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Archive for October, 2010|Monthly archive page

TerrorVision

In Film on October 27, 2010 at 1:41 am

It’s October again, so I’ve got horror movies on the brain. Well actually, I have horror movies on my brain no matter what month it is. But when this month rolls around, I become nostalgic for forgotten horror movies; ones that slipped through the cracks. Don’t get me wrong, I love modern horror films too and I make a point to see new ones, but it pains me to see a lull in the genre this year. Not exactly in terms of quality (Let Me In and Splice were both exceptional), but a lull in theater attendance. While this is bad for business, I actually think this is good for the movie’s credibility in the future. After the decade passes and the dust settles, I can see past the volumes of vampire tweens and oversaturation of sequels to see the light. With that in mind, I have decided to look back at my ten favorite forgotten, ignored and misinterpreted horror films from the past 50 years. These movies were ahead of their time, better than what their marketing campaigns touted them as, and all failed to find an audience.

Dementia (1953)

Director John Parker only made one film his entire life, Dementia(aka Daughter of Horror).  Easily one of the strangest horror films ever made, it’s no wonder the filmmaker had such a hard time getting it to play in theaters. No one ever made a movie like it before, and its Freudian overtones must have baffled the few who saw it.  Shot in black and white and without dialog, Dementia begins when a young woman (Adrienne Barrett) wakes up from a nightmare in a dingy, skid row hotel room. From there, we follow the heroine as she meanders from one strange situation to the next including midget newsies and a pimp with a bloody stump. Parker eventually found a distributor for his film by the late 1950s, when Jack H. Harris added Ed McMahon’s voice as a narrator (“You… You out there. Do you know what horror is?”). When the movie was release on DVD, both versions were included. If ever a low-budget exploitation film strived for some form of art, this is it.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Robert Mitchum makes evil sexy. His studly swagger; those bedroom eyes; that seductive baritone twang. I can understand why men and women love him. I can also see why audiences were not ready for his role as the bible quoting serial killer in the expressionistic American classic, The Night of the Hunter. Mitchum stars as Harry Powell (a role he was born to play), a scheming drifter who uses the good word of God to justify his evil ways. When he meets, marries and murders the widow of former cell mate to get his mitts on some stolen loot entrusted to the dead man’s son, Powell runs into trouble when the robber’s children outsmart him at every turn. Famed character actor Charles Laughton (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) never returned to the directing chair after this one fizzled. In November of 2010 The Criterion Collection will be releasing a newly restored version of the film and with all sorts of added goodies. Praise Lord Jehovah.

Peeping Tom (1960)

It’s strange to think that making one movie can kill your career, but that is precisely what happened to Michael Powell with Peeping Tom in 1960. Heavily cut upon its release in the UK (many scenes remain missing), the critical backlash effectively ostracized the filmmaker within the British film community and unjustly dubbed Powell as a pornographer. Carl Boehm stars as a timid, self-reserved serial killer who films his victims while murdering them, catching their final moments of life on celluloid in an ongoing documentary about fear.  You can thank Martin Scorsese for helping the film find its richly deserved audience over the years. And if there is any justice in the world, the BFI now regards the movie as a landmark in British cinema. The film’s screenwriter, Leo Marks, later voiced Satan himself in The Last Temptation of Christ.

Carnival of Souls (1962)

No longer content as an industrial filmmaker, cranking out social edifying class room how-to’s for The Centron Corporation – Herk Harvey decided to break into features. And like so many before him (and since) he began with a horror film. After all, they were the easiest films to market and at a time when a regional filmmaker could easily make their money back from the drive-in circuit, it seemed like the best thing to do. But Carnival of Souls is no ordinary horror film. It’s dream-like, foreign sensibilities (Harvey was once quoted as purposely striving for the “look Bergman and feel of Cocteau”) left distributors cold and the film failed to make an impact. Carnival of Souls begins when a woman, presumed to be dead, emerges from the river after her car careened over a bridge. Deciding to make a new life for herself, she moves to a new town and takes work as a church organist. But along the way, she is pursued by a ghostly apparition (Harvey himself) and finds herself strangely drawn to an abandoned roadside carnival. Like Dementia, Carnival of Souls was far too good for its low-budget marketplace.

Deranged (1974)

Both Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre found inspiration in the true life exploits of Wisconsin necrophile Ed Gein, but used the source material in varying degrees. Deranged was (at the time) the closest telling of the Gein case, although the names and location were changed. Robert Blossom plays Ezra Cobb, devoted son, simpleton and farm laborer. When his mother dies, he cannot come to terms with her death and exhumes her corpse and returns her to their home. Cobb eventually begins committing murders and stock piles their corpses to keep himself company. Directed by Alan Ormsby and Jeff Gilen (who played the loony Department Store Santa in A Christmas Story), Deranged was shot in Canada, features special effects by Tom Savini and co-stars Leslie Carlson (Black Christmas, Videodrome ) as the monotone news reporter who acts as a poor man’s Greek chorus, describing the events on-screen as they unfold. It vanished after a modest run on the drive-in circuit, overshadowed and out grossed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, presumably. While this is a certainly an inferior film, Deranged is still worth watching for its strong leading presence of Robert Blossom. For all you purists, there is apparently an uncut German version of the film that includes a brain scooping scene that was cut from the AIP release.

Martin (1978)

For the record, I am not a tremendous fan of Martin, but I still think it’s one of director George Romero’s most interesting films and undervalued when you compare it to his best known work. Martin is very much a movie of the 70s; a lonely, post-modern, revisionist take on vampire folklore and religion set in a decaying urban Pittsburgh borough. Like most of Romero’s movies, it also dabbles in social commentary. John Amplas is the title character, a quite young man who is living with his aging, Greek Catholic uncle. Martin dreams that he is a vampire, complete with fangs and a cape, but his actual methods of murder consist of drugging his victims with narcotics and slitting their bodies with razor blades. While Martin kills punks and drug dealers in his neighborhood, he begins an affair with an equally lonely housewife that ends in tragedy. The film offers little resolution for its audience with the depressing conclusion, but in between, there are some inspired moments of comedy. Think of it as Harold and Maude as seen through the eyes of Bram Stoker.

Videodrome (1983)

You have to wonder what the hell audiences thought when the saw David Cronenberg’s Videodrome back in ’83. Even today, the WTF factor is pretty high, even if the analog video technology is out of date. James Wood stars as Max Renn, a sleezy TV station owner whose market is sadism and soft core pornography. One day at work, he discovers a pirate transmission video signal of nameless victims being tortured, raped and beaten. Faster that you can scream torture porn, Renn becomes obsessed with the video’s origin and despite warnings from friends and colleagues, he stops at nothing to find out about the program and its hallucinatory effect on his mind and body. Released by Universal Pictures, Videodrome was not a box office success. Its weird, psycho-sexual, bio-tech imagery was pretty audacious for a major studio to release and despite Cronenberg’s track history (his previous film, Scanners, debuted at #1) the movie failed to connect with horror/sci-fi audiences or the intellectual crowds. It was gone within weeks. Cronenberg would revisit themes and ideas from Videodrome later in his career with Naked Lunch and eXistenZ, but now seems content making film grounded firmly in reality, A History of Violence.

Parents (1989)

Being a kid is scary. When you’re little and you try to make sense of the adult world around you, it can be overwhelming. Fear takes over.  And when you are afraid of your very own parents, who are earth can you run to?  That is the basic premise of Parents, a marvelous, misunderstood masterpiece of anti-conformity and Post-War Eisenhower ethics. If Douglas Sirk made a horror film, it would probably look a lot like this. Young Michael (Bryan Madorsky) begins to suspect that his folks (Mary Beth Hurt and Randy Quaid – that lovable nut) are not telling the truth about the meat on his plate. He even witnesses them doing strange things at night. He cannot make sense out of them and spends a most of the time walking around the film as an emotionless vessel. Roger Ebert declared Parents to be “one of the strangest, most depraved, certainly the most depressing movies, I’ve ever seen.”  Directed by character actor Bob Balaban (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show) with a keen sense of a disturbed child’s POV, Parents is certainly the things Ebert declares, but it is also quite funny (I love the Meatloaf Mambo scene). Unlink Laugton and The Night of the Hunter, Balaban was not stung by his film’s failure at the box office and continued to direct (even if it was the Disney rom/zom/com annomoly My Boyfriend’s Back) and even produce – earning an Oscar nomination for Gosford Park.

The Exorcist III (1990)

The Exorcist terrifies me. But to me, The Exorcist III is often more frightening. I would compare some scenes to Robert Wise’s The Haunting for its level of near-consistent tension.  Based on William Peter Blatty’s novel Legion from 1983 (he also directs), the film was not meant as a direct sequel, but a continuation of a minor charecter from the original. This story follows Lt. Kinderman (George C. Scott, taking over for Lee J. Cobb) as he follows a new series of murders that fit the pattern of the Gemini Killer who was executed 15 years earlier.  While investigating one of the murders in a hospital, Kinderman learns that a patient in a psychiatric ward claims to be the true Gemini Killer. The film’s producers decided to add a subplot (against Blatty’s wishes) after it was discovered that no actual exorcism occurs (probably not the first time a producer failed to read the script). But do not let that useless bit of movie trivia fool you, it works seamlessly into the film and is still one of the finest horror sequels ever made. A modest success when released, I suspect that the aftertaste of John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic still lingered and people never gave this a fair chance. Oh, and don’t blink, or you’ll miss bizarre cameos from Larry King, ex-U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and Fabio. Talk about terrifying.

Willard (2003)

Perhaps anticipating our current remake trend of 70s/80s horror films, contemporary filmmakers might learn a thing or two from this reboot; it is possible to make an actual improvement over the original. Willard is (and I proclaim with zero hesitation) one of the very best horror films of the past 10 years. Willard is a horror film with soul; a horror film about loneliness without perversion or graphic violence. It is a horror film that is equal parts comedy, drama and character study. If there is any actor who could pour his heart out to a rat and actually make you feel something, it’s Crispin Glover. As Willard Stiles mourns the death of his mother, his friendship with a pet rat named Socrates, begins to blossom. But there is rodent jealousy afoot in the house when Ben (another rat) vows for supremacy and loftier sleeping privileges than Socrates. Harassed and bullied by his boss, Mr. Martin (the always reliable R. Lee Ermy) Willard uses his loyal army of rats to take revenge on the hot-tempred head cheese, while Ben vies for Willard’s undying love and attention. Willard is a perfectly realized picture. With a quirky accordian-based score by the late Shirley Walker and strong supporting roles by Laura Herring and Jackie Burroughs, director Glen Morgan (Final Destination) brings it all together with tender direction and dynamic results. He is one of the few directors who seems capable of reigning in Glover as a performer, resulting is one of the actor’s finest roles. Released the same spring as Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses, Willard tanked despite the teen friendly PG-13 rating. In an age where taking our revenge against people on social networking sites is the norm, the idea of vengeful vermin is wonderfully appealing. Willard to Ben: “I am soooooo deleting you from my Top Friends.”

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