Friday, October 31, 2014

My Top 5 Creatures From the Deep Movies

Ever since we first took our steps out of the water, we looked back over our shoulder and wondered what that splashing sound was. I was a member of the Jaws generation, one of the more influential horror films in modern cinema. Not just in terms of resetting and expanding what actually scares us by making use of the water as the metaphor for The Great Unknown, but also in managing to keep me out of swimming in a lake until I was a teenager. Even then, I stayed in motion constantly, kicking my feet as if my life depended on it—which it undoubtedly did.

What about the water is so terrifying to us? Is it the idea that it can instantly kill us? The fact that it slows us down and provides a hazard for us that the predators can cheerfully ignore? Personally, I think there’s something primal, if not primeval, about what lives in the crushing depths. We know we don’t belong in the water any more, and they do. It’s their domain, and we’re just trying to survive—badly.

Fair warning about this category. There is a sharp, steep drop off in quality. Most of the movies in this category are gawd-awful, and I can prove it with math. Most of the time, making an aquatic monster movie is an excuse to put girls in bikinis and run them around, screaming in terror. Look at the poster above for a better example of what these flicks are usually selling. There are exceptions, though. When these movies are good, they are very good. When they are bad, they generate gravity and collapse in upon themselves, like dying suns.

My list is culled out according to how effective the horror is, coupled with the original nature of the story, and overall quality. This is one of the few times when your mileage definitely won’t vary from mine very much.

5. Grabbers (2012)
On a remote corner of a remote part of Ireland, a fisherman catches something in his net and brings it ashore. Ten minutes into the film, the tentacles come out, along with some nasty teeth, and after that, the movie is off-road and heading for trouble as these cthuloid-tumbleweed monsters set about the business of egg-laying and eating the villagers.

This Johnny-Come-Lately film from Ireland gets points for nerve, if nothing else. Keep the monsters in the dark? Nope, let’s get ‘em right out in the open. Thankfully, they are cool monsters to look at, and pretty frightening, on top of it all. Many of the usual clichés are bounced on their head as the locals try to fend off the grabbers and one another. Throw an alcoholic cop and his green partner into the mix, and this movie ends up being a surprising turn on the same-old, same-old. Fair warning: if you (forgive me) grab this off of Netflix, DO NOT read the description, as it gives away a very cool and interesting plot point.

4. Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)
Scientists looking for another offshoot of the missing link track fossil evidence back to a remote inland cove, or a lagoon, if you will. There they squabble over the brunette, while she goes swimming and draws the attention of...something below.

This movie is a strange hybrid. More popular than a cult classic, but always playing second fiddle to the rest of the Universal Monsters, the Creature is the last of the famous trademarked band of monsters and as a result, sometimes gets second fiddle status. Too bad, too, because it’s an inarguable classic, influential on a number of filmmakers, including one of the guys listed below, and actually holds up as a cracking good monster movie.

The suit is, well, a suit, but it’s a good suit, and the mask is one of the best monster designs ever. Throw in some killer underwater photography and swimming stunts, the fetching Julia Adams in a swimsuit and it’s easy to see how The Creature From the Black Lagoon has lasted as long as it has.

3. Piranha (1978)
The first major movie from Joe Dante trades heavily on the foundation laid by Jaws three years earlier, namely the thing under the water you can’t see. Only, the difference is, instead of one big-ass shark, it’s a lot of little bitey fish, and instead of salt water, it’s fresh water, and instead of being serious and scary, there’s a lot of things that make you chuckle.

That’s all well and good. I mean, weaponized piranha are bad enough, but the additional freak out of these things being in fresh water meant that I didn’t go swimming in a pool, with crystal clear water, never mind murky lake water, for months afterward. The whole idea that you don’t see it coming until something has chewed off your leg is just too horrible to think about.

Dante’s turn on the subject matter is fresh, as is John Sayle’s script, and fledgling effects guy Rob Bottin’s gore is nice and red. Watch it for the laughs, and pretend it doesn’t bother you when the fish swarm in the lake.

2. Deep Rising (1998)
Speaking of camp value, you can’t get much better than this genre-bender. A luxury ocean liner with a full crew is suddenly hijacked by pirates on the high seas. It’s a fool-proof plan, except for where the disabling of the boat took place...over the deepest, darkest part of the follow me?

This slick water-borne caper suddenly becomes Jurassic Park on a boat as massive tentacles with super intelligence swish through the ankle-deep water and pull pirates and guests to their doom. The CGI wasn’t quite up to snuff, but the movie is nice and tense and takes itself seriously, even if you won’t. Treat Williams and Famke Janssen chew scenery nicely, along with Wes Studi and the rest of the pirate crew.

The monster at the end isn’t anything found in nature, but it’s a lot of spinning, thrashing fun trying to figure out how this is all going to shake out. A solid B-grade monster movie with a great twist ending.

1. Jaws (1975)
Of course, this would be number one. Steven Spielberg’s second greatest movie remains an major influence on the entire cinematic world, from invention of the “Summer Blockbuster” to crafting a film that set Greenpeace back 25 years. Jaws is now a part of the pop culture lexicon, having way outshined its fictional counterpart, the excellent novel by Peter Benchley.

The story is simplicity itself. A big ass shark has made its way down the coastline and winds up hanging out in one of the most populated beaches in the area, during its single busiest time of the year. Public safety is trumped by corporate greed, and people start dying. It’s up to the sheriff, a marine biologist, and a lunatic on a fishing trawler to save them all.

Tons of great quotes, and some surprising suspenseful moments, especially if you ever read any of the behind-the-scenes stories about the mechanical shark (nicknamed “Bruce” because he was the Boss of the production from start to finish) and its refusal to work, to cooperate, to behave when asked. Don’t watch this movie during the Summer, or when you’re on vacation, as you’ll second-guess ever swimming in the ocean again.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

My Top 5 Favorite Killer Doll Movies

One of the reasons why the clown scene in Poltergeist scares the hell out of us is that we’ve all had that experience at least once in our lives, usually with a favored toy or an artfully-thrown jacket and baseball cap, or something similar. In this case, the clown doll does double duty for being both (A) a doll, and (B) a clown that is disturbing even in the light of day. Our fascination with totems and effigies that move when we’re not looking, whether it’s Pixar’s Toy Story movies or the venerable and not-very-good Dollman franchise from Full Moon Entertainment, is actually a place holder for a lot of things: the Pinocchio story, the Frankenstein/Prometheus tale (gone wrong, of course), the betrayal from something innocent from our childhood, or just a plain ol’ stand-in for a loss of control from things beyond our ken. Pick one, or pick several. It doesn’t matter. It all adds up to one thing:

sheer terror.

This is one of the few things that really scares me. There’s nothing worse than a creepy-looking doll suddenly turn its head to look Right. At. You. Just thinking about some of the movies on this list gives me the heebie-jeebies. As a life-long collector of action figures, there’s a niggling thought at the back of my head that they talk about me all judgey and stuff when I’m not in the room. Not that I don’t think I could defend myself from a pack of 3 ¾” action figures, but still...

One side note: possessed or demonic dolls are most frequently found in shorter segments of anthology movies and television shows. Some famous short stories on that very subject have been turned into creepy episodes of Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, just to name two prominent examples. For this Top 5 list, we’re looking at feature-length films only. It’s a narrow list.

5. Dolls (1987)
An early and forgotten effort from horror director Stuart Gordon (when he wasn’t making Lovecraft movies) combines the old chestnut of the car breaking down in the middle of nowhere and the creepy old house on the hill to create a night of bizarre situations and toy-based murders.

Once the dolls start doing things (and we find out why this is so), it’s a race to the end with decent special effects and some creepy and chilling moments. Gordon made good horror films with very little money, and he uses all of his tricks to make the dolls scary. An overlooked diamond in the rough.

4. Child’s Play (1988)
Forget the rest of the “franchise,” because this should never have gotten a sequel. Also, forget some of the logic leaps that take place in the set-up to this venerable story. Instead, just marvel at the way Chucky switches back and forth from surrogate big brother to the latch key kid and serial killing effigy.

The movie could have used a tighter edit, and some script doctoring, but it is a solid contender in this rarified genre, playing off of several other stories that came before it. The movie was a huge hit when it came out, and the sequels it spawned were regrettable. Good jump scares, if nothing else.

3. Magic (1978)
Directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Anthony Hopkins, this film is firmly in that staple of 70’s “realism” trend where everything was about feelings and psychology, and shot and framed in the most dull and uninteresting of ways. All of that aside, this movie features one of the creepiest-looking ventriloquism dummies ever made, and the film inself was helped by one of the creepiest trailers ever made. If you don’t believe me, watch this: Magic (1978) trailer.

Okay, maybe it doesn’t hold up now, but at the time, if you were a kid that, say, was fascinated by ventriloquists (ahem), that was bone-chilling in the extreme. The name comes from the fact that Hopkins is a failed magician who resurfaces in the hotel circuit with a ventriloquist dummy that steals the show.

As his popularity grows, we find out that Hopkins ain’t quite right in the head, of course. The dummy talks to him, and, of course, is more or less driving the crazy bus. The ambiguity helps the movie, because it’s a slow burn to the finish.

2. Annabelle (2014)
Number two with a bullet finds its way onto the list because of the new trend in making horror movies scary again for the rest of us. Creepy cultists go on a killing spree, but not before bleeding into a doll’s eye and turning it into an object of demonic rage.

This sequel to The Conjuring (2013) is actually a prequel, and also actually unnecessary, but that doesn’t take anything away from the fact that as soon as the couple’s baby shows up, all hell breaks loose and it’s awfully terrifying. A good combination of jump-scares and creep outs that put this movie on the map.

1. Dead Silence (2007)
Another ventriloquist story; this time, an old woman from the turn of the century, looking rather a lot like the old hag from William Castle’s The House on Haunted Hill, which invites the question of why anyone would go to see such a freakshow act in the first place?

But before we get to that, we’re treated to a grisly murder and a couple of leaps in logic to get us to the place where it all goes down: the main character’s hometown and family mansion. I have to confess, I didn’t initially see it coming, and the twist and reveal is nice and novel, something I've never seen before. This is also one of those new-style horror stories where the monster wins. Best of all, there’s no sequel. You can just watch this, creep yourself out, and go on about your business. Would that they all were so simple.

Some of the set pieces stretch the outer limits of credulity, but I figure, you already bought into the premise of a living ventriloquism dummy, so how weird does the movie have to be before you scoff at it? All quibbles aside, this is a great example of a Killer Doll movie with some original twists and turns.

Monday, October 27, 2014

My Top 5 Favorite Horror Anthology Movies

I’ve always loved reading horror anthologies, and for one simple reason: more bang for your buck. There’s something wonderful about a short story, well-written, that scares the beejeezus out of you. It’s a particularly good literary magic trick to pull off. Sure, you’re going to run into the occasional story that doesn’t do it for you for one reason or another, but that’s okay; there’s another story right after it, and chances are, it’ll be better.

Horror anthology movies are fairly uncommon, and I guess it’s because of the expense. I mean, you’ve got to set up three different production crews, and much like a literary excursion, not all of the segments are going to inspire thrills and chills. Usually. There are some exceptions, and many of them have made the list below. In thinking about this category, I ranked each segment by how scary/creepy/effective it was, and then averaged the scores together to get a single ranking.

5. From a Whisper to a Scream (1987)
This is one of those movies that is hard to pin down, mostly because of a name change from a title that made no sense (in this case, The Offspring) to another title that made no sense. The initial directorial effort from schlock sequel-meister Jeff Burr is an ambitious project, for a number of reasons. As I mentioned earlier, anthology movies are hard on the budget. He also had the stones to just walk up to Vincent Price and ask him to be in the movie. Burr was already directing seasoned veterans, and Price was the marquee name, of course (he later claimed he didn’t like the movie). Fair enough; he’s not that great in it, either. I’m glad it wasn’t his final role.

As the stories go, well, it’s a mixed bag, but they all have one thing in common: their 80’s-ness is amazing and wonderful, in turn. The gore factor is high, and everyone does a good job with the material they are given. Terrifying? Not so much, but again, it’s a solid effort that plays homage to what we’ve seen before. And when you compare it to some of Burr’s later movies for Full Moon, well, it’s a real diamond in the rough.

4. Trilogy of Terror (1975)
This television offering from Dark Shadows producer Dan Curtis makes the top 5 by force of will alone. Three segments, all based on Richard Matheson short stories, adapted by William F. Nolan and Matheson himself, and all starring Karen Black in the lead to help maintain a thread of continuity. Curtis and Matheson were a force to be reckoned with in the 1970s, each coming off of successful television series and both producing their best work at the time. Even with the abundance of mid-70’s kitsch beating you up one side and down the other (oh! The Hair! The Fashions!), it’s still a pretty potent package.

Karen Black knocks it out of the part, playing four very distinct and different roles in each segment. These stories basically rest on her ability to deliver the goods, and boy, does she ever. Mind you, you’re probably going to guess the outcome of at least one, or maybe even two of the stories, mostly because the innovative little ideas (circa 1975) have now been done to death, forty years later.

3. Black Sabbath (1963)
Boris Karloff was on a career high in the 1960s, putting his name on TV shows, comics, and starring in movies alongside his friends, Vincent Price and Bela Lugosi. They all had a chance during this heyday to make hay while the sun was shining, and Karloff made the absolute most of it. Black Sabbath is one of the many American International Pictures’ low-budget thrillers that came out cheaply and quickly, but this quirky little anthology of tales had a few things going for it. In addition to Karloff himself as the horror host and star of the final segment, the whole shebang was directed by legendary thrillmeister Mario Bava.

These three stories are all very strong contenders and while they vary wildly in subject matter, there is an overall consistency to them that really delivers. Bava, of course, knows how to direct horror, and he can get more use out of a green light shining on Boris Karloff than just about anyone. Of course, the American version of the film had some scenes removed; violence and implied lesbianism and prostitution. Oh, those wacky Italians, eh? You can find both versions easily enough and make up your own mind. Either way, you’re probably going to remember “A Drop of Water,” about a medium who dies during a séance, for a long, long time.

2. The Twilight Zone: the Movie (1983)
“You wanna see something really scary?”
One of the best openings to a horror film of any kind. Who can forget Dan Ackryod and Albert Brooks discussing their favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone TV show (and even confusing one of the episodes with an Outer Limits plot)? This anthology paid due homage to the show by updating a couple of the most famous stories and adding a few new twists, as well. There’s a framing sequence that ties everything up, and wonderful, evocative narration by Burgess Meredith. It should be perfect, right? Well, it’s not.

Four amazing directors, each with a pedigree, were hired to produce their favorite “take” on what the Twilight Zone meant to them. John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller. Of the four, George Miller should have been the weak link. After all, Landis was coming off of American Werewolf in London, with several other movies on his list. Then there was Spielberg, who cut his directing teeth on Night Gallery. And this was post-Jaws, post-Raiders of the Lost Ark, and around the same time as Poltergeist. Joe Dante? He did a little movie called Gremlins. And George Miller was the dark horse candidate, with only two movies to his name. However, those two movies were Mad Max and The Road Warrior. Awesome flicks, but hardly horror. So, he’s the weak link, right?

Nope. Spielberg tanked it. It’s not that his segment is bad. It’s not. It’s vintage Spielberg, fresh off of E.T.  rather than anything relevant to the Twilight Zone project. It’s about the magic of childhood and it’s got cute little kids in it, and Scatman Crothers literally playing the Magical Negro part...ugh. Sure, there were some Twilight Zone eps that had that fantastical, idyllic message of hope in them, and Spielberg’s story just manages to capture that vibe, but it’s really out of place amid the other three director’s very creepy and downbeat segments.

Of course, everyone knows about Landis’ segment involving the death of Vic Morrow and the two children he was working with at the time. Because of the decision to keep the segment in (albeit with a different ending) and because there was no mention of Morrow’s death or the children in the credits, many consider the segment to be in poor taste. Your mileage will vary. But the ending in the film is more grim, and very likely adds to the idea of the ethical quandary around the segment. Joe Dante updated Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life,” and thankfully, it’s the “creepy kid with super powers” story we need to see after Spielberg’s sugar-coated fairy tale. But the best one of all is Miller’s update of Richard Matheson’s “Nightmare at 10,000 Feet,” starring John Lithgow.

From the second the segment opens, Lithgow is the best thing in the movie. Totally out of control and also believable at the same time. Better still is the updated gremlin, ably handled by Craig Rearden. If you’ve ever seen the original, trust me on this, ANYTHING would be better. But this take is a home run. And after the frame story collapses, we get one last reminder of why the music and the intro to the Twilight Zone were so important to setting the tone of the series, in form of classic narration by Rod Serling. If you’ve never seen the movie, you are in for a real treat.

1. Creepshow (1982)
The encapsulation of Form meeting Function, Creepshow was a major minor hit from the get-go for a few reasons: George Romero and Stephen King, two of the biggest names in horror in the 1980s, got together and decided to do an unlicensed homage to the E.C. Comics of their youth. So they took some of King’s short stories—a couple of them had been published elsewhere, in small markets (“The Crate,” and “Weeds,” which became “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill”) and they adapted them into short, sharp, punchy vignettes with histrionic acting, garish blue, red, and green lighting, and wrapped the whole thing up into a comic book format from start to finish. It was exactly what it was supposed to be, and no more. Bonus points for anyone who has the Creepshow “novelization,” a graphic novel illustrated by Berni Wrightson.

The all-star cast is awesome to see, probably most of all Ed Harris, who worked with Romero a few times before his star power took over. His disco dance in the middle of “Father’s Day” is priceless in its absurdity. Also on hand is Leslie Nielson delivering a chilling, not-funny-in-the-least portrayal of a husband scorned in “Something to Tide You Over.” Even E.G. Marshall, playing an eccentric millionaire in “They’re Creeping Up on You,” is on target. Everyone just goes for it.

Despite the obvious comic book panel transitions and whack-a-doo acting during the end of some of the stories, at least two (or three, depending on your sensibilities) of the short stories really deliver the goods. “The Crate” is not played for laughs, and is easily the best of the bunch, thanks to stand-up performances by Hal Holbrook, Fritz Weaver, and Adrienne Barbeau. That is, unless cockroaches bother you. If that’s the case, “They’re Creeping Up on You” will have you squirming in your chair at the end. Actually, the end of the framing sequence is the real kicker to the movie—easily the scariest and most effective of the bunch, second only to The Twilight Zone Movie’s “Do You Want to See Something Really Scary?” gag.

Bonus! The Monster Club (1981)
The Monster Club was first introduced to American audiences through Elvira’s VHS series wherein she introduced the films in her inimitable fashion—and that alone should prep you for what kind of movie this is. I have great affection for this very uneven effort, and I don’t quite know what to do with it. It’s not funny enough to be a horror comedy, but it’s nowhere near a straight-on anthology movie. Not with a stripper who gets down to her bare bones in a musical number as part of the framing sequence. There’s 80’s new wave rock, an urban fantasy premise that has since been used to death, and then there’s Vincent Price and John Carradine! Doing their usual thing! It makes me crazy, I tell you.

The segments themselves run the gamut, but two out of the three manage to be effectively creepy with some great atmosphere and good use of the setting. Of course, when you’re filming in England, everything is creepy over there, even their 7-11 stores. Look for bonus artwork by John Bolton in a flashback sequence; he also drew the movie as a comic series (along with David Lloyd) for the Hammer Halls of Horror magazine. I won’t say it’s the best thing about the movie, but Bolton’s art is what makes that particular segment so creepy. The rest is ghoulish fun in a decidedly British vein.

If you're just joining us: This is part of a much larger series of articles. You can find all of them here.

My Top 5 Favorite TV Horror Shows

My Top 5 Favorite Dracula Movies

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

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.

5. 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.

4. 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.

3. 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.

2. Tales from the Darkside (1983-1988)
“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.

1. 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.

5. 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.

4. 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.

3. 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.

2. 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.

1. 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.

5. 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.

4. 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.

3. 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.

2. 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.

1. 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