Or: Thou Shalt Not Kill
I always like to start my annual marathon of horror movies with a classic from the silent era. That's because I think it's fitting, before doing a deep dive into the genre, to go back to its roots. This year, I'm going really far back, to the earliest movie on my sprawling horror watch list. 107 years ago, and one year before making a disgustingly racist movie that happened to change cinema forever, D.W. Griffith directed “The Avenging Conscience: or 'Thou Shalt Not Kill.'” Though difficult to classify the film as horror exactly, since spooky movies hadn't really solidified into a recognizable genre yet, Griffith's film would still present my great-grandparents' generation with some groundbreaking macabre imagery.
An orphaned child is adopted by his uncle. The one-eyed man raises the boy into adulthood. The young man falls in love with a girl named Annabel Lee. He hopes to marry her but his uncle refuses to give him the money necessary for a wedding. Inspired by a reading of Poe's “The Tell-Tale Heart,” he strangles his uncle to death. Afterwards, he entombs the body behind the fireplace. The slaying is witnessed by an Italian day laborer, who attempts to blackmail the young man. This begins a spiral into madness and he's soon haunted by grotesque hallucinations. It's not much longer before the police begin to suspect him of the killing.
Annabel Lee – blocking his nephew's romance is never explained. There's a few neutered subplot, such as a young boy in a garden seemingly also being attracted to the protagonist's girlfriend. Quite a lot of the film is devoted to people standing around their homes and pining. There's even some of the less-than-sensitive politics you expect for the 1910s here. One character is named only as “The Italian” is depicted as untrustworthy and conniving. Stuff like this just comes with the territory, when you're discussing movies as old as this one.
“The Avenging Conscience” really kicks in around the hour mark – which is admittedly only twenty-four minutes before the end – when our protagonist begins to be haunted by visions of his guilt. The shadows of his bedroom become a cloudy black sky, before the illuminated images of Christ, staring down at him disapprovingly, fades into view. The ticking of a clock and a pen being tapped on the desk triggers a “Tell-Tale Heart”-like flight of paranoia. This is when the young man sees bizarre demons, with pig heads and horns and exaggerated facial features, gyrating behind walls of smoke in a black void. Finally, he sees twitchy skeletons putting their arms around his shoulders. It's weird and creaky and strangely creepy in that way only silent movies can be. It's not as tense as “Dante's Inferno,” from three years earlier, but it was also produced on a much smaller budget.
all a dream. One can only assume a hackneyed reveal like that was less groan-worthy back in 1914, when movies were still a relatively recent invention.
Those who will get the most out of “The Avenging Conscience” are probably people interested in the early days of cinema. If you've watched a fair number of century old films, you can clearly see how talented D.W. Griffith was compared to many of his contemporaries. “The Avenging Conscience” is never that stagy or stiff. Aside from the nightmare scenes, images of lovers embracing under a rolling sky are also quite visually interesting. Yet the movie is still pretty slow and melodramatic through millennial eyes. As an early ancestor to the modern horror film, or even an extremely loose Poe adaptation, the movie only provides so much to chew on. Even if the hellish visions of a guilty conscience are still pretty neat. [6/10]
Last October, I watched and reviewed “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein” That was the final entry in A.I.P.'s famous Teenage Monster trilogy that began with “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” one of the studio's biggest hits and one of the fifties' most iconic B-movies. (Or, at least, one of the decade's most iconic B-movie titles.) The middle chapter of this unconnected series, which played on a double-bill with “Teenage Frankenstein,” is “Blood of Dracula.” The film is presumably not as famous as the other two because it ditched the naming convention. I guess Sam Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson were worried putting out “I Was a Teenage Vampire” as well would saturate the market or something.
Nancy Perkins' father is concerned she's on the path towards teenage delinquency. The girl is acting out more often, especially after her dad re-married so shortly after her mother's death. In hopes of putting her back on the right path, Nancy is shipped off to an all-girls prep academy. There, Nancy struggles with bullying, cliques, and strict teachers. She also meets Miss Branding, a chemistry teacher with some unique ideas about science. She hypnotizes Nancy with an amulet from the Carpathian Mountains. This unleashes Nancy's animal nature and turns her into a blood-thirsty vampire.
Adding to this mood of antiquated silliness is a streak of camp too. Not long after the mean girl clique at the school invite their boyfriends to a party, one of the boys is invited to sing “Puppy Love.” This leads to an impromptu musical number, with fully choreographed accompanying dance moves, as a very corny pop number is sang. This is not the only goofball indicator of the era here. Miss Branding's motivation for turning Nancy into a vampire is her fear that nuclear war will destroy the world and that only the toughest will survive. How she thinks turning a teenager into a vampire will resolve this, or how hypnotism and giant pendants tie into her scientific thinking, remains a mystery. This still allows the movie to insert a preposterous “she meddle in things men were not meant to know” moral at the very end.
Much like the other two entries in AIP's “I Was a Teenage Monster” trilogy, I think this one probably could prosper from a remake. “Blood of Dracula” definitely has the weakest ending of the three, as both of the lady villains are dispatched in underwhelming fashion. That ends a movie I otherwise enjoyed on a shrug. While the film definitely needed more bloodsucking and special effects, there's enough camp and vintage monster movie action here to satisfy me. And before you ask, no, the movie has nothing to do with Dracula. I can assume they stuck the Count's name in the title strictly for commercial reasons. (The U.K. title of “Blood is My Heritage” doesn't have much to do with the movie either but is at least more memorable.) [6/10]
I've made this point before but it bares repeating: Sometimes a catchy title, lurid poster art, and a ridiculous tagline is all a horror movie needed to become a cult classic. This was especially true in the eighties, when the market – the video market, specifically – was flooded with similarly themed gore-fests. “Blood Diner” definitely had all three of those. The title brings to mind images of bloody entrees at a roadside establishment. The poster featured a knife-wielding neon sign over the titular establishment, sometimes accompanied by a blue-faced ghoul in a Burger Chief hat picking his teeth with a dagger. And the tagline? “First they greet you, then they eat you!” All of the above was assuredly irresistible to burgeoning horror weirdos in 1987.
In the early sixties, serial killer Anwar Namtut murdered and cannibalized a series of sorority girls in hopes of resurrecting ancient Lemurian goddess Sheetar. When he failed, by deflowering the virgin sacrifice, he cut off his dingus and committed suicide by cop. Twenty years later, the duty of reviving Sheetar falls to his two idiot nephews, Michael and George. The brothers run a “vegetarian” restaurant that is actually serving parts of the girls they've killed. Guided by Uncle Anwar, who survives as a disembodied brain in a jar, the boys go about re-assembling Sheetar and preparing for the first Lemurian feast in centuries. A pair of detective – a hyper-confident woman and her moronic partner – are on their trail.
a sequel to “Blood Feast” but, for presumably legal reasons, ultimately had to be satisfied with just being an extended homage to the Godfather of Gore. Herschel Gordon Lewis movies are far from the only example of vulgar, low culture this movie is paying homage too. “Blood Diner” is, in many ways, a distillation of dumb-ass garbage culture. One of the brothers is obsessed with pro-wrestling, eventually jumping into the ring himself to grapple with a Nazi-themed heel. At one point, a group of (topless) Aerobicizers are gunned down. The boys pick up victims in a fifties-themed nightclub. In fact, the entire movie has a twisted retro vibe to it. From the dinner setting, to the fashion and the bizarre rockabilly band that plays at the end, “Blood Diner” puts an aggressively perverse spin on boomer nostalgia.
A movie that so gleefully celebrates garbage culture certainly brings the Troma aesthetic to mind. “Blood Diner” has the fat jokes, incredibly crude dialogue, over-the-top gore, and the piled-on female nudity you associate with that studio. One of this cartoonish film's most cartoonish moments involves a naked woman being covered in batter and having her head dunk in a deep-frier. She then runs around, her head resembling a giant hush-puppy, before being decapitated. What primarily separates “Blood Diner” from the other escapees from Tromaville, aside from its slightly higher production values, is a seriously surreal sense of humor. The owner of a rival diner drags a life-sized doll of a cowboy with him everywhere. Despite obviously being an unmoving dummy, it talks with a high-pitched voice and is treated like a regular person by all the other characters. The aforementioned guy, by the way, later has his hand chopped off and drives away while spurting blood, not being too distressed by this. While attacking a humping couple, the naked woman turns the tables on the brothers by performing karate. There's a lot of unexpected, or bizarre, gags like that among all the blood and fart gags.
biting off heads with the vagina dentata mouth in her belly and exploding heads by shooting lightning from her hands. It's nuts.
By the way, did I mention that “Blood Diner” was directed by a woman? Jackie Kong previously made low-budget monster movie “The Being,” so this was not a fluke in her career. Certainly not what you expect from a movie that so callously delights in displaying, and chopping up, female bodies. I can understand why the movie's tidal wave of tastelessness or constant self-aware winking might rub some viewers the wrong way. However, I found its balance of gross-out gore and dumb-ass humor mostly entertaining. I'm not alone, as “Blood Diner” has developed a decent-sized cult following over the years. When the movie was finally given a proper DVD release in 2016, it caused enough of a stir to make me realize the “Blood Diner's" devotees are more wide-spread than I realized. [7/10]
Much to my chagrin, enough time has passed that now the garbage horror movies of my teen years – which I think of as the nu metal equivalent to the genre – have developed defenders of their own. When released in 2002, while I was a freshman in high school, “Ghost Ship” was the first film from Robert Zemecksis/Joel Silver's Dark Castle Entertainment that wasn't a remake of an old William Castle movie. Like most of the company's work up to that point, it received a largely negative reaction from both mainstream critics and horror movie nerds. Now, almost twenty years later, “Ghost Ship” has found some fans defending the movie as an underrated gem of sorts. I've never seen the movie before so I decided this was the year I finally set sail with “Ghost Ship” and see for myself.
The MS Antonia Graza is a luxury ocean liner in the 1960s. Following a horrible accident, everyone aboard is horribly killed except for a little girl named Katie. Forty years later, a salvage crew – led by Captain Murphy and first mate Maureen Epps – are told that the Graza, which has since passed into seafaring legend, has been spotted in the Barring Seat. The team soon comes upon the Graza and attempt to salvage it. They find wooden boxes full of gold bars inside its hold. The crew is also haunted by a series of increasingly bizarre images. Not long after that, people start to wind up dead. Greer soon deduces an evil force is behind the deaths.
That filmmaker, by the way, is Steve Beck, who previously made Dark Castle's remake of “13 Ghosts.” (Or “Thir13en Ghosts,” if you insists we call it that.) Much like that movie, “Ghost Ship” has a story that bends in a number of convoluted directions to disguise the fact that it doesn't actually have much of a plot. Increasingly unlikely accident befall the salvage crew, such as their ship exploding mysterious after setting foot on the ocean liner. Through some gratuitous flashbacks, we learn that the Antonia Graza has a history of bloodshed and betrayal. This climaxes with an evil spirit appearing and explaining his entire motivation near the end. But before all this shit happens? Long stretches of the movie are devoted to people just wandering around the ship, encountering spooky shit. It's as if the writers had a cool setting and a decent premise but weren't allowed to expand any further upon their idea.
one of the greatest Irish actors of all time, appears as Captain Murphy. Byrne barks exposition before catching a bad case of sea madness and getting the film's most unglamorous exit. Isaiah Washington very stupidly follows a naked ghost lady into an elevator shaft and Karl Urban gets crushed under a giant gear. The early scenes show a bit of a chummy side among the crew mates, suggesting these characters could've more fleshed-out. But “Ghost Ship” is nothing more than a big budget slasher movie and its characters exist only to be killed off in dumb ways. This is even more obvious when Julianna Margulies – mildly appealing if tough in an undefined way – emerges as the story's final girl.
By the way, my earlier comparison of this era of horror to nu metal was fitting, as “Ghost Ship” features some extremely loud songs from Mudvayne and Gabriel Mann. The former band are played early on before being reprised over the end credits, following a needlessly cruel and very dumb twist ending. Much like Beck's “Thirteen Ghosts,” this movie also has pretty cool sets that are lit in a mildly interesting way, suggesting this didn't have to be as bad as it is. Then again, also like “Thirteen Ghosts,” there's an extremely unearned sappy side that manifests as goofy-looking CGI. I can see why people praise “Ghost Ship's” opening barrage of gore. But don't let a decent first two minutes trick you into thinking this is a good movie. It's exactly the type of flashy but deeply lame trash Dark Castle specialized in. Like nu metal, it's an embarrassing relic of the past that deserves no reevaluation. [3/10]
In 1984, a homeless teenager, habitual drug user, occasional graverobber and wannabe Satanist named Ricky Kasso invited three of his friends into the woods outside their affluent Long Island suburb. There, they dropped acid and watched as Ricky slowly stabbed Gary Lauwers to death. Despite Kasso bragging to schoolmates that Satan commanded him to kill, the murder wasn't uncovered for another two weeks. The shocking crime was swept up in the eighties Satanic Panic – both boys were heavy metal fans, to boot – and became the topic of sensationalist books, documentaries, and Geraldo specials. Less than a year later, experimental artists David Wojnarowicz and Tommy Turner would create “Where Evil Dwells,” a thirty minute film loosely inspired by the horrific event.
“Where Evil Dwells” is not a film especially concerned with narrative. It depicts Ricky Kasso's juvenile delinquent and graverobbing activities before showing the fight breaking out around the campfire, that would lead to the stabbing of Lauwers. The murder is brutally depicted before the film grows increasingly abstract. Its second half is devoted entirely to some sort of Satanic ritual being performed in the woods. People in monster masks or wearing animal heads set fires and perform acts of torture and implied sexual violation and cannibalism. This is intercut with digressions of a Christ-like figure messily eating fried chicken, a Satan-like figure setting fireworks off inside his suit, handheld and shots of a roller coaster. There's also a couple of horror host-style segments with a gravelly-voiced demonic ventriloquist dummy .
The filmmakers' purpose behind creating such a movie can only be guessed out. “Where Evil Dwells” falls squarely into the underground “Cinema of Transgression” movement that arose out of the New York punk scene at this time. Yet I think, beyond a punk rock desire to freak out the squares, the movie also represents a round-about refutation of the Satanic Panic, of giving all the religious fundamentalists crowing about devil worshiping teens exactly what they want. It's not a film I'd want to revisit – nor would I be interested in seeing the feature length amount of future Wojnarowicz and Turner supposedly shot that was supposedly lost in a fire – but it has a certain power to unnerve, no matter how crude it is. [7/10]