Dir. John Carpenter
Seen it before? Only once as a teenager.
Review: Halloween fucking sucks. See you
tomorrow in hell!
What better movie to watch on Halloween than Halloween? Well, maybe porn, but that’s not what I meant. Despite John Carpenter being the closest thing I have to a favorite director, I’ve only seen it once, and that was probably 15 years ago. I don’t remember it standing out from the endless stream of Friday the 13th sequels I was mainlining at the time, but like any good teenager, I was also dumb as a fucking brick. So how does it hold up now that I’m older
and wiser? Pretty well, actually! It’s not the best of Carpenter’s films, but it’s easy to see why it’s his most popular: it just hadn’t been done before. Very few films can lay claim to birthing an entire genre; Halloween is one of them. It had antecedents in Black Christmas and even Psycho, but none were as fully formed or assured as Halloween.
The plot is brutally simple: mental patient Michael Myers escapes imprisonment and returns to his hometown, pursued by his psychiatrist Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance). Unfortunate enough to be in his path are Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her douchey friends. For no apparent reason, Michael begins murdering them one by one. The initial scenes of Laurie and her friends being stalked are magnificently shot. Carpenter filmed Halloween in glorious 2.35:1 widescreen and uses just about every square inch of the screen during the setup. The result of having stuff happening everywhere on screen is that it feels like the killer could be literally anywhere, waiting to emerge from some corner of the frame you had missed somehow. It’s wonderfully creepy. The sense of dread is amazing while it lasts, but it peters out about midway through once the killings start. What follows is a little too straightforward, but it’s at least stylishly shot. It seems predictable now, but at the time it must have been riveting. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to see Halloween when it first came out. The idea of an unstoppable killer is old hat nowadays, but back then having a villain that could not be defeated no matter what must have been terrifying.
The flood of imitators and sequels in the wake of Halloween’s success have lessened its impact somewhat. We know the formula now. We can see the puppet’s strings, so to speak. However, there’s a comfort in this familiarity, like meeting a new friend you feel like you’ve known your entire life. Halloween may no longer surprise, but it’s so focused and efficient that’s it’s practically impossible not to have a chillingly good time with it.
Tomorrow: I finally get some fucking sleep!
Dir. Masaki Kobayashi
Seen it before? Never.
Review: Kwaidan can pretty much be summed up in one sentence: Akira Kurosawa does Tales from the Crypt. I’ll try and churn out a few more sentences about it, though!
A winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival, Kwaidan is a horror anthology not quite like any other I’ve ever seen. It’s divided into four separate chapters: a man longs to return to the wife he divorced, a woodcutter survives a frozen night in the forest, a blind musician plays for a mysterious audience, and writer has trouble finishing what could be his last story. Not exactly the stuff nightmares are made of, but that’s actually part of the appeal. The film deliberately avoids sensationalism and goes instead for a more measured, surrealistic approach, feeling almost like a lush stage production at times. In fact, there are several scenes where it completely eschews realism and utilizes obviously painted backdrops. The result is surprisingly effective, making it feel like the characters are inhabiting an oil painting at times. Kwaidan gets great mileage out of its imagery, going for long stretches without dialogue and building an immense amount of atmosphere and tension.
The film’s main drawback is its anthology format. As is inevitably the case with movies of this type, some segments wind up being better than others. None are bad, but the two strongest are the second and third, giving Kwaidan a really unbalanced structure. It never feels totally uneven, though, thanks to similar pacing and atmosphere throughout all the segments. Everything feels nicely coherent, but this also means that the pacing is verrrrry deliberate throughout the whole thing. For a movie that’s almost three hours long, that’s a bit of an endurance challenge for your ass.
Kwaidan is not going to be for everyone, or even for most horror fans. It’s about as a fast-paced as a 90 year old after a glass of purple drank, honestly. If you’ve got a chunk of time to kill and an appetite for gorgeous imagery, though, it might be up your alley.
The Brood (1979)
Dir. David Cronenberg
Seen it before? No.
Review: A lot of people lament that David Cronenberg has seemingly left the horror genre behind. Watching The Brood, though, it seems almost inevitable. Save for the infamously squicky climax, the horror elements are secondary to the intense family drama that plays out.
Frank (Art Hindle) is involved in a custody dispute with his mentally ill wife Nola (Samantha Eggar) over their young daughter. His wife is under the care of Hal Raglan (an incredibly burly Oliver Reed), an unconventional psychiatrist who has developed a technique called psychoplasmics that physically externalizes patients’ internal turmoil. Some patients develop boils covering their body, others grotesque tumors (it’s never really explained how this actually helps them, but it looks cool enough that it doesn’t matter much). In Nola’s case, this results in her birthing the titular brood, a gaggle of deformed, murderous children that act out her subconscious impulses. This is all played out in a slow burn build up, where we explore Nola’s childhood and relationship with Frank. It’s well written and acted, but also surprisingly tense even before things go apeshit. Really, you could take out the horror bits and you’d still have a pretty damn good movie. But then again, there are plenty of good dramas out there, yet how many movies feature a killer dwarf beating a woman to death with a meat tenderizer? It’s the combination of strong narrative with gonzo horror elements that makes The Brood so effective and unique. I wish more films would take this approach, coming up with a great story first then twisting it to extremes. Even Cronenberg himself has moved away from this style. Maybe that’s why his more recent films feel a bit lacking, as they’ve got the drama nailed down, but are missing the horrible twists that make his early work special. I mean, Eastern Promises was good, but I kept wanting Viggo Mortensen to grow a knife out of his wang or something.
The Brood works as a character based drama, works as a psychological thriller, works as a nightmarish body horror flick. Bottom line: it just works. Recommended!
Dir. F.W. Murnau
Seen it before? Despite having a degree in film, never! A shithead is me.
Review: I’ve mentioned before that I feel awkward reviewing really well known movies. It was bad enough with An American Werewolf in London, but what can I say that hasn’t been said about a movie like Nosferatu? It’s regarded as a classic not just of horror, but of cinema in general. Trashy horror fans love it, snooty cinephiles love it, hell, even French people love it. This is some serious shit. Thankfully, the way I saw it ended up being pretty novel, not to mention seriously fucking cool, so I can prattle on about that instead!
First, though, the movie itself. Nosferatu is basically an adaptation of Dracula, only with the names changed to avoid a lawsuit (though they got sued anyway). It takes a much less romantic approach than most other adaptations, though, portraying Count
Dracula Orlok as a rat-like, almost feral predator. He’s about as sexy as Steve Buscemi after six weeks of chemotherapy. Despite the movie being almost ninety years old, it feels like a refreshing take on things after decades of mostly seductive portrayals. There’s a lot to like besides this, too. The movie admittedly suffers from some of the issues that plague silent films, like comparatively clunky editing and performances hammier than a Denny’s breakfast. The visuals more than make up for it, throwing image after iconic image at us. It’s not exactly what I would call scary anymore, but it’s still engrossing and evocative after the better part of a century.
Almost as important as the movie was how I saw it. I caught a screening of it at the Goat Farm, an arts center here in Atlanta that’s located in an abandoned Victorian industrial complex. The screening took place inside a cavernous old warehouse with a live original score performed by Felipe Barral. This is what the setup looked like from the inside:
Can you imagine a more perfect venue for a scary movie? The atmosphere was so electric and creepy that they could have shown Full House reruns and it still would have been spooky. On top of that, the score was fantastic, a mix of post rock and operatic female vocals that was alternately pounding and haunting. I really liked Nosferatu, but I honestly can’t say I’d have liked it as much as I did seeing it any other way. The whole thing was weirdly primal, like how seeing it for the first time in the twenties must have been. Special thanks to Erica Jamison for making it all happen!
Tomorrow: The Brood
The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Dir. Wes Craven
Seen it before? Large chunks here and there, but never all the way through.
Review: I’ve actually seen the majority of The People Under the Stairs a few times already. It’s always been on TV, and it’s never managed to wrest my attention away from other, more pressing matters like funny thing
It’s got a neat premise, but the execution is kind of flat and boring. It’s the type of movie I tend to forget exists unless I’m watching it. However, I read something about it recently that seemed so potentially revelatory that I had to finally sit down and watch it proper-like. You see, while on the surface it’s an average escape-from-inbred-cannibals flick, Wes Craven supposedly intended the whole thing to be one big political allegory, with the two antagonists essentially being caricatures of Ronald & Nancy Reagan. I was hoping watching the movie with this in mind would recast it in a new light for me, adding depth and meaning where I previously found none. Did it work?
The People Under the Stairs is about a young boy nicknamed Fool (Brandon Adams) who lives with his sister and cancer-stricken grandmother in a Los Angeles slum. After his family is a few days late with the rent, their landlords threaten to evict them unless they can also pay a hefty late fee. His sister’s boyfriend, Leroy (Ving Rhames in a godawful early nineties outfit), has heard rumors that the landlords are secretly rich, sitting on a stash of ancient gold coins. He suggests robbing them, thinking they’ll be an easy target. Out of options, Fool agrees to help him. Once they get into the house, though, it’s clear they’re in over their heads. It turns out that their landlords are actually a couple of crazed, incestuous fundamentalists who keep a horde of mutilated, brainwashed adolescents locked in their basement. They quickly dispatch Leroy, leaving Fool trapped in the house with them. That accounts for the first 25 minutes or so. The next hour follows this basic formula: Fool encounters the landlords. Fool manages to escape for a while. Fool encounters the landlords. Fool manages to escape for a while. Fool encounters the landlords. Fool manages to escape for a while. I claw my eyes out from boredom. There’s no creativity or style to the scenes, either; the landlords find Fool, Fool screams, the landlords scream, Fools runs away, repeat ad infinitum. What’s worse, after he eventually escapes the house (and you deserve a nutpunch if you think that’s a spoiler), he goes back in and we’re treated another twenty minutes of the same bullshit shenanigans.
It’d take a megabuttload of allegory to put an interesting shine on things, but it’s just not there. Maybe Craven was going for something subtle, but there’s subtle and then there’s imperceptible. Beyond the landlords bearing a passing resemblance to the Reagans and the fact that they’re trying to make money by exploiting poor black people, there’s nothing really political or satirical to it. Or maybe there is and I was just too bored to see it. If you want people to get a message from your movie, you have make them want to actually watch it first. See They Live for a master class lesson on this. In the end, The People Under the Stairs is the worst kind of allegorical horror: neither allegorical nor horrific.
Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer
Seen it before? No.
Review: It feels a little odd to review Vampyr, almost like I’m trying to review a fever dream. Released in 1932 to reviews bad enough to give its director a nervous breakdown, it’s gained a more favorable reception in modern times thanks to its hallucinatory atmosphere and experimental imagery. This makes for an interesting experience, but not necessarily for the best movie.
Vampyr is about a young man who gets drawn into mysterious goings-on at a remote mansion…I think. The narrative is very nontraditional, prone to going off on tangents that may or may not be purely imagined by the protagonist. Again, this gives the whole thing an unsettling, dreamlike quality, but it’s not exactly gripping as a movie. It’s also essentially a silent film. Dreyer didn’t have much experience with sound, so he shot the thing silently and then dubbed in effects and dialogue during post-production. It’s like the 1930s equivalent of post-converting a film into 3D. Thankfully, there’s enough expressionistic imagery to propel things along. Dreyer creates some really striking sequences involving nothing more than silhouettes that are both beautiful and creepy. Without a real story or characters to give it weight, though, there’s no impact to them.
I don’t want to overstate the metaphor, but Vampyr really is more like watching a dream unfold than watching a movie. It’s lovely and vivid at times, but otherwise fleeting and ephemeral. Apologies for the short review, but this one just didn’t have much of an impact on me.
Tomorrow: The People Under the Stairs
Blood Feast (1963)
Dir. Herschell Gordon Lewis
Seen it before? Never.
Review: You know that one embarrassing older relative you have? The one that moves really slowly and isn’t all there anymore? The one who gave you head cheese for Christmas? Sure, you know the one. And while it’s hard to take them seriously anymore, you still put up with them because hey, they’re family. That’s where you came from, even if they do try and force scrapple sandwiches on you sometimes. Blood Feast is that relative.
Released in 1963, Blood Feast was the first real “gore” picture. Though the effects consisted of little more than leftover cold cuts slopped with red paint, it was shocking at the time. The quality of the effects obviously hasn’t aged well, but there’s a blunt matter-of-factness about it that you don’t see much anymore. It’s still actually a little shocking, in that regard. Unfortunately, in every other regard, it’s fucking ridiculous. People who complain about torture porn should take a look at Blood Feast. Herschell Gordon Lewis had only shot softcore nudie flicks before and it seriously shows. The structure and pacing is exactly the same as porn, only with the nekkid parts replaced by stabby parts. The story is about on par with porn, too, concerning a cop’s hunt for a serial killer who’s chopping up young women in an attempt resurrect the ancient goddess Ishtar. Thankfully, the cop happens to be an Egyptology buff, as cops so often are. He’s able to piece together the clues the killer leaves behind and track him down (though it also helps that the killer is his girlfriend’s caterer). The whole thing is riddled with facepalm-inducing dialogue and Olympian leaps of logic, but I dunno, it’s all so good natured and earnest that it’s hard not to enjoy it. Even the gorey bits are gleeful in their own way, like a six year old showing you a painting he’s really proud of.
Blood Feast is not gonna be for everyone. I’d recommend staying away if you like movies that are, you know, good. If you’re interested in where where modern splatter flicks had their origins, or can appreciate a so-bad-it’s-good campfest, then you’ll probably have fun. It’s also only about an hour long, so it’s just the right length to binge drink through!
The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Dir. Dan O’Bannon
Seen it before? Once, though for some reason I had absolutely no recollection of it.
Review: Linnea Quigley’s boobs. The end.
Alright, alright. There’s more to The Return of the Living Dead than that. Originally intended as a straight follow-up to George Romero’s zombie films, it ended up falling into the hands of screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Heavy Metal) instead. O’Bannon decided he wanted to do something different with the material, resulting in a punk rock horror-comedy that’s not quite not anything before or since.
The film exists in a universe where The Night of the Living Dead was based on actual events, though the military mostly covered everything up and buried the evidence. Unfortunately, they shipped some of said evidence to a medical supply warehouse in the midwest by mistake. Two employees there accidentally unseal one of the Army drums, which contains a half-rotted corpse preserved by a strange gas. It turns out that the gas is a bioweapon that reanimates the dead, turning them into unkillable monsters who crave human brains. Initially, only a couple of corpses are infected, but our heroes manage to cock things up badly enough that the entire population of the adjacent cemetery is resurrected. Also in the cemetery is a gang of 80s punk stereotypes having an impromptu party, which includes Linnea Quigley and her aforementioned boobs. The surviving humans must band together to fend off the undead and try to call for rescue.
Spectacular mammaries aside, the setup is kinda bland. Thankfully, though, the filmmakers come up with a devious twist: Night of the Living Dead lied. In “real life”, as it were, zombies can’t be killed by a headshot…or by anything, for that matter. It’s a small change, but an effective one. No matter how hard the characters fight back, the waves of the undead keep coming. Zombies are suddenly scary again! Well, mostly scary. The zombies are also semi-intelligent this time around and the film can’t resist using this to get a few laughs (“send more paramedics!”). It strikes a nice balance, though, never devolving into outright parody and always punctuating a laugh with something equally grotesque. Also adding to things is the soundtrack, a great mix of eighties punk and deathrock that gives the proceedings an energetic, anarchic flavor. It works so well I’m surprised more movies haven’t tried something similar.
There’s not really a downside to The Return of the Living Dead. It’s scary & entertaining, with a great “fuck off” attitude. Also, boobs. Do you really need more convincing than that?
Tomorrow: Blood Feast
Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1990)
Dir. Anthony Hickox
Seen it before? Never.
Review: The mid-nineties were kind of a weird time to be a film fan. The internet was starting to find its legs, so you suddenly had this amazing resource to find new movies. However, reading about a movie on the internet and actually seeing it were two very different things back then. You generally had to rely on whatever obscure stuff your local video store stocked, which usually consisted of the R-rated version of Dead Alive and a couple of dubbed Jackie Chan movies…and that’s if you were lucky. As a result, the hunt to find a movie became almost as big a deal as actually watching it. Sometimes, the glee of finding something after months of searching would tint your perception of it. I think this was some kind of subconscious defense mechanism. I mean, who wants to find out that they’ve just spent $30 on a 6th generation VHS copy of a copy of a festering pile? No one, that’s who. Thus, shit movies would get built up into decent ones and decent ones would be built up into great ones. Such was the case with Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat, a mildly enjoyable vampire western that somehow had the reputation of being a lost classic on the level of Evil Dead 2.
The story centers on the desert town of Purgatory, where a group of vampires have taken refuge and started work on an artificial blood substitute. Not all of the residents are content with the sanguine Splenda, so to speak, instead wanting to go back to hunting humans. Thrown into the mix are an unsuspecting engineer who comes to town with his family to service the faux blood machine, a pair of dopey young campers who stumble on the town’s secret, and a bumbling descendant of legendary vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing. This is on top of the characters already populating the town: the head vampire, Count Mardulak, his Amish-looking rival, Ethan Jefferson, an inexplicably Rasta vampire sheriff, a lovable, possibly retarded redneck vampire, the token vampire chick with a heart of gold, a kindly old couple who run the local store, the dickhead jock vampire with a mysterious connection to the engineer’s wife…it’s basically an Aimee Mann song away from being Magnolia with fangs. The film does a surprisingly good job of fleshing out all of the characters and their relationships. We spend so much time with them, in fact, that the story moves like a snail on ‘ludes at times. There are occasional comic bits that liven things up some, especially after Bruce Campbell shows up as the aforementioned vampire hunter. Speaking of Campbell, the film is filled with a bunch of “oh hey, that guy!” actors, including David Carradine, M. Emmet Walsh and George “Buck” Flowers. It’s always nice to see a bunch of genre actors thrown together like this, especially when they all seem to be enjoying themselves. Sundown also has a surplus of ideas at its disposal, many of them predating more popular works by years: vampires wearing sunblock, artificial blood, a vampire civil war. Unfortunately, none of these get explored very deeply, being mostly used as window dressing.
I had wanted to see Sundown for years back when it was an impossible to get VHS tape, reading reviews on Geocities webpages that it was a hidden gem or something equally hyperbolic. Once it hit mass market DVD, however, the middling reviews put me off seeing it. The truth is somewhere in between. It’s a decent flick that didn’t deserve either the scarcity or the notoriety it got. The high concepts, good character work and sparse laughs keep things amusing, though never exceptionally so.
Tomorrow: The Return of the Living Dead