Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Horror That Made Me Happy in 2015


Tis the season for end of the year lists! Since I've already seen a bunch of best/worst horror film lists that would pretty much mirror mine, I just want to take stock of the things that made me happy in the horror genre this year.  This won't be a list based on quality, cultural impact, or any of that silly crap.  No, this will just be a list of the things that put a smile on my face.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Show and Tell: The Final Girls



  

Have you ever watched a movie with a certain amount of anxiety because you know that if it’s not any good it will really bum you out?  It’s impossible to be a horror fan without seeing some truly awful movies, and usually it’s no big deal.  But for some movies, as was the case with The Final Girls, it was really important for me that this movie worked.  I liked the premise, and the trailer looked like a hell of a lot of fun.   So if it turned out to be a letdown it would have had some extra sting.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

My Favorite Horror Comedies of All Time


This week I watched Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead, and I was going to write a review.  I got about two paragraphs in until I realized that the review was really only going to amount to "Hey guys this was pretty fucked up, but golly was it funny!"  So there's my review on that.

On that note, I've decided that instead of boring you with my take on one horror comedy, I'm decided to bore you with my take on several horror comedies!  Here is a list of my favorite of all time.  Let me know if I missed any of your favorites.  I won't do anything about it, but I'd still like to hear from you.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Show and Tell: Goodnight Mommy


As a lifelong horror fan, I've always considered myself capable of handling dark subject matter.  I'll watch zombies tear out someone's throat and gnaw on their intestines.  Observing Cenobites pierce, vivisect, and generally obliterate the human form has almost become comfort food for me.  Sure, I find some subjects distasteful and I'll typically avoid them, but for the most part I think that I've become accustomed (some might say desensitized) to the harsh subject matter we often find in horror.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Show and Tell: Kristy


A lot of people bemoan the lack of original ideas in movies today, particularly in horror.  It's hard to blame them given the deluge of remakes, sequels, and rip-offs flooding the genre.  The issue, though, is that there are only so different stories to be told out there, especially in the realm of horror.  Often, it's some variation one entity wanting to kill another entity.  Now sometimes, there are truly groundbreaking ways to tell that story.  But often, the trick isn't telling an original story as it is about telling that story well.  Such is the case for the 2014 horror-thriller Kristy.

Released in 2014 and directed by Oliver Blackburn, Kristy tells the story of Justine (Haley Bennett), a college student who can't afford to travel home for Thanksgiving so opts to stay alone at the campus through the holiday break. Soon, she finds herself stalked by a group of strangers who refer to her as "Kristy," pseudonym that they give to targets who they see as close to Christ and goodness. Led by Violet (Ashley Greene), they continue to hunt Justine while killing anyone who comes to her aid.

Kristy is a perfect example of a bland premise that could have resulted in a bland movie.  In fact, I wasn't sure I was going to dig it at all based on the opening scene, where we see a montage of masked killers taking down a variety of gene victims in ways that didn't promise anything unique.

But then I noticed details that intrigued me, the first of which was the use of a college campus during holiday break to convey a sense of isolation.  For anyone who has been on a college campus for even a few hours after any kind of extended break starts, you know that it quickly turns into a ghost town.  And many colleges outside of a city setting are placed firmly in the middle of nowhere, so it becomes plausible to take an otherwise mundane venue and turn it into something sinister.


Another interesting approach taken in Kristy was in how it made me care for its protagonist.  Justine was developed well enough in the opening scenes, but how they really made me root for her was to make Violet and her gang so damn unlikable that by the end of the movie I was begging for Justine to kill them.

Of course, villains need to be unlikable on some level.  They are, after all, the bad guys.  But most of the great villains have something that attracts the audience to them.  Freddy Krueger brings his dark humor.  Pinhead is as sophisticated a monster as you're likely to meet.  But Violet and her band of killers are more like what would happen if the emo kids from your high school got extra high one day while listening to a Disturbed CD and decided to go on a killing spree.

It's a dangerous game to portray such annoying villains, as you risk taking the audience out of the movie.  But Kristy did a good job at sneaking up to that line without ever quite crossing it, building a slow burn of tension (born both of fear and irritation) until they take a turn at the end of the movie which I won't give away here, but I will say left me cheering as the credit rolled.


While Kristy won't be shattering anyone's view of the horror genre, it's still a very effective movie, made all the more effective by the fact there was little to no fanfare preceding it that would have influenced my expectations for it to be either good or bad.  It's the type of movie that makes the case for checking out those movies on Netflix that you'd never considered before.  Sometimes you'll find something that will surprise you.



Saturday, November 21, 2015

Field Trip to the Texas Chainsaw House

This October, I took my first road trip through the Southwest as my wife and I drove from Las Vegas to Houston. Among our many stops along the way, I talked the missus into stopping at a little cafe in Kingsland, Texas.  Known as the Grand Central Cafe, the website shows a very quaint, modest eatery with your usual cafe fare.  I, however, wasn't as interested in the menu as I was in the fact that this house was the site of "one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history."


The Grand Central Cafe, you see, is the house where Tobe Hooper filmed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Funnily enough, while this is the original house, it's no longer at the same location where the film was shot.  Originally built in Red Rock, TX in 1909, when the house was purchased by its current owner in 1998, they dismantled it and moved it to Kingsland. According to a 2014 interview with co-owner Drew Gerencer, they don't do much to play up the fact that the house was used to film the TCM, mainly due to the fact that they didn't want their customers focused on a movie about a family of cannibals when they came in to grab a bite to eat.

That's not to say that they ignore the house's history.  The website has a section explaining the house's origins, and Gerencer mentioned that they watched TCM at the house to celebrate the film's 40th anniversary.  And they certainly don't mind when horror dorks such as myself ask to take pictures of the house, which of course I did.




As you can imagine, the house underwent extensive renovations before they opened it to the public, so much of the house was unrecognizable.  However, one element of the house was still quite familiar, and to be honest, it gave me chills.


This, of course, is the site of one of the most brutal scenes ever shot in a horror movie, and the one where we first meet one of the most iconic killers in cinema history.


Not only was this a nasty scene to behold on-screen, it was also apparently harrowing to shoot for Leatherface's portrayer, Gunnar Hansen (RIP), and even more so for co-star William Vail.  According to Hansen's memoir of the production, he got a bit carried away during a take and when he threw Vail through the door, Vail hit his head pretty badly.

While I suppose one could argue that given the amount that the house was changed, and the fact that the house wasn't even in the same location as it was when the movie was shot, that technically I haven't truly visited the site of the Sawyer's grisly deeds.  But I defy a fan of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to walk down the foyer and not get a bad case of the willies.  I'm very happy to have made the trip, and I recommend stopping by if you're in the area.  If nothing else, the club sandwiches are outstanding and they have much stricter weapon restrictions than the Sawyers did in their day.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

Month of Horror Blind Spots: Black Christmas (1974 version)


I'm taking this October to finally get around to checking out those movies/genres I've neglected up until now.  I call these my horror blind spots, and it's time for me to finally give them a look.

Spoiler Warning:  This is yet another decades old movie, but I suppose I really shouldn't be judging those that haven't seen it since the whole point of this month is to watch movies that I should have seen years ago.  Oh well.  You're warned.

Of all of the movies I've watched for the Month of Horror Blindspots, Black Christmas is the only one that I was truly pissed at myself for having not seen sooner.  This may actually be the best horror movie I've seen this year.  There were so many impressive elements to this film, including effective use of Christmas decorations to create a dreadful atmosphere, character development that actually invests the viewer in the outcome of the movie, and an interesting depiction of women's reproductive rights in the wake of Roe vs. Wade.

Directed by Bob Clark (who cut his teeth in film with several horror movies before moving on to comedies like Porky's and A Christmas Story) Black Christmas tells the story of a group of girls living in a sorority house a few days before the holiday.  The girls are dealing with a variety of problems:  family issues, drinking problems, and even an unplanned pregnancy.  They're also receiving obscene phone calls from someone  who may or may not be the same man who has made his way into the attic...

One of the first things that struck me about Black Christmas was the effect use of atmosphere.  The opening shot is an exterior of the house, fully decorated in yuletide accouterments.


Coming into this movie cold, the house looks very warm and inviting.  It's a place I would love to visit for a Christmas party.  But as the movie unfolds and people start dying, the mood of the lighting shifts to become much more sinister, especially since the lights at the time still used incandescent bulbs rather than LED lights.


Now, for me, atmosphere can only take you so far if you don't care enough about the characters to be invested in their well-being.  Fortunately, Black Christmas pays enough attention to its characters to do just that.  Margot Kidder's Barb, while caustic and a drunk, is also very charming in her own way.  Mrs. Mac is hilarious as the foul-mouthed house mother.  And, of course, we have Jess, our main protagonist and the one going through the most difficult situation in the movie (besides, you know, the deranged killer stalking everyone).

We find out early in the movie that Jess is pregnant with the baby of her longtime boyfriend, Peter.  The problem is, though, that Jess isn't ready for a child.  She explains to Peter that she, like him, has dreams and goals and that she cannot do that if she keeps the baby.  She tells Peter that she wants to have an abortion, and he reacts as one would expect an arrogant misogynist to react:  he calls her selfish, he pleas with her not to "kill our baby," and throws pretty much every argument at her that he can think of.

The decision to include this plot point in the movie is particularly interesting considering this movie came out in 1974, only one year after abortion was made legal by the decision of supreme court case Roe vs Wade.  Since the debate over that decision continues over 40 years later, it must have been permeated the public consciousness when the move was released.  I'm impressed that the movie was willing to explore the topic, and was particularly intrigued by the ending.

Throughout the movie, all indications point toward Peter being the killer.  He's selfish and obsessive even before Jess announces her plans to abort her pregnancy, and he becomes more volatile as the movie progresses.  Jess, thinking he has broken into the house to kill her, gets the upper hand and kills him.  We find out in the final scene, however, that Peter was not the killer, and that the killer is still hiding in the attic as the credits roll.  The movie could have gone the heavy-handed route and made Peter the killer on top of being a neurotic, controlling prick, but I think that screenwriter A. Roy Monroe was smart not to go down that path.  It highlights the fact that Peter's viewpoints can still be problematic without him being a serial killer, which is true of most people. 

Perhaps that's what's most effective about Black Christmas.  While all but one of the people killed in this movie are women, the movie doesn't lean on the trope, which by 1974 couldn't event be considered a trope yet anyway.  Rather, the movie pulls its frights from showing us the type of crap women have to deal with in these kinds of situations.**  They're dismissed by authorities when they attempt to report the obscene phone calls.  They have to deal with jerk off boyfriends who tell them what to do with their own bodies.  They're at the mercy of often incompetent police officers to serve as their guardians.  And, at the end of the movie, after everything seems to be resolved, it turns out the threat is still there, waiting to strike again.

Black Christmas was such a great watch, I've decided that I'm going to have it cap off my Month of Horror Blindspots (Sorry, Jaws and Psycho, there's always next year).  But Black Christmas has found a permanent place in my horror movie rotation.  I realize I've never had a horror movie suitable for the holiday season, which makes the fact that I took so damn long to watch this one that much more annoying.  But no use in crying over spilled egg nog.  At least now I know I have some black to mix in with all of the red and green this year.


**At least, that was my reaction to the movie as someone who is decidedly not a woman, so I hope I'm not off base.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Month of Horror Blind Spots: Frankenstein


I'm taking this October to finally get around to checking out those movies/genres I've neglected up until now.  I call these my horror blind spots, and it's time for me to finally give them a look. 

Spoiler Warning:  You know what?  This movie is over eighty years old.  The statute of limitations has run out for spoilers on this one.

Frankenstein is actually one of the last of the classic Universal monster movies that I haven't seen.  To be honest I get more out of them as historical documents than I do as fully immersive films.  It's always been difficult for me to engage with these movies, and it's hard to say way.  It could be the stilted dialogue or the clunky effects (by today's standards) but these types of things abound in shitty 80s horror and in some cases I love them all the more for it.  And I also love older movies in other genres like Duck Soup or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  For some reason, though, horror movies of this generation just don't capture my imagination the way that more recent genre films do.

Frankenstein was directed by Carl Laemmle, Jr. and released in 1931.  It is, of course, based on the classic 1818 novel written by Mary Shelley.  For the three of you who may not know the plot, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is a scientist who believes he can create life, and he sets out to do so with a few visits to fresh graves to get the body parts he needs to create a new person, apparently by having it get hit with lightning.  The newly created Monster (Boris Karloff) is violent and erratic, possibly because his brain is one of the abnormal specimens stolen by Frankenstein's assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye).  The Monster proceeds to go on a rampage, and at the climax is cornered and killed by the villagers.

As with my previous experience with Universal horror, my enjoyment from watching Frankenstein was in observing it a prototype for future horror movies.  Throughout the movie you can see where modern pop culture has borrowed from or referenced it.  Even the introduction, where a man in front of a curtain warns the audience about the horrific show they are about to see, should look familiar to any fans of the Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror.



While the Simpsons may have parodied Frankenstein's introduction gimmick, a multitude of horror movies have genuinely used similar tactics to pique the audiences interest.  As mentioned in a piece earlier this month, producer William Castle had life insurance policies taken out on audience members for his films.  The Texas Chainsaw Massacre used prologue narration that claimed the film to be based on true events.  Advertisements for Last House on the Left tell audiences in the trailer warns audiences "To avoid fainting, keep repeating, "It's only a movie...It's only a movie."  So many films briefly break the fourth wall as a way to tell the audience how scary their movie will be in the guise of sincerity, and Frankenstein's introduction marks the beginning of that trend.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the movie is one where you actually don't see many horror movies follow suit:  the death of a child.  The Monster, during his wanderings around the village after his escape from Frankenstein, finds a small girl playing near a pond.  As she teaches him to throw flowers in the water to watch them float, he tries to do the same with the little girl herself, and winds up throwing her into the pond where she drowns.  In the decades of horror movies that have followed Frankenstein, I can think of only a handful that have depicted the death of a child.  What's more interesting is that the movie does so while still managing to depict the Monster as sympathetic.  His killing the girl was an accident born of a lack of understanding, so while it's still a horrible act, the Monster is not necessarily horrible.  

Frankenstein, while not my particular brand of horror, will forever have my respect for what it did for the genre.  It, alongside other movies in the Universal stable, laid the foundation for horror and essentially served as its birth in cinema.  Certainly there are silent horror films such as Nosferatu that predate Frankenstein, but Universal was the first studio to really initiate horror as a phenomenon rather than a one-off.  For us to fall in love with Freddy, Jason, and Leatherface, our grandparents first had to fall in love with Dracula, Wolfman, and Frankenstein.



Saturday, October 24, 2015

Month of Horror Blind Spots: The Fly (1958 version)


I'm taking this October to finally get around to checking out those movies/genres I've neglected up until now.  I call these my horror blind spots, and it's time for me to finally give them a look. 

Warning:  As with House on Haunted Hill, this is a Vincent Price movie and is old enough to start receiving AARP junk mail.  But I am still giving you fair notice about spoilers.  You've been warned!

After having been luke-warm on House on Haunted Hill, I was a little wary of checking out The Fly.  This was especially the case given that I'm such a big fan of David Cronenberg's 1986 remake.  Cronenberg's version is a body horror masterpiece filled with gore, absolutely incredible acting from Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, and enough pathos to satisfy the emo kid that lives inside me waiting for an excuse to feel feelings.  Could the original possibly measure up?  I doubted it.

The premise is similar to the remake, but director Kurt Neumann stayed more in line with the 1957 short story on which it is based.  Helene Delambre is spotted at the scene where her husband, scientist Andre Delambre, is found crushed by a hydraulic press.  Questioned by Andre's brother Francois and the local police inspector, Helene must explain what happened, which she does through an extended flashback sequence.  Andre, using himself as a test subject for his new teleportation device, does so without knowing that a housefly had made its way into the device, and Andre is merged with the fly to become a mutated hybrid.

Perhaps my wariness for the 1958 version of The Fly managed to effectively temper my expectations, because I found myself surprised at how much I liked this movie.  Sure, "nuanced" isn't a word I'd use for any of the performances in the flick, but this is a 1950s B movie, where you'd have about as much luck finding someone carrying a cell phone as you would finding someone playing their role in a low-key manner.

However, the cast still won me over, especially David Hedison, who as Andre had to do most of his acting under a black shroud and talking through a series of knocks as he tries to hide his hideous transformation from his wife.  Patricia Owens is also fantastic as Helene, as she has to carry most of the movie once Andre has transformed.  Plus, my mind came close to exploding watching Vincent Price play a sincere good guy role without a hint of sarcasm or menace.

Also, while the effects couldn't possibly match the 1986 version, I was very impressed with what they were able to accomplish.  The fly head was very intricate, but I think the claw effect was even better, due in part by Hedison's ability to play that part of his body as if it had a mind of its own.  The end scene in which the fly that mutated with Andre's head and arm is attacked by a spider was also surprisingly well done.  It should be noted that this element was left out of Cronenberg's version, which I think was probably for the best as it would likely have been a bit too silly for the tone of the remake.


It's funny that, as opposed to most original/remake debates, I find myself comparing the original to the remake rather than the other way around.  But the Cronenberg version is one of those anomalies where it's just so good that people barely recognize the original as much more than silly camp.  I now see this assumption is a mistake, however, as both of these movies share the same tragic core of a legitimately good man who becomes a victim of his own good intentions.  Sure, one movie ends with a spring-time picnic while the other ends with a shotgun blast to the head, but surprisingly both of these endings provide satisfying conclusions to the same basic story.

Thanks for joining me on my truncated trip through some Vincent Price selections.  Join me next week as I get to my finale, where I finally (well, hopefully) get to the four movies that I'm most ashamed to have missed so far as a horror fan.  See you then!


Month of Horror Blind Spots: House on Haunted Hill (1959 version)


I'm taking this October to finally get around to checking out those movies/genres I've neglected up until now.  I call these my horror blind spots, and it's time for me to finally give them a look. 

Warning:  Although the movies that I watched for Vincent Price week are literally decades old, I suppose that I should still give you a heads up that this review has some pretty heavy spoilers.  You've been warned! 

OK, so my vacation came up a lot faster than I thought it would, so in getting ready for it I didn't have much time to dedicate to my Vincent Price week.  So it's with my apologies to one of the late masters that I present this past-due, truncated version.

Instead of getting in three movies, I was only able to catch two Vincent Price flicks, The House on Haunted Hill and The FlyHouse of Wax gets short shrift because Netflix apparently decided to drop a ton of horror movies in October, and I'm too cheap to rent it.

We'll start with House on Haunted Hill, a 1959 horror/mystery directed by William Castle, who you may remember as the man who mastered gimmick marketing in the 1950s, such as insuring audience members for $1000 lest they die of fright during a movie, or the vibrating chair gag he created for another Vincent Price vehicle, The TinglerHouse on Haunted Hill has a fairly straight-forward premise, with Price's Frederick Loren inviting 5 seemingly random guests to spend one night at an allegedly haunted house for a party that he and his wife are throwing.  Every guest that stays the night will receive $10,000, as long as they are alive to collect it.

This simple premise, however, serves what turns out to be a very convoluted scheme...actually, TWO very convoluted schemes.  Loren's wife Annabelle attempts to manipulate the guests into fearing Loren so much that they will shoot him with one of the .45 caliber guns given as "party favors."  At the same time, Loren manipulates the guests to his own end, making them believe that one of them had in fact killed him, and then faking an attack by his skeleton to coerce Annabelle into a tank of acid.

For me, there are a lot of holes in this plot and a some things that don't quite make sense (wouldn't Annabelle have sensed something was up when Loren invited Dr. Trent, her lover and fellow plotter?).  However, I should note at this juncture that I fell asleep for 15-20 minutes of the movie, so I had to infer quite a bit from the ending as well as a perusal of the Wikipedia plot summary.  Is this unprofessional?  Yes.  But I'm not getting paid for this so technically, I'm not a professional.  For those of you reading this, you get what you pay for. 

I'll also admit that my falling asleep wasn't entirely the movie's fault, as I have the sleep patterns of a 72-year-old Floridian retiree, so I should have known better than to start a movie after 11pm on a weeknight.  However, I also think that I may have gotten more enjoyment out of this movie when it came out in theaters.  There, Castle would have deployed his latest gimmick, a glow-in-the-dark skeleton called "Emergo" that theaters would release during a faked black-out.  There's a reason some of these movies relied on such gimmicks: they're kind of hokey.

Perhaps more interesting than the movie itself, however, is the subtext of class politics.  David Skal discusses this in his book The Monster Show:  A Cultural History of Horror.  Skal claims that House offers "an American microcosm of haves and have-nots" with Price's eccentric millionaire "exerting malign influence over his guests."  Most of the guests are there explicitly attending the party because they desperately need the money, and they have no idea they are acting as pawns for a murderous game between two wealthy sociopaths.

As a whole, I think House on Haunted Hill works better for me when viewed as a piece of horror history rather than a movie I'd watch just for pure enjoyment.  I'll always enjoy watching Price act like a smarmy bastard, but I've seen movies where he's done that in more of an enjoyable movie, such as Roger Corman's Masque of the Red Death.  I think if I watch House on Haunted Hill again, I'll want it to be in a group, preferably with access to a giant skeleton that can be dropped into the room.


Further Reading:

Skal, David.  The Monster Show:  A Cultural History of Horror.  New York:  W.W. Norton &
           Company, 1993.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Month of Horror Blind Spots: Kairo (Pulse)




I'm taking this October to finally get around to checking out those movies/genres I've neglected up until now.  I call these my horror blind spots, and it's time for me to finally give them a look. 

Warning:  this review has some pretty heavy spoilers.  You've been warned! 

I suppose rather than refer to this as my Asian horror week, I should have been more specific and called it Japanese horror week.  It wasn't intentional, but all of my selections for this week have been from Japan.  I have gotten lucky, however, in that I've seen some pretty contrasting styles my choices.  Battle Royale is fast-paced and kinetic, while Ju-On is more psychological and methodical (and, if I'm being honest, kind of dull).  With two polar opposites, I was intrigued to see where Kairo, my final film for the week, would land on the spectrum.  

Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa and released in 2001, Kairo (or Pulse) tells parallel stories of Kudo and Ryosuke.  Kudo's coworkers begin to be haunted by ghosts , either via the internet or found in rooms marked with red tape.  Ryosuke, a college student, sees the same thing happening to students at his school.  Anyone who comes into direct contact with these ghosts either commits suicide or eventually disintegrates into a pile of ash.   Kudo and Ryosuke's stories converge as more and more people are affecting by this spreading plague of ghosts, as they discover why the dead are returning and the dark secret about the afterlife.

If Battle Royale is brutal, and Ju-On is boring, I think the best way to describe Kairo would be bleak.  This is a movie that posits two things about the afterlife (SPOILERS):  1.  There is only so much space in afterlife, and ghosts are coming into our world because that space has run out.  2.  The afterlife sucks.  Not in a "fire and brimstone" kind of way, but rather in a "you spend eternity alone and lonely" kind of way.  That is a pretty terrifying notion, and one that I don't think I've ever seen presented before.  Sure, plenty of people believe that when you die, that's it, and that there is no heaven, hell, or any other kind of afterlife.  There's just nothing.  But I don't know of anyone who believes that you'd be conscious of this nothingness.

I also have to respect the scope of the movie.  Most supernatural movies are small, affecting a house, or a relatively small group of people.  In Kairo, by the end of the movie it looks as though the entire planet is effectively haunted, and very few people, if anyone will come out the other side.

This is one of those movies that didn't scare me due to camera work, special effects, or specific set pieces.  The movie's philosophy is what's truly scary.  Other movies make you afraid how how you are going to die.  You might get your head chopped off, or you might be eaten alive by some hideous creature.  Kairo makes you afraid of death itself.  It doesn't really matter how you die, because when that's over it's the rest of eternity that's really going to fucking suck.

Needless to say, while I'm glad that I included Kairo in my list for this week, I'm happy to be moving on to horror that won't give me any further existential crises.  In fact, next week I'll be starting my Vincent Price week, so I feel like in comparison these movies will be downright chipper.  Stay tuned, and thanks for joining me for Asian horror week. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Month of Horror Blind Spots: Ju-On-The Grudge


I'm taking this October to finally get around to checking out those movies/genres I've neglected up until now.  I call these my horror blind spots, and it's time for me to finally give them a look. 

Warning:  this review has some pretty heavy spoilers.  You've been warned!

I suppose it's a bit misleading to say I've never seen any Asian horror before taking on this month's theme.  I've seen a couple of interesting examples such as The Host (which was awesome) and Tokyo Gore Police (which was fucking weird).  What I'd never really seen before, however, is what's traditional J-horror, or Japanese horror films known for their psychological/supernatural elements.

Tonight I fixed that by watching the 2002 movie Ju-On: The Grudge.  Written and directed by Takashi Shimizu, The Grudge is actually the third film in the Ju-On series, which I didn't find out until I'd already started watching the damn thing.  From what I can tell, viewing the first two films isn't really necessary to follow The Grudge, as the plot is fairly simple:  In the home where a man murdered his wife and child, a curse was born that kills anyone who visits the house.  The film focuses on those unfortunate enough to enter the house through a series of segments in which, spoiler alert, everyone dies.

And here in lies my issue with The Grudge.  I never really doubted that everyone in the movie was going to die.  As it turns out, this can take away suspense just as much as knowing that everyone is going to live.  All of the segments in this flick hit the same beats.  Person has contact with the house. Person is followed by ghosts of either the original family or by dead loved ones killed by the curse.  Person is then also killed by the curse.

I suppose haunted house stories have always been hit or miss for me.  I do enjoy when a movie plays on creepy elements, and The Grudge did have its moments, such as the Predator-like growling of Kayako's ghost over the phone, or the first two or three times we see her awkwardly crawl toward her prey.  But the more the movie used Kayako, the more routine it became.  Plus, during the climax, main protagonist Rika encounters Kayako three times within the span of about two minutes.  During this time, all I can think is, "Why the fuck are you still in this house?"  And then I feel like an asshole because I hate when people act like they know what they'd do in an extreme situation like that.  But still...why the fuck are you still in that house??

Anyway, I can't say there's anything actually wrong with Ju-On.  It's well shot, the actors all hit their beats well, and the story makes good use of playing with the way everyone in the movie is connected by the house.  I think my lack of enthusiasm for the movie is simply a matter of personal taste.  I'm an child of the 80s slasher genre.  I like my villains corporeal and stabby, and I like knowing that at least one person will survive the ordeal.  But I'm not giving up on the J-horror genre.  I've still got one more for this week, the 2001 movie Kairo

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Month of Horror Blind Spots: Battle Royale


I'm taking this October to finally get around to checking out those movies/genres I've neglected up until now.  I call these my horror blind spots, and it's time for me to finally give them a look.  

To kick off my quest for horror credibility, I'm starting with a week of Asian horror.  Most of my experience with Asian horror up until this point has been references to their superiority when discussing their American remakes (which I also haven't seen).  I put out an ask via Twitter for some suggestions to get me started, and I got a lot of recommendations for the movie that will kick off this series:  Battle Royale.


Directed by Japanese filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku and released in 2000, Battle Royale tells the story of class 3-B, a group of unruly students selected by the government to take part in the titular contest, in which they are all trapped on an island and forced to fight to the death.

This movie is pretty wild, as rather than hiring a group of "teenagers" who are actually pushing thirty,  Fukaskaku cast actual middle-school age children.  This choice heightens the impact as they begin killing one another in pretty brutal fashion.  At the same time, I don't know if I would call the movie realistic.  Everything takes place in a more kinetic fashion.  Sure, death in this movie is taken seriously, but it also plays as very over the top, with fast-paced set pieces, dark humor, and digital effects that tone down the realism just enough so that it's not unbearable to watch.  It actually reminded me of the slightly tweaked reality depicted in Robert Rodriguez's Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

The Faculty of Horror Podcast also points out the interesting choice to have actual children cast in Battle Royale.  In fact, if you want in-depth analysis about the sociological context of the movie, I highly recommend taking a listen to the episode.  They provide such great insight into the movie that anything I try to add would be redundant.

Their discussion about Battle Royale's comparison to the Hunger Games, however, struck me as particularly interesting.  They note that the claims of Hunger Games ripping off Battle Royale aren't accurate given the different approaches the films take, and I agree with this assessment.

The Hunger Games is an indictment of culture and media, positing that our lust for diversion allows for such a despicable form of entertainment.  Battle Royale's scope, however, seems much smaller.  The larger ramifications are hinted at, but mostly the movie explores the politics of adolescent relationships, imagining how those politics could play out under such extreme situations.

What makes this so interesting to me is that provides for many small stories to play out during the movie.  While Shuya Nanahara and Noriko Nakagawa are the main protagonists, virtually everyone in the movie has at least a small piece of significance to add to the plot.  We get to just enough time with people and get just enough backstory to care when they die, which I think is a pretty tough feat for a class of forty plus people.

Battle Royale was definitely a worthwhile watch, and I'm glad that so many people recommended it.  Next up, I'll be watching something that I assume is a little bit more measured in its pace, with 2002's Ju-On:  The Grudge.      

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

October 2015, In Which I Stop Being A Bad Horror Fan


So, I probably should have told people that I was going to be too busy to get anything new on here for about a month.  My day job had my attention held hostage for a few weeks, and by the time I got home each day I pretty much only had the brain power to get thoughts out in 140 characters or less.  If only someone would invent an outlet for me to express myself in such a way.

Luckily for me things have settled down at work just in time for October, also known as Halloween Season, also also known as Super Bowl for horror geeks.  I've been thinking about a way to start working my writing muscles again, and a Twitter conversation with a few of the Horror Honeys the other day got me thinking about my horror "blind spots," or horror movies/genres that I really should have seen by now, but for whatever reason just never got around to for a variety of reasons.

Well it's time to stop putting this off.  All this month I'll be doing away with some lingering blind spots, and I'll post my thoughts on each one as I get through them.  Take a gander at my viewing list for the month.


October 4-10--Asian Horror Week
I've seen very little Asian horror, so whenever anyone starts discussing it I feel left out, and no one puts Baby in a corner, dammit.  I'm finally going to get acquainted with a few of the basics of the genre by checking out the following:
  • Battle Royale (2000)
  • Ju-On: The Grudge (2002)
  • Kairo (2001)
October 11-17--Vincent Price Week
I love Vincent Price.  How can you not love a guy who has such a prolific horror career AND has written his own cookbook?  But I realized lately that I've only seen a few of his movies, and since a lot of them are on Netflix, I really have no excuse.  So during this week I'll be watching:
  • House of Wax (1953)
  • House on Haunted Hill (1959)
  • The Fly (1958)
October 25-31--How Dare I Call Myself a Horror Fan Week
First, you'll probably notice that there's a week missing here.  Well, during that particular week I'm going on vacation, including a road trip from Vegas to Houston, and I'd be bullshitting both you and myself to say that I'm getting any writing done that week.  Therefore, when I come back I'll be doing a super-sized week of those movies that somehow, over the course of three decades of horror fandom, I've just never gotten around to seeing.  Fair warning, there's some pretty glaring oversights in this list.  I'll be wrapping everything up with:
  • Black Christmas (1974)
  • Frankenstein (1931)
  • Jaws (1975)
  • Psycho (1960)
I hope you follow along as I get caught up while I right some horror wrongs in my life.  Check back to the site regularly for updated posts, and I'm sure I'll be live Tweeting at least a few of these so feel free to join if you're so inclined.  And, to make me feel better, please tweet me your #horrorblindspot so that I know I'm not the only bad horror fan out there.  

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Book Report: The Return of the Living Dead


Introduction: 

Good God, there are a lot of zombies out there.  Movies, television, video games, comic books:  all of them lousy with zombies.  You can't throw a rock without hitting an image of someone who's rotting and looking for human flesh.

I'm a big fan of the zombie genre, but even for me it's getting to be a bit much.  With that in mind, sometimes it's a good idea to remember the movies that paved the way for the current craze.  While everyone knows about Romero's contribution with Night of the Living Dead and its myriad of sequels, Dan O'Bannon wrote and directed a different flavor of zombie movie that has just as many contributions to the genre.

Synopsis: 

When two medical supply workers Frank and Freddy accidentally open a canister left there by the army, they unknowingly unleash a gas that turns the dead into the zombies who hunt and eat the brains of any human unlucky enough to cross their path.  As Frank and Freddy turn into zombies themselves, the medical supply company owner, Burt, must try to survive the zombie infestation along with Ernie, the local mortician, and a group of teenage punks who were unfortunate enough to be in the cemetery as the dead began coming to life.

Production:

John A Russo, who created Night of the Living Dead along with George Romero, wanted to continue the series in a different direction than Romero.  Therefore, the two agreed that Russo would get the rights to the phrase Return of the... while Romero would continue with Dawn, Day, etc.  Unfortunately, this agreement did not sit well with their respective companies, leading to a legal battle that would continue even as production on Return was set to begin.  Ironically, Russo and Romero remained on good terms throughout this fight, often talking on the phone to commiserate about how the situation had devolved.

Eventually, Russo's side won the legal fight, and they were free to continue with production unhindered.  Russo had put together a script and Tom Fox bought his way into a producer role.  As good as Fox was at raising money, however, he knew very little about film.  At one point he tried to buy out Russo so that he could utilize the Return title on a screenplay that, per those interviewed for the documentary, was not very good.  His attempt was unsuccessful, and Dan O'Bannon, at the time best-known for writing Alien, was brought in to create the script that would become the version we know today.

The next decision was to choose a director.  At one point Russo himself was considered, and later Tobe Hooper, of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame, was signed on for the job.  Hooper had to back out due to scheduling, however, and eventually Dan O'Bannon was chosen to direct his own script, even though at the time he had very little directing experience.

As O'Bannon started casting, several stories from the process don't depict him in the best light.  Beverly Randolph was cast as Tina, and notes an off-putting encounter with O'Bannon when he had her visit his house for a reading session.  When she arrived, she found a gun on the table and what she described as "somewhat pornographic" material on the television.  She soon made a quick excuse to leave.  Later, the role of Casey was given to Jewel Shepard, a dancer at a strip club that O'Bannon frequented.  Rumors spread at the time that Shepard slept with O'Bannon to get the part, but several interviewees in the documentary refuted that rumor as false.  It's a shame that the rumor exists at all, as Shepard clearly does a fine job in her role.

Several members of 80s horror royalty would find break out roles in this movie.  Scream queen Linnea Quigley got the role of Trash after the original choice got pregnant and had to bow out.  Thom Matthews, future Jason Voorhees slayer Tommy Jarvis, won the role of Freddy in one of his very first roles.  And Miguel Nunez, who would also later visit the Friday the 13th franchise, was literally homeless when he was cast as Spider.

Perhaps the two most punk-looking members of the group, Scuz and Suicide, were cast with actors very unlike their characters.  Brian Peck had normally been cast as nerdy or preppy characters.  In fact, his agent refused to submit his name so he was forced to get an audition on his own.  Likewise, Mark Venturini was known as being a very friendly person who was easy to get along with, as opposed to the surly asshole he portrayed on screen.


James Karen was cast as Frank very early in the process, signing on when Tobe Hooper was still attached to direct.  Don Calfa, cast as mortician Ernie Kaltenbrunner, was never told that his German character was named after an infamous officer from the Nazi party.  Clu Gulager was cast as Burt very late in the process, only joining very shortly before production was set to begin.

Before production started, O'Bannon had the cast run through two weeks of rehearsals, which was nearly unheard of for a film production.  But O'Bannon took the cast through each scene and gave very specific instructions about how the scenes would play out, allowing them to work out the kinks before filming.  Most of the cast found this very useful, except for Gulager who joined too late to take part in the rehearsals. This may have contributed to the on-set tension that Gulager had from time to time, as his performance would at times clash with other actors who were expecting the scenes to flow differently.

Production began on July 9th, 1984, and the process was not without its difficulties.  William Munns, the original make-up artist, was fired after several of his attempts at prosthetic pieces, including the original yellow cadaver and the skeleton that would rise from the grave, were seen as sub-par by O'Bannon.  Tony Gardner would do much of the future make-up effects, including the half-corpse that the group captures to find out more about the zombies.


In Munn's defense, O'Bannon was not described as the easiest director to work for.  In the scene where Tina falls through the broken step while fleeing the "Tarman" zombie, O'Bannon did not tell her that the step was going to break, so she would up rather battered and bruised.  O'Bannon also demanded countless takes in a setting where actors were working in a steady stream of rain.  Plus, at times actors would make things more difficult for one another.  In the scene where Ernie slaps Spider, the script calls for just one slap, but it was easy to tell that Cafla was pulling back in the scene.  So Gulager pulled him aside and told him to give Nunez a second slap without warning him beforehand, and to make the second slap a real one.  Cafla listened, and although Nunez stayed in character for the duration of the scene, he went after Cafla after rolling stopped.

On August 18th, 1984, filming wrapped.  The movie was originally scheduled for a late summer release in 1984, but was continually pushed back.  Orion, the distributor, didn't seem to have much faith in the movie, worrying that there was an over-saturation of horror movies on the market.  Some were also not happy with the actual product, with one person saying that the movie was "one step above pornography."

Finally, on August 16th, 1985, the movie opened to audiences.  It managed to earn over $14 million on a $4 million budget, and earned generally positive reviews.  As of today, it has spawned five sequels to diminishing returns, including 2 direct to DVD offerings.

Discussion:

"You think this is a fuckin' costume? This is a way of life."

 A resounding theme in Return of the Living Dead is punk rock.  Punk music is the core of the soundtrack and punk aesthetic abounds in the costume choices.  But more than that, the film itself is a work of punk.

Punk music's origins go back to the early 1970s, with bands like The Stooges setting the stage for the genre.  Perhaps the first true punk band was The New York Dolls, a band that reveled in ragged costumes and intentionally did things to provoke and disgust their audience.  The punk scene would grow in both the U.S. and the U.K. underground until 1976, when The Ramones and The Sex Pistols would carry punk into the mainstream.

One of the core ideals of punk is a distrust and cynicism towards authority, which is a primary theme in Return of the Living Dead.  Anyone with a modicum of power in the movie is seen as either incompetent, corrupt, or both.  Burt, the owner of the medical supply company, primarily looks out for his own interests when the gas is released, hoping to get rid of the evidence of any wrong-doing by cremating the remains of one of the first zombies, and therefore releasing the gas into the clouds and exacerbating the situation.

Several times people suggest calling the cops, but no one ever seems keen on that idea.  In fact, Scuz's reaction when told to call them is that "Cops are just going to kick our ass!"  The distrust for authority affects many decisions of the teens in this movie.

And, as it turns out, their distrust in authority is not misplaced.  Throughout the movie, the army proves to be both the pinnacle of authority as well as incompetence and corruption.  After all, it was a "typical army fuck-up" that first caused the situation and left the canisters in the wrong place.  The Corps of Army Engineers made the faulty canisters, and when the officer in charge of finding the canisters finally gets a call at is comically large mansion, he executes their contingency plan:  drop a nuclear bomb on the town.  This horrific contingency plan doesn't even succeed, as it simply released more gas into the atmosphere and spreads the epidemic.  Such a cynical outlook is typical of the punk music that inspired Return of the Living Dead.

"You mean the movie LIED?!":

Arguments abound regarding what makes for a true "zombie," so I don't think I have much to add to that conversation.  One aspect of Return that I found interesting, however, was how it built a zombie mythology as meta-commentary on Night of the Living Dead.

While characters in most movies aren't aware of the concept of zombies, those in Return pull from what they remember about Night of the Living Dead, which per the movie is actually based on real events.  O'Bannon plays with the audience, however, as the rules established in Night of the Living Dead aren't accurate in Return's universe.

Destroying a zombie's brain, for example, will not kill it, as Burt, Frank, and Freddy find out when they attempt to kill the yellow cadaver, only to be incredulous when piercing it's skull with a pick ax doesn't event slow it down.

Also, while Night's zombies eat any kind of living flesh, Return's zombies need brains.  And it's not a food source, per se, but rather a way for them to ease the pain of death.  While zombies in Night of the Living Dead represent the mindless consumer mob, those in Return represent the wailing, agonized drug addict.

Finally, an aspect that I found particularly interesting was that zombie bites do not make new zombies in the Return universe.  There is not one instance of a zombie victim returning from the dead due to their bites.  Trash returns from the dead, but only after the infected rain pours down on to her corpse in the cemetery.

By acknowledging the existence of Night of the Living Dead, O'Bannon exaggerates the differences found in Return of the Living Dead.  But he does so in such a way that doesn't seem forced.  Rather, he builds off of that acknowledgement to create his own rules and make the movie more his own.

Fun Facts:
  • The animated butterflies were just butterflies with a fan pointed at them.
  • Tina's outfit is actually something that actor Miguel Nunez had literally been wearing the week before.
  • Two famous duos' names were used in this movie:  Bert and Ernie, and Tom and Jerry
  • Freddy's foaming at the mouth was just accomplished with Alka-Seltzer
  • For Trash's dance sequence, Graham did not want to see pubic hair or her pubic region, so a prosthetic was made to cover her groin.
  • Tarman was played by Allan Trautman, a puppeteer and actor who was covered by prosthetic pieces and animatronics 


Conclusion:

Much of the cast and crew attribute Return of the Living Dead's success to its balance of horror and comedy.  Audiences are able to laugh just as hard as they scream during the film.  But I think that balance works because under the spiked hair, gore, and abundant breast shots, there is a smart story.

O'Bannon paid attention to details, creating a zombie mythology that stayed true to it's logic while also conveying some dark, even cynical viewpoints while keeping the narration light-hearted enough as not to lose the audience.

O'Bannon may have been an acerbic lech, but he was also a brilliant storyteller.  Although he died in 2009, he's contributed a movie that will likely remain in the pop-culture lexicon as long as people still talk about zombies.  And zombies, as we all know, will never die.

Further Reading:

Bartlet, Megan.  "No Future:  The Conception and Evolution of Punk Music in the United States and
Great Britain from 1965 to the Present."  http://academic.mu.edu/meissnerd/punk.html

Philputt, Bill.  More Brains!  A Return to the Living Dead.  October 18, 2011.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHJx1xkCBio

Youngs, Ian.  "A Brief History of Punk."  BBC News Online. December 22, 2002. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/2601493.stm




Thursday, August 13, 2015

Mini-Book Report: The Scarlet Gospels


Before I get started, let me apologize for going AWOL over the last few weeks. They should tell you that when you buy a house, it will take up a very large chunk of your time. OK, so everyone I know did in fact tell me that.  But now that things are settling down I should start showing my ugly face around here on a more consistent basis.

Anyone who has talked to me for more than three minutes about horror knows that I am a huge Hellraiser fan.  I've seen all of the theatrically released movies, all but one of the direct-to-dvd dreck that followed, and I didn't even hate Hellraiser: Revelations as much as most people did (don't get me wrong, it wasn't good, but it didn't strike me as much worse than the previous few sequels).

I'm also a fan of Hellraiser's creator, Clive Barker.  I've read several of his books and short stories, including Hellraiser's inspiration, The Hellbound Heart.  I've always appreciated his ability to find beauty in the grotesque, be it the deformed Cenobites or the misjudged creatures of Midian..

Clearly I was excited, then, to hear rumors that Barker was writing a story that would be a grand finale for his most iconic character, Pinhead.  This surprised me considering that Barker claimed to be done with the character, and that Pinhead belonged more to the fans at this point than he did to Barker.  I liked the idea of him coming back to end Pinhead's character arc.

Unfortunately, I would have to wait quite some time for this finale to come to fruition.  I remember first reading about The Scarlet Gospels in the mid 2000s.  As Barker got further into writing, word was that this was going to be an epic book on par with Stephen King's The Stand in terms of length and scope.  But then long stretches would go by with no news about the book.  He even wrote and published several books in the interim.

Then, in 2012, a trip to the dentist's office almost ended not only the Scarlet Gospels, but Barker himself.  While having the dental work done, poisonous bacteria leaked into Barker's blood stream and put him into a 7-day coma.  He came very close to death, and to this day still deals with health issues related to the illness.

At this point it was good news just to know that Barker would recover, so I'd pretty much let go of the idea that Scarlet Gospels would be published.  To my surprise, however, Barker did return to his work, plugging away at until May of this year, when book stores were finally stocked with The Scarlet Gospels.  I, however, would have to be patient for two more months, as I splurged for a signed U.K. copy and had to allow time for Barker to get them signed and mailed all while still dealing with the after-effects of toxic shock.

Now, after literally a decade of anticipation plus two more months of sitting Scott Pilgrim-style in front of my door waiting for the mailman, I've been taken on Pinhead's last ride.  Here are my thoughts on The Scarlet Gospels.

WARNING:  Spoilers abound from here on out

The basic synopsis plays out like this:  Pinhead, Hell Priest and member of the Cenobite order, has been hunting down all sorcerers on earth in order to assimilate their knowledge and give himself the power to take over hell, where Lucifer has been mysteriously absent for many years.  Caught up in this power-play is Harry D'Amour, a private detective (and another important character from Barker's previous work) who Pinhead wants to serve as witness to his ascension as leader of hell.  When D'Amour refuses, Pinhead kidnaps Harry's good friend and medium Norma Paine, forcing Harry and a group of allies to search the expanse of hell in an attempt to save Norma.

One of the first things I noticed was that at 360 pages, it was a lot shorter than had originally been indicated, which implies that there had to have been some pretty massive edits.  Honestly, I'd love to see the full version of the book, as it feels in its current version like a series of great set pieces without enough build-up in between.  The book spends a lot of time with its heroes wandering hell, but I don't feel like the mythology was properly fleshed out, especially considering the fact that Barker combines aspects of the "Cenobite" hell from his original work with elements of the Christian hell.  I wonder if there were more connective threads in the edited pages.  If so, I'd love to see them.

Also, for anyone going into this story hoping for the same tone as The Hellbound Heart, they likely walked away from this book bitterly disappointed.  While Hellbound Heart was a very small story that hinted at larger workings, Scarlet Gospels delves into those larger workings head on.  Also, unlike Hellbound Heart's somber mood, Scarlet Gospels is more playful but with a viscous mean-streak.  Barker seems to enjoy taking the gore to exaggerated levels in a way that a teenage boy might approach it, with more than one instance of hooks tearing out people's insides through an uncomfortable orifice (whichever one you're thinking of right now, you are correct).  I rather enjoyed this tone, however, as for me it indicated that Barker was having fun with it.  And yes, I think that for Barker, ripping out someone's stomach through their asshole is fun.

While reading this story, I also found several instances where Barker is providing commentary about the character of Pinhead, as well as Barker's own place in the Hellraiser universe.  Since the story includes the Christian version of hell, Lucifer plays a pivotal role, but is noticeably absent at the beginning of the story.  It turns out, in fact, that Lucifer found a way to kill himself to put himself out of his misery.  Could this be an allusion to Barker's desire to cut himself off from the Hellraiser mythos?  Meanwhile, Pinhead is not the same character that he was in the early days of Hellraiser.  He's been making schemes to usurp the throne, and in the process he's changed both in terms of his abilities as well as his personality.  More to the point, Pinhead is kind of a prick now.  He was always evil, but now he's the type of evil that beats up on 80-year old women, and he seems smug as opposed to just bored as he was in Hellraiser.  Is this a note about how after countless sequels, the Pinhead of Hellraiser: Revelations is vastly different than the Pinhead of the original Hellraiser?

If that's the case, then that makes Pinhead's final showdown with Lucifer that much more interesting.  Pinhead, with all of the power he's accumulated over the years, tries to best Lucifer/Barker, but although he seems to come very close to besting him, eventually Lucifer/Barker reminds Pinhead who's boss by tearing his guts out, ripping the pins out of his head, and calling him a cliche.  In this light, I love this scene, as Barker reminds us that he created Pinhead and he can destroy him.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment about this book was that Pinhead survived his encounter with Lucifer, and in perhaps the moment most deserving to be cut from the book, he kills Norma in a piece of writing that is needlessly cruel and at the same time treated almost as an afterthought, which makes the scene that much crueler.  But perhaps that was Barker's point: to make us as sick of Pinhead as he is by now, so that when Pinhead is unceremoniously erased from existence as hell collapses in on itself, no one is sad to see him go.

While I can't say that this was a perfect ending to the Pinhead character, I will say that it definitely wasn't boring, which goes a long way for me.  I also enjoyed the opportunity to watch Barker take stock of his most famous creation right before definitively ending it.  Others may take the character on, either in remakes or other kinds of cash-grabs, but for Barker, Pinhead is dead.  I'm just happy to see that Barker outlived him.


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Show and Tell: Evil Dead...With Music...In A Church!



Most Evil Dead fans are probably already familiar with the musical stage version that debuted Off-Broadway in the mid 2000s.  I was always bummed that I never got to check it out, so I was surprised and damn excited to find out that an acting group in my area called Bootless Stageworks was doing a limited run of their own.

Just having the chance to see Evil Dead: The Musical is already a treat, but I knew when I showed up at the entrance of this show it was going to be something special.  The picture below should give an indication as to why:


That's right.  I got to see an expletive-filled gorefest in the basement of a church.  Before the show, a representative from the company addressed that particular elephant in the room, explaining that the church was a new location for the group, and that the pastor had already seen and loved the show.

After having seen it myself, I can see why.  It was campy, low-budget even by horror standards, and it had terrible dialogue.  Here's the thing though:  all of those factors worked in its favor.  Any show called Evil Dead: The Musical would be foolish to take itself too seriously.  So, Bootless Delaware was smart in that they did the exact opposite of that by playfully poking fun at the source material and even at horror tropes in general throughout the show.

What's more, they didn't try to emulate the tone of the movies.  It definitely leans more toward comedy than horror (even more so than Army of Darkness).  And they make a very wise choice in having Ash play more like a typical Broadway hero than the anti-hero perfected by Bruce Campbell.  Hearing some of Ash's more iconic lines delivered sincerely rather than through 7 layers of sarcasm was actually kind of jarring, but I liked it too.

Then, of course, there's the gore.  You can't think about doing anything with Evil Dead in the title unless you're willing to have blood flow.  In this case, blood didn't flow so much as it literally showered.  Initially, I was disappointed to find out that they were out of tickets for the Pit area, where spectators are warned that they would definitely be splattered.  I was actually relieved to merely view the effects though, when I realized that they had literally rigged sprinklers over the audience set to spray them with red water for a good five minutes during the finale.  It was almost to practical joke levels, which was hilarious considering I wasn't the one being doused.

Unfortunately, the run of Evil Dead is done so even if you're in the area it's too late to catch this particular show.  However, Bootless Stageworks has a schedule lined up all the way through summer of 2016, including a Musical of the Living Dead planned for next July.  I think it's important, though, to find these little gems close to where you live.  The horror community can be found pretty much anywhere, and I've found that horror is better-enjoyed when you have people around you who get it and can experience it with you.  If nothing else, maybe you'll be able to see someone get soaked in stage blood.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Show and Tell: Frogs Is Ridiculous And Kinda Terrible. So Why Did I Love It?


Last week I was looking for a horror movie to watch before bed, and in my obligatory 30-45 minute search on Netflix, I landed on Frogs, a movie that has been on my radar ever since I stumbled on the last five minutes of it on TV a few years ago.  While I'd been circling it for a while, I was hesitant because, well...it's called Frogs.  I wasn't sure I wanted to risk starting a movie where the novelty would wear off within five minutes and I'd be bored off my ass for the next hour and a half.

Made in 1972, Frogs stars Sam "I really wish this man was my uncle" Elliot as Pickett Smith, a photographer/ecologist who is almost accidentally run over by a motorboat driven by a member of the extremely wealthy Crockett family.  They offer him a chance to spend time with them on their island by way of apology, but soon his time on the island takes a turn for the deadly as members of the family are killed one-by-one.  All the while, family patriarch Jason Crockett chooses to ignore the deaths in favor of continuing the family's birthday celebration, even as Pickett deduces that the killings are being committed by the animals on the island in response to the continued mistreatment of natural resources in the area.

If the above synopsis makes the movie seem a bit goofy, that's because it's pretty damn goofy.  What's odd is that the reason for the attacks are never clearly explained.  I'd expected some kind of mutation that would make the frogs over-sized, mutated...perhaps ill-tempered.  We get none of that.  Apparently these frogs are just pissed off because of pollution.  What's more, if you can believe it, Frogs is a bit of a misnomer for this movie as they are directly responsible for exactly one death in this movie.  But I suppose Frogs rolls off the tongue easier than Frogs, Spiders, Leeches, Alligators, Snakes, Snapping Turtles, and Moss (Yes, Moss).

As goofy as the premise and script are, I still found myself enjoying the hell out of this movie.  The
first reason is obvious:  anything starring Sam Elliot is worth watching.  In this case, it was particularly interesting for me to see Elliot without his trademark mustache and grey hair because I wanted to see how much his look contributed to his on-screen gravitas.  Happily, as Picket, Elliot still has all of his folksy charm even in a situation as asinine as this one.  Surprisingly, the other actors in the movie provide adequate support, especially given the script they had to work with.

I also really enjoyed the use of the setting.  The film was shot entirely on location at a mansion on the Emerald Coast in Florida, and the film is effective in heightening the menace of the swamps and wetlands in the area.  In particular, there are a few shots that utilize what I believe is supposed to be something from the point of view of the frogs of the frogs, where the edges lose their focus, and the light shining through trees in the swamp has an eerie fogginess to it.  The kills are also pretty effective for a PG movie, as people are poisoned, bitten, and mauled by all variety of Florida-native animals.  I'm certainly going to think twice about jumping into a lake down south after seeing this flick.


While factors such as acting, setting, and creative kills make the movie more entertaining, I was surprised to find that the movie takes a stab at social commentary.  I suppose this shouldn't be as surprising when one considers that the movie was produced by American International Pictures, a production company with a history of addressing issues of the era.  But still, when you click play on a movie called Frogs, you're really not expecting a chance for discussion afterward.

Frogs, however, delves into not one, but TWO issues of the day.  The first, and most obvious, is the relationship between man and the environment.  The movie heavily implies that the impetus for the animals' wrath is the damage being done to the ecosystem, with the Crockett family business being a significant contributor to pollution.  What's interesting is that the movie never shows an explicit cause and effect between the pollution and the animal attacks.  There's no pool of toxic waste giving the animals superpowers, for example.  My first reaction to keeping this connection vague was that it was just lazy writing. However, keeping the catalyst vague keeps the issue broad in its scope.  The Crockett family (especially Jason) are rich, white, entitled assholes, but they're not evil monsters twirling mustaches and plotting world domination.  By keeping the characters relatively grounded, the movie implies that it's not a few devils causing such damage.  It's our culture as a whole.

The other theme considered by Frogs is race relations.  American International is no stranger to issues of race, as it has produced a number of well-known blaxploitation films of the era, including Blacula, Coffy, and Sugar Hill.  These are movies known for depicting strong leading black characters in an era virtually devoid of them.  In Frogs, we meet another such character in Bella, a fiance of one of the Crockett family.  She's confident, she doesn't conform to the hierarchy imposed by Jason and his family, and she's not afraid to confront Jason when he's being unreasonable.  While such a character may seem tame today, this kind of thing was not the norm in 1972.  I hesitate to delve much deeper into the topic considering it's already been terrifically covered by the Graveyard Shift Sisters.  If you want to read deeper into the topic, definitely check out their article here.

Now, don't let any of the above analysis fool you.  Frogs is silliness on celluloid and it's the type of movie you watch after midnight or when you have a group of friends to get drunk with while you watch it.  But while you're getting drunk, take a minute to acknowledge that it's got some flashes of greatness, and it tries to extend its reach slightly beyond its B-movie status.  And it also manages to be a damn entertaining watch.

Friday, July 3, 2015

A Decidedly Non-Definitive History Of Music In Horror

Earlier this week I read on Daily Dead that Broadcast Music Inc. will be hosting a panel at San Diego Comic Con entitled "“The Character of Music: Classic Horror Special Edition."  A group of influential horror composers will be discussing the impact of music the genre and then doing some Q and A.  This is one of the many times that I've been bummed that I live on the east coast and can't make it to Comic-Con.  I love horror soundtracks and I think they are integral components of a great movie. The announcement of this panel got me thinking of the musical landmarks of the genre.

First, a disclaimer:  my entire musical education consists of one semester of basic music history as an undergrad in college.  I'm musically illiterate and I'm pretty sure the term tone deaf was coined specifically for me.  But that won't stop me from having opinions, because I'm an American.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Full Disclosure:  I have not seen Bride of Frankenstein.  My horror wheelhouse is really the 70s and 80s, and while I've seen a number of the Universal Studios monster movies, I've yet to catch this one, so most of what follows comes from some research that I did.  Composed by Franz Waxman, the score to Bride of Frankenstein is momentous because it came in a time when Universal Studios (as well as other studios at the time) were still tinkering with the whole notion of soundtracks.  Dracula, for example, only has music during the opening and ending credits aside from music playing during a concert in one of the scenes.  Bride of Frankenstein, however, presents a full, operatic score that blends the feel of classical music with the ominous tone of horror.



The Blob (1958)
I haven't actually seen this either, but screw it.  This is a movie about killer jello.  And as for the theme song...what in the holy hell is this? I defy anyone to listen to The Blob theme and predict that they're about to see a horror movie.  Although, given the fact that The Blob's "horror" element is a gigantic gelatinous mass from outer space, I suppose we can't really blame writers Burt Bacharach and Mack David for taking the song to a goofy place.




Blacula (1972)
The soundtrack for Blacula was composed by Gene Page, whose work outside of Blacula was more in pop music circles than in horror.  He's arranged music for artists ranging from The Righteous Brothers to Kenny Rogers.  He's worked with Phil Spector.  Hell, he loaned Barry White money when White was still early in his career.  This was not a guy that one would associate with the horror scene.  And frankly, I think if you listened to the Blacula album out of context, you could be forgiven if you didn't recognize it as a horror soundtrack.  It is, however, a very fun listen if you enjoy funk from the early 70s, and I think it fits very well with Blacula's tone.




Exorcist (1973)
The song most associated with The Exorcist,"Tubular Bells," is particularly interesting considering it wasn't written for the movie.  Written by Mike Oldfield in 1973, the song was released on an album of the same name with no connection to William Freidkin's horror classic.  It's difficult to separate the music from the film at this point, but I'd be interested to know if people would find it creepy on its own or if it's scary because you can't hear it without picturing Linda Blair's head spinning around on her shoulders.




Sugar Hill (1974)
I'll be honest, I don't remember any of the rest of this soundtrack other than The Original's "Supernatural Voodoo Woman."  But frankly, that's all that really matters.  I'm gonna leave this here, and you enjoy having it stuck in your head for at least the next week.




Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Director Tobe Hooper worked with Wayne Bell to create the film's soundtrack.  It's funny, though, because before I started writing this article I could have been easily convinced that Texas Chainsaw Massacre didn't even have a soundtrack.  The only aural cues I remember from the movie are the creepy faux-camera noises used at various points in the film (and, of course, a revving chainsaw).  But there is indeed a soundtrack, and it's one that some, including The Guardian's Stephen Thrower, count among their favorites in the genre.  I suppose the reason that I don't recall it myself is that it's almost not music, but rather a collection of off-putting yet barely melodic sounds that lend themselves well to the documentary vibe of the movie.




Suspiria (1977)
I'm sure that the members of Italian electronic rock band Goblin are normal, well-adjusted fellows.  However, when I listed to their work, especially the music from the soundtrack for Dario Argento's Suspiria, part of me believes these dudes are actual goblins who make their music so that they have something playing in the background during their many sacrifice rituals.  But damned if their weird ass shenanigans don't come together for some fun music.




Halloween (1978)
Making movies must be an exhausting process for John Carpenter.  In addition to writing and directing his own stuff, he also composes the score.  Such was the case with Halloween.  I'm quite sure any horror fan reading this is very familiar with the simple yet extremely effective hook of the main theme.  And I wonder, would this movie have been half as scary without its score?  I suppose the same could be said of most horror movies, but I think it's particularly true in the case of Halloween.  Every note foreshadows impending doom, yet somehow also remains easy to listen to and darkly beautiful.  Not a bad feat from a guy who can't read or write music, but rather finds his hooks through improvisation.



Phantasm (1979)
Fred Myrow's score to Don Coscarelli's cult-classic is my favorite horror soundtrack of all time.  It screams 70s.  It screams low-budget.  But fuck it's so damn good.  The hook of the main theme has a hypnotic effect on me that fits perfectly with the movie's tone.  This is a film where we don't know what's real or what's a dream, and it seems like the soundtrack was created specifically to put the viewer in that frame of mind.  I found out recently that a company recently released the soundtrack on vinyl, but of course they've already sold out.  If anyone is looking for a good Christmas present for me, just help me track this thing down because it must be mine.




Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Here's a soundtrack to rival Halloween in its iconic status, as just like with Halloween, it's nearly impossible to separate the movie from its classic music.  Composer Charles Bernstein, like Carpenter, makes use of a synthesizer, but Bernstein's tracks are much more busy and layered than Carpenter.  Not to say that it's necessarily better, because Carpenter was clearly going for simplicity.  But Bernstein shows how dynamic a single musician can be when given the right tools.




It Follows (2015)
After the 80s, horror movies tended to either A) forgo original compositions for slapping together a half-assed mixed tape to sell as a soundtrack or B) settle for generic, vaguely scary music-like tones.  That's why I was so happy to see this year's horror darling, It Follows, extend it's throwback vibe to the soundtrack.  Composer Rich Vreeland (aka Disasterpiece) has a decidedly Carpenteresque vibe in his soundtrack, with a synth-heavy playlist that ramps up the tension of the movie significantly.  I can only hope that this ignites a trend to put some real focus on music in the horror genre, as I feel like it's been lacking as of late.



OK, so now that I've given my abridged history, here's the part where you comment on my glaring omissions.  No, seriously,  Please do.  I'm not going to pretend that the brief list above is in any way exhaustive, and I'd love to hear comments about anything that I've excluded.  Shoot a comment below and let me know about some of your favorite music from the genre.  


Further Reading

"Interview: Charles Bernstein on His Score for 'A Nightmare on Elm Street.'"  Man in the Warmest Place to Hide.  May 21, 2012. http://manisthewarmestplacetohide.com/blog/interview-charles-bernstein-his-score-nightmare-elm-street.

Masters, Marc.  "First Listen: John Carpenter, 'Lost Themes.'" NPR Online. January 25, 2015. http://www.npr.org/2015/01/25/379336431/first-listen-john-carpenter-lost-themes

Perrone, Pierre.  "Obituary: Gene Page."  The Independent Online.  September 21, 1998. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/obituary-gene-page-1199645.html

Rosar, William H.  "Music for the Monsters:  Universal Pictures Horror Film Scores of the Thirties."  The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress.  Fall 1983.  http://www.academia.edu/769153/Music_for_the_Monsters_Universal_Pictures_Horror_Film_Scores_of_the_Thirties

Stewart, Craig.  "Ten Best Horror Scores in Cinematic History." What Culture.  Feburary 11, 2013. http://whatculture.com/film/10-best-horror-scores-in-cinematic-history.php/7

Thrower, Stephen.  "From Goblin to Morricone: the art of horror movie music."  The Guardian Online.  August 18, 2011.  http://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/aug/18/horror-film-movie-music