- It Follows (trailer)
- JU-ON: The Grudge (trailer)
- Real Monsters Meet Samara (Robot Chicken)
- Terrified - As a fan of horror movies, it's easy to become jaded and even desensitized to the violence and gore the genre so often revels in. Some wear such attitudes like a badge of honor, but I try not to fall into that trap, so when a movie like this Argentinian ghost flick comes along, I'm happy to report that it snuck past my defenses and actually scared me. I went into it knowing almost nothing and, truth be told, there's not a whole lot to the plot. There's a neighborhood that is experiencing some sort of haunting phenomena, and naturally some deaths attract investigators (both paranormal and police). Fortunately, writer/director Demián Rugna has crafted some supremely well executed sequences that managed to get under my skin and stay there. It's a rare movie that keeps me up at night, but this one managed (at least for a little bit).
- The Last House On The Left (trailer)
- I Spit On Your Grave (trailer)
- Jennifer's Body (trailer)
- Revenge - The rape-revenge sub-genre is interesting in that, while there's only so much you can do within the confines of what must be a pretty straightforward story, the responses and reactions and controversial takes can be wildly divergent. The same movie could be denounced as misogynist trash on the one hand, or empowering feminist anthem on the other. As a guy, I tend to find such stories unpleasant, but also important to confront and interrogate. Unfortunately, I almost always come up short on answers, which is perhaps why these movies keep getting made. For its part, this French take on the sub-genre is written and directed by a woman, Coralie Fargeat, which is certainly a differing perspective than you usually see in the sub-genre (the most famous examples of which, like Last House of the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, and Mrs. 45, are directed by men; rarely do you see one directed by a woman, though I do think Jennifer's Body is underrated).
- How the Blair Witch Project Should Have Ended (short)
- The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror VIII: Easy-Bake Coven
- Suspiria (trailer)
- The Witch in the Window - When I first saw this title, I thought of a sorta YA take on a haunted house story. I distinctly remember reading a book when I was a kid (and still a scaredy cat who couldn't watch horror movies) and it was one of those things where a bunch of spooky stuff happens but it turns out that it's a friendly ghost and everyone lives happily ever after. This movie is not that. Now, it's not entirely not not that, as it's a movie that has a surprising amount of heart. Just not any friendly ghosts. (I should note that this title thing is entirely my hangup and not the fault of the filmmakers at all and indeed, I loved the movie, so there's that too.)
- Torso - Spooked by a few gruesome murders around town, a group of teen women seek safety in a remote country villa. Naturally, the killer follows them. This movie is basically just sex and murder, and well, I guess that's effective? There's not a whole lot to it, but Martino knows his way around the camera and manages to craft some memorable sequences and visuals. I suppose there's some typically confusing Giallo nonsense plot points featuring red and black scarves (or are they bland and red scarves?!), but that's almost part of the charm of these movies.
- Blood and Black Lace (trailer)
- Deep Red (trailer)
- King in the Box (short)
- Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key - Great title or greatest title? Even amongst Giallo films, which are known for their elaborate, baroque titles, this is a doozy. A burned out writer lives on a big estate, holds bacchanalian parties where he indulges in hedonism whilst humiliating his wife. Later, when the crowds have left, he beats and rapes his wife. A real pleasant fellow. Then he's implicated in a murder and I started to fear that the movie would ask us to sympathize with him, as it's clearly heading towards a twist where it's revealed that he was framed. I won't spoil it, but there's more going on here than just that, in a typically convoluted Giallo way.
Whilst perusing Arrow's catalog, I came across a few films that I always thought would make a great theme week. In the early sixties, AIP hired Roger Corman to make some low budget quickies, and Corman proposed an adaptation of House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe. It was a phenomenal success (critically and commercially), and Corman followed it up with a series of additional Poe adaptations, thus creating what has become known as the "Poe Cycle". Not all of these films starred Vincent Price, but all of the ones I watched this weekend did, so there's the fourth them of the week.
Caveat Emptor: These particular movies are region locked to B, so unless you have a region-free BD player, they won't work on your region A player. I was able to rig something up to make it all work, but it was a bit of a pain.
- House of Usher - Philip arrives at Usher mansion looking for his love, Madeline. Unfortunately, both Madeline and her brother are suffering from your standard, run-of-the-mill family curse. Corman's first Poe adaptation has a lot going for it, starting with the source material. Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" is emblematic of everything that makes Poe special, and Corman, with the help of screenwriter Richard Matheson (of I am Legend fame), takes full advantage. In particular, he makes great use of atmosphere, with the creeky old mansion and wonderful gothic production design. Costumes and makeup are nice too, but it helps that the three major parts are well performed, led of course, by Vincent Price, looking a bit unconventional with his fabulous blonde locks and lack of facial hair.
- Shining (Fake Trailer)
- The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror V: The Shinning
- Black Sunday (trailer)
- Pit and the Pendulum - A man goes to investigate his sister's death. Her husband, the son of an infamous torturer of the Spanish Inquisition, is less than forthcoming about the circumstances surrounding her death. The second of the Poe films and probably my favorite of the weekend. It features the same great Gothic atmosphere, costumes, and production design. I particularly enjoyed the matte shots in this one (though all of these films make good use of them).
- The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror: Bad Dream House
- The Raven, read by Vincent Price
- Vincent Price Wine Cooler Commercial
- The Tomb of Ligeia - At this point, I'm beginning to wonder if watching all of these movies back to back was the best idea. It might also be that this one is not quite as good as the previous two (this was Corman's last Poe Cycle movie), but there's so much similarity between each installment that I probably should have spread these out a bit. Another Gothic tale of lost love and grief, this one seems to be just sort of going through the motions. I mean, they're good motions, and this still works reasonably well, but after watching two superior takes on similar material, this one suffers a bit.
- In the Mouth of Madness (trailer)
- Fishmen (short)
- The Call of Cthulu (trailer)
- The Haunted Palace - After six installments of the Poe Cycle, Corman tried to stray a bit from the formula and adapt an H.P. Lovecraft story, "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward". These days, Lovecraft is well known name, having influenced all manner of books, games, toys, movies, and TV shows, but at the time, Lovecraft was considered too obscure. So they grabbed one of Poe's poems with an evocative title ("The Haunted Palace") and had Vincent Price read a few lines at the end of the film and presto! A new Poe Cycle entry. But the story is still Lovecraft inspired and I believe it's the first cinematic adaptation of his work to reach the screen (even if it's marketed as Poe). Like the other entries in this post, there's a lot of Gothic imagery and great atmosphere and some similar plot elements, but the Lovecraftian bits do add some variety to the mix. It droops a little in the middle act, but the opening is great and the climax has its moments too. I was particularly taken by the cursed, eyeless people in the town, and while this doesn't have great special effects, the indirect invoking of the Old Ones is reasonably effective. After having watched three Poe adaptations, it was nice to get a little Lovecraft injected into the mix.
- Hell Fest - It's Halloween, and a bunch of teens descend upon a horror theme park to celebrate. Also in attendance is a killer dressed as one of the park's attractions, so as to blend in as part of the show. I'm sure everyone has gone to such events or at least a haunted attraction or two (though perhaps not one as elaborate as depicted here), and had the thought that a real murder could occur in plain sight because everyone would just play it off as being part of the show. No? I'm the only nutser who's had this thought? Fine then, be that way. Um, anyway, it turns out that this is actually a decent premise for a slasher film, especially since they didn't skimp out on the extras and atmosphere. The grand majority of the movie takes place in a crowded theme park filled with rambunctious teens (unlike, for example, The Funhouse, which happens after-hours in an empty park). The park itself is wide ranging, featuring tons of haunted houses and the like, similar enough to what we've probably seen ourselves, but just at a much larger scale. This provides cover for the killer and makes our protagonists question if what they're seeing is real or just part of the act, rather than immediately tipping them off (meanwhile, we in the audience know it's for real). The setting also provides for lots of jump scares and "Boo!" moments that, while technically still cheap thrills, are reasonably well executed and more importantly, organic. The characters themselves, while not completely devoid of drama, are surprisingly affable and the filmmakers wisely avoid common dysfunctional tropes. For example, our protagonists are roughly comprised of three couples... and yet there are no love triangles and no one is cheating on their partner with one of the other friends. They actually like each other! This goes a long way in a movie like this. The kills are backloaded towards the end of the movie, so they only really have to peel away one or two characters earlier, and they come up with plausible enough excuses for the separation. Plus, those are mixed in with some red-herrings, so you are at least kept on your toes. recently discussed Final Exam, but works well here). They actually do a good job with him and manage to maintain tension throughout the film. There aren't that many actual kills in the movie, but there's a couple of big gore moments that will keep horror dorks satiated while not going so overboard as to scare off the normals (but then, I'm mildly jaded when it comes to this sort of thing, so take that with a grain of salt). There's a nice little capper at the end of the movie too; it's not your typical twist (or even particularly a twist at all), and it works well. Look, fine cinema, this is not, but it's a perfectly cromulent and seasonally appropriate flick. This movie is doing really poorly at the box office, but if you're a slasher fan, you should totally check this out (and maybe even if you're not!) ***
- Driving Lessons - Halloween Deleted Scene (short)
- Horror Movie Daycare (short)
- Goosebumps (trailer)
- The House with a Clock in Its Walls - Recently orphaned ten-year-old Lewis goes to live with his uncle in a creepy old house. It turns out that magic is real, his uncle is a Warlock, their neighbor is a witch, and there's a mysterious ticking sound emanating from the house. Hijinks ensue. This movie has an interesting pedigree. Most notably, it's a PG rated kids movie directed by Eli Roth, who has also directed things like Hostel and The Green Inferno (i.e. violent gore-fests). Next, it's got a screenplay from Eric Kripke, best known for creating and writing for the absurdly long-running Supernatural TV show (a CW staple that isn't exactly child friendly either). The story is adapted from a classic novel by John Bellairs, a sorta proto-young-adult horror author along the lines of R.L. Stine. Speaking of which, this movie stars Jack Black, who is also in the Goosebumps movies (of which, another is coming out in a few weeks). Like the first Goosebumps movie a few years ago, I had initially assumed this would be a soulless pixel stew of a movie. Also like that Goosebumps movie, I found myself pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this. I mean, sure, there's plenty of pixel in the stew, but there's also a little heart and some genuinely interesting ideas in the mix. And, like, maybe they used a dutch oven instead of a crock pot, thus ensuring a deeper, more robust flavor, even out of the pixels. That's how food works, right? Kaedrin Movie Award or six), but it's a lot of good-natured, spooky fun. This has actually done moderately better business than Hell Fest, but if you find yourself feeling a bit down whilst scarfing down bitter horror flicks this Halloween season, this is a nice, palate-cleansing antidote and could probably still use your help. Well worth checking out. ***
- HELL NO: The Sensible Horror Film (short)
- The Wicker Man (trailer)
- Day of the Triffids (trailer)
- Island of Terror - A remote island community is overrun with mysterious tentacled creatures which liquify and eat bone and multiply at an exponential rate. I have faint memories of being terrified of this movie as a child. Something about the eerie sounds that accompany the monsters (and perhaps, like, the notion of monsters sucking your bones out of your body) struck a chord with me. As an adult, this is perhaps not quite as horrifying, though the sound design of the attacks (a disgusting slurping sound, as if they're drinking your bones through a straw) is still pretty effective. The look of the monsters, dubbed Silicates, is also memorable and somewhat unique. Hammer horror films, but this was their sole non-Hammer effort together. The solution to the problem is not exactly animal-friendly, but mildly clever. Naturally, there's a horror stinger at the end that works pretty well (were this made today, it would probably be seen as a sequel setup, but that's not what it feels like). This isn't exactly a classic movie, but it's just the sort of thing that Scream Factory excels at rescuing. A solid little thriller with a unique monster that deserves an audience. The Scream Factory BD is pretty great, featuring a good transfer, a new commentary from some film historians (a little dry, but informative), and the usual trailers/stills. One feature not mentioned yet is that the BD art is reversible, and Scream Factory has a good art style that fits well with this one (the original poster is a bit too disjointed for me, so I actually flipped the art to the new version on my BD). This is the sort of movie that wouldn't normally get such a treatment, but it seems worth it. **1/2
- It's the Gifts That I Hate (Robot Chicken)
- Thursday the 12th (Robot Chicken)
- The Prowler (trailer)
- Final Exam - This one has the most complicated plot I've ever seen in a slasher: A few kids are left on campus for exams when a killer shows up. Ok, so maybe I exaggerated a little about the plot. This is seriously one of the most perfunctory slashers I've seen, barely even bothering with a lot of the conventions. It's saved, however, by a series of absolutely bonkers moments throughout the film. First, you've got a college professor who claims to have a sniper in the clocktower of the school who will shoot anyone who is cheating. Second, mere minutes later, a bunch of masked terrorists assault the school with fully automatic weapons. It turns out to be a prank by a Frat house that was meant to distract the teachers so their friends could cheat on an exam. I'm not sure if this was particularly tasteful in 1981, let alone the absurdity of watching this in 2018. Third, there's a hazing scene that is pretty goofy and is capped off by a local security guard finding the hazed student strapped to a tree - rather than helping the student, the guard pours whiskey into his underwear. Alas, the killer is a pretty lackluster nothing of a character. Unlike a lot of slashers, there's no history here, indeed not even a "escaped mental patient" news report. He wears no mask, is a bit overweight, and has a crappy, deeply unscary haircut. For a good portion of the film, that actually doesn't matter, because we only catch glimpses of the killer, usually obscured. The Toolbox Murders). This isn't a wholly uncommon trope in slasher films, but something about Radish just works better than normal. Perhaps it's because despite the fact that he's a pretty classic slasher nerd character, he also seems to be male hero, and the final girl seems to be pretty into him. Ultimately, these are all just sorta disconnected elements and the rest is mostly forgettable, though slasher fans will get a kick out it for sure. The Scream Factory transfer looks pretty darned good. The disc also has a commentary and a bunch of interviews (which I have yet to actually explore). Again, this is the sort of film that I'd never guess would get such a good BD release, but here we are. **
- Thanksgiving (fake trailer)
- Scream (trailer)
- How Scream Should Have Ended (short)
- Cherry Falls - Coming at the tail-end of the post-Scream slasher revival, this movie suffered from censorship and a lackluster release. It never played in theaters, premiered on basic cable, but ultimately found a bit of an audience on DVD. This is a pretty standard post-Scream production, with teen actors famous from TV, a slick visual feel, and the requisite meta-commentary on slashers. This time around, the killer targets virgins, a neat inversion of the normal slasher line about punishing the wicked (though, to my mind, that sort of thing is overplayed by those with an ax to grind). Once that fact comes out, it does lead to a rather goofy third act featuring a proposed orgy as scared kids figure that if they lose their virginity, they'll be safe. It's hard to attribute thoughtfulness to a production like this, but it seems to be making some sort of statement about teen sexuality that was uncommon in the genre (which usually just veers towards titillation and exploitation). Not a deep or particularly well established statement, but it's a statement nonetheless. The slasher kills are pretty light-handed in the gore department, though that apparently had to do with censorship (the MPAA does not go in for the mixing of sexuality and violence in general, and especially at that time). I won't spoil anything, but the reveal isn't much of a surprise, and the film barely even tries to hide the identity of the killer (I mean, there's usually at least a couple of red herrings; here there's practically none). That being said, the killer's look is pretty effective, and the backstory has more depth than you'd think. Brittany Murphy is an interesting choice for the final girl, and plays her as vaguely goth and a bit jittery. Michael Biehn plays her father, the town sheriff. Not much of a stretch, but Biehn is good at it, as usual.
- Cats, Witchcraft and the Black Plague (short)
- The Netherbeast of Berm-Tech Industries, Inc. (Short)
- The Black Cat (1981) (trailer)
- The Black Cat - Two American honeymooners, Peter and Joan, get into a bus accident, take refuge at a local home, and get caught up in a dangerous game of cat and also cat as another passenger on their bus, Dr. Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), seeks revenge from their host, famed architect Hjolmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). This might not sound too much like a Universal Monster movie setup and its lack of anything supernatural might support such an argument, but director Edgar G. Ulmer infuses the narrative and atmosphere with enough menace, especially as the film goes on, that it certainly fits within the oeuvre. Pitting the two titans of horror against one another in a game of vengeance and cruelty is really what sets this movie apart though, and as the circumstances of their relationship become more clear, you could argue that there are, indeed, two monsters at the heart of the movie. Lugosi's exaggerated theatrics and Karloff's more cold and calculating performance make for an interesting contrast, and Ulmer accentuates both performances with some visual flourishes (I particularly enjoyed Karloff's initial, sinister looking reveal).
The setting must have seemed a bit outre at the time, but actually feels rather modern, what with its sliding doors and glass partitions (the only real old-timey note is the spiral staircase). The great performances also support a twisted narrative core featuring war crimes, Satanic ceremonies, torture, incest, and other dark themes; they packed a lot into the 63 minute runtime. Unfortunately, the likes of Lugosi and Karloff suck all the air out of the room, leaving little left for our two viewpoint characters, Peter and Joan. They're good together, but completely overwhelmed by the story they are sucked into, making the film seem a bit more messy than it actually is. Still, a worthy entry into the Universal canon, and one I'm glad I caught up with. **1/2
- The Cabin in the Woods (trailer)
- Don't (fake trailer)
- The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror VII: The Thing and I
- The Old Dark House - Five travelers caught in a devastating rainstorm take refuge in a, yes, old dark house. Owned by the reclusive Femm family, the house holds in store strange secrets... and terror! This starts off on the wrong foot, as we're immediately thrust into a car with a bickering couple and disinterested passenger, but things liven up once they get to the old dark house. Its inhabitants, the gaunt, anxious man (played by Ernest Thesiger, who would later go on to play Dr. Pretorius in Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein), his cackling, religious sister, and their mute brute of a butler (played by Boris Karloff, who looks so different that someone felt compelled to begin the film with a disclaimer that this is indeed the same Karloff who played Frankenstein's monster). Frankenstein had to be tough for James Whale, but he acquits himself admirably here, even if he would do better work in future Universal entries. The copy I saw was PAL (i.e. 576i, slightly better than SD) and didn't have the greatest transfer, which is a bit of a liability in a film this dark (this could really benefit from a 4k restoration with deep blacks and better contrast), but I could certainly appreciate the visuals for what they were. **1/2
- Hollow Man (trailer)
- The Invisible Man | Mary Shelley's Frankenhole (short)
- Memoirs Of An Invisible Man (trailer)
- The Invisible Man - A scientist has turned himself invisible and must find a way to become normal again. Unfortunately, the process of turning invisible also drove him insane! The invisible man is played by Claude Rains in a remarkable performance. He is invisible for the grand majority of the film, so you can't see his face; he must rely on only his voice and physical gesticulations, and he does a great job with it, creating a menacing character with very little.
- Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (trailer)
- Jack Chop (short)
- Demons (trailer)
- Night of the Demons - A bunch of kids gather for a Halloweeen party at Hull House, an abandoned funeral home fraught with urban legends. Proto-goth girl Angela attempts a seance and inadvertently releases a demon that had been trapped in the house. Hijinks ensue! It's a premise that isn't exactly original, but it mashes up a number of familiar elements (from the likes of slashers, haunted houses, possessions, maybe a sprinkle of zombies) to form a well well executed version of each horror trope it gloms onto. The urban legend angle is surprisingly effective, if a bit derivative. The production design is well done despite clear low budget limitations. Director Kevin Tenney provides a few visual flourishes that work really well, such as a POV shot as the demon glides through the house, or a shot with characters reflected in a broken mirror. The kids are an unlikely bunch, but each comes off distinct and avoid feeling like total cardboard cutouts. The final girl is dating a guy who at first seems good, but turns out to be a creep. Her ex seems to be a creep at first, but winds up being a stand up guy. Linnea Quigley plays Suzanne, more of a sidekick than the main demon (and her demon makeup is somewhat uninspired), but she gets some interesting things to do beyond the normal T&A, notably the infamous lipstick body horror gag (amazing for such a simple effect) and a nice eye-gouging sequence.
- The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror III: Dial Z for Zombie
- White Zombies (Key and Peele)
- Night of the Living Dead (trailer)
- The Return of the Living Dead - A pair of bumbling medical supply warehouse workers accidentally release a poison gas into the air that raises the dead from their graves. A group of punk kids partying in the local cemetery get caught up in the action. A full decade before Scream took the piss out of horror conventions, this film was laying the same groundwork. Written and directed by Dan O'Bannon (most famous for having written scripts for Alien and Total Recall), he was clearly angling for the self-referential, deconstructionist charm that animates (pun intended!) more modern takes on horror. For instance, this flick literally references Night of the Living Dead, positing that the movie was based on real events and that the remains of zombie bodies were mistakenly sent to the warehouse by the army. While deconstructing zombie films, O'Bannon also manages to add his own wrinkles to the sub-genre, most famously imbuing the zombies with an insatiable craving for brains, a trope that really struck a chord. He also made "fast-zombies" a thing decades before nerds started arguing the merits of such details on the internets. Indeed, these zombies can move fast, use complex tools, and even speak (a running gag involving a zombie using a radio in an ambulance to get the authorities to send more brains is pretty funny). The makeup and effects work is pretty good too, giving most of the zombies a distinct look that prevents them from being a completely faceless hoard (until they swarm on unsuspecting victims, I guess, but still).
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (trailer)
- American Pickers Texas (Robot Chicken)
- Werewolf Women of the SS (fake trailer)
- Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers - A private eye is hired to find a missing girl and gets mixed up in a series of gruesome murders perpetrated by chainsaw wielding hookers who are providing human sacrifices to their Egyptian god. You know, that old saw. Look, if you can't tell by the title, this is a sleazy B-movie to it's core, and it revels in cheese. There are feints in the direction of respectability. Jay Richardson plays the private eye as a caricature of noir detectives that actually works reasonably well. The Egyptian cult is led by Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which is a nice touch. Alright, so maybe "respectability" isn't the right word to use to describe any aspect of this production, but it's still tons of fun. Linnea Quigley is joined by another infamous scream queen, Michelle Bauer, who gets one of the film's greatest moments. In a scene that prefigures American Psycho, she takes one of her tricks back to a hotel room, gets naked, covers her painting of Elvis in plastic (to protect it from blood splatter, which will be copious), puts on a hairnet, and then goes to town with a chainsaw. It's brilliant trash. memorable poster too, and the Blu-Ray I watched has a perfect quote on the cover: "The 4th Greatest B-Movie Of All Time" (from that classic film historian house: Maxim Magazine). Look, fine cinema this is not. But if you want trashy 80s cheese, it's hard to beat something like this. ??? (I mean, come on, how do you rate something like this?)
- Spooky Encounters (aka Encounters of the Spooky Kind)- Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao co-directed this little slice of cuckoo bananas about a pedicab driver (played by Sammo Hung) whose reputation for bravery makes him susceptible to all sorts of dares, leading to several encounters with the undead. It turns out that one of his clients is having an affair with the Hung's wife, and thus hires a supernatural assassin/witchdoctor to kill Hung. It takes a while to get up to speed, at first feeling a bit disjointed as Hung goes from one goofy supernatural situation to another, but eventually the action starts to rev up and the last half hour works really well. The supernatural bits are really quite bizarre, featuring weird twists of things we would normally be familiar with. Zombies, voodoo dolls, hopping vampires (!), Taoist wizards elevating their alters on top of pillars to make their magic more powerful and shooting literal balls of energy and lasers and shit? This movie has it all. Including one of the all time greatest and most bizarre freeze-frame endings ever. I mean, super problematic to modern eyes, I'm sure, but still utterly amazing. The action is also pretty fantastic, and indeed, one of the better examples of Sammo Hung's unlikely prowess and uncanny acrobatic ability.
I particularly enjoyed the fight with the hopping vampire (the technical term for this is Jiangshi, which describes reanimated corpses that we'd probably call Zombies, but which the Chinese call "hopping vampires"), an undead zombie-like creature that moves by hopping around with its arms outstretched, but which naturally has pretty keen kung-fu abilities. The concluding battle between two Taoist wizards, one of whom uses what appears to be a portable hydrolic lift to elevate his alter to the level of his stationary opponent, represents a worthy action finale. This is not exactly fine cinema, but it's entertaining af and well worth checking out for fans of martial arts (and horror comedies). This was supposedly the first modern Jiangshi film (though previous martial arts/horror hybrids existed, they often took inspiration from the west, particularly Dracula), and many others followed, including the below film. **1/2
- Encounters of the Spooky Kind II (trailer)
- Tokyo Zombie (trailer)
- Mr. Vampire (trailer)
- Kung Fu Zombie - Billy Chong plays Pang, a man who inadvertently foiled a criminal that has escaped from prison and vowed revenge. Rather than just fighting Pang, the criminal hires a Taoist monk to animate some zombies to do the job for him. It goes horribly wrong, and the criminal dies in the process, returning as a ghost looking to reincarnate himself in a recently deceased body. Yeah, that old chestnut. There's more to the plot, but you don't really need to know any more about it. This is not as good as Spooky Encounters, but offers many of the same charms. Billy Chong is a suitably talented martial artist, and he even fights some hopping vampires in this one. The story drags a bit at times and some scenes feel like filler, but the action is well choreographed and entertaining, and there's enough of a story to justify the action, even if it all feels a bit perfunctory. Still worth checking out for martial arts aficionados (and to a lesser extent, fans of horror comedies). Chong was nowhere near as prolific or charismatic as Hung (or other contemporaries like Jackie Chan), but he carries the day well enough here. **
Summer is in its final death throes. The temperatures are dropping, cool, bracing winds are blowing, leaves are turning brown and falling, crushed underfoot like the hopes and dreams of foolish mortals. Grocery stores now sport mutilated pumpkins, styrofoam tombstones, and decorative corpses. And of course, the pumpkin spice must flow. These and other nominally ghastly signifiers of the season can mean only one thing: It's Halloweentime! To celebrate, we embark upon a six week long marathon of horror movies and associated media. Why six weeks? Because that's, like, two weeks longer than most celebrations, and we're better than most people.
On this first week of our marathon, we will tackle three movies from The Criterion Collection. I suppose I could just use Filmstruck to watch these movies, but in this age of disappearing digital purchases, I want to harken back to the days of physical media. This will be part of a larger, multi-week theme, but for this week, I want to focus on the OG physical media masters.
For the uninitiated, The Criterion Collection began in 1984 as purveyors of laser-discs, a storage medium that never quite caught on except with major cinephiles with cash to burn. They really came into prominence with the DVD. The movies are always presented in their original aspect ratios and are painstakingly restored, remastered, and/or transferred (a process often overseen by the filmmakers themselves), ensuring a high quality experience. Furthermore, they pioneered the use of extra-features like audio-commentaries, much of which is disappearing again in the age of streaming. Heck, one of the more underrated aspects of the Criterion treatment is the frequent inclusion of a booklet featuring new essays, concept art, and other ephemera. The artwork and packaging is always top notch and warrants prominent display on your storage shelves not just because they indicate that you are a connoisseur of good taste, but because they just look great.
The copyright regime being what it is, Criterion doesn't always have the access to the films fans might be most attracted to (studios want to keep those profits for themselves), so they focused on forgotten but influential older films, foreign movies, or art-house classics that, while important to film history, are often overlooked by modern audiences. Early Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Jean Renoir, and so much more; the collection is riddled with classics, often things that would be lost to the annals of history, were it not for their diligence.
As time goes on and streaming increases its stranglehold on the industry, physical media is both dying... and paradoxically flourishing. Since studios can no longer count on the cash cow of DVD/BD sales and have moved on to streaming, they are a little more open to making physical media rights available to niche, specialist outfits like Criterion (and a few others we'll cover later in the marathon), who give these films the love they deserve.
In terms of Horror, the Criterion Collection has a few small corners of the genre sewn up. Some favorites that we won't be covering today including: Sisters, The Blob, House, Rosemary's Baby, Scanners, Night of the Living Dead, The Silence of the Lambs (just recently reissued on BD!), not to mention a bevvy of Hitchcock and other horror adjacent thrillers. Today, we will be covering three moderately obscure entries from the collection, so let's dive in:
- The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror XIII: The Island of Dr. Hibbert
- Splice (trailer)
- The Island of Dr. Moreau (trailer)
- Island of Lost Souls [Criterion] - An early (indeed, the first non-silent) adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, it might also be the best. Judged against it's contemporaries, it stands out (though I don't think it beats the best of the classic Universal horror pieces). A story with some level of depth, good performances, nice production design, and solid cinematography anchor a very effective production. The story of a mad scientist who attempted to convert animals to humans using perverse, brutally painful medical procedures disgusted audiences at the time and led to various censorship schemes and bannings. To modern eyes, it's a bit more staid (originally banned in the UK, then rated X, it's now rated PG), but even still, some elements distinguish this from its contemporaries. In particular, Charles Laughton's performance as Dr. Moreau is great. He plays the character as a sadistic schemer, convinced of his own god-like superiority and willing to justify all manner of horrors in service of his scientific curiosity. Laughton could have certainly hammed it up in the role and there's a bit of that here, but there's also a sort of chilling restraint, with much of his sadistic intent conveyed through his eyes, winks, smirks, or a slight, almost imperceptible smile. Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau). Finally, the founding members of Devo also give an interview about the influence (their first album: "Are we not men?") on their music and videos. It's a handsome little package, and fans of classic horror like myself would be enamored. ***
- The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror IV: Bart Simpson's Dracula
- What We Do In The Shadows (trailer)
- Is that a whip? (Robot Chicken)
- Cronos [Criterion] - Guillermo del Toro's first feature length film is a modern-day spin on the vampire that remains distinct to this day. The story begins with the creation of the Cronos device, an intricate mechanical bug created by an alchemist in the 1500s; cut to present day when the alchemist, having lived 500 years, dies in an accident. The Cronos device, hidden in a small statue, winds up in an antique shop where mild-mannered Jesus Gris (and his granddaughter) discover the device. Meanwhile, a dying millionaire has discovered the alchemist's journal and wants the device to extend his own life. I think you can see where this is going, but it'd doesn't quite play out like you might expect. This is a vampire film where the term vampire is never spoken; it mixes hoary old tales of alchemy with vampire myths, and filters them through del Toro's conception of fairy tales, yielding a unique take on classic horror themes. For instance, once our hero inadvertently triggers the device and comes under its spell, he craves blood. But while lesser films would, for example, make him threaten and almost kill his granddaughter out of hunger, this film never goes there.
- The Fly (trailer)
- The Human Centipede (trailer)
- Halloween RARE Deleted Scene 1978 (short)
- Eyes Without a Face [Criterion] - While this week's theme was based around the Criterion Collection, I could very well have called the theme "Mad Scientists", as this is the third film that prominently features such (I suppose the alchemist in Cronos is arguable, but go with me here). An obsessive doctor specializing in transplants attempts a radical plastic surgery to restore his daughter's face (recently disfigured in a car crash). Once again, a schlocky premise with a more artful execution, this story is filled with common tropes. While not specific to a face transplant, there are lots of stories about a grief-stricken scientist sacrificing everything to save or otherwise reconnect with a loved one. In this case, the imagery is what sets this apart from similar tales. The daughter Christiane wears a smooth, hard white mask to conceal her deformity, a clear prelude to other, more famous masks that would later pepper the horror genre.
- The Gig Economy - At first I thought this was a non-fiction commentary on the gig economy, but it quickly becomes clear that this is not the case. It's still a very interesting little piece of internets ephemera, well worth checking out. It actually reminded me of a modern, technology focused version of the opening of Clive Barker's The Great and Secret Show, in which a postal worker assigned to the dead letters office finds patterns in the lost letters. This story posits anonymous gig contracts online, and it turns out that there are patterns to be discovered in the nonsense. An interesting story and might even make good Hugo award fodder (it's probably better than 99% of recent Hugo short stories).
- Halloween 1978 (The Inside Story) - A Halloween documentary I hadn't seen before? Ok, fine.
- The Web Design Museum - A blast from the past. We've come a long way...
- Survivorship bias - The notion that focusing on survivors of a given tragedy can distort conclusions; the military example is a good one:
During World War II, the statistician Abraham Wald took survivorship bias into his calculations when considering how to minimize bomber losses to enemy fire. Researchers from the Center for Naval Analyses had conducted a study of the damage done to aircraft that had returned from missions, and had recommended that armor be added to the areas that showed the most damage. Wald noted that the study only considered the aircraft that had survived their missions—the bombers that had been shot down were not present for the damage assessment. The holes in the returning aircraft, then, represented areas where a bomber could take damage and still return home safely. Wald proposed that the Navy reinforce areas where the returning aircraft were unscathed, since those were the areas that, if hit, would cause the plane to be lost. His work is considered seminal in the then-fledgling discipline of operational research.
- Fan Fiction Friday: Hogwarts and a Giant Squid in “First Encounter” - Warning, you probably don't want to read this. More adventurous readers who are not scared of what the internet can throw at them probably don't want to read this either. I didn't particularly want to read it, but someone sent it to me and once I started, I couldn't stop. I used to save all sorts of interesting links on del.icio.us and I had this tag called idontknowwhatthefuckisgoingonhere that I would use to categorize stuff like this. Unfortunately, I kinda do know what's going on here, and it's pretty gross.