Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 31, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 30

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Silent horror films hold a strange power that sound films can’t equal. The abstract images of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” Graf Orlok’s shadow cast huge on the staircase in “Nosferatu,” Lon Chaney’s spidering hands in “Phantom of the Opera,” the giant devil looming over a city in “Faust…” These are some of the most striking, unforgettable images in the entire genre. An equally important moment is the hooded spectre of death, scythe in hand, riding his ghostly carriage through the night. “The Phantom Carriage” was Ingmar Bergman’s favorite film, an obvious influence on “The Seventh Seal,” casting its reach wide over cinema. This is my first screening so let’s delve in.

On New Year’s Eve, a Salvation Army sister lies dying in her bed, succumbing to consumption. Her dying wish is to see David Holm, a drunkard and a scoundrel. At the same time, David and his friends hide in a graveyard. He relates a ghost story, about how the first person to die at the stroke of midnight on New Years is damned to steer Death’s carriage for another year. A drunken fight follows, David struck over the head, seemingly dying. The ghost of a friend, the prior year’s phantom coachman, appears to Holm. Before David assumes his duty as the driver, he is shown his life, his failed marriage and the one soul on Earth who hadn’t given up on him.

“The Phantom Carriage” is only partially a horror film. It is more a fable about kindness, cruelty, and the power of forgiveness. In the early scenes, Holm – who is played by the film’s director, Victor Sjostrom – seems like an unremarkable man. He’s a homeless vagrant and a violent drunk. After the hooded rider appears to him, we see that he was once a happily married man. That Holm and his children used to frolic in a house by a lake. But drink brings out the worst of him. A night of drunken rebel-rousing lands him a year in jail. By the time he’s free, his wife has left him. David becomes a cruel man, hateful to everyone around him. Despite his icy attitude, Sister Edit shows him kindness, sewing the holes in his tattered coat. Holm rejects this at first, responding with further cruelty. Despite his odious ways, she never gives up on him, never gives up hope that he can patch things up with his wife. “The Phantom Carriage” understands that cruelty is often born out of tragedy. It also presents the possibility that no one is beyond forgiveness. That even the most gone man can find kindness in his heart.

The film also has to be one of the earliest films to portray the Grim Reaper. The phantom coachman isn’t the actual embodiment of Death. He actually works for the guy, who is described as a shitty boss. Yet the coachman, with its dark hood and scythe, is clearly based on the same template. “The Phantom Carriage” was a landmark special effects film. Its images of a ghostly rider is still eerie. Early photography effects portray the carriage as transparent, riding through the empty countryside. One scene even shows the horseman riding into the ocean, retrieving the spirit of a drowned sailor. The combination of the dark, silent film photography and stagey special effects grant the film an uncanny aspects.

For all the creaky spookiness “The Phantom Carriage” generates, the film also displays a quiet beauty. The early scenes of Holm’s blissful family life, playing with his kids and living happily with his wife, have an palatable joy to them. The most touching scene in the film, which is also one of the most touching cinematic moments I’ve seen recently, is when Edit decides to patch up Holm’s coat. It’s a totally selfless act, one that endangers Edit as she catches David’s sickness off his clothes. The Criterion Blu-Ray features a score from Matti Bye, which builds gorgeously in this moment, sweeping the audience away. (This act of kindness is immediately, violently rejected by Holm, a heart-breaking moment.) The finale is equally touching, fate giving someone a last minute reprieve.

Much has been written about “The Phantom Carriage’s” structure, as it was an early example of a film utilizing flashbacks to tell a story. Aside from influencing Bergman, the film was also a direct influence on Stanly Kurbrick. “The Shining” lifts directly from a moment in this film, where an axe similarly chops through a door. While the silent movie photography and spooky special effects are benefits, the deeply flawed but achingly human characters of “The Phantom Carriage” is perhaps its best attribute, as they add a truthful power to the themes of redemption and forgiveness. [7/10]

Witchboard (1986)

I used to watch a lot of movies on Youtube. I'm not proud of it. This was back before Netflix streaming became an omnipresent service, before other websites like Hulu and Shudder became must-haves for film freaks. Instead, I subscribed to multiple uploaders on Youtube, who added all sorts of obscure horror flicks. Yes, they were usually uploaded in ten minute increments. I trusted these guys so much that I would watch anything they added, assuming it would be good. This is how I discovered “Witchboard.” The title was vaguely familiar but I knew nothing about the movie before I watched it. The flick surprised me and I quickly picked up the DVD. (Which, in a nice touch, includes a cardboard Ouija board.) I’m still a fan though my love of “Witchboard” has cooled slightly.

It begins at a party. Jim and his girlfriend Linda have invited a bunch of friends over, including Jim’s former best friend and Linda’s ex Brandon. Brandon dabbles in spiritualism and bust out a Ouija board. He talks with David, the spirit of an eight year old boy he claims to have contacted. This intrigues Linda, who continues to talk with David’s ghost after Brandon leaves the board at the house. Afterwards, Jim notices Linda is acting strange. He blames this on her newly announced pregnancy. However, as those around them begin to die, Brandon suspects Linda has accidentally contacted something evil.

Kevin S. Tenney would go on to direct “Night of the Demons,” an eighties horror cult classic. “Witchboard” was his debut film. He utilizes some of the same tricks here as in his better known follow-up. Both films feature roaming perspectives shots, the camera taking the point of view of evil forces. This leads to some effectively spooky sequences, of victims haunted by invisible attackers. Both movies also feature a shot of someone flying through a window. The film is structured essentially like a slasher flick, built around increasingly grisly death scenes. My favorite of which involves someone tossed from a ledge and then impaled on a sundial. The director manages to mine a surprising amount of tension out of shots of a planchette moving around the ghost board. Despite Tenney’s clever direction, “Witchboard” is still occasionally hokey. A nightmare concludes with an unconvincing decapitation. The finale features a cross-dressing woman speaking in an exaggerated “evil” voice.

“Witchboard” is more character driven then “Night of the Demons.” The script makes the point of establishing Brandon’s atheism, which seems to run counter to his spiritual beliefs. The story is built around a love triangle. Brandon resents Jim, for finally winning Linda’s heart. The two have known each other since they were kids and Brandon is more then happy to comment on Jim’s history and failures. The way the mystery leads to their friendship being renewed is fairly contrived. By establishing the rivalry between the two early on, showing Jim and Brandon constantly sniping at each other, it doesn’t make the characters very likable. Stephen Nichols’ performance as Brandon is somewhat stiff. Nichols seems too willing to play the part as a stuck-up know-it-all. Todd Allen is a little more natural as Jim, though still slightly awkward. By building so much of the film around these two uncomfortable performances, “Witchboard” has to go a long way to win over audiences. Tawney Kitaen, best known for writhing on Whitesnake’s car, is certainly lovely as Linda, with her gorgeous red locks. Yet her acting is ultimately as uneven as the guys.

Which it ultimately does. The film has a quirky energy, which is best displayed through its comedic supporting cast. Kathleen Wilhoite plays Zarabeth, a medium used to exercise David. Some reviewers have declared Zarabeth annoying but, I don’t know, I think she seems fun. With her New Wave fashion, surfer girl slang, and tendency towards “psychic humor,” she’s one of the film’s most memorable characters. Burke Byrnes as Lt. Dewhurst has an odd obsession with magic, Byrnes bringing some humor to an otherwise forgettable part. James W. Quinn, as a vulgar friend Lloyd, has way more chemistry with Allen then Nichols does. Most of these character exist just to pad the body count but it’s cool that Tenney took the time to add some personality to the parts.

Little humorous touches like these, as well as some cool horror moments, is what makes “Witchboard” a fun eighties gem. Aside from the tinny Youtube resolution, I way I originally saw it – with zero expectations or prior knowledge – might have been the ideal way to see it. “Witchboard” is clever enough and fun enough to keep a laid back audience entertained. The movie was followed by two loosely connected sequels, one of which was directed by Tenney. The same director also made “Witchtrap,” an unrelated film with a nearly identical title and VHS box art. Maybe I should watch that one next October? [7/10]

WNUF Halloween Special (2013)

There have been so many found footage horror movies in the last decade. Anybody with a camera and the drive could essentially throw one together. While a few gems have emerged from this style, it’s led to a tidal wave of generic, undistinguished nonsense. Which means a found footage flick really needs a clever idea if it’s going to stand out. “WNUF Halloween Special” has cleverness in spades. The film purports to be a lost, live television broadcast from 1987. In order to spread that assumption, the filmmakers initially hid unmarked tapes of the movie all around their home town. If I were to discover the “WNUF Halloween Special” in this way, I’d certainly pause once or twice and wonder if it was the real deal.

On October 31st, in the year 1987, local television station WNUF decided to do something fun for Halloween. The evening newscasters dressed up in costumes, delivering soft ball reports about candy and trick or treating. It’s all build-up to the special of the night. Investigative reporter Frank Stewart leads a live visit into the Webber House. The same house was the location of the “Spirit Board Killings,” where a teenager boy, supposedly after contacting evil spirits with a Ouija board, decapitated his parents with an axe. Aided by two supernatural experts and a priest, Frank heads into the house to perform a live séance. Nobody is prepared for the events that follow.

“WNUF Halloween Special” does an astonishingly good job of capturing its time and place. The film is an eerily authentic recreation of a small town news broadcast. Director Chris LaMartina perfectly grasps the pacing and tone of local television. There’s the overly enthusiastic reporters, the cheesy graphics, and channel bumpers featuring scenic shots of local forests. Reportedly, the filmmakers shot the film on eighties video technology and then made multiple copies of the footage, creating a properly static filled “bootleg” feeling. The live television set-up allows for humor. Such as people asking the wrong questions, if not outright pranking, the call-in séance. Or spectators outside the supposed haunted house who are totally clueless. The cast has to be commended too, as Paul Fahrenkopf as Frank looks, sounds and acts exactly like a small town reporter. If you’re an East Coast kid who watched too much TV in the eighties and nineties, “WNUF Halloween Special” will feel very familiar.

“WNUF Halloween Special’s” commitment to verisimilitude reminded me of “Ghostwatch.” Both films feature a climax involving a locked door, both generating a spooky atmosphere and eventually frenzied tension when things go wrong. But “WNUF” isn’t as scary as “Ghostwatch.” This feels like a deliberate choice, as the film focuses more on humor and social commentary. The latter emerges in interesting ways. The local newscasters have no problem switching between stories, regardless of mood. After talking about a child being shot by an unhinged war vet, they then segue effortlessly into a fluff piece about a local dentist. At the end, another story of brutal murder is swept aside by cheery Christmas announcements. This draws attention to how ridiculous and insincere the entire “edu-tainment” industry is. The two psychics are clearly based on the Warrens. Without outright declaring them fakes, the film makes it clear that their powers are underwhelming. Ultimately, “WNUF Halloween Special” takes target at the Satanic Panic. While devil worship and occult rituals are referenced throughout, the film makes it clear that a different streak of fanaticism is far more dangerous then any supposed Satanists.

I loved a lot of things about “WNUF Halloween Special” but its decision to include fake commercial breaks has to be my favorite. About half the run time are made up of these messages from our sponsors. Mimicking the rhythm of a real broadcast, a few of these are repeated. Like the ad for a local carpet warehouse or video arcade. Some of the commercials are for other TV shows, like a deeply cheesy sci-fi series, action based vigilante show, a “very special” sitcom episode, heavy metal concerts, or late night horror host. Most are for local businesses, including beachfront vacation homes, a video store, a petting zoo, and even a strip club. (Which, amusingly, also features a breakfast buffet.) My favorite are the broader ads. Such as a perfectly pitched anti-drug ad, advertisements for mail-in college courses, a series of video tapes about animals, or a computer repair business. It’s likely LaMartina was directly imitating real vintage commercials, when we see commercials for a pumpkin cutting kit, Halloween make-up, or a scary stories hotline.

I have a built-in affinity for old commercials and local television. It seems like the makers of “WNUF Halloween Special” share that love. The film is an affectionately rendered recreation of both of these things, the filmmaker accurately aping these ephemeral formats. While so easily transporting viewers back in time, the film also contains some laughs, some chills, and some solid social commentary. Director LaMartina has a long list of micro budget horror flicks under his belt. Looks like I’m going to have to give “Witch’s Brew” and “Call Girl of Cthulhu” a shot. And, if you’re reading this Mr. LaMartina, I’d love to see a “WNUF Christmas Special” too. [9/10]

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