HALLOWEEN SPOOK-TACULAR!!!

october 2007

john cribbs

Despite trying to scrape up a short film project for November and get ready to move out of my house by the end of the year, my annual October horror film indulgence has been in full swing, fueled mainly by excitement over so many movies finally coming to dvd.  I forgot to rewatch Scarecrows, a 1988 bandit marines lost among the deadly cornhusks minor cult classic newly released on disc that many people champion but I remember not liking when I saw it with my brother back in the day of video players.  I couldn't get a hold of Clownhouse, the debut film from the maker of the Jeepers Creepers movies (its out-of-print status may or may not have something to do with the fact that he raped his 13-year-old male lead.)  I also couldn't track down a copy of Twitch of the Death Nerve, the best-titled horror movie of all time, or the Isabelle Adjani-Sam Neill bodily thriller Possession, a vhs bootleg of which used to pass hands between horror aficionados at my old school like a revered crinkled-up porno mag. 

Oh well there's always nextyear: despite these drawbacks and oversights I managed to soak up a number of other titles, including...

Amityville II: The Possession

It's well known that the original Amityville was considered tame even when it first came out, so those seeking more than creaking doors and cat scares have to go to the prequel, inspired by the story of the house's original slaughtered family and padded with all sorts of stuff borrowed from The Exorcist and The Shining. And that's fine, because the movie has its own secret weapon, introducing a truly terrifying presence into the haunted hause environment: burly Burt Young. You know that if shotgun-toting Burt Young in his damp, undersized tanktop isn't the thing you're supposed to be scared of, the movie's got to have something good up its sleeve.  Written by Halloween III's Tommy Lee Wallace, it's a possession film (in case that was unclear in the title) in which an evil spirit sets up shop inside the teenage son of the home's unlucky new owners.  He starts getting directions to kill through his walkman, moves to Broodtown, becomes quick to anger against equally hot-tempered daddy Young and begins paying special, intimate attention to his wholesome sister (Diane Franklin from Better Off Dead.)  In terms of icky sibling closeness, there's a scene in this film that makes everything in Flowers in the Attic seems harmlessly platonic.  If that weren't enough, the local priest (whose fellow pastor has that "constant chum" aura: I didn't look it up, but they may have been played by the gay dads from Sleepaway Camp) also finds himself weirdly attracted to Franklin's baby-cheeked minx.  The film follows a tense crazy daddy vs demonic son format until it suddenly shifts gears and languishes in a third act that rides the Exorcist train to a disappointing conclusion.

The Beast Within

Underrated film written by Tom Holland (FrightNight, Child's Play, Thinner) warns that you shouldn't let your wife be raped in the woods by a monster then pretend it never happened.  Seventeen years later, your "son" just might be experiencing more dangerous growth spurts than most teenagers.  Ronny Cox catches on too late, and before he can sing a verse of "Sunrise, Sunset" his mutating, meat-eating kid is on a murderous small town rampage.  Of all the early 80's "Teenage Werewolf"-inspired movies (Full Moon High, Teen Wolf), this one is less tongue-in-cheek and more successfully equates the pangs of adolescence (bodily changes, awkward first encounter with girl) with a supernatural metamorphosis: the expert makeup work in the transformation scene itself rivals that of An American Werewolf in London and The Howling.  And of course you can never go wrong with Cox: I just learned of a submarine movie he starred in cira-1977.  Submarine + Cox = one phallic delight!

Captivity

I've never watched "24," but I hear people hate Eliza Cuthbert on the show, so I imagine many fans were looking forward to seeing her horribly tortured for an hour and a half in this movie.  Unfortunately she's not the only one who gets tortured throughout the duration of the film.  Directed by Roland Jaffe, who has sunk down a deep sticky well since his Killing Fields days (unless you count his work on the Super Mario Brothers movie; his next film is a documentary about t.A.T.u.) and written by Larry Cohen, who has sadly gone from innovative storyteller to grouchy, out of touch hack over the last decade or so.  A re-trend of the Saw movies and the recent and equally uninspired Vacancy (the upcoming P2 seems to be vying to complete the trilogy), Captivity is a series of traps the warped madman sends his victim through, each more boring than the last.  In fact the only way this movie would be worth anything is if it was revealed that they shot it gonzo style, with hidden cameras while Cuthbert didn't know what was happening.  It gained notoriety for its supposedly controversial promotional art that managed to upset Joss Whedon for some reason, but it deserves nothing more than to be completely ignored.  The saddest thing about it is Cohen, who has made boneheaded decisions before this (like his lawsuit against Alan Moore) but never been involved with anything so utterly dismissable.  Vrooooom F!

Cube, Cube 2: Hypercube and Cube: Zero

Before the intricately laid traps of Saw, there were the spectacular snares found in the mundane labyrinths of the Cube movies.  My sister and I were talking about the original Canadian thriller and it was revealed that my girlfriend hadn't seen it, so I rented it as a goof.  No sooner had the Duditz-like hero made his way into the mysterious light that she demanded we see the next two, the futuristic Hypercube and the prequel Cube: Zero.  They were equally enjoyable (to me at least, apparently the producers consider Hypercube a washout and a majority of fans dismiss the third movie) and followed a reliable formula of a pre-credit death followed by half a dozen lab rats scurrying through hatches from one automic room to another, finding oblivion in the structure's creative defenses or at the treacherous hands of one another.  What you've typically got is a plucky female survivalist, a mentally handicapped mumbler who knows more than he's letting on, and a tough guy who turns out to be a psycho.  And of course the bumbling fat guy who gets killed around the fifty-minute mark.  The trilogy provides a comfortable reliability most Americans find in fast foot and Canucks find in...I don't know, the Mounties?  I could sit through ten more Cube installments, and perhaps even fantasize of my own delicious Cube formulas.  What would happen, say, if they put six bumbling fat guys in the Cube?

Deadly Friend

Apart from rivaling Clive Barker when it comes to lending his name to some of the most soulless and empty direct-to-video franchises, Wes Craven is known for his great horror movie ideas that fall short in the execution.  Deadly Friend is the rare example of a terrible idea that makes for a truly weird, if not masterful, movie.  Released on dvd for the first time (which is good since the vhs cuts out almost all of the gore effects), it's the story of a teenage whiz kid whose beloved robot Bee Bee that looks like Johnny Five Jr and talks like an Ewok speaking Yiddish is blown to bits by a cranky, shotgun-toting Anne Ramsey (to us 80s children, is there any other kind of Anne Ramsey?)  Bee Bee's computer chip goes into the head of brain-damaged Kristy Swanson, who becomes a super-strong female Frankenstein and takes revenge on Ramsey by destroying her head with a basketball (*spoiler alert*).  This delightfully stupid Frankenstein riff never bothers to explain how a microchip works in a human brain, but more than makes up for its lack of scientific clarification with plenty of scenes of the future Kristi Boner flinging unwary street punks twenty feet into a dumpster.  If I had seen this movie when I was eight it would have undoubtedly been placed on my nostalgic shelf along with The Monster Squad; as is, it's categorized under my goofy "late finds" with Pulse, Troll 2 and the "Fishheads" video.  Incidentally, Swanson's follow-up film was Not Quite Human: apparently, she got typed as the "teen robot" girl.

The Devil Rides Out

Hammer horror movies are the perfect thing to have on when you're doing something around the house, simply because the music cues are so reliable.  You can come in and out of the stuffy dialogue, as long as you race back to the TV screen as soon as the score swells: that means something good's happening!  This film, reputed to be one of the best Hammer productions, has Christopher Lee as Duc de Richleau, a good guy for a change, battling Charles Gray and his satanic cult.  The music got exciting just in time for starting revelations, trippy incantations, and a great scene where a character is hypnotized into strangling himself with a crucifix necklace he's wearing.  I've never been a huge fan of the Hammer library and this film suffers from the same problems as any of the studio's horror releases, but it's passable all the same.

 

Don't Torture a Duckling

Next to The Beyond, this is Fulci's undeniable masterpiece: a study in the horror a series of child murders brings upon a small village through the unspeakable acts of the killer and the misdirected retribution of the villagers.  Set in an Rossellini-esque rural southern Italian community (with an Antonioni-esque modernist house thrown in for good measure), the film takes some truly interesting twists and turns to unmask the culprit, and in the meantime paints a sinister portrait of small town mores.  Most interesting is the film's depiction of the children, onto whom the guise of innocent victims is politically tacked-on by outraged townspeople when in fact their inherent cruelty turns out to be the key motivation in their homicides.  Compared to another child-murder horror film, like Stephen King's It, Duckling is short on cheese and high gritty realism, something Fulci isn't exactly know for but here handles masterfully.  Brazilian actress Florinda Bolkan (from Investigation of a Citizen Beyond Suspicion) is transfixing and pitiful as an alleged witch who becomes a scapegoat for the murders: her death (*spoiler*) is presented in a very intentionally glamorless, non-Giallo way and is one of the best scenes Fulci ever directed.

Happy Birthday to Me

Weird 80's Slasher Flick 1.
Directed byexpert journeyman J. Lee Thompson (Cape Fear, The Guns of Navarone and several classic Bronsons including Bronson vs pimp epic Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects), this Canadian slasher is convoluted to cartoonish levels but enjoyably over the top.  Melissa Sue Anderson from "Little House on the Prairie" was involved in a car accident which resulted in brain surgery and excessive memory loss from the day of the crash.  She's now part of a popular group of assholes known as the Top Ten (little Indians?) who are being viciously killed off one at a time by someone each victim recognizes.  The flamboyant murders include death by barbell, bludgeoning, motorcycle head-grinding and, most famously, shishkebab fu (see above poster.)
Glenn Ford pops in as a psychiatrist trying to pull the secret of Anderson's accident out of her fractured skull, and the killer does to him what James Mangold did to 3:10 to Yuma.  Of all the cheesy North American killer-on-the-loose movies, this comes closest to the hypnotic obscured-sensory thrillers of Dario Argento and Thompson provides an expertly handled heaviness, especially when the freaky flashback scene is finally revealed (no baby's heads are accidentally cut off, however.)

 

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

I wanted to revisit this filmseveral years after seeing it for the first time to find out whether it's the masterpiece so many people claim or, as I remember, just ok.  It's just ok.  I'll go on record to concede that Michael Rooker is awesome and nails deadpan exchanges like "Did you really kill your mama?"  "I guess I did."  " How'd it happen?"  "I stabbed her."  "Otis said you hit her with a baseball bat."  "Otis said that?"   "Yeah."  "Well, he's mistaken."  But the film's reputed "realness" is actually a lot of pretty cheesy post-crime corpses and so-so murders.  The one scene that works, in which Henry and his disciple Otis (a creepy Tom Towles) watch footage of themselves massacring a family, feels like a wonder of expert low-budget filmmaking and an isolated hint of brilliance.  Would I cut this film more slack if the real Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole hadn't been such colossal white trash liars?  Or if John McNaughton had gone on to do anything less silly than Wild Things

 

The House on the Edge of the Park

I enjoyed the cute RuggeroDeodato cameo in Hostel II, and that's probably why I gave him another shot after not being hugely impressed by Cannibal Holocaust.  I treated myself to what must be the goofiest goddamn horror movie I've seen in my life, a movie that felt like Funny Games if it had been directed by a 12-year-old with Down's syndrome who got kicked in the head by a donkey.  David Hess, playing an unscary disco variation of his Last House on the Left character, takes a house of yuppies hostage and holds all five of them at bay with a knife.  Considering they've been collectively cheating at cards and cockteasing him and his friend up to that point, it's hard to feel any sort of sympathy for them, but Hess' impotent weirdo isn't really anyone to root for either.  The roles are reversed in what has to be one of the dumbest and least convinving twists in film history.  Infamous as one of the director of public prosecutions' picks for the list of "video nasties," the film is hopelessly dumb-minded and mean-spirited, but more than shocking (the blood looks ridiculous) it's just incredibly boring.  Goofy as his performance is, Hess himself has actually had a pretty awesome life, writing songs for Elvis and translating scripts for Fassbinder's English-speaking films. 

 

The House with Laughing Windows

I love absent, fictional artists Sutter Cane, Aristide Torchia and the presence of long-dead Legnani, whose churchwall painting of the murder of Saint Sebastian the film's protagonist is brought in to restore, is imbued in the atmosphere of the strange town, its eccentric inhabitants and the crackly voice on a tape recorder narrating what sounds like perverse dime novel prose ("My colors run hot in my veins they transcend me into darkness.")  Tonally, the film has a lot in common with Polanski's Ninth Gate, especially the trenchcoated, out-of-his-element hero who is entranced by the mysterious artist, susceptible to the oddballs he encounters, seduced by beautiful ladies, and yet responds to everything with the same sort of stoic curiosity. Directed by the underrated Pupi Avati (whose new film The Hideout sounds awesome, and features none other than Burt Young!), the film is typically grouped with the giallos but after a brutal opening has only one, non-gory murder for the next hour and twenty minutes.  Avati is much more interested in austere ambience than showy death scenes, and yet House (one of his few horror movies) is more disturbing than a number of splatter-minded Italian explotation features.

 

King of the Ants

I went into this film, a Stuart Gordon movie that's always listed in the horror section with a grisly-looking cover on the dvd, expecting some kind of ant-related horror.  Predictions: a loser finds out he has contol over ants and sends the ants to destroy those who picked on him.  Or, ants gain consciousness and take over the mind of said loser, making him go on a killing spree while consuming vast amounts of sugar in the name of ant-kind.  Or giant ants.  Something with ants.  Whereas I didn't fall for the false marketing of William Friedkin's Bug, here I was totally not expecting a movie where ants did not come into the picture at all.  In this low budget affair, a house painter who's gullible and kind of dumb falls in with local contractor Daniel Baldwin and his sidekick George Wendt (also credited as executive producer.)  They pay him to follow lawyer Ron Livington, whose life with wife Kari Wuhrer and adorable daughter the painter begins to covet.  From there the film takes bizarre and unexpected turns that make for a really unique movie.  I don't want to go too much into it, but I can honestly say it is favorably comparable to Cronenberg's History of Violence: that is to say, a better and more honest consideration one's criminal past and human tendencies to destruction.  I don't want to say it's on par with Crime and Punishment, but for what it is King is a wildly inventive, if ant-free, film.  It should also be noted that Gordon has had quite a hot streak lately: this film, Dagon, Edmund, his two excellent "Masters of Horror" entries and this year's Stuck... Makes me realize he's one of the few filmmakers to never let me down.

 

A Lizard in a Woman's Skin

A woman is having whacked-out funkydreams about her kinky, free-spirited nextdoor neighbor, including one where she stabs her to death in bed.  When the neighbor turns up stabbed to death in bed, the woman's fantasies become horrible reality.  This Fulci, Poe-like by way of an acid trip, has a good reputation and isn't nearly as wrongheaded and clotted as some of his later work, but still more than a little boring.  It coasts almost its entire running time without a solid monster, an admirable experiment that nevertheless leaves you wanting some sort of tangible fear besides hallucinatory montages.  Not that its without impressive scenes, but ones like the intense chase through the church are few are far between, giving way to long dialogues between psychoanalysts about the woman's mental state.

 

Maniac Cop

Larry Cohen has come up with a lot of ideas andwritten many scripts for television and film over the years.  Not all of them can be winners.  The Maniac Cop franchise is what it is and has a few detractors, but also a tiny little fanbase.  William Lustig, who I honestly believe would have had "Maniac" in all of his titles if it were possible, starts things off with a few grisly deaths that work towards Cohen's idea of the uniformed public servant everyone trusts with their safety turning against the public and becoming the thing to fear, a not overly-concealed exaggeration of real-life above-the-law officers.  But soon the movie goes the Terminator route, with the invincible monster tearing through everyone at the police station and running wild in public (Cohen really loves scenes featuring a murderous cop prowling a New York City parade.)  Featuring cameos from Sam Raimi and Lustig's uncle Jake LaMotta, who manages not to beat a wall and masturbate in this film.

 

The Mutilator

Weird 80's Slasher Flick 2.
I was drawn to the Mutilator by its promisingposter art a 'Saw-esque depiction of various maidens on the verge of being skewered by a nasty looking giant fish hook and a promising tagline ("By pick, by axe, by sword, bye bye")  It opens well enough: a young boy harmlessly cleaning his father's hunting rifles as a birthday present accidentally blows his mother away through the kitchen door. Years later, the psycho dad who's been established as a big game hunter preys on his son's friends using his various hunting equipment in a kind of Most Dangerous Game confined to a beachhouse and surrounding areas.  Stuck watching a crappy video version (though I'm not sure how much better a digital transfer would be), there was much eye straining on my part to see all the late night murders: it was hard to tell which, if any, of the teasingly introduced hunting weapons were actually utilized.  One thing's for sure: a decapitation scene does not rank high among decapitation scenes.

 

 

 

 

 

My Bloody Valentine

Weird 80's Slasher Flick 3. 
But not weird enough.  Quentin Tarantino allegedly calls this his favorite horror movie, but it's pretty run-of-the-mill, very hard to see what he finds so commendable about it.  Sharing the general premise with the first two Weird 80's Slasher Flicks, it involves a traumatic occurrence from the past which catches up with the devil-may-care youngsters of the present, who just happen to line themselves up for the murder's vengeful massacre.  The killer here dresses like a coal miner, complete with gas mask, pick ax and light helmet, and may be the unfortunate mental patient forced to canniablize his co-workers when they were trapped underground and left there due to everyone celebrating Valentine's Day many years ago.  The holiday itself seems completely arbitrary: instead of leaving candy in a heartshaped box, the coal-miner killer could have easily left it in a clover-shaped box and it could have been My Bloody St. Patrick's Day.  Characters aren't very well established before they're offed not an uncommon problem with most slashers, but a noticeable one here.  Another Canadian production (from the producers of Happy Birthday to Me), its title must have influenced the name of the band but I've found no direct evidence to support that.

 

Popcorn

Popcorn is a curiosity, as it was to have been a return to directing for Alan Ormsby, Bob Clark's former parter who wrote Deathdream and made Deranged (he also wrote the classic My Bodyguard and gets pelted with a pie as a zombie in Dawn of the Dead.)  For some reason he left the project and the directing duties fell to Porky's cast alum Mark Herrier. The movie stars underrated late-80s/early 90s scream queen Jill Schoelen (The Stepfather, Cutting Class, Phantom of the Opera, When a Stranger Calls Back) as the heroine and Tom "Clay Stork" Villard of One Crazy Summer as the scorched-face madman who kills people using William Castle-esque gimmicks, makes casts of their faces and wears the mask to mimic his victims (*spoiler alert*).  Villard gives an intense performance as the killer, and he joins a long line of actors I see in old movies and think "man I'd like to dig this guy up and put him in a new film" only to discover I literally would have to dig him up (he died of AIDs-related pneumonia in 1994.)  The faux monster movies were all shot by Ormsby before he left the project and though none of them are as good as Mant from Joe Dante's Matinee, they'e lovingly and expertly recreated. Beware the horrible dvd transfer!

 

Someone's Watching Me!

"SoI won't give up no I won't break down/Sooner than it seems life turns around/And I will be strong even if it all goes wrong/When I'm standing in the dark I'll still believe/Someone's watching over me."  Thank you, Hilary Duff.  Also just released on dvd is this elusive TV movie made by John Carpenter the same year he did Halloween.  I always used to see the video box for Ridley Scott's Someone to Watch Over Me and think I'd found this lost treasure at last: now I've finally seen it, Tom Berenger-free.  Low budget and unashamedly Hitchockian, it's about a psycho who drives Lauren Hutton into a frenzy watching her through her apartment's rear window.  While understandably dated, Carpenter definitely has a knowledge of sick perverts who spend their lives stalking and terrorizing vulnerable victims, and in that respect the movie's timeless, even while looking like an episode of "Night Gallery."  Adrienne Barbeau has her pre-surgical first appearance in a Carpenter film playing a character who's a lesbian for no apparent reason.

 

Stagefright (Deliria/Bloody Bird)

Michele Soavi is the last and most underrated of the giallo directors, and his lack of output since the masterpiece Dellamorte Dellamore/Cemetery Man is truly discouraging (apparently he left filmmaking to care for his ailing son and is only now starting to work in Italian television.)  His first film, co-produced by Joe D'Amato, is of the same "trapped in a " premise as his later movie The Church: this time, the victims are stuck in a locked theater with a psychotic killer wearing a giant owl mask.  It shares with Happy Birthday to Me that Halloween-style ending where the killer has gathered all the dead bodies of his victims together for a silent commune to be witnessed in horror by the Final Girl, but here it's done better than before, with the owl-headed murderer sitting creepily among the corpses while white feathers blown by a fan float beautifully onto the stage. Dreamlike and well-choregraphed, the film bears the influence of Argento but branches off into territory that's pure, emancipated Soavi.

 

Strange Invaders

Another letdown unfortunately. Invasion films are tricky, especially when it's an attempt to capture the retro feel of those early sci fi B movies.  Director Michael Laughlin started with the interesting Strange Behavior and meant this to be the second part of his "Strange Trilogy," but the film died at the box office, effectively killing the chances of a third entry.  And its failure isn't undeserved: the movie is surprisingly dead, the pacing is all wrong and not a single performance that seems to be on the same wavelength as the film.  This kind of thing is really Joe Dante territory (his cameo-regular Kenneth Tobey appears in a small part) and Michael Laughlin, who went on to co-write Town & Country with Buck Henry, plays things a little too broad.  Excellent makeup effects however, and noteworthy for being the second 80'ss tongue-in-cheek alien invasion film Louise Fletcher co-starred in, though I'd much sooner recommend Tobe Hooper's enjoyable remake of Invaders from Mars.

 

 

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