6 Weeks of Halloween

MonsterVision

Back in the 1990s, TNT aired a program called MonsterVision. The show took many forms over the course of the decade, including narrators and guest hosts. There was even a short stint in which famed magicians Penn and Teller hosted marathons of old B-Movies from the 1950s and 1960s.

Ultimately, though, the reason MonsterVision looms large is because Joe Bob Briggs hosted the program from 1996 until the show’s demise in 2000. A drive-in movie critic that covered a beat consisting of trashy, grindhouse fare, Briggs brought an irreverent personality to the show and joined the ranks of great horror hosts. It’s a noble tradition, and unlike a lot of horror hosts, Briggs brings a wealth of knowledge about films and filmmakers. I distinctly remember his commentary on Halloween II. It’s not that it was mind-blowingly insightful or anything, but it was much more interesting information than I was accustomed to coming from TV hosts.

These days, the internet not only gives everyone a voice, but also makes the obscure accessible. In the 80s and 90s, no one covered low-budget horror flicks that only ran in run-down theaters and drive-ins… except for the likes of Joe Bob Briggs. A few years ago, the streaming service Shudder (well worth your money, especially at this time of year!) essentially revived MonsterVision, now calling it The Last Drive-In. The second season roughly coincided with the Covid outbreak in the US, and it was a welcome weekly respite from the all-too-real horrors of the world.

Since I’ve already watched all the newer Last Drive-In installments, I figured we’d take a look back at the TNT years. It was a little tricky finding three movies I hadn’t seen before, but I think this is a pretty solid trio…

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 2 – MonsterVision

Ice Cream Man – Gregory just wants to make the neighborhood kids happy. So he reopens the local ice cream factory and revs up the ice cream truck to spread joy. The rude little snots and policemen that get in his way simply get reprocessed into the flavor of the week. This had one of the more eyecatching VHS covers that stood out on shelves at Blockbuster. I always remember giving it a chuckle while passing by. It turns out that I had not seen this all the way through before, though I definitely caught parts of it here or there (perhaps even on MonsterVision?)

The titular Ice Cream Man

It’s basically the Clint Howard show; the part he was born to play. He’s the only one who could pull off something like this, and he’s genuinely great in the roll. The supporting cast is surprisingly stacked for a movie like this. I have no idea how they got David Warner, Olivia Hussey, and Jan Michael Vincent to sign on for this thing. Warner and Hussey seem to be having lots of fun, and I always enjoy seeing them in stuff like this. Vincent doesn’t look like he wants to be there (and I’m sure he was smashed the whole shoot).

This was made right at the end of the practical effects heyday, and the gory bits are well done. It also captures that mid-nineties zeitgeist that probably only works for folks of my generation. Still, it’s funny seeing the fashions and hairstyles and the one kid who looks like JTT. While it’s clear the film has its tongue placed firmly in cheek, it still has a weird tonal inconsistency that doesn’t quite work… and yet becomes part of its charm. It’s clearly not a very good movie in most respects, but I kinda love it anyway. **

Deadly Friend – A literal teenage mad scientist tries to save his crush’s life by implanting computer chips in her brain. Naturally, she comes back seeking vengeance. Another Wes Craven film I’d never seen, it turns out there’s a pretty good reason for that. He’s all but disowned the thing. Originally intended to be his Starman (John Carpenter’s sappy sci-fi drama), the studio had other aims. Reshoots were ordered and edited into the movie, including some gory dream sequences and an A+ basketball gag that’s become a true classic. Kristy Swanson is the standout performance and gets plenty to do as she ping-pongs between male figures vying for dominance and control over her. Also, when she becomes a robo-zombie, she gets perfect smokey makeup around her eyes (instead of the more traditional rot and decay). It’s a very 80s affair.

The titular Deadly Friend

All of which is to say that the movie feels disjointed and uneven. The robot bits, capitalizing on the 80s trend (Short Circuit and Chopping Mall were also released this year and in fact, the first robot we see in this movie is literally using the same chassis as Johnny 5), are silly and unconvincing and while I can kinda see what the movie was going for from a dramatic perspective… I think the studio’s imperative to add some gory nightmare sequences was probably justified. I really enjoy Starman, but while I understand that Deadly Friend was chopped up and reassembled, I still don’t quite see it turning out as well as Starman. Unfortunately, the gore and the drama just sorta cancel each other out. That being said, like all of Craven’s films, this one gets under your skin at moments. It’s definitely an interesting mid-80s artifact. There’s some gold at its core, but it’s not exactly a must-watch. **1/2

Raising Cain – As local children start disappearing, a woman suspects her child psychologist husband may be involved. Brian De Palma infamously rips off Hitchcock whenever possible, but by this point in his career, he’d been doing it for so long that he began ripping off himself ripping off Hitchcock. This sorta self-referential exercise gets goofy at times, but I actually really ended up enjoying the movie. Sure, it’s not as good as De Palma’s other Hitchcock pastiches like Dressed to Kill, Body Double, and Sisters, but it has its moments. I mean, if you’re going to appropriate another filmmaker, you could do a lot worse than Hitch!

John Lithgow, Bad Boy

In particular, John Lithgow’s multifaceted performance is something to behold. He’s really chewing the scenery throughout the film, playing at least 5 different characters at various times. The “bad boy” twin is a little laughable and there are some moments of unintentional hilarity spread throughout the movie. Lithgow is certainly able to play up an evil character (witness his chilling performance in De Palma’s Blow Out), but that “bad boy” getup just makes me laugh every time it shows up. He still carries the movie, and it’s always nice to see someone really going for it like that.

Raising Cain

Look, it’s another rehash of Psycho with a dash of Peeping Tom. But De Palma is good at this, and it’s an excuse for his trademark but needlessly showy bravura camera tricks. Take the walk-and-talk sequence at a police station where character actor Gregg Henry seemingly directs the blocking of his counterparts. It’s a fun sequence and a microcosm of what De Palma is doing to the viewers of his film. Some of the plot twists and turns are hokey and might not make sense, but again, who cares? De Palma’s here grabbing our arm and pointing us back in the right direction with his stylistic flourishes. The climax also has some showy formal camerawork. Once again, we see De Palma folding in upon himself, referencing yet another of his own films with the baby carriage gag. It’s not De Palma’s best and it’s got its flaws, but I kinda love it. ***

That’s week 2 in the books. Stay tuned, we’ve got more horrific fun coming your way.

Screen Life Horror

Director Timur Bekmambetov coined the phrase “Screen Life” (usually used for a horror film) to describe an emerging form where the action takes place entirely on a screen of some kind. Computers, cell phones, laptops, whatever. A cousin of the Found Footage sub-genre, it shares many of the same strengths and weaknesses. A low budget approach with an eminently familiar aesthetic, it speaks to the unglamorous, unending march of technology, social media, and our compulsion to engage online.

It’s easy to see this as a gimmick, and it does have all the hallmarks of a temporary flash in the pan… but I suspect it’s here to stay, at least for a little while. In fact, as filmmakers struggle with the restrictions of a worldwide pandemic, I suspect we’ll see a surge in this sort of thing in the nearish future. This week, I covered four examples of the sub-genre, but there are plenty of others, including Searching, which isn’t really horror (though it has some thriller-ish elements), but is better than all the films covered here and well worth checking out as an exemplar of the form.

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 1.5 – Screen Life Horror Films

Open Windows – Director Nacho Vigalondo and star Elijah Wood teamed up on this screen life horror flick about a fan who wins a date with his favorite actress. When she unexpectedly cancels the date, the fan gets a mysterious invitation to spy on her via computers. Naturally, all is not what it seems, and hijinks ensue. Vigalondo and Wood are fixtures at Fantastic Fest (we will be revisiting that hallowed fest later in the 6WH), so it’s only natural that they’d team up for a flick like this. While not the first screen life film and not quite a mainstream release, it did (barely) precede the most well known examples of the form. At its best, it plays like a sorta high-tech re-imagining of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but that also turns out to be its downfall, because in execution, this movie is clunky and not especially believable. The comparison does it no favors.

Sasha Grey in Open Windows

A lot of plot machinations strain believability, to put it lightly, but on the other hand, it’s a perfectly cromulent experience if you get on its wavelength. Elijah Wood and Sasha Grey do their best to sell the concept, and manage to help things along. One thing of note is that the interface and applications aren’t especially familiar, and yet they’re still well done (unlike a lot of fake movie/TV computer screens). The ending goes for some bigger twists and a lot of the elements rely on near magical technology and omniscient hackers and so on, but if I’m being generous, it kinda reminds me of some sort of Giallo-style climax. Sure, it doesn’t entirely make sense… but it’s fun enough! If it’s a failure, it’s at least an interesting failure. **1/2

Unfriended – This is probably the most well known example of the screen life horror sub-genre. It’s about a group of teens terrorized by the Facebook account of a girl who committed suicide earlier in the recent past. Naturally, death has given the dead girl l33t h4x0r skills, and she’s able to join their skype calls and do all manner of technical wizardry. It’s not exactly trenchant social commentary, but it does touch on how technology has changed bullying and other social conventions in ways that are unpredictable and sometimes worse. Given the pace of technological change, I imagine these will also be interesting snapshots of society and technology as well. Unlike Open Windows, the Unfriended franchise could afford to use real applications like Facebook and Apple apps, etc…

Facebook screen from Unfriended

The film itself is actually pretty slickly produced, and it looks more cinematic than you’d expect given the gimmick. It’s also incredibly mean-spirited, especially as the movie proceeds. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, as I basically disliked all of the characters, and that doesn’t always make for a good experience. The supernatural bits add something interesting to the story, but are also a bit hokey, so your mileage may vary. Overall, once again, it’s a perfectly croument movie. Gimicky and and a bit silly, but mean spirited and reasonably well executed. **1/2

Unfriended 2: Dark Web – This is basically a sequel in name only. None of the characters are carried over from the first movie and the supernatural elements are removed entirely. All that remains is the l33t h4x0rs (human this time, but honestly no less magical) and some mean-spirited horror. Funnily enough, this one has some twists that more resemble Open Windows than the first Unfriended. The characters are marginally more likable this time around, which also helps, such that when they start getting subjected to distressing violence, you actually care about them.

Unfriended 2: Dark Web

The premise itself, delving into urban legends around snuff films and human trafficking rings, is actually a pretty good one. Once our main character realizes that the laptop he picked out of a lost and found box contains all sorts of suspicious material, things get really hairy really quickly. Some of the videos found on the laptop are genuinely disturbing to watch, all the more so because you don’t actually see a lot. The whole thing culminates with a series of twists that tend to strain credibility (again, in very similar ways to Open Windows), but are entertaining enough. All in all, it’s a minor improvement to the first Unfriended and Open Windows, but is still hampered by similar constraints. **1/2

Host – Hey, remember when I said that the restrictions of a worldwide pandemic would drive a surge in this sort of format? Well, it’s already begun. A group of friends, bored out of their mind during lockdown, hire a medium to hold a séance via Zoom, with predictably tragic results. That’s what happens when you use the free version of Zoom for your séance: you accidentally summon a demon.

Unsuspecting victims make a toast in Host

For something that was clearly put together quickly and on the cheap, this turned out really well. Clocking in at a mere 56 minutes, I’m not even sure this qualifies as a feature film, but it’s definitely worth a watch during the spooky season, and it’s probably the most effective screen life movie covered in this post (except for maybe Searching, which was only mentioned at the top of this post). Well worth checking out, even if I suspect I might be overrating it because new and interesting content during the lockdown tends to be greeted with open arms. ***

Phew, that’s a full week in the books. Stay tuned for Sunday’s update. I’m pretty sure we’ll be doing some Monstervision throwback picks from the 80s and 90s, so you Joe Bob fans will want to check it out.

Six Weeks of Halloween 2020: Horror Anthologies

The weather grows colder, leaves are falling off trees, gourds are being mutilated and put on display along with all manner of decorative corpses, headstones with ironic puns, and ornamental cobwebs. And of course, the (pumpkin) spice must flow. These and other nominally ghastly signifiers can mean only one thing: it’s Halloween season! Given the real-life horrors we’re dealing with in 2020, I couldn’t be more thankful. I much prefer the vicarious thrills of horror movies to actual pandemics and ever-encroaching partisan politics.

Here at Kaedrin, we celebrate the season with a virtual cornucopia of horror movies (and books), pretty much nonstop for the six weeks leading into Halloween. Why six weeks? Well, it used to be two weeks better than most people’s horror movie marathon (which was usually confined to October), but more and more people are jumping on the bandwagon these days. We’re trend setters, is what I’m saying.

It’s traditional to start the marathon with something a little more heady and respectable. Older movies, foreign movies, you know the drill. In the past, we’ve tackled Silent Horror (twice!), some Criterion Collection curated horror, and lots of Italian horror. This year we’re going to tackle horror anthologies.

It’s a topic we’ve covered before, so I won’t go into too much detail here. The biggest challenges for horror anthologies are that, by their very nature, they can feel inconsistent or disjointed. Anytime you have multiple stories crammed into one package, some are bound to be better than others. It can also be difficult to suss out a common theme, sometimes leading to weird tonal shifts. What we have this week are three anthologies, two from the UK and one from Japan. Not the stuffiest of week 1 material, but I assure you, we’ll get to trashier horror soon enough. All older than I am. Let’s dig in:

Week 1: Horror Anthologies

Dead of Night – While not the ur example of a horror anthology (you’ll have to go back to silent era classics like Waxworks and Uncanny Stories for that), this is nevertheless an influential trope codifer and popularizer of the form. An architect looking for work goes to a country house where he meets several strangers that are eerily familiar to him… because he has a recurring dream (nay… nightmare!) about them. Intrigued by the mysterious circumstances, each member of the group shares an unexplained story from their life as a way of assuaging the anxious architect.

Dead of Night - Ventriloquist and Dummy

Highlights include a segment about a haunted mirror that reflects room where a murder was committed and a story about a ventriloquist with a sinister dummy. Both are uncanny and influential, while still retaining a power unto themselves. For instance, you’ve almost certainly seen a take on the ventriloquist segment before, but this one doesn’t lose its punch because of that. Even the shortest segment, “The Hearse Driver”, could probably be traced all the way up to the Final Destination series. While there are some neat effects here (I particularly like the effects in the haunted mirror segment), this movie is much more about mood and atmosphere than effects or gore.

Unlike a lot of horror anthologies, the wraparound story about the architect actually concludes with a bang. Most wraparound stories are mere conceits that frame the various stories and don’t even try to reach a climax. But the ending makes Dead of Night more than the mere sum of its parts (which is, again, something that most anthologies don’t even try to do). Well worth a look, especially for fans of the format. ***

Asylum – In the sixties and seventies, Amicus Productions made a series of horror anthologies that were inspired by, you guessed it, Dead of Night. This one has an inspired, if a bit silly, wraparound story. A young psychiatrist is interviewing for the head position at an asylum. As a test, he must interview four patients and figure out which one of them… is actually the doctor he would be replacing!

Peter Cushing in Asylum

This movie has a great cast that elevates the material, which, unfortunately, does need elevating. That might be a bit of an overstatement. Written by Robert Bloch (of Psycho fame), each segment is reasonably well done and entertaining enough. They just don’t quite stand out amongst the throngs of anthology stories. I suppose there are a few memorable visuals. Body parts wrapped in butcher paper. Even the little boxy automatons one of the patients makes are interesting, if a bit goofy. (How does it scale the wall like that? Never you mind!) The cast sells even the most ludicrous bits though. Peter Cushing, Patrick Magee, Britt Ekland, and Charlotte Rampling stand out.

Like Dead of Night, the most intriguing segment might be the wraparound. It’s a reasonably well executed take on the form and well worth checking out for students of the genre, but other Amicus productions (notably Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror) are probably even better examples. **1/2

Kwaidan – Early Japanese take on horror anthologies, this one doesn’t even bother with a wraparound story. And yet… these four tales hang together pretty well. The archaic Japanese word “Kwaidan” translates as “Ghost Story”, and sure enough, this movie adapts several Japanese folk tales about ghosts. Clocking in at just over 3 hours long, it does move a bit slowly and at least one of the segments is perhaps unnecessary. On the other hand, it’s a stunningly beautiful film and one of the segments is an all-timer.

In “The Black Hair”, a poor, down on his luck Samurai leaves his wife to marry into money… with predictably tragic results. At first, this seems like a simple drama, but the supernatural elements show up later and get things going well. It’s definitely a story that will make you think of past choices (you know, the ones that haunt you). Definitely an influential segment, you can see bits of this in the J-Horror boom of the 90s.

The Woman in the Snow from Kwaidan

“The Woman in the Snow” is about a woodsman who gets caught in a blizzard. His life is spared by a ghost, but only if he never tells anyone about the incident. I think you can see where this is going, but the story manages an ironic twist (though one you will probably guess as it takes its time getting there). Probably the most beautifully photographed segment of the film, filled with snowy landscapes and an otherworldly sky. The whole film is obviously shot on a soundstage with painted backdrops, but the production design is so great, and the colors so striking that it’s hard to argue.

Hoichi performing for ghosts in Kwaidan

“Hoichi the Earless” is about a young, blind musician who is asked to perform for an audience of ghosts. This segment is basically a feature length movie of its own, and definitely the best of the bunch. Again we’re treated to striking visuals, this time mixed with a musical treatment of battles from the distant past. The segment carries more thematic heft than the others too. It forces us to confront what we owe to the past, and how much we should let that dictate our present.

“In a Cup of Tea” is the shortest segment of the anthology, and probably the least necessary. A man sees a reflection of a stranger in his cup of tea, only to become haunted by the reflection. It’s a fine segment and it shares the production design and visual prowess of its brethren, but coming as it does after the strongest segment, it pales in comparison.

All in all, this is impeccably crafted, almost poetic stuff. Each segment is gorgeous and visually stunning, and they all share a certain thematic similarity about the past’s influence on the present. However, it is rather long and slow moving. As mentioned above, you could really separate one out as a feature unto itself, and leave the others as the anthology. Still, even as it is now, it’s an artistic achievement, if not a mainstream one. ***

So there you have it, week 1 in the can. Stay tuned, for we’ve got some Horror on Computer Screens coming up later this week. Then comes the horrors of Week 2. If you’re still hungry for more, check out Zack’s Film Thoughts, as he’s doing six weeks of his own.

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.
    Hack-O-Lantern

    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.
    Blacula

    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.