Aug 31, 2020

THE CHANGELING (1980)


The ghost movie has become my favorite faction of the horror genre over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy the more visceral thrills of seeing some masked ‘80s psycho remove a handful of teen heads, but if I want to feel unnerved and creeped out, I’ll go for the ghost flick every time. Either filmmakers are getting more refined, or the firewall of horror I spent my entire life reinforcing is being pared down as I get older, leaving me more vulnerable to those cinematic ghosts invading my psyche and giving me the super creepers.

In the pantheon of the haunted house film, 1980’s The Changeling easily joins the ranks of the original Robert Wise classic The Haunting as being one of the classiest ghost flicks of all time. Staffed exclusively with adult actors (gasp!) — legendary ones like George C. Scott at that — and made by an honest-to-gosh filmmaker, Peter Medak (The Ruling Class, Romeo is Bleeding), this modestly priced Canadian production doesn’t just hail from the old school approach of less is more, but exemplifies it. Much like The Haunting, which used off-screen noises, dramatic camera angles, and eerie ambiance to flavor its tone, The Changeling relies on restrained techniques and not a single large set piece or moment of gore or violence. It relies solely on the talent of its lead actors, Scott and his real-life wife Trish Van Devere, and Medak’s assured hand to wrench every possible scare from a scene.

As you might assume, in a film about a haunted mansion, the production design is astounding. The house, haunted or otherwise, and very run down in spots, is beautiful, including its artificial facade. Scott rides high on a career of having played very domineering and intimidating characters (Patton— enough said), so to see him traversing the wide, dark hallways of the Chessman Park house with fear in his eyes as he investigates a phantom pounding sound makes the audience even more afraid. If the guy who played George S. Patton is freaked, then we, the audience, really should be. Still, Scott’s John Russell is a quiet, docile, haunted, and gentle man — in stark contrast to some of the more acerbic characters he’s played in the past. In a few small moments, he lets his grief get the best of him, staringly forlornly at a painting or sobbing quietly in his new bed in his new home as he continues to come to grips with his newly severed family. He even only does the infamous George C. Scott yell once — once!


The film’s plot unfolds in the most realistic way possible — or, at least as realistic as one can be when your plot involves ghostly apparitions and noises, telepathic communication, and political conspiracies. The origin of this screenplay, however, is allegedly based on “real events.” From Wiki:
The film’s screenplay was inspired by mysterious events that allegedly took place at the Henry Treat Rogers mansion in Cheesman Park, Denver, Colorado, while playwright Russell Hunter was living there during the 1960s. After experiencing a series of unexplained phenomena, Hunter said he found a century-old journal in a hidden room detailing the life of a disabled boy who was kept in isolation by his parents. During a séance, he claimed, the spirit of a deceased boy directed him to another house, where he discovered human remains and a gold medallion bearing the dead boy’s name.
Believe as much or as little of that as you wish. It definitely won’t take away from your enjoyment of the film these so-called occurrences directly inspired.

If you’re a devotee of the haunted house sub-genre, it’s nearly impossible not to see how The Changeling inspired filmmakers like James Wan and even Hideo Nakata: the auto-writing scene with the paranormal investigator plays out very closely to Wan’s own Insidious; the strange music box, which enjoys the final shot of the film is straight out of The Conjuring; and then there’s the body-in-the-well revelation from Ringu, which unfolds the same way. Classics, even when they’re not heralded as much as they should be by mainstream audiences, never fully go away, so long as their inspiration carries over to the next generation of filmmakers. The Changeling proves this.


Aug 29, 2020

A DARK SONG (2016)


At some point after 2002’s The Ring, ghosts made a spirited (haw!) return to cinema, regaining their stature as one of the world’s first on-screen horror villains. Whether it was the pillaging of J-horror creepy wet ghost girls, or remakes of much more high-profile Hollywood films (The Haunting, for example), those undead, wispy/willowy, ectoplasm hurling specters were intent on scaring the dickens out of audiences. (I used the word “dickens,” so you know I mean it.) Sometimes it was a parapsychologist searching for emotional retribution, sometimes it was a bunch of hapless kids seeking the truth, and sometimes it was just a person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hardly ever was it someone going out of their way; risking personal health, comfort, safety, and even pride; paying a ridiculous amount of money, and dedicating MONTHS of shut-in living not just to see a ghost but to conjure one using dark magic. But that’s what A Dark Song presents, taking the well-worn concept of a big creepy house and a one creepy ghost but reinventing the “how” in an eerie, disturbing, and icky way.

A Dark Song introduces itself as a slow-burn, Polanski, Repulsion-like thriller, taking its time establishing the rules and mood of this universe. And as the ghostliness begins to unfold, all the trials and tribulations our poor Sophia has endured weighs heavily on our minds, leaving us to wonder if what she’s experiencing is real, or if she’s finally cracked under the pressure. Relying very little on bloodletting (there’s really only a goblet-sized amount – literally) and more on tension and intensity, A Dark Song has a very specific way it wants to tell its story, and it’s intent on not scaring its audience using cheap means.


A Dark Song only falters in its familiarity – the ghostly figure passing by unseen in the far background, the footsteps in the house, the bad omens that present once the rituals have begun – but it handles this familiarity well, teasing them rather than leaning on them. And it builds to a nutso finale that takes inspiration from the Hellraiser series, Jacob’s Ladder, and even Michael Winner’s little seen oddity The Sentinel – your personal diet of horror consumption will determine how unnerving this sequence is.

A Dark Song takes place in a dim, bleak, dreary mansion in the middle of nowhere. Not much for color, although any sequence relying on candlelight in a dark room (there are lots of these) look very striking. The sound design makes full use of ambiance and ghostly sounds to unnerve the viewer.

Those looking for Conjuring-type scares may not find much to grasp onto until the finale, which for most of these viewers may be too late. But for those with the patience to see it through, A Dark Song promises a new twist on an old classic and packs somewhat of a punch by its end.



Aug 28, 2020

THIR13EN GHOSTS (2001)


Critics like to say that the horror genre was basically dead in the ‘90s, with most long-running horror franchises like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street going dormant, replaced by quiet direct-to-video stuff or the bigger glories going to prestige thrillers like The Sixth Sense, Seven, and The Silence of the Lambs. Being that I’m one of those folks who believes the horror genre never goes away and can’t die, I still have to admit that the genre seemed to be on life support during that ten-year stretch, with very few notable exceptions like Candyman and…Pet Sematary Two (lol). After Scream came along in 1996 and kick-started the slasher sub-genre, that was nearly the only kind of horror flick to get the greenlight. When news came down during the late ‘90s that Hollywood super producers Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis, and Gilbert Adler were going to be forming Dark Castle Productions, with its aim to create big-budget remakes of director William Castle’s filmography, it felt like an event. It felt like they’d somehow already earned the reputation that Blumhouse began to enjoy after years of home runs – but without having made a single movie. 

The first of these productions was 1999’s House on Haunted Hill, directed by William Malone and starring the likes of Ali Larter, Taye Diggs, Chris Kattan, and with Geoffrey Rush stepping into the shoes previously occupied by the legendary Vincent Prince. Except for a disappointing finale hampered by too much (terrible) CGI, House on Haunted Hill was an excellent update on a famous property, resurrecting Castle’s penchant for over-the-top spookshow-isms but now adorned with Malone’s own penchant for eerie, Jacob’s Ladder-like imagery. In the right frame of mind, it was both visually scary and even kind of a mind-fuck. Horror fans weren’t the only ones pleased, as the flick did great business at the box office, boding well for the brand new Dark Castle’s future. Not wanting to tempt fate too much, they moved forward with their next William Castle update, and another to have starred Vincent Price: 1960’s 13 Ghosts – one that, in keeping with Castle’s proclivities for gimmicks, required audience members to wear special glasses (read: 3D glasses) so they could “see” if the movie’s ghosts were trying to come off the screen. And with the announced cast of Tony Shaloub, Matthew Lillard, and none other than F. Murray Abraham, it seemed a safe assumption that the newly dubbed Thir13en Ghosts would be every bit as successful as House on Haunted Hill

It wasn’t.


Instead, Thir13en Ghosts proved to be the walking, screaming, over-edited, and over-produced definition of the sophomore slump, trying to take everything that made House on Haunted Hill work as well as it did and dialing it up to eleven while allowing everything else to fall by the wayside. Instead of there being one cumulative ghostly threat with a name and face (Jeffrey Combs's Dr. Vannacutt), now there’s thirteen; instead of there being a fascinating gothic house with a lot of character, thanks to its twisting hallways where people can get lost and disappear, now there’s a house that’s forced to actually embody a character and made entirely of see-through glass…where people can still get lost and disappear, anyway; instead of the amped up guy from SNL playing the neurotic comedy relief, there’s the even more amped up guy from Scream playing the neurotic comedy relief. Thir13en Ghosts was trying way too hard to replicate what House on Haunted Hill seemed to do so easily – preserve the plot of the original movie but with a twist, design some creepy spooks, and offer us a handful of characters who earn our sympathies without the need for an exploitative painful history. (Mom dead, details later.)

The characters in Thir13en Ghosts are paper thin, from the mourning widower/father Arthur Kriticos (Shaloub) to his two kids, Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth, who is incapable of playing a real person), and Bobby (Alec Roberts), the youngest, most precocious member of the family, and you can tell he’s precocious because when things go wrong, he’s weawwy sowwy. And please, let us not forget Maggie (an early 2000s relic known as Rah Digga), the family’s housekeeper and nanny, who, in the course of 90 minutes, never washes a single dish or folds a single piece of laundry, who literally sits at the kitchen table with rollers in her hair filing her nails as Arthur trips over a wayward toy left in the middle of the floor and who makes no attempt to pick it up, who doesn’t do a single maternal/domestic thing for either child, and who even loses Bobby within minutes of the family entering the infamous house and after being told by Arthur not to let him out of her sight. “Aunt Maggie doesn’t do windows!” she jokes after seeing the family’s new, inherited all-glass house, but it’s not much of a joke because Aunt Maggie doesn’t seem to do anything. Though the family is bland, Matthew Lillard does his damndest to inject some life into the movie, trying on the new archetypal funny/manic character that Chris Kattan had seemingly created in House on Haunted Hill. He is nearly Thir13en Ghosts’ sole heartbeat, along with Embeth Davidtz (Army of Darkness) trying the most as Kalina the ghost activist (don’t think about this too hard) and the esteemed F. Murray Abraham, who still manages to radiate menace and chilliness even though you can tell he’s definitely not into this. 


The showpiece of Thir13en Ghosts was meant to be the glass house where the majority of the movie takes place, built with winding hallways and filled with pre-war curio and mystical occult paraphernalia. On paper, this sounds interesting. The problem is the movie fails at establishing the geography of this very house from the very beginning – how big is it? how many rooms are there? where the hell is it, anyway? – and with every hallway and bedroom and study being framed with glass etched in scrolling Latin script, everything looks the exact same. Unless you see a golden telescope or an old-fashioned porcelain bathtub, it’s almost impossible to know where anyone is, or where they are in relation to everything else. 

Director Steve Beck makes his directorial debut after having established a respectable career as a special effects artist in notable titles like The Abyss, and though he exercises some flair behind the camera, as evidenced by the opening shot panning across a single room that goes from happiness and joy to death and despair, once the novelty of seeing ghosts appear and disappear a few times in the same few frames, you realize that’s the only trick he’s got. Soon after, the flick’s so-called entertainment value comes from watching shallow characters wander hallways and run from ghosts, the designs of which look cornier and cornier the longer they’re on screen (except for ‘The Princess’– she’s legit creepy from her first Shining-inspired appearance until her last).  


Still, like its predecessor, Thir13en Ghosts opened well to big business, but unlike its predecessor, audiences weren’t too thrilled with the results. For some reason, following the poor reception from audiences and critics, Dark Castle tweaked their original mission statement and never did another William Castle remake again, filling their slate with original content (Ghost Ship, Gothika), a remake of a non-Castle property (House of Wax), and, eventually, non-genre stuff (Guy Ritchie’s Rocknrolla, Ninja Assassin). I should mention, though, that they also produced 2008’s Orphan, a movie so viciously stupid and stupidly vicious that you have to see it to believe it.

I’ll be honest when I say that, even though Dark Castle produced far more losers than winners, I miss them as a brand. Though, as mentioned, Blumhouse has taken over and delivered far more consistency to theaters, either with their resurrections of older properties or with original ideas, I miss the era when studios were actually okay with throwing multi-million-dollar budgets together for R-rated horror productions. It was a short-lived era, and one we’ll never see again thanks to the roaring success of micro-budget horror, but the genre has always existed in a cyclical fashion, so maybe they’ll come back one day and remake The Tingler with Jon Hamm or something. Until that day, there’s always revisiting House on Haunted Hill, because these Thir13en Ghosts are about thirteen too many.


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Aug 27, 2020

HOUSE (1985) AND HOUSE 2: THE SECOND STORY (1987)


Director and Producer Sean S. Cunningham has never really played coy about his earliest beginnings in film. Following upon the success of The Bad News Bears, he and screenwriter Arch McCoy saw fit to rip it off with Here Come the Tigers, another foul-mouthed comedy about an unruly little league baseball team. And following the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween, Cunningham called up his screenwriter Victor Miller and said, “Halloween is making a lot of money – let’s rip it off” (actual quote), and Friday the 13th was born.

With his producing role on the first of what would become a four-film series, it’s hard not to look at House as an attempt to recreate the do-it-yourself monster approach consisting of equal parts horror and comedy that Sam Raimi took with the first two Evil Dead films. Built upon a foundation of sincerity, but chock full of schlocky and fantastical creature designs, both the Evil Deads (well, more so the latter) and House want to horrify and disgust but also titillate and muse its audiences in equal measure. House star William Katt describes House as the perfect gateway horror film for the young – something that boats horrific imagery, but nothing so deadly serious that they would be left traumatized. And he’s right. That’s the level of horror the unsuspecting can expect from the first of four House films.


Unlike Here Come the Tigers and Friday the 13th, House manages to establish its own identity thanks to its off-kilter tone; though it borrows its concept about a guy who ends up battling demons/monsters/somethings in an isolated environment, it’s willing to be more playful with its horrific imagery, in gross contrast to the very bloody and at times mean-spirited set pieces that littered the Evil Dead series (including the very stupid Army of Darkness). And it definitely gets points for highlighting a post-war condition that hadn’t yet gone by its official title: post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite the very playful nature with which House is presented, its lead character, Roger Cobb (played by Katt), is carrying around a lot of spiritual demons. Not only did his time in Vietnam see a fellow soldier (Richard Moll) killed in action, but he’s also dealing with the disappearance of his young son and the subsequent toll it took on his marriage. His effort to stay in his late aunt’s palatial Victorian house to work on his new book – a non-fiction look back on his time in the war – awakens either the ghastly creatures that live behind its doors, or which live inside his mind.

Directed by horror veteran Steve Miner (the first two Friday the 13th sequels; Halloween: H20; the atrocious Day of the Dead remake), House is a mixed bag of humor that doesn’t quite work and horror that’s intent on being more foamy and cartoonish than outright terror. For some folks this is enough, as House definitely has its fans, but for others weaned on Ash Williams cutting off heads of the possessed in similarly amusing situations, it just ain’t enough. House boasts some of the same ingenuity and unorthodox creature designs, but very little of the darker gore gags. The practical creature effects and creations are definitely creative and impressive considering House’s modest budget, but moments like these are unfortunately too few and far between. Although, credit definitely goes to the zombified soldier which stalks Roger during the third act, as it’s a legitimately excellent creation, right down to his articulated facial features. House perhaps could have used more of this and less of the behemoth woman demon with pearls — aka, more of an emphasis on actual terror.


Following the surprise success of House, distributor New World Pictures was quick to green light House 2: The Second Story, which boasts perhaps the greatest title of all time. Unfortunately that’s about all it boasts, as House 2 is borderline unwatchable, dialing down whatever horror was present in the first film and amping up the humor, turning it into something more akin to the first Troll

This time around, the action is set in a house that looks like something from an unused Indiana Jones set, complete with spooky basement that houses a literal crystal skull (holy shit). This skull resurrects a ghost cowboy, or something, who is the most depressed ghost I have ever seen in film, and I think he coughs dust or something. Bill Maher shows up playing a gigantic asshole, which Bill Maher manages to do quite handsomely (and this is coming from someone who legit loves Bill Maher). Keeping the Friday the 13th connection going (with returning producer Sean Cunningham), Lar Park Lincoln (Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood) plays a kind of unlikable lead opposite far more likable Arye Gross (Minority Report), who together engage in a plot that can’t even be broken down because it makes very little sense.

To be followed by two sequels.

The House films are friggin’ weird, but there’s no denying that’s part of their appeal. The first two films — though their levels of quality can be debated — remain the two most beloved and will make you feel right at home haw haw sorry!


Aug 26, 2020

PRAYING GHOST

PALERMO – News of a ghost of a praying nun on the church of Santa Maria della Mercede al Capo bell tower has created a lot of buzz in Palermo. Hundreds of people gathered in front of the church. Some of them were there to pray, others just for curiosity. 
Everything started with the publication of a photo on social networks.

The ghost seen in pictures is most likely an optical illusion, but as every good ghost story, the history of the place seem to support the mysterious theory.

In fact, in the area there are the forgotten Catacombs of the Capuchin Sisters, built on top of an early Christian cemetery in 1732. The nuns used these catacombs for burials until 1865.

The crypt and the early Christian cemetery still remain unexplored. The entrance to the catacombs has been walled up, hiding hundreds of buried nuns bodies forever.

Is really the restless spirit of a nun wandering inside the church?


Story and image source.

Aug 25, 2020

THE SHINING (1980)


One of my favorite alternative Christmas movies is Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, The Shining, based on the novel by Stephen King, who infamously despises Kubrick’s adaptation. From a  purist point of view, I can see why, as the character of Jack Torrance doesn’t undergo the dramatic change in the film as he does in King’s story. Instead, Nicholson plays him as a prequel to a maniac – someone who already seems off kilter the first moment we see him; someone that the audience can just feel is going to lose his mind once the Torrance family is wintered into the Overlook Hotel over several months. 

Having addressed that, The Shining is masterful as a horror experience. 

It’s impeccably shot, with a staggering amount of detail, right down to the Penrose stairs design of the now-infamous carpeting that stretches across nearly the entirety of the Overlook Hotel. It’s this kind of detail that relegates The Shining as being one of those titles where you notice something new every time you watch it. My most recent viewing of the title had me, finally, noticing that the horror the evil of the Overlook unleashes upon the Torrances has been specifically curated to terrorize each family member’s specific fears. Jack is a struggling alcoholic, so the hotel appears to him in the form of ghostly bartender, slipping him liquor that doesn’t exist, but off which Jack becomes intoxicated, anyway. And meanwhile there’s Wendy, “a confirmed ghost story and horror movie addict” – if you’ve ever stopped to wonder why The Shining, which for most of its running time had been so good at scaring the audience with meticulous and abstract set-pieces, would suddenly rely on hokey skeleton props covered in hokier spider webs, it’s because that’s the kind of thing that scares her. And then there’s little Danny, whose special power allows him to see The Shining for what it really is, and what lurks around every corner.


In many ways, The Shining plays like an anti-horror movie, constantly circumventing expectations at the expense of both King's novel and the audience's preconceived notions as to what usually happens in films like this. One of the biggest changes of the book comes from Dick Halloran’s long, weathered descent into frigid snowy conditions to get back to the Overlook once Danny telepathically calls him for help, and after everything he goes through to arrive back, he’s instantly killed by Jack in the hotel lobby. It’s easy to look at this and say, “well, that was pointless,” but it’s, in fact, a genius move – a way to say, “in a normal horror movie, he would be their hero,” but in The Shining, anything can happen and no one is safe.  

If a filmmaker can make a movie that leaves behind one indelible image that will live on in the minds of future audiences, that’s a huge accomplishment. The Shining leaves behind dozens; pick your poison: the hand-holding Grady twin girls, the bloody elevator, the bathtub specter of room 237, the hedge maze, Nicholson’s crazed face pressed against a chopped hotel door, and this list honestly goes on and on. This is what makes The Shining a towering giant of the genre, and one that will absolutely live forever.

Aug 23, 2020

NOMADS (1986)


One of the most surprising things about this 1986 oddity is that it's the directorial debut of John McTiernan, who would go on to helm Die Hard and Predator -- films that aren't known for their subtlety. Nomads definitely is. 

Nomads had always been (or at least seemed to be) considered one of those underrated horror films that threatened to become lost with time as the '80s became the '90s, and so forth. That it was included in Fangoria's 101 Best Horror Movies You've Never Seen, a valuable book that (mostly) gets it right, would seem to refute what had long been Nomad's unfair reputation. 

Nomads is a strange, quirky film that seems to be attempting to copy what Ridley Scott did for Alien back in 1976: take a B-movie concept, put actual thought into its construction, and take everything 100% seriously. Obviously, McTiernan wasn't as successful as his ten-year-old tonal inspiration - at least not in the sense that it captured nearly the same amount of audience attention and adoration - but he did manage to take what on paper is a very silly concept and flesh it out with enough sincerity that it manages to overcome its shoddy story and achieve at least some semblance of cinematic worth.


Echoing Nomads' sentiments of individuality are the performances by leads Pierce Brosnan and Lesley-Anne Down, who both do quite well in their roles. Brosnan doesn't exactly nail his French accent, but he puts every maniacal piece of energy he can harness into his role of the tortured Pommier. Down, too, does solid work, though her performance by design is a bit more restrained, even as she spirals further down into Pommier's twisted memory bank.

Nomads depends very much on imagery, tone, and a strange, almost ethereal and dreamlike mood that at times transcends the hokey story (of Nomadic spirits embodying, currently, biker gangs in Los Angeles), and every credit goes to McTiernan for achieving this. Even with his film debut, and though he would go onto projects based more on visceral thrills than weighty stories (Nomads remains McTiernan's sole [credited] written effort), he proved right off the bat that he was a filmmaker with specific ideas and an uncanny ability to exude a story rather than tell one. If any genre has proved that it can skirt by on mood and themes rather than a tangible story, it's horror for sure - example: Dario Argento's most celebrated body of work - and Nomads, in that regard, is a success.


One of Nomads’ secret weapons is the musical score. Composer Bill Conti is likely most well-known for having created what's become iconic music for the Rocky series, and like every great artist who achieves a certain level of fame and prestige, there's always at least one other work hovering somewhere in the obscurity of that artist's career, and for Conti, it's likely his work for Nomads. Very evocative of his 80s contemporaries Tangerine Dream and Vangelis, Nomads' score is alternately melancholy, sweet, brooding, and even a little magical. It fits the tone of the film overall.

Nomads hovers somewhere in No Man's Land between "films not for everyone" and "films for no one." To describe the film as poorly made or incompetent would be a falsity, as from a directing standpoint alone Nomads can be quite strong. Where viewers will be turned off is in its very abstract form of storytelling and its very esoteric concept. To say the plot out loud - a woman uses the shared thoughts of a perfect stranger to investigate a group of undead nomad spirits currently living as a big-haired biker gang in modern L.A. - is to make it sound absurd, and maybe it is. But at the same time it's such an intriguing idea that whether or not it entertains most audiences, or even some of them, it deserves points for that alone.

Oh, and speaking of Die Hard:


Aug 21, 2020

BURNT OFFERINGS (1976)


The haunted house setting has been around long enough, in every form of artistic medium, for it to become cliché. Even its writer, William F. Nolan, believes so, stating that "the idea of a haunted house eating people is bullshit," but went ahead with that concept anyway (the film is based on his novel of the same name) while trying to do something different.

Keep in mind that when you read the plot summary as a man and wife and their son agreeing to watch over someone's private home and serve as caretakers, and the ghosts/spirits/evils of the house beginning to infest the man and make him act in increasingly aggressive ways, all while shivering from an imaginary cold, it's hard not to immediately think of The Shining and The Amityville Horror. "Rip-off!" you might claim, but Nolan's novel was published back in '73, while the novels for The Shining and The Amityville Horror wouldn't be released for another four years.


So, unfair allusions to unoriginality aside, is the concept of a haunted house eating people bullshit? Well, if you picture a house opening wide its front door mouth and cramming in victims with its trellis arms, then yeah, that'd be bullshit (although I'd see the hell out of that AND buy the Blu-ray). But what Burnt Offerings does present instead, and which has since become cliché, is that the house is spiritually feeding off of the poor unassuming Rolf family, turning them from a boring but loving American family to terrorized and slowly monstrous shadows of themselves.

Celebrated bad-ass and booze connoisseur Oliver Reed does an excellent job with what he's given to work with, which is pretty much Jack Torrance meets a cinemafied George Lutz, and before either of those characters ever existed. He manages to bring a lot of intensity to his role as the slowly overtaken patriarch of the Rolf family. Karen Black has always been kind of a quirky performer, acting with her non-traditional leading-woman face first and her performance second. But honestly, the real stand out here is Lee Montgomery as son David, who at a young age manages to give a pretty reliable and believable performance. We've seen terrorized child characters many times, and generally they are utterly indistinguishable from the other, not helping matters with either underwhelming or entirely irritating performances. But Montgomery honestly holds his own even in his scenes with Reed and Bette Davis, and that says a lot.


The most important thing to discuss, being that this is a horror film, is its fear factor. Is Burnt Offerings scary? Well, that definitely depends on your sensibilities. Not a single specter or presence of said specter ever appears on screen. Except for Ben's reoccurring waking nightmares of the admittedly creepy limousine chauffeur he had seen as a child while at his mother's funeral (something lifted from director Dan Curtis' childhood), there's never any kind of physical manifestation of the evil that resides in the Allardyce house. No ghostly children run down the hallway in the background while a character stares into the bathroom mirror. No dripping mouth ghouls appear behind someone as they bend down to pick up the newspaper. Everything eerie occurring in Burnt Offerings is established by mood, ominous music, and the slow and psychological breakdowns of our characters.

Oh, fun fact: if the exterior of the house looks familiar, that's because it's been used in other films - most notably as the Tall Man's mortuary in the original Phantasm.

Burnt Offerings isn't anywhere near the king of the haunted house movie, but it might be one of the most underrated. Its foreboding events unfold at a somewhat snailish pace, which may prove insurmountable for more modern audiences used to something screaming at the camera every five minutes, but those with an appreciation for the old school approach will find a lot to like. That and its incredibly ballsy, shocking, and bleak ending makes Burnt Offerings an effective if somewhat silly watch for a cold autumn night.

Aug 19, 2020

DARK SUMMER (2016)


Dark Summer director Paul Solet became an overnight sensation in the horror world with the release of his film debut, zombie-baby shocker Grace. A film that wasn't fated to survive its own hype, it certainly presented a bold new vision from a filmmaker willing to undertake dark projects with taboo subject matter. Generally in situations like this, filmmakers waste no time in announcing their next project, whether it be solicited or unsolicited. Lucky McKee, for instance, went from May to The Woods. Brad Anderson jumped from Session 9 to The Machinist. But for whatever reason, it wasn't the same story for Grace's director. Six long years would go by before his next feature length project, this being the technology-haunting ghost thriller Dark Summer. Sadly, had it even been made just one year later, it still wouldn't have been worth the wait.


Dark Summer's biggest failure is its lack of originality; it's an amalgamation of other horror/thriller films, and it seems to know it. The most obvious comparison is Disturbia, D.J. Caruso's surprisingly solid teenage rendition of Rear Window, which also featured a troubled adolescent on house arrest after having made a very bad, emotionally-driven choice. In Dark Summer, one of its characters stares at the electronic bracelet on Daniel's ankle and remarks, "This is just like that Shia Lebeouf movie!" - as if by doing so, the film is calling itself out before the audience can. From the buzzing of flies to waking nightmares to spells of enchantment to spirited blowjobs lifted out of Ghostbusters, Dark Summer coasts as much as it can on preordained horror tropes before finally setting sail on its own merits, which, ironically, aren't strong enough to support it while remaining engaging for its rather short running time.

Dark Summer wants it both ways: it wants to present an old-school atmosphere and approach to paranormal horror, right down to the late '80s/early '90s hazy interiors, but add into the mix an almost nauseating dependency on and references to every modern Internet destination and social media site. Google, Facebook, Skype, "The Cloud" - all here, all accounted for, and all serving to handicap the story instead of servicing it. Try as filmmakers might, social media as a threat simply doesn't make for good horror-based conflict. Romero tried it with Diary of the Dead. Underground runaway hit Antisocial nearly achieved success, but became confused by its own rules. That these tools of instant communication are actually somewhat hindering our natural-given abilities for direct communication is certainly ripe for satirical reimagining, but Dark Summer doesn't do anything with it. The technological/social media aspect is presented just long enough to propel the conflict into being and then remains a background player until the third act, when the kids then begin literally Googling how to get rid of ghosts.


Though our young cast does solid work, our lead comes off  whiney and unlikeable, whereas one of his ghost-hunting friends, who remains a primary character through to the end, never even has his name spoken aloud, leaving us to wonder who he is. Peter Stormare is both completely miscast and entirely wasted as Daniel's parole officer, as well the worst police detective in probably the entire world: watch as he forbids Daniel from having contact with any of his friends, who then stay at Daniel's house day in and day out  and come/go as they please...without him noticing; watch as these same two kids sneak out of an abandoned house's closet directly behind him...without him noticing. The only bright spot to Dark Summer is Stella Maeve as Abby, who's able to convey her character's inner workings and motivations with just the nuances of her face and her longing glances. If there was only one character the audience would come away having cared about, it would be Abby. Sadly, the film saw fit to focus elsewhere.

If you've never seen a haunted house movie in your life, and if you think Twitter is #terrifying, Dark Summer just might be for you. But for the more seasoned horror crowd, its groan-inducing twist and its shock ending that for some reason resorts to black comedy at the very last second -- and this having followed eighty minutes of which there was none -- Dark Summer will feel both like familiar territory and a missed opportunity.

Thankfully, Dark Summer feels more like a stumble from a filmmaker who is capable of better rather than a sign of things to come from a one-hit wonder director. Just don't tweet about it, or adorable goth girl ghosts will haunt you.


Aug 17, 2020

A GHOST STORY (2016)


David Lowery is a filmmaker I love. He first burst onto the scene a few years ago with a low-key and quietly beautiful film called Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, about an outlaw couple just trying to live long enough to leave their town forever. It was gently and intimately made, and with a gorgeous score by Daniel Hart, featuring strings and soft clapping hands.

(Yep, I cried.)

Oddly, of all directors, Lowery was chosen by Disney to take on the live-action remake of Pete’s Dragon, one of the earlier reboots of an animated property the studio has been spearheading. What could have resulted in a cash grab instead became a deeply personal and surprisingly emotional film not just about a kid and his dragon, but about loss and growing up.

 (Yep, I cried.)


For a long time, A Ghost Story was cryptically known as an experimental, mystery film that Lowery had shot over the summer of 2016 with his Saints leads Casey Affleck and Mara Rooney. The secrecy behind the film was the type usually reserved for more high-profile projects, not because a major studio was worried about giving too much away and stunting the box office take, but because to attempt an explanation as to A Ghost Story’s concept and approach was just too risky. Better to see it for yourself and fully immerse yourself in Lowery’s daring creation than to catch wind of it from afar and decide, immediately, there’s no way you could take the concept seriously.

A Ghost Story is beautifully shot, though it’s obviously a raw, almost guerilla-like production. Much of the film was improvved — not just the action, but the choreography of the camera as well. It looks gorgeous in spite of all that. Dialogue is sparse, as A Ghost Story is a very quiet story, but again, the beautiful score by Daniel Hart helps to bring a cohesiveness to the action.


Some film goers balk at the idea of a critic deciding for everyone else what’s “good” or “bad” – that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Terms like “a critic’s film” or “arthouse film” have become almost derogatory these days, with the inclination being that some films were made only to be lauded, win awards, or permeate with a sense of self-importance. I won’t deny that sometimes that happens, but there definitely does exist such a thing as a film that’s unusual, or challenging, or lacking mainstream appeal, and that’s only because that’s the kind of film it was destined to be, rather than a hoity-toity filmmaker having an ulterior motive. Audiences want to be entertained while critics want to be challenged. A Ghost Story is one of the rare few titles whose audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is more than 30% lower than the critics’ score. That should give you an indication of what kind of film A Ghost Story is. 

To me, A Ghost Story defies a traditional review, so I didn't bother. It’s less a film and more of an experience — the beauty and strangeness and specificity I could never even begin to properly laud. Please see it once, even if you hate it. Because you just might. 

But you might love it, too. 

I do.

Aug 15, 2020

LAST SHIFT (2014)


The more learned viewer will definitely notice right off the bat that Last Shift is borrowing from John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13, but this time instead of a small band of cops and clerks taking on roving attacking gangs, it's just one rookie cop taking on the demons/ghosts/bloody secret history of the decommissioned police station of which she's in charge for its final shift. And it's not just thematically that director Anthony DiBlasi (Dread) is looking to Carpenter for inspiration, but also for the old-school approach.

Like Assault on Precinct 13, there are very few visual effects employed to scare the viewer; except for the minor use of green screen, nearly every gag is done with editing and camera tricks, and all of them work. There is no CGI on hand to offend the eye. And the cast is limited to just a handful of people, with most of Last Shift being a one-woman show (Juliana Harkavy).


Last Shift feels comprised of other horror films, some celebrated and some not (and that's not a condemnation). Along with Assault, there are shades of Silent Hill, The Shining, and Jacob's Ladder, mixed with real-life horror aspects, especially Charles Manson and his so-called family. Though a digital shoot, a '70s-era level of grain has been applied, preserving that old school approach toward which Last Shift is striving. What that ultimately achieves is something old and something new - old techniques married to new sensibilities - and it's created an effective horror offering that manages to out-scare most major horror theatrical releases all the way back to 2013's The Conjuring.

Most importantly? Last Shift is seriously scary, falling back on another '70s concept beyond Carpenter and that specific era of cinema: the fear of encroaching satanism. The boogeyman and his followers featured in the flick are not Charles Manson and his Family, and are never called such (his name is John Michael Paymon, the surname being that of a demon most recently immortalized by another seriously scary flick, 2017's Hereditary), but at the same time, they are. The hallmarks are there: the long-haired, crazy-eyed, charismatic leader; the hippie chicks who follow him around; and his very disturbing agenda.


DiBlasi's efforts in the horror genre have so far been worth at least a single watch, with each subsequent film being superior to the previous. Last Shift is his best effort to date. If this trend continues, his name will be one to watch with each new project he announces.

One of the best-kept secrets of 2015, Last Shift’s intimate location and strong performance by the lead heroine really helps to put you in the middle of the horror she's experiencing. Whether or not you'll find it creepy obviously depends on your sensibilities as a horror fan, but one thing that's certain is Last Shift is going to try its damnedest. Once the horror starts, it doesn't let up until its vicious finale, and for that alone, Last Shift is worth praising.


Aug 14, 2020

MUTANT FAMILY VALUES: JOE BOB BRIGGS AND KEEPING ‘THE LAST DRIVE-IN’ ALIVE


My love for horror was forged in my childhood. In many of the horror reviews I’ve written over the years, whether for home video reissues of cult classics or retrospectives to honor a specific anniversary, a good portion of them had a habit of going back in time to loop in a specific childhood memory or anecdote about the title and why it meant as much to me then as it does now. Adoring the horror genre was always written in the stars for me, but my father was a major influence in getting me to look at those stars in the first place. It wasn’t that he consciously took me aside as a child to impart any kind of cinematic history whenever a specific horror flick was playing on television; it’s more that he enjoyed the genre across the spectrum, from the terrific to the terrible, and also because, even at the scant nine or ten or eleven years of age I was during that era, he wasn’t one of those parents hovering over the remote and ready to switch off anything inappropriate should their child walk into the room. He allowed it to happen because, by that time, I was already gobbling up R.L. Stine and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and playing with Creepy Crawlers and Monsterface in the other room. He knew it was somewhere in my blood. That’s not to say the horror genre encompassed most of his chosen entertainment, but there was something about monsters, zombies, ghosts, and masked killers that struck a chord in me, and I always took notice when those particular faces were on the screen. Either sitting next to him on the couch, or peeking around the corner just behind his seat, I caught an eyeful. It was my first experience with an education that felt worth a damn because it wasn’t being forced down my throat. It was already out there, in the world, far from any school book, and I could choose it if I wanted to. 

And I did. 


I could keep you here for days and share memories of all the different flicks I caught during those years. There was the night I made acquaintance with Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers, which I think was my first exposure to the Halloween series. (Either this sequel or John Carpenter’s original always fight for that honor in my hazy memory.) I could talk at length about JAWS, Phantasm II, The Blob (1986), Darkman, Pet Sematary, along with fringe psycho-thrillers like The Boys from Brazil and Marathon Man. But one title that got repeat play in my house was 1985’s Return of the Living Dead. My father never turned down a zombie flick, no matter how bad it got (he’s still powering through The Walking Dead, so you know he’s willing to watch some bullshit), but Return of the Living Dead in particular was a favorite, due to the outrageous and vaudevillian humor that he responded to, being someone who grew up in the heyday of Laurel & Hardy. (The zombie picking up the police radio and telling command post to “send more cops” still elicits the same amount of laughter.) He is someone who'd watched so many films, horror and otherwise, that their titles alone weren’t enough to trigger association, and additional identification was needed. Return of the Living Dead often got misfiled in his brain alongside Night of the Living Dead (“the one with the basement”) and Dawn of the Dead (“the one in the mall”), and a nickname of sorts was eventually coined. Even years later, I’ll throw a mention to him of watching Return of the Living Dead, and he’s always quick to respond, “the one with the music?” It was a shorthand we developed over time, and one that still goes on to this day.

Soon after, once this foundation had been established, I set out on my own journey of discovery to see what else was out there in the world waiting for me. Sunday mornings, with the arrival of the newspaper, saw me leafing through that week’s television listings to see what horror flicks would be playing, on what channels, and at what time. The meatiest slots to check were late-night weekend lineups on the USA Network (Up All Night with Rhonda Shear was fertile ground for b-horror fun), the Sci-Fi channel, and TNT, who had a penchant for running the occasional Friday The 13th marathon for no reason whatsoever. I absorbed more movie knowledge from this mundane task than you might expect. I couldn’t have named you the first ten presidents of the United States, nor picked a prime number out of a math book lineup, but I easily could have told you that John Carpenter’s Christine was released in 1983, starred Keith Gordon, and had been awarded three stars by whoever it was that decided those things. I was a sponge, eager to absorb everything about this weird, gooey, icky genre that, for whatever reason, was calling to me.

 

I wish I knew how I first stumbled upon TNT’s Monstervision with Joe Bob Briggs. It may have been my father’s influence (he definitely knew who Joe Bob was, as he was quick to point out his cameo in Martin Scorsese’s Casino and ask, “Isn’t that the guy who watches all the goofy movies on TV?”), it may have been a happy accident, or it may have been a byproduct of Joe Bob’s hosting a particular flick that had been on my radar for a while, and which led me to his trailer, his silver bolo, and his amusing but charming southern drawl. Where things left off with my father’s influence, they continued with Joe Bob Briggs. For years after that discovery, every Saturday night was set aside for catching Joe Bob and hanging out with him during whatever double feature he had in store. Not every title that got the Monstervision treatment was a winner, but it was impossible to walk away from watching Joe Bob’s segments without learning something about the genre, or the production history of the movie, or the filmmakers and actors involved, all of which enhanced your appreciation of this title for which you may not have otherwise cared. Keep in mind that this was the mid-to-late ‘90s, and consumer internet hadn’t yet swept across the land. For every house that had a gigantic boxy computer and a dial-up subscription to Prodigy or AOL, ten houses in between did not, so the idea of “meeting” like-minded Monstervision fans in chat rooms and message boards had yet to become a mainstream, everyday reality. (And yet I still remember the URL for the old Monstervision website – “TNT dot Turner dot com forward slash Monstervision” – since it played during every commercial break.) Even the show’s set suggested Joe Bob was this strange, elusive figure living in isolation in the middle of the desert, far from the constraints of normality and good taste, and I’ll be damned if you didn’t wish you could park a trailer right next to him and hang out for the rest of eternity. The set was less of a gimmick – that of the typical redneck who lives in a trailer and watches television outside – but more of an indication of what Joe Bob Briggs and Monstervision were all about: appealing to the mutants and freaks on the outskirts of polite society. 

Monstervision was an anomaly on television. It didn’t feel like part of anyone’s plan, and certainly not the intended product of such a conservative network, thanks to Joe Bob’s at-times politically incorrect humor and the offscreen laughter of his crew, which violated the rule in the production handbook: never break the fourth wall. But there was a method to his madness: the whole point of Joe Bob’s schtick was to make his viewers feel as if they were sitting on the other side of that set as he talked to us, friend to friend, about the merits of Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing or Larry Cohen’s The Stuff. During this time, on another channel, you had Siskel & Ebert At the Movies where the persnickety critics were giving the thumbs down to stuff like Friday the 13th and My Bloody Valentine, but on TNT, you had Joe Bob rejoicing in the antithesis of that philosophy and exploring the kinds of films that were often left abandoned by the snoots who believed they were above it all. From his outlook, all films contained something to celebrate, and all films were worth seeing at least once. This was a wild and risky approach to a weekly television show, along with the fact that it didn’t air at the same time every Saturday night, sometimes getting pushed back almost an hour thanks to some basketball nonsense. It wasn’t a show that waited for you at the same time every week – you almost had to luck out and catch it, like an animal in the wild – but even when the show ended during its typical time, it was usually around one or two in the morning. In my mind, who in the blue fuck was watching this goofy show that didn’t appear to have a script or follow the rules and which highlighted cinematic bilge like Children of the Corn 2 and Project Metalbeast? Who was staying up this late to catch some weirdo movies hosted by some weirdo guy cracking wise in between commercial breaks? It all seemed so odd and accidental, like someone had hacked their way into TNT’s broadcast signal Max Headroom-style to feed some horror flicks to a hungry audience only to disappear before the sun rose and TNT’s board of directors had climbed out of their mansion beds.

 

I don’t remember every episode of Monstervision I ever saw, but I do remember the ones that featured a particular flick that would go on to sustain my love of the genre: 1990’s Night of the Living Dead, 1988’s Phantasm II (watched in full this time), Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend, the legendary three-hour cut of Needful Things that’s never been released on video, even 1982’s Halloween III: Season Of The Witch – a movie I hated, hated, hated as a kid, but which I now love as an old-ass man. What was it about this show that stuck with me all these years? Why is it that, twenty-five years later, I can remember certain things Joe Bob said about the movies being shown that night, like Halloween III being the black sheep in the franchise for not having Michael Myers “with the white stuff on his face,” or Phantasm II being “the sequel that took Don Coscarelli nine years to make”? Joe Bob Briggs not only solidified and legitimized my love for horror, he inflated that love by adding new titles to my library or enhancing my knowledge of the ones I already knew, every week, without fail (unless goddamn basketball was on). Joe Bob Briggs was just fuckin’ cool, and he liked horror, so if I liked horror, then hell, I was cool, too, and what a nice feeling for a kid who didn’t have a lot of friends and who was fifty football fields away from being cool.

When Shudder announced in 2018 that they would be returning Joe Bob Briggs to the small screen for one last Monstervision-inspired Dusk-to-Dawn movie marathon, as well as giving him the sendoff he deserved but didn’t receive after being unceremoniously let go by TNT, it was kismet. It didn’t just feel like something I wanted to happen, but something the entire horror community needed to happen. The genre had been riding the nostalgia bandwagon for years at that point, getting lots of mileage from resurrecting old franchises and creating new ‘80s-inspired entertainment like the massively popular Stranger Things, which started out with good intentions and soon gave way to shameless fan-wanking with characters dressing as the Ghostbusters and singing the fucking theme song to The Neverending Story. You can pump all the ‘80s synthwave and John Carpenter fonts you want into your movie’s trailer, but it’s no easy feat to recapture the mood, the feel, the spirit, and the essence of a specific time period of the genre. 

But if anyone was going to do it, it was Joe Bob Briggs.

 

By now, we all know the rest is history. Shudder, Joe Bob, and his new sidekick Darcy the Mail Girl, who features much more prominently and significantly than the mail girls of Monstervision old (she’s the show’s preeminent superfan, social media guru, and street team all in one), broke the internet the night of the Dust-To-Dawn Marathon. Joe Bob’s return/“retirement” was so successful that Shudder brought him and Darcy back again and again and again. Monstervision had been reborn, this time known as The Last Drive-In. The fans demanded it, and not just because we wanted it, but we needed it. Briggs’ return to the format was a return to a simpler time – when event television was still experienced at the same time for every viewer, when there still existed the concept of live programming, when it was okay to be politically incorrect every so often, and when it was encouraged to celebrate weird, gooey, and icky cinema. But it was also a return to a time when life outside our front doors didn’t seem so alien and dangerous and downright sad. We needed entertainment, yes, but we needed a familiar and comforting presence to bring us that entertainment, too. And with his first on-screen appearance, it was beyond satisfying to see that Joe Bob and co. hadn’t missed a beat. Joe Bob’s trailer, both inside and out, had been faithfully recreated, littered with beer bottles and cans bearing Texas stars. The southern duds were back, along with the boots, the bolo, and that amusing but charming southern drawl; Joe Bob was still opening shows with unrelated rants and closing them with a double dose of jokes so bad you couldn’t believe you were laughing at them. To paraphrase Freddy Krueger, Joe Bob was back and better than ever.

Yet, there was and is something else about The Last Drive-In that feels new, different, but not altogether foreign. An awareness – exuded not just by Joe Bob himself, but by Darcy, and the crew, and Shudder themselves – that this was special and not to be taken for granted. That even though, in the grand scheme of things, this is a niche show for people with tastes in niche movies, it’s still important, and even therapeutic. Yes, of course the ultimate goal is to have fun, and watch flicks both terrific and terrible, and engage each other on social media through our shared love of the genre, but there’s something else we all need to do, and it’s this: to enjoy this now, for as long as we can, while we still can. Guys, it’s been fucking tough these past five years. The planet is dying. A highly divisive and some would say dangerous president is in the White House. Racial disharmony is at the highest it’s been since the 1960s. As I write this, we are approaching the fifth straight month of lockdown thanks to the raging COVID-19, which has taken the lives of so many people that I can’t give you the current number because I just don’t have the heart to look anymore. The party could end at any time, and for many of us it already has. I’m not saying that Joe Bob carries the burden of trying to counteract all this madness within the confines of his ultimately powerless show, because only a bleeding-hearted martyr thinks like that, but I do think Joe Bob genuinely wishes he had that kind of power. Though The Last Drive-In is nearly a carbon copy of Monstervision, yet massively improved by the presence of uncut HD movies and segment breaks much longer than the lousy forty-five seconds TNT allowed way back when, there’s a poignancy to his return, bolstered by an unexpected melancholy that appears during every final episode of the season. Whether it’s Joe Bob opining about the whole point of his various shows over the years – the 1980s’ Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theater, or the 1990s’ Monstervision, or the 2010’s The Last Drive-In – which was to bring us mutants together to relish in our favorite genre, or it’s the production turning the set into a high school dance to give Darcy the prom she never had, or Joe Bob singing a soft, somewhat broken, and pensive iteration of The Last Drive-In’s normally rockabilly theme song, it’s the acknowledgment that every season could be the last season. Every show could be the last show. Every recitation of the drive-in oath could be the last promise we ever make. We are lucky we still have him as our host, and, if I can be bold, he is lucky we still look to him for that sense of need. We are lucky we still have each other – me, the person writing this, and you, the person hopefully reading it – even if we’ll never know each other in real life, even if Joe Bob will never be more than a face on a television screen. We are here right now, sharing space, acknowledging each other’s existence, because Joe Bob brought us together.

 

Along with his now famous, pre-movie Drive-In Totals, which let us know how many breasts and gallons of blood awaited us in that night’s double-bill, Joe Bob has coined many phrases over the years. There’s “aardvarking,” “Joe Bob says check it out,” “if you know what I mean, and I think you do,” and lastly, “the drive-in will never die.” That last one isn’t just a statement, or a wish, or a prayer to the gods of b-moviedom. It’s an acknowledgment – a promise made by him, and a command bequeathed to us all. The drive-in isn’t just a flat cut of vomit-splattered land with rows of crappy speakers and a large stained silver screen. It’s a movement. It’s a collection of genres. It’s a mindset and a community. That’s what Joe Bob’s drive-in oath was all about. He’s been doing his part since the 1980s to keep the drive-in alive, through his newspaper columns, his standup specials, his books, his DVD commentaries, his convention appearances, and his three – count ‘em, three – television shows over the years. The drive-in will never die, and such a trivial collection of words has never been more romantic.

But what is it about horror that’s so romantic? Why does this genre that so often runs gleefully away from sentimentality and good taste act as such a lightning rod for longing, wistfulness, and happy sighs? Why do I get goosebumps when I’m looking at side-by-side photos of John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis on set of 1978’s Halloween and 2018’s sequel of the same name? Why did I get hit with the feels during Phantasm Ravager (even though I kinda hated it) when seeing what the scourge of time had done to Mike Pearson and his best friend, Reggie? Is there something about this weird, gooey, icky genre that drives this notion of romance, or am I the one assigning the romance because the horror genre is the only thing that’s remained consistent throughout my life? Why does it fill me with such joy to see the likes of Kelli Maroney and Ashley Laurence and Tom Savini sitting alongside Joe Bob as their movies play, relishing in the fact that their work is still being celebrated all these years later? How am I supposed to feel that, when I was a kid, Barbara Crampton was among my first onscreen exposures to girls and sex and what that all meant, but that we’ve aged to the degree where I’m now a so-called man while she’s become an almost motherly figure in the horror community? Well, I can tell you how that feels: comforting, and right, and the tiniest bit sad. Is it because I spent a childhood watching their movies and seeing them in DVD supplements and reading their interviews in Fangoria? Is it because they were always there, enthusiastically taking part in this strange genre that none of the other kids at school were into? Is it because I got so used to seeing them that they felt like this odd, alternate family who never came to Christmas dinner, but who were no less important? 

And finally, am I really the only one who feels that way? 

 

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this life, it’s that time is precious, but it’s also sadistic. It can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with; it doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear; and it absolutely will not stop, ever, until we are dead. The horror community has already suffered tremendous blows over the last decade from the losses of Wes Craven, George Romero, Tobe Hooper, Stuart Gordon, Larry Cohen, Joel Schumacher, and I have to stop because the tears are coming already. It’s impossible to replace a director who has made your favorite movies, who entertained you for twenty or thirty or forty years, who created a ninety-minute slice of escapism that allowed you to feel less lonely, that pulled you back from the precipice of depression and despair – and I’m talking to you, specifically, right now, because you know exactly what I’m talking about – but I am eternally thankful that we have the likes of Mike Flanagan, James Wan, Leigh Whannell, Guillermo Del Toro, Jason Blum, and many others working tirelessly in the horror genre to keep it alive and introduce it to new audiences. They’ll keep the candle burning in the terror tower to guide our entire, ever-expanding mutant family home. And for as long as Joe Bob Briggs has it in him, I hope he’ll continue introducing films made by the new generation to a new generation. 

We are people, which means we’ll die. It sucks, and it’s scary and sad, but that’s what we do. That’s our role. All we can do is fill this world with every positive thing we can while we’re still here – if we’re writers, then with our stories; if we’re directors, then with our films; and if we’re fans, then with our passions, our sense of community, and our want and need and responsibility to care for and about each other. These things will never die because they are eternal, and they’ll live forever on movie screens and in the eyes, ears, and hearts of every new generation that finds them. This is why horror. This is the point. Through this, we’ll all live forever, because this what the drive-in is all about.

And the drive-in will never die.


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Aug 13, 2020

GHOST TOWN (1988)


Remember that one time you went on vacation with your family to Tombstone, Arizona, or Dodge City, Kansas, and just after finishing your "Buffalo Bill Burger Blast" you went outside and caught the noontime showdown in the street between those two guys in the really bad beards shooting each other with blank pistols whose gunfire seemed to be coming out of the crackling speakers behind you instead of the deadly instruments grasped in their hands?

That's Ghost Town, in a nutshell, with costume store make-up. It is glorified dinner theater with a horror bent and a budget slightly higher than the one possessed by those people who put a little too much effort into their front lawn Halloween displays. And of course, there's obviously nothing wrong with this, because Ghost Town, despite its obviously low budget, its lack of anyone with name recognition (beyond Bruce Glover), and its somewhat restrained use of visual effects (how many times "ghosts" disappear/reappear on screen after a while becomes hilarious), remains an infinitely watchable film, perfect for those late nights when you don't want to surrender to sleep just yet, but you don't want to watch anything heavy. It's Ghost Town, all the way.


What's refreshing about Ghost Town (and unlike many other Charles Band productions) is that everyone on screen knows they're making something silly, yet everyone is sincerely giving it their all. Not every performance is Day-Lewis caliber, but obviously that doesn't matter, because even though the film revolves around a hapless deputy wandering into a ghost town in the middle of the desert and stumbling upon a collection of ghosts, skeletons, and people trapped in time, every member of the cast does admirable work, including the Michael Bay lookalike lead character of Langley, played by Franc Luz.

With a typically quirky story by, at one time, go-to Full Moon Pictures auteur David Schmoeller (interviews with him here and here), Ghost Town is charmingly innocent and not the least bit pretentious. Band became a producer infamous for not only low budget horror, but low budget trash horror, which has only gotten worse over the years, so to see his name affiliated with a project built on good intentions of just trying to tell an old fashioned story is not only surprising but welcoming. Except for the icky ghost make-up exhibited by some of the on-screen ghouls, and a few moments of bullet carnage, Ghost Town isn't terribly violent, either. (It also exhibits the most restrained and tasteful allusion to ghost rape probably ever.) Its tone goes for serious but light at the same time, and except for a moment of side-boob, Ghost Town feels like something to put on for the kids on Halloween night.


Ghost Town's "rules" get a little fuzzy as the film progresses: sometimes the characters Langley encounters are ghosts, sometimes living skeletons, and sometimes living folks (?) "trapped in time," and after a while it's hard to figure out what exactly is going on, and who is in danger of what (apparently those trapped in time can still die - again, or for the first time), but Ghost Town's intentions are pure enough that after a while none of this really matters. There's no denying that the film is patently stupid, but that's okay, because the amount of love that went into this production evens out its inherent stupidity, resulting in a good time.

Ghost Town is deliciously, lovingly, charmingly, and acceptably stupid. It's the perfect example of a title that would have fallen into obscurity in the years following its release just because of how odd, quirky, and somewhat kid-like it is...and let's not forget those visual tricks on the same level of a ghostly Unsolved Mysteries episode.