Halloween day was mostly spent with an all-day horror movie marathon. We got snow in my area recently, if you can friggin' believe that, so most of my weekend plans ended up being canceled. So JD and I didn't make it to the "Rocky Horror" experience this year. Maybe next year.
I tried to make the most of the situation, by dressing up in my "All the Big Summer Movies of 2011" costume, carved pumpkins, and handed out candy to the few trick r' treaters we got. (Three groups for a total of 9 kids.) Over all, the day was kind of lackluster.
House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
Rob Zombie is probably the most divisive figure in the horror fan community in recent memory, but, if I remember correctly, “House of 1000 Corpses” was fairly well liked, at least by fans, upon premiere. The film had a protracted post-production and, if it had been released in 2001 as originally planned, before the turn of the century horror revival really started, it probably would have been even better received.
It’s a conflicted film and I’m tempted to say it’s not very good. Honestly, the movie is a lot like being inside the “Dragula” video for 88 minutes. (The movie even features the song-title-lending “Munsters” episode.) The stock footage, the psychedelic imagery, and the constant cutaway sequences certainly feels more like a Rob Zombie music video then the 1970s grindhouse fare the movie aspires to. This style has a twin effect of making the movie schizophrenic and borderline incoherent while also establishing an appropriately nightmarish tone early on. It’s distracting at first but, once we get to the titular house, it actually starts to work in the film’s favor. The Firefly family exists in its own exceedingly twisted world and this movie is willing to take you there. The movie is the product of a mind that has seemingly consumed nothing but old horror movies, southern hick culture, and drugs his entire life. If it was a better movie, I’d say it’s the apotheosis of low-culture, trash cinema.
Rob Zombie’s white-trash obsession and often vulgar, abrasive dialogue makes his films most definitely not for everyone, but it’s hard to deny he can create memorable, distinct characters. (Or at least a few. More on that in a minute.) We meet Sid Haig’s Captain Spaulding in the first scene, a character both hilarious and disgusting. It’s not surprising that Haig, who gives a very funny, energetic performance, would go on to become something of a genre mainstay after this film. If he hadn’t all ready been in movies for over thirty years, I’d say this was a star-making turn. Sherri Moon can be just as divisive a figure to the fans as her husband is, because of her perceived questionable talent and Rob’s insistence in sticking her in everything. The character of Baby is pretty much the movie in a capsule: Psychopathic, sadistic, existing in her own weird horror universe, annoying, but arguably unique. Bill Moseley’s Otis is undeniably the brightest star of the film. Moseley made Chop Top a lovable fan favorite and, while Otis is nowhere near as manic or funny as that character, Moseley brings the same level of charisma and gusto to an exceedingly more cruel, sadistic character. A delightfully trashy Karen Black rounds out the film’s psycho ensemble. (For the record, my favorite character in the movie is actually giant, silent, comparatively benign Tiny.)
And thus we come to one of the main problems with Rob Zombie’s skills as a screenwriter. While he can write a great psychopath, his normal people come off as much less likable and well rounded. Jerry, the bearded one, is kind of an abrasive asshole and seems to do nothing but force his friends into more danger as the movie continues. Rainn Wilson’s character is clueless and any likable attributes he has are because of the performer, not the script. The two girls are indistinct from one another and defined solely by their relationships with their men. When the hard ass Tom Towles cop is the most interesting non-murderous character in your movie, you’ve got problems. So basically the middle section is about enjoying the mayhem, torture, and depravity the psychopaths inflict on these victims. Honestly, horror fans do that all the time in films like this but the torture and murder here is just grimy, explicit, and unlikable enough that this becomes a somewhat queasy, uncomfortable experience. (The rape, torture, and necrophilia performed upon the cheerleaders are the hardest bits to swallow.) Despite heavily referencing and featuring the Universal Monsters films, this as about as far removed from the benign horrors of those films as you can get. Having said that, the middle part of the film is probably the best, solely due the great cast. The movie sort of falls apart in the last act too, partially because the focus is shifted back to our victims, but primarily because the movie slips totally into incoherence. Why do the Fireflies have zombies in a cave system under their house? What’s the point of the weird, backwards tape they play? Why are their old guys in bunny suits wandering the caves? Are we to believe the Fireflies have really been killing and torturing people for that long, totally undetected? (The real reasons the old guys are there is to get our final girl out of her own bunny suit.) And while Dr. Satan is cool looking, his collection of retarded weirdoes makes for something of an anticlimactic final reveal. The movie descends totally into standard, slasher-chase stuff at the end before the obvious twist. Honestly, when your psychos are your movies main selling point, removing them from the story at the end leads to a weak end.
Despite these reservations, the movie does have some fantastic elements. The entire “I Remember You” sequence, in which our villains gun people down to the strings of an old country song, is pretty great. (But I sort of always love musical juxtaposition.) And the set design of the film is particularly notable. Rob Zombie’s past as a designer really shows here. I love how the Fireflies home is decorated totally with old monster movie posters, scrawled children’s drawings, and kitschy Halloween decorations. And also bones and chickens and scarecrows and shit. And while cut-aways to color-reversed redneck rants about a rapin’ skunk ape and a random, old, violent black man ranting incoherently about Heaven and Hell add nothing to the story, they’re certainly interesting. And that’s “House of 1000 Corpses” in a nutshell, more or less. It’s not surprising the film had a cult following, even before the sequel and action figures. (6.5/10)
The Car (1977)
I legitimately like this movie a great deal. Yes, the premise, essentially “Jaws” in the desert with a phantom car instead of a shark, is hokey. But the movie has likable characters, a laidback setting, some genuine thrills, and a unique main threat in its favor. Of course, I’m somewhat partial to car chase movies in general and killer car movies in particular.
Which is weird, because it’s not like I’m a motorhead or anything. Car culture kind of mystifies me, to be honest. I think why the killer car is such a good horror threat is because you’re way more likely to be killed by a car then you are by a vampire or werewolf or what have you. The titular Car in this film is a fantastic creation. First off, it just looks cool. Designed by the same guy who made the Batmobile and the Munsters Koach, the Car is specifically designed to make an everyday object look as threatening and sinister as possible. Its squat cab emphasizes the face of the car. The prominent headlights, wide grill, and angled hood gives the Car a glaring, grinning face, perfect to commit murder. Beyond being an excellent design, the Car just does cool shit, like flip onto its side and roll over two oncoming police cruisers. And if it’s possible, the vehicle is even driven in an expressive, personality filled way. Just look at the scene where, after being denied access to its victims because they’ve fled onto holy ground, the Car does donuts in frustration. Or the way he pushes and manipulates other vehicles around. This is why, despite being ridiculous, the Car works as a horror movie monster.
Another reason why I think I like the film so much is because it’s small Utah town setting is so appealing. Very quickly and early on, the town is established as a comfortable little town. Our cast of characters are equally lovable. James Brolin is the pillar of the community, a noble, family man of a sheriff that’s extremely ethical but far from unfaultable. Kathleen Lloyd is especially likable as Brolin’s girlfriend and the local school teacher. She’s got two great scenes: When she’s found that one of her teenage male students has drawn a picture of her naked and the older, heavier, teacher’s response to it, and when she mocks, taunts, and yells at the Car from a safe distance. Lloyd is such a delightful presence that when she exits the film, it registers as a real shock. Ronny Cox has a great role as the Barney Fife of a deputy. Other quirky characters in the film include a French Horn playing hitchhiker, a drunken wife-beating asshole who still gets off some funny lines, and an American Indian deputy who doesn’t take any nonsense off of anyone. Also, an old woman yells “Cat poo!” (Or “Tadpole,” so says the DVD subtitles. Hmm…)
Most surprising of all, the movie actually has some real thrills in it. As mentioned above, spoiler alert!, Kathleen Lloyd doesn’t make it out of the movie. The scene is set up during a stormy dark night. She stands in her kitchen, talking on the phone, getting increasingly panicked, worried about the Car. And THEN, two bright headlights appear in her window, slowly getting closer and closer, until that hellish horn honking breaks the night…! Other notable horror moments in “The Car” includes the vehicles first appearance, where it pushes two bicyclists off a bridge, and when the Car appears in Brolin’s garage and attempts to asphyxiate the man with fumes.
So, whatever. Opinions differ but “The Car” is a goodie in my book. I think as long as you accept and get over the innate ridiculousness of the premise, you’ll enjoy it as well. (7.5/10)
Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)
I love a good horror anthology. Amicus Production, the rival to Hammer Studios, got a lot of the same stars Hammer had but, in order to distinguish itself from that iconic studio’s output, it focused on and specialized in the anthology format. “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” was actually the first anthology film they ever did. It’s… Not as good as I remember.
The set-up is classic Amicus. Five guys get on a train car together, among them Christopher Lee and Donald Sutherland, and are soon joined by a strange man calling himself Dr. Shriek (Back when that name was associated with the German word for terror, not a CGI cartoon ogre.), played by a nicely ominous Peter Cushing. Using his deck of tarot cards, Dr. Terror proceeds to predict each of their futures, all of the predictions ending in violent death via supernatural creature.
The first three stories are a major drag. The opening sequence features an old house, an entombed werewolf, a family curse, and a kind of cool twist ending that’s sort of predictable. But the segment spends most of its time on set-up and only gets really good in the last few minutes. Following that is a story about murderous creeping vines. This story has a lot of droll scientific information in it, takes place mostly on one set, and has a seriously anticlimactic conclusion. The third story has the fun premise of a pop song writer stealing the melody to a voodoo ritual song. But it goes on way too long. Far too much of the segment is devoted to musical performances. It’s actually the longest story in the film and feels every minute of it. It does have a somewhat spooky walk down a darkened street and a decent conclusion.
The movie doesn’t actually start to get good until the last two stories. The fourth story stars Christopher Lee as a wonderfully catty and bitchy art critic and co-stars Michael Gough as the painter who is destroyed by the bad reviews. When Gough looses a hand in a car accident, it’s not hard to figure out what happens next. Seeing two Hammer all-stars like Lee and Gough face off, especially when given juicy material like this to play with, is the main treat here. Once the disembodied hand comes calling for Lee, the movie makes the ridiculous threat work by just making the damn thing indestructible. The last story, in which Donald Sutherland is convinced by his doctor that his new wife must be a vampire, has an obvious twist ending you see coming immediately but the good performances and a decent horror mood makes it worth watching.
The framing device then concludes in a very memorable, darkly amusing way. (The same ending that Amicus would continue to use in many of their other horror anthology films.) Honestly, because of that ending, the cast, and the last two stories, I always remember “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” being a lot better then it actually is. The fact that the film has never been released on DVD and I watched it on my well worn, very dark VHS didn’t help any. While it’s the first one made, the best place to start if you want to get into Amicus horror is “Asylum” or “Tales from the Crypt,” two of the best films the company would make. (5/10)
Curse of the Fly (1965)
A very strange sequel. There’s no fly monster in this movie. The curse of the title refers to the Delambre family’s bad luck with teleporters. The movie also seems to heavily retcon the events of the first two films, letting Andre get out of the mishap of the first film unharmed and changing Philippe to Henri. (And into a huge asshole.) The fly DNA being mixed into the family bloodstream has caused Henri’s son to have accelerated aging and he must take a shot to prevent a sudden on-set of death. None of this information is given to us until well into the film itself. The movie starts with a scene of a woman in her underwear escaping from a mental institution in slow-motion. (While a slow paced, romantic version of the “Fly” theme plays.) Though Martin Delambre, his dad, and the teleportation technology enters the story soon afterward (After the crazy woman falls in love with Martin), the movie is mostly about this girl, a concert pianist recovering from a nervous breakdown. Either somebody had an unrelated screenplay he decided to latch to a sort-of-popular franchise, or somebody decided to take this series in a vastly new direction. Or they couldn’t afford a fly monster? Either way, “Curse of the Fly” is an odd film and definitely a product of the sixties.
If you’re thinking, “None of that sounds like a horror movie,” wait, there’s more. Martin and Henri have been experimenting with cross-Atlantic teleportation… And they have the stable full of mutants to prove it, among them Martin’s ex-wife. (Ex in the sense that he’s ignoring her now that she’s a mutant. They’re still technically married and this is a plot point.) While turning humans into deformed mutants and then treating them like animals is pretty evil, Henri insist they keep it up, “in the name of science.” Patricia, that’s escaped mental patient girl, is keeping her own secret from Martin and folks, making “Curse of the Fly” partially a film about secrets and how they can eat away at otherwise healthy relationships. An aged blind Inspector Charas from the first movie (though played by a different actor) shows up briefly as well, just to tell us some back story.
It’s not a bad film. Carol Grey gives a good performance as the increasingly panicked woman and all of the strange, divergent plotlines build nicely to the ending. The film has some atmospheric black-and-white cinematography. The radiation deformed mutants are an early example of body-horror and an interesting addition to the story. (The name Martin and the presence of creatures like that makes me think this film was an influence on “The Fly II.”) The lack of Vincent Price does hurt the film and it’s easy to see how the part of Henri was originally imagined as Price’s character. He probably would have done a better job then Brian Donlevy, who can't seem to combine the character’s nice and insane attributes. The movie was a British production and directed by Don Sharp of “Kiss of the Vampire” fame. It’s not really good enough to be a hidden gem and instead is more or less an odd curio for “Fly” fans. (6/10)
The Descent (2006)
It’s weird that after a huge hit like this, that Neil Marshall would kind of disappear. Was “Doomsday” really that big of a bomb? I haven’t seen “Centurions” but it didn’t look very interesting. “The Descent” remains as effective now as it was upon release. What’s really exciting about the film is that this is a monster movie that didn’t need any monsters at all. If this had just been a movie about a group of girls lost in a perilous, unexplored cave system it would have been just as good and probably just as exciting. There’s a solid hour of claustrophobic suspense before the Crawlers even show up. The scenes of Sarah getting stuck in the collapsing cave or the sequence of Holly falling and shattering her leg are particularly harrowing.
But once the monsters do show up, the film really ramps up into frenzied terror. One of the things I've always admired about “The Descent” is that, despite being shot on sets, it feels like it was shot in a real cavern. Never once do you feel like the characters are in a false environment. The darkness and red light of flares makes it clear that our protagonists are not in their own world. This puts them at a definite disadvantage to begin with and, when the Crawlers appear, it becomes clear just how defenseless they can be. Why I don’t think they’re super original designs, the gray, shrieking, skittering Crawlers are effectively creepy horror movie monsters. The movie makes it clear that anybody who faces these things unprepared is going to meet a nasty end. After establishing the creatures as a threat, the movie then delights in putting our characters in constant peril from them. More then once, someone has to keep absolutely still and quiet while a monster sniffs around them. It’s an old trick but it works, and never better then here.
Another thing that’s so strong about this film is that there’s nothing simple about it. Our characters are not unambiguously the good guys. The Crawlers are obviously wild animals, defending their territory. They’re no more evil then a grizzly bear. Towards the end, as our heroines tear the monsters apart with picks and their bare hands, the film doesn’t shy away from suggesting that the humans in the story can be just as vicious as their attackers. From the Crawlers’ point of view, this could be a movie about strange invaders coming into their area and wrecking havoc. There’s a lot of deceit and distrust among the girls as well. I’ve always thought what Sarah does to Juno at the end of the film was kind of a dick move but the film makes it clear that Juno isn’t exactly a good person.
The cast is strong, even if only about four of the girls get any real decent development. Sam and Rebecca are mostly Crew Members 5 and 6, to be honest. The boisterous, adrenalin junky Holly has always been my favorite character. The movie seems to intentionally design her as the most fun character, since Sarah’s in morning, Juno’s somewhat duplicitous, and Beth is mostly the mediator between the rest of the group. But because this is a horror movie, a particularly uncompromising one, the most likable character is the one who bites it first. (Pun.) Holly essentially fills the same role Burt Reynolds did in “Deliverance,” the person you’d think would be the most help and the big hero in the story who actually ends up becoming useless fairly early on. Shauna MacDonald and Natalie Mendoza also give very good performances as Sarah and Juno. These are the two characters that really shape the world of the film after all and drive the plot forward.
I also love that the movie is unapologetically symbolic. Sarah blames her self for the death of her husband and child and has never really recovered from the grief. When she climbs down into the cave, she’s really climbing down into her own psyche, a frightening, dark place full of demons. The “Apocalypse Now” sequence of her emerging from a pool of blood a stronger, more dangerous person is rife with feminine symbolism. By bathing in the blood, a classic symbol of primal femininity, she’s gotten in touch with her own inner wild mama bear. (The fact that she immediately kills a female Crawler after this scene isn’t an accident.) And it’s only then that she’s able to leave the cave and move on pass her own psychosis… At least in the American ending. In the original ending, she doesn’t make it out of the literal cave or the cave of her own making, as some people never do. While I like the character enough to want to see her live, I can’t deny that the intended ending is the stronger thematic one. (9/10)
A Night at the Movies: The Horrors of Stephen King (2011)
Basically “Danse Macabre: The TV Special.” While I’m not exactly a huge Stephen King fan, the guy is knowledgeable about the genre he works in. (And should really only talk about his own genre. His “Entertainment Weekly” column was often excruciatingly tin-earred.) To listen to him chat about his favorite horror films or his opinion on the facets of the genre in general is basically like just sitting down with another fan and chatting with them. The way he compares the “I Was a Teenage…” series of the fifties with the modern “Twilight” fad is an interesting thought and I generally agree with his assessment of the vampire genre. I also find myself agreeing with his disinterest with the “gore-for-gore’s sake” spectacle that rules the genre today, even if I think it’s perfectly all right to relate too and route for the killers and psychos in movies. The anecdotes about him first seeing “Carrie” in an urban theater full of large black men or watching “Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers” as a child only to have the showing interrupted by the news of Sputnik’s launch are anecdotes he’s told before. But they’re good stories and ones well worth hearing again.
What’s really fun about this special is hearing King’s opinions on the adaptations of his own work. It’s good to know he holds “Cujo” and “Christine” in such high regard, two adaptations I’ve always thought were underrated. His frankness about his dislike of Kubrick’s “The Shining” and his performance in “Creepshow” are interesting and refreshing. Despite his massive fame, King has always come off as a generally laidback sort of person. While wholly inessential, “The Horrors of Stephen King” is a fun little feature. Turner Classics Movies is good at this kind of thing. (7/10)
The Innocents (1963)
When you’re a nerd, wither it be a horror, movie, comic book, or anime nerd, you probably find yourself sitting down and making up a mental list, if not an actual list, of all the stuff you consider essential to the genre. It’s either a list of all the stuff you need to see but haven’t seen yet or a list of all the stuff you think you have to see before you can call yourself a proper fan. In my on-going journey through the horror genre that I’ve been on for about twelve years now, there aren’t too many essential films left that I haven’t seen all ready. Lots of obscurities or hidden gems, sure, but not too many have-to-sees. “The Innocents” is one such film that has escaped my sights until tonight.
I watched this at 2 in the morning and it’s getting super late, so I don’t have a super lot to say about this one. I also think I need to re-watch it to absorb all the layers and subtleties there. But I can tell this is an excellent film. Deborah Kerr gives a wonderful performance as a repressed woman who, by trying to save a pair of children from a perceived threat, actually says more about her own conflicted faith and repressed sexuality. Martin Stephens, who would go on to play the exact opposite side of the “horror movie kid” scale in the original “Village of the Damned,” gives maybe one of the best performances from a young child I’ve ever seen. His character is an old soul, somebody very young who seems to know quite a bit, and Stephens himself seems like one as well.
The film starts out slowly, introducing us to this world and its characters. However, there’s a distinct point when it really begins to work. Miss Giddens see an apparition of a man atop the manor tower. She rushes inside and looks up the center of a spiral staircase. This is the first example of such rich, atmospheric direction and soon after we find ourselves in a house full of shadows, full of whispering voices and spectral faces. We have stepped over into the world of the unknown. There are severally extremely creepy moments here. The scene of Kerr discovering an old photograph in the cobweb ridden attic is followed up with a man’s face appearing in a window and then coming closer, the music building. Kerr quickly becomes more and more frenzied as the film goes on, convinced of her own theories. Even up to the end, the movie is ambiguous about wither or not there really are ghosts at work her or if Kerr is just delusional. The film keeps piling on strangeness and unnerving behavior before building up to the incredibly intense finale. (They put an innocent little turtle in peril, a moment that I won’t deny totally got me.) Once the tension in that moment subsides, the movie immediately builds it up again for the real finale. It’s an ending liable to leave you with just as many answers as questions, but that’s what’s great about it. If any story should be mysterious and ambiguous, it’s a ghost story. (Or a story about the dark recesses of the repressed mind, depending on how you look at it.) The movie explores the secret world of children and, in an unsettling move, suggests a child corrupted by the sexual advances of an adult. The scene of Martin Stephens kissing Deborah Kerr deeply on the lips is just as unsettling as any of the ghost moments. Because the film gets the audience to sympathize with Kerr’s potentially dubious world so much, simple scenes like a kid dancing alone by the lake or riding a horse become raked with tension.
“The Innocents” is, overall, a hugely successful mood piece. The shadowy atmosphere, provided by future Hammer and Amicus director Freddie Francis, is extraordinary and the movie makes great use of music and sound design. I really should have seen this one sooner. With this and “The Haunting,” 1961 was a good year for ghost stories. (9/10)
So in total, this Halloween I watched 88 movies and television episodes and wrote reviews for 79 of them. I was hoping this would be a substantial improvement over last year but, nope, not really. Last year I wrote 84 reviews. I guess, considering all of this year's reviews were much, much longer, that is an actual improvement. (I've probably doubled my yearly word total just this October.) And I did attend my first horror con this past fall. I suppose Halloween 2011 was a major improvement in that sense. But I definitely had a lot less fun this October in comparison to last year.
Oh, well. Better luck next year, I guess. More updates coming soon. And I mean it this time.