originally posted on Row Three.
What do you mean, it’s not October anymore? How did that happen? Ah well, good horror is still good horror even if it’s a month late, and after sitting down with more than twenty horror films in October/November I didn’t want to let them all go past without comment. And yet I STILL didn’t get to Carrie or Army of Darkness or The Wicker Man, or any of the J-horror on my list. I figured I’d tend toward older films this year (as I often do anyway, but I’ve been in a particularly old-movie mood lately), and that’s pretty much how it turned out, helped along by Cinefamily‘s William Castle series.
I’ve got them in here in the order I liked them, most to least, though I should note that I saw all the Castle films and all the Argento films in a theatre with very good audiences (and all the gimmicks intact on the Castle films), so I’m sure that made an incalculable difference in some cases in terms of how I responded to them.
28 Weeks Later – [Rating:4.5/5]
2007 USA. Director: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. Starring: Robert Carlyle, Rose Byrne, Jeremy Renner.
More epic tragedy than horror film, 28 Weeks Later far outstripped its predecessor for me. I had put off watching it for a long because while I appreciated some of the things 28 Days Later did, I really disliked the ending, which kind of put me off seeing the sequel, but enough people told me I should that I finally sighed and bit the bullet. And it had me from that incredible opening sequence all the way through. The quiet moments are as full of dread and horror as the frenetically-edited (but rarely incoherent) chases, and the lengths that those who are still human go to in order to survive are just as horrifying as the undead – and that’s what really set this film apart. The most terrible moment in the film isn’t a jump scare, a zombie attack, or even when our ostensible hero abandons and attacks his loved ones, but when soldier Jeremy Renner realizes he’s been ordered to shoot everyone, whether infected or not, and the line between monster and protector becomes indistinguishable. But there are no good options here, and that’s what Fresnadillo captures so well.
Deep Red – [Rating:4.5/5]
1975 Italy. Director: Dario Argento. Starring: David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, Gabriele Lavia.
Okay, I have to talk for a second about how I saw this. Cinefamily flew in a print from Italy, something which is apparently NEVER DONE, and theatres here just about NEVER show Deep Red in 35mm. This print had seen a LOT of use in Italian grindhouse theatres, was in terrible shape (it took two projectionists like 20 hours of work just to make it feed through the projector without breaking), and didn’t have subtitles – they manually ran an .srt file on a secondary projector. There were skips here and there cutting out whole lines of dialogue. The theatre got some negative feedback for the choppiness of the print, but I thought the experience of seeing it that way was incredible. Sure, I might’ve missed a few lines of dialogue here or there, or the plot might’ve jumped a bit, or the subtitles might’ve been a tad off…but I’ll probably never have the opportunity to see a film print of Deep Red again. Plus I loved the movie, print defects and all. When I saw Suspiria last year, I enjoyed it for the set-pieces but thought the plot was a a bit thin – Deep Red was perfect. It was great visually, if perhaps not quite as flamboyant, and had a really well-developed twisty-turny plot. Plus a couple of scenes that will likely be filed under “things that freak me the hell out” forever.
Thirst – [Rating:4.5/5]
2009 South Korea. Director: Park Chan-wook. Starring: Song Kang-ho, Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun.
This is easily one of the most intriguing and thoughtful vampire films I’ve seen recently, with a Catholic priest becoming a vampire through a blood transfusion as he was volunteering for a medical experiment. The “thirst” of the title refers to the literal vampiric thirst for blood, but also the general thirst for carnal pleasure as expressed through his uncontrollable desire for a woman who’s all too willing to indulge him – her own thirsts are even stronger than his, and not tempered by the moral and ethical compass that fights with the vampirism for control of his actions. It’s horror really only in the sense that all vampire movies count as horror – in tone it’s much more a meditative drama punctuated with some violence and some uncomfortable comedy. Park certainly bit off a bunch thematically with this one, and it ended up being pretty satisfying for me – and I’m still thinking through some of the implications it brought up.
The Orphanage – [Rating:4/5]
2007 Spain. Director: Juan Antonio Bayona. Starring: Belen Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Princep.
I remember when this film came out and I was still not into horror at all and was afraid this would be too much horror for me, despite how much Guillermo Del Toro’s name as producer intrigued me. Thank goodness I’ve gotten over my horror aversion and watched this, because it’s damn good (and not actually very horrific, more moody and creepy). The main character returns to the now-defunct orphanage where she grew up, hoping to turn it back into a home for children. But when her adopted son begins acting strangely and putting far too much stock in a set of invisible friends, then eventually disappears, she fears that the orphanage isn’t as empty as she thought – what could’ve happened to keep the ghosts of the other children here? The mood is extremely effective here, as is the simple image of the child who wears a sack on his head. The ending didn’t totally gel for me, but the rest of the film was so solid that I still really enjoyed it overall.
The House on Haunted Hill – [Rating:4/5]
1959 USA. Director: William Castle. Starring: Vincent Price, Carol Ohmart, Carolyn Craig, Richard Long.
The original 1959 version, with Vincent Price inviting six people out to a haunted mansion with the promise that he’ll give them each $1000 if they stay overnight. It’s a pretty simple concept, but even after having seen five other William Castle films this month and beginning to get a handle on his twist endings, I didn’t catch all of the directions this was going to go. But the thing that really elevates this is Price’s exquisite delivery of some pretty fun dialogue – I mean, pretty much every scene between him and his wife is absolute gold. Throw in film noir fall guy staple Elisha Cook as the nervous house owner who completely believes in the ghosts and the obligatory ingenue couple, along with a couple of genuine scares, and you’ve got the makings of some delicious classic horror.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much – [Rating:4/5]
1963 Italy. Director: Mario Bava. Starring: Leticia Roman, John Saxon, Valentina Cortese.
After seeing The Mask of Satan (aka Black Sunday) last year, I knew I had to have at least one Bava film in my viewing this year. Bob’s horror montage dictated it be this one, because I’m a sucker for low-angle black and white shots of pretty blondes and swinging light bulbs, apparently. Anyway, this is more of a suspense thriller than a horror film, but that could actually be said of a lot of pre-1970s films – the line was blurrier then, especially in non-monster films. The blonde in question is an American visitor in Italy who witnesses a murder one rainy midnight, but the next day can’t convince anyone it happened. But enough weird stuff keeps happening that she keeps doggedly investigating on her own. There’s a lot of fairly bad dialogue and “wait, really” moments in here, but that kind of adds to the fun once you let it, and there’s no doubt that Bava is an absolute master cinematographer. This film is so gorgeous that even if you lose our heroine in her hair-brained schemes to booby-trap the house where she’s staying, you’ll still have plenty of pretty to distract you.
House of the Devil – [Rating:4/5]
2009 USA. Director: Ti West. Starring: Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, Greta Gerwig.
This film has probably come up randomly in Row Three comment sections as much as any other film in recent months, and I can’t resist things that so many R3ers praise the way they’ve praised this. Especially when they’re honest about its flaws and still enjoyed it. And that’s pretty much how I felt about it, too. The deliberately paced build-up with the girl getting a suspicious baby-sitting job in the middle of nowhere and slowly realizing that not everything is quite on the up and up is marvelously constructed. And the style throwback is so effective that my boyfriend was like, wait, what year is this from again? There are some great scares in here, but while I expected some jump scares, there were a number of what I’ll call chilling realization scares, too, which I find much more satisfyingly scary than simple startles. [spoilers by suggestion/comparison in the next sentence] I’d heard that the ending isn’t quite as compelling as the build-up, and I get that, but I almost think the ending seems like a bit of a let-down not because there’s anything inherently wrong with it, but simply because it pales in comparison to the ending of Rosemary’s Baby, which the film can’t help but evoke.
The Masque of the Red Death – [Rating:4/5]
1964 USA. Director: Roger Corman. Starring: Vincent Price, Jane Asher, Hazel Court, David Weston.
This may, in fact, be the first Roger Corman-directed film I’ve seen, and I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would – I went into it with a “well, this is on Instant Watch and I did want to watch some more Vincent Price movies so I guess this one will do” mentality, but the use of color in here is pretty awesome. Right up there with Hammer Horror. Price is a Satan-worshipping medieval Prince who holds a giant masque ostensibly to keep the nobles safe from the Red Death ravaging the nearby village, but with various cruel games in mind as well. There’s a lot of weirdness in here, and what with the evocations of more than one Poe story PLUS the medieval class warfare PLUS the Satanism PLUS the general cruelty PLUS the surrealistic dream sequences PLUS I don’t what all else you kind of feel like they’re throwing in the kitchen sink, but somehow it all worked on just the right over-the-top level for me.
The Tingler – [Rating:4/5]
1959 USA. Director: William Castle. Starring: Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn, Darryl Hickman.
I think my 4/5 rating only really applies if you see this as originally intended, with the seat-tingling gimmick in place. Cinefamily went all out for William Castle, reproducing every single one of his gimmicks, and this was easily the most elaborate (they promise to do this one again next year and better, now that they’ve learned how to wire the seats more effectively!). Without that gimmick, the film is probably a 3.5/5 just based on sheer chutzpah of making a film based entirely around the concept of a giant centipede-like creature inside your body that lives on fear and kills you if you don’t scream. I mean, REALLY? But having Vincent Price on board to sell this crazy idea in utter seriousness goes a long way, so it’d be fun even without the gimmick. With it, it’s GENIUS. Add in a sold-out audience of exactly the right kind of people for this film, and this was an awesome way to spend Halloween.
White Zombie – [Rating:4/5]
1932 USA. Director: Victor Halperin. Starring: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Robert Frazer, John Harron.
Some day I’m going to write something about how deeply disturbing and in a way terrifying I find voodoo-style zombies, often even more so than post-Romero zombies, which have become just about the only conception of zombies in popular culture. A person having the power to turn someone utterly mindless and powerless and yet the zombie still be so close to human – not ravenous or dangerous on their own, but a simply vacant – I find that really compelling and existentially frightening in a way that pure monster kill-them-or-be-eaten zombies are not. Anyway. White Zombie is considered the first zombie movie, and it’s these voodoo zombies we’re talking about, with Bela Lugosi the supremely creepy zombie master. There’s a lot that’s creaky about this film, but it has so many elements that totally fascinated me – the possibility of turning someone BACK human again, for example, and especially the scene with such gradual zombification that the person was aware of what was happening but unable to stop the slow loss of themselves. The connections with human slavery is particularly strong as well, as is often the case with pre-Romero zombies.
Homicidal – [Rating:3.5/5]
1961 USA. Director: William Castle. Starring: Glenn Corbett, Patricia Breslin, Jean Arliss.
William Castle apparently saw Psycho, and thought, hmmm, what can I do to top this? And of course Homicidal isn’t a masterpiece like Psycho, but damn if it wasn’t over-the-top fun. A woman pays a random bellboy to marry her in a secret, middle-of-the-night ceremony, then kills the judge, ditches the bellboy and returns home to the house where she cares for a paralyzed older woman. Is she or is she not married to the house’s owner? Does this young man have an odd relationship with his sister or does he not? There’s so much interpersonal weirdness just below the surface here, and it’s absolutely impossible to even mention all of it without spoiling the ending, which is an absolute no-no with this film. Suffice it to say that it’s so utterly revealing that it makes you rethink the whole first part of the film (at least some of it). Now, it’s still not a great film due to the dependence on that twist and some uneven performances, but I pretty much loved it. Especially when thinking about it in relation to Psycho. No, really, there’s even a section that totally rips off Marion driving in the car!
Opera – [Rating:3.5/5]
1985 Italy. Director: Dario Argento. Starring: Cristina Marsillach, Ian Charleston, Urbano Barberini.
This played a double bill with Deep Red and though I didn’t love it quite as much, it still definitely had its moments. It’s much of a “create a situation and pile on the horrific experiences” kind of film, based loosely on The Phantom of the Opera, with a young wanna-be opera star groomed for stardom by a mysterious entity within an opera house, but his obsession gets all out of control, leading to ever more extravagant and unbelievable explosions of violence (several of them involving him taping needles to the heroine’s eyes so she’s forced to watch him murder her friends). I found much of it fairly laughable, but have to give it serious props for the single shot (pun intended) in the entrance hallway of the apartment, and the virtuoso sequence with the ravens in the opera house.
Mr. Sardonicus – [Rating:3.5/5]
1961 USA. Director: William Castle. Starring: Ronald Lewis, Guy Rolfe, Audrey Dalton, Oskar Homolka.
The gimmick for this Castle film is the Punishment Poll, where the audience ostensibly gets to vote whether the main character/villain should be punished further for his crimes against humanity or if he’s suffered enough and should be spared further torment. And to Castle’s credit, it’s actually a rather difficult decision when it comes down to it. The story follows a Dracula-like trajectory, as an English doctor is summoned to a fictional Eastern European country under mysterious circumstances, to find that his nobleman host has had a mystical disfigurement. The things Sardonicus has done in order to try to reverse his disfigurement are indeed horrible, but he’s also a somewhat tragic figure, and the film balances these two things much more subtly than you’d expect from Castle.
Session 9 – [Rating:3.5/5]
2001 USA. Director: Brad Anderson. Starring: Peter Mullen, David Caruso, Stephen Gevedon, Josh Lucas.
Brad Anderson gets a lot of love on Row Three, and a lot of people have been bringing up Session 9 in conversations about his more recent films. When it popped up on Instant Watch, I figured, what the heck. And I’ll admit when it comes to creepy atmosphere and effective camerawork, it’s pretty dang good. I wasn’t really convinced by the story or resolution, though, which seemed to come out of nowhere and kind of fell apart when I started scrutinizing the details. I’ll give it an above average rating for mood and look, but I’ve liked Anderson’s other films more overall.
Strait-Jacket – [Rating:3.5/5]
1964 USA. Director: William Castle. Starring: Joan Crawford, Diane Baker, Leif Erickson.
So William Castle’s gimmick in Strait-Jacket is…Joan Crawford. That’s it. But really, isn’t that enough? In the opening sequence, Crawford kills her husband and his lover viciously with an ax, leading to her being put away in an asylum for some twenty years – when she returns, her now-grown daughter tries to integrate her back into society. But is she ready? Do we need to lock up the axes? This is blown incredibly over the top, but it works almost because of that, and I for one will admit I didn’t see the twist at the end coming at all.
A Nightmare on Elm Street – [Rating:3.5/5]
1984 USA. Director: Wes Craven. Starring: Heather Langencamp, Robert Englund, John Saxon, Johnny Depp.
I’ve been wanting to catch up on some of the original slasher films, at least the first ones in the major serieses, for a while now. This was the only one I got to, but I enjoyed it more than I expected to, once I gave up any pretense of taking it seriously. I’m kind of wondering now what Scream was supposed to be parodying – this already seems like a parody of itself, but perhaps I’m coming at it from a too-modern point of view. I did really like the girl’s tenacity, and the idea itself of a murderer who kills through dreams is clever.
The Old Dark House – [Rating:3.5/5]
1932 USA. Director: James Whale. Starring: Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, Lillian Bond, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey.
This falls squarely into my “I liked it because I like 1930s style non-scary horror films” bias. It has a trio of young people who get stranded in the middle of nowhere near a big, scary [old, dark] house and take shelter there, but the proprietors are…odd…seemingly afraid of the house or something inside it themselves. Soon another couple take refuge in the house as well, leading to the obligatory romance subplots which never seem to annoy me in 1930s films they way they do in contemporary films. All the normal types are there – the gung-ho men who want to face the danger head on, the lazy fop who’d rather stay out of it, the ingenue who needs saving, and the streetwise girl who keeps things lively. Not to mention the thing at the top of the stairs… Yeah, a lot of it is fairly cliched now, but like I said. It hit my buttons, so I enjoyed watching it.
13 Ghosts – [Rating:3/5]
1958 USA. Director: William Castle. Starring: Charles Herbert, Jo Morrow, Martin Milner.
A family on the brink of economic ruin find an unexpected reprieve when an eccentric relative leaves them a mansion – with the stipulation that they must live in it along with the thirteen ghosts he had been studying before his death. This is a pretty silly film in a lot of ways, and even the Ghost Viewer gimmick (which shows the ghosts onscreen if you look through one panel and hides them via color filtering if you look through the other) is fairly weak in comparison with some of Castle’s others, but I still enjoyed watching this, if only for the endearingly awkward acting and interplay of supernatural and very human villainy.
House of Wax – [Rating:3/5]
1953 USA. Director: Andre de Toth. Starring: Vincent Price, Frank Lovejoy, Carolyn Jones.
Having caught the 1933 version of this story (The Mystery of the Wax Museum) last year, I was eager to check out the better known Vincent Price version this year. Despite expectations, though, I ended up thinking this was pretty forgettable – it has Price and some nice use of Technicolor, but it lost most of the spunky ’30s charm that I liked so much about the ’33 version. Like, the Glenda Farrell character (my favorite part of the earlier film) is nowhere to be seen.
Macabre – [Rating:2.5/5]
1963 USA. Director: William Castle. Starring: William Prince, Jim Backus, Christine White, Jacqueline Scott.
My least favorite of the William Castle series, largely because it didn’t have enough of a gimmick or innate charm to overcome the wooden acting and some rather unbelievable plot elements. I mean, all the Castle films kind of have those two things, but the others all had something more – some outrageous twist or over the top gimmick that made it worth while. This one’s gimmick was selling life insurance in case the movie scared you to death – which makes sense when you see climax of the film, but it isn’t really remotely scary. The basic story has a man’s daughter being kidnapped and buried alive, so he has a limited amount of time to find her. It has a few moments of cleverness, but the number of red herrings thrown in tended to make me just not care that much. I didn’t actually dislike it, I just found it a lot less memorable than the others.
It! The Terror from Beyond Space – [Rating:2.5/5]
1958 USA. Director: Edward L. Cahn. Starring: Marshall Thompson, Shirley Patterson, Ann Doran.
A sort of horror/sci-fi cross, as a group of astronauts gets picked off one by one by a mysterious creature brought back from Mars. This is definitely B-movie schlock, and I enjoyed it from that point of view, but ultimately I wanted it to be even more schlocky or over the top or something – it ended up just sitting there in this kind of “overly serious but not quite enough to be hilarious” space. Also, it took me like a week to get through it on Instant Watch because a lot of parts just aren’t that interesting.
Link – [Rating:1.5/5]
1986 USA. Director: Richard Franklin. Starring: Elisabeth Shue, Terence Stamp.
This. Is a terrible, horrible, very bad, not good movie. Which makes me extra glad that I saw it at Cinefamily for one of Doug Benson’s Movie Interruption shows. Basically, comedian Benson and a few of his friends sit down and MST3K a movie live. This time he had Adam Scott and Elisabeth Shue there with him, a nice touch since Link is an early role for Shue. She was a great sport about it, too, and provided funny bits of production info to go along with Benson and Scott’s merciless jabs (she was also mercilessly jabbing, no worries). The story is about killer chimps, and it is terrible. And awesome, when MST3Ked with a large audience. And somehow Terence Stamp is in it. I can’t really explain that.