All posts by jdp

The Raven: 31 Days of Horror

the raven 31 days of horror

31+ Days of Horror. 33 Horror Movies. 33 Reviews. Hooptober Challenges and Bonus Tasks.
View my 2017 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watch Pile Shame-a-thon Statement here.

Nature Shame:
Long overdue for a rewatch Shame.

Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist:
Decade: 1930’s
Pre-1970’s

 


 

#9. The Raven (1935)

the raven 1935 posterYou could transcribe, pretty much verbatim, the introduction to my prior #31DaysofHorror review about The Black Cat (1934) and place it right here for The Raven (1935).

Let’s go on a tangent instead. Tangents are often more interesting anyway.

I always meant to make a triple feature of this, Roger Corman’s The Raven (1963) and James McTeigue’s The Raven (2012) starring John Cusack. So wildly different in tone and form and yet all equally disinterested in adaptation. Instead of considering how they treat the material, you could study the ways in which they just don’t bother.

I’ve been guilty of judging films based on their adaptive muscle, but in many ways this falls back on lazy criticism. It’s a worthwhile exercise to throw shade on poor adaptation — but not adaptations that want nothing to do with adaptations to begin with.

Turning Poe’s poem into a full-length cinematic property approaches the definition of insanity. Marketing shorthand dictates that Poe has been a successful cinematic commodity, and therefore more Poe must be produced to make the dollars — but only a small segment of the population legitimately cares whether the film uses the original text. There’s a reason that three “adaptations” of The Raven exist and none of them approach the material earnestly.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
    While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
            Only this and nothing more.”

 

the raven 1935

The Story

David Boehm’s screenplay merges bits of Poe’s “The Raven” with “The Pit and the Pendulum” to spin a story about an eccentric millionaire surgeon Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi) whose obsession with Edgar Allan Poe has turned him into a deranged torture-happy psychopath. I should clarify. The story contains a taxidermed raven and features a pendulum. Director Lew Landers populates his screen with familiar Poe imagery, but never actually attempts anything beyond face value association.

the raven bela lugosi

After Vollin saves a girl who had been injured in a car accident, he falls madly in love with her. When she rebukes his advances (she is engaged to be married after all), he makes associations with Poe’s “Lenore” and slips further into his Poe mania. He invites the girl, her father and her fiancé to his humble abode with the nefarious intentions of murdering them with his collection of torture devices.

I considered Karloff’s performance in The Black Cat to be one of the best of his career. In that film he plays a villain of quiet and calculating cruelty, yet the performance never lacked eccentricity. While I admire his work as Frankenstein’s monster and the Mummy, the prosthetics handicapped his performance. Watch The Black Cat or the Val Lewton-produced Body Snatchers (1945) and you can see Karloff’s full arsenal of talents and subtlety.

the raven 1935

Lugosi, on the other hand, lacked, shall we say, similar nuance. He never learned to mask his thick accent and therefore always found himself reduced to a narrow collection of put-upons and Balkan misfits. Dracula stands as the monument of his career. Restraint benefitted his characters. When a director managed to corral his enthusiasm for showy performance, Lugosi gave gold. And in this instance, Landers starved Lugosi until it was high time to commence scenery chewing.

In The Raven Karloff again finds himself hidden behind grotesque prosthetics (the fake eyeball is especially unnerving), and Lugosi benefits by slipping into the trousers of the brilliant but sociopathic doctor. Here he’s allowed to underplay Villon’s madness until it all comes pouring out during the film’s wild and eccentric ending. In a bit of a role reversal, Karloff becomes the put-upon assistant and Lugosi the proper, regal villain.

the raven boris karloff
The makeup effects on Karloff after the mad Doctor Lugosi has his way with him.

Landers competently handles the material he’s given, but contemporary reviews proved unkind.

From the New York Times on July 5th, 1935: “If The Raven is the best that Universal can do with one of the greatest horror story writers of all time, then it had better toss away the other two books in its library and stick to the pulpies for plot material.”

And this was not an isolated criticism. Most everyone it seemed still believed that studios should attempt to adapt Edgar Allan Poe. As has been proven time and time again, adapting Poe’s stories — which almost wholly belong to the realm of psychological terror — proves problematic. How does one convey internal terror in a commercially-viable film?

Let me answer that. One doesn’t. One borrows bits and bites and plays fan service. A black cat wandering. The shadow of a raven. Haunting echoes. Reciting a poignant line hither and thither. The palette holds only so many shades of black and grey.

Final Thoughts:

The Raven entertains by virtue of Lugosi’s potent performance. Landers presents the mad doctor’s torture devices statically and perhaps in the vein of a low-budget adventure serial, but his grasp of light and shadow make up for a lack of inventiveness with the camera. Despite a prolific career, Landers never emerged from B-film purgatory.

It’s always entertainment when Karloff and Lugosi get to share the screen as equals. The Raven works, not because it has any inclination towards adapting Poe, but because it doesn’t bother and lets Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff fill in the gaps.

30Hz Movie Rating:

 


Availability:  

the bela lugost collection universal

The Raven (1935) is available on the Universal Bela Lugosi Franchise Collection. The set also features Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Black Cat, The Invisible Ray, and Black Friday.


amazon-buy-button

 

 

 

.

2017 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watchpile Shame-a-thon

#1. Caltiki The Immortal Monster (1959) / #2. The Devil Doll (1936) / #3. The Velvet Vampire (1971) / #4. Mill of the Stone Women (1960) / #5. The Initiation (1984) / #6. Poltergeist (1982) / #7. Night of the Lepus (1972) / #8. The Black Cat (1934) / #9. The Raven (1935)

 

The Black Cat: 31 Days of Horror

the black cat 31 days of horror

31+ Days of Horror. 33 Horror Movies. 33 Reviews. Hooptober Challenges and Bonus Tasks.
View my 2017 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watch Pile Shame-a-thon Statement here.

Nature Shame:
Long overdue for a rewatch shame.

Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist:
Decade: 1930’s
Pre-1970’s

 


 

#8. The Black Cat (1934)

the black cat 31 days of horrorThere’s a limitation to the kind of horror films I can watch while the wife goes to sleep. Silent are great. Gothic are good. Likewise for old Universals. “The bad” involve lots of screaming, slashing, and general gore.

Trust me when I say you don’t want your wife waking up and seeing eyeball stabbings on the television. She will not “just go to sleep” and she will not abide.

So when I was scanning some acceptable options to fulfill some #31DaysOfHorror requirements, I landed on the Universal Bela Lugosi Collection because it was there and likely contained few examples sonic protuberances and few eyeball stabbings.

I last watched The Black Cat when I wrote a term paper on the inability to properly translate Edgar Allan Poe to film during my freshman year at Emory University. To clarify, I suggested that the only way to properly translate Poe was through silent cinema. I cited Jean Epstein’s La chute de la maison Usher from 1928 as the pinnacle of cinematic Poe.

La chute de la maison Usher (1928)
A still from Epstein’s La chute de la maison Usher (1928)

I wish I still had a copy of that essay. I bet I could learn a thing or two from the obsessive research of 19-year-old me. Alas, I can merely recall fondly the dozens of hours I sat up watching every cinematic adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe. They were many. Few stood out as honest representatives of the text. The short list contained not The Black Cat.

The Story

“Based” on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat, Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 The Black Cat concerns the scheming machinations between two psychologically scarred World War I veterans, Werdegast and Poelzig, played respectively by Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

the black cat 1934

Here’s the maniacal backstory: Poelzig betrayed 10,000 of his men. He then built his gothic, shadowy mansion of excess over their mass grave. Werdegast, one of the battle’s survivors, has returned to the scene of the crime after 15 years of imprisonment to seek his revenge. It turns out that Poelzig also stole away Werdegast’s wife and daughter during his prison sentence, further fanning the flames of Werdegast’s fury. And then an innocent couple, mere vacationers, gets caught up as pawns in the duo’s sick and twisted bloodsport.

Ulmer’s direction embraces the supernatural and impressionistic elements of the palatial house itself as a main character in the drama. The elongated staircases, the madness contained within the visual bleakness of glass and cold steel. In many ways, the film reminded me of a reverse negative of the original German impressionists. Where there would have been shadow there was stark white. The collision of these dark themes and Poelzig’s vapid minimalism creates an imbalance in the viewer and a purgatorial mise en scene where lost souls congregate, one step away from hell itself.

Unless I’m utterly mistaken, the connection to Poe’s short story “The Black Cat” happens in the metaphorical connection between Poe’s black cat (that he walls up in the basement) and the 10,000 dead soldiers upon which Poelzig has built his house. The cat represents the human conscience, the regret that cannot be suffocated by time or tide or walls or floorboards.

The Black Cat (1934)

Meanwhile Ulmer relies on genre conventions to make the oddly weighty metaphor palatable for mass consumption. He presents Karloff’s Poelzig through the already established “mad scientist” trope. There’s a mute and cro-magnon man-servant. The innocent couple trapped in a situation beyond their control — which trades on the spooky house blueprint established in films such as The Old Dark House (1932), The Cat and the Canary (1929), etc.

Karloff, per his usual, turns in a terrific performance, but it’s the purposeful and restrained Lugosi that most surprises. As the two old warriors dance around each other, it almost feels as if The Black Cat is the most Universal horror of all the Universal horrors. Two masters of the genre facing off without makeup, without capes or monster trickery, within a house built of chiaroscuro and latent evil.

Audio/Visual notes:

The version included on the Lugosi collection could use some TLC. It’s hazy and without sharp contrast. It’s perfectly reasonable for a lesser Universal shocker, but The Black Cat deserves better. It deserves “monster” treatment. Far lesser films have been given a deluxe revitalization just because the title contained the name “Frankenstein.”

Final Thoughts:

Whether you view The Black Cat with an eye toward genre or an eye toward the symbolic placement of World War I and the failure of humanity there’s something for everyone in the family! It’s only when the appreciation of the two schools come together into a melange of respect and kitschy thrills that you’ll mine The Black Cat for all it’s worth. It’s not a successful Poe translation, but it is effective at using Poe’s text as an inspiration for something completely other.

30Hz Movie Rating:

 


Availability:  

the bela lugost collection universal

The Black Cat (1934) is available on the Universal Bela Lugosi Franchise Collection. The set also features Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Raven, The Invisible Ray, and Black Friday.


amazon-buy-button

 

 

 

.

2017 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watchpile Shame-a-thon

#1. Caltiki The Immortal Monster (1959) / #2. The Devil Doll (1936) / #3. The Velvet Vampire (1971) / #4. Mill of the Stone Women (1960) / #5. The Initiation (1984) / #6. Poltergeist (1982) / #7. Night of the Lepus (1972) / #8. The Black Cat (1934)

 

2016 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watchpile Shame-a-thon

#1. Vampyros Lesbos / #2. A Chinese Ghost Story / #3. The Haunting of Morella / #4. Delirium (1972) / #5. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin / #6. She-Wolf of London / #7. Son of Frankenstein / #8. Killerfish / #9. The Bride of Re-Animator / #10. A Bay of Blood / #11. The Seventh Victim / #12. The Fly (1958) / #13. The Fly (1986) / #14. Deep Red / #15. Dracula’s Daughter / #16. Day of the Animals / #17. The Unknown / #18. Kuroneko / #19. Komodo / #20. Tremors / #21. Tremors 2 / #22. A Nightmare on Elm Street / #23. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge / #24. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors / #25. Tenebrae / #26. Salem’s Lot / #27. Veerana / #28. House of Wax / #29. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage / #30. Dead and Buried / #31 Ghost and Mr. Chicken

Night of the Lepus: 31 Days of Horror

night of the lepus 31 days of horror

31+ Days of Horror. 33 Horror Movies. 33 Reviews. Hooptober Challenges and Bonus Tasks.
View my 2017 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watch Pile Shame-a-thon Statement here.

Nature Shame:
Moldy, Unseen DVR’d TCM programming

Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist:
Decade: 1970’s

 


 

#7. Night of the Lepus

night of the lepus posterNight of the Lepus has a reputation, so when I viewed my DVR’d broadcast from TCM and witnessed a Ben Mankiewicz introduction that included the phrase “one of the most effective horror films of the period,” I paused.

Was I watching the movie I thought I was watching?

It only took a few minutes to realize that Ben was overselling his feature presentation.

Rest assured… Night of the Lepus contains every advertised ounce of unintentional humor. I tried to take it seriously. I tried to abide the Chewbacca “rabbit” arms reaching out to slice a victim’s jugular. I tried to accept that 3/4 of the film’s runtime seems to be occupied with slow-mo rabbit leaping.

I tried… but in the end, you know what? It’s better just to give in, make the wrong turn at Albuquerque and embrace the terrible movie on its own terms.

night of the lepus title

The Story

Bunny rabbits have taken over a small Arizona town after residents eliminated their natural predator — the coyote. Rancher Cole (Rory Calhoun) approaches a couple of college smartypants of rectifying the problem without the use of poison. College president Elgin (Deforest Kelley) enlists researchers named Roy (Stuart Whitman) and Gerry (Janet Leigh) to come up with a solution.

night of the lepus

They begin experimenting with hormones intended to disrupt the rabbits’ hyperactive breeding cycle. They inject a birth-defect serum into a test group, but oooops, the researchers’ daughter falls in love with one of the injected animals and switches him into the test group so she can keep him as a pet. This is why we can’t have nice things, kids.

The rabbit, of course, escapes and commands a scourge of bloody terror across the southwest. If these chupacabras are Night of the Lepus‘ Godzilla, then this 8-year-old girl is atomic radiation. Anyway, Rory Calhoun running all over Arizona pumping hot lead into these cow-sized rabbits placed him approximately one half step away from full-on Elmer Fuddness.

And how much better would Night of the Lepus have been with Elmer Fudd leading the charge? But I digress.

hunting wabbits

The humans in the film become window dressing. They’re wallpaper, the cogs necessary to spout exposition and move the narrative forward. The star of Night of the Lepus? Slow-motion rabbits galloping through scale models of towns and the countrysides. Rabbit paws taking swipes at screaming humans.

night of the lepus

And best of all, rabbits just chillin’ in a grocery store turned diner, waiting for a slice of pie and drinking coffee but god forbid they order anything with real substance so the waitstaff can actually earn a goddamn living.

night of the lepus

 

 

Audio/Visual notes:

The fuzzier the better. That’s my motto regarding 1972 monstrous rabbit movies.

Final Thoughts:

Best viewed in .gifs and stills, Night of the Lepus leaps off the screen as less than the sum of its individual clips. I paused scenes to see how the rapidly cut images fit together and what kind of absurdity could be revealed. (The below .gif does a great job of simulating that experience.)

Rabbit attack paws and countryside frolics make for good laughs, but the nature-gone-wild/evils-of-meddling-with-mother-nature storyline offers little reward. Night of the Lepus qualifies for the I’ll-watch-it-drunk video store banner, but just barely. And don’t get me started on the way the film resolves its stampeding rabbit issue.

…wait for it….

It’s hare-brained to say the least.

night of the lepus gif

30Hz Movie Rating:

 


Availability:  

Night of the Lepus has been released by Warner Archive, presumably to fuel the Interwebs’ requirement of bloodthirsty rabbit .gifs.

night of the lepus warner archive
amazon-buy-button

 

 

 

.

2017 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watchpile Shame-a-thon

#1. Caltiki The Immortal Monster (1959) / #2. The Devil Doll (1936) / #3. The Velvet Vampire (1971) / #4. Mill of the Stone Women (1960) / #5. The Initiation (1984) / #6. Poltergeist (1982) / #7. Night of the Lepus (1972)

 

2016 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watchpile Shame-a-thon

#1. Vampyros Lesbos / #2. A Chinese Ghost Story / #3. The Haunting of Morella / #4. Delirium (1972) / #5. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin / #6. She-Wolf of London / #7. Son of Frankenstein / #8. Killerfish / #9. The Bride of Re-Animator / #10. A Bay of Blood / #11. The Seventh Victim / #12. The Fly (1958) / #13. The Fly (1986) / #14. Deep Red / #15. Dracula’s Daughter / #16. Day of the Animals / #17. The Unknown / #18. Kuroneko / #19. Komodo / #20. Tremors / #21. Tremors 2 / #22. A Nightmare on Elm Street / #23. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge / #24. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors / #25. Tenebrae / #26. Salem’s Lot / #27. Veerana / #28. House of Wax / #29. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage / #30. Dead and Buried / #31 Ghost and Mr. Chicken

Poltergeist: 31 Days of Horror

poltergeist 31 days of horror

31+ Days of Horror. 33 Horror Movies. 33 Reviews. Hooptober Challenges and Bonus Tasks.
View my 2017 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watch Pile Shame-a-thon Statement here.

Nature Shame:
25+ year overdue rewatch

Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist:
Decade: 1980’s
Tobe Hooper

 


 

#6. Poltergeist

 

poltergeist posterOne major component of Cinema Shame that often gets overlooked in the drive to right unwatched wrongs is the joy of rediscovering movies you thought you remembered or understood. I’m not necessarily talking about my Godfather III guffaw from earlier this year (which was an egregious oversight), but rather the movies you actually have seen but just forgotten.

Let’s do some simple math. I’m pretty sure this was covered in Pre-Calc.

Time + tide = erosion. (Time + tide) x omnipresent imagery = erasure. My memories of Poltergeist had been boiled down to a few select images. The girl in front of the television (poster artwork). Also, the clown. Some latent memories of the Spielbergian nature of the production remained. Boisterous adventure scoring and pre-teen thrills.

That’s Poltergeist in a nutshell, right? Silly scares and a girl becoming too attached to her Saturday morning cartoons, which in 1982 was, what, Scooby-Doo, Richie Rich, The Smurfs, and Laverne and Shirley in the Army? Why I recall the latter show is anyone’s guess.

Poltergeist 31 days of horror
The horrors of a girl who can’t find a clicker to watch her Saturday morning cartoons.

The Story

I only remembered the first third of Poltergeist and conveniently overwrote the rest of the film with my own prime time TV edit. I’ll break it down in terms you can understand. After watching the film this past Saturday night, my eyes started darting to every creak and thump. I wasn’t consciously jumpy, but Poltergeist clearly affected my subconscious.

In short, I was pretty wrong about all things Poltergeist — except the Jerry Goldsmith score, which wants to let you know you’re watching a goddamn exciting film, okay? OKAY? (It didn’t help that the mixing on the Blu-ray foregrounds the score, but maybe I’ll get back to that later.)

A young girl (Heather O’Rourke) begins talking to the television, and her parents, Diane and Steve (JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson) think she’s being a cute, eccentric whippersnapper. So she’s taken up talking to the spirits of the dead across an ethereal plane. Everyone’s got to have a hobby. During the first spiritual breach, the girl disappears into the television and becomes trapped by the malignant spirits beyond. Steve and Diane call in a team of paranormal experts to find their little girl.

Tobe Hooper proves mastery over pacing and high concept. Poltergeist could have easily been series of flatulent jump scares and fallen back on cheap haunted house tricks to spook an audience. The story demands these things, after all. What he does instead is abide the jump scares and haunted house tropes in order to craft a film that forces the view to identify with parental anxiety.

The trees flying through the window, cantankerous clowns, spectral hands reaching forth from the television — these things are required to put the audience in the fear register. We’re all numb to these types of scares by now, but in order to place the viewer in the position of uncertainty, Hooper allows for anything to happen. The evil — while initially on broadcast through the television — can eventually come from anywhere.

It’s not these “horror beats” that create tension — it’s the breaths in between. It’s the moments when Diane and Steve sit in silence and worry about what might come next, worry if they’re going to see their daughter again. In many respects, this film isn’t about the haunted house at all. It’s about the daily horrors of parenting. The decisions they have to make, the regular fear that comes along with watching children grow up and becoming their own people and making their own choices.

Of course, it’s also about the soulless existence of suburban living and modern technology as anesthesia, but all this ties back into the choices made by adults to protect their family from the potentially scary world.

poltergiest 31 days of horror

An early scene depicts Steve and Diane smoking weed, escaping for a moment to their own retreat. A child, of course, invades this privacy and makes the moment about them. Parenting is a surrender of the self, which is of course what ultimately happens when Diane and Steve argue about which one of them will breach the plane in order to attempt a rescue of Carol Anne.

That’s Poltergeist — not a silly thing with ghost hands and crazy clowns.

Audio/Visual notes:

The Blu-ray looks great — I noticed a very nice, natural grain with clarity and contrast throughout — but the mixing is all over the board. I had a hard time hearing characters whispering, but a moment later I’d would get blown off my seat by a swell of Goldsmith score. When the tree branch came crashing through the window, my cat (who is well used to boisterous moviewatching by now) jumped off his furniture and sprinted upstairs. After that I kept a finger on my receiver’s volume controls at all times. It sounds great, though, so maybe we should just rattle the windows and scare the cat and be done with it.

Final Thoughts:

I found the difference between my memory and the reality of the film striking. Maybe I just wasn’t old enough to appreciate the true nature of the horror in the film. As a kid, the haunted house stuff (especially the clown) seemed silly — and those images stuck with me. Not JoBeth Williams (who is excellent in this film, by the way) plunging into the unknown to rescue her daughter or Craig T. Nelson sitting by himself at the kitchen table trying to put the pieces of his family back together. It’s the rare pleasure — a scary movie that pulls you into the human drama with fantastic performances.

Zelda Rubinstein as Tangina — the heroine of this here picture.

One final thought. Can I just say how much I love Zelda Rubinstein? Between Tangina in Poltergeist and Madam Serena in Teen Witch, she’s my favorite 80’s character actor of the moment.

30Hz Movie Rating:

 


Availability:  

Poltergeist is available everywhere because it’s Poltergeist. Your only danger is picking up the 2015 version instead.

poltergeist blu-ray
amazon-buy-button

 

 

 

.

2017 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watchpile Shame-a-thon

#1. Caltiki The Immortal Monster (1959) / #2. The Devil Doll (1936) / #3. The Velvet Vampire (1971) / #4. Mill of the Stone Women (1960) / #5. The Initiation (1984) / #6. Poltergeist (1982)

 

2016 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watchpile Shame-a-thon

#1. Vampyros Lesbos / #2. A Chinese Ghost Story / #3. The Haunting of Morella / #4. Delirium (1972) / #5. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin / #6. She-Wolf of London / #7. Son of Frankenstein / #8. Killerfish / #9. The Bride of Re-Animator / #10. A Bay of Blood / #11. The Seventh Victim / #12. The Fly (1958) / #13. The Fly (1986) / #14. Deep Red / #15. Dracula’s Daughter / #16. Day of the Animals / #17. The Unknown / #18. Kuroneko / #19. Komodo / #20. Tremors / #21. Tremors 2 / #22. A Nightmare on Elm Street / #23. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge / #24. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors / #25. Tenebrae / #26. Salem’s Lot / #27. Veerana / #28. House of Wax / #29. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage / #30. Dead and Buried / #31 Ghost and Mr. Chicken

The Initiation: 31 Days of Horror

the initiation 31 days of horror

31+ Days of Horror. 33 Horror Movies. 33 Reviews. Hooptober Challenges and Bonus Tasks.
View my 2017 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watch Pile Shame-a-thon Statement here.

Nature Shame:
Unwatched Arrow Films Blu-ray

Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist:
Decade: 1980’s

 


 

#5. The Initiation

the initiation 31 days of horror

It’s about time! I was worried I’d just ceased to be discriminating.

The Initiation was a blind buy based on the Arrow Films pedigree, but mostly the Daphne Zuniga-ness and in that last respect I was not disappointed. Daphne’s big screen debut satisfies with enough Zuniga for two. But maybe I’ve said too much.

I’ve been down on 1980’s slashers lately so in some respects I back-pocketed that malaise in order to follow through on this Watchpile Shame-a-thon entry. It just seems that they’re all beginning to run together. Not that I don’t enjoy them on some basic level… but I tend to forget everything about them almost instantaneously.

The only recent new-watch 80’s slasher that impressed me was House on Sorority Row. So let that be the bar in that it also happens to share that pledge-themed DNA.

the initiation 1984 31 days of horror

The Story

Kelly (Daphne) suffers from nightmares in which a strange man is burning to death in her childhood home and the stress of her sorority initiation has exacerbated her condition. In an odd, parallel storyline that’s meant to inform our intuition about the identity of the slasher, a bunch of convicts escape from a mental institution. Kelly meanwhile pitches a a term paper idea to her psych TA (James Read aka Murph on Remington Steele) about her nightmares, childhood amnesia, etc.

As part of her initiation, Kelly is forced to steal the keys to her father’s big-ass department store so they can complete the bizarre sorority ritual. This involves somehow scaring the four pledges witless. If I’m being honest the head sorority babe didn’t really think this through. And, as they do, things go wrong and people die when college kids start fornicating and generally being dicks in a huge abandoned department store.

the initation vera miles
Clu Gulager and Vera Miles slumming it in slasherland.

Owing to the fact that producers canned the original director because he was taking too long to film a cheap slasher film, The Initiation bears the burden of feeling both like a TV movie and an arty giallo. Unfortunately its far more of the former and less of the latter. Within the same scene, you’ll get a nifty tracking shot, a few dutch angles and a heap of static two-shots.

On top of this schizophrenia, The Initiation serves up Vera Miles and Clu Gulagher as Kelly’s bourgeois parents. Kudos to Vera for sticking it out through shooting even though she only signed on because she’d been so impressed by Peter Crane (the original director). By the time she arrived for her two days of on-set shooting, Crane had already been fired. That said, if I didn’t know she was Vera Miles, I’d have just thought she stumbled in as a Murder, She Wrote extra.

Once the slashing starts it unfolds in a rather predictable pattern. The static and uninspired camerawork negates much of the tension. The Initiation just doesn’t have any trademark moments to separate it from the rest of the slasher pack. No inventive kills and while the blood flows freely, most of it takes place off camera. The Initiation subscribes to the low-budget theory of showering a problem with blood to make up for the lack of on-screen effects work… like someone’s standing just off-camera with a CostCo-sized ketchup bottle.

the initiation 1984

Audio/Visual notes:

For a cheapy slasher shot in 28 days, The Initiation looks quite good on the Arrow Blu with a healthy color palette and grain. Certain pieces such as misty flashbacks and on-location night scenes, however, appear very grainy. Otherwise everything looks and sounds good.

Final Thoughts:

Let’s not mistake this for a newly-discovered lost masterpiece. It’s a serviceable slasher film with an interesting twist — a twist so surprising that it feels like screenwriting hail mary. I’m not sure the film earns the twist, but it’s plausible enough that you’ll stop to consider it for a few minutes before dismissal.

Daphne Zuniga fan(s) and 80’s slasher aficionados will find this a perfectly passable way to spend 90 minutes, but this cheapie won’t leave much of an impression after its over.

30Hz Movie Rating:

 


Availability:  

The Arrow Films Blu-ray for The Initiation (1984) can be purchased from any respectable media retailer near you! And by that I mean that Amazon has it. So you’re good.

the initiation arrow blu-ray
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2017 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watchpile Shame-a-thon

#1. Caltiki The Immortal Monster (1959) / #2. The Devil Doll (1936) / #3. The Velvet Vampire (1971) / #4. Mill of the Stone Women (1960) / #5. The Initiation (1984)

 

2016 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watchpile Shame-a-thon

#1. Vampyros Lesbos / #2. A Chinese Ghost Story / #3. The Haunting of Morella / #4. Delirium (1972) / #5. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin / #6. She-Wolf of London / #7. Son of Frankenstein / #8. Killerfish / #9. The Bride of Re-Animator / #10. A Bay of Blood / #11. The Seventh Victim / #12. The Fly (1958) / #13. The Fly (1986) / #14. Deep Red / #15. Dracula’s Daughter / #16. Day of the Animals / #17. The Unknown / #18. Kuroneko / #19. Komodo / #20. Tremors / #21. Tremors 2 / #22. A Nightmare on Elm Street / #23. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge / #24. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors / #25. Tenebrae / #26. Salem’s Lot / #27. Veerana / #28. House of Wax / #29. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage / #30. Dead and Buried / #31 Ghost and Mr. Chicken