6 Weeks of Halloween

6WH: Season’s Readings

Alright, so we’re a few days past Halloween, but I never got to the books I read during the spooky season, though I did get to ruminate on the Intersection of Horror and Science Fiction (in preparation for Vintage Science Fiction Month). Well, better late than never, and it’s not like there’s a bad time for scary stories, right?

  • Necroscope by Brian Lumley – Yet another magical Harry (who predates both Harrys Potter and Dresden), Harry Keogh can talk to dead people. As he grows up, he befriends the dead and learns much about life from them. His teachers are suspicious at Harry’s ability to suddenly become an expert, but do their best to encourage Harry’s talents. Eventually Harry learns of his mother’s death at the hands of a Soviet spy and hatches a plan for revenge, which ultimately embroils him into a conflict between the British ESPionage service (get it? ESP stands for extra-sensory perception but are also the first three letters in the word espionage! This is one of those simultaneously dumb but also endearing qualities that neatly encapsulates this book’s charms.) and their Soviet counterparts. Speaking of which, Boris Dragosani is a Soviet Necromancer. While Harry can speak with the dead, Boris can gain information from a dead body by mutilating its remains. He gained this power from a long-imprisoned vampire, Thibor Ferenczy. Together, they have plans for, well, let’s just say world conquest. Alright, from the short description here, I think you can gather that this is an exposition-heavy book. As these things go, Lumley is pretty solid at it and as a longtime SF reader, long bouts of exposition aren’t entirely unwelcome, but it does get to be a bit longwinded here, and there are plenty of tangents that might not be strictly necessary. And once you get past that sort of bald exposition, you’re left with vampires, Cold-War era espionage and spies, armies of the dead, and even wacky explorations of time and space in the form of the “Möbius Continuum”. It’s fun, is what I’m saying, if not particularly rigorous. It’s also creepy, and at time verges on a Lovecraftian take on vampires, which is neat. It’s shlocky and goofy, but a whole lot of fun and a good thing to read during the Halloween season. I read this as a teenager and remembered enjoying it, and it largely lives up to my memory, which is probably a good sign, and it made me want to read the next book in the series.
  • Necroscope II: Vamphyri! by Brian Lumley – The spirit of Harry Keogh lives on in his son, Harry Jr. He can still speak with the dead and roam the Continuum, but only when his son is asleep. Harry learns that the vampire Thibor Ferenczy had infected a pregnant woman before he died, thus resulting in a sorta lesser vampire. Yulian Bodescu retains many vampiric abilities and slowly explores them as he grows up. Harry must thus learn more about Vampires, so he speaks with Faethor Ferenczy, the vampire who made Thibor, and gets a lot of the history of vampires. But of course Faethor is just as much of a master manipulator as Thibor, and Harry doesn’t know if he can trust anything he learns. Meanwhile, the Soviets are rebuilding their operation and team up with the Brits to quash the threat posed by Yulian Bodescu. So yeah, you wouldn’t think that there’d be much more exposition after the first book but… this book is also pretty exposition heavy. A large portion of it functions as a sorta prequel and origin story for Thibor Ferenczy, which isn’t quite as interesting as the book wants you to believe. We learn a lot more about what vampires are and how they function, which is neat enough, I guess, but sometimes these things operate better with more vague descriptions. In general, I had less fun with this book, but it held a similar cheesy appeal. I will probably pick up the third book next year, but I wanted to get a little more variety in my bookish diet this year…
  • The Wolf’s Hour by Robert R. McCammon – Michael Gallatin is a master spy who comes out of retirement for one last mission during WWII. Oh, and did I mention that he’s a werewolf? There are essentially two narratives here, one of Gallatin and his attempt to uncover and stop a secret Nazi Operation called Iron Fist. The other is the story of a young boy named Mikhail Gallatinov, a young boy who learns of his werewolf powers when his parents are killed during the Russian Revolution. He falls in with a pack of other werewolves who help him learn to control his powers. So this isn’t quite the super-pulpy story it sounds like and the novel contains distressingly little werewolf action. However, what is there is great. McCammon isn’t a great prose stylist, but he writes action well, even if there aren’t werewolves involved (but even better when there are!) The novel is overlong, which messes with the pacing a bit, but is generally pretty interesting. I liked it better than Swan Song, which felt a little too schlocky. Someday, perhaps, I’ll find that McCammon novel that has just the right proportions and isn’t 200 pages too long. Still, this was a pretty good seasonally appropriate read, and the werewolf action that is there is great.
  • Darker Than You Think by Jack Williamson – Journalist Will Barbee is set to cover the return of a scientific expedition to Mongolia. Led by Barbee’s former mentor Dr. Mondrick, the expedition has indicated that they’ve made a discovery that will “change everything”. But before Mondrick can explain, he suddenly drops dead of a heart attack. All appearances point to a natural death, but Barbee suspects his new colleague, the exotic and strangely alluring redhead April Bell may have something to do with it. As Barbee starts to dig into the story, he learns of witches and werewolves and even gets taken in by some dreams that feel all too realistic. The mysteries eventually resolve into a question: Who is the Child of the Night? Barbee may not want to know the answer. Old school fantasy with a science fictional bent, attempting to put some rigor and explanation around what makes witches and werewolves tick, touching on probability, quantum theory, genetic engineering, and selective breeding. It gets a bit repetitive and Barbee seems a bit dense and unwilling to confront the obvious explanation for the strange events happening in the story, but it’s entertaining enough and I like the SFnal explanations, even if they feel a bit old-fashioned at this point. It’s perhaps not as spooky as most stories hitting these topics (and maybe the SF explanations undercut that aspect of the story), but it’s suitably mysterious and the ending is pretty great.
  • Gil’s All Fright Diner by A. Lee Martinez – Duke and Earl are just passing through town in their pickup when they stop at a diner… which gets attacked by zombies. The diner’s owner offers to pay them to resolve the little zombie problem she’s been having, which makes sense because Duke is a werewolf and Earl is a vampire. So they set about learning who is summoning these zombies and to what end. Along the way, Earl falls in love with a ghost that’s haunting the local graveyard. Short and sweet, this is a fun little horror comedy that sorta mashes up Joe Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard stories with traditional supernatural tales and a dash of Lovecraftian terror. I wouldn’t say that it has a particularly high joke density, but its funny when it wants to be, gory and creepy when it needs it, and it’s all packaged together well.
  • Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror by Jason Zinoman – You’ve gotta love subtitles, and this one pretty much explains what the book is all about. At its best, it’s a sorta Easy Riders, Raging Bulls style exploration of New Hollywood with a focus on horror filmmakers like George Romero, John Carpenter, Dan O’Bannon, Brian De Palma, and Wes Craven. What it covers, it does well, but it ultimately feels a bit shallow and too narrowly focused on the late 60s and 70s horror classics. When it gets to the mid-80s, Zinoman sorta provides a quick summary of the next 30 years, all in one chapter. It would have been nice to have seen a little more depth, even in the 70s era that the book focuses on. While you do need to hit those big rocks of horror (i.e. The Exorcist, The Last House on the Left, Halloween, etc…) and Zinoman is able to spend some time on influences ranging from Alfred Hitchcock to Mario Bava, mostly he’s covering well tread ground. He does a good job covering the classics, to be sure, and there were a few tidbits that were new to me and made those sections worthwhile, but the best parts of the book are when he’s covering more obscure movies, like Carpenter and O’Bannon’s Dark Star or some of De Palma’s less famous efforts. Of course, what I’m complaining about here is a sin of omission. What’s there is great… I just wanted more of it! And perhaps there’s room for Zinoman to expand on his premises with a deeper dive into 80s and 90s horror (and heck, let’s expand on the 00s too). This book is well worth reading for fans, and you’ll certainly get some insight into how and why horror evolved the way it did. Again, I just wish it kept going…

And that puts the last nail in the coffin of the Six Weeks of Halloween. Already anticipating next year’s marathon. In the meantime, we’ll return to the 1978 project and catching up on 2019 movies, not to mention our usual blend of topics…

6WH: Speed Round and Halloween

Time flies when you’re terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought. After six weeks of marathoning horror movies, there are a bunch of films that I’ve watched that I didn’t write about. Maybe because it didn’t fit in a given week’s theme, or perhaps I just didn’t have that much to say about it, or maybe I do have a lot to say about it but didn’t have the time or inclination to do so. As of this moment, I’ve watched 54 horror (or horror-adjacent, I guess) movies this Halloween season (with probably another one or two tomorrow for the big day), well below my record pace set last year (which clocked in at 61 movies), but still relatively high compared to, jeeze, the last decade or so of Halloween watching. I might have actually surpassed last year’s numbers, but I was traveling for one whole week and away for another weekend during the requisite 6 weeks, so my pace slackened during those times (I did watch a few movies on the plane though, so it didn’t stop entirely). I also watched a teensy bit of television during this year’s marathon, but that quickly got drowned out by movie watching. I did hit 14 films in one week though, which is a pace only rivaled by when I go to film festivals, so there is that. Anywho, let’s dive in:

  • Tales of Halloween – Horror anthology set on Halloween night. As usual, the segments are uneven.
    Tales of Halloween

    The standouts in my mind are the slasher/alien story, which is hysterically funny and well done, and the finale, which is the killer pumpkin movie we’ve all dreamed of. Or, like, maybe it’s just me, but killer pumpkins man, what else do you need? **1/2

  • I Trapped the Devil – A couple visits the family hermit… only to find that he’s locked someone up in the basement, claiming he’s the devil. Simple premise stretched out to feature length, very slow moving pace, well photographed and atmospheric, but derivative and a little unsatisfying in the end. A much better take on the story is The Twilight Zone episode The Howling Man, which covers similar ground in a mere 25 minutes. **
  • Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween – I was pleasantly surprised by the first Goosebumps a few years ago, and it’s always good to break up the monotonous despair of watching a lot of horror movies with something a little more fun, but it turns out that this movie inherits little of the charm of the first movie, and it feels a lot more like the soulless pixel stew I originally feared. That being said, it’s still light and fun and easygoing, which fits well inbetween the horrors of the season. **
  • The Ghoul – Borderline cromulent Boris Karloff programmer about an Egyptologist on his deathbed who has a plan for immortality. Or something like that. Good setup and premise, but it loses its way about halfway through. Fortunately, it’s pretty short, and it picks up again towards the end (which is, alas, abrupt and leaves some threads hanging). **
  • Deadtectives – A crew of television ghost hunters who’ve been faking things get trapped in a genuinely haunted location. Hijinks ensue. Hardly an original concept, but it’s a very well executed iteration on the idea, and it’s a winning combination of horror and comedy that scratches that Ghostbusters itch (you know, the one not scratched by the recent reboot). ***
  • King Kong – Seen it before, but I’m always struck by how much of a spectacle this movie must have been at the time. The effects actually hold up reasonably well now, they must have been mind-blowing at the time. Some all time great shots too. Well worth rewatching (or watching for the first time, if you haven’t…) ***
  • Night of Terror – Borderline croumulet Bela Lugosi programmer about relatives forced to stay the night at a haunted mansion in order to read a will (a trope that’s largely disappeared), only people keep showing up dead. A little meandering but it picks up towards the end and the finale is pretty fantastic (as is the coda). **1/2
  • 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene – Documentary that is laser focused on the 78 shots and 52 cuts that comprise the shower scene in Psycho. Mostly talking heads dissecting the scene, but pretty informative and interesting deep dive that somehow manages to sustain the feature film runtime. **1/2
  • Shaun of the Dead – Gets funnier every time I watch it. One of those rare parodies that represents a genuinely good example of the genre even while it lampoons all the tropes. ***
  • Raw Meat (aka Death Line) – Cannibals living in old subway lines in London! It’s got a pretty great and underrated Donald Pleasence performance as the police detective in charge, but is otherwise pretty forgettable. **
  • A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – A US production of a story set in Iran, starring mostly Iranian actors speaking Farsi. A lonely female vampire meets a lonely Iranian dude, and they have a sorta connection. Pretentious and artsy fartsy stuff, but reasonably well done. Not really my thing, but I can respect what’s going on here… (and watching the version on Shudder with Joe Bob Briggs’ commentary speckled throughout helped greatly…) **
  • Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – This has been on my “to watch” list for a long time, but I never really went out of my way to watch it because of it’s reputation as a really hard-to-watch movie. And this tale of serial killers certainly lives up to its reputation.
    Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

    The stark realism and casual violence really are rough, but it’s got some not-flashy visual prowess that works greatly in its favor. There’s not especially much in the way of plot either, but it’s mercifully short and once again, I was watching it with Joe Bob Briggs’ commentary interspersed (basically, I was catching up on all the Last Drive In movies I hadn’t seen before and didn’t catch up with when they originally aired earlier this year.) Not sure how to rate, so we’ll just use the ? rating system: ???

  • Happy Death Day – Revisiting this one a couple years later, and it’s still all good fun, even if it’s not exactly the most accomplished horror/Groundhog Day hybrid. Perfectly cromulent entertainment, with a winning cast, and decent enough execution. ***
  • X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes – Dude working on a revolutionary eye treatment loses funding and decides to try the experimental drug on himself, which works, but also drives him a little batty. Short, early Roger Corman shlock elevated a bit by Ray Milland’s lead performance. **1/1
  • The Silence of the Lambs – I’ve already said my piece on this one and it’s apparently my most rewatched movie of the past few years. It’s a longtime favorite of mine that has only grown in my estimation with each rewatch. ****
  • Vacancy – A grieving couple on the verge of divorce get stuck at a motel, where they discover a bunch of video tapes that turn out to be snuff films… set in their hotel room! The whole bickering couple thing is grating for sure, but once the premise gets going (which, to be sure, is pretty far into the movie) it evolves into a very competent and well staged thriller. Plenty of creepy tension, and the protagonists don’t make a ton of stupid decisions either. Not quite a classic, but well worthwhile. **1/2
  • Zombieland: Double Tap – The sort of sequel that doesn’t really add much to the original and isn’t really necessary, but which comports itself just fine, I guess. The conventions established in the first movie are starting to wear a little thin, but some new characters inject some vitality and energy into the proceedings, most notably Zoey Deutch as the ditzy blond (Rosario Dawson shows up, but isn’t really given much to do). All in all, this sort of bland horror comedy actually works well to break up the steady stream of misery you sometimes get when watching a lot of horror movies, so it worked well enough for me, but there’s absolutely nothing necessary about this movie. Even if you liked the first, you might not get a whole lot out of this one, but I thought it was fine. Damning with faint praise, maybe, but again, fine. **1/2
  • Critters – After the abysmal Critters 3 I caught up with the original, and damn, I forgot how fun it was. I kept meaning to catch up with Critters 2 at some point, but that eluded me… To be sure, it’s not like this is a classic or fine cinema or anything, but it’s well executed for what it is and a whole lot of fun. **1/2
  • Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film For some reason, I end up watching this documentary about slasher movies every year. It’s a fine overview, and for a while it was good to consult for ideas of what to watch, but at this point, I think I’ve seen the grand majority of the films covered. **1/2
  • Final Girl – Neat idea, poor execution. Sorta like a mashup of La Femme Nikita and the relatively obscure No One Lives, this is about a group of predatory assholes who lure women to the woods and then hunt them a la the most dangerous game. Only this girl is ready for the experience and turns the tables on her would-be attackers. The structure of the film itself kinda spoils the idea at its heart and it’s not a particularly inspired film, but it’s not as bad as the reviews would have you believe. I had enough fun with it, I guess… **1/2
  • That Guy Dick Miller – Documentary about Dick Miller, the guy you’ve probably seen in a million low budget horror flicks, as well as the occasional mainstream hit (most famous for Gremlins and that one scene as the gun shop owner in The Terminator). The documentary covers his career with mostly talking head interviews and clips from his many appearances (he currently has 182 appearances listed on IMDB). Miller died early this year, so I’m glad I caught up with this. Not really a horror movie, but Miller was in a ton of horror movies… **1/2
  • A Bucket of Blood – Speaking of Dick Miller, this is one of his rare starring roles. He plays a busboy and aspiring sculptor who accidentally kills a cat, and in panic, covers it with the plaster. But his friends see the cat and think it’s a startlingly realistic scultpure. Suddenly the talk of the town, Miller’s character needs to find new subjects, human subjects! Really quite entertaining little flick, with a pointed view of beatniks and the whole art scene. I really enjoyed it. ***
  • Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror – As previously mentioned, this was the inspiration for Week 5 of this year’s marathon, and it provides a pretty good overview of black horror. Once again, mostly talking heads and clips from movies, this one at least has Ken Foree and Keith David bouncing off of each other, which is fantastic. It might overstate some things or be a bit myopic, but it’s well worth a watch. ***
  • The Fury – Brian De Palma’s follow up to Carrie, this one concerns a father played by Kirk Douglass trying to rescue his son, who has psychic powers and was kidnapped by the government in order to make him into a super spy or soldier or whatever. Lots of big names and clearly a big budget (for the time) elevate the schlocky material a bit, and De Palma’s visual flair helps too (though his portrayal of action hasn’t matured yet). It loses steam a little bit as it progresses, but it ends on a final shot that’s pretty fantastic. ***
  • Dead Heat – Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo are cops who have been running into nigh indestructible zombies and investigate where they’re coming from. In the process, Williams becomes a zombie himself, and more hijinks ensue. It’s dumb 80s fun all the way down. A lot of the humor doesn’t exactly age well, though I’m not sure it was particularly great at the time either. Still, there are some laughs here and there, and it’s a fun enough concept. **1/2
  • Document of the Dead – Features behind the scenes footage from Dawn of the Dead that was originally conceived of as a reference for other filmmakers, the project eventually grew to encompass an overview of George Romero’s entire career. Its ramshackle origins are kinda felt while watching it, as it feels disjointed and lacking in cohesion… but it’s got lots of decent info too, so it’s still worth watching if you’re a fan of Romero and zombie movies…
  • Halloween – This is an annual rewatch, usually on the titular day, but a little early this year because of the Halloween Hootenanny on Shudder with Joe Bob Briggs. There’s little to be said about the movie at this point, but I appreciated Briggs’ commentary throughout. Oh heck, I might just have to break out the 4K BD tomorrow anyway. ****
  • Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers – Also prompted by the Halloween Hootenanny, I haven’t seen this in a long time. I was struck by a few things. One, both the beginning of this movie and the ending of this movie are damn near perfect. The opening is atmospheric and creepy and does a good job getting the series back into the Michael Myers mode; the ending has an unexpected but great sorta symmetry with the callback to the original. It’s a good ending by itself, but it also leaves some interesting avenues for the inevitable sequel. Another thing I love is the old preacher guy, fantastic little scene that I didn’t remember being that effective. Myers seems to be much more industrious this time around. He’s not just blindly charging in after babysitters, he’s shrewdly planning his approach, taking out phone lines, eliminating the threat of police, killing the power to the whole town. Only then does he start his more targeted killing spree. I’m being a little facetious here, as this isn’t really a great movie, but as a sequel, it could be a lot worse. **1/2
  • Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers – Remember five seconds ago when I said that the ending for part 4 left some interesting avenues available for the sequel? Yeah, they apparently didn’t seize on any of said avenues. This isn’t quite the absolute disaster that I remember it being, but it’s also, well, not really good at all. There are some isolated things I like well enough. The look of Myers is better in this one. I kinda like the opening of the movie, even if it is a little retconny. The weird hermit that lives in a shack by the river is always a fun touch. And while the dude with the pointy boots is a complete non-sequitur and doesn’t really pay off, there’s something there that could have maybe worked? I dunno, unfortunately the grand majority of this movie is just plain bad. *
  • Haunt – A bunch of college students head to a remote haunted house on Halloween, and of course it turns out that the people running the haunted house are crazy murderers who have trapped our protagonists in their little death maze thing. Sorta like a combo of Hell Fest, Saw, and, um, a million other movies. So it’s not the most original premise, and there are some stupid character decisions from time to time, but it is about as well executed as you could hope. I enjoyed it quite a bit, even if it’s not, like, a new classic or anything. **1/2
  • Hack-O-Lantern – Pure 80s cheese with a satanic panic plot, high-schoolers who look like they’re 35 years old, so-bad-its-good acting chops, and a delightfully unhinged performance from Hy Pyke as the grandpa/cult leader.

    This is one of those movies that isn’t particularly good in an objective sense, but is still a ton of fun to watch. ???

  • Hatchet III – I’ve generally enjoyed this sorta throwback neo-slasher series. Of course, the sequels suffer a bit from diminishing returns, but they’re still gory fun with the occasional wink. **1/2
  • Trick ‘r Treat – The other annual night-of-Halloween watch, this is on the docket for tomorrow night. I still really enjoy this movie quite a bit, and it’s always torture hearing about the rumored sequel, which is “actually happening” every time I check, but it’s been almost a decade, so I’m guessing it will never see the light of day. Or, uh, the dark of a theater. Yeah. ***1/2

And with that, the Six Weeks of Halloween is nearly finished. I will most likely finish off the remaining Creepshow episodes on the big night as well. I’ll probably cover some Season’s Readings on Sunday, which will represent the end of horror posts. Post 6WH, we’ll return to the 1978 project and continue the catchup of 2019 movies I missed…

6WH: Week 6 – Edwige Fenech

The latest in a continuing series of posts concerning “Obscure Scream Queens”, which started a few years ago with Italian Giallo star Erika Blanc, moved on to Isabelle Adjani, and last year, the spotlight was on 80s B-movie star Linnea Quigley. This past weekend, I returned to Italian Giallos (the cinema of my people!) to watch a trio of movies starring Edwige Fenech. Best known for her work in commedia sexy all’italiana (Italian Sex Comedies) and Giallo films released in the 1970s, she became a sex symbol and television personality. Quentin Tarantino seems to be a fan, suggesting her for a role in Hostel II (which he produced) and naming a character in Inglorious Basterds after her. In the US, she’s not particularly well known, except perhaps for horror nerds who have gobbled up all her Giallo movies, particularly those directed by Sergio Martino. Indeed, two of the three movies we’re covering today are directed by Martino, and actually now that I think about it, all three also co-star George Hilton (but he clearly doesn’t stand out much when next to the stunning Fenech). So let’s dive in:

  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror V: The Shinning
  • How Scream Should Have Ended (short)
  • The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (trailer)
  • The Case of the Bloody Iris – A supermodel (played by Fenech, natch) and her goofy friend move into an apartment whose previous tenant was brutally murdered in the elevator (in a sequence that would be recalled in later films). Naturally, the criminal is now after Fenech. Pretty standard Giallo setup here: some dude murdering women, cue the final girl and loads of red herrings. And boy, are there a lot of red herrings here. There’s the architect who is terrified of blood, the elderly neighbor who’s hiding her deformed and mentally unstable son, and of course, the aggressive lesbian neighbor, amongst others.
    The Case of the Bloody Iris

    This one sets itself apart from a lot of other Giallos by incorporating a bubbly silliness into the proceedings, particularly with the performance of Paola Quattrini, Fenech’s wacky roommate, and Franco Agostini as the police assistant. Fenech is great, as always, but the role is comparatively straight, so she doesn’t stand out as much when compared to some of the supporting roles. The swanky 70s music also helps things along. It’s not as bloody or visually stunning as some other Giallos, but it has its charms and ranks well amongst mid-tier Giallos. **1/2

  • Rosemary’s Baby (trailer)
  • The Netherbeast of Berm-Tech Industries, Inc. (Short)
  • The House of the Devil (trailer)
  • All the Colors of the Dark – Beautiful Jane (played by Fenech) is suffering from grief. Her mother died when she was young and she recently lost her baby in a car crash. Now she’s being tormented by dreams of a terrifying killer. Her boyfriend (George Hilton) thinks the solution is vitamin supplements(!?) Her sister thinks she just needs to see a psychiatrist. So naturally, Jane ends up siding with her neighbor, who is a satanist and who promises to solve all of Jane’s problems if she’ll just participate in a black mass or two.
    All the Colors of the Dark

    Now this is the stuff. Trippy, psychadelic paranoia abounds, and director Sergio Martino fills the thing with gorgeous visuals. His compositions and camera movement really set this apart from, for example, The Case of the Bloody Iris (which looks fine, to be sure, but does not hold up well in comparison to something like this). The soundtrack here is also fantastic, and sometimes reminded me a bit of Goblin’s great scores for Argento. The story itself is typically convoluted, with a lot of what we see being a sorta unreliable narrative. This sort of thing is difficult to pull off, but Martino and Fenech sell it hard, and it’s calibrated just right. The satanic cult and particularly its leader, with his creepy claws, are suitably menacing, and it makes for a pretty tense affair. Fenech is really fantastic here, and while the supporting cast is also strong, it’s really all Fenech (with Martino) carrying the movie. I really enjoyed this one, my favorite of the weekend. ***

  • Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (trailer)
  • Don’t (fake trailer)
  • The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave (trailer)
  • The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh – Newly married Julie movies back to Vienna, where there’s a sex criminal on the loose who’s murdering women. Soon, it feels like the murderer is after her. Could it be her husband? Maybe her sadistic ex-boyfriend? Or perhaps her current lover plays some role?
    The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh

    Again, pretty standard Giallo setup here, sex murderer and lots of apparent red herrings. It drags a little in the middle and doesn’t have the more exciting “satanic cult” angle, but it comports itself well, especially once you get to the finale, which I won’t spoil here, but which is quite byzantine, unexpected, a little bonkers, and pretty fun too. Fenech is great, as always, and the supporting cast does well too. This was also directed by Sergio Martino, and he infuses the film with suitable visual flair (though again, not quite as great as the previously mentioned film). More melodramatic than the previous two films, but quite entertaining for what it is. Another middle tier Giallo elevated a bit by Martino’s direction and Fenech’s performance. **1/2

I can’t believe we’re already at the sixth week and the big day is nearly upon us. Stay tuned for the usual speed round, wherein we cover all the other junk I’ve been watching throughout the season. I’ll probably also have a season’s readings to cover next week too, so we should really just call this the seven weeks of Halloween or something…

Vintage Science Fiction Month: The Intersection of Horror and SF

Vintage Science Fiction Month is an annual call to celebrate, read, and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction. I’ve participated in this for the last few years and have found the process rewarding. This non-challenge was the brainchild of Andrea from Little Red Reviewer, and this year, there’s been a concerted push to get more participation, which is why I’m posting this now. It’s never too early to start thinking about what you want to read and discuss. The only real rule for participating is that you do so in January.

Vintage Science Fiction Month

Since it’s October and I’m already wallowing in the Halloween season, I figured it would be worth taking a look at the intersection between horror and science fiction. While both genres are distinct, there is surprising amount of overlap, even in the histories of those genres. Of course, defining genres is a task fraught with drama and controversy, but my goal here is not to strictly define what science fiction and horror are, but to explain how my understanding of horror has informed my thoughts on science fiction (and vice versa). It’s easy enough to come up with a definition for a genre that covers straightforward examples, but those definitions always get blurry around the edges, and cross-genre works become difficult to categorize. Again, it’s not my goal here to define some works as “not real SF” or whatever, just to explore that blurry, fuzzy area between science fiction and horror. And there’s a lot to explore, going all the way back to the origins of science fiction.

Gothic horror novels like The Castle of Otranto or more famously Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus contain the roots of what would become science fiction, even if the genres eventually diverged considerably. Other nineteenth century authors, like Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Luis Stevenson, made similar forays beyond normal horror tropes to include science-related activities.

If you look in a bookstore, though, you probably won’t find this stuff in the science fiction section. This separation of horror from science fiction is a marketing decision, but then, that’s the point of genres in the first place. Assigning a work to a genre generates a set of expectations in the reader. Such expectations can manifest as tropes, codes, references, and even expressive prose techniques, all in service of providing the reader with an experience consistent with genre conventions. While both genres often portray spine-tingling confrontations with a terrifying unknown, the chief difference between them is not the events depicted, but how the response to those events is characterized. The horror or gothic response is generally one of acceptance and surrender, while science fiction’s reaction is one of rational curiosity. To drastically simplify the sitation: horror thrives in a lack of understanding while science fiction sees such threats as a challenge to be overcome, a problem to be solved. These are generalizations, of course, and there are certainly exceptions and cross-genre exercises that straddle the line. As science fiction matured though, these distinctions became more pronounced.

If you read vintage SF and gothic fiction, you can see this transition happening in the early 20th century, and accelerating once John Campbell took over editing duties for Astounding. Funnily enough, Campbell’s most famous story from his time as an author is Who Goes There?, a fantastic horror story turned into SF by the way in which the characters confront the shapeshifting “Thing” from another planet. It’s telling that filmic adaptations of this story emphasize the horror elements by instituting a more ambiguous ending not present in the story (in which the terrifying alien is now understood and rationality is re-established). In any case, Campbell’s work as an editor did transform science fiction and hasten the divergence between horror and science fiction.

Overlaps between the two genres are still common, of course, but often as a way to emphasize which genre we’re really in. Take William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist; pretty definitively categorized as horror, but when you actually read the book, a very large amount of time is spent on ruling out more mundane, science-based explanations for the situation. Indeed, the notion that something is happening that science cannot explain is part of what makes the story scary (though there are other things that also contribute). You see this technique in a lot of horror stories to this day, but what makes them good horror is that the problem is often left unsolved or at least, poorly understood. Even when an evil is defeated, it’s often portrayed as a short-term, localized victory and that the evil will likely return.

So what are some examples of vintage SF novels that tackle horror tropes from a science fictional perspective (or science fiction tropes from a horror perspective)? Here’s a few recommendations:

  • I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954) – This study in isolation and grim irony leans heavily on science fiction tropes; for instance, it takes the normally supernatural explanation for vampires and turns it into a communicable disease (i.e. something that can be studied and possibly cured). The plot eventually slants more towards horror, but it’s difficult to explain why without spoiling the story. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty fantastic novel worth reading this time of the year. Also of note, various film adaptations of this novel do not hold up very well when compared to the source material, so don’t write this off because you didn’t like the movie.
  • Some of Your Blood by Theodore Sturgeon (1961) – Another story I don’t want to spoil, but one which starts mundane, verges on supernatural, then pulls back and posits a purely psychological explanation for the events of the story. I read this a couple years ago for my annual Six Weeks of Halloween marathon, and was quite pleased with it. It makes for a good companion piece with I Am Legend as well (while that one posits a physiological explanation for the seemingly supernatural, this one posits a psychological explanation). It’s a little slow and may not be as surprising or twisty to a modern audience, but I really enjoyed it.
  • The Professor’s Teddy Bear by Theodore Sturgeon (1948) – A short story about a time-bending vampiric maybe-alien Teddy Bear, this one is a little more mind-bendy and difficult to categorize, but it’s short and fun and seasonally appropriate.
  • The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft (1928) – Probably more horror than SF, but Lovecraft’s entire oeuvre is generally based on the SFnal notion of a rational universe… it’s just that, as humans, we can only perceive or tolerate a small portion of that reality. That sort of ecstatic surrender to blasphemous, unknowable terror is certainly not an SF response, but Lovecraft often managed to use SFnal notions to underline his work.
  • Darker Than You Think by Jack Williamson (1948) – I’m currently reading this novel (just because Vintage SF month is in January doesn’t mean you can’t read any of it for the rest of the year!), so I will reserve judgement for later, but it does inject science fictional elements into a story featuring witches and werewolves. Indeed, so far, the novel seems to be squarely within the SF tradition moreso than horror, positing explanations based on quantum theory and probability (for a more modern and less horror-based take on this, see The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.) as well as genetic engineering and selective breeding. I have reservations about some aspects of the story, but the SF elements are interesting. Of course, this was originally published in Unknown, which was John Campbell’s dumping ground for less rigorous SFnal or fantasy tales.

Arthur C. Clarke once infamously observed that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” One of the ways that SF has evolved is to widen the perimeter of explainable phenomena. This quickly moved beyond unknown planets and aliens and other scientific speculations to include ideas that originated in myth and fantasy and horror. One particular sub-genre of SF that is relevant here is the technology-of-magic story, which depicts seemingly supernatural powers, but then provides plausible explanations in order to defuse the situation. Most of the above mentioned stories are doing exactly that, even if some of them stop a little short. It’s important not to mistake the stage furniture for the genre. Just because there’s a vampire or werewolf in the story doesn’t mean it can’t be SF. Similarly, just because there’s lasers and spaceships doesn’t mean that horror can’t present itself.

We could go on like this forever. There’s a lot to unpack within each genre, and we could spend years ferreting out what makes each of them tick. I’m a big tent guy and I enjoy both genres, so I’m more than happy in that fuzzy space between the genres… but I can see the benefits of taking a stricter approach as well. In some ways, Horror and SF are diametrically opposed in their goals and aspirations, and it’s worth considering that. I’ve read plenty in both genres, but there’s always room for more knowledge, which is one reason I participate in Vintage Science Fiction Month. It’s only a couple months away, so you best start planning your reading for January now too!

6WH: Week 5 – Horror Noire

Earlier this year, Shudder released Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, which is exactly what the title says (and well worth watching). It’s based on a book of the same name by Robin R. Means Coleman, though there are movies in the documentary that are not in the book and vice versa (full list on Letterboxd). I’ve actually seen a fair amount of the movies mentioned in the documentary (er, less from the book), but I had some blind spots that I thought should be corrected, so I spent the weekend revisiting the documentary and watching a few of the mentioned movies:

  • White Zombies (Key & Peele)
  • Get Out (trailer)
  • Horror Noire (trailer)
  • Vamp – I made note of this movie back when the documentary came out, but as it turns out, it’s not even in the movie. It is, however, in the book, and I must have read people talking about it in the wake of the documentary or something. This movie is about two fraternity pledges tasked with procuring some strippers to perform for the frat, so they head to a strip club in the big, bad city and immediately run afoul of gangs, albinos, and as the title would imply, vampires. Perhaps because I actually haven’t watched that much 80s horror this year, this feels like the most 80s movie to ever 80s. Neon colors and bad fashion galore, with lots of other more thematic 80s signifiers sprinkled in for good measure. What starts as a sex comedy sorta transmogrifies into light 80s horror, making for a somewhat inconsistent tone, but something that evokes films like An American Werewolf in London and probably influenced From Dusk Till Dawn (even if both of those are better movies that more deftly switch between modes). So why is this Horror Noire? Because of the absolutely perfect casting of Grace Jones as stripper/Vampire Queen.
    Grace Jones in Vamp

    She’s introduced onstage performing the most 80s striptease ever (with, like, metal underwear, striking red hair and bodypaint, etc…) and generally owns the screen whenever she shows up, which unfortunately isn’t that often. Still, she chews the scenery with aplomb despite not speaking much (if at all?) She elevates the film into perfectly cromulent territory and makes the whole enterprise worthwhile, even if the film is otherwise unremarkable. I’m glad I caught up with this though. **1/2

  • Night of the Living Dead (trailer)
  • Walking Dead Chappelle’s Show (SNL)
  • Candyman (trailer)
  • Tales from the Hood – Supremely pissed off anthology film with a wraparound set in a mortuary with Clarence Williams III’s Funeral Director telling a trio of gang members four stories, each of which is presented as a segment. There’s nothing subtle at all about each segment, which confront racial issues head-on, including police brutality and corruption, domestic violence, white supremacist politicians, the prison system, and gang warfare.
    Tales from the Hood

    It’s not exactly “fun”, but it’s very well done and fits right into the tradition of classic anthologies like Creepshow, Tales from the Crypt, etc… As per usual with anthology films, some of the segments work better than others, but this does present a more cohesive, unified package than most manage, and it ends strong. Unfortunately, the issues presented in this nearly 25 year old movie are still pretty relevant today, which might make this a bit of an uncomfortable watch… which is exactly the point. ***

  • Sexy Vampires (Key & Peele)
  • Abby (trailer)
  • Ganja & Hess (trailer)
  • Blacula – An 18th century African prince named Mamuwalde visits Transylvania to meet with none other than Count Dracula in an effort to negotiate an end to the slave trade. Naturally, Dracula is a racist, so negotiations grind to a halt when he bites Mamuwalde, turns him into a vampire, imprisons his princess, and dubs him “Blacula”. A couple centuries later, Dracula has long since been defeated by Van Helsing, and a pair of interior decorators purchase Dracula’s castle with the intention of selling off all its antique contents as campy decorations in the new world. Among the belongings they inherit is Mamuwalde’s locked up coffin, which is transported to L.A., whereupon Blacula is awakened. He’s obviously hungry, but also heartbroken at the loss of his love, who appears to have been reincarnated in the form of a woman named Tina.

    So this is the sort of film everyone has heard of, but is probably less widely seen than it should be. The punny title is certainly goofy and certainly implies a less sophisticated film than what we actually get (the title is undeniably catchy and memorable though, so there is that). The whole idea feels a little silly – what if the vampire was black!? The film’s marketing proclaimed that he was “Dracula’s soul brother”, which again, kinda sells the movie short. This isn’t a rote retelling of the Dracula story, though to paraphrase George Lucas, it rhymes with the source material. It’s certainly low budget, and you can feel that while watching, but it’s a reasonably well told story that holds more value than its reputation implies. Director William Crain sadly didn’t have a particularly prolific career (he would work primarily in television), but he does good work here, despite budgetary constraints. The performances are also pretty great, especially William Marshall as the titular Blacula. I also enjoyed Ji-Tu Cumbuka’s comedic performance as Skillet, and Vonetta McGee is good as the love interest (and she shows up in one of my favorite, obscure seventies flicks, The Eiger Sanction). Look, it’s not exactly a classic or anything, but it’s more than just a silly Blaxploitation cash-in and well worth checking out. **1/2

Dammit, how is it week 5 already? Coming down the homestretch, we’ve got some thoughts on the crossover of Vintage SF and Horror coming up, and a trio of Giallos next week, so stay tuned!

6WH: Week 4.5 – Netflixing

One of the weird things about Netflix’s insatiable desire for content is that they’re producing (or purchasing) so much of it that many individual works get lost in the throngs of new releases. A good example happened to me last week, when I realized that there were two newly released films on Netflix that I hadn’t heard anything about (nor seen upon opening the app), but which were directed by two guys I find interesting. Jim Mickle isn’t exactly a household name, but he directed films like the vampire apocalypse story Stake Land and the excellent Texas noir Cold in July. Vincenzo Natali might be marginally better known, but he’s most famous for Cube and TV work on series like Hannibal and Westworld. Again, neither are marquee names, but in film nerd circles, both names turn heads. Did their two films live up to expectations? Eh… sorta?

  • The Silence of the Lambs (trailer)
  • Lotion in the Basket (Robot Chicken)
  • Shining (fake trailer)
  • In the Shadow of the Moon – When a trio of mysterious murders turn up in Philadelphia in 1988, a police officer who is bucking for detective becomes intrigued by the case. Weird injections that defy scientific explanation and a killer’s cryptic last words only add to the mystery. Nine years later, more murders with the same M.O. appear, and the now-detective descends into full-blown obsession. And so on! This starts out as a pretty intense police procedural and serial killer story, then shifts in a more science fictiony direction, before settling on a Lost-esque series of events that ultimately prove unsatisfying, though

    not entirely without merit. At its best, towards the beginning of the movie, it sorta evokes that X-Files or more accurately Fringe-like (er, the good parts of Fringe)) exploration of science-ran-amok. As the film progresses, it gets more and more predictable, yet somehow makes less and less sense, and culminates in a crushingly didactic monologue that almost sinks the entire endeavor. All that being said, the nuts and bolts filmmaking is well crafted, fast paced, and exciting enough to keep things interesting. Mickle has a keen eye and directs action well, but the script lets him down a bit.

    In the Shadow of the Moon

    The performances are all good considering the material, and the production values are actually pretty great. As a Philly guy, I appreciated some of the regional touches (the Septa bus, the Wawa cameo, etc…), even though it’s otherwise clearly not shot in Philly. The action and pacing were quick enough that my dumb engineer’s brain would come up with a lot of questions, but not really have time to get annoyed by them… until after the film ended (i.e. you’re police and you see three murders where people started suddenly bleeding out through all orifices like they were injected with some sort of biological weapon… but there’s no talk of quarantine or other protective measures; the twist about where the killer comes from implies a whole host of questions which the film doesn’t even pretend to engage with; and so on). I keep complaining about this film, but it’s actually pretty enjoyable. There’s a place for technically well-executed, pulpy, trope-driven thrillers like this, and its worth checking out, I just wish some its wrinkles were ironed out a little more (or maybe if they fully embraced the wrinkles or something). **1/2

  • Cube (trailer)
  • Haunter (trailer)
  • Triangle (trailer)
  • In the Tall Grass – A pregnant woman and her brother are driving through Kansas. At one pit stop, they hear a young boy’s cry for help coming from a field of tall grass. They go in to help, but can’t seem to find their way out… and something sinister is at work. Based on a short story by Stephen King and Joe Hill, the premise evokes Natali’s most famous work, Cube, by crafting a constantly shifting, disorienting space… and not quite knowing how to solve the puzzle. Naturally, the story focuses more on the interpersonal relationships between the woman and her brother, the boy and his family, and so on, and the mysteries of the field and the evil rock get short shrift. Not necessarily the worst tactic, but the relationships aren’t particularly special and the one-location setting gets repetitive pretty quickly. At its best, it reminded me a bit of House of Leaves, but it drags a bit too much in the middle, and much of the premise doesn’t lend itself to logical explanations. Again, not necessarily terrible in a horror flick; such nonsensical physics can be frightening, but something about this doesn’t quite hold together. Like Mickle’s entry above, Natali’s filmmaking chops are still effective. The film looks great, and despite their repetitive nature, he’s able to coax a lot of visual strength out of a field of tall grass.
    In the Tall Grass

    Remember a few years ago when Shyamalan tried to make the breeze and grass scary in The Happening and failed miserably? Well, Natali is actually able to coax some tension out of this sort of thing. The performances are mostly good, with the standout being Patrick Wilson, who’s clearly having a blast in this role. Its slower paced and drags a bit more, but it’s not really boring either, so it still has plenty of appeal. It’s been getting brutal reviews, which aren’t entirely unwarranted, but it’s not as bad as the aggregators would have you believe. **1/2

Stay tuned, a trio of Horror Noire will follow on Sunday…

6WH: Week 4 – Before They Were Famous

One of the funny things about digging through the annals of obscure horror cinema is when you stumble on an A-list superstar making an early career appearance before they were famous. Of course, I’ve already seen most of the biggest examples of this: Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th, Tom Hanks in He Knows You’re Alone, Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun, Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter in The Burning; the examples are numerous. But I haven’t seen them all, in part because some of these aren’t particularly any good. I should perhaps stop intentionally watching bad movies this year, but maybe these will be fun?

  • Jack Chop (short)
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror V: Nightmare Cafeteria
  • Slaughter High (trailer)
  • Return to Horror High (George Clooney) – The trouble with “before they were famous” movies is that, often, the person who will go on to be famous is only in the movie for a short time, and this movie is a pretty good example of that. George Clooney shows up for the first ten minutes or so of this movie, but then he’s unceremoniously killed off. During his short time onscreen, he does actually display some sense of charisma… that, or I’m just really suggestible. But seriously, there’s a moment where he’s walking up steps in a police officer uniform and messing with the film crew that feels like an ad lib that they kept in the movie because Clooney’s a likable dude.
    George Clooney in Return to Horror High

    Anyway, the other thing about this movie is that I sorta assumed it was a sequel (to a film called Horror High?), but as it turns out, that’s not the case. There was some sort of massacre at a high school a while back, and now a low-budget horror movie crew is retelling the story at the very location in which the tragedy happens. There’s actually a lot going on here. The film opens with the police trying to piece together what happened with the film production (apparently they’re all dead). The lone survivor relays what happened, which we see in flashback. Then the film production itself is retelling the original tragedy… which are also portrayed as seamless flashbacks. It’s flashbacks within flashbacks; we have to go deeper. An interesting idea, if not exactly well executed and rather confusing at the end. That ending has some cooky twists that don’t make sense at all, but are kinda fun anyway and along the way, there’s lots to enjoy here. There’s plenty of humor on display (even if all of it doesn’t land) and while Clooney is offed at the beginning, there’s lots of other lower-tier faces that you might recognize. Alex Rocco, he actor who played Moe Greene in The Godfather, is hamming it up as the sleazy Hollywood producer. Maureen McCormick, of Brady Bunch fame, is having a good time as a police officer. And there are a couple other folks I recognized too. Look, it’s not a good movie, and I don’t think anyone would be watching this if it weren’t for the Clooney bit part, but it’s kinda fun. **

  • American Pickers Texas (Robot Chicken)
  • Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (NSFW Trailer)
  • The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (trailer)
  • Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey) – Two for the price of one! Both Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey play major roles in this rote retread featuring a quartet of kids on prom night getting lost and running afoul of (what one must assume is) the next generation of chainsaw wielding cannibals.
    Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation

    This is clearly the worst movie of the weekend, with a plot that’s just a mashup of Texas Chainsaw tropes and a few baffling non-sequiturs (Why is McConaughey’s character… bionic? Who the hell is that businessman?) That being said, McConaughey brings a real villainous energy to the role. It’s a shame that he mostly disowns the movie because his performance really does keep things lively, no matter how bad the rest of the movie is. Zellweger, too, is doing pretty well given the crappy material. Ultimately, this is another situation where I’m guessing that the movie would be forgotten if not for the before-they-were-stars component, though some of those bonkers decisions might garner enough of a cult following, I guess. *1/2

  • “Gremlins 2” Brainstorm (Key & Peele)
  • Critters (trailer)
  • Critters 2 (trailer)
  • Critters 3 (Leonardo DiCaprio) – A family on a road trip inadvertently picks up some Critter eggs and transports them to the big city, where they hatch and start wreaking havoc on an apartment building in the slums. I can kinda see what they were trying to do here – take the Critter threat away from the rural town setting and set them loose in a big city… but they clearly didn’t have anywhere near the budget needed for the requisite mayhem. Heck, they don’t seem to have enough budget to equal the first two installments, which had throngs (packs? herds? hordes?) of critters, while this one has exactly five. They still look great, and the movie does a reasonable job differentiating them (one is scarred by bleach and becomes the sorta unofficial leader; another is called “Blackie” for presumably racist reasons), giving them new powers (they have a Sonic-like ability to spin in place before launching an attack now), and coming up with creative ways of killing them.
    Leonardo DiCaprio in Critters 3

    A larval Leonardo DiCaprio shows up as the stepson of the apartment’s scumbag owner. Unlike the other stars in this post, he doesn’t get to show much of his starpower here. He’s not bad, to be sure, but it’s not like you’d watch this and think “That kid’s going places!” (like you might with McConaughey, Zellweger, or Clooney in the other movies). So this isn’t as fun as the first two entries in the series (which I should probably revisit, since I really enjoyed them when I was a kid), but it’s not unwatchable or anything. The very end of the film is a pretty blatant setup for a sequel, but it’s actually kinda funny and so obvious that it works and… I kinda want to watch Critters 4 now (the two films were apparently greenlit and produced concurrently). You could do worse, but you really shouldn’t be trying to do worse – just watch the first two and you’ll probably be fine. **

So I had fun this weekend, but I think I’m ready for some actually decent movies, so hopefully we’ll figure something out for next week’s theme that will work a little better.

6WH: Week 3.5 – The Marathon Will Be Televised

During last year’s Six Weeks of Halloween marathon, I watched a record 61 movies. Part of that came at the expense of watching horror related television, despite some good stuff happening there. Since I’ve already been thrown off my pace this year by travel and other happenings, I might as well switch gears a bit and check out some new shows. I haven’t delved particularly deep just yet, but I’ve been watching some stuff that I found interesting, so I figured I’d share some thoughts:

  • Creepshow S1:E1 “Gray Matter/The House of the Head” – Shudder’s new Creepshow series is dropping one episode at a time for… six weeks (culminating on Halloween itself). It looks like each episode will feature two segments (each about 20-25 minutes long). This first episode starts a bit slow but ends strong. The first segment, “Gray Matter”, is based on a Stephen King short story, and it takes place during a big storm. A kid shows up at the local convenience store to pick up a case of cheap beer for his father, who has been drowning his sorrows in alcohol since his wife died. But grief has turned him into something altogether different… Some nice atmosphere and decent creature effects, but ultimately kinda straightforward. Enjoyable, but not going to light the world on fire. The second segment, “The House of the Head”, is altogether more successful and effective. A little girl plays with dolls in her dollhouse, but a mysterious severed doll head shows up, and her dolls start moving on their own.
    The House of the Head

    The head has murderous designs on the quaint family the little girl built up in the house, and she must figure out a way to help them. Now this is the stuff. You never see the dolls move, but the still shots you see are very effective and menacing. The little girl makes some interesting attempts to solve the problem, but because this is Creepshow, they don’t really work out. Not exactly a bummer, but very creepy and entertaining…

  • Creepshow S1:E2 “Bad Wolf Down/The Finger” – A platoon of American soldiers gets trapped behind enemy lines and takes refuge in a local police station. It appears that the Germans in the station have been slaughtered by some sort of wild animal. Surrounded by enemy soldiers, the Americans find a novel way to fight back. It’s silly and fun and pretty much all you could ask for out of this one. “The Finger” is a little less successful, though it has some nice moments and the idea at its core works well enough. A man finds a finger on the ground and brings it home to research where it came from. Then the finger starts to grow, at first another finger, then a whole arm, then a whole little gremlin thing… that likes to watch soap operas and eat popcorn. Ultimately it just sorta peters out, but it comports itself well enough. As per usual, these anthology series are a bit uneven, but each story is short enough to keep interest going. I’m looking forward to watching more of these as the season progresses.
  • The Twilight Zone S1:E1 “Where Is Everybody?” – I’ve obviously seen lots of episodes of the Twilight Zone, but I thought it might be fun to go back and start from the very beginning with this 1959 episode in which a man finds himself in an empty town and slowly grows crazy in the isolation. A neat little tale, not one of the best episodes to be sure, but short and sweet, and pretty indicative of the types of stuff we’ll see in the rest of the series.
  • The Twilight Zone S1:E2 “One for the Angels” – A street salesman (i.e. a pitch man) comes home one day to find that Death is waiting for him, sez he’s scheduled to die that night, gives him time to set his affairs in order. The salesman attempts to appeal, settling on the idea that he’d like to make a really big pitch before he dies, you know, “one for the Angels!” Death agrees, but when the salesman attempts to welch on the deal, Death tells him that he’s going to have to take someone else’s life instead, and chooses a local neighborhood girl. Will the salesman be able to find a way to save the little girl? This is a really nice episode. I don’t normally think of The Twilight Zone as being heartwarming, but this episode strikes the right balance. Great performances here too, which certainly helps sell the experience.
  • The Twilight Zone S1:E3 “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” – A western about a town drunk and former quick draw champion whose past catches up with him, with a little help from the personification of Fate. Another neat little episode with a happy ending, but no less effective because of that.
  • Evil S1:E1 “Pilot” – This new show from the creators of The Good Wife is about an investigator for the Catholic Church looking into reports of possession and miracles, etc… The first episode involves a defendant trying to use insanity/possession as a defense against murder charges. There are some effective little bits here and there, and I like the debunking aspects of the episode, but it also feels like they’re trying to have their cake and eat it too. This sort of thing could potentially be worked out over time though, so maybe this will end up scratching that X-Files monster-of-the-week itch. It’s an easygoing show akin to your typical CBS procedural, but with a more supernatural flair. Some bits are perhaps too on the nose, but it’s a decent enough start. I’ll probably watch more of this.

I’m definitely planning to dive deeper into The Haunting of Hill House this year, and may check out some other series if time permits…

6WH: Week 3 – A Creature Double Feature

Wherein I continue my slow, shambling stroll through the classic Universal Monster movie catalog. Or should I say, my slow, uncoordinated swim through the Creature from the Black Lagoon series, of which there are only really three entries and a massive trail of failed remakes and reboots. Naturally, there are tons of Gillman-like creatures peppering the pop culture landscape. Most recent and notable is Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar Winning The Shape of Water, itself a failed reboot concept that del Toro was able to wrangle into something slightly different. Now that the whole Dark Universe concept has floundered, who knows when we’ll see the next iteration of the Creature. But I suspect we will, someday. In the meantime, let’s dive into the sequels:

  • Creature from the Black Lagoon (trailer)
  • The Lagoon Creature’s Name (Robot Chicken)
  • The Shape of Water (trailer)
  • Revenge of the Creature – Another trip to the Amazon, another encounter with the Creature. This time, the Gillman is captured and transported back to a water-themed amusement park, presumably to be trained in dumb show tricks like jumping through hoops and kicking footbals or something. Naturally, the experiments go poorly and the Gillman escapes for the inevitable rampage. Lots of underwater photography (I want to say more than the original, though its been awhile since I watched it) and the Creature hiself looks as good as ever.
    Revenge of the Creature

    Storywise, there’s not really much here. The love triangle is not especially romantic and perfunctory at best, and the characters strike me as less effective versions of the same types from the first film. The Creature kidnaps our heroine not so much because of story reasons, but because that’s what happened in the first film. The aforementioned inevitable rampage isn’t particularly rampagey, and the Gillman seems a bit less badass in this sequel. Even the thematic component lacks here, with the broad ecological concerns of the first film replaced with the idea that animals don’t like being in zoos (which is fine, but a step backwards for the series). A paint by numbers sequel that entertains well enough but doesn’t really push any boundaries. I think the most interesting thing about this movie is that it features a very early appearance of Clint Eastwood as a scientist who forgot he has a mouse in his pocket. Which is cool, and all, but it’s only about 30 seconds of screen time. **

  • The Monster Squad (trailer)
  • Creature Nightlife (Robot Chicken)
  • The Host (X-Files)
  • The Creature Walks Among Us – Another expedition, this time to the everglades, where they quickly find the creature but accidentally light him on fire. The third degree burns have mostly burned off the Gillman’s scales, revealing what appears to be human skin, prompting questions about biological transformation and evolution. Credit where credit is due – this is not a tired retread of the previous two films, and indeed, it makes some interesting choices. In fact, the Gillman is notably less aggressive in this film, especially after his transformation (this despite appearing to be surprisingly jacked in his more human form).
    The Creature Walks Among Us

    There is, of course, the requisite rampage towards the end, but besides the two main villains of the piece (a serial harasser and a cowardly, abusive scientist and husband that are both real turds, especially with respect to their treatment of our female hero), the Gillman’s ire is mostly reserved for inanimate objects like gates and stone pillars. The ending is surprisingly affecting, with the Gillman, suffering from several bullet wounds, instinctively trying to retreat towards the water, a place where he can no longer survive. **1/2

I’ve been traveling, so this week’s posts have been a little lighter than normal (actually pretty surprised I managed the two scheduled posts, even if they’re not up to normal standards). I’m back now, so regularly scheduled 6WH activities can resume in full force. At this point, I’m not sure what the coming week will hold for me, but I have some ideas, so stay tuned!

6WH: Week 2.5 – No, Not The Bees, Ahhhh!

There’s a phenomenon known as Twin Films, wherein two films with suspiciously similar plots are released around the same time by two different studios. Canonical examples include Deep Impact and Armageddon (well, for people my age, I guess) and Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe (to give a much earlier example).

In the midst of preparations for the 1978 Project, I noticed one such pair of films, this time concerning killer bees. Combining the 70s penchant for disaster films with the general fascination and panic around the Africanized Honey Bee, these are only two examples of many others tackling the vaunted killer bee (there’s even another one from 1978, a TV movie called Terror Out of the Sky). I’m guessing they were also trying to capitalize on the When Animals Attack trend ignited by Jaws and its many imitators. But wait! There’s more! The 70s also saw the rise of the eco-thriller, and these movies certainly glommed onto that trend as well..

  • Nicolas Cage: No, not the bees! (clip)
  • Animals Attack Trailers
  • A Message from the Bees (Robot Chicken)
  • The Bees – As killer bees migrate through South America and eventually reach the United States, researchers seek to understand and end the threat before the swarms attack high population cities. But the bees are changing, becoming more intelligent. Will our intrepid heroes figure out a way to defeat the vicious, unstoppable bees and their blasphemous hive minds? This one has a really poor reputation, but it showed up on Shudder last year and I caught the end of it, which made me want to revisit it this year. It’s… not a good movie, but I suspect its blatant anti-corporatism and eco-thriller elements would go over reasonably well with certain audiences these days. I mean, this is some truly hamfisted stuff, but it sorta rockets past unbelievable and pedantic into so-bad-it’s-good territory. Genre mainstay John Saxon (Black Christmas, Nightmare on Elm Street, Enter the Dragon) anchors the cast, delivering his hammy lines with the proper amount of authority. John Carradine lends some gravitas to the proceedings as well, and Angel Tompkins holds her own too (though at first, she’s saddled with an… unlikely relationship partner). The plot gets more ridiculous as it goes on, mostly reserving its ire for greedy corporate types but also putting the United Nations and general governmental bureaucracy on full blast. By the time Saxon figures out the mutated hive mind’s hyper-intelligent plans and starts relating it to the United Nations, it’s almost laughable, though again, I feel like today’s general climate of environmental advocacy might actually get an earnest kick out of this sort of wish fulfillment. Of the two movies in this post, this is clearly the lower budget take. Apparently it was completed first, but Warner Bros. paid the distributor to postpone the release to allow more room for The Swarm… I don’t think that has any real impact on the legacy of either film, really, but it’s interesting and does prove the Twin Movie theory (some things labeled as Twin Movies have more dubious connections). **
  • Does God Hate Bees? (Robot Chicken)
  • The Killer Bees: Home Invasion (SNL)
  • The Burns and the Bees (The Simpsons)
  • The Swarm – Producer/Director Irwin Allen led the charge on disaster films in the 1970s. After his initial successes, he announced a slew of projects, including this one, which lingered for years and eventually came out in 1978. It flopped hard and pretty much signaled the end of the disaster movie era. It’s a lavish production though, featuring a star studded cast (including Michael Caine, Katherine Ross, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, amongst many others), lots of special effects and explosions. But it’s also incredibly bloated and sloppy, with a sprawling but rather silly narrative about a scientist overseeing a military effort to combat the bees (this is basically the same thing as the other movie – deadly new strains of Africanized honey bees are coming to America and must be stopped!) Caine is always fun and does his best with poor material here, quickly flying off the handle every time he has to justify himself to the military. There’s some pure entertainment value here in terms of spectacle, and the higher budget definitely helps, but the overlong running time really sinks this one. Both of these killer bee movies have a degree of sensationalism and panic about them that is fun, but the svelt 90 minute The Bees never really overstays its welcome the way that The Swarm does… *1/2

When I was a young, I distinctly remember seeing a sensationalist documentary about how the killer bees were gonna get us all, but we’re still here, so I’m guessing we did something right. Anyway, stay tuned, for we’ve got a Creature Double Feature coming on Sunday… if I can find the time to write it, as I’m traveling at the moment (i.e. it may come a bit late).