Sunday, December 8, 2019

Off Script: Black Christmas (2006)

Films: Black Christmas (2006)
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on basement television.

There’s allegedly a second remake of Black Christmas opening this coming Friday, so I decided it was finally time to get through the first remake from 2006. This is not a movie I’ve wanted to watch, to be honest. A big part of that is that Bob Clark’s 1974 original is considered a must-see classic. Clark’s film is formative for the slasher genre, and as much as Halloween seems to set the standard, Black Christmas came first and also was earlier in featuring a holiday-themed killer.

There were a couple of aspects of Clark’s film that made it noteworthy. The first is that much of it comes from the killer’s perspective. Our killer babbles and gibbers, and frequently when he does, we are see what is happening from his perspective. Sure, that’s been done before (Peeping Tom was entirely that, after all), but perhaps never this disturbingly. Second is that we never really see the killer. What happens is just something terrible that happens. There’s no explanation, no resolution—it’s just a killer on a spree with an essentially captive group of victims.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Off Script: Night of the Living Dead (1990)

Films: Night of the Living Dead (1990)
Format: DVD from Richard A. Mautino Memorial Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

There are few more seminal works in the horror genre than George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead. I suppose it was only a matter of time before it was remade. In a way, it’s kind of impressive that no one tried for more than 20 years. Eventually, that remake became a reality under the hands of Tom Savini, someone much more known as a creature creator and master of practical effects. This was his first feature-length project, and his first not for television. He’s an interesting choice for director. While he was inexperienced, he certainly had a great deal of first-hand knowledge of how to work in the genre.

I’m not going to spend a great deal of time here dealing with the story. There are two reasons for this. The first is that, frankly, you should already be familiar with Night of the Living Dead. Savini’s version doesn’t really do anything that Romero’s didn’t do first. This is a straight retelling of the story with the changes existing only in a couple of the characters and in the third act. The second is that there really isn’t a lot of plot. Some people end up trapped in a rural house while the recently reanimated dead attempt to break in and eat them. Most of the tropes of the subgenre were founded in the original—slow zombies, creatures that can only be stopped by destroying the brain or lighting them on fire, bites infect the victim and eventually turn them into zombies, etc. In that respect, there’s nothing new here.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Graduation Day

Films: Booksmart
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on The New Portable.

Oh, I really, really wanted to like Booksmart a lot more than I did. I heard a great deal about it and the reviews are almost entirely favorable. And, truth be told, I did enjoy it well enough. But I wanted to really like it a lot more than I do, and I just kind of like it. I expected it to be something more than it is, but it’s really just Superbad with female protagonists. It also bears a great deal of similarity to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. For most people, that would be a positive, but it has all of the worst qualities of Ferris Bueller.

Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) have been close friends for pretty much their entire lives. They’re both top of their class in high school and have skated through high school to a potentially bright future. Molly is heading to Yale and Amy, after a summer in Botswana, is going to Columbia. What they’ve sacrificed is their social lives. Molly and Amy are considered stuffy, joyless nerds by their classmates.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Wednesday Horror: May

Films: May
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on The New Portable.

Every year, Dell over at Dell on Movies has a week dedicated to women in film. I don’t generally do a lot of blogathon-type things, but I like this one and thought I’d join in. Dell’s Girl Week is dedicated to women both in front of and behind the camera—women as directors and/or women as the main focus of the film. Since Wednesday is my horror movie day, I figured I’d add something to Dell’s event in the horror vein. That’s why I watched May, a modern and fairly upsetting take on the Frankenstein myth.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind that it’s upsetting. It takes a long time for us to get where we’re going to go with May, but it’s also smart enough to slowly ramp up the crazy getting us there, so we’re not just waiting around for things to get out of control. We’re introduced to our title character, May Canady (Angela Bettis, but initially played by Chandler Riley Hecht), a friendless young girl who is cursed with a lazy eye. The initial cure is an eyepatch which causes her to be an outcast. Unable to make friends, she is given a doll named Susie that is encased in glass. Susie becomes May’s only real friend.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Off Script: Fright Night (2011)

Films: Fright Night (2011)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on The New Portable.

I was very much prepared to dislike the 2011 version of Fright Night for a number of reasons. The first and primary reason is that it’s a rare movie where I’m happy to see Colin Farrell in the cast list. He’s one of those actors I tend to think could be replaced by a lot of other people in most cases, and I say this as someone who has genuinely enjoyed some of his performances (like Minority Report). Part of this is that I love the original Fright Night for its campy joys and figured (rightly, mind you) that this would be a much darker film. Intentional camp is rarely good, which means that we’re going to either lose that aspect or we’re going to have a lot of forced silliness.

There are some things that work in the remake’s favor. It’s a reminder of just how much the cinematic world lost when we lost Anton Yelchin. Yelchin was almost always engaging on screen, and he certainly is here. We’re also going to get Toni Collette, who I will watch in virtually anything, even if she’s a bit underused in this film. We’ll also get David Tennant in the Roddy McDowell role, and while the two versions of Peter Vincent are very different, they both have their strengths.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Off Script: From Hell

Films: From Hell
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.

It seems like when it comes to movie adaptations, Alan Moore just can’t catch a break. Those films that got something like an endorsement from Moore turned out to be pretty uniformly terrible. The ones that he decided not to endorse (like V for Vendetta) generally turned out to be pretty credible versions of his stories. From Hell was the first feature-length adaptation of a Moore graphic novel, and I can imagine that Moore’s expectations were high. A Jack the Ripper movie starring 2001 Johnny Depp? Sign me up.

What makes From Hell different from what might be expected in a Jack the Ripper story is that this one is going to spend a surprising amount of time in the higher ranks of society. From Hell posits that the Ripper, while clearly ghoulish, was committing his crimes for a much higher purpose that involved the Royal Family. It’s a hell of an interesting conspiracy theory, and given the sort of space that it really needs to be explored (like in, say, a graphic novel), it’s one that could easily be made compelling.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Wednesday Horror: Crawl

Films: Crawl
Format: Blu-ray from Sycamore Public Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

There will probably always be a place for the basic monster movie. That’s all Crawl really is. It’s just Man vs. Nature (or Woman vs. Nature in this case) laid over the top of a disaster movie. It’s Hard Rain meets The Meg, more or less. We’ve got a couple of people trapped in a crawlspace with alligators during a category-5 hurricane in Florida. That’s it, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything more.

I could honestly stop there with a plot summary, but if I go a little further, it allows me to introduce the cast. Haley (Kaya Scoldelario) is a student at the University of Florida desperate to maintain her position on the university swim team to keep her scholarship. While struggling at the moment, she learns that the area will soon be severely attacked by the latest hurricane that has shifted and is now headed directly for her. Advised to get out of the state, she instead heads south to find her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), who is not answering his phone. When she arrives at his condo, she discovers he’s not their either, but his dog Sugar still is.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Off Script: Rubber

Films: Rubber
Format: DVD from Cortland Community Library on The New Portable.

I have no idea where to begin when discussing Rubber. I’m going to do my best to describe what this is in the next several paragraphs or so, and I’ll have it make as much sense as I possibly can. I have no confidence that I will be able to do this, so bizarre is our narrative.

Rubber is a movie within a movie. Kind of. There is an audience within the diegetic landscape of the movie, but they aren’t watching a traditional movie. Instead, they are out in the middle of nowhere watching a story unfold in the distance, using binoculars to see what is happening. So, while they are referring to what they are watching as a film, it’s more like a series of events happening in the distance, since the people watching aren’t in any sense watching events on a screen.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Right to Life?

Films: Capernaum
Format: DVD from Galena Public Public Library through interlibrary loan on Sue’s Mother’s Day present.

I’m honestly not sure where to start with Capernaum. The List frequently adds a couple of non-English movies every year. Generally speaking, that’s whatever wins Best Foreign Language Feature at the Oscars and another one. Given a guess, I would have suggested Cold War, nominated both for Foreign Language Feature and Best Director. Instead, we’ve got Capernaum, the Lebanese entry for Best Foreign Language film, and one that cannot be summarized easily. A first attempt would be to say this is the story of a young boy who sues his parents for the crime of birthing him. But that doesn’t do the story justice.

Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is 12-years-old and in prison for stabbing someone. He’s also, as the previous paragraph mentioned, suing his parents Souad and Selim (Kawthar Al Haddad and Fadi Kamel Youssef) for having him. More specifically, the case isn’t just that they had him, but that he has no papers, and thus no identity. His parents have many children, but have failed to take care of any of them, and have essentially abandoned him and his sister Sahar (Cedra Izam). A substantial amount of the story, then is understanding how we got here.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Snap to Attention

Films: Avengers: Infinity War
Format: DVD from Dekalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I have to say that I’m a little surprised at the inclusion of Avengers: Infinity War in the latest edition of the 1001 Movies. Up to this point, the only superhero movies that have made it in are a few Batman films and Black Panther, which I think only got in because they realized just how much the editors missed the MCU bandwagon. Truthfully, not all of the MCU movies deserve to be in the list, but some of them did. I’d cite Iron Man, the film that started the MCU and made it viable is one that belongs. At this point, including Infinity War feels like a bit of a sop, like they’re trying to claim a street cred they don’t have and haven’t earned.

From my standpoint, there’s far too much to go into for what I normally talk about with these posts. If you were to watch the entire MCU not in the order the films were made but in the order they happen, we’re talking about the 21st movie in the series. That means there are 20 movies worth of backstory that need to be understood, from Captain America: The First Avenger to Ant-Man and the Wasp to get through. Admittedly, since Ant-Man doesn’t appear in this film, you could probably skip those two, but otherwise, there’s a lot of history to catch up on to fully understand everything that happens here and all of the characters. There’s a shitload of characters here.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Wednesday Horror: Westworld

Films: Westworld
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

Every movie is a product of its time, of course, but a lot of science fiction is very much a product of the year (or at least decade) it was made. The irony of a film series like Star Wars is that the technology for the prequels was so much better than for the original trilogy, so there’s a sense of moving forward in time despite going back in time. It means that a lot of science fiction doesn’t translate well into the future. Westworld has some issues with that. When we see things from the robots’ point of view, for instance, it’s not even Atari 2600 graphics quality.

While this does affect the way Westworld looks today, it doesn’t really affect the enjoyment of the film in general. It’s hard to dislike this movie, particularly when its influence is taken into account. John Carpenter credits Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger as a sort of spiritual ancestor to Michael Myers. It’s almost certain that The Terminator wouldn’t exist without Westworld (and probably The Stepford Wives) existing first. Michael Crichton’s own Jurassic Park is just a riff on the ideas that Westworld put forward, substituting genetically reconstituted dinosaurs for gunslinging robots.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Redux redux

Films: A Star is Born (2018)
Format: DVD from Cortland Community Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I still have other movies from the latest 1001 Movies book to watch and still have some movies from the last Oscars to watch, but none have been more dreaded by me than A Star is Born. It has nothing to do with the fact that this is easily classified as a musical, since it’s a non-traditional one at best. This is not a movie where people sing their feelings to each other, but one where the story is about musicians so a great deal takes place with them performing on stage. No, the reason is that I want to know how many times I have to watch this story.

I mean, I’ve seen the 1937 version of this story that was nominated for Best Picture. I’ve seen the 1954 version that somehow wasn’t. I haven’t seen the one from the 1970s since, aside from a few gushing fans, I haven’t heard anything good about it. And now there’s this version of the story that changes a few of the names and a few of the details but not a great deal else. If you’ve seen any previous version of this story, you know exactly what is going to happen here. You know all the beats and you know the ending. There’s nothing different here.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Wednesday Horror: Dark Water (2005)

Films: Dark Water
Format: DVD from Cortland Community Library on The New Portable.

There was a time when Hollywood had a small cottage industry remaking Japanese horror films for an American audience that otherwise wouldn’t spend time watching a movie with subtitles. This is how we got the 2005 version of Dark Water, a remake of the 2002 film. Surprisingly, this remake has a cast that I can’t quite believe for a horror remake. How good? One Oscar winner and three Oscar nominations good. And for all that, it’s very much a disappointment.

Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) and Kyle (Dougray Scott) are in the middle of what is turning into an acrimonious divorce. At the moment, their daughter Cecilia (Ariel Gade) is the bone of contention. Kyle wants Dahlia and Ceci to move to Jersey City to be closer to him (Dahlia is convinced that this is where his new girlfriend lives), but Dahlia has decided instead to move to Roosevelt Island, located in the middle of the East River, which is cheaper and has one of the best schools in New York.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Off Script: Dracula: Prince of Darkness

Film: Dracula: Prince of Darkness
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Particular monsters are in vogue at particular times. Vampires come and go. They shifted pretty significantly a couple of decades ago. There was always something vaguely tragic and romantic about them, but it wasn’t until Interview with the Vampire that they became particularly effeminate. You can insert your own sparkly vampire joke here. I greatly prefer more feral vampires, and while there are plenty of examples of animalistic vampires, I don’t know that the Count was ever played better than by Christopher Lee, who donned the cape seven times. Dracula: Prince of Darkness was his second film in the role, and one that is sadly missing the great Peter Cushing. Ah, well…

The film starts with a recap of Horror of Dracula, Lee’s previous film in the role. We get a refresher on the death of Dracula (Lee) and the end to his century-long reign of terror. The film then picks up ten years after the previous movie, introducing us to Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), who shows up at the burial of a young woman who, because of superstition, was about to be buried as a vampire. He stops this, and then steps into a local inn where he meets a quartet of travelers. These are the Kents, two married couples. Alan (Charles Tingwell) and wife Helen (Barbara Shelley) are the more fussbudget=y couple, while Charles (Francis Matthews) and his wife Diana (Suzan Farmer) are younger and seem quite a bit more willing to have a little fun.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Humbug

Films: The Greatest Showman
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on The New Portable.

I bluntly do not understand it when someone makes a biopic and makes completely unnecessary changes. In the case of The Greatest Showman, the changes I’m talking about are not making this into a musical. As musicals go, this one is decent, if not exceptional. The songs are pretty good, and it follows the standard musical progression of reprises and songs of varying tempo and power. If you’ve seen a musical, The Greatest Showman hits all the beats you’re expecting. I don’t think that P.T. Barnum spent his life singing his feelings to other people, and I’m not suggesting that the movie has a reality problem because of that. No, the problem is much more ridiculous.

The problem is the character of Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron). In the movie, Carlyle is a playwright who is acclaimed but seems genuinely unhappy. P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) convinces Carlyle to ditch his easy society life and work with him and his collection of sideshow attractions and circus performers. So what’s the problem? Phillip Carlyle is entirely a fabrication. Barnum’s actual partner was a guy named James Anthony Bailey, who, when he met Barnum, was already the manager of a circus. Why do this? No one thinks the circus was called the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Carlyle Circus.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Ten Days of Terror!: Donnie Darko

Film: Donnie Darko
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

Everyone has a few movies that are on the list of films that they really should have seen but having. Years ago, former blogger and my ex-podcasting partner Nick Jobe spent a year watching movies that he figured he should have seen and spend another year with people recommending additional movies for him. Hell, I did the 1001 Movies list initially because there were so many that I hadn’t seen and I felt like a poser. But still, there are movies that slip through. There are tons I haven’t seen that I certainly should. Up until yesterday, Donnie Darko was on that list and was probably the most recommended film in my unseen list.

So, now I’ve seen it, and it was fine. It was almost certainly overhyped to me, and I fully understand why people like it a lot. It feels like one of those movies that needs to be watched at a certain age. It’s a movie that feels like it was made for white males in their mid-20s, with a character around whom the world might legitimately revolve around but who doesn’t care about his own potential importance. It feels like a cinematic version of nihilism, and while that’s interesting, it’s also bleak in a lot of ways, and thus difficult for me to fully get behind.

Ten Days of Terror!: Creepshow 2

Films: Creepshow 2
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.

I think there’s a reason that when you think of an anthology film, you almost always think of horror. Oh, sure, there are comedy anthologies out there, many of which are truly terrible, but horror seems to be the go-to for the filmed short story. Asked to name one, there are plenty of places you could go (Black Sabbath, XX, The ABCs of Death, etc.) but Creepshow is probably the immediate though of plenty of people. It’s certainly my first thought. It managed to present us with carnival spook show-style “scares” that are more fun than really scary. It’s fun and scary in the way a rollercoaster is fun and scary, so it was probably inevitable that there would be a Creepshow 2.

And here’s the thing: I could effectively review this movie by the end of this paragraph. If you’re familiar with Creepshow and like it, your thought about the sequel is almost certainly what mine was. You almost certainly hope that it manages to keep that same, goofy comic book feel where the scares are more fun than scary and the gore is more clearly latex than really gory. And while you hope that, you also almost certainly realize that it’s ultimately going to be a disappointment. The best story here will probably be better than the worst story from the original Creepshow, but there’s no way that it will match the highs of segments like “The Crate.” And…well…that’s pretty much all true.

Ten Days of Terror!: Razorback

Films: Razorback
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

When Spielberg made Jaws, he changed a great deal of things in the movie industry. The first thing he did was create the idea of the summer blockbuster. Whether that has been for good or ill I leave up to the individual. The other thing Spielberg did was create a series of Jaws knock-off films involving other elements of nature going berserk. These sorts of stories certainly existed before Spielberg. The ‘50s were rife with giant insect and creature films. But Jaws gave use a world where the reality didn’t need to be changed; it was just a really big shark. From that we got movies like Grizzly and Piranha, and we still get them in films like Anaconda and Lake Placid. Razorback, from the mid-‘80s, is an Australian Jaws that replaces the shark with several tons of aggravated and presumably delicious wild pre-bacon.

The film starts with our introduction to the creature. Kangaroo hunter Jake Cullen (Bill Kerr) is watching his grandson when his house is literally run through by the razorback in question. It runs off with the child, presumably to eat it. What follows is a trial where Jake is found not guilty because of a lack of evidence, but has his reputation and life destroyed. In no small part, this feels like the story of dingoes running off with a baby that led to A Cry in the Dark.

Ten Days of Terror!: Final Destination

Film: Final Destination
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on The New Portable.

I checked Final Destination out of the library multiple times before I pulled the trigger on watching it. I’m not sure what it was the kept me from wanting to watch it, but multiple times, it sat on my desk for a week before I took it back unviewed. This time it was only slightly different—I had it until it was due and finally watched it. As someone who watches horror films, there’s something incomplete in me at having not seen a film that produced four sequels. So, finally, I guess I just decided I was tired of bringing it home and doing nothing with it.

Chances are that you know the basic story behind the film. If you don’t it’s one of those movies that can be described in an elevator speech. As a group of high school students prepare for a field trip to Paris, one of them, Alex Browning (Devon Sawa) has a bizarre nightmare of the few minutes leading up to the take-off, a nightmare that ends with the plane exploding. When Alex wakes up, the events of his dream play out exactly. He panics and is dragged off the plane along with a few others. The plane takes off and explodes, which puts Alex in the position of being grilled by FBI agents Weine (Daniel Roebuck) and Schreck (Roger Guenveur Smith). The other survivors—students Tod Waggner (Chad Donella), Clear Rivers (Ali Larter), Carter Horton (Kerr Smith), Billy Hitchcock (Seann William Scott), and Terry Chaney (Amanda Detmer) as well as teacher Valerie Lewton (Kristen Cloke) are now dealing with survivor guilt…and a lot more.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Ten Days of Terror!: 30 Days of Night

Film: 30 Days of Night
Format: Starz via On Demand on big ol’ television.

Typically, I watch a movie and write up the review the same day or the next day. That’s true even in cases where I might wait months (or even longer) to actually post the review. In the case of 30 Days of Night, I have been waiting days to actually write this up. I’d seen this before, so I knew what to expect going in. What that means in this case is that I knew exactly where and how I’d be disappointed. I so desperately want to like this movie and I just can’t.

So here’s the deal: 30 Days of Night has a tremendously good premise and a great take on vampires and it screws the pooch by having the stupidest execution possible. The movie it reminds me of the most in this respect is Snowpiercer. So many people love Snowpiercer, but when I look at it, I can’t get behind just how dumb the execution actually is. It’s a film where the premise makes so little sense that it actually makes me mad. 30 Days of Night has a great premise, but how this is actually revealed in the film is so head-bashingly dumb that I just get frustrated and lose focus. Because of that, I haven’t wanted to write about it.

Ten Days of Terror!: Freddy vs. Jason

Film: Freddy vs. Jason
Format: DVD from Bertolet Memorial Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

I suppose on some level Freddy vs. Jason was inevitable. We live in a world that gave us Alien vs. Predator and Dollman vs. Demonic Toys, so pitting two of the more popular supernatural killers against each other. Evidently, something like this was in the works for ages and wasn’t viable until New Line attained the rights to the Friday the 13th franchise. It is also alleged that the original treatment was to include Bruce Campbell’s Ash from the Evil Dead movies, but the rights couldn’t be acquired.

The conceit here is that Freddy Kruger is more or less forgotten on his old Elm Street haunts. The parents know about him, certainly, but the kids who are his victims no longer know or fear him. Since Freddy kills essentially through fear by infecting their dreams, there is no way for him to kill anymore. His plan, therefore, is to resurrect Jason Voorhees to instill the fear back into the Elm Street teens, which will then give him enough mojo to restart his own killing spree. I agree that this doesn’t make a great deal of sense. You kind of have to go with it.

Ten Days of Terror: Jeepers Creepers; Jeepers Creepers 2

Film: Jeepers Creepers; Jeepers Creepers 2
Format: DVD from Wilmington Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

I go to strange places sometimes for this blog. There are times when I go places I really don’t want to. I mean, I did watch Salo, after all. With the They Shoot Zombies lists, there are some places I almost certainly won’t go; there are movies here that I desperately do not want to see. There are a number of reasons for that. In the case of Jeepers Creepers and its sequel, my reticence had nothing to do with the movie or its plot. It had everything to do with its director, Victor Salva.

The Me Too Movement has changed a lot of things and a lot of how we look at movies. Acclaimed actors and directors have had their careers ruined because of their past actions. Victor Salva is someone whose career legitimately could and should have been ended on these grounds. After his first film, Salva was accused and convicted of molesting one of the stars of his film. He served a year in prison for it. His first film afterward, Powder, could be seen as something like an attempt to explain or even excuse his behavior. So, with the Jeepers Creepers movies, I’m in the position of watching something made by a guy who admittedly molested a 12-year-old. Has he paid his debt to society? Does he get forgiven or even a second chance? I don’t know.

Ten Days of Terror!: Bubba Ho-Tep

Film: Bubba Ho-Tep
Format: DVD from personal collection on The New Portable.

I’m not sure what coherent can be said about the films of Don Coscarelli except that they are consistently bizarre in the extreme. Bubba Ho-Tep, a film that features Elvis Presley playing the part of an Elvis impersonator with penile cancer, JFK as a black man with sand replacing part of his brain, and a cowboy boot-wearing mummy, certainly fits his oeuvre. This is the guy who made the Phantasm series, Beastmaster, and John Dies at the End after all, so Elvis in an East Texas nursing home is par for the course.

And yes, this is exactly where we are going here. Sebastian Haff (Bruce Campbell) is actually Elvis Presley, and he lives in an East Texas nursing home more or less waiting for death to overcome him. He reveals eventually how the King of Rock and Roll came to this sorry state. Desperate to get out of the life that fame has created for him, Elvis tracked down a successful impersonator named Sebastian Haff. The two sign an agreement. Haff becomes Elvis and Elvis becomes Haff, an arrangement that Elvis can switch back whenever he wants. Sadly for him, he loses his copy of the contract in a trailer explosion, and then Haff-as-Elvis dies. The real Elvis, still performing as Haff, falls off stage during a concert and breaks his hip, and he winds up in a coma, which eventually puts him in the Shady Rest Retirement Home.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Ten Days of Terror!: The Frighteners

Film: The Frighteners
Format: DVD from personal collection on The New Portable.

Evidently, I love horror comedies, because I appear to have a lot of them in my personal collection. Of them, The Frighteners is one of my favorites. It does just about everything right. Additionally, aside from a making-of documentary, The Frighteners stands in the unique position of being the movie that Peter Jackson made immediately before he made the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sure, there’s a world of difference here, but there are a few spots of similarity, even if the effects aren’t that great in places.

The Frighteners starts with the premise that ghosts are real and can be seen by people who have had a traumatic experience. In this case, our ghost seer is Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox), a former architect who now runs a paranormal investigation company. This company consists really of just himself essentially scamming the people in his area. However, Frank really can see ghosts. His scam requires the assistance of actual ghosts who invade people’s houses, cause some paranormal activity, and, when Frank is called in, disappear so that Frank can “clean” the house. Frank’s first assistant is known as The Judge (John Astin), but the two handling most of the work as the film beings are Cyrus (Chi McBride) and Stu (Jim Fyfe).

Ten Days of Terror!: Housebound

Film: Housebound
Format: DVD from personal collection on The New Portable.

I’ve been on a bit of a horror/comedy kick lately, which is odd in a way. There are a number or horror comedies that I like, but I think it’s not an easy genre mix to do well. More often than not, a lot of these movies still want to keep a foot in the horror genre, which means the comedy doesn’t really come through. Housebound is one that I remember liking the first time I saw it. On a rewatch, I liked it more. It has a great mix of horror and comedy, and a big part of this comes from the fact that it doesn’t sell the horror short at all.

Kylie Bucknell (Morgana O’Reilly) is, in the parlance, troubled. As the film opens, she and an accomplice attempt to rob an ATM, but the accomplice knocks himself unconscious. In attempting to get away with the money and he friend, Kylie ends up caught. Because of her history, she is sentenced to eight months of house arrest under the eye of her mother Miriam (Rima Te Wiata) and her step-father Graeme (Ross Harper). Kylie isn’t too pleased with this arrangement. She has a great deal of resentment stored up for her mother and nothing really to say about Graeme other than that they have nothing really in common.

Ten Days of Terror!: The Cottage

Film: The Cottage
Format: DVD from East Moline Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

Horror comedies are hard to do well. Most of them spend far too much time on the comedy and not nearly enough time on the horror. In fact, there are a lot of them that more or less forget that they half of their name is “horror” and end up providing horror moments that are neither very scary nor very funny. The Cottage attempts to do something different in this respect. It follows a path a lot more similar to a movie like The Frighteners in which the first half is essentially a comedy film, with the second half being a slasher.

The Cottage starts as a crime movie. Brothers David (Andy Serkis) and Peter (Reece Shearsmith) have kidnapped Tracey (Jennifer Ellison), the step-daughter of a crime boss. They have gone out to the middle of nowhere to make their ransom demand. We discover eventually that David is familiar with the criminal underworld while Peter is not. The ransom will be split by David and Andrew (Steve O’Donnell), Tracey’s stepbrother. Rather than money, Peter will get the undisputed claim to his and David’s late mother’s house.

Ten Days of Terror!: The Snowtown Murders

Film: Snowtown (The Snowtown Murders)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on The New Portable.

Horror movies come in any number of varieties. One of the clearest distinctions is between movies that are based in the supernatural and those that are based more in reality. A movie like The Silence of the Lambs is clearly horror and purely within the realm of possibility, which makes it that much more terrifying for me. Contrast that with, say, A Nightmare on Elm Street, which is terrifying in the moment, but then stops affecting me the moment the movie is over. Snowtown, also known as The Snowtown Murders is very much a film of the first variety. In fact, this is based on a real case of the most notorious serial killer in Australia and the young man who he influenced.

That summary really is what Snowtown is about; the rest is really just the details. Those details focus on Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway), a young man who lives in poverty with his family in a poor suburb of Adelaide, Australia. His mother (Louise Harris) does the best she can, which honestly isn’t that great for her kids. Need evidence of this? At one point, Jamie is raped by his older brother Troy (Anthony Groves) and her boyfriend takes indecent pictures of all three of her sons. A gay, cross-dressing neighbor named Barry (Richard Green) introduces her to John Bunting (Daniel Henshall).

Monday, October 28, 2019

Ten Days of Terror!: Midsommar

Film: Midsommar
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on rockin' flatscreen.

On my recent visit to Rockford, I stopped by one of the branches of the library to see what they had and was pleasantly surprised to find a copy of Midsommar. I’d heard about the film, of course, both good and bad, and assumed that, since it was mostly good, that it will appear on the next iteration of the They Shoot Zombies list. Nothing like knocking something out ahead of time, right?

Anyway, Midsommar stars a bunch of people I don’t know and Florence Pugh, who I like quite a bit. The box art (and the best-known poster) features Pugh wearing a floral crown and crying. Based on that, I figured we were going to be looking at something along the lines of The Wicker Man, and there are certainly some real similarities here. Midsommar is ethnographic horror in the same way as The Wicker Man, or films like The Green Inferno or even Cannibal Holocaust. What we’re getting is the horror of a culture, and specifically the horror that stems from the beliefs of that culture.

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1943

The Contenders:

Joan Fontaine: The Constant Nymph
Ingrid Bergman: For Whom the Bell Tolls
Greer Garson: Madame Curie
Jean Arthur: The More the Merrier
Jennifer Jones: The Song of Bernadette (winner)

Ten Days of Terror!: Damien: Omen II

Film: Damien: Omen II
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

One of the more interesting aspects of certain horror movie franchises is when there are respected actors involved. When The Omen was made, the married couple in charge of the Antichrist Damien were played by Gregory Peck and Lee Remick and features actors like David Warner. The sequel has a cast list that I still can’t quite get my head around. And it’s for a sequel that happened two years after the first movie, but takes place seven years later. I’m completely staggered by this. There are multiple Oscar winners and nominees in this and I can’t figure out why.

Damien: Omen II temporarily picks up immediately after the conclusion of the first movie. Archaeologist Carl Bugenhagen (an uncredited Leo McKern) has learned of the survival of Damien Thorn (played eventually in this film by Jonathan Scott-Taylor) and has become convinced of his identity as the Antichrist. The main reason for this is the existence of Yigael’s Wall, a mural allegedly drawn by an insane monk who had visions of the Antichrist at various points in his life, including as a child. Bugenhagen shows his friend Michael Morgan (an also-uncredited Ian Hendry) the wall, but such is the power of the Satanic forces at work that the tunnel they are in collapses and kills them both.

Ten Days of Terror!: Darkness

Film: Darkness
Format: DVD from River Valley District Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

One of the joys of watching horror movies from the past is that you can sometimes see someone at the start of his or her career. Think Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, for instance, or perhaps Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th. It’s a lot more fun when it’s someone who ends up with a great career but appeared in some terrible early horror films—Mila Kunis in American Psycho II, for instance. So when an odd little horror movie has an established cast, I find it fascinating. Darkness, a relatively unknown film from 2002 has a surprising cast, and these are not unknowns. Featured in this film are Anna Paquin, who had won an Oscar a decade previous; Lena Olin, Oscar nominated in the previous decade; and Giancarlo Giannini, nominated back in 1975. An Oscar winner and two nominees in an unknown, amateurish horror film. That’s pretty exceptional.

It took me longer to get this film than I would have liked. I ordered it through interlibrary loan and was sent the wrong film. Instead of Darkness from 2002, I was sent The Darkness from 2016. Oh, those wacky librarians!

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Ten Days of Terror!: The Fury

Film: The Fury
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on The New Portable.

In 1976, the release of Carrie based on Stephen King’s novel probably started what would become a series of horror/science fiction movies about or involving psychics. Dreamscape, Firestarter, The Shining, Scanners…all of these were variations on a theme. Many of these centered on government plots to produce or strengthen psychics through one means or another. While Carrie might have been the first killer psychic movie, it was The Fury that gave us a governmental twist on the proceedings. It’s not a coincidence that Brian De Palma directed both Carrie and The Fury.

Because The Fury was directed by Brian De Palma, we’re going to get the joy of a bizarre thriller with the sort of cast list that someone like De Palma could arrange in his prime. This means Kirk Douglas, John Cassavetes, Charles Durning, and Carrie Snodgress. It also means that we’re going to get Amy Irving, etched forever into public consciousness as the girl who goes to Carrie’s grave at the end of Carrie.

Ten Days of Terror!: 1408

Film: 1408
Format: DVD from personal collection on The New Portable.

Once upon a time when I podcasted regularly, I watched 1408 because Nick Jobe picked it for me to watch. I remember liking it; I can’t remember if I picked up a copy on the cheap because I had to watch it or because I had just watched it, but nonetheless, I do own a copy. But there’s a reason that I rewatch films I’ve seen before to review them. I completely forgot that, like virtually every movie in history, 1408 has no idea how to really write a skeptic character. Honestly, the makers of Scooby-Doo got it right and no one else understands that skepticism and cynicism are not the same thing and that it’s possible to be a skeptic without suffering some major loss in the past.

For what it’s worth, that does genuinely damage my opinion of the movie. As someone who considers himself a skeptic and who does not consider himself a cynic, it bothers the hell out of me. It is the philosophical equivalent of racial profiling, something especially true since the skeptic label is paired with atheists more than with anyone else. What this means is that 1408 is yet another film where our central atheist has become a non-believer not because of rationality or philosophical inquiry but because he or she (he in this case) got mad at God, and specifically the Christian god. Look, the philosophical position isn’t hard. Get it right.

Ten Days of Terror!: Needful Things

Film: Needful Things
Format: DVD from Cortland Community Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

Say what you will about Stephen King, but he’s certainly varied in the sorts of horrors that he concocts. There was a time when I read a great deal of Stephen King. In fact, there were a good many years when one of my sisters, one of my brothers, and I traded King’s books among ourselves. And, naturally, a lot of those books were turned into movies. Needful Things is an odd one both in terms of the story and the movie. This is a film with a surprising cast, for instance. It’s also perhaps King’s most aggressively mean-spirited story.

I don’t mean that as a positive or negative judgment; I mean that as a simple fact. There are plenty of King’s books that involve terrible violence, pain, bloodshed, and even torture. The hobbling scene from Misery is one of the few movie scenes I’ve never been able to watch a second time. And yet Needful Things is spiteful and belligerent. There are plenty of movies that go for the audience’s jugular by killing off a friendly family pet, for instance. In Needful Things, we’re not going to get a family pet killed. We’re going to get a family pet killed and then skinned. And all of this is going to be done by average people, not by monsters.

Ten Days of Terror!: It Came from Outer Space

Film: It Came from Outer Space
Format: Turner Classic Movies on big ol’ television.

There’s a particular vibe when it comes to 1950s science fiction, specifically when it comes to alien invasion movies. While there are some rare exceptions, the vast majority of alien invasion films are going to feature aliens dead set on attacking, destroying, or enslaving the human race. I mean, I get it. On a visceral level, Independence Day is more interesting than E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Movies where the aliens aren’t evil are really rare. Movies where the aliens are neither evil nor good are vanishingly scares, but that’s what is on offer from It Came from Outer Space.

So, there’s a lot to cover here. We can start with the fact that It Came from Outer Space is based on a Ray Bradbury story, and that’s going to boost it a lot in my estimation. I’ve been a fan, perhaps even a fanboy, of Bradbury for a touch more than four decades. One of Bradbury’s many gifts was having a unique ear for dialogue. No one in the world really speaks like a Bradbury character, but the poetry of those lines is something really special. About half an hour into the movie, our hero, writer and amateur astronomer John Putnam (Richard Carlson) questions Frank Daylon (Joe Sawyer), a telephone lineman, about anything he might have seen. How Frank responds, talking about 15 years of working in the desert and the wind getting into the wires and talking is goddam beautiful even if no telephone lineman ever talked like that in the history of things.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Ten Days of Terror!: Detention

Film: Detention
Format: DVD from Peotone Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

I go into every movie hoping that I’ll like it. I think that’s only natural. I’m not someone who revels in bad film or who celebrates movies that are “so bad, they’re good.” I mean, I’m not immune to the charms of such a film, but I don’t tend to seek them out. With Detention, we’ve got a film that I classify as “so bad it’s not even good.” Words defy how much I hate this movie, but for the next 800-1000 words, I’m sure as hell going to try.

Detention bills itself as a horror/comedy. There are two problems with that: it’s not scary and it’s not funny. And it starts pretty promising. The problem here, and I’m not going to pull punches on this, is that Detention has ADHD. This is a movie that is all the hell over the place. Detention desperately wants to be Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and for as much as I disliked that movie, Detention can’t carry its book bag.

Ten Days of Terror!: Copycat

Film: Copycat
Format: DVD from personal collection on The New Portable.

Pardon me for a minute while I gush. I’m not going to say that Copycat is an underrated movie. That word implies that I’ve found a particular value in a film that other people have not; it can be seen as an attempt to give myself a cache that I don’t have and didn’t earn. Instead, I’m going to say that Copycat is underknown and underappreciated. It’s a movie that I wish more people knew about. While it might be presumptuous to suggest that it belongs in the same sentence as The Silence of the Lambs, it’s not at all out of bounds to say that it belongs in the same paragraph.

In reality, Copycat probably isn’t quite as good as I think it is, but it’s got a couple of aspects that I find recommend it tremendously. The first is that it has a great cast, particularly Sigourney Weaver and Holly Hunter in roles that rank among my favorites for their careers. It also features Harry Connick Jr. as a serial killer, which turns out to be inspired casting. The other thing connects to the first; these are great characters. It would be easy to create these characters as one- or two-dimensional for the sort of “catch the serial killer” movie this is. Instead, we get characters that have real dimension and depth and history. I love that about Copycat and it makes the film so much better in my opinion.

Ten Days of Terror!: Hellbound: Hellraiser II

Film: Hellbound: Hellraiser II
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on the new internet machine.

If memory serves, I saw Hellbound: Hellraiser II (which I’m going to call Hellraiser II from this point forward) before I saw Hellraiser. This wasn’t by design. I think I walked into my living room when a college roommate had just started watching this first sequel (there are 10 total Hellraiser movies with the tenth released in 2018! Who knew?) and I sat down and watched it, too. It’s plenty gory, far more extreme in that respect than the original film. And because it doesn’t have to do a great deal of world building, it gives us a lot more of what we’re hoping for in a film from this series.

Hellraiser II picks up pretty much immediately after the conclusion of the first film, although we do get a little prequel of British military officer Elliott Spencer (Doug Bradley) opening the Lament Configuration and becoming the Cenobite Pinhead. From there, we jump back to the film’s present with survivor Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) in a mental institution because of her wild stories of the dead returning, skinless humans, and monsters from another dimension. Her boyfriend from the first movie will not appear in this sequel—somehow he’s managed to escape dealing with puzzle boxes and Cenobites.

Ten Days of Terror!: Dressed to Kill

Film: Dressed to Kill
Format: DVD from Peotone Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

I’ve never seen Dressed to Kill before now and yet I have distinct memories of it. Primarily, I remember that my sister loved it. She was at the age to go to the theater just about every weekend and had the desire to see anything vaguely horror related. She loved this movie, and now having seen it, I get why she was there when she was about 20. Of course, I’d need to put myself in 1980 mindset to get there, and that’s a little harder to do; Dressed to Kill hasn’t aged very well.

The truth about Dressed to Kill is the truth about Brian De Palma in general. De Palma spent a great deal of his time picking the bones of Alfred Hitchcock for any scraps of meat that he could find. When he was at his best, he found more than just scraps and was able to do quite a bit working in Hitchcock’s milieu. In the case of Dressed to Kill, the bones he’s picking in earnest are those of Psycho. Hell, there’s even a shower scene.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Ten Days of Terror!: Arachnophobia

Films: Arachnophobia
Format: DVD from Geneseo Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

I remember when Arachnophobia came out because I remember hearing about how people liked it and I remember specifically not going to see it. This is not because I was not yet a horror movie fan. By 1990, I was very much a horror fan. It wasn’t because my girlfriend at the time (now wife) wouldn’t go with me because she is not a horror movie fan. No, it’s entirely because I was and am freaked out by spiders.

Before I get into a full look at Arachnophobia, I feel like I should more fully explain my own fear of arachnids. Before you, faithful reader, get on your high horse telling me about how useful spiders are and how important they are to an ecosystem, and even how many harmful insects they eat, I get it. I really do. I’m in full agreement. If there’s one in my house, I try not to kill it and get it outside instead. I understand their importance. They just freak me the hell out. I know intellectually that they are important and useful and beneficial. And they still make my sphincters clench.

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1930-1931

The Contenders:

Richard Dix: Cimarron
Lionel Barrymore: A Free Soul (winner)
Adolphe Menjou: The Front Page
Fredric March: The Royal Family of Broadway
Jackie Cooper: Skippy

Ten Days of Terror!: Curtains

Film: Curtains
Format: Streaming video from Amazon Prime on the new internet machine.

There are specific rules for slasher movies, or at least specific things that we expect from them as members of the audience. One of them is that we expect there to be actual slasher deaths within the context of the film. In this respect, Curtains has some real issues with calling itself a slasher. This is probably the most bloodless “slasher” movie I’ve ever seen. I mean I’ve taken a stance against gore for the sake of gore plenty of times in the past, but this is ridiculous.

It starts out well, too. We’re given a director named Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon) and his frequent muse Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar). Stryker has long wanted to make a movie called Audra, and has finally come to the point where he’s going to make it. To prep Samantha for the role, he has her committed to an insane asylum, a move with which she agrees. What she doesn’t agree with is the fact that Stryker decides to leave her there, because he wants to take his movie in another direction. Don’t worry; she’ll be playing a part in all of what is to come.

Ten Days of Terror!: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Films: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Format: DVD from LaSalle Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

Everyone has holes in his or her viewing history. A lot of those holes will never be filled, of course. There are just too damn many movies for anyone to see them all. That being said, there are some viewing holes that are more embarrassing than others for any number of reasons. For me, one of the big holes I had until now was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Chalk it up to timing. My wife doesn’t like anything that smacks even a little of horror and in 1992, we were recently married. That’s going to make it tough for me to see it.

Anyway, Buffy is far more well known as a television show than it was as a movie, even if the movie came first. Still, it’s pretty well beloved, so I felt like I was missing something by not having seen it. After all, it’s alleged that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is everything you want in a horror comedy, right? It gives us an ass kicking female protagonist who is substantially different from the stereotype. In this case, our undead slayer is a bubble-headed cheerleader (at least initially). That’s the sell here—rather than a classic warrior against the undead, we get the leader of the cheer team.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Ten Days of Terror!: The Raven (1963)

Films: The Raven (1963)
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on The New Portable.

I said not that long ago that horror comedies aren’t that difficult, or at least don’t have to be. There are more or less two basic ways to do it. The first and most impressive way is the make the film equal parts horror and comedy. Plenty of movies have done this and done it successfully. The other way to do this is to make no real pretense about the horror part of the film and instead create a comedy that dances on the edge of horror—something that implies horror without actually being horror or anything like it. The Raven from 1963 follows this second path. It wants its audience to believe that it has something to do with the well-known poem by Poe, but in truth, aside from a few hints at the start and an overt mention at the end, they’ve almost nothing in common.

Not content to stick with something contemporary with Poe, we’re going to jump far into the past, into something like the 15th or 16th century. Dr. Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price) sits in his study when he is visited by a raven, eventually letting the bird into his house. It turns out that this raven is actually a person named Dr. Bedlo (Peter Lorre), who has been turned into a raven by a magical rival. Bedlo is convinced that Craven is also a practitioner of magic and should have the ingredients on hand. Craven denies this, but then claims that his father was a wizard and would have such ingredients like dead man’s hair and evaporated bats blood. Two concoctions later (the first one brought back Dr. Bedlo but left him with raven wings), and our two magicians have decided that they must pay a call on the man who transformed Bedlo.

Ten Days of Terror!: Dracula (1979)

Films: Dracula (1979)
Format: DVD from Moline Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula is almost certainly one of the most adapted stories on film, not unlike Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This is not even including stories that are more or less the same thing as Dracula (or Hamlet) under different names. Of all of the various Draculas that exist, the 1979 version, titled simply Dracula as many of them are, is probably the first filmed version I ever saw. I would have been 11 going on 12 when it was released, and I’m also pretty sure that I’d seen the stage play before this time (or potentially around this time—this is decades ago, so the time is a bit hazy). Certainly I knew the story going into this.

What this means, like it or not, is that at some level, this version of Dracula is formative for me. It reminded me a great deal of the staged version that I saw in Chicago, which further cemented the idea that this is what Count Dracula should be and look like. Looking at his IMDb page now, I’m a bit gobsmacked that Langella didn’t have a long-standing career in horror after this role; I genuinely thought he did, because I associated him with horror movies for years, such is the strength of this role.

Ten Days of Terror!: Invaders from Mars

Films: Invaders from Mars
Format: DVD from Peotone Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

There’s a part of me that loves 1950s science fiction because it has so many qualities that I admire. It’s so often campy without trying, meaning that it’s the sort of camp that has a chance of actually being good. It’s also so often earnest. Science is respected as being the source of American (and thus, in the mind of these movies, human) strength and power. The aliens generally want to destroy our civilization and enslave us or take over our planet. And, since this is pre-Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we get a good variety of aliens to attack us. Invaders from Mars, as the name implies, is right in that sweet spot of alien invasion, campy characters, weird special effects, and boostering for the American military.

One night, young David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt) sets an alarm for himself to do a little stargazing. After a mild, good-natured rebuke from his parents, (Leif Erickson and Hillary Brooke), David is awakened by a thunderstorm. Looking out into it, he sees a massive spacecraft descending not too far from the family home. He wakes up his father (again), who puts the boy back to bed and decides to go take a look. When he finally comes back the next morning, Dr. MacLean is angry, short, sullen, and otherwise unemotional. He’s almost, dare I say it, a pod person. David notices a strange puncture mark on the back of his father’s neck.

Ten Days of Terror!: Student Bodies

Films: Student Bodies
Format: DVD from LaSalle Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

When I look at a film like Student Bodies, I think there are only a couple of possible reasons it exists. The year before it was released we got Airplane!, a genius film that contains at least two jokes on screen at every moment and frequently more than that. It was perhaps natural then that Student Bodies would be released, since it appears to be Airplane!, but a horror movie instead of a disaster movie. There is clearly an attempt to make this far more of a comedy than it is a horror movie. There’s nothing like gore or even blood here. There’s a moment in the middle of the film where the producer, sitting at a desk, swears at the audience so that the film can earn an R-rating.

The idea here is exactly that, though—it’s a movie that desperately wants to be the Airplane! of horror movies. Nothing is serious, everything is played for a joke, and every character on screen is uniquely stupid in real ways. The issue is that beyond the idea of doing a spoof of slasher movies, virtually nothing here works at all.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Ten Days of Terror!: The Plague of the Zombies

Films: The Plague of the Zombies
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

There’s something rather charming about Hammer horror films. They tended to go for that Gothic feel, meaning that the horror is much more along those classic lines and probably isn’t going to be really scary. It’s all about that Victorian feel, putting a damsel or two in distress, killing off a few people, and eventually getting rid of the monster or monsters by the end. What makes The Plague of the Zombies particularly interesting to me is that this was released a couple of years before Night of the Living Dead. That means that this may well be the last movie made before “zombie” became synonymous with flesh-eating ghouls.

What that means is that with The Plague of the Zombies we’re going to get actors playing 19th century dress-up, “scares” that aren’t that scary, and emphasis on story, which makes it kind of refreshing. That the story is kind of nonsensical is kind of beside the point here—it really is focused much more on the story than on anything like gore. Once again, it strikes me just how different this movie is from Night of the Living Dead despite a mere two-year difference.

Ten Days of Terror!: Body Snatchers

Films: Body Snatchers
Format: DVD from Cordova District Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

One of the first movies that I can think of that scared the hell out of me was Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the first one, which I saw when I was a kid. It’s a great set up for a film, and one that is so effective at what it does that the idea of “pod people” has entered cultural consciousness. Even if you’ve never seen any version of this story, you probably know what a pod person is. It’s one of the most adapted non-Shakespeare stories around in the sense that it has been done as a direct version of the book four times. Body Snatchers is the third version of the story, and while it doesn’t have the power or impact of the original or the first remake, it’s better than you might guess and far better than its obscurity would indicate.

One of the main selling points of the book by Jack Finney is that the base story and the concept of pod people is endlessly adaptable. In the 1950s, the original version of the story was accused of being both pro-communist and pro-McCarthyism. The 1970s version played in a similar sandbox, working at least in part as Cold War allegory. This third version in the post-Reagan years, seems to attack military culture in a world were enemies were suddenly fewer and further between.

Ten Days of Terror!: A Cat in the Brain (Un Gatto el Cervello)

Films: A Cat in the Brain (Un Gatto el Cervello)
Format: Streaming video from Kanopy on the new internet machine.

Lewis Black used to do a bit about candy corn. He hates candy corn (as everyone really should), but finds that every year, he approaches it as if the concept is entirely new to him only to rediscover every year how much he doesn’t like it. This is almost exactly my reaction to most Italian horror films. I always desperately want to like them and usually end up disappointed and confused. So it is with A Cat in the Brain (or Un Gatto el Cervello), a film that makes this worse by having a truly great name and at least one poster (the cat looking out of a human skull) that ranks among the greatest of all time. It’s probably asking too much for the film to live up to either of these things, and it really, really doesn’t.

I’ll give this all the credit in the world for creativity, though. A substantial amount of this film was produced in post-production using scenes and clips from previous Lucio Fulci films. In this one, Fulci, playing himself, starts to have real-world visions of some of the atrocities that he is filming. So, he spends the day filming a man hacking up a body with a chainsaw and then cooking and eating part of the corpse. That day, he’s unable to eat meat at lunch and pictures a handyman with a chainsaw suddenly using it on people.