Monday, September 29, 2008
It Happened At Lakewood Manor
The 1977 made-for-TV eco-chiller It Happened at Lakewood Manor lingers on in my memory as the only horror movie of my childhood that I was too afraid to watch. There were plenty of horror movies back then that I watched from between my fingers or from a strategic position behind my stepdad's recliner but IHALM - about a resort spot overrun by killer ants - was the only one that I avoided altogether.
Why this, of all movies? I don't know - maybe it was the fact that I had been so traumatized earlier that year by Empire of the Ants (the first horror movie I had seen in the theaters). But when I saw the ad in the TV Guide for IHALM, I knew I couldn't subject myself to it. Just from the ad (I wish I could recall the details of it now), it looked far too scary to me. Whatever happened at Lakewood Manor was something I didn't care to know about.
To recall my crippling fear of IHALM thirty-one years later makes me nostalgic for a time when even the blandest efforts of network TV were too much for me to handle. Another eight years after giving the ants of Lakewood Manor a wide berth, I'd already be familar with the most graphic films my local video stores had to offer, scouring their shelves for titles like Cannibal Ferox - and with them, all the impalings, decapitations, castrations, and disembowelments that my parent's VCR could hold.
But at one point in my horror-loving life, I was too scared to watch a TV movie where a cast of B-listers (including Bradford Dillman, Lynda Day George, Robert Foxworth, Bernie Casey, and Suzanne Somers) were attacked by ants. I have to wonder sometimes what my eight-year-old self would think of the films I've subjected myself to since. I probably wouldn't have believed it'd be possible for anyone to make such movies (in 1977, I was still ignorant of the existence of such notorious films as Blood Feast and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre).
A quick look at Amazon.com tells me that IHALM is available on DVD (under its alternate title of Ants) for less than six bucks so if I wanted to I could easily seek it out at any time. But it's not the movie that I feel I'm still missing out on. What I miss is being able to be scared over nothing - when my imagination did all the work for me.
Friday, September 26, 2008
The House on Sorority Row
Of course, once I finally did catch up with all of them months - sometimes years - down the line, the experience always turned out to be a little less than what I had anticipated. How could it not? But because I had carried an image of these films in my imagination for so long and because the build-up to seeing them had been so powerful, that early mystique will never completely dissipate for me. But The House on Sorority Row (1983) was a film I was unaware of until years later. I don't know if it was just not widely released, or if I just blanked out on it or what. But I have no recollections of anticipating this movie at all. In 1983, THOSR came out towards the end of the slasher cycle so maybe if I did see an ad it just didn't hit me as being all that important. Still, coming out at the tail-end of the slasher boom didn't stop Curtains (also from '83) from making a lasting impression on me. Then again, seeing a killer in an old lady mask skating across a frozen pond to 'ice' their victim will do that.
Whatever the case, it wasn't until the late '80s when I saw the video box for The House on Sorority Row sitting on the shelves of a Movie Gallery by my house that I finally became aware of it. But the lame box art didn't make me think I stumbled across anything special and I figured if the movie was any good a die-hard slasher aficionado like myself would've known about it. Over time, as I went through the horror section of all my local video stores and gave any title that looked semi-promising a look, The House on Sorority Row was still left on the shelves of every video store that I had a membership to. For me, it was a hard movie to be excited about.
Eventually, in the name of leaving no slasher film behind, I rented it. And as it unfolded I was chagrined to find out that all this time I had been passing by one of the best slasher films of its day. This was far more thoughtful and ambitious than other films in the slasher sub-genre I had so eagerly jumped at a chance to watch. Written and directed by Mark Rosman (just twenty-four at the time, and who had worked as an assistant to Brian DePalma), The House on Sorority Row aspired to be more than the average slasher film. Rosman brought a dark, dry wit to the film and a visual style that made the most of a low budget.
Like most slasher films of the time, The House on Sorority Row opens with a flashback to a troubled episode from decades past as a doctor comes to a pregnant woman's home to deliver her baby. The birth doesn't go well and before we see the baby, the film jumps to the present day where a group of sorority sisters are out to defy the wishes of their elderly house mother, Mrs. Slater (the woman seen in the prologue), and remain in their house a few extras days in order to throw one last party before leaving. This goes over like a lead balloon with the puritanical Mrs. Slater and the old bitch wastes no time going head to head with Vicki (Eileen Davidson), the young bitch who's the most aggressive (and promiscuous) of the sorority sisters. After Mrs. Slater rips Vicki's brand new waterbed open with her falcon-headed cane (a great prop that gets utilized throughout the film) while Vicki is in the middle of screwing her boyfriend, Vicki swears to deliver a vicious payback to Mrs. Slater.
The problem is that the prank that Vicki conceives - like every other prank in a horror movie - quickly goes Too Far, leaving the Theta Pi sorority sisters with a dead house mother to explain. The sorority's resident good girl, Katey (played by Kate McNeil), tries to get her sisters to do the right thing but no one wants to face the consequences - or defy the forceful Vicki - so stowing the body becomes the immediate issue. A quick (if half-assed) solution is reached and the party they've planned for goes on as scheduled.
What follows is something like the slasher movie version of The Trouble With Harry as the woman's body keeps vanishing only to be rediscovered and needing to be hidden someplace else. At the same time, the seven guilty sorority sisters are being slain one by one by a figure wielding Mrs. Slater's telltale cane. As mysteries go, this one isn't all that impenetrable - especially when early in the film, Mrs. Slater is seen paying a visit to the doctor that presided over the botched delivery and it's clear from their conversation that the story of her child didn't end that night in 1961. And when Katey discovers that the attic of the sorority house has been decorated as a child's bedroom, it isn't hard to put it all together and understand that a mutant kid is alive and looking to avenge his mama. Rosman makes effective use of old-fashioned children's toys in setting up several of the murders as a kind of calling card for the killer - the most notable prop being an old wooden jack-in-the-box with a harlequin clown.
In an effort to keep some element of mystery going, Rosman doesn't turn Mrs. Slater's son into a Jason-esque boogeyman. Until late in the movie, we're supposed to wonder whether Mrs. Slater has somehow survived to take revenge into her own hands. But the notion of Slater as the killer is such a lame red herring, it seems like Rosman would've been better off assuming that the audience knows the truth about 'Eric' from the get-go (even if the characters don't). At least then his appearance could be played up as something distinctive. A life-sized harlequin outfit worn by Eric does make a memorable impression late in the film (an image foreshadowed not just by the jack-in-the-box but by an illustration of a harlequin seen hanging on Katey's bedroom wall in one of the earliest scenes) but in general, Rosman shows little interest in creating a new horror icon.
What Rosman did do is make The House on Sorority Row into a mordant little thriller with the kind of touches that show Rosman wasn't just out to make a catalog of murders. For instance, a large banner that reads "Everything's Coming Up Roses!" is visible in the background while the sisters try to deal with the accidental death of Mrs. Slater. There's also a great moment where two sisters pushing a large dumpster down a road with Mrs. Slater's body inside accidentally ram their corpse-mobile into a parked police car. I also like the fact that Rosman lays in a subtle parallel between Eric and Katey in that when we see Katey's mother early in the film, Rosman cast an actress (Ruth Walsh) who's older than someone who would usually have a child Katey's age (she isn't ancient by any means but she looks to be in her 50s, at least). The implication being that Katey's mother was a woman who had her child later in life than most but unlike Mrs. Slater, her story had a much happier outcome.
The gore effects of The House on Sorority Row (courtesy of Rob E. Holland, who - in his last credited gig - subsequently headed up the FX on one of my favorite '80s exploitation movies, 1985's Tenement) aren't among the most impressive of the early '80s but they get the job done with Mrs. Slater's distinctive cane doing it's share of damage. More accomplished is the film's acting talent with with many of the sorority sisters going on to successful acting careers. Eileen Davidson ("Vicki") has been a busy soap opera actress since 1990. Harley Jane Kozak ("Diane") worked in soaps as well and most famously played the mom in 1990's Arachnophobia. Janis Ward ("Liz") was active in '80s television, showing up in episodes of Remington Steele, Magnum P.I. and T.J. Hooker and her most recent acting credit was in 2005. And lead actress Kate McNeil (who looks like she could be the separated-at-birth twin sister of Beast Within actor Paul Clemens) appeared in George Romero's Monkey Shines (1988), the Jean-Claude Van Damme thriller Sudden Death (1995) and most recently has been seen in a 2005 episode of Bones. For Jodi Draigie, Ellen Dorsher, and Robin Meloy, however, this was their one and only acting credit. But hey, four out of seven members of a slasher movie cast going on to make it professionally is one hell of a success ratio!
Being a low-budget slasher movie made by a first-time writer/director, there's naturally some silliness to be found in THOSR. Mostly involving the plausibility of Mrs. Slater being able to keep her monstrous maniac of a son hidden undetected in the attic for twenty-something years while generations of sorority sisters have lived in the same house. That seems like it'd be an impossible stunt to pull off - especially as I didn't see a separate toilet installed in the attic so that means Eric would've had to come down and mingle sometime! And in the final face-off between Katey and Eric, Katey grabs a doll and pulls off the head to reveal a large knife sticking out of the neck and then uses it to stab Eric. But what I want to know is this: why the hell is there a knife concealed in this doll and how would Katey even know it was there in the first place? Every time I've watched this film, I've always wondered if I was missing something early in the film that set this element up. But it seems like we're supposed to just go along with it. Luckily the movie is appealing enough to make that an easy task.
My other lingering issue about THOSR is that if you're going to keep your dysfunctional, deformed child hidden away from the world for the entirety of his or her life, couldn't you at least give them a nice room to live in? I mean honestly, would it have been so hard for Mrs. Slater to decorate that attic space so it wasn't such a miserable hellhole? Some new wallpaper, some toys that aren't artifacts from the '30s, some carpeting even. Even if your kid's a mutant freak, you don't have to make him live like one. With nicer things to look at, some normal toys to play with (like ones that aren't packing knifes, for instance), who knows how Eric would've turned out? That's all I'm saying.
Currently slated for a remake that looks to discard most of the plot points of the original (the house mother is no longer the nemesis of the kids and I'm guessing that there'll be no son in the attic so this really will be a in-name-only affair), The House on Sorority Row remains a keeper. I may have been late to the party on it but this is one slasher film that doesn't need nostalgia as a crutch. Or a cane.
For a further appreciation of this '80s favorite, visit my pals over at Kindertrauma for much more on The House on Sorority Row.
Monday, September 22, 2008
A Major Motion Picture
To read that claim on behalf of a movie as impoverished as The Boogens reminds me that the early '80s was the last time that low-end exploitation pictures had a chance to compete on semi-equal footing with blockbusters and mainstream fare. Is it any wonder the world was a better place back then?
Having said all this, let me say that I'd like someone to take on the all-important task of remaking The Boogens. As a fan, I want to see the Boogens rise again and it's too many years later for a Boogens 2 - the only way to go now is with a remake. If B-movies have to be jacked-up to 'A' proportions to survive, then The Boogens deserves its turn, too. To whoever can make this happen, come on...bring the Boogens back! What's good for The Boogens will be good for all of us.
I hear it's the stuff that major motion pictures are made of.
Friday, September 19, 2008
When the ghost story The Hearse opened in 1980, compared to the R-rated splatter films it was competing against, this PG effort was dangerously old-fashioned. But in considering the film today, what jumps out at me as being old-fashioned is the age of heroine Trish Van Devere. Technically she's a young woman - probably a little shy of forty at the time - but being thrity-seven or whatever back then was like being fifty today. You'd never see an actress like this as the lead of a horror movie now.
I mean, look at this poster for next month's The Haunting of Molly Hartley:
In comparison to these kids, Van Devere looks like someone who's ready to be riding in the back of a hearse. I guess the trend towards youth has been a wise commercial decision but seeing real adults in horror movies was always appealing to me as a kid. I never felt like I couldn't relate to characters if they weren't young enough. Male actors will always get a break in this regard because there's always roles for middle-aged and older men in horror movies (Donald Pleasence would still be cast in Halloween today, for instance, and look at Tobin Bell in the Saw films) but with women it's a different story and that's a real loss.
At one time, with movies like The Hearse, The Nesting, The Entity and The Hunger, it was commonplace to see a mature woman cast as the lead in a horror film. Now it's almost unheard of (especially if the character isn't a mother, as with Naomi Watts in 2002's The Ring or Julianne Moore in 2004's The Forgotten) and to me that's sad.
The fears of a woman in her thirties or forties are different than those of a girl in her teens or a woman in her early twenties. It's something you can see in their eyes. A young girl doesn't have a past to escape or regrets to outlive (as Van Devere says, "when my marriage ended, I nearly cracked up"). Their loves are still young loves. They can be haunted by ghosts, but they're not really haunted.
It's only in time that they bring their own ghosts with them.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
My pals over at Kindertrauma recently posted two Bigfoot-related items and reading about our friend in the forest forced me to recall one of my fondest childhood memories, the 1976 Sunn Classics documentary The Mysterious Monsters. Narrated by Peter Graves, this film purported to blow the lid off the greatest secrets of their day and reveal the truth about the elusive likes of Loch Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman, and Bigfoot. Naturally, my seven-year-old self was ecstatic to finally get some answers! And as this movie was out before the TV series In Search Of... began its run, this really was bringing me something I hadn't seen before.
My hard-working mother obligingly took me to the theaters to see this explosive expose and watching the below segments of the film for the first time in over thirty years (I was surprised to find that the entire film is available on YouTube), I have to either marvel at my mother's ability to keep it together in the face of unintentional hilarity or reevaluate my entire upbringing because I now have to worry that the woman that raised me didn't instantly view this as a comedy. Of course I'm sure the truth of it is that any interest she feigned in this movie was just an effort to kindly indulge her dim-witted son.
Having said that, I can understand why this movie was terrifying to me as a kid. The middle reenactment seen in the above segment as Bigfoot attacks a woman watching TV in her living room is the scene I remember most from my original viewing of the film. The dramatic full-on look at Bigfoot's face at 3:17 as the woman's boyfriend whips open the front door to see Bigfoot himself standing there is actually pretty sweet (I believe Tom Burman's studio was responsible for the Bigfoot make-up and outfit). It's such a scary sight that I'm surprised I didn't force my mother to end our night short right there.
But what catches my eye most in the above clip is the polygraph examination of Bigfoot witness John Green. As Green is readied by the polygraph expert, Peter Graves assures us that Green's test will be filmed strictly from behind a two-way mirror ("our cameras will not intrude on the examination...Johnny's reaction will not be altered by our presence."). But as the interview commences, we see it from at least four different angles! My favorite moment is when the film cuts to Graves and his cameraman filming intently from behind the glass (how they're supposed to be filming past the camera that's filming them, we don't know), then there's an immediate cut to a side shot of the interviewer taken from inside the interrogation room! Sorry fellas, I'm older now - you can't slip this shit past me anymore!
By the film's end, Graves conclusively notes that with the amount of evidence proving the mysterious man-beast's existence, "Bigfoot is as much a part of our lives as the gorilla or the Loch Ness Monster." How gorillas got lumped together with Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, I don't know but when Graves insists that "Bigfoot is today free to roam the forests of America, living off the land but leaving no trace of his passage except for an occasional footprint", I wanted to press Graves on the issue of where Bigfoot takes care of his, um, business. Because if it's not in the woods, I think an explanation is in order. Even for a legend, nature calls.
As a documentary, The Mysterious Monsters may be a farce but that's fine. No film that thanks both The Academy of Applied Science as well as The Bigfoot Information Center in its end credits can ever be considered a total loss.
An Evening With Edgar Allen Poe
While visiting my son's five-year-old cousin in the hospital recently (don't worry, she's already back home and doing fine), the Underdog film from last year was on the TV in her room. I hadn't seen the film at all as my son hadn't expressed an interest in it and a live-action Underdog just wasn't for me. But in watching it, my attention was drawn to Peter Dinklage as the evil Simon Barsinister. As I was shaking my head at the fact that this role was so unworthy of his talent (by the way, Jim Belushi's role is exactly worthy of his talent so that tells you just how dismal a movie it was), Dinklage's look in this film jogged something my mind: the high forehead, the straggly hair, the dark, sunken eyes. And then it hit me hard: this man needs to play Edgar Allen Poe!
Although this might seem like an unconventional choice, I almost think I couldn't possibly be the first person to suggest it. And if I am, damn it, I hope I won't be the last!
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Even though The Funhouse begins unpromisingly with an already-tired rip-off of Halloween's opening (with a POV shot of a knife-wielding masked figure approaching a female victim) and a beyond-tired reference to Psycho (the masked figure's victim is innocently showering, natch), only to reveal it all as a juvenile prank (the knife is a rubber novelty item) played by a kid brother (Shawn Carson as Joey) on his older sister (Elizabeth Berridge as Amy) there's a larger point that's being made. Joey uses a phony knife to "get" his sister but just a few scenes later, a total stranger in a pick-up truck will pull up next to Joey on the street and point a real shotgun at him, causing him to flee in terror and for the unknown driver to laugh at how well he "got" Joey.
Hooper pointedly shows throughout The Funhouse that safe facsimiles of horror and violence are always a step away from the real thing - and that one doesn't necessarily prepare us for the brutality of the other. Much as Peter Bogdanovich's Targets (1968) set everyday horror in contrast to fictional horror by depicting an aging horror star (Boris Karloff, in one of his last roles) confronting a sociopathic sniper, so to is Hooper's Funhouse concerned with the theme of fantasy horror vs. real horror as its four young heroes wander amid harmless prop ghouls, spiders, and skeletons as they try to elude a pair of actual killers. Ironically, as in Targets, the face of classic Hollywood horror is once again represented by Karloff with one character hiding his freakish appearance behind the 'acceptable' deformity of a Frankenstein's Monster mask.
Once Funhouse's double-dating protagonists (Amy, her date Buzz - played by Cooper Huckabee - and a second couple, Liz and Ritchie - played by Largo Woodruff and Miles Chapin) begin their night out at a traveling carnival (a carnival that Amy's parents cautioned her to stay away from, of course), strolling the grounds, sampling the rides, and exploring the carnival's many tents (including a magic act and exhibits of real-life freaks of nature, like a cleft-headed cow), they wander past the funhouse many times before going in, as though unconsciously circling their own doom (in a nice touch, the funhouse itself is ringed with red-white-and-blue pleated flags and bunting as though Hooper is noting that there's something just as all-American about the inescapable darkness and misery of those living within its walls as there is about the carefree kids who venture inside on a lark). Today, no studio would permit such a leisurely build-up but many of The Funhouse's best moments take place prior to its characters entering the funhouse - including brief appearances by actors William Finley as Marco the Magnificent and Sylvia Miles as fortune teller Madame Zena.
Inside the funhouse, where the thrill-seeking foursome impetuously decide to hide overnight, the kids inadvertently witness the murder of Madame Zena at the hands of the carnival barker's deformed son. Determined not to let the kids leave the funhouse alive, the carnival barker (Kevin Conway, seen earlier as two other entirely different barkers - as though he represents an omnipresent figure of fate) and his son (well-played by mime Wayne Doba, with make-up designed by Rick Baker) stalk the kids and even though they're out-numbered, the barker and his son possess the homefield advantage, making the funhouse itself their ally. The Funhouse is mounted with much style - thanks in great part to the contributions of production designer Mort Rabinowitz (all the props seen in the funhouse are terrific) and cinematographer Andrew Laszio, who somehow makes the film appear both authentically seedy and yet lushly cinematic (For a low budget film, this has a really striking look to it. One scene in an air shaft looks as though it was inspired - in its cramped claustrophobia and strobe lighting - by Ridley Scott's then-recent Alien).
As Amy's friends are slain one by one and she inevitably becomes the film's Final Girl, her survival depends in part on her ability to discern the real threats she faces from the inanimate props of the funhouse (as the tagline cautioned "Something is alive in the funhouse!"). In The Funhouse's last ten minutes, Hooper delivers a frenetic, frenzied finale as the son becomes crushed within the giant gears of the funhouse itself.
Hooper's post-Chainsaw work has often been slagged as being sub-par but while a lot of troubled films do bear his name, I think he has a better body of work than most have bothered to acknowledge. And for me, The Funhouse remains one of his best efforts. Self-aware about the role horror plays in our fantasy lives, Hooper's film illustrates how easily play horror can be switched with the real thing.
Friday, September 12, 2008
Now Serving Dessert
Mostly that would be simply "thanks". Thanks to folks like Steven Wintle of The Horror Blog, Steve Biodrowski of Cinefantastique Online, and mystery man 'Arbogast' of Argobast on Film. Without coming across The Horror Blog and becoming aware of the blogosphere at large, I never would've been inspired to start Dinner with Max Jenke in the first place. And to unexpectedly be included after just a few months on the web and with less than forty posts to my credit as part of the Blogroll at Cinefantastique and Arbogast's 'For Your Information' links section was in both instances a great - and greatly appreciated - source of encouragement. I didn't take those links for granted and knowing that I was lucky to be exposed to the readership of both those sites spurred me on to be as active as possible in posting here.
As soon as I added that element to the page, I felt that Dinner with Max Jenke was something real. So here's to Year Two - I predict a lot of junk food on the menu still but I've got to stick to what I've got in the kitchen!
Thursday, September 11, 2008
If You're Coming To Texas, You'd Better Bring Some Heat
Despite the gun, I didn't get a cop vibe from him; there was something above the law about this character. He looked like someone who'd be at home in a pulp novel. Maybe he was a private detective hired to investigate a disappearance that Leatherface was responsible for. Or maybe he was a self-appointed vigilante - someone whose wife or daughter had been slain by Leatherface and was out to score some Texas-style payback. All I knew was that I was excited to discover what I thought was one more piece to the puzzle when it came to unravelling TCM.
I don't know if I was still thinking of this imaginary character when I did finally see TCM but looking at this ad reminds me of a time before the ready availability of films on VHS and cable when even the classics had plenty of mystery to them. Unless you were old enough to have seen a film during its original release you'd know about a movie like Texas Chainsaw or The Exorcist by their reputation but have little else to go on. You couldn't instantly go online and find out every detail of a movie (or download it, for that matter). And it wasn't even like hearing about a film and speculating about it for a few weeks or months before seeing it for yourself - it was often a matter of waiting many years (the subject of a recent blog over at Arbogast on Film). And the longer a movie stayed out of reach, the more every new piece of info was able to take on a life of its own.
This unknown shooter was someone I wanted to know more about. I didn't know what had brought this mystery man up against Leatherface but he looked dangerous in his own right. This wasn't some barefoot hippie knocking on the wrong door looking for gas, this was a seasoned operator who showed up to kick some ass.
And I still can't help thinking there's a story left to be told about him.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Cronenberg in Jeopardy
One of the main reasons I loved MTV in the channel's early days wasn't the novelty appeal of the medium or the great tunes or my undying crush on VJ Martha Quinn but the fact that so many of those early videos were steeped in horror movie influences - everything from Billy Idol in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by zombies in the Tobe Hooper-directed "Dancing With Myself", Ozzy Osbourne turning into a werewolf in "Bark at the Moon" to most famously, Michael Jackson's undead dance-off, "Thriller". But one of my favorite horror-themed videos from that time remains Greg Kihn's "Jeopardy" from 1983.
In "Jeopardy", Kihn plays an anxious groom about to sweat his way through his vows when suddenly his bride-to-be along with the entire wedding congregation turn into zombies and a giant Lovecraftian tentacle erupts from the floor to drag a fleeing Kihn back to the altar. Prior to all hell breaking loose, Kihn's fears of being 'joined at the hip' are made flesh by the sight of an older married couple standing side by side connected by a pulsating growth between them - a surprisingly Cronenbergian image that anticipates the visual of the Mantle twins joined in a dream sequence by a similar growth in 1988's Dead Ringers. And any video that can combine zombies, Cthulhu, Cronenberg, and a hero who wears checkerboard vans to his own wedding is alright by me.
Adding to this video's appeal is the fact that Kihn bears a downright uncanny resemblance to 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper of WWF and They Live fame (especially when Kihn grins at the sight of his bride's wedding band at 1:55). I'm telling you, if someone had cast those two as brothers in an '80s action show, that would've been one for the ages.
Sunday, September 7, 2008
Let's Scare Jessica To Death
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. As Jessica's voiceover tells us: "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."
Friday, September 5, 2008
When I first watched The Sender, it immediately struck me as being different from other horror films at the time. I was about thirteen and I think that was probably an ideal age for me to appreciate it. My tastes were maturing just enough where I responded to the fact that this represented a more challenging, ‘adult’ horror film rather than just a slasher movie. I’m sure I felt a little smarter for liking a film that most of my friends probably would’ve found to be boring. It was a case of meeting the right film at the right time.
Directed by Roger Christian - the Oscar-winning set decorator for Star Wars - who, as a director sadly went on to helm Battlefield Earth (2000), The Sender struck a soft tone that was rare in an ‘80s horror scene that saw genre films getting more coarse and abrasive along with audience’s sensibilities. Abetted by Trevor Jones’ lush score (that bucked the then-popular trend of synthesized scores for horror films), Christian made a film that succeeds as an eerie mood piece first and foremost. As for the storyline, Thomas Baum’s screenplay (first conceived by Baum as a possible novel) centers on a suicidal John Doe patient at a mental hospital who has the uncanny – and uncontrollable – ability to make his dreams appear to the waking world.
Despite the character’s psychic abilities, the role is empathetic rather than fearsome, as reflected by actor Zeljko Ivanek’s sensitive performance. And even before John’s strange gift reveals itself, his plight as a troubled amnesiac earns the sympathetic attention of Dr. Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harrold) who tries to block her superior’s attempts to treat John with electro-shock therapy. Gail’s boss, Dr. Joseph Denman, is played by Paul Freeman – best known as Indiana Jones’ rival archaeologist Rene Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark – and Freeman gives his character a surprisingly positive portrayal. Typically in a movie like this, Denman’s character would have to come across as the heavy, some self-important, bureaucratic fool. He’d be the asshole that Gail has to butt heads with to save her patient – he’d be Priscilla Pointer’s character of Dr. Elizabeth Simms in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors. But instead, Denman is shown to be genuinely concerned for the welfare of not just John Doe but the rest of the hospital’s patients and staff. If he makes a bad call, it’s not out of ego or malice. And that refusal to vilify a character that normally would be painted with a broad brush is indicative of The Sender’s unusual approach. This is a horror film with no monsters or villains.
John Doe #83 may have an affliction that makes him dangerous to others but he’s never shown to be a sinister character. We don’t have to impatiently roll our eyes as Gail endeavors to save him with minimal harm. And when John’s religious fanatic mother Jerolyn (Shirley Knight) is introduced, this is another character that could’ve easily fallen into the stereotypical role of a screeching, evil Bible-thumper. This could’ve been Piper Laurie in Carrie or Marcia Gay Harden in The Mist. Instead, while we see that Jerolyn is emotionally disturbed and a clear threat to her son’s psychological well-being, she isn’t a character that we hate. As played by Knight, we can understand that in her mind, Jerolyn is the only person who can properly care for her son. A horror movie that has an opportunity to turn a mother into a monster and doesn’t go for it is rare but at every turn, The Sender refuses to play by the normal rules. That may have come at a cost to its effectiveness as a crowd-pleaser but it allowed The Sender to leave a unique impression. The cast is uniformly excellent, with its main players – Harrold, Freeman, Ivanek, and Knight – all continuing to enjoy busy careers to this day. At a time where the horror genre was predominantly teen-orientated, and where performances took a backseat to splatter FX, its talented cast made The Sender seem like a horror movie aimed at an altogether different crowd.
But yet The Sender did have its share of shocks to offer. Two years before A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) would be celebrated for the exciting way it kept the audience off-guard by blurring the line between dreams and reality, The Sender was mining similar territory. Without warning, swarms of bugs and rats appear. Mirrors crack and drip blood. Christian aims for believability in each instance, with the film's varied effects being accomplished on set and in-camera by FX supervisor Nick Allder and special effect technician Alan Poole. And working under Allder's guidance, makeup artist Sarah Monzani did the casting and sculpting work utilized in two of The Sender’s highlights – a decapitation scene and a scene in which a rat crawls out of a character’s open mouth (a moment so good that Christian can’t help replaying the shot on a video monitor later in the film, even though it makes little sense for it to reappear).
Reports have persisted over the years that The Sender was heavily edited before its release and that material that would’ve helped the storyline make more sense was removed. I’ve never read any details about exactly what happened or what material was lost but it is clear that some questionable edits were performed.
For instance, at one point John is talking to a fellow patient - a disturbed Vietnam vet (Al Matthews). When the vet has an angry reaction to John’s insistence that the war is over, the film cuts to a shot of John running down the hospital halls, apparently fleeing the vet. But when John runs back into the room he shares with several other patients, the vet is already there, lying comfortably on a bed in the background. So clearly, Christian was taken out of the loop in the post-production process.
Unfortunately, despite its cult reputation, The Sender never garnered the kind of rabid fanbase or critical acclaim that would motivate the kind of rediscovery and re-edits that a film like, say, Blade Runner has experienced so a Director’s Cut of this worthwhile film will have to exist only in its fan’s dreams.
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
Don LaFontaine, R.I.P.
When I was twelve, I saw the trailer for the original Friday the 13th on The Movie Channel while on an out-of-state family visit to my grandmother's home in New Hampshire. I had seen the Friday TV spots previously to this, when the film was released in theaters, but seeing the full trailer really got my attention. Thanks to LaFontaine's ominous baritone inaugurating Friday's trademark body count as bold red numbers flashed on the screen, I thought this was the most intimidating preview for a horror movie I had ever seen. And as it took at least another year for me to be allowed to watch the film itself, it was this preview and LaFontaine's voice that kept me determined to see it. I just knew I couldn't be a true horror fan until I had.
LaFontaine's contribution to the world of movies was one that we took for granted, even as over the course of his career he helped scores of films of every genre find their audience. Among those thousands of films, the Friday the 13th movies may have been just a drop in the bucket but his voice on those trailers helped make me a Friday fan for life.
Monday, September 1, 2008
Any time a horror movie opens in October that isn't a Saw film, I'm happy. And any time a new horror movie can be within a month of release and come as a complete surprise, that makes me happy too.
So even though this tale of the survivors of a plane crash and the paranormal after-effects they suffer doesn't look like it's going to rewrite the history of fear on film, count me in to check this out.
If nothing else, I'll gladly take a cast that includes Anne Hathaway, Clea DuVall, David Morse and Andre Braugher over whatever suckers are due to get tortured in Saw V.