Showing posts with label unsung horrors. Show all posts
Showing posts with label unsung horrors. Show all posts

Oct 20, 2014


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
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.


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 closet 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 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 it has suddenly changes, and now 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.


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 fairly 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 familial 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.

Apr 4, 2014


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. Adam Simon
United States

“I think there is something about the American Dream…the sort of Disney-esque dream, if you will, of the beautifully trimmed front lawn, the white-picket fence, Mom and Dad and their happy children, god-fearing and doing good whenever they can…that sort of expectation, and the flip-side of it – the kind of anger and the sense of outrage that comes from discovering that that's not the truth of the matter. I think that gives American horror films in some ways kind of an additional rage.”

Horror genre documentaries have become all the rage as of late. Whether they focus on one horror franchise (Crystal Lake Memories; The Psycho Legacy), or one particular sub-genre (Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film), their aim is to break down and scrutinize this thing previously and often described as dark, threatening, unwarranted, unnecessary, and wrong. Horror, the least respected genre of all, is often misunderstood and condemned for the simple fact that sometimes a head gets cut off or a girl is fed to a lawnmower. A critic unwilling to shed his or her self-righteousness couldn’t sit down with a film like The Last House on the Left without dismissing it outright, labeling it pornographic and void of purpose.

This 2000 documentary from filmmaker Adam Simon (also responsible for the Bill Pullman head-scratcher Brain Dead), perhaps the first to openly discuss and celebrate a specific period of the horror genre (the 1960s/70s), might also be the first to let America’s most culturally significant filmmakers explain their thoughts and motivations behind their earlier work. The 1970s, perhaps the last truly celebrated decade of film, saw an uptick not just in quality storytelling, but also in anger, frustration, and sometimes hopelessness. Filmmakers like Frances Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Sydney Lumet, and so many others ran rampant, free from the type of studio constraints that have today become commonplace. And this kind of independent mentality naturally found its way into the horror genre.

Kicking if off was George A. Romero with his antecedent Night of the Living Dead (1968), to be followed by Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), David Cronenberg’s They Came From Within aka Shivers (1975), Romero's Night follow-up Dawn of the Dead (1978), and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Supporting these filmmakers’ highlighted bodies of work are director John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), special effects maestro Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead), and professional film historians/professors Tom Gunning, Carol J. Glover, and Adam Lowenstein.

Director Adam Simon has not only managed to gather together the modern age’s greatest horror minds for the definitive interview, but he’s also managed to create, hands down, the best examination of modern horror in existence. The previous horror documentaries earlier mentioned are all certainly well made in their own ways, and for the approaches that have been taken, they could certainly be viewed as definitive. But at the end of the day, they are just novelties – impressively expanded versions of IMDB trivia and Fangoria Magazine. Going to Pieces, for instance, is a hell of a lot of fun, and introduced me to films I hadn't previously seen, but beyond that, it doesn't have much to say – certainly not about our culture. It never feels “important” – it never makes the horror films we love feel like anything more than 90 minutes of titillation.

The American Nightmare lets its subjects do all the talking, in their own uncensored, unfiltered, and uncompromising voices. Their words will be tinged in anger, melancholy, and even disbelief. And you’ll know exactly what you’re getting into with the opening of the doc: A scary montage of the films being discussed, intermingled with real news footage of the Vietnam war – of chemical weapons, soldiers with completely brainwashed expressions, and presidents telling us the war is a worthy endeavor. But Vietnam is just one of the several issues discussed here, and whether the inspiring events be damnable (political assassinations, economic collapse) or commendable (the sexual revolution, economic rebirth), all have had their part to play in this collection of high horror cinema watermarks.

"I loved this idea of a revolution… It's a new society devouring the old, and just changing everything."

You all know this one – this story of a group of strangers barricaded inside a Pennsylvania farmhouse as they try to defend themselves from a growing army of the living dead. Since 1968, this concept has been appropriated literally hundreds of times for thousands of films, books, comics, video games, and now television shows – and they all owe it to one man. Shot and released during the height of America’s racial conflict, it had the gall, the audacity (read: the balls) to cast a black actor by the name of Duane Jones, not just prominently, and not just as the lead, but as the hero. And it has perhaps one of the most soul-crushing endings of all time.

Though Romero is quick to dismiss with great modesty anyone's commendation for him for having cast a black man as the lead in his seminal film by simply saying that Jones was the best actor they knew, filmmaker John Landis (interviewed here as a participant, not a subject) recalls having his mind blown at his young seventeen years of age, in awe that he was seeing a black hero on screen during one of the most turbulently racial times not seen since the Civil War. "I just went 'Wow!' because there's this black guy...and he's the lead. The movie was hitting me from all angles."

Complementing NOTLD's footage of lynch mobs assembling with their shotguns, and dogs on leashes barking furiously and pulling men across a field are Lowenstein's thoughts: "[As you watch NOTLD] you can’t not think of lynchings; you can’t not think of freedom marches in the south; you can’t not think of the Civil Rights struggle."

As for the why of it, Romero offers: “Obviously what’s happening in the world creeps into any work. It fits right in, because that’s where the idea comes from – where you get the idea in the first place.”

In a fit of awful irony, insofar as what the film would eventually go on to mean culturally, Romero somberly shares that after having completed the film, he threw it in the trunk, and he and his co-producer took a road trip to New York to try and sell it. On the way there, on the radio, they learned that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated.

“All of a sudden, you really don’t know – it certainly shatters your faith in what’s going on at the top. It really gives you a sense of fragility of things – not just your life, but the nation’s life.”

In the NOTLD sequel of sorts, Dawn of the Dead (also explored in the doc), the character of Fran peers down at a crowd of zombies and asks, "What the hell are they?"  But Romero has the answer this time: "Us. We know we're going to die, right? We're the living dead."

"It just seemed that there was nothing to be trusted in the establishment and everything to be trusted in yourself, and that was the context in which Last House was made." 


Likely the most infamous film in Wes Craven’s filmography, The Last House on the Left is an angry, disturbing, and at times vile reinterpretation of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Two young girls on the way to a concert run afoul of three convicts, who proceed to kidnap them and drag them into the woods, where they are then tortured, raped, and unceremoniously killed. Thinking they are free and clear, the convicts, through complete dumb luck, end up at one of their victim's houses, and are then slaughtered one by one by the girl’s revenge-seeking parents. The attack waged against the unsuspecting killers by the dead girl's parents comes close to (and perhaps successfully achieves) a reversing of the protagonists and antagonists roles, presenting a set of parents so bloodthirsty for revenge against their daughter's monstrous killers that they become monsters themselves by film's end.

Craven further explains the film’s tie to Vietnam: "Those kids running down the road, just screaming, naked, after the napalm attack; that was kind of my coming of age to realizing that Americans weren't always the good guys, and that things that we could do could be horrendous and evil and dark and impossible to explain." Examining the film and the young man who had made it, he remarks that it was "made by a man who had a lot more rage than [he] ever realized."

Though the infamous tagline of Last House was the reiterated "it's only a movie..." Lowenstein shares, "What's going on here isn't only a movie. It has everything to do with Kent State, the Vietnam War – that this kind of pain isn't a sick isolated episode. It has everything to do with the world I live in."

This segment is likely the most powerful of the entire documentary, especially after the talking heads somberly recount the war, how they say if you were growing up during that time, you were a veteran of Vietnam whether you were directly involved in the war or not. Even after discussing the film’s inspiration in broad strokes, Craven adds one chilling detail: You will know why he chose to have Krugg execute Marie in such a particular way at the tail end of Last House’s horrific rape scene. It wasn’t just posturing, or what looked good on camera. Instead it was reactionary; it was a real anger transforming into a cinematic one.

Capping off the Vietnam segment of the documentary is a brief but mesmerizing interview with Tom Savini, and there’s really no recounting it. His words are extremely powerful and raw. His remembrance of the awful sights he experienced and captured (as a war photographer) are incredibly difficult to process, but deeply affecting. He explains that, as a child, he would go to see the vintage monster movies – Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man – and try to recreate them using his effects materials. And so in 1969, in the midst of Vietnam and mere feet away from dead bodies, and as a way to separate him from the reality of the conflict, he would instead study them, and concoct in his head what materials he would use to eventually recreate the piles of the dead around him.

As far as his eventual approach to special effects, he said, "If Vietnam did anything, it was: If it's going to be horrible, then it's going to be horrible the way I saw it. But you will never see it the way I saw it, which is [with] absolute fear; that if someone walks out of the jungle, he wants to kill you. He has a gun and he's going to try."

"My Wisconsin relatives told me about this guy [Ed Gein] that lived about twenty miles from them. [They told me stories of] these human-skin lampshades and I think maybe hearts in the refrigerator...but really the image I came away with, almost my entire life, was there was someone out there making lampshades out of people."


Perhaps kicking off the whole “kids in the middle of nowhere who run out of gas” plot device, Tobe Hooper’s Ed-Gein inspired film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, though we wish were plucked from someone’s imagination, was instead plucked right out of real life. Borrowing elements of the Gein case, along with a personal anecdote in which a medical colleague of Hooper's once wore a cadaver's face to a Halloween party, scenes from Chain Saw of a van rolling up to an out-of-gas fueling station is meshed with real-life footage of the 1974 gas shortage that occurred in America – of gas station officials and police waving off the lines of cars stretching down the street that were hoping to fill their tanks. How something as innocuous as a lack of gasoline could throw society into such disarray and instability directly compares to these kids whose van runs low on gas and forces them to pull over, thus throwing them into the midst of a cannibalistic nightmare. Normal, middle-class, and pretty kids (and Franklin) soon cross paths with a den of cannibals, starving, out of work, and improvising simply to stay alive.

“I was really scared at that time, and I had to find a way to work that out,” Hooper explains. He goes on to add that his film contains “…the stuff in the darkness, in the shadows, and in particular, the stuff we don't open the door on. And those doors start cracking open a bit, because you're forcing them open with images that really blow into the nightmare zone."

And he's very correct. Chains Saw feels more like a nightmare than any of the other films. Its documentary approach gives it the appearance of a well-staged snuff film, where a "real" family of cannibal deviants pray on and decimate a group of kids one at a time. The film takes the elements borrowed from real life and combines it with the anecdote in the next paragraph, and what we end up with is not just a seminal film or the beginning of a still-going-strong franchise, but about the collision of social classes bathed in the blood of middle-class kids traipsing where they ought not be traipsing. Still relevant today due to the current economic climate, it's easy to forget that a lack of good, high-paying jobs affects everyone, from the well-to-do rich right down to the lower class cannibals who rob graveyards late at night and dwell somewhere within the bowels of Texas.

Hooper’s interview segment ends with him explaining, "Mothra didn't scare me. Godzilla didn't scare me. It's people I'm afraid of." Hearing this, following the genesis of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – in which he was at a Montgomery Ward’s hardware department store and slowly being surrounded by more and more shoppers, finding himself standing directly in front of a rack of chainsaws…and realizing, if he really wanted to get out of there, he knew he’d found a way – becomes deeply unsettling. That “normal” people have thoughts like these is scary enough…but there are people out there who don’t have the mental capacity or the emotional barriers to make them realize that doing something like that would be wrong. So you take that, and then take away their job stability and their right to make a home for themselves, then disaster can happen. “It’s people I’m afraid of,” indeed.

"That seemed to be where we were then, in the '70s. It was a different decade, it was a different time. Beginnings of prosperity. Major crises seemed to be over, and everyone was just dancing away."


On the run from a chaotic and bloody Philadelphia, four individuals from different walks of life somehow come together, commandeer (steal) a chopper, and get the hell out of dodge as the city burns behind them. They soon find themselves at a shopping mall, originally only stopping to find fuel and regroup until they can come up with a plan. But the longer they rest there, the quicker they realize they're sitting on a potential bounty of every necessity, and every comfort and convenience, they could ever need or want: gourmet food, top-of-the-line electronics, the finest fashion and jewelry – even an arcade! With one member among them pregnant and all of them exhausted, it seems like the most obvious choice to make. The plan is simple: Bed down, fortify a living area, and then clean-house, ridding the mall of the walking dead threat and securing every entrance. But, what begins as simple survival soon devolves into a life of opulence, and when danger comes their way – in the form of both looters as well as zombies – they refuse to give it up.

I've been to one public and several private screenings of the original Dawn of the Dead, and without fail, every time our survivors fly over Monroeville Mall and say, "It's one of those shopping centers; one of those big indoor malls," it always gets a laugh. And that laugh signifies: "Well, no shit – of course it's a mall." What the people who react that way don't realize is that, yes, granted, malls are part of every day culture now and have been for decades, but they were a new phenomenon in the late 1970s. During this time, the reign of mom-and-pop shops and corner stores had begun their decline in popularity while huge corporations moved in and constructed gigantic monstrosities filled with every specialty store you could imagine. What we take for granted as always having been part of American culture was a newborn back during Romero's second zombie film, which many would argue is his masterpiece.

"My zombies have gotten a taste of McDonalds and the good things in life," Romero notes with a grin. "And they can't figure out why it's not happening anymore. They're just sort of lost souls."

The materialism and consumerism aspects of Dawn of the Dead have been discussed ad nauseum over the years, by Romero et al. as well as film critics and film fans. While The American Nightmare's discussion of it is brief, it is discussed perhaps with the most openness from Romero that I have seen yet.

He sums it up rather well:

"Domesticity is not what it's cracked up to be and having all that 'stuff' winds up meaning nothing. There's always that underlining realization of how synthetic this is. 'I have this and that'...without thinking much beyond that."

"There really was [a sexual revolution]. The '60s were unprecedented in terms of openness and experimentation, and it was always political. The sex that you were engaging in had strong political overtones... Sex had meaning beyond sex... beyond the physical realm."


A Dr. Frankensteinian scientist is out to prove that humanity has lost its instinct, and so he begins a series of experiments in which he purposely applies a parasite of sorts into willing living hosts in hopes that the afflicted will begin acting on impulse rather than their rationale. The test patients' sexuality is suddenly awakened with an animalistic fury, leaving them acting strictly on impulse. Soon a sex plague of sorts begins to spread and it threatens to tear down society as a whole. In continuing with the Frankenstein theme, the scientist's experiment is ironically and unfortunately a success.

It's strange to think that the sexual revolution of the '60s, which continued into the '70s, actually took place in this, our country. Founded on this artificial ideal about wanting to live free of oppression, and with the freedom to pursue our own religious beliefs, our country has been terrified of sex since we first set foot on this continent. Funny, since we use sex to sell every imaginable product, service, food, or anything else you can think of. Sex sells films, television shows, books, music, make-up, underarm deodorant, and yep, even kids' clothes. Further, it's perhaps not widely known that John F. Kennedy's win over Richard Nixon during the 1960 presidential election is attributed to the nation's first ever televised presidential debate, and the American people got their first mass glimpse of the handsome and distinguished Kennedy versus the sweaty Nixon. But when it comes to our own sex – something private, shared between two consenting adults, it suddenly becomes a dangerous and ugly thing. Homosexuality, sodomy, polygamy – these things are suddenly looked down on, preached against, and even outlawed.

Leave it to David Cronenberg to attack this hypocrisy head-on with his first wide-release film, They Came From Within, in which he turns sexuality into an inescapable tangible and intangible force:
I had a very disturbing dream last night. In this dream I found myself making love to a strange man. Only I'm having trouble you see, because he's old... and dying... and he smells bad, and I find him repulsive. But then he tells me that everything is erotic, that everything is sexual. You know what I mean? He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh. That disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. That even dying is an act of eroticism. That talking is sexual. That breathing is sexual. That even to physically exist is sexual. And I believe him, and we make love beautifully. 
While showing real footage from feminist and political rallies, angered verbal prose on abortion rights, as well as scenes from Cronenberg's infamous "body horror" portions of his filmography (They Came From Within, Videodrome, Rabid, The Brood), Cronenberg explains, "Biology is a course destiny... From beginning to end, biology is destiny. But it's a very human thing to want to derail destiny. Therefore it's a very human thing for us to want to derail biology. And many of my characters are in the process of trying to derail biology in order to derail their destiny as well."

Perhaps most tellingly, Cronenberg states that his own personal goal for They Came From Within was not only to avoid filtering out his ambivalence about his belief system that inspired the film, but to let that guide its events. He states that he believes things can be both dangerous and wonderful at the same time, disgusting and beautiful at the same time. Therefore, it's only appropriate that the parasite in the film that spreads from host to host is both an aphrodisiac...and a venereal disease.

Cronenberg says, "I, on a very very basic level, am afraid of revolution. I don't want to have to experience that. And yet I recognize that there are times when those things are absolutely necessary, because there's no other way to change things."

"My father came up to me and said, 'Look, if you hear the [air raid] sirens, I want you to go down this museum building into the basement. And if you see a flash or something, cover yourself up.'"


Halloween night, 1963. The parents are away, the little brother's supposedly out trick-or-treating, and the big sister is sneaking a quickie with her even quicker boyfriend. Someone, you – the audience – sneaks alongside the house, in through the back door, grabs a knife from a drawer, climbs a set of stairs, slips on a clown mask, and stabs that big sister to death. You hurry back down the stairs and out the front door, when you're accosted by the big sister's parents. You, the audience, the killer, are a six-year-old boy. You've just murdered your own sister, and no one will ever know why.

Halloween has long been thought of as the ultimate morality tale. John Carpenter's second film, shot independently, went on to make back its budget nearly 150 times. It created a sub-genre, kick-started the idea of the movie maniac, and established all the rules that are still adhered to in films today. Fuck and die, drink/do drugs and die. If you're the virginal type who prefers schoolbooks and quiet nights to sexual escapades and reckless teen behavior, you might not only survive, but perhaps help put an end to a Halloween night of terror created by that masked man Michael Myers.

This segment of The American Nightmare, and the last film to be discussed, eschews cultural and societal discussion in favor of a psychological one. After all, in all the other films discussed previously, each had its own political inspiration for existing – each came about as a reaction to something awful occuring in our world. Therefore it's only appropriate that Halloween – the most innocent film in the bunch – does the heavy lifting of explaining the why. Why do we like to be scared? Why do we come for this? What can be derived from seeing the innocent (and not so innocent) torn apart, vivisected, their life ended with a thick blanket of red stuff?

"People often say a horror movie is a roller coaster ride," Professor Carol J. Glover questions, "but what is a roller coaster ride?"

Professor Tom Gunning might have the answer, equating an audience's entertainment by a horror film to a protective membrane – something we use to screen out the real horrors of the world. If we invest ourselves in terror on the silver screen, it helps us to deal with the actual terrors that await us on city streets, suburban backyards, or in our own homes.

This was never more relevant than during the 1950s, when our filmmakers were just kids, trying to eke out a life in this nasty world bequeathed to them by their parents. And ironically, they were more scared than the audiences whom they would soon terrify with their bodies of work – a direct result from a period of international unrest known as the Cold War.

"There was a sense that we weren't going to make it," Carpenter remembers."There was a sense that all of us were going to die in atomic war."

"Every fourth Friday – every Friday of the month – we heard the air raid sirens," Landis adds. "And we did drop drills. We were told 'face away from the glass.'"

"If the bomb falls in the center of Manhattan, here's complete devastation, here's partial devastation, and here was radiation poisoning," Romero recalls, using his hands to emphasize how glibly the different devastation zones were discussed back then. "I think we were somewhere in the partial devastation zone."

"I started asking my mother and father, 'Is the world going to come to an end?'" Hooper recalls. "I didn't know if death was going to fall from the skies at any time."

So, after all has been said and done, why horror films? Why present these terrible ideas and images to audiences? Why challenge them and scare them, especially in a world that needs no help in causing fear and helplessness?

"[Horror films are] boot camps for the psyche," says Craven. "It's strengthening [kids'] egos and strengthening their fortitude... That's something the parents never seem to think about... Even if [the films] are giving them nightmares, there's something there that's needed."

Mar 3, 2014


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. John Dahl
20th Century Fox
United States

“Storm’s coming. I like the rain. Keeps everyone inside. Washes everything clean.”

Though I’m a lover of all things horror in general, there are very specific sub-genres that I will gravitate toward more than others. Firstly is anything paranormal. If you’ve got ghosts in your film, made by people who seem to have given a damn, I’m there. Secondly is anything killer shark…or at least it was until the mid-2000s, until shark movies started being terrible on purpose. (That’s cheating; plus that approach never works.) Thirdly is horror on the open road. I’ve been fascinated by this kind of story for years. For someone like myself who is so completely embittered by having to contend with every manner of completely incompetent driver, I actually love being out on the road late at night. Years back, when immediate family temporarily lived a few states away and I would go to visit, I always made that drive late at night. For obvious reasons, traffic was always much lighter, and therefore caused me less strife, but there was another reason: Being out on the road so late into the night made it feel like a different world entirely. Something about the night sky and late hour made it feel as if you weren’t so much driving across state lines as you were sneaking across under the cover of darkness. Your only company was semi-trailer trucks and the few civilian sedans. I love stories that take place in this environment. Late at night in a foreign environment without access to immediate help, anything can happen. With your only line of defense being your car (if you’re lucky), you’ve got only your wits and your talents behind the wheel to depend on.

I remember going to see Joy Ride in theaters for the wrong reason – because, on paper, it sounded like an enjoyable piece of shit at which I could laugh and belittle, which is something I often did back when I had disposable income. I had seen the trailers for the film, all punctuated with a close-up on a CB radio as Ted Levine’s voice bellowed “CAAANDY CAAANE!” But a funny thing happened about ten or so minutes into the film: I was enjoying it quite a bit, and not in any kind of ironic way. It was just…good. Great, even.

Lewis (Paul Walker) has had a crush on his childhood friend Venna (Leelee Sobieski) since forever. Though both have torn off to different colleges, and separated by half-a-dozen states, the two have been quite consistent at keeping in touch, mostly with late-night phone calls. One particular night, at the end of the semester, Venna confesses she’s recently broken up with her current boyfriend and verbally wishes that Lewis owned a car, so he could stop off in Boulder, Colorado, and pick her up, so they could make the trip home to New Jersey together. Lewis looks down at his airplane ticket and lies to her, saying he does, indeed, have a car, and he’d be happy to stop off on his way home cross-country. After procuring a car, Lewis begins his drive…until hearing from his mother, who informs him that his older brother, Fuller (Steve Zahn), has been arrested in Salt Lake City for drunk-and-disorderly. Lewis, being the dutiful younger brother, amends his plans to stop by and bail him out. Since Fuller hasn’t been home in years, nor even really keeps in touch with their parents, Lewis assumes he’ll be dropping off Fuller somewhere between Salt Lake and Boulder, but Fuller opts to stay with Lewis for the entire trip, as it would seem he, too, wants to go home to Jersey.

Along the way, the brothers stop off to have the car serviced, and while doing so, Fuller takes it upon himself to have a CB radio installed in the car. For a paltry $40, Fuller figures they can use the radio to keep in touch with truck-drivers to ask them for any potential cop sightings, thus making the trip go by just a little bit faster. While doing so, one particular truck-driver with the handle of Rusty Nail catches their attention; the brothers create alternate ego CB handles, Fuller being a southern guy named “Black Sheep” and Lewis putting on a female voice for “Candy Cane.” The two play-act with each other, hoping to bait Rusty Nail, which they soon do, and they talk him into “meeting” Candy Cane at a roadside motel where the brothers are really staying, which they do for nothing more than a laugh and some spiteful revenge against a rude guest also staying at the same motel. Rusty Nail does eventually show, as promised, and a violent altercation leaves the rude motel guest hanging on for deal life. Lewis feels genuinely bad, but Fuller refuses to recognize his culpability in bringing these two random strangers together and it ending badly.

In one of those great “oh shit” movie moments, Rusty Nail soon inserts himself directly into the brothers’ lives, letting them know that he’s figured out he was made to be the butt of their joke, and he isn’t going to let them get off so easily. From one cheap motel to the next, and no matter what road the brothers take, Rusty Nail seems to be both one step ahead while also being directly behind them.

To quote one eccentric character in the film, what eventually unfolds isn’t “comely.”

Joy Ride
is perhaps the best addition to the open road sub-genre that likely began as far back as Steven Spielberg’s TV movie Duel. It’s thrilling when it wants to be, and fun/funny when it wants to break the tension. It drifts back and forth from horror to humor as effortlessly as I’ve ever seen, and that’s a tough act to pull off. Duel’s mood was soaked in paranoia (and slightly hampered by the film’s unlikeable lead), and Road Games was a gonzo Australian-outback with an absurd noir approach, but the superior-to-both Joy Ride endeavors to be just a flat-out conventional thrill ride, one that doesn’t have much to say or a moral to imbue, other than, “Just be nice to strangers, you idiot.” (I believe Ghandi once said that.) (No, really. He did.)

Paul Walker’s recent passing was one of the main reasons I wanted to highlight Joy Ride, which certainly belongs in the upper echelons of the late actor’s filmography. Though he’ll forever be linked to The Fast and The Furious franchise, which represents neither his best output nor his finest acting, it would seem films like this and 2006’s insane Running Scared often fall by the wayside in the actor’s obituaries. Walker, a handsome guy and by all accounts a likeable and charitable person, seems to be the most comfortable here that he’s ever been as an actor. In the course of Joy Ride’s running time, Walker needs to play normal, smitten, loyal, fun-loving, fearful, fearless, heroic, weak, and most importantly, sympathetic – at all times. He offers a lot of range for something as ultimately high-concept and sadly dismissed, but the film is all the better for having him aboard. One of my favorite moments involving Walker is when he uses his faux female voice to lure Rusty Nail to the motel where the brothers are staying. At Fuller’s urging, Lewis agrees to take part in this prank and does it with a sly smile, but when he hangs up the radio at the end of the conversation, the smile drips off his face with realization and he says, with tremendous guilt, “That was really mean.” It’s moments like this that make you realize fictional on-screen characters can be just as flawed as the rest of us – that we succumb to pressure and we do and say dumb things, only to know moments later just how dumb those things were.

Playing the foil to Walker’s soulful Lewis is Steve Zahn as Fuller, who had probably the best time on set, and certainly had all the best lines. Zahn manages to do something incredibly difficult, and he does it with little effort: the character of Fuller, in actuality, has no real redeeming value. He’s a shiftless and selfish troublemaker who is not only directly to blame for inviting the wrath of Rusty Nail into their lives, and who not only refuses to accept that blame, but he even has the audacity to try and get his groove on with a very drunken Venna, a girl with whom Lewis is clearly in love. This isn’t just one friend trying to cuckold another – it’s his brother, and that’s pretty fucked up. But it’s Zahn’s extreme likability and affability that makes us not only put up with him, or root for him, but actually miss him when he’s not on screen. I’ve known real-life Fullers whom I once called my friends, but whom I eventually came to loath; Zahn’s version of Fuller makes me wish he were my best friend.

Walker and Zahn’s on-screen chemistry is fantastic. From the minute they are reunited when Lewis goes to bail out his brother, they genuinely feel like real-life family. And even though you, the audience, know how bad of an idea it is to begin fucking with Rusty Nail on that damn CB radio, the brothers have such a fun time doing it that it does become legitimately funny. We’ve all done what they are doing, whether it be via CB radio, phone, chat room, or whatever other devices we use to engage in temporary tomfoolery. We remember the rush we got, regardless of whether or not our conscience caught up with us afterward. At the end of their prank, when Lewis quotes one of Rusty Nail’s responses – “I’d take off your bra.” – and laughs about it, the humor is palpable. The comedy aspect of it is infectious because the circumstances feel real.

Leelee Sobieski is your typical and not-so-typical damsel in distress. She becomes the realized version of Rusty Nail’s infatuations – the Candy Cane whom the brothers tried to convince him did not exist. What’s interesting about her character is that she had nothing to do with the brothers’ poor choice in attempting to victimize Rusty Nail over CB, but yet she’s here heaving to deal with the situation they have created for her. Naturally she shows fear where it’s appropriate, and exhibits the kind of strength we’ve come to expect from our “final girl,” but she also manages to show empathy toward their stalker. As a tear rolls slowly down her cheek, she tells him over the radio that she doesn't think people  realize their actions have consequences. It feels less like she’s trying to butter him up and more like she’s trying to reason with him on a human level.

It doesn't work:

Ted Levine! This guy…If you’d seen only one film previous featuring Ted Levine in some capacity, you would instantly recognize him the first time his voice blares through that radio. Though most well-known for his demented turn as Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, Levine has consistently contributed reliable character actor work for years since. Confined here only to voice-work, Levine does not let that confinement affect his performance. The menace comes easily enough for him, but before he goes totally off his rocker, a line here and there aids the audience’s transition from understanding the psycho trucker’s action while certainly not condoning them. “Now they know how it feels to be the butt-end of the joke...Now they know how it feels to be the fucking punch line.”

Genre-fan favorite Jim Beaver shows up in a fun cameo as Sheriff Ritter, a profanity-spewing no-nonsense local lawman who offers the most entertaining diatribe in the entire film. Not only is he providing a natural reaction to what has now become a major problem due to a stupid prank, but in a way he’s also personifying the audience’s grasp on the conflict up to that point. Though he’s showing it with anger, both he and the audience are expressing the same kind of frustration: simply put, they could have so easily not picked up that radio, and not taunted that truck driver, and now that they have, everything is now coming apart. The hell they have created for themselves has derived from the easiest of choices earlier presented to them – and they both chose to be stupid.

John Dahl, simply put, directs the hell out of this thing. He manages to wrangle every piece of fear and suspense out of the film’s on-screen happenings, and he does it with something as simple as a spray-painted road-sign, or a slow zoom in on a shitty motel painting. My favorite sequence has the brothers seeing the finished product of their arranged meeting between the motel guest and Rusty Nail—the man lies comatose in a hospital bed, wrapped from head to toe in bandages, and his bottom jaw torn clean off.  Shot in slow motion, and lingering on the brother’s horrified faces for several moments before we see what they are seeing, it’s affecting not only for the shock, but because they now can see what their fun little prank has manifested into. Fuller, who up to that point refused to admit any wrongdoing, looks far more horrified than his brother.

Joy Ride’s gimmick recalls Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and so it’s only natural for Dahl to include a fine collection of Hitchcock-like shots and sequences. The fake-scare scene, in which Lewis and Fuller are terrified by perhaps the friendliest ice-truck driver in existence, drips with Hitchcock humor – not to mention the scene composition itself. (See the shot where the ice truck pulls up directly behind their car, headlights blaring – all captured from inside the back windshield.) But there’s another homage snuck into the film’s final act that you might not have expected, and though it honors one very famous Spielberg film, funnily enough it’s not the aforementioned one about a man being terrorized by an anonymous truck driver, but rather, the one about the killer shark. Our kids in peril soon find themselves stranded in a cornfield, surrounded by a sea of high stalks, as Rusty Nail pursues them in his truck. As he barrels toward them, only the top of his truck can be seen poking out through the tops of the cornstalks, like the fin of a shark, and the kids blindly run in every direction, desperate to get away from him. You can’t get further away from the waters of Amity Island, New England, than a cornfield in Middle America, but yet director Dahl still manages to successfully homage Jaws all the same.

Dahl and his screenwriters, Clay Tarver and soon-to-be Hollywood powerhouse J.J. Abrams, take a huge gamble during the second act. After the brothers’ first face-to-face (kind of) confrontation with Rusty Nail, it ends with him laughing and saying, “Hey, I was just messing with you, man,” and then disappears into the night. We, the audience, know there’s still half the film to go, and we know the brothers' paths are going to cross with that of Rusty Nail again, but our filmmakers do something nearly unheard of: For much of the second act, there is no Rusty Nail. No voice, no eerie threats, not even temporary cuts back to his character driving or an establishing shot of his truck. Nothing to refresh your memory that he is still out there and still pissed off. Because of this, the film allows us to calm back down and get acquainted with Sobieski’s character, who has finally joined the plot. The humor makes a welcome return, and the filmmakers allow Lewis and Venna time to grow closer and establish a relationship – one on which the film is depending to base the effectiveness of the entire last act. You simply do not see this kind of approach anymore. Once a horror film has begun the horror, it does not turn off for most of an entire act. But Dahl et al. pull it off, and with great reward, as the entire last act does not let up once it begins.

Based on the moderate success of Joy Ride at the box office, and its two direct-to-video sequels (one already out/one coming soon), it would seem that Joy Ride did indeed find an audience upon its release. It may not be as unheralded as the other films featured here in Unsung Horrors, but it’s certainly no less worthy for the attention and praise it deserves.

Jan 9, 2014


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. Patrick Stettner
Miramax / IFC Films
United States

“You're the kind of guy who needs proof. The hell of it is, we're only as loved as we think we are.”

We so often see “based on a true story” splashed across marketing efforts for genre films being released even today that it’s almost become a cliché. Not helping is that films using this claim have become increasingly absurd to the point that when we see that “true story” disclaimer, we’ve begun to accept it as the complete opposite. Even The Conjuring – a film I admittedly loved – exploited that pledge of authenticity. After all, since Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson were playing real people who really existed and who really investigate(d) paranormal phenomenon, I suppose they were right to cover every inch of their trailers and posters with the words “true story.” But when does that become a fair marketing ploy? What makes “it” a true story? That it actually happened, or that someone merely claimed it did?

What if it’s both?

That’s The Night Listener.

Robin Williams plays Gabriel Noone, a celebrated author and host of a late-night radio show called Noone at Night. Things aren’t going so well for him, as he’s currently separated from his longtime partner Jess (the always wonderful Bobby Canavale) and this separation is severely affecting his ability to continue on with his show. Instead, he dives headfirst into his work, trying to find something to distract him. Ashe (Joe Morton), a literary publisher and friend of Gabriel's, gives him a raw, unpublished manuscript; written by a teenage boy named Pete (Rory Culkin), it is a recounting of the disgusting abuse he suffered at the hands of his biological parents – his being forced to “star” in dozens of videos in which he was raped by friends of his parents. Riddled with disease following his abuse, Pete only has a couple months left to live, and in the meantime has been adopted by his social worker, Donna Logand (Toni Collete). Gabriel and Pete share an unlikely but sweet bond. Gabriel offers fatherly advice when he can, and Pete describes his day-to-day trials and tribulations of his hospital life. The two trade letters and phone calls,  (ahem...Playboys), and talk smack on each other – just how friends would. Gabriel even receives a photo of Pete in a red sweater and simple bluejeans, finally giving a face to the name.

After Gabriel corresponds regularly with Pete and Donna on the phone for over a year – a year! – Jess hears Donna and Pete talk over speakerphone and plants a seed in Gabriel’s head that sets The Night Listener’s events in motion: Jess is pretty confident that Pete and Donna are the same person – that Donna is fucking with Gabriel’s mind, going at great lengths to convince him that Pete is real. Gabriel becomes obsessed with discovering the truth: if Pete Logand actually exists, or if Gabriel is one of the many victims of a psychologically unstable charlatan desperate for attention and trying to escape a history of abuse that perhaps did happen after all.

There are dozens of people who know them.


Doctors. There's a nurse who comes and stays at the house.

You've only been told that.

What about the photo?

It could be anybody.

There's ways to prove this...

Echoing what I said in my Unsung Horrors write-up for Insomnia, I love it when Robin Williams goes serious. With that, this, and One Hour Photo, Williams has consistently proven he can do dark drama just as easily as comedy (and far better). I wish I knew what it was about him as a performer that allows him to carefully shed the manic screwball persona he's had since the days of "Mork & Mindy" so I could more ably analyze what it is about him I love, but I've got nothing. The guy just is – he's just as at-home bouncing off the walls and doing his army of weird (kinda stupid) voices as he is using just his eyes and his sad smile to convey a hundred different emotions at once. He's so good, and perhaps underrated, though thankfully filmmakers keep giving him the chance to defy convention and go for the throat. It's resulted in one much deserved Oscar for the actor already (for Good Will Hunting).

It's difficult to applaud young Rory for his role as Pete, as he hardly ever appears on screen. Because of the whole "is he/isn't he real?" approach, it was wise to limit his physical appearance, except in scenes in which he is corresponding with Gabriel over the phone, and Gabriel is using his imagination to fill in the gaps and paint this picture of Pete he's attempting to assemble using random bits of information gleamed from their conversations. Most of his "presence" is his voice on the phone, and the filmmakers do a great job of switching back and forth between Culkin and Toni Collete, making us unsure as to who is who, and when.

The Night Listener, however, is Toni Collete's film. She really is a powerhouse here – one minute she has our every sympathy, and the next we can't stand seeing how far she's willing to perpetuate her lie; at times we're nearly demanding the truth because we just can't take it anymore. "You've got a fucking lie for everything," Gabriel even tells Donna in an ugly confrontation. If it is a very unglamorous role. Her clothes are too big and her hair is greasy. Her "blind look," consisting of thick sunglasses, foggy blue contact lenses, and unkempt appearance create the look of a shut-in – one who never ventures out except to visit her normal stops and collect the sympathies of the folks in town who know her. She spends most of her role asking for and inviting this sympathy, but when she wants to be scary, she can be scary. I'll point to the scene towards the end in which Donna teases Gabriel with the "ending" his story requires and lures him to a motel – this after after she's emptied her Wisconsin house and moved, unable to be found. As he cowers in a dark corner and watches her leave, she slowly turns to look – look – at him out of the corner of her eye, as planes at the nearby airport scream in the background.

Chills every time.

Besides for “based on a true story,” another oft-overused and sometimes completely inappropriate phrase that inundates genre film marketing, once a critic utters the magic words, are “a Hitchcockian thriller.” If said phrase were reserved for actual students of Hitchcock, like Brian De Palma, or Richard Franklin, it could be forgiven. I think critics sometime forget that Hitchcock wasn’t just a storyteller, but a pretty renowned and stylistic director, too, which means it’s nonsense to describe any film that has a mystery as “Hitchcockian.” Cases involving mistaken identity, femme fatales, or quirky and potentially dangerous leads are hallmarks of Hitchcock filmography, let’s not shit ourselves, but that still doesn’t give you the right to label any old thing with the master’s name. Just because you can locate the most tenuous connection between a modern film’s gimmick and tie it back to that same trope once utilized by Hitchcock himself – sorry – that doesn’t suddenly mean the new Liam Neeson film in which he tears across Berlin kicking ass and trying to remember his name is a Hitchcockian thriller.

Even when filmmakers subject audiences to a story not as compelling as it should be, I am always struck much more by said filmmakers’ abilities to successfully channel the look and feel of a Hitchcock film. De Palma, no matter how outlandish his films have become, has this down in spades. He likely created the ultimate homage to Hitchcock with his 1992 film Raising Cain, turning John Lithgow into a psycho long before "Dexter" ever did. The Night Listener director Patrick Stettner seems a student of Hitchcock, but perhaps in less an obvious way. I love that a film with so much character interaction is still experienced solely through Gabriel's eyes and brought to life through his imagination. When Gabriel pictures Pete during a phone call, the boy is wearing the red sweater and bluejeans he's also wearing in his photo. And the first time Gabriel speaks to Donna, she doesn't have a face until Pete jokes that he's "got a thing for redheads" – and that's when we first see Donna, red hair and all. It's subtle, but effective if you realize the trick.

Every inch of The Night Listener is drenched in cold and pale tones. Effortlessly, it ups the bleak quotient and decreases any feelings of hope or joy. Pretty appropriate for a film in which not just Gabriel, and not just Gabriel's friends, but even a small Wisconsin town all fall victim to the lies of a deeply troubled woman. And every single one of them were in a small way guilty of helping to spread the lies and bring them legitimacy. It's interesting in that it forces us to take a step back and consider just how many things we hear on a day-to-day basis are actually falsities – either big or small – and how often we repeat them without actually knowing the truth.

The Night Listener is about escapism, and what we're willing to do and say – to ourselves and to each other – to perpetuate a lie and try to make things less unbearable. Jess confronts Gabriel in the film and demands he tell him where the couple were when Jess told Gabriel he was HIV-positive. Gabriel responds, "in the park in front of the guys playing drums." The real place was a crummy diner somewhere in the city. But Gabriel's version was more romantic, and it reads better on paper. A white lie, perhaps, but a lie all the same. Perhaps more telling, there's a scene on the plane while Gabriel is flying out to give Pete and Donna a surprise visit – fed up with the excuses being lobbed his way about why his previous invitation to visit them is being constantly rain-checked. Gabriel's seat mate on the plane asks him the purpose of his visit. Gabriel responds he's flying out to visit family: his son. Because he needs this. Now that Jess needs Gabriel a little less, Gabriel needs this idea of a new family more. It's no longer fact-checking the events of a pretty horrifying book – it's yearning for family, and not wanting to believe that's the last thing waiting for him at the airline's departure gate.

We tell lies because they're preferable to the truth, but sometimes we tell lies because the truth is just too painful to endure. We all wish we could live in the fantasy world we create for ourselves perhaps for only minute at a time  – where the person for whom we pine wants us just as much, or the struggles we daily face are no longer existent. While nearly none of us are willing to hold onto lies and bring them to artificial life like Donna Logand, the only thing stopping us is a lack of conviction and the imagination to do so. And that's kind of scary.

Nov 13, 2013


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. Jim Mickle
Dark Sky Films / Glass Eye Pix
United States

"Months passed in a blur of days and nights. We traveled east and west, but always north. Away from death. We avoided the cities. Mister said they were the worst, hit the hardest in the beginning. As people flocked together for safety, the plague marched through their locked gates and they became death traps. When Washington fell, it was over for America as we knew her. As government blew away, our great leaders ran for it. And hope was abandoned. We were on our own now."


No, don't run. Seriously. I know, I know – plagiarist Mormon authors and NBC have turned our vampires into dapper-dressed James Bond supervillains. These new vamps woo, smolder, sparkle, and play baseball. They go to their classes even though they're dead and are therefore (mostly) incapable of achieving the American dream. If you've got a brain in that there skull of yours, I don't have to tell you vampires were fucking scary once. They were ratlike skeletal albinos with ten-inch fingers. There are parts of the world that still believe in them – that still bury their dead beneath wrought-iron cages to prevent them from coming out of the ground for a midnight snack. Thankfully there are people out there who know this and make their fanged nemeses nasty, vicious, and hideous. These monsters don't imprint on babies – they suck the blood from them and toss them onto the ground before they're onto their next pulsing target.

Enter Stake Land, the second collaboration from film-making partners Nick Damici (actor/co-writer) and Jim Mickle (co-writer/director), following their second equally great and equally unheralded Mulberry Street. Theirs is a film that played the festival circuit for a year or so before being quietly released onto video in 2010. A cast of familiar faces and not-so-familiar faces works well alongside the assured, pensive, bloody, and melancholic direction. It is a pastiche of the post-apocalyptic wasteland made mainstream by the Mad Max trilogy, combined with sensibilities of the western's lone-rider. and lastly, the good, old fashioned vampire.

Martin (Connor Paolo, Mystic River), while his family packs to hit the road in hopes of avoiding this new strange outbreak plaguing the country (or world?), watches as all of them are suddenly and viciously attacked by vampires. His own number is nearly up before a stranger called only Mister (Nick Damici, World Trade Center) springs up out of nowhere and saves Martin's life. Now with no one to look out for him, Mister takes Martin out on the road with him, preparing him for a life of fending off not only vampires, but "The Brotherhood" – a group of nutty humans who believe that the vampires are God's way of bringing about end times, and therefore want the vamps to succeed. (You mean humans are worse than the monsters? Romero would be proud.) Along the way, Martin and Mister meet other lost souls looking to make sense of this new world they had no idea they were inheriting. Among them are Sister (Kelly McGillis, Top Gun), a nun attacked and possibly raped by the cannibals; Belle, (Danielle Harris, the Halloween series), a very pregnant bar maid who seems more lost than any of them; and Willie (Sean Nelson, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3), a former Marine. These five homeless and nearly hopeless individuals come together to form the closest idea of a family that can be formed here in this new world called Stake Land and attempt to forge ahead and make it the alleged last safe zone in the country called New Eden.

Stake Land will feel very familiar if you have seen the 2009 film adaptation of The Road, but that's not to say Stake Land is unoriginal or disingenuous. No, tales of the apocalypse have been explored in every medium for as long as existence of the realization that our time here on earth is limited, and as such these tales are bound to share common themes and tropes. Stake Land presents you with dirty bands of people in ragged clothing foraging for food and consumables to help them on the road; two groups of people - the good and the bad, one trying to survive, and the other trying to make it so no one can; and most importantly, the underlying message that even the most hopeless should never give up hope. Though Stake Land shares this last bit with The Road strictly thematically, it also shares John Hillcoat's pretty and philosophical direction. Though Stake Land is an ugly story about living in an ugly world, director Jim Mickle never fails to make it picturesque. Sweeping shots of untouched naturescape and close-ups of wheat billowing in the breeze reinforces this idea that it's not the world which makes humanity ugly, but the human race – that we like to think we're merely an unfortunate byproduct of our environment, but that we're actually a product of our own deep-seated selfishness and evil. (More on that in a bit.)

Mickle and Co. have a assembled a hell of a cast here. Nick Damici's Mister is the true Clint Eastwood/Man-With-No-Name archetype (hence his "name" being Mister). His history is vague, almost non-existent; there is a darkness to him, but also a light when he thinks no one might be looking. I always like seeing the dark and brooding hero/heroine enjoy a private moment to surrender to human goodness and smile or laugh. Mister isn't a barrel of laughs, but there is a certain kindness to him somewhere underneath that filthy and silent hero. He's not optimistic about the future, but it's not in him to steal that optimism from anyone else.

Conor Paolo as Martin has the task of not only experiencing these strange events and reacting realistically to them, but because he is also the narrator, it's his job to catch up the audience on the past and present. It's not a personal diary so much as it is a relay of information. His thoughts are stripped of any kind of emotion, as that is saved strictly for the on-screen action.

Our supporting cast is wonderful. Kelly McGillis' career seems to be enjoying a second life, working with some pretty exciting names in the world of independent horror. Along with this, she has appeared in Ti West's excellent The Innkeepers, and appears in Mickle's upcoming remake of the Spanish film We Are What We Are. Her first appearance is as a frantic woman dressed in torn and bloody nun robes, fleeing from a group of maniacal men. After Mister saves her, she becomes mother to both him and Martin. Their relationship is enforced only by the audience's desire to see them all overcome the horrid shit going on around them and allow them to find each other, and for them to desire each other's love and comfort as much as we want them to obtain it. She's the glue that holds all this together and makes it possible.

With Danielle Harris' turn as the pregnant Belle, she holds her own against her counterparts, all with a prosthetic baby belly shoved inside her wardrobe. Her performance benefits from the fact that the horror community already loves her – we've been watching her run for her life since her debut as Jamie Lloyd in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers – although she would have been just as fine without it. She's endearing and lovable, and the quasi puppy dog crush Martin has on her makes us care about both of them just a little bit more. (And c'mon...who wouldn't fall in love with Danielle Harris?)

This recent movement – this living painting approach to film-making – may not be new in its execution, but it perhaps has never been as beautiful. By this I mean the aforementioned The Road, or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, or pretty much all of Terrence Malick's filmography, who is thankfully back in a big way. Lesser known filmmakers with lower budgets are starting to take notice. Between John Geddes' Exit Humanity, Gareth Edwards' Monsters, and now Stake Land, I'm delighted to see this approach taking root in the horror genre. Because horror, despite all the dripping and the wounds and the blood, can be gorgeous. Your characters are allowed to be pensive, and to wonder or philosophize. They're allowed to be more than just the end result of their nightmarish world. These filmmakers allow their cameras to settle on some piece of oft ignored iconography, complemented by either their off-screen narrators or musical score.

Speaking of music, it was wise to bring aboard composer Jeff Grace, who takes after his fearless leader and fashions his score around those created by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis for the two films earlier mentioned. The Road and Assassination had many scenes of introspection where the silent images onscreen did the only talking, and so the music had to be more than just background. Likewise, in Stake Land, the music knows when to heighten the vampire carnage, or when to be the driving force and propel the imagery of mountains and sky into your head and heart.

While Stake Land contains some pretty heavy sociopolitical themes, it seems to be even less happy with religion – or at least what we as people have let religion become. As one character commits suicide before a crucified scarecrow (calling it Father) begging for forgiveness, or one particular mutant vampire discloses that it prayed for salvation but instead became a monster, Stake Land isn't so much as condemning religion as it is as warning you to use it to complement your life – not let it rule who you are. Religion as a whole has been bastardized. Once originally looked upon to unite communities, it instead has made us perfect strangers – foolish for believing in a higher power, or heartless and doomed for not. We have our beliefs and our faith – some of us hold onto it, and so it remains intimate – but some of us believe our beliefs and faith are right and definitive, and those who do not share those same are damned, and will bring damnation to others.

Stake Land doesn't want to just give you a cheap thrill with monstrous vampire faces and shooting blood. An exaggerated future, yes, but the whole humans-unable-to-coexist-with-other-humans thing? That's not exactly something out of the realm of possibility. We can't elect government officials without slinging death threats and constructing racial epithets on our lawns. We can't drive by a lawn adorned with the nativity at Christmas time without making a wry comment or joking about stealing the Jesus. Comedians ridicule certain religions while TV pundits sweepingly label others as evil. We have become ugly. We haven't yet sprouted fangs, but we drain the life from each other all the time. Fox News goes for jugular, as does MSNBC. The only hope for salvation we have are ourselves. Therefore, there is no hope.

Have a nice day!

Oct 16, 2013


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 De Felitta
United States

"[I] seen it, Otis. The scarecrow. The same one. Bullet holes, everything. Just like before. Only now it was filled with straw."

Scarecrows have become infamous iconography of Halloween, though as far as I know, there are no myths about scarecrows that concern our favorite day of the year, and their history don’t lend themselves to such a connection. Perhaps we can thank Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 short story “Feathertop,” about a scarecrow brought to life by a witch in Salem, Massachusetts. Their connection to farmland and harvest (and hence, autumn) could argue for their association as well. But regardless the link remains and I’m cool with it, because they make a fine addition to a fine holiday. Go to any Halloween party store and you’re likely to find a scarecrow mask or costume, or even a decapitated and blood-dripping scarecrow head. (Don’t think about that one too long, or you’ll ruin the fun.)

Sadly, scarecrows are slowly being phased out of regular usage, as farmers are opting to instead use wooden silhouettes of large predatory creatures or even beach-ball-shaped contraptions that do god knows what, but do apparently scare away birds. More effective they might be, they are certainly less interesting.

The scarecrow has been used only moderately throughout horror cinema, which is a shame, because their visage is effortlessly creepy and could make for a good on-screen threat given the right approach. Unfortunately, most of the scarecrow’s voyage into celluloid have resulted in count-them-on-one-hand entries actually worth your time. 1990’s Night of the Scarecrow is a fun and low-budgeted little thriller featuring a very young and beardless John Hawkes; 1988's Scarecrows is a flat, though sometimes bizarre, offering; 2011’s Husk is a decent time-waster that gets more right than it does wrong. And the less said about the direct-to-video Scarecrow Slayer series, the better. But 1981’s Dark Night of the Scarecrow will likely always reign supreme. Recently resurrected for an unexpected video release in 2010, and nearing the end of its license before it goes back out of print, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, for decades, belonged to that dubious club of horror films that continued to live on after their first theatrical or television appearance through bootleg networks. Following a 1986 VHS release (and going out of print soon after), legitimate copies of the film were nigh impossible to track down. It was one of those movies that risked being lost with time. But, as any loyal horror fan will do when denied their white whale of a film, they set out to horror conventions or to the many websites specializing in unavailable or never released films to secure themselves a copy likely created from a 37th generation VHS tape.

When the legitimate release was announced in 2010, I wasted no time in snapping up myself a copy. After all, I had heard nothing but praise for the film for many years, and having a rough idea what it was about, I was incredibly interested and excited to give it a watch. About scarecrows, set on Halloween, and allegedly scary. Of course I was all over it. After all, the quote from Vincent Price proudly blazed across the front – “I was terrified!” – was quite possibly the only marketing a horror film would ever need.

My copy soon arrived and I saved it for near-Halloween. And I watched.

And though I found the film to be well made and well acted, I was surprised by how…uninvolved in the story I found myself. And I was a little disappointed in another regard: the lack of scarecrows. I was expecting to see that infamous canvas-bag face sitting atop the shuffling straw-filled figure as it chased down its victims one by one. But that didn’t happen. In fact, the lone scarecrow remains limp and still for pretty much the entire running time – and is only on screen for about five minutes.

I remember at the time chalking it up to just yet another film I had lost to the hype machine, as nothing could have lived up to the years and years of folks saying they recall having watched it when it aired on television and how scary it was, etc., etc.

But something unexpected happened: though I thought the film was reasonably good, I held onto it. (This is important to note, as I was once an avid collector of films, CDs, and books, and would immediately get rid of anything I felt wasn't worth keeping.) And in the days following my first viewing, I found myself thinking back on the film, as it had somehow stuck with me. So, a few weeks later, I watched it again.

And I got it.

I saw what the big deal was and this time I simply allowed myself to be taken away by the story.

In a nameless mid-western town, a young girl named Marylee Williams and a simple-minded man named Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake) play together in the middle of a field.  These two are good friends – have been for some time – and this really bothers a few townspeople, namely Otis (Charles Durning), Skeeter (Robert F. Lyons), Philby, (Claude Earle Jones), and Harliss (Lane Smith). He and his cohorts believe that Bubba is potentially dangerous and perhaps even a pervert, and such should not be allowed near any young child. "He's a stink weed and cutworm that you spray and spray to get rid of, but always keeps coming back," Otis seethes. "Something's got to be done...but it has to be permanent."

While harmlessly sneaking into a backyard to play with a decorative garden fountain, a dog viciously attacks Marylee and Bubba manages to save her. She is brought to the hospital bloodied and unconscious and Otis naturally assumes the worst. He gathers up his hateful posse and heads out to the Ritter farm to exert some private justice.

Bubba’s mother (Jocelyn Brando), having hidden her son within the scarecrow poled in their back field, forbids the men from entering the house. She attempts to lie and says Bubba is nowhere on the property, but the men know better. They instead begin their search outside, and through the holes on the scarecrow’s burlap-sack face, Otis sees Bubba’s terrified eyes. The men open fire, killing Bubba with an obnoxious amount of bullets. Then they find out the truth – that Bubba hadn’t been the one who hurt Marylee at all, but had actually saved the girl’s life from what everyone learned was a dog attack. Otis places a pitchfork in the dead Bubba's hand, his mind already piecing together a possible way out of trouble. An eerie wind picks up immediately after...announcing a vengeance soon to come.

Otis and his posse are tried for Bubba's murder (rather quickly), but they claim self-defense, and because the prosecutor can present no witnesses and no evidence, the men find themselves free – at least from the courts. Having just gotten away with murder, the men are feeling pretty good. But then each of the men begin seeing the Ritter farm scarecrow – the same one in which Bubba had attempted to hide – planted in the middle of their own fields. And then the men are picked off one by one by an unseen killer in the order following their visitation by the scarecrow, as if someone were taunting them…or letting them know who would be next.

There are plenty of red herrings provided to us. The killer could be anyone: Bubba's mother, who in a fit of rage loses her mind and begins tracking down the men who killed her son; or perhaps it's District Attorney Sam Willock, who tried to prosecute the men and was nearly thrown back in shock when they were set free; it could even be one of the men responsible for Bubba's death, buckling under the simmering guilt he has successfully hidden away from his friends.

Or perhaps it's the ghost of Bubba himself, back from the grave to take his revenge on the men who took him away from his mother and his only friend...

A friend of mine was killed the other night.

So I heard.

They all think it was an accident. I don't.

There's other justice in this world.

Besides the law?

It's a fact. What you sow, so shall you reap.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow
is intelligently engineered so that our antagonists suffer for pretty much the entire film. Though they begin to succumb to the fear of their being murdered, and are haunted by the harbinger of doom that is the Ritter farm scarecrow, they never show regret. They never break down and say, “Oh, I wish we hadn’t killed that poor man!” And because of this, we watch without conflict or guilt as each of the men are hunted down. We pity none of them are they are each killed on their own farms in the middle of the night.  We certainly don't pity Otis, as the film bravely dedicates much of its time with this man who is seemingly willing to do anything to save his own skin…and is very willing to kill again. It is a very bold move to have your audience spend the majority of the film following around a completely despicable character. After all, we’re never going to pity him, or show him our sympathies – there will be no catharsis for him – so in the interim until his inevitable fate, we will enjoy watching him squirm.  His death, for us, will be a release – especially when young Marylee finds herself in peril once more.

There’s no reason at this point to reaffirm Charles Durning as one of the greats (RIP, sir), but I’ll reaffirm, gladly. At this time in his career, Durning was enjoying himself in little thrillers like this, as well as When A Stranger Calls and The Final Countdown, and he was certainly open to taking on the role of Otis, a complete scuzzball in every sense of the word. He’s an unapologetic murderer, this we know, and an insensitive asshole who doesn’t know when to quit as he takes it upon himself to begin harassing Bubba’s mourning mother, whom he assumes is behind the tragedies befalling his fellow vigilantes. But he’s also something else, too. Though the film does a very good job of straddling this fine line, it’s very carefully intimated that Otis is a pedophile. He’s a single male, one among many in the boardinghouse where he lives, and the earlier scene with Otis and Mrs. Ritter confirms as much, as she tells him she knows "exactly what [he is]. This is a small town. Everybody talks.”

This, frankly speaking, was a fucking ballsy move to impart on this otherwise straightforward ghost movie (made for television, no less).  It also adds a very seedy new layer: Perhaps Otis hadn’t so impulsively killed Bubba simply because the man-child’s friendship with Marylee disgusted him. No… perhaps Otis was jealous, even being… territorial.


Larry Drake’s screen time as Bubba is understandably limited, as he’s shot full of holes within the first twenty minutes, but it’s nice to see him play a simple and innocent character like Bubba Ritter. He is so ingrained in our minds thanks to his villainous turns in Dr. Giggles or the Darkman films that typically our only affiliation we have with the man is being a cigar-cutting or pun-hurling sociopath. To Drake's credit, it’s always tough and potentially career-damaging to play a character with developmental deficiencies, but Bubba really just comes across as a child – easily prone to fear and shy around girls. He’s charming and even cute – by design, as I’m sure the filmmakers wanted you to feel especially angry towards the men who eventually take his life.

The film is very dissimilar from the previously mentioned Night of the Scarecrow, Scarecrows, and Husk – those films' directors were not afraid to make their straw-headed killers vicious and violent. People are hacked apart, strangled, even raped with penetrating straw spears. But in Dark Night of the Scarecrow, all the gruesomeness is left to your imagination. The men are killed, oh yes, and in imaginatively painful ways, but never on screen. It is old school in its execution because it is old school. A swinging shaded bulb complementing a man’s desperate screams is far more affecting than a man being folded in half by random farm equipment front-and-center on screen.

Despite the obvious constraints of a television budget, director Frank De Felitta (The Entity) shows real skill and creativity. The first scene of the ghostly Ritter farm scarecrow stuck into Harliss' field is captured in one extreme long shot, making the scarecrow barely visible, yet still unnerving and nightmarish. But the second sighting in Philby's field is perhaps better; we see the man looking horrified at something off-screen and in the distance, and he begins to run towards it. Finally he falls to his knees as the camera pulls back...and reveals the scarecrow.

Stationary bird scarers have never been creepier.

De Felitta also knows how to use the quiet mid-western night to maximum effect. What should be peace and solitude is instead interrupted by the humming of machinery kicking on by itself, or the squealing of disturbed pigs, or the crunching sound of methodical footsteps. It's classy yet familiar, yet also entirely effectively.

Honestly, the film is smart enough to know all it needs to be scary is this:


If you've read this far, then you're in luck. I'll be giving away one DVD copy of Dark Night of the Scarecrow to one lucky reader.

You only have to do two things:

1. "Like" The End of Summer on Facebook.

2. E-mail (subject line SCARECROW CONTEST), verify your Facebook name, and share with me one of your favorite Halloween movies. It doesn't necessarily have to be about Halloween – just something you may watch every year to celebrate. Most importantly: Tell me why you watch it! 

That's it!

(Contest closes at 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, October 23. Winners will be contacted via e-mail.)