Oct 21, 2014

#HALLOWEEN: THE LONG NIGHT

“He had never liked October. Ever since he had first lay in the autumn leaves before his grandmother's house many years ago and heard the wind and saw the empty trees. It had made him cry, without a reason. And a little of that sadness returned each year to him. It always went away with spring. But, it was a little different tonight. There was a feeling of autumn coming to last a million years. There would be no spring."

Oct 20, 2014

#HALLOWEEN: UNSUNG HORRORS: LADY IN WHITE

Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre.

So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now…one at a time.

Dir. Frank LaLoggia
1988
New Sky Productions
United States

"The bells of St. Andrews were soothingly familiar, even in those strange surroundings. It wasn't long before I drifted off to sleep, comforted by their ancient voices. ...It was All Hallow's Eve, and I, still locked behind the cloak-room door, suddenly felt a wind sweep through the darkness, chilling me to the bone..."

Nostalgia. That, more than anything, is what fuels my love for Halloween. It's just a day on the calendar, of course, and one which I anticipate more than any other, but it's also a feeling. It's indescribable, intangible. Never more has a day been so ably defined by an entire scene found in paintings, photography, or hazy memories — sprawling pumpkin fields, forests filled with orange and golden leaves, red barns with white trim and a scarecrow poking out of the cornfield around back. This type of iconography triggers a feeling more than any other. It's wilderness, rustic, and somewhat uncivilized. It's an outlaw; a misfit. Halloween wasn't born in the streets or in a book. It was born outside under the moon, in the woods, amongst people honoring something bigger than themselves (with a little help from the Church). And like most holidays and traditions with ancient origins, it doesn't quite resemble what it once was. But it's still the closest. It changed over time because it's had to. To me, it's become rural America. Small towns. Main Street. Crepe paper on doors. Dead and dying leaves blowing across front yards. It's the end of summer and the pinnacle of autumn. It's changing seasons and changing leaves. It's embracing the night and giving yourself to the dark. And it's opening the front door to the vampire waiting on your front porch, who cannot enter unless invited. It's not lighting jack-o-lanterns or brewing the cider or smearing the greasepaint across your face that beckons another October 31st into being. It's anticipation. It's simply wanting it to be here and not wanting it to leave. And it's facing the fact that, sadly, as you get older, the things that used to bring you so much joy don't seem nearly as special as they used to be.

Nostalgia.

When I interviewed singer/songwriter Lonesome Wyatt for a 2013 Halloween post, his answer to one of my questions has stuck with me ever since: 
"The idea of Halloween is much better than the stinking reality."
He succinctly put into words what I'd discovered over the years as I found myself one year older every Halloween. As the years go by, it seems I foolishly try to force Halloween to feel a certain way, by the activities in which I partake or the company I keep or the foods and drinks (and pumpkin beer) I consume. More and more I am learning that this, not for lack of trying, doesn't work. Halloween simply was, and I've got to make peace with that fact. Instead of trying to make it feel the way I remember it being, I need to look back on the things I treasured that were synonymous with it.

Enter Lady in White.


It was Halloween. I was in fourth grade. I couldn't tell you what particular costume I wore that year, or what games we played at our class party. But I can tell you, at some point, the lights went dim, a television on a cart borrowed from the school library was rolled to the front of the room, and Lady in White was soon playing in front of us all. Though there's nothing inherently offensive or ghastly about the film, it was still an unusual choice to show to a classroom filled with elementary school students, considering the film features the ghost of a girl acting out her death and being strangled in mid-air as she screams out for her mother to help her, backseat assassinations, and ever-so-subtle allusions to molestation and sexual perversion. I sat rapt, my eyes glued to the screen, unable to help but immediately put myself into the shoes of the very young protagonist, who looked to be the same age as me. He was shy, and bullied, and he had an older brother who was sometimes his friend and sometimes his foe...just like me. It was Halloween in real life, but also in the film. The scenes involving the ghost of the departed took place in a school classroom, the very same place I was sitting.

At that formative moment, Lady in White was gospel.

Frankie Scarlatti, small-town native and successful horror novelist, is going home. Not home to Los Angeles, his present, but home to Willowpoint Falls, his past, where he lived as a child.

Following a brief monologue set in the present, it's back in time to Halloween, 1962, in Willowpoint Falls, where two brothers, Frankie (Lukas Haas) and Geno (Jason Presson)  race to school on their bicycles — from their rural farm where three generations of the Scarlatti family live and work, through the woods, and down to the heart of their quaint little town's main street, where they call hello by name to the people they pass. Shopkeepers decorate their front windows with bright and cheerful homages to October, and fill baskets with candy corn by the shovelful. Much like the charming name of the charming town filled with charming, small-town people, it is idyllic; nirvana; perfect.

"What's it like living in Los Angeles?" the cabbie asks in the present-day prologue as he drives Frankie home down clean quiet streets strewn with autumn leaves.

"It's...different," he answers.

"Yeah..." the cabbie says, as if to suggest no other place on earth could ever feel like home besides Willowpoint Falls.


Back in the past and later that day, once class lets out, two bullies trick Frankie back into their classroom's cloakroom and lock him in for a Halloween prank. After beating against the door, Frankie falls asleep...and later awakens when he hears the soft voice of a young girl. She's in the closet with him, singing and dancing — and Frankie can see right through her. Soon her singing comes to an end, as she begins fighting off an invisible attacker who has slowly begun strangling her. She eventually succumbs, and the sound of something small and metal bounces across the floor and into the floor vent. Frankie is understandably terrified...and it gets worse when someone else — someone quite real — comes into the very same closer with a flashlight, hunting for the very same object that bounced into the vent. Frankie is spotted and attacked by the man, eventually passing out. He dreams of the girl he just met and finds out her name: Melissa. She's looking for her mother, she tells him. And then he wakes up on the floor of the cloakroom, his father before him, a concerned cop shining a flashlight over both of them. The school is swept for suspects, and Harold Williams, the janitor — the black janitor — is arrested, though there is no evidence to suggest he was responsible. He is charged with the attack on Frankie, as well as for the murders of several missing kids over the last ten years, Melissa being the first. A sad end, it would seem, but at least an ending.

Until Frankie realizes that Melissa has followed him home.

Lady in White is an old-fashioned film made by an old-fashioned filmmaker. From what I have gathered, the film is somewhat autobiographical, and because of that personal connection, the film feels very personal. It's also kind of a peculiar final product in that the story seems to transform as the plot demands. Criticisms lobbed at the film call its plot confused and its tone uneven. I can't really say I disagree with either, as there are certain unfortunate plot holes, and the two bickering Scarlatti grandparents provide really the only comic relief in what is a pretty dour and dark film geared toward younger viewers. It's a strange hybrid of legitimate horror, fantasy, comedy, thriller, and Frank Capra. And it's about twenty minutes too long. At times it almost becomes a game of, "What else can we cram into this thing?" Despite that, the journey you'll take with this film is a strong one, and there are constant twists and turns along the way that you won't see coming.

Lukas Haas leads the cast as young Frankie, making his second appearance in a major film (the first being Witness with Harrison Ford). Though he still acts intermittently today, his roles have been mostly blink-and-miss cameos, like his turn as a union soldier in Spielberg's Lincoln, or as Failure from Inception. In Lady in White, he's all doe-eyed, big-eared, and pixy-voiced; he provides all the necessary adorable little-boy requirements to make for a sympathetic lead. Alex Rocco, as Frankie's father, Al, is awesome, because Alex Rocco is always awesome. His voice is instantly recognizable, and his presence is both reassuring and intimidating. He seems to be the only adult in all of Willowpoint Falls vocal about Harold Williams' innocence and the audience likes him for it. Granted, the mystery of the killer's identity is kept a secret until the end, but we all know from the very start that Harold is not to blame — especially with some characters flat-out calling him a perfect scapegoat. Why "Because he's black!" Rocco brings a lot of weight to his role and embodies that kind of small-town father unafraid to speak up against bureaucracy. Plus, I mean, the guy played Moe Green in The Godfather. (No shit he's awesome.) Lastly, Karen Powell as the titular lady has the least amount of screen time, but the most affecting performance. She is at once hauntingly heartbroken and eerily ambient. Her visage pervades that entire time as an urban legend, but she is quite real, and her pain is paramount.


So much of Lady in White rides on the imagery either eerie and beautiful (or both) that writer/director/semi-autobiographical-film-subject Frank LaLoggia creates. Nearly every other frame of the film could be captured, isolated, and hung on a wall. Alternately, every other frame feels like the nightmares you had as a child. Special mention must be made of Frankie's dream about his mother's funeral — everyone there is obscured by darkness and not moving an inch, giving their fuzzy presence a disturbing and surreal appearance, but their sea of hushed crying echoes throughout the church; the spotlight is on Frankie only as he peers into his mother's coffin. The geography of his dream doesn't make sense, as he sees his mother sitting in a chair in the middle of an unfurnished room, a pair of double-doors wide open behind her, allowing in the sun and a sight of Frankie's father and brother having a catch in front of a sea of cornstalks.

"Don't leave me," he says to her.

"How could I ever leave you?" she responds.

Cut back to her funeral.

Ouch.

Strangely, given the kind of reputation that Lady in White has garnered (some people consider it a classic, and it currently boasts a very respectable 6.7 on IMDB), LaLoggia only ever made this, the pretty cheesy Fear No Evil before this, and a 1995 thriller that looks as if it went direct to video. Otherwise he's been farily quiet over the years, and I wonder why. 

Lady in White gets all the credit in the world for having the balls, the gall, the nerve, to treat its kid audience like...gasp...people. There are a lot of heavy themes at play here: racism in "perfect" small towns, death of a parent, child murder, pedophilia. None of it's ever taken lightly and none of it is ever cheaply exploited. Though one could argue there's simply too much going on within the story (I would not fight you on that), all of these themes never feel extraneous. A sort of To Kill a Mockingbird with a supernatural twist, what begins as a ghost story soon transformers into a familiar drama and an allegory for race, and then unfortunately devolves into a rather standard thriller on which Hollywood depended and still depends.


The visual effects on display are, twenty-five years later, almost laughably outdated, but they're not undone due to their ingenuity and construct. They're perfectly geared toward its young audience, almost comic-bookish in their design.

Ultimately, Halloween is a device that kicks off the strange and twisty-turny events that make up Lady in White (it's Christmastime exactly halfway through), but the supernatural elements are consistent enough to safely label it a horror film, and thus, appropriate for some Halloween watching. What keeps me coming back is the healthy injection of nostalgia and small-town Americana for which I yearn more and more as the years go by.

Lady in White isn't a perfect film, but the ambiance that it creates, and the feeling of childhood nostalgia it set out to establish, is.

My thanks to She Blogged By Night for the screencaps.

Oct 18, 2014

#HALLOWEEN: STRANGE CANDY

Strange Candy
by Robert McCammon


“Now this,” I said, “is a piece of strange candy.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen it,” Carol answered. “Jenny saw it too, and she said no way she was eating it. She put it right back in there. Said you could have it.” Carol smiled faintly, saying if you dare. A faint smile was about all she could muster this Halloween. It had been a tough year.

“Hm,” I replied, looking more closely at what I’d just taken from the bottom of the bag of treats. It was a small hand, five-fingered and ghostly-white. It sparkled, as if covered with small grains of sugar, but instead of being grainy it felt very smooth. “Weird,” I said. “Do we know where we got this from? A haunted house, maybe?”

“No idea.” Carol cuddled up next to me on the sofa. “I do know it’s not wrapped, so I wouldn’t let anybody eat it.”

“Beware the poisoned hand.” 

Oct 17, 2014

#HALLOWEEN: TREE

"The wind outside nested in each tree, prowled the sidewalks in invisible treads like unseen cats...Anyone could see that the wind was a special wind this night, and the darkness took on a special feel because it was All Hallows' Eve. Everything seemed cut from soft black velvet or gold or orange velvet. Smoke panted up out of a thousand chimneys like the plumes of funeral parades. From kitchen windows drifted two pumpkin smells: gourds being cut, pies being baked."


Oct 16, 2014

#HALLOWEEN: RECOMMENDED VIEWING: CURSE OF THE BLAIR WITCH

 

As I explain (and later lament) in this semi-editorial from several years ago, The Blair Witch Project was a summer 2001 phenomenon following its release upon the unsuspecting world. With the Internet as we know it still in its infancy, the idea of pulling the wool over the eyes of its users was barely an idea. Fifty years prior, Orson Welles had gotten on the radio and insisted that aliens were landing and it was the end of everything as we knew it. Listeners fell for it. Twenty years ago, the BBC aired a program called Ghostwatch, in which a fiction narrative shot to look like live television convinced people that ghosts were not only real, but were soon coming for them. Viewers fell for it, one of whom would eventually commit suicide once he became convinced the ghost featured in the program was haunting his house.

From radio, to television, and now, to the Internet. 

The Blair Witch Project was the first to seize that opportunity to make a lot of people look like gullible jackasses. (I don’t blame people for falling for it – it was very genuine.)

While far less theatrical and dramatic, and far more subtle, The Blair Witch Project was not bolstered by a marketing campaign that highlighted the newbie filmmakers behind the camera and the casts of unknowns – no, the marketing campaign was in actuality a national search for the truth. The Blair Witch Project website was a genius hodgepodge of missing person fliers, tearful interviews with alleged family and friends, and creepy black and white photographs of the items recovered at a rather strange location in the woods where it was believed this three-person film crew had dispatched to investigate the legends of the so-called Blair Witch of Burkittsville, Maryland.

Then audiences found out they’d been duped. Lied to. Made “the fool.”

And they didn’t like that. Not at all.


While some decried the film’s use of imagination (what a concept!) instead of the kind of stupid CGI that same summer’s redux of The Haunting was shoving into people’s faces, there was a kind of unsettling revelation that a lot of people were slamming the film because they thought they were there to see a genuine snuff film; not, it turns out, a well-executed descent into horror and madness that, except for some cold nights and hunger pangs, did not place its cast into any immediate danger.

Following the strange and disturbing viewpoints of people upset that the footage of kids being systematically stalked, haunted, and killed by a witch wasn’t genuine, soon came the next stage of the hype machine: the backlash — people enthusiastically exclaiming their hate for the film simply because so many others were so into it. Such unrelated mind-boggling campaigns of spite still exist to day, but more vitriol has been hurled at The Blair Witch Project than any other film of which I’m aware. Tell someone a film is scary, and it's a natural reaction for that person to find ways and explain ways in which it is not. Tell someone you think something of questionable legitimacy might be true; that someone will explain why you're a fucking fool for ever falling for it. We're human beings and by our nature we're pompous, arrogant, and we think we know everything. And we like to think we're above and beyond something new that comes down the pike if too many people, news media, or pop-culture bon vivants tell us we should.

I am a massive and devoted fan of The Blair Witch Project, and no amount of spite-hate will ever make me feel differently. And the dozens of proclamations that allegedly bolstered the haters’ arguments for why the film was bad – “You don’t even SEE the witch!” – actually works against those shouting it. Essentially, those people are saying, “I have no imagination! I need to have everything spoon-fed to me!”

What dorks.

Granted, I at no point thought any of it was real, and not because I'm a genius, but because I was an avid reader of Fangoria Magazine. Yet that didn't diminish my enthusiasm for what I had just witnessed on-screen.

People are quick to point out that The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first found-footage format film, and people threw out titles like Cannibal Holocaust, or Ghostwatch, or Man Bites Dog as examples. Some went back as far as 1922’s Häxan, for which the Blair Witch filmmakers named their production company.

And yeah, these people are right. The format had been around for years, decades, centuries. But The Blair Witch Project was the first cultural phenomenon in many ways. It was made by a bunch of first-timers with no actual script. Its cast and crew suffered the harsh elements of a Maryland winter just to get the thing on film. Famously, the crew was so broke during filming that, once the film was completed, they returned the camera equipment to Radio Shack for a full refund. And yet these broke filmmakers’ film, with its meager little budget, would go on to make back its budget three times. Wait, did I say three times? I meant THREE HUNDRED TIMES. It bested the previous record for most money made by an independent film – Halloween – and that record wasn’t for an independent horror film, but independent film in general. It inspired a wealth of imitators, all of whom would rip-off the infamous tagline. ("In October of 1994, three student filmmakers..."). It was a middle finger to studios making nonsense like The Haunting and The Mummy and other CGI extravaganzas that you didn’t need million-dollar special effects to put asses in seats. You needed ingenuity, passion, and a clever way to sell it all.

Having said all this, and as much as I love The Blair Witch Project, I love “Curse of the Blair Witch” that much more.

In the weeks leading up to The Blair Witch Project’s release, its filmmakers wrote and directed a television special that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel (back when it was still called, ya know, the Sci-Fi Channel). A companion piece to the feature film soon to terrify audiences to death, “Curse of the Blair Witch” was an extraordinarily well realized and well-written and even well-acted piece that surely would have been the last piece of convincing anyone skeptical about the coming film’s legitimacy would have needed to full-on believe it was all 100% true. Though peppered with scenes from The Blair Witch Project, “Curse of the Blair Witch” is largely as fake a “documentary” as they come – something that would have aired on The History Channel during the month of October, alongside their investigations into actual vampirism that occurred (and still occurs) in Romania, the Salem witch trials, or the origins of lycanthropy. Actors chosen to play doctors, historians, friends and family of the missing, accused murderers, news reporters, members of law enforcement, eye-witnesses, and the list goes on and on, all come together to paint a very convincing myth about the Blair Witch of Burkittsville. At no point does it feel fake, hammy, or over the top. At no point, since the documentary doesn’t offer up anything in-your-face fantastic or too ridiculous to believe, would you ever doubt its contents, if perhaps you’d stumbled upon it while channel surfing and were totally unaware of what this thing was called The Blair Witch Project. And this is the doc’s greatest strength. There’s no newly-created shaky footage of something creepy occurring before you. There’s nothing contained within purported to be actual anything of the witch. What we have are a collection of talking heads discussing myths and legends, history and hearsay collected from journals, newspaper articles, and everything else entrenched in the town of Burkittsville’s past. We have voice-over actors reading from testimonies and diaries, we have members of Burkittsville with tenuous ties to the conflict that are still made to feel important, and my favorite part, you’ve got one interviewee contradicting another participant’s claims – a typical opposing viewpoint taken out of real life.

 

So what the fuck does this have to do with Halloween? Well, let’s start with the witch aspect, which should be the most obvious. Witch iconography has been synonymous with Halloween for a very long time, and the town of Salem in Massachusetts has since embraced this association, going as far as hosting hordes and hordes of people who descend upon them every October for all kinds of witchy and ghoulish activities. Like a lot of other aspects of Halloween, much of its association was never part of its truest roots, but over time began to adopt certain other portions of history as its own, creating one big orange and black hybrid. (For instance, did you know that the idea of death had nothing to do with Halloween until the Catholic Church butted in and insisted people celebrate All Soul’s Day on November 2 as a way to cancel out the “evil” of the pagans who observed Halloween’s original traditions? Halloween’s sudden proximity to All Soul’s Day for the dead would be just one of many times in which something that had nothing to do with it suddenly became part of its traditions. For serious, yo – Wiki that.)

That the kids in the film go “missing” during the month of October, and that their footage contains them walking across a cemetery or dark foreboding woods where trees stand naked like sentries and the ground is blanketed with browning-over leaves certainly helps to add to the ambiance.

As I’ve explained before, when I think Halloween, I don’t think big cities of suburbia. I think small-town rural America – main streets, farm land, and isolated ramshackle houses in the middle of the woods…much like the one the kids stumble upon in the last ten minutes of the film. Burkittsville embodies much of that, from the beginning of the film in which the kids walk around interviewing townspeople, to the end, where they are stumbling around the woods and discovering a creepy abandoned house covered in children’s hand prints.

Most importantly, something has to feel like Halloween to me. I’ve seen films set on Halloween that don’t feel a goddamn thing like it, but I’ve also seen films, on their surface, not Halloween-related whatsoever, but which still become essential October viewing.

 “Curse of the Blair Witch” is definitely one of them.