13 O’Clock Movie Retrospective: Stir of Echoes

On this trip down movie memory lane, Tom and Jenny are discussing the criminally underseen supernatural murder mystery from 1999, Stir of Echoes, starring Kevin Bacon and based on the 1958 novel by Richard Matheson.

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Karen Black at the Black House with the Black Fence: An Appreciation of “The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver”

You know how sometimes when you’re bored and kinda hung over on a Sunday, and you go poking around YouTube looking for some comforting 1970s horror to watch while you inhale your hearty lunch of homemade Swedish meatballs? And you know how every now and then, you fortuitously stumble across a made-for-TV movie from 1977 that you hadn’t heard of, and how sometimes that movie was written by Richard Matheson and starred Karen Black? Isn’t that fucking rad when that happens? I’m here to tell you that it is quite rad.

The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver is evidently something of a forgotten gem from the late 1970s, and despite its pedigree, hasn’t really gotten a great deal of attention; hell, I don’t think it’s ever even been released on DVD, at least in the U.S. The version I saw on YouTube had been transferred from a battered old VHS tape of the original telecast. It’s kind of a shame, because although this isn’t Matheson’s or Black’s best work, obviously, it’s still a really eerie mystery with a twist ending that totally blindsided me, which is not an easy thing for an ending to do.

Karen Black plays Miriam Oliver, an unhappy housewife straining under the controlling behavior of her buttplug husband Greg (George Hamilton), a hotshot lawyer who apparently wants nothing more than a wife who will dress like a Mormon schoolmarm, pump out babies at his command, and never leave the house or question his authority for any reason whatsoever.

As you might expect, Miriam is getting pretty resentful of the fact that she’s not allowed to work or go to college, and that Greg is pressuring her to have a child before she’s really ready (side note: Miriam’s character in the movie is supposed to be 26 years old, though Ms. Black was at least ten years older than that when this was filmed). She starts to rebel in little ways, like continuing to take her birth control pills on the sly; most significantly, she goes to the mall one day and is drawn to purchase a tight, low-cut red blouse, a blonde wig, some red lipstick, and some snazzy hoop earrings. She puts all the stuff on and is both enthralled and terrified by the fact that she looks like a completely different person. She even starts to act differently when she has her “costume” on, though of course Greg doesn’t really get it and thinks Miriam is losing her marbles. He does kinda try to be understanding, but it soon becomes apparent that Miriam is having a true identity crisis, and may in fact be “possessed,” just as the title of the movie suggests.

See, I neglected to mention that at the beginning of the film (and one other time subsequently), Miriam has been having these really creepy nightmares of attending a funeral and looking into the coffin, only to see herself lying there. She also has recurrent visions of fire, a small bouquet of dark purple or black flowers, and the sounds of a dog barking and a woman screaming. She also keeps seeing a dude with a gray sweatshirt and a sweet pornstache who drives a red pickup truck that inexplicably says “gasoline” on the side. Hmmmm.

On a whim, Miriam rents a cottage on the beach without asking her husband’s permission. He’s pissed, but after he sees how upset she is and how badly she wants it, he agrees that maybe they should rent a beach house so she can get away for a while, but of course he’s going to be the one to pick it out, because he can’t let her have one single thing. He also makes her an appointment to see a psychiatrist, and she seems relieved and compliant, though she tells him she wants to go to the appointment by herself, since he has to go out of town for a trial anyway.

Of course she skips out on the appointment, and instead puts on her slutted-up garb and heads for the beach house. A dog starts following her around, and seems to know her. She ducks into a bar in town, and as she does, she decides that because she has a new identity, she should have a new name. She sees a sign with the word “sandy” on it, and decides to call herself Sandy.

But oddly, as soon as she sits down at the bar, the surprised bartender addresses her as Sandy and asks where she’s been. Freaked out, she says her name is really not Sandy, but the bartender says she looks just like Sandy, a girl who always used to come in there. Even the drink she orders is the same one Sandy drank all the time. The bartender asks the two other shadowed figures at the bar whatever happened to Sandy, and one of them says that she moved away.

Then Miriam sits at a table near the dance floor to enjoy her drink, and who should sleaze up to her but Mr. Sweatshirt von Pornstache, the guy from her dream. She’s afraid of him, as well she should be, because he is crawling all up in her space, insisting she really is Sandy and she needs to stop lying about it. He won’t fuck off when she tells him to, but luckily Miriam is rescued by an extra from Saturday Night Fever, who asks her to dance. She tells him she can’t really dance, and indeed, at first she’s all awkward and shit, but then she finds her groove and starts disco-ing like a champ, just like those chicks on “Solid Gold.” Naturally, this makes Pornstache even more suspicious, because of course the way she dances is exactly the same way that Sandy used to.

So Miriam is getting more and more wigged out (pun very much intended) because Pornstache keeps stalking her around town, and she has the funeral dream again while she’s at the beach house, only this time the dream ends in a huge conflagration, through which Pornstache leers menacingly at her.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking the same thing, but I can assure you that what you are thinking is not actually what’s going on. And if you don’t want the ending spoiled, you might want to stop reading at this point. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

So, you are thinking, as I was, that Pornstache killed Sandy by burning her house down, and that Sandy’s ghost is possessing Miriam, right? I mean, the word “possession” is right there in the title.

This is not what is happening. Kinda close, but much weirder.

So Miriam gets back into her regular Mormon drag, realizing that hubby Greg is gonna be home from his trip soon and she’d better skedaddle back to the unhappy homestead. But the dog that’s been following her won’t get out of her car, and finally she gets exasperated and asks a neighbor who the dog belongs to. He says it’s Mrs. Dempsey’s dog, and that Mrs. Dempsey lives a couple blocks away in “a black house with a black fence.”

Again, I know what you’re thinking. It’s a black house because it’s all burned, right? And Mrs. Dempsey is Sandy, and Sandy’s dead, right? WRONG. We really need to quit trying to guess how this is going to end, you guys. When Miriam finds the house, it’s just a regular un-arsoned house that for some reason is entirely painted black.

An old woman answers the door and says that yeah, the dog belongs to Mrs. Dempsey, who is away until later that evening. This woman is just house-sitting, apparently. The old woman calls the dog Henry, which freaks Miriam out for some reason, and then she’s freaked out even more when she sees one of those pots of black flowers on the windowsill. Then, as she’s leaving, she glances through a window of the house and sees a painting of a girl who looks very much like her, with blonde hair, a tight red blouse, and hoop earrings. Miriam loses her shit and asks the housesitter woman who the girl in the painting is, but the old woman doesn’t know. She says that Miriam should come back after seven and talk to Mrs Dempsey, so Miriam resolves to do just that. By the way, Pornstache has been lurking around this whole time, so there’s also that.

Miriam then passes another neighbor, and asks if Mrs. Dempsey had a daughter. The guy doesn’t really remember at first, but then he says that he thinks he recalls someone mentioning that Mrs. Dempsey indeed had a daughter who died five years before. AHA!!! See, Sandy IS dead!!! WRONG AGAIN. I TOLD YOU TO STOP TRYING TO GUESS.

Meanwhile, back at the Greg Oliver Prison for Matronly Breeder Wives, hubby has returned from his business trip and is calling around to try to find out where his errant wife has gotten off to. He finds out that she skipped her shrink appointment, and surmises, correctly, that she probably went to her beach house. So he heads on over there in order to give her a good talking-to.

Miriam, still being tailed by Pornstache, returns to the Dempsey house, and here’s where the big bombshell finally comes to light. Mrs. Dempsey answers the door and sees Miriam there, her face partially in shadow. She seems REALLY cheesed off, accusing Miriam of playing a sick joke on her. Mrs. Dempsey asks who she is, and when Miriam says her name, Mrs. Dempsey is all FUUUUUUUUUUUCK YOOOOOOOOOOOOU. Then Mrs. Dempsey turns on the porch light, sees Miriam’s face properly, and calls Miriam Sandy. Miriam protests, and asks about Mrs. Dempsey’s dead daughter in the painting. Mrs. Dempsey says that the painting isn’t of her daughter, but is a portrait that her daughter painted of her best friend Sandy. “THIS IS MY DAUGHTER,” Mrs. Dempsey shrieks, thrusting a framed photograph at Miriam. “THIS WAS MY DAUGHTER MIRIAM.” And right there in the photo is matronly Miriam, complete with librarian bun and giant seventies glasses.

What in the Samuel Langhorne HELL is going on here, you may wonder? Okay, pay attention. Five years before, Pornstache (whose real name is Mark) was supposed to marry Sandy, but she broke up with his ass and he didn’t take it too well. One night when Sandy and Miriam were at Sandy’s house, Pornstache showed up and set Sandy’s car on fire. The fire spread to the house. Sandy got away, but Miriam and Sandy’s parents died in the blaze.

So basically, the Miriam we’ve been following through this whole movie really WAS Sandy the whole time. She just felt so guilty that Miriam had died because of her that she dissociated and took over Miriam’s identity. As Miriam, she met and married Greg, and only after several years did fragments of her actual identity start filtering back to her. That was why, at the beginning of the movie, that “Miriam” kept telling Greg that she felt suffocated and that she wanted to be her “real self,” though she couldn’t articulate to him who that was. Deep down she knew she was really party-girl Sandy, but Greg had only ever known her as staid, conservative Miriam. So there you have it. No possession, no ghosts, nothing supernatural at all.

At the very end, Pornstache tries to kill Miriam/Sandy, but she is saved when Greg arrives just in the nick of time. She tells him who she really is, and he seems surprisingly okay with it, unless he’s simply planning on calling the men with the butterfly nets after the credits roll. That seems like the kind of dick move he would pull.

Gotta say, I really enjoyed this quite a lot, and I don’t think that was just the remnants of last night’s alcohol talking. The funeral scenes in particular were eerily surreal and creepy as hell, and the whole thing, while rather slow-moving, was intriguingly spooky and mysterious. Karen Black was absolutely great as the unstable Miriam, and George Hamilton was appropriately assholish, without seeming like a cartoon villain. And as I said, the ending, when Mrs. Dempsey handed Miriam the picture of herself, literally made my jaw drop. I didn’t even care that the whole “possession” title was a misnomer; I was just so pleasantly shocked by this bizarre twist that I did not see coming in any way, shape, or form.

Fans of Karen Black, Richard Matheson, and eerie 70s mysteries would do well to give this a chance, and hopefully someday it will get a proper high-quality release, because it really is quite a good example of made-for-TV horror from that golden decade. It was a total accident that I came across it, but as Bob Ross would have said, sometimes there are happy accidents. 🙂

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

The Goddess’s Top Ten Horror Novel Adaptations

I can’t believe it’s been a week since my last post! Sorry about that. I really do try to keep up with this thing, but sometimes I get busy with all my other endeavors (writing, book promotion, graphic design work) and run out of hours in the day. When it finally came time to do a new post, I was scrabbling for a subject, so I just decided to do something fairly pedestrian by discussing my ten best horror films based on novels. I’m not dropping my nuts here and proclaiming that these are the BEST ADAPTATIONS EVAR, but they’re certainly my favorites, and before anyone argues, YES, I know there are lots of other great horror films that were based on books, but I wanted to showcase great movies that were made from novels that were themselves fantastic and familiar to me (for example, while John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of my favorite horror movies of all time, I’ve never read the book it was based on, and as far as The Exorcist goes, I actually thought the movie was light years better than the novel). So now that we’ve got all that out of the way, allons-y.

GirlNextDoor

10. The Girl Next Door (2007)
Based on Jack Ketchum’s horrific, you’ll-need-a-shower-afterwards novel (made all the more squicky by the fact that it was based on a true story), this 2007 adaptation mostly doesn’t shy away from the more terrible aspects of the book, and is all the more powerful for it. While I admit I found the novel a great deal more disturbing, the film is a worthy addition to the evil-that-humans-do canon. Some of it is a little too aw-shucks, fifties-stereotypical, but Blanche Baker is chilling as Aunt Ruth, and the mostly young actors are great, particularly 21-year-old Blythe Auffarth as the doomed Meg.

Hellraiser

9. Hellraiser (1987)
Adaptations of Clive Barker’s infernal works are generally hit or miss, but I think we can all agree that this is the best by a mile (though I have to say that Candyman is also in the running). Based on his 1986 novella The Hellbound Heart, and directed by Barker himself, Hellraiser is filled to the brim with sadomasochism, buckets of gore, that genius puzzle box conceit, and one of the most recognizable horror baddies of all time. While the sequels couldn’t begin to approach the original classic, it’s easy to see how the detailed world Barker created in his short work demanded much more screen time. Jesus wept, indeed.

GhostStory

8. Ghost Story (1981)
As much as I adored the spooky, low-key adaptation of Peter Straub’s 1975 novel Julia (known as The Haunting of Julia in the US and Full Circle in the UK; you can find my analysis here), I find that Ghost Story, based on his 1979 book of the same name, just barely edges it out. The novel is so rich, complex, and over the top that the film couldn’t help but streamline the thing and leave several plot tendrils out, but I love it anyway, and I think director John Irvin was wise to focus solely on the central conflict of the book, that of the men of the Chowder Society battling the shapeshifting she-demon known by different names through the years. Some fantastically eerie scenes, and it was nice to see a band of dignified old codgers playing the heroes.

StirOfEchoes

7. Stir of Echoes (1999)
I’ve talked about this criminally underrated film before, but I try to pimp it at every opportunity, because it’s so great and I’m still pretty bummed that it sorta got lost in the shuffle due to its simultaneous release with The Sixth Sense. Somewhat based on Richard Matheson’s short 1958 novel A Stir of Echoes, the film takes the basic plot of the book and builds an intensely frightening tale of hypnosis, psychic visions, and murder upon it. I’m not scared easily, but seeing this film in theaters gave me the heebie-jeebies big time, and it holds up remarkably well. Props also for the very Lynchian sound design, which ramps up the scare factor considerably.

TheInnocents

6. The Innocents (1961)
Directed by Jack Clayton and starring Deborah Kerr as governess Miss Giddens, The Innocents is one of those rare films that wrings the scares from subtle atmosphere. Based on Henry James’s classic 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, with a screenplay co-written by Truman Capote, the movie is chock full of spooky children, secrets, ghosts, and eerie goings-on, amplified into skin-crawling terror by the use of music, lighting, and ambiguity.

TheOther

5. The Other (1972)
Based on former actor Thomas Tryon’s 1971 debut novel (and if you’d like to read a rundown of the lackluster adaptation of another of his fabulous novels, Harvest Home, I’ve got you covered), this Robert Mulligan-directed film is one of the best examples of the good/evil twin trope. Set in 1935 and starring Chris and Martin Udvarnoky as the conflicted Holland twins, the movie is a golden-drenched slab of uncanny mystery and horror, painted in hues of perverse nostalgia. Tryon, who wrote the screenplay, was reportedly not happy with the adaptation, but for my money the film more than did the novel justice.

HellHouse

4. The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Another Richard Matheson adaptation (this time of his 1971 novel Hell House), this one takes obvious cues from The Haunting, but goes in a splashier direction with much effectiveness. Directed by John Hough and featuring great performances from Roddy McDowall and the impossibly adorable Pamela Franklin, the story takes the standard horror-movie plot of a group of ghostbusters investigating a scary house and does all kinds of weird shit with it. Baroque, overwrought, and lots of creepy fun.

RosemarysBaby

3. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Capturing the sly, blackly comic edge of Ira Levin’s 1967 book while maintaining a sense of slowly building tension and paranoia, there’s a reason this Roman Polanski-directed classic ends up on so many “best horror films” lists. I absolutely love Ruth Gordon as the lovably terrifying Minnie Castavet, and Mia Farrow is perfect as the fragile, waifish Rosemary, a protagonist you can’t help but sympathize with and be afraid for as everyone in her life seems to turn against her. If you’re a fan of Polanski’s films, check out my previous writeup on his deliciously creepy 1976 movie The Tenant.

TheShining

2. The Shining (1981)
What can I say about this masterpiece that hasn’t already been said? (Well, I said this and this, but y’know.) Taking what is arguably Stephen King’s best novel and using it as a springboard to explore universal themes, myths, and existential terror, Stanley Kubrick created a timeless, iconic piece of art that still has the capacity to enthrall and horrify, more than three decades later. Easily one of the five best horror films ever made.

TheHaunting

1. The Haunting (1963)
You just knew this was gonna be my number one, didn’t you? I admit I talk about this book and film a lot (such as here and here, for example), but that’s only because I am in awe of the subtle dread and psychological depths this story plumbs in both mediums. Based, of course, on the hands-down best haunted house novel ever penned, 1959’s The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the casting in Robert Wise’s masterful adaptation is spot-on, and he deftly drenches the film in chills and atmosphere while essentially showing nothing, an astounding feat and one that is right in line with the source material. I really can’t recommend book or film enough, in case you hadn’t noticed. Oh, and I mentioned this before, but skip the lame-ass remake.

And just because I can, here are twenty more that were eliminated for the sake of brevity:

The Exorcist (1973, based on the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty)
The Hunger (1983, based on the 1981 novel by Whitley Strieber)
The Birds (1963, based on the 1952 short story by Daphne du Maurier)
Nosferatu (1922, based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1897)
Frankenstein (1931, based on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925, based on the 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945, based on Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel)
House of Usher (1960, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” 1839)
Duel (1971, based on Richard Matheson’s 1971 short story)
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983, based on Ray Bradbury’s 1962 novel)
The Entity (1981, based on the 1978 novel by Frank De Felitta)
Village of the Damned (1960, based on John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, 1957)
Masque of the Red Death (1964, loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, 1842)
Re-Animator (1985, based on the H.P. Lovecraft novella Herbert West—Reanimator, 1922)
Cemetery Man (1994, based on the 1991 novel Dellamorte Dellamore by Tiziano Sclavi)
Misery (1990, based on Stephen King’s 1987 novel)
Carrie (1976, based on Stephen King’s 1974 novel)
The Prestige (2006, based on the 1995 novel by Christopher Priest)
The Lair of the White Worm (1988, loosely based on Bram Stoker’s 1911 novel)
Horns (2014, based on Joe Hill’s 2010 novel)

Keep it creepy, my friends, and until next time, Goddess out.

The Goddess Revisits Season One of “Masters of Horror”

We’re now in 2015, believe it or not, and jokes about when we can expect to be receiving our hoverboards aside, hopefully it will be a better one than the last. I realize I’ve been neglecting this blog a little, but as with most of you, I was busy over the holidays with just general holiday stuff as well as some of the more personal issues I briefly mentioned in a previous post, and I just never got around to updating this thing as often as I should have. But I’m resolving to do better, and to that end, I’ve decided to do something slightly different with my Favorite Horror Scenes series by discussing the 2005 television show created by Mick Garris, “Masters of Horror” (all episodes of which are available on Hulu for free, if you somehow missed them). This year marks the tenth anniversary of the show’s debut, so it seemed an opportune time for another run-through.

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I distinctly remember there being a lot of buzz about this series in the horror community when it was first announced. I mean, these were going to be hour-long, uncensored, hardcore horror films based on stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, Clive Barker, Joe R. Lansdale! Directed by legends like John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Stuart Gordon, Dario Argento! AND IT WAS ALL GONNA BE ON TV, YOU GUYS. Pay TV, sure, but TV nonetheless. There had really never been anything quite like it on television before, and I for one eagerly settled in to watch the moment it was available online.

At the time I enjoyed most of them quite a bit, though I found that ten years later very few of them had made a lasting impression. I had forgotten even some of the better episodes, so it was instructive to watch them all again, and gratifying that many of them were far better than I had remembered.

Just a pale wingless angel taking his eyeless Japanese man out for walkies, no biggie.

Just a pale wingless angel taking his eyeless Japanese man out for walkies, no biggie.

THE GOOD:

Case in point: Episode eight, the John Carpenter-directed “Cigarette Burns.” I hadn’t remembered anything about this episode at all, but on the rewatch it instantly moved into my top three of season one. A great deal of my enthusiasm may be due to the presence of Norman Reedus, who of course in subsequent years went on to megastardom for his role on “The Walking Dead,” but everything in this episode hit the right notes for me this time around. Udo Kier was his wonderful scene-chewing self as a reclusive squintillionaire who hires a man to procure the single remaining print of a mysterious film called La Fin Absolue du Monde, the first and only screening of which ended in madness and murder. There is genuine suspense, an eerie, menacing tone permeating the whole enterprise, and gore galore, including a memorable moment in which Udo Kier’s character threads his own intestines through the projector after his long-awaited viewing of the cursed film. Top notch.

Also very good and worth a mention: The Stuart Gordon-directed “Dreams in the Witch-House,” which very effectively captured the spooky, otherworldly feel of the Lovecraft tale it was based upon. There was also John Landis’s “Deer Woman,” which I remembered disliking the first time around but appreciated much more this time. It’s far more black comedy than straight horror, with a rather absurdist premise based on a Native American legend, but there was plenty of blood, and Brian Benben’s snark-spitting protagonist was hilarious. Lastly, and surprisingly, was Dario Argento’s “Jenifer,” which starred Steven Weber (who also wrote the teleplay, based on a Bruce Jones story). I’ve always been a big Argento fan, but I think we can all agree that his more recent output has been somewhat less than stellar. This episode, though, is quite decent, even though it honestly could have been directed by anyone. It dragged a bit in parts, but the story—about a man being slowly bewitched by a deformed succubus—was suitably disquieting, and the gore was nicely excessive.

The tragic consequence of epic beer goggles.

The tragic consequence of epic beer goggles.

THE BAD:

Episodes I could have done without included, sadly, Mick Garris’s contribution to his own groundbreaking series. “Chocolate” had a flimsy story, lame execution, and just an overall feel of why-bother-ness. Boo. The only other episode I found unforgivable was Joe Dante’s “Homecoming.” Zombies as political satire can be done well, but this came across as so heavy-handed as to be utterly ridiculous, even though I happen to agree with the film’s political stance. Added to that is the fact that the subject matter, current at the time, now comes across as terribly dated and not very relatable. Thea Gill’s ballbusting Ann-Coulter-alike was amusing (and her fate at the end satisfying), but otherwise, damn, tone it down some. You can actually make a point without smashing us upside the head with a wrecking ball, y’know.

He returned from the dead to vote, but the miracle of his resurrection was nothing in the face of Diebold.

He returned from the dead to vote, but the miracle of his resurrection was nothing in the face of Diebold.

THE OKAY:

I enjoyed most of the others, though they didn’t stand out as much as they probably could have. The David J. Schow-written, Larry Cohen-directed “Pick Me Up” was pretty good, with a decent premise (competing serial killers), some genuinely tense scenes, and the always-welcome presence of Fairuza Balk. “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road,” directed by Don Coscarelli from a story by Joe R. Lansdale, was also very watchable and included a fantastic turn by Angus “Tall Man” Scrimm. Lucky McKee’s “Sick Girl” was creepy-crawly fun, with a pleasingly awkward performance by Angela Bettis as a lovelorn lesbian entomologist. The Clive Barker adaptation “Haeckel’s Tale,” directed by John McNaughton, was good, but could have been better given the source material. Same with “Dance of the Dead,” which, given the status of all those involved—story by Richard Matheson, teleplay by Richard Christian Matheson, direction by Tobe Hooper, the appearance of Robert Englund as a depraved club owner— should have been incredible, but instead was just serviceable and somewhat disjointed. “The Fair-Haired Child,” finally, was entertaining but ultimately not all that memorable.

You would tell me if I had something on my forehead, right?

You would tell me if I had something on my forehead, right?

THE AMAZING:

You didn’t actually think I was going to leave this one off, did you? Slated to air as the last episode of season one, Takashi Miike’s “Imprint” was already notorious well before its air date, because Showtime (who carried the series) refused to broadcast it, due to its highly disturbing subject matter and intensely graphic violence. It was released to DVD in the latter part of 2006, and is now available on Hulu as part of the regular series. It’s easy to see why Showtime balked (even though they should have known what to expect from Miike, frankly), but it’s also sort of a shame, because this is the best episode of the series by a mile.

Komomo realized, upon reflection, that bobbing for knitting needles was perhaps not the best idea she'd ever had.

Komomo realized, upon reflection, that bobbing for knitting needles was perhaps not the best idea she’d ever had.

Pretty much the entirety of the story takes place inside a Japanese brothel, where an American journalist (played by Billy Drago) has traveled in search of the great love of his life, a prostitute named Komomo who he had promised to rescue and take back to America. Instead, he finds another prostitute with a disfigured face who tells him the increasingly convoluted tale of what happened to the doomed Komomo. The flashback scenes of Komomo’s torture (for supposedly stealing the madam’s jade ring) are horrific, and even a seasoned horror hound like myself could barely get through them, wincing and turning my head away more than once (and yes, you may call me a weenie all you like, but aaaaaaggggggghhhhhhhhh). Additionally, the deformed girl’s recounting of her own wretched childhood, particularly the scenes of her mother dumping aborted fetuses out of a bucket into a stream, were intensely uncomfortable for me, since I had been through my own abortion only a few weeks prior and was still feeling a little strange about it. At the end of the episode, I felt as though I had been run over by a bus, in a good way, if that makes any sense. The best horror should, after all, shake you out of your complacency, and touch you in places where you’d rather not be touched. “Imprint” succeeded on that score in motherfucking spades. A genius piece of filmmaking, but one I probably won’t watch again for another ten years or so, if ever.

Hopefully you enjoyed this rundown! I’m on the third episode of my season two revisit, so keep watching this space for another fun summary to come. Until then, happy 2015, and Goddess out.

 

The Goddess’s Favorite Creepy Movie Scenes, or Hypnosis Can Go Catastrophically Wrong, You Dig?

All right, I lied. I’m actually going to post one more of these before I start my vacation, only because I’ve really wanted to give this movie some love for a very long time and all my feelings about it came flooding back as I rewatched parts of it on the inter tubes this afternoon. I realize that I took a bit of a turn toward the obvious in my last post about A Nightmare On Elm Street, but I’d now like to make amends for that transgression by going back and giving a hearty shout-out to what I feel is one of the most underrated horror films of the past twenty years.

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Stir of Echoes (1999), directed by David Koepp and starring Kevin Bacon, is based loosely on Richard Matheson’s terrific short novel. Its plot is pretty standard horror movie fare—a creepy psychic kid, hypnosis, disturbing visions of a violent crime—but its execution is deft and chilling, and it still pains me to this day that the film tends to fly a bit under the radar when the best scary movies are discussed, even in fairly well-informed company. I’ve talked to many horror fans who have never even heard of it, and this is a great shame.

Stir of Echoes’s disappearing act from the public consciousness has very little to do with the quality of the film (which is very, very good), and almost everything to do with timing. You see, Stir of Echoes had the misfortune of coming out at pretty much the exact same time as that supernatural juggernaut, The Sixth Sense (in fact, I seem to recall seeing both films in the theater within a couple days of each other). Since movie audiences can evidently only handle one ghostly spookfest per release cycle, Stir of Echoes was left in the dust while The Sixth Sense went on to become a monster hit, the second highest-grossing film of 1999, to be precise (The Phantom Menace was number one, in case you wondered).

Again, this annoys me probably more than it should. It isn’t that The Sixth Sense isn’t a good film; it’s actually pretty decent, and frankly the only one of M. Night Shyamalan’s films that I really enjoyed (and before you ask, no, I didn’t really think Signs or Unbreakable were that great, and all his other films were objectively terrible). But I have to say that I think a large part of its success can be attributed more to that breathtaking “twist” and the word-of-mouth it subsequently generated than any inherent excellence of the film as a whole. And now that everyone and their mother knows what the twist is, the film loses much of its impact upon rewatch.

No such burden dogs Stir of Echoes. While it’s certainly a much more intimate, low-key film than The Sixth Sense, it is also darker and much, much creepier than its more-successful rival. As a matter of fact, I saw a late-night showing of Stir of Echoes with my friend Jen, who often took me along to scary movies because she loves them but is usually unbearably terrified by them at the same time. I was there as the “tough” girl, the horror aficionado who was rarely fazed by anything and could talk her out of her fear if necessary. And yet, ironically, even I absolutely did NOT want to walk across the darkened parking lot after the movie let out after midnight. Not after seeing that.

In brief, the film tells the story of a working class joe from Chicago with a pregnant wife and a psychic son. Said working class joe (whose name is actually Tom) gets hypnotized by his sister-in-law as a party trick, and thereafter begins to see disturbing visions of a neighborhood girl who had gone missing some time earlier.

There are actually two scenes I’d like to discuss, as they sort of bookend each other. In the first one, new-agey sister-in-law Lisa (Illeana Douglas) is hypnotizing skeptical Tom (Kevin Bacon) and establishing the methods she uses to get her subjects to visualize. “Close your eyes,” she tells him. “Certainly, Lisa,” he says, a little condescendingly. Then we’re thrown right into Tom’s perspective: We see Lisa through his eyes, and the screen goes black from top and bottom, as if we are closing our own eyes. Then we are staring at a black screen and listening to Lisa’s voice, exactly as if we were listening to her hypnotizing us. It’s a simple, but pleasantly eerie effect.

“I want you to pretend you’re in a theater,” Lisa says, and a traditional “live-action” theater stage appears in our field of vision, with patrons sitting in the seats in front of us. “A movie theater,” Lisa specifies. A movie screen descends from the ceiling with a strangely portentous sound (the sound in this whole sequence, I should point out, is very Lynchian in its effectiveness and contributes a great deal to the otherworldly, disquieting feel of the scene overall). “There’s no one there,” says Lisa, and the people in front of us fade away, leaving rows of empty seats. “It’s one of those great old movie palaces,” says Lisa, and sure enough, the plain movie screen transforms into one of those red-curtained beauties, the empty seats before us glowing mahogany in the darkness.

Upon Lisa’s instructions to look around, the camera pans swiftly back with another creepy sound so that we can take in the whole of the gorgeous space. Then things get a little more sinister: “You notice that the walls of the theater are painted in black.” Darkness descends and covers the walls as she speaks. “The seats, covered in black,” Lisa says, and the blood-red seats fall under a shadow. Now that the entire theater is black, Lisa prompts us to focus on the only thing we can see, the white movie screen. It pops out at us with another unnerving sound. Lisa begins to describe letters on the screen that are out of focus, and a word duly begins to appear on the screen, though it is still too blurry for us to read. Lisa tells us to drift closer to the screen, and the camera pans forward, a little unsteadily. As we move closer to the screen with its blurry lettering, Lisa is going on and on about how comfortable and relaxed we are, lulling us into complacency with her soothing voice. Finally, when the white screen encompasses our entire field of vision, the word suddenly comes into focus. “The letters spell ‘sleep,’” Lisa says, and there is the word ‘sleep’ in a typewriter font across the white screen. It fades out as Lisa intones again, “Sleep.” There is a brief moment of blackness. Then, a sudden, startling vision: The front of a house, with vague shadowy figures moving on the porch in a way that suggests violence. Then follows a blue-cast closeup of what appears to be a face in a black mask, and then comes the briefest flash of a distressed girl with her hands clamped on either side of her head.

We are abruptly thrown out of the vision and back to our own perspective with an extreme closeup of Tom’s closed eyes. He snaps out of his trance, sweaty and disoriented. “What the hell was that?” he asks, and then there is a burst of raucous laughter. Another shot from Tom’s point of view reveals that everyone at the party who had been watching Lisa hypnotize Tom is standing there laughing their asses off at his confusion. It’s a fantastically affecting sequence.

The second scene is structured similarly to the first, but takes it to a darker place. Lisa is hypnotizing Tom again, though they’re in the house alone this time, and both are visibly tense because of all the strange phenomena that Tom has been experiencing in the interim. He is impatient with her, as he simply wants to get to the bottom of his visions while she is trying to establish the relaxing state of mind she coaxed out of him during the earlier session. The camera lingers on her face as she again tells Tom to visualize the black theater with the white screen. Then we are seeing things from his point of view again, the white screen before us as in the earlier scene. We drift closer to the screen. There is another shot of Lisa and she tells him that, again, there are letters on the screen. Both we and Tom see blurry letters appear, and even though they are too out of focus to read, it is clearly a different, shorter word than before. Tom gasps. “There’s someone here,” he says, his eyes still closed. “No, the theater’s empty,” says Lisa. “There’s someone else in here,” Tom insists, and in his hypnotic state we see the back of a woman’s head. She is sitting in the front row of the theater as we get closer to the screen. “There’s no one in the theater, Tom,” Lisa argues, perhaps sensing that this session is getting out of her control. She tries to get him to relax by using her standard spiel, but Tom is fighting her, getting closer and closer to the woman in the theater. Finally, amid protestations from Lisa, Tom puts his hand on the woman’s shoulder. “I want you to look at the screen. Look at the screen!” Lisa begs. The woman in the theater turns her face partially toward Tom, and it looks perfectly normal, but then there is a closeup shot of Tom. Suddenly a hand darts out and grabs his face, and we see that the hand is attached to the figure of someone who appears to be wrapped in plastic. The figure makes a weird, distorted roar that almost sounds like a word, though it happens too quickly to make out what the word is. Then we are back in front of the house from the first vision, and there are several quick edits of hands, of Tom’s panicking face, of a figure in plastic, of a screaming girl with missing front teeth being brutalized. There’s a brief shot where it appears that Tom has become either the victim or the perpetrator in his vision.

While all this chicanery is going on, Lisa is frantically trying to salvage the session. “Tom! Tom!” she’s yelling. “LOOK AT THE SCREEN!” Tom finally does as she says and whips his head around to look. And the white screen suddenly looms large in our vision, accompanied by the girl’s screams, and on that screen is a single, chilling word: “DIG.”

That. Freaks. Me. The. Fuck. Out.

It has a similar effect on Tom, I gotta say, who immediately after being confronted with the word, rockets straight out of his trance, out of his chair, and into the kitchen, where he stands in front of the open fridge and just downs an entire can of beer while Lisa harangues him.

We feel your pain, Kevin Bacon. You earned your beer.