Author Archives: c taylor

John Carpenter’s Enduring Classic Halloween

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Halloween

Ten years after a young boy named Michael murders his babysitter and her boyfriend in the sleepy town of Haddonfield, IL, he returns to finish wreaking his revenge.

Starring Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, Donald Pleasence as Dr. Loomis, P. J. Soles as Laurie’s friend Lynda, Halloween is directed by John Carpenter based on a screenplay written by Carpenter and Debra Hill.

halloween-10386I was barely out of diapers when John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s horror masterpiece Halloween was released to an unwitting public in 1978.  The film, famously made on a shoestring budget of about $325K has raked in modern day equivalents to $240 million worldwide.  Yes, in addition to The Blair Witch Project, that makes Halloween one of the most successful independent films of all time (so far).

While Halloween is credited with originating a set of “horror film cliches” that were used and reused in the horror films of the 1980s and 1990s, few would argue that the slasher films that followed relied more heavily on graphic violence and gore than Halloween.  In the film, although it is difficult to see it through new eyes if you are only accustomed to the horror films of the 2000s and 2010s, Carpenter/Hill compose, before your very eyes, the structure of the modern day horror film.

During the initial sequence of the film, which takes place 15 years earlier (October 31, 1963 if you’re keeping track), we areimages introduced to our villain, Michael Myers.  Who, at the time, is little more than a troubled (read: homicidal) child hiding behind a Halloween mask.  He is sent away, post haste, to Smith’s Grove Sanitarium.  Now, almost completely gone from use and the public eye, sanitariums hold little of the real fear they once did when you could, for simply believing differently from your mother or father, be sent away to one and be locked in a cell, alone … forever.

Spoiler alert.

Jump to the “present”.  It’s a crisp, Autumn day.  Everything is beautiful.  A group of teenage girls, led by Laurie Strode (played brilliantly by a very young Jamie Lee Curtis), is walking to school.  They’re talking crap.  They’re teenagers and besides the clothes and hair, very little has essentially changed.  They’re making plans for Halloween.  Laurie has to babysit.  Ah, shucks!  John Carpenter and Debra Hill have ingeniously set you up.  They’re giving you this  idyll of suburbia and you’re eating it up.  You’re totally sucked in now.  Maybe you’ve even forgotten about Michael …

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What transpires, by today’s standards, amounts to a protracted character set-up in which we are introduced to a cast of characters that we will soon be forced to part with, including Annie Brackett (Nancy Kyes) and Lynda Van Der Klok (P.J. Soles).  Isn’t it great when films care enough about their characters to give them last names?  Pay attention, it harkens.  Without these details, without this time, without this glimpse into their lives, you probably won’t care when Laurie’s friends start biting the dust.  Soon.  As in, that very night.  And then, what would be the point?

halloween_bts2One thing I’ve always respected about Halloween is that John Carpenter and Debra Hill made a decision about the character of Laurie Strode and they committed to it.

Laurie manages to stay strong, fresh, and alert throughout the ordeal that becomes this one, particular Halloween night.

Despite being repeatedly, relentlessly chased and attacked by the masked man that is Michael Myers, she keeps her wits and manages to do what few other characters in the history of horror film do:  stay alive.

During a confrontation with Michael, during which he locates Laurie in the closet of an upstairs bedroom, she even manages to wound and fatally injure the villain with a wire hanger through the eye (following that up with laurie-strode_786x1174the coveted, and much overlooked, double-tap by stabbing him in the chest with his own butcher knife).  Snaps, girlfriend.  You are a true role model.  And, probably also the reason why scared women and men across America hide in their closets when sh*t is hitting the fan.

The psychological terror John Carpenter is able to impose on his audience is celebrated year after year whenever people gather to watch Halloween on Halloween.   This year, you may be able to catch Halloween being shown on the big screen.  Check [ here ] for more details.  If you can make it, I hope you will.  The cultural phenomenon that is Halloween celebrates not only the holiday itself, in a manner befitting Halloween, but it also shows your support for independent film.

Trailer:

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Clive Barker’s Classic Vision of the Beyond – Hellraiser

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The news that Clive Barker will be involved in a reboot of the Hellraiser franchise made me want to go back and revisit the original.  After all, Hellraiser has shaped (and warped) minds like mine for more than 25 years.  If it comes to pass – we all know how these things (somtimes don’t) go down – I wonder if Hellraiser will make me change my mind about remakes…

1987 was a good year for horror fans.  It saw the release of Evil Dead IIThe Lost BoysPredatorThe Prince of Darkness, in addition to a slew of sequels to popular films in the genre like the Nightmare on Elm Street and Howling franchises.  For me, 1987 was solidified as an important year for the genre thanks to the release ofClive Barker‘s masterpiece, Hellraiser.

Imaginative, horrifying, visually spectacular, Hellraiser is everything a horror film is meant to be.

11-movie-games-wed-like-to-play-this-christmas-03-300-75When a deviant, boundary-pushing young man named Frank (Sean Chapman) unwittingly opens a gateway to Hell, he unleashes the wrath of the Cenobites – demonlike creatures who appear from another realm intent on inflicting pain and pleasure on the person responsible for “solving” their puzzle box.

Starring Clare Higgins as Frank’s secret lover, Julia, and introducing the dark haired beauty, Ashley Laurence as Julia’s stepdaughter, Kirsty, Hellraiser is as terrifying as it is provocative and sexy.

Even after more than 25 years, the scene in which Frank’s decimated body begins to regenerate in an attic room hellraiser1of the family home remains true and artful, inspiring slews of “gross!”  This is a lasting tribute to the vision of Clive Barker, who wrote and directed Hellraiser, and his ability to entangle elements of the mundane, the fantastic, the spiritual and religious with themes of an overtly sexual manner.  Hellraiser is definitely a must-see experience for any horror fan.

What I enjoy about the works of Barker is that, in the end, someone always pays the price for their transgressions.  Always.  It is this seminal, Christian-anchored morality that makes Barker’s work as fundamentally terrifying as it is enjoyable.  After all, isn’t it more fun when all the right people get it in the end?

captureThe exciting thing to imagine in a potential series reboot are the extensive leaps in special effect technologies we’ve seen since the 1980s,  Hellraiser still looks amazing, after all, but this is an area where the franchise could really push boundaries – and imaginations.

With lesser zeal, I try to imagine the casting process for Pinhead, Kirsty, and the pivotal roles of Julia and Frank.   I’d love to see some lesser (or completely un-) known actors, especially in the role of Kirsty.  The character is given to such a fresh innocence that is completely stripped away the moment she enters the storyline and things begin happening.  It would be an amazing opportunity for any young actress.  Who would you guys like to see in the roles?

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Trailer:

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Is the 2010 Remake of The Crazies Better Than the Original?

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Life moves at a different pace in Ogden Marsh, Iowa.  That is, until a downed military airplane carrying a to-be-decommissioned biological weapon crashes and contaminates the water supply.  Soon after, the once neighborly population begins tearing itself apart.

The 2010 Breck Eisner remake of George A. Romero‘s The Crazies lends itself well to modernization.  In a world where everything can be monitored, tracked, and analyzed from a safe distance, Big Brother has never been more omnipotent or terrifying as when the US military rolls into the sleepy town of Ogden Marsh and starts detaining its population.

tc_1Starring Radha Mitchell and Timothy Olyphant as husband and wife, David and Judy, The Crazies is an intimate horror film that begins innocuously enough on a Spring day and then quickly unravels over the course of a nightmarish, chaotic 3-day period.

The Crazies is relentless and terrifying on personal, psychological, and primal levels.  The filmmakers practically use every technique in their toolkit to bring the fear to the audience – they confine the characters, they confuse them, they challenge them, they put them in death’s grip time and again.  All the while, always giving them (and you) the sick hope of being saved.

It is truly depraved … and delicious storytelling.

While this is done in other films, to greater extent, The Crazies holds back just enough to keep the plot moving at a steady (and interesting) pace without overly fatiguingtc_2 the viewer with a bunch of shock and awe.  Don’t worry, there’s plenty of gore, and shock, and awe, but never at the expense of maintaining a solid storyline.

What I like about The Crazies is the lack of information the viewer really has about what’s happening, who’s infected, and who’s to blame.  Is the toxin airborne, is it blood borne, can you only contract it if you drink the water?  And really, when it happens, you know it’s over.  At least, for them.  The sense of dread is imminent and terrifically inescapable – as the final moments of the film will reveal.

Add to this the intimacy of the small town setting and you have a great character drama, something refreshing, and uniquely uplifting, for a film in the genre.

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Trailer:

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Director Alexandre Aja’s Terrifying Remake of The Hills Have Eyes

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The effects of nuclear testing have had a long lasting and devastating effect on a desolate mining community in the hills of the New Mexico desert.  One thing’s clear – someone has to pay.

On their 25th wedding anniversary, Bob (Ted Levine) and Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), traveling across the desert in their Airstream trailer with their entire family, are about to cross paths with a pack of mutant cannibals hell bent on exacting revenge.

hhe_4This 2006 remake of the original Wes Craven film, is helmed by Alexandre Aja, the director responsible for terrifying (and delighting) us with High Tension.  Aja dares to take the audience into some very palatable dark places.  Places where real terror resides.  Forget the supernatural.  Forget the inexplicable.  In Aja’s vision, there is reason everywhere, and the dangers are very tangible.

When I saw this film years ago, I swore I would never watch it again.  The Hills Have Eyes evoked such terrible feelings, such fear, such disgust, that I could barely make it through the film.

Gah!!  Fine.  Challenge accepted.

The sense of dread is absolutely overwhelming as I wait for that little red Netflix envelope to arrive.  The anxiety ishhe_0 so acute that I can barely sleep the night before I know I will wake up and have to watch it.  In fact, I wake early, on a Saturday, at around 7 in the morning.  No longer able to stand it, I pop in Alexandre Aja’s version of The Hills Have Eyes and again live through what is probably the most terrifying ordeal ever faced by a celluloid family.

The trailer attack.  God.  All I have to say is – kudos on performances from Aaron StanfordVinessa ShawEmilie de Ravin, and Dan Byrd.  After all, special effects help flesh out a movie, to make it more real, but without the blood, sweat, and fears of its cast, a horror film is little more than gore.

The horrors this family faces are completely astounding and only surpassed by their drive, their will to survive.

hhe_1All of this, all of these things, these feelings, these emotions, this reaction – in essence, it means Aja has made a masterpiece of horror.  True horror.  Not of the teen scream variety.  This is a film for adults about the horror of reality.

Aja’s tapped into the very nerve of what terrifies an audience and he manipulates it to the fullest extent possible, utilizing every tool in his toolkit to ratchet it up until you can barely take it.  Effects crew on the film included the genius of Greg Nicotero (GREG NICOTERO!!), CGI-a-plenty, true blue cinematic fakes, 1-shot real deal car crashes, and foam latex character design galore.

What I’m saying is that The Hills Have Eyes is no joy ride.  You want to be scared?  Fine.  The Hills Have Eyes is the film is for you.  Just be careful what you ask for because Aja will give it to you – in freakin’ spades.

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Trailer:

Surviving the Horror of the Home in The Silent Scream

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The year is 1980.  It’s Autumn and Scotty Parker is starting school.  In a crunch to find an apartment, she hastily rents a room in a grand hilltop mansion overlooking the ocean.  What is it they say about things being too good to be true?  She makes fast friends with the other boarders and as Scotty begins to settle in, so does a rash of inexplicable violence.  One by one, the boarders are begin picked off but by whom and why?

The Silent Scream is the 1980 horror film directed by Denny Harris starring Rebecca Balding as Scotty, Steve Doubet as Jack, Brad Rearden as Mason, Juli Andelman as Doris, John Widelock as Peter, and Barbara Steele as Victoria.

silentScream_gangThe Silent Scream is buried deep within a bevvy of other more well known slasher films.  Released in 1980 (following Halloween and Friday the 13th), it’s clear that the filmmakers were not-so-silently inspired by the work of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho - from its score to its fondness for butcher knife style killings, The Silent Scream is not your typical slasher flick gore fest.  It’s true that the killer, and many of the details of each murder, remain largely hidden until the final moments of the film.  But where this helped build tightly woven tension in Hitchcock’s Psycho, it makes The Silent Scream feel a bit long at just 87 minutes.

Plot spoilers abound below!

The whole plot of The Silent Scream is actually (resoundingly) solid even if the premise is relatively simple: a girl registers late for school, misses out on campus housing, finds a place nearby lodging with a family that’s totally cracked.  Think of it as surviving the “horror at home”.

What’s interesting about The Silent Scream is how predominantly the feminine “plight” factors into the thematics of the overall storyline.  From the out-of-wedlock teenage pregnancy of the Engels family’s daughter, Victoria, to the deceptions of thebarbarasteele10 family’s matriarch – whose guilt and tentativeness seem to hint at darker family secrets, The Silent Scream is a film about surviving the traumas of the home.

I’m given to thinking Victoria was abused by her father – the war hero – but most of us know that I’m pretty dark so I question my intuition.  It’s true we’ll never really know what happened to her.  In fact, maybe it’s better we don’t.  I mean, isn’t it true that what we imagine is almost always worse than the truth?

Following her botched suicide attempt, a pregnant Victoria is left mentally unstable.  In the mental hospital where she is housed, they perform what sounds like a lobotomy although the doctor points at the side of Victoria’s head rather than her eye socket when he details the procedure to Victoria’s mom.  Oh the horror!  Is there anything more terrifying than an involuntary lobotomy?!

No.  That sh*t is horrifying.

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That’s an Oly Beer! (made in my hometown)

Barbara Steele’s performance is reason enough to watch the film and while the role is non-speaking, it factors largely into creating the necessary atmosphere and tension.  Steele is no stranger to horror film fans.

With performances in the legendary Black Sunday, Piranha, Pit and the Pendulum and a recurring role on the oh-so-campy television series, Dark Shadows, Steele brought everything she had to the role of Victoria and I’m sure you’ll enjoy watching her dead shark eyes as she lumbers ever so slowly toward the camera and her next victim.

The Silent Scream wants to be a slasher film, but with a relatively low body count and minor use of gore, we have to face the facts.  The Silent Scream is really a psychological horror film about the woman in the attic and the thing within the walls.  It’s slower and more methodical pace is in tune with films like Black Christmas where the use of one or very few filming locations helps to confine its audience.  But there’s a lot to like about the film and director Denny Harris does some masterful work that shouldn’t go without mention.

During a long sequential, he pulls the audience through the yard of the mansion, into its basement and up through a series of long forgotten and now unused hidden passages.silentscream4 Covered in cobwebs and dust, a scratching sound fades up from the silence as the camera climbs the stairs – flight after flight.  As we reach the top floor, the scratching noise intensifies and we see a spoon (or is it a knife?) scratching away at the mortar between the boards in the wall.  Suddenly, fingers!  They tear at the boards, ripping them aside to create a hole.  The hidden passage has been rediscovered, but by whom and for what reason?

Brilliant.

The Silent Scream also features one of the most subtly awesome moments in slasher cinema.  When Doris and Peter are walking on the beach, heading back to the house after a night of drinking, they come to a choke on the shore where the tide has begun to rise and now threatens to block the path.  Doris quickly makes her way across and, as she finds her footing safely on the other side, realizes Peter hasn’t followed her.  This one moment creates such genuine tension that I marvel at its simple elegance.

Moments like these make The Silent Scream a must-see film for any horror fan.

Official trailer:

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Why I Have a Love/Hate Relationship with The Woman

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When a country lawyer finds a near-feral woman in the woods of his property, he gets an idea.  He’ll capture and culture her.  With the assistance of his family, he’ll “save” her from her wild ways and bring her to civilization.  What could possibly go wrong?

The Woman is the 2011 follow-up to Offspring and is directed by Lucky McKee.  Starring Pollyanna McIntosh as The Woman, Angela Bettis as Belle, Sean Bridgers as Chris, Lauren Ashley Carter as Peggy, and Zach Rand as Brian.

theWoman_allDolledUpRarely does a film come along that both excites and terrifies me.  The Woman is a film that’s been called a must-see horror masterpiece and I agree, but my praise comes with a warning.

The Woman is a deeply disturbing work whose content will not be readily forgotten.  Years after seeing the film for the first time, I find myself subconsciously thinking about its visual imagery and motifs.  When watching the film again recently in order to write this commentary, I had to repeatedly stop the film and walk away in order to regain my composure.

The Woman has that kind of affect on me.

With themes of misogyny, slavery, domestic abuse, and the fight for dominance, there’s little about the film that doesn’t work to expose the very darkest parts of the human soul.  Forget for a moment that the film features graphic depictions of torture, abuse, and sexual assault.  At the heart of the film, we’re still talking about a man who thinks he has the right to supplant a woman’s existence with the one he chooses for her.  This act – in and of itself – is a kind of violation that I find incredibly distasteful.

It makes for great horror.

I’ve often said that successful horror films hinge on the human factor – empathy and sympathy must be ever-present inwoman closeup the development of the story and its characters.  With The Woman, not everyone in the audience is on the same page.

For some, the themes may be presented in too-heavy a hand for comfort.  Some will feel it paints all men as evil and all women as oppressed.  I’m sorry but I have to take a stand here and say those people are wrong.  It’s just a film with a scope limited to this particular man, Chris Cleek, his horrible adolescent son, Brian, and this particular set of women.  Saying this film is a depiction of all men and all women is too idiotic to address further.

I mean, come on.  It’s not called All the Men and All the Women.  It’s called The Woman.

the-woman-luckymckee-angela-bettisIt does raise an interesting point, though, about how “normal” people can become “evil” in a particular set of circumstances.

Even though Chris is shown to be mentally, physically, and sexually abusive to the women in his life, it’s interesting to watch how the rest of the characters begin to change following the arrival of the woman.  Especially Belle.  As the mousy, abused wife of Chris, she is almost relived to have the focus of her husband’s enmity turned elsewhere.

As for Chris’ bizarre fixation on the woman, I was disgusted (as were most of you, I’m sure) by the affect it has on his son, Brian.  In his own right, Brian’s adolescent curiosity with regard to the woman is upsetting and deeply disturbing.   From behind his dead shark eyes, you can almost see Brian begin to formulate ideas on how men should treat women and how women should behave in return.

That sh*t is dark and boy does it have a talent for polarizing people.  It’s true that a man got ejected from a screening of The6968641306_7f0bb6d7bd Woman at Sundance after verbally complaining about its content.  Just do a quick search on the internet and you’ll see magnificently varied audiences reactions from “it’s perverse” to “it’s a freakin’ masterpiece!”

Performances by Angela Bettis and Pollyanna McIntosh fantastically bookend an otherwise utterly grim tale.  Sean Bridgers is largely forgettable in the role of Chris Cleek and not because the character is so vile you’ll “block him” from your memory of the film.  I have this feeling that Bridgers could have been replaced with someone older, maybe a little grittier to better affect.  His age and boyishly curly hair create a near comical air of youthful maliciousness – one born out of curiosity rather than sheer sadism and malevolence, which would have been far grislier and horrifying.

Official site: The Woman

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Session 9, One of the Best Horror Films You’ve Probably Never Seen

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Session 9 centers around a group of asbestos abatement professionals looking to make a hefty bonus on a bid if they can complete a monster job in a week.  The job?  Get the notorious Massachusetts Danvers State Hospital clean and ready for renovation.

The team is a group comprised of old friends Gordon, Phil and Mike (Peter MullanDavid CarusoStephen Gevedon respectively), new enemy Hank (Josh Lucas), and fresh meat, Jeff (Brendan Sexton III).  The group dynamics are enough to make the film interesting, but throw in an atmospheric mental asylum, mystery, and some eye catching cinematography and you have the hidden horror gem, Session 9.

Phil and Hank are working through some things, mainly the fact that Hank slept with Phil’s girl and now the two are together.  Gordon’s a new dad, not getting much sleep, and money’s tight meaning this job means everything.  And Mike?  Mike is the law school dropout son of the State’s Attorney General, with an intelligence that puts his curiosity into overdrive.

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On the first day inside, the group splits up, each man taking on a different task.  When Mike finds a box marked “Evidence” in an area he is working, he can’t help but look inside.  He finds data pertaining to patient #444, Mary Hobbes, aged 37.  The box contains 9 session tapes which include audio recordings of Mary’s interviews with a Danvers’ State Hospital doctor, photographs, and the general details of her dissociative identity disorder.

Mike, curiosity running wild, sits down and immediately starts playing the tapes.  As the interview unfolds, all but one of Mary’s alternate personalities appears.  All of them reference an alternate named “Simon” who is supposedly responsible for a violent, traumatic event occurring 22 years prior on Christmas in Lowell, Massachusetts.

The intensity of these interviews, and the manner in which they are slowly revealed to Mike like ghostly voices from a dark and violent past, is enough to make for a Brad Anderson's SESSION 9terrifying tale.  But, director Brad Anderson refuses to relent there.

As the long days of stressful removal work continue, each team member begins to show wear and tear.  Hank, finds a hidden stash of coins, jewelry, and assorted personal effects behind the wall of the hospital’s crematory oven.  He comes back that night and, while he’s heading out with the loot, befalls a mysterious fate.  The next day, when Hank fails to show for work, Phil finds out Hank may have split town for casino school in Miami.  No one is particularly surprised, especially Phil who is still bitter over losing his ex-girlfriend to him.

Down a man and with the deadline for their bonus looming, the guys seemingly begin to buckle under the stress.

When confronted about his odd behavior, Gordon, the crew leader, confesses to Phil that he hasn’t been sleeping, that he hit his wife.  Concerned, Phil tries to rally the crew to take on another guy.  Gordon flatly refuses, a move that threatens to jeopardize the entire contract.  Meanwhile, Mike, our law-school dropout continues delving through the session tapes for Mary Hobbes until finally, he arrives at the tapes for session 9.

Brad Anderson's SESSION 9This is when things go haywire.  On the recording, Simon, Mary’s alternate, finally appears.  He begins, for the first time, to engage with the interviewing doctor.  Interspersed with this eerie repartee are scenes that reveal the true nature of what’s been going on with Gordon and his crew behind the walls of the Danvers State Mental Hospital.

Session 9 was a modest film that didn’t enjoy commercial success.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t a terrific horror film.  Rich with atmosphere, mystery, and moments of absolutely hair-raising tension, Session 9 is a film that continues to “get me” viewing after viewing.

The Climax Golden Twins provide a brilliant, nerve-twisting score.  The lack of light, the filth and dilapidation of the building are like a physical manifestation or reflection of the state of the crew’s mental and physical decay.  It may sound weird to call Session 9 a gorgeous film, but it is.  Carefully framed and lit, each scene looks as good as any art house indie film, made all the more special by the fact that you’re watching a scary film.

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Session 9 is a horror-lover’s treat.  A rare, deliciously mind-bending, terrifying treat.  Tasty.

Shock Waves – Nazi Zombies, 70s Hotties, & Peter Cushing

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It’s the 70s, baby.  Six strangers on a reef diving adventure are about to get more than they paid for when their boat’s engine starts acting up and they run into the remains of a gnarly shipwreck.  Forced to disembark their water-filled boat, the group heads for a nearby island for help.  Their presence awakens something dark and deeply sinister from the bowels of the ocean – the Nazi Death Corps.   This group of undead soldiers, long forgotten by the outside world, rises to do the only thing they know how to do – kill.

Shock Waves is the 1977 film directed by Ken Wiederhorn starring a very dishy Brooke Adams as Rose, John Carradine as the boat captain, Fred Buch as Chuck  (or “Porno Pete” as I’m fond of referring to him), Luke Halpin as Keith, Jack Davidson and D.J. Sidney as the bickering married couple, Norman and Beverly.

Zombies.  Nazis.  Strangers, shipwrecked to a tropical paradise.  A grand old resort hotel, long deserted and past its prime.  A voluntarily exiled high ranking Nazi shock-waves-introscientist.  I mean, come on!  How much more of a set up do you need to create one of the most comically beloved cult classics in horror cinema?

It was the 70s and it seemed like everything was fair game.  In an era before everything had been done, filmmakers seemed to draw inspiration from everywhere (and anywhere).  And while the zombie genre had been long since established, Shock Waves differentiated itself by throwing Nazis into the mix.  It was one of the first – and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.  In the years and decades to come, Shock Waves would give way to films like the 2009 Norwegian film, Dead Snow and this year’s The 4th Reich.

brooke_shockWavesThe film stars Brooke Adams in an early role as the sole survivor of the events that unfold once the diving party is shipwrecked.  Adams would go on to star in larger, more commercially successful films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Dead Zone.  Adams’ onscreen presence in Shock Waves is undeniable … or, maybe, it’s just that she spends a good portion of her screen time in a string bikini.  Either way, she is definitely the star of the film.

Though it pains me to admit it, I’ll just come out and say what we’re all thinking.  Shock Waves is not going to be the kind of film you’re going to watch to be scared.  It has an almost excruciatingly slow build up characteristic of films from the period.  But if you allow yourself to go along for the ride – after all, I imagine that’s why Adams’ is scantily clad – you’ll enjoy some of genuine eeriness the film provides.

Forget for a moment that the diving party is being stalked by the newly risen undead Death Corps.  They’re still stranded on a remote island with a strange, and shockwaves_peterCushingstrangely loyal, Nazi scientist in the form of Peter Cushing.  Cushing plays the Nazi Commander responsible for the creation of the Corps and for keeping them available, if you will, for the creation of future devastation.

The addition of the slow moving, stonily malevolent Death Corps works because they seem to stalk the island’s new inhabitants rather than converging on them, en masse, all at once.  The filmmakers made a great decision to show these Nazi troops rising from the ocean in small groups over and over, throughout the film, so that, by the end its audience has no idea how many of them there really are.

It’s strangely unnerving, in retrospect, to think of the diving party being hunted and picked off one by one.  Given more time to consider their options, the party begins to lose confidence in the odds of their survival.  After one night on the island, they begin to realize they need to take the situation into their own hands.

shockWaves_2One of my frustrations with the film is that many things go relatively unexplained – whether that’s intentional or just a gap in the narrative of a low(er) budget film, remains to be seen.  The strange solar flare that happens while the party is still aboard their boat may or may not have caused the Death Corps to rise.  Regardless, it’s stylish and super fun.

So many questions.  I mean, how was Peter Cushing’s character, the Nazi Commander, surviving in this old resort?  Who are these people?  Who is Rose and why is she on vacation alone?  Where the hell are the Captain and Keith taking their guests?  Why do the Nazi troopers seem to “die” when their googles are removed?  Most importantly – why make Shock Waves in the first place?

I hate that most of the characters are completely undeveloped.  As a result, their motivations – beyondshockWaves_4 those for survival – are unknown to us.  Told in a flashback narrative style, maybe it’s unimportant to give the audience any information.  After all, we know that only Brooke Adams’ Rose survives the experience.  Maybe we’re not supposed to give a damn about the rest of the cast.

Even if you can’t bring yourself to go all in for the film’s subject matter, the underwater cinematography is actually quite beautiful – if Nazi Zombies emerging from the tangles of various reef formations can be called beautiful, that is.

Made available on DVD in 2003, Shock Waves is worth a watch on an early Saturday afternoon, especially if you make it campy.  Throw on a pair of your shortest shorts, mix up some Sea Breezes, and embrace the grand 1970s doom vibe.

Trailer:

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Remember Why You Love Vampires with Let the Right One In

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Twelve year old Oskar is a mess.  Bullied at school and coming to terms with the separation of his parents, Oskar is at a crossroads.  He can either lay down and take what the world seems intent on feeding him or he can stand up for himself.  With the arrival of a mysterious young girl, Oskar realizes he is stronger than he thinks.

Let the Right One In is the 2008 Swedish horror film directed by Tomas Alfredson starring Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar, Lina Leandersson as Eli, and Per Ragnar as Eli’s guardian, Håkan.  The film is based on the 2004 novel of the same name written by John Ajvide Lindqvist (who also penned the screenplay).

Let the Right One InLet the Right One In is easily one of the best vampire horror films ever made.  It’s so good, I’d go a step further and say that, regardless of its genre, it’s a hell of a film.  I’ve heard people call it their favorite romantic drama and I wouldn’t disagree.  One thing is for certain – Let the Right One In is a unique and subtly nuanced film.

Despite the human dramas unfolding within the story – a divorce, school bullying, puberty, relocation – there are some darkly sinister themes threaded within the very touching story of discovery and first love.  Yes there are vampires, but there are also pedophiles and sadists.

The film’s subject matter is complicated in a way that has a tendency to make people feel uncomfortable.

I’m talking specifically about the relationship between Eli and guardian, Håkan.  Håkan – who is a middle aged man – has a (suggested) sexual relationship with Eli.  And while it later becomes clear that Eli – as a vampire who does not age – has known Håkan since he was a young boy, there is something very unsettling about the notion that the two have an intimate relationship.

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In the book, it is clearer that Håkan is meant to be seen as a pedophile.  Lindqvist, I think, made some very smart moves in adapting his work to the screen – dulling the edge of the relationship between these two being one.

The suggestions about their relationship are enough to provide motivation and drive without unnecessarily exposing the audience to the unsavory reality.  It’s important, pivotal even, to have this knowledge about their affair because, without it, it’s let_the_right_one_in_4avery difficult to understand how Håkan is able to take a human life, night after night, for decades without question and without complaint … until this very moment when he realizes Eli has set sights on their young neighbor, Oskar.

The other, relatively minor, changes from page to screen involved the muting of horror/vampire elements to bring the primary focus of the story to the main characters of Oskar and Eli.  Both eleven years old at the time they were cast, Hedebrant and Leandersson turn in enviable, layered, and rich performances.

The horror elements are all so well incorporated that they lend a subtle, and more realistic unease to the atmosphere of the film – a point I cannot praise enough.

hakanDuring a panel with creators of Dark Horse horror at this year’s Rose City Comic Con, we discussed – at length – what makes horror content work.  The thing we kept coming back to was subtly – when the audience expects a thing to behave in a certain way and it suddenly, only slightly doesn’t, it sets a stage of discomfort.  That discomfort can then be built upon to create a greater tension and ultimately, a very real, palpable terror.

Throughout Let the Right One In, you have a sense that something about Eli is just not right.  This is elegantly constructed through character design (Eli goes from being clean to being dirty, from smelling good to smelling rotten) and by controlling what the audience knows about the character’s “condition”.  It’s brilliant storytelling because while you’re already aware that something isn’t right about Eli, it isn’t until much later that the characters finally have the courage to discuss Eli’s true nature.

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If you’ve been paying attention, you’d have noticed I’ve been overly cautious when (not) referring to Eli’s gender.  There’s a reason for that…

Despite being performed by a girl, the character of Eli is actually a castrated boy – an act of violence perpetrated upon the character centuries before the events of the film.  The filmmakers chose not to expound on this fact, choosing instead to simply let_the_right_one_in-207782hint upon it during a scene in which Eli is changing clothes and Oskar happens to see a nasty scar.  I feel this is a twist that helps make Let the Right One In a truly special story about people – not genders – attraction, and identity.

Some films are defined by their special effects, their story arcs or through a profound and final reveal.  Others, like Let the Right One In, become known for their atmosphere and their ability to evoke (very tangible) feelings in their audiences.  Beyond its genius screenplay and strong performances, part of the film’s success is thanks to the environment in which the film was set and the unique and creative sound engineering employed.

The ice and snow are crucial to providing an environment that is as simultaneously as quiet as the tomb and as peaceful as an uninterrupted, rejuvenating sleep.  It provides a stillness that 936full-let-the-right-one-in-screenshotmakes the violence more profound.  The landscape of winter may be an obvious simile to death, but its stark beauty feels like the only plausible companion to a character as complicated and poetic as Eli.

The sound engineering is perfection.  A voice actress (Elif Ceylan) provides all – yes ALL – of Eli’s spoken dialogue.  Leandersson was an 11-year old girl with an 11-year old girl’s voice at the time of shooting and the filmmakers wanted the character to sound older (like 200) and more menacing.  The solution not only works it soars.  The voice – and the noises Eli makes when attacking – are terrifically unsettling.

If you’re one of the few people who have yet to see the original version of this film, I encourage you to check it out.  And do yourself a favor – be brave enough to watch it in its original form, in Swedish with English subtitles so you can savor the full, intended effect.

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They’re Still Here, Poltergeist 30 Years On

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When a malevolent force decides to claim their young daughter, pulling her into another dimension, everything the Freeling family knows about life, death, and the energies lingering between is forever changed.

Starring JoBeth Williams as Diane, Craig T. Nelson as Steven, Heather O’Rourke or Carol Anne, Dominique Dunne as Dana, Oliver Robins as Robbie, Beatrice Straight as Dr. Lesh, and the indelible Zelda Rubinstein as Tangina, Poltergeist is directed by Tobe Hooper based on a story and screenplay by Steven Spielberg (along with Michael Grais and Mark Victor).

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The Summer of 1982 belonged to Steven Spielberg.  Released just a week apart in June, Spielberg’s E.T. and Poltergeist took the American movie going public by storm.  Both films were family-centric at their heart with major plot points revolving around young children, but otherwise, the films were worlds apart.

Poltergeist is a darkly entertaining vision of modern day suburbia, in which a young family of five is pitted against an otherworldly protagonist.  That the family turns to a team of collegiate paranormal investigators rather than the police in the wake of the abduction of their child speaks volumes about Diane and Steven and what their family has already experienced in their Cuesta Verde tract home.

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The interactions with the paranormal forces inside their home begin as little more than playful pranks; chairs stacking themselves on the kitchen table and objects being slid across the floor.  By the time the events begin to occur, we have already spent a significant amount of time with the Freelings, seeing their day-to-day life.  They feel real to us, we can relate to them.  By extension, the inexplicable events seem somehow easier to accept as real because they are happening to them.

Like any good horror film, this look into how these interactions are perceived, when the stakes are relatively low, reveals deeper truths at the heart of the family and the story.

Diane, who playfully engages with the forces by placing her own daughter on the floor to be slid across it, embraces the experience as a kind of miracle.  Steven, who, even after witnessing the activity first-hand, refuses to openly accept what’s happening as paranormal, is shadowed by a kind of lurking hesitancy.  It is Steven’s hesitancy and guardedness, and Diane’s unshakable belief and love that ultimately carry the family through the crisis about to unfold.

Poltergeist captured imaginations and terrified audiences, but it is not a film about a haunted house.

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The Shining: spoiler alert

I cringe every time Poltergeist is referred to as a haunted house film, especially since the characters central to the plot repeatedly inform the audience to the contrary.  The energy in the Freeling home is focused on Carol Anne (a plot point further explored in subsequent franchise sequels), not the house.  Even after the home is destroyed at the end of Poltergeist and the Freelings move, the energy that plagued the family follows them.

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It’s unfortunate that this plot point is often confused or muddled or ignored, because I think the idea that something as malevolent as what focuses its attention on the young Carol Anne would follow her, and not be restrained to one particular location, is far more dubious and terrifying.

There’s nowhere to run to, baby.

What brings me back to Poltergeist time and again is the intimate portrait of a pair of high school sweethearts, clearly still deeply in love, that pull together in the face of an ethereal threat – one that cannot be reasoned with, stopped, or even seen – and overcome everything that is thrown at them.

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JoBeth Williams’ Diane was the mother every little girl dreamed of having; with a love pure enough to span an abyssal void in order to reclaim you from the clutches of evil.  And Craig T. Nelson’s Steven was the strong, unshakable father we all wanted to sit with us during a thunderstorm.  Steven and Diane are the heart of the film.  And while a lot of focus on Poltergeist and the franchise now resides on the unfortunate passing of Heather Rourke, that she was such a powerful presence onscreen only sweetens with each viewing.

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Trailer:

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