Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Ten Days of Terror!: Horror Shorts

Film: Frankenstein (1910); Thriller; The Skeleton Dance
Format: Internet video on Fire!

In the early days of film, almost everything was an experiment. When you look at the earliest of the silents, they start by showing essentially real life to the audience. We slowly start to develop the idea of stories and doing something more than just showing people walking or dancing or trains pulling into stations. Frankenstein, very loosely based on the Mary Shelley novel, was produced by the Edison company, is a film that tried to advance the language of film. How successful it is, however, is not as easy to determine.

There’s honestly not a lot here that connects to the actual story. Oh, we’re going to have a guy named Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) who is engaged to be married to a woman named Elizabeth (Mary Fuller), a ceremony threatened by Frankenstein’s creation of a monster (Charles Ogle). But that’s where the similarities end.

Ten Days of Terror!: Fanatic (Die! Die! My Darling!)

Film: Die! Die! My Darling! (Fanatic)
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

The odd little subgenre of hagspolitation has some very interesting entries. It’s typical, at least for me, to think of the later careers of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford for these films, making What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? the ne plus ultra of the style. But let’s give a little bit of love to Tallulah Bankhead for her unhinged performance in Fanatic, which also goes by the much more entertaining and suggestive title Die! Die! My Darling!.

We begin with Patricia Carroll (Stefanie Powers), who has just arrived in London with her fiancé Alan (Maurice Kaufmann). Before the wedding, Patricia decides that she needs closure with the mother of her previous fiancé, Stephen. Stephen was killed several years previously in a car accident, and Patricia has never met his mother. Wanting to pull the curtain on that part of her life before starting anew—and wanting the same thing for his mother—Patricia heads off to Stephen’s family home.

Ten Days of Terror! Friday the 13th (2009)

Film: Friday the13th (2009)
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

I’ve never been a huge fan of the slasher sub-genre. I do like a good horror movie, but slashers are lwest common denominator stuff in general in my opinion. There are good ones that transcend the genre, of course, but most of them are nothing more than what Siskel & Ebert called “dead teenager” movies. You have a group of dumb teens who wander too close to something purely evil. The film starts out showing plenty of T & A and ends up with blood, machetes, and viscera. “Plotless” is a compliment for many of them, which is definitely true of the remake of Friday the 13th from 2009.

Because of this, the real difference in a lot of slashers is the identity of the person who is, to coin a phrase (or name a really good slasher parody), behind the mask. Most of them are just variations on a theme. The main difference between Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Victor Crowley, and a few others is the mask that they are wearing. This brings up a significant question—why remake a slasher rather than either make a sequel to an established series or start a new one? The answer is simple: name recognition. Even if you go into a remake of something like Friday the 13th relatively sure that it’s going to suck, you at least know it’s going to be Jason Voorhees behind the hockey mask and swinging the machete.

Ten Days of Terror!: Devil Doll

Film: Devil Doll
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on various players.

A few minutes in to Devil Doll, I had terrible déjà vu. I absolutely knew I had seen this before, and it turns out that I kind of had. Devil Doll is another movie that exists both as a film that has appeared on the They Shoot Zombies, Don’t They? list of horror films and as a film spoofed on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Specifically, this is episode 818 in which Tom Servo transfers his soul into a toaster strudel. That’s actually plot-relevant.

What this means is that I have seen Devil Doll, but I’ve never seen it on its own and without commentary. It definitely is a movie that benefits greatly from three comedians making fun of it, but it didn’t have to be that way. There’s a good idea or two swirling at the bottom of this film, and the failures come more from budget and lack of talent than anything else. Sorry if you’re a relative of any of the cast or director Lindsay Shonteff; it’s just the truth.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Ten Days of Terror!: Happy Birthday to Me

Film: Happy Birthday to Me
Format: Streaming video from Amazon Prime on Fire!

Halloween was probably the first horror movie to be named after a holiday, but it was probably Friday the 13th that really popularized the idea of it. Halloween, after all, is a true classic of the slasher genre because it’s a truly masterful film. As good as it is, it’s one that is difficult to duplicate. Friday the 13th is also a genre classic, but it’s also pretty low rent in a lot of ways, and a lot easier to copy. In the years that followed, pretty much every holiday got its own slasher eventually, which made a film like Happy Birthday to Me an inevitability.

The ground that we are going to cover here is going to feel like it’s old hat if you’re a fan of the genre. For the time, it might have been relatively fresh, but there have been plenty of films that have used insanity or something like it to move the plot along. We’re going to mainly be concerned with Ginny Wainwright (Melissa Sue Anderson), a member of what is called the “Top Ten,” the most popular students at an elite school, all of whom are dripping with money and social power. Before we get too involved with Ginny, though, we’re going to see one of the Top Ten, Bernadette (Lesleh Donaldson), get offed.

Ten Days of Terror!: Basket Case

Film: Basket Case
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on basement television.

Basket Case is a rare instance where I have seen the sequel of the film before I saw the first one, so I knew something of what to expect here. Additionally, there is an overt reference to this movie in the Frank Henenlotter filmBrain Damage. That being the case for me, there weren’t a lot of surprises going into Basket Case. It’s a prime example of the sort of low-rent horror from the early 1980s that I at least partly grew up on. I don’t know that anyone would ever really say that this is a good movie, but it is one that is in some respects a great one.

Here’s the thing about Basket Case: this is either a movie that you have already seen because you have the sort of sensibilities to like Frank Henenlotter movies or you would never watch this in a hundred years. That being the case, I’m not going to worry about some potential spoilers here. I won’t spoil the actual ending, but I will certainly dive head-first into things that otherwise remain secret through the first act and into the second act. If you want no spoilers at all here, you’ve been warned.

Ten Days of Terror!: Roadgames

Film: Roadgames
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

In the world of Ozploitation films, Roadgames is unique in one particular way. This is a film that is very clearly Australian, but stars two Americans: Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis. It was also the most expensive Australian production for the time. There are some connections to a number of films here--Roadgames makes no bones about being influenced in many respects by Rear Window, but there’s just as much Duel here. It’s also a film that seems to have influenced others; The Hitcher comes to mind.

To be fair, Roadgames is essentially the opposite of Duel. In Duel, an innocent driver is harassed by an unknown truck driver. In Roadgames, a truck driver finds that he is sharing the road with a serial killer who is attempting to frame him for his crimes. In a significant respect, this is as much a precursor to The Hitcher than it is a role-reversed Duel. The biggest difference, and I’m going to say this as nicely as I can, is that most of the people in Roadgames are pretty dumb.

Ten Days of Terror!: Elvira: Mistress of the Dark

Film: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on rockin’ flatscreen.

There’s a particular genre of local television in which bad horror and science fiction movies are hosted by someone dressed up in a campy costume. The person in question will have a silly name, show movies that are mostly unintentional comedy, and tend to have a dedicated cult following. A few of these have some national attention. Around Chicago, if you were into those movies, you grew up with the Son of Svengoolie. But nationally, no one was more famous than Elvira (played by Cassandra Peterson). A movie starring her was inevitable, and in 1988, we got Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

If you’re somehow not familiar with our titular character—and I use the word “titular” intentionally—Elvira’s main schtick was that she dressed in a barely-fitting black dress that could hardly contain her substantial assets. She was (and still is) more or less Vampira, or for those who don’t understand that cultural reference, an extremely sexed-up version of Morticia Addams. She speaks in double entendre and bad puns. The entire character is a lot of fun and purely camp, and that’s a large part of the fun as well.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Ten Days of Terror!: The Revenge of Frankenstein

Film: The Revenge of Frankenstein
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

I do tend to like the Hammer versions of horror classics. They often build on the classic stories in interesting ways, retaining a lot of the old sense of the original tales, but with significant differences and new themes. The Revenge of Frankenstein is the second in the series of the seven Hammer Frankenstein films and arguably the best of them. It’s certainly the one that goes in the most interesting directions.

The film opens with what looks like the beheading of Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing). However, this is soon seen to be a ruse, as Frankenstein, under the not-very-clever pseudonym of Dr. Stein. In the three years since his evident execution, he has created a new reputation for himself as a physician for the wealthy, using their patronage to fund his work with the paupers’ hospital. When he is confronted by the local medical establishment, he balks, but also attracts the attention of Doctor Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews), a junior member of that council, who recognizes him and requests an apprenticeship.

Ten Days of Terror!: Host

Film: Host
Format: Streaming video from Amazon Prime on basement television.

It’s a rare horror movie that can sustain itself for more than 100 minutes. Horror tends to be about the quick hit—give us a character or two to care about, put them in some terrifying situation, and see how things shake out. Horror is visceral and while it can also be cerebral, it certainly doesn’t have to be. It’s why horror works well for anthologies, at least in theory. If you can scare your audience, that’s enough. Host, produced in 2020 during the lockdowns, walks that middle ground. It’s a slim 56 minutes—not quite feature length, but too big for a typical anthology—which makes it a bit of a queer duck.

Like a lot of good horror, Host has a high concept and works it as well as it can. The elevator pitch for this is, “What would happen if people did a séance over Zoom and actually attracted the attention of something terrible?” It’s a very simple premise, and it lasts roughly the length of an “I didn’t pay for this” Zoom call. We’re going to spend the entire film essentially as an additional silent participant in the call, watching everything from what is essentially a laptop screen.

Ten Days of Terror!: Brainscan

Film: Brainscan
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

Remember when Edward Furlong had a career in movies? While he’s still best known for being easily the worst part of the best of the Terminator films, there was a time when he was thought of as potentially a star in actual properties. Brainscan is one such film. While this is a mid-range horror movie at best, a film that really wants to play with the idea of technology and what people thought of as cyberpunk in the mid-90s, it manages to have a luminary like Frank Langella in the cast. If I had to guess, I would think there was some effort to create a Freddy Kruger-like bad guy in The Trickster. There was potential here, but the movie itself short-circuited that possibility.

As with many a horror movie both before and after Brainscan, we’re going to be focused on a main character who loves horror movies. This is Michael (Furlong), who is the culmination of all of the stereotypes of how horror nerds are depicted in film. This is fair since the way computers are depicted here are going to be how computers are depicted through the 1990s as well. Michael gets in trouble at school for showing essentially a schlocky horror film in his horror club, and the club gets cancelled—this is the sort of thing that probably does happen in the real world and would just cause the kids to go watch movies at someone’s house instead.

Ten Days of Terror!: Darkman

Film: Darkman
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

It’s hard not to love Darkman just a little bit. It’s such a completely bizarre collection of parts and performances that it’s almost inexplicable. This is very much a superhero movie that was made in the style of Tim Burton’s original Batman film. It has the same kind of energy, and at the same time, it’s hard not to see this as at least a partial influence on the later Batman films in the original quadrilogy. Darkman is Grand Guignol on a massive scale. It’s also a film that features Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand.

We’re going to start with Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson), a scientist who is working on creating a new type of synthetic skin. He can’t get it to last more than 99 minutes, once it is exposed to light. At the same time, attorney girlfriend Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand) has discovered that local developer Louis Strack, Jr. (Colin Friels) has been bribing the zoning commission. She leaves the document indicting him at Peyton’s lab. Shortly thereafter, Peyton is visited by Robert Durant (Larry Drake), a mob boss, who is also implicated in the paperwork. In an effort to get it back, he kills Westlake’s assistant and blows up the lab, leaving Dr. Westlake horribly burned and scarred.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Ten Days of Terror!: The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel)

Film: The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel)
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

There are times when it seems that filmmakers have far too many good potential names to use for a movie and they throw them all onto the same thing. Such appears to be the case with the awesomely-named The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism, which was also released under the names The Blood Demon, The Castle of the Walking Dead and The Snake Pit and the Pendulum, a literal translation of its German title Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel. Honestly, any one of these titles would have had the sort of pull to bring in mid-‘60s horror fans in droves. Why not save a few of these for some other movies?

Regardless, we’ll being with Count Regula (Christopher Lee), whose name is almost certainly supposed to evoke connections to Count Dracula. Regula is being executed by quartering because he has been found guilty of killing 12 virgins in an effort to gain immortality. We flash forward to the film’s present, a few decades after Regula’s dismemberment and meet our main characters. These are Baroness Lilian von Brabant (Karin Dor) and Roger Mont Elise (Lex Barker), a lawyer. Both have been given invitations to a castle that was (naturally) the ancestral home of Regula.

Ten Days of Terror!: Timecrimes

Film: Timecrimes (Los Cronocrimenes)
Format: DVD from Ida Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

I don’t know if there is a lot of middle ground when it comes to time travel stories. You either like them a lot and appreciate them, or you are the type who ends up confused by them. I am typically of the latter type; time travel stories tend to leave me cold because I end up being confused by them very quickly. My mind doesn’t seem to work that way. I have to focus a great deal to make myself understand. That makes a film like Timecrimes or Los Cronocrimenes if you prefer) a chore, even when it’s one I’ve seen before.

Knowing that, I’ll also say this: Timecrimes is one of the better time travel movies that you’re going to find. This is a very smart movie, and one that is exquisitely plotted. It does make sense, but the path is exactly as convoluted as you expect a time travel movie to be. This is not a film to watch in the background while you are doing something else, and that’s even if you are watching the less-than-optimal dubbed version.

Ten Days of Terror!: Baskin

Film: Baskin
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on various players.

Despite what you might think, Baskin has nothing to do with suspected feeder-of-people-to-tigers Carole Baskin. Evidently, “baskin” is the Turkish word for surprise attack, or raid. There definitely is a raid in this movie, and it’s one that goes in some directions that are not expected from the opening. Around the midpoint of the film, things take a very serious left turn into something really, terribly disturbing on a visceral level.

Baskin follows a group of police officers who certainly seem at the beginning of the film as if they are going to be the antagonists. They are loud, obnoxious, sexist, and violent, and while they are swapping sex stories in the restaurant they are in, one of them picks a fight with the son of the restaurant’s owner. Eventually, the cops leave, and Seyfi (Sabahattin Yakut) insists on driving the van despite having just been sick in the restaurant bathroom.

Ten Days of Terror!: Your Vice is a Locked Room, and Only I Have the Key

Film: Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (Il Tuo Vizio e una Stanza Chiusa e Solo Io ne ho la Chiave)
Format: Streaming video from Amazon Prime on Fire!

Giallo films often have ridiculous names, and none is more ridiculous than Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (or Il tuo vizio e una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave in the original Italian). It’s a wildly entertaining title, but also a ridiculous one, if just for the length of it. There’s a 200-character limit for tags on this website, and this comes close to maxing us out. For my own sanity, I’m going to call this Your Vice from this point forward.

I have complained about Italian horror films in the past, convinced as I am that a number of them are created by the director envisioning a particular scene or two and then cobbling the rest of the movie around them, not worrying about whether or not there is an actual coherent story. Plenty of these films are influential in various ways. Many of them have great moments—those scenes envisioned by the directors—but are otherwise difficult to follow.

Friday, October 27, 2023

Ten Days of Terror!: Psychomania (The Death Wheelers)

Film: Psychomania (The Death Wheelers)
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

Based on one of the release names of this film, you might guess that this is a biker movie, and you’d be right about that. What feels more unlikely is that this is a British movie. British biker thugs feels like a stretch, and yet here we are—and in a large sense, there is a bit of a connection here to a film like Quadrophenia. The Rocker-style motorcycles and leather are where the similarities end, though. This is very much a horror film, and there are odd connections here to films like The Wicker Man. This is a sort of small village horror film with connections to a deeper evil, pagan gods and standing stones.

This is about a British biker gang, but don’t think about them as drinking tea and eating biscuits. Tom Latham (Nicky Henson) loves his mother (Beryl Reid), his girlfriend Abby (Mary Larkin), and creating mayhem with his motorcycle gang, The Living Dead. His mother, along with the family butler Shadwell (George Sanders in his final film) hold séances and worship an ancient frog god. While Tom and his gang cause problems and hang out at a set of standing stones called The Seven Witches, we learn that his father disappeared from a room in the family house.

Ten Days of Terror!: The Shout

Film: The Shout
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

As a genre, horror encompasses a lot of possible ideas and can go in a lot of directions. It also mashes up well with other genres. The Shout is an odd little film, though. There are definite horror elements here, but this is much more a love triangle with some horror elements. It’s also a film that relies heavily on the idea of an unreliable narrator, and works in a way to help us forget that that narrator is not only unreliable, but actually exists in the context of the film.

The framing story of The Shout is a cricket match. Robert Graves (Tim Curry) is asked to be one of the scorekeepers for a cricket match. He is paired with a man named Crossley (Alan Bates), who begins telling him a story about ostensibly himself. At the very least, in the story we see unfold, it is Crossley in the role of the Crossley in the story. It’s eventually evident that the cricket match is happening at an insane asylum and it’s unclear whether or not Crossley is one of the inmates.

Ten Days of Terror!: Last House on Dead End Street

Film: Last House on Dead End Street
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

This blog has taken me to some weird and disturbing places in the 13 years that I have written it. I’ve seen some really upsetting things, some of which I have seen as important films and others that have simply bothered me. Some films are disturbing and horrible (Last House on the Left) but are important cinematically. Others are important statements despite being hard to watch (Come and See). And there are a few that just feel oily. Some of those, like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer leave us with something to talk about. Other don’t. There are a few films that have made me want to shower after watching them (Maniac, Deranged), but few to the extent of Last House on Dead End Street, also known as The Fun House, and sometimes with the word “The” attached to the front.

This is a notorious film in many respects along the lines of Blood Feast or The Wizard of Gore. What makes for the notoriety of this movie is that for a time, it was rumored to be an actual snuff film, to actually depict the deaths of several of the actors. To be fair, having seen this now, I get it. It’s not incredibly realistic, but it was made on such a stupidly low budget that it really feels like there’s no way possible that it could have been done any other way. According to rumor, the film had a $3,000 budget, of which $2,200 was used to buy drugs.

Ten Days of Terror!: Horrors of the Black Museum

Film: Horrors of the Black Museum
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on rockin’ flatscreen.

Sometimes, I genuinely don’t know what to make of the movies that are put on the lists that I am following. Horrors of the Black Museum is a case in point. This film holds a respectable place in the mid-500s on the They Shoot Zombies list, and I can’t understand why. According to the list’s website (and the fact that I’m going to the write-up for information indicates my desperation here) is that this is the first of a trilogy of movies that are based on ideas of the Marquis de Sade, the so-called Sadeian Trilogy that includes Circus of Horrors and Peeping Tom. The write-up suggests that this is the least of the three movies, and yet Circus of Horrors is not in the list of 1000 greatest horror movies and this one is. Go figure.

We’re going to open with the brutal and shocking murder of a young woman. She receives a pair of binoculars as a gift, but when she uses them, Needles shoot out of the eyepieces into her brain. It's grisly and a true highpoint of the film. The police are naturally baffled, and they are further harassed by crime writer Edmond Bancroft (Michael Gough, best known as Batman’s butler on the Batman television show), whose books and newspaper columns frequently mock the police.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Ten Days of Terror!: Island of Terror

Film: Island of Terror
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

There is a natural conjunction between horror movies and science fiction. Horror is often about things that we don’t understand, and that’s something the genre has in common with science fiction. Frequently, science fiction becomes horror when our characters do or create something with unintended consequences. “Science gone mad” is a common enough idea that it’s a legitimate subgenre of both horror and science fiction. Island of Terror (also called Night of the Silicates) is exactly that sort of film. All of the good intentions of science are twisted into the creation of something that, unchecked, could destroy the world. Of course, since this is 1966, it’s also going to be wonderfully goofy, and have an early Doctor Who or Quatermass and the Pit sense about it.

What we’ve got is an isolated island where a team of researchers led by Dr. Lawrence Phillips (Peter Forbes-Robertson) are working on a cure for cancer. With this basic set up, we soon see the local medico, Dr. Landers (Eddie Byrne) discovers the body of a local farmer. It appears that the farmer has had all of his bones removed. Flummoxed by this, he contacts Dr. Brian Stanley (Peter Cushing), who leads him to bone expert Dr. David West (Edward Judd). Interrupting his evening with high society jetsetter Toni Merrill (Carole Gray), they decide to head to the island, assisted by Toni’s father’s helicopter. Of course, the ‘copter can’t stay, so everyone is stranded on the island.

Ten Days of Terror!: The Fourth Kind

Film: The Fourth Kind
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on my phone.

We have a tendency to believe what we are told; it’s one of the reasons that people are very prone to falling for conspiracy theories. It’s also something that filmmakers can prey upon, and we’re prone to fall for it if we aren’t careful. The opening moments of Fargo tell us that the movie is based on true events, something that is a lie. Plenty of people fell for the “reality” of The Blair Witch Project. And it’s also what happens in The Fourth Kind, and in this movie, the attempt to tell us that this is based on reality is compounded by documentary footage after a fashion.

The opening moments of The Fourth Kind give us Milla Jovovich as herself telling us that she will be portraying Dr. Abbey Tyler and that the story we are about to see is not only based in reality, but that there is documentary footage that demonstrates the truth of the story. It’s not evident immediately, but this is an alien abduction story. What we’re going to see is not merely going to be supplemented by documentary footage, but at times will show us that footage side-by-side with the actors in the film, most of whom we are told have been given aliases to protect them.

Ten Days of Terror!: Earth vs. the Flying Saucers

Film: Earth vs. the Flying Saucers
Format: Streaming video from Crackle on rockin’ flatscreen.

So let’s talk about what you think about when it comes to science fiction movies in the 1950s. There are two basic varieties. The first is humans somewhere out in space. Forbidden Planet is a good archetype for that sort of science fiction, humans encountering aliens out in the reaches of space. The other is The Day the Earth Stood Still, where the aliens have come here. Yes, there’s also the “Science!” version with giant radioactive creatures, but those are more horror first, sci-fi second. Regardless, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, it’s not going to be surprising, is a prime example of the second kind of science fiction. The aliens have come to Earth, they’re not coming in peace, and only weird science can save us.

Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) and his new bride Carol (Joan Taylor), who was also his secretary (yeah, I know…I didn’t write this; I’m just writing about it) are involved in a project to put 12 monitoring satellites around the Earth. They’ve gotten married between the 10th and 11th launches, and just before the penultimate launch, they are contacted by Carol’s father, Brigadier General John Hanley (Morris Ankrum). He tells them that the previous 10 satellites have all come crashing back to Earth, and soon after the 11th launch, it crashes as well.

Ten Days of Terror!: Galaxy of Terror

Film: Galaxy of Terror
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

In the movie world, there’s a lot of talk about how good Roger Corman is at finding talent. The list of directors who started out working for Corman. His stable includes Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Francis Ford Coppola, Joe Dante, and Peter Bogdanovich. That seems to be a strange thing to bring up concerning the early ‘80s sci-fi spook show Galaxy of Terror helmed by Bruce D. Clark (director of such classics as Naked Angels and The Ski Bum), but the production design was headed up by one James Cameron, who went on to be fired by Corman as the director of Piranha II: The Spawning.

Galaxy of Terror is an odd little film with an equally odd cast. Among those who will be traveling through space and encountering slimy creatures are erotic film maestro Zalman King (who looks for all the world like a poor man’s Rene Auberjonois), son of Hollywood royalty Edward Albert, Rob Zombie regular Sid Haig, and a pre-Elm Street Robert Englund, along with Bernard Behrens, Ray Walston, and Erin Moran.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Ten Days of Terror!: Haunted Mansion

Film: Haunted Mansion
Format: Streaming video from Disney Plus on Fire!

There are a few people in the movie business I have hitched my metaphorical wagon to, and sometimes that’s going to get me in trouble. So far, I haven’t been terribly hurt by Guillermo del Toro or Greta Gerwig. However, Haunted Mansion has put a little damper on my dedication to seeing anything featuring LaKeith Stanfield. Don’t get me wrong; I will probably still watch anything I find that has him in it, but the reality of this film has shaken me a little.

The truth isn’t that Haunted Mansion is a bad movie; it’s just not a very good one, and much of the problem comes from the fact that it’s incredibly predictable. And, even worse than that, the predictability happens because there are certain parameters set up where we as the audience know what the bad guy needs to be victorious, the characters in the movie know what the bad guy has to do to be victorious, and we watch the characters knowingly do the thing that the bad guy needs them to do for him to be victorious. Imagine a business rival telling you that they could destroy your business if they had access to your files, and you responding by handing them your laptop. That’s Haunted Mansion.

Ten Days of Terror!: The Harbinger (Dir. Andy Mitton)

Film: The Harbinger (Andy Mitton)
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on basement television.

If you read the previous review, you had to expect that I was going to review the other film called The Harbinger next, assuming that I was able to find it. Fortunately, it was available streaming and was easily accessible. Even more fortunately, it’s not only quite a bit better than the other movie with the same name, it’s actually a pretty good movie in general.

We’re going to find out immediately that this version of The Harbinger is very much a pandemic movie in the sense that it clearly takes place during the COVID-19 pandemic. That means we’re going to have people wearing masks and we’re going to have people very specifically not wearing masks not as a plot point but just as a fact of life. The pandemic isn’t the focus of The Harbinger, but it’s definitely something that impacts the plot. This is a movie that would work without the pandemic, but having people isolated and afraid certainly adds a great deal to what it wants to do.

Ten Days of Terror!: The Harbinger (Dir. Will Klipstine)

Film: The Harbinger (Dir. Will Klipstine)
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on basement television.

In 1928, if you told someone that you had just seen a new cinematic version of The Fall of the House of Usher, someone could legitimately ask you which version, American or French, you had seen. In 2021, there were two films released called Swan Song, one starring Mahershala Ali and one starring Udo Kier. This happened again in 2022, when two films called The Harbinger were released, one in July and one in September. This is about the September release, the version written by, directed by, and starring Will Klipstine.

It would be natural to think that the two movies are essentially based on the same story—something else that happens on the regular in Hollywood (see Volcano and Dante’s Peak, for example)—but these two movies have the same name and belong in the same genre, but that’s where the similarities end.

Ten Days of Terror!: Watcher

Film: Watcher
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on basement television.

Horror movies have a tendency to go after current fears. This is not a surprise, of course. If the movie is supposed to be scary, it makes sense to go with a common fear or something that taps into the zeitgeist. Home invasion movies are popular because that’s a common fear. Another common fear and common base plot is women being pursued in some voyeuristic fashion. Invasion of privacy, particularly this kind of personal invasion of privacy is a fear of most people, an intense fear for many women, and so it makes its way into plenty of horror movies as the base of the plot. It won’t be surprising that this is central to the film Watcher. After all, it’s kind of in the name.

I never thought that in addressing a stalker movie produced by a streaming service that I would be making a connection to one of the classic movies of the late 1940s, but there’s a huge connection to The Third Man, and it’s an awfully good one. In The Third Man, we as the audience follow Holly Martins around in Austria, and the speech of the natives is never translated for us or given subtitles. For anyone who doesn’t speak German, a huge percentage of the dialogue is simple not accessible. This throws us off-balance and makes it harder for us to feel assured of what is happening. Watcher takes place in Romania, and our main character Julia (Maika Monroe) has only a rudimentary understanding of the language. She’s alone for much of the day in a place where she doesn’t understand the bulk of what is happening around her, which leaves her isolated and vulnerable. It’s really effective.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Ten Days of Terror!: Juan of the Dead

Film: Juan of the Dead (Juan de los Muertos)
Format: Streaming video from Amazon Prime on Fire!

What happens when you make a parody of a parody? Sometimes you can get something that works well enough. The Tick—both the comic and the television shows—were started as a parody of Dave Sim’s Roach character in Cerberus, who was himself a parody of a number of comic book characters (like his Wolver-roach incarnation). Juan of the Dead is very much a new take on Shaun of the Dead. While there are some real differences, too much of this movie appears to be drawn directly from the other for it to be a coincidence. Take Shaun and Ed, rename them Juan and Lazaro, set it in Cuba, and roll the cameras.

Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) and his friend Lazaro (Jorge Molina) are 40-ish slackers living in Havana. They don’t have jobs as much as they survive by fishing and petty crime. At the opening of the film, they are out on a raft and snag what they think is a corpse. When it sits up out of the water and starts to attack, and is immediately put down by Lazaro’s reflexive firing of a small speargun he uses to hunt, they decide not to tell anyone and return back to land.

Ten Days of Terror!: Citadel

Film: Citadel
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

There’s a good amount of discussion (to put it in a nicer way) in the horror movie fan community about what actually constitutes a zombie. Do they need to be undead or do they just need to exhibit zombie-like behavior? Do they need to eat their victims or just kill them? It’s the sort of thing that determines if you consider the infected in 28 Days Later to truly be zombies—they aren’t undead and they don’t eat their victims. They do, however, act like zombies and infect others like zombies. Citadel offers a similar question. The creatures here are clearly zombie-like, there’s evidence that they eat their victims, but they have much more limited ability to infect others and they clearly aren’t undead.

With Citadel, there is an additional question to answer. That question is whether or not the movie is good enough to determine what the creatures actually are. Yes, I’m spilling the eventual beans on this one at the top. Citadel has some really interesting ideas, but it fails in a lot of ways. It has high aspirations, but it’s simply not equal to them. All of this said, I’m going to call the creatures “zombies” for the rest of this simply because it’s easier, and close enough for jazz.

Ten Days of Terror!: Zombie Strippers!

Film: Zombie Strippers!
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

I would guess that it’s fun to make a zombie movie. There are a lot of them, and while plenty of them make money, I would guess that a lot of the appeal is the ability to do some gory special effects and splatter a lot of people with fake blood and viscera. It does, however, appear to be really hard to make a good zombie movie. Even with a fun premise and the allure of acres of naked flesh, you might wind up with something like Zombie Strippers!, and how is that going to look on your resumé?

We’re initially let in on some “modern history” that appears to be designed specifically to directly make fun of George W. Bush and his administration. Far be it from me to complain about someone making fun of W., but this is not done in any clever or entertaining way; it’s incredibly ham-handed and bargain basement. The jokes are of the “Bush named his daughter to the Supreme Court and she’s gonna hold a kegger!” variety.

Ten Days of Terror!: [REC2]

Film: [•REC]2
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

The question of what constitutes a zombie is once again important in the film [•REC]2 (sometimes written as [REC2] or even [•REC]2. For ease, I’m going to write it as [REC]2, sort of the best of all worlds and avoiding dealing with that bullet). This is a sequel to [•REC], one of the better found-footage horror movies, and far superior to its American remake, Quarantine. This sequel takes place immediately following the events of the first movie; in fact, the opening moments of this and the closing moments of the first are identical.

But, it helps to be brought up to speed—it has been a few years since I’ve seen [REC]. Basically, a reporter named Angela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) was shadowing a firefighting team who get called to an apartment complex. It happens to be ground zero for what looks a lot like a zombie apocalypse, but when we get to the end seems to have more biblical apocalypse written all over it. Our patient zero is infected/infested with something, but is being held at bay by a priest with a great deal of religious iconography, lending some support to the idea that this is not just a plague, but a possession that is somehow spreading.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Ten Days of Terror!: The Lodger (1944)

Film: The Lodger (1944)
Format: Internet video on Fire!

There are a lot of interesting things to talk about when it comes to the 1944 version of The Lodger, not the least of these being that this is a remake of a silent Hitchcock film. There are some real surprises here, although the plot isn’t one of them. There’s nothing here that is going to be a shock in terms of the plot and how it works, but there’s a lot around the edges that is surprising.

The Lodger is a sort of macabre love triangle that involves everyone’s favorite uncaught psychopath, Jack the Ripper. What I’m going to say here is going to seem very much like spoilers, but I promise you it’s not. If you’ve ever seen a movie before, especially one of this vintage, you’re going to know what is happening long before the people in the film do.

Ten Days of Terror!: The Werewolf

Film: The Werewolf
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

There are specific expectations we have with certain movie monsters. Vampires are going to have a hypnotic gaze and be vulnerable to sunlight and crosses. Frankenstein’s monster is going to fear fire. Werewolves come out during a full moon and are killed by silver bullets. So what happens when you take one of those monsters with clear expectations and do something completely different with it? That’s central to the uninterestingly named The Werewolf, a mid-‘50s horror movie that tries to latch on to the mad science craze of the Atomic Age.

We’re going to start with a drifter (Steven Ritch) who seems disoriented and unclear of who and where he is. He leaves a bar and is followed by another patron who knows the drifter is flush with cash (he paid for a drink with a $20, which is pretty good money for 1956, roughly a couple of hundred bucks). A fight breaks out, and while we don’t see the fight, we do hear the results. A local woman sees the fight, though, and our ruffian who tried to mug the drifter is dead, his throat ripped out.

Ten Days of Terror!: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

Film: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
Format: Internet video on Fire!

There are a lot of holes in my viewing history, something that is certainly true of just about everyone. For the sort of bog-standard “everyone’s seen them” films, my biggest gaps are probably Home Alone and The Goonies. For horror movies, the original 1923 Lon Chaney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame was probably my biggest miss until now. I’ve seen other versions, notably the 1939 version with Charles Laughton, but this one is, in the slang of a few decades ago, the O.G.

There’s a lot to unpack right at the start with something like The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It’s one of those rare stories that everyone seems to know even if they haven’t seen it or read it. It’s kind of like Robin Hood in that respect—there’s a sort of cultural knowledge of the story that we learn by osmosis. Of course, some of that is going to come from the title. We know going in that this is going to take place in Paris and that there’s going to be a hunchback who is our main character. Of course today, people are going to associate this story with the Disney version, including plenty of songs and animated gargoyle sidekicks.

Ten Days of Terror!: Murders in the Rue Morgue

Film: Murders in the Rue Morgue
Format: Internet video on Fire!

When a novel is turned into a movie, most of the time, large parts of the story are removed. We lose subplots and detail simply because of time. Even larger projects do this—watch (for instance) any adaptation of Dune and we lose tons of nuance, even in the miniseries version. The reverse is true when it comes to short stories. With something like he 1932 adaptation of Murders in the Rue Morgue, a bunch gets added to the basic story. This is true even in the case where the movie just barely creeps over the hour mark.

I’m going to spoil the original story here, and I’m going to do this unapologetically—it was written more than 180 years ago. The original Edgar Allen Poe story essentially invents the modern detective tale. We’re introduced to a detective who solves a bizarre crime of terrible murders where witnesses identify the language being spoken by the perpetrator as a variety of other languages—one person thinks the killer is German, another says Italian, etc. In truth, the murders are being carried out by an orangutan.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Ten Days of Terror!: Daybreakers

Film: Daybreakers
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

It’s not easy to do something really new and interesting with vampires. Make them romantic, and you’re tapping into much of the original Dracula story and also invite immediate comparisons to Twilight. Make them feral, and you’re going to court a different crowd, and you will bring up thoughts of 30 Days of Night, Blade II, and maybe Stake Land. So what kind of story is really different? Daybreakers looks to explore that concept by looking at vampirism taking over the world and dealing with what happens when the human population—and the blood—runs out.

The film takes place 10 years into the future of when it was made, back in the halcyon pre-pandemic days of 2019. At this point in the film’s story, vampirism has essentially taken hold of the world. The vast majority of people have been turned and the economy more or less carries on as it always has, albeit one formed around blood. With so many vampires, though, the human population has dwindled. Some of this is simply the rise in the vampire population, since it appears that anyone surviving a bite is quickly turned. Much of it, though, comes from the hunting of humans. The vampire population survives, barely, on animal blood mixed with lesser and lesser percentages of human blood.

Ten Days of Terror!: The Return of the Vampire

Film: The Return of the Vampire
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

With the popularity of horror movies in the early days of talkies, it didn’t take long for things to take a turn for the goofy. Since these movies were also considered kids’ stuff, they weren’t taken very seriously, given much of a budget, or given much of a running time. That’s certainly the case with The Return of the Vampire, a film that desperately wants to capitalize not only on the Dracula story, but on the fact that they managed to get a fading Bela Lugosi (albeit a few years before his full descent) to play the titular creature.

We start in World War I with a vampire named Armand Tesla (Lugosi) stalking the streets of London. His latest victim is admitted to a clinic run by Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescourt) and Doctor Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery). They are nonplussed when their patient dies of evident anemia. Shortly after, the doctor’s young niece Nicki (Sharliee Collier as a child, and then Nina Foch as an adult) is attacked. Lady Jane and Dr. Saunders track the vampire down and kill him, fighting off his werewolf assistant (Matt Willis). With the vampire dead, staked through the heart, the werewolf changes back into a human, restored to his humanity.

Ten Days of Terror!: Lust for a Vampire

Film: Lust for a Vampire
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

The early 1970s were a weird time for Hammer horror movies. On the one hand, they were still very much enmeshed in that world of Gothic horror. Films took place in the 17th-19th Century, dealt in some respect with the aristocracy, and often tended to take place all or in part in castles. However, the horror world was changing and becoming harder and harsher. While Hammer couldn’t get away from the Gothic ideas, they could try to incorporate more sex and nudity. The Vampire Lovers was a slight indication of this, as was its sequel, Lust for a Vampire. As with the first film, this sequel has a much more titillating title than it does content. If you’re expecting a lesbian vampire orgy, you’ve come to the right movie title, but the wrong actual film.

In truth Lust for a Vampire is the middle film in Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy, and was followed the next year by Twins of Evil. In this case, it seems that this is the serious low point: both the first and third film are much more favorably reviewed. I have to think that a part of that is going to be the disconnect from the title to the content. It would be hard not to be disappointed going into a film with this name to come out the other side with a few hints of lesbianism and a couple of bared chests to show for it.

Ten Days of Terror!: The Addiction

Film: The Addiction
Format: Streaming video from Amazon Prime on Fire!

The Addiction is a film that I had heard of and been interested in for a number of reasons. Abel Ferrara is an interesting director, for starters, and when he delves into horror, the results are worth watching. I also like it when there is a very different take on a classic monster or myth. The Addiction is a vampire story, and interesting not because of that, but because it addresses the idea of vampirism as one of a sort of drug addiction.

Admittedly, that’s a natural place to go, and that in and of itself isn’t entirely unique. The idea that vampires are addicted to blood is, after all, a very obvious place to take the vampire story. The difference here is that our main character, Kathleen Conklin (Lili Taylor), is a doctoral candidate in philosophy. So, while we’ve seen vampires dealing with concepts of their lives being controlled in some way by addiction, but we have rarely had a protagonist who has the philosophical chops to really address the idea in anything more than a visceral and basic way.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Ten Days of Terror! Here We Go!

It’s that time of year again, and while I don’t post as much as I used to, I’m starting to post at least a little more regularly. Nothing, though, will stop me from posting a ton around Halloween, the true greatest holiday of the year, at least for some personal reasons. And so, once again, 40 posts in the next ten days, four posts per day.

Like the last couple of years, I’ve themed the days (at least I’ve themed nine of the ten. I don’t actually plan any of this out—it just works that I got nine groups of four, with a catch-all category at the end. Here’s what’s coming in the next 10 days:

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Gun Fu-lish

Film: John Wick: Chapter 4
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on basement television.

When, exactly, did action movies become things that took up an entire day to watch? Take a look at the John Wick saga, by way of example. The first movie came in at a tidy 101 minutes. The sequel barely cracked the two hour barrier at 122 minutes and the third crew a little longer at 133 minutes. And now we have John Wick: Chapter 4 that comes in at a brain-melting 169 minutes, a stone’s throw from a full three hours. Why? What’s the point of making this movie a solid 45 minutes longer than it needs to be to tell its story?

I’m going to go into this under the assumption that you have seen the first three chapters in the John Wick saga. By way of quick recap, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a former assassin who left the life to live a quiet life. This was cut short when his wife succumbed to cancer. A chance encounter after that brought him out of retirement and back into a thriving underworld of crime and assassins. A badly-considered murder or two later, and Wick is on the run from the entire criminal underworld. That’s where we are in this fourth installment. With the entire criminal establishment after him and a bounty on his head, John Wick attempts to survive, even if that means buying himself back into the underworld for a third time.

Friday, October 13, 2023

More (and Fewer) Brains

Film: Return of the Living Dead II
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

Genre mash-ups aren’t easy to do, something that is evidenced by the fact that a lot of them are ultimately not very good. Certainly there are a number of exceptions to this idea, something that is evidenced by the fact that there are a lot of great ones. Return of the Living Dead is an example of a great horror/comedy, and one that genuinely affected the idea of zombie movies. The “zombies eat brains” trope comes from this movie, not from Romero. Unfortunately, the sequel is the opposite, starting with the uninteresting name of Return of the Living Dead II.

If you don’t remember (or never saw) the first movie, the basic conceit is that the original Night of the Living Dead was a real outbreak, but instead of destroying the zombies, thy were captured and contained. And, naturally, they were misplaced and shipped to a facility in Kentucky. Wanting to impress his new protégé, a worker in the facility releases a zombie and mayhem ensues. We’re going to essentially forget all of that here. Return of the Living Dead II is more or less an unconnected movie with the same basic name.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Invite Him--He's a Fungi

Film: Gaia
Format: Streaming video from Hulu on Fire!

One of the things I like about horror movies is that they reflect the time in which they are created. Go back to the 1950s, and a lot of the horror is science fiction-based and has hints of both atomic mutants and the threat of Cold War Russia. There’s a reason that Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the original) can be reasonably interpreted as both anti-communist and anti-McCarthyism. 9/11 caused a rise in American nationalism and led directly to movies like Hostel, where the evil was “out there” in non-American places that put us in danger. With the increasing threat of climate disaster looming, films like Gaia are absolutely where horror is going to go in the years to come.

Gaia starts with a pair of workers for the South African forestry service working on a survey. They are traveling by river, and Gabi (Monique Rockman) is operating a drone while her partner Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) paddles the canoe. The plot essentially begins when the drone gets knocked out—Gabi gets a glimpse of what looks like a mud-covered person knocking it out of the sky. Not wanting to leave electronic garbage in a forested area, Winston drops her ashore so she can track the drone and meet up with him later.

Monday, October 9, 2023

Stealing Fire

Film: Prometheus
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

I question the idea of prequels sometimes. They can make sense for those who want the backstory on something that they love, but they cause real problems with science fiction movies. That’s definitely the case with Prometheus, which is a prequel to Alien. It’s also a movie that came out several decades after the movie that follows it in the timeline, and this is an issue, beyond the obvious problem of things not matching up the way they should.

There is also the serious question of how to classify this movie. There are definite horror elements, and anything in the greater Alien universe is absolutely going to struggle getting away entirely from the horror designation. But Prometheus is only horror in parts. There are certainly elements of horror here, but not a lot of surprises. Anyone who knows Alien knows where we are going and can assume the fates of most of the people on board the ship after which the movie is named. And so, this becomes nothing more than a playing out of events to get us to setting up the chess board for Alien the way we need it set up.

Saturday, October 7, 2023

What I've Caught Up With, September 2023

I've got about three more months of my life being completely out of control. I get a little of it back with the start of the new year. Until then, watching a movie or two whenever I get a moment seems to be what is keeping me sane--that and trying out new recipes. I caught up on a few movies in September and have also watched a couple of seasons of The Blacklist as well as the short follow-up season to Justified. More to come in October.

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Friendly Neighborhood Spider-...Mans?

Film: Spider-Man: No Way Home
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

A couple of years ago, I would have happily told you that I was fully on board with all of the MCU properties, or at least most of them. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but when I watched Avengers: Endgame, some of that ended for me. It felt like we had reached the end of a complete story (which we had, of course), and knowing what I know about comic books, I know that nothing ever really gets resolved. Finishing Endgame felt like a good place to get off the ride. And yet, I think it might be impossible to be fully abreast of modern culture without staying at least a little familiar with the later stories. And so, here I am finishing up the latest Spider-Man troika with Spider-Man: No Way Home.

No longer content with simpler stories of a hero taking on an enemy, or even several enemies, we’re going full-tilt into the Multiverse with this one. At the end of Spider-Man: Far From Home, the secret identity of Spider-Man as Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is revealed to the world, and he is held responsible for the death of Mysterio, who was actually the bad guy the whole time. With his secret out, his life becomes a trainwreck; he is constantly harassed, and because of the scandal, he is refused admission to every college he applies for. Worse, the same thing happens to his friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and Parker’s girlfriend MJ (Zendaya).

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Girlfriend is Better

Film: Stop Making Sense
Format: Classic Cinemas Charlestowne 18

A lot of high schools have a tradition, looked down on by faculty, of Senior Ditch Day. All/most of the seniors essentially blow off school for a day, typically a Friday, to get a three-day weekend. For where I grew up, the tradition for many was to spend a day at the Indiana Dunes, about a 2-hour drive from home. My friends and I, though, went to downtown Chicago and saw Stop Making Sense at the Music Box Theater.

Stop Making Sense is a concert film, and it’s nothing more than a concert film. It doesn’t need to be anything more than that, though, because this is a Talking Heads concert, and David Byrne’s style (and less so the rest of the group) is as much about the visuals as it is about the music. It’s about the full experience, something that shouldn’t be too surprising coming from a musical group where 75% of the core members met at art school.