Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 31, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 31 - HALLOWEEN

Like seemingly everybody else in the world, I have not been having the best 2016. I was hoping that bad luck would break during the Six Weeks but the last month and a half was filled just as much nonsense as the proceeding eight. Halloween got off to a rough start, some family drama interrupting my afternoon. My friend who I trick or treated with last year had to work so that was off the agenda too. I wasn't going to let this stuff ruin my Halloween. As soon as I could, I got to work on watching as much spooky stuff as possible. As always, here's my reviews.

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.

Bradbury wrote the screenplay himself, which means “The Halloween Tree” is a close adaptation. He pairs the kids down from eight to four and adds a girl. Moundshroud is more overtly antagonistic. Pip is more involved in the adventure. The novel’s events are simplified, in order to fit inside a 70 minute run time. Otherwise, “The Halloween Tree” sticks closely to Bradbury’s text. He even narrates a few scenes. (Though I wish the film had included 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.

“The Halloween Tree” happily relishes in the morbid. This frankness may make the film a little scary for younger viewers. One sequence features a mummy sitting at a dinner table. Another has gargoyles springing to life and flying to their perches on a cathedral. The finale has the Mexican mummies springing to life, pulling themselves from their cobweb strewn alcoves. More important is how the story gets at the meaning of the holiday. The moment when Tom Skelton realizes that Halloween is about facing the inevitable, about conquering death for a day, is genuinely powerful. At least for a Halloween faithful like myself.

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]

Freaks (1932)

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.

Though “Freaks” has a reputation as a shocking horror classic, the film is truthfully a melodrama. Love triangles, betrayal and secrets revealed are the main components of the story. Numerous subplots pad out the run time. One of the clowns is attempting to woo the pretty girl who rides the horses. Another clown, one with a bad stutter, has recently married one half of the conjoined twins, despite the protest of her attached sister. The acting fits the melodramatic script. Browning casting the film with real sideshow performers added to the story’s verisimilitude. Sadly, most of the circus folk aren’t accomplished actors. Harry and Daisy Earles are wooden as the dwarfs. Prince Randian, 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.

While Browning is clearly on the side of the circus people, the film still mines their conditions for horror. Cleopatra is obviously the villain but she’s also a pretty woman being threatened by deformed people, drawing a clear line between traditional beauty and “otherness.” The climax features the human torso, the pinheads, the dwarfs and seal woman slithering through the mud. They brandish knives and pistols. The film adds additional atmosphere in the form of a severe thunderstorm. Because we’ve already been set up to believe all the circus performers are real, Cleopatra’s fate as the chicken woman is also unnerving. Browning presents these images to us to horrify, to frighten, us. It works too, as the ending of “Freaks” is as starling now as it was eighty years ago.

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.

Tourneur came to fame for directing several of Val Lewton’s 1940s horror films. “Curse of the Demon” resembles these pictures in several way. Like Lewton’s production, this one relies primarily on atmosphere. The opening scene is thick with shadowy ambiance, as the demon’s latest victim flees through the forest. A beautiful sequence has Andrews and Peggy Cummins hiding in his home during a thunderstorm. The rain outside adds to the environment while the fantastically lit hallways undeniably catch the eye. A later sequence features a similarly, impressively staged hallway, leading towards an open window. The interaction of shadows and light undeniably create chills in at least two other scenes, also devoted to night time runs through forests or train tracks.

“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.

Of course, if Jacques Tourneur had gotten his way, 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.

Supposedly, “Theatre of Blood” was Vincent Price’s favorite film of all his leading roles. Why? Because it gave the actor, long since typecast in horror roles, a chance to act the bard. And not just one play either, as Lionheart recites monologues from many of Shakespeare's plays. Price is clearly relishing the oppretunity, sinking his teeth into notable speeches from “Julius Caesar,” “The Merchant of Venice,” and “King Lear.” Casting Price as a hammy actor takes away any excuse to hold back. Lionheart assumes several disguises throughout the film, presenting even more chances for Price to gloriously overact. He plays a cartoonish French chef, a campy gay hairdresser name Butch, a Cockney massage therapist, and an especially sniveling Richard III. As wonderfully ridiculous as the script is, Price still imbues the part with pathos and soul. Lionheart is a ham but he’s still got feelings, sadness as being passed over for his achievement and rage at those responsible.

“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.

The laughs the film generates are very much of the sicko variety. A mother being fed her two children in a pie, lifted “Titus Andronicus,” is transformed into a portly critic being fed his pet poodles. The scene is obviously ridiculous, even including the puffy poodle heads on the pies. Yet it’s also kind of viscerally disturbing. A fencing scene features some silly leaping across giant trampolines. Another element “Theatre of Blood” has in common with “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” is the incompetent detective chasing Price. That subplot even escalates to a zany car crash sound effect. The movie isn’t making any serious point about the relationship between critics and art. All of the critics are caricatures, even when paired with fine actors like Robert Morley and Coral Browne, Price’s future wife.

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.

Graver’s film drags a lot. He pads long scenes out with Christopher’s countless pranks and shots of trick or treaters coming to the door. An especially useless subplot has two of Linda’s friend, who work as editors for a movie studio, cutting bizarre scenes out of some sort of horror movie. Finally, in the last half-hour, “Trick or Treats” remembers it’s supposed to be a horror movie. Chris’ dad makes it back to his house, kills one of Linda’s friend, and a long chase sequence ensues. Even this portion of the film features some weird comic relief, with Malcolm bemoaning that he’s killed the wrong person. The way the killer is dispatched is easily predicted and the last minute twist makes the audience feel like the film has wasted its time.

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]

31 (2016)

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.

“31” is a distillation of Rob Zombie’s aesthetic. The film is set in 1976 for pretty much no reason, other then that’s Zombie’s favorite decade. The carnies speak in overly profane dialogue, dropping F-bombs and crude sexual references in every minute. At least two characters are introduced while having graphic, sweaty sex. A gas station attendant swears at the heroes as they arrive, just out of rudeness. Once the gang arrives at the murder camp, Zombie only leans harder into this style. One of the killers is a Hispanic little person, who dresses as a Nazi and idolizes Adolf Hitler. There’s a pair of chainsaw wielding clowns who constantly threaten to rape everyone and like to violate their victim’s bodies. Everybody swears. The story’s structure, with crazed killers hiding in different themed rooms, bring the haunted mazes Zombie likes to design to mind. If you can’t stomach Zombie’s bullshit, “31” will alienate you within minutes and never stop.

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.

The biggest bummer about “31” is not how unpleasant it is. I expected that. What’s most disappointing about the film is how hard so much of it is to watch. During the attack scenes, Zombie turns on the shaky cam. Some of the fight sequences are so chaotic, that you simply can’t tell what’s going on. While Zombie made his budgets count on his other films, “31” is less visually interesting. The majority of the film are set in indistinct underground tunnels. The lighting is mostly sickly blues and greens. There are some clever sets, like the various death rooms or the Satanic ballroom Malcolm McDowell hangs out in. But far too much of “31” looks the same. The film’s budget was provided by two separate crowdfunding campaigns. I wonder if the contributors felt their money was well used?

“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]

Well, I did my best. There’s no doubt that this year’s Halloween could’ve been more then it was. I did none of the fun Halloween activities I looked forward to. I didn’t hand out candy, navigate a corn maze, survive a haunted attraction, or see a midnight screening. The universe even conspired to ruin my annual trip to Monster-Mania, by throwing a flat tire at me.

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.

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]

Sunday, October 30, 2016

MEMORIES: AMC's MonsterFest

Every horror fan comes to the genre in different ways. As a kid, most of the movies I saw were controlled by my parents. Anything I rented or watched usually had to go through them first. Not that I had much interest in horror flicks back then, since I was a timid, wimpy kid. So, even if I was interested in monster movies as a child, I probably couldn’t have gotten them through my usual video store haunts. Television, instead, was the easiest way to watch genre cinema. Which brings me to the network formally known as American Movie Classics and their annual MonsterFest marathon.

In 2016, AMC is another one of those cable channels whose initials stand for nothing. The network has long since abandoned its original goal, of showing classic films. These days, the channel’s biggest hits have nothing to do with movies. Programs like “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” and “The Walking Dead” have made AMC the home for prestige television. When they show movies at all, they’re usually no older then twenty years and are edited for content and commercials.

But it didn’t use to be that way. Around the end of the nineties, AMC – back when those letters still stood for American Movie Classics – was added to our cable package. Turner Classic Movies, still the gold standard for classic cinema based networks, was only available in the “premium” set-up at the time. Which meant my household didn’t get it. So when AMC appeared, it was a great alternative. The channel, true to its name, very rarely showed anything made after the 1980s. Instead, the focus was on black and white cinema from Hollywood’s golden years. The films were presented unedited and commercial free. For movie fans who couldn’t afford the upgrade to Turner Classic Movies, it was a quality replacement.

As a twelve year old boy, I’ll admit, the films of John Wayne, Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, and Jimmy Stewart didn’t interest me very much. I had no aversion to black and white films but usually associated monochromatic movies with the boring Fred Astaire flicks my mom loved. In other words, AMC didn’t appeal to me very much at first. However, while channel surfing one night, I stumbled upon a classic Godzilla movie. “Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster,” to be precise. Then and now, I loved the Japanese King of the Monsters. I had only seen a few of the original series but was determined to complete my Godzilla education. Upon discovering that I was watching AMC, I began to religiously scan through the TV Guides and on-line schedules, making sure I wouldn’t miss any future screenings of scaly kaiju flicks.

Through these avenues, I discovered that AMC had a weekly programming block devoted to special effects films. Airing Friday evenings, it was called “AMC’s efx” and was hosted by effects mastermind Stan Winston. In hopes of seeing more Godzilla movies, I started tuning in every week. I’ve mentioned the program numerous times over the years, which shows the huge influence it had on me. By the year 2000, Joe Bob Brigg’s “MonsterVision” was over and even Elvira couldn’t hold onto a show. Stan Winston and his room full of famous creations was the closest thing I had to a weekly horror host show. It’s true that Winston had only recorded a few unique host segments, most films being introduced with the same canned opening. It’s also true that "efx" wasn’t solely devoted to sci-fi and horror films. Earth-bound effects features like “The Enemy Below” sometimes slipped through. Yet I was exposed to many films I love through “AMC’s efx.”

As huge as “efx” was for me, it’s not the thing I miss the most about the old AMC. That would be the original MonsterFest. The annual horror marathon began, as far as I can tell, in 1997. For one solid week at the end of October, AMC would play nothing but horror movies. Considering the network’s then focus on golden age cinema, this meant 168 hours of classic horror, with few repeats. American Movie Classics pulled out all the stops for MonsterFest. The network would rope in big name guests to host the event. Their website would be packed with related games and trivia. In other words, it was bliss.

The first MonsterFest I can recall watching was the 2000 edition. Through this programming block, I first saw many of the films I now love. Most of the Universal Monsters movies aired during MonsterFest. I can recall seeing Roger Corman’s “Pit and the Pendulum” and “Mothra vs. Godzilla” during that year’s marathon. While the movies were the main attraction, Monster Fest’s surrounding elements were often just as entertaining. In 2000, MonsterFest had a morgue theme. A dead body on a slab would introduce the movies and promote the network’s ventures. (That year included a sweepstakes tying in with “The Mummy Returns.”) The coming-up promos were surrounded by medical devices and glowing green lights. In an amusingly odd move, Whoopi Goldberg also hosted several of the big premieres. This is, by far, the MonsterFest I think about the most.

By the next year, I was eagerly anticipating MonsterFest. The prior year had hooked me. 2001 featured many of the same black and white monster movies. I can vividly recall recording an all-night marathon of Universal’s Frankenstein sequels, the tape beginning with the static-filled opening credits of “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.” 2001’s marathon had a gimmick that specifically linked it with the time and place. Each weekday night was devoted to a series of films. Each block was hosted by the voice behind You Don’t Know Jack. For those that don’t remember, “You Don’t Know Jack” was a series of trivia themed computer games, each one hosted by a sarcastic comedian. The series was so popular that it even briefly supported a television version. Why AMC partnered with a now obscure game series, I don’t know, but it probably made sense at the time.

I can’t remember everything I saw during 2001’s MonsterFest. I know one of the themed nights featured “The Mummy” series. In a break from the focus on older cinema, another one of the nights revolved around “The Omen” films. (I was able to excuse this at the time, since the original was old enough to arguably classify as a “classic.”) Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman were present and accounted for. As memorable as this was, two other aspect stick out about 2001’s season. The first of which was the number of related games AMC featured on their website. That year’s MonsterFest had a college theme, for some reason. One of the games was hosted by a Peter Lorre sound alike and, after a series of questions, placed you in a monster themed fraternity. Another game was a bowling simulation with skulls and decapitated heads in place of balls. Ah, the days when Flash games were enough to amuse me for hours…

2001 was also the year Short Screamers debuted. Fans would submit short horror films, none running longer then a minute. AMC would select the best ones and Clive Barker would present them on air, usually as filler in-between movies. A lot of these shorts stick in my brain to this day. One was a switcharoo about a small alien life form attached to an astronaut. Another involved a severed hand being delivered to a woman’s doorstep. The woman screamed before calling her mother and informing her that the boyfriend got the wrong ring. Yet another featured a woman nearly discovering her date is a serial killer. Many of the Short Screamers impressed me at how professional they were and how much story the filmmakers could fit into such a short time frame. The program was popular enough that AMC would revisit it for future MonsterFests. Sadly, very few of these shorts have surfaced on the internet.

By 2002, the network was already changing. John Carpenter was brought in as the big name host for that year’s MonsterFest. The Short Screamers would return, though I can’t remember any entry from that year. What I most remember about 2002’s MonsterFest was how much sickly, slime-like neon green that channel would use in its advertisement. AMC kept a lot of classic monster movies on the schedule. Yet that year also saw the introduction of the later “Halloween” sequels. The film selection would also less varied. It seemed like “Halloween 4” and 5 got played several times a week. Naturally, the grislier content in these newer films meant AMC could no longer comply with its “uncut, commercial free” motto.

This trend towards pushing the classics off the schedule would continue as the years went on. I barely remember 2003’s MonsterFest. I know some movie called “Piñata: Survival Island,” about a cheap CGI monster hunting Nicholas Brendon during panty raids, was repeatedly shown for some reason. Soon afterwards, AMC would allow commercials on their network, constantly interrupting films with advertisements. In time, the black and white movies would be pushed into the early morning hours, “Bride of Frankenstein” and other classic being relegated to four A.M. show times.

I stopped watching the network soon afterwards. I know MonsterFest would eventually mutate into the more generic FearFest. I once glanced at the late October schedule and found it full of “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” sequels, all cut for content and to cram in as many commercials as possible. Eventually, AMC would drop the American Movie Classics labeling all together. I don’t even know what kind of films the network shows now. Their TV series are all they advertise. It’s a sad state of affairs, the basic cable version of Turner Classic Movies essentially becoming another generic network.

Maybe MonsterFest as originally envisioned would seem antiquated in 2016. Personally speaking, I almost never watch movies on television anymore. I’ve got a large DVD/Blu-Ray collection and the internet to fulfill almost any movie watching itch I get. Yet when you’re in control it makes discovery less likely. I know I wouldn’t be the horror fan I am today without the MonsterFest of old. The memories of the kooky, spooky AMC continue to resonate with me, reminding me of a less connected but perhaps more innocent time.

Halloween 2016: October 29

Psychomania (1973)
The Death Wheelers

I’ve commented before on the process by which an obscure film becomes a cult classic. Up until a few years back, I had never heard of “Psychomania.” Suddenly, it started cropping up on long list devoted to great or overlooked horror films. I don’t know what caused people to rediscover the film, which has been widely available for years due to its quasi-public domain status. Alternatively known as “The Death Wheelers,” the film was directed by Don Sharp, a veteran of various Hammer horror films, and was the last role for George Sanders. It’s about time I give this one a look and come to my own opinion.

Tom is the leader of a motorcycle gang called the Living Dead. Wearing skull shaped helmet, they like to ride their bikes around standing stones. Tom’s mother is a medium, granted her powers by a strange old man named Shadwell. The son performs a magical ritual with the old man, upon which he realizes a shocking secret. Anyone can return from the dead as long as they really want to die and really want to come back. After successfully pulling this trick of, Tom introduces the tactic to the rest of the motorcycle gang. The undead bikers then proceed to terrorize the British countryside.

“Psychomania” combines aspects of the biker flick and an occult horror film. The motorcycle stunts are impressive. The bikes weave in and out of traffic, around other moving vehicles. They storm inside a busy supermarket, knocking over shelves and even running over a baby carriage. One of my favorite moments has a van swerving off the road after the bikers zip in front of them. The reason it’s impressive is how obviously unplanned this moment was. It’s certainly more impressive then a sliced tire leading to a separate van flipping over a hill, where it naturally explodes. Bikes go over bridges, into parked trucks, and through brick walls. An especially inspired moment, which might have inspired “Cemetery Man,” has Tom being buried atop his motorcycle which he later rides out of the grave.

The motorcycle stuff is amusing but “Psychomania” is ultimately more satisfying as an eerie occult horror film. The film begins with a shot of the bikes circling standing stones in slow motion, an oddly hypnotizing effect. The ritual which grands Tom the knowledge to conquer death is strange. He enters a sealed room, sees his birth in a mirror, and then collapses from fright. Somewhere in there, the toad god appears to him. “Psychomania” presents toads as symbols of immortality, older then man and aware of various arcane rites. The climax has bodies crumbling into ash on-screen, another genuinely creepy sequence. “Psychomania” also combines humor with its chills. Such as in the extended sequences of the bikers committing suicide. One of the guys ties heavy chains around himself before leaping into a lake. Another nonchalantly leaps off a highway overpass. The psycho zombie bikers are mocking the very concept of death. 

While the script is ridiculous on its face, “Psychomania” assembles a sturdy cast. Nicky Henson as Tom is a good looking psychopath, someone who casually commits murder just because it amuses him. Beryl Reid plays his mother, the actress bringing a surprising amount of normalcy to a character who consorts with the devil. As that devil, George Sanders seems unusually restrained. With age, his deep baritone became a less distinct croak. The veteran actor seems tired, even if his innate sense of respectability brings something to the part. My favorite performances in the film belong to two of the female gang members. Ann Michelle has an easy, intoxicating sexuality as Jane, a mischievous member of the gang. Mary Larkin plays Abby, Tom’s down-to-Earth girlfriend. She’s the heart of the film, the only one frightened by the gang’s increasingly devilish behavior. Larkin is also as cute as a button.

I wouldn’t say I’m ready to join the cult of “Psychomania” just yet. The film takes too long to get to its central concept, of the undead bikers. The story is a bit too loose, focusing a little too much on the characters reeking chaos. However, the film does possess a weirdo power. In-between the standing stones, the toad worship, and the slow-mo motorcycles, there's definitely something special to this one. It also has an amazing guitar-driven psychedelic rock score, which grants the film much of its sleazy, chaotic energy. I’d say this one is worth giving a look. [7/10]

Jigoku (1960)
The Sinners of Hell

Many years ago, I was thumbing through a Fangoria magazine when I saw an advertisement for a Japanese film called “Hell.” At the time, I thought that was awfully ballsy, a horror movie just straight up calling itself “Hell.” Some time later, I would find out this “Hell” was one of two remakes of a film considered a classic of Japanese horror. 1960’s “Jigoku,” which is usually translated as “Hell” but is sometimes called “The Sinners of Hell,” is notorious for being usually gory for the time. Finally catching up with the film, I discover that its one part morality play with the other part being psychedelic horror. Let’s dig deeper.

Shira’s normal life suddenly takes a disturbing turn. What should’ve been a happy day – he’s just became engaged to his girlfriend, Yukiko, the daughter of his theology professor – has been ruined. While out driving with a strange friend named Tamura, the two struck a man drunkenly wandering through the streets. Soon afterwards, Shiro’s girlfriend dies in a car crash. His mother becomes terminally ill. The lover and mother of the dead man hunts Shiro down for revenge. The tragedies pile up in his life, death following him like a shadow. Until Shiro himself dies and awakens in Hell, where he suffers the torments of the damned.

The first hour of “Jigoku” feels like an old Japanese melodrama, which is fitting considering the time and place it was made. One mistake causes Shiro’s entire life to spiral out of control. It’s a mistake he’s not even directly responsible for, as Tamura was driving the night the man was hit. Yet Shiro’s reluctance to come forward and admit the crime happened is what damns him. The film hammers this home repeatedly, as seemingly everyone around Shiro begins to die. The car wreck that kills Yukiko seems especially sudden. The lover of the dead man and Tamura both confront Shiro on a rope bridge. Both end up dead, falling into the river below. After his mother’s passing, his father strangles his mistress right in front of him. Yukiko’s parents, shaken with grief, commit suicide. An entire party of men die after eating poisoned fish, poorly prepared by the cook. The constant death and melodrama would normally be hard to swallow. “Jigoku,” however, is characterized by an overwhelming sense of tragedy. As if all of this was inevitable, everyone succumbing to an unavoidable curse.

Even before the film moves into the colorful Hell sequences, a sense of foreboding hangs in the air. Tamura often appears suddenly, popping up in a desk next to him or on the railroad behind him. It’s as if the amoral friend is a ghost, an entity that has come to lead the otherwise upstanding Shiro towards damnation. The moment Shiro dies, time stops, the pendulum in a grandfather clock freezing in place, an eerie sight. Once he awakens in hell, the film is bathed in green light. He meets Yukiko who informs him that she was pregnant at the time of her death. Their child floats down an endless river, the purgatory occupied by all dead children. The damned marched in a line, walking towards a destination they will never arrive at. These scenes are melancholic, characters haunted by bad decisions they can no longer correct. 

“Jigoku” is adapting the Buddhist conception of Hell, which shares some similarities with the fire and brimstone hell of Judaeo-Christian belief. Enma, the lord of Hell, judges everyone that comes before him. The condemned are tortured by large demons, stabbed with spears, their limbs broken, their eyes gouged out. Lovers are boiled in massive cauldrons of scolding oil. Yet this Hell is also more ironic. We learn that Yukiko’s father, during the second World War, drank a comrade’s water, causing the other man to die of dehydration. As punishment, he crawls through a desert towards a shallow pool of water. When he arrives, the only liquid is a river of seething bile, wrung from dead bodies. A treacherous doctor is cut in half by a giant saw. An adulterer has her head torn from her body. Another man has his flesh ripped away, reduced to a bloody skeleton. The gore is oddly artificial, adding to the uncanny effect. There are many unforgettable images, such as numerous heads in a dirt field or countless hands crawling out of the ground, reaching for a salvation beyond them.

I’m not Buddhist, so I have no familiarity with that religion’s conception of the afterlife. Yet it’s interesting that demons with sharp implements, searing fire, and rivers of souls are apparently universal. At the same time, “Jigoku’s” sensibility is deeply Japanese. The story around the film’s phantasmagorical depiction of Hell feels very old, as if it’s based on a classic novel. It isn’t but that’s just a testament to the sense of tragedy and irony the script summons. For its foreboding atmosphere and unforgettably bizarre images of hellish punishment, “Jigoku” certainly is a classic of some sort. [7/10]

The Wickedest Witch (1989)

You’re probably wondering what the hell this is. “The Wickedest Witch” is a Halloween special that aired twenty-seven years ago on NBC. It was only ever shown once and has never been given a home video release. It was brought to my attention thanks to Dinosaur Dracula, who recently acquired a copy and posted it on the internet. The plot of “The Wickedest Witch” is surprisingly convoluted for something that’s only a half-hour long. The titular witch is Avarissa, a hag banished to an underground cave for her evil ways. The cave is occupied by Greevils, little reptilian garygoyle muppet things. Anyway, if she convinces an innocent child to comment an evil act, Avarissa will be freed from her prison. She sends a Greevil to capture a child who proves too kind to do wrong, even when tempted by real magical powers.

“The Wickedest Witch” was apparently produced by the same people as “ALF.” The special is on roughly that same level. So there’s lots of heavy-handed shtick. There’s even a character named Shtick, some sort of wizard Avarissa contacts via a magical vending machine. Avarissa hosts bingo games for the Greevils, for some reason. The monsters put woopie cushions on her chair and burp after scarfing snack food. Rue McClanahan plays the witch, seeming a bit irritated and bored by the material. It’s easy to imagine her “Golden Girls” co-stars Bea Arthur or Betty White having way more fun with this. Burgress Meredith narrates the special, often commenting on the stupidity of the characters in a weirdly mean-spirited way. The actor playing the kid isn’t very good and his story arc, of making friends with a Greevil, is deeply uncompelling.

So there’s no laughs to be had in “The Wickedest Witch.” For a special that aired all of once, it does have surprisingly high production values. The shots of the underground cave display some impressive miniature and mat painting work. The Greevil are cute little creations, resembling small, felt dragons. Which makes the witch’s poor treatment of them an even stranger choice. A lot of money obviously went into this thing. The ratings must not have been great if NBC shelved it after a single airing. Still, it is sort of interesting to lay eyes on something this rare and obscure, even if it’s pretty lame. [5/10]

Michael Jackson’s Ghosts (1997)

If “Thriller” is unquestionably Michael Jackson’s greatest achievement as a music video artist, “Ghosts” is his unlikely nadir. Conceived as a spiritual successor to “Thriller,” the video’s story was co-written with Stephen King and Mick Garris. Stan Winston would direct. While “Ghosts” was clearly a costly production, Jackson wasn’t the same pop culture icon in 1997 that he was in 1981. Sexual abuse allegations had forever tainted his career. His bizarre plastic surgery addiction, a publicity stunt marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, and accusations of antisemitism had further sullied his reputation. “Ghosts” would briefly play in theaters, before some versions of “Thinner,” before being quickly shuffled onto home video. It’s by far Jackson’s most overlooked creation. Even “Captain EO” is more widely seen then this thing.

Not helping matters is “Ghosts” intentionally bringing the sex abuse scandal to mind. The plot revolves around a mysterious man who lives in a spooky old mansion. He performs ghoulish magic tricks for young boys, which they love. The mayor, however, thinks the Maestro is a freak and tries to run him out of town. After confronting the Maestro in his own mansion, he performs a series of ghostly dance numbers in an attempt to scare the Mayor. Jackson was clearly framing himself as a harmless eccentric, persecuted by a world unwilling to tolerate his quirks. Jackson didn’t seem to understand that, whether or not he did the things he was accused of, having sleepovers with prepubescent boys is not behavior becoming an adult man. Painting the story in pop video/horror movie clichés doesn’t make him seem more relatable or down to Earth.

“Ghosts” seems designed to top “Thriller.” It’s three times the length. Instead of featuring a horde of dancing zombies, it features a crowd of dancing ghosts. The special effects are far more elaborate. Ghosts walk up walls and onto ceilings. Jackson tears his flesh off, appearing as a moonwalking skeleton via then cutting edge CGI. He stretches his face, transforms into a giant demon, and flies through the air. The video’s best special effect has Jackson also playing the big fat Mayor, something you probably don’t notice at first. The set design for the spooky old mansion is awesome. The special effects team certainly did their job correctly.

Sadly, “Ghosts” is mostly boring. The dance choreography isn’t as good as “Thriller.” Long portions of the video are composed of Jackson’s shouting, snapping his fingers, or stomping his feet. Ghosts aren’t as inherently cool as zombies. The special effects have a showy quality, the camera lingering far too long on them. I’d blamed this on Stan Winston but “Pumpkinhead” didn’t have this problem. Presenting the story as a series of stunts meant to impress a crowd of non-believers just further paints “Ghosts” as an ode to M.J.’s ego. Periodically cutting away to the crowd's stunned reaction is another problem, as if the video is begging us to be impressed. The songs aren’t especially memorable, lacking catchy melodies. “Thriller” would’ve been impossible to top even before Jackson’s very public breakdown. “Ghosts” certainly doesn’t accomplish that lofty goal. [5/10]