Horror Challenge rundown: The first update
#1 - Frozen Scream (1975, Frank Roach): Imagine carving a statue. Think about all the bits left over once you’ve chiseled your work from solid, shapeless rock. Now imagine trying to build another statue from those cast-off shards using only a hot glue gun. That’s as succinctly as I can describe Frozen Scream, a film that feels crafted from random leftovers of a larger, less nonsensical piece. The basic situation is simple, woman-besieged-by-evil-forces stuff, and if it had stayed basic it might have been more coherent. It might have also been duller, more generic and less memorable than the singularly screwy final product - normal movies don’t have radio-controlled frozen zombies, white-coated German mad scientists (one of whom’s motivations & moral allegiance switch from scene to scene) surrounded by boxy electronics and blinking whatzits in the basement of a gymnasium, knife-wielding stab-happy figures in black cloaks or a heroic policeman whose voiceover narration intrudes at unexpected, ill-timed intervals, including during exposition-heavy dialogue scenes. The editing makes the film lurch from scene to scene, occasionally slipping back in time for a flashback or a dream sequence, neither of which end up meaning much of anything. Acting uniformly terrible, camera never quite where it should be, script dopey and inscrutably bizarre, Frozen Scream is a terrible, terrible movie. But it’s one of a kind.
#2 - The Corpse Grinders (1971, Ted V. Mikels): Part of me wants to like this simply for its off-the-wall supporting cast. Mikels clearly digs the freaky, the strange and eccentric - more so than his square doctor protagonists - and as such fills his film to burst with weirdo characters (a mute crippled secretary, a scruffy semi-homeless dude, a burly gravedigger with a nutbar wife who “feeds” a baby doll and generally acts like a reject from an Andy Milligan flick) who float in, do their thing and float right back out. The intent, I guess, is to goose the dull plot with these oddballs so that there might be something worth watching; if so, Mikels fails in execution if not intent. The Corpse Grinders is a bad film, but that’s not its greatest sin. It’s not just bad, it’s boring and lifeless. If you tried to remake Herschell Gordon Lewis’s The Gruesome Twosome without the gore or bizarre sense of humor, this is what you’d get. Also, cats? Still not intimidating.
#3 - Cat People (1942, Jacques Tourneur): The temptation to psychoanalyze this film’s baldy Freudian setup is strong - sexual hysteria rarely gets this blunt. Which makes the climax, featuring a psychiatrist and an angry panther, all the more amusing - the message seems to be, “Go ahead and rationalize it all you want. Ain’t gonna help.” Tourneur directs the holy hell out of this thing, with deep shadows and creative uses of limited lighting casting dread into every corner. (Replace the dread with despair and you’ve got noir.) A slow builder, setting up its conflict between the rational and the superstitious, the New World and the Old, with patience and care until the subconscious rips through and tears everything asunder. Potent shit.
A bigger buffet.
For yet another year, I’ll be participating in Adam Lemke’s Halloween Horror Challenge. Once again, I’ll try and keep some capsule reviews going of what I’ve seen (and I’ll try not to give up halfway through the month again), probably doing weekly capsule updates to save time. Also, as usual, I’ve amassed far more films than I’ll actually be able to watch within a month. So what the hell: Here’s the options, so you can at least know the pool from which I’m drawing. I severely doubt I’ll be able to watch all of these, but I’ll sure as hell try to knock out as many as possible. Note that this doesn’t include any potential theatrical releases which might catch my eye (i.e. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil), nor does it account for any wild hairs I might get up my ass to watch something random. So… yeah. Good luck with this, I suppose.
Baba Yaga (1973, Corrado Farina)
Barracuda (1978, Harry Kerwin & Wayne Crawford)
Bedlam (1946, Mark Robson)
Bereavement (2011, Stevan Mena)
Blood Hook (1987, Jim Mallon)
Boardinghouse (1982, John Wintergate)
The Body Snatcher (1945, Robert Wise)
Boy Meets Girl (1994, Ray Brady)
Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror (1981, Andrea Bianchi)
Cat People (1942, Jacques Tourneur)
The Chilling (1989, Deland Nuse & Jack A. Sunseri)
A Chinese Ghost Story (1987, Ching Siu-Tung)
A Chronicle of Corpses (2000, Andrew Repasky McElhinney)
The Corpse Grinders (1971, Ted V. Mikels)
The Corpse Grinders II (2000, Ted V. Mikels)
Curse of the Cat People (1944, Gunther von Fritsch & Robert Wise)
Deadly Sweet (1967, Tinto Brass)
Death Smiles on a Murderer (1973, Joe D’Amato)
Demons (1985, Lamberto Bava)
The Devil (1972, Andrzej Zulawski)
Don’t Deliver Us from Evil (1971, Joel Seria)
Don’t Go in the Woods (1981, James Bryan)
Don’t Go Near the Park (1981, Lawrence D. Foldes)
Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (2011, Adam Munroe)
Fall Down Dead (2007, Jon Keeyes)
The Forest (1982, Donald M. Jones)
The Funhouse (1981, Tobe Hooper)
The Ghost Ship (1943, Mark Robson)
Grizzly (1976, William Girdler)
Harpoon: Whale Watching Massacre (2009, Julius Kemp)
High Lane (2009, Abel Ferry)
A Horrible Way to Die (2011, Adam Wingard)
Island Fury (1983, Henri Charr)
Isle of the Dead (1945, Mark Robson)
It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958, Edward L. Cahn)
I Walked With a Zombie (1943, Jacques Tourneur)
The Leopard Man (1943, Jacques Tourneur)
Madman (1982, Joe Giannone)
Maniac Cop (1988, William Lustig)
Nail Gun Massacre (1985, Bill Leslie & Terry Lofton)
Negative Happy Chain Saw Edge (2007, Takuji Kitamura)
A Night to Dismember (1983, Doris Wishman)
Paranormal Entity (2009, Shane Van Dyke)
Pop Skull (2007, Adam Wingard)
Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991, Ngai Kai Lam)
The Rite (2011, Mikael Hafstrom)
Screwed (1998, Teruo Ishii)
The Seventh Victim (1943, Mark Robson)
Seven Women for Satan (1976, Michel Lemoine)
The Sinful Dwarf (1973, Vidal Raski)
Sombre (1998, Philippe Grandrieux)
Stake Land (2011, Jim Mickle)
Syngenor (1990, George Elanjian Jr.)
The Terror (1963, Roger Corman)
Three on a Meathook (1973, William Girdler)
The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (1967, Harald Reinl)
The Uh-Oh Show (2009, Herschell Gordon Lewis)
Vanishing on 7th Street (2011, Brad Anderson)
Video Violence (1987, Gary P. Cohen)
Video Violence 2 (1987, Gary P. Cohen)
Virgin Witch (1972, Ray Austin)
White Zombie (1932, Victor Halperin)
Horror Challenge entry #11: The Body Shop AKA Doctor Gore (1973, J.G. Patterson Jr.)
How bad does a film have to be to make Herschell Gordon Lewis’s films look like sensitive, thoughtful masterpieces in comparison? This damn bad.
Starts off promisingly dumb, with a mad scientist using tin foil on a body “to seal in all the radium” and a midget hunchback who needs help putting on his lab coat, but the fun doesn’t last. Patterson ladles on the grue in this offbeat “Frankenstein” gloss, yet his film is too inept and uninspired to work even in the intended titillative function. Maybe it’s because, despite the exploitative material, Patterson never seems to commit to the idea of a gut-pulling gore flick, and once his creation (a lovely, nubile young woman with the brain of a child) is complete, the film turns into some awkward combination of love story and brain-cracked sitcom about the difference between men and women. (Seriously, there’s even a musical montage with the doctor and his creation frolicking in nature and making googly eyes at one another.) All the tempura paint and white linen can’t keep this from being dispiritingly terrible, even by the standards of Florida-lensed exploitation films. Even the score, an obnoxiously insistent organ-based thing, is awful. In fact, fuck Lewis… Patterson makes William Grefe look talented by comparison. The befuddling non-ending is just icing on the cake.
Horror Challenge entry #10: The Haunted Strangler (1958, Robert Day)
I gotta admit - this film sucker-punched me. I knew nothing about it going in other than Boris Karloff was in it and it was part of the same cycle that birthed Corridors of Blood, a Karloff/Day collaboration I liked very much. The Haunted Strangler shares a lot in common with that film, as Karloff here as there plays a crusading man trying to advance his field (surgery there, investigation here) who gets terribly swept up in something he couldn’t have foreseen. Yet I was a fool. I didn’t recognize the structure for what it was. So here’s Karloff, wandering through a stodgy procedural while trying to clear a hanged man’s name, digging up facts and defying authority and generally behaving like he’s the lead in some 19th-century edition of “Cold Case.” But then we hit the midway point and… uh oh. The film erupts and streaks off in a different, far more lurid direction - the bonds of procedural constructed only to be madly ripped asunder. Early on, Karloff exclaims, “A man must do the work in which he believes!” Later developments provide a dichotomy between the work we feel we must do and the work we do because we must (in that we’re compelled against our will), and it’s all pretty cracking good stuff. Really only half a great film, but that’s preferable to no great film at all.
Horror Challenge entry #9: Laid to Rest (2009, Robert Hall)
This really coulda been something if it didn’t keep getting in its own damn way. I guess, since it’s not 1983 anymore, it’s not enough for a movie to simply be an inventive and gruesome slasher flick - it needs to have a plot and characters and stuff, stuff more complicated than, “big dude in mask guts people.” What irks about Hall’s sophomore feature is that he’s really damn good with the basics of the slasher genre - his direction is solid, he builds tensions and knows how to time his shocks, and his makeup gags are cruelly creative. (Johnathon Schaech’s death scene is remarkable in its terrifically-staged savagery.) If he’d only stick to that, make a stripped-down killfest and leave it at that, he’d be aces with me. But far, far too much of Laid to Rest is spent on sussing out the relationship between its killer, an implacable camera-toting mute named Chrome Skull, and its Final Girl, a whiny nameless amnesiac whose every action seems to get someone slashed. The script goes on and on like it’s got an ace up its sleeve, a big twist it’s hiding. Then we reach the climax and… nothing. The big reveal is a big kaput, as it changes little about the film aside from clarifying the already-subtextual (and not exactly difficult-to-figure-out) reactionary streak in Chrome Skull’s rampage. Dude, I read Carol Clover too. I know how this stuff works. No need to highlight and underline it for the sake of coyness. Might be worth seeing for the curious and undemanding for its gore FX, which again are terrific, and for the sight of Kevin Gage in an unabashedly heroic role.
Horror Challenge entry #8: Marebito (2004, Takashi Shimizu)
Is Shimizu a protege of Shinya Tsukamoto? If so, that would explain a lot about his filmmaking. Tsukamoto stars in this film that Shimizu knocked out between Grudge franchise entries, and his particular brand of vaguely meaningful incoherence is all over this tale of a freelance photographer who descends into an underground world and comes back with… something. I’d lay the blame on Shinya except that the Grudge films also traffic in vaguely meaningful incoherence, as if everything will make subconscious sense if you just throw out enough spooky signifiers and tenuous connections, so I’d say it’s more of a meeting of similar minds. But while The Grudge is pared down until there’s nothing left but ghostly imagery, Marebito has so many shards of ideas in its head that it can’t keep it all straight and ends up doing a disservice to everything it tries to do: It’s a meditation on cinema versus reality! It’s a meta-horror film about what it means to be frightened! It’s a descent-into-madness narrative! It’s a wriggling mass of references to other works, from Lovecraft to The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser to Peeping Tom to (no joke) The Little Shop of Horrors! It’s all of that AT THE SAME TIME!!!! All that, and it still adds up to zilch. I think I’m done with Shimizu, frankly.
Horror Challenge entry #7: After.Life (2010, Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo)
Allow me to boil this film down to its essence:
CHRISTINA RICCI: I’m not dead.
LIAM NEESON: Yes, you are.
CHRISTINA RICCI: I don’t feel dead.
LIAM NEESON: Trust me, you are.
CHRISTINA RICCI: How do you know?
LIAM NEESON: I’m a funeral director, I know corpses when I see them.
CHRISTINA RICCI: So how are we having this conversation?
LIAM NEESON: I can talk to the dead. And before you say anything, it’s not a gift.
CHRISTINA RICCI: I don’t believe you. I’m not dead.
LIAM NEESON: As a doornail, sweetie.
Repeat above annoying conversation for roughly 90 minutes. Garnish with red-on-white color scheme and awful symbolism (a bobblehead? really?). Toss in stupid twist ending that makes the whole thing pointless and intellectually suspect.
Horror Challenge entry #6: The Pack (1977, Robert Clouse)
(Written for the Killer Animal Blogathon.)
When I announced this particular blogathon, I knew already which film I was going to view and write about. I’d love to say that I had a highfalutin’ reason for my conviction, but it was merely because I did a Robert Clouse flick for the last blogathon I participated in, and I liked the idea of keeping a bit of consistency. Too bad that didn’t really work out for me: Where Gymkata was mesmerizing in its utter wrongheaded idiocy, The Pack is merely dull. Yet there’s something there anyway that makes me glad I saw it, and I’ll get to that in a minute.
The pack in question is a sizable group of feral, possibly rabid dogs who start to wreak havoc on a remote island vacation spot. Joe Don Baker is the no-nonsense marine biologist who takes it upon himself to stop their reign of terror. That’s the film at its most basic, and that’s also the film at its most complex - it’s Joe Don Baker vs. killer canines, and it plays out precisely how you’d expect. There’s few surprises and little panache - Clouse’s idea of tension is filming most of the attack scenes in slow motion, and he’s clearly no director of actors, as most of the cast not named Joe Don Baker comes off as flat and declarative. (Richard B. Shull has a few good moments as well, but he’s mostly coasting on the snarky-but-trustworthy persona he also wore to better effect in Cockfighter and Hail.) There’s an early attack sequence on a woman in a Volkswagen that contains a dark, terrifying energy that points towards what the rest of this flaccid thing should be, but that energy quickly dissipates, not to be seen again until the effectively desperate final mano-a-mano in an attic between Baker and the snarling alpha dog.
The idea I got while watching this was that of a film where almost everyone involved put out the exact minimum of effort needed to drag this over the cinematic Mendoza Line and not a whit more. But, practically in spite of itself, there is something interesting about The Pack, and I don’t mean Baker’s always-satisfying strong-jawed asskicking. (Though that’s never to be discounted.) Most killer-animal films center around beasts that humans are instinctively afraid of; whether animals dangerous because of size and ferocity (i.e. lions in The Ghost and the Darkness, a bear in Grizzly) or because of skeeviness amplified by numbers and/or mutations (i.e. large rats in Deadly Eyes, flesh-eating cockroaches in The Nest), the assumption is that the threat is something we’d feel okay about killing. The Pack, then, travels somewhat thornier ground in that the threat is domestic dogs… and as anyone who has even a passing familiarity with cinematic cliches, it’s damn near verboten to kill a dog in a movie. To the extent that the film works at all, it works in the space between what the plot requires and what we fear we’ll actually see - we don’t normally expect dogs to be killed in movies, yet here’s a film that requires it as part of the plot fabric, so how to react? There’s several dog attacks in the film, but more unsettling than dog-on-human violence is the (well-simulated) dog-on-dog violence and human-on-dog violence. That doesn’t make the film any better, as the intellectual dissonance is endemic to the plot and not something the film really does anything with, but at least it provides something to chew on.
Horror Challenge entry #5: Redneck Zombies (1987, Pericles Lewnes)
I don’t know what’s more unexpected - that most of the best parts of a film titled Redneck Zombies have nothing to do with either rednecks or zombies, or that a film titled Redneck Zombies has “best parts” at all. I know that sounds like snark, but I mean that in all sincerity - Redneck Zombies isn’t really a good film, and who would really want a “good” film about ’80s-fashion-victim campers beset by undead rednecks poisoned by hooch laced with government-sourced toxic waste? Beholden as it is to the lower-than-lowbrow Troma aesthetic, it’s open and cheerful about embracing its badness; rather than try to take a dopey premise and prove himself by crafting something “serious” from it, writer/director Lewnes goes blessedly bonkers with the dopiness, loading up on redneck humor and gross-out humor and drug humor, while still finding sneaky ways to prove that he’s got more talent than the average video-camera-toting auteur. His visuals, in particular, are more ambitious than most low-level gutmunchers; whether it was the appeal of fucking around with the video image in ways that hadn’t yet become commonplace in the genre market or simply a sense that he had nothing to lose, Lewnes throws every warping effect that he can at many of his shots. Looking at the opening sequence, set in a dilapidated asylum and replete with whooshing canted Raimi-esque angles, colorful video psychedelia and cacophonous reverb-drenched soundtrack, you’d be forgiven if you thought for a minute that you wandered into some other, creepier film. Lewnes returns to the lysergic whenever it suits him, and while the encroaching zombie attacks are effective in their way, the most impressive pieces of this patchwork work are those which allow him to indulge that, i.e. the spaced-out meltdowns upon the first consumption of the chemical-waste-tainted moonshine and, especially, the increasingly absurd and weirdly hilarious autopsy performed on a zombie by a med student tripping on acid.
Furthermore, Lewnes airs out that tendency towards the creepy with the occasional appearance of the Tobacco Man (a hooded, towering beast of a man with a digitally-altered voice) and a bizarre, inexplicable sequence in the house of the neighborhood “freelance butcher.” In these sequences, we can see Lewnes straining against his self-imposed limitations to show what he can do beyond goofy gory kitsch. I’m not dissing the kitsch, mind you - I enjoy an unapologetic zombie film as much as anyone. It’s not the second word in the title that gives me pause; the film’s weakness, truth be told, is in the idiots-in-pants-and-overalls setup. While there’s some incidental silliness and likable running gags (like the constantly-changing T-shirts on one fellow I nicknamed Jerkass Camper), the bulk of the humor is broad and dumb, hick humor at its most indulgent. There’s a lot of redneck to get through before the zombies show up, and while this isn’t nearly as tiresome as, say, Sassy Sue, a little of it goes a really long way.
I will say, though, that I appreciated the double-edged payoff in the shot of the alcoholic camper downing a pint of Graves’ Grain Alcohol right before a zombie attack.
I will also say that, no matter how bad a film is otherwise, I cannot fail to give at least a half-hearted recommendation to a film with this particular zombie extra:
Ain’t he just the cutest little flesh-eater ever?
Horror Challenge entry #4: The Video Dead (1987, Robert Scott)
Holy ballsack, is this film ever terrible. That’s all I have to say about it. No, really. It’s fucking awful, I don’t understand the minor cult that’s sprung up around it and I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s move the fuck on. Okay, fine. You want proof? Here. See how long you make it before wanting to punch something in rage: