6WH: Week 5 - Shudder

Coming down the homestretch of the Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon, this week, we're going to shift focus away from physical media (a theme that's dominated the first half of the marathon) and embrace the future with a streaming service, Shudder. It's a niche site focusing on horror and thriller titles and as such, it's pretty much a necessity for any modern horror movie fan. They have their own website and apps, but since their reach is somewhat limited, I actually just subscribe via Amazon Prime (update: As of a couple of days ago, Amazon is apparently, um, shuttering Shudder from their subscriptions, so I would no longer recommend this option. For their part, Shudder is doing their best to make good for folks already subscribed, which is mighty nice of them.) It's not super expensive, and it provides lots of exclusive and interesting stuff. This Halloween season, they've got some mainstream classics, like several movies from the Halloween franchise, plus a whole slew of Hitchcock favorites. Also of note is The Last Drive-In With Joe Bob Briggs, a revival of Briggs' long-defunct TNT Monstervision series in which he shows movies, interrupting briefly for various bits of commentary, etc... (on TNT, it was during TV breaks, but on Shudder, it's commercial free). There was a 24 hour marathon earlier this summer, but it was so popular that they're bringing it back this fall (alas, not before Halloween). The list of movies during that July marathon is great and well curated, and Briggs is his usual knowledgeable self, and it's all still available on the Shudder app. A funny, recent addition to the service is the Ghoul Log, which is just a video of a Jack O'Lantern with spooky sounds in the background (a la the Yule Log). Finally, there's also the offbeat, the obscure, the foreign releases, and the indie flicks that don't get much exposure... such as the three movies I watched this week! All three are listed as "Shudder Originals" as well, so you might not see them elsewhere either...
  • 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 Demi├ín 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).
    Terrified is terrifying
    Unfortunately, the writing leaves a bit to be desired. It works well up front (the opening sequence is quite effective), and the second act shows great promise (introducing some non-linear narrative elements and implying some underlying mythology), but ultimately there just wasn't anywhere for the story to really go. There are also a couple of contrivances that also seemed a bit unwise, such as the notion that all of our investigators would split up and investigate each house separately (anyone who's seen a horror movie knows how that's going to end up). Fortunately, everything else is well executed and creepy as hell, and clocking in at a svelt 89 minutes, it never drags at all. While nothing is especially resolved, it does have a cool little stinger at the ending too. I'd certainly recommend this haunted house flick, but try not to be too jaded going into it. I've always found that if you go into a movie whilst daring it to scare you, you will inevitably be disappointed when it's only so-so scary. I was fortunate enough to go into this blind, so it worked out really well for me. Give it a shot! ***
  • 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).
    Vengeance is hers
    Of course, as already mentioned, there's only so much you can diverge from the standard formula, but Fargeat brings a few things to the table that we haven't seen much of before. One is an artistry and visual flare that is not common in the sub-genre (many of the examples already mentioned are severely low budget affairs and look that way, though they are able to emphasize a certain rawness that is still quite effective). Another is the way the rape scene is filmed, which is still incredibly visceral and disgusting, but not as graphic or extended as some other examples. In some ways, the restraint of the scene, which relies more heavily on sound than anything else, is even more disturbing than the more graphic examples. Of course, once the tables turn later in the movie, the revenge component works well too. Some of the survivalist bits are hammy at best, but the vengeance is cold and sweet. It gets pretty gruesome too, so it's sure to satisfy gore hounds. People are giving this a lot of credit, though to be honest, besides the tweaks mentioned above, I don't see this as transcending the more famous entries in the genre. Still a very interesting watch and well worthwhile. **1/2
  • 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.)
    Son and Father
    Simon and his twelve year-old son Finn are fixing up an old house in Vermont. It appears that with each repair they make, the house's former inhabitant, a witch named Lydia, gets stronger. Most of the movie deals with the relationship between Simon and Finn, which is well drawn and effective. The ghostly creepy bits are effective but not exactly numerous, which could leave some horror fanatics a bit dry I guess, but I loved it and thought the ratio was well balanced.
    If you look closely, there is a witch in that there window
    Some of the spooks are rather understated, such as the hint of a figure in the background, or the way the camera movies and frames certain characters. When the more explicit scares come, the film manages a lot of tension, and the witch herself is a creepy visual. While the film relies on a fair amount of exposition to give the history of the house, the character who provides the background (an electrician who lives down the street) is compelling enough to pull it off. Plus, they drag out some of the more sinister reveals. It all works well, and it serves the ultimate point of the movie, which is the relationship between father and son. Indeed, it provides a lot of depth for a movie that is only 77 minutes long. A bit of a slow burn, but I was really quite taken with the movie. ***
So there you have it, Shudder is definitely worth pursuing for the horror nerd. And I'm normally not up for subscribing to yet another streaming service (I refuse to sign up for CBS All Access, for instance), but in this case, I really appreciate their, um, appreciation for the genre. Up next for the Six Weeks of Halloween is probably going to continue the streaming theme with a few movies that are on Netflix... In the meantime, we'll hit up some Season's Readings on Wednesday, so don't stray too far.
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6WH: Week 4.5 - Sergio Martino

A few years ago, I did a series of weeks themed around "Obscure Horror Auteurs" and one of the candidates for that year was Italian filmmaker Sergio Martino. I'd heard lots of great things about his Giallo movies, but alas, many were not readily available at the time. A few years later and a couple of them pop up on Amazon Prime, so I figured I'd finally point my eyes in their direction:
  • 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.
    There are a couple of really effective sequences, and I must admit to a pretty big surprise when a bunch of folks wind up murdered offscreen. As a proto-slasher, this hits a few of the tropes pretty well. The killer wears a ski-mask (echoes of The Toolbox Murders), there's some POV shots, a half-baked whodunit, and so on. Still, it's pretty well executed for what it is, and some moments are really fantastic. In particular, the scene where the final girl attempts to escape a locked room using the whole newspaper/key retrieval trick is spot on (I also appreciate how she tries to throw the killer off by hiding all hints as to her existence as well.) It's ultimately a lurid, trashy, comfort-food giallo. It's not doing a whole lot new, but it's generally well executed and entertaining. (The title "Torso" is fine and all, but the original title is ever so much more Giallo: "The Bodies Present Traces of Carnal Violence") **1/2
  • 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.
    Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key
    There's a nice little pre-Shining typewriter gag (if a bit less creative - the killer just types "Vendetta" over and over again with varying typeography, but it fits well enough). Some nice shots here too: a woman runs away from the killer and the camera follows, a body slides down the steps, an advertisement featuring a white heart splattered with blood. The ending is a nice bit of business, a series of twists that even makes sense (a rarity for this type of film), and a final wrinkle seals the deal nicely... It's fantastic, but does it make up for the first thee quarters of the movie? I'm not sure about that, but it does redeem the film enough that I'm glad I watched it, and it left me on a high note that is making the movie stick around in my mind better than it probably should. **1/2
Ah, it's always nice to catch up with the cinema of my people. Anywho, stay tuned, on Sunday I'll have a post up featuring movies from that venerable streaming service, Shudder.
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The Six Weeks of Halloween reaches week 4, where we will watch 4 movies that serve 4 different themes. After weeks focusing on releases from The Criterion Collection and Scream Factory, the original impetus for this week was to highlight yet another purveyor of high quality physical media, Arrow Films. A British company established in 1991, they are an independent distributor of world cinema, arthouse, horror, and classic films. They didn't make much of a splash, however, until 2012, when they revamped the brand to focus on "high-quality presentations of classic and cult cinema" in the manner we are now accustomed to with Criterion (i.e. new transfers, oodles of special features, great looking packaging and artwork, etc...) Among their imprints are Arrow Video, which specialized in the video nasties, and Arrow Video USA, which, you guessed it, brought many of their region-locked UK releases to the US. Longtime readers may remember a pair of Giallo movies I covered a couple years ago that were released as a handsome two movie set that Arrow put out (this was, more or less, my first exposure to Arrow. Also of note, the third movie I covered that week? Also available on an Arrow disc).

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.
    Behold Vincent Price and his fabulous blonde hair
    His performance is great, full of melancholy and subtle menace. Mark Damon and Myrna Fahey are an attractive couple and hold their own. Unfortunately, the story does drag a bit at times. Even at just 79 minutes, it feels a bit padded out and the mysteriousness that works well in a short story doesn't entirely translate to the screen. Then again, this is probably as good as you could get in filmic form without entirely transforming the story, and this is actually a fairly faithful adaptation. Some of the sequences are particularly great, such as when Price recounts the exploits of more nefarious members of the Usher clan, each illustrated by an evocative painting. Overall, while a bit stilted to modern eyes, I can still see why this kicked off a whole series of successful flicks. The Arrow disc has lots of special features, including a commentary from Roger Corman (I didn't listen to the whole thing, but it seemed informative enough, and Corman is generally pretty compelling), interviews with Joe Dante (a former Corman apprentice) and a gothic horror expert, a video essay comparing the film to the original story, and some archival Vincent Price footage. As usual, great packaging with new artwork (and a reversible sleeve featuring the original artwork) and a booklet with essays and excerpts from Price's autobiography. **1/2
  • 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).
    Beautiful matte shot
    The plot is similar at first, but a bit twistier as the film progresses. As expected, the performances are fantastic. Price projects a grief-stricken timidity (eventually leavened with madness!) and John Kerr's incredulous hunt for the truth works well (for instance, he gets a good monologue debunking a seemingly supernatural occurrence). Barbara Steele shows up too, fresh off her performance in Mario Bava's Gothic classic Black Sunday; perhaps not as iconic a role, but she does well given limited screentime. Returning screenwriter Richard Matheson strays from the original story considerably, but did an admirable job with the dialog and plotting while returning to the source material in finale, a sequence that sets this movie apart from its contemporaries. The visual of the torture device put into action is memorable, and the final shot prefigures the horror genre's tendency for a stinger at the end. It's quite fitting.
    Look at that pendulum go!
    It still suffers a bit from the padding issues of Usher, but it comports itself better on that front, and again, the climax leaves you on a high note. The Arrow BD comes in a handsome steelbook with great art (there's also a regular BD with different new art). Extras include two commentaries, one with Corman, one with a film critic, a new documentary about the making of the movie, and archival footage of Vincent Price reading Edgar Allen Poe stories to a live audience. It's a great little package. ***
  • 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.
    Behold my fabulous sunglasses
    The performances are still good, Price is excellent as always, and Corman was trying to imbue the production with some differences in terms of setting the film largely outdoors or during the light of day. There's even one sequence at Stonehenge! And the flame soaked finale works pretty well (these big stone castle certainly seem more flammable than you'd expect). Worth a look for fans of Gothic horror, but not quite the standout that the previous two films were. The Arrow release has lots of extras, two commentaries, new interviews with cast and crew, and the usual new artwork with reversible sleeve. **
  • 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.
    Artwork for the The Haunted Palace BD release
    The Arrow disc again features lots of good extras, including a commentary track from Vincent Price's biogrophers, an interview with Kim Newman, who covers Lovecraft on screen, and an interview with Corman, plus the usual reversible sleeve featuring both new and classic artwork. **1/2
So there you have it. Arrow video does it right, but make sure you get the proper Blu-Ray region! At least some of these films are available (sometimes with similar or even the same special features) in the US.
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6WH: Week 3.5 - Now Playing

The Six Weeks of Halloween has past the midway point and tonight, we tackle a couple of films now playing in theaters. Yes, I know that the big horror dork movie of the season is coming up, but you don't need me to tell you anything about the Halloween sequel and probably have your own deep thoughts on how it impacts the continuity of the series, whether or not the term "sidequel" applies (and the requisite rabbit-hole debating whether or not "sidequel" is a proper neologism or a sure sign that communist Leprechauns are running a Gramscian program of influence to weaken the horror nerd community by introducing memetic attacks to our lexicon (I think you can tell which side I'm on in this vital conversation)), whether "prepper Laurie Strode" is better than "drunken PTSD Laurie Strode" from H20, or if we should call this new installment H40, amongst other deathly important topics. However, I've recently watched two movies in theaters that aren't exactly doing awesome at the box office, but which are actually quite fun and worth checking out (given my readership, this could result in a sizeable $0-$10 bump in ticket sales, so please humor me). I'm sure I'll get to the Halloween sequel soon enough, though frankly, I'm not especially excited for it. This sometimes augers for a pleasant surprise, but I tend to be hard on sequels (as well as, naturally, anything supported by communist Leprechauns). Of course, both of the below flicks are rather derivative, but that doesn't bother me as much for some reason. So let's get to it:
  • 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.
    Be vewy, vewy quiet. Im hunting wittle teenagers.
    The killer is suitably creepy, as a decent look, and I really enjoy the fact that he has no real backstory (something that did not work in the 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?
    Cate Blanchett owns every scene she is in
    Plus, Cate Blanchett pretty much owns the screen whenever she shows up, and actually has pretty good chemistry with Black and the little kid. She gets plenty of screen time and her own arc, so it's not quite the thankless sidekick role I initially feared it would be. Jack Black is his usual self and comports himself well enough, even kinda-sorta holding his own against Blanchett (though not really, because who could?) Child actors are a tricky thing, and Owen Vaccaro stumbles a few times, but he otherwise manages just fine. Again, this isn't the sort of thing I'll be thinking about when it comes time to compile a top 10 of the year or anything (though Blanchett will probably get nominated for a 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. ***
So there you have it. I will probably see Halloween at some point, but for now, I'm just happy that they seem to have figured out that releasing horror movies in September/October makes sense... Stay tuned for our next post on Sunday, where you'll get Four Themes for the Price of One! It's a deal you simply can't pass up.
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6WH: Week 3 - Scream Factory

Taking my cue from week one's celebration of physical media and The Criterion Collection, this week I'm watching three films from Scream Factory. A sub-label of Shout Factory starting in 2012, Scream Factory focuses on releasing classic and cult horror films on discs. While not having the storied history of Criterion, their releases feature many of the same selling points. Most releases are new transfers/remastered/restored and feature gobs of extra features. Only in this case, many of the films are obscure, low-budget genre releases that wouldn't normally garner such attention, which has certainly endeared them to certain segments of fandom. Look, sometimes you need to rescue an art-house staple from obscurity, sometimes you need to make sure there's a pristine 4K transfer BD of Ninja III: The Domination. These people are doing God's work. Of course, there's a wide range of stuff that they put out, ranging from the grand majority of John Carpenter's filmography, to a gorgeous looking special edition of The Babadook, to fancy schmansy steelbook editions that also look great, to schlocky 80s fare like Dark Angel (aka I Come in Peace) or Halloween III. Seriously, the notable examples are too numerous to list out here. For my choices, though, I tended to go with stuff that's more obscure (after all, I've already seen a lot of the high-profile stuff), so let's dig in:
  • 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.
    A Silicate
    A sorta mix between the blob and triffids, they have one big tentacle that they use for their bone-sucking attack. They're not exactly fast moving, but they are somewhat sneaky and nigh indestructible. The characters, led by the always great Peter Cushing and the square jawed Edward Judd (rumored to have been in the running for Bond), are likable enough, and director Terrence Fisher does good, unshowy work. Fisher and Cushing are known for their collaborations in 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.
    This is the best shot in Final Exam, a good reveal of the killer
    After the initial murder of two necking students, there's almost an hour of bland filler before the real killing starts. Some of this stuff isn't necessarily a problem, but the "stalking" that goes on here is nowhere near as effective as, say, the stalking sequences in Halloween. Anyway, the fourth weird moment is when the killer has our heroine cornered, but some rando hunter with a bow and arrow shows up and shoots at the killer, who apparently has superhuman reflexes and catches the arrow mid-flight (then uses the arrow to stab the guy - ok, so that was pretty cool, I guess). The fifth and final fascinating thing about this film is the character of Radish, a clear precursor to Randy from Scream, he spouts knowledge of serial killers, makes untimely jokes about Nixon, and sports a bunch of genre movie posters in his dorm room (notably 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.
    Cherry Falls
    There's a sequence between them where, once the killer's preferred target becomes clear, Biehn has an incredibly awkward conversation with Murphy that culminates in the bizarre line of "Are you disappointed I'm not a virgin?" That's some weird writing, right there. Ultimately, there are some interesting ideas here and it's worth a watch for the small pocket of neo-slasher fans out there, but I suspect this could have been better executed. As it is, though, it's enjoyable enough fare. As a recent-ish release, the transfer is already good, but the disc also features a new commentary with the director, and new and vintage interviews with cast and crew. This is exactly the sort of movie that could benefit from the Scream Factory treatment. **1/2
So there you have it. Scream Factory puts out some great stuff, including a nice steelbook edition of last week's Night of the Demons, a fantastic 3-disc set of Army of Darkness, and a rerelease of the steelbook for Carpenter's The Thing. Also of note is the upcoming boxed-set for the Critters series (maybe worth a revisit for next year's 6WH). As mentioned before, they put out too much great stuff to list, so I'll just stop now. Next week, we tackle another purveyor of physical media that just happens to align with several other themes. Stay tuned.
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Throughout the years, I've seen a lot of Universal's famous monster movies, but not quite all of them. As such, I figured I should devote some time to catching up with more of them, especially given my resolution to watch 50 movies made before 1950 in 2018. Here we tackle two of the less famous, less "monster" focused entries in Universal's horror canon (and since I had time, a bonus review of one of the more famous flicks):
  • 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).
    Karloff in The Black Cat
    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).
    The Old Dark House
    The unexpected visitors are less colorful, though Charles Laughton stands out, especially given this strange role where he lives and travels with a woman he has no sexual interest in (doubly relevant when you realize that Laughton's real life sexuality was somewhat in dispute). Each person and the house itself (it's almost like another character!) lend the production a certain air of dread, even as the banter turns witty and sometimes even approaches humor. Apparently this film was somewhat groundbreaking in mixing humor and horror, though the humor doesn't quite translate across the decades as well as the horror. Later revelations about the house and the family lead to some interesting moments. I'd call it derivative (as we've seen many of these ideas so many times at this point), except that this was probably the trope codifier (if not the ur example) of many famous horror staples. As such, it's worth checking out for students of the genre, though it might hold less interest with the normals. Following up the classic 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.
    The Invisible Man
    Indeed, the character is so menacing that it lacks the sympathetic note that made, for instance, Frankenstein such an iconic character. But then, the look of the invisible man is great, whether bandaged up with goggles or even when he's invisible. The special effects, mostly simple camera tricks and string-work, actually hold up pretty well to this day, and they really emphasize the invisibility by constantly fidgeting with the sets, moving stuff around, and so on. Director James Whale was certainly hitting on all cylinders here, a slick, polished follow up to Frankenstein and The Old Dark House. While I think Frankenstein and Dracula are still the most iconic of Universal's oeuvre, this one doesn't deserve to be overlooked. **1/2
So there you have it, three Universal movies that I hadn't seen before and since they're all from the thirties, this counts towards my 50 Under 50 project. Two birds, one stone. Anyway, keep your eyes peeled for Sunday's update, which will be covering three movies from another physical media purveyor. In the meantime, head on over to Film Thoughts, where Zack has been posting up a storm during these same Six Weeks of Halloween!
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6WH: Week 2 - Linnea Quigley

During last year's Six Weeks of Halloween, I spent a couple of weeks covering what I had termed "Obscure Scream Queens", including Erika Blanc and Isabelle Adjani. This weekend, we return to this sort of theme with a trio of films starring 80s B-movie star Linnea Quigley. Literally off the bus from Iowa, she hit Los Angeles in the late 70s and began picking up small roles in B movies, eventually graduating (pun intended!) to a bigger role in the 1981 Troma slasher Graduation Day. She followed that up with a string of higher profile appearances in the likes of Silent Night, Deadly Night, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, and a couple of the movies I watched this weekend, amongst countless direct to video shlock (one of which I also watched this weekend). One of the things that inspired me to use this theme was that Joe Bob Briggs included a Linnea vehicle in his recent The Last Drive In marathon on Shudder, a classy little film called Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama. I think you can tell what kinda movie that is right from the start. I loved it, and vowed to explore more of her filmography (and if you're in the mood to support horror, Shudder is certainly a worthy purchase, and Joe Bob's commentary is always worthwhile). After last week's high-brow classics, arthouse films, and foreign entries, it's time to get a little trashy, so let's dive in:
  • 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.
    Linnea Quigley in Night of the Demons
    Amelia Kinkade plays the goth-like Angela, who turns out to be the ringleader demon, and gets some pretty good stuff for herself (of particular note: the go-for-broke dance sequence set to Bauhaus' "Stigmata Martyr"). Also notable is that the token black character, Roger, actually survives the night along with the final girl. There's this sorta non-sequitur bookend bit about an old man who plans to put razor blades in apples for Halloween, which is odd, but makes for a neat little coda at the end. Not particularly original, but it's packaged up well and hits every note you could possibly want in such a movie. I can see why this has become something of a cult hit, and it's well worth checking out for fans of 80s cheese. ***
  • 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 Tar Man from Return of the Living Dead
    In particular, the zombie that kicks off the shenanigans, dubbed the Tar Man, is quite effective. All melted and goopy, he's pretty much the platonic idea for zombiekind. The human characters are fine and O'Bannon's quirky sense of humor abounds, but mostly they're just unwilling suppliers of brains to hungry zombies. Linnea Quigley plays the most memorable of the punk kids. Named "Trash" and sporting neon-red hair, her character apparently has a penchant for stripping nude at the slightest provocation, and she spends most of the movie in skimpy clothing (or, uh, nothing), even once she's been zombified. It's certainly a memorable performance.
    Linnea Quigley in Return of the Living Dead
    The ending is also a fitting take on the sub-genre, displaying O'Bannon's perverse sense of humor and giving that last little knife twist that punctuates so many horror movies (though this time, it's not so much a stinger as it is a dawning realization). I'm not even much of a zombie fan, but it's hard not to like this one. ***
  • 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.
    Linnea Quigley in Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers
    Quigley gets a few big sequences too, notably her double chainsaw dance in rather elaborate body paint (yes, T&A abounds again here), and of course, there's a chainsaw duel between Quigley and Bauer that's quintessential B-movie cheese. The film has a pretty 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?)
So there you have it. Quigley's filmography clocks in at 154 credits and counting, so there's plenty of schlock to explore here, and I might even take a flier on one or two additional flicks as the Six Weeks of Halloween marches on (Another good thing about B movies? They tend to be short, 75 minute affairs.) Stay tuned, for next week we'll tackle another purveyor of fine physical media, Scream Factory!

6WH: Week 1.5 - Spooky Kung Fu

Last year, I went on a big martial arts kick, loading up my Netflix queues and Amazon watchlist with all manner of wacky martial arts flicks. Thanks to a neglected Netflix DVD queue (yes, I still get physical media from Netflix, don't @ me) an action/horror hybrid disc showed up in my mail just before the Six Weeks of Halloween officially began. What to do? Look, the 6WH is really just a convenient excuse to binge horror movies, but it's not like I'm not watching horror year round. So I'm cheating a bit, as I watched these two martial arts/comedy/horror hybrids during the preamble to the 6WH proper, but I thought it would be fun to mention these. Neither are notably "scary", per say, but there are a couple of spooky moments and a heaping helping of rather bonkers elements. Let's dive in:
  • 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.
    Sammo Hung fighting the Hopping Vampire
    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. **
There you have it. The Six Weeks of Halloween marches on this weekend with a trio of flicks from an quasi-obscure 80s scream queen.
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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.
    Charles Laughton in Island of Lost Souls
    Moreau is a classic villain largely due to Laughton's performance. Bela Lugosi also shows up as one of the beast men; buried under hairy makeup, but able to imbue the sad creatures with humanity and compassion ("Are we not men?") Clocking in at 70 minutes, the film is short and sweet and the climax in which Moreau gets his comeuppance works well (spoiler for a century old story). Apparently H.G. Wells hated the movie, perhaps due to liberties taken with the adaptation, notably the introduction of the lurid (for the time, ahem) Panther Woman and fears of miscegenation, which distracted from his themes anti-vivisection and animal cruelty (which, to be sure, are still in the movie, and still relevant today). Not sure if Wells' distaste kept the film buried, but it's only recently re-emerged thanks to the likes of Criterion (and it was included in a DVD box set for Universal, which actually owns the film now), and it stands alongside the great Universal monster flicks of the 30s. Well worth checking out for fans of the era. Special features include an insightful and knowledgable commentary track by film historian Gregory Mank. There's also a discussion with director John Landis, makeup artist Rick Baker, and genre expert Bob Burns, in which they discuss the film's influence, why it never really caught on, and H.G. Wells' distaste for the adaptation. Another interview with film historian David J. Skal, which gives a good overview of horror of the time and he makes a good argument for the differences in filmic adaptations. Richard Stanley, the director of the infamously ill-fated 1996 adaptation gives his take (also worth checking out: 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.
    Nor does it glamorize or sensualize the craving, instead portraying a melancholy and sad man crawling on the ground to slurp up a bit of spilled blood. This is a movie that could be schlocky, but that was not del Toro's goal, and the film has lots of thematic depth if you look for it. It's a slow burn, but never drags. In the end, it's a unique take on vampire myths, with del Toro's distinct voice. Special features include two commentaries, one from del Toro, and another from three producers. A video tour through del Toro's house that plays like a horror nerd's episode of Cribs (he has all sorts of horror memorabilia, and room hidden behind a bookcase). A bunch of interviews with the actors, an old del Toro short film, and standard stuff like trailers and stills are also on the disc. The booklet that comes with the disc includes a new essay and del Toro's production notes, which are rather interesting. Another handsome package, with lots to chew on. ***
  • 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.
    Eyes Without a Face
    The reveal of her true face is quite effective. There is a dog kennel that is well composed and creepy. The actual, grueling face-lifting scene is quite unsettling. So it's visually impressive, and the performances are pretty good too. The score immediately turned me off though. There's something too plucky and playful about it, almost like a calliope, such that it doesn't really fit with the tone of the film. It turns out that this tune is only played during certain scenes though, so the rest of the film has a reasonable score. There's a whole subplot involving the police that doesn't quite fit. Perhaps it's a commentary on this sort of thing (common enough in Giallos and other such flicks), but that doesn't make it particularly fit any better. This is a really interesting film, with clear influence to this day, and there are bits of it that I love, but it doesn't quite hold together as much as I'd like. Special features include archival and new interviews, excerpts from documentaries that involve this film, and a documentary the director made about the slaughterhouses of Paris. There are less special features here than the others, but they're decent enough for what they are. This does seem like the sort of movie that would really benefit from one of those film historian commentaries though! As per usual, the packaging and artwork is great. **1/2
One week down, only five to go. Stay tuned for next week, where we'll revisit one of last year's weekly themes, obscure scream queens. After that, we'll return to physical media-land for a few weeks, with some bonus concurrent themes.
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The Six Weeks of Halloween is fast approaching, so here's a final clearing of the baffles before we descend into horror:
  • 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.
That's all for now. Stay frosty people, 6WH starts next Sunday.
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