If you ever wanted to listen to the God of Hellfire and I blathering away about various topics of interest to weirdos everywhere, you, my friends, are in luck. We have started a podcast called 13 O’Clock, which will feature subjects ranging from supposedly real paranormal cases to unsolved historical mysteries to bizarre religious cults to creepy serial killers to horror movies and everything in between. Some of the episodes will be just us, some of them will have awesome guests like parapsychologists, writers, musicians of a darker nature, and so forth.
On our inaugural episode, we discuss the tragic case of Doris Bither, whose alleged poltergeist attacks were the basis of the 1982 film The Entity; and on the second half, we delve into one of our favorite topics, conspiracy theories and hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining.
Listen to the audio-only version right here, and if you want some relevant visuals to go along with our musings, then I also made a pretty YouTube video version, which you may watch right here.
I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of the movie I’m featuring today, which is the phenomenal British film Séance on a Wet Afternoon. It was recommended to me by a friend on Facebook, and over the weekend I sat down and spent a chilling two hours with it, marveling at its atmospheric mood and incredible psychological depth. It’s not a horror movie per se, but it is an intensely disturbing, absorbing thriller that garnered gobs and gobs of accolades when it came out back in 1964, including a Best Actress Oscar nomination for lead Kim Stanley. She lost to Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins, which is a terrible shame, though not all that surprising, frankly. Don’t get me wrong, I love Julie Andrews, but I definitely think Kim Stanley got robbed in this case. Her portrayal of a mentally unstable spirit medium was so nuanced and eerie that I found myself completely enthralled by the way her character came across as so sweet and harmless on the surface, while a manipulative, dark insanity lurked just beneath. Incidentally, if you’d like to watch for yourself, here you go, and if you’d like to read further, be warned that there will be spoilers:
The plot basically details a completely batshit scheme that working-class medium Myra Savage concocts to get attention and notoriety for her supposed psychic abilities. The film remains ambiguous about whether her abilities are real, but she clearly believes that they are, and that her stillborn son Arthur is acting as her spirit guide at the weekly séances she holds in their home. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know how much I love this type of ambiguity in films, and it’s especially good here; while we become unshakably certain over the course of the film that Myra is quite insane, we’re never entirely sure whether her mediumship is a cause or an effect of her insanity.
Using her cowed, milquetoast husband Billy (played by Richard Attenborough) to do her dirty work, Myra kidnaps (or “borrows,” as she insists on calling it) the daughter of a very wealthy, connected couple and ransoms the child for £25,000. Initially, Myra and Billy don’t plan to hurt the child or even keep the ransom money; their intentions are far more convoluted and insidious than that, and it’s implied that they’ve been refining the details for years. In a nutshell, they plan to keep the child and the ransom money hidden until Myra has made contact with the child’s parents and the police, whereupon she will claim that she has received messages from beyond that tell her where the child and the money can be found. She is sure that this will make a name for her throughout the land, and she hopes the news of her success will lead to fame and riches down the line.
As should be obvious from the type of film this is, the plan ultimately doesn’t go the way it was supposed to, and slowly sprouts ever more disturbing tendrils as Myra’s fragile hold on sanity begins to crumble away. Because the film doesn’t make clear from the beginning what the specifics of Myra’s plan are, and doesn’t explicitly lay out how she begins to subtly change the details as the story progresses, it’s a rather gripping watch; the tension keeps escalating as the viewer wonders what exactly the endgame is, and what exactly will go wrong.
The creepiest thing about this film, I thought, was the interplay between Myra and Billy, and the unspoken dynamic between them that made the presumably decent but weak-willed Billy go along with his wife’s obviously delusional ideas without too much complaint. Myra does not browbeat Billy into doing her will; she does not threaten him. Their relationship is such that she does not need to; she is able to convince him through the sheer force of her seemingly reasonable wheedling, and her slow escalation of requests that ultimately leave Billy in the same position as that fabled frog in boiling water. He obviously loves her dearly, and because he does, he has accepted that she sees him as nothing more than a tool to facilitate her own desires. In this way, Billy is quite a tragic character, subsuming his own identity and moral compass in deference to hers. At one point Myra tells him that the kidnapping of the child is simply a means to an end for them; no one is going to be hurt, she points out, and they won’t even be keeping the parents’ money, so what harm is there? “You agree with the end, don’t you?” she asks him in her soft, sweet voice, and when he assents, she follows with the seemingly logical conclusion, “Well, then you must agree with the means.” The great thing about this is that from their interactions, the viewer can really feel the weight of the years of their marriage behind them, of how her manipulation of Billy and his passive acceptance of it are simply par for the course. It is only at the very end of the film, when Myra has taken things one step too far, that Billy finally nuts up and blows the whistle on her, at which point she has lost her marbles to such a degree that she is no longer able to protest.
The scenes with Myra interacting with the kidnapped child are also pretty unsettling, as it’s clear that Myra views the girl in the exact same way she views Billy: As a thing that will get her the results she wants. She is never cruel to the child at all, but she is chillingly indifferent and detached, both when she speaks to her and when she speaks about her. That’s the great strength of Kim Stanley’s performance; the viewer is drawn in by her seemingly demure, motherly exterior and only slowly starts to realize that Myra is a sociopathic monster. It’s a fantastic study in the banality of evil.
Aside from the stellar characterization and almost unbearable suspense, the film also looks gorgeous, with lovely, atmospheric shots of candlelit faces around a séance table, or spooky houses reflected in puddles of rainwater. As I said before, it’s not strictly a horror film, but its look and subject matter definitely put it in the same league with the great ghost stories and thrillers of the period, and I would recommend it for any fans of either genre; it’s just a shame it’s not better known.
Stay tuned for more good stuff later in the week, and until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.
I have to admit that, as a rule, I’m kinda over vampires these days. Like all self-respecting darklings, of course, I was all about Anne Rice back in the day, and my first (terrible, unpublished) novel was actually a painfully angsty vampire love story along those same lines. If only I had known that years later, someone would write Twilight and make all the money in the world, I might not have been so quick to shame-toss my manuscript in the garbage, but on such lack of foresight doth the vagaries of fate turn, or something.
On the other hand, though, as an unrepentant goth chick for nigh on three decades, I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t be seduced by a genuinely great vampire film, especially if it was stylish as fuck, starred three of the best-looking people on the planet at the time, and boasted an opening scene featuring one of my favorite bands performing the grandaddy of all goth-rock anthems. By now you should have guessed that I’m talking about this gothic wet dream right here:
Tony Scott’s The Hunger (loosely based on an okay novel by Whitley “I Was Anal Probed by Extraterrestrials” Strieber) has been dogged by criticisms of style over substance pretty much since its release in 1983, but in my opinion, time has been very kind to it, and I would happily defend it as one of the very best vampire films of the 80s. Not only was it gorgeous to look at and chock full of fantastic acting performances, but it also took the tired vampire schtick and did something fairly original and arty with it (though of course much of the concept of interpreting vampire tropes through the lens of modern genetic science was present in Strieber’s book).
The Hunger is the story of beautiful, centuries-old vampire Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) and her understandable but ultimately cruelly selfish quest to find a companion who will be with her forever. Her latest consort, John (David Bowie) has been with her for two hundred years, but John soon learns that Miriam’s promises of eternal youth were a lie when he begins to rapidly age, due to an apparent incompatibility between human and vampire blood that takes centuries to manifest.
John and Miriam enlist the services of cutting-edge gerontologist Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) in an attempt to reverse the aging process, but all to no avail. After the feeble John kills the couple’s young music student, hoping that her blood will revitalize him, Miriam tenderly carries his still-living but disintegrating carcass into the attic. There she places him in a coffin along with her other former lovers, all of whom are enduring the same living death. It is this aspect of Miriam’s character that makes her monstrous: she is so desperate for companionship that she will strategically neglect to mention that the vampire gift she is bestowing comes with eternal life, yes, but not eternal youth. She will also keep her lovers alive and with her forever, even though they are suffering terribly.
Grief-stricken and lonely after John’s confinement, Miriam then sets her sights on Sarah and begins to groom her as her next companion. The pair exchange blood during a languid, gauzy, and super-hot sex scene, but Sarah discovers soon enough what Miriam’s gift entails. At first she refuses to accept her new blood-drinking nature, preferring to starve herself of the sustaining red stuff, but eventually her willpower fails her and she ends up killing her boyfriend Tom and feeding on him. Miriam thinks that Sarah is now on board with the whole vampire thing, but Sarah’s steely resolve is such that she attempts to cut her own throat with Miriam’s purpose-made ankh pendant rather than spend the next few hundred years at the vampire’s side. The distraught Miriam attempts to save her, but evidently Sarah’s attempted self-sacrifice has rallied the troops, so to speak; all of Miriam’s rotting former lovers rise from their coffins, kill Miriam, and fall to dust upon the floor, finally finding the sweet release of death that they had been denied for so long.
There is then an odd coda to the film that doesn’t really make any sense in terms of the story, as we see briefly that Sarah has survived her suicide attempt and is now living as a vampire with a male and female consort of her own. Susan Sarandon has reported that she was not happy with this tacked-on ending, as it negated the whole arc of her character and the point of her rebellion, but there was little she could do about it, since the producers apparently wished to leave the film open-ended in case they wanted to make a sequel down the line (sigh). The scene is only a few seconds long and doesn’t spoil the film, but it is kind of a WTF moment.
All that aside, though, let me take a moment to rhapsodize about all the great things this film does. Casting the impossibly beautiful and elegant Deneuve as a vampire was a stroke of genius, as her quiet gravitas and cold yet seductive grace lend a sense of timelessness to her portrayal that makes it very easy to believe, not only that she has been alive for millennia, but also that she could easily embody the conflict of genuine loving feeling existing alongside such fiendish cruelty. Susan Sarandon’s character is a perfect counterpoint, a thoroughly modern woman whose pragmatism and independence is the polar opposite of Miriam’s needy heartlessness.
Bowie is likewise great as the doomed companion, putting in a restrained and perfectly balanced performance in which the struggle between his deep love for Miriam and his anger at her betrayal of him are readily apparent.
The set design is also gorgeous, soft-focused and romantic, with billowing white curtains, shafts of dim light illuminating flocks of doves, and the spectacularly old-world interiors of the Blaylocks’ tastefully appointed New York townhouse brilliantly contrasted against the sterile environment of Sarah’s medical clinic. I’ve heard many people complain that The Hunger looked more like a music video than a movie, and I understand that assessment, but I feel as though the entire look of the film is a crucial part of its enduring charm. Its aesthetic flair was certainly one of the things that first drew me to it in the 1980s, and to be frank I think it looks even better now that we’ve had more than thirty years’ perspective on it.
The fact that the film also has such a dynamite opening, with the vampiric Peter Murphy in a cage intoning “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” with his band Bauhaus, is simply the pitch-black icing on the darkly glamorous cake that is this movie.
Unlike many other vampire films of the period, The Hunger is more concerned with artistic visuals and exploring the relationships of the characters than it is with outright horror or gore. That’s not to say that there aren’t some intensely bloody scenes, and the final shots of Miriam’s ancient, skeletal companions rising up against her are fairly horrific, but fans of more in-your-face horror may find the film far too cerebral for their tastes, and that’s as it should be. Different strokes, and all that.
In my previous post about Stories That Scared Even Me, I mentioned how influential horror stories were on me as a kid, and how much I adored seeking them out and reading them, whether they were intended for children or not (my parents were pretty chill that way). Sure, I delved into the very disturbing adult worlds created by Poe and Lovecraft, King and Barker, Matheson and Bradbury. But I was still a kid, and as such, I enjoyed kids’ stories too.
I can’t remember who gave it to me (it could have been my parents or another close relative), but when I was a darkling little sprog I received a delightful black box set containing five slim paperbacks with different colored spines. I recently searched for the entire box set online, but to no avail; it appears that the books are only sold individually now, and used, at that. But it was the more freewheeling 1970s, and I had more scary bang for the buck, yo. While only one of the books was straight-up horror, the others had enough of a dark fantasy or funny fairy-tale vibe to keep me enchanted, and I read those five books until they literally fell to pieces.
The largest and scariest book in the collection was Maria Leach’s The Thing at the Foot of the Bed. It was an illustrated compendium of traditional ghost stories, urban legends, and poems, with some handy ghost tips thrown in at the end (for example, I distinctly remember the book warning me not to touch a hat that had been left in the road with a stick lying across it, since it belonged to a spirit who was presumably coming back to fetch it at some point. Stay away from haunts’ hats, kids; the dead are really touchy about their headwear). It contained many, many well-known tales, such as “The Golden Arm,” “Sweet William’s Ghost,” and that one about the kid who goes into a cemetery on a dare and plunges his knife into a grave and then ends up dying of fright like a dumbass because he thinks the corpse has reached up and grabbed him. I also recall a few funny ones, like the story about the guy with the super long teeth (which is actually kind of creepy now that I think about it), or the one about an old man shooting a bunch of holes in a nightshirt hanging from the line because he thought it was a ghost.
The two stories I remember the best, though, were naturally the ones I thought were the scariest. The first of these was “Sop, Doll,” an unsettling tale about a guy who is eating some sort of gruel in his shack and is inexplicably visited by a series of larger and larger cats. Did I mention that the cats could talk, and they kept saying they were waiting for someone? And also that the guy was so freaked out by this situation that he ended up slicing off one of the bigger cats’ paws? Oh, and also that the next day, his wife was MISSING HER HAND and thus was probably, you know, a shapeshifting witch? Seems like something you should sort out before the wedding bells ring, guy, but who am I to judge, right?
I can’t remember the name of my other favorite story (was it in Spanish?), but I still recall the details fairly vividly because it featured beheading, and beheadings have always been one of my morbid fascinations. A dude was ambling back from the butcher with a calf’s head in a bag. He was going to eat it for dinner, which probably horrified child-me more than the outcome of the actual story did. But as he walked, the bag was dripping blood everywhere, and eventually someone called him on it and asked him to show the calf’s head, because your dinner shouldn’t be bleeding that much when you just bought it from the butcher, right? Hell, everyone knows that. (Note: I did not know that.) So the dude pulls the thing out of the bag, cavalier as you please, and it turns out (DUN DUN DUUUUUUUN) it isn’t a calf’s head at all, but the severed head of a friend of his. Dude was taken into custody and promptly hanged for murder. Even when I was a kid, though, something about this tale didn’t sit right. I mean, I seem to remember that the story mentioned, “Oh yeah, that dude totally cut off his friend’s head,” but if that were so, why in hell would he be carrying the bloody head-bag through the streets where everyone could see him? And why would he whip out the head for the first rando who asked? I guess I just don’t understand crime.
The second book in the set, The Witch’s Egg by Madeleine Edmondson, didn’t make quite as large an impression as the others, though it did feature a crabby old witch, always a plus in any story (take my novel about a couple of crabby old witches, Red Menace, for instance). It was a sort of Grinch-like story, as I recall, about the aforementioned cranky hag having her black, black heart softened when she raises a baby bird that hatches from an egg she finds. Was she planning on eating the egg at first? Did she kill the mama bird? Probably, she was an asshole like that. I really can’t remember. But still, super fucking heartwarming.
Miss Clafooty and the Demon by J. David Townsend will always hold a special place in my heart, because it was this book (along with John Bellairs’s The House With a Clock in Its Walls) that initiated me into the wonderfully grotesque world of Edward Gorey, who did the illustrations. I absolutely loved his fanciful drawings for this book, and I loved the story itself just as much. The prim and miserly Miss Clafooty is simply rolling in loot, but her mansion is all ramshackle and busted up, she wears layers of old, out-of-style duds like a bag lady, she only eats stale bread crusts and expired peas, and she never invites anyone over because that means she’d have to spend some of the oodles of gold and silver coins she keeps stored in an old stocking. Rather like Smaug if he were a doddering middle-aged Victorian hausfrau, Miss Clafooty loves nothing more than sitting in her broken-down house and running her fingers through her coins and congratulating herself on how much money she didn’t have to spend that day. But this douchey one-percenter is soon put in her place by the appearance of a small purple demon (because why not?) with “a mouth like an oven” who shames the woman so much that she finally pulls the greed-plug out of her butthole and buys some actual food and some nice clothes and fixes her house up and invites everyone over for a big-ass shindig. Occupy Clafooty!
By far my favorite book of the set was Margaret Storey’s Timothy and Two Witches. I was absolutely enthralled by its darkly fantastical atmosphere and its charming British setting and tone. Timothy is sent to live with his aunt, I believe, after his parents die (probably). His aunt is a white witch, and she’s young and pretty, and all sorts of cool shit happens in her house, like the soap just jumps into your hand when you need it, and stuff cleans up after itself. I also have a clear memory (because even as a child I was a total dessert whore) of the little cakes the aunt would give to Timothy. She didn’t bake them or anything, she just made them magically, but they had his name written on them in icing, and I thought that was pretty fab. Come to think of it, I want to go live with this chick right now. Anyway, there was also a little girl, who was either the aunt’s daughter or a neighbor kid or something, and she befriends Timothy, as well as has cakes with her name written on them. And because it was a dark fantasy with a white witch in it, there also had to be an eeeeeeevil witch. I think Timothy fell under her spell somehow, but the white witch was more powerful and everything worked out okay in the end. I remember being particularly taken with the descriptions of the magical woods where the good witch lived, where the trees and grass all glittered with gold and silver. Damn, I’ve been to England, why can’t I find this woman’s place? I want magical maid service and personalized magic cakes and glittery trees. Goddammit.
The final book in the set was a wacky fairy tale entitled The Strange Story of the Frog Who Became a Prince, by Elinor L. Horwitz. It was a sort of send-up of the old Frog Prince story, wherein a witch (another one! There were a lot of witches in this box set, dang) who is out doing some freelance witching one day comes across a happy frog and turns him into a prince. Who knew that witches would just do this kind of stuff for free? I learned a lot about witches from these books. Anyway, the twist is that the prince the frog gets turned into looks more like Prince Charles than The Artist Formerly Known As, with big ol’ jug ears and knock knees and buck teeth and so forth. The witch gets points for accuracy, of course, but the frog isn’t too thrilled with the whole transformation jazz and starts telling the witch how much more handsome and kick-ass he was as a frog. Finally he convinces the witch to change him back, but she can’t remember how. So maybe she’s a trainee witch; that’s why she’s going around transforming amphibians into inbred royals willy-nilly. Much zaniness ensues as she tries to remember the spell to return him to his former state. Lots of words said backwards, as I recall. I think the one that ended up doing it was “peanut butter sandwich” said backwards. Which makes total sense.
I want a peanut butter sandwich now. *heads for pantry*
Just as a quick reminder, I’ve put up a Patreon campaign to raise some much-needed funds for my writing endeavors, so take a look if you missed my previous post, and give something if you can, would you? Thank you.
Now, since I went into the specifics of “Masters of Horror” in my previous post about season one, I’m just going to jump right in and begin discussing season two, the rewatch of which I just completed. The quality of the second season of Mick Garris’s generally excellent series was a lot more consistent than the first, in the sense that there were no particularly terrible episodes, but there weren’t really any jaw-dropping, “Imprint”-quality ones either, though many of them were quite good, and all were at least decently watchable.
The season two revisit has been a little more fun for me and has provided a slightly different perspective on the show, since the God of Hellfire became interested in this fucked-up series I was obsessively watching and decided he wanted to watch some of it too. So I’ll be providing a little of his insight on the episodes, when he provided it. And now, onward.
THE DAMN GOOD
There were two episodes that, for me, stood out as being the best examples of what season two had to offer. The first was “Family,” directed by John Landis and featuring the lovable George Wendt (of “Cheers” fame) playing brilliantly against type as a suburban serial killer and corpse collector. I’m not entirely sure if the concept for this story was at least partly inspired by Miriam Allen deFord’s 1961 short story “A Death in the Family,” which it strongly reminded me of and which was made into an episode of “Night Gallery” back in 1971. John Landis’s “Family” ends up going off in a different direction entirely, though, and has a great twist ending. George Wendt imbues his schlubby, lonely bachelor psychopath with such pathos that it’s hard not to feel bad for him, even while he’s killing little girls and old ladies to deflesh and add to his happy skeletal family. Twisted, tragicomic, and great.
The second standout of season two, the Rob Schmidt-directed “Right To Die,” recalled the furor over the Terri Schiavo case and starred the terrific Martin Donovan, who I’ve been a fan of since his numerous appearances in Hal Hartley’s films in the eighties and nineties. Donovan plays a dentist who has been cheating on his wife with his buxom assistant; shortly after the wife finds out, she and her wayward husband are involved in a terrible car accident in which all of the wife’s skin is burned off. Initially engaging in a legal battle with his mother-in-law for the right to turn off his wife’s life support, Dr. Adulterer soon changes his tune when it comes to light that his wife is now able to open up an enormous can of supernatural scorned-woman whoop-ass whenever she flatlines. Since I’m always down to see a cheater (and worse, as it turns out) get his just desserts, this episode was a satisfying, gory, and somewhat surprising ride.
THE PRETTY DAMN GOOD
Several of the other episodes, while not quite to the caliber of the aforementioned, were still reliably entertaining. “Sounds Like,” directed by Brad Anderson from a short story by Mike O’Driscoll, was in the words of the GoH “like a really, really good ‘Twilight Zone’ episode,” and recounted the sad tale of a suburban middle-manager type guy who loses his son to a rare heart condition and subsequently develops hypersensitive hearing that eventually drives him insane. Very low-key in the gross-out department, but a nice slow burn of suspense and escalating tension.
“Pro-Life,” John Carpenter’s taut tale of a determined, fifteen-year-old pregnant girl and a demonic battle in a besieged abortion clinic, was also pretty fantastic, with Ron Perlman giving a chilling performance as the girl’s fundie nutbag father. Intense, violent, and genuinely frightening, even if the whole “devil-baby” angle is a touch cheesy.
Dario Argento’s “Pelts” was the Italian maestro’s second contribution to the series, adapted from a short story by F. Paul Wilson. The somewhat ridiculous premise sees a fur trader (played by Meat Loaf!) getting his hands on some beautiful raccoon pelts that magically make everyone who works with them do unbelievably gory things to themselves that mirror what was done to the dead animals. Squicky, over the top (it IS Argento, after all), and lots of fun.
The Joe Dante-directed “Screwfly Solution,” while not nearly as stupidly overblown as his first-season “Homecoming,” still tackled hot-button sociopolitical issues (feminism and male aggression, in this case), but in a far less obnoxious way than his first foray in the series. I thought it was still a bit too glib and a tad on the overly obvious side for my taste, but overall I quite enjoyed it, and the GoH chose it as his favorite episode of season two, so in deference to him I decided to place it in the “pretty damn good” category. The GoH is a big fan of apocalyptic-type scenarios in horror that are just barely plausible, so this tale of an unknown biological agent that ramps up male hostility to the point where the men are killing off all the women on earth, was right up his alley and scared him more than any of the other episodes. Also, SPOILER ALERT, it was aliens all along, and aliens are pretty much the GoH’s favorite thing in the whole wide galaxy, you guys; you don’t even know. I forgot to add that this episode featured both Jason “90210” Priestley AND Elliott “M.A.S.H.” Gould as high-echelon environmental scientists, which is probably something you can’t say about any other movie in history. So there’s that.
Also decent was “We All Scream for Ice Cream,” directed by Tom Holland from a short story by John Farris (with a teleplay by the great David J. Schow). Bearing shades of Stephen King’s It, this straightforward tale of supernatural revenge sees a mentally-slow but well-liked (and clown-clad) ice cream man “accidentally” killed by some miscreant children. Years later, a sinister ice cream van prowls the small town’s streets at night, seeking to revisit the sins of the fathers upon the sons, as it were. Well-executed and fairly creepy.
Rounding out the “pretty damn good” category, Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of “The Black Cat” featured Jeffrey Combs as a tormented Edgar Allan Poe living out (or is he?) a couple of his more famous short stories. I thought the ending was something of a cop-out, but I’ll forgive it (this time) because the performances and gore were solid (BAD KITTY!) and the episode as a whole was pretty great, with some brilliant comic touches. Likewise with “The Washingtonians,” directed by Peter Medak from a short story by Bentley Little. The premise was so utterly bizarre, and the execution so overdone and absurd, that it circled all the way around to being awesome again. Intensely gory, and one of the funniest—and easily the wackiest—episodes of the series.
Also quite good was the final episode, Norio Tsuruta’s “Dream Cruise.” Glacially paced, and pretty standard J-horror all around (complete with long-haired female wraith), but with a story that held a few surprises, lovely cinematography, and a nice creep factor. A worthy end to the series.
THE JUST OKAY AND THE DISAPPOINTING
A few of the episodes, while not bad per se, were just not as good as I was expecting, given the talent involved. As much as I adore the stories of Ambrose Bierce, for example, the Tobe Hooper-directed adaptation of “The Damned Thing” (with a teleplay by Richard Christian Matheson, no less) was not particularly engaging or memorable, making me question the decision to make it the inaugural episode of the second season.
Also a disappointment, and for similar reasons, was “Valerie on the Stairs,” directed by series creator Mick Garris from a terrific short story by Clive Barker. I’m a huge fan of Barker’s stories and novels, but his fantastical creations are somewhat hit or miss when adapted to screen, and this one seemed more miss than hit. Tony “Candy Man” Todd played a fetching demon, and Christopher Lloyd was his pleasingly manic self, but the episode seemed flimsy, slightly repetitive, and a tad silly, with an anticlimactic ending let down by cheesy special effects.
The Mick Garris-directed “The V Word” (and I hate to say it, but Garris was kind of 0 for 3 on his own episodes of the series he created, in my opinion) was not a total waste of time, but not an experience I’d care to revisit, either. The V could have stood for literally anything else—vagina, perhaps, or velveteen, or vivisection, or even Vivian Vance, for fuck’s sake—and I would have enjoyed it more, but since the V stood for “vampire” (oh…those), I was less than enthused, especially when whiny teenage boys were added into the mix. Watchable, but overall, meh.
And thus completes my revisited rundown of “Masters of Horror!” Agree? Disagree? Care to start a virtual fistfight over which were the best episodes? Let me know. Until then, as ever, Goddess out.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
I’ve talked on this blog before about the concept of the “uncanny valley,” how things that look almost like humans—but not quite—are intensely disturbing to most of us. I think this aspect of human psychology is one reason why horror films featuring dolls, dummies, realistic robots and the like are so common, and more often than not, end up being pretty effectively scary. With that in mind, today I’d like to discuss a lesser-known gem from the 1970s that does something a little different with that tried and true horror standby: creepy dolls, or in this case, creepy mannequins. (And no, I’m not referring to that Crow T. Robot favorite starring Andrew McCarthy and Kim Cattrall, so get that out of your mind right now.)
While the underrated Tourist Trap (1979) may fall into the very common horror genre of “group of sexy teenagers gets lost in a remote area, slaughter ensues,” its premise is actually fairly weird and its imagery creepily effective; even its goofball musical score lends to its offbeat charm. The five young people in question have been driving through the desert to some unspecified vacation destination, utilizing two vehicles. The first vehicle, containing Woody (Keith McDermott) and his girlfriend Eileen (Robin Sherwood) gets a flat, and Woody blithely rolls the likewise flat spare tire off to find a gas station. We see him enter what appears to be an abandoned store, calling out for service. He hears something in the back, and because this is a horror movie, he goes to investigate. He sees what appears to be a person under a blanket, but when he touches the person the blanket falls away revealing a freaky-looking and apparently spring-loaded mannequin. Then shit starts to go REALLY awry, as more cackling mannequins start popping out of closets and in through windows, the door locks by itself, chairs and other furniture start rattling around like in one of those poltergeist videos on YouTube. A cabinet starts opening and closing, and then glass bottles start flying out and smashing all around Woody’s head, and the fun part is, he can’t move, because his arm is through a hole in the door and someone seems to be holding him in place. At last, an iron bar that’s been shimmying around on the floor shoots toward Woody and impales him through the side. It’s an unsettling scene, and effective because you’re not quite sure what’s going on here…is there some supernatural force at work? Or does some killer get off on setting up elaborate pranks like some kind of murderous funhouse?
We sort of find out what’s up as the story progresses. Eileen gets a ride with the second vehicle in the caravan when it passes by, and the four remaining vacationers head off in search of the wayward Woody. They see a sign pointing toward some sketchy-looking museum and surmise that he must have gone that-a-way, but before they get there, their Jeep also breaks down in a clearing. As the sole male, Jerry (Jon Van Ness) gets stuck trying to figure out what’s wrong while the women wander off and naturally end up skinny dipping in a lovely waterfall-fed pool that’s hidden back in the woods. As they thrash around all naked and gratuitous, they notice that a kindly-looking but shotgun-wielding old man is watching them from the bank, with much amusement. From just above his down-home overalls, his pretty mouth tells them that his name is Mr. Slausen (Chuck Connors), that he runs the little museum they saw the sign for earlier, and that no one has really been around there since the new highway got put in and he’s really kind of bummed out about it. He actually seems a pretty nice fella, and he doesn’t seem to mind that the girls are sloughing their boobies through his pond, though he warns them that they should probably get out before it gets dark because the pond is full of water moccasins. He then heads back into the woods as the women make Mr. Yuck faces at each other and haul ass out of the snake-water.
When they get back to the car, Mr. Slausen is helping Jerry with the Jeep. He says he needs his tools from the house, and offers to give the youngsters something to drink and a place to chill out if they’ll all just pile into his truck and come back to his house/museum. Red flag? Sure, but Slausen does seem like a genuinely nice man, and he actually hasn’t done anything the least bit sinister, so even though the kids are a little reluctant, they end up going with him, because there would be no movie if they didn’t.
And here we finally get to the creepy-ass part of the flick, because Slausen’s little house is just full of kinda-cool-but-also-fairly-disturbing animatronic mannequins. Some of them are gunslingers that turn and shoot at each other, one is a pretty lady in a white dress tucked into a lighted shrine that turns out to be a representation of his late, much-adored wife. It’s initially sort of weird, but the way Slausen talks about his wife and breaks down crying is so sincere that at least one of the women, Molly (Jocelyn Jones), really starts to feel bad for him.
Of course, you can see where this is going. One by one, the youngsters wander off alone for one reason or another and get either straight-up murdered or taken captive by a heavyset dude in a wig and an eerie-looking mannequin mask. It’s here that the movie is really at its most effective, because the killer, as well as the shadowed shots of the mannequins, are intensely skin-crawling. It’s also worth noting that the killer, for absolutely no reason whatsoever, has telekinetic powers, and can sic mannequins on people and make their mouths drop open in a really, REALLY unsettling way.
Although for the bulk of the movie’s running time, you’re meant to believe that it’s Slausen’s crazy brother who has suddenly snapped and started offing people and adding them to his mannequin collection, viewers will not be surprised to learn that it was actually Slausen doing the killin’ all along.
Despite the movie’s obvious telegraphing, the whole atmosphere of the thing is what makes it great, and I have to say that Chuck Connors puts in a really noteworthy performance here, since his character really does believably seem like a sweet but slightly addled old man who then turns out to be a raging psycho by the end. Though he gets his just desserts at the hands of Final Girl Molly (who was of course the most prudish of the group, and also the one who showed the most compassion for Slausen), the closing scene makes it clear that Molly was all but broken by her horrible experience, as she tools down the highway in a convertible with a freaky grin on her face AND THE MANNEQUINS OF ALL HER DEAD FRIENDS IN THE CAR WITH HER. So yeah. The 70s were a strange time, kids.
Until next time, keep reading, keep watching, and try to keep away from any run-down mannequin-centric museums, okay? Until next time, Goddess out.