I haven’t posted my Horror capsules that I send to friends via email since 2016 or so, so I thought it’d be fun to do so this year every time enough pile up to make for a substantial post. Here’s the first nine, in order of how I watched them.
Ghost Story (J. Irvin… 1981) ghost/supernatural
Prompting this selection was an interview I saw with Peter Straub, writer of the 1979 breakthrough book to which the film is based, in a roundtable discussion about conjuring frights on the page. Several prominent scary scribes where on hand (including most famously Stephen King), but it was Straub’s first answer, exploring the basic idea of just telling scary stories within a group, that he and I had an idea to get this season’s watching underway.
His story (and thus film) opens like Octave Mirbeau’s horrific, but ultimately righteous novel The Torture Garden, with several old, clearly successful men leisurely sitting around a fire lit den, brandies in hand, attempting to out-spook the other. It’s a clear anthology-like linking device, you could jump into many different stories this way, while always having a quick return out, but again, like Torture Garden, Irvin and Straub settle in for the long haul. We’re not entirely prompted to via a tale—that’s where we break from Mirbeau— and instead see our old friend’s conclude their night, clearly understanding it’s a ritual that has held together these incredibly long friendships, a ritual they’ve donned as ‘the Chowder Club’. The spooky entry makes a clear point, appearing at the height of the slasher era, here is an old fashioned chiller by all appearances, and if it wasn’t already crystal, the parade of former Hollywood heavies on hand only reinforces the idea; around the fire is none other than Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Edward), Fred Astaire (Ricky), John Houseman (Sears) and Melvyn Douglas (John) (who is partially reunited with Hud costar Patrica Neal [Stella], who plays Ricky’s wife), many appearing in their final film. A cut jumps us to New York City the next morning, where we see a man (whom we in time learn is Edward’s son) murdered when his lover’s body suddenly turns to a corpse and scares him right through a large window to his death dozens of stories below. The cut makes it seem like a vignette in a (previously mentioned) Horror Anthology, as we’re largely left piecing together character connections in subsequent scenes after first not understanding the sudden shift. When Edward’s other son returns home (both sons played by Body Double’s Craig Wasson) additional murders happen, the corpse girl either bringing about suicides or picking off Chowder Club members one by one, before the film’s second half pieces together two flashback ‘scary stories’ told by members of the group connecting the series of events going back some half a century. This interesting story-telling device, a near quasi-Anthology film that isn’t, is the most thought-provoking idea in the film, and perhaps handled slightly better, could make for masterpiece level stuff. As it is, it’s slightly stiff and short on scares, wasting what could have been thrilling, literary leaning stuff. I Know What You Did Last Summer tread similar water and was similarly a book and a film, and while that doesn’t have a genius like Jack Cardiff behind the camera, produces some actual scares, and is more than willing to acknowledge that killing off a cast one-by-one is Ten Little Indians slasher stuff, a trope Ghost Story appears to look down its nose at. Surprisingly it shouldn’t, as I Know What You Did Last Summer—while pure teenage trash for the most part—is able to better maneuver the ethical quandary where we’re supposed to hope characters live, but who we know actually deserve bloody retribution from a person whose life they ended, accidental or not, thus prompted the creation of a ghost in the first place. Oh well, not a terrible way to start.
Hereditary (A. Aster… 2018)
Midsommar (A. Aster… 2019)
Aster’s first two films reveal a burgeoning master of modern horror, a sensibility finally tuned to the modern psychosis of crippling terror married with a visual sense straight from titans of European Horror cinema. His first and best film, Hereditary, is an intricately layered piece of family dynamics told via miniature diorama symbolism, that once stripped away, revealed a meditation on the immense power of grief. Similarly, Midsommar cloaks itself in the minutia exploration of the day to day workings of a Swedish cult, where we know that terror will befall all those that aren’t members if we correctly identify the tropes. It only misses being Hereditary’s masterpiece equal by echoing a few films it clearly loves a little too closely; the Wicker Man especially, with a dash of the Devil Rides Out for good measure. At the heart of both films is a terrific lead female performance; Hereditary sees the grieving Annie (Toni Collette), invite terror into her world and onto her family, just as we’re left partially wondering how much is it inside her troubled mind that she replicates in her masterful miniature sculptures. Midsommer has the ailing Dani (Florence Pugh in a breakout performance), who slowly realizes in her grief that boyfriend Jack has never been the soulmate she sought.
Midsommar was initially rumored to be something of a sequel to Hereditary, and outside both films attention to cults, we’d need a third film to better connect the two films divergent stories. Aster hasn’t revealed where he’s going next, but given he’s a confessed Horror obsessive, we assume it’ll be another buzz Horror film. I can’t wait.
Alligator (L. Teague… 1980)
What’s more glorious in cinema than a bunch of talented upstarts getting (some of) their first paychecks to perform their craft with a producer attentive to their talents? I suppose, for my tastes, the only thing is occasionally when, without caché, they’re asked for something slightly more specific. These days seem long ago, but once, heavily within genre, people tried to make a quick buck by asking for copies of successful trash. Jaws begot The Car, Piranha, Piranha II: The Spawning, Blood Beach, Tentacles, Grizzly, the whole lot. Consider some of the names behind those seedy things: Joe Dante, James Cameron, then jump a bit, Coppola doing Dementia 13, Demme helming Caged Heat and Scorsese taking a stab at Boxcar Bertha, a crime movie about would be gangsters on the lam. Almost nothing above is masterpiece level, or even close, but nearly all titillate and provoke and make tantalizing promises to be paid out very quickly with bigger, better, bolder pictures by all the audacious young talent. It’s a corner of cinema that is a wonderful reminder about how creativity should be nurtured by those flush with the greenbacks.
I bring it up, obviously, as Alligator is both. Envisioned as a Jaws ripoff, it sent a few unknowns Lewis Teague (director) and writer John Sayles to produce something similar, only centered around a large, bloodthirsty croc. The whole enterprise is sneakily humorous, Sayles (future creator of several of the best modern American independent films) imbuing the proceedings with coy references to urban legends, sexual innuendo, corporate politics and outright absurdity. In short, he gets that it’s B-level schlock, a point Spielberg failed on—he could never get over himself on the set of Jaws, or the number of trashy, gloss entertainment he’s doled out since. Spielberg is pissy and tries to hide his fake shark from the truthful gaze of the camera, while Sayles splashes it into action all over the place, knowing, as his audiences does, that if someone plucks out a few bucks to see a flick called Alligator they don’t care what the damn scales look like, they just want to see it rip limbs from torsos and maul everything in sight. Does it ever; we hear at the start that the little baby alligator is flushed down the toilet on the day after the 1968 Democratic National Convention turmoil in Chicago has grown to an unruly behemoth 12 years later (this is after it’s purchased at a carnival at the start where another alligator chomps a hillbilly nearly in half). The goings on in Chicago of 1968 were also the topic of Medium Cool, a masterpiece a decade earlier and one of my personal favorite films, also staring Robert Forester, so I spent the screening thinking it was something of a trash sequel. The Breathless to Medium Cool’s Bonjour Tristesse, if you will. It’s a hilarious idea of course, quite ludicrous really, as here that flushed alligator grows to the size of an ‘el Dorado’ from eating lab animals discarded into the sewer once testing was over with, the trial drugs mutating the gator to hellish lengths.
By the end you’re howling often, with an action sequence running about two-and-a-half minutes during the films (first) climax getting the lions share of the hoots. The titular alligator crashes a swanky outdoor black tie gala being thrown by the lab corporation, here he eats several people, tails whips two high into the air into a tent, another into a wedding sized cake (like the ‘November Rain’ video!), destroys a limo, and crushes the two men inside it (earlier they even have the alligator kill a kid!). That a similar story also literally just happened in Chicago, captivating the city for days, only makes for even more delirious laughs. Definite high trash recommend here.
Wishmaster (R. Kurtzman… 1997)
A camp classic that had recently reentered my sights by a truly hilarious We Hate Movie podcast on it, that as I listened, slowly prompted me to the realization that I’d never fully seen it. It’s a rather glorious piece of hilarious trash, delivered as a loving homage of sorts to the more famous (and better) films of its creators—producer Wes Craven offers the dream state horror riffing of Nightmare on Elm Street complete with Robert Englund in a juicy role, while screenwriter Peter Atkins adds illusions to his work in the Hellraiser franchise. This is a nice way of saying the Djinn/titular Wishmaster is something of Freddy Kruger meets Pinhead as others have noted for decades, but where the film borrows, it also finds its greatest entertainment. The Hellraiser and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises are gory, often hilarious enterprises and here, Wishmaster seems to exist to lurch from inventive gore kill to inventive gore kill. In other words, the stuff that Horror hounds scour bins in search of.
It’s a tale originating in ancient Persia, where our film opens. It’s mass chaos, with people being massacred and disemboweled in spectacular practical effect manner from special effects wizard Howard Berger (with the help of a crew of dozens from the KNB EFX Group). The best one—a skeleton rips itself from its fleshy home and once out, murders another—leads us into the Kings chambers where we learn the Djinn has tricked the leader into a Monkey’s Paw like premise where wishes lead to death, destruction and hell on earth. From here we get additional background via a series of title cards read from—here’s another iconic Horror homage, Angus Scrimm, popular Tall Man from the Phantasm series providing voice-over—takes us to modern day America (additional scenes later add even more backstory legend, which while nearly tiring are quick enough and no doubt what sustains the franchise across its several sequels). A jewel, now entrapping the Djinn, has traveled with a sculpture for purchase by wealthy art buyer Raymond Beaumont (played with clear glee by Robert Englund). The jewel is freed when a drunken mishap drops the sculpture during shipment on the docks setting in motion the eventual freeing of the Wishmaster in what appears to be Southern California. Here he begins taking souls by quickly tricking unsuspecting victims into making (often trite and purely hypothetical) wishes that nearly instantly lead to their deaths and giving himself additional power. Soon he’s taken human form (Andrew Divoff) as an arrogant playboy deadset to get Alexandra’s (Tammy Lauren) soul as legend dictates since she’d first glimpsed him within the jewel. To me it’s this game of cat-and-mouse that provides the movie’s most hilarious, non-gore laughs where the Djinn is consistently portrayed as a suave lothario when our very eyes plainly see him as a poor man’s Ray Liotta, complete with heavy pockmarked face. Eventually Alexandra is able to utilize her third wish to again enslave the Djinn into his jewel prison, but not before he creates a climax that thoroughly trashes Beaumont’s posh place and sees dozens murdered in ever escalatingly original ways. This sequence, it should be obvious by now, needed rewinding several times, and had the film barely heard over all four watching laughing so loudly.
I had the pleasure of watching this piece of highly entertaining trash like I used to do these things in the old days. With Bob and Brian joining me on my last night in town after spending the week with my father for our second annual British Car week(end), an event we decided to pursue shortly after my mother passed and my Dad was forlorn at the thought of not using a vintage 1966 MGB for the chief purpose of its purchase—long retirement jaunts with his lifelong spouse. We howled multiple times in the exact environment I cite these types of films with: beer and pizza flicks. High trash recommend.
Nightmares (J. Sargent… 1983) anthology
I imagine over the years doing these capsules for our annual 31-in-31 Horror-a-thons I’ve discussed several anthology Horror films and my overall perception of the sub-genre in general a number of times. It’s one I really like, an idea so tied to the genesis of where tales of Horror came from: the world of short stories. Quick odes to twist reveals or an atmospheric exploration of the macabre, I’ve long loved reading Horror short stories as there is often little separating the great ones meant for adults and those safer, thinner works for kids. You can just sort of read them as easily disposable, the glee of diving down into a bucket of red goop and rinsing your hands of it quickly after, regardless of the craft shown in producing a scare. But, that being said, there are masterworks there, film easily counts way less in number then Horror literature does, with a good many of the best filmed stories appearing outside anthology films, instead popping up in the litany of great Horror shows that appeared semi-regularly ever since the late 1950s. Even when the shows aren’t consistently good, or even passable, much of their charm down to the fact that with each new tale there is a new opportunity to amaze and entertain, a chance to wipe the sour taste from previous disappointments.
It’s a long introduction into Nightmares then, a movie that seems cheaply made and TV ready, the DVD rip appearing blown out and grainy as if portions were shot on video to air on a Friday night opposite something like Webster, or destined to lose the battle in going head-to-head with Cheers the night prior. It makes sense once I did a little legwork and discovered that these 4 sorts were shot for an unnamed TV pilot Horror anthology show, something like the contemporary Darkroom or Tales from the Darkside. They were apparently deemed ‘too intense’ to air on television, a remarkable fact given the blood and guts we see on TV regularly now and the fact that nothing here is remotely objectionable. Nothing here is very good either, with any potentially interesting thread quickly pulled into boring tedium. ‘Terror in Topanga’ starts us off with a killer on the loose whom almost preys on a wife out getting a carton of smokes in a car running on E. She’s been warned not to go out, as the warnings of the killer flood the evening news and her husband wants her to kick the habit anyway. She doesn’t listen and only a heroic pump jockey is able to save her from being the next victim in what is meant to be a shocking twist. Next up is, ‘The Bishop of Battle’, where a young video game obsessive (played by a young Emilio Estevez who loves cranking LA-punk heroes Fear on his headphones as he plays) becomes so enthralled with an arcade game that he pays the price in beating it by it coming to life and imprisoning him in 8-bit (the rudimentary computer graphics are sort of nifty). It’s perhaps the most interesting idea here, but it’s the most thinnest story as well, feeling like an hour in its 22 minute and change runtime. ‘The Benediction’ sees Lance Henriksen playing a priest stuck with a sudden crisis of faith which manifests itself in a Duel (Spielberg’s made for TV movie from 1971)-like showdown with a black truck from hell which happens to be piloted by Satan himself. An amulet of holy water saves the day, a day we don’t care how it ends as we can’t imagine anything as dumb as a car chase being employed as a religious metaphor. The last one, ‘Night of the Rat’ is easily the most ridiculous one, the tale of a giant demonic rat that terrorizes the home of a quaint suburban family in search of the spirit of its dead daughter rat whom the home-owning Dad has killed in a trap after a long spiel about being too cheap to pay for an exterminator. Since it is the most ridiculous one, it lingers the longest in your mind and entertains the most—we’re almost able to swallow the father (the always good Richard Masur) detailing the giant rat as Jewish folklore, not focusing on the fact that symbolizing Jews and rats is long an offensive, and highly dangerous anti-Semitic trope. A pump shotgun is freely discharged, each time prompting me to chuckle a little more as the wife shrieks, “David you can’t kill it!”.
Can you imagine this guy directed The Taking of Pelham 123? In the end, perhaps I’m glad I watched this—the VHS box cover is of some note and must have passed my eyes dozens of times in my youth, so it and I were no doubt destined to cross paths eventually, but trust me when I say they’ll never meet again.
The Exorcist (W. Friedkin… 1973)
Today, I provide capsule of a rewatch that is long overdue, a negligence that led me to often slag this film off, probably unfairly*. It was somewhat understandable, I’d first seen The Exorcist as a pre-teen on vacation in New Jersey at my Aunt and Uncle’s home on an evening where they succumbed to my badgering and pleading to rent some Horror videos on a day where rain unexpectedly kept us indoors. We met somewhere in the middle of a compromise; my Uncle letting the youngsters pick one and he pick the other, which led to me being more scared of our trashy, childish excursion (the original Child’s Play) than his, the titanic film in question today. It wasn’t hard to see why I’d pass it by then, I was much too young for its themes, instead giggling in glee at split pea soup projectiles, spinning heads and little else. I’d catch up with it again freshman year at Kent State, but, though it was the recently released 2000 edition that had that extended crab walk in reverse down stairs, the sequence I always recalled most vividly, it was a time in my life where a (free to students) university theater was regularly blowing my mind with the first genuine Art films I’d ever seen. Next to Jean-Luc Godard, who I had never even heard of, a film as blasé as a 10-time Oscar nominee seemed immensely lame. It’s the ignorance of youth of course, a trait matched only by youthful hubris, but that’s more or less how my opinion shuffled the Exorcist. Until now.
Its story is iconic, so we need only paint the barest of outlines; when a young girl Regan (Linda Blair in a breakout role she’d never have the opportunity of matching) begins exhibiting surreal symptoms her actress mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn, who is tremendous as the grief stricken, desperate single mother) begins seeking prognosis. Eventually, a full team of Georgetown doctors (where the film takes place, the campus looking forebodingly colonial) are stumped, finally turning to exorcism as a last gasp attempt. Father Damien Karras is asked to perform the ritual, a task he does so with the help of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow, in makeup to age him 40 years), eventually casting the devil aside, but giving up his life to do so. In-between all this the movie is constructed in both quiet and incredibly incendiary moments; Karras’ guilt-stricken mourning over the recent passing of his mother forms the shell over the movie, a moving plot line you could miss (I certainly did as a younger man) amidst the pyrotechnics of Regan who shouts profanities, performs head-turning hysterics and spews chartreuse colored vomit at anyone who challenges the demonic forces that have taken up inside her (I never realized Mercedes McCambridge voiced the demon, which I found incredible hilarious—being the Johnny Guitar fan that I am). The film follows this idea in its construction too—Karras scenes are allowed to breath and become contemplative, while Regan’s ride is often cut off before scenes even resolve themselves, adding alarming unease whenever we return to the home returned to a state of relative normalcy (‘relative normalcy’ is a strange way to put it I understand, but when a scene cuts as a hall tree, that is under the control of the Devil, is rapidly approaching Chris, who sits shaken on the floor bleeding, we don’t know how it ends. It can’t end well? But the next time we see the house, Chris is fine, and the room is in the most orderly state we could expect given the circumstances).
The film is revered, and I better understand why now. For maybe the first time fully, I see why it’s said that it did for Horror what 2001: A Space Odyssey did for science fiction. Taking the earlier, monumental works like Psycho, that blazed Horror into the modern world even farther. Others had done it sure, but virtual none of those had the ability to latch so deeply into the mainstream. It’s as if the earlier, deeply psychological work on Pinter’s The Birthday Party matched with the filmmaking chops exhibited on The French Connection two years prior gave Friedkin his see-saw aesthetic, his last real gasp into masterful filmmaking. He’d touch it here and there afterwards (To Live and Die in LA, about half of the trash classic Jade) but he was over almost as soon as he’d arrived. You can call it a shame, but it hardly matters, as for just over 2 hours, he masterfully remained suspended in air, performing a high-wire act for all times.
*the last time I ranked Horror films, which I plan to update this year, Friedkin’s film placed at #200, a number that would seem outrageous to many, but contextually it’s between The Old Dark House and The Hounds of the Baskervilles so it was as much my foggy memory as it is a statement on the quality of depth in the Horror canon
note: I again watched the 2000 cut, because I like 2 out of 3 of the major new insertions. Father Merrin telling Father Karras that the devil is doing much of what he is not to get at Regan but to get at them right before their showdown I find theologically interesting and disagree with Ebert that it hastens the flow of the scene. Similarly, I don’t find the crab walk insertion gratuitous, but scary. The tacked on ending discussion between Father Dyer and the Inspector is indeed stupid, but I know when the original ended so I more or less turn it off as Chris and Regan’s car drives away. It’s a perfect beat to finish the film. If you removed the 2000 ending but retained the other two insertions, you’d have the definitive cut in my humble opinion.
The Mad Ghoul (J. Hogan… 1943) Universal
In revisiting The Mad Ghoul, you’re again reminded of the swift efficiency of the classic style; entire plots set sprinting in motion with effortless speed and maximum implication, each eventually paying in unison to the next at the close of films a short hour or so later. Here, we’re given something like the classic noir, DOA from 1950, but for Horror. You’ll recall there an accountant is poisoned and promptly unleashed to solve the murder and thus maybe himself, with each scene wrenching more existential angst as it’s all quite literally resting on our hero living or dying, a balance that we all dread has more or less already been decided. Here, it’s much the same, but different and no less menacing, because our hero, Ted, a brilliant medical student has no clue the toxin lurking in his body which will ultimately probably bring about his demise.
He’s been wooed into accepting a summer apprenticeship with his professor Dr. Alfred Morris, a brilliant mind who has recently unlocked the lifesaving concoctions of the Ancient Mayans on a pet monkey Choco (who they all pronounce as ‘Jocko’). It’s quite an honor, one he’d be a fool to turn down, even if it will separate him from his love Isabel during a crucial moment in their relationship. But, she too is leaving for the summer to tour the theaters of Europe singing, and has plans to end the relationship forever. Dr. Morris eyes all this, but mistakes Isabel’s leaving Ted because she likes him, so the (suddenly evil) Doctor decides to solve both problems he has in his life with one stone: by killing Ted, he now can see if what he did on his pet monkey works on humans, and see if Isabel and he can finally be together. Instead, he’s wrong on both accounts; the monkey soon drops dead as the life-saving breakthrough discovery is only temporary, and Isabel has already landed into the arms of her touring partner, the pianist Eric. Every roughly 48 hours Ted is again rendered into a grotesque ghoul who needs a fresh injection from a recently dead corpse’s heart (obtained by performing rudimentary cardioectomies on the spot). This creates a trail of grave robbings for the local police to trace, and Dr. Morris, in the haste of his experiment, up for a potential murder wrap. Eventually Ted discovers he can never be married to Isabel like he’d wanted, as she wants another and he’s trapped in a black whirlpool spiral of dead and undead states. In the end Ted knows what’s happened to him, and sets to correct it all and ending the ghoulish experiments of evil Dr. Morris.
For second tier Universal Horror, The Mad Ghoul is about as good as it gets, and watching the newly restored high-definition transfer, it’s never looked better. Recommended.
1990: The Bronx Warriors (E. Castellari… 1982)
It’s always been quite remarkable to me how fast the creatively fertile 1970s in Italian genre cinema turned into the barren 1980s. The 70’s burst forth with some of their very own genres they’d cultivated throughout the Swingin’ Sixties that would be highly influential in the decades to come. Plus, even when they attempted already established genres they provided a litany of wild, stylish forays as well (see the police crime procedurals and spaghetti westerns), often creating enough films for classification on their own. But, seemingly overnight many of these directors aged past their primes or died, or worse yet, turned to more lucrative works in decidedly less interesting genres (like the sex comedy for one). At the dawn of the 1980s, the next generation came and either had to make cheap video knockoffs of popular American (and sometimes foreign in the case of the classics) exploitation films or due slight variations of the great 70’s works with worse style and a crassness turned to 11. The former is the case with this one, an Italian cheapie made to resemble something like Escape from New York meets The Warriors, with a little Mad Max 2 thrown in for good measure. These are all good to even great movies though, with semblances of plot and subtexts, while 1990: The Bronx Warriors is only slightly worthwhile for its cheesy, camp values, no doubt ironically liked now mostly by hipsters (I’ve seen the music described as ‘trippy’ at least 6 times now this morning as I breeze past takes on it, which is quite an interesting description for somewhat funky basslines and minimal drum accompaniment played over much of the film). Meanwhile, anyone who likes the movies (especially low genre ones) has seen this stuff elsewhere, under much seedier contexts and with much wilder action. Thus, we sit watching a movie that sets up the world 8 years in the future as a hellscape, but not really, as the outside world seems more or less OK (albeit still controlled by arms dealing multi-nationals, which wasn’t that far off our reality 1982 either) and relegates the Bronx borough of New York as where death and mayhem rules the day. People seem to be able to come and go from the Bronx though, and no other such lawless area is hinted at, so we wonder, how bad a world is when it can be contained wholly within a few square miles. Anywho, the daughter of the largest arms dealing company in the world runs away and seeks hiding there, the only place such a powerful person could go slightly undetected. The powers that be come to get her—but not with a huge, full force but rather one guy who looks about 50 (Vic Morrow, veteran of such trash) who must get all the various gangs (who dress in garish, comic costumes much like those gangs in The Warriors did to distinguish themselves from one another) in-fighting so he can more easily pluck her. She’s fallen for Tiger Beat pinup Trash, the leader of a Hells Angels group who must also navigate a coup attempt from a member in a Nazi officers jacket. Who cares really, in the end mounted police on horse come baring flamethrowers and a bunch die in action sequences that resemble boys playing in the backyard with sticks. At only 88 minutes or so, this seems like an eternity. A classic of the VHS era is a big ol’ pass from me.
(this one was added to my list, you’ll recall, under the heading, ‘Horror Adjacent: Gangs and Cults (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood inspired)‘, so yeah, this may or may not be classified as straight Horror)