Saturday, April 15, 2017

Retro-Shock Bonus Round: Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1970)

Maybe this is more specific to New Englanders than it is to fans in other countries and regions but as a lifelong Massachusetts resident, I've got my short list of "fall" horror movies that I have to watch each year as autumn rolls around and the leaves start to change, the days get shorter, and the air gets cooler - movies that embody the spirit of the season itself.

Permanently at the top of that list for me is director John Hancock’s uncommonly delicate 1970 spook show, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death.

Everything about this movie suggests an autumnal fragility, starting with its titular heroine as played by Zorpha Lambert. The film opens with a pre-title sequence that introduces us to Jessica seated alone in a small rowboat in the middle of a lake, quietly sitting in the light of early dawn.

In voiceover, her words set the tone of mournful, melancholy uncertainty for what will follow: "I sit here and I can't believe that it happened. And yet I have to believe it. Dreams or nightmares, madness or sanity. I don't know which is which." The film then flashes back to the previous few days of Jessica's life, ultimately bringing us back full circle to this moment on the lake.

Days earlier, a more hopeful Jessica arrived at her new Connecticut home on an apple farm along with her musician husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and their friend Woody (Kevin O'Connor). Jessica was recently released from a stay at a mental institution following treatment for a nervous breakdown and she and Duncan hope that their new life in the country will be a change for the better.

When the free spirited trio start to move into their new rural digs, however, they're startled to find a young vagabond named Emily (Mariclare Costello) freely enjoying the shelter of their empty house.

This being the early '70s, once the initial shock of finding an intruder passes, rather than calling the police on Emily, these groovy, hippie era types greet their squatter as a welcome new addition to the household. And because Emily is such an appealing free spirit – as well as a stunning, red-headed beauty who Woody has eyes for – she soon is officially invited into the home as a permanent addition.

It isn't long, though, before Emily's presence is perceived as sinister by Jessica. Not only is Emily a threat to Jessica's marriage by being a sexual temptation to Duncan but she senses something more fundamentally wrong with Emily. Through a conversation with the local antique dealer, they learn that the home they're living in was the scene of a tragedy years earlier which involved Abigail Bishop, a bride who drowned in 1880 prior to her wedding. Her body was never recovered and legend says she still exists, roaming the area.

Discovering pictures of Abigail left behind in the attic of the house, Jessica sees that the doomed bride bears a striking resemblance to Emily. Given her mental history, however, Jessica is more likely to believe she's suffering a relapse then to think her wild suspicions have merit. But even though the film's title suggests that there may be a possible Gaslight-esque plot at work against Jessica, we know that Emily really is either a ghost, a vampire or some kind of ghoul.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Jessica is how Emily embodies qualities of both vampirism and the walking dead, but yet doesn't conform to the established folklore of either. Whatever her true nature is, Emily has converted the town folk around her (most of whom seem to be elderly - and all of whom have contempt for the bohemian ways of Jessica, Duncan and Woody) into a cabal of undead followers.

In an imaginative new wrinkle to vampire lore, she brings victims over to her side by slicing them with a knife (never in the same spot - sometimes it's seen on the forearm, sometimes hidden behind the ear - so it's always an eerie surprise when we see a character bearing that telltale incision) and then drinking their blood. Only for one key victim does she resort to the traditional neck bite.

But rather than becoming what we would recognize as familiar zombies or creatures of the night, these people simply bandage themselves (which makes for a creepy visual to see a town full of people all sporting random, unexplained wounds - as Duncan says of his conspicuously bandaged neighbors: "I bet they're left over from the Civil War!") and walk around freely in the daylight. In this aspect, Jessica is as much a "pod" movie as it is a vampire or zombie film, recalling the transformations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which people look the same and act the same but yet are no longer human.

Set in Connecticut in the fall, with its ripe red-orange foliage, Hancock's film is more lyrical than it is lurid - informed by an autumnal sense of decay. And there's a mournful, elegiac mood (augmented by Orville Stoeber's score) that pervades the film, embodied in a verse Jessica finds on a gravestone: "Frail as the leaves that shiver on a spray/Like them, we flourish/Like them, decay."

Death is a constant but not unwelcome presence in Jessica. Not only do Jessica, Duncan and Woody get around in a hearse rather than in a hippie van (as Woody cheerfully jokes about their macabre form of transportation to their disapproving new neighbors - "It's cheaper than a station wagon!") but the first stop they make upon arriving in their new town is to the local cemetery so Jessica can indulge her hobby of making grave-rubbings (which, with their poignant reminders of life's brevity, paper the walls of her and Duncan's bedroom). And on their first night in the old Bishop place, Jessica and co. conduct an impromptu séance to welcome all the souls of those who have ever passed in their new home to communicate with them (as Jessica earnestly implores, "Give us a sign!"). But yet, even with the hearse, the grave rubbings, the seance, this group isn't depicted as being gothic or morbid or (Jessica's issues notwithstanding) depressed.

This flower child attitude towards death (the word "Love" is painted on their hearse) may explain why Emily is never quite depicted as being a force of evil, even as she causes the deaths of several people. In fact, Emily is more passive than almost any other 'villain' in film history and that unusual quality informs Jessica's final moments.

In the end, we see how Jessica escapes the grasp of Emily and her mob of ghouls by finding refuge in the rowboat. But as Emily and her followers all standing on the shore watching Jessica give up one by one and saunter off back to their haunted town, it's with a peculiar resigned sadness - not for themselves, we sense, but towards Jessica herself.

In the end, unlike most movie monsters, Emily isn't vanquished for the sake of restoring normalcy and she doesn't walk away with a monster's frustration of having failed to claim another victim but instead as a lost soul who carries a different air of regret altogether.

For many modern viewers, Let's Scare Jessica To Death may be far too gentle in its sensibilities to sustain much interest. But for me, it's a movie that struck me as being perfect since I first came across it on TV one cold October afternoon in 1984.

Lambert's heartfelt performance was something that I hadn't encountered before in a horror film - rather than the usual feisty, empowered resourcefulness that horror heroines typically embodied, this was real emotion and real, adult heartbreak. The scenes in which we see Jessica's relationship with Duncan unraveling are genuinely agonizing to watch. The crumbling of Jessica's marriage under the weight of her mental issues and Duncan's unhappiness is depicted here with as much seriousness and sensitivity as in any straight drama.

It took me years to realize exactly what made this film so special to me, but over time it became clear: Let's Scare Jessica To Death remains the one horror film to truly convey that what really scares us in this life, what we really dread, isn't death - it's just loneliness.

Nothing else can compete with that.

...That's a wrap on all my RST material. I don't know why I was sitting on this one but for some reason, I never sent it out. But as Jessica is one of my all-time favorites, it's probably appropriate to end on this note. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Retro-Shock Bonus Round: Day of the Dead (1985)

My previous Retro-Shock Theater post - for The City of the Dead - marked the final RST column that appeared on Shock Till You Drop. Going through my old files, however, I've come across a couple of RST columns that were completed but, for whatever reason, never ran.

This one, for Day of the Dead, would've coincided with the release of the teen zombie romantic comedy Warm Bodies (I bet you totally forgot that movie even existed - I know I did!) on February 1st, 2013 but I guess the clock ran out and I thought I'd be better off getting a My Bloody Valentine write-up ready to go instead. Seems plausible.

Anyhow, here's some Day of the Dead love for ya!


Some hardcore horror fans might balk at the idea of a romantically inclined zombie as portrayed in Warm Bodies because zombies just aren’t meant to be cuddly, damn it! But while the undead character of “R” might be more photogenic and more palatable as a love interest than the average flesh eater, the idea of a “good” zombie was validated and approved by the godfather of the modern zombie movie himself, George A. Romero, in 1985’s Day of the Dead.

He might not have qualified as choice dating material but the lead zombie of Day of the Dead, dubbed “Bub” (Howard Sherman) by scientist/father figure Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), was certainly endearing and was instantly embraced by horror fans as the first "lovable" zombie.

Romero had already planted the seeds for Bub in Dawn of the Dead (1978) by showing a growing empathy for his shambling undead hordes. When Fran (Gaylen Ross) kindly frees a zombie nun whose habit is trapped in a door, there’s an acknowledgement of the creature's buried humanity. And at the climax of the film, one zombie is fascinated by a rifle and trades it for Peter’s rifle, showing a dim thought process existing beyond that primal appetite for flesh.

But even though Romero allowed his zombies to be more than just slow-moving targets to be picked off in Dawn, it was still a big creative leap from their depiction in that film to having Bub command so much audience sympathy in Day. The film itself is the most abrasive of Romero’s original Dead trilogy but the character of Bub himself is undeniably soulful. Tom Savini’s make-up for actor Howard Sherman ranks among his best work, looking appropriately grisly while allowing Sherman to express a full range of emotion.

Compare the make-up on Sherman to the look of “Big Daddy”, the lead zombie Eugene Clark played in Land of the Dead (2005). Big Daddy was a character clearly created in the mold of Bub but that never achieved the same emotional connection with audiences, and I think that was in large part to the stiff, heavy make-up burying the actor's face. He simply looked too monstrous, his expression frozen in a permanent snarl, while Sherman as Bub was able to convey gentleness in the best tradition of Frankenstein’s Monster.

Even though the zombies currently seen in TV's The Walking Dead and Warm Bodies might be made with more state-of-the-art technical prowess, they haven’t surpassed the work that Tom Savini and his crew did in Day. Less than ten years on from the simple blue faced zombies of Dawn, Savini was able to use the advances in prosthetic makeup that took place in the short interim between Dawn and Day to create the greatest array of zombies ever.

Bub is arguably the most sympathetic figure in Day of the Dead, his only true competition for that spot being John, the laid back helicopter pilot played with a thick Jamaican accent by Terry Alexander. Who else is there? You've got the deranged Logan, the strong-willed and strident – often to her detriment – Sarah (Lori Cardille), her emotionally fragile boyfriend Miguel (Anthony Dileo Jr), good hearted but perennially sauced Bill (Jarlath Conroy), and then the perpetually enraged Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato) and his crew of murderous assholes – this is a seriously flawed group of individuals. Even the good guys in Day are not so easy to warm up to.

One of the biggest criticisms of Day upon its original release – and, really, to this day – is that the characters are just too unlikeable, that they’re all pitched at such a high level of antagonism that they’re not endearing in the way that Peter, Roger, Fran, and Steven were in Dawn of the Dead. Worse than that, there's the accusation is that many of them are simply not believable as people. Because, really, who acts like this? But I would say Day shows Romero working even more ahead of the social curve than usual. The bitter bickering that goes on in Day, ultimately escalating to the point of homicidal rage, may have seemed outrageous in 1985 but it seems very much in tune with our world today.

We now live in an age more bitterly divided than at any time most people can recall. We are more ideologically separated than ever and the tone of public discourse on pretty much everything seems to have deteriorated to the point of insanity.

When the father of a slain child in the Newtown shooting is angrily berated at in a public meeting by gun advocates, you have to wonder where basic civility and decency has gone. It’s like the entire country has become its own version of the underground caverns of Day of the Dead – we’re all trapped with each other and the animosity and hate is rising by the day.

Day might not have spoken to the mood of the ‘80s so much but it speaks to today’s world with an uncanny accuracy. Captain Rhodes might’ve once seemed shrill to the point of cartoonishness but his coarse, seething demeanor is right in line with that of many modern pundits.

And yet, there’s also the argument that Rhodes has his points. His rage is not completely unfounded. After all, his slain men have been fed to Bub - a despicable move on Logan's part. His psychopathic anger is, to some extent, justified. Why wouldn’t he want payback against anyone who'd show so little regard for the value of his men's lives that they'd callously use them as servings of zombie chow? 

Rhodes may be unhinged but Logan is just as nuts in his own way and it’s the stubborn, intractable separation of camps and the unbending need for one tribe to win over the other that ultimately makes life together unlivable. As John says to a frustrated Sarah: “…That’s the trouble with the world…people got different ideas concerning what they want out of life.” Day of the Dead is almost thirty years old but it’s more a movie of the current day than anything in theaters now.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: The City of the Dead aka Horror Hotel (1960)

Back in my school days, I never went the extra scholastic mile.

Maybe it was because it seemed like too much of a brown-nosey thing to do but more likely I’d have to chalk it up to laziness. Either way, I never went above and beyond for any assignment. If only Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson), the academically ambitious heroine of 1960’s The City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel), had shared my same apathetic attitude.

A rapt student of history teacher Professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee), Nan doesn’t plan on just phoning in her senior paper on witchcraft. No, this eager young woman is going to do way more than just regurgitate what she can research in the school library. She plans to use some vacation time to visit a real town where witches reportedly once lived and uncover the hidden history behind those dark days of old when people were burned alive for dabbling in the black arts.

When Nan informs Professor Driscoll of her plans, he knows just where to send this irrepressible go-getter – the sleepy town of Whitewood, Massachusetts, a place where time seems to have stood still. As viewers, we know from the jump that witchcraft is alive and well in Whitewood. Especially as we recognize the owner of the local inn, Mrs. Newell (Patricia Jessel), as Elizabeth Selwyn, a witch that was burned at the stake in the film’s 17th century-set opening scene and who pledged her eternal life to Satan if he would spare her from death. Clearly that sounded good to Satan as Elizabeth is alive and well in the present, running the Whitewood establishment known as The Raven’s Inn.

As soon as Nan enters Whitewood, she’s in way over her head without knowing it. Her brother Richard (Dennis Lotis) and boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor) had tried to warn her off from taking this trip but there was no talking sense to headstrong Nan and now she’s about to find out way more than she ever wanted to about the world of witchcraft. Nan isn’t a particularly vividly drawn heroine but her plucky yet unabrasive nature is enough to get us on her side and the icy-mannered Mrs. Newell certainly makes us fear for Nan’s well-being – especially as Nan doesn’t have much of a head for self-preservation. Even with the foreboding, hostile atmosphere Nan encounters during her short time in Whitewood, when she discovers a trap door in her room leading into a dank underground cavern, her inquisitive, incautious, nature compels her to investigate rather than to play it safe.

As a result, Nan earns a crushing “F” in survival instincts as (spoiler alert!) her life comes to an abrupt end, sacrificed at the hands of Elizabeth Selwyn and her coven in the name of Satan. So much about The City of the Dead is hokey – pleasingly so, it should be said – that Nan’s cruel, sudden dispatching comes as a genuine surprise midway through what had seemed to be such a mild mannered film.

The City of the Dead came out within months of Psycho in 1960 and much has been made of the fact that both films have their apparent heroines murdered early on. Unlike the taboo-breaking Psycho, though, which has the audience expecting to be taken to some dark places well before Marion Crane ever sets foot in the shower, The City of the Dead is old-fashioned and innocuous until the point where Nan’s life is snuffed out. And that “safe” tone that it has almost – almost – makes Nan’s death even more of a sucker punch than Marion Crane’s.

There’s an element of sin involved in Marion’s death. She transgresses when she steals that money and even though she doesn’t deserve to pay for that crime with her life, we have that underlying sense that she put herself in a position for something bad to happen to her. Maybe it relates to our own subconscious fears of what would happen to us if we should ever “go a little mad” ourselves – that we’d somehow pay for it in some terrible, random way; that the universe would see our crime and make us answer for it. Nan, however, is a good girl through and through. For crying out loud, she’s only in Whitewood in the first place because she wanted to write a really kick-ass senior paper!

She’s a heroine that belongs on the cover of a kid’s mystery novel, shining a flashlight through a cobwebbed corridor – and in fact, that is exactly what she’s doing just before she’s dragged to her death. When she dies, it’s as if Nancy Drew had gotten her throat slit halfway through “The Secret of the Old Clock.”

As in the wake of Marion’s death in Psycho, it’s up to those around Nan to carry on the story after she’s gone. When weeks go by and Nan hasn’t been heard from, a concerned Richard and Bill head separately to Whitewood to find her and while they might not be as easily taken out as poor Nan was, Elizabeth Selwyn and her coven still possess the home turf advantage.

Everything culminates in a slam-bang finale that still ranks as one of the most pulse-pounding in horror. Nan’s death may be the film’s most shocking moment but the climax is stunning it its own right as the shadow of a cross is used to set the witches ablaze.

Directed by first-time feature helmer John Llewellyn Moxey (who would direct the original Kolchak TV movie, 1973’s The Night Stalker), this UK film was also the first to be produced by future head of Amicus, Milton Subotsky.

Still more of a cherished cult item even all these years later rather than a widely known classic, The City of the Dead is pretty near-perfect. It’s in crisp black and white, it’s entirely set-bound (which gives the “outdoor” scenes in Whitewood an off-kilter, artificial feel), it’s got horror royalty in the form of Christopher Lee, and Whitewood is shrouded in thick fog, just like a town in a horror movie ought to be (making it all the better for processions of dark-robed figures to wander their way through).

I’m not usually one to pine away for the good old days but watching The City of the Dead, it’s hard not to feel a pang of sadness knowing that the likes of this will never come again. Witches are in vogue now thanks to recent films like Oz: The Great and Powerful and The Lords of Salem as well as the upcoming season of American Horror Story but few can compete with The City of the Dead’s still-potent brand of witches brew.

Originally published 10/9/13 at Shock Till You Drop

Friday, March 31, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: My Bloody Valentine (1981)

In the late ‘70s and early ’80s, in the wake of Halloween’s record-setting success, producers were madly scrambling to grab any remaining holidays to center their own slasher movie around. As slasher films typically hinge on payback for some perceived (or actual) past betrayal or wrong, Valentine’s Day – a day famous for fostering bitter disappointments and hurt feelings – was an ideal candidate for the slasher treatment.

One of several slasher productions made in Canada in the early ‘80s (along with Prom Night, Happy Birthday to Me and Terror Train), My Bloody Valentine proved easy for slasher buffs to adore, even if the MPAA – then on a crusade to neuter the new wave of splatter films – demanded heavy cuts be made before it awarded MBV an R-rating. To have the film released with all its bloodshed intact would’ve been nice but what makes MBV work is its attention to character and atmosphere so its FX didn’t have to be its key selling point.

An uncut version of the film was finally released on DVD in 2009 in time for the release of the 3-D remake, but while it was nice to finally see more of FX master Tom Burman’s work, as it turned out it didn’t really improve upon the version that fans were already familiar with. In its original, R-rated form, MBV was all it needed to be.

Following the trend of most slashers at the time, screenwriter John Beaird and director George Mihalka lay out a whodunnit storyline involving the possible return of crazed coal miner Harry Warden to the town that he terrorized many years before. Back in the day, Warden was the sole survivor of a mine collapse (triggered by unsafe methane levels ignored by supervisors eager to get to a Valentine’s dance) which left his co-workers dead and himself trapped with their bodies for weeks.

When rescuers finally got to Harry, they found that he’d had to resort to cannibalism in order to survive. Not the kind of thing one easily bounces back from. The next Valentine’s Day, Harry took his revenge on his former supervisors, hacking them to death with a pickax and leaving a warning to never hold another Valentine’s Day dance again.

Harry became a boogeyman figure that haunted the town’s collective memory, with his grim vow being enough to keep Cupid at bay in Valentine Bluffs for at least a generation. While the town’s elders successfully squelched holiday festivities for years, those who were only children when Harry conducted his rampage have come of age and want to forget the superstitious fears of their parents and have a Valentine celebration of their own.

Believing that enough time has passed, the mayor has given his permission but that will prove to be a heartbreaking decision. Days before V-Day, the mayor and sheriff receive a heart-shaped candy box containing a torn-out human heart along with a rhyming taunt warning them to stop the dance. After receiving this, the panicked mayor and sheriff cancel all celebrations while trying to keep the grisly truth from the rest of the town.

Even though all signs point to the return of Harry Warden, the sheriff isn’t having any luck locating Valentine Bluff’s most infamous son. The asylum to which Harry was committed to has lost track of him due to bureaucratic ineptitude – not being able to determine whether he is still a patient, was released, or has died. That makes the job of the sheriff and mayor all the more difficult as they work to root out the killer, even as the maniac claims another victim.

For their part, the young people of Valentine Bluffs are blissfully ignorant of the danger they’re in and are caught up in their own personal dramas. Appropriately for a movie built around Valentine’s Day, the kids of MBV are concerned with matters of the heart above all else.

Sarah (Lori Hallier) has been dating miner Axel Palmer (Neil Affleck) since her previous boyfriend (and the mayor’s son) Jesse “T.J”’ Hanniger Jr. (Paul Kelman) abruptly left her many months ago to go build a new life for himself in the big city, beyond the slim opportunities of Valentine Bluffs. Now that the big city has served him some humble pie, T.J. has returned with his tail between his legs, back working in the coal mine with hopes of picking up where he and Sarah left off.

This notion doesn’t sit so well with Axel and the competition over Sarah looks to be a potentially bloody one. Both Axel and T.J. are surly types, prone to outbursts of violence – surely one of them could be the gas-masked slayer (an outfit that’s among the most imposing in slasherdom) stalking the town. Or maybe it’s old Hap, the cranky bartender who doesn’t care for the way these rude-ass kids don’t respect the legend of Harry Warden. As it turns out, there are plenty of red herrings to go along with all the red hearts in Valentine Bluffs.

Of course, given that My Bloody Valentine is one of the most popular slashers ever, it’s safe to say that most of you (likely all) already know who the killer is. For those rare individuals who might not, though, spoilers ahead.

In classic slasher fashion, MBV’s mystery is resolved with a climatic flashback that explains everything – sort of. Some nagging questions I’ve always had: first, why would everybody be so cavalier in discussing Harry Warden around Axel when his father was one of Harry’s original victims? We as viewers only find out at the end that Axel’s dad was one of the supervisors Harry murdered but yet the way it’s mentioned, it seems to have been common knowledge among the characters. You’d think that would’ve been an earlier point of discussion.

And the idea that Axel would want to emulate the man that had slaughtered his father seems, um, curious from a psychological standpoint. Wouldn’t he hate Harry and want to take revenge on him rather than want to carry on his legacy? But hey, so what if the logic is completely screwy? It’s a slasher movie – somebody’s got to be the killer and that’s that.

Slasher movies commonly leave room for a sequel but My Bloody Valentine left fans more primed than usual for a follow-up with the wounded but very much alive killer lurching off into the mine shafts vowing his revenge on the whole damn town. Sadly no sequel ever materialized.

On the upside, though, the 2009 remake was one of the finer remakes of recent times and came off like a genuine love letter to the original and to the slasher genre in general. The original is still unarguably the most preferred of the two MBV’s, though. Apropos to Valentine Bluffs’ major industry, it should be said that you’d have to have a real heart of coal not to have a soft spot for My Bloody Valentine.

Originally published 2/14/13 at Shock Till You Drop

Retro-Shock Theater: Deadly Blessing (1981)

Director Wes Craven has made horror history many times over and, most impressively, done so over the course of several decades. He first changed the landscape of horror in the ‘70s with The Last House on the Left (1972), then in the ‘80s with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and again in the ‘90s with Scream (1996). With all due respect to those seminal shockers, though, my own personal favorites from Craven’s catalog tend to be the less heralded ones. Number #1 for me is 1981’s oddball offering Deadly Blessing.

Released at the height of the slasher craze, Deadly Blessing employed some stock elements that were already over-familiar from the sub-genre – a rising body count, macabre deaths, menacing POV shots, multiple red herrings, nubile females in peril (including a young Sharon Stone in her first film role), and, of course, the killer’s identity is concealed until the climax.

In those ways, Deadly Blessing is easily identifiable as a horror film that came out in the same year as Happy Birthday to Me and Graduation Day. It bears well-worn earmarks of the slasher genre that place it in its particular era. But beyond those familiar riffs, Deadly Blessing is much more idiosyncratic than the routine slashers that it shared marquee space with in ’81.

Set in an idyllic rural area, Deadly Blessing tells the story of Jim and Martha (Doug Barr and Maren Jensen), a loving young couple who have a testy relationship with an Amish-like religious sect called the Hittites that lives next to their property. Doug used to be a Hittite himself but he left the sect to marry Martha, earning the eternal wrath of his father Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine), who also happens to be the Hittite’s inflexible leader. Isaiah considers Jim to be an abomination in the eyes of God now and he forbids any of his people to communicate with him, including Jim’s mother and two younger brothers (the oldest of which is played by Jeff East, from Craven’s 1978 TV movie Summer of Fear).

The bad blood between Jim and his family goes forever unresolved as Jim falls victim to a mysterious “accident” while alone in his barn late one night, crushed to death by a tractor. Once news of the tragedy reaches them, Martha’s best friends – Lana (Sharon Stone) and Vicky (Susan Buckner) – come to support her in her time of grieving. On top of the tension brought by having a whole trio of liberated modern women roaming the countryside under the Hittite’s disapproving watch, there is also the matter of a killer being on the loose.

Even though Jim’s death is believed to be an accident, a mysterious figure in the barn that night was the one that loosened the tractor. And in true slasher movie fashion, whoever the killer might be, they could be one of a whole range of possible suspects. Is it the stern Isaiah, out to cleanse the world one sinner at a time? Is it William Gluntz, the strange young Hittite (played by Hills Have Eyes poster boy Michael Berryman) who shows a proclivity for being a Peeping Tom? (It’s doubtful that any genre fan would peg Gluntz as the killer – he’s a true slasher movie red herring a la Robert Silverman’s Prom Night janitor).

Or in some strange, psychological twist could it even be Martha herself?

If you haven’t seen Deadly Blessing yet, save your guesses about the outcome – it’s impossible to anticipate where this movie is going, except to say that the makers of 1983’s cult fave Sleepaway Camp might have been taking notes. As much as the killer’s reveal is an unexpected doozy, Craven manages to top that craziness by dropping a supernatural element (mandated by the studio) in at – literally – the last minute.

Not everything gels in Deadly Blessing but it scores points for being different – even at the cost of logic – and it has a couple of scary sequences that rank among Craven’s best. At a time when horror films were very much carbon copies of each other, Deadly Blessing had its own quirky angles to play.

An important component that ties Deadly Blessing’s scattershot nature together is the score by James Horner, then at an early point in his career but soon to become one of the most popular composers in Hollywood (despite his Oscar for Titanic, he’s probably best known to genre fans for his Aliens score). At a time when many horror films, especially low budget ones, had scores that simply mimicked Carpenter’s work on Halloween, Horner gave Deadly Blessing a creepy Omen-esque score, marked by ominous chanting.

Even though Deadly Blessing has been an often overlooked entry in Craven’s filmography and even though Craven is not the sole author of the screenplay (he shares credit with Matthew Barr and Glenn M. Benest), the clash of cultures embodied by the conflict between the Hittites and the “serpents” of the modern world places it on common thematic ground with Craven’s other work wherein different families or communities find themselves at deadly odds with each other (witness the degenerate Krug and co. vs. the accommodating middle class Collingwoods in Last House or the irradiated mutants vs. the vacationing Carter family – one “nuclear” family against another – in The Hills Have Eyes).

Deadly Blessing also comes across as something of a dry run for A Nightmare on Elm Street. Not only is an eerie dream sequence involving Lana the film’s most memorable moment (immortalized on Deadly Blessing’s poster) but there is also a suspenseful scene in which Martha is imperiled in a bathtub that Craven would restage in the first Elm Street.

Not really a hit at the time and kind of forgotten about today, even by many genre fans, Deadly Blessing nonetheless made an impression. Memorable episodes of both Friday the 13th: The Series (“The Quilt of Hathor”) and The X-Files (“Genderbender”) show an obvious debt to its influence, with each involving eerie goings on in strictly religious communities. Now that Scream Factory is due to be blessing fans with a Special Edition Blu-Ray of this film (due January 22nd), hopefully it will finally garner the larger fanbase that it deserves.

Originally published 1/14/13 at Shock Till You Drop

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)

At the time that the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released in 1974, modern horror franchises were a rarity.

The classic monsters of old had, of course, spawned many sequels during their Universal heyday and later remakes in the Hammer era but the groundbreaking slasher films of the then-current day – seminal shockers like Psycho and Texas Chainsaw – did not immediately generate follow-ups, for whatever reason.

But once the ‘80s arrived and horror hits were being spun into franchises with increasing frequency, studios decided that it was time to excavate their back catalog and cash-in – hence the return of characters like Norman Bates and Leatherface to the horror fold. Because Norman Bates was such a rich character, portrayed so compellingly by Anthony Perkins, the follow-ups to Psycho fared well – even with the burden of having to pick up over two decades since the original.

Making a franchise out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, on the other hand, was far more of a challenge. Every film is a collaborative effort – assembled by many hands, dependent on various elements in order to emerge in whichever way it does. That’s why trying to duplicate what made a film a success is always a tricky, often futile, endeavor. But even more than most films, the original Chainsaw was an especially alchemical act.

The brutal shooting conditions, in which the cast had to suffer through the unforgiving Texas heat while filming for long hours – often within the stifling location of the Sawyer farmhouse, trapped with the rising stench of decomposing cattle parts – imprinted an authentic air of real world madness onto the film. That’s the kind of guerrilla filming experience that would not ever be duplicated, not even in the most low budget Hollywood enterprise.

That arduous shoot was essential to what made the original TCM what it is, though, so it’s not surprising that the sequels, remakes, and prequels all, to different degrees, failed to measure up to that first film. Being that Chainsaw is too irresistible a brand name for studios to resist, though, they have never stopped trying to recapture lightning in a bottle (see Texas Chainsaw 3D for the latest example of that).

The first sequel, the only one helmed by Tobe Hooper, was reviled by most critics and fans for veering into gonzo black humor but has since been rightly reassessed as one of the highlights of ‘80s horror. But the flak that TCM 2 initially received for its perceived mistakes was a key influence on the direction that the second sequel would take.

Once the rights to Texas Chainsaw Massacre were acquired by New Line Cinema in the late ‘80s, it was inevitable that they’d try to relaunch the franchise. As every horror fan knows, New Line achieved their initial success thanks to the Nightmare on Elm Street series and The House That Freddy Built proved themselves to be adept at building successful franchises (not just in horror, as they also scored big with the likes of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the House Party films) so the prospects for the return of Texas Chainsaw looked good.

With Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, the second film would be ignored and the new film would act as, essentially, the first sequel to the original. It would also dispense with the comedic approach the Hooper’s sequel took and return the series to the pure horror that the original was known for (although it’s often forgotten or ignored that the original had its share of dark humor). Jeff Burr, who had developed a name for himself in the genre with the well-regarded films The Offspring and Stepfather II, was tapped to direct and noted splatterpunk author David J. Schow (“The Kill Riff”) penned the screenplay.

The plot is as basic as it gets – a young couple (played by Kate Hodges and familiar ‘80s horror figure William Butler) in the throes of a break-up are taking one last trip together as Hodges’ character is driving her father’s car from California to Florida. They take an ill-advised detour while in Texas and before long, they’re fighting to avoid being dinner, or trophies, or whatever for a clan of cannibalistic killers (whose ranks include then-unknown Viggo Mortensen).

A weekend warrior/survivalist type (Dawn of the Dead’s Ken Foree) is pulled into the action as well but will assault rifles prove useful against Leatherface’s chainsaw? Not so much. The shoot was a difficult one and compounding that, the MPAA did not show the film any love (it was submitted before the board 11 times), demanding extensive cuts, making sure Leatherface was as neutered as possible before it hit screens in January of 1990.

Upon its release, Leatherface didn’t quite cut through the competition, earning reactions ranging from indifference to disdain, but I maintain an enduring nostalgia for this movie – admittedly less for its own cinematic virtues than for the period of time it embodies.

Leatherface came out at a time when horror was very scarce on the big screen. Even a kind of slow-ish year for the genre like 2012 seems like a deluge compared to what was in theaters in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s when genre films came out in drips and drabs so just about any horror movie from that time strikes a nostalgic chord with me as, even if a movie was lackluster (and they usually were), I always appreciated the chance to see horror on the big screen.

Every release was a reason to keep the fire of fandom burning. The best things to come out of Leatherface were the pimped out chainsaw (insisted on by New Line head honcho Robert Shaye) with the engraved motto “The Saw Is Family” and the clever teaser trailer that referenced the Arthurian legend of The Lady In The Lake – one of the best horror trailers ever made.

The movie itself, though, is fairly unremarkable. Not terrible, just unremarkable. It’s a reminder of a time when horror films were usually pale imitations of better days, made for and marketed to a diminished but still stubbornly dedicated fanbase patiently waiting for the genre to rally. You had to be a real horror fan to stick with the genre back then and as such I continue to remember Leatherface fondly.

Originally published 1/4/13 at Shock Till You Drop

Retro-Shock Theater: Psycho (1960)

I believe that every horror fan has a list of movies that came out before their time that they wish they could’ve experienced first run in the theaters. As much as one can still appreciate classics like Jaws or Night of the Living Dead even if they first encounter them decades after their initial releases, the fact is catching up with a classic after the fact can’t quite compare with the seismic experience of seeing a game changing film fresh out of the gate with an unsuspecting first-time audience – long before every moment of the film has been committed to the cultural lexicon.

If I had my own movie-going time machine at my disposal, at the very top of my must-see list would be 1960’s Psycho. I would love to see that film with an audience that had no idea what was going to happen – and even more, to experience it with an audience that wasn’t jaded by the many decades’ worth of slasher pics inspired by Psycho.

As part of Psycho’s promotion, Alfred Hitchcock forced theaters to employ a then-unprecedented policy of not letting any patrons in after the film had begun and he also urged viewers who had already seen the film to keep the film’s secrets to themselves. The marketing of Psycho was very much about preserving the surprise, to keep the viewing experience as pure as possible. But it’s a testimony to the airtight artistry of Hitchcock as well as that of screenwriter Joseph Stefano (adapting Robert Bloch’s novel) and the film’s cast (particularly the irreplaceable Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh) that even long after Psycho has lost the ability to ambush viewers that it still endures.

It may not shock in the same way it once did – only that first generation of Psycho viewers ever really experienced the movie in that way – but it still chills and entertains and fascinates. Despite the way that Hitchcock sold Psycho, shrouding it in secrecy, it wasn’t simply a cinematic sucker punch destined to only work on the uninitiated. Instead it was a movie that revealed its wicked sense of humor only after its secrets were fully known and it’s a movie that is also possessed of a piercing, and perpetually timely, understanding of life’s sadness with its characters that “never budge an inch” from their private traps.

Amid all the accolades that Psycho has received in the fifty-plus years since its release, the one common nitpick revolves around the penultimate scene, in which Simon Oakland’s psychiatrist character explains, in tedious detail, Norman Bates’ schizophrenia. The psychiatrist is purposely depicted as a self-satisfied windbag.

When Lila Crane (Vera Miles) asks if Norman killed her sister, rather than giving Lila the courtesy of a straight answer, the psychiatrist instead responds “Yes…and no.” Oakland plays the psychiatrist as someone who’s somewhat smug and who enjoys playing to an audience. His long winded explanation is all about demystifying what we’ve seen transpire in the fruit cellar.

But then Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under that speech by bringing us back to Norman in his cell and letting us hear “Mother’s” thoughts (the voice of actress Virginia Gregg, who returned to voice Mother again in Psycho II and III before her death in 1986). While everything that the psychiatrist says about Norman may be true from a clinical standpoint, the coda with Norman shows just how empty those words are.

Hitchcock could’ve let the audience off the hook with Oakland’s explanation and left it at that. Vera Miles and John Gavin could’ve walked out of the police station after Oakland’s speech with a big ‘The End’ title imposed over them. That would’ve signaled the restoration of normalcy. But in letting Mother’s thoughts be the film’s final words, Hitchcock kneecaps everything Oakland just said and thumbs his nose at any attempt to comfortably explain away Norman’s madness – or madness in general, for that matter.

The second half of Psycho in which Lila, Sam, and the ill-fated Arbogast (Martin Balsam) try to unravel the mystery of the missing $40,000 that Marion stole from her boss is all about people looking for rational answers. To their mind, the money must be at the heart of it. Either Bates killed Marion (Janet Leigh) for her money or Bates is hiding Marion or some variation on either of those scenarios. They’re looking for motives that make a “from point A to point B” kind of sense.

In the end, though, Psycho guts the search for rationality and gives madness the upper hand. While the influence of Psycho lives on with the murderous “Bloody Face” terrorizing TV viewers on this season’s American Horror Story, the serial slayer of The Collection butchering on the big screen, the making-of Psycho tale Hitchcock now in theaters as well, and a Bates Motel prequel series coming to A&E next year, Psycho itself remains the Mother of all shockers.

Originally published 12/1/12 at Shock Till You Drop