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

Retro-Shock Theater: Vampires (1998)

With the final installment of the Twilight saga now out, horror fans seeking some counterbalance might be craving a film slightly less sympathetic towards bloodsuckers and less interested in wooing the teen girl demographic. To that end, I recommend John Carpenter’s Vampires.

Based on the novel “Vampire$” by John Steakley, Vampires saw Carpenter indulging his long time love of westerns as hard as he ever has. This is a straight up cowboy and Indians style story with James Woods starring as Jack Crow, a vampire slayer under employment by the Vatican who leads a team of fellow slayers in a covert, Catholic Church-endorsed campaign to purge vampires from the face of the earth.

Crow and his crew do a brisk business ferreting out vampire nests and they’ve got a pretty efficient system going for wasting “goons” that involves spearing them in their nests and dragging them out via steel cables on a winch into the sunlight but when Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), the king of all vampires, puts his boot down hard on Team Crow in a surprise ambush, killing all but Crow himself and Crow’s right hand man Tony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin), Vampires becomes about Crow’s single minded hunt for Valek.

Making this about more than payback is the fact that Valek is in pursuit of a holy item known as the Bérziers Cross that will figure into a ceremony that will give vampires the power to walk in the daylight. And if that happens, then it’s game over for humanity.

Caught up in this battle is Katrina (Sheryl Lee), a hooker who was partying with Team Crow on the night they were decimated and who was bit by Valek. Katrina hasn’t turned all the way yet but the psychic connection she now shares with Valek is something that Crow believes he can use to his advantage. Katrina is dragged against her will along with Crow and Montoya in the hopes that she’ll be able to get them close to Valek before it’s too late. Just to make sure things go smoothly, the Vatican assigns a young priest named Father Adam (Tim Guinee), an archivist for the church, to tag along with Crow.

Of course, the pursuit of Valek proves to be anything but a smooth operation and by the end of it all, loyalty and faith are tested, old bonds are severed and new ones are formed. The action in Vampires lacks the sort of state-of-the-art pizzazz that most modern action pictures strive for (released just a few months earlier, Blade offered a much more stylish slice of vampire slaying) but on the plus side, everything in Vampires is accomplished with practical gags and stunt work. Every inch of this movie is old school – there’s not a single frame of CGI to be found. The vampires are depicted with minimal makeup work and when they burst into flames, it’s not rendered with CG (something that was common even on TV by then with vampires crumbling into CG dust on Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

Vampires is not about spectacle and splatter (even if KNB do come through impressively in that regard – with one of the best gags involving the vertical bisection of one character) so much as it is about the ways that each character finds themselves tested. Carpenter cares less about carnage (the climactic battle is depicted not in an orgy of FX but rather by the off-camera sounds of gunshots and screams) and more about where the characters end up by the movie’s end and how their relationships to each other have been changed.

Much of this choice in focus is no doubt due to budgetary considerations. There was no way that this modestly priced movie ever had the means to compete head to head with top of the line, big studios action pictures but Carpenter wisely didn’t even try. Instead, he and screenwriter Don Jakoby kept the focus on the small cast, giving each of their arcs a distinct meaning.

At the heart of Vampires is the long time friendship between Crow and Montoya and how Katrina and Father Adam both figure into, and ultimately change, that once-insular dynamic. Vampires is a very profane film, filled to the brim with f-bombs and derogatory slurs. It’s been accused of misogyny, homophobia (at one point, Crow taunts Valek by calling him a “pole smoking fashion victim.”), anti-Catholism and general surliness. And, on the surface, it’s true that there is an awful lot of crude attitude on display.

Carpenter’s filmography is famously host to its share of anti-heroes with harsh demeanors but Crow is in a league of his own. Even aside from the very ungallant way he treats Katrina, the physical abuse he personally delivers to (the wholly sympathetic) Father Adam during the course of the film is astonishing. Beating the meek priest at what seems like almost every turn, for various minor infractions, he stops just short of curb stomping him (nowhere else in the annals of film, by the way, is there another movie in which the hero kicks a priest across the dirt like a dog and then afterwards asks if that savage beating sexually aroused him). And Montoya is every bit as thuggish as Crow, as his treatment of Katrina attests.

It’s hard to argue with viewers who find all of this too much to take. Perhaps Vampires was Carpenter’s retort to the rise of the PC mentality in the ‘90s. Who knows? And yet, underneath all the machismo and displays of bad behavior, there lies an unmistakable streak of sentiment. Crow and Montoya aren’t the type of men to ever sit around and talk about their feelings and yet there is a deep connection between them and their final parting scene is every bit as heartfelt as the goodbye at the end of Carpenter’s Starman. Well, that is if Starman had also ended with one character promising to hunt down and kill the other after a brief grace period. But still...

Vampires proved to be a modest hit back in the fall of 1998 but it got a lot of flak and derision as well. That’s par for the course for a Carpenter movie as, more often than not, they have to exist awhile before they’re appreciated but now almost fifteen years since its release, the scrappy Vampires isn’t looking long in the tooth at all. In fact, I see a hint of immortality in it.

Originally published 11/16/12 at Shock Till You Drop

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Upon its release in 1982, Halloween III: Season of the Witch proved to be as welcome with Halloween fans as Tootsie Rolls are to trick or treaters. Few movies were given the bum’s rush so quickly and so few films brought together so many fans in near universal disdain. For years, if you asked horror fans how they felt about Halloween III, the stock response would be that they hated it.

So how is it that it’s become practically fashionable to like – even love – Halloween III? Plenty of films see their reputations improve over time but the turnaround in opinion on Halloween III to the point where some fans now call it the best of the Halloween sequels is nothing short of miraculous.

The unlikely road to redemption for this once-despised film comes down to three points… One, bringing back Michael Myers wasn’t such a hot idea. HIII was reviled for having the temerity to let Michael Myers stay dead but as each subsequent Myers-themed sequel, remake and so on did little but sully the legacy of Carpenter’s classic, the more taking a second look at HIII started to look like a good idea.

I mean, I really love Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers but when it comes down to it I could’ve lived without it. Similarly, I know that H2O has its fans but wouldn’t you say that the world have done without it? I think so. But now ask yourself if the world could go without Season of the Witch.

Think real hard. Think until the answer is “no, it freaking couldn’t!” then you’ll be right.

Why? Because there’s nothing else quite like it.

That’s the second reason that HIII has found an audience over time. It stands alone. Not just in the Halloween franchise but in the company of horror films in general. It’s just an odd, stubbornly goofy, little movie.

Horror fans have seen every plot told and retold from a hundred different angles so anything that throws even the slightest curveball is going to – sooner or later – earn some love. Every element in H3 isn’t 100% original in and of itself but the fact that so many quirky, divergent components – Stonehenge! Celtic magic! Catchy commercial jingles! Killer robots! An evil toy maker! – all exist in one film gives it the advantage of being something different.

How much of H3’s story came from the original scripter, the legendary Nigel Kneale, and how much came from director Tommy Lee Wallace’s rewrites is irrelevant. All that’s important is that none of the weirdness got scrubbed out along the way.

The third and final – and perhaps the most important – reason for H3’s ascension: Tom Atkins. When H3 was released, Atkins was already a familiar face in genre films but he hadn’t quite achieved the beloved status among fans that he enjoys today.

The fact that H3 gave Atkins one of his few leading man roles makes it hard for Atkins junkies to resist – even more so given how complicated and unique (at least among horror protagonists) his H3 character of Dr. Dan Challis is.

The horror genre is host to many classic heroes – everyone from Abraham Van Helsing to Laurie Strode to Clarice Starling. But Dan Challis is cut from a much different cloth. He’s a middle-aged dad (who doesn’t seem to be all that attentive to his kids), divorced, alcoholic, and something of a lecher.

Atkins’ innate likeability helps disguise Challis’ many unsavory qualities but yet he is undeniably skeevy – which is exactly what makes him such a memorable protagonist. Atkins had already played a borderline letch in The Fog where he exchanged fluids with Jamie Lee Curtis’ character before they even exchanged names but in H3, this (at the time) nearly fifty year old took it to the next level by getting Ellie (Stacey Nelkin), the barely legal daughter of a slain shop owner, into the sack while they’re on the trail of her father’s murderer.

To be sure, Challis is not a guy with a shiny halo around his head. Aside from his appetite for bedding young women, Challis also has a insatiable thirst for booze. Before he and Ellie even hit to road to investigate the murder of Ellie’s father, Challis makes sure to make a packy run first. And when he and Ellie first arrive in the town of Santa Mira, home to the ominous Silver Shamrock Novelties factory, Ellie is eager to start digging around for clues about what happened to her dad but Challis’ immediate response to that is “Whoa! It’s getting late and I could use a drink!”

In what must’ve been a perversely deliberate move on the part of Wallace and Atkins, Challis is shown repeatedly to fail to act in a traditionally heroic fashion and when he does make the effort, he comes up (one channel) short. By coincidence, in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome – released just a few months after H3 – James Woods’ character of Max Renn was just as morally muddied as Challis, and like Challis, Renn is also thrust into the position of saving the world from deadly televised transmissions. The two films make an unlikely but interesting double feature.

Challis’ personal complexities take a back seat to action as the last third of H3 is little more than a series of chases, fights, and desperate escapes but on the other hand, you get to see Challis in a zany death duel with a decapitated killer robot so it’s all good. Thirty years on, this one-time franchise killer has earned its place as an October essential. The Captain Kirk mask may have been retired in this entry, much to the consternation of fans, but Season of the Witch still boldly went where no Halloween had gone before.

Originally published 10/30/12 at Shock Till You Drop 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Dr. Giggles (1992)

Much to the frustration of filmmakers and studios eager to find reliable cash cows, it’s no easy task to create a successful horror icon – one that can be endlessly exploited in sequels, reboots, and remakes.

It seems that the only way for it to happen is for it to happen by complete chance because whenever filmmakers deliberately set out to create the next Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger, the attempt typically falls flat. That’s even true even when the successful creator of an icon tries to catch lightning again – witness the failure of Wes Craven’s Shocker (1989), the movie that was supposed to make the mega-watt madman known as Horace Pinker into a household name.

Mitch Pileggi (The X-Files) played Pinker to the hilt in that film and the gimmick of a villain able to travel through any electrical device had potential but audiences didn’t show any appetite for Shocker, much less for a Shocker 2.

Likewise, Max Jenke of The Horror Show (1989) proved to be a one-and-done slasher villain as did The Trickster from Brainscan (1993) and, well, the list goes on. For some inexplicable reason, I’ve always indulged a high level of fondness towards failed fright franchises and so I’d like to celebrate the twentieth (!) anniversary of one of my favorite second rate fear figures: the maniacal master of medicine and mirth (and girth!) known as Dr. Giggles.

With a fear of doctors (or at least a palpable sense of anxiety concerning them) being so commonly found in so many people, you’d think that a horror franchise centered on an insane doctor would be a guaranteed hit but it didn’t go that way for Dr. Giggles when it was released by Universal in October of 1992, just in time for Halloween, and quickly succumbed to a fatal case of audience indifference.

It’s become standard practice among horror fans to regard the slasher films of the ’80s – no matter how sub-par they might be – as horror classics while their ’90s counterparts still aren’t granted the same amount of affectionate leeway (even Scream remains out of favor with many hardcore fans). But that won’t deter me from giving some critical care to the reputation of Dr. Giggles.

Directed by Manny Coto (who, in recent years, has worked as writer and executive producer on both 24 and Dexter), Dr. Giggles remains a grisly and good humored slasher effort, bolstered by its major studio production values.

The script (by Coto and Graeme Whifler) follows the standard slasher movie template – a long-institutionalized lunatic escapes from the asylum only to make a beeline back to his hometown to stalk unsuspecting teens – but compensates for its assortment of clichéd beats with grotesquely funny kills (ingeniously executed by KNB) that display a comic book sense of exaggeration (the film was in fact adapted as a four-issue miniseries from Dark Horse Comics tied to the movie’s release) as Dr. Giggles occasionally employs oversized props (like a giant band aid, for instance) to dispatch his victims and actor Larry Drake’s portrayal of Dr. Evan Randall Jr., aka Dr. Giggles, is purposely larger than life.

As Dr. Giggles uses every instrument in his medical bag on the soon-to-be-ailing population of Moorehigh as he tries to carry on the twisted legacy of his disgraced (and deceased) physician father, Coto shows an appropriately sick sense of invention in exploiting his medical motif. Nothing is left on the (operating) table as every possible pun and one-liner related to any well-worn medical cliché makes its way into the film.

The corniness of such an approach might be off-putting to some but I love that Drake delivers every groaner in the script (and there’s a lot) with equal enthusiasm, right up to the last gasp where he breaks the fourth wall to deliver his parting quip directly to the audience (“Is there a…doctor in the house?”).

Coto and co. are so thorough in squeezing out every last potential joke and creative kill from their concept that had a Dr. Giggles 2 ever happened, I don’t know if there would’ve been anything left to deliver as I think they pretty much exhausted the character in one shot.

Giggles’ gaggle of victims – including future Charmed star Holly Marie Combs, the late Glenn Quinn (best known for his role in TV’s Rosanne), and ’90s personality Doug E. Doug – represent the standard character types that find their way into every teen slasher. They all seemed pretty tiresome and unexceptional back in 1992 but twenty years can lend an endearing aura of nostalgia to even the most vacuous teens.

Looking at the movie now, it’s clear that Combs made for a more than adequate scream queen in her turn here but this film wasn’t about the kids, it was all about launching Dr. Giggles as the next horror superstar.

That didn’t pan out so well but with horror films you can’t always go by the snap judgment of audiences. Appropriately for the horror genre, just because a movie might look dead on arrival doesn’t mean that it’s going to stay dead. Some films just take awhile to be discovered or appreciated.

At the time of its release, Dr. Giggles appeared to serious horror fans as being nothing less than a dose of pure poison. Today, it looks considerably less toxic. It may not balance its mix of horror and humor with surgical skill, exactly (it’s no Abominable Dr. Phibes), but it plays like a welcome antidote to the overt grimness that has often pervaded the genre in recent years.

It’s an old cliché (that doesn’t go unmentioned in this film, naturally!) that laughter is the best medicine and, as it turns out, there may be more than a bit of truth to that as, twenty years on, Dr. Giggles is looking healthier than ever.

Originally published 10/24/12 at Shock Till You Drop.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Night of the Living Dead 1990

Up until 10 years ago it looked as though zombies were dead and buried. But in 2002, the first Resident Evil movie became a hit and spearheaded a new age of zombie cinema – bolstered by the release of 28 Days Later which followed months later in the UK and came to US theaters in 2003.

Now, with the fourth Resident Evil sequel arriving in theaters, the acclaimed TV series The Walking Dead beginning its third season, and zombies even appearing in kid’s films with the ghoulish stop motion pic ParaNorman, it’s hard to remember a time when zombies were out of fashion. At yet, prior to Resident Evil, zombies had been deep underground for more than a decade.

The film that seemed, from a commercial standpoint, to put a bullet in the head of the zombie genre was 1990’s Night of the Living Dead remake. After NOTLD ’90, there were still some classic entries in zombie cinema – like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (1992), Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte, Dellamore (1994), and Brian Yunza’s underrated Return of the Living Dead III (1993) – but they were all either limited release or direct-to-video, films that found an appreciative cult audience rather than mainstream popularity.

Ironically, the only zombie movie to get a wide release during the ‘90s was the 1993 Disney comedy My Boyfriend’s Back (produced by Sean Cunningham and written by Jason Goes to Hell co-writer Dean Lorey) about a teenager who comes back from the dead for a girl he had a crush on but that film (both in its poor quality and dismal box office performance) only confirmed that zombies were deader than they’d ever been.

It looked like modern zombie cinema had, perhaps fittingly, gone out the very way it came in – with Night of the Living Dead. It would’ve been impossible to catch lightning in a bottle twice but George Romero’s script for the remake was still a squarely told tale. And having cut his directorial teeth on several episodes of Tales from the Darkside, Tom Savini was an ideal candidate to helm the remake as his first venture into feature filmmaking.

On the surface, all the elements were in place for a successful retelling of NOTLD but when the film was released in October of 1990, even with Halloween around the corner, audiences didn’t turn out for it.

As far as the general public goes, I think the feeling then was that zombies were little more than yesterday’s garbage. After all, by then the zombie genre had devolved into limp comedies, like 1988’s Joe Piscapo/Treat Williams buddy cop/zombie pairing Dead Heat. And in the eyes of older horror fans, the original Night of the Living Dead was sacred ground, a film not to be remade under any circumstances – not even with the original players involved (remember, too, that this was not far from the time of the much-reviled move to colorize classic black and white films – including Night of the Living Dead – so fans were extra sensitive to the idea of anyone tampering with NOTLD).

For a younger generation of horror fans (the first to grow up in the VHS era), weaned from an early age on a diet of splatter heavy zombie films – from Romero’s Night sequels Dawn and Day, to Fulci’s Zombie, to Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground – anything less than an unrated zombie pic just wouldn’t do.

At the time, an R-rated Night remake was too mousy for most fans to bother with – especially with Romero and Savini involved. After Dawn and Day had raised the bar for splatter, what hardcore fan wanted an R-rated zombie film from these guys? The remake seemed to be, and was largely received as, a pointless enterprise (even if it had the well-intended purpose of helping the original filmmakers strengthen their copyright claims to the original). But good filmmaking gets noticed eventually and over the years, NOTLD ’90 has slowly become appreciated in its own right.

Savini’s direction compliments Romero’s lean script by not going for any unnecessary ornamentation. He doesn’t whip out a lot of stylistic tricks; he just puts the camera where it needs to be to get each scene across. It’s an old-fashioned film in that regard as by the late ‘80s/early ‘90s it was common to see directors becoming more indulgent with their visuals, trying to accomplish more impressive, innovative shots. Sometimes this would be to brilliant effect, as with Sam Raimi, but Savini practiced a more classical brand of storytelling.

More time and money on this production might’ve achieved a different result as Savini has said in interviews over the years that many of his storyboarded plans were scuttled due to limitations but such compromises arguably worked to the film’s favor. With Savini in the director’s seat, the film’s myriad FX duties were headed up by John Vulich and Everett Burrell of Optic Nerve FX and their crew did a bang-up job, delivering an array of memorable zombies with some of the gags – such as Johnny’s wince-inducing fatal face dive into a headstone – bearing Savini’s stage magic-based influence of accomplishing illusions in-camera with simple props and misdirection.

Savini also had an excellent group of actors to work with – with a cast including Tony Todd as Ben, Tom Towles as Cooper, William Butler as Tom, Bill Moseley as Johnny, and Patricia Tallman as Barbara. It’d be right to criticize the decision to turn Barbara into an action heroine – one of several creative choices that ensure this version doesn’t resonate as deeply as the original as it strives to be more rousing and crowd pleasing – except for the fact that Tallman does such a great job with the character.

She’s so good in the part that she makes it easy to overlook the fact that Barbara loses her glasses early on but yet still proves to be a dead shot with a rifle. Female heroines are commonplace these days but Tallman imbues her Barbara with a sense of resiliency and humanity that remains rare.

Tallman’s Barbara isn’t just about mowing down zombies. She makes smart decisions, argues her points with intelligence, and never seems cartoonishly superhuman as many action heroines (as well as their male counterparts) now do. In fact, the best moments of Tallman’s performance show her very human responses to what’s going on around her, as when she’s confronted with a female zombie clutching a child’s doll.

With Barbara in the forefront more than she was in the original, Romero’s script makes Ben slightly more childish in his squabbles with the petty, cowardly Cooper. In the original, Ben was more clearly depicted as the voice of reason (even if he wasn’t always necessarily right) but in the remake, Ben is still heroic and well-intentioned but his inability to temper his rage against Cooper is his undoing (he’s also shown to unfairly overreact to Cooper at times, as when he causes the TV Cooper is carrying to tumble down the cellar stairs) while Barbara is the one who’s more able to keep her cool.

Even Ben’s idea to board up the house turns out to have been a fatally flawed plan as Romero introduces the idea that all that hammering may have been responsible for attracting a larger group of zombies to the farmhouse as we see zombies aimlessly staggering in the field suddenly become aware of the noise and then turn and walk towards it.

Todd fills Duane Jones’ shoes admirably, though, and he gets a classic moment towards the end as he sits alone in the basement, sees the missing keys to the gas pump, and laughs madly to himself at this last bitter irony.

NOTLD ’90 differs from the original most notably in its last act, as characters meet different fates than their original counterparts and we see more of what’s happening in the world outside the farmhouse on the morning after. The sympathy towards the undead that Romero developed in Dawn and Day is in evidence here and as we see the grisly circus of undead abuse unfolding through Barbara’s eyes (this is essentially the ground level view of what the Dawn of the Dead crew glimpsed as they flew in their stolen news helicopter over rednecks shooting zombies for sport), the closing moments of NOTLD ‘90 serve as an effective coda – not just for this retelling of Night, but for Romero’s zombie series as a whole.

Even though this is Savini’s film rather than Romero’s, Romero’s screenplay is enough to give it a credible place within the official Romero canon. If anything, this version of Night dovetails more neatly with Romero’s sequels than the original does.

I hasten to add that this doesn’t make it a better film than the original Night, only that it better reflects how Romero’s “rules” of zombie behavior had evolved over time.

Romero would later (thanks to the resurgence of zombie cinema) add to his undead legacy with Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and 2009’s Survival of the Dead (with more to come, probably) but whether you think those films are good or bad (and they have divided fans), they feel like they inhabit their own separate space.

NOTLD ’90 was the last of the Romero-verse zombie films to be made in Pittsburgh, rather than his current base in the Great White North, and it feels like a grave marker for that earlier homegrown era. Ignored or derided upon its original release, the reputation of Savini’s film has only grown over the years – proving that eventually every Night must have its day.

Originally published on 9/13/12 at Shock Till You Drop

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Silent Rage (1982)

With the ‘80s action hero ensemble The Expendables 2 currently on theater screens worldwide, it’s worth remembering that most of these men of action have dabbled in horror over the years. Bruce Willis has the ghostly hit The Sixth Sense (1999) to his credit; Arnold Schwarzennegger went toe to toe with a tenacious space-spawned hunter in the classic sci-fi/horror hybrid Predator (1987) and took on Satan in End of Days (1999); Sylvester Stallone battled a serial killer in the little-seen Eye See You (1999) and some would say that his violent cop thriller Cobra (1986) rests comfortably on the periphery of the ‘80s slasher genre. But despite the various merits of those films, I have to single out the Chuck Norris vehicle Silent Rage (1982) as a true action/horror favorite.

In Silent Rage, directed by Michael Miller and written by Edward di Lorenzo and Joseph Fraley, Chuck plays Sheriff Dan Stevens, the head lawman of a small town who finds himself at war with a relentless human killing machine. Some would say that nature alone could never create a being powerful enough to go up against Chuck Norris and the makers of Silent Rage wholeheartedly agreed, making their unstoppable maniac (Brian Libby) the Godless product of scientists who commit the mistake of reviving a homicidal killer hovering on Death’s Door.

Not only is he granted a new lease on life, but thanks to the miracle of genetic engineering, this psycho can now withstand almost any form of physical harm. The “almost” is where Chuck Norris comes in. As Silent Rage begins we meet Libby’s character of John Kirby as he wakes up in the boarding house where he’s been staying. Kirby receives a concerned call from Tom Halman, his psychiatrist (Ron Silver), and during the brief call Kirby struggles to talk while fumbling in vain for his medication.

We sense that Kirby might be losing it – especially when he tells Halman “I’m losing it, Doc! I’m looosing it!” He then proceeds to lose it, chasing his landlady through the house with an axe (complete with a nod to The Shining as Kirby leers maniacally at the landlady through the hole in the door he’s just chopped through).

This homicidal outburst, naturally, brings Chuck onto the scene. While he has back up available in the flabby form of his devoted deputy Charlie (Stephen Furst, best known as Animal House’s “Flounder”), Chuck goes in alone like the one man army that he is and, after a prolonged fight, he puts Kirby in cuffs.

Unfortunately while waiting in the back of a cruiser, Kirby breaks free and the cops on the scene have no choice but to gun him down, much to the anguished protest of Halman, who arrives too late to spare his troubled patient.

Barely alive, Kirby is taken to the medical facility where Halman works and where, it just so happens, groundbreaking genetic research is being done (not the thing you’d expect to find in a small town, but whatever). Against Halman’s ethical protests, Kirby is revived by the ambitious and scientifically ruthless Dr. Philip Spires (Steven Keats) and Spires’ devoted toady, Dr. Paul Vaughn (genre regular William Finley).

Thanks to an injection of Spires’ experimental serum, Kirby is now virtually impervious to injury. Why Spires couldn’t have waited to give the gift of invincibility to someone who wasn’t a psychotic murderer, we don’t know, but scientists in movies are prone to making catastrophically bad decisions.

Once the new and improved Kirby gets his feet on the ground, he covertly exits the lab and pays a nighttime visit to Halman – and it’s not for a therapy session. The home invasion that follows as Kirby arrives at Halman’s isolated abode is Silent Rage’s horror centerpiece as the malevolent Kirby goes after both Halman and then Halman’s wife. The scene isn’t graphically gory but instead features expertly staged suspense (a prolonged pursuit is punctuated by a surprise head slam to the wall that effectively startles, even on repeated viewings).

The towering Libby is truly sinister as Kirby and he stands out as one of the more formidable movie maniacs of the ’80s. While the majority of Halloween and Friday the 13th rip-offs that were in theaters at the time made splatter FX their selling point, Silent Rage went light on gore but applied hard-hitting action to the slasher formula.

The climax to Halloween had Michael Myers shot off the second floor balcony of the Doyle home and fall with a heavy thud on the dirt of the Doyle’s backyard but in Silent Rage, Kirby is shot through the glass window of a medical facility and plummets about five floors down to the pavement and that’s just the start of an extended climatic battle between Kirby and Sheriff Stevens (one that sees Kirby undergo a head to toe burn similar to the one that Myers endures in Halloween II).

It might not have been any direct inspiration on trends to come but certainly the stunt-heavy nature of Silent Rage did anticipate the more action-oriented approach the slasher sub-genre adopted as the ’80s went on. Once the MPAA all but outlawed gore by the mid-‘80s, it left filmmakers little choice but to turn to action as a readily exploitable, and more easily MPAA sanctioned, element.

Latter day Halloween and Friday the 13th sequels were much more aligned with action cinema than the series’ earlier films had been. Witness scenes like Michael Myers battling gun-toting members of a Haddonfield posse while on the back of a speeding pick-up truck in Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers (1988), the spectacular RV crash that Jason survives in 1986’s Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI, or even the wink to the James Bond series seen in that film’s title sequence.

The final frames of Silent Rage left the gate wide open for a Silent Rage 2 but sadly a sequel never came about. Either the film wasn’t regarded as a big enough hit (it grossed just under $11 million in US theaters) or else Norris was simply on to bigger things as his career was moving into its peak years with hits like Lone Wolf McQuade (1983), Code of Silence (1985), and others.

Norris is regarded these days as something of a camp character – especially by younger fans who, thanks to late night host Conan O’Brien, think of him first and foremost from the long running TV series Walker, Texas Ranger (1993-2001) – but Silent Rage is a good example of the straight-forward B-fare he originally made his name on.

As a reminder of an earnest exploitation era when slasher films and Chuck Norris pictures were two of the best reasons to go to the movies, Silent Rage endures as a satisfying and high-kicking genre hybrid.

Originally published on 8/31/12 at Shock Till You Drop.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Friday the 13th Part 3-D (1982)

As the summer of 2012 rolls on, tributes to and fond reminisces of the summer of ’82 continue to pepper the internet as that legendary summer – one that arguably yielded the biggest bumper crop of genre classics ever – celebrates its thirtieth anniversary. The most famed titles of that summer are never far from the hearts and minds of genre fans as films like The Thing, Blade Runner, and Poltergeist continue to be obsessed over, three decades after their releases.

But the summer of ’82 wasn’t just about its genre milestones (even if the films that fit that description now weren’t all recognized as such back then). No, there was also a fair share of schlock to be found. In the case of films like Don Coscarelli’s The Beastmaster, it was often golden, grade-A schlock as only the early ‘80s could supply – but it was still schlock nonetheless.

One film from that history-making summer that fit firmly into the schlock category was the third installment of the Friday the 13th saga, with Jason slashing to the same familiar beats but this time doing it in 3-D. Just three films into the series, the limiting nature of Friday’s body count formula was evident. Although initial discussions on Part 3 had involved the idea of continuing the story of Amy Steel’s character from Part 2 as she dealt with her trauma in a mental institution, that new direction never took hold. Instead, a choice was made to stick to the tried and true elements that had proven to be popular with audiences. That meant bringing another group of young kids into the woods to be slaughtered by Jason.

With so little to differentiate Part 3 from its predecessors, though, Friday’s producers felt they needed a hook to draw audiences back for more of the same. Luckily, 3-D was on the rise again and it seemed like an obvious match for a Friday film. This time around, the new batch of kids heading to their doom weren’t camp counselors but rather a loosely gathered bunch of friends looking for a weekend getaway on the rustic grounds of Higgin’s Haven.

You would think that even the dumbest of kids would have second thoughts about partying anywhere near Crystal Lake as, within the timeline of the series, the grisly events of Part 2 have just happened and the killer is very much still at large. But in the world of Friday the 13th, good sense would only get in the way of a good slaughter so this group of fun-loving kids throws caution to the wind with nary a second thought, piling in the van with plenty of weed on hand and heads to their secluded weekend getaway.

As much as the majority of Part 3 indulges in déjà vu nods towards the first Friday (an under the hammock kill that mirror Kevin Bacon’s death in the original, a final dream sequence with another leap from a lake), it isn’t all idle repetition. We’ll get to the addition of Jason’s famous face gear momentarily but first, it should be noted that we learn an essential new “don’t'” in the Friday the 13th universe in Part 3 in addition to the already familiar maxims of “don’t have sex” and “don’t do drugs.” Some might believe it to be unnecessary for this particular “don’t” to be explained but Part 3 confirms that when you survive an encounter with Jason, it’s a terrible idea to test your luck with a rematch.

Teaching us that painful lesson here is the character of Ali (Nick Savage) – a bad-ass biker who isn’t content with living to tell the tale of his brush with Jason. Ali first takes on Jason in a barn and is quickly beat down in what appears to be fatal fashion. But while Jason leaves him for dead, Ali pops up again towards the end of the film in a surprise resurrection worthy of Jason himself, momentarily distracting Jason from his attack on Final Girl Chris (Dana Kimmell).

But having the element of surprise on his side isn’t enough of an edge for Ali as Jason immediately chops off the biker’s right forearm before finishing him off for good. When it comes to Jason, if you should ever miraculously survive Round 1, DON’T challenge the Sultan of Slaughter to Round 2.

Of course, Part 3 is famously the film where Jason established his signature look as his iconic hockey mask was introduced – the most important contribution to the series aside from Harry Manfredini’s Ki-ki-ki Ma-ma-ma score. It’s never been decisively determined who made the creative decision concerning Jason’s hockey mask but whoever did come up with it, they gave Jason one of the most distinctive looks of any screen psycho.

The Friday series pretty much fell ass-backwards into its own mythology over the course of the series’ early films but this is the one where things began to get fully locked down. This was also the first Friday to establish the tradition of bringing in random victims outside of the core group of characters just to put up bigger numbers for Jason.

In the first two films, you needed a harbinger of doom to provide some unheeded warnings so Crazy Ralph wasn’t so out of place and, of course, the law had to get more directly involved eventually so the sheriff in Part 2 wasn’t so random but Part 3 was the first Friday that brought in completely extraneous characters just to have them killed.

If you loved the banana-eating hitchhiker in The Final Chapter, or any of the many ‘walk-on’ victims that have appeared in other Fridays over the years, you can thank Part 3. It was with this film that the producers realized that it was always better to fill screen time with someone getting killed – no matter whom it was or what part they played in the film. Hence, in Part 3 there’s Harold, the luckless shop owner (played by the late Steve Susskind) and his nagging wife Edna (Cheri Maugans) as well as Ali and his two sidekicks in mischief, Fox (Gloria Charles) and Loco (Kevin O’Brien), who all run afoul of Jason.

Screen time that in the previous films might’ve been spent on moments of character development with the main cast were now used to deliver more of the moments that audiences came to see in a Friday the 13th film. No more downtime as we listen to Bill strum his guitar, or a buzzed Ginny theorize at a local bar about the legend of Jason – Part 3 changed the pace of the series.

This practice of shoe-horning in more and more kills reached its apex in A New Beginning with its staggering body count of seventeen (twenty-one, if you count the death of the bogus Jason along with his son’s death and two dream deaths in the pre-title sequence).

As with Part 2, encoring director Steve Miner staged yet another exciting final chase with Richard Brooker’s Jason pursuing Chris over every inch of Higgins’ Haven. With Jason portrayed as a hard to kill backwoods psycho, rather than as a reanimated zombie (as an old-school Friday fan, I continue to prefer this earlier version of Jason), Brooker gets to display some moments of human rage during the film’s climatic chase – as when he throws a frustrated fit in a barn stall when it momentarily looks like Chris has eluded him.

It was moments like these that suggested, albeit briefly, an extra dimension to Jason beyond what was engineered by 3-D technology. Many fans consider 1984’s The Final Chapter to be the quintessential Friday but I think Part 3 deserves that mantle a little bit more. It was where the series became more polished in its presentation and where Jason became a true slasher icon. It made the difference between the Friday films going on to be an enduring franchise or simply closing out as a trilogy.

But even if you don’t regard Part 3 as being the quintessential Friday, its place in the line-up of ’82 means that it’ll always be remembered as part of a classic summer gone by.

Originally published on 7/25/12 at Shock Till You Drop.