Saturday, October 31, 2009

October Horror Fest #30: MAY

One of the most promising directors in horror to have come along in the past decade is Lucky McKee. His sense of style and storytelling hearkens back to the heyday of Carpenter, Romero and Hooper. May, his second feature, is a tightly written and brilliantly executed film that follows the titular character on a descent into subdued madness.

Angela Bettis, in a career-defining role, is May, a lonely and painfully shy twentysomething that works in a local vet hospital. Through flashbacks we find that she's had a difficult upbringing and can't relate to people. Her delicate, vacuum-sealed world is cracked when she meets a "perfect" guy (Jeremy Sisto) who has the potential to break her out of her shell and bring her into the real world. A creepy twist shatters the balance and sends May into a downward spiral.

Equal parts Carrie and Cronenberg, May has the atmospheric tension of a stage play. There is no real protagonist, as May becomes more entrenched in her madness, and supporting characters that had no redeeming qualities to begin with start becoming parts for May's grand scheme.

The scariest idea the film brings up is that this is all totally possible. How many of us knew that one girl or boy in school, the antisocial loner, made fun of and ignored daily? What happens to them when they grow up and nothing changes? May could very well be someone you know, just outside your peripherals, waiting patiently for the right person to come along.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Music review: KALIYA - Demo 2009

Just in time for Halloween, here's some terrifying grindcore straight from Texas. KALIYA lean to the angry, piss-and-vinegar hardcore side of grind. Think Kill The Client, Defeatist and Hatred Surge. The three tracks on their Myspace sound just about perfect, production-wise; they're clean and clear without being slick, which is pretty rare for grindcore. The fact they recorded these songs live makes this all the more impressive.

The songs are all around the three-minute mark, longer than the usual grind outing, but this is a good thing. There are dynamics and melodies that recall musical peers like Gaza and Blacklisted; instead of just barked vocals and blast beats, there are actual hooks that make each song memorable. "Choke" and "The Reason", specifically, have well thought out song structures and riffs that other bands calling themselves "hardcore" should check out. "Brotherhood" sounds like a tractor trailer pile-up, speeding along with Slayer-like ferociousness until it crashes into a sludgy breakdown sing-along refrain at the end.

These demo recordings have expectations set to HIGH for the future. Here's to hoping we'll be hearing more from Kaliya in the very near future.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

October Horror Fest #29: TRICK 'R TREAT

I had heard good things about this movie, but after just watching it now I have to say: this is the best movie about Halloween since Halloween. It really is the quintessential film for the holiday. I don't think I can say enough good things about Trick 'R Treat.

A lot of it has to do with the holiday itself. For me, being a horror fan is directly connected to childhood memories, specifically those from October 31. Whether it was running around the neighborhood for candy, looking for mischief with friends, or scaring myself out of my mind with horror movie marathons after trick-or-treating, the Halloween atmosphere captures that. I think I've been trying to relive those memories in scary movies ever since.

Writer/director Michael Dougherty seems to feel the same way. Trick 'R Treat takes place in a fictional small town in Ohio, but it could be any American suburb, mine or yours. A costume parade, decorations everywhere, and intertwining storylines (a la Creepshow and Tales From The Crypt) concerning those things that go bump in the night.

Unlike its slick Hollywood counterparts, this movie delivers genuine scares and off-the-wall absurdity in an even measure. Nods to the classics are plentiful, but it never comes across as a rip-off or hackneyed. These are original stories (albeit based on a short cartoon Dougherty made in the 80s) and they are executed brilliantly. If Pulp Fiction was a horror movie, Trick 'R Treat would be it.

It's too bad that more people won't get a chance to see this movie. Not only was its release pushed back two years, it went straight to DVD. Meanwhile, mindless shit like Saw VI is #2 at the box office right now. It's a crime. I was going to save this review until Halloween, but I want as many people as possible to check this out. I have no apprehension in saying this is the best horror film of 2009. Go get it!

October Horror Fest #28: INSIDE

I've gotta hand it to the French lately; they are pumping out some seriously good horror films. High Tension, Martyrs, Frontier(s), and this little slice of home invasion terror. These movies are bringing fresh ideas to old standards, and it makes me sad that filmmakers of this caliber are so hard to find in America. The glut of awful PG-13 remakes and "reboots" in this country is not helping them. But for the time being, vive horreur fran├žais!

As I mentioned, the plot of Inside is fairly standard for a horror film. A woman is home alone on Christmas Eve, and someone is trying to break in and kill her. The twist is that the woman is extremely pregnant and the person trying to kill her is also a woman. Who just happens to want the baby that's inside her.

Despite being bloody and brutal, what truly sets Inside apart is the tension built throughout the film. The paranoia and unrelenting dread recalls other excellent films with similar elements like Halloween and the original Black Christmas. Beatrice Dalle plays the killer (simply known as "The Woman") and succeeds in being both repulsive and alluring, not unlike the Aunt Ruth character in The Girl Next Door.

This is not an easy film to watch, especially for any woman who may be pregnant. This might sound like a prescription drug warning, but the graphic violence directed towards a woman with child is about as extreme as horror can get. It reminds why we like scary movies to begin with: the primal rush of fear, and true horror hits close to home.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Ray Bradbury is arguably America's greatest living short fiction writer. Since the Forties, he has created fantastic tales of science fiction, fantasy and horror that never seemed to stray too far from our familiar lives. He was particularly adept at capturing the innocence and vibrancy of youth, and that is readily apparent in his novel-turned-screenplay Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Two young boys are drawn to a mysterious traveling carnival that has arrived in their town. Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) is the ringleader, and promises the boys and others that he can make their childhood fantasies come true...for a price.

Disney would never make a movie like this now. It's dark, scary, and very well done. Bradbury adapted his own work for the screen, a surprisingly rare occurrence in filmmaking and a credit to the movie. There are some great performances from the young actors, as well as screen legends Pryce and Jason Robards.

Unfortunately, very few Bradbury adaptations have proved effective. This is by far the standout work. All his odd characters and visual cues are on full display here; the theme of the novel is the basic struggle between good and evil, and director Jack Clayton captures that without being too overbearing. Like Monster Squad and Gremlins, this is a film that has strong ties to childhood and the wonder we had for the world around us. It's great at any age.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

October Horror Fest #26: TRICK OR TREAT

Sometimes, a movie can't live up to the coolness of its marketing campaign. Look at that poster; this movie should be badass, right? A rock and roll horror flick with Gene Simmons and Ozzy Osborne? You can't lose! Well, yeah, you can.

What's tragic is that this could have been a horror-metal masterpiece. Caught up in the PRMC-music censorship frenzy of the time, this movie was a middle finger to Tipper Gore & Co. A metal idol, Sammi Curr (basically Blackie Lawless, who was originally set to play the part) dies in a hotel fire. His biggest fan, Eddie, is heartbroken and goes to his DJ buddy (Simmons) for consolation. What he gets is an unreleased Curr record, and when he plays it time!

So you have Fastway doing all the original songs, metal legends playing various charcaters, an evil undead metal singer killing everyone off, and Satanic messages coming from the turntable. What could top that? Atrocious acting and lame special effects, that's what. But who cares? This movie is hilarious. Metal fans, especially, will get all the inside jokes and references. (Keep an eye out for the posters on Eddie's bedroom walls.) This is the kind of movie that should be playing during your Halloween house party. It's way out of print on DVD, but that's what eBay is for. Rock out.

October Horror Fest #25: WILD ZERO

The tagline says it all: "Thrill, Speed and Stupid Zombies". It's a bit misleading, because Wild Zero takes a while to actually get going. Is there a plot? Kinda. Something about rockabilly kids, rock club managers in short-shorts and zombies activated by a meteor. It's Japanese, don't try to figure out what's going on. Just roll with it.

For a self-proclaimed "Rock & Roll Jet!" movie, I would expect way more explosions and nudity. But the movie does deliver in a lot of ways. Guitar Wolf, "the greatest rock band in the world", play themselves, helping out fanboy Ace fight off zombies and get the girl. Actually, this movie is kind of like a 100-minute music video. It's comprised of multiple sections rather than a cohesive storyline.

These are real-deal zombies too, the stumbling kind that hunger for flesh. There's a little too much CGI blood towards the end, but overall the effects are pretty fun and visceral. Crack open some beers and enjoy.

Monday, October 26, 2009

October Horror Fest #24: DON'T LOOK NOW

Criminally underrated and almost always overlooked in most horror overviews, Don't Look Now is a superb psychological thriller on par with Jacob's Ladder and The Shining. There in an unrelenting sense of unease and dread that develops right from the beginning and never really lets up.

Donald Sutherland, in one of his finest performances, is an American vacationing in Venice with his wife (Julie Christie) after the accidental death of their young daughter. They are visited by blind twin sisters, one of whom is a psychic and insists their daughter is still alive. John Baxter (Sutherland) refuses to believe her, but soon starts having psychic flashes of his own and slowly loses his grip on reality.

This is a film I always try and recommend to people. The acting is brilliant; there's actually a long-standing legend that the sex scene between Sutherland and Christie wasn't simulated. How's that for effective? The city of Venice is beautifully captured by the cinematography. Its decaying architecture is the consummate metaphor for Baxter's slow decent into paranoia. The strong use of symbolism is also very well utilized and adds an element of film noir to the film. Another must-have film, not just for horror fans but anyone who lives cinema.

October Horror Fest #23: THE BEYOND

The Beyond is without a doubt Lucio Fulci's peak as a director. After more than two decades of low-budget comedies, giallos and more than a few misfires, Fulci began to hit his stride with Zombi 2. After moderate success with what is now the cult classic City Of The Living Dead, the director decided to further explore the theme of metaphysics. What resulted is a mostly non-linear fever dream of horrific images and gory murder sequences that most fans call his best film.

The plot, which is mostly secondary to everything else, is simple: a woman moves into a hotel in New Orleans that happens to be built over one of the Seven Gates of Hell. (One of the biggest gaffes of the film is that there are no buildings with basements in New Orleans, but that doesn't really matter here.)

This is a perfect example of the 80s Italian horror film: style over substance. It looks great, but don't try to find any great acting or story development. It's all about the trippy images, creepy characters and gore effects. The Beyond has all three in spades, and is essential viewing for any horror fan.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

October Horror Fest #22: MASTERS OF HORROR, PART 2

EPSIODE 15: Family

John Landis can do horror-comedy like few others. An American Werewolf In London and Innocent Blood were absurd in their respective situations, but truly frightening nonetheless. Family finds George Wendt in an uncharacteristically psychotic role, and the twist at the end isn't that much of a surprise but it's still pure genius and totally satisfies.

EPISODE 18: Pro-Life

John Carpenter hits gold again, with a film even more sinister and dark than Cigarette Burns. A young girl is trapped in an abortion clinic, and there's something scarier than the people after her. This one gets a little political, which I'm not a fan of, but the effects are top-notch and Ron Perlman rules.

EPSIODE 24: The Black Cat

Tapping another icon of the American literary horror scribes, Stuart Gordon returns with his take on Edgar Allen Poe's story of writer's block and madness. Gordon incorporates details from Poe's own life into the screenplay, and the incomparable Jeffrey Combs plays Poe perfectly. This is definitely the last good entry in the Masters Of Horror series.

October Horror Fest #21: MASTERS OF HORROR, PART 1

Masters Of Horror was a great idea that produced some really interesting and occasionally brilliant short films. The genesis of the project was director Mick Garris, best known for his film adaptations of Stephen King material (Sleepwalkers, The Stand, etc.) He wrote or co-wrote each episode and handed them to his circle of friends-basically every noteworthy horror director alive-and the Showtime series was the result. Carpenter, Hooper, Dante, Argento, they're all here.

Despite the pedigree of talent involved the total output was, for the most part, mediocre. A number of factors could be responsible: the shortened format, the availability of good talent, or maybe the inclusion of some questionable directors (Peter Medak? Really?) Still, it produced some excellent work; here's a guide to the best episodes.

EPISODE 2: H.P. Lovecraft's Dreams In The Witch-House

Stuart Gordon has established himself as the authority on film adaptations of Lovecraft. Since Re-Animator, no one has surpassed him in either quality nor quantity. This version of HPL's classic tale of madness diverges a bit from the original text, but it boasts solid performances from its cast and simple yet effective special effects.

EPISODE 8: Cigarette Burns

John Carpenter almost always writes his own films, so it's interesting to see him interpret ideas from someone else. The subject matter is also unusual for Carpenter: it's more of a murder mystery than a straight horror. But there's plenty of bloodshed and some genuine twists that keep you involved until the very end.

EPISODE 13: Imprint

By far the most controversial episode of the entire series, Imprint is a trippy descent into a haunted man's subconscious, where nothing is as it seems. As the story evolves, everything you discover becomes something else entirely. Takashi Miike is truly the master of subversive cinema. Showtime refused to air this episode because of its truly horrific content; don't watch this on a full stomach.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

October Horror Fest #20: WARLOCK: THE ARMAGEDDON

I didn't think I'd be reviewing any movie worse than Children Of The Living Dead or Pieces, but you can't pass up a golden opportunity like this.

Julian Sands is a bad motherfucker. You can tell, because he has a skullet and a British accent. Oh, and he's also the son of Satan. Apparently, there's a few rocks you gotta play with if you want to bring Papa Beelzebub up out of the basement.

If you want ridiculous, you're in for a treat. Cohesive plot? Nope. Cool special effects? Your iPhone can make better ones. Wearing a stone, looking at the moon and being instantly impregnated by Satan? You bet your sweet ass.

The first Warlock actually isn't that bad a movie. You don't expect much, and it doesn't deliver much. But this is Mystery Science Theater 3000 quality stuff right here. You'd have to get up pretty early in the morning to find someone overacting as hard as Julian Sands does in this movie. Jesus Christ, he's shooting dudes with his finger and spouting Wild West one-liners afterward. And keeping a straight face. Leave it to a Brit to try and make a z-grade sci-fi/horror thriller into Shakespeare.

Yes, this film is terrible. But it's also awesome. It has slipped the mortal coil of this world and passed beyond the "so bad it's bad" purgatory. You will groan with disgust and cry with joy. Watching Warlock: The Armageddon is the closest a guy will ever come to giving birth. Embrace the madness.

October Horror Fest #19: HATCHET

The tagline says it all. This is an old-school American horror movie, and it comes with all the good and bad things associated with the genre. Writer/Director Adam Green definitely knows his subject well, and it's obvious that this isn't a slick Hollywood money-grab. The story succeeds in establishing a new icon in the Freddy/Jason/Michael vein, albeit with a bit less staying power. The trailer, which was made as a pitch to solicit funds to make the feature length film, does an excellent job of setting the mood, tone and overall feel of what Hatchet is all about.

Hatchet is everything a slasher should be. Some dumb girls get topless, a killer stalks the woods and picks off victims one by one, and the blood flows with no compromise. Movies like this get made every year, but this one has something that sets it above the rest: a heart. Green understands what makes a good scary movie, and that's immediately apparent in every aspect of the film. The characters are firmly established, even the expendable ones. Everyone has a story, and that's the essential component.

There are some horror icon cameos from Tony Todd(Candyman) and Robert Englund(Nightmare On Elm Street), plus Kane Hodder (Jason Voorhees in Friday The 13th 7-11) pulling double duty as both Victor Crowley and Crowley's father in flashbacks. The rest of the cast is relatively anonymous, but they all play their parts well and convincingly.

The one drawback here is the idea that, as competent as Hatchet is, it could have been better. There's a bit too much campy humor, and while the kill scenes CGI-free and inventive, they feel a little too set up. It's nearly impossible to make a slasher movie unpredictable, but there are ways to make it a little less so. Still, this is a highly entertaining movie with high replay value. Any horror fan worth his or her salt needs this in their library.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

October Horror Fest #18: THE BROOD

David Cronenberg found his first real success with The Brood. After underground cult favorites Shivers and Rabid, this film would cement his status as the godfather of "body horror".

Inspired by a bitter custody battle for his daughter at the time, The Brood explores subjects like parthenogenesis, psychotherapy and telepathy. Pretty high-concept for a horror movie, but Cronenberg is a master of balancing intelligent ideas with the bloody visceral thrills horror fans seek out. In this case, a woman under the care of an experimental psychotherapist (Oliver Reed) expresses her negative thoughts and desires through evil spawn-children she breeds in a secret facility.

This film works well on two levels. First and foremost, it is truly frightening to watch. Scary kids in horror movies these days are completely played out, but the titular little devils in The Brood aren't some little Asian ghost kid in an elevator. They're more like tiny devil Terminators, created and driven by a single force. Imagine the manifestation of all your deepest, most diabolical thoughts in the bodies of a group of 7-year-olds. That's scary.

Second, the film forces you to dwell on some uncomfortable thoughts, like what your mind's potential really is. A patient in the facility develops lymphatic cancer as a result of his deep self-hatred. Another breaks out in welts all over his body, a manifestation of the pain caused by his father's abuse. Thirty years after this film we still have only a limited understanding of what our brains are capable of. Are these ideas so far-fetched?

The film drags a bit here and there, but overall it's an excellent example of Cronenberg's talents. You'll find yourself cringing whenever a character enters a dark room, knowing an evil creature that's almost a child is hiding somewhere inside.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

October Horror Fest #17: THE MONSTER SQUAD

Many of our most cherished cinematic moments are from childhood; the first movie you went to see in the theater, or something the whole family would watch every Christmas. Me, I remember the Saturday morning movie on WB 11. In October it was usually a horror movie; I remember being scared shitless by Poltergeist II and Rawhead Rex. But this same Saturday time slot also brought the two best "kids scary adventure" movies into my life: The Goonies and The Monster Squad.

It didn't quite have the impact of the Spielberg-produced classic from two years before, but definitely had a lot going for it: directed by Fred Dekker (House, Night Of The Creeps), written by Shane Black (the Lethal Weapon series) and the magic touch of special effects wizard Stan Winston (Terminator, Aliens, Predator, every awesome movie ever).

The story is fun and original, much like The Goonies: a group of neighborhood kids discover Van Helsing's diary, and find out that a secret amulet holds the key to keeping evil in limbo. Every 100 years, the amulet is vulnerable to forces of darkness, and that just happens to be tomorrow night. A man bursts into the local police station screaming that he's a werewolf, a mummy disappears from the local museum, and Dracula is blowing up the kids' treehouse. Time to kick ass!

After 20+ years and the fact that this is really a kid's movie, The Monster Squad really holds up well. The creature effects are brilliant, there are classic lines galore ("The Wolfman's got nards!" "I thought you were a virgin! Well, Steve doesn't count.") and all the young actors play their parts perfectly. One forgets sometimes that these are young kids, and good acting isn't easy. Also of note is Duncan Regehr's portrayal of Count Dracula' many consider it to be the best portrayal of that character on film. Not bad for a kid's movie.

Sadly, a movie like this wouldn't succeed if it were released today. It seems like MTV, Pixar and the Twilight franchise have a stranglehold on the tween audience. But that's what a cult film is all about; staying below the radar and building a dedicated following. That's what The Monster Squad has done over the years. It was finally released on DVD in 2007, and has enough special features to satisfy every fan of this great movie.

October Horror Fest #16: NEAR DARK

It's about time to counter all the Twilight bullshit. Vampires that sparkle and don't suck blood? Are you kidding me?? Do me a favor: if you're over the age of 13 and read these books or go to see these movies, find a knife and run into it. Repeatedly.

Here's a real vampire movie, one of the new that don't mince around. Near Dark is bleak, visceral and unrelenting. No prancing Euro-trash fems here; despite the word "vampire" never being spoken, these bloodsuckers are the real deal. All thirst and no remorse. When a small-town Texas teen runs into a pretty girl one night, their makeout session doesn't exactly turn out all too well. Soon he's looking more pale than usual and has a real problem with sunlight. The girl's traveling dysfunctional brood reluctantly takes him into their fold, and the blood flows.

The theme of vampirism as a metaphor for addiction has been explored before and after this film, but Near Dark is by far the best example of it. Falling in with bad people, the cop at the bus station cornering Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) to see "what he's on", abandoning of the family - it all fits. The desolate rural Texas setting amplifies the atmosphere; overbearing sunlight during the day keeps the "family" in dark corners and limits most travel to cold, lonely nights.

Bill Paxton is at his best when he's playing either an asshole or a psychopath; as the maniacal wild-card Severin, he's both. It's a wonder that a vampire so off his rocker is still going after 100+ years. Lance Henriksen doesn't usually play the bad guy, but as the leader of the brood here he does it perfectly. Charming and humorous, but remorseless and ultimately a dead end for anyone that crosses his path.

Like all great horror films, this one is driven by the strength of its characters. It even has some morals to it - Caleb's love for his family leads to his salvation. Director Kathryn Bigelow has had a limited but excellent career; after this she went on the direct Point Break, K:19 - The Widowmaker and this year's The Hurt Locker, by far the best film made yet about the Iraq War. Apparently a Near Dark remake is in the works, but until then enjoy this one. The best vampire movie of the last thirty years.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

October Horror Fest #15: THE FUNHOUSE

Tobe Hooper is one of those horror icons, like Joe Dante and Don Coscarelli, that never quite had the success of their peers. After the unexpected success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the critically acclaimed TV-movie version of Stephen King's Salem's Lot, Hooper was offered this film from screenwriter Larry Block. It was well received and made a good profit, but unfortunately it would be the last major movie Hooper was involved in before the Poltergeist controversy all but ruined his career in Hollywood.

After a great opening sequence homage to both Halloween and Psycho (and barely legal nudity) the film jumps right into the plot: four teenagers smoke some weed and crash the local carnival. They ride some rides, sneak into a peep show and then head for the titular attraction. Unbeknown to them, the carnie freaks have more than just scares waiting in the dark.

This movie hits all the right notes for a horror movie. The cinematography and set design capture the creepy old carnival atmosphere perfectly. It's a setting that would seem to lend itself to horror movies more often, but it's seldom used (or used well, for that matter). When the carnie freaks finally show up, the makeup effects are scary and realistic; one can only hope that Eli Roth will stay away from CGI in his proposed remake.

Despite, or maybe because of, the lack of any name actors, the performances are spot on and convincing. The kids are a little more 3-dimensional than the usual stalk 'n slash fare, but this isn't Carrie. The pacing is tight and the camerawork is almost reminiscent of The Shining with the utilization of wide angles and Steadicam shots. Definitely check this one out.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Self-referential horror films have been in vogue since Scream, and I can't really say that I'm a fan. There's enough tongue-in-cheek, ironic humor in our culture as it is; there's no need to include my beloved horror movies in the fray. Slash and let slash, you could say.

Once in a while, though, something comes along that's good enough to be an exception. Behind The Mask does that for me. Part mockumentary, part straight-up slasher, this film is more ambitious than most - and it succeeds. An investigative news crew has been invited by the titular character to follow him around as he prepares for his next big kill, the one that will put him on the map. Along the way, he demonstrates how horror cliches are set up, introduces the crew to a retired killer that inspired his work, and ends up going after the crew themselves.

Granted, there are quite a few self-referential moments and humorous scenes. Nathan Baesel does a superb job as Vernon, playing both the average all-American nice guy and a homicidal maniac with ease. His descriptions of cardio workouts and the escape points from the old farmhouse are hilarious. But its in the second half of the film, when the crew is past the point of Man Bites Dog and realize that they're a part of the madness, that things kick into high gear and the real mayhem starts.

Writer/director Scott Glosserman balances both the humor and the bloodshed very well. The film never loses its focus, and the actors involved play their roles straight. Cameos from Robert Englund and Zelda Rubinstein (Poltergeist) are a nice touch, and the transition from documentary footage to actual movie is virtually seamless and comes at the right time. You don't need to be a huge horror nerd to get all the references thrown in, but a good knowledge of all things Freddy, Jason and Michael won't hurt.

October Horror Fest #13: THE FOG

Sandwiched between the unprecedented success of Halloween cult classic Escape From New York, John Carpenter wrote and directed this excellent ghost story dealing with undead pirates haunting a sleepy north California coastal town. Despite a limited budget, Carpenter insisted on shooting The Fog in an anamorphic format. This adds to the feel and cinematography of the film considerably, and succeeds in making the movie "bigger" without the budget.

This is really where Carpenter hits his stride. He seems to be at his strongest when he takes on the writer/director/composer roles all at once. The cast is full of familiar faces from his previous films: Jamie Lee Curtis, Charles Cyphers, Tom Atkins, Adrienne Barbeau, and Nancy Loomis all make appearances, as well as screen legends Hal Holbrook and Janet Leigh. Rob Bottin lends his makeup effect wizardy to the ghost pirates, and turn them into something much more than floating apparitions. These are vengeful, murderous spirits than can't be bargained with or escaped from. The fact they are hidden by a glowing green fog much of the time adds to the tension, and when they are finally revealed, the scares pay off big time.

Some people wonder what makes the difference between a good horror film and a bad one. Whether it's Halloween, The Fog, The Thing or any of the others, the answer can be found in most Carpenter movies: character. When the audience can relate to what a person is going through on the screen, the story becomes much more personal. Carpenter's films are driven by strong, identifiable characters. The Fog succeeds in this regard tremendously. Whether it's the tortured soul of Father Malone, Stevie's frantic search for her son or Nick Castle determined to get to the bottom of what's going on, all the characters are well-defined and have a purpose. This is diametrically opposed to the 2005 remake, which should be avoided at all costs.

Monday, October 12, 2009

October Horror Fest #12: NIGHTMARE CITY

This might not be much of an endorsement, but Nightmare City is by far the best shitty zombie movie ever made. It treads that fine line of cheesy and awesome that a lot of horror movies hover around. To most, it won't seem that much different than any other bad foreign zombie film of the 80s...but it is. There aren't too many plots for this kind of movie; in this case, a plane exposed to radiation gets the undead rolling. Plane lands, zombies attack, city is...nightmarish!

Yes, you'll be laughing through a lot of this, but that doesn't take away from it at all. These zombies run, know kung fu, and can use machine guns. I repeat: kung fu and machine guns. If you have a problem with that, I don't want to know you. They're more like vampires in that they go after blood instead of flesh, and they still have control over most motor skills (One of them manually lowers an office elevator!).

There's extremely little in the way of story or character development once the blood starts flowing. There's a news reporter/doctor couple on the run, and a general's wife holed up in her isolated mansion. Everything else is pretty much "run away from zombies". The zombie makeup is noteworthy for its shitiness: the blood-sucking goons look like they stuck their faces in a pot of hot oatmeal. There's a hint of some kind of social commentary, how there are "monsters creating monsters" or something, but a Romero movie this ain't.

Later films, especially the Dawn Of The Dead remake, would utilize zombies that do more than stagger around, so you could say this was a precursor. But really, these zombies can drive cars, sneak around, pretty much everything but talk, so it's one of a kind. I recommend picking up a 6-pack of Samuel Adams Octoberfest and settling down with Nightmare City. By the end of the last beer, you might love this movie as much as I do.

October Horror Fest #11: PIECES

If you want some horrible acting and ridiculous plot lines, you're in the right place. Pieces tries to be several movies at once and fails pretty miserably at all of them. Chalk this one up to a Bermuda Triangle of shit:

1. Despite being filmed in Boston, half the cast is Spanish and dubbed horribly into English.

2. The lighting is so bad, most of the scenes are awash in shadows and you can't even tell what's happening.

3. Joe D'Amato wrote it.

There's a chainsaw killer loose on campus, and it apparently has something to do with nude jigsaw puzzles and tennis. Don't ask.

There's some full-frontal nudity, a whole lot of blood, and even more incoherent story. It's slightly reminiscent of the Italian giallo horror flicks that Argento was pumping out around the same time, but only because of the killer P.O.V. camera techniques.

I've sat through many a shitty horror movie, and I've been known to love quite a few of them. But Pieces actually takes effort to sit through all of it. If you're up for the challenge, power to you. If not, I understand. Not everyone can be as awesome as me.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

October Horror Fest #10: HELL NIGHT

Ah, now this is everything a classic 80s horror movie should be. Drunk college kids, a haunted house, inventive kill scenes and Linds Blair. What more do you need? Released in the summer of '81, Hell Night wasn't a huge success (it was actually the last film released by defunct Compass International Pictures) but this was the Golden Age of the Slasher, so there were plenty of quality flicks getting passed over by the public.

Four pledges (two guys and two girls) are instructed to spend Hell Night in haunted Garth Manor. While the pledge masters have been setting traps and practical jokes, the very real surviving member of the family that was massacred there has a plan of his own for the trespassers.

This movie really succeeds on all levels. The set design is fantastic; shades of The Shining, Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre can be seen throughout the mansion and its grounds. The kids aren't stupid, either. When they realize what's happening, they take charge and refuse to just be victims. The killer isn't seen until late in the movie, which is also a good effect that prolongs the tension and keeps the mood scary. Linda Blair is the only recognizable talent, but each actor's performance is decent to say the least.

Aside from some dated dialogue and lack of nudity, Hell Night has all the qualities a classic horror movie should. This is a definite must-own for serious horror fans, and even casual viewers should check this out ASAP. You'll be glad you did.

October Horror Fest #9: DEAD & BREAKFAST

Horror-comedies are tough to pull off well. The name alone is an oxymoron; how can something scary be funny, and vice versa? This goes beyond black comedy, or a horror movie with a funny scene or two. I'm making a statement: the ONLY horror-comedy that exists is Evil Dead II. No other film (that I've seen, at least) balances the gruesome horror and laughs like Raimi's classic splatter fest. Everything else that is classified as a "horror-comedy" falls into the "funny movie with gore" category. This is where we find Dead & Breakfast.

This is not to say these movies are necessarily bad. This film, along with peers Shaun Of The Dead, Fido and others are very well done and have some great performances. There is no skimping on the gore or makeup effects, either; plenty of blood and guts are flying here. The plot for Dead & Breakfast is simple: traveling group of friends stop at sketchy deserted hotel, some residents end up dead, group becomes suspects, evil spirit is accidentally released and the townsfolk turn into zombies. Makes perfect sense.

Strong performances from genre vets like Jeremy Sisto, Gina Phillips and David Carradine (who probably did this as a favor to his daughter Ever) boost the legitimacy of the film, which is then balanced out by painfully unfunny zombie dancing scenes and hip-hop/country songs about the undead. This movie would have been much better if they had played it straight; the last stand in the hotel at the end is right up there with Night Of The Living Dead in tension and scariness.

Ultimately, this is a decent movie with lots of replay value. Most of the funny scenes are actually funny, and the flesh-chomping is in full gear. Definitely one to put on during a Halloween party; everyone can appreciate it, even those weird folks averse to scary movies. What's with those people?

Friday, October 9, 2009

October Horror Fest #8: RACE WITH THE DEVIL

This is the kind of horror flick Tarantino and Rodriguez had on their minds when they were talking about "grindhouse cinema". Car chases, Satanic cults, Texas yokels, and a few Seventies icons. Race With The Devil rules from start to finish.

First of all, any movie with Peter Fonda AND a fancy new '75 Winnebago is a winner by default. Despite its hokey premise - two all-American couples stalked through Texas back roads by evil cult - it's the 70s and everyone is playing it straight, which removes the humorous irony that most scary movies tend to dwell on these days. Peter Fonda and Warren Oates lend a sense of credibility; these guys were still in their prime at the time, not desperate for work.

The film looks great in that Seventies way; a little washed out, but made up for with tight shots and good cinematography. The creepy score comes courtesy of Leonard Rosenman, who won an Oscar the same year for his work on Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. There isn't much gore or anything, but the sense of unrelenting dread makes for that in spades. Once the pursuit is underway, it doesn't let up until the surprisingly downer ending.

There really ought to be more RVs in horror movies; other than this and that scene in Friday The 13th Part 6, I can't really think of any. So, with that in mind, I can honestly say this is the best RV horror movie of all time. Check it out.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

October Horror Fest #7: NIGHTBREED

Clive Barker is an icon in the horror community. Stephen King famously referred to Barker as "the future of horror" and, millions of copies sold later, that prediction more or less came true. But like many other horror authors (including King himself) the transition from page to screen has been spotty, at best.

Nightbreed, based on Barker's novella Cabal, was plagued with production woes and negative studio intervention. Coming off the success of Hellraiser, Barker was obligated to deliver an R-rated film that was less gory, a ridiculous task to say the least. Combined with the studio forcing Barker to cut almost an hour from the final cut, the end result looks and feels like an incomplete movie. If this film were a book, it would only be a few chapters.

There are highlights, however. Danny Elfman's original score is fantastic. It sets the mood for each scene and sounds exactly like the soundtrack to a classic monster movie should. The makeup effects for the Nightbreed creatures are easily the best part of the film, followed closely by the set design. Each monster has a unique appearance and personality; they're not just otherworldly beasts, they're characters that you can invest in. Over the course of the film, the monsters of the Underworld go from being scary things in the dark to sympathetic, almost human, beings. They're the good guys this time.

The human characters' motivations are the biggest question marks in the film: why does Boone dream of Midian, the old cemetery home of the Nightbreed? Why does Dr. Decker (David Cronenberg), Boone's psychiatrist, want to destroy it? Why is the town sheriff such a prick? Perhaps these are all explained in Nightbreed's cut footage, which as of today is still sitting in a studio vault somewhere collecting dust. Recent petitions from horror fans have led to the release of other lost classics (Phantasm II being a recent example). Maybe the time has come to give Mr. Barker his due and get a director's cut of this film into the light of day.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

October Horror Fest #6: THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE

For this entry we travel to Spain, the home of visionary director Guillermo del Toro. The common thread running through del Toro's work is the fairy tale story; many of his films deal with children in perilous situations, and their battles to escape or resolve them.

Like it's popular "spiritual sequel" Pan's Labyrinth, this film is set in Spain during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. Young Carlos arrives at an orphanage, believing his father will come to retrieve him when the war is over. Almost immediately, the boy is witness to a ghostly apparition that only enhances the turmoil surrounding him in the isolated and decrepit orphanage.

Themes of abandonment and innocence lost permeate The Devil's Backbone. The desolate orphanage provide the perfect setting for hopelessness. Ghost stories may seem played out as horror film topics these days, but del Toro delivers the atmosphere and genuine chills that makes this work extremely well. The young child actors are be commended for handling such heavy material not only competently, but masterfully.

As I've mentioned before, the best way to watch a foreign film is with the original language audio track and subtitles. Dubbing just ruins the atmosphere, especially for a film trying to scare you. So remember that when you sit down to experience The Devil's Backbone. Warning: if you have kids, you'll never want to let them out of your sight after watching this. Enjoy.

October Horror Fest #5: SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE

This is an interesting film. It's a somewhat-fictionalized account of the filming of Nosferatu, the infamous 1922 German adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. The rumors and speculations surrounding that film have all the makings of a Hollywood movie, so it's a wonder it took almost 80 years to make it happen. Nicolas Cage's Saturn Films produced, with donations made online from private individuals being rewarded with a "virtual producer" credit on the DVD.

This movie works very well on multiple levels. The casting is brilliant; Malkovich as the egomaniacal perfectionist director F.W. Murnau is wonderfully fitting, and no one but Willem Dafoe could play the inimitably creepy and downright repulsive Max Schreck (who has to pull double duty, playing Schreck who is playing the character Graf Orlock). The legend goes that while Murnau was scouting locations in Eastern Europe for Nosferatu, he found Schreck living in a decrepit castle feeding on the blood of rodents. Stranger than fiction...

Shadow Of The Vampire is a wonderful ode to the era of silent film. The recreated scenes from Nosferatu are shot in black-and-white, but the rest of the movie is drenched in dark hues and stark angles. This maintains the atmosphere and theme of the whole idea. While there are a few moments of dark humor, all the actors are playing their roles straight here, which adds to the feeling of a genuine horror movie. The outstanding cast is rounded out by genuine talent like Cary Elwes, Udo Kier, Eddie Izzard and Catherine McCormack.

Dafoe lost out on the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor to Benicio Del Toro (Traffic) that year, so one can't really say he was robbed, but his performance was definitely worthy of recognition. He became Max Schreck in that role. While the film received plenty of critical praise and turned a profit, it seems to get lost in the shuffle of great horror films over the last decade. It's a fantastic movie with a great story and incredible performances; make it your next Netflix rental.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Being a horror movie fan means sifting through a lot of shit. For every great scary flick that gets made, there's about twenty godawful abominations. I'm not in the habit of recommending bad films, but Children Of The Living Dead needs to be seen, if only so I'm not alone.

I bought this on DVD in a rare moment of impulse; I had never seen in, nor knew anything about it. There were 3 indicators that compelled me to grab it:

1. It's a zombie movie.
2. The cover looked cool.
3. Tom Savini is in it.

How can you go wrong? Well, you can. Horribly, horribly wrong.

Looks cool, right? It starts off promising enough; some grave robbing, a badass main zombie with great makeup effects, and Sex Machine kicking all kinds of undead ass. Then the movie hits the ten minute mark, and it all goes to shit. There's some dumb kids traveling through town in a van, a la The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and you're actually pulling for the zombies to kill them because they're so goddamn unlikeable. The head zombie, an evil preacher or something (hard to tell because the exposition makes no sense) goes from destroying everything in his path to shambling around the rest of the movie. I'm not kidding; there's scenes where it's just this guy staggering through the woods or a field, not doing a damn thing.

This one comes dangerously close to crossing the line from "hilariously bad" to "painfully bad". Some decent action, kills and Tom Savini save it from being a complete failure, but just by a hair. If anything, it can inspire would-be zombie filmmakers. Someone invested money in this pile of shit, so why not yours?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

October Horror Fest #3: DOG SOLDIERS

Dog Soldiers not only succeeds as a horror film, but as a film period. Director Neil Marshall says it best: "This isn't a werewolf movie with soldiers, this is a soldier movie that happens to have werewolves". Masterfully directed, well acted, and featuring some of the best non-CGI effects seen in a long time, this is arguably the greatest debut for a horror film director since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

A group of British grunts are dropped into the Scottish wilderness for war games against a rival unit. Several of the main characters have some good, gritty conflict going before any blood is shed. When the opposing team is found slaughtered, the soldiers find themselves hunted by a pack of big-ass lycanthropes and hole up in an isolated farmhouse. That's when things get really good.

I really can't say enough good things about this movie. The dialogue is spot-on, and is complimented by the great performances from a somewhat-unknown (at least to us in the US) cast. If there are any computer-driven effects, I can't find them, The werewolves are as realistic as you can imagine, realistic and huge. They never wear out their welcome, which is a trap too many horror films tend to fall into. Marshall knows that fear of the unknown is the biggest fear of all, and he keeps his audience on its toes.

As great as the action/kill scenes with the werewolves are, it's the human element that pushes this film from 'decent' to 'outstanding'. Each character has a real personality and is memorable in his or her own way. The conflicts that arise once the group has barricaded themselves in are just as dangerous as the beasts creeping around outside. If you haven't seen this movie, clear your Netflix queue and make it happen. There's rumor of a sequel in the works (of course) but in the meantime Neil Marshall's follow-up to Dog Soldiers, The Descent, is also required viewing for any fan of well-made horror flicks.

Good werewolf movies come along once in a blue moon. (Sorry, I had to.) This is the best one since The Howling. Yeah, I said it!

Friday, October 2, 2009

October Horror Fest #2: TENEBRE

Any self-respecting horror fan these days has seen a few Argento films, and at least know a bit of what he's about. His movies are pretty much a wet t-shirt contest: awesome to look at, but not much else going on. That isn't to take away from what he's accomplished, though. The cinematography, camerawork and set design in classics like Suspiria and Deep Red is second to none, not to mention the gory special effects that kept the fans coming back for more.

Tenebre's plot is fairly derivative of the giallo genre: best-selling author goes to Rome, serial killer uses scenes from said best-seller as inspiration, creepy characters and nudity follow. It's not one of Argento's best-known films, but it has its merits.

The familiar black-gloved unseen killer is in full effect here, slashing his/her way through victims in scenes that are, to be frank, set up pretty ridiculously. How else do you explain a girl getting dumped in the middle of the street by a mad boyfriend, only to be chased by a raging Doberman through random backyards until she ends up in the killer's lair!? But as I mentioned before, when in comes to dear old Dario, plot and acting skills always take a back seat to kill sequences.

There are those who have said Argento is a misogynist; apparently, these people don't watch slasher movies too often. True, there are some fairly vicious death sequences contained here, but pretty girls have been getting offed in horrible ways since the Universal cycle of monster movies in the Thirties. The cat-and-mouse played here between the killer and the author (Anthony Franciosa) is a small step up from the generic whodunit; there are several well-placed red herrings, and even serious mystery fans will have trouble guessing the killer's identity before the reveal.

Argento enlisted the skills of Italian ambient soundscape rockers Goblin to score Tenebre, as he had throughout his 1970s/80s prime. The main theme is effective and haunting, and was recently covered by the excellent Finnish death-doom metal masters in HOODED MENACE. (You can listen to it at their Myspace here.)

This isn't Argento's best work, but it's certainly not his worst. Innovative camera angles, gaudy 80s Roman sets and a scene-chewing John Saxon all add to the film's charm. The one big drawback to this DVD version, like the rest of Anchor Bay's Argento releases, is the lack of subtitles for the original audio track. The dubbing is abysmal. Still, check this out if you can. It was the first Argento film I ever saw and it quickly led to the works of Fulci, both Bavas and the other Italian splatter maestros.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

October Horror Fest #1: NIGHT OF THE DEMONS

This 1988 classic was a welcome departure from the repetitive slasher flicks that were dominating the horror genre at the time. The plot was simple enough: group of horny high school kids decide to have a Halloween party in abandoned, possibly haunted funeral home. Seance occurs. Demoniacal hijinks ensue!

The story isn't exactly original; it's been done before, and plenty of times since. What sets Night Of The Demons apart is some good cinematography, several memorable characters, decent acting and, most importantly, great special effects. There was actually a bit of controversy surrounding the movie; hard to believe now, but it was turned down by just about every U.S. film distributor due to its violence and gore. The release was pushed back from September to October until a European distributor picked it up. The gore in the movie will seem extremely tame to any horror fan these days, but at the time its notoriety just amped up ticket sales. It was moderately successful and led to 2 decent sequels...and the inevitable remake, which comes out this month.

Now unless you get really frightened by scary movies, Night Of The Demons isn't going to be keeping you up at night. Like most 80s horror flicks, this works best with a group of friends and alcohol. There are some classic lines ("Yeah, man, eat a bowl of fuck! I came to party!") and exchanges, like this one in a 7-11 before the party:

Suzanne: Do you guys have Sour Balls?
Convenience Store Clerk: Why sure we do.
Suzanne: Too bad. I bet you don't get many blow jobs!

Suzanne is played by the aforementioned Linnea Quigley, so you know what to expect there. There's also a somewhat random demon-possessed dance sequence set to a Bauhaus song. Did I mention this was an 80s movie?

This really is a notch above most other horror flicks of the time. The production value is high despite a modest ($1.2 million) budget; Hull House, the haunted setting for the party, is convincing and actually pretty scary. Plus the token black kid doesn't die first, or even second! Keep an eye out for the mean old guy with the apples. He gets what's coming to him.

(Watch the whole thing on Youtub
e here.)