Monday, October 31, 2016
Halloween 2016: October 31 - HALLOWEEN
The Halloween Tree (1993)
If I’m being totally honest with myself, my favorite author has and always will be Ray Bradbury. “Something Wicked This Way Comes” is the book that made me realize words could be an art form themselves, that narrative storytelling was no leash on poetry. Bradbury was the writer that made me want to be a writer. Bradbury first conceived of “The Halloween Tree” as an animated film back in 1967, supposedly a collaboration with Chuck Jones. When that fell apart, Bradbury rewrote the story as a wonderful novel for children. In the early nineties, “The Halloween Tree” finally emerged as the Halloween special it was always intended to be. Though it has yet to be elevated into the pantheon of great Halloween cartoons, it has been regularly broadcast over the years.
Halloween has come to a small town. Four friends march out in their costumes – Tom the skeleton, Ralph the mummy, Wally the monster, Jenny the witch – ready to begin a night of trick or treating. There’s only one problem. Their friend Pip, the greatest trick or treater of all, has gone missing. Locked up in a hospital with a potentially fatal case of appendicitis, the other four are concerned for Pip’s safety. They see his ghost running towards the haunted house of Mr. Moundshroud, a strange old man. He promises to take them to Pip, as long as they follow him on a trip through time and around the world. He shows them the various forms the tradition of Halloween has taken over the centuries.
the songs.) The animated version certainly maintains the book’s main purpose. Bradbury connects Halloween with older rituals. The young characters witness the death rites of the ancient Egyptians, druid festivals in medieval Europe, witch trials in young America, the building of Notre Dame in France, before concluding with the Mexican Day of the Dead and the mummies underneath Guannajuato. Bradbury is showing that Halloween is much older then rubber mask and trick or treating. That the holiday stretches back millions of years, in many forms.
“The Halloween Tree” was produced by Hanna-Barbera, a company not exactly associated with high quality animation. At times, the film’s cheap television roots show. Aside from Mr. Moundshroud, whose head brings both a raven’s beak and a rotten pumpkin to mind, most of the character designs are flat and generically unappealing. The colors are often dull while the movement is usually standard. However, “The Halloween Tree” still has a pretty image or innovative moment up its sleeve. The kids running out of their houses on Halloween night is memorable, the film swooping around a trashcan. The sequence where Notre Dame is assembled in a minute is certainly eye-catching. The montage displaying the persecution of witches over the centuries is also well assembled. It’s not theatrical quality animation but it does look better then you’d expect from the studio.
Aside from Bradbury himself, Leonard Nimoy also lent his voice to “The Halloween Tree.” He plays Moundshroud with a nasally, old man whine that is interesting but, admittedly, not what I imagined while reading the book. (During this month's re-read, I couldn’t help but picture the late Angus Scrimm in the part.) The television version is unable to totally capture the tone and grace of Bradbury’s prose, just by the nature of it. For the record, Ray was pleased with the film, considering it his favorite of any adaptation of his work. The film is certainly best viewed on the 31st, where it acts as both a history lesson and a celebration of the day. [7/10]
When it comes to the life stories of directors, Tod Browning certainly has one of my favorites. Born into a rich family, as a teenager he literally ran away from home and joined the circus, where he worked as a clown and a live burial act. He moved on to vaudeville and eventually became a protégée of D.W. Griffith. His life was full of tragedy, including a car crash that killed a friend and led to depression and alcoholism. As a director, he made six silent films with Lon Chaney, several of them classics. In the sound era, he directed “Dracula,” securing his legacy forever, before derailing his career with “Freaks.” Notoriously, “Freaks” was a catastrophic failure back in 1932 before being rediscovered as a cult classic in the sixties. But you knew that already. Let’s talk about the film.
“Freaks” is set in the world of sideshow performers. Their deformed bodies led to persecution from the outside world but, under the circus tent, they’re a family, with their own rules and system of justice. Trapeze artist Cleopatra is dating Hercules, the strongman. For fun, she pretends to be romantically interested in Hans, one of the circus’ dwarfs. After learning that Hans recently inherited a large fortune, Cleopatra begins to seriously pursue him. She marries the dwarf and begins poisoning him. The other sideshow freaks soon learn of this treachery. Their revenge will be righteous.
the Living Torso, shouts through his few lines of dialogue. Of the circus performers, only Angelo Rossitto and Frances O'Connor, the armless girl, show any actorly confidence. This stilted quality infects the non-circus performers too, as Wallace Ford, Olga Baclanova, and Henry Victor are all quite broad.
Browning’s fascination with the circus and sideshow, as previously shown in “The Unknown” and “The Show,” was genuine. “Freaks’” greatest strength lies in the sense of community and sympathetic it has for the sideshow performers. An early scene has the pinheads and seal girl playing in the forest, until a pair of hikers chase them off. They then run to their din mother, who treats them as wounded children. Browning delights in showing the behind the scenes life at the circus. One of my favorite moments has legless man Johnny Eck joking around with one of the clowns. Or the look of pleasure on the one conjoined twin’s face as her other half kisses her boyfriend. “Freaks’ has been accused of being exploitative, which it no doubt is, but Browning’s sympathy was always with the freaks. In the infamous wedding party scene, it’s clear who the real monster is.
In its current form, “Freaks” is only a little over an hour long. Browning’s original cut was closer to ninety. The cut footage reportedly featured a more explicit conclusion, showing the freaks mutilating Cleopatra and castrating Hercules, an element totally excised from the final cut. These scenes were purportedly so shocking that a woman sued the studio, claiming they caused her to have a miscarriage. The deleted scenes are believed to be lost. Who knows if the lost footage is as distressing as it sounds? As it exists now, “Freaks” is still a film totally unlike any other, a true cult classic with the power to shock and touch the heart. [9/10]
Curse of the Demon (1957)
Night of the Demon
Gee, there sure are a lot of horror movies with some variation on “Night of the Demon” in their title. There’s the previously reviewed “Night of the Demons” franchise, currently numbering four entries. There’s the sleazy Bigfoot slasher flick form 1980, also entitled “Night of the Demon.” You could even imagine “Demons” being tossed up in this bewilderment. In order to save myself the confusion, I always refer to Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 film – known as “Night of the Demon” in its full version – as “Curse of the Demon,” the title used for the shorter American edition. It’s a more fitting title, in some ways. The nights devoted to the demon only occupy two scenes, while most of the film is concerned with the demon’s curse. These are the kind of things I think about on Halloween.
A man flees through the night, screaming about a demon. After his car strikes a telephone pole, he’s electrocuted on the wires. The man, it turns out, was an expert in cults and religions, due to lecture at a convention on these subjects. When Dr. John Holden learns of the death, he investigates more closely. He discovers that the dead man was going to expose Dr. Karswell, who claims to be a black wizard and leads a cult in the English countryside. Reportedly, Karswell passed a curse onto the victim. After passing him a paper covered in ancient runes, a demon would claim him at a specific time after several days. Holden is a skeptic, not believing in such things. After Karswell passes him the same runes, after the demon begins to pursue him, his mind changes.
“Night of the Demon” has the chops to be a great classic. Yet I’ve never loved it like others do. The film attempts to be about skepticism versus superstition. Dana Andrews is a man of science, unmoved by Karswell’s supposed powers. Ideally, the film would have left us wondering if there really was a demon. Instead, “Curse of the Demon” puts its monster on-screen within the first ten minutes, removing any doubt. So Andrews’ doctor spends most of the film denying the existence of something we know is real. This makes the hero look like a huge asshole, an assumption Andrews’ pompous performance does nothing to deflate. This is a shame, as the rest of the film’s cast is quite good. Niall MacGinnis is brilliant as Karswell, creating a sinister villain through dialogue and body language. I also like Peggy Cummins as the heroine, who shares solid chemistry with Andrews.
we wouldn’t have seen the demon. The director insisted all throughout filming that the existence of the monster be kept ambiguous, similar to the trick he pulled in “Cat People.” (Tourneur also replicates that film's famous jump scare, switching a train out for a bus.) Producer Howard E. Chester went behind the filmmaker’s back and inserted sequences of the demon at the beginning and end, insuring this monster movie actually had a monster in it. I have no doubt that “Curse of the Demon” would be a stronger film without the titular entity. Yet it is an awfully good demon, isn’t it? The effects are somewhat choppy, as the creature is clearly an elaborate puppet. Still, the image of the monster slowly walking through the night – surrounded by a burning aura, its claws and wings waving back and forth – is undeniably spooky. So is a scene where we see the demon’s footprints appearing in the dirt, slowly advancing towards the hero.
The American version of the film is cut by fourteen minutes. That might be a bit severe but I do think the British version is a little on the long side. It drags before the final scene, before Andrews’ confrontation with Karswell on the train. I’ve only ever seen the longer edition, so maybe I should give the shorter version a look some day? Individual sequences in “Night of the Demon” are brilliant but some decisions keep me from loving it totally. Maybe a fan should patch together a version without the demon, to see if it truly improves the film? One can’t help but wonder. But, hey, it did inspire a great Kate Bush song. [7/10]
Theatre of Blood (1973)
Once again, I proclaim the obvious: It’s just not Halloween without Vincent Price. This’ll mark the third year in a row I’ve watched a Price vehicle on the 31st. Why break with tradition now? It’s hard for me to pick a favorite Vincent Price performance. Is it the intensity of “Witchfinder General?” The campy shouting of “The Tingler?” The silent theatricality of “Dr. Phibes?” Or is it, perhaps, the Shakespearean heights of “Theatre of Blood?” Released in 1973, the film clearly emulates the Phibes films. In all three Price plays a man who returns from the grave to murder those that wronged him, via elaborate death scenes based off pre-existing material. Sometimes formula works, as “Theatre of Blood” is just as delightful as “Phibes” was.
Edward Lionheart is the greatest Shakespearean actor of the stage. At least, he is in his own mind. When a circle of London critics deny him their highest acting award for a series of Shakespeare performances, Lionheart is so distraught that he commits suicide, leaping into the Thames. A year later, someone begins to murder the critics. Each killing is patterned after a death from a Shakespeare play. The police and the surviving critics suspect Lionheart has returned from the dead but they don’t know how. Of course, they are right.
“Theatre of Blood” is far gorier then the “Dr. Phibes” film, rivaling even some of the slasher flicks that would appear later in the decade. The reason the producers likely got away with this is the deaths are taken straight from Shakespeare. By cutting together a greatest hits reel, “Theatre of Blood” draws attention to just how grisly ol’ Bill’s plays were. A man is graphically run through with a spear, his dead body dragged behind a horse. A stabbing escalates until blood pours onto the camera lens. Beside his sleeping wife, another critic has his head sawed off. The film illustrates this with comically spurting blood. The film adds its own embellishments. Lionheart rewrites “The Merchant of Venice,” Shylock claiming his pound of flesh via a cut out heart. Joan of Arc being burnt at the stake is updated to a salon chair electrocution. A decapitated head is left on a milk bottle. As comedic as the film is, “Theatre of Blood” plays the carnage totally straight, creating a surprisingly uneasy effect.
In execution, “Theatre of Blood” isn’t as smooth a ride as “Dr. Phibes.” The comedy is large, the carnage is cruel, and Price is nuanced. A plot twist concerning Dianna Riggs character is plain as day. Even with the uneven tone, I love the movie anyway. It’s just too much damn fun. Appropriately, a stage adaptation starring Jim Broadbent as Lionheart premiered in 2005. While it’s hard to imagine anybody but Price in the part, I still would have love to have seen that. [9/10]
Trick or Treats (1982)
Two years ago on Halloween, I watched “Trick r’ Treat.” By now, that film is recognized as the reigning modern cult classic for Halloween fanatics. One year ago on Halloween, I watched “Trick or Treat,” a film not quite as highly regarded by horror fans but certainly has its fans. Turns out, there is a third horror movie with a similar title. “Trick or Treats” – notice the plural – is a film I had heard of a few times, occasionally mentioned by hardcore slasher fans. I had never seen it and knew almost nothing about it. The guy at the VHSPS booth called it “a weird one.” He wasn’t wrong.
Malcolm O’Keefe got carted away to a crazy house, a decision made by his wife. Several years have passed, O’Keefe’s anger and insanity only growing stronger inside the mental ward. On Halloween night, he escapes and heads back to his ex-wife’s house, for revenge. On that same night, the wife and her new husband leave, headed to a party. They leave their mischievous son Christopher with a babysitter, an aspiring actress named Linda. Linda has her hands full with Chris, a budding magician who loves to play pranks. This makes her assume that Malcolm’s threatening phone calls are just Halloween jokes at first, leaving her unprepared for the violence to come.
“Trick or Treats” is, indeed, a weird one. What makes the film so strange is the abrasive comedy that the script liberally applies to a typical slasher flick scenario right out of “Halloween.” For most of the film, the comedy is focused on over the horror. Little Christopher pulls a new prank roughly every five minutes. He pretends to die in a guillotine, drown in the pool, and cut his thumb off. Weirdly, the babysitter falls for each one of these. He tries on multiple spooky mask, talks through a ventriloquist dummy, and performs several easily recognizable pranks. When the film isn’t focusing on the tricks, it piles on other bizarre comedic beats. Such as the killer escaping the hospital dressed as a nurse and being sexually propositioned by several different men. None of it’s funny. Instead, it’s all just really off-putting and strange.
“Trick or Treats” was clearly a passion project for Gary Graver, who raised the budget himself. He wrote, directed, produced, photographed, and edited the film. He also cast his son, Chris Graver, as Christopher. The kid is obnoxious. Jacqueline Giroux plays Linda. Giroux appeared in many adult films, under the alias Robyn Whitting, but has a few above ground credits, like “To Live and Die in L.A.” She shows a decent sense of humor in “Trick or Treats,” doing enough to ground some of the film’s duller stretches. Graver managed to talk some more notable actors into appearing in his film, albeit briefly. David Carradine plays the stepdad, attempting to seduce Giroux in one mildly creepy scene. Carrie Snodgress plays the mom, contributing nothing. Steve Railsback shows up as Linda’s boyfriend, appearing in a few scenes while dressed in a knight outfit. Lastly, Paul Bartel has a bit part as a drunken bum.
Despite what the title suggests, “Trick or Treats” is more trick then treat. The film’s sense of humor, tone, and pacing is bizarre enough that it’s certainly memorable. It’s rarely actually funny though and drags a lot. There was no reason this story needed more then ninety minutes to be told. It won’t offer much to slasher fans, as there’s little blood. Mostly, I think the film will appear to fans of tonally strange motion pictures. I would usually consider myself in that company but “Trick or Treats” just doesn’t work. It does feature plenty of Halloween imagery so it does get points for that. [5/10]
Rob Zombie is a love ‘em or hate ‘em kind of guy. Or at least his movies are anyway, as a certain part of the population seems to agree on his music. With “The Lords of Salem,” Zombie took a break from his white trash, vulgarity, puke obsessed style. It didn’t totally leave it behind but he was trying something different as a director. With his latest film, “31,” he’s made a hard turn back to his usual theatrics. Typically, the movie has been lovingly received by some people and utterly dismissed by others. As someone who runs hot and cold on Zombie, I wasn’t sure what I would think. Would this be closer to the grungy genius of “The Devil’s Rejects” or the overly grotesque “Halloween II?”
A group of carnies is traveling across the American South-West, from one gig to another, on October 31st. Along the way, their van is stopped by a blockage in the road. The five friends are violently attacked by masked intruders, some killed, some captured. The survivors awaken in an underground series of tunnels. Their hosts inform them that they are playing a game of 31. A group of psychotic killers will chase and pursue them, attempting to kill each of them. If they can survive for twelve hours, they’ll be set free. The odds, however, are not in their favor.
Rob is obsessed with showing you how in-your-face he can be. Even in “31,” his strengths as a writer are apparent. He can create memorable characters. He provides Meg Foster with a strong part, as the surprisingly resilient matriarch of the carnies. Jeff Daniel Philips is vulgar but likable as Roscoe. The killers, overdone as they are, are genuinely frightening. One duo, Deathhead and Sexhead, are a giant German man and a short, sexy female, played by a typically squeaky E.G. Daily. Both wear white T-shirts and stockings. Malcolm McDowell is nicely erudite as the organizer of the death game. The film does introduce a great villain. Richard Brake gets some of the most disgusting dialogue, as Doom-Head. Yet the guy has an unnerving physicality and brings a suitably freaky energy to the role. For example, before attacking the others, he punches himself in the face. If “31” dialed back the vulgarity a bit, making Doom-Head the main villain, it might’ve been a really thrilling film.
“31” is unendingly nihilistic. If you’re expecting the ending to wrap things up in a satisfying or interesting way, prepare to be underwhelmed. I can’t say I enjoyed the film, as I don’t think it was designed to be enjoyed. Rob Zombie set out to make the most hardcore, fucked up thing possible. I don’t know if he met that objective but he clearly created something deeply unpleasant. “31” isn’t entirely artless, featuring some interesting performances and production design. However, it’s constant need to be extreme is quickly exhausting. Despite the title, the film barely utilizes its Halloween night setting, making it a weak pick for the end of the Six Weeks. [5/10]
It wasn’t a total wash though. I made the most of the Six Weeks of Halloween. I watched 95 movies, 63 television episodes and 13 short films. That leads to a total of 171. Which means I managed to top my previous record. I made some cool discoveries, finished my journey through “Tales from the Crypt” and “Lost Tapes,” and definitely had some laughs. Was it spooky, scary fun? It certainly was. The sun is getting ready to dawn on November 1st, meaning the Halloween season has officially come and gone. As always, I’ll miss you, Halloween. As always, I’ll be waiting to welcome you back with open arms next September 18th. Good night, spirits. Can’t wait to see you again.