Monday, 26 October 2020

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: Race with the Devil

Race with the Devil

Dir: Jack Starrett. Cast: Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Switt, Lara Parker. 1975.

Race with the Devil is the kind of movie that packs it all in — Satanism, car chases, motorbike racing, Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Switt, creepy trees, and leaping snakes! It’s also the kind of movie that, once you let your defences down around, reveals itself as a pure movie-watching experience. And that’s why it’s one of my favourite horror movies.

Devil is a flick that exists to entertain. Well, it exists to make money through entertaining, but close enough, because here, we get what we came for. 

A drive-in staple of the 1970’s, Race with the Devil follows two couples as they take to the back roads of Texas in a Winnebago, looking for a break from city life. Any of us who have seen Deliverance know how well that is going to go, and true to form, one boozy night, Fonda and Oates witness a Black Mass complete with sacrifice. To get things going proper, the Satanists realize they’ve been spotted, and the chase begins. 

And it’s this chase that makes up the majority of the film’s running time, with stops along the way for breaks in the action, and opportunities to ratchet up the paranoia. 

Director Starrett was expert at making exploitation moves work, with directorial credits that include Run, Angel Run!, Slaughter and Cleopatra Jones. After Devil, he’d go on to direct A Small Town in Texas and Walking Tall: Final Chapter. The primary actors — Fonda, Oates, Switt and Parker — are likeable, believable as couples and as friends, and many of the decisions they make are logical, given the structure of the movie. The chases are exciting, the cult scenes are suspenseful, and somehow, jamming all these varied elements together works. 

If you’re in search of some PG-rated, drive-in style horror thrills, Race with the Devil is as good as it gets. 

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

What Makes the Horror Community?

As a life-long horror fan about to end his fifty-fifth year, I have come to realize something obvious: Although there are certain films that are canon within the genre, it’s the ones that aren’t that give it — and us — our character. 

Whether we connect with them or not, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist will always be pillars of the genre, but what about the flicks that fill in the gaps between those pillars? For me, these are films like Philip S. Gilbert’s Blood and Lace, Peter Sasdy’s Hands of the Ripper and Brian De Palma’s The Fury, horror movies that I connect with personally, but that aren’t recognized as essential. 

These are the films that add perspective to genre appreciation, the very thing that defines me as individual from you and your horror fanaticism. It’s a pleasure to be able to introduce a fellow horror nerd to a lesser known movie that I love, to be able to introduce them to my perspective, even though sometimes it’s a flop. You pays your money, you take your chances, so to speak. 

Canon titles are essential, they are cornerstones of any genre, and if someone were to ask me about how to start getting into horror movies, I’d tell them to seek out those titles immediately. You know the ones, the ones that appear on pretty much every list. 

I’d tell them to be fearless and without prejudice, to seek out silent movies, movies from every corner of the globe, get rid of any fear they have of subtitles, lousy dubbing, format, age, and god forbid, black and white. 

If they get hooked, well then, they’re going to start seeking out the films that will give them their personality as a horror fan. They’re going to look for other movies from the director of a canon film they’ve connected with, or its studio, writer or country of origin.   

Once we’ve moved through the canon, the joy is in finding the films that matter to each of us individually. That’s when we truly find out who we are as horror people.

One last thought about all of this: We need to allow people to have their own likes and dislikes, their own taste, and therefore, their own personalities within the genre. It isn’t up to us to say that this or that film is “shit”. It can only ever be up to each of us to say that we didn’t connect with this or that film. 

We need to encourage diversity within the horror community, just as we need to encourage it in the world outside of our dark little cabal. 

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: Onibaba


Dir: Kaneto Shindo. Cast: Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Satō, Taiji Tonoyama. 1964.

When I first saw Onibaba, I was instantly taken by how unsentimental and adult it is in terms of its attitude and presentation. Its nudity is casual. The nature of its characters is unapologetically brutal and self-serving. Their actions reveal humans with the hearts and morals of insects. Artistically, its imagery is striking, pulling the viewer into its simple story that, at its core, reveals human nature at its most raw and mercenary.

Set during a 14th century civil war in Japan, Onibaba tells of an old woman and her daughter-in-law who await the return from battle of their son/husband, and in the meantime, make do by killing soldiers and selling their armour and possessions. While the object of their attention remains AWOL, another soldier returns to his home nearby, which causes tension between the two women. There is more, but this is where anyone intent on not eroding a first-time viewing for others should stop, and so I will. 

Onibaba is a hag-demon from Japanese folklore. Director William Friedkin says that its representation here contributed to the look of the demon Pazuzu in Father Karass’ dream within The Exorcist. Aside from any common physical characteristics, these two horror classic share something bigger — an exploration of the human condition under extraordinary conditions. Onibaba is arguably the best Japanese horror movie ever made. 

Monday, 15 June 2020

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: Night of the Demon

Night of the Demon (aka Curse of the Demon) 

Dir: Jacques Tourneur. Cast: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis. 1957.

"It's in the trees! It's coming!"

It’s hard to write anything new about this movie, but here goes. 

Based on Casting the Runes by M.R. James, director Jacques Tourneur showcases all the shadowy skills he developed under the tutelage of Val Lewton on Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man back in the 1940s. A contemporary tale of witchcraft and how not believing puts us at risk, the studio insisted that Tourneur insert shots of a demon against the director’s wishes. The look of the demon is terrific, but it’s hard to argue that the rubber demon suit is more effective than the creature’s presence would have been if simply suggested. In support of this, feel how the film raises the hair on your neck through the conjuring of a wind storm with nothing but the breeze to suggest the power of black magic. 

The plot in a nutshell concerns an American professor (Andrews) attending a parapsychology conference in London where an infamous Alister Crowly-like warlock (MacGinnis) is to be discredited. The professor is handed a rune which preordains his death unless he can pass it back. There’s much more to it, of course, but that’s the ten cent plot tour. 

Night/Curse is eerie, entertaining, smart and effective. There are scenes that recall Hitchcock without seeming derivative, and MacGinnis’ performance itself deserves a place in the Rogue’s Gallery of the best of Hitchcock’s villains. Kate Bush fans will recognize some of the film’s dialogue at the beginning of the Hounds of Love track from the album of the same name.  

Thursday, 14 May 2020

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: Let’s Scare Jessica to Death

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death
Dir: John Hancock. Cast: Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Mariclare Costello, Kevin O’Connor, Gretchen Corbett. 1971.

This movie is about being haunted. Thing is, it will also haunt you. If you let it. 

That’s what it did/does to me. I saw it on, I believe, the ABC Movie of the Week, back in the 70’s when I was a kid. I liked this movie. A few years later, I revisited it on VHS, and I liked it even more. Then I picked up the DVD and I began to love it. Now, I have the blu-ray…

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is built around an astounding performance from Zohra Lampert. She’s Jessica, recently released from a mental hospital, and moving with her husband, played by Barton Heyman (Dr, Klein in The Exorcist), and their friend Woody (O’Connor) to an apple farm in rural New York State. It will be good for Jessica. 

Arriving in the community, the trio stops at a cemetery so that Jessica can take rubbings from tombstones. They also discover that the locals don’t like hippie types moving into their neck of the woods. It’s against this background of barely sustained sanity, graveyard mementos, and outsider status that Emily (Costello) enters the picture and changes the delicate dynamic amongst the three newcomers. 

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is the kind of movie that can get under your skin, deeply, but only if you’re willing. Its characters, atmosphere and ambiguity are key to its success. If that sounds dull to you, chances are you won’t connect with this flick. For me, this is a movie that has followed me for years. I truly love it. 

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: Island of Lost Souls

Island of Lost Souls

Dir: Erle C. Kenton. Cast: Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams, Bela Lugosi, Katheleen Burke. 1932.

I can only recall twice considering something obscene because its uncanniness nauseated me. The first was while reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, specifically while Stoker describes the count scaling the exterior walls of Castle Dracula with his bare hands. It struck me as so wrong that it turned my stomach. 

Spoilers follow.

The second time was while watching the classic pre-code horror movie Island of Lost Souls. Here, Dr. Moreau is all too anxious to see what happens when a man mates with a woman who is for all intents and purposes a panther. That made me feel more than a little queasy too, especially as it plays out here. 

Key to the movie’s lurid success are the performances of Charles Laughton as Moreau (so leering, so perverted) and Kathleen Burke as Lota, “the Panther Woman” (so catlike, so needing of affection). Also adding to the so-wrong-it’s-right atmosphere is the village of Moreau’s failed experiments, half-animal, half-men grotesqueries, led by an unforgettable Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law. These unfortunates, stuck between their reality as animals and their nightmares as humans, fear The House of Pain, where they are tortured, experimented upon, but mostly die. 

H.G. Wells was reportedly outraged by Paramount Studios’ adaptation of his novel, but it’s a classic that demands to take its place along with the great films of the era. 

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Going to See Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood … Again

This movie, man. I just don't know what to make of it. I like Quinten Tarantino’s movies a lot, but I've had no desire to go back and watch them, no matter how much I've enjoyed them at the time of original release. I'm not quite sure I know what that says... I don't believe in the "do they hold up?" school of thought, so it's not that. Perhaps it's just that they are so connected to periods of time in my life and so familiar that revisiting them seems pointless. 

I wish, too, that I'd been introduced to Ringo Lam's 1987 Hong Kong action film City on Fire when I first saw Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs back in 1992. The story goes that Dogs is a rip off of City, but never having seen the latter, I can't judge for myself. I think, though, this would have informed my reaction to Tarantino and his flicks, given it some additional context beyond the hype.

Jump to 2018. Word is that Tarantino's upcoming Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is going to be about the Manson Family. My initial reaction was that I’d see it, but with trepidation. Watching Tex Watson and Susan Atkins make wise cracks while butchering celebrities just sounded like a bad time to me. 

Turns out, like a lot of click bait pieces, most of the advance online writing I’d read about OUATIH took the Manson angle out of context. This was a fairy tale about a changing Hollywood. The Manson Family, they were more of a facilitator than a focus.

And now, for the rest of this piece, we're in spoiler territory.

When the movie was eventually released, I went to see it with a group of friends. We all seemed to leave with a spectrum of reactions. It was messy (not necessarily a bad thing), but I was bothered by the ending in particular. Due to its title, I’d entered the theatre expecting a Spaghetti Western set in late 1960s Hollywood, ignoring the fact that the Once Upon a Time westerns and gangster flicks were fairy tales themselves. My bad. Tarantino’s ending here is most definitely meant as fairy tale ending, a point that was lost on me — or maybe more accurately didn’t work for me — especially during my first viewing. 

This was a movie I wanted to discuss with people. I needed to work out my reaction to it, and more importantly, my reading (or misreading) of it. I felt my reaction was out of step with everyone around me, so I went online to try to start a conversation. What I learned was that, in the cult of Tarantino, you don't question his stuff, even if it's not coming from a negative place. Unfortunately, this reaction had the effect of shutting down what I wanted to talk about. So I discussed it separately with a couple of friends who gave me their perspectives. That was useful. What I knew for certain was that I needed to see the movie again, and so I did.

The things I'd liked about the movie were still there. I loved Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Sharon Tate, the way she’s the spirit of the entire movie and of the era it portrays. It’s hard not to enjoy every second Brad Pitt is onscreen. There are some truly great scenes, like DiCaprio and Julia Butters’ exchange and their scene on Lancer; Pitt giving Margaret Qualley a ride; the Spahn Ranch sequence; Tate going to a screening of The Wrecking Crew (but putting your feet up on a theatre seat is fucked up)

Then there were some elements that all of a sudden began to work for me — the extended shots and scenes of people just driving, driving, driving, the celebration of mediocre movies and music. It was an era when people thought they had time to spare, and even movies that fail to hit their marks like Three on a Couch can be appreciated for their performances or craftsmanship. Without the expectation of a first viewing, I could sit back and let the movie play out as it was meant to. Still, there was that ending. I don't think I'll ever find it bittersweet as intended. 

For some reason, the Tate Murders have always held a horrible dark place in my psyche. They are unfathomable to me. Sitting through Tarantino’s revisionist ending the first time had left a terrible taste in my mouth. It felt somehow disingenuous, a slap in the face to Tate, her unborn baby, the others slaughtered that night. Clearly, that was not Tarantino’s point, but it was the effect it had had on me. Sitting through it a second time, I experienced the ending as it was intended. But I still found it distasteful. You don't have to, but I did. 

Still too, the elements that hadn't worked for me during that first screening still didn't work for me. Tarantino's recreations of era TV shows seem too cinematic to be believable; the silly “cute” pitbull reaction shots seem better suited to another kind of movie; there are a couple of truly embarrassing and childish jokes — Brad Pitt carrying Leonardo DiCaprio’s load, We love pussy; just what was with that Bruce Lee scene, what did the possibility that Brad Pitt's character killed his wife add to the movie; Tarantino's over the top killing of Tex, Sadie and Katie seems like Tarantino parodying himself, and if I were Tarantino’s editor, I probably would have suggested that the movie start with the meeting between DiCaprio and Al Pacino with the earlier stuff left on the editing room floor. My take.

Still, it's that ending that I keep coming back to. In Little Red Riding Hood, Grandma may have gotten cut out of the big bad wolf's stomach, but in Hollywood, Sharon Tate and her friends are still dead.