Monday, October 31, 2011

Night of Terror #31: 'Halloween'

Welp, it's a couple hours after Halloween, but I'm finally writing the last post for this month. I'll save the tearful goodbye for the end, though, and get right to it: John Carpenter's Halloween. I thought I'd end the blog with an established horror heavy hitter after so many odd choices. And they don't get much more monolithic than this movie.

That's probably because, in its own lean and efficient way, Halloween is perfect. There's not a single misplaced shot, and every character and action serves its purpose with little frou-frou getting in the way. I'm always pleasantly surprised by how mercilessly it creates real tension, fear, and suspense from so little, like a collaboration between Alfred Hitchcock and Val Lewton (I believe I am now entitled to win a prize for being the First Person Ever to make this comparison).

Another thing that's perennially impressive about this movie is how influential it became. Like Psycho before it, it basically created its own subgenre of movies expressly designed to snag some of its appeal. Also like Psycho, those knock-offs seem more than happy to provide audiences with much more graphic violence than the original ever had, without the same attention to detail.

One of those details would be Donald Pleasance, who is just masterfully committed to what easily could have been a phoned-in role. He really nails the sense of desperation and frustration that accompany Dr. Sam Loomis' trek to get killer Michael Myers back into custody.

I'll save the in-depth discussion on the movie's sexual politics, its surprising lack of gore and explicit violence, and its thematic concerns with the concept of evil for another time. Instead, as a final comment, I will just register how boss that score is. It works so well, even if you've heard it a million times. God bless John Carpenter.

And with that, I look out into the lawn where 31 Nights of Terror once lay only to see that it has escaped me once again and disappeared into the night. Will it return? Probably, assuming we're not all living in an apocalyptic wasteland by this time next year.

Night of Terror #30: 'Sunset Blvd'

Happy Halloween! Today I'll be covering a true classic of the horror genre: Sunset Blvd, from acclaimed Master of Suspense Billy Wilder.

OK, so it's not a horror movie, but I love Billy Wilder and wanted to cover him if I could, and this is the closest he ever came to making a horror movie. And it's not far off: Loads of gothic atmosphere, murder, references to decapitation, necrophilia, bestiality, etc. I was actually surprised by how well it plays on Halloween.

I also imagine it would be pretty scary to anyone who is either in the movie business, or is interested in getting into it. It portrays Hollywood as a cruel, unforgiving place, where creativity and originality are dead virtues, if they ever were considered virtues to begin with. The lead attraction is actual silent movie queen Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, a nearly forgotten silent movie star living in a crumbling mansion, hallucinatorily living out her glory days in seclusion.

She ends up with a "kept man" in the form of a failing screenwriter played by William Holden. This guy, Joe Gillis, is just an awful son of a bitch. He's cruel to pretty much everyone, but in a very realistic and subtle way. I've seen this movie a ton of times but this was the first time I realized just how terrible he really is. Anyway, he gets killed (not a spoiler, he narrates the entire movie from beyond the grave, or at least on his way to it).

Anyway, I'd only recommend this for Halloween viewing under two conditions: You're a big fan of Billy Wilder (and why wouldn't you be?), and/or you feel burned out on horror and want to try something a little more tangentially horrific. The connection is definitely there, though, as many people consider Sunset Blvd to be the prototype for full-fledged "psycho-biddy" horror movies like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane or Strait-Jacket. Also, it's a great movie in general, so just watch it.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Night of Terror #29: 'The Ninth Configuration'

Hey everybody. We're almost to Halloween, can you believe it? I'm gonna be unleashing all the rest of my horror movie musings and those of others on the big day tomorrow (er, later today), but for now, here's a guest spot from none other than my good friend Matthew Stechel on The Ninth Configuration.

The Ninth Configuration isn’t really a horror movie so much as a shaggy dog suspense film, but it was conceived as a horror film, marketed as a horror film, and is still to this day sold as a horror film. The cover for it promises terror while the back cover promises a resolution that will strike you like a thunderclap. (that’s actually what the back of the box says! “A thunderclap!”) Written and directed by Exorcist writer William Peter Bleatty, The Ninth Configuration (retitled from the wistful B movie title “Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane” which should give you a better approximation of what this movie was originally envisioned by Warner Bros execs as being like) is really more of a psychological horror film about a new major/psychiatrist being appointed a new position at what’s basically a VA hospital for Section 8 seeking combatants freshly home from Vietnam. That’s the premise at least—but really its basically what would happen if Robert Altman decided he wanted to try his hand at making a horror movie.

Its got a good number of Altman trademarks—including of course many sequences in which multiple characters with screws loose play off each other like some gleefully demented Abbot and Costello act, but it also has the washed out grubby look of some of Altman’s 70’s classics—pretty much any scene shot right outside the mental hospital that is the main setting for this film with its caked in mud walls reminded me a lot of the caked in mud everything of McCabe And Mrs. Miller. Of course this being a horror themed column I should probably get back to the why this is a horror movie or why its worth seeing aspects of this column. (Did I mention Robert Altman?.) In fact this movie has nothing to do with Altman, it was just in the watching of it that I was reminded a lot about how much that director had set the template for crazies co-existing together in a cramped setting genre. Yes, that’s not really a recognized genre but still you can’t help but recognize the heavy influence, given his work in the early to mid 70’s. and how this one was made in ’78 and finally came to screens in ’79 after the gigantic success of The Exorcist more or less guranteed carte blance for everyone behind the scenes.

Bleatty was a semi successful novelist who had written the original novel The Exorcist was based on and I suppose in hopes that lightning would strike twice Warner Bros was very much hoping to re team Bleatty on another adaptation of one of his novels with director William Friedkin, unfortunately Freidkin was off doing something else (it might have been Cruising given the years in question here) so Friedkin was off exploring other dark corners of the world to bring to the screen leaving Bleatty (or at least Bleatty’s agents) angling to direct the adaptation he had written himself. After some haggling Warner Bros execs agreed to let him direct (but not final cut—since there’s apparently been something three different cuts of the movie put out there over the years since its initial release). The result is an interesting if somewhat mixed 70’s experimental suspense film. The film definitely has its pluses. Its pretty well paced, there are some really memorable scenes scattered throughout (there’s a fight scene set in a biker bar fairly late in the film that really sets up the end of the movie quite nicely) there’s even an ongoing and rather solid argument both for the existence of and the case against God presented here. There are also lots of good one liners from the mental patients throughtout—there’s really quite a bit of those—which means you’re gonna have to keep your ears sharp more so then your eyes here. (of course the humor keeps you distracted from the heavier themes of insanity in the face of insanity, blah, blah, blah ala Mash again) There are two twists the film has up its sleeve and the film does deliver them with a good amount of showmanship.. Even if there’s a more than good chance you’ll have guessed the main one a good while before it arrives, I didn’t mind sticking with it just to see if there was anything past that but I fear that once that main twist arrives, it may be too late for most viewers to give it the green light to let it play on.. It doesn’t help that the main twist is somewhat telegraphed far in advance or that everyone who’s reading this has actually seen an M Night Shyamalan’s movie which this also quite resembles within its use of flashbacks to tell you how a traumatic time in the main character’s past informs his present situation only to end up with a not terribly inspired “twist” that seems less clever the more you think about it. The film does have a good turn from Stacey Keach as the new major/psychiatrist, and Scott Wilson as the God arguing inmate whom Keach takes a personal interest in rehabilitating. Robert Loggia appears briefly as an inmate. It also features the usual assortment of mental patients that you’d expect in a movie like this—patients with ailments of the cinematic and not just regular everyday kinda strange which depends on how you feel about movies set in mental hospitals. Personally this movie can’t compare to the best of that genre which remains “The Dream Team” with Michael Keaton (and not “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”).but it is a pretty good mental hospital movie overall especially capping the whole 70’s film auteur movement. This one also features a guy who tries to teach Shakespeare to dogs so how can you beat that? (Only by pitting him against another inmate who really wants to be in the play but only if he can play the part of Superman…“But in none of Shakespeare’s plays is there a part written for Superman!”) Again if you like Robert Altman—its worth a check out on Netflix—and that makes it completely relevant to Halloween of course movie box touting essential 1970’s style horror be damned!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Night of Terror #28: 24-Hour Movie Marathon

Hi guys. You may have noticed that it's been a couple days since I updated the site - it has, but this was all so you'd be prepared for this epic bit of Halloween celebratory madness. My friend Chip from Pretty When Alive has plotted this one out. We at 31 Nights of Terror don't recommend trying this at home unless you're in the presence of a licensed terror professional. And despite this blip in programming, I am still planning on catching up with #31 going up on Halloween night. Here's Chip:

When I first saw Eli Roth’s proposed 24 hour horror movie marathon, that inspired me to do my own marathon. Weekly. For two months. And I would go back to doing horror marathons every October for years. It is fun to plan out 24 hours of catching up on movies I’ve been intending to watch. But that was when I lived alone. I still have enough free time, more or less, but it might not be all that cool to tie up the television for 24 hour blocks at a time.

But after seeing Edgar Wright’s proposed marathon this year, it has inspired me to consider doing it again. I don’t have time to do one before Halloween, but I thought I would throw one out there as if I did. Now when I used to do this almost every week, it was just for myself, so I would generally load up the marathon with my favorites: The Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, The Birds, The Shining, Deliverance, Jaws, etc. And I would include any dvds from the library or netflix that I had not seen yet. If anyone were joing me for any length of time, I would try and schedule a movie they hadn’t seen. My current roommates have seen most of my favorites, so we’re generally finding new horror movies together.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that in plotting out this particular marathon, I decided to look for a dominating theme. What did I pick? Religious fanaticism. I think not nearly enough films exploit how people are willing to accept one sort of supernatural bullshit, but completely dismiss another. Or how horror is the perfect genre for exploring and critiquing faith. After all, there’s something infinitely more fascinating about how Peter Cushing clings to a crucifix versus how Kirk Cameron eats a banana.

Noon. The Night of the Hunter.

We’ll start out with a lone wolf. In sheep’s clothing. Robert Mitchum is undeniably terrifying as the preacher who murders and punishes – convinced he’s carrying out God’s will. Granted, evil preachers are almost too easy. But this is the movie that set the template. Watching the movie, there’s no doubt that this lunatic truly believes he’s in the right. He’s not just thumping a bible in order to con people. As most folks know, this is the only movie Charles Laughton ever directed. It’s a shame. There’s a magical surrealism to this movie, and it constantly compliments the darkness.

In the end, two Christians face off against each other. Mitchum’s preacher and Lillian Gish’s child collector. The scene when they harmonize while singing a hymn creates this sweet but chilling moment when two foes meet in the middle – bonding over their shared beliefs. This movie doesn’t paint all of Christianity in a bad light (thanks to Gish’s character), but it certainly makes one dubious about trusting someone on blind faith.

1:40 pm. Carrie

Stephen King often brings religious fundamentalist villains into his stories. He seems to have quite a beef to pick with how religion is often used as a weapon and faith is often taken advantage of. Piper Laurie plays a total fucking religious nut. Early in the movie, she’s seen going door to door, preaching the word. One neighbor (who knows her) plays her off in order to get her to leave. Laurie then goes home where she preaches to her daughter, played magnificently by Sissy Spacek, and terrifies her with the word of God. She uses prayer as a punishment and a tool to inflict pain. Is she just compensating for something? Is she just getting her jollies off by terrorizing someone weaker than herself and then justifying it by clutching a bible in her hand? In the end, perhaps she’s right. Perhaps her daughter does have the devil in her. But it doesn’t matter. The audience absolutely comes to hate Laurie’s character.

I saw this in a theater a few years ago, on Mother’s Day weekend. [SPOILER] During one scene, Laurie’s character gets pinned in a doorway with knives and stabbed repeatedly. At this, one audience member yelled out, “Happy Mother’s Day!” And entirely appropriate sentiment I think.

Also, I think this would make a good double feature with William Wyler’s The Heiress. Both films do a wonderful job of someone who’s been raised under an unrelenting thumb, reached out desperately for love from someone else, and reacted darkly to being denied said love.

3:20. The Others

In The Others, Nicole Kidman plays an overprotective mother who keeps her children locked in their dark, vast mansion. She claims is because of a rare skin condition they both somehow have. She home schools them and indoctrinates them with religious fairy tales. She preaches the word to them and forces them to ponder eternal damnation if they step out of line. As with the other movies in my marathon so far, this is only one lone nut imposing their beliefs on others, only to have these beliefs bite them in the ass.

This movie steals more than a little from The Innocents, which also invokes religious righteousness from time to time. But director Alejandro Amenabar seems more critical of Christianity – in particular imposing it on children. Nicole Kidman’s overbearing character is undeniably crazy, but how much of that crazy plays into her superstitious beliefs is questionable. Regardless, it seems to me that her religious fanaticism was more dangerous than inspiring.

5:20 The Mist

I put a little break in there to heat some food up. There ya go.

The Mist is about a group of survivors who hole up in a grocery store while hiding from monsters lurking in the fog outside. As the survivors grow more scared, one particular nut (played by Marcia Gay Hardin) exploits the fear and faith in the room to amass a legion of followers. They chant about expiation and take on an us-versus-them approach to the situation. Soon, Hardin’s character has gained enough influence that she can have her followers kill a child solely on her word.

It seems as if she comes to believe her own divination – particularly when one of the monsters spares her. And as with the other Stephen King adaptation, I wonder if she may have been right. Regardless, the audience is once again waiting with baited breath to see this vile religious nut meet her end.

7:30 [REC]

A first person, faux documentary horror movie. This one is rather intense as it follows a group of survivors who are faced with a zombie apocalypse. And as the characters work through the mystery of what’s happening, it becomes clear that these zombies are Vatican-approved. It’s been a while since I’ve seen this movie, so I don’t remember any religious zealots among the characters. The religious insanity is inherent in the cause of the zombie outbreak. And at this point in the evening, I feel that you would need something visceral, something unrelentingly tense to keep your attention and wake you up.

This is the first time in my marathon that the religious elements is not just one person taking advantage of a situation. It’s a religious organization creating a situation that has spiraled out of control. It’s just going to get worse from here.

9:00 pm. End of the Line

I already wrote about this movie in my own blog this October, but it certainly fits here. This religious organization is so organized that they all rise to do their duty when a mass text is sent out. They then pull daggers from their oversized crucifixes and kill anyone who isn’t in their creepy cult. It’s the apocalypse. It’s mass murder. And it’s for the good of all non-survivors. There’s a cool ambiguity regarding whether or not the religious visions of demons coming to devour the religion holds any water, but if you watch closely enough, you get your answer.

This movie is absolutely ruthless in how it depicts the cult. They all dress like Mormons. They sing a creepy hymn. They constantly claim their murderous actions are for a greater good. Clearly the filmmakers are not fans of organized religion.

10:40 Witchfinder General

My favorite Vincent Price performance. Made in 1968, this was the last movie directed by Michael Reeves who died soon after from a drug overdose at the ripe old age of 25. He had directed 3 ½ movies by the time he died – the last of which, this one, is now considered a masterpiece.

Set in 1645, Price plays Matthew Hopkins, a relentless and sadistic witch hunter who travels the countryside looking for those who may practice witchcraft, then tortures them to death. Reeves regular, Michael Ogilvy, plays a reasonable young man who recognizes Price’s mission as an exercise in abusive torture.

The pacing is pretty slow. Much of it plays as a stiff costume drama, which makes the violent darker moments al the more potent. The movie ultimately becomes a story of revenge as Ogilvy tracks down Price and returns some of the torture he’s been dishing out. The ending is exceeding harsh and violent and cynical. Even the best people are capable of turning into monsters.

Price claims to be doing God’s work throughout the movie. Murdering witches and servants of the Devil. It’s a vile abuse of God’s word – justifying what is clearly his own thirst for violence. The ending is bleak. Bleak. Bleak. Bleak.

12:20 Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural

A trippy, disturbing, not entirely competent movie from the seventies. A young girl flees her adoptive father, a priest, to be with her gangster father. Things get surreal fast and she finds her self in an expressionist forest filled with zombie-like vampires. There’s a lot of religious creepiness – especially once her priest father comes looking for her. And he’s worse than the vampires. There’s absolutely no one here to root for.

I first saw this movie when it was shown at the downtown library here in town. The AV guy there definitely seems to be a fan of horror movies and took a special pride ins showing this movie. He even recorded an interview with the director and played for everyone. I absolutely loved it. Every inappropriate, uncomfortable, violent moment. Most of the other people in the audience seemed to hate it. At one point you see the lead actress’ breasts, and she can’t be more than fifteen at the time. Very little of the movie makes sense – in particular the ending which seems disconnected from almost everything that came before it. Was it all a dream? A flashforward? Has she been inundated into the creepy church? I really want to watch this movie now – no, I want to show it to someone, but I’m worried about hearing how much it sucks from my roommates.

1:40 Red State

I was originally planning to put The Seventh Victim in this spot. I felt that the ending, in which some characters shame Devil Worshipers by quoting the Lord’s Prayer, would come off in a less upbeat light if it were precursed with Christians running afoul. But then I saw Red State a few days ago, and I realized that this movie has to be included.

Based on the Westboro Baptist Church, a religious organization lures sexual deviants to their church where they are made examples of to a fawning congregation. Michael Parks plays the church leader and has an extended scene in which he recounts the horror of modern living while the congregation nods in approval. In my opinion, the slyest scene involves a police officer who is poking around outside the church when he recognizes the cars of some missing persons in the lot. As kids are being tortured and killed inside, Parks comes out to talk to the officer, and as he’s convinced the officer that nothing is up, he stops and turns. At first, it seems like it’s going to be a classic Colombo move. But instead, the officer asks Parks, “I remember when you were protesting the dead Pope in Rome. I was wondering . . . how is Italy?” It implies a complacency among the community in the preacher’s actions. They’re cool with it as long as it doesn’t affect them personally. Parks answers with a crack about Italy being full of Italians. The officer laughs it off. This scene is just as chilling as anything going on inside the church.

3:20 The Wicker Man

I’m talking about the original version with Christopher Lee, of course. The story: an overbearing fundamentalist Christian police officer, played by Edward Woodward, comes to an island searching for a lost girl. As he explores the island, he finds that everyone there is part of a pagan cult. The children sing songs about death. The adults jump through fires naked (“It’s much too dangerous to jump through fire with your clothes on!”). And no one seems at all concerned that small girl is missing. Not even her mother. The appalled officer skulks around the island threatening to bring the law of man and God down on everyone involved. Christopher Lee, in what he once claimed was his favorite performance, plays the cult leader who is more than cooperative with the officer.

At this point in my marathon, there is a deliberate shift from mad Christians to mad cultists with a bone to pick with Christians. As Christopher Lee ultimately tells Woodward, “God had his chance. He blew it!” The ending is dark and gleeful in its anti-Christian actions. There’s nothing overtly supernatural about the movie, so one can’t really say if there’s a comment on the existence of god or not. But the movie definitely paints the stalwart Christian as unlikeable while the murderous pagans are actually a lot of fun.

5:00 The Exorcist

Everyone has seen this. I put it at five in the morning for two reasons: it has an undeniable drive to it, so if you’re starting to drift off, this movie might jolt you back awake. And even if you do drift off, you’ve probably seen it. You can use the nap for fuck’s sake. Also, I didn’t want to end the marathon on an ambiguous note. Did Christianity win out against the devil? Or just a demon in general? I don’t feel like the movie really makes a great case for the strength of Christianity, but it doesn’t criticize the religion. The demon, who utilizes a young girl’s body to get at Max Von Sidow’s Father Merrin, clearly has an issue with chritianity, and this one Christian in general. And ther’e s a lot of back and forth about science vs. superstition. Despite the assaultive style and gross-out effects, This movie may be a bit of fresh air after watching the cruelty and madness that’s been on display all night. It also begins a rather famous thematic trilogy of demonic children movies that all came out about the same time.

7:30 Rosemary’s Baby

I included a break here. It may take you a little while to snap out of your nap. And you may want to fix breakfast or take a shower. Whatever you need to wake you up, because while Rosemary’s Baby is powerful, paranoid bit of filmmaking, it’s not the fastest movie ever made. In fact, it’s very deliberately paced (i.e. slow). But I love it. You’ve probably seen it, but if you haven’t, you’re in for a treat. Satan worshipers have their own anti-jesus coming. Mia Farrow plays the unwilling mother who is raped by Satan himself. The cult comes off every bit as creepy as the Christian cults seen in earlier movies from the marathon. Towards the end, as Farrow realizes what is happening, she cries out, “Oh, God!” At this, one of the witches snaps, “Enough with your ‘oh gods’!” And seemingly enough, God is ultimately impotent and or unwilling to step in. As far as we can tell, Satan wins, and the baby is out there now – preparing us for last days. Actually, it’s me guys.

10:00 am. The Omen

This is the third of the popular demon child movies in the seventies. One could consider it a thematic sequel to Rosemary’s Baby. In it, an American politician secretly adopts a child to shield his wife from the fact that her child died in child birth. And that child, it turns out, is the anti-christ. This is about Devil worshippers, not Christians. But their unyielding allegiance to certain doctrines and the child himself is entirely based on Christian behavior – coming at the end of all these movies, the subtext is undeniable. And when the politician, played by Gregory Peck, does turn to the church for help, he has to embrace a violent vengeful agenda. Thematic spoiler ahead for those who somehow haven’t seen it . . . the bad guys win. What makes this movie creepy is the cultish allegiance of the worshippers – not the power of Satan. In particular, the “It’s all for you, Damien!” moment.

By the end of this marathon, group think of any kind should make your very core sick. Sometimes, when I’m in a room full of people all chanting the same things, and on the same wavelength, I flash to Hitchcock’s The Birds, and those scenes of various birds slowly amassing . . . waiting to attack.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Night of Terror #27: '13 Ghosts'

Hello, all. Time for another guest blog entry from America's Number 1 William Castle fan, Phoebe Heyman. Here she is to tell us about one of Castle's most famous movies, 13 Ghosts. Remember - Look through the red lens if you believe in Phoebe, and the blue lens if you don't:

Hello horror fans! I approached the original 13 Ghosts with some interest, as I was a big fan of the remake, Thir13en Ghosts, in my youth. My friend James brought it to a gathering at my house, having picked it up in a Blockbuster fire sale or something, and probably intended us all to watch it ironically. Fortunately, I enjoyed the movie and he decided to leave it at my house, where I went on to rewatch it several times for a hit of gothic imagery that harmonized with obsessively re-reading the liner notes to "Antichrist Superstar." Also: In preparing this article, I realized that I have long been mis-remembering the opening scene of Thir13en Ghosts as belonging to Se7en, a truly embarrassing conflation. Do both scenes take place in the rain, or is it just the numbers-for-letters thing?

The original 13 Ghosts is less scary, less gory and a lot more fun than the remake. It's quite gentle for a horror movie, which is reasonably unsurprising for a William Castle movie. The movie opens on a museum tour discussing the La Brea tar pits (to be later given cinematic fame in My Girl 2), setting the story in LA. The main character, Cyrus Zorba, who's been leading the tour, learns he has inherited a nearby mansion from a distant uncle, Dr. Plato Zorba. We find out that Dr. Zorba was an occultist who collected ghosts, which now live in the mansion. Cyrus Zorba and his family, hard up for rent, decide to move into the mansion, and quickly encounter the ghosts. But is the executor of the estate, Ben Rush, trying to help them deal with the ghosts, or simply to get his hands on the apocryphal fortune believed to be hidden in the house?

Every William Castle movie has a gimmick and this movie's is "Illusion-O." Viewers were given a special "ghost viewer" that featured a red and blue pane of cellophane. All the scenes featuring ghosts are tinted blue; a timid viewer could look through the blue pane of the ghost viewer and not see the ghosts. But an intrepid viewer could look through the red pane and see the ghosts (which are colored red in the film) even more clearly. In our household, we were lamenting the fact that we couldn't experience the effect when Joe remembered he had a pair of 3D glasses that came with a Harold Lloyd box set. (In the movie, the "ghost viewer" concept shows up in the plot as a pair of special goggles built by Dr. Zorba and included in the estate.) The ghosts are visible to the naked eye without the goggles, but it's fun to see them disappear or stand out even more clearly when looking through the blue or red lens.

The movie's plot is straightforward and doesn't include too many big scares, relying instead on the special effects, which depict a pretty benign host of ghosts, for excitement. The plot centers on the film's child star, Charles Herbert (as Cyrus's son Buck), who controversially received top billing over the adult actors - which seems deserved after watching the movie! Other characters include older sister Medea and a literal witch of a housekeeper, Elaine. Played by famous witch portrayer Margaret Hamilton, she ends the film with a great "stinger" conclusion. Another William Castle pick that's fun for the whole family this Halloween!

Night of Terror #26: 'A Bucket of Blood'

You don't see much in the genre of comedy-horror these days. Comic thrillers from people like the Coens, Johnathan Demme, Sam Raimi, and more, sure - but a movie with true horror tinged with comedy is a rare thing. To clarify further, I'm not talking about horror spoofs like Scary Movie, either. Even though his movies might not be scary in that viscerally terrifying way that some people need in order to call a movie "scary," I'd like to nominate Roger Corman as a master of comedy/horror, in part because of his work on perhaps the peak example of the form: A Bucket of Blood.

The movie is a bit of a two-headed monster: It's a story about a lonely Norman Bates-type character who murders people and then uses their bodies to make sculptures. It's also a fascinating and hilarious satire of late-50s Bohemia, poking fun at the world of pompous "artistes" and the people who profit from them.

One of the reasons I love this movie is because, to me, there's no more impressive feat in mainstream film than making a movie funny and also tense/scary/creepy/suspenseful at the same time. And while this movie isn't exactly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre when it comes to scares, it is pretty creepy. Plus, even though it's a comedy, it doesn't pull any punches - Dick Miller's character Walter, lovable as he is, is really killing people. And at the end of the movie, he chases after his "love interest" to try to make her into a sculpture after she admits that she doesn't love him. Miller's great, by the way. Kind of a kooky riff on Norman Bates, albeit a year before Psycho came out (wonder if Hitchcock saw this?).

Anyway, this is absolutely one of Corman's best movies (of particular interest might be how Corman integrates the title of the movie into the story), in addition to being one of his funniest. Check it out, if so inclined.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Night of Terror #25: 'Magic'

Hello all. My friend Ira Brooker from A Talent For Idleness (and, I've long suspected, the Satellite of Love), has graciously written another post for the 'ror. This one about the film Magic, which I assume at least someone else has seen. Here ya go:

'Magic' stars a young Anthony Hopkins as a deranged ventriloquist named Corky. If you need any more enticement to see it than that, then you and I are very different people. The supporting cast includes Burgess Meredith as a feisty talent agent, David Ogden Stiers as an easily impressed investor and Ann-Margaret as an occasionally topless innkeeper. If you’re not sold yet, you’re dead to me. Magic was also the film Sir Richard Attenborough made in order to finance Gandhi. It’s pretty much a given that evil ventriloquist movies lead to prestige. The legendary Erich von Stroheim followed up 'The Great Gabbo' with 'Queen Kelly,' and Lindsay Shonteff, as we all know, progressed from 'Devil Doll' to 'Voodoo Blood Death.'

Not much about 'Magic' is especially original (other than the notion of an innately off-putting ventriloquist becoming the toast of the East Coast arts scene in 1978), but the execution mostly makes up for it. The opening sequences follow Corky as he rises rapidly from open mic bomber to star of the stage, mentored all the way by Fats, his foul-mouthed little demonspawn of a dummy. When fame proves too burdensome for the fragile, high-strung Corky, he retreats to an upstate getaway run by his old school crush Ann-Margaret and her bullying husband. It doesn’t take long for Fats to voice his objections to the new living conditions, and then the bodies start piling up.

The central question, of course, is whether it’s the ventriloquist or the dummy who’s truly in charge, because that is the central question of roughly 100% of ventriloquist-themed narratives. Like I said, 'Magic' isn’t the most original entertainment you’ll find, but it’s surprisingly gripping. A lot of that has to do with Attenborough’s well-paced, appropriately chilly direction. The biggest factor, though, is Not-Yet-Sir Anthony.

While restraint has never been Hopkins’ defining trait as an actor, he’s good at going big without quite going over the top. Corky’s battles with himself and with Fats are the real meat of 'Magic,' a sweaty, twitchy tour-de-force that keeps the tension level ratcheted several notches higher than it might otherwise be. There’s a fair bit of controversy in the online ventriloquist community (and doesn’t that sound like a hell of a thing to belong to?) about whether Hopkins did his own ventriloquism in this film. I think I side with the camp that believes Fats was voiced by one of the professionals on set, but Hopkins attacks the role with enough conviction that there’s plenty of room for reasonable doubt. As Corky pinballs between rage and timidity under Fats’ constant goading, the film steers just clear of silliness, settling instead into a satisfyingly creepy groove.

Judged as a horror film, 'Magic' is more unsettling than frightening. Judged as a film-film, it’s more accomplished than its premise suggests. Judged as a film wherein Anthony Hopkins plays a mentally ill ventriloquist named Corky, it is without parallel.

Night of Terror #24: 'The Cat's-Paw'

A quick confession: It's October 24th (actually early on the 25th, but whatever), and I'm starting to feel a little burned out on horror movies. I've been watching a lot more than I've been writing about, and it's gotten a bit overwhelming. So tonight I decided to look for a movie that wasn't quite horror, but would still be appropriate for the blog. And I landed on one of the all-time great "Gearshift Movies," Harold Lloyd's The Cat's-Paw.

Now, just stay with me on this. Harold Lloyd, of course, is a silent-and-early-talkies era comedian, famous for his wild and often dangerous stunts. This movie, though, is much different from what Harold Lloyd is famous for today. For one, no stunts, save for an early scene involving a traffic jam, and that's pretty pedestrian (pun! pun!) compared to stunts found in other Lloyd films. Two: It's a "talkie." Unlike Chaplin or Keaton, Lloyd took to talkies like a dog to a crotch, and I for one think he's got a great voice. Three: Unlike any other Harold Lloyd movie I've ever seen, The Cat's-Paw goes COMPLETELY FUCKING BONKERS at the end. How bonkers? I'll get to that in a minute. The plot is pure Capra, with a naive young man (played perfectly by Lloyd) who was raised in China coming to America to find a wife only to get embroiled in a sham election, when the town's racketeers and scoundrels put him up as a dummy candidate for mayor of the city of Stockport to keep their man in office.

I don't want to say too much, because I think the best way to see this movie is to have no idea where it's headed. This is a bit of a catch-22, though, because if you think this is the sweet, Capraesque romantic comedy it appears to be, why would you be watching it on Halloween? So I'm going to try and have it both ways. If you're an open-minded and cool individual, the type who likes watching obscure screwball comedies from the 30s, stop reading after this paragraph and come back after you get a hold of The Cat's-Paw. Batshit gear shifts aside, you won't regret it - this is a excellently crafted comedy. It doesn't have that manic quality that more famous screwballs like My Man Godfrey and stuff like that have, instead opting for a gentler, quieter brand of comedy, but it's still a delight. Funny, clever, and unfortunately for us, the political themes of corruption and broken democracy will probably still be resonant to most modern-day viewers. OK, cool kids who haven't seen the movie yet, this is your last warning: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW:

So disappointed if you haven't seen the movie and are still reading, but that's OK. You could show me the most exciting tennis match ever played and I'd probably rather watch Get Smart instead. Anyway, as you might have guessed from the plot synopsis a couple paragraphs above, Lloyd ends up, shucks upon shucks, winning the election. And in an even bigger surprise, he doesn't play by the rules of the game, instead opting to throw the bums out and bring his common sense governance to the office of mayor. The lowlifes of the city aren't happy about this, so they arrange a frame-up to make it look like he's involved in dirty political business as well, and he gets publicly disgraced with only 24 hours to clear his name before the governor replaces him with a new mayor. Got it? So far, the plot is still standard-issue political romantic comedy, albeit having actually come out several years before Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Here's where the movie goes completely off the rails: Instead of clearing his name in a typical and acceptable American fashion, Mayor Lloyd has every gangster, racketeer, and lowlife in the city arrested and brought to an underground dungeon in Chinatown. He's got a bunch of scary-looking shirtless Chinese guys down there helping him keep everybody in line, but most of them aren't scared, they figure he's just trying to frighten them. He offers everybody in the dungeon an ultimatum: Inspired by an ancient Chinese folk story, Lloyd says that the criminals can either sign full confessions and face conviction for their crimes, or be beheaded. By the way, this is all played completely straight in the movie, right up to the point where the unlucky contestant number 1 is dragged into a back room and we hear him get his head CHOPPED THE FUCK OFF. As if that weren't enough, two of Lloyd's stormtroopers cart the guy's body in front of the other thugs with his head resting in a bowl that's sitting on his chest. Let me make something clear: After roughly 80 minutes of good-natured comedy with a traditional dose of pathos, the entire sequence in the dungeon is an exercise in slow, creeping dread, as the audience (and the captive audience in the movie) begins to wonder if maybe this mayor guy is serious, and is actually going to cut off some heads. The scene culminates in the decapitation I just described, and I can't overstate the shock value inherent in seeing a scene like that play out in a movie like this. No matter what mitigating factors happen after this scene, the shock value of the initial events is undiminished. This is crazy stuff, and I've never seen anything else like it.

No, The Cat's-Paw is not a horror movie, but it does have one of the creepiest sequences I've ever seen in a movie, and one thing that makes it so creepy is that it really does come out of nowhere. I highly recommend The Cat's-Paw, both as a traditional bit of old Hollywood entertainment, and an insane display of unexpected terror. If that's not Halloween-appropriate, what is?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Night of Terror #23: 'Night of the Demon'

Whoops, forgot to do a post last night, so I'll have to double up today. Here's another fabulous guest piece, this one from my good friend Patrick Brennan on the movie Night of the Demon. Tonight I'll write about something else, probably A Bucket of Blood. Enjoy:

The 20th century saw two great storytellers who understood that it's not always what you see, but what you feel, that makes a story truly scary: H.P. Lovecraft and Val Lewton. Lovecraft had the balls to say, in the first line of one of his best stories, “Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end.” His stories were full of events that couldn't be explained by any scientific or even traditionally religious means. Lewton's most famous movies were, however, more focused on something obscured. Was it a monster, or merely a madman?

When Jacques Tourneur, who directed Lewton's two best movies, took on Night of the Demon in 1957, he did it the same way he and Lewton would have done it after The Cat People or I Walked with a Zombie. In the movie proper, everything can be explained by either Dana Andrews's realist John Holden or the evil magician, Dr. Karswell. The death of Professor Harrington might have been the result of a drug-induced nightmare. Or it might have been the result of an uncontrollable demon summoned from the depths of Hell. We may never know.

Well, we may never have known if Tourneur had his way. After principle shooting was completed, the studio forced Tourneur to edit in footage of the demon. While the special effects are genuinely well-made for the era, the movie manages to create such an unsettling, bizarre atmosphere without them that it just seems completely unnecessary. Seeing the demon doesn't ruin Night of the Demon, but it makes it takes away a little of its mystery.

What's most striking about Night of the Demon is how far it is from the B-plus feel you'd expect from a movie called Night of the Demon that came out in 1957. The movie is full of scenes where reality seems just a little bit off. When Holden and Karswell first meet in the British Museum, we see Karswell walk away, silhouetted, through Holden's eyes. What was an institution of learning and science now looks like a catacomb. When Holden and Harrington's niece, Joanna, visit Karswell's mansion for the first time, Holden and Karswell have a philosophical conversation about the way the two of them view the world ending in Karswell appearing to summon a thunderstorm from nowhere, all while he wears clown make-up. Moments like these create a mood that's closer to Mr. Arkadin than It Came From Outer Space.

Night of the Demon was Tourneur's last truly great movie, and it may in fact be the last vestige of the kind of filmmaking that he and Lewton innovated in the early 40s. It's the kind of horror that comes from being just as afraid of the kind of people that prey on your weaknesses as you are of the things that go bump in the night. Night of the Demon gives it a fitting send-off, showing how it can be disabled with just a few glimpses of a bat-winged monster emerging from the woods, and getting to the core of the genre with just a few words to close the film: “You were right. Maybe it's better not to know.”

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Night of Terror #22: 'Tales of Terror'

I watched another Poe adaptation this weekend, this one containing three Poe tales into one movie. Apparently more than one filmmaker has thought the best way to overcome the "length problem" of doing Poe movies is to cram more than one story into a movie. Pretty clever.

This movie, from the director probably most associated with Poe, is from Roger Corman. He's famous for cranking out ultra low-budget exploitation movies, both as a director and a producer. But his Poe adaptations for American International Pictures are probably his most lavish productions, featuring elaborate costumes, Cinemascope, Technicolor, the whole bit. Tales of Terror is a Corman/Poe movie in that tradition, featuring, (of course), Vincent Price, this time in three different roles.

This first segment, "Morella," is the weakest of the bunch. It features a very straightforward gothic horror tale with Vincent Price as the estranged father of the girl who as a baby he blamed for the death of his wife. It turns out the wife shared this opinion, and might have some supernatural trouble to dish out on the daughter now that she's back in the house. It's short, and a little creepy, but not up to the standard of entertainment value of the other two segments (particularly the second one).

That second one is called "The Black Cat," and it might just be one of the best things Corman ever did. It's a masterpiece of comic horror, with Peter Lorre as a drunken cad who steals money from his wife to buy wine with, and who hates his black cat. Price is, dare I say it, in the role he was born to play: The World's Fanciest and Dandiest Man, a wine taster who eventually steals Lorre's wife. If you've ever read "The Black Cat" or "The Cask of Amontillado" you can guess what happens next, but I won't spoil it. Suffice it to say that there's a striking gearshift between the hilarious hijinks of a drunken Peter Lorre bumming around town and the horrific climax.

"The Facts of the Case of M. Valdemar" goes back to the serious tone of the first segment, but with more entertaining results. The original story is just about a guy who gets mesmerized "at the point of death" and remains suspended in this state for while, only to rot away instantly when he's brought out of hypnosis. The movie adds a bit of business about the one doing the hypnosis (Basil Rathbone) being in it for his own insidious purposes - oh, and Valdemar (played by a nearly comatose Price) turns into a zombie at the end. Good stuff.

All in all, this probably stands as one of the better Corman/Poe pictures, if for no other reason than the better pacing the anthology format provides for. Give it a watch, especially if you're a fan of Vincent Price or Peter Lorre (or if you're interested in becoming one).

Friday, October 21, 2011

Night of Terror #21: 'Two Evil Eyes'

Edgar Allan Poe is kind of a weird figure in horror. He's a huge influence on the genre, writing truly shocking stuff that was generations ahead of its time. He's also really popular as old dead white guys go, which makes him a "draw" as far as Hollywood producers are concerned. And yet, none of his stuff is particularly "cinematic" in the usual sense. Not only was he writing stories and poems hundreds of years before cinema was even invented, but he was also most interested in the thing that movies have always had a hard time conveying: One person's innermost (and deranged) thoughts.

This makes adapting Poe kind of a weird proposition. The filmmaker is pretty much on his or her own in terms of approach, setting, even plot, since most of Poe's most famous works have barely enough plot to fill 22 minutes of TV, if that. The anthology film Two Evil Eyes, a collaboration between Dario Argento and George Romero, opts for a "fast and loose" approach to Poe's work, although compared to other Poe movies it's actually pretty slavish.

The first segment, based on Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," is directed by George A. Romero. It's restrained compared to his zombie movies and other horror movies, but it's still unmistakably Romero, particularly because of the social commentary present in the movie. The theme can be summed up thusly: The rich are psychopathic monsters, willing to do anything to get richer. The plot is a riff on Poe's idea, featuring a wealthy dying man's wife and her not-so-former boyfriend putting the dying man (Valdemar) under hypnosis in order to rob him of his assets. It's standard Romero - pretty entertaining.

The second segment, by Argento based largely on "The Black Cat" but combining elements of several other Poe stories, is quite interesting. It's not as coherent a piece as Romero's contribution, although why anyone would expect it to be given the director I have no idea. In addition to featuring several classic Argento "tricks," such as several "cat's-eye-view" shots, a "pendulum-eye-view" shot, and Psycho-alum Martin Balsam just beginning to climb up a set of stairs just like in Psycho but turning back at the last second, "The Black Cat" features what I can safely say is the best performance in any Argento film, from Harvey Keitel. I realize that being the "best performance in an Argento movie" is probably the faintest praise an actor can be given, but Keitel puts a lot of relish and verve into his role, giving him an actual character instead of just a human prop to deliver lines and get murdered.

Altogether, Two Evil Eyes is both an underrated horror movie and an interesting example of two horror auteurs at work. Oh, and Harvey Keitel gets impaled through his ass by a wooden stake.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Night of Terror #20: 'Mr. Sardonicus' and 'Van Helsing'

Hello, all. It's me, your horrible host, with another entry in-- sorry, going for a William Castle thing, there, in honor of tonight's entry, Mr. Sardonicus. To write about it, we have the sardonic Phoebe Heyman, and I might chime in in the comments if I feel like it. Let's give her a big "thumb's up," OK?

A few days ago we watched Mr. Sardonicus, a William Castle movie from 1961. The plot: A famous doctor, Sir Robert Cargrave of London, recently knighted for his achievements in the field of curing paralysis, receives a missive from his former fiancee, now married to the mysterious Baron Sardonicus. She beseeches Sir Robert to come for a visit, and when he arrives amidst a flurry of disturbing events, he's eventually pressed into service to protect the innocent, and maybe help the not-so-innocent. While Sir Robert is a bit too unflappable and self-confident to be the best "audience surrogate" for a horror movie, that's the only thing I can really fault about the movie, which is really fun, unexpectedly disturbing, and pretty original despite its tight plotting.

I particularly enjoyed the movie for its enthusiastic participation in the "Eastern Europe as locus of the frightening and uncivilized" motif, a trope I encountered frequently when I majored in Slavic Languages and Literatures. However,
Mr. Sardonicus is notable for its commitment to an authentic setting - it's nominally set in the fictional Central/Eastern European republic of "Gorslava" but all the visible writing, like in the train station and cemetery, is real Czech, and the village scenes are pretty good too.

It was also interesting to contrast the film with Van Helsing, which we watched today: Both films are set in the abstract Mitteleuropa of . . . well, horror films, but despite coming out forty years earlier, Mr. Sardonicus actually gives a much more nuanced depiction of the region. Van Helsing claims at once to be set "in Transylvania," "on the far side of Romania," and, most bizarrely, in Budapest.
Both films also draw a sharp juxtaposition between a "civilized" Western city and a heavily fictionalized, indiscriminately Eastern or Balkan rural area: London and "Gorislava," Rome and "Transylvania." Both films also depict the contrast between a large castle or estate - removed from the village milieu and owned by the aristocracy - and the surrounding rural region. In Van Helsing, the heroine Anna and her brother Velkan are the last of the Valerious family, whose huge castle stands adjacent to the "Budapest" village area. From their names, we can assume that their ancestors were not autochthonous to the region. In Mr. Sardonicus, Baron Sardonicus is originally a local, but after buying his expensive estate, he furnishes and staffs it so that it is indistinguishable from any Western counterpart. Both the Valerious and Sardonicus estates become the loci for horrible deeds and disturbing events, as if the uncanny nature of the Eastern setting must always triumph over the trappings of civilization.

The immersive location isn't the only unique quality of
Mr. Sardonicus. The plot, which I don't want to reveal too much about, is a great mash-up of multiple influences: Dracula, of course, but also maybe "The Monkey's Paw." More than anything, the flashback that's the film's centerpiece reminded me of an Eastern European folk tale. The film's most unique feature, and probably its most famous, is the "Punishment Poll" that appears before the film's conclusion. The original theater audiences were given a glow-in-the-dark card with a "Thumbs Up" sign that could be turned over for the "thumbs down." William Castle comes on-screen and asks the audience to vote with the thumb, Roman Colosseum-style, on whether the villain has received enough punishment or if he deserves some more. Unfortunately, reports that Castle actually shot an alternative ending to the film proved to be apocryphal. Despite its gimmicky nature, I think the Punishment Poll fits into the plot of the movie surprisingly well - the villain is convincingly sympathetic throughout most of the movie.

Despite its huge budget, expansive CGI, and some unexpected bright spots - Kate Beckinsale does a surprisingly good Eastern European accent -
Van Helsing isn't such a great movie. Mr. Sardonicus, on the other hand, is above all else really fun - and has one of the most shocking movie moments of all time. Watch it today!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Night of Terror #19: 'Hellraiser'

Greetings, ghouls! Joe here, with another thrilling guest blog post. You know what that means, it will be a bit longer than mine, and better written, more interesting, etc. This one is from the ingenious Oswald Hobbes of Enjoy:

As a young child, I was fortunate enough to spend a fair amount of time with two middle-aged alcoholics possessed of an extremely liberal outlook on R-rated videotapes. I would spend weekends at their house regularly, and no trip was complete without a trip to the horror section of the local Blockbuster – valuable learning experiences, not because of the movies (most of which I fell asleep halfway through), but because of the many hours spent simply perusing VHS slip covers. It's my theory that horror films are so universally popular with little kids not just because we all, at that age, like to experiment with the scare button in our minds, but also because the illustrations on their packaging are so enticingly weird. Also, the genre's offerings fall into loose, easily identifiable (even for a middle-schooler) groups: slasher flicks, supernatural stories, stuff about space, and movies based on short stories by Stephen King.

Oh, and then there was the really extreme stuff, the stuff that dealt with the most taboo horror of all: sex. Hellraiser, in my young mind, was among the most notorious of these scandalous sagas. The image of Pinhead (played by Doug Bradley, and billed in the first film as “Lead Cenobite”), with his ghostly pale bald head stuffed full of thin metal spikes, was frightening enough. But the mere mention of Clive Barker above the title got my youthful mojo risin': I had read about ten pages of a Clive Barker book when I was ten and the main takeaway involved a character passionately masturbating and spilling “spunk” all over the floor.

Even now, approaching thirty, I'm pretty tantalized by Hellraiser's primary conceit: the existence of a mystical puzzle box that, when patiently coaxed open, releases four gruesome demonoids who extract so much incredible pain from their victims that, finally, it passes into the realm of horrible pleasure. Hellraiser depicts not once but TWICE the final result of one character's experience with Pinhead and his cohorts: his body being ripped apart by chains attached (in a really fake-looking establishing shot, used repeatedly throughout this film and its sequel, Hellbound) to his flesh with hooks.

Everything in the movie looks pretty fake, actually, and now that I'm old enough to watch Hellraiser with more than a few experiences of both the sexual and the painful variety in my rearview, I can see clearly that the effects are the main attraction here – the S&M elements are sprinkled somewhat liberally throughout this entry (and downplayed to a greater extent as the series progressed and the mythology increasingly centered around the Pinhead character) but suggestion is all they are, really.

The story is set in motion by Frank (Sean Chapman) purchasing and then solving the aforementioned puzzle box (to be known as the Lamont Configuration in future films), which leads to his sparsely furnished bedroom morphing into an elaborately appointed torture chamber complete with eerie gray light shining through cracks in the walls. After he becomes just so much rubbery splatter on the walls, the film shifts perspective to his somewhat square brother Larry (played, in a righteously satisfying tour de force of scenery chewing, by Dirty Harry bad guy Andrew Robinson) and his shady British wife Julia (Clare Higgins). After that, without getting too spoilery, things take a decidedly sinister turn, with the introduction of Larry's nubile-but-independent-minded daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) and Frank's resurrection as a revolting, blood-drenched half-man hungry for human flesh.

But, the effects: masterminded by Cliff Wallace (a guy with a resume as illustrious as it is long), they're pain-staking and gross, the kind of disgusting creations so sickening because of their obvious weight and mass – the kind of mind-blowingly awesome stuff that has, in the past decade, been almost completely replaced by cheap, shiny CGI, essentially unbelievable in the same way, but somehow easier to shrug off because no sick bastard actually went to the trouble of actually creating it with real materials. Hellraiser is an artifact of a bygone era when crafty backstage lifers toiling in dark and dingy makeshift laboratories made, in the truest sense of the word, the stuff of nightmares literal.

I miss those days, just like I miss those intoxicating weekends of my childhood lost to the likes of Sleepaway Camp II and endless cans of cold Dr Pepper: there is a sense of wonder to Hellraiser, a fundamental and unshakable awe that a lot of people got together and believed in a third-rate horror writer's kinky idea enough to build it from the ground up. And the end result is still scary shit, my friends – I recently watched it alone, with the lights off, and had to pause it three quarters of the way through to go find my cat and hug him close for comfort. Its theme of pain as the ultimate pathway to true pleasure will always vibrate seductively, a window into the dark part of the human soul that most of us will never be brave enough to inspect in the harsh light of day. For that, I'm willing to overlook some obvious latex errors.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Night of Terror #18: 'The Unknown'

Who's your favorite actor? De Niro? Pacino? Brando, maybe? I like those guys too, but the fact remains that no film actor ever surpassed Lon Chaney in terms of technical ability. Chaney can do more with just his face than literally any other actor can with many more tools at his or her disposal: Dialog being the big one of the bunch.

I definitely do NOT want to spoil the plot of The Unknown, because part of its berserk pleasure is watching its unpredictable plot unfold. But as someone who has seen this movie around half a dozen times, I can vouch for the fact that it holds up even after you know everything that happens in it.

I'll give you the briefest of setups here, just to get you interested: Lon plays an armless circus performer whose specialty is doing stuff with his feet - throwing knives, firing guns, that sort of thing. Joan Crawford plays another member of the circus troupe with a bit of a psychological hang-up: She can't stand being pawed at by men. A match made in heaven? You'll have to watch the movie to find out, but suffice it to say that their would-be romance does not progress smoothly.

In lieu of an in-depth and spoilery discussion of The Unknown's plot, I'll relay an anecdote of my first viewing of it that I think illustrates its power even 80+ years after its release. I was visiting home from college, and put on The Unknown as part of a recently purchased "Lon Chaney Collection" DVD set. My sister, 7 or 8 at the time, happened into the room and started watching it too, her interest becoming stronger as the movie progressed. By the time the final scene arrived, she was in near hysterics over what was going to happen. Never let anybody tell you that silent movies "don't hold up" while movies like The Unknown exist.

Sorry about the vague nature of this post - I'm just really reluctant to spoil this movie for anyone because I recommend it so highly. It's probably my favorite of the movies written up here so far, which, looking back, I guess isn't that impressive. But it's also one of my favorite horror movies ever, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Night of Terror #17: 'The Ghost Ship'

Val Lewtonnnnnn. As tempted as I am to just end the post with that, I guess I should say some more about The Ghost Ship, if for no other reason than its perennially underrated status among the other horror movies from producer Val Lewton.

Lewton, in case you don't know, specialized in low-budget horror movies for RKO. The studio would give him a title and a poster, and he was free to pretty much do as he pleased as far as the script, casting, and directing was concerned. Luckily for us, Lewton's taste ran dark and mysterious, and his body of work is one of the most consistent of any producer. His movies are characterized by their bleak themes, ambiguous supernatural elements, and stark, noirish lighting and camerawork.

Though I've made it a habit to rewatch as much Val Lewton as possible every October since I first discovered him a few years ago, this was only my second viewing of The Ghost Ship. My impression was that it was a lesser entry in the series, but now I'm pretty sure it's just as good as his other more famous horror movies like Cat People or I Walked With A Zombie. Unlike his other movies, though, the only supernatural element is in the title. The menace here, rather than a woman who morphs into a cat or a zombie, is an overzealous, deranged, and fascistic ship captain played by Richard Dix. He's great, too, the kind of villain you just want to punch in the face well before he starts bumping members of the crew off.

There's a great and terrifying set piece when they finally DO start getting bumped off, as one guy stupid enough to mouth off to the captain ends up being suffocated in a room that's having really long chain getting fed into it (I'm sure there are nautical terms for this but I don't know them). This is a great horror/thriller that deserves to be as famous as Lewton's other stuff. Just don't expect to see any ghosts.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Night of Terror #16: 'The Black Camel' and 'Charlie Chan at the Opera'

Tonight I watched a pair of quasi-horror movies in the 20th Century Fox Charlie Chan detective series. The first one, The Black Camel, features a performance from horror icon Bela Lugosi, while Charlie Chan at the Opera features a performance from another horror icon, Boris Karloff. Hence their inclusion in this blog.

I guess I should talk about whether or not these movies are scary, first of all. I'd seen both of them many years ago, but couldn't really remember much about the horror elements of either of them. It turns out that despite the presences of Lugosi and Karloff, the horror elements in both of these are quite minimal. They're a bit stronger in the Opera, with Karloff stalking the halls of the Opera house as a maniac maybe-killer. There's even a jokey reference to his famous horror career: "this opera is going on tonight even if Frankenstein walks in!" Ha ha.

Although I'm planning on writing up at least one purer horror movie from each actor this month, now is as good a time as any to discuss the great Karloff/Lugosi dichotomy. It's one of those great pop culture debates, like The Who/Led Zeppelin, Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin, or Pokemon/Digimon. I think it boils down thus: Lugosi is a more bizarre presence, while Karloff is the better actor. In these two Chan movies, Lugosi downplays the weirdness of some of his other characters to play a suave psychic, and I've never seen him more charming in a movie (no, not even in Dracula). Karloff is playing a more typical role for him, as the psychotic but fundamentally sympathetic Gravelle.

On the movies themselves: They are both delightful little whodunits, just like all the Warner Oland Chans. I especially like the Opera because of the presence of Keye Luke as "Number One Son" Lee Chan, although his role isn't as big as I would have liked.

Sorry about the rambling nature of this post, I guess that's what happens when I wait until after 1 in the morning to do these. Check out both of these movies if you get the chance.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Night of Terror #15: 'Homicidal"

Let's get one thing straight about William Castle: He weren't no artist. He didn't think of himself as one, anyway. And when you watch his movies, it's clear to see he didn't have that cinematic verve that, say, Hitchcock has. Same with the performances - they're mostly flat (unless Vincent Price was involved), and delivering the kind of ridiculous expository dialog that seems fundamentally disconnected from real life. And yet there is a kind of artistry to William Castle's movies. If Hitch is The Beatles, William Castle would have to be, I dunno, The Stooges or something. Maybe they didn't know how to play their instruments, but holy shit, they could play anyway.

That's actually a horrible analogy because Castle's movies aren't particularly exciting in the conventional sense, but there's something so thrilling about them anyway. Which finally brings us to Homicidal, a blatant Psycho knock-off from 1961. It's got Psycho's stark black-and-white cinematography, a violent plot about a serial killer, a couple stabbings/dismemberments, shots of driving in the rain, and a twist ending.

It also has something Psycho does not: A "Fright Break," in which a clock appears on the screen and faint-hearted members of the audience are invited to leave before things get too intense. Gimmicks like this are a huge part of the Castle oeuvre, and they give his movies a kind of Pop Art weirdness that I really love.

It occurred to me about halfway through this that my aim of keeping the blog free of heavy spoilers means I won't be able to talk about by far the most interesting aspect of the movie, which is the big "twist" and its ramifications. Oh well. Instead I'll point out that the character of Helga seems to be at least one inspiration for the wheelchair-bound and mute Hector Salamanca on Breaking Bad. Only instead of a bell, she has some kind of gavel thing. I wonder if Vince Gilligan ever saw this movie?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Night of Terror #14: 'Onibaba'

Holy shit. Today I watched Onibaba, which is just one of seemingly billions of movies made by Kaneto Shindo (Shindo Kaneto?) over the course of his career, still going strong well into his 90s.

Not sure what to say about it, at least not right away, so I guess I'll start with the basic plot. This woman and her mother-in-law earn a modest living in 14th century Japan by murdering wandering samurai, stripping them of their belongings, and tossing them into a giant dark pit. When one of their neighbors who accompanied the man who links the two women by marriage (the younger woman's husband, the older woman's son), comes back alone, saying he was killed in battle, things get weird.

The daughter-in-law starts having sex with the neighbor, causing the mother-in-law to fly into a complicatedly motivated jealous rage. I don't want to give too much away, but she tries to scare her daughter-in-law from visiting the man by putting on a creepy-as-hell demon mask and shouting at her. This has pretty macabre results, in the end. I guess the moral is don't put on a demon mask, for any reason.

Onibaba, like a lot of great horror movies, taps into universal emotions. In particular, this movie deals with the feeling of jealousy - more particularly, that vague, uneasy kind of jealousy where you don't even have a rightful claim on the object of your jealous anger.

This is truly a one-of-a-kind horror movie, or at least one that isn't bound by typical horror conventions. But it's still scary as hell, especially if you have a phobia about mangled faces.

Night of Terror #13: 'The Thing'

Hello, all. My friend Mark Young of New York Movie Klub and the author of The Question Blade has written a piece on one of my favorite movies, John Carpenter's The Thing. I had the occasion to watch this again last night so I might chime in with some thoughts in the comments as well. Enjoy.

You know what the worst shot in John Carpenter’s The Thing is? The very first one. We don’t need to know where the strange shapeshifting creature comes from; let us infer for ourselves. I prefer to think that it’s not an alien, but instead something prehistoric; something that the dinosaurs and hominids could sniff out and avoid, its survival under the ice a sort of evolutionary punishment to humanity for expanding our brains at the expense of our hunting instincts.

From then on this movie doesn’t make a single mistake. It has a tough path to walk, because it has to establish its own identity as a film even though it’s a remake (of Howard Hawks’ 1951 film The Thing From Another World) and it only got made as a result of the huge success of Alien. Both The Thing and Alien are haunted-house movies with a setting that artificially removes the question, “why don’t they just leave the house?” Both care very little about the actual science, and focus on a bunch of working stiffs straining to stay alive.

The big difference is that The Thing really emphasizes the monster. With Alien, as with a lot of monster movies, it doesn’t really matter what the enemy can do; the key points are that it’s bigger and stronger and it’s going to eat you. I liked that The Thing gets the maximum amount of milage out of what its monster’s abilities are, and does so slowly. The creature kills a few dogs, and we get a good look at it and know it to be bad news, but the idea that it could replicate a human being still seems far-fetched, until…

…well, I don’t want to spoil it. Suffice it to say that this is not a movie where the monster leaps out of the dark accompanied by a musical stinger. Instead, the Thing’s first attack on a person is built around the best special effect I’ve ever seen, courtesy of the great master Rob Bottin (Total Recall, among others). It’s not gory or ugly, it’s unsettling: something which is trying to be human and not quite getting it yet.

There are other great effects in the movie, which film buffs have learned to describe by the scenes they turn up in: The Autopsy, The Blood Test. The amazing thing is how real they look. Even when the Thing is taking shapes that no Earth creature has ever imagined, it still looks completely real, as though Baker found it in the wild somewhere instead of building it out of plastic and wire. The actors in this movie are great, and I love the paranoid mood the script creates, but my mind always comes back to those monsters. There’s just nothing like them.

As I’m sure everyone reading this knows, they’re remaking The Thing; it’s being released this month. I’m not opposed to that. I doubt that any special effect will ever be as horrifying as Bottin’s original work, but why not try? After all, Carpenter’s film was itself a remake: I like to imagine people like my parents remembering the campy Thing from the ‘50s, frowning at Carpenter’s gritty realism and graphic violence, and wishing there was some kind of series of tubes whereby they could find other frowners. It’s the circle of life.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Night of Terror #12: 'Horror of Dracula'

Before this year I was a Hammer Films virgin. I'd read a lot about the horror movies to come from the British studio, but for one stupid reason or another I'd never actually watched any. I guess I'm more of an AIP man, when it comes down to it. Anyway, this month I've been finally introducing myself to some Hammer Horror movies, including some lesser ones from the 60s. Horror of Dracula is the first one with a good reputation I've watched, and I'm definitely not disappointed.

The Hammer MO, at least in the early years, appeared to have been "take a Universal horror classic, ramp up the shock and terror, add bright Technicolor, release to audiences." Can't say I have any objection to this way of doing things. In the case of Dracula, they took the Bela Lugosi version of the story, all horror and atmosphere, and added Christopher Lee with a big set of fangs and blood smeared all over his face (plus bright red contact lenses) literally throwing one of his female vampire slaves across the room. It reminds me a little of Mario Bava, who also had a penchant for cranking horror tropes to 11 (in his vampire movie, Black Sunday, instead of a coffin creaking open in the dead of night, it explodes)

Adding to the "Universal classic shot with adrenaline" mood is the changes made to the plot. In this version of the story, Johnathan Harker intentionally gets a job with Dracula whom he knows to be a vampire in order to kill him. He fails, is turned into a vampire by Dracula, and gets offed by Dr. Van Helsing. Honestly, no 15-year-old could come up with a cooler variation on Dracula without getting completely ridiculous.

However, this was 1959, and the movie doesn't really sustain the breakneck energy you might be envisioning given my description. I fully expect the Hammer Dracula sequels to up the stakes (har, har), but this movie certainly feels like a first salvo as far as reinvigorating the horror genre is concerned. I guess I'll write more when I see more Hammer Horror movies. Still, this movie is a fun and spooky horror movie that I'd recommend to any fan.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Night of Terror #11: 'Raw Meat'

Due to birthday festivities (read: watching movies) I am unable to do a post for today, the 11th (technically the 12th, but oh well). So my good friend Ira Brooker of A Talent for Idleness has agreed to step in, covering the movie Raw Meat. Enjoy!

A lot of adjectives come to mind when I think of Donald Pleasence. “Commanding.” “Mannerly.” “Bald.” Viewing Raw Meat added one more to the arsenal: “Bitchy.” Pleasence fairly radiates peevishness as a Scotland Yard inspector tasked with investigating the mysterious disappearance of a civil servant in the London Underground. He brings an off-kilter, endlessly entertaining energy to his portrayal of a man utterly fed up with the base stupidity of everyone in his sphere, from criminals to colleagues to cannibals.

The sublime bitchiness of Pleasence’s performance is all the more enjoyable because it stands in stark relief to the rest of the film. The missing civil servant turns out to be the latest victim of the aforementioned cannibals, a grotesquely deformed couple living in the depths of London’s subway tunnels. The reveal of their lair is a masterpiece of cinematic gore, as director Gary Sherman’s camera pans patiently over a human slaughterhouse rendered with surprising, sickening realism. There aren’t a lot of elaborate kill sequences in this film, but when Raw Meat abides by its title, it’s just as unsettling as any splatterfest.

The Pleasence and the unpleasantness would be enough to make Raw Meat worth watching, but what really elevates it is the treatment of the cannibals. Hugh Armstrong’s turn as the mutant family’s breadwinner (so to speak) brings unexpected humanity to a fundamentally inhuman character. Sure, this dude plays it a little loose when it comes to society’s hang-ups about killing/raping/eating your social betters, but he’s a product of his environment if ever there was one. He’s an unwitting devil straight from the King Kong school of movie monsters. Armstrong wisely plays him straight, investing his frustrated grunts and moans with enough soul to make Raw Meat genuinely moving in places.

I don’t mean to imply that this is some kind of forgotten horror masterpiece. There are plenty of problems with Raw Meat, most of them involving the spectacularly dull hipster couple played by Sharon Gurney and David Ladd (son of Alan, though his performance here is more reminiscent of a young Harrison Ford on a barbiturate bender). They play the last witnesses to see the civil servant alive, but they’re mostly here to give the audience something nicer to look at than pus-oozing inbreds and Donald Pleasence. Their lazy, bickersome interludes serve mainly to bog down the proceedings of what’s a pretty low-key horror flick regardless.

Still, those minor failings only downgrade Raw Meat from a must-see to a should-see. As artsy, exploitive, ‘70s British subway cannibal movies with Donald Pleasence as comic relief go, this is pretty much your best-case scenario.