Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bia Hơi and Takeout

House (1986)
directed by Steve Miner
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

House begins with just the right mix of horror and comedy. The comedy isn't funny so much as strange and the horror is discombobulating: noises, sights, and the perfect California residence as the star of the film. George Wendt, the neighbor, is just like the house, a little off and a little confusing. But you warm up to him, even as you wonder about his role in the scheme of things.

The movie's protagonist, Roger Cobb, is a Vietnam veteran whose son was kidnapped from his yard - this yard - several years prior. Since the war, Cobb has prospered as a famous novelist, although he is separated from his wife, a famous TV actor. The house was his aunt's, and when she kills herself, she leaves it to Roger.

If you're thinking that the loss of a son and the Vietnam War are heavy themes for a horror comedy, you're right. The end of the film suggests that Roger finds some resolution on both fronts - he is hounded by his failure to save a friend from enemy capture and torture in the jungle - but doesn't say how much of that peace is won by retreating further and further into his own mind. If the house is responsible for his aunt's death, then isn't everything that Roger experiences simply one more haunting? If so, isn't he worse off than before?

Does the house win? The movie doesn't say, or even suggest it, and I get the impression that the trickier implications of the set-up weren't considered. Fred Dekker also wrote The Monster Squad, similarly sloppy. This is more bizarre, and occasionally a lot of fun, like when the sexy neighbor just wants a babysitter for her kid. But it isn't the right movie for Roger, poor guy.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


[REC] (2007)
directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Beyond the novel idea that the government is aware of the zombie outbreak early enough to contain it, do the scares in [REC] really come from a different place than in any other zombie movie? Aren't zombies all about choking off escape routes and overwhelming you by sheer numbers? Isn't the point that sentient wherewithal is worthless against the hungry hordes?

This was fun, but there's a pretty slow half hour once the quarantine begins and we "get to know" the generic personalities destined for an early undead grave. Tack on another twenty minutes of introductions to the likable protagonist and her cameraman, and there's barely a sitcom's fill of panicked screams and lunging monsters to take us to the bridge. The revelation (thankfully not a twist) at the end draws us back out into the larger world, and it was only then that I noticed the old familiar run of standing hairs on my spine.

Now, it's obvious to me that my rickety television is a far cry from seeing this movie in the theaters, and one of the reasons that The Blair Witch Project stuck with me, I know, is that I wasn't accustomed to watching scary movies at all in 1999. But each time a zombie attacked in [REC], and the diminishing group of survivors cursed and ran and yelled at each other, I couldn't help but think how much more unsettling the supernatural can seem when you're alone. Not isolated, with every emergency responder in Barcelona outside the door, but alone. In the woods without a compass and nothing but the creak of trees and the occasional, untraceable, inhuman scream.

Friday, October 28, 2011


The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
directed by Roger Corman
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

There is more cruelty here than in Corman's other Poe adaptations, but once again I'm left a little cold by the silliness of Satanists. Why would Price's Prince Prospero give himself over so gladly to the man in red? Prospero believes him an agent of the devil, but what could the devil possibly offer that Prospero does not already have? He wields power freely, controls the lives of his countrymen, and makes mockeries of noblemen and peasants alike. Is it boredom beneath his sadistic veneer, and a hope that the "Lord of Flies" will relieve the repetition?

I accept the allure of immortality, and believe that all manner of people would do anything for even one day past expiration. But Prospero seems more interested in the elevation of his theatrics to some larger stage. I think that's mistaken. If you've seen one terror orgy, you've seen them all. If one poor girl can be corrupted, what's a second poor girl in a bigger town?

I suppose the sickly tone of overindulgence is at least sustained throughout the film. Prospero isn't asked to yo-yo between sanity and madness the way Price's other Poe protagonists are, giving him room to stretch like a lion through a range of catty replies. But if the plague takes every man, regardless of religious persuasion, then isn't Prospero correct to have his fun while he can? What did those sad-sack villagers gain, moping around and starving in hovels until the end?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Desert 5-2-5

The Lady and the Monster (1944)
directed by George Sherman
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

This first (but not last) adaptation of Curt Siodmak's Donovan's Brain is ultimately a referendum on domestic abuse, as the titular telepathic terror is stopped only when the professor's housekeeper (slapped by Mueller in an earlier scene) and Janice (who narrowly escaped strangulation at the hands of the man she loved) team up to shoot the mad scientist and dash the offending organ with a foot stool. I prefer variations on possession with less urgency behind them, which is why somnambulists creep me out. Once Donovan takes control, it's Katy bar the door for blind outbursts and rage.

The movie begins in Arizona, at a castle on the outskirts of Phoenix, complete with tumbleweeds and blowing sand. Czechoslovakian beauty Vera Ralston, looking like a mid-century Laura Dern, gets the best line as she anoints her pretty neck with perfume after assisting in an experiment with her guardian, Eric Von Stroheim. "This gown reeks of chloroform," she says, "and I don't want to put my dancing partners to sleep." But local color gives way to a mystery across state lines when a plane crash sends a fresh head to her foster father's lab.

Cinematographer John Alton carries the weight from there, since frankly I spaced out on the dead man's nefarious plot to cheat someone out of his remaining millions. Alton lights ostensible protagonist Richard Arlen from beneath each time he's controlled by THE BRAIN, even in comfortable offices with plenty of sunshine through the windows. Arlen moves from chair to desk but the devil-glow stays with him. Someone travel back in time and book John for my next movie night alone dinner party!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Stars in My Crown

The Comedy of Terrors (1963)
directed by Jacques Tourneur
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

I don't know if this is the best movie of Peter Lorre's Basil Rathbone's Les Baxter's Richard Matheson's Jacques Tourneur's Boris Karloff's career, but it is without a doubt, as of now, my favorite Vincent Price performance. This is Beat the Devil for the aging horror set, and not just because Lorre gets to be happy before it's through. Price plays a drunk undertaker who marries into a business founded by his father-in-law, a senile Boris Karloff. Lorre is the hapless assistant who, when money is tight, is forced upon threat of exposure for past crimes to help Price break into wealthy homes and murder the inhabitants. As the only morgue in town, Hinchley & Trumbull is inevitably (and profitably) employed to put said bodies into the ground.

Between the two sets of picture credits, the ongoing jokes about Lorre's pronunciation, and Price's alcoholic reveries, I wondered if I was dreaming. Tack on an 80-minute run-time and enough physical comedy to underwrite a square dance and I think I'm in love. The rest is a competition - to the death! - between the gentlemen at the firm and Basil Rathbone as the narcoleptic landlord who demands payment for a year's back rent. Syl showed me a still from this, years ago. I'm slow but I get there.

The basement set is full of taxidermied bears, candelabras, and of course coffins. There is no need for it to be so lovingly constructed, or filled with just the right pockets of dark. But Tourneur was a man who valued clutter as testament to the interests that characters held. A crowded cafe in I Walked with a Zombie or Cat People, the crowded cabins in the trees in Canyon Passage: in spite of all the quiet in those films, Tourneur liked evidence of adventure. A crowded soundstage couldn't begin to say it all about any of these heroes of mine, but as a place to at least share a laugh at Peter Lorre's expense, it's a start.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Making Off with the Driver Again

The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (1967)
directed by Harald Reinl
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

Billed, somewhat more subtly, as Castle of the Walking Dead on Netflix, this shores up and concludes my commitment to Christopher Lee for the season. I want to make a joke about when on earth (or where) a flabby man in spandex pants would be accepted as an intimidating jailer, but I guess the bottom line is that I'll follow Kit almost anywhere. It starts off rough, as he's forced to wear a mask made of bronze with thin spikes on the inside. He screams, but walks out of the dungeon under his own strength not half a minute later.

Print quality was "barely VHS," but the blues and greens were sufficiently atmospheric in a dark room. This being a German production, the usual aristocratic aspirations are catered to in random moments, like when a working-class girl begs to wipe the dust from a traveling nobleman's cloak. Lee, drawn and quartered by an angry township, needs a roomful of women to die before he can fully resurrect himself, and brings in the son and daughter of his accuser and executioner to round out the thirteen sacrifices.

The daughter is now a Baroness (played by a Bond girl) whose "only source of income" is piano lessons. She can still afford a servant and a driver, and teams up with the son and a highwayman to nefariously thwart Count Regula's plot through the appearance of... a cross around her neck. All that good dark magic undone by something so simple! Oh well. Lee is too good for this nonsense anyway, which, except for a well-placed body in a field of foggy trees and the highwayman's assertion that sign language is a thief's secret code, barely beat out an unplanned showing of Scream 4 for review.

For that, read this.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Papa Was a Bills Fan

Lady in White (1988)
directed by Frank LaLoggia
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

There is a modest but spooky ghost story here, filled with unsettling imagery like a woman at the window on a moonlit night and the ghost of a girl carried unconscious by an invisible figure to a cliff. The mask that the boy wears, a homemade Lugosi, is just the sort of mask that every kid should be lucky enough to have on Halloween. The movie begins on Halloween, which, as Steve says, is rare.

But Lady in White is also about growing up as a younger brother in an Italian-American household. It is about Catholic guilt and doubt in "God's plan." And, out of nowhere, it is a heavy-handed lesson in racial prejudice, although LaLoggia is quick to assert that his own the protagonist's father stands tall for equality.

I'll take the ghosts but he can keep the rest. The family is warm, if a bit dull, and part of me wondered if this were not some odd reclamation of an absent mother in LaLoggia's childhood. Who is Frankie Scarlatti, the plucky but sensitive kid, if not a stand-in for his Rochester-born creator? Who is it that all these children and all these ghosts want if not a mom?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

More Beautiful than Pocahontas and Helen of Troy

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
directed by Jack Clayton
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The names alone are worth a good review: Tom Fury, seller of lightning rods; Jim Nightshade; the Dust Witch. That opening monologue is a masterpiece in miniature, abetted by a small town in the hand of a hill. After so many movies, that eerie October of Meet Me in St. Louis finds its way in. This is a fairy tale as they rarely exist in the modern world, familiar and unsettling and strange.

In fiction, mothers often hate daughters for their youth, and fathers reclaim their lost teenage years through affairs with teenage girls. Here, Jason Robards' Halloway is jealous of his son's age, but does not so much use it against the child as carry his envy as a temperamental melancholy. Will, the boy, feels isolated from his dad, and the two are uneasy with one another, if not exactly at loggerheads. It also explains why Will is such good friends with fatherless Jim.

The tone reminded me of A Child's Christmas in Wales, gentle but sad. With death at one's heels at the end of a life, there is more to remember in dreams, but the same old regrets run like deep currents. Mr. Dark, as he tears away the pages, cuts at Halloway's long-festering wound. It is a remarkable scene of pain, and when the Dust Witch floats towards the camera in her lacy, tattered black dress, I shuddered in the dark.

Jack Clayton directed The Innocents, a movie I watched on a wet afternoon in Mississippi and still remember oh so clearly. He is Jack of Ghosts, a mystic of soundstage forests and real Vermont pumpkin fields. As autumn evenings whisper more persistently, the disagreements between Clayton and Bradbury (or Disney's disappointment with the final cut) seem irrelevant. If the movie had done well, the stories would likely not exist at all. This is a fine carnival film, a great movie about childhood, and a marvel of subconscious imagination and fears.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

It's a Boat Word

Piranha (2010)
directed by Alexandre Aja
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

I don't always agree with friends' recommendations, but when my friends agree with each other, they're almost never wrong. Leave it to a European to set a movie about piranhas in the Arizona desert and to not skimp on the nudity and gore. Yes, the CGI bothered me, but not as much as I expected it to, in part because the fish move so fast, and in part because Aja loves the visual gag of half-eaten bodies and old-fashioned make-up pulled from the water in terrified surprise.

That recent Dr. Pepper commercial starring Pitbull is a good approximation of the "party tunes" on the soundtrack, a set of jock jams so absurd that the only comedy a topless parasailer can add is a well-timed scream. I like that teenagers drink alcohol and it isn't a big deal, and I like that strangers start off trying to help each other once the attacks begin in earnest. Well, except for the ex in the motorboat, blending his way to a red death.

The movie manages to be a fun homage to both Jaws and Piranha, instead of an unnecessary repetition of the latter. The tone remains wholesome, in spite of Jerry O'Connell's lecherous efforts, because the central conflict is as simple as a teenage boy skipping out on babysitting his siblings. Elizabeth Shue, unbelievably pushing 50, is the ultimate mom (and thus the ultimate cop), and there's no question who will survive and who won't once she and Adam Scott sail in for the rescue.

Anyone going to see The Three Musketeers?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Forget Me Now

Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
directed by J. Lee Thompson
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

As a director with a working relationship with Gregory Peck, J. Lee Thompson seemed to share his leading man's dull earnestness. I'm basing that on The Guns of Navarone, a bloated marquee war picture, and every pic of Peck's I've seen. Psychological terror clearly interested Thompson (it had been nearly two decades since Cape Fear), and in Happy Birthday to Me he can't wait to skim the most superficial cliches of teenage misbehavior.

Mary Ingalls is friends with the hip "Top Ten," a collection of rich wastrels, who die a series of grisly, funny deaths that somehow function to draw out a memory of the stormy evening when mommy drank too much and wound up yelling at someone's nightwatchman. The trigger events are so random as to be nonsensical, like everyone hanging out in a storage room at the natatorium when one of the pals puts on a suit to swim. It takes Thompson an extra twenty minutes to catch up to what we already know about the murderer, which is ten minutes past wondering why everyone inexplicably wears gloves.

Once the movie settles on a killer, a glorious spree that includes seduction, then death, by shish kebab is brought to a halt by an eleventh hour twist clear out of some blue sky. Thompson suffers the fate of too many aging directors, which is to make us think that prolonging a scene - length alone - makes it scarier, but at least he manages to frame the heroine just before the credits roll. Such cynics, those old-timers.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

All This Exercise is Making Me Hungry

The Fury (1978)
directed by Brian De Palma
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The fuzzy green font on the DVD definitely makes it look like The Fog, and something in my mind said "haunted house." I was wrong, but it is a horror film, by way of a nearly unrelated thriller. The action begins in "Mid East," 1977, but before I'd barely recovered from one of the best kidnappings on record, the camera cruises two teenagers on an 87-degree summer day along the lake in Chicago.

Does anyone make movies like Brian De Palma? Hitchcock was his hero, but there's too much suspicion of the average stranger in those films. De Palma's protagonists might be paranoid, but they live in a world of crowded sidewalks with a thousand nameless faces. You don't worry that one of them is going to step off the boardwalk with a gun; like you, he's too busy watching the pretty girls walk by. Or having a drink by the Mediterranean. Or bragging about the stereo in his car.

Did I mention that this is a comedy? That Kirk Douglas is the star, that he runs after trains in Chicago in his boxer shorts, that he requisitions a police car with shoe polish in his hair? This is either his funniest role or his sappiest; The Fury becomes more maudlin the deeper you get into the terror, which is built on self-pity and lines like "telepathy is a timeless form of communication." John Williams' score almost makes it sound like De Palma is mocking Steven Spielberg. Both directors are saps for absent fathers, which is too bad, since Kirk chomping on a breakfast link while sweet-talking a senile mother-in-law should be dad enough for everyone.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Single Moving Candle

The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)
directed by Roger Corman
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

The pleasures to be found in The Tomb of Ligeia are less sustained, I think, than those in Pit and the Pendulum. This is, at least initially, too self-conscious an effort at a "British" picture, filmed at Shepperton Studios and in the ruins of a real-life abbey, complete with fox hunts and glasses of sherry. But Elizabeth Shepherd is a much better match for Vincent Price than Luana Anders was, more of a masochist and much quicker in realizing the danger her passions expose her to.

The definitive scene is an act of hypnosis performed by Price on Shepherd. No confession of love could be more eloquently recited than this, and the effect of recalling Shepherd's buried memories of her mother is to mimic a seance, which results in a very subtle breaking of Shepherd's father's heart. Corman finds time to care about a man we've barely met, and the ensuing segue into possession seems even creepier for the emotion of the moment before.

Scares are Ligeia's great success. They fall faster and more frequently than in Pit and the Pendulum, in part because Price's descent into madness is less theatrical (he sometimes appears catatonic). A dream sequence involving a bleeding fox and the changing face of a chambermaid seems to anticipate some future scene, but moves so slowly it is as if something is wrong with the print. It does not drag so much as catch, and play out like that nightmare - well, you know the one.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Gina, Who Faced Her World Alone

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
directed by John S. Robertson
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

I like that Jekyll embraces his own scientific curiosity and allows the older man at the party to tempt him towards misbehavior. I like that, once committed to sin, Jekyll's scientific mind compels him to seek the most extreme manifestation of his "baser impulses." Stevenson's story can be read as an indictment of the Victorian upper class, but Barrymore gifts Hyde a purer cruelty, exploiting Jekyll's moral loophole completely.

Jekyll's suicide implies that the murder of Millicent's father is a worse deed than the humiliation of Gina and the woman at the bar. But Millicent's father was Hyde in his youth, to a lesser degree. Gina is mesmerizing when we first see her on stage (silent films give you a less guarded perspective on the moment of discovery that made some faces stars), but Hyde ruins her. When the spider appears - such a spider! - it moves absolutely like a dancer, mutated beneath a spell to some grotesque abomination.

The opium den in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the template for the look and the feel of the film. Part of it is age and the deep shadows that fill old prints. Part is the simplicity of Barrymore's transformation, familiar but captivating as the moon. Gas lamps whimper and gin drinkers stumble and something seeps through the alleyways. It is a better universe for atmosphere than allegory, but Stevenson himself was clever enough to know that, whatever else he may have wanted to say.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Itinerant Occultist

Dead and Buried (1981)
directed by Gary Sherman
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

Recent horror trends might dull the impact of its conclusion, but Dead and Buried should be better known. It is spooky and atmospheric, evenly paced and strange. I once advocated the credits that Woody Allen used - always simple, always the same - but refute that now. Great credits start your night right (it took Midnight in Paris to do it but even Woody Allen changed his mind) and the ghostly score and easy opening here left me unprepared for the unsettling act of violence that splinters in.

The death scenes - all of them - are brutal. Each home, each hallway is silted with fog, and the hotel staircase has cobwebs on its sconces. Even the plates at the cafe are grey, a color as weak as the light from a flashlight always low on batteries. The man who plays the sheriff is a good actor, perfect for this role, and all of your suspicions about his wife make that house eerier each time he goes home. One mystery becomes two - a second layer - and the doctor sets about his lab work in a room like Victor Frankenstein's.

I like that the hitchhiker, pretty thing, has never heard of Antonio Bay Potters Bluff, the town just up the road. It makes it seem like the sheriff's wards all occupy some liminal space that appears and disappears with the fog. And I like that opening scene, where two strangers meet on a beach and create names so as not to use their real ones. Each is a little disappointed in what the other comes up with, but plays along. She's pretty, and if the fantasy isn't quite what he thought, he still wants to believe it enough to stick around longer than he should.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Land of Nodding Off

Vampyros Lesbos (1971)
directed by Jesus Franco
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Ah Istanbul, dreaming, industrious Bosphorus wonder! Vampyros Lesbos is barely more than its title, and although Franco gives himself plenty of opportunities to escape his softcore set-up, he seems perfectly content in the Quaaludes and cocaine rut that starts with the striptease in the opening scene. Quentin Tarantino used the movie's score in Jackie Brown, but I can't do a lot with that piece of trivia.

I kept returning to the image of a cargo ship at anchorage in the Golden Horn, a fat orange sun in the sky behind it. No rickety sailing ship to convey a Count in, but a filthy hold of steel, its crew a Babel of a dozen languages. Elsewhere, water taxis ferry passengers through the fog. The sun is a constant presence, giving shadows in sunlit houses more effect. The screenplay suggests that Dracula himself is dead, and the antagonist - a surviving Bride - inherited his holdings. Only she isn't a "Bride," per say, just a girl who Dracula rescued from rapists in a Turkish castle.

I like wondering what happens to the ladies back in Transylvania when Dracula is staked, and I like that the now-Countess enslaves men at random for revenge against her long-dead attackers. Vampire mythology deserves a female seat of power; here, vampirism is a kind of cult with specific rituals for longevity, which connects it to secret societies and, more to Franco's uses, allows its practitioners to cavort without clothes in the sun. These ideas appear in passing, and although they hardly seem revelatory, Franco allows them to sail right by, entirely unheeded. Give them purchase, dear reader; let them grow.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Time and Film and Florida

Death Curse of Tartu (1968)
directed by William Grefe
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I was hoping for another blown-out masterpiece like Strangler of the Swamp, but that just didn't happen. I don't know if what I got was better - no, it wasn't - but it was strange. One-of-a-kind strange. It's this year's Tormented, and although the spell it weaves is not so complete (that movie really stuck with me), there is a spell here, a little one, like standing outside and wondering when it got to be so late.

William Grefe made low-budget horror. He came from Miami and this movie takes place on a hillock in the Everglades. The wind blows all the time. The footage looks like home movies, and Death Curse of Tartu plays out that way, with a vacation-like narrative (beginning, end) but no real story, no climax, nothing for someone to do but watch it and look all around the frame at random birds. 8mm, maybe? 16mm? All these years and I still don't know! The colors are beautiful, though, and the swamp itself is so much a part of things. The only clear point of comparison is Louisiana Story, but believe me when I say that is not a good comparison.

But it works. There is mystery and loss and quiet, but here it's at the corners, as if Grefe spent his spare time in a canoe and on foot but didn't think a documentary would do a better job than this at showing off the land he loved. I spent a good portion of the movie following the lines of thought that images or moments inspired. Not "how would I do this differently?" but "couldn't that skull be a kind of covered bridge that the medicine man can't pass?" The thoughts weren't mine; they were there, onscreen, but slightly covered as if by dust. At one point, an archaeologist muses about the ocean's undiscovered secrets, and here, too, is a realm we really know so little about. A half-submerged Atlantis.

Much of the movie is almost wordless except for the sound of chants and Florida breezes. Much of it is poorly acted, but the cast feels familiar enough as to be friends. They scream a lot. Few survive. And this: Death Curse of Tartu, hands down, has one of the best opening credit sequences I've ever seen. The spirit of a dead Seminole seeks vengeance on an archaeologist who disturbs his tomb. As the archaeologist dies, the Indian takes the map that led the man here and throws it on the ground. The map is the title screen. Incredible.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Art of a Pepperoni Pizza

The House of the Devil (2009)
directed by Ti West
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

I'm in the camp that believes West has a classic on his hands right up to the last act, when whatever it is he's trying to do comes across as rushed and unsure. Maybe it's the moment when you first see the bodies versus that glimpse into the bathtub, the second scene strange - are those scalps? hair from the same head? - and the first - pentagrams! evisceration! - depressingly familiar. I remember learning about rural cults in college in Maine (creepy), but in movies, Lucifer's minions have never advanced beyond the sad and selfish antagonists of The 7th Victim.

Is that it? That the devil as avatar of earth's demise is too large-scale a foe to seem relevant to a haunted house picture? That real-life Satanists are too depressing, too cruel, and too human to make a movie fun? My one and only book on tape was Rosemary's Baby, and I've never heard a sillier story. I prefer a fictional universe where minor demons and everyday ghosts are plentiful but uninterested in bothering more than one or two people at a time. The traveler on the road, the inheritor of a cabin in the woods, kids who mess up an easy spell and get themselves in trouble.

So let's talk about the elegance of The House of the Devil, what a rich structure the physical home is, and how beautifully it's filmed. How Jocelyn Donahue, as Samantha, gets to know it room by room, and how the camera moves inside, then outside, tracks slowly or holds still. The camera doesn't notice anything supernatural, but West's patience allows the old place in the woods to breathe. Donahue is perfect, believable in her bad decisions and sympathetic from the moment Megan says goodbye. When Megan stops for a cigarette, we realize that Samantha could never have made it anyway; they're both too far from anywhere and anyone, except for the pizza delivery guy.

Yes, for an hour it's really something, unselfconscious (okay, I'm not crazy about the credits) and irony-free. Alright, an hour and change.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Lovecraft, Adjective

The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
directed by Val Guest
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on VHS from Carnegie Library

A remarkably stylish and unified Hammer production, clearly influenced by The Thing from Another World but well worth including in any history of atmospheric, organic sci-fi horror. I can only assume that Hammer responded to their first success in a new genre by making sure such a cohesive, assured movie never got off the ground again. Brian Donlevy's Quatermass is a tough, exacting, and confident scientist, unwilling to brook the bad behavior of belligerent bureaucrats or small-minded cops. When he needs help, he isn't afraid to ask for it. When he sees an opportunity, he won't let a timid politician slow him down. A rocket ship crash lands in an inky hayfield, and Scotland Yard wants to know what happened to two missing astronauts, but Quatermass has his mind on the bigger picture: alien life.

The movie is at once a mystery, a procedural, a zombie film, and a supernatural manhunt with more than a few tricks (including a well-utilized zoo) from the Cat People playbook of shadows and nightwatchmen. Whatever it is that returns from the stars segues from confused to creepy - ghoulishly extraterrestrial - within moments. Efforts to discover the crew's whereabouts lead to a viewing of in-flight footage as modern as a reel from Paranormal Activity. Funny things start happening to the film stock, people begin to collapse. Strangeness sets in.

There's an incredible scene that begins as an homage to Frankenstein, with the mutated alien stumbling across a poor girl and her doll near a remote canal. She invites the creature to her imaginary tea; frightened, he retreats from her, and finally lashes out, striking the head from the doll and leaving it broken at the girl's feet. The camera follows as he flees, then returns to the scene for a long take of the lonely child staring bewildered at her ruined toy.

Stylistically, then, the director has his fingers in all kinds of pies. But they're gooey, grotesque, and monstrous delights, baked in eldritch ovens, nimbly navigated by a man of Ulster unafraid of Cthulhu's terrible, inevitable reprisals. Buck ninety-nine (and a year's worth of nightmares) a slice.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bats Aren't Bugs

The Bat (1959)
directed by Crane Wilbur
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Part of me thinks I might have queued up this 1959 adaptation by mistake, since those cranky completists at IMDb seem to prefer the 1926 silent film for atmosphere. They’re probably right, but let me offer a defense of director Crane Wilbur that doesn’t mention either Vincent Price or Agnes Moorhead, the film’s two stars. “The Bat” was a play that even Elizabeth’s grandmother remembers; apparently the effect of seeing a pair of clawed hands emerge from a bookshelf was considerable. But it’s a bizarre play that demands a quick wit in order to keep the action moving. *

Otherwise, one might get bogged down in the bank robbery and violent homicide that begin the film but don’t necessarily have much to do with the central mystery, which is the identity of a serial killer at large in a rural community. Two of the pairings – the writer and her personal maid, the bank president and his personal physician – suggest homosexual relationships. Moorhead certainly shows more skin than you expect her to, and why else would the president confess his crime to the doctor (or the doctor shoot the president) if not to engage in some Rope-like bout of sexual/psychological brinksmanship?

The Bat cares not for such prologue or character detail. Murder is his game. I’m not much for mysteries in the Ten Little Indians/Clue vein, as they tend to rely on British humor and British class conflict. There is nothing supernatural here, but everyone stays on her toes, playing smart and not letting shadows get the best of her. A sense of claustrophobia sets in, and at its best moments, The Bat is able to convey the childhood fear that something is right outside the door, or at the foot of the bed. So long as the sheets stay up around one’s head, one is safe until a parent walks in, or until morning – a long time from now.

* Incidentally, it's funny that the lone physical attribute of The Bat's costume, aside from a fedora, a black suit, and mask, is a set of claws.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Rabid for the Letterman

Teen Wolf (1985)
directed by Rod Daniel
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Teen Wolf isn’t a horror film. Not remotely. I probably should have known. As an allegory about adolescence, it plays like an early attempt to crib from comic books. Only today we root for the mutants, not Professor X, so the point of the movie – that Michael J. Fox “be himself” by denying his werewolf heritage – feels like a social campaign to drive campus freaks back into the closet.

Even worse, the movie concludes with nearly ten minutes of interminable basketball clips meant to showcase team spirit. No eleventh hour change of heart, no wolfing out to reclaim the campus bombshell. Just human concentration, a stupid extra point, and a bland little kiss from eager-to-please Boof. *

Scott Howard’s gifts are something of a contradiction. On the one hand, he’s physically “different” from his classmates; on the other hand, the perks of his mutation include championships and drama queens. He’s adored right off the bat as Teen Wolf, by everyone except the boyfriend of the girl who likes her sex a little rough, and by longtime pal Boof, who really enjoys shooting hoops with Scott’s dad.

I’m going to say that the decision to make a werewolf good at sports is probably close to the mark, in which case his amplified physical condition isn’t going to present much of a marketable commodity outside of a sports career. If you’re a basketball star, being young is as good as it gets. Embrace it! You don’t have to be a dick, but Scott isn’t, for the most part. Just a middle-class kid from middle America aware for the first time that he has options outside of his home town.

* Let me add that I really like the team's coach, who doesn't care about winning and insists, correctly, that the best way to enjoy a game is for everyone to have fun. Which is impossible with a ball hog on the court. But still.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Ocean in a Seashell

Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
directed by Roger Corman
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

Don't ask me why I waited so long to get to Roger Corman's Poe adaptations. This is his second, after House of Usher. Perusing Corman's directorial credits, I can't believe how few I've actually seen, but it's good to have a movie project to look forward to once October bleeds into winter.

Pit and the Pendulum, like Horror Express, is everything I want from low-budget horror: matte paintings, smart shorthand - Spanish moss because the story is set in Spain! - and beautiful enunciation. John Kerr is a terrible actor but he blunders into Vincent Price with a bully's unyielding insistence, making him the perfect foil for Price's nuanced turn towards madness. Price, as Nicholas Medina, is a man in constant internal anguish and contradiction, effeminate with his fainting spells and truly terrifying when he at last settles into the role of vengeful cuckold. The lurching gait he assumes as the Inquisition's most loyal practitioner is downright diabolical.

A Les Baxter score; a Richard Matheson screenplay; picture credits; Barbara Steele: what kept me away? Flashbacks flicker like silent movies, not bad psychedelia, and that painting of the pit should be seen by anyone who thinks himself a student of scary movies, good architecture, or plain American invention. Specifically, the harpsichord scene is a good example of why Corman, more than a man with an eye for talent, was perfectly capable behind the camera.

Residents of the castle wake in the middle of the night and amass, one by one, in a dark hall. Each hears music, and we assume, as they must, that Nicholas has reprised his former wife's habit of playing a sad song on the piano. The music is eerie; we share in the characters' unease and anticipate a maniacal display of Nicholas' inevitable decline. But just as they approach the den, Nicholas himself bursts from his own chamber, fearful of the sounds from the adjacent room. Everyone jumps, including me, as his sister confirms to her flabbergasted companions that Nicholas can't play a note. Undead!

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Roy Batty's Wonders Were Here All Along

The Hitcher (1986)
directed by Robert Harmon
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Eric Red wrote Near Dark, one of my favorite movies. I didn't learn that until after I'd watched The Hitcher, but it seems unusual that two relatively inexperienced directors (Kathryn Bigelow for Near Dark and one-time cinematographer Robert Harmon here) would complement two screenplays so well. The Hitcher is a thriller, but if you think about Near Dark, you remember that the vampires are immortal but more or less human. Vicious, sure, but no powers beyond heightened senses that draw a girl like Mae out into the moonlight.

In The Hitcher, John Ryder appears and disappears in ways that don't make sense. He's always exactly where he needs to be, to an uncanny degree. Harmon shoots the desert so wide open that it's as if the conflicts and car chases we witness are flickering mirages that play out and fade away. Meaning, I guess, that there's something supernatural at work, just as there always is anytime you're too far away from things on your own.

In both movies, there is a scene where someone we care about calls home to tell the person on the other line that he or she is okay. These are remote, local situations and they play out with regional law enforcement and almost no one else. No one is up against a vast conspiracy, and nothing that happens gets national attention. These movies take place in expanses of land that people in cars pass through. When night falls travelers want to be safe in bed, not out on the weary and limitless road.

The burger that Nash cooks on a griddle for Jim is a hall-of-famer. The car stunts in The Hitcher go toe-to-toe with the best of them. There are good Texas touches but there isn't a moment when the movie doesn't look like the Mojave Desert. Harmon's cinematographer, John Seale, takes advantage of every easy dip and gentle curve on the highway. Night and day switch places indiscriminately, and buses that Jim passed catch up to him. It seems like there should be a bigger city somewhere, a destination more permanent than a gas station, but he's stuck with very little to hold onto. Just that burger, really, wolfed down out of the sun.

It's my favorite dream, dreamed by an agoraphobic. If I really have "Riders on the Storm" to thank for this then it's time to reevaluate my relationship with the Doors.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Crisp Click of Pratt's Dentures

Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)
directed by Vernon Sewell
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee have two of the movies' great voices. Each appeared in his share of bad films, but in Curse of the Crimson Altar at least they appear together. Perhaps the top-heavy casting does a lot with a mediocre script, but I'm more convinced that the script is perfectly serviceable until the last twenty minutes. I've been a little reliant on plot synopses lately, but what matters here is that the protagonist, played by Mark Eden, seems smarter than the average dunce - suspicious of bad explanations but willing to roll with the punches.

His confidence makes him trickier to scare away, and Karloff especially seems freed by this invitation to lay his cards on the table. Initially menacing, he transforms himself into a cantankerous, bored historian who grimaces as the new houseguest swills his expensive brandy. The appropriation of Guy Fawkes Night as tribute to a local witch brings him out in his wheelchair, snug beneath a blanket, cursing the upstarts and their firecrackers.

It isn't disdain but a loose display of confidence. Michael Gough steals the show in the role of a half-mute butler, Lee should have played more fathers in his time, and Barbara Steele, as Lavinia herself, only appears painted green. The protagonist stumbles in on all of this by coming across a woman running screaming through the woods. That gimmick never gets old, and neither does something so outrageous as the mystical dungeon where Lavinia conducts her psychedelic sabbats. An ending might be mundane, unbelievable, and a little confused, but sometimes it's a good road that gets you there.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Brighty of the Böhmerwald

Baron Blood (1972)
directed by Mario Bava
rating: 1 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Ugh. Baron Blood is a Mario Bava movie in name but not in spirit. The plot is thin as gruel, too timid to be Euro-sleaze but about as creative. A big-haired protagonist with sideburns returns to Austria to "get back to his roots," finds a comely architecture student and a haunted castle, and inexplicably summons an ancestor from the catacombs. Will either youth escape the mad sadist's clutches? Will the woman ever stop screaming? Yes and no, and Bava, previously so adept with primary colors on soundstages, seems able only to follow the action listlessly around a poorly lit series of rooms.

When Joseph Cotten appears, done up in so much face paint that his apple red cheeks set off the shadows beneath his eyes, the answer seems obvious. This is the witch who cast the curse on the long-buried baron, back from the dead to torment him until the end of time! That's the cravat that I'll concede: that the witch's curse begins only when the man who killed her is resurrected. A well-thought-through revenge, even if the witch, burned at the stake centuries ago, can only enjoy it via a medium. If Cotten saw the drag routine through, I might feel bad for the career he no doubt thought was over. No quarter for indifference, Joe!

Thursday, October 06, 2011

"I'm afraid of almost everything, but I've never been afraid of heights."

Q (1982)
directed by Larry Cohen
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Q begins beautifully, like a ride in the car with no particular destination. The opening half hour is a love letter to New York pedestrian culture, the Chrysler Building, and aerial shots of the city. Criminals audition at bars with pianos, David Carradine and Richard Roundtree talk shop at the station, and citizens (full of life) die creatively while washing windows, rubbing on suntan lotion, and swimming in rooftop pools. It's the kind of human feast that makes the mouth of a reborn god like Quetzacotal water: millions of soon-to-be sacrifices out and about on a pretty day, reveling in temporary pleasures.

But Cohen wants to say something about celebrity and second chances in America. His protagonist, Jimmy Quinn, is a former junkie and a getaway driver who can never catch a break. He knows a secret, though, that can put an end to the daily deaths-by-pterodactyl, and he wants a cut of the profits before he shares a thing with anyone. I'm guessing that Cohen saw Melvin and Howard two years prior, and ran with it one night while watching King Kong.

The horror genre is an acceptable outlet for social commentary, but I'll always prefer Night of the Living Dead to its sequel. In Romero's first feature, the metaphor is less explicit. Q isn't so much derailed in its second half as distracted. When Jimmy's fortune fails to materialize, the wind goes out of Cohen's sails. Even the capture of the Aztec priest feels like an afterthought, as if no one could figure out what something so fantastic as a man in mask and feathers was doing in a police procedural in the first place.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Brain Drain

Horror Express (1972)
directed by Eugenio Martín
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

Horror Express feels like the first find of the season, or the movie I always want to watch when I pick up a title from Hammer Studios, free of the inevitable sense of disappointment those no-budget quickies inspire. It looks like a Hammer film, with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing above the fold, but something in Spaniard Eugenio Martín's rickety direction has verve. Part of it is atmosphere, from the Siberian mountains where the action begins, to the cabins and compartments of the train itself, bustling with smoke and empty bottles of vodka. But the movie's success owes more to Martín's willingness to see the more absurd elements of the story's premise through.

What begins as an unconvincing resurrection of a man in a badly made suit becomes a silly but engaging extraterrestrial mystery with a high body count and a gimmick worthy of the many good actors onscreen. Namely, that several are possessed by the creature and allowed to commit ferocious acts upon their fellow passengers. Russian mystics, Polish beauties, and British sticky wickets defend evolution, rail against the dark, and stand aside while Telly Savalas chews through a hundred yards of scenery en route to a welcome and bloody death.

It's everything that Murder On the Orient Express was not: fleet, suspenseful, fun. "People on the train are becoming afraid, Professor," says the Countess to Christopher Lee. "People on long journeys become bored," he replies, and he and everyone else, crowded together as a continent rolls by, know just what to do to keep sleep and repetition at bay.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Dust on Rust

The Witch's Mirror (1965)
directed by Chano Urueta
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The Witch's Mirror is beautifully filmed, or maybe the transfer is exceptional and I took it for granted. Chano Urueta was a Mexican director who has over one hundred movies to his credit, but no biography to speak of on either IMDb or Wikipedia. Urueta acted in both The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia; he's a guy with a face you remember.

His obscurity and his association with Peckinpah seem relevant to The Witch's Mirror, a decidedly average but still agreeable movie. The plot is mundane enough: a prominent doctor kills his wife in order to marry someone new. The witch is the woman who works as his housekeeper and who, unable to protect wife #1, takes it upon herself to ruin the doctor and wife #2. It begins as an "old dark house" sort of picture, with drafty rooms and odd, even creepy sightings. Phantoms in sheets stick to strange corners of the wall; ghosts rise from foggy tombs.

The doctor endures this with a persistent, vaguely pained expression on his face. Finally the witch burns the new bride in a fire, at which point the course of the movie veers into face transplant/grave robbery territory. The doctor is intent on restoring the usurper, but it goes wrong the same it went wrong for Peter Lorre in Mad Love.

Amid the telenovelas that I no doubt incorrectly assume a Mexican child sees on every channel throughout childhood, The Witch's Mirror would be a nice surprise. Tame by the emotional standards of Latin America soap operas, the movie has a kid's delight for player pianos and bumps in the dark. The great scene takes place when the ghost of the doctor's former wife physically sheds her hands upon the operating table, where they will soon replace the burned extremities of the woman who replaced her.

For us adults, it's a little silly. But there are worse things to be, and the lesson that emerges - once the doctor is stopped and brought down by the law - is to root on behalf of the witch, not against her. She goes unpunished for her act of revenge, an unlikely and entirely satisfactory conclusion.

Monday, October 03, 2011

The Empty Horizon

The Ward (2010)
directed by John Carpenter
rating: 1 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Nothing about the institutionalized premise of The Ward excited me, and nothing about the mere fact of Carpenter's return compelled me to expect... anything. John Carpenter was never the "master of shock," he was a lover of storms, and weather, and strong women. Putting the action inside four walls made no sense, so it's no surprise that the elegant Steadicam shots of Amber Heard gliding through a leafless forest in her slip - The Ward's opening sequence - alone reminded me of the director whose ten-year run from 1976 onward is my favorite career in movies.

There is a place in cinema for the horrible things that people do to one another, but it isn't horror films. Torture, molestation, medical experimentation: all terrible, imposed and endured throughout human history. The photographs from mental hospitals that fragment through the credits are sad and sorry testaments to our selfish natures. But they aren't scary, except to the degree that they imply a loss of control.

Great horror movies rely on some assertion of the individual - a conscious decision not to surrender, to face down the dark and fight back. Even in the final shot of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Nancy is still herself. Her situation might be hopeless, but she is strong. Not so Kristen the schizophrenic, trapped forever in the poorly written dialogues, executed by rote, of her own head.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Jungle Man Fix Jane

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
directed by Wes Craven
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

There are two films here, and one is a trite indictment of the American legal system. Cops make lousy fathers and defense attorneys free criminals on technicalities. Justice is a mob and alcoholism the price you pay to see it done. A movie like that is worth next to nothing - about as close as a movie can get to a waste of time.

On the other hand, that opening sequence is an incredible homage to production design and Hollywood tradesmen, and a testament to the joy of making a horror film. If the stories are true, Wes Craven became interested in the subconscious after reading a newspaper article about the deaths of several Cambodian refugees. He wrote a movie about dreams, and when the protagonists of A Nightmare on Elm Street sleep, the visions they see are both terrible and grand.

The impression, upon experiencing such sights, is not dreamlike at all, but scary - a thrill. Surely someone has asked David Lynch about the movie ("I love it!"), and I am surprised that Craven returns to such a mundane screenplay in daylight hours. Freddy is a phantom from nightmares and far more effective without the melodramatic back story torn straight from the pages of Marion Cobretti's dream journal. The last ten minutes are like a miniature Home Alone.

Disbelieving and shell-shocked parents don't even belong in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Nancy's fears would be better served by a Peanuts-like, adult-free atmosphere of adolescent terror. Which, I suppose, is the sphere where Phantasm floats, serene. Still, the experience of seeing either movie for the first time is a delight, and nice to discover after all these years.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Sweatin' the Oldies

Friday the 13th (1980)
directed by Sean S. Cunningham
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

It begins like Halloween and wouldn't be possible without The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but goodness does Cunningham build up a head of steam as Friday the 13th moves along. I've always been so enamored with John Carpenter that few subsets of the horror genre seem more disappointing than slasher films, even those, like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, made before 1978. Friday the 13th is most definitely a slasher film, but one where victims are not so much lured to their doom as spirited away in moments alone.

Part of that is the impression that no one is frightened of the murderer prior to each kill. Like something that appears then dissipates. The deaths are many, constant, and inspired. Think of the counselor in the bottom bunk, about to discover the ruined body above him. Just as the first drop of blood drips down, a hand reaches up from beneath the bed.

As always, displaced voices of kids unsettle, but it's the darkness itself that worms its way down the spine. The victims are like birds drawn from an oil spill, or else, when cinematographer Barry Abrams films a boy or girl running helplessly away, like something drowned in one. Nature is an imposition - the appearance of a snake in a cabin - but also a reminder of Camp Crystal Lake's isolation. The sound of crickets in otherwise silent scenes, the roar of rain and the feel of wind, the look of whitecaps on a lake before a storm: help is in town, and town is far away.

But nothing is better than the water itself, which rivals Fårö in Through a Glass Darkly for "eeriest ever." Rich with minerals like all old lakes in northern woods, it would be half frozen over for most of the year, waiting for summer to thaw. This is exactly the sort of horror movie I love, one that hews very close to the natural world, with the smell of summer, now past, thick with fallen foliage and decay.