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Monday, October 15, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 14

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

For the massive popularity of the vampire and zombie tropes, the ultimate horror archetype is probably the haunted house. Ghost stories have been circulated since the Roman empire and likely way before then. Ghosts are an optimistic idea, suggesting life after death really does exist, which might explain the concept's ancient appeal. Just about every major horror author has tried to put their stamp on the idea of a home occupied by an angry spirit or two. In 1971, the influential and brilliant Richard Matheson would make his ultimate haunted house statement with “Hell House.” Two years later, his novel would be adapted to film as “The Legend of Hell House,” with Matheson providing the screenplay as well. The film remains a well regarded classic of the subgenre. 

Belasco House is considered the Mount Everest of haunted houses. Once owned by Emeric Belasco, a huge man fond of orgies and all sorts of depravity, Emeric's sadistic spirit supposedly still haunts the home. And it has a body count. In the fifties, a team of parapsychologist attempt to exercise the place. All but one of them died. Now, a second expedition to Belasco House has been funded. Dr. Barrett, accompanied by his wife, thinks a special machine can undo the haunting. Florence, a psychic medium, believes the home is haunted by Belasco's abused son. Benjamin, a physical medium and the only survivor of the last investigation, just wants to make it out alive. Soon, Hell House will test all four of them.

Director John Hough has made a few horror movies of varying quality, such as “Twins of Evil,” “The Watcher in the Woods,” “The Incubus,” and “The Howling IV.” However, “The Legend of Hell House” is definitely his best shocker. Belasco House is introduced surrounded by fog, a black tower reaching towards the sky. The dusty, cobweb-strewn halls immediately create a creepy atmosphere. Hough especially uses the unseen well to create an unnerving mood. We often hear Emeric Belasco's voice echoing through the halls of his home. Sometimes, we'll see a suggestive shadow cast against a wall. Or a shape in a bed or the shower. These images can't help but speak to the film's theme, of the sexual depravity of the past bubbling back up and overtaking the people currently in the house.

Hough knows when to be subtle but he also knows when to go for the throat. “Hell House” has its share of startling shocks. The most notorious is when Florence is attacked by a black cat. It's a potentially ridiculous scene that the focus is kept on how nasty the cat's scratches are and how vulnerable the girl is. Hough uses that same frenzied tension when poltergeist activity brings the dining hall down on our heroes. Florence is victimized again when the spirit of Emeric Belasco rapes her, a disturbing and intimate sequence. All of the scenes of people being attacked have that same personal level of violence. So “Legend of Hell House” functions both as a moody ghost picture and an intense, edgy thriller.

It also has an excellent cast. Clive Revill is perfectly cast as Barratt, the film's stately voice of authority that slowly cracks up as the situation becomes more dire. Gayle Hunnicutt is equally well utilized as his wife, a nervous woman that is used as an outlet for the house's deprived sexual desires. Mostly, two performances dominate the film. Pamela Franklin, already a survivor of “The Innocents,” plays Florence as a virtuous girl that is convinced of her beliefs. She maybe gets the film's worst abuse, slowly attacked and taken apart by Emeric's spirit. Franklin is heartbreaking as a girl shaking to pieces. Lastly, Roddy McDowell plays Benjamin as a bundle of nerves, obviously traumatized by his previous experience in the house. While Franklin's journey is one into trauma, McDowell's sees him overcome his fears and regain belief in his skills.

Another thing that's interesting about “Legend of Hell House' is the different approaches it takes to the supernatural. Usually, ghost movies feature a token skeptic, who inevitably learns the truth. Everyone believes in ghosts in “Hell House” but their exact beliefs vary. Barratt takes a more scientific approach to the haunting, believing left-over psychic energy is the culprit. Florence is more sympathetic and emotional, thinking a ghost's unfinished business needs to be resolved before they can move on. Benjamin is the one screaming about the house being pure evil. Ultimately, they are all sort of right, the film creating a unified theory of haunting. Ghost movies usually go with one theory, so it's neat that “Hell House” incorporates multiple types of ghostly activities.

I haven't read Matheson's original novel, though it's on my mile-long reading list. Supposedly, the book gets more explicit when detailing those perverted orgies Belasco got up to. This is a good indicator of how Matheson roots “Hell House's” evil in Freudian psychology. Ultimately, “Legend of Hell House” is a fantastically executed haunted house thriller, that doubles down on both spooky atmosphere and more graphic scares. Coming in 1973, the film was a good bridge between the moodier horror films of the sixties and the gorier, more sexual content that would define the genre going forward. [7/10]

Hatchet II (2010)

I like Adam Green. The short films he releases through his ArieScope Pictures are often amusing. The interview shows and podcasts are often fantastic. Moreover, he seems like a really nice guy. However, I sometimes wonder if he's a better marketer than a filmmaker. The first “Hatchet” was fairly entertaining but probably wouldn’t have been my first choice for the beginning of a long series. By marketing the film directly to the hardcore horror crowd, Green’s splatter-fest grabbed a sizable fan following who demanded the return of Victor Crowley. Those hatchet-heads got their wish in 2010, with the release of “Hatchet II.” The film would follow the slasher sequel rule book, giving people more of what they liked last time but also being even gorier and crazier.

The sequel picks up right where the first film left off, with Marybeth being plucked out the swamp waters by a still-enraged Victor Crowley. She’s rescued by the piss-drinking Cajun from the first film but he runs her out of his cabin upon learning her last name. She’s told to seek Reverend Zombie, Tony Todd’s cameo from the first film. Zombie reveals that Marybeth’s dad was one of the boys who set that faithful fire at the Crowley cabin, the one indirectly responsible for Victor’s death. Zombie rounds up a group of hunters and takes Marybeth back into the swamp, looking to end the Crowley curse once and for all. As the bodies pile up, Marybeth fleeing Victor again, the Reverend reveals his own plan.

The first “Hatchet” was largely defined by outrageous gore and crass comedy. The sequel doesn’t shake up the formula. The death scenes feature even more splattering blood, disembowelment and decapitation. Faces are smashed, jaws are ripped off, heads are bisected, and bodies are completely flayed. The belt sander even makes a second appearance. The most memorable murders combine gore and comedy, such as a ridiculously huge chainsaw taking out two at once. Or when Crowley interrupts a sex scene by shoving his hatchet into a very uncomfortable place, a scene that ends with an orgasmic spray of blood. The effects, while all practical, are still overly rubbery and too brightly lit. As for the comedy, it’s strictly puerile. Creative profanity and crude sexual references are still common, along with obnoxious redneck and black stereotypes. Though a joke involving a plate of cookies did make me laugh.

The sequel does add to the first film’s lore. First off, Crowley’s stomping grounds are specified to be Honey Island Swamp, supposed home to a notorious cryptid in our world. Secondly, Reverend Zombie expands on Crowley’s origin. He explains Victor was actually the result of an extramarital affair and was cursed at birth by his dad’s dying wife. The flashback is overwrought but gets a lot out of Tony Todd’s narration and Kane Hodder’s weepy performance. The sequel also places “Hatchet” within a connected universe, via callbacks to other movies. “Behind the Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon” is referenced in dialogue and Jason Voorhees is mentioned by name. Green also includes background shout-outs to his own ”Holliston” TV series and ski lift thriller “Frozen.” I enjoy in-jokes as much as the next guy but found many of these too on-the-nose. (Though I’d totally watch a “Leslie vs. Victor” movie, if Green and Scott Glosserman wanna make that happen.)

The references extend into the cast, as Green fills the film with eighties horror alums. Danielle Harris takes over the role of Marybeth from Tamara Feldman. Harris delivers a broad performance, speaking with an embarrassing Southern accent. “Fright Night” director Tom Holland and former Leatherface R.A. Mihailoff show up as Marybeth’s uncle and a gruff hunter, both playing their parts confidently. (Lloyd Kaufman also has a cameo, making the film’s debt to Troma even clearer.) The sequel’s best decision is giving Tony Todd a bigger role. Todd actually brings some imposing gravitas to Reverend Zombie, turning him into a decently compelling secondary villain. Parry Shen, John Carl Buechler, and Mercedes McNab also return for more crude jokes.

Overall, “Hatchet II” feels like the kind of movie you’d expect a regular horror convention attendee to write. Its focus is on over-the-top gore and special effects. The comedy is crass for crassness’ sake. The movie relies too much on in-jokes and name recognition. It’s fairly dumb, mildly offensive, and somewhat cheap. However, it still manages to tickle the gore hound lizard brain from time to time. The film works the best when it takes its lore seriously and actually trusts its actors to act. This occasional inspired moments liven up what is a somewhat uninspired sequel. [6/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: This Wraps It Up

Out of the various monsters that appear in “Tales from the Cryptkeeper’s” opening credits, only the female mummy hasn’t shown up in an actual episode thus far. Well, that changes with “This Wraps It Up.” A multi-ethnic group of school kids are on a field trip to Egypt. Naomi is picked on by the other kids for being tall for her age. After the bus stalls out in a sand storm, the class comes upon a strange temple. A pair of men, calling themselves Steel and Gable, claim the building is the tomb of a lost female pharaoh. That night, Naomi has a prophetic dream seemingly leading her through the trap-laden temple. Steel and Gable, she discovers afterwards, are grave robbers and use the girl’s gift to lead them to the treasure... and the royal mummy, which naturally gets up and walks around.

Yes, a walking, groaning mummy does appear in this episode but not until near the end. Otherwise, this one is mostly devoted to Naomi leading the thieves and another kid through the various traps. Which is entertaining in its own way, especially the trap where silver balls shoot out if the walls. The script focuses more on its moral, about ignoring the haters and believing in yourself. This results in many scenes of Naomi being bullied, setting up her eventual display of bravery and strength. I don’t mind that too much, as Naomi is a likable character. The dream she has, revealing the tomb’s secrets, is also nicely animated. The ending almost goes in a darker direction, concerning the villains’ fates, but wimps out during a short epilogue. A weaker episode but not without its charms. [6/10]

Wolf Creek: Outback

The second episode of “Wolf Creek's” second season begins with Mick playing the role of tour guide. He takes the skeptical but not freaked out tourists to a pleasant location, murders a park ranger, and then gives everyone a sip of drugged water. They wake up 48 hours later, left on an abandoned bus near the Wolfe Creek crater, with Mick nowhere in sight. Danny and Johnny decide to look for help. At the bus, Rebecca and Michelle soon discover Davos' dead body and realize Mick is a psychopath. As the sun set and night begins, the situation grows more tense. And that's before Mick begins his hunt.

“Outback” breaks down cleanly into three acts. The first is devoted to developing some of our tourists some more, especially war veteran Bruce. The murder of the park ranger seems somewhat gratuitous, though the show might go somewhere with it. The second act begins the moment everyone awakens on the bus. I soon got a little worried about “Outback.” While the cast is already proving fairly likable, watching them bicker about what to do next would've gotten old fast. Oskar wants to stay put, others want to leave, yet others want to search for help. Personal issues, such as Kelly and Michelle's tension, rise up. This kind of group in-fighting gets old fast.

But don't worry, because “Wolf Creek” deploys a seriously brutal and intense streak soon enough. The second episode features a torture scene as unpleasant as anything from the two films. Mick grabs the New Zealander bus fanatic, humiliates and dismembers him, before burying him alive in a termite mound. This builds towards the episode's climatic moment, a shocking act of violence that takes out a third of the cast. It's a truly unexpected scene and a hell of a cliffhanger to end the episode on. Season two of “Wolf Creek” has already topped the first in intensity, as far as I'm concerned. [7/10]

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