BAD PREGNANCIES, HOMICIDAL BABIES
and SUBTERRANEAN LUNATICS
john b. cribbs
Where the internet intersects film, you will find horror movies the subject of discussion. The Pink Smoke is no different: John Cribbs has annually written about his marathon horror film viewing sessions. Normally, it's a month of horror film in October. This year, he's waited until springtime to settle in to watching dozens of blood-soaked, lunatic-centric filcks - whatever, it doesn't necessarily make sense to present this in April, but he's a not robot or a bureaucrat, so get off his back, grandpa.
This year's selections are divided up thematically; with Part I casting his two evil eyes on films concerning homidical children and works from the direst of decades for horror cinema, the 1990's. Part II takes a look at Bad Pregnancies, Homicidal Babies and Subterranean Lunatics!.
and KILLER BABIES
With my wife being pregnant
and all I thought it'd be devious of me to include some baby-related horror
movies into this year's rotation (and read her the Ray Bradbury classic "The
Small Assassin.") Rosemary's Baby and It's Alive were too obvious,
but I still wanted to find movies representing all three stages of pregnancy:
being knocked up by the devil, luring strange men to your apartment to murder
them and drink their blood, and raising a 21-year-old retarded man who wears
diapers and sleeps in a regular-sized crib. These movies fit the bill
BEYOND THE DOOR
ovidio g. assonitis & robert barrett, 1975
Obsession, The Devil Within Her, Who Are You?.)
I like to think that I'm
really not a snob when it comes to Euro-exploitation imitations of big American
horror films from the 70's and 80's. For example, I like Seytan, the
Turkish Exorcist, better than the original: it's interesting to see what
a cover version of a famous film takes from its inspiration and what it adds to
the mix. Sometimes (not often) it's just legitimately better than the template.
But of all the Exorcist clones - Naked Exorcism, Mario Bava's
Lisa and the Devil, Alberto De Martino's The Antichrist - this is
one of the less inspired. It starts off promisingly enough, with no less than
Satan providing opening narration as one of his bamboozled disciples drives a
white Jaguar off a California cliff. Luckily the guy had already performed some
sort of naked ritual which causes Miss Bliss from the original incarnation of
"Saved by the Bell" (I guess more famously known as Hayley Mills' sister Juliet)
to become pregnant with a hellspawn. She starts becoming less the doting
housewife to her pretentious artist-husband, more abusive towards her weird,
spoiled kids and finally locks herself in her bedroom to get in some quality
mid-air hovering, head rotating, acne sprouting, profanity spouting and bile
spewing. Now where have I seen all that before?
Although she gives a good
performance, Mills' pregnant/possession scenes are insanely boring and pretty
much kill the movie. To be fair she doesn't have Jason Miller and Max von Sydow
(or William Friedkin) there to help make things interesting. There wasn't much
going on up to that point either, and only two earlier scenes really stand out.
In the first one, the two kids (one of whom owns multiple copies of Love
Story by Erich Segal for a reason not really explained) are terrorized in
their room by floating objects and a shifting floor; the effects and use of
different camera lenses employed here would have been helpful in making the
later bedroom scenes less boring. The other decent if useless scene has Mills'
husband walking around confused about what's happening to his wife when he's
accosted by street musicians who follow him around incessantly until he runs
away from them. Again this is not quite explained, but I would think having a
bunch of freaky street musicians following you around town would get to be a
little ominous after a while. Right?
alain robak, 1990
(a.k.a. The Evil Within.)
Emmanuelle Escourrou plays
Yanka. Yanka is a carnival moll. When an ancient, parasitic evil hiding inside a
leopard transfers itself into her unborn fetus, she sets off on her own
turbulent journey of what can best be described as a very difficult pregnancy.
Specifically, her unborn child demands fresh blood and plenty of it. This film
was the highlight of this year's marathon - it's just my flavor. Borrowing
elements from Henenlotter and Andrzej Zulawski's Possession, with a
production that reminded me aesthetically of Michele Soavi's Cemetery
Man, it's just got the right mix of humor and bodily horror. My wife has
been handling her pregnancy like a champ: she has the typical aches and
anxieties, but she never complains or resorts to the kind of unreasonable
behavior that pregnant women in movies and sitcoms are often portrayed as
enacting. She also hasn't tried to kill anyone and drink their blood (that I
know of) but I'll bet she feels like it all the time.
Though dubbed and kind of weird looking, the gap-toothed Escourrou really carries the movie with a powerhouse performance as she
converses with her sentient fetus/parasite (in scenes reminiscent of the
Brian/Aylmer relationship from Brain Damage) and goes from tormented
victim to unencumbered mutilator. Great set design and location shooting help
give the film a classy look considering it's a movie about a homicidal demon
living inside a pregnant woman. I don't have much more to say about it: the
movie really speaks for itself, and it's the one entry this year I'd recommend
to anybody who likes this sort of thing so go check it out. Baby Blood
came out in 1990 but wasn't released in the US until the genuises at Anchor Bay
put it on dvd in 2006, so it's sort of a buried treasure that might have
inspired horror directors from the 90's to heighten the bar if it had received
proper distribution back in the day. A missed opportunity there. Interesting
fact: director Alain Roback provided the voice of the creature in the original
French language, credited under the name "Roger Placenta." After watching the
movie, I found out a sequel, Lady Blood, was released last year. I think
that's awesome: a sequel made 18 years later with the same actress? I can't wait
to see it.
ted post, 1973
After watching this one
again for the first time in years I actually decided to do a much longer review
- COMING SOON!
BENEATH THE SURFACE
Let me tell you about this
comic book villain named Vermin. A geneticist working for Baron Zemo, he was
transformed during an experiment gone bad into a full-sized, feral rat-like
creature with short fur all over his body and blazing red eyes. Haunting the
pages of Captain America and Spectacular Spiderman, he would drag
people into the sewers and eat them. When I was a kid, he scared the bejeezus
out of me (for more on Vermin, consult your local library!) So movies featuring
any form of cannibalistic humanoid underground dweller are likely to give me the
willies, as such creatures can only compound the already unpleasant experience
of crawling around in a dank, unsanitary dark tunnel. Recent releases like
Catacombs and Midnight Meat Train have continued the tradition of
the horror film where normal folks are spirited away in the tunnels beneath
large cities, but the ones I watched this year are probably the Citizen
Kanes of the renegade underground cannibal killer genre...
gary sherman, 1972
(a.k.a. Death Line.)
Mind the doors!* I’ve
been trying to sneak this one into the marathon for the last three years, but
for some reason it never made the final lineup until now. At the same time that
Walter Matthau was trying to thwart Robert Shaw's takeover of a subway train in
New York, Donald Pleasance was across the pond trying to stop a deranged tube
dweller from terrorizing the London underground. I mention this because the
tunnel troll in this flick looks a lot like the undercover cop from The
Taking of Pelham 123, the one with the tweed sports coat and long hair who
Matthau mistakenly calls "miss." This guy's face is a little more grotesque:
skin's a little more flaky, syphilitic lesions a little redder and more full of
puss, and he survives by kidnapping train commuters and making a meal out of
them for himself and his equally appealing underground dweller-wife. I figured
all that out after replaying parts of the movie and reading some reviews: at
first I thought he snatched a young woman to impregnate her and continue his
line of Death Line cannibals, but I guess he just wants her as food? It
was a little unclear, and really kind of bothered me as I was viewing the film.
The movie does make good use of the ominous London Underground (used to
similarly eerie effect in everything from An American Werewolf in London
and 28 Days Later to the dark Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of
the Bruce-Partington Plans"...I'm sure the Daleks messed around down there too
at some point or another) but populates it with a lot of dull, cardboard
charcters it's impossible to care about with one notable exception...Donald
Pleasance as an angry alcoholic cop.
Pleasance essentially plays
a British Hoke Moseley whose personal problems and general frustration with
police procedure dominate the subplot until he finally catches up with the
killer at the end. As usual his strange performance enlivens an otherwise so-so
horror flick and watching him got me through the film, but he's really the only
highlight. British horror in general at that point (dominated by the overrated
films from Hammer Studios) seemed to have trouble getting out of the kind of
hokey monster-amas from the 50's and 60's, and this one is no different. I did
appreciate the political view of the film, that people could disappear in the
tube for years and only when it's some important politician do the authorities
actually give a shit. But that's really stretching: I liked the movie, it was
fine, but based on what I've heard it's more than a little overrated and, in my
mind, surpassed by a better retread of the same territory (move down three
reviews.) The look of the film reminded me of The Night Stalker, with
Pleasance playing the Kolchak role and the cannibal replacing Janos the vampire
(and London standing in for Vegas.)
douglas cheek, 1984
This year I finally got around to watching C.H.U.D. No particular reason except that it fit in with the "underground dweller" theme, and that I already had such a cultural awareness of the movie that there was no reason not to just finally see the damn thing. For those who aren't aware of C.H.U.D, it's not a film about the Finno-Ugric peoples who used to occupy the area that makes up present-day Finland, Estonia and Northwest Russia (who were known as the chud or the chudes.) It's about carnivoristic humanoid aboveground photographer John Heard (a C.H.A.P.), who starts to notice his homeless models are disappearing at an alarming rate. As in Raw Meat, nobody actually cares about the disappearances until a respectable citizen becomes one of the victims. Although it has the horror element of the mutated cannibals, C.H.U.D. is really more of a political thriller complete with deep-reaching government cover-up (the acronym itself turns out to be a plot twist.) Although it includes plenty of scenes of cannibalism committed by the aforementioned underground dwellers, like an effective apartment invasion where Kim Greist fights for her life against the gross, offensive, oozing, glowy-eyed terrors (or G.O.O.G.E.T.s), the movie seems much more interested in the conspiracy that created them in the first place.
Kind of odd, right? Like if Jaws was mainly about the town heads trying to keep the shark rumors quiet and the beaches open while the shark was a mere annoyance. Imagine if that movie ended with Chief Brody giving a rousing speech to the community at a town gathering, news reaches him that the shark has been killed by Quint & Hooper, then the mayor pulls a gun, takes a kid hostage and is eventually gunned down by Brody. That basically sums up the last 20 minutes of C.H.U.D. - after Greist gets out of her apartment safely, the rest of the film focuses on Heard and Daniel Stern teaming up to defeat the scheming government lackey who's been trying to cover up the secret in a thrilling shoot-out that ends with some sort of equivolent of the high-five freeze frame. But wait, what about the creatures? Are they still prowling the sewers like Vermin? Do I actually have to see Bud the C.H.U.D. to find out? (cuz it's out of print.) Truly a weird turn, especially since the monsters look pretty mean and there plenty of them to rise to the surface and terrorize the city until they're defeated by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (a positive example of what can come out of the ooze.)
ralph s. singleton, 1990
The classic Stephen King "trouble at the mill" formula, a centralized variation on his "town under siege" plot ( I guess now he's into "trouble under a dome" scenarios), gets its weirdest and best film treatment with this under-the-radar adaptation (sorry, Mangler.) Transforming King short stories into full length feature films is typically a disaster, resulting in a movie padded with useless character development (Sometimes They Come Back) or something that’s nothing like the original source material whatsoever (The Lawnmower Man.) And when it comes to King movies and the 90's all I can think of is Sleepwalkers, one of the worst horror movies of all time. Considering that, Graveyard Shift works as its own strange entity. A neglected killer rat movie, it doesn’t have the reputation of Willard, Ben and Food of the Gods (a character is shown reading the novelization of Ben in background at one point) but for what it's worth is just as good as any of them. It adds its own colorful characters like Brad Dourif as exterminator Tucker Cleveland who owns an alcoholic rat terrier. I mentioned in the Death Machine blurb that Dourif is more likely than not to serve up the most over-the-top performance in any given horror movie, but in this case that honor goes unequivocally to Stephen Macht, the lead male from Galaxina and the dad from Monster Squad** as sleazy foreman Warwick. He plays Warwick with a voice that sounds like an actor doing a bad Boston accent and an actor doing a poor Northern accent had a retarded child together who then took shouting lessons from a late-period Pacino. That sounds awful, but it's actually an enjoyably hammy portrayal of a boss so sketchy he schedules female employees for time on the “couch” the way a supervisor would assign regular working shifts.
Tensions between foreman and crew reach such heights that when they’re trapped in the underground rat-infested abyss at the end it leads to some pre-Descent primal infighting. The struggle between Warwick and workers hired to clear out the debris in the seemingly endless catacombs beneath the factory makes up more of a central conflict than the hordes of homicidal rats waiting for them down there, but there are interesting parallels to take away from the two storylines. Whereas the mill workers prove too weak, lazy, bribable or easily-dispatched to do anything about their horrible job situation, the rats unionize and fight against their oppressors, making this the most socialist of Stephen King movies. Seriously, there are labor politics in this movie. And rat politics. I'm not imagining it either: there's even a case made for rodent rights in a cruel scene of desperate rats trying to stay afloat on boards while being sprayed with a fire hose set to the Beach Boys song “Surfin Safari.” This is the sole directorial effort of Ralph S. Singleton, who was second assistant director on Death Wish, Taxi Driver and Network (remember the Beverly Cleary children's book rodent character Ralph S. Mouse? I just thought it was funny, since this is a movie about rats. Anyway...) Amusing lines like Macht's "leave the ghet-to blaster back in the ghet-to!" are put to extra use in the "Batdance"-like eponymous mash-up of dialogue that serves as the end credits song. Also, Bruce Dern gets a shout-out.
christopher smith, 2004
(a.k.a. Blame it on George Clooney.)
I was surprised to find that this 2004 horror film is apparently an unofficial update of Raw Meat. Actually considering its plot - Franka Potente being locked in the London Underground overnight and running from a deformed cannibal who lives down there - it's more like Raw Meat meets Run Lola Run meets Career Opportunities. Despite all that it's actually really good, the best find of the marathon next to Baby Blood and The Ugly. A good old nail-biting chase thriller, with Franka on her way to a party that George Clooney may or may not be attending (possibly lip-syncing in drag) when she nods off and wakes up alone. Before long she's being stalked by a truly hideous looking dude who has built his own kingdom of creepy shit down in the catacombs. Not since Stuart Gordon's Castle Freak has there been a monster/villain so realistically menacing: in one scene, Franka is trying to budge open a welded door when she looks up at a grate overheard to see that he's been watching her, mocking her by his mere observation, and that's some scary stuff, when the thing chasing you is just there. And director Christopher Smith (dude who went on to do Severance and Triangle, not the guy behind American Movie and Collapse) does a good job anticipating the audience's expectations of where the hideous guy's going to show up and what Franka can do to survive - more than anything, it's a really decent chase movie.
The difference between Raw Meat and Creep is like the difference between the original Hills Have Eyes and its 2005 remake - better makeup, but also sharper execution. What it comes down to is, which of these guys would you least prefer to put their skinless hands all over you and potentially eat you alive, the Raw Meat guy or the Creep? I'd have to say this Creep fellow, who's not only more like fuckin' Vermin but is also more resourceful and sadistic. The crew tell all kind of stories about the actor (Sean Harris, who later did a spot-on Ian Curtis in 24 Hour Party People) getting into character on set that made me happy I wasn't there. Smith also managed to get me to understand the Creep's background with a few simple visual hints and cinematic touches, something the movie also has over the often-confusing origin of the killer in Raw Meat. I think this film, although lesser-known and more recent and a little more old-fashioned in its monster-scream-run storytelling, might be the superior of the two. It represents an evolution in the British horror film in the last 20 years, one that has ultimately led to worthy titles like The Descent and The Children. Also they didn't go the obvious route and use the Radiohead song over the end credits, a good move there.
The most terrifying category of all!
john mctiernan, 1986
Not to be confused with the Marvel Comics character “Nomad,” an alternative superhero identity created by Steve Rogers after ditching the Captain America mantle that was later adapted by Jack Monroe, formerly known as the third Bucky (for more information on Nomad, check his Wikipedia page!) This is a horror movie about demons that take over human hosts and turn them into what can only be described as the kind of goofy, unscary street punks you only see in movies. Directed by a pre-Die Hard John McTiernan, who also wrote the script (his only one), the story itself is too ambitious: you’ve got biker gang thugs who are really Eskimo demons who are slowly taking over Los Angeles, there’s a backstory about a murderer who commits suicide, and the story is told in flashback as a female doctor experiences the memories of a dead anthropologist while ALSO being threatened in the present after she meets the man’s widow. I had to go back several scenes before realizing that the flashbacks of the dead man and the present experiences of the doctor were two separate things: some bad storytelling there. Besides being over-ambitious it’s also too ambiguous, nearly stretching into inaccessible late 70’s Australian horror movie territory in its inability to identify a clear source of the mounting terror. “If you’ve never been terrified by anything, you’ll be terrified by THIS!” was the film’s original tagline, but the movie is too vague about what you're supposed to be terrified of.
The part of the anthropologist is played by Pierce Brosnan with a hilariously horrible French accent. For a supposedly open-minded anthropologist, he comes off like some preppy urbanite terrified of biker gangs and chicks with tattoos. We're talking about a guy who's been threatened by death trains, live volcanoes, lawnmower men, mirrors with two faces and Ms. Doubtfire, not to mention loads of lame villains in his lame Bond adventures. But in this movie some cheesy dudes who look like rejects from the "Beat It" video scare him so much he hides under a car, with silly heartbeat sound effects added for emphasis of how much of a pussy he is. Being scared of little kids is one thing, but I think even the children of The Children could beat up most of these posers (to clarify, they're demons posing as humans...but they're also posing as a threatening biker gang.) The movie is excruciating to sit through, so much that even one or two good scenes - Mary Woronov's weird dance on top a car and a flashback/flashforward/dream/who-the-hell-knows sequence where a "nomad" approaches Brosnan on top of a building and is either thrown off by Brosnan or jumps off himself, I honestly can't remember) - are lost in a sea of boring. I could see how the mythology could work in a Body Snatchers-type scenario, but it's so head-scratchingly oblique in this film I'm frankly surprised the script ever got the green light in the first place. Without a doubt the low point of this year's marathon.
tibor takacs, 1989
When I was a kid, The Gate was one of the scariest covers of any movie at my local video store. I used to pick it up every time I went, look at the pictures on the back, read the synopsis. I finally rented it at age 9 or 10 for a "spooky sleepover" - and prayed it wasn't too late! But alas, it proved one of the great disappointments of my young life. Even at that age I wasn't buying the evil heavy metal/Lovecraft Jr. plot, the effects were cheesily-done stop motion and the direction was uninspired. In the ensuing 20 years I've had friends who swear by the movie, and although I suspect their enthusiasm is the product of some misguided loyalty to a nostalgic childhood favorite I thought maybe I'd give the movie another shot. I pussied out however, and instead decided to see I, Madman, the follow-up film from Canadian-Hungarian director Tibor Takacs that also gets props from some people I've spoken to.
Well...it's a slight improvement over Takacs' first film, but not a huge one. Like The Gate, not a whole lot of the movie makes any sense: what you've got is a scary-looking monster and a really flimsy pretext for him to run around in. The director (who didn't write the script) clearly has trouble deciding how he wants to present the film's two realities, the normal life of intense bookworm Virginia (Jenny Wright) and the slightly noirish/gialloesque world of the horror novels she's lost in. Sometimes victims in Virginia's "real" world are dolled-up like characters from the books and walk around garish sets she imagines while reading them, other times it's just the literary Freddy Kruger skulking around like he just stepped from one reality into another. The movie features stop-motion effects that don't feel like a homage the way they do in The Resurrected; they seem to exist in this movie only to connect it to the director's earlier effort (although they're better than the ones I remember in The Gate.) And once again the direction is a problem, ultimately competent but occasionally embarrassing.
Still, the atmosphere of the movie again made me think of its era with fondness. It's not quite a 90’s horror movie (it was released in ’89) but it has that same kind of look and feel. And although the character is underwritten, the monster - played by three-time Academy Award winning special effects/animation designer Randall William Cook (Q: the Winged Serpent, Ghostbusters, the Lord of the Rings movies) - is incredibly creepy, the make-up (by Cook) expertly done.
Jenny Wright, like Leilani Sarelle, more or less disappeared after the early 90's despite having appeared in notable films like Near Dark, The Chocolate War and Brett Leonard's The Lawnmower Man, and is apparently staging a comeback next year (at least, according to imdb.) My theory is that, after Forrest Gump was released, she kept meeting casting directors who thought they were seeing Robin Wright (whose character's name was "Jenny"), and after awhile she got tired of it and just quit altogether. I guess the fact that she was never the best looking, or most talented, actress might also have had something to do with it. That might seem harsh, but her performance in this one is particularly sub-par and doesn't do the movie any favors. She often seems more apprehensive than scared, and seems to feel superior to the material despite starring in the film.
Originally called Hardcover: the trailer on the dvd uses that title. Takacs would go on to find his calling by becoming a director on "Red Shoe Diaries."
jamie blanks, 2007
With a script written by Everett De Roche, the Ben Hecht of Australian horror cinema (Patrick, Roadgames, Long Weekend, Razorback and the classic Aussie don't-fuck-with-Rachel-Ward-and-her-kids kidnapping film Fortress) and direction care of urban legend Jamie Blanks, director of Valentine...and Urban Legend...I wasn't sure what to expect from this 2007 film. Possibly a post-Kevin Williamson teen horror film where the actual horror is so obscure it makes the whole thing kind of confusing and boring, starring Rebecca Gayheart? Actually no, this is a perfectly good thriller of the murderous-redneck variety, only with Australian island rednecks as opposed to the deep Southern kind. Apparently De Roche had the script sitting around for 30 years (nobody would back it because of the extreme violence) and it finally got made and distributed by the Weinsteins two years ago. The story concerns a husband & wife team who go out sailing in a tiny boat and are forced by a heavy storm to land on an island and break into a house to seek shelter. When the owners return they turn out to be off-putting bumpkins who start to devolve into the backwoods tormentors of Deliverance.
This is a different sort of situation than the unwarranted harassment by the Eden Lake killers - you kind of understand why these guys would give the couple a hard time. There's something inside all of us that sympathizes with the horrible goons who are spoken to condescendingly by city folk walking around like they're vacationing in some ironic hillbilly zoo, letting themselves into other people's homes like it's no big deal, that needing to get out of the rain justifies breaking and entering. How would one of these upper middle class people react if they came home and a bunch of dirty backwater types were chilling in the living room? Think they would be ok with that? You kind of want to see the three bears eat these yuppie Goldilockses, even though they are very unambiguously painted as remorseless killers from the beginning. But I guess it would be easier to sympathize with them if instead of beating and molesting the intruders they just called the cops. Their actions in this movie make them less likable the more they do, although their mistakes feel more like the kind of mistakes victims usually make in movies and once the husband and wife turn vengeful I kind of ended up cheering for them a little more. They're not nearly as scary as the Sawyer family, but they have a similar social structure to the Chain Saw heroes as well as the mother/sons of
Mother's Day. Not the best of this sort of movie I've seen, but certainly not the worst - and definitely a high career point for the director (he's not shooting Blanks with this one!) And really, for any given horror movie, that's what I consider a pass.
~ APRIL, 2009 ~
* Last time I was in London that had been changed to "mind the gap." Just fyi to potential Raw Meat remake writers.
** His actual son Gabriel played The Spirit in Frank Miller's unjustly despised movie.