand names of the day are tucked into nearly every frame of the film, giving us a view of an America that was already begging to be taken over by a sinister brand name. The TV spots for The Stuff are a fun slice of dead-on Eighties commercial cheese, and Michael Moriarty is a lot of fun as the delightfully deadpan Rutherford…even if his hairdo makes him look like MacKenzie Astin. All in all, The Stuff is much better than any movie about killer yogurt has any right to be.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

31 Days Of Horror Movies--2011 Edition!

It’s the most magical time of the year once again—the month of October, where I commit myself to a solid 31 days of horror movies! One movie a day seems like the most logical approach, but I like to double (or even triple) up on some days, just in case the schedule of my actual life trips me up later on in the month. I’ve got a loose schedule of films assembled, but I’m not holding too tightly to it since I want to make sure I see lots of stuff that’s new to me. I’ve got plenty of ideas though, lots of horror flicks that I’m excited to see for the first time and lots of others that I’m stoked to revisit after way too long. I kicked it off last night with two that I’d seen—one not so long ago, and another that was an old favourite that I was all too happy to get reacquainted with.

The House Of The Devil (2009)

I first saw this one a little over a year ago, and I loved the superslow buildup and incredibly deliberate pacing…although I’m pretty sure said pacing did render me unconscious a time or two during that first viewing. Director Ti West’s leisurely pace will probably not be for all tastes, but if you’ve got the patience for it, The House Of The Devil is a cool exercise in retro atmosphere. Set in the 1980s, this flick combines that era’s fear of Satanic cults and a babysitter-in-peril storyline, very much in vogue in the horror films of the decade. A young college student, Samantha, takes on an unusual babysitting gig when she’s hard up for cash. Arriving at a big spooky house in the middle of nowhere, she is told that there is no baby, but that she’ll be paid several hundred bucks to hang out there while the house’s weirdo owners go watch the lunar eclipse. Sure enough, she soon finds herself targeted for a fate worse than death at the hands of devil worshippers. Maybe more than any other retro-style movie I’ve ever seen, The House Of The Devil feels legitimately of its era—at times, it’s like you’re watching a Canadian made-for-TV movie from 1984. The slow burn of the movie’s first half makes the inevitable scares that much more effective, and the weird feeling of hanging around a stranger’s house late at night is captured perfectly. My favourite scene doesn’t even involve anything scary: when a bored Samantha bops around the big, dark, empty house to the sounds of The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads To Another” on her Walkman, it’s like a great little mini-music video within the film. The House Of The Devil also features supporting roles for genre vets like Dee Wallace (The Howling), Tom Noonan (Manhunter, The Monster Squad), and Mary Woronov (probably best known for Eating Raoul and Rock N' Roll High School, but to me she’ll always be the mother in the video for Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized"). The movie also features a fine, understated performance from the incredibly cute Jocelin Donahue, who’s got kind of a young Karen Allen look.

Suspiria (1977)

It had been way too long since I revisited giallo maestro Dario Argento’s masterpiece; ever since I upgraded my home theater system a few months back, I’d been waiting for an opportunity to fire this sucker up, and it was worth the wait. Argento’s tale of an American girl (teeny-tiny Jessica Harper) who discovers that the prestigious German dance academy she’s been admitted to is run by a coven of witches may be thin on plot, but it is one of the most visually striking horror movies ever made. Suspiria is a virtual feast of garish colour, goopy stage blood, and the craziest architecture I’ve ever seen.

Amidst all the operatically-conceived murder, mayhem, and hilariously stilted dialogue (“He’s my nephew, I’m very attached to him”), Suspiria is also notable for having a cast composed of some of the most hideously ugly actors in film history.

There’s no overstating the importance of a good sound system when watching this movie—the wild soundtrack by Goblin virtually fills the room with twinkly piano, booming percussion, and crazy chanting. My friend Alex Kennedy pointed out when we watched this years ago that the movie’s famous tagline—“The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92!”—makes Suspiria sound kinda anticlimactic, but rest assured, those last 12 minutes are still pretty terrifying (the appearance of zombified, mutilated, knife-wielding Sara is always a shocker). Now, when the hell is this gonna finally come out on Blu-Ray?