Thursday, October 23, 2014

My Top 5 Favorite TV Horror Shows

For horror and sci-fi fans growing up in the 1980s, TV was the best place for a quick fix if you were looking for something ghoulish and ghastly to watch. In addition to Twilight Zone reruns (always on somewhere) and later, The Outer Limits, there were several syndicated shows that promised at least an entertaining story, if not a scary one. Now in the age of dvds and streaming content, you can get what you want when you want...well, mostly. There are a number of shows, smaller, more obscure, that have yet to find their way to a blu-ray near you.

When it comes to television shows like this, memory and perception are fickle and pernicious. What was terrifying to you may get a solid “eh” from me. When I was thinking about these shows, I approached it from the angle of consistency. How frequently did these shows deliver the goods? Granted, they all had great openings, but after that, then what?

Another factor for me was seeing a wide array of good to great horror stories adapted to the show’s format. They all did it, to one extent or another. Who was the best at it? See if you agree with my rankings.

Tales From the Crypt (1989-1996)
HBO’s long-running series featured the animatronic Crypt Keeper as the old style horror host of yore, dressing in appropriate costumes and dropping awful pun after awful pun was a mainstay for the 1990s horror scene. This show is remarkable for a number of reasons: they were adapting comic book stories from the legendary EC comics line and validating those comics in a way that we hadn’t seen before or since; and this was backed up by the sheer number of top directors and actors and writers who hot-footed over to work on the series in some way; not just genre guys, but also a lot of people not normally associated with the horror genre.

Sure, the series as a whole was uneven, but they didn’t shy away from the gory and gruesome, and the spirit of the comics was preserved nicely in some really outlandish scripts. A few stories gave us genuine chills, to be sure, but there was nothing subtle about Tales from the Crypt. As a collection of filmed horror stories goes, however, there are few that can match it for overall quality.

Boris Karloff’s Thriller (1960-1962)
Already a legendary figure in pop culture, Karloff was one of the three most recognizable faces of horror in the 20th century, along with Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price. Karloff’s voice was as distinctive as his looks, and was frequently parodied and imitated for decades. Price had the longest career of the three, and the most varied, but Karloff stayed true to his roots and lent his name to books, comics, and a short-lived but influential television show, Boris Karloff’s Thriller.

Hosted by and frequently starring Karloff himself, he’d introduce each story and then we would be whisked away to some soundstage or location shot to establish the mood and we were off like a shot. No wasted space in the Thriller scripts. It was all Hit your Mark, Say your Line and move on. And the budget for things like special effects was probably $46 dollars an episode. So, the writers and producers and directors elected to write good scripts. Several episodes are based on short stories by noted authors. The most famous of the bunch is “Pigeons From Hell” by Robert E. Howard, and it remains one of the most faithful translations of Howard’s work to another medium. The episodes in Boris Karloff’s Thriller are consistently creepy and worth seeking out.

Night Gallery (1969-1973)
The premise: you’re in a museum, filled with fantastic and phantasmagoric paintings and statuary. As you walk through, admiring the art, with its strange and horrific subject matter, the curator appears and begins to tell you about the painting you’re looking at. It’s a curious story, if you’d like to hear it...

Rod Serling’s other great TV show is forever in the shadow of the mighty Twilight Zone, and that’s a shame, because some of the episodes of Night Gallery were way more scary by comparison. From the great, evocative opening sequence that would forever terrify my five year old self to some of the more interesting adaptations of famous authors from Robert Bloch to H.P. Lovecraft, Serling’s sensibilities were firmly in place, with less moralizing and life lessons and more freak outs and fear.  Probably the most famous episode is “Pickman’s Model,” and if you know anything about the story, you’d know it well could have been the inspiration for the series.

“Man the sunlit world of what he believes to be...reality. But...there is...unseen by most, an underworld. A place that is just as real, but not as brightly lit. A daaark siiiide...”

If reading that didn’t give you chills, then you never watched Tales From the Darkside. This long-running syndicated series was around for the heyday of the horror renaissance in the 1980s and it was a needed, necessary thing, at that. What the hell else was there to watch in between Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th sequels?

Again borrowing from short fiction written by amazing authors, Tales From the Darkside dispensed with a horror host and went straight into the story after the creepy credits. No frills, all business. And when you had teleplays based on the works of Stephen King, Joseph Payne Brennan, Harlan Ellison, and Charles L. Grant, just to name a few, there wasn’t any need for a build-up. A lot of top names worked on the various episodes, from George A. Romero to Tom Savini and all points in between. In fact, the whole thing had Romero’s fingerprints on it as an executive producer, and many of the episodes filmed had his particular sensibility about them. The show took itself seriously, and very rarely ventured into comedy. If there was humor, it was dark, gallows humor. As a teenager in the 1980s, I’m certain this show is responsible for much of my cynicism and angst.

Masters of Horror (2005-2007)
Can there be any doubt as to this show’s place on the list? Granted it only lasted two seasons on Showtime, but each one was a polished gem, unlike so many of the other, earlier shows producing only diamonds in the rough.

On a cable network, there’s no need to censor the gore, violence or the occasional sex. You have a much larger budget to work with. Using top names in talent, like Don Coscarelli, Joe Dante, John Carpenter, and many others, you ensured good actors, great direction, and tons of experience. And to top it all off, every episode is one hour long. Tons of time to develop characters and plot without having to truncate the storytelling. It was genius and it worked like a charm.

Some of the best episodes were adaptations from famous short stories or comics. Joe Lansdale’s  "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road", "H. P. Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch-House" and  "Jenifer" by Bruce Jones (based on the comic story he wrote, illustrated by Berni Wrightson), are three stand-outs that spring instantly to mind. There are only a couple of duds in this otherwise stellar series, and even they weren’t that bad; they just suffered by comparison.

Bonus! Twilight Zone (1959-1964)
It’s hard to talk about horror anthologies on television without mentioning The Twilight Zone (and I couldn’t; see above). As a fledgling effort, The Twilight Zone is lionized, and perhaps a little too slavishly, for its innovative approach and subject matter. Keep in mind, however, that for every instance of, say, Richard Matheson writing “Nightmare at 10,000 Feet” there was an episode that was a gentle or whimsical fantasy with no horror or terror or freakouts by William Shatner in it. A lot of the stories were informed by the politics of the Cold War, and some were outright science fiction think pieces. None of this is a criticism, mind you. It’s just to say that not every episode of The Twilight Zone was a home run, or even completely based on a horrific premise.

Still, it was a place where you could catch Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and Rod Serling writing and adapting stories that could, and would, put a chill on you in surprising and novel ways. John Collier, Jerome Bixby, Manly Wade Wellman, and others were handled with respect and their stories are some of the best, most famous in the history of the show. When The Twilight Zone was good, it was brilliant. And it inarguably set the template for shows of this type for the remainder of the 20th century.

Serling was so instrumental to the series’ success that every single iteration of the show that followed it has attempted to invoke his ghost by inserting him into their credits in some way. It was cute, at first, to acknowledge the man upon whose bones these newcomers were treading for their traction. Then it became disturbing to me. I may well have been the only one, but there was something maybe a little too spectral about Serling’s presence. I don’t know if he approved of what went on afterward in the name of his most famous creation. I always felt like maybe he was trapped in the show, unable to pass through and go into the light; a ghost in his own machine. No idea where I got that notion. Probably from watching too damn many episodes of The Twilight Zone...

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

My Top 5 Favorite Dracula Movies

There’s a big difference between Dracula movies and vampire movies. Dracula is always a vampire, but not every vampire is Dracula. That’s a bit of an understatement. Ever since Nosferatu was made in the silent era, people have been perennially fascinated with bringing Bram Stoker’s historic and histrionic novel to cinematic life, with wildly varying results.

The story is now a part of the larger pop culture zeitgeist. Jonathan Harker, Mina, his fiancée, Quincy the Texan, and Van Helsing are the original monster hunters and their exploits are not unfamiliar to us, thanks to movies, TV, comics, radio, stage plays, and of course, the novel itself. Written in the form of epistolary correspondence from person to person, the novel is accused of being overly romantic, and is most famously analyzed as Stoker’s reaction to the influx of immigrants to Great Britain at the time and a cautionary tale of the dangers of these dark, mysterious, swarthy men ravaging the fair maidens of England.

Xenophobia and Jingoism aside, the novel is a great read, and the movies are...well, a mixed bag. I don’t think of them as scary; not anymore. I know the story too well. So, I’m basing this list on how well the story gets across in the movie as an adaptation from the novel. That puts all of these movies on a relatively level playing field. Comparing them this way really highlights the author and director’s intent in an objective way that is easy to compare. Mind you, none of them get it totally right, but maybe if we mashed them all up together, we’d get a Frankenstein version of Dracula that would hit every note.

Dracula (1931)
For many, this is the gold standard. Bela Lugosi, reprising his role that won him acclaim on the stage, became is most identifiable character, so much so that he is the de facto face of Dracula for Universal Studios to this day. His stilted accent, the most famous lines, and even his almost affected mannerisms remain staples of the character in nearly every incarnation.

No effort was made to give the story any sense of history. Instead, this Dracula is set in the 20th century. And in the interest of time, characters are combine or dropped entirely. As adaptations go, it’s pretty loosey goosey, but what it has going for it is the gravitas of being the first real source of inspiration for all of the other Dracula films. The special effects are pretty rudimentary, and so Todd Browning wisely decided to lean heavily on Lugosi instead.

One of the best scenes in the movie is when Van Helsing and Harker are observing Mina and in walks Dracula, a wolf amongst all of the sheep. It’s here that they repositioned the gag about vampires not showing up in mirrors, and it works well. The Dracula/Van Helsing early meeting would show up again and again in other movies, but we never get to see it in the book. For upping the tension in an already tense moment, you can’t get much better than having your villain pop into your living room.

Dracula (1979)
This lavish adaptation starring Frank Langella as Dracula and Sir Lawrence Olivier as Van Helsing has a lot going for it; a musical score by John Williams, a screenplay co-written by W.D. Richter, and some really gorgeous visuals that fill up the screen. But this Dracula is very self-aware and presents a kind of post-modern commentary on what had become at the time a number of hoary old clichés. This is a little ironic to me, because the screenplay is much less an adaptation of Stoker’s novel and much more yet another version of the stage play that created all of those hoary old clichés in the first place. Just listening to Van Helsing and Dracula banter, and hearing Langella’s quip-like reply to Van Helsing’s offer of wine, is a real strong indicator that they are doing it different than before, and on purpose.

Langella, his collar open wide at the throat and his perfectly coiffured hair, looks more like David Copperfield than a turn-of-the-century aristocratic nobleman. Whilst keeping up the pretense that Dracula is a historical epic, Langella looks more like he wandered in from some Deney Terrio disco movie. The movie is much more emphatically romantic rather than scary, even though there are some startling special effects shots that still hold up.

I like this Dracula precisely because it’s a reaction to the stereotype. If you watch all of the sequels that Lugosi and Lee made, you can get a little numb to the idea. This version of Dracula was supposed to be the antidote to that repetition.

The Horror of Dracula (1958)
Now we’re getting somewhere. Christopher Lee played Dracula more times than any other actor. I’m not really sure that he added overmuch to the role, especially after that fifth or sixth turn, but one thing is certain: he nailed the character right out of the gate with his first effort, The Horror of Dracula.

Hammer Studios were a legendary and storied studio of the 1950s, easily as influential as Universal was in the 1930s and 1940s. They used color, blood, and sex to capture the teen-aged dollars of the day, with great success. And really, if you’re going to do Dracula any justice, it needs all three to really work.  In all honesty, it seems that there’s one or two scenes in every single Hammer film that drag on interminably, so some heaving bosoms and garish crimson blood are just the thing to wake you up after all of the talking.

Lee’s Dracula revels in his power, taking full advantage of creative make up to change him from a member of the aristocracy to a bloodthirsty monster. And opposing him, in conversation and combat, is Peter Cushing as Van Helsing; it’s note perfect, and they would do this dance over and over again in various sequels. As far as accurate, well, the castles are better, and London more fully realized, but it’s still light on the book and heavy on the play and the Universal movie, which had entered into the popular culture lexicon by this time.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1974)
This TV movie version of the story is also known as “Dan Curtis’ Dracula” and with good reason; at the time this movie was made, Dan Curtis was the guy behind a little soap opera called Dark Shadows. He directed this version, using a script provided by Richard Matheson at the top of his game and, unbelievably, Jack Palance in the role of Dracula.

You can tell, almost right away, that it was directed by a soap opera guy. Every meaningful glance is preceded by a zoom in to a tight close-up, and a musical sting, just in case you missed the swoop in. So, yes, there’s romance galore in this version as well. But there’s also some stuff from the books that makes it into the screenplay for the first time in a Dracula film. Matheson has to condense the story (they all do), but he managed to get a lot into a tight story, starting with setting the movie in the 1890s. I also like that the standard meeting between Van Helsing and Dracula is absent once he gets to London. Now they are just chasing the vampire, just like in the book. Of course, Matheson was just coming off of a massive success writing The Night Stalker, so everyone’s vampiric bona fides were in order.

You might think Jack Palance an odd choice for Dracula, but wait until you see him. He’s an imposing physical presence almost at once, and his saturnine features are more like Lugosi’s than you might expect. His strength is considerable, and he frequently crashes through doors instead of turning into mist or a bat, and that only adds to his ferocity. There are even a couple of genuinely chilling moments when Dracula reveals himself to Jonathan Harker. Matheson provides a clever tie-in at the end of the film to the historical Dracula, as a nod to Stoker’s influence, and because, well, he’s Richard Matheson and that’s what he does. If you haven’t seen this version and you’re a Dracula fan, go check it out, as it does not disappoint.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Well, nearly. This one is certainly the closest to the book version of Dracula, and yet, it’s also the furthest away. It’s probably the most successful Dracula movie in recent times, largely thanks to an all-star cast that includes Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, Gary Oldman as Vlad the Impaler, Tom Waites as Renfield, Winona Ryder as Mina, and lest we forget, the director of this epic was none other than Francis Ford Coppella.

This Dracula is wildly entertaining and draws its vampiric shenanigans from nearly every other Dracula movie that preceded it. There’ Nosferatu-like shadow play, bright red blood and bodices in the Hammer tradition, and method acting out the wazoo as Oldman rocks a Hungarian accent that never becomes a parody of Lugosi, but is obviously meant to connect this movie to its roots.

What does it get right? Well, for starters, we get Quincy the Texan and the rest of the gang, a first for something like this. He’s even got his bowie knife. The production values are of the highest caliber, and the whole movie feels like a lavish historical period piece, which it certainly is. That’s unfortunately where everything starts to go awry.

Remember how I talked earlier about the interpretation of Dracula being a polemic railing against foreign men ravishing White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Women? Well, that’s the road this version of Dracula takes, only instead of sublimating those fears, they laid a thin veneer of sex down over the entire movie. Lucy and Mina are initially seen giggling over the naughty woodcuts in The Arabian Nights. Harker (underplayed by Keanu Reeves) is seduced by Dracula’s brides rather than fed upon. Lucy isn’t taken by Dracula so much as she’s mated with Dracula—in wolf form, no less.  Dracula seems to excite the women to a noticeable frenzy before feeding on them. Coppola’s point being that the Victorians may have been hung up on things like sex, but they were also inundated with it. This is a facile and immature handling of the material, and I find it more distracting than helpful.

Some of the imagery is inspired and violent, but again, not very scary. I think Coppola’s stunt casting, mostly in form of Reeves and Tom Waites, gets in the way of just telling the story. And while we have connections to the historical Dracula, which is nice, the emphasis lies on Dracula reclaiming his reincarnated bride in the form of Mina. Despite all of the above problems, Oldman’s Dracula is intense, complex, and terrifying as well as charming and urbane. Easily the most complex portrayal of the character to date.

For the newcomers: This is part of a larger series of articles. You can find all of them here.

My Top 5 Favorite Lovecraftian Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Haunted House Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Movie Maniac Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Killer/Creepy Kid Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Devils and Demons Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Ghost Story Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Monster From Space Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Zombie Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Vampire Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Werewolf Movies

My Top Five Scariest Scenes in Movies

Monday, October 20, 2014

My Top 5 Favorite Lovecraftian Movies

When I was a teenager, I read my fill of H.P. Lovecraft, the man responsible for the Cthulhu Mythos and the current dust-up about the World Fantasy Award statue. Widely considered unfilmable for literally decades, we’ve only recently begun to see his weird and uniquely bleak visions translated into cinematic fever dreams.

To be completely fair, Lovecraftian cinema has been in effect since the 1960’s; it’s just not been done very well. Compromises were made in nearly every movie bearing Lovecraft’s name, some of them so egregious that it makes one wonder why they even bothered in the first place.

I think the best movies that encapsulate Lovcraft’s themes, tropes, and ideas tend to be the original movies made with a Lovecraftian sensibility; this notion that the more you know about the things just outside our consciousness, the more insane it makes you. This is an effective horror motif, and done correctly, like many of the movies below, it’s some of the most effective scares in book or movie form.

I would be remiss if I didn’t name-check True Detective here as something you should check out if you’re interested in seeing the idea of unspeakable and unutterable horror translated straight across into a police procedural. The book of blasphemous lore becomes a VHS cassette, rendered no less horrifying, and forever changing those who watch it. If you like the non-tentacled portions of Lovecraft’s work best of all, then you need to watch the series.

The Whisperer in Darkness (2011)
What starts out as a kind of Fortean occurrence in the woods turns into an epistolary correspondence between a scientist and a folklorist and ends with a fateful meeting, face-to-face—and much more—in this lovingly created adaptation of the Lovecraft story of the same name by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. Filmed in an intentional 1940’s style, this will delight film fans as well as Lovecraftophiles for its earnest treatment of the source material.

Okay, now that I have that out of the way, I need to tell you this just barely squeaked into the Top Five list. It’s very well done, overall...until it leaves the rails. The ending was created because as strong as the story is, it would make a terrible final scene for a film. This was very smart on the part of the HPLSH, who put a lot of love and care into this film, but in doing so, they drifted away from the source material in a way that dilutes the effect Lovecraft was shooting for. Better movie, weaker adaptation. A classic catch-22. To be fair, Lovecraft’s ending IS in the movie; it’s just not the movie’s ending.

The hardest thing to work around in movies dealing with this stuff is that urge to see the monster at the end of the movie. Their solution was novel, and very much in the period style, but the ending itself is more Robert E. Howard than H.P. Lovecraft. Still, right up until then, this is a great example of how you can, in fact, get Lovecraft on the big screen effectively, and without changing too much of the source material.

Yellowbrickroad (2010)
In the 1940s, a whole town in New Hampshire got up, walked into the wilderness, and was never heard from again. Now, it’s the modern age, and a group of people are in the deserted town, trying to find out what happened to the town’s population. What starts out as an investigation into the cover-up of the town turns into a story of survival, and ultimately, chilling horror.

I have to admit, I didn’t like this movie the first time I saw it. But it stuck with me, and I watched it again some months later and was blown away. Yellowbrickroad gives a new definition to the meaning “slow burn,” as you are surely and intentionally numbed by the sameness of what the people are doing for long stretches of time. When all hell breaks loose, however, you won’t see it coming, and worse, you’ll be glad it’s happening because at least SOMEthing is happening, and that’s when you become complicit in the horror movie and yeah, by then, I’d creeped myownself out. If you have a short attention span, give this one a pass. But if you’re in the mood to think about your horror and you’re okay with never quite knowing the what and the wherefor behind it all, then Yellowbrickroad has your number.

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
An investigator tracking down a popular author who goes missing finds more than he bargains for. The author’s fictional town suddenly seems all too real, and clues lead the investigator into a shocking realization about fiction and reality and I really wish I could tell you more than that, but if you haven’t seen it, you won’t want me to give anything else away. Suffice to say, there’s plenty of meat on the bones here to give you lots to think about.

Tom Baker once called Sam Neill one of the most boring actors alive, but I’m pretty sure he hadn’t seen In the Mouth of Madness at the time he said it. The movie is rife with asides, references, and horror Easter eggs, but Neill ignores all of that in the pursuit of the truth, which, as an insurance investigator, must always make sense. The more it doesn’t make sense, the worse off he gets. It’s a good performance from Neill, who was coming off of Jurassic Park at the time. Maybe he hit his stride. Carpenter certainly did, as director of the film. This is the last good horror movie he made.

From Beyond (1986)
Poor Crawford Tillinghast. He’s accused of killing his mentor, Edward Pretorious, in a gruesome fashion. Only, it wasn’t him, you see? It was these creatures that they summoned up from the ether with their resonator, see? Only, you can’t see them because they exist outside of our consciousness...hey, I’ve got an idea. Let’s send the hot psychologist over to investigate these claims and put her in the house with the machine. What could possibly go wrong? Heh. Everything.

The second outing from Brian Yuzna and Stuart Gordon (the follow-up to their cult classic, Re-Animator), again we find a young Jeffrey Combs in the movie along with Barbara Crampton battling grossness and goo with terribly un-subtle sexual overtones. As much as this film flies in the face of a lot of Lovecraftian ideas (particularly the sex stuff), I think it’s a much more successful film than Re-Animator and also I think it’s a scarier movie. The idea that there are things living all around you, outside of your vibrational range, is pretty unnerving, and this movie gets it across well. Crampton herself provides the final freak-out image that elevates this above the usual fare.

Prince of Darkness (1987)
The last member of a forgotten order of monks known as The Brotherhood of Sleep has died, and his death opens up a church investigation that brings local theoretical physicists into a lonely and forgotten church to study...something. Soon thereafter, the dreams start, and reality begins to distort, and oh yes, the creepy homeless people led by Alice Cooper (no, really) gather around the church entrance. After that, it gets very, very strange.

I’ll never forget the movie review I read for this movie back in 1987 that described the plot line as “a group of scientists all stand around and try to disprove the existence of Satan-in-a-Can.” Satan in a can? Talk about a guy who missed the point completely. I never read another of that schmuck’s reviews, after that.

What John Carpenter did extremely well in this movie was delineate the alien vastness of evil. Granted, it’s trading heavily on Biblical history for its scares, rather than tentacled monsters from the abyss, but one of the scariest, most troublesome things is the “dreams” which are actually transmissions back through time. It’s a concept that the people in the movie don’t seem to grasp, not until the very end, of course. But boy, it’s disturbing in the extreme. A layered and complex movie that stays with you long after you’ve seen it.

Bonus! Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Five college kids all pile into a van for a weekend getaway at a Cabin in the Woods and end up driving into a night full of terror and madness and...oh, you know how this goes. It’s been done to death, right? I mean, even the previews made this seem like another cookie-cutter movie about the same old, same old...right? Right.

I’m not sure if this is even scary to a dyed-in-the-wool horror movie fan, but it is absolutely required viewing for anyone who claims to be a fan of the genre. If you haven’t seen it yet, then stop right here, because SPOILERS ABOUND (and what’s the statute of limitations on that, anyway? One year? Two? It’s not short enough, I’ll tell you that for sure).

The very idea that Cabin in the Woods is both a post-modern meta-movie that not only explains the reason for every extant slasher film cliché, but that also posits a world wherein we are just barely keeping insanely huge cosmic forces at bay through the efforts of government employees doing what amounts to a sanitation job, is one of the darkest, most brilliantly conceived and executed ideas in modern horror films. If you can find a more dark, more cynical movie than this, I would welcome the discussion. That we have, in the film, moved well past the point of soul-sucking horror for the situation to the “it’s just a job, ma’am,” is all the more telling, and intentionally so, at that.

For the newcomers: This is part of a larger series of articles. You can find all of them here.

My Top 5 Favorite Haunted House Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Movie Maniac Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Killer/Creepy Kid Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Devils and Demons Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Ghost Story Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Monster From Space Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Zombie Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Vampire Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Werewolf Movies

My Top Five Scariest Scenes in Movies

Saturday, October 18, 2014

My Top 5 Favorite Haunted House movies

Is there anything more cliché’? More hoary and hackneyed? More played out? The Haunted House “trope” has been beaten to death, thanks to Scooby Doo, ABC After School Specials, and a ton of pop cultural appropriations. Along with the ghosts who frequently accompany them, no other supernatural occurrence has been so abused and ridiculed as the Haunted House.

And yet, some of the best horror movies ever made are haunted house movies. Some of the most terrifying films of all are about something being left behind, or being “not quite right” about the cornerstone of our notions of safety and security. Houses—our homes—are our defense against the forces of darkness that stop at our threshold. When our own walls revolt and offer us no protection, what hope do we have? That’s where the best haunted house movies get us: right where we live.

I’ve only got one criteria for haunted house movies: am I scared? Okay, I have two criteria: is the story around which the haunt revolves believable? That drift into incredulity has sunk many a promising horror movie, and all the jump scares in the world won’t save a movie where we get to the end and I yell out, “THAT was the reason?” or “They were WHAT?” or just “How STUPID!” Good stories and tight scripts make better horror movies than big budget messes.

5. The Changeling (1980)
George C. Scott takes center stage as an author (it’s always authors, isn’t it?) who buys a house, only to discover some freakiness inside. He starts to investigate and as he gets more and more of the story, he gets drawn further and further into the mystery. And what’s with the banging sound on the pipes, anyway?

A quietly effective horror movie, The Changeling leans heavily on Scott to react to not very much and thankfully, he carries it off. The mystery is a good one, and the reveal is not only creepy, but sad as well. In many ways, it’s the classic ghost story, made bigger and more scary.

4. Paranormal Activity (2009)
A new couple, a guy who can’t stop filming his life (and his wife) because we are in the age of selfie-narcissists, and a couple of questionable artifacts found in their modern home; what could possibly go wrong?  Another “found footage” movie that enjoyed a brief renaissance for about eighteen months, this little quickie horror film has spun off into a legitimate franchise with three movies released and a fourth on the way.

Taking a couple of pages from the video vérité movement of the 1990s that started with The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity manages to do a lot with very little.  The rumored budget for this minor epic was a mere $15,000. I mean, it’s web cams and surveillance video, how expensive can it be? This is one of the few times when the lack of professional equipment actually helps the production, as we can’t always get a clear picture of what’s going on and that adds to the Bump-in-the-Night factor. You may not like the other movies in the series, but the first one is certainly worth a look.

3. The Haunting (1963)
Hill House, having claimed the lives of several women, is now playing host to a parapsychologist and his charges as they investigate these claims of supernatural activity. One of the women, Elenor, is freaking out almost from the get-go. She’s obviously disturbed by the death of her mother, and less-obviously unsettled by the paranormal activity no one else can confirm. Is it all in her head, or is she being targeted by the spirits in Hill House?

If you are one of those people who think black and white movies aren’t scary, then I challenge you to watch this one and then go right to sleep. Based on the book The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the film sort of finds its own way with a fearless cast, unafraid to embrace the material and milk it for all it’s worth. The movie teeters on the edge of melodrama, but skillful editing and some great camera work manage to allay some of the soap opera hysterics and allow the viewer to decide for themselves what’s really going on. Genius.

2. Poltergeist (1982)
Children today don’t know what it was like when television officially ended until the next day. That sudden burst of static, along with the weird digital “snow,” was a strange kind of phenomenon. It was usually your cue to go to bed, but how could you possibly be expected to sleep after watching the midnight movie? Certainly not little Carol Anne, who hears something inside of that particular frequency that the other members of her family can’t hear, what with the family dog going nuts and barking at mid-air. The family descends upon the ruckus to find their little girl sitting in front of the television. “They’re HEEeere,” she announces. Everything after that is a delicious mix of slice-of-life suburbia meets sheer terror.

Directed by Tobe Hooper and produced, co-written (and, depending on who you talk to, co-directed) by Steven Spielberg, this film continues to be disturbing and horrifying. There’s certainly an air of prognostication to the plot (corporate greed is the root of all evil) that makes the movie more contemporary than other horror movies made around the same time. The shots of the neighborhood, the kids and certainly the tone of the early parts of the movie feel exactly like the neighborhoods in E.T. and The Goonies and other fixtures of the Spielberg landscape. That’s partially what makes the horror so effective. When the supernatural shenanigans start stacking up and Carol Anne goes missing, the rest is all chaos and madness and I’m quite certain that the takeaway from the movie is that nothing matters in the end, least of all the things that own us.

1. The Shining (1980)
Jack Nicholson needs his peace and quiet so he can write; we’re told this at the beginning of The Shining, and we don’t think much about it after that. Mostly because there’s too much going on with the rest of the family as they adjust to Jack’s new job as the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. Between the hedge maze, the boy’s talking finger, Shelly Duvall’s constant look of google-eyed fear, and oh yeah, those creepy twin girls, it’s no wonder Jack has to take up the axe and run through the hotel bellowing.

Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, made all the more creepy by the casting choices and now the conspiracy theory that surrounds Kubrick and the movie. The Shining bears only a glancing resemblance to the excellent book by Stephen King, but this is one of the few times when people don’t complain about it. The horror and tension is a slow burn until the final thirty minutes when all hell breaks loose. There are creeps and jumps for just about every phobia and even a couple of new ones. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing one of Kubrick’s best movies and a milestone of 80’s horror.

For the newcomers: This is part of a larger series of articles. You can find last October's offerings here.

My Top 5 Favorite Movie Maniac Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Killer/Creepy Kid Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Devils and Demons Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Ghost Story Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Monster From Space Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Zombie Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Vampire Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Werewolf Movies

My Top Five Scariest Scenes in Movies

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

My Journey into Boyhood

I thought I'd covered this already in my various social media channels, but the question keeps coming up, and so I thought I'd drop a few lines here to answer some of the incredulous and excited queries flying my way.

Yes, that's me in Boyhood. Eleven seconds of a major-indy-Hollywood-Third Coast-Richard Linklater movie, and I've even got a speaking part. I won't give it away if you haven't seen it, because you'll be profoundly disappointed if I tell you about it beforehand. Instead, I'll tell you a little of what I remember of that night, some eight years ago.

The year was 2005 and I was one of the floor managers at BookPeople, in Austin, Texas (the largest independent book store in Texas). The store is very well thought of, and at the time, we were positioned right in the heart of the Keep Austin Weird movement. We were known for throwing very large, very hard-to-beat Harry Potter parties. This was the sixth book coming out. The last party was huge, and so the pressure was on to top ourselves. Six months of planning. We were making ourselves cheerfully crazy.

With maybe two weeks to spare, the marketing people popped into one of the strategy meetings and told us that Richard Linklater was filming some sort of documentary film wherein he is following four kids around for twelve years, chronicling their growth. Well, those kids wanted to come to OUR Midnight Book Release party, and so, can they come film our shenanigans? Like any good retailer, we said "Yes" first, and then thought, "Lord, what have we signed ourselves up for?"

My job in the midst of all this chaos was Ringmaster, which was a very polite term for "crowd control." My job was to keep the masses happy; make sure they were up-to-date on the lastest information, introduce each new act on our "main stage," remind others about the booths and carnival refreshments to be had at our home-made "Diagon Alley," and whenever necessary, fill the dead time with banter and snappy patter. In other words, my usual gig.

A small picture to give you a hint of the size
of this particular endeavor. Yeah, that's the
maze there in the lower left hand corner.
Harry Potter's birthday dawned (when the books were released each year), and we were all amped up beyond belief. Imagine five thousand people in a parking lot, many of whom will have been there since 8 a.m. waiting for the Midnight release. We had carnival booths, fire dancers, a magician, and the Alamo Draft House's Rolling Road Show set up showing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. There was even a maze made out of haybales. Sorting hats. Coloring stations. My God, it was an enormous undertaking. Most of the staff was in costume. The books were in the building, but we couldn't open the boxes. Oh, and did I mention this was in the middle of July? That might be lovely weather in Merry Olde England, but in Texas, during the Summer, it's profoundly miserable.

There's one other pertinent fact I left out: a week prior, I had dislocated the middle tendon in my right hand. It required minor surgery to repair, and while it was technically no big deal--a very simple operation--I had never been under before. Never had a broken bone, or anything like that. Oh, I had my tonsils out when I was four or five, but I really don't remember any of it. So it was a little nerve-wracking, and it left me with a throbbing hand, wrapped up just like a lobster claw, and a prescription for Vicodin for the pain.

Have you ever had Vicodin? Man, that's good stuff! I wake up in the morning, my hand is throbbing and aching. I eat breakfast, take a pill, and then suddenly, I don't care about my hand anymore. It's like the volume got turned down on the whole world. Lovely drug, simply lovely. However, it turned my brain into chunky pea soup. I knew I couldn't take the pill during the party, or I'd screw it up. I had to read cue cards, answer questions, think on my feet--no, it wouldn't do. So I took a vicodin at lunch and decided to go long.

Linklater at the BookPeople Harry Potter Party.
Now, it's hours later, and the party is in full swing, and it's crowded and hot and miserable. There's a steady stream of people going to the bathroom like carpenter ants. The kids and parents are gathered around the main stage, watching the goings-on, and the whole staff is jumping through hoops. I'm making my announcements, and I'm even getting some laughs with the bit. "Attention, everyone, would whoever parked their hippogriff in the parking garage please tend to your animal. It's broken loose, and guarding an SUV right now." I had another joke about a mix-up at the broom closet. You get the idea.

Suddenly, there's cameras. And people with clipboards. And Richard Linklater. And I'm being flagged down by one of the production assistants. Now, I'm acting as a liaison to the film crew--the P.A. to the P.A. I don't remember much of what I had to do for them because they were there when things were in full-swing, and by this time, the Vicodin had long worn off and my lobster claw was throbbing like a doghouse bass.

At one point, I was making announcements and remembered distinctly that a camera was being pointed at me, so I did my best to be clever and articulate. Of course, I assumed it a camera from one of the news trucks that was covering our party. The P.A. was back, now, and they had a question for me: would it be all right if the four kids got their books first? You know, at Midnight?

My first thought was to protect the integrity of the line that had been waiting for eighteen hours, but I knew better than to try it. There was a quick conference, and sure enough, they got the clearance. By this time, I'd seen Linklater a couple of times. He and his people were running around, guerrilla-style, shooting whatever they could. It looked like fun, save for the God-awful heat.

At last, Midnight came, and I counted the crowd down and we all cheered. The band resumed, and the movie kept playing, but make no mistake, the star of the evening was that big-ass hardcover book. Well, that and the four kids being filmed. They got a shot of the kids walking up and getting their book, and then, amazingly, Linklater asked, "Can we get another one?"

Patricia Arquette reads to the kids from Harry Potter in the
movie Boyhood. Not pictured: me, off-camera, rubbing her
feet, because that never happened, no matter how many
notes you send, and singing telegrams...
"Some documentary film," I thought to myself, but sure, what the heck. The people in line were amazingly understanding that they had to wait two whole extra minutes to get their books, but they did it. The line started moving, and within ten minutes, we'd gone through all of the event books, and the crowd magically bled off. It was surreal; there were kids on the ground, twelve-fifteen at night, reading the book by flashlight. The staff was completely spent. We were all numb and kinda shell-shocked. But of course, the whole thing was a complete success. There's a ton of pictures on Flickr if you want to go check them out.

I walked up to Linklater, who was wrapping things up, and asked him if he got what he needed. We chatted very briefly, and I wished him luck with the rest of the shoot. Then I went inside and popped a Vicodin and drank a liter of water.

And that was it. I didn't give it another thought until late last year, when I got a call from someone in Richard Linklater's office, telling me that the 12 year project was finished and I'd made the cut of the movie.

I did what, now?

My mind raced back to the party, and I gave them my information, as well as how I'd like to be listed in the credits, and they sent me a check, and a S.A.G. membership application, and the next thing you know, I'm in the movie. It was really that easy. And it wasn't a documentary, after all. Whoops!

If you live in Austin, it's not THAT hard to end up in a movie. I'm surprised more of my friends aren't in them. At BookPeople, we were regularly inundated with actors and rock stars coming in to buy books. No, seriously. I helped Ted Dansen pick out mysteries for his plane ride, gave Kevin Spacey directions to the bathroom, told Carla Gugino that there were no American editions of Elmore Leonard's book Out of Sight, and had several conversations with Luke Perry. Sandra Bullock. Matthew McConaughey. That shouldn't surprise anyone, really. Austin has always been a town for Starfu--well, let's just say, if you want to cozy up to someone famous, you can do it.

They don't even have to be famous; just notorious. I spent my first Thanksgiving in Austin with a friend of mine who's father happens to be local character actor David Blackwell. All through dinner and afterward, he called me "young lad." Fun stuff. One of my co-workers actually ended up in the movie Grindhouse. She even had a speaking part. It was crazy. It's all "right place, right time" kind of stuff; it's just that, in Austin, there's a lot more right places and a lot more right times than most other cities.

I did get to attend the premiere in Austin earlier this year and I really liked the movie. I like the vast majority of Linklater's films anyway, and so this was no exception. I also met my co-star Ethan Hawke years ago at a BookPeople signing. See? Easy peasy. Starfu--I mean, ripe with opportunities.

Boyhood is still playing in art houses across the country. It's a good movie, very interesting to watch, and if you're diligent, you can spot me (oh, who am I kidding? You can't MISS me) in the movie. Please, no autographs. For all other requests, see my agent.