Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1980’s
Midnight just chimed. Halloween has arrived. It’s high time I start phoning in some more of these #Hooptober reviews. Every year, the final handful of movies get half-assed treatments; I see no reason to dispense with tradition.
Let’s get the pleasantries out of the way. No. I hadn’t seen Christine. Now I have. I’d throw it in the proper Cinema Shame category, but I’d never really had the drive to see it.
Get it? Drive? Good. I knew you were bright readers.
Awkward and unpopular teenager Arnie Cunningham happens upon a car rotting away in the backyard of some old coot. He proclaims it to be the car of his dreams. After a bit of haggling, Archie walks away with a unique fixer-upper opportunity. Arnie gets a cool new car, the hot girl and a side of vehicular homicide.
John Carpenter spins Christine into a fun, no-nonsense kind of thriller. Nothing especially deep or innovative within the rampaging car genre. What he does, however, is imbue that “57 Fury” with an on-screen personality that eclipses the other characters in the film.
Carpenter has always dealt lovingly with his films’ music — and here he uses 1950’s rock and roll to embellish this pile of metal and bolts into something with a bit of soul.
Christine dwells on notions of friendship, taking a look at enablers and those that watch on, powerless to rescue someone from their self-destructive behavior. Arnie’s former best friend Dennis finds himself bed-ridden throughout Arnie’s transformation. Meanwhile, it’s Christine that fuels his fire and grows jealous of his woman. When Dennis finally emerges from the hospital, Arnie’s a shell of himself. In order to save his friend, Dennis must destroy the car.
One could look at the film from the perspective of depression — Arnie’s growing isolation and blindness to the legitimate source of his pain. Anyone who suggests Christine as the source of the trouble, gets pushed out; they do not support his false perception.
Final Christine Thoughts:
Christine looks great. John Carpenter films usually do. The Master of Horror fetishizes that hard body so that the viewer may also taste the gear-head affection. It’s essential that the audience see the car as an animate being with wants and jealousies of its own.
I’ve never read Stephen King’s book, but what makes Christine effective cinema looks, smells and talks like Carpenter.
30Hz Movie Rating:
Once a Twilight Time rarity on Blu-ray, Christine is now widely available for all to own at a bargain-basement back catalog price.
Nature of Shame: Revisiting on old favorite on a brand new Arrow Films Blu-ray box set.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1980’s
From The Old Dark House, let’s move on to just plain old House, the horror comedy that mingles PTSD and George Wendt. While we’re on the topic of house-based horror movies, I wonder if you could fulfill and entire Hooptober Challenge list with only movies containing “House” in the title. Hausu, House of Sorority Row, Last House on the Left, House of Wax, , House II, House 3, House 4, Road House, Animal House, etc.
Take a moment to look at the word “house.” Don’t you think it starts to look a little strange? I looked up the origins, just for a little bit of learning this morning and came up with this:
Old English hus “dwelling, shelter, building designed to be used as a residence,” from Proto-Germanic *husan (source also of Old Norse, Old Frisian hus, Dutch huis, German Haus), of unknown origin, perhaps connected to the root of hide (v.) [OED]. In Gothic only in gudhus “temple,” literally “god-house;” the usual word for “house” in Gothic being according to OED razn.
It’s no surprise that the Germans had a hand in this.
Troubled author Roger Cobb (William Katt) misplaced his son and as a result of his separation from his wife, moved into the family house in which his aunt committed suicide.
He’s determined to finish the book about his time in Vietnam, but unsettling nightmares about his time in the war and his potentially sociopathic commanding officer (Richard Moll) deter progress. Soon the house itself attempts to expunge its new inhabitant. Cobb attempts to convey suspicions about the house to his next door neighbor Harold (George Wendt). Instead of assisting, Harold begins a peeping-tom suicide watch.
House remains an oddity in the horror genre — a goofy, schlocky horror film that simultaneously entertains a rather serious conversation about post-traumatic stress disorder. If you remove the creature effects (that owe a deep debt to Evil Dead and perhaps in turn influenced how Sam Raimi approached Evil Dead 2) and the light-hearted interaction between Cobb and Harold, House becomes a psychological thriller about the Vietnam War.
You have to peel back a few layers, but it’s there — even though the film’s limited budget (and William Katt’s hair) undermines the gravitas of the war-era flashbacks. So what is House exactly? Without more space and a greater study of the film’s specific eccentricities, we’ll call it a kitchen sink horror film of ideas and inspirations that works more often than it doesn’t even though it shouldn’t. Follow?
With that in mind, House‘s lasting value remains the “things” that go bump in the night. Backwood Films designed and fabricated seven different creature models for the film. The obese witch that Cobb chops to bits and Richard Moll’s rotting corpse of a solider leave lasting impressions but it’s the closet-bound “war demon” that deserves a special shout out. The elaborate, fully-mechanical puppet required fifteen operators/handlers. Modern CGI would have rendered this in a weekend. And it would have been dull and forgettable. Take a moment to cherish these efforts.
Directed by Steve Miner (Friday the 13th Part 2, Part 3) and produced by Sean S. Cunningham, the creator of Friday the 13th and director of Part 1, House boasts a curious pedigree and one of which I wasn’t even aware until this rewatch. House manages are few moments of legitimate suspense as Cobb dares to discover what might lie behind Door #3.
Final House Thoughts:
Still effective, still funny, House’s scattershot brand of horror succeeds because it embraces the audience experience. A little bit of horror, a little bit of humor, and a little bit of something to ground the film in real world trauma.
It won’t hold up under the critical eye of someone looking for flaws, but that’s not our concern. Don’t we all just want to have some fun with our 80’s haunted house flicks? House is probably a three-star film, but I hold a special place in my heart for movies that dare to give me a Victorian mansion filled with oozy, drippy, practical-effects creatures from another dimension.
30Hz Movie Rating:
#20. House II: The Second Story (1986)
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1980’s Sequels
First of all, love the punnage, House II. Bravo.
Miner and Cunningham abandoned House. Ethan Wiley and Fred Dekker snapped it up. If you’re a horror fan, there’s a good a chance you were familiar with the names Miner and Cunningham; I doubt, however, that Wiley and Dekker ring many immediate bells. You’re excused.
Fred Dekker actually had a nice little career in the offing at this point in 1986. He’d had hand in the screenplay for House (1985) and wrote and directed the fantastic Night of the Creeps (1986). He added The Monster Squad (1987) to his resume a year later. His films tended to earn a nice critical reception, but flop at the box office.
The House II filmmakerslooked at House and said, “We’ll make that look like a Merchant Ivory melodrama when we’re done here. Also, dollars to donuts, Indiana Jones is gonna rip off this crystal skull bit.”
I’ll tell you, but you won’t believe me.
Jesse (Soul Man‘s Arye Gross) and his girlfriend Kate (Lar Park Lincoln — real name!) move into an old mansion that had been in his family for generations. His parents were murdered there; you know how that whole childhood nostalgia thing goes. As a kind of housewarming party, Jesse’s friend Charlie arrives with his wife Amy Yasbeck for a sleepover.
Jesse finds a picture with his great-great grandfather holding a crystal skull thing and he decides for some reason that the skull must be buried with him. So they dig him up. After “Gramps” returns to life and tries to kill them, they all become buddies. Just two crazy friends and their redneck cowboy. Why this never made the leap to TV sitcom, I’ll never understand.
The boys drink and carouse and tell stories and Gramps explains that the family house was actually built with Aztec stones that somehow, with the help of the skull, certain rooms create a portal across space and time. Gramps then makes Jesse and Charlie promise to protect the skull from the forces of evil that would try to steal it.
So here’s your inciting incident. I’ll just lay it out plainly so not to confuse anyone.
At an impromptu Halloween party, a barbarian guy steals the skull, which is just hanging out on a pedestal at the party, while Jesse fends off a drunk ex-girlfriend, meets a baby pterodactyl and a worm-dog thing, and his current girlfriend runs off with Bill Maher in a jealous rage over the ex’s party presence. Obviously the guys keep the pterodactyl and the worm-dog thing as pets. Obvious. No concern over the cross-dimension consequences.
This ushers in the film’s most inspired sequence where Bill (John Ratzenberger) arrives to inspect the old house’s wiring and introduces himself (with business cards!) as an “electrician / part-time adventurer” and proceeds to lead Jesse and Charlie through the inter-dimensional portal to retrieve the skull and rescue a would-be virgin sacrifice. I cannot stress this enough. John Ratzenberger as a time-traveling spacetime adventurer should have been a 12-movie franchise.
And yada yada yada, they get the skull back and Jesse fights an undead gunslinger named Slim Reeser and saves the day.
Final House II Thoughts:
This movie doesn’t give two $&^#s about anything, and I can admire that about a movie. Two guys got drunk on tequila and wrote this thing on expired Bed, Bath & Beyond coupons.
30Hz Movie Rating:
Don’t settle for the stateside offering of merely House and House II when you can have all four House films by ordering Arrow Films’ House: The Collection. On the other hand it’s a bit rare now, so you should probably just go ahead and order the US edition, House/House II: Two Stories. And upon further review, it appears that that is also rather hard to get. So. Here’s the newly available House and House II single movie editions.
Nature of Shame: No shame. Just a brilliant new restoration on the big screen at the Hollywood Theater — Dormont, PA.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1930’s
99% of all movies merely exist. They’re created to make money. They play in theaters. And then they disappear. Sometimes people remember them. Sometimes they don’t. There’s no sense of divine intervention or immaculate conception; they come about as the result of a screenwriter sitting at his desk wondering what someone might want to see.
And then there’s James Whale’s The Old Dark House. The Old Dark House doesn’t give a damn.
At face value, The Old Dark House descended from “the wayward travelers stranded in a spooky house” boilerplate. One might easily mistake it for any of a dozen other films where doors creak, lightning crashes and a damsel leaps into the arms of her rock-solid man-hero.
We’ll skip ahead to the part where the wayward travelers (Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart) learn that their host, Horace Femm, a man with twitchy, cavernous eyes, is on the run from the law, and his overbearing, bible-thumping, disapproving sister Rebecca Femm believes all modern humans are condemned to rot in hell. Oh, and then there’s Boris Karloff’s Morgan, the alcoholic mute butler with a streak of sociopathy. You apparently couldn’t even get good help in 1932.
While it’s true that The Old Dark House is filled with long shadows, billowy drapes and mysterious voices, the film differentiates itself because screenwriters R.C. Sherriff and Benn Levy populated the film with properly bizarre and often untethered moments. You’ll never look at a bowl of potatoes the same way again.
Credit owed to Universal’s Carl Laemmle. Laemmle fancied himself a lover of film, a champion of the artist’s vision. Uncle Carl admired Whale’s and Levy’s Waterloo Bridge (1931) and brought them together again to work on an adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s Benighted, a novel about post-World War I disillusionment. Sherriff came on to add that touch of comedy to the script.
Despite garnering mostly popular reviews, The Old Dark House fared poorly at the American box office. According to the booklet accompanying the Kino Lorber DVD, poor word of mouth sunk the film after its initial weekend. Rialto Theater in New York City pulled The Old Dark House only ten days into its initial three-week run.
Disappeared from the public conscience, the film maintained a critical reputation as a stunning example of the gothic style of early Universal horror. After Universal lost the rights to the story in 1957, William Castle remade the film in 1963. The original became a forgotten commodity and potentially a lost film. Whale’s friend, director Curtis Harrington (Queen of Blood), went on a quest in 1968 to assure the film’s survival. He discovered a print in the Universal Studios vault and persuaded the George Eastman House to finance a new print and a restoration of the nearly destroyed first reel.
Even though we can still enjoy the perverse pleasures The Old Dark House (in a newly and beautifully restored Blu-ray from Cohen Media to boot), it saddens me as a lover of classic film that something so singular very nearly disappeared forever — despite being the product of a revered filmmaker such as James Whale. What other treasures have slipped through the cracks from directors we never had the pleasure of knowing? What other films debuted decades ahead of their time only to be met with public confusion and disinterest? These are no new epiphanies; certain films just rekindle old standard film-lover woes.
Final Old Dark House Thoughts:
Top to bottom, The Old Dark House wriggles beneath under your skin — not in that lingering gonna-haunt-your-dreams way. You’ll be thinking about The Old Dark House for days after viewing, whether its your first or your fourth. It’s all the little things that add up to something unforgettable.
The old woman dressed as an old man because Whale couldn’t find an old man worthy of playing a frail character of 100+. #HaveAPotato. Gloria Stuart making shadow puppets as if she had merely found some downtime on set. Melvyn Douglas taking time out to woo Lillian Bond in the garage while chaos ensues inside the house. The ornate and shadowy staircase and bannister. Boris Karloff’s hulking and mischievous servant, falling off the wagon and glaring through broken windows. I could come up with 100 reasons why The Old Dark House is worth your time, but then what would be left for you to discover? Or discover all over again?
30Hz Movie Rating:
Buy this brand new Blu-ray immediately. The film will never look better and this is an essential film in any self-respective classic horror lover’s collection. Check that. It’s an essential in any self-respecting film lover’s collection.
Nature of Shame: Shame for wanting to watch it, maybe.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1980’s
Sometimes it’s okay to be fashionably late to the party. Maybe you were avoiding someone. Maybe you just needed to make a short appearance before heading home to binge The Great British Baking Show. Maybe it was a sushi-making party and goddamn you’re not eating any homemade sushi, but you wouldn’t want to offend anyone.
Let’s consider the worst case scenario. You misunderstand the invitation, show up a day late. Your host greets you in his sweatpants and Slippery Rock University hoodie and invites you in for leftover sushi while watching some west coast NBA action that doesn’t feature the Golden State Warriors. Sincerely invites you in. Not that obligatory invitation. He seems genuinely interested in your company.
That’s Spellcaster. A 1983 premise filmed in 1988 and released (finally) in 1992.
The fictional music video channel Rock Television (R-TV) has put on a contest whereby seven lucky finalists get to join booze-soaked pop superstar Cassandra Castle (Bunty Bailey, made famous as the girl in A-Ha’s “Take On Me” music video) in an old Italian castle for the weekend and compete for a $1million cash prize. All they have to do is find the $1million dollar check.
Downside: R-TV has no plans to give them any money and the castle is owned by Satan.
Upside: Satan is played by Adam Ant, which is an inspired bit of MTV-era casting… if director Rafal Zielinski had any clue what to do with this gift.
Spellcaster aims to latch onto a fleeting zeitgeist at the intersection of the slasher-crazed 1980’s and the music video generation. With the contest hosted by real-life famous Los Angeles DJ/VJ Richard Blade, the movie aims for a measure of authenticity. Aims. It fails as a slasher (with a few exceptions), though the premise has been giftwrapped, and it fails as a winking extension of the music-video era.
Even though the film professes self-awareness, it never actually embraces the meta-fantastical nature of the production nor the music that should become the core of the film. Murder and rock make delicious bedfellows when done with a little bit of competency.
When I saw Charles Band’s name as executive producer in the opening credits, I probably should have questioned my decision making. Band, you may recall, has been responsible for some of the most legendary trash of the 1970’s and 1980’s including Laserblast, Troll and Ghoulies. Band has 273 production credits as of this morning; he’ll no doubt add ten more before afternoon tea.
Band had no interest in nurturing the film’s musical aspirations — the part of Spellcaster that would have required some, you know, actual filmmaking talent. Instead it errs on the side of cheap slasher. With the exception of a few inventive kills, Zielinski fails to build any tension. It’s not like he had any tools at his disposal. Gothic castle. Mysterious count. Plenty of atmosphere. A killer chair.
Ahh, yes. The killer chair. If you’ve actually heard of Spellcaster, you’ve likely heard of the murderous chair that begets the film’s only good sequence. And it’s an inspired slasher setpiece with some really nice practical effects. Spellcaster dispatches its victims with a measure of creativity — yet the space between the murders lacks any personality. The characters are one-dimensional and/or annoying and/or anonymous. Only Bunty Bailey’s pop damsel develops any personality with her time on screen.
Spellcaster squanders so many ideas that its hard to credit the filmmakers for even having them in the first place. A movie about rock music — featuring Richard Blade and Adam Ant! — with no music. None. The reality-TV contest for the million dollars could have been rather inventive for 1988. Yet, R-TV sent one host and one camera and they don’t even film the contest, just Richard Blade doing intro bits. And the film’s most egregious offense by far is filming in a gothic castle and failing to create any unique sense of place or tension through isolation.
Final Spellcaster Thoughts:
But I didn’t turn the thing off. Why? Spellcaster plays like cotton candy. An attractive cast, fun makeup effects, and a brisk delivery. Plus the film withholds Adam Ant (to its own detriment) until the final moments of the film (and you’ve got to stay to see Adam Ant, who proved to be a terrific screen presence in the underappreciated Slam Dance). Of course, in the end, the film does nothing with Ant because if there’s anything that Spellcaster does well it’s waste inspiration.
Nature of Shame: Unwatched Mondo Macabro Blu
I’d never seen a film by Jose Ramon Larraz.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1970’s
Country of origin: UK
#15. Symptoms (1974)
Preconceptions can be damning. Especially, I think, when it comes to horror filmmakers. For example, I toss around the term “schlock” too cavalierly, and I’m quite sure most people misunderstand the affection I have for films falling under this umbrella.
After the Cinema Shame podcast I just released about Friday the 13th, I noticed that I used the terms “schlock” and “trash” to describe a certain genre of European filmmakers that indulge their baser instincts, mingling sex and bloodletting as if the two were inseparable parts of the same whole. These are not the correct usages of the terms, but I’ve come to use them both as shorthand.
Somewhere along the way “schlock” and “trash” became more prominent in my own lexicon. Shame on me. Words have meanings. Irony and certain twists of phrase are understood by those familiar with our tastes — not casual conversationalists.
Maybe a review of Jose Ramon Larraz’s brilliant Symptoms isn’t the place for soul searching about the way we present and interpret film criticism. Then again, I had prejudged Larraz based on the way other people used those very same terms to describe his work. It’s a commentary on how easy it is to misappropriate these blank and banal verbal shortcuts and how dangerous they can be when used unconsciously.
in my defense, however, I’d read plenty of discussion that superficially linked José Ramón Larraz with Jesus Franco, and while I hold great affection for a few of Franco’s films, a great auteur Franco was not. I made the shortsighted assessment that I did not need another “Jesus Franco” in my life, and therefore, Larraz waited on the sidelines until I finally uncorked this beautiful Mondo Macabro Blu-ray.
A young woman, Anne, is invited by Helen (Angela Pleasance) to stay at her English country mansion. She encounters a repulsive male-gaze creeper outside the estate and the increasingly off-kilter and fragile disposition of her host. Any further narrative detail would overburden Symptoms‘ efficient slow-burn efficacy and betray the final revelation.
Much to my surprise (and counter to Larraz’s well-documented reputation), Symptoms‘ pacing belongs to the realm of gothic horror. The film most obviously recalls Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), but further scrutiny reveals flavors of Hitchcock. A heaping tablespoon of Psycho (1960) and a dash of Rebecca (1940). One particular scene might even rekindle memories of The Innocents (1961).
Mood and tone dominate the film. Suspense lies in the anticipation, the constant sense that something — you don’t know what — will divert the film’s narrative at any moment. Larraz patiently invokes multiple sources of voyeurism, and John Scott’s score perfectly complements the camera’s study of the voyeurs’ uneasy objects of obsession.
The primary object, Helen (Donald Pleasance’s daughter, by the way) graces the screen with a porcelain countenance undermined by a tremor of madness. Despite her frail, vulnerable beauty, the viewer comprehends something terrifying within. Liken her to Norman Bates, Anthony Perkins’ boyish everyman. Norman differs because he projects his crimes onto another and that act of projection ameliorates the transgression behind the placid exterior. In the role Angela Pleasance is mesmerizing.
As an uncertain testament to the artistic value of the film, the British film board submitted Symptoms as the UK’s official Cannes entry in 1974. Produced in England, but directed by the Catalonian Larraz and funded by the Belgian Jean Dupuis, the international flavor of the production may have made it an unusual choice. (Fun fact: Smurf money paid for Symptoms. Jean Dupuis was heir to the Éditions Dupuis S.A empire — the Belgian publisher responsible for European comics such as The Smurfs and Gaston Lagaffe.)
Final Symptoms Thoughts:
Back in 2010, the BFI placed Symptoms on its short list for most wanted missing British films. Long unavailable on anything but a fuzzy VHS tape, the discovery of a new print in 2014 set in motion the events that brought this Mondo Macabro Blu-ray (and a Region B/2 BFI release) to fruition and hopefully a modern re-evaluation among the great films of 1970’s horror.
The flawless restoration work that appears here would never betray Symptom‘s longstanding status as a so-called “lost film.” José Ramón Larraz’s film not only deserves mention in the same breadth as Polanski’s Repulsion, but it might just be the superior film. Lingering and unsettling psychological terror characterizes Larraz’s masterpiece. “Schlock” this is not.
30Hz Movie Rating:
I might require another viewing to unpack this movie, but in the meantime, you’d be well Smurfed to pick up Mondo Macabro‘s pristine Blu-ray release.