Friday, October 29, 2021

Top 5 Horror Movies of the 2010s

 


The “teens” saw a resurgence in horror (draw your own conclusions as to what in the zeitgeist might possibly have increased such an interest), bringing with it a host of useful filmmaking tricks and techniques, as well as a reverence for craft and story that was refreshing to note. These more recent outings pack a punch and do not disappoint, both visually and viscerally.

There may be something to the old chestnut that whenever there is a Republican in the White House, horror sales spike. I think that, beginning with the midterms in 2010 (when the Republican party took over Congress), we have seen a kind of cultural renaissance in horror movies, the likes of which I’ve never before witnessed. We are indeed living in interesting times, and so too are the wide array of interesting takes on what a horror movie is and what it can address.

While quite a few films stood on the shoulders of giants, others found fertile ground to plant a flag and try something new and different. Some of the most inventive and genre-bending horror movies made in this ten-year period were done so by directors who were also screenwriters, and in several of the films below, represented their inaugural outing as directors. This grab for new talent may have coincided with the proliferation of online streaming services and the need for content to satisfy the increased demand from an increasing number of new horror fans.


Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Five college kids all pile into a van for a weekend getaway at a (wait for it) 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. Also, no. That’s not what the movie is about. 

I don’t want to say anything more about the plot, because to do so, even obliquely, would tip off someone who hasn’t seen it and trigger a torrent of “Ohmygoditssocooool!” from anyone who has, and this would be followed immediately by “Lemme just tell you one thing that won’t give anything away...” and then they will say something that totally gives something away.

Instead, let me tell you that Chris Hemsworth is in it. Also, Josh from the West Wing. Oh, and Drew Goddard directed the movie (he’s gone on to work on some really good projects that I know you have heard of, like Netflix’s Daredevil and The Martian). Goddard co-wrote the movie with Josh Whedon, and it’s one of the best things Whedon ever co-wrote.

Cabin in the Woods is both a meta-movie that not only explains the reason for every extant slasher film cliché, and it also posits a world wherein we are just barely keeping immense cosmic forces at bay through the efforts of banal government employees doing what amounts to a third shift sanitation job. It’s one of the darkest, most brilliantly conceived and executed ideas in modern horror films. If you can find a 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 guys on the clock complaining about how the other departments keep screwing things up, is all the more telling, and intentionally so, at that. Or to put it another way, some of the scariest parts of the movie aren’t the murder cannibals, but the people watching them. I’m not sure if Cabin in the Woods is scary enough for rabid horror fans, but it is absolutely required viewing for anyone seeking a deeper appreciation of the genre.

 

Let Me In (2010)

A young age boy, who is the target of bullies in his school, gets a new neighbor at his apartment complex; a mysterious girl with an elderly guardian who doesn’t seem to mind the cold. The two become fast friends and she bolsters his self-confidence. Meanwhile, the elderly guardian is out at night, luring strangers into dark places in order to drain them of blood...

It’s rare when a remake can creatively co-exist with the original movie, and Let Me In does just that. An American-ized version of Let the Right One In (2008), this movie came in fast, hot on the heels of its Swedish counterpart. When it was first announced by Hammer Studios, writer-director Matt Reeves alleged the movie would be a remake of the book by John Ajvide Lindqvist, but this wasn’t quite so with the finished project. And that’s all right, because the things that we don’t understand while watching Let the Right One In, asking ourselves if there is some cultural significance that escapes us, are made perfectly and pointedly clear in Let Me In.

Despite its adult themes and subjects, the movie is made on the performances of the young boy, Owen, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee and Abby, played by Chloë Grace Moretz. Their performances are what make you buy the whole premise, and you find yourselves rooting for them until something horrible happens and you remember that one of them is a monster. And speaking of monsters, the bullies in the movie are sinister and terrible and drive the plot like a ticking time bomb counting down to all zeroes. A novel, fantastic vampire film from start to finish.

 

Get Out (2017)

Chris Washington is one half of an interracial couple, and he’s nervous about going away for the weekend to meet his girlfriend’s parents and attend their garden party. Despite several assurances that he’s among friends, everyone Chris meets can’t help but put their foot in their mouth, however well-meaning. But it’s when his girlfriend’s mom offers to hypnotize him to help him quit smoking that things take a very weird turn.

Jordan Peele’s writing and directing debut is a mix of social commentary and black comedy, and also some pulp-era scares that involve consciousness transference, old school zombie-ism, i.e. racism, and the loss of will and control that comes from being a stranger in a strange land. That sounds like a tall order, but Get Out manages all of it and makes it interesting, provoking uncomfortable laughs in the midst of some deeply uncomfortable scenes.

Of course, this movie is about racism, but not sheet-wearing clansmen. Rather, the racism is of the institutional variety that allows people the veneer of thinking they are good while also continuing to be part of the problem. However, Get Out does a fantastic job of putting the shoes on the other foot and letting white audiences see through the main character’s eyes and experience what he deals with, and how it affects him.

 

It Follows (2014)

A young college student, Jaime, has a romantic tryst with her new boyfriend, who promptly incapacitates her and ties her up so she can’t get away. He tells her that she’s about to be stalked, followed, by an entity only she can see, and if this thing catches her, it will kill her. The only way to avoid such a gruesome fate is to have sex with another person before she’s caught, thus passing the...whatever it is...on to her new partner. Then he drives her home and leaves.

What happens next is equal parts slow burn and 1980’s morality play throwback (and even includes an electronic, minimalistic film score that sounds like it came from a John Carpenter movie). Jaime’s friends help her track down her boyfriend, who has ghosted her and left town. And sure enough, creepy adults only she can see start walking slowly, ominously towards her... it may not sound like much, but trust me, it’s terrifying. The friends battle interpersonal entanglements as they try to solve the mystery, but eventually, It Follows turns into a monster-hunting bloodfest and manages to never let up on the creepiness its premise generates.

It Follows is another writer-director project. This particular fever dream comes from David Robert Mitchell, who worked on the story for years before getting it greenlit. It’s tempting to read the relentless entity’s progress and the subsequent violent death it metes out as deeply symbolic, and you probably should bring your own baggage to bear for the movie. Anyone who grew up watching 1980s horror flicks will recognize the statement implicitly suggested every time the promiscuous couple disappear into the woods to have sex—they are inevitably the first ones murdered. It Follows updates that conceit for the 21st century and creates a premise that feels sufficiently different to act as its own thing. 

 

The Babadook (2014)

Amelia’s six-year-old son is acting out, bringing improvised weapons to school, sleepwalking, and in general being a really weird and creepy kid. She’s stressed out about this, as she is raising him by herself because, as it turns out, her husband died in a car crash six years ago, while driving her to the hospital to give birth. When a children’s book shows up at her house, titled Mister Babadook, and she and her son read it, they unlock...something that wants to murder them both, and they are forced to fight for and against each other in order to survive the arrival of the baba-dook-dook-dook...

Written and skillfully directed by first time director Jennifer Kent, based on her short film Monster, The Babadook is one of those rare horror films that’s about something substantial and real, and the film’s metaphor about grief and survivors is both powerful and universal. Filmed in Australia, the only actor you might recognize is the mother, played by Esther Davis. That works in its favor, adding to the skewed and original perspective of the film.

There’s a lot of stuff to unpack, from the look of the monster being inspired by Lon Chaney’s vampire in London After Midnight to the raucous soundtrack and use of sound as a psychological warfare tool against both the harried mother and the audience. The babadook itself may be one of the most interesting horror creations of all time, tipping its literal top hat to Lon Chaney and other creepshow favorites, but coming off as something new and unique.

The Babadook is a disturbing horror film, equal parts psychological thriller and supernatural monster hunt, and it doesn’t even bother to thread the needle between the two. The movie is tense and exhausting, and you may well need a cool-down afterward.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Top 5 Horror Movies of the 2000s


Y2K did not plunge us into a world of darkness and despair, much to the chagrin of all the people who’d gotten off of the grid in the 1990s and were living in the woods in a ramshackle trailer, eating beef jerky and drinking their own urine. The first decade of the 21st century will forever be viewed through the lens of 9/11 and the changes it wrought on us psychically. For at least the first half of the decade, the biggest horror show around was the footage we watched on the nightly news. I may not be far enough removed from the “aughts” to speak with any kind of perspective about those years.

The movies were slow to react, out of both respect and also general confusion. No one knew what to think and where to go to think it. Our framework for horror (make that “terror”) changed in one day. If I can offer any insight into what the darker corner of popular culture reflected at this time, I’d venture to say that horror movies got more personal, and more invasive. The stakes seemed higher and the playful undercurrent that was present in the 1980s and the 1990s is largely absent here. Horror got meaner. More random. More confusing. 

Huh. Maybe I have more of a handle on the decade than I thought.

 

The Ruins (2008)

Four college students, vacationing in Mexico, meet another world traveler, looking for his brother, who was investigating Mayan ruins nearby. They agree to make a day of it, and go into the jungle. They find the ruins, and also some villagers who do not want them around, and they are willing to shoot them with arrows to make sure the Americans get the point. Later, trapped at the top of the Myan ziggurat, they start formulating a way out of the jungle, past the villagers. They can hear a cell phone ringing, down in the darkness of the central shaft that runs deep into the ruins. Maybe it’s the missing brother? Maybe they can call for help with the phone? Maybe all of their best-laid plans are going to go pear-shaped on them and make their stone perch into a pressure cooker.

Like The Descent, this movie lives in the “survival horror” sub-genre. However, the film has a really interesting premise that, if you can willingly suspend your disbelief, carries overtones that are nearly eldritch in nature. The story is loaded with mishaps, misfortune, and a menace that has to be seen to be believed. The Ruins is a wonderfully weird little movie that I guarantee you’ve not seen before.

Scott Smith wrote the screenplay, based on his novel (he also wrote A Simple Plan, if you liked that movie). He actually sold the option to the film rights while the novel was being written. Boy, some people have all the luck.

 

Session 9 (2001)

A cleaning crew, sent to an abandoned mental hospital to remove the asbestos in the walls, become unlikely investigators of the occult as they encounter strange artifacts and mysterious goings-on, including a number of audio tapes, the eponymous sessions, involving a psychiatrist and a woman trying to work through what happened to her family. What starts out as unsettling becomes paranoid and creepy as the crew realizes they are not alone, and someone or something is actively working against them.

The film is largely bloodless, deeply psychological, and requires a commitment to watch, like a lot of French and Italian cinema. I know that sounds negative, but I mean it in the nicest possible way. Session 9 is one of the first of the “new indy” horror films that didn’t play by the rules and as a result, got some well-deserved attention from people who would otherwise have turned their noses up at it. 

Director Brad Anderson and screenwriter Stephen Gevedon, both newcomers to horror, are proof that sometimes you gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet. Specifically, they sought to subvert the conventions of the genre to create a horror story that scared you in a more subtle and impactful way, and it succeeds way more than it fails. By the time Mike, played by Gevedon, gets to the tape with session 9 on it, they have laid out enough puzzle pieces to enable you to solve it. That we might arrive at very different solutions from watching the movie is beside the point.

 

The Descent (2006)

A group of women, gathered together for a weekend spelunking adventure (and a show of support for their friend who recently lost her husband and child) strike out in search of the path not taken by exploring a cave system that is not found in their guidebook. But all of their combined experience doesn’t prepare them for what they find, and what it does to them as they quickly go from self-discovery to self-preservation only adds to the tension.

This movie is oddly specific and that’s what I like about it. There is no genre of “Cave Horror” to worry about “the rules” or other movies to compare it to. In that respect, The Descent is alone, and also, it’s out there where the buses don’t run. This movie covers multiple fears in a single swath (claustrophobia? Check. Things that go Bump in the Dark? Check. How well do you really know your friends and what are they really capable of? Check.) and while it may start somewhat slowly, that pace is very much like climbing the first, largest hill on a particularly harrowing roller coaster.

Neil Marshall, the British director who gave us the excellent werewolf romp, Dog Soldiers, directed this movie, and even though it’s set in America, the production and cast are all British. There’s even a more dour and downbeat ending that the UK audience got that us Americans did not (but if you get the unrated edition, you’ll be able to fully bum yourself out). The Descent is a unique and interesting tension-filled ride that does not let up once it gets going.

 

Trick r’ Treat (2009)

A young couple walking home after a street festival...a school principal with a dark secret...a group of young trick or treaters out for a bit of mischief...a quartet of young, nubile women on the prowl for a good time...a grumpy old man fuming about Halloween...and the witness to all of them, a cute little trick ‘r treater named Sam. These narratives intertwine and collide on the eve of Samhain, also known as All Hallow’s Eve; a time when costumes are worn, candy is distributed, and other time-honored rituals are carried out, and woe be unto whoever decides to break one of those Halloween traditions.

Written and directed by Michael Dougherty, this little gem makes the most of Anna Paquin and Dylan Baker, but that’s not a dig on the rest of the cast, who all make the most of their brief screen time. The movie has a lot of gallows humor in it, making it tonally similar to Tales From the Crypt. The non-linear storytelling used throughout is a lot of fun and reminds me of Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. Sam, the little scarecrow kid, is a great invention; half horror host, half harbinger, able to interact directly with the people in the segments. The last character that could do that was Freddy Kruger, but Sam is a lot creepier and not nearly as over-exposed.

Trick ‘r Treat was intended for a wide theatrical release in 2007 and got pushed back until it went straight to video in 2009. As Halloween-themed movies go, Trick ‘r Treat has vaulted to the top of my go-to list.

 

The Ring (2002)

When a teenage girl dies seven days after watching a cursed video tape (a local urban legend), her aunt, played by Naomi Watts, decides to investigate the circumstances around her baffling death. This leads her to watch the VHS cassette, after which, she gets a phone call and is told she has “seven days...” With the deadline fast approaching, the aunt uncovers the truth about the unsettling images on the tape, but she may be too late to stop the curse from taking another life.

When Ringu (1998) made piles of cash at the box office (and ushered in a wave of Japanese horror movies, or “J-horror” as the kids like to say), it was surely inevitable that an American film company would re-make it. Thankfully, the director, Gore Verbinski, was interested in keeping the integrity of the original, resulting in the best American version of a J-horror film, one that stands on its own and (I know this is heresy) is more satisfying in some ways to watch.

The Japanese version of the story (based on a bestselling book by Koji Suzuki) does not bother to explain itself to its target market, and thus, while extremely effective and unsettling, western audiences were baffled as to the what and the why of the story (I know I was). Verbinski made the smart decision to depict more of the backstory to better explain what we are seeing (and being freaked out by) on the screen. If you want a better and more credible explanation of how such horrors came to be, this is the version you need to seek out. If you must view a J-horror movie, watch Ju-On (1998) instead.


Sunday, October 17, 2021

Grief: Home Again

When Cathy was in hospice, we didn’t talk a lot about the Big Inevitable Thing that was about to happen. It was too upsetting for her. We had, however, done some preliminary planning many years ago, and this was codified during her treatment. I knew, then, what she wanted; we both decided on cremation for ourselves for a number of practical reasons. However, neither one of us wanted to hold on indefinitely to the other’s remains and so we decided to do something with them.

I won’t tell you what I want done with mine; you’ll just have to come to the funeral. Cathy’s solution was not nearly so interesting; she was fine with having her ashes scattered. Several locations were mentioned, but we always came back to Austin, where her heart’s home was.

This came up again during hospice. I asked her if she’d thought about it, and she said, “Maybe Town Lake?” She used to row there in college and kept it up for a while afterward as an exercise regimen. She loved it and always wished she could get back to it.

It was a solid choice. But I had another idea. “What about at Cliff Drive?” I countered.

Her eyes lit up. “Yes,” she said. “Do that.”

When I met Cathy, she and her sister Barbara were living in a small, heavily shaded neighborhood just off of Lakeshore Drive in Austin. Their place was an old garage apartment, part of a quad, originally built in the 1940s as a stone wall garage with the apartment over it. Sometime in the 1970s the garage got walled in and finished so that it was now an apartment with a nearly identical floorplan to the original one above it. What was cool about it was the wrought iron spiral staircase that connected the two living spaces. It was very bohemian and oh so very, well, South Austin. I started calling it The Bungalow of Love (shades of Lou Reed).

The Bungalow of Love was inextricably tied into our lives in Austin. We fell in love while Cathy lived there. Later, after I moved in, we got engaged there. We got married while living there. Dinner parties. Our first Thanksgiving together. It was her favorite place to live. Mine, too. It seemed absolutely right to bring her back home.

In the intervening years, the property owner had completely landscaped the front yard and the central courtyard between the four freestanding apartments. Behind our old digs, there was now a gravel path that flanked the house and led to a beautiful limestone fountain, two seating areas. In the center of the circular path, which winds around to the fountain and over to an open air patio space, there is a Chinese elm. It’s completely in the shade of the two leftmost apartments. The whole area is clearly meant to be a meditation space. The landlord graciously volunteered the elm tree for Cathy’s final resting place.

It was absolutely perfect. She would have loved it.

A mixture of old friends and family stood with me. I didn’t know what to say. I had one thing planned, and I did that first. Cathy had told our niece that she wanted a particular Tom Petty song played at her funeral. Our niece assumed that something so important would be a thing we all knew about, and so she didn’t say anything. Unfortunately, Cathy didn’t tell anyone else.

I thanked everyone for coming, and then played “The Waiting.” 

It made me laugh. Cathy had a very dry sense of humor, and I know this was supposed to be a joke to make us all laugh. I don’t know if anyone else did, but I appreciated the effort. Some folks spoke after that, and said very nice things. I wanted the people who weren’t at the funeral to be able to speak if they were so moved.

When no one else had anything to add, I played another Tom Petty song, from one of Cathy’s favorite Tom Petty albums. The song was “Wildflowers.”

I knelt down in the soft earth and I buried my wife by the tree. I covered her ashes up and packed the soil tightly over them. I spent more time doing that than I needed to, because I knew when I stood up, it would be over. My charge would be done. Nothing more left to do. Cathy was out of my hands now. I had kept her, loved her, cared for her, and grieved for her. And finally, I brought her home.

I know those ashes aren’t Cathy anymore. They aren’t the things that made her. They aren’t her heart, her soul, her dry sense of humor, her huge sense of fairness. It was merely, as Yoda once pointed out to Luke Skywalker on Dagobah, “this crude matter.” But bringing her remains home, to reside in the place she loved so much, and nourish a tree that, I guarantee, if she could have planted herself, she would have...well, I can’t speak for Cathy, not anymore. But I felt a sense of peace within myself when I stood up. I took a deep breath, smelling the fresh earth, the air, pregnant with rain, and the wet limestone fountain with water softly splashing into the stonework basin. I held that breath and let it go. It felt like a sigh of relief.

It’s okay now. It’s going to be all right. I’m going to make it. And Cathy is home. 

I added one more song to the playlist at the last minute. Another Tom Petty song. Perfect for the occasion. He wrote it for the soundtrack to the movie She’s the One. It’s called “Angel Dream (no 2).”

We stood around after that, hugging, talking, comforting one another, and eventually, laughing. Old friends and family. The tree took it all in. I hoped later, that night, during the rain that fell in thick drops, the Chinese elm whispered to Cathy everything that was said while we stood around the tree, and I hope something I said made her laugh and say, “Oh, Honey.”

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Grief: Leftover Thoughts on a Year of Mourning

 
Here are a few miscellaneous thoughts, scattered hither and yon, that I decided to combine into a single post. None of these were “enough” for me to post them individually. Maybe all together, it’ll add up to something.


The Bobby pin

I came across a bobby pin today. It was on the floor in my bedroom and I spied is as I was putting my shoes on. On automatic pilot, I scooped it up in my hand, thinking, “Cathy’ll need this for something, I’m sure...” and then I stopped, and I just stared at the bent strip of wire in my hand. Even as I was thinking it, I knew I’d blundered into the classic trap. Now, with the reality of the situation covering me like a thunder shirt in a rainstorm, I stared at the bobby pin, looking for, what? A strand of hair? Some clue to tip me off that Cathy wore it at some point?

There wasn’t any. It was just a bobby pin. Likely one that didn’t even make it into her hair. But on that day, it pinned me down and it took a while to get out from under it.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Grief: The Last First

Widows and widowers speak to one another very differently than people who have not experienced a loss. I say this with no judgement. It’s just that there is a frankness, a matter-of-fact tone, that you can deploy and it won’t be “taken the wrong way,” or “misunderstood.” It’s kind of refreshing, since most everyone else is ninja-creeping around your feelings, throwing you kind eyes, and nervous because they don’t know what to say, and then saying the wrong thing anyway. This isn’t a dig; I used to do the same thing. Everyone does, until the unthinkable happens.

I mention this because I was having a conversation with one of my friends, who has become closer in the midst of this, because we share similar trajectories. Anyway, we were knocking around our collective grief, playing air hockey with it and letting it clatter around between us. I brought up how much I was dreading October, but not the rest of the year. She nodded. “You’ve already done it once before,” she agreed. 

I told her that October 15th would be my last first. The first of this without Cathy, or the first of that without Cathy, happened in rapid succession last year: Our wedding anniversary, my birthday, Halloween, her birthday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas (all big deals in our home) happened between 3 days and 3 months of her passing.  

An old pic, rediscovered
About the only thing that kept me going was my seemingly eternal, acrimonious relationship with cruciferous vegetables. It gave me a purpose to hate broccoli. It’s the only way I got through it all. And for most of this year, I was able to navigate the flow of the seasons, the holidays, real and manufactured, and other perennial events that mark the passage of time. I knew, however, that October would be rough. Her (and my) favorite month, piled high with meaning: my birthday, our anniversary, and Halloween, all within a two-week period. Now there’s one more to add to that list: her death. A signpost, first in a series, like Burma Shave ads, running me all the way to the end of the month, and oh, just TRY and be happy during your favorite month now, sucker, I double dog dare you. 

But a funny thing happened when the first of the month rolled around. I made the calculation that I had given up quite enough to cancer. It had taken so much from me. And I didn’t want to have to surrender any more. It’s been nearly a year. Cathy’s passing would be acknowledged. It would be impossible to do otherwise. But I’ll be damned if I am going to give up the rest of it. All that other stuff was mine long before cancer took her away from me. It doesn’t get anything else from me.

Top 5 Favorite William Castle movies

 


William Castle (April 24, 1914 – May 31, 1977) was one of those Renaissance men from the studio system that doesn’t really exist anymore. He’s known for writing, directing, and producing a string of B-pictures, and his storied career in Hollywood takes on a Forrest Gump-like tone, as he lucked into job after job on nothing more than gumption and bullshit. And yet, his legacy is felt throughout the 20th century.

Castle worked with Bela Lugosi and Orson Welles (he shot second unit footage for The Lady From Shanghai), and he got a reputation for bringing in films on time and under budget. He was a big fan of Hitchcock and even appeared in trailers and in framing sequences of his films to address the crowd directly. Hitchcock, in turn, noticed the success of Castle’s shock-thrillers and apocryphally decided to do one of his own—a project which became the movie Psycho.

Castle is best known for his outrageous and inventive promotional stunts; he dreamed up a number of gimmicks to help bolster the movies he financed, and it’s fair to say his gimmicks (and the mythology surrounding them) are better remembered than the movies he made.

He never quite cracked the big time, but his penchant for theatricality and the people he inspired, and the projects that got made because of him, have earned him a seat at the table of great horror personalities, and, I think, transcending the genre completely. Joe Dante’s film Matinee (1993) is based entirely on the legacy of William Castle and his movies, and is worth seeing for John Goodman’s inspired performance as “Lawrence Woolsey, the Master of Movie Horror!”

The films below have been graded somewhat on a curve. While it’s true that their appearance on the list is in deference to the inventiveness of the gimmick, it must be the movie itself that determines whether or not they make the grade. These lists are for horror movies first and foremost. Therefore, the rankings below reflect the movies’ stature with regards to thrills and chills.  

 

Macabre (1958)

A small-town doctor that no one seems to like is victimized when his three year old daughter goes missing. While he and his nurse run around trying to find her, the back story of what happened to the young girl’s mother, and her blind, hell-raising sister, unspools, and we get two sets of flashbacks before the mystery is fully revealed and the would-be murderer apprehended.

Grave-digging, one good jump scare, and a dash of film noir aren’t quite enough to elevate the script, but it moves at a brisk enough pace and would be a good, light warm-up for a double feature (which was exactly what it was supposed to be in the first place). Jim Backus (Thurston Howell) plays the sheriff entangled in this neo-gothic-to-the-point-of-being-Byzantine story with a kind of menacing swagger that’s a lot of fun to watch.

What made Macabre such a success at the box office was the $1,000 Life Insurance Policy payable to the family of anyone who dies of fright from watching this movie, underwritten by Lloyd’s of London, no less (in theory: Lloyd’s made sure their names weren’t actually printed on the policies). Everyone in the audience got one of these “policies” which made for a dandy souvenir since there was no way in hell the movie was going to scare anyone, period, much less “to death.” But the promotion worked like a charm. Other movie followed suit, right up into the early 1980s, all promising cash payouts for deceased movie-goers, with nary a claim ever being filed.

Castle had his own money on the line, and so he took to the road on a barnstorming tour, visiting theaters with actresses in nurses outfits, popping out of coffins (which figure in the movie—see? It’s a tie-in!) and working the patrons up in person and on the radio. The gambit paid off, and Castle was officially in business.

 

Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

At the end of the 19th century, a London-based doctor visits Baron Sardonicus at the behest of the baroness. The doctor shows up, having once been in love with her, and Sardonicus begs him for a cure for his face, paralyzed from fright upon seeing the corpse of his father, whose body he himself exhumed. The doctor tries to cure Sardonicus, to no avail, and Sardonicus threatens his own wife in order to get the doctor to cooperate. He’s tortured everyone else for disappointing him in one way or another, so what’s the baroness, more or less? Here’s hoping the doc can find a cure and escape the clutches of Mr. Sardonicus!

In late 1961, Roger Corman had completed two of the movies in his legendary “Poe Cycle”: The House of Usher (1960) and the Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and they were critical and financial successes. I’m not suggesting the Castle went looking for a gothic grotesquerie that he could capitalize on, but more than one reviewer and critic sure thought so. Again, putting this movie in the warm-up spot for a double feature that includes any of Corman’s Poe movies would be a right smart pairing.

The movie was based on a short story that ran in Playboy magazine, “Sardonicus,” by horror writer Ray Russell, who also wrote the screenplay. He would go on to write other screenplays for Castle, and even a couple for Roger Corman (including one of the Poe movies, The Premature Burial). The last movie he worked on was 1982’s The Incubus, a minor drive-in cult classic, based on his novel.         

The gimmick for the movie was a much ballyhoo-ed (as per usual) “Punishment Poll,” wherein the audience could decide the fate of the villain before watching the final scene in the movie. Everyone in attendance was given a glow-in-the-dark card, printed with a large thumb. Hold the thumb up for “mercy,” and point the thumb down for “no mercy.” Based on the audience vote, the respective ending would be shown. This would have been so cool...only, there weren’t two endings. In the movie itself, Castle appears and addresses the audience, making an impassioned case for giving Sardonicus the business, and then he asks everyone to hold up their cards and vote. From the screen, he makes a show of counting every card, and then declaring that the audience decided...no mercy. The last bit of the film plays so that everyone can see just how screwed Sardonicus is, and you are left the distinct feeling that you’ve been had.

 

13 Ghosts (1960)

A down-on-their-luck family inherits a house, free and clear, just when they need it the most. The only stipulation is, they can never sell it, or leave. Oh, and also, it’s just a little bit haunted. The dead relative was a noted occultist, and these ghosts were part of his ongoing experiments. Why, he even developed a special set of kooky spectacles with which to view the ghosts. The young boy in the family, Buck, is fascinated by these apparitions. When he finds out there is a fortune hidden in the house somewhere, he and the estate’s lawyer make a pact to look for it together. It’s pretty clear, however, that the lawyer has no intention of sharing the fortune when he finds it. Meanwhile, the ghosts are ramping up their haunting, and the family is getting appropriately spooked.

This film is almost more of an urban fantasy film, in the same magical realism vein as Topper and Night Life of the Gods. There’s a lot of magic and super science, and some interesting poltergeist activity that is both seen and unseen. Aside from the modern-day setting, the movie is structurally very similar to a lot of by-the-numbers gothic haunted house flicks. Young Buck spends the whole movie calling the creepy live-in housekeeper a witch, and this is funny in that she is played by none other than Margaret Hamilton herself (and if I need to tell you she portrayed the most famous movie witch of all time, the Wicked Witch of the West, in The Wizard of Oz, then we can no longer be friends). Martin Milner takes a turn as the opportunistic lawyer, and even though he’s both charming and despicable, I kept expecting him to radio in a domestic disturbance using the Adam-12 call sign.        

Of all the various William Castle gimmicks, I am most curious about Illusiono! I am a lifelong fan of 3-D. From stereoscopes to ViewMaster reels, from comic books to movies, and all that other related ephemera, I am mildly obsessed with the exploitation of one’s own optics to trick your brain into seeing images with depth. When I found out that this gimmick was a ‘hack’ of the anaglyphic 3D process (using one red and one blue lens), I was so jealous I never got to see it in action.* The idea was simple: whenever ghosts showed up in the movie, the screen would turn blue. If you wanted to see the ghosts, you looked through the red lens. If you didn’t want to see the ghosts, you looked through the blue lens. To misquote Tyler Durden, you decided your level of involvement. Illusiono! was probably Castle’s most successful promotional gimmick. For one thing, it actually worked, and people in the audience got to really use it as intended. That it wasn’t used to greater effect was its only sin.

*Note: Anchor Bay currently has a blu ray double feature available with 13 Ghosts and 13 Frightened Girls and, while the package does not contain a ghost viewer, the anaglyphic overlay process was digitally duplicated! For the first time since the movie appeared in theaters, if you have any cheap pair of red and blue 3-D glasses, you can experience Illusiono! for yourself!

 

The Tingler (1959)    

A brilliant scientist, played by Vincent Price, discovers a parasite that lives inside the human body and feeds on fear, enlarging, or, growing bigger, as it does (sorry: Matinee reference). Price manages to extract this “tingler” from the spinal cord of a woman, but it gets loose before he can do the scientific thing and cut it up and study it, you know, for science. And wouldn’t you know it, somehow or another, the tingler gets loose...in a movie theater...and the audience’s only defense against it...is to SCREAM! SCREAM FOR THEIR LIVES!

Vincent Price’s performance saves The Tingler, because he makes everything better. The premise is, well, kinda silly, and were it not for his sincerity, the movie would fall apart. He’s convincing as the doctor studying the effects of fear, right up to and including dosing himself with LSD—the first on-screen trip of its kind, and freaking out in his lab while his sidekicks watch from behind a closed door. That’s good news for us who are watching it from the comfort of our own home, but in 1959, Price wasn’t the draw. He was handily upstaged by Percepto!

This is it: the apex, the acme, the ultimate William Castle gimmick. Storied, legendary, even, with people swearing to this very day that they were electrocuted in their chairs. Percepto! was the perfect encapsulation of what Castle was shooting for; a way to create an interactive experience on the big screen. Here’s how it worked:

Castle got ahold of a bunch of surplus WWII aircraft wing de-icers; these were vibrating motors that were affixed to the hollow interior of long-range bomber wings and wired to vibrate the aluminum and dislodge the ice that formed on them at high altitudes. Castle then sent out crates of these things, along with wiring and detailed instructions. These de-icers were attached to the undersides of the theater seats (all wooden at the time) and the wiring was strung along beneath the rows and snaked back up to the projection booth.

At a certain point in the movie, the audience in the theater would see a shadow of the tingler scootch across the screen (over the print of The Tingler, that they were all watching, see), and then the film would stop and melt and break (the best metaphor ever for “the projectionist buys the farm”) and then the screen would go black, as if the projector had stopped. That’s when Vincent Price would announce that the tingler was actually loose in the theater and their only chance of surviving was to scream as loud as they can.

There were actual screams on the soundtrack, but that was a moot point because by that time, the projectionist (very much alive, thanks ever so much) had pushed the button in the booth that set all of the de-icers to vibrating, sending many unsuspecting patrons straight up out of their chair, yelling bloody murder. After about 15 seconds of bedlam, Price would announce that the tingler had been dealt with, and then the movie would resume.

Not content to merely “shock” the audience, Castle planted stooges in the crowd to start screaming, and even had someone “faint” and have to be carried out of the theater on a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance while everyone watched. Whoever fainted would, of course, make a miraculous recovery just in time for the next show.

 

House on Haunted Hill (1959)          

Vincent Price plays an eccentric millionaire who has rented an infamously haunted house and invited five people to spend the night there. After giving them a tour of the place, showing off various murder sites, he offers each of them $10,000 to spend the night. Before anyone can seal the deal, strange things start happening, and coincidentally, the caretaker has locked them all in, preventing any chance of an early release.

What happens next is more akin to a Scooby Doo episode as the people are scared, and killed off, and attempt to do one another in while avoiding getting done in themselves. Everyone has a gun, and no one trusts anyone. It’s a chilling and surprisingly effective movie, with good twists and turns and a nice, tight little murder mystery in its midst. In fact, I’d argue that the gimmick, Emergo!, actually gets in the way of the film.

Emergo! billed itself as a means for the action on the screen to come right out into the theater. I mean, who wouldn’t want that? Hold your answer until I explain it to you fully: there’s a scene wherein an, um, animated skeleton is moving closer on the screen, menacing a character. Emergo! happens as the projectionist starts furiously working the pulley he’d installed earlier in the week, dragging a plastic skeleton, previously hidden in the wings, across and over the heads of the audience.

I don’t know if you have ever been inside an old movie theater, but they are basically cathedrals, okay? Giant, cavernous spaces, some with balconies, and others capable of seating hundreds more patrons than the multiplex closets of today. This skeleton, then, which I’ll give the benefit of the doubt and call “life sized,” seen from the audience, some fifteen or more feet high in the air, would have looked nothing like the twenty-foot tall image playing onscreen as it inches, limited by the reach of the frantic projectionist, across the auditorium in fits and starts.

Repeat customers, and likely many first-timers, would use the prop for target practice, hurling popcorn, soda cups, and whatever else they could throw. If the pulley got jammed up, the skeleton would hang, twisting idly in the air conditioning, as the movie played on. And lest you think I’m overstating it, I’ve actually seen this film in a theater that did the whole Emergo! shtick, and can attest first-hand to its underwhelming impact. The good news is this: House on Haunted Hill doesn’t need Emergo! or any other gimmick, to be an engaging and fun murder-filled romp.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Grief: Rage, and the Dying of my Light

I’ve been putting this off for a while. Months.

After being so open with all of my emotions and thoughts these last few years, I wanted to take a little break from being sad. It just got to be too much. Some of you more astute folks could read between the lines on the weekly updates I’d been sending out over The FaceBooks and asked after me. Maybe I gave you a platitude. Maybe I just said, “I’m hanging in there,” which is my go-to for moving on the conversation to the next topic. I just didn’t know what to tell folks who asked after me. “I’m still furious?” "Life is a tourniquet and my neck is turning blue?" No one wants to know how the monstrous depths of my anger. 

Because that’s what I am. Still.

I thought it might be worth a checkup on the ol’ mental health report card using the five stages of grief as our barometer. I got this list from one of my grief counselors, mostly as a way to check in with myself to see just how well I’m doing. Let’s follow along together.

 

Friday, October 8, 2021

Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1990s


This decade, preceded by the plastic 1980s, and let down by the promise of peace that accompanied the end of the Cold War, was a cynical and increasingly angry time. The emergence of the World Wide Web was a profound thing as fans began to congregate online in AOL chat rooms and on message boards. eBay became a going concern, and a lot of movies, once thought to be nigh-impossible to track down, were suddenly just a few mouse clicks and a credit card number away. Computers were The Hot New Thing, and this was reflected in a lot of films. 

By the end of the decade, whatever goodwill the end of the Cold War generated was all used up us and most of us had figured out that the fix was in, and we were the suckers. With Communism over and done with in the early 1990s, America needed a new enemy. When one didn’t appear readily, we decided to make a new enemy; it was us. And like the hit song from the 1990s, we were our own worst enemy, to boot.

As much as Jurassic Park, with its computer-generated and animated dinosaurs, was a watershed moment in filmmaking, CGI had a ways to go. That didn’t stop people from using it, badly, for most of the decade, until Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop improved the process dramatically to create believable characters that seemed real in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Conversely, a number of horror movies during this time were overly reliant on CGI to their detriment, while other filmmakers managed to work around the limitations of the technique or, in more than one case, jettisoned it in favor of good old-fashioned practical effects.

What makes the movies in this decade so hit-or-miss is the studios themselves. The venerable movie maniac franchises continued to thunder along under their own weight, and other companies, with star dust in their eyes, started remaking older films, slickly produced, but not very well thought out. There were also a number of smaller studios and even smaller movies that were wildly entertaining as B-movies, but weren’t scary or even very serious. Nevertheless, some innovations and interesting things developed, maybe even as a response to the naked and unashamed cash grab, that made the list below.


Stir of Echoes (1999)

Kevin Bacon is a blue-collar guy living with his wife and son in a suburb of Chicago. His wacky sister-in-law hypnotizes him at a party, and she tells him to be more open-minded, which turns out to mean, “now I can see ghosts and visions of past traumas.” This psychic ability runs in the family; their son has it, too. And wouldn’t you know it, it turns out that something horrible happened in the house before Kevin Bacon’s family moved in, and the spirit won’t rest (and neither will Kevin Bacon and his son) until the mystery is solved.

This movie often gets overlooked because it sits on the same tree branch as The Sixth Sense, which came out the same year. While not as gimmicky and as “gotcha” as the former, Stir of Echoes does offer up its own kind of disturbing scares, and in a wide variety, too: Jump scares, creep-outs, gross-outs, and even a creepy kid all conspire to make this movie greater than the sum of its parts.

David Koepp wrote the adaptation of the Richard Matheson novel (first published in the late 1950s) and directed the film as well. Matheson is a much-revered author for his various contributions to literature, television and film, mostly in the realm of fantasy, horror and science fiction, and Koepp was interested in paying him homage. As such, it has some changes from the book, but in the updating, it plays on some serious fears that were a part of the decade, including violence towards women and teenagers with guns. If you notice any familiar beats in this movie that you feel are a bit overused, you should know that Matheson is the one who first introduced those beats, and not the other way around.

 

Event Horizon (1997)

A salvage crew (in space) is tasked with the recovery of an experimental spacecraft called the Event Horizon, thought to be lost during its maiden voyage. It’s carrying a gravity drive that can fold space, and would be invaluable technology, if they can ever figure out what went wrong. The drive’s inventor joins the crew of the Lewis & Clark (that’s the ship’s name, I swear), all jaded hands at the wheel, and sure enough, they find the ship, and a big mystery with it. What happened? Where’d everyone go? What’s with all of the blood, anyway? The engineer inventor, played by Sam Neill, has his own agenda, and it doesn’t exactly line up with the rest of the crew, who are just in it for the bucks. And as these tensions mount, things begin to go horribly wrong with the routine salvage operation.

This rare gem of a movie turns a derelict ship into a haunted house, complete with ghosts and cultists and things from other dimensions. I’ll even forgive the capricious use of CGI to render a bunch of floating debris, all shiny and crisp, inside the ship because it would have looked just as bad if it was done with blue screen and traveling mattes. Thankfully, they get the gravity turned back on quick enough and you don’t have to spend a lot of time wondering if the movie was shot for a 3-D release (it wasn’t. The CGI is just that bad).

The cast is great, all character actors you’ll recognize, from Lawrence Fishburn to Sam Neill, in the only other interesting role he ever took after Jurassic Park. The movie itself, however, had a storied and torturous gestation process, with an auteur director (Paul W.S. Anderson), studio interference, multiple rewrites, and in the end, a patchwork film that no one was happy with. All that being said, this movie scratches a lot of itches and isn’t quite like anything else in the 1990s.

Panned when it was initially released, the film was marketed as science fiction, but make no mistake, it’s a horror flick, wearing a lot of influences on its sleeves, like sponsor patches on a NASCAR driver’s leather jacket. One of the things that isn’t readily known about the movie is that “the warp” concept of traveling through space was lifted straight out of Warhammer 40,000, so much so that Games Workshop fans consider it as part of the overall 40K universe.


The Prophesy (1995)

An L.A. police detective gets drawn into a weird web of mysteries; a dead body with no eyes, an expanded bible with additional chapters in Revelations about a second war of the heavens, body snatching, and what may or may not be a possessed child. It’s enough to make the detective, who was a seminary student, until he lost his faith, question everything he knows. And when the archangel Gabriel shows up, played by Christopher Walken, well...you know...you’re in...for one hell...of a movie.

The 1990s saw the apex of Christopher Walken’s career, and this movie showcases Walken at his most Walken-esque. His turn as Gabriel is exactly what you’d think it to be, and then it’s even creepier on top of that. Unsurprisingly, he’s got the best lines of dialogue in the movie, but he’s not the only big-name actor: Eric Stoltz and Viggo Mortenson also co-star, along with Virginia Madsen.

In truth, this isn’t the scariest movie of the decade, not by a damn sight. But it’s got a really unique story, some effectively creepy moments, and it’s one of those "idea" movies you keep thinking about after you’ve seen it. Despite being something of a flop in the theaters, it subsequently spawned four sequels. It never needed them. You can watch the first movie and feel like you got a complete experiences, and owing much to the quality of what came after, I’d take that advice.

 

Scream II (1997)

Two years have passed since Sydney Prescott survived the ordeal of the Ghostface killer. She’s now in college, with a new life, some new friends, and a few old ones. Everything should be perfect, but...Ghostface is back, cutting a gory swath through campus, even as the sensationalized events of the movie Stab, based on the real-life incident play out in the background.

Everyone that was still alive at the end of Scream is back for this one and you’ll likely not see who the killer is this time, either. But it’s an answer to the mystery that works within the story. And the blood! Everything is cranked up to eleven with this movie, and that includes the satire. Not content to be a meta-critique on slasher horror, Scream 2 takes some potshots at celebrity culture and the 24-hour news cycle for good measure.

There are not a lot of sequels that made the other top 5 lists, but Scream 2 is one of the few that maintains the emotional and intellectual drive of the first movie; if anything, it’s even more self-aware than the inaugural outing. And since sequels are such a part of the horror genre, there are rules for them, too, as Randy again explains. The genre conventions hold, even as they are being discussed. One of the few times you can watch a sequel and get as much out of it as the first movie.  

 

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Three college students head out into the woods with video cameras to film a documentary about a local bit of folklore, the Blair Witch. They disappeared. Later, their video camera was recovered and the tapes show the students at the beginning of their adventure, along with the strange things that plague their group when they cross into the woods.

Some films are timeless, and others are rooted in their time and place. The Blair Witch Project could not have been made at any other time because it is so specific to the level of technology used to create it and the zeitgeist from whence its inspiration comes. The movie begins with the declaration that “this is a true story” and then we go to video camera footage, and a new genre is born. This is the movie from which the term “found footage” originated, and it was so revelatory that the next ten movies that came out in that format were scored for using it; it was that big a deal.

I wish everyone could see this movie as I first did; it was an Academy Award screener, on VHS cassette, and I watched it on a square, boxy TV in a darkened room with six other people. There’s something about watching video tape on a video tape that adds a lot of authenticity to the movie, so much so that we all went searching afterward, just to make sure it really was faked.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1930s

 

This is the decade where movies officially came into their own, narratively speaking, with the advent of sound, and horror movies were right there from the beginning. In fact, the studio that became synonymous with horror, Universal, produced a whole slate of horrific features whose creatures were so impactful that they remain recognizable icons nearly a hundred years later.

Universal was carrying on the tradition of ghastly sights on the silver screen that started in the 1920s during the silent era; Lon Chaney and his grotesqueries were not far from the public’s minds, and many of the silent stars transitioned over to the talkies and continued to thrill audiences. Horror came into its own as a new kind of spectacle that only movies could deliver at the time. Now that sound was possible, the audiences could not only see the sepulchral crypt, but they could also hear the chains rattle, the coffin lid creak open, and the helpless young women could all scream.

Within reason, that is. In the middle of 1934, the Hays Code was enacted, Hollywood’s first attempt at self-regulation of their content. “Pre-Code”movies sometimes showed bare breasts (artfully, mind you) or other “shocking” scenes that were deemed grotesque and unsettling. And while there certainly some movies that benefitted from a lack of restraint, several movies listed below were made after the Hays Code was adopted and their impact was not diminished in the slightest. Most of these movies would also have a place on the cult classics list, and it’s that combination of transgressive and outré that sets them apart from others films of the decade.

The thirties were fueled by the Great Depression, providing a relatively inexpensive escape from reality of the bread lines and doing without. Science and scientific progress are hallmarks of the era, as magazines like Popular Science and Popular Mechanics routinely featured experimental vehicles and buildings on their covers. It’s also noteworthy as the decade where Hitler rose to power overseas, producing an undercurrent of unease that wouldn’t fully be understood by the population at large until America entered World War II.


Mad Love (1935)

A gifted concert pianist’s hands are ruined in a train crash, and a strange doctor agrees to perform experimental surgery to graft new hands onto his wrists. But these hands belonged to a convicted killer, and they begin to act out their murderous impulses. But the pianist’s wife is also being persecuted by the odd doctor, who is obsessed with her. The mad doctor has elaborate plans for both of them, and it will not end well, for “each man kills the thing he loves...”

Peter Lorre’s first American production established him as one of the go-to guys for insane characters, but to be fair, they courted him after watching him in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M (1931). It wasn’t quite typecasting, but when you’re Peter Lorre, what else are you built for, honestly? He’s compelling to watch, and this performance in these two movies is what forever typecast him as “that guy” in thrillers and mysteries. Director Karl Freund and cinematographer Gregg Toland borrowed heavily from German Expressionism to frame shots and most especially light the actors, which enhanced Lorre’s androgynous appearance and emphasized his bizarre disguise to great effect.

The screenplay was loosely based on a novel, The Hands of Orlac, and was a remake of a silent film of the same name. What’s really significant about this movie is that it’s one of the early (and one of the best) examples of body horror, specifically dealing with mutilation and the Frankenstein-esque tendency to reuse the anatomy of the dead. These willful mutilations performed by mad scientists may seem silly today, but soldiers returning home from World War I with missing limbs and other disfigurements didn’t think so. Peter Lorre’s crazy rigging, used to fool young Orlac, looks a lot like some of the medical instruments and contraptions used to affix prosthetics onto shoulders and legs for the veterans of trench warfare. Other movies would explore and remake this story over the years, but never with such style and aplomb as Mad Love.

What makes Mad Love work are the many things merely implied. Dr. Golgo, Lorre’s deranged surgeon, has an unhealthy fixation on Orlac’s wife, and his solution to that condition is, well, for 1935, obscene, at the very least. Several of the more racy elements that the newly formed Hayes committee categorically wouldn’t allow to be shown onscreen got shuttled off into the subtext, but the movie manages to get the point across, all the same. A near-perfect example of 1930s horror, Mad Love has become a classic on its own merits.

 

White Zombie (1932)

Young lovers, engaged to be married, rendezvous on the Island of Haiti and hurry to the sugar plantation of Beaumont, a man they just met on a ship, because that’s just what one does in the early 1930s. They pass by a bunch of hollow-eyed, shuffling field hand and are told that they are zombies, under the control of “Murder” Legrange, played with evil-eyed intensity by Bela Lugosi and looking particularly saturnine in the role. But Beaumont is already in love with the young woman he just met (ahh! Haiti!) and he asks the zombie master for help in wooing her. Legrange says the only way to bend the woman to Beaumont’s will is to kill her and bring her back...as a zombie!

One of the most enduring themes in 1930s horror is unrequited (and sometimes forbidden) love. This movie is no exception, and the film borders on melodrama at times. The standout star here is (no surprise) Bela Lugosi as the zombie master whose eyes and intense stare almost qualify as a special effect unto themselves. It’s no Dracula, but Lugosi was already famous for his turn as the Transylvanian count and he steals the show here, as well.

White Zombie makes the list because, for all of its flaws, it’s the first zombie movie. Zombies were an established part of many different folk traditions until the pulps got ahold of the concept and front loaded a lot of anti-immigrant hysteria and fear of miscegenation into the gruesome stories printed in magazines such as Weird Tales. This theme of a woman, helpless against the hypnotic charm and/or strength of the zombie master, would be repeated several times in other, better movies before George Romero rewired everyone’s conception of the walking dead in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead. Nevertheless, much of the lore and the allure of zombies continues to borrow from White Zombie.

 

The Black Cat (1934)

A young, bright, American couple on their way to (wait for it) their honeymoon in Hungary share a train car with Dr. Vitus Werdegast, who is traveling to see an old friend. Werdegast, played by Bela Lugosi, explains that he’d been interred in a prison camp for the past fifteen years. When the young bride, Joan, is injured on the road, Werdegast takes the couple with him to the home of his friend, the architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff).

I won’t spoil where things go from here, but I will tell you that the title of the movie, and the credit for same in the opening credits, is only glancingly related to the Edgar Allan Poe story. But what the movie does have going for it is as follows: It’s the first and best pairing of Lugosi and Karloff in the same movie, satanic cults, psychological torture, black magic, a dash of necrophilia, German Expressionism’s last gasp, human sacrifice, and the creepiest chess game ever played, and that’s all I can list without giving anything cool away. You have to see this film to believe it.

Critics’ reactions were mixed when the movie premiered but audiences loved it; The Black Cat was Universal’s highest grossing film that year, largely thanks to the teaming up of Lugosi and Karloff, two of the biggest films stars of the decade. This movie is the kind of bonkers that will leave you shaking your head at what they managed to cram into the movie, and what they got away with onscreen. One of the more gruesome scenes in the movie is accomplished with mere suggestion and it’s incredibly effective. The Black Cat is a fantastic example of Universal’s non-monster-centric horror output.

 

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

A survivor of a shipwreck is deposited onto a small South Pacific Island, along with some live animal cargo delivery addressed to the resident Mad Scient—er, doctor, one Doctor Moreau, played to perfection by Charles Laughton. He welcomes the newcomer, Parker, to his home and introduces him to some of the other inhabitants of the island, including a shy, beautiful woman named Lota. What Moreau fails to mention is that Lota (and the others) are engineered humans, comprised of various beasts and jungle animals. Parker is understandably shaken by this and he tries to escape, taking Lota with him, and not quite realizing that she’s also one of the animal-people, too, and that’s when things start to fall apart on the island of Dr. Moreau...

This movie remains the best version of the H.G. Wells classic novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau. A remake from the 1970s features Michael York and make-up by John (Planet of the Apes) Chambers and it’s middling at best. The less said about the 1996 film, the better. You know the one I’m talking about; the version that starred Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando and is so bad, there’s a separate documentary that goes into great detail about just how bad it is.

Island of Lost Souls also features Bela Lugosi in beast-man make-up as the lawgiver, and it’s from him that we get the classic line of dialogue, “Are we not men?” Laughton is fascinating to watch in the role of Dr. Moreau, gleeful in his genius, and also mercurial in temperament.

Most interestingly, the film was censored when it premiered, with many small towns refusing to show it. Not for the beast-men, or the implied sexual relationship between Parker and Lota, but for its tacit endorsement of evolution. Those small towns that did show it raked it right over the coals for this transgression. But the movie had the last laugh; the cultural impact of the film is significant, from the various lines of dialogue quoted and repurposed, the reference to Moreau’s punishment room, the “House of Pain” and Laughton’s and Lugosi’s performances all push this movie into cinematic history.

 

Freaks (1932)

Hans and Frieda are little people, working in a traveling circus sideshow, alongside a host of other freaks. They are engaged to be married, but a beautiful trapeze artist named Cleopatra starts making goo-goo eyes at him after learning of Hans’ grand estate and inheritance. Cleopatra and the circus strongman, Hercules, hatch a scheme for her to marry into Hans’ family, and shortly thereafter she would kill Hans and assume control of the fortune, and then she and Samson could be horrible people together forever. Hans is blinded by Cleo’s grace and beauty and scorns Frieda. Cleo plays her part in the scheme for as long as she can, but eventually her revulsion for Hans and the rest of the freaks comes out, and what happens after that...well, it’s the reason why this movie is considered a horror film.

Tod Browning is widely associated with Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, which he directed, but he will forever be remembered as the director of the cult classic Freaks. This pre-code gem bombed at the box office, and it’s easy to see why: here were circus “freaks,” shown living normal lives, being friends with their fellow carnies, and even (gasp!) falling in love, getting married, and having children! Oh, heaven forbid! The horror!

This humanizing aspect of the film (as opposed to treating the performers as mere oddities) may well have been the reason for its lack of a draw at the box office; this was the period of time when eugenics was the fashionable science, and such people who were born this way would have no place in the so-called utopia that the proponents of eugenics were peddling (and this included the nascent Nazi party). Freaks is clunky in places, and teeters on the edge of being exploitative in a couple of scenes. It was also heavily censored, coming in at just over 60 minutes (the original cut was rumored to be 90). But the film still holds up, and the denouement, when Cleopatra’s treachery is revealed, is quite macabre and unsettling.

If you'd like to check out past Top 5 Lists, you can find them all Right Here!

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Grief: Death and Taxes

Note, for those of you wanting more frequent, day-to-day updates, I'm writing a "proof of life" post every Friday on Facebook, if you're inclined to brave that particular wilderness. It's more chatty, and talks about movies and TV shows a bit more than on here at the moment. You can follow me on FB and get the notification when I post, and hopefully being on FB to read it won't send you into an apoplexy. 

Tax Season normally fills people with dread and fear; not because everyone is secretly a white-collar criminal and living in fear that this year will be the one where the jig is suddenly up and that end up in federal prison; no, I think it’s just because most people don’t like to do math.

I don’t have a problem with paying taxes, per se. As soon as I figured out in my Economics class in high school that the taxes pay for stuff like roads, schools, national defense, yadda yadda yadda, I reasoned it was okay to expect us citizens to pay into the administrative costs of upkeep. I’ve only ever really groused about the exact percentages in each category.

What’s bothering me the most is having to go back through and relive my year, via purchases made, movies played, and that’s the trouble because I know exactly where I was from July to October and having to keep going over it again and again is a death of a thousand paper cuts. Cathy used to do this, the taxes. Oh, I’d help a little bit, with data entry and printing things out and looking at the uncategorized purchases to figure out what was what. But she did the heavy lifting. And when she got sick (well, sicker), pretty much the last thing on our minds was, “Now, don’t forget about the quarterly taxes. Here’s the password, and you’re going to want to...” I’d venture to say it was dead last at the bottom of the list of things we worried about.

So now I get to relive all of that.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Health: the Big 5-0



No, not my age, but still a pretty significant number: 50 is the number of pounds I’ve lost since September. It’s a huge number, and I’m excited to have reached it. My enthusiasm is tempered somewhat when I think about that number representing only about a third of what I need to lose. But hey, that’s a great start, and if I can keep everything on track, I ought to reach that goal before the end of the year.

That’s pretty amazing, if I do say so myself. This number is an excellent milestone, but there is a more important one for me to hit, and that’s going six months after Cathy’s passing without having a coronary event of any kind. That grim milestone happens at the end of March. So far, so good!

Well, here’s hoping. I am well aware of what a pernicious and sneaky bastard grief is, and my particular plague animal these days is something I’m calling grief gnats. These are tiny mites, flecks of random gibberish, really, that interrupt me whenever I’m in danger of feeling like myself again.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Grief: "I Just Want Something I Can Ignore"

 Rob says that in the film version of High Fidelity, one of the great Gen-X films of the 1990s, played by Gen-X's poster child, John Cusack. I love that quote. It's one of those things I wish I'd written, damn you, Nick Hornby. It's such a succinct thought that conveys something we don't often articulate about mass media; namely, that there is, underneath the Must Watch Shows and the Trending Twitter Topics, and the "No Spoilers" Fan-Bombs on Facebook, a second layer of media, movies, and music. It's the stuff that, for one reason or another, serves as a kind of white noise machine for our overly-stimulated simian brains. 

Shows like M.A.S.H., for instance. That's a show everyone of a certain age remembered watching, both during prime time and syndication, for two or more decades. Now, well into our adulthood, M.A.S.H. is a show that is part of the glue of television. It's always on somewhere, and we've seen every episode multiple times. Even the episodes we think we didn't see...trust me, we've seen it. It's now a digital backdrop, visual Muzak, the kind of thing that can be on in the background during a family dinner and no one minds, because no one really pays that much attention to it, even the super serious episodes where Hawkeye cries or when Sidney tries to psychoanalyze someone.

Which leads me to Gilmore Girls

Monday, November 16, 2020

Aftermath: One Month

 Cathy died a month ago today. As hard as the last two years have been, and this includes my own hospitalization and other assorted health problems, and as rough as this year has been, and as painful as the last four months have been, the last thirty days have been some of the most challenging days of my life. I went from the funeral straight to not having a vehicle for three weeks. The enforced shut-in was both oddly comforting and ridiculously stressful, in that it made me feel even more helpless an ineffectual. Running the gauntlet between our wedding anniversary, my birthday, Halloween, and Cathy's birthday sure as hell didn't help matters one little bit. 

All this to say, I am grateful that friends and family don't blithely ask me how I'm doing. Ordinarily I would be loathe to bypass the social niceties (the hi's and how are you's), but my patience is worn tissue paper thin right now, and things that ordinarily wouldn't bother me a bit are sending me into a red rage. But I can't yell in a stranger's face, "I feel like I'm trying to play the trombone with only one arm! How do you THINK I'm doing today!?"

That's how I feel: like I've been amputated. And phantom limb syndrome for me involves walking around the house like a mental patient, talking to thin air and anxiously waiting for an answer that will never come.