Thursday, October 31, 2013

Night of Terror #31: 'The Pit and the Pendulum'

Another month straight of horror movies comes to a fitting close with an inexplicably-unseen-by-me-before-tonight entry in one of my favorite series of movies ever, the Roger Corman "Poe cycle" made at American-International Pictures.

The Pit and the Pendulum might be one of the best of the series, although nothing could ever upset The Raven's number one spot in my heart. As I was watching it I had occasion to compare it to another famous series of horror movies made at around the same time but across the Atlantic ocean, the Hammer horror movies, since I also watched a Hammer movie today. While it's easy to imagine Hammer movies being shown in drive-in theaters and the like, the Corman-Poe movies have aged into these weird kind of art films, despite the fact that they attracted huge gobs of teenagers when they came out.

Unlike the Hammer films, which are full of sex, blood, action, and a sometimes almost desperate urge to entertain, Corman's work in this phase of his career is weirdly restrained - narratively austere, maybe because of the source material, and thematically and visually cohesive throughout all the movies in the cycle.

But don't let that fool you into thinking Pit doesn't have any shocks. They're deployed with an expert eye towards maximum impact, but when they hit, they stick. My favorite is probably the reveal of "Elizabeth" within her coffin, clutching at the space between the coffin lid and her hands, her face twisted in grotesque horror - the fact that it actually doesn't make any sense (or at least isn't adequately explained given the plot twists that follow) makes it work even better as a kind of pure shock bludgeon.

Vincent Price gives another excellent performance as the movie's tortured antihero, and he also gets an opportunity to play an outright villain within the same character (never let it be said that Roger Corman couldn't work his way around a low budget better than anybody else). His performance reveals this as probably the most nakedly emotional of all the Corman-Poe movies - watch the scene that has him sobbingly repeating "I killed her, I killed her" over and over again and try not to be affected.

As I mentioned earlier, Richard Matheson's screenplay isn't exactly a masterpiece of airtight plotting - multiple character motivations go without explanation, as do a couple of seemingly contradictory incidents. But this doesn't conflict with the hallucinatory nature of the movie - lurid color filters, claustrophobic restriction of all sequences to within that creepy castle, and a score by Les Baxter that strikes an impossible balance between lush Gothic melodies and atonal oddness.

I had a great this time watching (and writing about, I guess) horror movies this October, just like every year. Thanks for tuning in, those of you who did, and extra-special thanks to those who helped me out with a guest piece. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled next month for 30 Days of Thankfulness in which I watch a movie that involves the theme of being thankful for your blessings every day.

No one will enter this room again.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Night of Terror #30: 'House on Haunted Hill'

For the penultimate Night of Terror for 2013, I ended up with a classic by one of my very favorite directors, William Castle. My usual line on Castle is that his best movies have aged into pop-art masterpieces, with his showboating gimmickry creating cinematic experiences that you simply can't get anywhere else. But as I watched House on Haunted Hill for the 2nd or 3rd time, I was struck by how that really isn't the case with this, even though it's probably his most popular movie.

That's because Castle's gimmick for this one, Emergo - involving a plastic skeleton being made to fly over the audience during a key sequence, doesn't really manifest itself onscreen in any way. So there's none of the fabulous fourth-wall collisions that The Tingler has (at least not apart the very beginning and end), the faux-interactivity of Mr. Sardonicus, or the carnival-like "Fright Break" of Homicidal.

And yet I still count this as a solid if not exemplary entry in Castle's filmography. It's probably in large part due to its top-notch "old dark house" atmosphere that relies pretty much entirely on stagebound effects, the kind you might see in an actual past-its-prime haunted house. And it's also thanks to the cast, which has its share of ringers including not just Vincent Price (clearly having a ball with his somewhat inscrutable character), but also Elisha Cook Jr. and Julie Mitchum.

Anyways, House on Haunted Hill is pretty darn close to being a quintessential Halloween movie, for its interest in spooks jumping out and scaring you before vanishing, and its commitment to old-school shocks and a plot in which only the bad guys get killed.

One other thing I wanted to note - might this be a little bit of an autobiographical movie on Castle's part? I know nothing of his personal life at the time, but I did notice some parallels between Vincent Price's ghoulish sense of humor (those tiny coffins, for one) and the one Castle either had or pretended to have. Food for thought.

Night of Terror #29: Some Wrestling Bullshit

Hi everybody. A couple weeks ago I did something that will probably haunt me until my dying day: I asked Dan if he wanted to write about wrestling for this blog. You see, Dan has been a professional wrestling fan (the wrestling is professional, not the fanship) for almost 1 1/2 years now, and I thought it would be interesting to read him expound on some of the spookier aspects of the sport. For more of Dan's thoughts about pretty much just wrestling, hit up his Twitter here.

Sports in general are not typically considered “scary”. There are certainly scary things that can happen, but due to the real world nature of sports it’s not really the same as watching a horror movie. The horrifying elements of sports instead tap into a real-world fear of injury and death, something sports fans get to watch play out in agonizing reality and thus makes it much less fun. The one sport that can claim a hold in the world of “fiction” and therefore can truly prey on man’s fears without honestly entering into reality would be Professional Wrestling.

Pro wrestling sits at this bizarro intersection between the reality of sports and the sort of “hyperreality” of fiction, and thanks to its scripted nature can use the language of story-telling to impress the audience. Both in the duration of a match and in the meta-reality of a wrestling “program” or storyline a distinct story is told. Heroes and villains clash, twists leave the viewer wondering where things are going to go, and grand finales ending stories in the biggest ways possible. However, few wrestling matches ever really tap into the fictional horror like horror films can. The due to the physical limitations of the body wrestling matches still have to adhere to the laws of physics and reality. One man, though, triumphed over all that and became one of the scariest forces in professional wrestling. That man is The Undertaker.

You might ask, why exactly would someone come on a film blog and not only come in talking about professional wrestling but a single professional wrestler? Well, the Undertaker is more than just an athlete and a man. Thanks to the creative forces of professional wrestling The Undertaker was crafted into a character rivaling slasher film monsters in terms of brutality, intimidation, and yes-even horror.

The Undertaker benefited from coming up in the “Attitude Era” of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment, the biggest wrestling promotion in America and the world). This era of wrestling, defined by a “take-no-prisoners” mentality and bolstered by an “anything for ratings” creative mindset, seemed to thrive on anti-heroes. This was the era that gave us “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, an alcoholic violent redneck who wrecked cars, beat up women, and just generally didn’t give a shit; The Rock, an attention hog larger-than-life superstar who beat up his friends and battled with authority in the name of “the people; Mankind (who will be important later), the underdog hardcore wrestler who put his body on the line in order to destroy his enemies and later became a “corporate champion”; and most importantly gave us The Undertaker, a supernatural terror who could be almost anywhere and destroy almost anyone, whose weakness was an urn in the hands of a backstabbing manager called Paul Bearer, and who got known for claiming to have set a fire that killed his family and scarred his half-brother, the psychotic giant wrestler Kane.

This feud with Kane, Undertaker’s debut in the WWE, ended up defining the Undertaker character. This was one of the feuds I most distinctly remember growing up due to the horror-tinged nature of it. The feud was built on psychologically terrifying “promos” (video packages or in-arena incidents outside of the match designed to psych out opposing wrestlers and build up a feud in the minds of the fans), including The Undertaker’s trademark of shutting off the lights in the arena and appearing behind Kane while Kane was in the middle of a match, or sometimes just not appearing at all. Through the work of aforementioned backstabbing manager Paul Bearer, Kane was built up as a formidable opponent to Undertaker with a legitimate grudge, and the feud finally boiled over in a legendary Inferno Match. Due to the real world risk of burning alive, mixed with the knowledge of wrestling being scripted, this became one of the most terrifying matches and one of the three big career defining matches of Undertaker’s career.

Undertaker’s other defining matches also play on our human fears to deliver exciting and exhilarating action. He made famous the concepts of the “Buried Alive” and “Casket” matches, rather self-explanatory ideas that continue to mix real-world fear with the scripted nature of professional wrestling. These matches were used especially in his feud with Mankind. However, the match that truly made Undertaker a legend and defined him as the scariest thing alive didn’t involve fire or dirt, just two men and a steel cage that became the hallmark of a generation of wrestling.

The concept of the “Hell In A Cell” is simple. Upping the ante of the traditional steel cage match, participants are completely encaged in a chain link structure. The match is a No Disqualifications match, allowing for some of the most brutal wrestling anyone can see.  Born from the Attitude Era, an era defined by hardcore wrestling, a lawless brutal and bloody genre of wrestling, the Hell In A Cell is most often used for “blow-off” matches, the final match in an extended storyline.

The ’98 Hell In A Cell match was the climax of the long-running feud between Undertaker and Mankind. Mankind is a hardcore wrestling legend known for putting his body on the line at all costs, and it goes without saying that the match is more or less his showcase for this. The match starts with Mankind on top of the cage, challenging Undertaker to come to him. Undertaker, the ever-ominous villain, meets that challenge, and as the two men grapple on top of the steel cage there is a palpable sense of malice and danger. Undertaker edges Mankind towards the edge of the cage and, in a moment that shocked the world, pushes him over onto the Spanish announcers table. 

Staged or not, that’s not a fall one can fake, and everyone in the stadium met the fall with the appropriate response: shrieks and silence. No one knew whether Mankind was ok, and no one was prepared for what would come next.

As doctors checked out Mankind, Undertaker continued to glower from the roof of the cage. As stretchers came to get him out of the ring, Mankind leapt up to finish the match. Climbing up on a dislocated arm, he prepared for one last battle with the prince of darkness, not unlike any number of heroes in a slasher film. One last grapple, and then a completely unscripted moment: Mankind falls. Again. Through the roof. With genuine concern for his safety, doctors and trainers ran to the ring to check on him, and all the while the man that put him there stood above all. Undertaker, the unstoppable slasher film villain, would prove victorious again latter in the match, after many more insane things happening. But no scene could be as indicative of Undertaker as a frightening man right out of horror movies as that last, completely unscripted shot.

As the years went on the toll on Undertaker’s body continued, and he shifted from villain to hero and eventually part-timer, but even Jason and Freddie had to become comedy acts eventually. We all remember those shocking moments from them though, and none can really compare to the real world terror of The Undertaker.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Night of Terror #28: 'Island of Lost Souls'

Hello everyone. Today in my vivisection laboratory I was experimenting on a wildebeest and after a brief problem with the knee-joints I eventually produced Mr. Ben Ettinauer, who you can find on Twitter here. Here he is on the horror classic Island of Lost Souls starring Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi. His is the hand that types movie reviews for my blog, eh, whatever, you get it.

The horrors Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls might seem obvious at first glance. The freakish man-beasts that are the result of Dr. Moreau’s experiments feature still-impressive make-up work. The jungle on the island is close and foreboding, with expressive shadows and light. Charles Laughton’s Dr. Moreau is sadistic and sinister. But the fear and discomfort that the film carries and eventually leaves us with is of bodily violation, mutilation, and disfigurement. Moreau forces animal bodies into shapes in which they don’t fit and don’t belong, and he destroys any sense of bodily or even sexual autonomy to which sentient creatures are entitled. It is a horror film about physical violation. This is Cronenbergundian (to use that director’s preferred descriptor) before there was a Cronenberg.
The film was famously banned in the UK for 25 years, in no small part due to Moreau’s claim to be like a god. This does not seem to be a baseless claim. In the film we see him “elevate” creatures to sentience and near-human intelligence, subverting biological or theological design. He sees himself as above them, handing down laws from on high and punishing sinners. The House of Pain – Moreau’s laboratory – where he violently punishes insubordinate creatures is also the place where he gives them their new bodies and minds. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.
Moreau pointedly doesn’t use anesthetic in his experiments. He wants to inflict pain in order to establish himself as the one with the power. Pain is power, and Moreau has ensured that he is the only one allowed to cause it. The beast men that he creates echo the hollow mantra “Are we not men?” lead by the Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi). The three laws establish the hierarchy of control. Not to eat meat, not to go on all fours, not to spill blood - they deny their true nature at the behest of Moreau seemingly out of desire to be human, but it’s clear that it’s out of fear of the House of Pain, of vivisection and torture. They desperately want to please their abuser. To further explore the horror of violation, the screenwriters Waldermar Young and Philip Wylie introduce a sexual element to H.G. Wells’ story in the form of a new storyline and characters. The hero Parker - played with headstrong stiffness by Richard Arlen - is given a fiancĂ© named Ruth (Leila Hyams) and Moreau is given his most “perfect” creation, Lota the panther woman (Kathleen Burke). When Moreau forces Lota to attempt to seduce Parker, the question of her consent or desire never seems to enter Moreau’s mind. He gleefully watches her forced and clumsy attempts at flirtation and seduction. Seemingly, he wants to see how well his greatest creation mimics human women. But when Parker rejects Moreau’s experiment upon discovering the truth about Lota, he orders one of his beastmen to rape Parker’s fiancĂ©, abandoning any pretense of scientific exploration in his desperate attempt to exert his violent control on everyone he encounters, whether animal, human, or something in between. He will rape, torture, and dismember whoever he chooses to achieve his ends. But Moreau is human, and when his desperation becomes clear,  Moreau’s beastmen finally see that Moreau is not God, only a torturer, and that he has mutilated them into their current ill-fitting forms. They turn on him, returning him to the House of Pain to force his own tortures back upon him. The film closes on a shot of the laboratory burning, Moreau’s own howls of pain echoing through the dark jungle.
There is an unfortunate subtext of eugenics, anti-miscegenation, and racism in this film (Parker at first believes Lota to be “full Polynesian”) which marks it as a product of its time. But it’s the horror of vivisection, of rape and sexual violation, of bodies forced into shapes that they don’t fit, which creates such revulsion, a visceral reaction that remains potent today. Moreau exerts his will through violence against mind and body, and the audience is not spared the consequences.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Night of Terror #27: 'Maniac'

Psycho killers have been a staple of horror movies and thrillers probably as long as the genre has existed, but they were usually kept at a nice safe distance from the public. I'm not enough of a scholarly historian to know when exactly that changed, but I do know the transition was probably fully complete by the time Maniac came out in 1980.

As a result, the experience of watching Maniac can be a little uncomfortable, as you're pretty much spending 88 minutes inside a deeply disturbed individual's head. But for whatever reason Maniac doesn't hit me quite as hard as some other grimy psycho movies like Taxi Driver or The Driller Killer, but it took me a while to figure out exactly why.

But I think I got it - director William Lustig (an exploitation god if there ever was one, if for no other reason than the fact that he gave us Vigilante - oh, and the Blue Underground label) might be working in the scummy world of low-rent exploitation movies, but his instincts are those of an old-fashioned movie-maker. That means that Maniac is layered with suspenseful set-pieces and creepy atmosphere, and in a weird way it makes the whole thing seem a little bit less unhinged.

Maniac's other liability, and I realize this might be a controversial statement, is star/writer Joe Spinell. Don't get me wrong, he gives a totally committed and compulsively watchable powerhouse performance, but I found the scenes depicting his derangement a little lacking. He pretty much sticks to the tried-and-true "crazy" line-readings during these scenes and the result is a lack of texture, at least compared to the other aspects of the movie. As contrast, watch his scenes with Caroline Munro, with whom he has a weird kind of chemistry - they're fascinating, because they are so unexpected and unlikely.

I guess I would be remiss if I didn't mention that today (technically yesterday, as I'm writing this after midnight) marks the passing of Lou Reed, rock god and personal hero to me. I'd be remiss not because Lou had anything to do with this movie (although I'd like to think he watched it), but because it depicts so much of the world that he called his literal and artistic home - dirty, scary, dangerous, sexy, beautiful New York City. I don't know if Lou Reed ever appeared in any horror movies (I'd have to ask Ira Brooker to know for sure), but if he did I don't have access to any of them, and it seems somehow appropriate that this was the horror movie that served as kind of a de facto goodbye. Because I think he'd probably dig the movie, this one is dedicated to Lou Reed. Perhaps he and Joe Spinell are in Heaven right now, freaking everyone out in concert.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Night of Terror #26: 'Inferno'

"Nightmarish" is probably a little bit of a lazy crutch-word when discussing horror movies, particularly those of the Italian variety. Who cares about narrative coherence, acting, or script quality (or paying enough attention to properly assess same) in the context of a nightmare? But even if that's true for all of Dario Argento's other movies, there's really no other word that can be used to accurately describe Inferno.

Much like a dream, the ostensible protagonist of Inferno shifts back and forth without any reason or narrative logic (no matter how confusing Suspiria or Deep Red get, at least the audience only has one main character to follow). Buildings will burst into flame for almost no reason - one late scene had me wondering if perhaps this movie was an influence on the Coens when they made Barton Fink. Scenes also shift, sometimes to the confusion of the characters ("where was I last night?"), and sometimes a simple trip to drown a sackful of cats takes a sinister and unexpected turn.

On the level of pure craft, Inferno is up there with all the best of Argento. His colors have never been more vivid, as his famously expressive camerawork is a tad restrained as if to compensate. And his set-pieces are as scary and suspenseful as ever - I, for one, will never be able to go swimming in a stagnant pool with a flayed corpse again without feeling a little bit creeped out.

The score by Keith Emerson doesn't quite fill the Goblin-shaped hole in the movie, but it's still a perfect fit for the uber-Argento material. The main theme, which build to its full intensity at the climax of the movie (go figure), is one of my favorites.

I can see a lot of people being disappointed by Inferno, because even in the rare stretches in which the plot makes sense it never quite crosses into "engaging." But if you go in with a mindset of appreciating dark surrealism than an a big roller coaster, you might find that it hits the spot.

"Death! Death!"

Friday, October 25, 2013

Night of Terror #25: 'The Black Cat'

"Man, you're watching a lot of Fulci movies lately." "Yeah, what are you, some kind of a sicko?" Well first of all, hypothetical individuals who represent my sublimated conscience, I've only watched two Fulci movies this month. And secondly, I pretty much only watch his stuff in October since I generally find him pretty hard to stomach. I'm pretty neutral towards gore in movies, but Fulci makes it really tough to disengage the part of your brain that thinks movies are "real" and just appreciate the spectacle, exactly because he favors effects that look so realistic.

That sensibility can infect the other parts of his movies, too - for that reason he's never struck me as a particularly atmospheric director, his movies are too microscopically constructed to build the kind of fog-drenched spookiness you see in conventional horror movies. That's not so for The Black Cat, though - I'm delighted to report that this is a very fun combination of Fulci's style and spooky atmosphere that for me works very well.

It's not as suspenseful as other top-tier Fulci movies, perhaps because the idea of a small black cat stalking around killing people is only slightly less ridiculous than that killer tire movie. But he makes the most of it, with lots of prowling "cat's-eye-view" shots punctuating the mayhem. And unlike The Psychic or some of his other giallos, the plot never gets too convoluted for its own good, instead featuring a kind of single-minded progression that Edgar Allan Poe himself would probably approve of.

There's also a typically lush score from Pino Donaggio, giving the movie a classier aural backdrop than these types of movies usually have. And compared to his performance in A Clockwork Orange, Patrick Magee is positively restrained. All in all, probably the most Halloween-appropriate Fulci movie that doesn't have any zombies in it.


Night of Terror #24: 'Hocus Pocus'

What's up everybody? Today we have another guest post from my friend Melissa, whose delightful Twitter account can be found here. She's writing about a movie I have never seen but I know a lot of people like, Hocus Pocus. She is also an actual practicing witch. Take it away, Melissa:

I put a spell on you, and now you’re mine!

If you’re anything like me and start prepping for Halloween in September, then I’m going to go out on a limb and say you recognize that sentence, complete with melody! Hocus Pocus is not only one of my favorite Halloween movies, but quite possibly one of my favorite movies of all time. Because really what’s not to love – a possessed book, three witches who eat the souls of children so they look young and fresh, and a talking cat! 

So if you’re a little rusty with the movie and don’t watch it at least 5 times while it’s on the Disney Channel this season, I’ll catch you up to speed. The three Sanderson sisters Winifred (Bette Midler), Mary (Kathy Najimy), and Sarah (shockingly played by SJP) are luring children away from their homes so they can suck the life out of them to remain “beautiful” forever. Except they didn’t account for Thackery Binx! As he comes to try and save his sister – BAM! They turn him into an immortal black cat, sorry Binx this is a no-go for you. Not too long after the killing of Emily comes the angry mob to hang the witches. Unfortunately for the good people of Salem, Winifred casts a spell that if a virgin (shocking) lights their evil black flame candle on Halloween night, they’ll come back! And their little children will be Sanderson snacks. 

Binx the immortal cat successfully guards the Sanderson’s house and wards off pesky virgins for the next 300 years or so until cool-guy Max moves from Los Angeles. Cool-guy Max starts crushing on the town’s resident cutie/rich girl/all around awesome Allison, and takes his little sister Dani (yay baby Thora Birch) to Allison’s Halloween party! Dani and Allison chat a bit about the Sanderson sisters and of course cool-guy Max is like I ain’t afraid of no ghosts, and drags them down to the house. He then decides to light the candle! AND BAM! THE WITCHES ARE BACK! COOL-GUY MAX IS ALSO DEMOTED TO LAME-GUY VIRGIN.  So the witches try to steal Dani, but Binx the awesome cat shows up and is like not today! They steal the flesh covered spell book and get the hell out of dodge. That book has always freaked me out and it reminds me of the book in the recent Evil Dead remake, but you know, with an eyeball!

                So now, let’s flash forward to the cool scene with Billy in the graveyard. Billy was with Winifred til’ she found out he was with her sister on the side. So Winifred poisoned him and sealed his mouth up! Poor Billy! And see the witches can’t actually touch the graveyard because it’s hallowed ground so poor Billy has got to do all the chasing for them. Hijinks ensue and the children yet again get away with the flesh book. 

                NOW TO THE GOOD PART – I put a spell on you. The Sanderson sisters roll up to a rocking’ Halloween party at town hall and put on a show for all the adults there. Of course Bette Midler takes the stage putting spells on people and whatnot, and cursing them to dance until they die! But then the children outsmart these three witches yet again and trap them in a kiln, leaving them for dead. On a side note, when I was younger I never realized that the witches cursed the dancers to death. In fact I just recently found that out, and I was like wait, really? I swear, the things that go over your head when you’re watching children’s movies!

Unfortunately as it were, the witches didn’t die (although they did catch up on their French, is this where Rob Zombie got the idea about French and Lords of Salem? Maybe?) and then realize they need to start sucking out some children’s souls post haste or they’re going to be dust by the next morning! Back at the Scooby house lame-guy Max is trying to get it on with Allison or whatever and save Binx using the flesh covered evil book. Which is a dumb idea because hi, it’s an evil book. But then the witches find the book, and steal his sister too. Way to go Max!

          So then Max goes to save his sister because really he’s the idiot that got her into this mess in the first place. And again we see the theme of BROTHERS WE REALLY LOVE OUR SISTERS because you know Binx and his sister Emily and now Max and Dani. And of course Binx will do anything to get Dani back because he feels guilty for the death of his own sister. Along the way there’s some luring of children due to SJP’s awesome witchy voice, but ultimately the witches want to start with Dani because of stupid Max. 

          Luckily lame-guy but all around good brother Max arrives in time and saves his sister. Winnie’s feet touch the graveyard and boom! Stone Winifred. The sun comes up and BOOM! FRIED SANDERSON SISTERS. As for Binx, he is released from his curse and gets to die and live with his dead sister in heaven and then move on to a career of NCIS. 
          So as it turns out this was just a quick Melissa run through of Hocus Pocus, and I’m sure you’ll find it to be very accurate. Make sure you watch it next time it’s on Disney at 3 am. Pay attention to Billy, he’s the coolest. Also – young Thora Birch because Ghost World is awesome. But I love this movie because it’s so campy and will always make me think of eating pumpkin seeds and carving pumpkins with mom when I was a kid.  And I don’t think there will be a time when I can’t enjoy this movie anymore. It’s kind of a forever deal.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Night of Terror #23: 'Night of the Living Dead' "Remix" by Bird Peterson

When I heard that some entity (I didn't know at the time whether "Bird Peterson" was a person or a band, turns out it's just one guy) was doing a live score/"remix" of Night of the Living Dead I was unsurprised (the movie is in public domain after all) but skeptical as to how such a thing would work. Unlike almost every other movie I've ever seen with a live score, Night of the Living Dead already HAS a soundtrack, and even though it's all cheap stock library cues I've always loved it.

Maybe I can explain why. Night of the Living Dead is one of those movies, like Psycho or The Wild Bunch, that changed its genre forever and made every subsequent (zombie, in this case) movie different than it was before. So it's effectively a "once in a lifetime" kind of movie, one that could never ever be duplicated once it came out - the seismic impact it had on the form made sure of that. And a big part of what makes it still work is George A. Romero's use of the same schlocky music cues we've heard a million times before, but laid over a kind of storytelling that no one had seen before: Brutally violent, naturalistic, unsparing, and bleak. Every time I watch the movie I'm struck by how perfectly it stands between the schlocky monster movies of the past and what came after, like some strain of creature feature DNA that's impervious to all known treatments.

Anyway, the point is that even though Night of the Living Dead's score isn't a Bernard Hermann masterwork or anything like that, it still always struck me as an integral part of the piece. So a new electronic score is a pretty touchy prospect. It was good on its own but it robbed the movie of some of its immediacy, so I felt more at a distance from it. One interesting thing about the new music is that it blocks out some of the dialogue, so the movie's set-pieces about characters fighting to survive seem to stretch even longer.

I probably wasted too much space talking about the music though because you could soundtrack Night of the Living Dead with Kidz Bop compilations and it would still be pretty damn terrifying. Zombies are a pretty big thing in pop culture nowadays and I've mostly gotten sick of them (which wasn't a huge leap because I was never that interested in them in the first place), but here in the original zombie movie they remain as frightening as ever.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Night of Terror #22: 24 Hours of Chip

There's a special breed of cinephile out there, the kind that I have to doff my cap to at every opportunity, since they represent a level of devotion that I can only dream of. They're the people who are able to subject themselves to 24 straight hours of nerve-jangling terror, back-to-back-to-back-to-etc. One of these superscoptophiliacs is my friend Chip Wilder, whose awesome blog you can check out here. Last year Chip wrote about a 24-hour marathon of horror movies he went to, and he's kind of doing that again this year. Here's Chip:

This past weekend, I took part in a 25 hour horror movie marathon that has left me drained and nearly unable to readjust to real life. My mind still isn’t working right a day later. We watched 16 full length movies over a little more than a day with unexpected catnaps interspersed. Of these 16, I want to talk about two movies that proved themselves to be big surprises: the two faux documentary-style broadcasts about investigating a haunted house that book-ended the lineup.

The first, a 90 minute BBC program that aired in 1992 called GHOSTWATCH. According to Wikipedia and IMDB, the show caused a considerable amount of confusion and fear despite being billed as a fiction program. Like Orson Welles’ 1938 Halloween broadcast of War of the Worlds, there are rumors aplenty of audiences mistaking the program for something genuine. The program was presented as a call-in show revolving around a live investigation of a family whose home was haunted by a malevolent spirit nicknamed “Pipes.” The opening is a clear inspiration for the Paranormal Activity films, with surveillance cameras catching two children waking from sleep to find supernatural shenanigans afoot. Ghostwatch utilizes a nice slow burn, initially feeling like a vapid reality show. Cutting between a studio presentation (with real British celebrity hosts) and on site footage cobbled together from a camera man, surveillance cameras, infrared cameras, and the like - the show feels genuine. 

Through some very clever slight of hand and convincing effects, events escalate. The show smartly gives glimpses of “Pipes” in reflections, hiding behind doors, standing in shadows. Yet the show never lingers on these sightings or comments on them. Occasionally, the camera will sweep back for a second look - only to find nothing there. It’s an eerie effect - particularly when Pipes appears only faintly in the darkness behind one of the hosts as she listens to a creepy recording. Eventually, the show builds to a startlingly chaotic climax that never breaks the delicate atmosphere of dread that the show has built. As one would expect, there’s a tug of war of sorts between skeptics and believers, but as the audience we want there to be something there. That’s why we’re watching. Little is definitively explained, and I find all the trivia on the show absolutely fascinating (for instance, the Internet documents eight sightings of Pipes, but the producer insists there are thirteen). In the years immediately after, BBC banned the show from being aired again. The ban has apparently been lifted, but the BBC has still never re-aired Ghostwatch. This movie was the surprise highlight of the marathon. 

The second movie I want to talk about was the last movie in the 24 hour marathon: the WNUF Halloween Special. Like Ghostwatch, this movie is presented as a live call-in show airing on Halloween night. Although made in 2013, the show is aged and edited to look like a local television special that aired 1987. Full of fake local commercials and schedule bumpers, the WNUF special is presented as someone’s long forgotten VHS tape, with someone occasionally hitting fast forward when the commercials become boring or repetitive. It opens in the middle of the local WNUF news. The anchors dressed in embarrassing Halloween costumes and teeter-tottering between appropriate gravitas and playfulness - depending on the stories being covered. The news then gives way to a local special in which a camera crew investigates a haunted house and takes calls for the psychics on hand. The host interviews costumed bystanders who relate stories of devil worship and decapitations. There’s movement in the windows and sounds from upstairs. And as with Ghostwatch, there’s numerous nods to skepticism (personified by the grumpy host) that buckle to the desire for exploitive showmanship. 

Also like Ghostwatch, events escalate, leading the befuddled producer to cut to commercial more and more frequently. And while, the WNUF special ends on a dark note, its intentions are more satirical. The commercials revel in low-budget eighties cheese. They include advertisements for a gun range (fun for the whole family!), airlines, anti-drug PSAs, and a comedy airing on Thursday called Doggone It! It feels more actorly and employs more comic relief than its British counterpart. I have no idea how the WNUF Halloween Special was originally shown, but it is seems to be an Internet-only phenomenon.

Ghostwatch has more ambitious intentions than the WNUF Special. Not just in its original presentation, but in its style. Ghostwatch strives to get under the viewers skin. The WNUF Halloween Special goes for laughs ... until it suddenly turns and moves to shock. Both demand that you pay attention to the details of the screen, and both leave most of what you see unexplained. They're both extremely similar in set-up and execution, yet vastly different in tone. I’m not saying I want the fake Halloween broadcast to become its own sub-genre, but both Ghostwatch and the WNUF Halloween Special are a hell of a lot fun.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Night of Terror # 21: 'Mardi Gras Massacre'

Tonight, another exciting guest spot, this one from perennial Nights of Terror contributor Ira Brooker, whose excellent blog you can find here. Here's his excellent piece on a movie I don't even like that much, Mardi Gras Massacre. It's not what you'd call a conventionally entertaining movie, but Ira has been obsessed with it for over six months now, and I can personally vouch for the fact that it's infectious. So, be careful before reading I guess. Here he is:

I like the concept of the hang-out movie, that semi-genre where the audience leaves the theater reflecting on how fun it would be to hang out with the characters, regardless of the film's actual narrative. The Big Lebowski is a hang-out movie. Pulp Fiction is a hang-out movie. Barbershop is a hang-out movie. And in its own perverse way, I'd say Mardi Gras Massacre is a hang-out movie.

That may seem an odd thing to say about a film whose protagonists are an abusive cop with a reputation for unlikability and a ritual murderer who disembowels prostitutes, but they're not the ones I want to hang out with. It's the folks in the periphery who make this movie seem like a desirable destination.

But let's back up and talk about this film's raison d'etre. It's the late '70s, it's New Orleans and it's carnival season. A well-dressed fellow with the bearing and precise diction of a less cuddly Tony Randall trolls a seedy bar in search of, in his words, the most evil girl in the place. The bar-side sex workers refer The John (the character has no name, so I'll just call him that) to a colleague whose very name is synonymous with sadistic depravity: Shirley. It probably goes without saying that The John has soon donned a Mayan-inspired gold mask, tied Evil Shirley to a makeshift altar, tortured her with a knife and extracted a fair number of her internal organs.

Meanwhile, down at the NOPD, a surly mustache in plainclothes gets briefed on the murder of Evil Shirley and hits the bars to investigate. Along the way he and his partner stop some jerk from beating up a call girl, who promptly falls for Detective Mustache. The now semi-retired prostitute and her charmless defender launch a deeply boring courtship that eats up a good portion of the movie's runtime.

Most of the film's middle third alternates between the two of them mooning around the French Quarter and The John picking/carving up further victims. The dude's not exactly subtle; he always employs the same "who's the evilest of them all?" M.O. he used on Shirley, and he has no qualms about running his game in front of a room full witnesses. At some point the viewer starts to wonder why the police don't just tell every bar in town to be on the lookout for a well-dressed creep looking for evil girls, but as a former New Orleans resident I can say that the cops' apathetic incompetence is maybe the most realistic note in the movie.

That all sounds like the makings of a pretty basic bad horror movie, and on the surface that's exactly what it is. But what makes Mardi Gras Massacre special to me is the lived-in quality of the whole thing. While the narrative shambles forward, the principals have regular run-ins with a weird menagerie of tertiary, distinctly New Orleanian characters. Given that their only purpose is to advance the plot or kick in some exposition, most of these folks are far more interesting than they need they need to be. I could probably devote an entire essay to Catfish the hippie pimp, a proto-Mitch Hedberg who sidles up to The John at a strip club and rattles off an astonishing circus barker spiel full of drugs and sex and goofy wordplay. I'm also thinking of the loutish bartender who's disturbingly amused by the notion of some nut job cutting up the neighborhood hookers, or the stoic Chinese delivery guy who gives the cops a vital tip complete with a half-hearted effort at extorting a bribe, or the cheerful little guy who takes a break from a Fat Tuesday "party for all the queens" to clue the detectives in to the killer's whereabouts.

In most '70s trash films – hell, in a good percentage of '70s mainstream films – those last two would be played as broad stereotypes and made the butt of at least one crass joke apiece. In the weirdly progressive (a highly relative term, given that nearly every female character is a sex worker and/or murder victim) universe of Mardi Gras Massacre, there's no frantic broken English or flamboyant mincing. These are just a couple of ordinary folks whose few lines of dialogue hint at interesting lives that exist beyond the scope of the movie. That's a rare trait in tertiary characters of any genre, and it's particularly odd considering what bland cyphers our purported protagonists are. (I'm excepting The John, an intentionally obscure figure played with impressive gusto by William Metzo.)

I presume these bit parts were played by local folks, quite possibly non-actors. That would make sense, as they lend the film its most distinctive New Orleans flavor. Other than a fairly extraneous sequence in which the masked killer wanders around a Mardi Gras parade, director and New Orleans native Jack Weis doesn't do a lot to capture the unique feel of the city. Familiar landmarks pop up here and there, but most of the action could take place anywhere. There's even an extended car chase through a near-deserted French Quarter, purportedly on Mardi Gras day. Having once navigated Fat Tuesday in the Quarter via bicycle, I can safely say this is an unlikely scenario. In a way, I'm glad that Weis went this route. I'd rather see New Orleans as everycity than as the usual Angel Heart hodgepodge of voodoo priestesses and wandering jazz bands and terrible Creole accents. Heck, the soundtrack here even eschews Dixieland and zydeco in favor of disco.

And so it falls largely on the supporting cast to make Mardi Gras Massacre a true New Orleans horror movie. By and large, they succeed. It's a friendly, sleazy city, personable almost to a fault and filled with wonderful weirdoes possessed of a refreshingly unpracticed quirkiness. The oddballs who emerge from the borders of Mardi Gras Massacre capture that perfectly and elevate the film from a scuzzy, charmingly inept slasher to a homey piece of regional horror that's peculiar enough to call truly memorable. Folks like Catfish the hippie pimp would probably be deeply unpleasant in real life, but I'd gladly hang out with their celluloid incarnations for another 90 minutes.

Night of Terror #20: 'Demon Knight'

Sorry this one is late but A: No one cares, B: I thought I was getting a guest piece yesterday and that fell through (what's going on this year, did everyone get too busy to blog for me for free and practically no other even intangible reward?), and C: No one cares. Anyway, Demon Knight.

In case you're unaware, Demon Knight is one of the feature films put out under the Tales from the Crypt banner, with a pretty cool host segment from The Crypt Keeper and lots of really dark humor that they probably wouldn't have been able to get away with in a standalone mainstream horror movie. Also, I think the title might be a pun - "Demon Knight" = "Demon Night" = a night when a bunch of people have to face a siege by demons in an abandoned church turned whorehouse.

Much to my surprise, Demon Knight isn't content to just layer dumb puns and glib jokes over a bunch of gross-out violence. Instead it does something a little more thoughtful, which is to take a genuinely satisfying horror-action piece and add a whole bunch of crazy weirdness, mostly in the form of the movie's villain Billy Zane attempting to seduce various characters in the story to join his demoniac ways. In general, Zane is completely over the top and completely entertaining - I'd heard Billy Zane was good in this movie but I assumed everyone meant Phantom good, not unhinged demon good. His character gives him the opportunity to play a bunch of different types of characters, and he completely nails every single one. Never gonna make fun of Billy Zane again.

The rest of the cast has got some ringers too - Thomas Haden Church playing essentially a younger version of the doofus he later immortalized in Killer Joe, Charles Fleischer as a possibly psychotic mailman, Jada Pinkett as a sexy ex-con participating in a sexy work-release program, and William Sadler as the titular Demon Knight. One might be tempted to say that the real star of the movie is the squishy demon special effects, but you can't actually say that because the cast is so good!

I was going to sign off with a bunch of Crypt-Keeper-style puns but that would be juvenile and an insult to everyone's intelligence, including mine. Ba-hahahahahahahahahah!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Night of Terror #19: 'The Psychic'

The Psychic gets called a giallo movie a lot of the time, but to me it's sort of an inverse of the genre. A lot of giallo movies (especially the ones by Dario Argento) involve the hero trying to recall details of a crucial memory, but Lucio Fulci's The Psychic deals instead with a hero who is tortured by psychic visions, the chronology of which is uncertain.

Unlike the movies that Fulci is now famous for, there's very little gore or even just blood in The Psychic, with Fulci opting instead for subtly hallucinogenic effects that might remind you of Don't Look Now, which is also about psychic premonitions and also features the color red as crucial to its plot.

Unlike Nicholas Roeg, though, Fulci unfortunately has a lot of fairly dull mystery exposition that he has to keep in the movie, although I'll be damned if I can imagine anybody being too invested in the plot of a movie like this. As always, it's all about sensations - in this case the sensation of trying to piece together a murder that happened in your head before it happened in real life (if it happened at all).

You might be able to tell that I'm tap dancing around the actual plot of this movie, and that's because it all hinges on a couple of big twists, all of which are pretty satisfying even if you get lost in the details of the central investigation. And Fulci's infamous nastiness does poke its head out a few times, although nothing on the level of The New York Ripper, Don't Torture a Duckling, or his zombie movies. Definitely check it out if you're interested in giallo or the thriller genre in general, particularly if you're interested in Fulci but don't like watching people's flesh get torn off in creative ways.

Night of Terror #18: 'The Brides of Dracula'

One aspect of the Dracula story that I feel gets overlooked in the popular consciousness is Dracula's harem of undead harpies (Stan Lee here, excelsior, I'm old, etc.) who do his bidding and generally act like sexy mini-Draculas. I've always been intrigued by them though, and it's cool to see they got their own movie in 1960 thanks to Hammer Studios.

After I got home late last night I jotted some thoughts on this movie down on Letterboxd, in which I say it's "funnier, bloodier, sexier, more action-packed (or at least action-peppered), and more colorful than almost any other Dracula movie." I still stand by that (except for the subconscious Waffle House reference, which I deeply regret), even as the rapturous post-viewing of this movie fades. I can't overstate the beauty of the color cinematography in this movie - Hammer is famous for their vivid colors, and gushing red blood, deep purple sunsets, and shining white fangs in this movie are all second-to-none.

The movie's one big flaw is embodied by the character of Baron Meinster. When Christopher Lee declined to reprise his role as Dracula for this movie, the filmmakers let him stay dead and replaced him with Meinster, a kind of Dracula sub-boss. The problem is that Meinster is played by David Peel - a fine enough actor I'm sure, but much too whitebread to play the Count (or a Dracula surrogate), and he just doesn't hold his own against the legendary Peter Cushing as Van Helsing.

Speaking of Cushing as Van Helsing - wowwwww. He's great! He exudes quiet confidence and calm in almost every scene, and manages to fight against the movie's giant rubber bats without looking ridiculous. His best scene for me is when he cures a vampire bite by cauterizing the wound with a branding iron - it's an unusually raw sequence for a period horror movie, and completely convincing due to Cushing's performance.

Last thing I'll mention about The Brides of Dracula is the climax, which I won't spoil except to say that Van Helsing's solution for finally defeating Baron Meinster is right out of a pulp novel and I love it. When you work in a field like genre fiction, you end up telling a lot of the same stories over and over, so the real inspiration shines through in details like this one.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Night of Terror #17: 'Invisible Ghost'

Due to poor planning and me getting lost on the way home tonight (don't ask how this happened, I don't know), I'm stuck with the sort of dull but still charming Invisible Ghost, part of a bunch of movies Bela Lugosi made at Monogram (pbuh) in the 40s.

Invisible Ghost sort of follows the whodunit template in a lot of ways (series of murders occur in a creepy house, police are baffled), with the interesting wrinkle that we know practically from the start that it's Bela doing the killing. Don't misunderstand me, I don't mean that we "know" as in how could you cast Bela Lugosi in a movie like this and not have him be the killer, I mean that we see him go into a trance and kill someone in the first or second reel.

The police aren't as lucky as we are though, so they end up hauling away Bela's daughter's would-be fiance (he's already married to a woman who refuses to give him a divorce, this is that kind of movie) and then executing them for killings that he had nothing to do with. The cops don't seem to feel to bad about this though, so why should we?

Possibly assuaging their guilt is the appearance of Ralph's twin brother, who inexplicably shows up only AFTER his twin has been executed. I thought for a bit to try to ascertain why this unusual storytelling device was used, and I couldn't think of anything good. Maybe it was a budget issue.

Anyway, some more stuff happens, Bela shows off his ability to act alternately creepy and charming, and does that thing where he glares right into the camera. There are no ghosts, let alone any invisible ones. Bela is eventually discovered to be the killer and goes away peacefully, presumably to freak out his fellow inmates in prison. The end.

Sorry to resort to plot synopsis, but there just isn't a lot of invisible meat on these invisible bones. Still, I can recommend it for fans of this kind of low-budget chiller (you know who you are), and for Bela completists.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Night of Terror #16: 'The Seventh Victim'

It's not really Halloween for me until I watch at least one Val Lewton movie. This is despite the fact that his movies, despite being generically categorized as "horror," don't really fit the Halloween mold - they tend to be more gloomy than fun, and not built to shock as much as built to disturb in their own low-key way.

That description goes more for The Seventh Victim than any of his other movies. Every time I watch it I'm a little puzzled by exactly what is being said by the movie. Is it some kind of pro-suicide parable? Or maybe just a simple "evil is bad" morality play? You could probably make a convincing argument for either one or both, which gives you an idea of how much more complex this is than your average horror movie. Watching it this time around I was struck by how little it follows any kind of commercial model - what was the audience for this movie? It goes to show the power of taking a little bit of studio money rather than a lot, and relishing the creative control that comes with it.

But there are scares to be had - the signature Val Lewton shot is of a woman, walking down the sidewalk late at night, being pursued by some unseen and unknown entity that means her harm. That shot is repeated more than once in The Seventh Victim, and it joins a whole gaggle of suspenseful set-pieces, like a ghoulish scene on a subway, a dark hallway murder, and even a shower-set intimidation that will probably remind you of another much more famous shower scene.

Which reminds me of another fascinating aspect of The Seventh Victim - it has to be one of the most underseen movies in proportion to its huge influence on the horror genre and movies in general. Would we have a Psycho without it? Or a Rosemary's Baby? Or even a Weekend At Bernie's? It's impossible to say but there are shades of all those movies and more to be found here, and the strength of these sequences give the movie a staying power that its sometimes confusing plot can't take away.

I saw an account of Val Lewton summing up his thoughts on this movie like this: "Death is good." Even the most shocking torture-porn horror movies of today would be hard-pressed to commit to an idea like that.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Night of Terror #15: 'Young Frankenstein'

The critical line on Mel Brooks (and one that he himself is not shy about perpetuating) is that he's nothing but a hyperactive goofball, bouncing off the walls doing wacky voices and characters mixed with a lot of semi-ironic old school showbiz cheese. That's all true, of course, but there's another story behind Mel, and it's particularly evident in his twin masterpieces of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.

Since nobody dresses up as a cowboy on Halloween anymore, we're here to rap Young Frankenstein. Brooks has a formal mastery and grasp on the material being parodied here (namely, Universal monster movies) that can only come from spending way too much time WATCHING the movies themselves. The black-and-white cinematography, the music, and even the acting styles of those old thrillers are all captured perfectly, and, as I'm not the first to point out, make the jokes 1000% funnier, and the movie 1000% more satisfying.

And oh, those jokes. Young Frankenstein had a famously relaxed and fun shoot, with Mel Brooks adding more and more scenes and gags just so they wouldn't have to stop shooting. That ramshackle vibe can definitely be felt in the movie's structure - even though the production elements are pretty airtight, the movie itself doesn't really rise and fall in the traditional manner. One of the things that struck me this time around is that the end of the movie isn't really any funnier than the beginning, it all just rises and falls almost like it's being improvised.

I also love the way Brooks uses long, static camera shots to give his crack ensemble plenty of move to breathe. Watch the scene with Gene Wilder, exuding barely suppressed rage, quietly interrogating Marty Feldman (whose collisions with the fourth wall are probably what propel this movie into Immortal Masterpiece territory) about the brain he put in the Creature's body. It's just one of many long takes in the movie, and it's full of wonderful little details from both actors that make the movie grow each time you see it.

I'm finding it hard not to resort to hackneyed phrases when talking about this movie, which is a shame because it's such an original work. But if this movie taught me anything it's that we can't all be geniuses.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Night of Terror #14: 'Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark'

One week ago today I wrote up Dan Curtis' made-for-TV-horror take on Dracula, and this week the series continues with the made-for-TV-horror favorite Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. TV horror movies are not my bad, so I can really only guess as to why this movie remains a point of discussion among horror buffs today - I imagine it's because so many people saw it as kids and were creeped out by the movie's murderous gremlins and surprisingly bleak ending. 

There's actually some cool subtext to this movie, though. I like the way that Kim Darby's character is pretty much abandoned to her fate by her careerist husband, which functions as a potent metaphor for relationships in which one half goes off to work every day and the other half is "trapped" at home. It made me think a gender-reversed remake might be interesting, but for all I know the remake that came out a couple years ago used this conceit already (I'm not going to look it up because I don't want to). 

In addition to Darby there's Jim Hutton as her husband, who brings a nice low-rent Jimmy Stewart quality to the role. He's got to be one of the shittiest screen husbands ever, dismissing Darby's fears at every turn and generally behaving like a boorish ass. There's also William Demarest in his final screen role, a very long way away from Preston Sturges. 

In closing, I will advise all readers not to follow this movie's titular advice. It actually seems kind of hypocritical, all things considered.

Night of Terror #13: 'Curse of Chucky'

Hello all. For tonight's Night of Terror I've enlisted the help of Jere Pilapil. Jere may have a boyish exterior but don't be fool: Inside is the psyche of a dangerous killer. He's reviewing Curse of Chucky, part of a franchise of horror movies I have never seen partially because the cover for Child's Play used to freak me out so much as a kid when I went to Blockbuster. Here's Jere:
Curse of Chucky is the sixth movie in the Child’s Play series, and the first to be DTV, so I guess the maker (Don Mancini, series creator and writer, second time director) thought that this is as good a time as any to go back to its roots. I watched this on the same night that I rewatched its immediate predecessor Seed of Chucky and experienced the largest tonal whiplash that any movie series has given me. Where Seed of Chucky was a madcap comedy romp where a couple people happen to die, Curse of Chucky is a straight-up horror movie, and it might be the most effective Chucky movie since the first Child’s Play.

In Curse of Chucky, Chucky abandons Hollywood to be mailed out to a woman and her daughter who live in an enormous, secluded, poorly-lit house. Some things happen (murder) and some other characters come to stay awhile in the house, and then some other things happen (more murder, doll-related intrigue, non-doll-related intrigue).

Most of the movie’s tension stems from how so few of the characters seem to get along. Nica (the daughter, played by Fiona Dourif, Brad “I Voice Chucky and was also in Deadwood” Dourif’s daughter) is trying to hold on to the house while her sister Barb (played by Danielle “No Relation to Brad Dourif” Bisutti) is trying to sell the house for her own personal gain. Also, there’s a priest, a babysitter, Barb’s husband, and Barb’s daughter involved in the whole thing. Everyone’s got their tensions and squabbles, and - most impressively - the human relationships do a great job distracting from how there’s surprisingly little Chucky in this Chucky movie.

His presence is all over the movie from the moment he gets unboxed, but this is a back-to-the-roots sequel in all the best ways, which for Child’s Play mostly means a lot of shots of feet scurrying and the doll being found in unlikely places. Even by regular doll standards, Chucky is creepy-looking, eyes slightly too small for his head, and just the still shots of the doll sitting there inanimate are as effective as the imaginative ways he winds up killing people. The low budget becomes a blessing, since there’s a visual poetry to situations like a parent asking a doll, “How’d you get there?” followed immediately by a shot of rat poison and then a shot of people eating soul.

Originally, the follow up plan for Seed of Chucky had been to do a remake of the original Child’s Play. I’m guessing a lot of components from that got transported here, since almost all of the movie seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the series. That’s a very effective choice, since you don’t get a sense of Chucky’s motives until the end. Up to that point, he’s just killing up a family without a clear purpose.

It’s when that purpose becomes outlined that the movie deflates a little, since it sets up a bunch of cameos and nods to the past that feel randomly inserted for the sake of establishing backstory that was totally unnecessary (one nice touch manages to seal up one plot hole while opening others). But, I would still say that this a worthwhile sequel to Child’s Play because it makes Chucky menacing again after he spent some time trying comedy. To use a very 2013 analogy, Justin Timberlake was OK at acting, but I’m glad he’s back to making music even if the music isn’t as great as the old stuff.