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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Halloween 2017: September 19

Vampyr (1931)

Since 2012, I've been beginning my Halloween Horror-Fest Blog-a-thon with a silent horror movie. This just feels right to me, beginning my six week long journey by going back to the genre's roots. Yet, over the last five years, I've watched most of the notable silent horror movies. Tradition is important to me, as you know, and I didn't want to break this one. So 2017's Blog-a-thon begins with a mostly silent horror movie. “Vampyr” was the legendary Carl Theodor Dreyer's follow-up to his 1928 classic, “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” It's amusing to note that Dreyer decided to make a vampire movie due to the popularity of the “Dracula” Broadway play, which would bring Bela Lugosi to fame. “Vampyr” was a difficult production and not well received in 1931. Since then, it's developed a reputation as one of the greats.

Allan Gray has been wandering through the small villages of Europe, looking for knowledge on the occult. He comes to the small French community of Courtempierre. He rents a room at the local inn. That night, a strange man enters his room, leaves behind a parcel, and tells Gray to open it upon his death. The next day, Gray sees the old man die at a near-by manor. The daughter of the manor's family is gravely ill. She has bite-marks – two pinpricks – on her neck. Gray then reads the book the old man left him, realizing it's a tome about vampires. He soon realizes that a vampire is responsible for the girl's sickness. And that someone in the town is under the vampire's control.

I first saw “Vampyr” on television year ago, late at night. I was drifting in and out of sleep at the time. Watching the film fully awake, my impression hasn't changed much. A dream-like atmosphere informs the entire motion picture. Early on, Allan Gray sleeps several times throughout the movie. He frequently sees shadows. While exploring an empty castle, he sees shadows dance along the wall, nobody casting them. A subtle but impressive segment shows the shadow of a solider with a peg leg, moving without him. His dreams are of death. Upon arriving at the inn, Allan spots an old man with a scythe. He later has a vivid dream of a moving skeleton, appearing in his bedroom. This builds towards the film's most  memorable sequence: A nightmare where Allan dies, is placed in a casket, and carried through town. Dreyer shoots this scene from the corpse's prospective, placing the audience inside the coffin and looking out through wide-open eyes.

All of the above might be chilling but it doesn't have much to do with vampires. “Vampyr” is stubbornly disinterested in typical vampire movie tropes. Maybe it's because the rules of the subgenre were only beginning to be codified but “Vampyr” approaches the vampire with a decidedly old world style. The vampire is not a suave foreigner or a sexy temptress. Instead, it's a decrepit old woman. Her hypnotized slave, the town doctor, does most of the actual work. We see less of the actual vampire and more of her victim. The ailing young woman aligns the vampire with disease and plague. All of this, the bloodsucker being elderly and weak, slowly draining her victim's life, makes the titular vampyr represent death and decay. This is very different take on the undead creature than the version that would emerge throughout the next few decades.

“Vampyr” was Dreyer's first sound feature, made when the technology was still new. The movie was shot in three different languages: German, French and English. Due to these challenges, “Vampyr” features very little dialogue. In fact, most of the movie's information is deliver via title cards and close-up of book pages. This results in a sound feature that feels like a silent movie. It's also pretty awkward. The film is achingly slow at times. Some sound sequences, like the last scene in a mill, are deafeningly noisy. Other moments are incredibly silent. Sometimes, the music doesn't synch up with the events, stopping and starting suddenly. “Vampyr” is beautifully dream-like sometimes. Other times, it's like listening to someone else describing their dream, a less exciting procedure.

It's hard for me to call “Vampyr” one of the greatest horror films of all time. For me, it can't compare to the movies Universal Studios were making at the same time. However, it's definitely an interesting movie. Some of its imagery is absolutely chilling and Dreyer mostly succeeded in making a movie that unfolded like a strange nightmare. Yet it's clear that the director was only beginning to adapt to the new technology at his disposal. The result is a movie that is intermittently great but also occasionally tedious. If nothing else, it's a unique take on the vampire legend. [6.5/10]

The Haunted Palace (1963)

In 2017, H.P. Lovecraft is a cottage industry. There's hundred of movies, comics, video games, tabletop games, toys and Azathoth knows what else inspired by the author's stories. Lovecraft is widely recognized as one of the most influential writers of the last century. It wasn't always that way. By 1963, Roger Corman was six films into his cycle of popular, Vincent Price-starring Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Corman decided to adapt Lovecraft stories next and began work on a version of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” Yet Lovecraft was considered too obscure in 1963. The film was re-titled “The Haunted Palace,” with Price reading a line from the poem at the end, in an attempt to trick people into thinking this was part of the Poe Cycle. Despite the subterfuge, “The Haunted Palace” is still the first cinematic adaptation of Howard Philip Lovecraft's writing.

In 1765 in the town of Arkham, Joseph Curwen is suspected of being a warlock and burned at the stake. Before dying, Curwen curses the town and threatens his return. One hundred years later, Charles Dexter Ward and his wife arrive in Arkham. They have inherited the old family palace. Inside, Ward's eyes fall upon the portrait of Joseph Curwen, realizing they look identical. From there on, the spirit of Curwen begins to inhabit Ward's body. Resurrected, the warlock goes about his plans, getting revenge on the town, reviving the corpse of his wife, performing evil spells, and attempting to raise an Old One from underneath the palace.

Tricking audiences into thinking “The Haunted Palace” was a Poe adaptation was sneaky but not entirely underhanded. Visually, the film resembles the Poe films Corman made. It has the same rich colors, gothic sets, and period costumes. Moreover, the film employs a similar style of horror. “The Haunted Palace” generates creeps with heavy fog and an uneasy atmosphere. The shots of fog-strewn Arkham certainly have a spooky power to them. There's a classical atmosphere to Ward's mind being invaded by his ancestor. Corman, however, hints at Lovecraftian horror. Hiding in the town are deformed humans, such as a little girl with no eyes or a man with a warped face. A sequence where Dexter and his wife are surrounded by the mutated humans is genuinely eerie. C'thulhu and Yog-Sothoth get name-dropped and we get a glimpse at a fishy, inhumane creature in a pit. It still feels more like Poe than Lovecraft but it is interesting.

“The Haunted Palace” presents an interesting opportunity for Vincent Price. He's essentially playing two characters in the same body. As Charles Dexter Ward, Price employs all his good-natured charm. He seems like a loving husband and a gregarious fellow. As Joseph Curwen, Price is devious. He's genuinely chilling, Luciferian in his plotting and evil intent. It's one of Price's most cheerless and evil characters. Price is surrounded by a solid supporting cast. Lon Chaney Jr., in his only film with Corman, appears as Curwen's assistant. It's the kind of undistinguished man-servant role Chaney played frequently in the twilight of his career. Despite that, Chaney still generates some chills with his drooping eye-sockets and sickly appearance. Debra Paget and Cathie Merchant are lovely as the female leads while Corman peppers the rest of the cast with recognizable character actors, like Frank Maxwell, Elisha Cook Jr., and Leo Gordon.

“The Haunted Palace” essentially gets by on its spooky atmosphere and strong cast. Which is good, as the screenplay is a mess. Joseph Curwen's goals seem to shift from scene to scene. First, he only desires to take his descendant's body. Later, he decides to take bloody revenge on the descendants of his tormentors. Next, he's trying to bring his dead girlfriend back to life or raise a fish monster from a pit in the dungeon. How the groups of deformed humans tie in with Curwen's curse on the town is never explained. We just have to assume he's responsible for him. Characters disappear at key moments, such as Lon Chaney's Simon vanishing mysteriously before the conclusion. Most of this stuff was added by Corman and does not appear in Lovecraft's original story. So we know who to blame for the nonsensical digressions.

Still, Vincent Price as a creepy villain, the early examples of body horror, and a shit-ton of fog go a long ways. It's not as direct an adaptation as later Lovecraft films but you can see Corman filtering some of H.P.'s ideas through the lens he brought to the Poe pictures. And, you know, technically the palace in the film is pretty haunted, so the title isn't a lie. I would never presume what H.P. Lovecraft would've thought but, considering how he idolized Poe, I wonder if he would've been flattered by their works being connected like this. [7/10]

Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)

Once upon a time, an awesome title was all a horror movie needed to get funded. Surely one of the genre's greatest titles is “Killer Klowns from Outer Space.” The film was a passion project of the Chiodo Brothers, a trio of brothers who have a long career in special effects and stop-motion work. Due to its outrageous title, which sums up its outrageous premise, the film would immediately attract a cult following. I mean, what self-respecting horror fan wouldn't seek out a movie actually called “Killer Klowns from Outer Space?” I received the film, years ago, as a gift from a cousin who always gave me quote-unquote bad movies for Christmas. The joke was on him. I think “Killer Klowns” is great!

You don't need me to provide a plot synopsis for this film. The title tells you everything you need to know. But I'll go ahead anyway: The town of Crescent Cove is about to get some unexpected visitors. Invaders from another world have landed in the forest. These invaders are clowns – or klowns, if you prefer – but they don't want to make people laugh. Instead, they are here to drink our blood. Teenage couple Mike and Debbie stumble upon the klowns' ship but no one believes them. Soon, the killer klowns are enacting their particular breed of chaos all throughout Crescent Cove.

Most movies about killer clowns are simply content to dress a homicidal lunatic up in colorful greasepaint, big shoes, and baggy pants. “Killer Klowns from Outer Space,” however, extends its absurd premise to its logical extreme. This is best displayed in the scene where the clowns throw acidic cream pies at a security guard. As he's melted into a slushy pile of whipped cream, a klown places a giant cherry atop the corpse. This commitment to premise is seen in every facet of the film. The klowns track victims with a balloon animal bloodhound. They travel in a spaceship shaped like a big top. (Which later reveals itself to be a literal spinning top.) They fire bloodsucking popcorn from colorful guns. They web their victims up in cotton candy. Amusingly, they suck the blood through a wacky bendy straw. Traditional clown-like antics inform everything the film's antagonists do.

Of course, “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” never attempts to be a serious horror film. In fact, the movie is an affectionate parody of fifties creature features. Plot wise, it resembles “The Blob” quite a bit. The film begins with an old man uncovering the arrived aliens. Later, a group of teenagers discover the extraterrestrial threat. However, the local police refuses to believe them until its too late. Being a comedy, “Killer Klowns” exaggerate these characters. The old man is now a goofball, paling around with a basset hound named “Pooh Bear.” The town sheriff, played perfectly by John Vernon, is a massive asshole who antagonizes everyone around him. He outright ignores emergency calls after a while. (Fittingly, he gets the most gruesome death in the film.) The parody elements tend to be the movie's funniest. It's more straight-ahead comedic touches – such as a pair of perpetually horny guys who have rented an ice cream truck in a bid to pick up women – are less amusing.

Despite obviously being a ridiculous comedy, some people really are scared by “Killer Klowns.” To a genuine coulrophobe, I guess this movie would be terrifying. With their background being in special effects, the creature designs are likably grotesque. The clown's faces are wrinkled grimaces, with disturbingly wide grins and wild, spiraling eyes. Every aspect of the production design is quite good, truthfully. The circus tent space ship looks amazing, with colorfully slanting hallways. The various clown cars and laser blasters are inventively designed. Even the more elaborate special effects – such as a deadly shadow puppet show or the climatic appearance of Klownzilla – are brought to life brilliantly. The movie was only made for two million dollars but the Chiodos stretch that small budget as far as it could, creating a fantastic looking feature.

“Killer Klowns from Outer Space” has cult appeal on another level. The movie's theme song is provided by pop-punk band the Dickies. Their title track, with its demented calliope melody, perfectly suits the film. John Massari's score takes a few cues from the Dickies' song, providing a memorable electronic riff throughout the film. “Killer Klowns” is a fantastically entertaining horror parody, with awesome creature effects and an ideal sense of humor about its self. The directors have been trying to get a sequel, known as “Return of the Killer Klowns in 3D,” made for three decades. I'm doubtful that part two will ever surface and it almost doesn't need too. The original stands on its own as an awesomely goofy eighties creature feature. [8/10]

The Void (2017)

There's so much exciting talent in the indie horror scene today that it's hard to keep up. A group of filmmakers I feel like I came late to are the Astron-6 guys. Composed of five Hollywood make-up experts, the team began cranking out bizarre, comedic genre homages in 2007. The gang moved into feature films with 2011's “Man-Borg.” They've since made movies like “Father's Day,” “The Editor,” and one of the best segments in “The ABCs of Death 2.” Their work is designed to appeal to horror weirdos, full of graphic gore and oddball humor. Last year, Astron-6 decided to ditch the humor and take a stab at a serious horror movie. “The Void” was released earlier this year and, among the horror weirdos I ran with, was heavily discussed. Well, Halloween has started so it's time for me to finally watch this one.

Small town deputy, Daniel Carter, is busy recovering from the end of his marriage, after his wife, Alison, lost their child. What he thinks is going to be a quiet night changes when he spots a man crawling alongside the road. An apparent drug addict, he takes the man to the hospital where Alison works. Turns out, the man is fleeing a strange cult. Two men, Vincent and Simon, arrive at the hospital with guns and axes. They've been hunting this cult. And with good reason. The cultists are opening portals to a horrifying dimension. Strange monstrosities are slithering through into our world, mutating people into deformed creatures.

Despite being made by the same people, “The Void” ditches the Astron-6 branding. This is likely because the movie doesn't have their usual madcap sense of humor. Instead, “The Void” is a grim horror picture, concerning themes of overcoming loss. (All the major characters have lost a love one: The sheriff and his wife lost their unborn child. The redneck hunter lost his daughter. The villainous doctor's daughter died recently.) Yet the change in tone doesn't mean the filmmakers are done paying homage to their influences. “The Void” is obviously beholden to John Carpenter. The story is highly reminiscent of “Prince of Darkness.” The squirming body-horror recalls “The Thing,” the inter-dimensional monsters hearken back to “In the Mouth of Madness,” and the siege story is inspired by “Assault on Precinct 13.” Floating throughout the film are other callbacks, including “Hellraiser” and Lucio Fulci's “The Beyond.” “The Void” is clearly pitched to the same audience as Astron-6's other films.

What is likely to attract horror fans to “The Void” the most are the film's considerable practical creature effects. The monsters in the film are impressively creepy. Tentacles flop from a corpse's eye sockets. Soon, it grows into a pulsing mass of body horror, arms reaching from a massive tumor. Later, dismembered dead bodies in a basement shambles to life. These guys are fresher than zombies. They are, instead, twitching corpses kept alive by some insidious force. A pregnant woman is encircled by tentacles, pumping strange fluids from one place to the next. Later, a flayed man – there's your “Hellraiser” homage – opens a portal. A huge monster, similar to a bull but made of twisted human bodies, rampages on-screen for the climax. All of these hideous monsters are brought to life with good old fashion latex and rubber. The filmmakers know exactly how to deploy gross, gruesome, squirming monsters like this. The creature effects in “The Void” are effectively disturbing.

The film has no shortage of creepy, grotesque imagery. The hooded cultist, in white robes with black triangle shapes on their faces, are unnerving sight. As the film goes on, a tense and nervous energy overtakes the proceedings. There's a problem though. “The Void” is pretty thin gruel on the character and story side of things. The cast is large and full of unknowns. None of the characters are especially memorable. Some of them, such as the man hunting the cultists, are actively abrasive. The plot also does not progress in a straight line. The film cuts back and forth between the characters frequently, keeping the flow of the story choppy. Ultimately, you never quite care about who lives and dies. The plot feels more like a delivery system for fucked-up horror sequences than any sort of actual story.

Just as a visceral experience, “The Void” is worth seeking out. The extraordinary special effects prove that. Yet I wish the screenplay had as much meat on its bones as the Lovecraftian abominations in the film do. Still, I'm not surprised that the film was well received in the horror community. I imagine its cult following will only grow with time. However, I hope the Astron-6 crew put as much effort into their story and characters next time as they do their propensity for freaky horror sequences. [7/10]

The Cop Cam (2016)

When it comes to short horror films, less is usually more. “The Cop Cam” isn't quite three minutes long. It's plot is minimal. Told from the perspective of a police officer's body cam, it's about a cop who has to enter a dilapidated building, presumably to check on some sort of disturbance. He hears and sees some strange things before being attacked by a mostly obscured humanoid figure. Dialogue is minimal. Most of the sounds are chatter from the police scanner. No explanation is provided for what the cop encounters. That's pretty much all there is to it. Yet “The Cop Cam” is surprisingly effective.

Director Isaac Rodriguez shows a strong grasp on setting and sound design. From the moment the cop enters the building, the audience is watching every corner of the spooky house. We're left wondering if a shadow moving on the wall was something paranormal or nothing. We get fleeting glimpses of the apparition, or whatever it is, before the big confrontation. The police radio noises create an unnerving atmosphere, immediately putting the viewer at ill ease. The first-person perspective puts us in the main character's seat, making his frightening trip more visceral. (Rodriguez also, cleverly, uses the static and video distortion common to small cameras to conceal the short's few cuts.) “The Cop Cam,” like a lot of horror shorts that are popular on the internet, is simply building up to a jump scare. But it's a pretty good one. Over all, “The Cop Cam' is a very well assembled two minutes and fifteen seconds. [7/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

"Vampyr" is a weird film. I honestly don't know what went on as far as the story goes. It seems like it follows the basic vampire lore but is very unique in the way that it looks. Yeah, the imagery is genuine creepy. I tend to over use that word a lot but this film earns that description. Watching it is an experience because the visuals are so amazing. It practically smells dingy and musty. The camera pans into every grimy corner and over every dirty tabletop. The paint is peeling off of walls and cracked plaster litters the floors and shelves that hold old books and broken skulls. The camera also glides around rooms and down hallways. There are ghostly figures that dance around for what appears to be no reason and shadows that travel on their own, disconnected from their hosts. The whole thing is otherworldly.
'Vampyr' is unique in every way, set apart by its crazy visual style. Unfortunately, I have to knock it down a notch because it's tough to make much sense of the story. 7/10

"Killer Klowns..." is a classic example of the right way to make campy horror flick. It's filled with laughable characters and funny but very creepy clowns. And speaking of those clowns...Wow! Their costumes and facial expressions are amazing. They look totally convincing and they are all uniquely different from each other. About the laughs in this movie, they come from two places, the stupidity of the humans and the clown gags. However, the clown gags make you laugh rather unnervingly because the clowns themselves are so eerie. They kill in a variety of creative ways. The special effects here are all practical and they are impressive. 8/10

Comparing "The Void" to John Carpenter's "The Thing" is going to give people the idea that this is a good movie. I'm pretty sure the reason people keep linking "The Void" to "The Thing" is because it's got practical effects with tentacles squirming around. "The Void" has none of the tension, dread, or scares of Carpenter's classic. It's gore for gore's sake. There's nothing scary about this at all. It reminds me of two of the worst movies I've ever seen, "Frankenstein's Army" and "The Signal (2007)". If you like watching necks sliced multiple times, grotesque atrocities bursting from female's wombs, and hacking things to a bloody pulp with fire axes, then by all means, check this out.

I keep thinking of reasons to dislike this movie even more. I'm actually getting pissed that I spent money on this. Nothing makes any sense, there are unknown motivations. It's so cruel and violent. The little bit that you learn about the characters are all depressing. They all have some kind of awful moment or some dysfunction that has consumed everything about their lives. The only thing that deserves a glance are the brief moments of cosmic horror. 2/10

I liked "The Cop Cam" short but I've been so conditioned to leap at every jump scare that it's almost impossible to enjoy new Horror stuff anymore. And true to form, this short is centered around one. 5/10