With Krampus haunting theaters this holiday season, I’m today concerned with how quickly “ho ho ho” becomes “ho ho horror.” There’s Black Christmas and Silent Night, Deadly Night and Rare Exports and Christmas Evil. The list goes on and on. If you want a good one you’ve probably never heard of, try the Dutch Sint (2010). St. Nicholas is a murderous bishop that kidnaps and murders children whenever there’s a full moon on December 5th. As far as rampaging St. Nicholas movies from the Netherlands go, I’ve got to believe it’s the pinnacle of the genre.
I’m not really here to talk about Christmas-themed horror movies because quite honestly most of them are pretty shit. That was just a sidetrack to start a bl-g post. (Can you have a sidetrack before you even have a track? Discuss.) I thought I’d try something new to spice things up before jumping into the post proper.
There’s always Gizmo in a Santa hat. Because that’s all kinds of warm and fuzzy.
The relevant ho ho horror is the “Christmas blues.” I’ll call them the “Christmas blues” because Dean Martin sang one of my favorite Christmas songs about them, but for many people it’s far more serious than a case of the “blues.” Myself included. “Christmas blues” is the palatable version. Soul sucking self-loathing laced with fear, helplessness and anxiety doesn’t go over well with egg nog at office holiday parties. Maybe “Creeping Holiday Terror” is a more acceptable middle ground.
In case you haven’t been a loyal reader since I started this bl-g four years ago (and I have the site analytics so I know such a reader doesn’t exist), I’ll get you up to speed rather quickly. I came down with a touch of that clinical depression that’s going around in December of 2010 (linkified in case you’re unfamiliar with the traditional symptoms). I just wasn’t equipped with the tools to recognize or combat these feelings so I allowed it all to snowball. It was like experiencing all past disappointment and future fears at once. Even if you’ve experienced this brand of sadness it’s very hard to explain. I felt my most violent unease in fact when I tried to detail my feelings to my wife. I had no words, only metaphors about black pits and face grabbers. I assumed that what I was feeling would just pass. It didn’t.
I’d lost interest in the things I’d loved. I couldn’t watch my favorite movies or my favorite music. It had all become steeped with ghosts, with haunting nostalgia that reminded me of times and places and people now gone. Most vividly I remember not being able to write. I was in the middle of a novel at the time. I’d written more than 80,000 words. I just stopped. In fact I’ve never actually gone back to that work. That manuscript remains too closely associated… plus, it really wasn’t very good. (Or is that just the doubt and self-loathing?)
There were clues beforehand. I felt intermittent and unexpected anxiety. For example, I had to leave Inception a few minutes before the end because I experienced my first panic attack. I couldn’t breathe. My chest hurt. I waited outside the theater until it subsided. I thought I was having a heart attack. When my wife and father-in-law came out of the theater, I lied. I said I’d just gone to the bathroom and since it was almost over I watched from the hallway into the theater. I became dependent on video games to refocus my attention away from this shapeless dread and fear I couldn’t understand. Reading, watching movies, focusing on music all left too much time for my mind to wander into dark corners. But there’s a danger that goes along with constant anesthesia. Feelings like these don’t generally disappear, and I wasn’t addressing the root of the problem, merely avoiding the symptoms.
I found myself on the verge of tears throughout Christmas. Only focusing on my daughter’s immediate joy helped dam the waterworks. I could lose myself in her unbridled enthusiasm. Watching her comprehend Christmas for the first time. Not yet 2, she discovered how much fun it was just to rip wrapping paper. The gifts inside merely a bonus. These little moments saw me through. Until they didn’t.
Two days after Christmas I came home from seeing Black Swan. (It’s funny how I can put a timestamp on these moments because of my connection to film.) My wife had seen it the night before — the home-and-home for young movie-watching parents. (One goes to see a movie one night, the other goes to see the movie the next.) We discussed the movie and drank wine at the kitchen table. After some time, I couldn’t hold it back anymore. Tears started flowing. I stopped talking about the movie. My wife said nothing. “I need help,” I said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. But I need help.” Later she told me those words took her breath away. She knew something had been wrong, but only then had she truly understood.
I started going to see a therapist and yada yada yada 18 months later, my therapist released me again into the wild. I’m not here to detail my path back to relative mental health. I’ve talked about it intermittently in 30Hz bl-g therapy posts. I merely want people to recognize that sometimes we’re just not okay. That sometimes we all just need a little help. The holidays in particular are a time of nostalgia and regret as another year winds down. I can’t speak for everyone, but I take stock of the past year and find my efforts wanting, my failures and disappointments numerous. Another year wasted on idle tasks, another year I didn’t do A, B or C. How could 365 days have passed already? How could I be 37? My once wee daughters growing up and becoming young girls and soon they’ll be gone… or worse… teenagers. But those are the easy “blues” — the “blues” we can measure and put into context. There’s so much more that wells up during the holidays that we just can’t really explain.
Help comes in all different forms. It’s not just professional help. Help is family. Help is acknowledge and addressing these feelings before they become all consuming. Help is being present in the moment and being grateful for everything that’s around us and not focusing on the ghosts of Christmas past and future. Charles Dickens was a pretty darn smart guy. I never realized it until I felt the arrival of my own haunting Christmas spirits.
In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens wasn’t just talking about the crotchety old skinflint named Ebenezer Scrooge; he was talking about all of us. We may not all be penny-pinching bastards, but we suffer Scrooge’s fear, anxiety and latent desire to be better versions of ourselves. Scrooge self-anesthetized by collecting and hoarding money. We all have our individual ways.
The last line from A Christmas Carol:
“He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”
That one line should speak to all of us, those that have experienced depression firsthand, those that have known depressed friends and family. “…and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well…” As the holiday season takes off in earnest, I hope you enjoy family and friends and that if you’re someone who feels the ho ho horrors of Christmas, that you pay attention to what your mind and body tells you. Don’t spend too time lamenting past or fearing the future. Remind yourself to look to the present and to the emotions we’re actually experiencing in real time. Enjoy the people that are your here and now. Most importantly, keep those other spirits locked safely in the shackled armoire of your long-deceased business partner… or nearest approximate containment unit. Keep Christmas well.
But whatever you do, don’t ask about the Christmas Twinkie.
In parting, have a wonderful holiday. Don’t be afraid to sample some fruit cake (some are really quite good). Have some hot chocolate (with lots of marshmallows). Be a kid again. Unwrap a present and absolutely shred the wrapping paper. Take a midnight walk to look at the neighborhood Christmas lights. Put on a favorite Christmas record (maybe the Star Wars Christmas record?) and sit by the tree. Do nothing else but watch the lights. Make a gingerbread house and eat the gumdrops because why the fuck not? Roast chestnuts over an open fire/gas flame/backyard bonfire pit. Indulge your holiday traditions, but don’t forget to make new memories right now. It’s the new memories that keep us away from the Creeping Terrors of Christmas.
We’ve passed October’s midway point. The 15th has come and gone. The one-per day pace has officially slagged and I’m staring down the barrel of a final, grueling, monstrous, harrowing 16 final days to complete the 31 films required of me in the 2015 31 Days of Horror Shame-a-thon. I’ve been eyeballing a bunch of new non-horror DVD and Blu-ray acquisitions and wishing I could toss one in, just give it a quick watch. But alas. I’ve no time for anything other than horror. I’ve no time for Rock Band 4. No time to read the stack of books on my nightstand. There’s kids. There’s sleep. There’s work. There’s horror. There’s me and this stack of shamefully unwatched horror flicks. I’m redoubling my efforts (what does that even mean?). I’m not only going to beat my record of 27, I’m going to hit that magical #31. I’ve even Jedi mind-tricked the wife into asking what’s next on the horror schedule.
I’ve started this second post for ease of reading, simplicity of coding and preservation of sanity. The first post grew wonky in the saggy middle bits and constantly reformatted and ignored my header and paragraph tags. Clearly the work of a pesky poltergeist in the css.
THE great discovery of 2015 has not yet happened. Last year I viewed many new favorites. The Whip and the Body. The Lair of the White Worm. Night of the Comet. Vampyr. So much goddamn bloody goodness. But then again I’ve just skimmed the surface of my list of Shame. I’ve not even delved into the 1980’s picks, and you know I love me some Reagan-era trickle-down terror. (I’m also expecting great things from you, Pakistani Dracula.)
#14. 10/16 – Fright Night (1985, dir. Tom Holland)
“Marcy D’arcy! It’s Marcy D’arcy!”
So I was disproportionately excited to see Al Bundy’s uptight neighbor. I get like that when I unexpectedly stumble upon Marcy or Jefferson in the wild. Not so much Steve, though. Steve was a bit of a dullard. Did you know that Marcy (Amanda Bearse) also directed 30 episodes of Married with Children? #TheMoreYouKow, am I right?
But let’s put aside the Marcy D’arcy euphoria for a second.
Fright Night rocketed to the top of the 2015 Shame-a-thon. An old-fashioned monster flick with a dose of self-awareness, reverence for classic horror and a jab or two at the contemporary (1980’s contemporary, of course) slasher movies dominating the milieu. William Ragsdale’s a bit of a stiff, but his rigidity plays against Chris Sarandon’s hunka hunka mock-turtleneck sexy-time face. In the climax he also rocks a Nehru jacket-looking shirt thing, which, let’s face it, not everyone can pull off.
The practical gore effects are top notch, used sparingly and to great effect — especially Evil’s demise. And while we’re doting on some boring technical aspects of the film, let’s talk about the score. Brad Fiedel’s music for Fright Night blends traditional scoring with moody synth roots the film in 1985 without slipping into that sour “dated” category.
Since I like my horror flicks with a dose of smarts (not to mention Marcy D’arcy in peril) this is kinda my jam.
#15. 10/16 – Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
So again it’s not technically a shame. Not technically. But this is my challenge and I can bend the rules whenever I see fit. And I saw fit last night because the Bram Stoker’s Dracula Blu-ray with the brand new 4K transfer arrived last week. As one of my favorite vampire films, I bent — nay broke the rules — of my own Shame-a-thon (again) in order to see how this transfer compared to the 8-year-old muddy Blu-ray dubbed “Dark-ula”. The Shame of course is that I owned the new Blu-ray for about 10 days before tossing it in on. Shame!
I come bearing good news. The new transfer is as good as this movie is ever going to look. The darkest scenes have a far superior color balance — it’s not just that they’re brighter, it’s that Coppola’s vivid colors have returned and detail remains even in the darkest shadows without sacrificing the deepest blacks. The scenes early on in Dracula’s castle provide ample proof that Sony has finally done right with this film.
Here’s the lesser news. Some crankshafts have noticed that there’s a small framing issue throughout the film. Before you go bridge jumping, let me attest that YOU WILL NOT NOTICE THE FRAMING ISSUE. I’ve seen this film enough to care about things like that. I thought one shot seemed a little… different. Not wrong. Just not what I remembered. Which is how I found these lunatic threads on DVD forums impaling this release.
If you want to join the hyperbolic legions of Interweb lunatics ranting about this new release, that’s your right and privilege as an anonymous blowhard with a Twitter account. If you want my opinion, however, your time is better spent just enjoying the film for what it is — a flawed but visually stunning masterpiece of gothic horror with a legendary performance by Gary Oldman (and maybe the best Van Helsing ever captured on film in Anthony Hopkins).
Also blood geysers, you guys.
#16. 10/18 – Crimson Peak (2015, dir. by Guillermo del Toro)
After watching Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Crimson Peak this weekend I had a very vivid dream last night about blood geysers.
Thank goodness for Crimson Peak. Guillermo del Toro’s timely release of his latest directorial effort allowed me to attack 31 Days of Horror on multiple fronts. Blu-ray. DVD. Streaming. Theater. I’ve got 2015 completely flanked. I don’t often drag my carcass out to the theater for modern horror films because 99% of them are pure prefabricated shit meant to sell tickets to the lowest common denominator. People who will buy tickets to anything that promises a body count. There’s more to horror that torture and death and general psychotic mayhem. The genre has a long tradition of style and visual creativity dating back to its origins. The earliest silent horror films — Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari just to have a couple of obvious examples — contain some of the most inventive cinematography ever captured on film. Horror does not equal gore, though that has its time and place as well (best used with equal parts comedy as unrepentant gore porn is just not my bag). Experiencing an effective horror film is the transference to a psychological state of persistent unease. Consider The Picture of Dorian Gray, a film I logged here as a horror film. Other than a stabbing and few unsettling shots of the decaying portrait, there’s no overtly horrific imagery, yet it remains the most disturbing film viewed in my Shame-a-thon to date. Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak follows the director’s traditional storytelling pattern (at least in his horror entries). Create unease and then punctuate that unease with flourishes of gore and brutality. Crimson Peak, however, is no Devil’s Backbone, a film where the horrors linger, building to a final climax followed by the cathartic release of tension. Peak falls short of that modern classic, nor does it aspire to such heights. Like Dorian Gray, Crimson Peak is first a gothic romance, second a haunted house story, third a meditation on storytelling itself. The film proves largely effective at number 1, but only moderately effective at numbers 2 and 3. Peak undermines the gothic elements of the narrative with intermittently excessive and comical bloodletting. It is almost as if del Toro can’t help himself when a choice moment arises. A simple pen stabbing results in a massive spurting of blood. In a different movie, I’d have been pro-hyperbolic blood geyser, but Peak‘s pleasures are found elsewhere. In the dark corners of the house (a masterpiece of set design), in the true motives of Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), in the practically-rendered (no CGI according to GDT) metaphors/apparitions that appear to Edith (Mia Wasikowska). Crimson Peak is the recipient of some critical negativity because it is largely predictable (true) and languorously paced (also true) and uneven (ditto) and because its visual splendors could not compensate for all of the above (poppycock). The power and purpose of “visual splendors” in film cannot be overestimated. The slower, gothic nature of the film will repel viewers hungry for a gory frightfest. I see why del Toro took to Twitter to normalize viewer expectation, insisting that the film is first a romance. Viewer expectation can be damning, so can the pre-existing baggage people bring into a moviegoing experience. No matter your expectation or disappointment with the elements of this particular ghost story, Crimson Peak should and will satisfy those patient souls willing to bask in the extraordinary “visual splendors” of this old fashioned, gothic yarn… albeit a gothic yarn dotted with a few potentially unnecessary blood geysers, face bashings and questionably stunted dialogue.
#17. 10/19 – The Living Corpse (1967, dir. Khwaja Sarfraz)
The more than 10-minute pre-title sequence depicts a doctor struggling to create a potion for everlasting life. After many failures (we know because the formula melted through the flask) he succeeds. Before taking the potion he leaves a note for his assistant to toss him in the basement coffin once she finds him passed out on the floor. Later he shows up to suck her blood. We presume, anyway, because the film cuts away just before his shiny new teeth contact her succulent flesh. After the wonderful, high-contrast title sequence (pictured above) we’re treated to a lively rendition of “La Cucuracha” as a pimpmobile (color uncertain) traverses the rugged Mexican Pakistani landscape. And so it goes with Zinda Laash aka The Living Corpse aka Dracula in Pakistan. Though director Surfraz had clearly mastered the use of light and shadow, the film gives rise to many other questions: What are the logistics of the Dr. Aqil/Mr. Dracula situation? Hey girl, is that supposed to be sexy dancing? “Feed on this instead.” Wait, was that a baby? So more full-clothed sexy dancing already? Well, alright. Did Burt Bacharach watch this before scoring the “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” scene in Butch Cassidy? The Living Corpse took obvious cues from 1958’s The Horror of Dracula. Not having seen the film for some time, I can’t actually confirm that the film goes shot-by-shot but it certainly feels that way. Sarfraz also takes specific details from Bram Stoker’s novel that didn’t appear in other films at this time. The way it processes these elements, inherently British and Christian, through the Pakistani cultural lens make for fascinating viewing. If you like your Dracula with a dose of kitsch and cultural transmogrification, The Living Corpse must be seen to be fully appreciated.
#18. 10/20 – Killer Party (1986, dir. William Fruet)
I’d normally give a resounding thumbs up to any movie prominently featuring Laura Branigan on the soundtrack. Then I met Killer Party. Taking cues from House on Sorority Row, Private School, and The Evil Dead or The Exorcist (hell, it doesn’t really matter, just something with malleable rules about demonic possession), Killer Party resembles a meta-slasher movie. But Fruet’s film is neither witty enough to succeed at the meta part or creepy enough to succeed at the slashing part. The opening promised something spectacularly awesomeful, like Night Train to Terror. It begins as a drive-in movie within a White Sister hair-metal rock video within a movie. Ten minutes in you don’t know what’s going on but you’re digging it. Soon the movie settles into Private School meets House on Sorority Row and you’re left wondering where all the cool, kitschy, meta bits went. I was kinda entertained… but at what cost? Even my shameful affection for all things from the mid-1980’s has limitations.
#19. 10/21 – A Candle for the Devil (1973, dir. Eugenio Martin)
Lady butcher sisters enforce their strict moral code with knives, hatchets and the promise of raging, eternal hellfire. The movie’s languid pace will challenge some, engage others. I fell somewhere in between, but confess I was duly impressed by the moodiness of the cinematography and the fascinating distortion of Catholic teachings about sex, faith and “perversion” — a distortion that seems to be playing out in 2015 through politicized “faith-based” pandering to the moral right. There’s not a lot of exploitative gore — a stylistic choice that allows the unsettling mix of sex and religion to strike a nerve more squarely. One might rightly assume that there’s some talk of Satan in a movie called A Candle for the Devil — but unlike Alucarda, which wasted no opportunity to reference the subversive bastard, Candle leaves that sort of chatter in the subtext (and presumably to pander to an audience expecting something more notorious than a meditation on the continued relevance of Catholic doctrine). This is the story of two emotionally damaged women struggling to carve their own place in an increasingly frivolous, libidinous and morally uncertain world. A fascinating and obscure entry in the Eurotrash cannon — Eurotrash as character study — something I certainly never expected to find in this Spanish cult sleeper.
#20. 10/22 – Housebound (2014, dir. Gerard Johnstone)
I’ve had this one on my Netflix Watchlist for many moons. Someone told me it was really funny. The Netflix description promised ghosts and haunted houses. Okay, so there’s uncertain creaking and stuff, a Teddy Ruxpin bear gone rogue and some other freaky shenanigans. And there’s some extraordinarily glib moments of Kiwi humor… but I wouldn’t go as far to call it a full on comedy… or a full on horror movie. So now you’re asking — So what is Housebound then, jerk?Housebound is just a cool little movie from New Zealand. … What, did you want more explanation? Sigh. Well okay then. (Slave driver.) Kylie is forced to return to her childhood home, under house arrest, after failing miserably as a petty criminal. Mum’s a bit of a gossipy nutso and calls up talk radio tell stories about the spooks in the basement and creaks in the floorboards. It’s not long before Kylie gets the heebeejeebies and jumps on the notion that the house is haunted… or she’s merely becoming more like her mother the more she’s stuck in the house. (Both frightening propositions.) Kylie becomes a kind of paranormal investigator and uncovers the house’s violent secrets. Johnstone’s film is all that and a bag of nacho chips. I mentioned the spooks and the tongue-in-cheek goofs, but there’s also a measure of heart in this tale as mother and daughter reconnect. The film comes slightly undone during the climax which you might be able to overlook after being treated to a superfluous, but entirely welcome bit of gory bloodletting. The film succeeds most readily as it subverts expectation and twists genre tropes. So, if you’re like me, and Housebound has been staring at you on that Netflix Watchlist, now’s the time to cross it off. I definitely needed a fun and breezy flick after A Candle for the Devil. It’s Day 22. I’m also trying to sneak this writeup in at work while also watching my next entry (which has been happening in installments for about a week). With October winding down, there’s not a moment to spare. I’d also like to start reading books again at some point in the near future.
#21. 10/23 – The Vampire’s Coffin (1958, dir. Fernando Mendez)
…aka El ataúd del Vampiro which somehow makes it sound far more appealing than Dracula if he were a gameshow host… in Spanish. Other than some inventive scenes using high contrast light and shadows, The Vampire’s Coffin feels like a Universal film from the 30’s or 40’s, but less interesting. Static camera, smattering of close-ups, chiaroscuro. Also seemingly unrelated sick children worried about stuff. I’m not going to say I didn’t enjoy this movie because how can you not love making “gameshow vampire” cracks to yourself… but it just wasn’t very good and I watched it because it was available on Netflix while I wasted a couple of hours at work waiting for 48″ signs to print on the blotter. This is definitely a movie you watch while you’re waiting for something better to happen.
#22. 10/24 – The Raven (1963, dir. Roger Corman)
If you’ve ever wanted to see an improv group attempt to continue the narrative of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” poem, The Raven might just be the movie for you. I’m pretty sure that Peter Lorre and Vincent Price weren’t at any point reading from a script. Jack Nicholson arrives in full flummox mode and then there’s the luminous Hazel Court. It’s hard not to have a measure of affection for a production as ill advised as this. A raven drinking from a wine goblet. Peter Lorre in a bird suit. Vincent Price and Boris Karloff as accomplished witches (warlocks?) and Peter Lorre as the Daffy Duck variety witch (always a failed second fiddle). When you think the movie couldn’t go more off the rails, it does somehow. And that makes it… well… worth something to fans of Corman and those lovable, huggable AIP productions from the 1960’s. Nevertheless, you always believe that the actors had more fun making the movie than you had watching it.
#23. 10/25 – The Innocents (1961, dir. Jack Clayton)
…words coming soon…
#24. 10/26 – The Tingler (1959, dir. William Castle)
…words coming soon…
#25. 10/28 – Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, dir. Tobe Hooper)
This may be another case of a movie damned by expectation. Well, maybe not damned per say, but fricasseed, roasted and potentially boiled. TCSM had been held aloft as one of the most frightening experiences in cinema history. Unnerving, sure. I’ll give it that. Tense. Solid effort there. Tremendous foreshadowing through somewhat casual (but mostly forced) dialogue. But TCSM won’t keep me up at night like The Innocents, to name one very recent example that burrowed underneath my skin and lingered. Different goals. Different films, obviously. But it’s all relative, anyway, is it not? The specific details that cause certain films to climb into you subconscious and reside there, forever sending chills down the back of your spine. I’ve got a few of those. Candyman, for example. I watched Candyman alone just after it was released on video. Afterward I walked around the house turning on every light. I haven’t seen it since and I’m quite sure it wouldn’t affect me in the same ways it did then. That’s not the point. In specific moments in our lives we’re more receptive to certain types of horrors. And those horrors just don’t necessarily dissipate with time and tide. I will always think of that night and shudder, just a little bit. The same goes for the The Innocents. At age 37 I was fully ready to receive the chilling tale from 1961 in ways I wouldn’t have as a teenager. I might not have been as involved with the story, invested in the character, identifying with the horrors of small, manipulative children being puppet mastered by the lingering spooks of dead lovers. So that brings us back to 1974 and to this “true story” of the systematic murders of a group of stranded young motorists by a family of maniac butchers/cannibals. Though I engaged with the story (Step 1 of being receptive to horrors), I was mostly humored by the stupidity of the film’s “protagonists.” I documented these thoughts on Twitter, as I tend to do:
I’m stocking up on these TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE #LifeHacks. If you fall on a floor full of bones and chicken parts, run now, puke later. — The #Bond_age_ Guy (@007hertzrumble) October 28, 2015
There were a few more of these, but you get the point. Hapless morons find themselves in a Murphy’s Law-type situation and in order to expedite the Murphy’s Lawness of it all, they just start flocking straight towards death like a moth to a flame. And the flame in this case is a guy wielding a chainsaw and wearing a skin mask of his victims. The parade of executions becomes preposterous. And then when there’s just one left, we’re treated to a “last supper” dinner scene featuring the entire family of deranged lunatics — truly a classic cinematic scene of the macabre. The final living protagonist is a girl named Sally — which is pretty much everything we know about Sally. This, the best scene in the film, is cruel, funny and believe it or not, humanizing… to the extent that you can humanize lunatic cannibals because he’s only okay with cooking his victims but not killing them. I get that. We as a first world society totally get that. We’re lunatic hillbilly murderers too. For the sake of bacon.
And this brings me to the not-so-subtext of the film. Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a pro-vegetarian propaganda piece. The characters document the horrors of the slaughterhouse and engage in a debate about whether its okay to eat meat but not kill it. They talk of headcheese processing and killing cows with two sledges to the head. This debate is so detailed in the various methods of cow executions, you know, YOU KNOW, this has to come back into the film at some point. And wouldn’t you know… the cannibal family cook states his reservations about killing his own ingredients, i.e. Sally.
Was I entertained? No doubt. And in the end, that’s all that really matters… also keeping those TCSM #LifeHacks close at hand should you be presented with a situation where your van breaks down in the middle of Texas (how about let’s just not go to Texas?) and you find yourself looking for help in homes with dead things on the floor. Hey, these things happen and when they do, you want to be prepared.
#26. 10/29 – Nosferatu (1979, dir. Werner Herzog)
Dracula returns to the realm of the purely gothic. Herzog’s Count is a wretched cuss equated with the black plague. He’s a pestilence of rats and unwanted sexual advances. Klaus Kinski’s visage is the stuff of nightmares, rivaling only Max Schreck in the original 1922 F.W. Murnau Nosferatu that Herzog here aims to update. The movie lacks the eccentric, hyperbolic splendor or other Dracula adaptations. Every scene promises, eventually, the arrival of death. Every scene is carefully calculated forebode. Consider the scenes as Harker arrives in Transylvania. Herzog lingers on Harker’s inability to reach the castle. Peasants will not drive him, they will not even allow him to buy a horse to make the journey. Harker must walk the long distance. Popul Vuh’s haunting score (symphonic melodies and moans!) coupled with Herzog’s long, static shots of the treacherous splendor of the mountains and countryside put a shiver in your britches.
Herzog maintains the silent film’s languid pacing, allowing haunting visuals and extended silence to convey a creeping, menacing terror. Most striking is that Herzog doesn’t cloak his cinematography with effusive shadow. Nosferatu is often bright and always high-contrast, to the point of appearing overdeveloped. Even the scenes with Harker (Bruno Ganz) at Dracula’s castle are well lit affairs (relatively speaking). The most prominent visual effect of this lighting scheme, the blazing whites, bathe the character of Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) in chastity. She’s seen on the beach, pale, washed out skin the color of the bleached sky and sand. Her face contrasting against her black hair, stark clothing. Adjani (and to a greater extent Herzog’s mise-en-scene) here could be seen as a prototype for our modern Goth culture — and in that the culture as I understand it rose in popularity during the early 80’s as part of the gothic-rock/post-punk movement, this notion has some merit. Furthemore, an argument can and has been made that German Romanticism itself is responsible for the visual tropes associated with the Goth culture. I’m going to conclude that thought here. I don’t have the time or space for such rabbit holes here.
When Dracula arrives in London, proper darkness finally arrives with the beast. Our expectations of dread are met, duly. The events have been told dozens of times over. I should note that I’ve been listening to the film’s score for the last hour and I’m sufficiently batshit loopy. Time to do some proper work now, which for me today is some simple graphic design. I hope my employer’s in the mood for brooding, high-contrast blacks and washed out whites.
#27. 10/30 – Scream of Fear (1961, dir. Sean Holt)
A terrific film noir disguised as a Hammer horror flick. I’m not sure Scream’s narrative twists hold up under multiple viewings, but Holt’s film plays a fantastic game of misdirection. It allows the viewer to feel smart, predicting the first major twist, before pulling the rug out for a second. I won’t go into great detail because I’m running out of time to finish this post-Halloween blast of Shame-a-thon words, and because any information about the story might inadvertently direct your viewing.
Let’s just say that Scream of Fear is an underseen gem and you should watch it. Really. Go watch it.
I’ll wait here.
You haven’t left yet. I told you to stop reading my writing and go watch a movie. When a writer breaks from his solipsism to tell you to stop reading, you goddamn do it. That means he’s serious. Deadly serious.
#28. 10/31 – The Fog (1980, dir. John Carpenter)
I had the opportunity to program our Halloween viewing. I had to pick something that was “spooky but not too scary.” Some gore was permissible but it needed to be “kinda funny gore.” With these restrictions in mind, I brought to the table four potential titles for my assembled family members to choose from: Demon Knight, The Sentinel, The Haunting and The Fog. I tried to sneak The Sentinel in there to keep the Shame-a-thon rolling along, but nobody would bite because I couldn’t promise anything about the nature of the film other than the blurb on the case (which nobody really understood). I tried, Shamers… I tried. My wife campaigned for this John Carpenter favorite; I couldn’t have been more pleased.
Some new things struck me about this viewing of The Fog. The simplicity of the premise for example. There’s a fog. There are things in the fog. Some people figure it out. Some people don’t. The backstory fully comes to light during the climax, but until then the audience doesn’t need to concern themselves with anything other than Carpenter’s staging and visuals. Adrienne Barbeau broadcasting on the AM radio subs for a narrator. (I think Grosse Pointe Blank took notes on how to best deploy a DJ as a narration device.) Carpenter uses the all-seeing DJ/narrator to describe the comings and goings of the fog. This allows him to worry first about mood and visuals without wasting time with establishing shots. Of course, there are plenty of shots of the fog moving across the coastline and on into town, but they don’t seek necessarily to further the story — they set a specific mood, the portend the coming of doom. Carpenter also uses Barbeau’s voice, in full Delilah After Dark mode, the same way he uses his synth-laden score. It’s all about the curation of unease… and really, is there anyone better at this than Carpenter?
The Fog is expedient, enjoyable horror of the first order. If you want to scrutinize some of the narrative logic, that’s fair. But why rock the boat (of undead lepers)?
#29. 11/1 – Chamber of Horrors (1940, dir. Norman Lee)
I picked this movie up one day at Half Price Books. When browsing shelves and shelves of DVDs I scan for any case that looks odd or out of place. With a 3yo and/or a 6yo laying waste to everything around me, I have something less than 5 minutes to idly peruse. On one such trip I found this little devil. Released by Roan, this British oddity called out to me. Roan Group DVDs imply a few certainties. An obscure film, presented without restoration, intermittently watchable — but sometimes brilliant and underseen. I gladly bought my $4 lottery ticket to Chamber of Horrors (aka The Door with Seven Locks) based on the statement on the back of the box that it was shown in the U.S. on a double bill with Bela Lugosi’s The Ape. In the light of day, I must question whether that fact is actually a selling point.
Here’s the cold hard facts about Chamber of Horrors. There’s a chamber with an iron maiden. There’s also a door with seven locks. But despite the promises of horrors the most frightening thing in the film might be the butler’s bowl cut. Before dying some old, eccentric fellow leaves his estate to his oddly young son. He also stipulates that his family’s jewels will be interred with him in the mausoleum and locked behind a door… with seven locks.
30 minutes of this 80 minute film are spent discussing heirs and the whereabouts of that rapscallion son. It’s a bit of a let down considering we’ve got a spooky mausoleum with an obscene number of locks and a dead guy that’s promised to return from the grave to hunt down any trespassers. Where are the trespassers to roust the dead guy from his eternal slumber?
Lilli Palmer to the rescue. You might know Palmer from Hitchcock’s Secret Agent or Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger among many other notable appearances. She starred in a litany of noir films through the 30’s and 40’s, eventually marrying Rex Harrison and moving to Hollywood. Palmer acted regularly until her death in 1986 and made one of her last appearances in the Holcroft Covenant alongside Michael Caine, Victoria Tennant and Michael Lonsdale. Lilli Palmer hoists Chamber of Horrors up on her slight shoulders and turns a snoozer into a fairly entertaining Scooby Doo caper. She has some help in that department from Leslie Banks (as the naughty Dr. Manetta (The Most Dangerous Game) — and while they’re both playing caricatures, it is Palmer that elevates the material she’s given.
Chamber of Horrors turns out to be 90% murder mystery and 10% early British post-“ban” horror — we allude to and insinuate that fiendish things are taking place, but we’re really quite polite about it. (The UK film board did not officially ban horror films so much as discourage their production with idle threats of censorship. As I understand it, this period in British cinema compares to the late pre-code years in American cinema — a lot of people ranting and raving about morality in domestic cinema without any specific traction.)
What was I saying? Eh.
Worth watching (with a little patience). Don’t expect too much. Enjoy Lilli Palmer. Carry on Shaming.
#30. 11/1 – The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy)
Instead of words I’m working on a .gif of Britt Ekland slapping her bum and singing a Scottish folk song… that would probably better reflect my thoughts about The Wicker Man than any slapdash collection of thoughts.
#31. 11/1 – La Momia Azteca (1957, Rafael Portillo)
The Aztec Mummy has a legend- wait for it- dary reputation due to the ways in which the character was regurgitated in films such as The Aztec Mummy versus the Humanoid Robot. Think classic movie monster as luchador and you’re only barely halfway to this bizarro slice of Mexican cinema… which was skewered brilliantly by MST3K in the episode The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy. I’d hoped an equally so-bad-its-awesomeful origin story with La Momia Azteca, the first of the tremendously unrelated Mexican Aztec Mummy films.
La Momia Azteca takes an interesting entry point into the mummy mythology. Dr. Almeda believes he can tap into past lives through a new hypnotism technique. Because no one would be his willing guinea pig (he stresses that the procedure may cause irreparable psychological damage if the past life lingers into the present) his fiance Flor volunteers. She does this so that the can complete his research on the matter and then get married. Apparently you can’t delve into the depths of past lives and be tied down by an old ball and chain. So it goes. Oddly, this is the interesting part of the film. It’s filled with lovely spinny things and beeps and boops and the thingamajiggers we associate with 1950’s OMG SCIENCE! And then Flor flashes back to Tenochtitlan of the Aztec civilization. She’s a lovely virgin who’s in love with a brave Aztec warrior, but here’s the rub — she’s scheduled to be sacrificed. The warrior plots an escape from Tenochtitlan before her execution, but their plan is uncovered by the Aztec prince (you can tell he’s important because he’s wearing a lot of shit on his head). He’s mummified and cursed to forever guard the Aztec treasure reserves. She’s still executed. Womp womp.
The Dr. and his associates, a rag tag bunch of scholars/cringing Harrys, use Flor’s new memories of the temple to locate the Aztec treasure to prove the legitimacy of her visions. And get rich. Don’t forget the get rich part. Up until this point in the film, I’m down with all of it. It’s a fun 1950’s low budget horror flick with a nice twist. Once we descend into Tenochtitlan — when this movie should just be getting good — the whole thing goes right off the rails. A scheming colleague of Dr. Almeda recruits a gang of thugs to follow the Dr. and his Merry Band of Thoughtmongers. The colleague, Professor Krup, rules these thugs from behind a black mask and calls himself “The Bat.” A Batman/Mummy/Abbott and Costello/Luchador mishmash?!?! HOW HAVE YOU NOT BEEN IN MY LIFE? Well, not so fast. Even though Krup dresses as a bat and calls himself “The Bat” doesn’t make him interesting. Think George Clooney as Batman, except Z-grade comic book villain that never makes a second appearance.
On top of this the movie is so dark in these scenes inside the pyramid that you can’t actually see whats going on. All you’ve got is grammatically poor subtitles to guide you. The scenes are so dark in fact that I’m pretty sure the script merely read “…and yada yada yada things go bump in the dark.” I would have just assumed poor transfer DVD, but part of me thinks that the budget only allowed for one or two interior rooms. In order to extend their utility Portillo cloaked the same rooms in complete darkness to squeeze some more blood from that stone. The final half of the film unfolds predictably, barely keeping you invested in the increasingly disconnected silliness. Yet, I’m still intrigued by the series. Enough at least to keep going through the set. I don’t know what that says about these movies or my moviewatching tendencies.
Bonus watch with the kiddos:
#32. 10/31 – Toy Story of Terror (2013, dir. Angus MacLane)
Last year I called out to the masses, urging them to join me on a cleansing 31-Day Horror Shame-a-thon. As many horror movies as you can watch in one month — the catch? They all had to be shamers, movies you regret not having seen at this point in your moviewatching career. I had one taker. (Thanks, Kerry!) Well, this year, I’m done with with the safety-in-numbers thing. This time, see, I’m going it alone (alone except for everyone else out there doing their own lists… like Jaime Burchardt, who does this for super serious). All the horror and rigors of a brutal moviewatching regimen without a specific support group, plus, you know… life and stuff that just happens in between horror movies. And when you’ve got a 3yo and a 6yo that “life and stuff” part puts a major damper on the final total.
I’ll again follow the Cinema Shame method. I’ll create a list of 31 never-before-seen horror flicks (broadly defined as anything horror or containing elements associated with horror movies) and watch as many as I can manage over the course of the October month. I won’t watch all of them. After all, this list is a tentative guide, some self-cajoling. I watch some, go off the rails for others, and watch a few impromptu selections on TCM. I’ll attempt to view at least one from every decade 1920’s through the present. Last year, I viewed 27 — my all time documented* high. (*I’m sure I obliterated that total during my high school days. Comparing moviewatching prolificity at 37 years of age (with two kids and a wife that doesn’t watch horror movies) vs. 16 years of age (with, maybe, some homework in Photography class and a daily golf practice schedule) is like comparing the kid on your Little League team that handcuffed himself to the dugout fence to Mickey Mantle.
After each flick, I’ll toss up a mini review that may or may not contain any actual insight alongside a Hz Record rating. All that said, let’s commence the 31 Days of Horror.
First up. The list of Shame. For this list, in addition to egregious and overdue Shames (hello again, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Wicker Man!), I’ll focus on the movies I’ve owned but never watched (blind buys, specifically, but also those that have just been forgotten over time).
The Living Skeleton (or another from When Horror Came to Shichoku Eclipse Set, 1968)
Vampyros Lesbos (1971)
Night of the Devils (1972)
A Candle for the Devil (1973)
The Wicker Man (1973)
Sugar Hill (1974)
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, on 2014 and 2015 Shame lists)
Without Warning (1980)
The Boogens (1981)
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981)
Fright Night (1985)
Nightmare on Elm Street 2 (1985)
Killer Party (1986)
A Girl Walks Home At Night (2014)
Off the menu:
Beyond the Black Rainbow
Comedy of Terror
MST3K – It Lives By Night
The Beast With Five Fingers
(Hz ratings out of 5 Hz)
#1. 9/30 – Frogs (1972, dir. George McCowan)
There’s a brilliant simplicity about movies like Frogs or Alligator or Piranha. You’re offered people that deserve to be eaten by Frogs/Alligators/Piranhas and then, wait for it, they get eaten by Frogs/Alligators/Piranhas. There’s nothing especially unnerving about Frogs (except Sam Elliott disarmingly sans mustache) – it’s just a fun nature-gone-evil flick with a lot of closeups of — get this — frogs! Also, a horror movie fest isn’t a horror movie fest without Ray Milland (I’m sure that’s a saying) so I’m glad I got that requirement out of the way early. Also yes, I started early because I need all the days I can pack into one month to make this happen.
#2. 9/30 – Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010, dir. Panos Cosmatos)
Watched this for our #Bond_age_Choice feature the other night without knowing what I’d signed up for. Hey, so, good to know… this is what happens when Carl Theodor Dreyer sodomizes David Cronenberg. Though this isn’t outright horror this one will leave you unsettled for days. Truth be told, I have not yet recovered from the scene pictured above. I’ve still got the heebeejeebees. Cosmatos scrubbed this movie free of dialogue. Abstract imagery and use of washed-out color palettes foster an unsettling, creeping subtext that ultimately manifests as a riff on the slasher or giallo genres.
Greg McCambley summed this movie up best:
Man, this movie is going to be sitting on my brain like a vulture on a tree branch waiting for something to die. #Bond_age_
#3. 10/2 – Alucarda (1977, dir. Juan Lopez Moctezuma)
Justine arrives at a creepy convent where she immediately befriends the even creepier Alucarda who tells her, almost immediately, that she’s going to “love her to death.” And based on her delivery you’re quite sure there’s no Shakespearean orgasm metaphor mixed into that statement. After a quick flash of light and a jump cut, both girls are buck naked and flanking Mr. Scary Goat Man. Before you know it that crazy Alucarda has unleashed some satanic demon that dabbles in vampirism. There’s even an interesting footnote to the nudity and satanic rituals that suggests satanism was the natural counter-reaction to the innate brutality of the Catholic church. How strict enforcement of the Catholic doctrines (by the clerical male hierarchy) transforms innocent girls into fearful women rather than encouraging proper religious hope and spirituality.
#4. 10/3 – Island of Lost Souls (1932, dir. Erle C. Kenton)
After enduring the wife’s pick of Hot Pursuit on Friday night, I got back on the wagon Saturday night. Though she won’t willingly watch anything from the horror genre, she will get sucked into an older movie if it happens to show up on the television and she’s already on the couch and the effort to go upstairs to watch something on the DVR proves too daunting. I figured I could win her over with this little ditty. And by “ditty” I mean subtle and often unnerving slice of pre-code horror that happens to last something shy of 80 minutes. Having just watched the Lost Souls documentary about the making of the Brando/Kilmer 1990’s Moreau I was itching to finally give this Criterion a spin. Really the best thing that could be said about our leading man, Richard Arlen, is that he had fine posture. Charles Laughton binds this movie together with a tense portrayal of Moreau as a misguided, moralistic Dr. Frankenstein-type God complex. Despite recognizing the film’s duly earned status as a classic, I couldn’t help but rattle of a few lines of “Jump Around” every time a character mentioned the “House of Pain” or respond to “We are men!” with “We are DEVO!” I’m so mature. Terrific minor turns from Bela Lugosi and “the Panther Woman” (as she is billed in the credits), Kathleen Burke, help erase the harm caused by milquetoast leading man syndrome.
#5. 10/3 – Comedy of Terrors (1963, dir. Jacques Tourneur)
…words coming soon…
#6. 10/4 – The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945, dir. Albert Lewin)
It took me a few days to process this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. I felt like the film required a bit more attention perhaps than an MST3K riff on The Bat People. First, let’s get some scattered observations out of the way. 1. Every movie should feature George Sanders. Also dialogue by Oscar Wilde in the mouth of George Sanders. 2. There’s a reason Hurd Hatfield had a minimal and very scattered Hollywood career. After a handful of starring gigs, Hatfield drifted off into a career in television. He’s suitable here (if my memory of the novel serves) because he satisfies Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, but he’s unable to carry the film on his own — a very strong supporting cast props him up (meanwhile acting circles around him). Angela Lansbury, George Sanders, Donna Reed and Peter Lawford among them. 3. Harry Stradling, Sr. was a goddamn genius. The man worked for Hitchcock, Ray, Kazan, Mankiewicz, etc. Clearly, he knew what he was doing. This 1945 adaptation of Dorian Gray succeeds admirably in translating the gothic elements of Wilde’s novel to the screen and creating constant tension beneath the placid exterior events. As Dorian slips further into vanity and depravity (his specific actions barely even mentioned), director Albert Lewin manages the tone of the film accordingly. While the actual disfigurement of the portrait is presented in ghastly neon coloration and far less affecting than the novel’s ability to terrorize the mind’s eye, the film’s brilliant cinematography makes up the difference. The fear and tension are derived naturally from the terrors of time, fate and mortality. Dorian Gray’s plight is the human condition, not the supernatural, menacing portrait or Dorian’s vanity. There is in fact no villain present; there is only our own fears and regrets conveyed through Dorian and the visual majesty of light and shadow.
#7. 10/5 – MST3K: It Lives By Night (aka The Bat People, 1974, Jerry Jameson)
“GAH! The bats are causing me to not know how to stop a car!” I’ve made it a practice to watch at least one MST3K horror movie riff each 31 Days of Horror. If it wasn’t a documented practice before, it is now. Scanning the 30+ sets along the shelf, I recognized I’d never seen this experiment. Bob’s your uncle. Dude gets bitten by a bat then becomes a bloodsucking bat. The riffs here from Mike and the bots weren’t hugely memorable, always a problem when the movie at hand is more boring-bad than bad-bad. The good jokes happened while anthropomorphizing bats during stock footage, comparing the leading actress to Mary Tyler Moore and mocking the letchy, mustachioed detective. A well-placed Rikki-tikki-tavi joke may have been the golden riff.
#8. 10/6 – Amuck (1972, dir. Silvio Amadio)
Holy. Smokes. Seven minutes into Amuck, the viewer’s treated to a slow-mo, wholly gratuitous scene of sapphic excess between Barbara Bouchet and Rosalba Neri. I don’t care if you’re man, woman, child (not that I’m testing this theory, mind you), plant or animal, you’d be impressed. Perhaps for different reasons. Perhaps for all the reasons. Visceral, theoretical, whatever your pleasure. The overt purpose and confidence by Amadio to render the scene in slow motion (and so early in the film) took me by surprise. I don’t know why, exactly, considering that the giallo genre has two general statements of purpose: #1. Suspense #2. Cast amazingly, legendarily beautiful women and worship them appropriately. …and Amuck duly satisfies on both counts. That the film is not more widely known and that Amadio failed to forge a decent career in the genre puzzles me. Released on a mismatched “Spaghetti Cinema” double-feature from Code Red (with Super Stooges & the Wonder Women), the print used on the DVD has not been restored and occasionally becomes jumpy and/or speckled and/or faded. More love and restoration has been given to gialli half as good as Amuck. Someone, anyone, take Amuck and make it whole again.
#9. 10/9 – Sugar Hill (1974, dir. Paul Maslansky)
Low-budget blaxploitation voodoo zombie flick. Marki Bey’s an on-screen force, rocking the deep-v jumpsuit, dishing one-liners and unleashing hordes of zombies in the name of cold, calculated revenge. B-grade Baron Samedi doesn’t really dampen the proceedings, though I couldn’t help but imagine how much better the movie would have been with Geoffrey Holder (who, of course, played Baron Samedi in Live and Let Die). One tweet probably summarized my experience with Sugar Hill:
#10. 10/11 – The Beast With Five Fingers (1946, dir. Robert Florey)
DVR’d this on Turner Classic Movies even though I’d already seen it a couple years ago… on TCM. Here’s the catch. I’d swapped this one in my brain with Mad Love, another film starring Peter Lorre that has to do with murderous hands gone wild. The difference between the two is that in Mad Love the murderous (knife throwing!) hands are still attached to someone whereas in The Beast With Five Fingers the murderous, detached hand goes rogue. Two minutes into the film I’d recognized my faulty memory. Happy accident, I suppose. The Beast is great entertainment because this movie about a (permit the repetition here, for effect) murderous, detached hand of a dead concert pianist is played completely straight. Peter Lorre gets to play a man haunted by said murderous, detached hand and make all sorts of fantastic faces while being stalked by the hand. If you haven’t stopped reading this to go watch The Beast With Five Fingers, you must have already seen it. In which case, you already know the joy of movies featuring a murderous, detached hand that also moonlights on the piano during the middle of the night. Maybe it’s not a 4-star flick, but it’s definitely worth 4 Hz in my book. Watch with friends. Take turns making Peter Lorre faces.
#11. 10/12 – Corruption (1968, dir. Robert Hartford-Davis)
Corruption owes its continued notoriety to being partly an indictment of the 1960’s fashion scene. There’s mod fashions and swinging parties and Peter Cushing robbing the cradle… and it is these era-specific eccentricities that elevate Corruption above your standard mad scientist frivolity.
Vanity. Superficiality. Youth. These two themes provide the backbone. Peter Cushing supplies the crazy eyes and reluctant homicides. His wife (Sue Lloyd) goes full Lady Macbeth after a photography flood lamp topples on her (oops), badly burning her face. Cushing’s surgeon has found a way to rehabilitate scarred tissue, except he needs fresh adrenal glands, don’t you know, to keep the skin from turning back into pizza. The wife drives his madness, but Cushing’s obsession with the looks of his young wife underlies something beyond his wife’s vanity. Cushing’s doctor (at least 30 years her senior) becomes obsessed with preserving her visage. As if having the beautiful, young model/wife also proves his own virility in this fast-paced glamorous world that has since passed this stodgy old curmudgeon by.
Together the pair become horrible monsters, inside and out. Not an especially *fun* flick — but one that resonates due to the embedded social commentary.
#12. 10/13 – The Living Skeleton (1968, dir. Hiroshi Matsuno)
The star of The Living Skeleton (one of the four features in the When Horror Came to Shochiku Criterion set) has to be the overcooked photography. High contrast with moody, soft focus. It’s a whole heap of atmosphere coupled with absolutely hilarious cheapy effects. Bats on wires. Superimposed bat shadows. Floating underwater skeletons that look like knockoff Day of the Dead tchotchkes from a roadside attraction in Indiana. Miniature boats plucked from cereal boxes. Skeleton is part ghost story, part crime thriller and part mad scientist movie. It’s everything you could possibly need… or it’s a bit much all at once. Probably depends on your mood. Still, it’s pretty clear that John Carpenter likely saw this before prepping The Fog. And despite the comical effects that occasionally pull you out of the film’s spell, The Living Skeleton resonates because of the cinematography and the performance of Kikko Matsuoka. Or maybe it’s just her eyes. Either way, this one’s a keeper. If only George Lucas could go back and maybe touch up those skeletons a bit for a Special Edition release.
#13. 10/14 – Nightmare Castle (1965, dir. Mario Caiano, Jack Hill)
I’ve been plagued by enjoyment without hyperbolic enthusiasm this October. A lot of the movies I’d built up in my head as the next great addition to my movie-watching resume have been good or very good, but just haven’t sent me over the moon. (On the flipside I haven’t really seen any stinkers to inspire a good honest rampage.) And you’re reading this and you’re thinking that clearly Nightmare Castle finally granted me this OMFG, YEAH! moment. But alas. It’s just the movie that hammered home this notion. I had Barbara Steele expectations, you see. Many of Steele’s flicks have warmed my cockles in the past. (Black Sunday! Castle of Blood!) I’d owned a bargain basement version of the Nightmare Castle DVD for at least a decade without ever fully watching it. I popped it in once, but the experience was like watching a film through Vaseline. So there it sat… until Severin Films stepped up with this exquisite Blu-ray edition. I tossed the original DVD in the donation pile and happily purchased a replacement.
Like most of Steele’s films, Nightmare Castle falls squarely into the gothic category of horror films. Think Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. The tone feels more like a British production than an Italian and could easily be considered a precursor to the kind of mad doctor situation that plays out a couple years later in Corruption. The doctor sets a trap for his wife and her lover. After catching them in the coital act, he tortures and eventually kills them. He then marries the dead wife’s sister to finagle the inheritance and, wouldn’t you know it, the deceased come back to haunt the castle. Or are they just visions in the sister’s corrupted brain? It’s a solid premise that never fully pays off because the viewer probably never finds the outcome in doubt. The ending reminded a bit too much of Elvira and Tor Johnson stomping around the foggy swamp in Plan 9 from Outer Space.
So Nightmare wasn’t the overlooked masterpiece for which I’d hoped. The transfer looks amazing, and the special features (full presentations of Castle of Blood and Terror Creatures from Beyond the Grave included) make this an essential purchase for fans of the genre.
(Thanks to Nitrate Diva for the tremendous blogathon idea and apologies for forgetting to post my bl-g on time!)
For many moviegoers the discovery of a new favorite movie makes for an immediate, impromptu holiday-type celebration. How often can one admit a new viewing into the hallowed halls of all-time favorites – those 100 or so movies that give us the most pleasure in this crazy, mixed-up world. I’ve even documented that list on Letterboxd.com for sharing and comparing. (Go on… share yours, too!) The pursuit of that next underseen or underrated gem consumes us and drives us to watch more and odder movies. We read Underrated lists on rupertpupkinspeaks.com and share buzz on Twitter, forever adding to our rapidly growing and now unwieldy watchlists. We haphazardly scan the TCM listings for an oddity from a favorite star or a plot summary that hints at greater or perhaps at least more unusual things. DVRs clogged up with dozens of hopeful causes to celebrate if we can only watch them before they get deleted by the pending episodes of Blacklist that we also probably won’t watch, but DVR anyway because James Spader.
I dare you not to DVR my show.
For decades now, Turner Classic Movies has been a tireless source of old standards (someone at TCM sure loves Now, Voyager) alongside a spare selection of late night oddities, flicks that are rarely or not at all available on home video. I don’t know what I’d do without the fine individuals in my Twitter timeline that make a point to mention when something fantastic pops up on the Turner Classic Movie schedule. So it happened when Slither aired earlier this year. I wish I could thank those responsible parties that tweeted notices about the James Caan/Peter Boyle “road-trip” movie. Sadly, however, their good deeds have been lost to the Twitter tide. I’d not once heard about the film (or director Howard Zieff at the time). I’d later learn that Zieff directed childhood favorites Private Benjamin (1980) and The Dream Team (1989) starring Michael Keaton, not to mention My Girl and My Girl 2. But I’ve no inclination to dwell on Howard Zieff’s forays into melodrama in this particular conversation. (Though how great is Anna Chlumsky on Veep?)
Slither belongs to that group of films that “could only have been made in the 1970s.” And the more of these supposed “lesser” films I watch, the more I learn that the decade begat a cynical, anomalous genre of comedy unlike anything before or since. Aimless, pedantic and boasting the forward progress of a cat chasing its tail, Slither left an indelible impression not just because it’s funny as hell, but because it completely undermines the fundamentals of traditional narrative.
A bumbling thief Dick Kanipsia (Caan) gets out of prison on parole. Though he aims to “go straight,” he goes to visit his friend Harry, a friend he knows is likely up to no good. While there, some villainous goons shoot up Harry’s house. With Harry’s dying words, he tells Dick to go find Barry Fenaka. Fenaka can tell him where to find a whole mess of cash. Dick flees and hitches a ride with free spirit/nut jub/borderline sociopath Kitty (the always welcome Sally Kellerman). As Kitty’s natural tendencies toward batshit crazy start to leak out, Caan ducks out the back door (literally) and catches a passing bus. Only when Dick finds Feneka (part-time bandleader at the VFW) does the story gain a measure of clarity. Many years ago Harry and Feneka embezzled money and then paid a guy to stash it for them until the heat disappeared. By this point in the story, it’s clear that no one involved is a criminal mastermind… or really very bright at all. Dick, Barry and Barry’s wife hop in an RV and set off in pursuit of the man named Holdebrook, the man with the key to their cash and happily ever after. Eventually Kitty catches up to Dick (she’s been tracking him, of course) and a creepy black van (maybe vans?) stalks the brain trust as they continue their march toward certain fortune.
It’s also an uneven machine that runs in three to four gears at once. It opens with violence, devolves into a lazy, comic chase and concludes on a note of existential serenity. At the time of the film’s release, Zieff was best known as the creator of Alka Seltzer (“Mamma mia! That’s a spicy meatball!”), Polaroid and Volkswagen commercials. His strength at self-contained 30-second spots carries over into this, his feature film debut. (In 1969 he sold his advertising company to Columbia Pictures in order to pursue filmmaking.) Slither‘s staccato orchestration feels like episodic quandaries all heading toward a predetermined fate. There’s an unpredictable rise and fall that keeps the viewer invested. Meanwhile Slither never wastes time explaining the gaps between. Zieff would rather move along down the road, searching for the next natural pratfall or comic caper. As a result we’re gifted a Peter Boyle MC’d event at veteran’s hall, a Bingo night gone wrong, a state-of-the-art camper demonstration, a shoot-out that obliterates a vegetable stand, and a cop giving Sally Kellerman a lecture about driving barefoot.
If you’ve seen enough of these types of films from the 1970’s, you’ll know that no one walks away from this movie happy. Slither never bothers to wrap the narrative up in a tidy little bow. In fact, Slither seems to revel in keeping the audience at a curiously callous distance. All of the characters are gregarious but unsavory in the most civil fashion. It ends as a meditation on how people can’t escape their nature. James Caan, the perpetual screw up, despite his best intentions, will only succeed at screwing up again and again. (True to form, I, perpetually five minutes late to every appointment, have posted this bl-gathon entry three days tardy. I have legitimate excuses, honestly. They’re 3 years old and 6 years old and they’re causing my brain to atrophy, one dogged day at a time.)
What’s easy to overlook is the actual craft of the film. Photographed by the late, great László Kovács (Ghostbusters, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces), Slither, in any other decade, would have been a tossaway comedy, if it’d even been made at all. A goofy, road chase movie photographed by one of the great cinematographers of the 60’s and 70’s? That’s weird. Can you imagine Roger Deakins or Janusz Kaminski shooting Due Date?
After finding myself deliriously entertained by Slither, I’ve sought out other bleak comedies from the 1970’s. The obscure Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins starring Alan Arkin (and Sally Kellerman again) as an alcoholic driving instructor, for example, which also aired on TCM. If not for Turner Classic Movies, I wouldn’t have found either of these rare cinematic treats that have become part of the network’s extended definition of classic films. While I know this has been a taboo topic – the expanding “classic” umbrella of TCM – I welcome the opportunity to view worthwhile films from any generation.
In my opinion choosing the unreleased Nothing Last Forever (1984) to air as part of the TCM Underground schedule was one of the most important programming choices of the year. Just as “Oldies FM” progresses to include the likes of David Bowie and Queen, the definition of classic film must also expand. Without that extra decade of classic status bestowed upon the 70’s and 80’s, I wouldn’t have likely seen Slither nor would TCM have renewed the buzz around a 30-year-old film left to perish a death of anonymity. Where’s the justice in this world when a truly interesting film featuring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Zach Galligan, Eddie Fisher and Imogene Coca remains anonymous and unwatched? Who else is out there on that wall to make sure that doesn’t happen? We as enraged, hyperbolic viewers can only do so much. Here’s to hoping that TMC continues to air quirky, fascinating and oddball films like Slither and Nothing Lasts Forever even if they don’t fall under proper “classic” status. While I do enjoy a good Bette Davis flick (…speaking of which I wonder when Now, Voyager will run again… oh good… it airs on September 30th at 10pm ET. I was worried.) like anyone else, I also love the opportunity to discover something new, something different, something that might just become a new classic if we give it a chance.
Some nights turn out shit. It’s an inescapable law of the world. “The best laid plans of mice and men” resonates for a reason. Still, I had a feeling about last night before it even began. I hadn’t been to a show in ages, yet I was looking for reasons to stay home. Not that I had anything particular to do. Maybe laundry. Killing flies for my wife… as this is apparently how she spent her evening of solitude… with a rolled magazine and white hot rage.
The great Mr. Smalls Funhouse venue is located in an old church in the Pittsburgh hamlet of Millvale. Millvale is a sleepy little enclave, going completely dark by 8pm… except when there’s a show at Mr. Smalls… and/or when the entire planet seems to converge on the town under the name of festivities called “Millvalle Days.” Millvale Days are a three-day festival where people prone to being drunk wander the streets, eat kettle corn and listen to Skynard cover bands. Someone ultimately stumbles on the uneven pavement and requires medical attention. It’s a scene, man. And every year I seem to attend a concert at Mr. Smalls during Millvale Days.
Combine Millvale Days with a sold out concert and you’ve shaken the powder keg. The main street is blocked off, thereby rendering half of the town’s parking inaccessible. Far away side streets, shady back alleys next to dumpsters and cars on blocks and illegal parking become the primary alternatives. After circling the illogical streets of Millvale for more than twenty minutes I settled on a 1/3rd legal parking spot, a spot that was far more legal than at least a dozen other parking jobs I’d already passed. I calculated the odds of a police person having enough time to rip tickets for the more egregious offenders before hitting the secondary offenders before the end of the show. I felt good about my chances.
So. Echo and the Bunnymen. I arrived just in time to grab a DogfishHead 60 Minute IPA and sidle up in a spot toward the rear center of the venue. Don’t get trapped under the new balcony, by the way, Mr. Smalls attendees. Echo opened with “Crocodiles” — the title track from their debut record. This introduced a block of songs that an average listener probably didn’t recognize. The earliest and the latest tracks — speaking of which, apparently Echo released a record last year. Who knew? And if you knew, why didn’t you tell me? Anyway. These were the tracks for the fans, tracks made us all anticipate the anthemic moments that were still yet to come. As much as I enjoy these early Echo tracks, they’re not the huge crowdpleasers. They’re not the tracks that incite spontaneous sing-a-longs and fuck yeah fist pumps. They’re welcome headnodders.
Ian McCulloch’s voice rang true as he hovered stoically at the center of the stage. A little more gravelly and aged, a weathered gate worthy of his 56 years. After shaking the rust, he sounded shockingly similar to the recorded tracks that by now feel etched into the stone tablets of our minds. But it wasn’t McCulloch that ultimately brought the crowd fully into the fold. Will Sergeant’s instantly recognizable guitar riffs catapulted the sold-out throng to life during the first moments of “Rescue” and then later when Echo launched into that string of mega hits, beginning first with “Seven Seas.”
McCulloch rarely opened up the proceedings for levity. He remained the angsty twenty-something raging against the dawn, a rare treat for fans of classic bands that have long since put aside the angst for a more age-appropriate level of placidity. He stood at the front of the stage, always in sunglasses and often cloaked by the shadows of the rear-lighting. He’d sing a block of songs before pausing to introduce another, his Liverpudlian accent and microphone reverb rendering all such words unintelligible.
For what reason has Echo and the Bunnymen fallen into relative anonymity? This is the question that began rattling around in my brain. They’re often compared to a band like The Psychedelic Furs. Post-rock. Jangly guitars. Brooding frontmen. Is it because the Furs contributed a song to the Pretty in Pink soundtrack? Their legacy endures because of the synesthesia nostalgia associated with Molly Ringwold and Ducky? If you type “Pretty in Pink” into Google, it will suggest an autofill of “Pretty in Pink song” above the autofill for just the name of the movie. In my mind, Echo looms large over the 1980’s. Am I wrong? Have I been misled? If Duran Duran and The Cure are like the A-list of sometimes brooding, influential post-punk bands of the era, Echo feels like an A-/B+. Though I came around to Echo shortly after their peak, I vividly recall a time as recent as the late 90’s where everyone who knew music knew Echo and the Bunnymen.
When Echo announced this show at Mr. Smalls, I hopped online, day one, and bought a ticket. I figured this would be a hot ticket, a much ado about something in Millvale on September 17th. After all, when the hell had Echo last played Pittsburgh? Not during the 13 on-and-off years I’ve lived here.
A college kid that did some housepainting for me over a couple of days this summer really knew indie music. We engaged in many conversations. He asked about any upcoming shows I had on my docket. I mentioned Delta Spirit. I then added, with much enthusiasm, that I’d snagged a ticket to see Echo and the Bunnymen! Cool, right? Echo and the f’ing Bunnymen!
He stared at me blankly. The same guy who’d browsed my record collection, calling other 80’s-born records with admiration. Though we listened to the exact same music, followed the same modern bands, he had no idea about the Bunnymen. I never blame anyone for not knowing a band. Unlike some maniacal music fans, I do not take offense when someone’s frame of reference does not overlap my own. I was just confused. I knew… well, I thought I knew that Echo and the Bunnymen still resonated. You can’t turn on more than 20 minutes of college radio without hearing the influence of Echo and the Bunnymen laced throughout that amorphous genre known as “indie-rock.”
It’s time to start a public service movement. Introduce someone you love, someone you want to grow as a human, to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Porcupine or perhaps Ocean Rain. These are the gateway drugs. Once they proclaim their affection, keep going back to their debut, Crocodiles. Standing in Mr. Smalls on Thursday, seeing this mass of sold-out humanity moved once again by these songs reminded me just how essential Echo remains. Spread the word, Echo never really went anywhere; they just don’t remind anyone of Andrew McCarthy’s bitchin’ hair.
Lucky for me these epiphanies occurred during the show. Appreciation. Admiration for a band continuing on despite waning popularity due to time and distance. Remember when I said that some nights turn out to be kinda shit? Well, I skipped out of Smalls, on a nice post-show buzz, hopped it my car and headed home only to find out that the city of Pittsburgh closed the southbound tunnel. After 80 minutes of stop-and-go traffic around the damn mountain, I finally arrived home. Carnivals and closed tunnels. Semi-legal parking and ambient Skynard covers. A 4-hour round trip for 90 minutes of Echo.
So worth it.
photo by Justin Gill. This image pretty much sums up Ian McCulloch.
I’ve never seen such a bizarre and bountiful collection of facial hair at one show. Is odd or distinctive facial hair the new midlife crisis? I saw Rollie Fingerses, Magnum, P.I.s, Johnny Fevers, Goose Gossages. I saw beards of all widths, girths and ineptness. I saw handlebars and fu manchus, braids and mutton chops. Instead of documenting the show I felt compelled to document the litany of notable facial coifs. A truly notable assemblage. Hence, the noting.
I will save this picture on the off chance that one day I can build my DREAM house and find this architect and this decorator and tell them to make me a dining room like this. I think it's one of the first formal dining rooms I've ever really liked.