Monday, October 17, 2011

Psychobabble's 10 Most Petrifying Portmanteau Episodes


portmanteau (noun \pȯrt-ˈman tō\)
1. a large suitcase for traveling
2. a word formed by blending two or more other words
3. a horror movie anthologizing two or more distinct episodes into one horrifically zany, often inconsistent, sometimes spectacular whole, all bolted together with a wraparound story usually resolving with a ghastly ironic twist.



1. “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” from Dead of Night (1945- dir. Alberto Cavalcanti)

The first horror portmanteau is often ranked among the best, yet Dead of Night is as inconsistent as most of the anthologies that would follow. This issue is compounded by the fact that four different directors contributed episodes. Although Dead of Night was probably more of a producer’s film than a director’s, there’s no denying that Charles Crichton’s overlong and tiresomely unfunny “Golfing Story” sits uneasily alongside the film’s serious horrors. Robert Hamer’s “The Haunted Mirror” is a pretty good story, but the image in the mirror is too mundane to create an effectively terrifying atmosphere. Basil Dearden’s “Hearse Driver” is a good adaptation of a classic ghost story (which would also influence the “Twenty-Two” episode of “The Twilight Zone”), but it’s too short to register. The best episodes of this British portmanteau belong to Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti. “Christmas Party” is predictable but beautifully staged and shot. Even better is “Ventriloquist’s Dummy”, in which Michael Redgrave comes unhinged when he thinks his dummy is… steel yourself… alive! This theme would become a veritable sub-genre in itself, creeping up in E.C. Comics, “The Twilight Zone”, Magic, and elsewhere. These other variations often trumped the one in Dead of Night (Serling’s “The Dummy” is probably the best), but Dead of Night did it before them. Redgrave’s crazed expression while speaking in Hugo’s squeaky voice at the piece’s climax remains unnerving.



2. “The Black Cat” from Tales of Terror (1962- dir. Roger Corman)

Having hacked out a niche for himself as the premier Poe adapter with House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Premature Burial, Roger Corman knocked off three more tales of mystery and imagination in Tales of Terror. Well, four, considering that “The Black Cat” fuses the story of that name with “The Cask of Amontillado”. Peter Lorre’s soused stumbling as Montresor Herringbone sets the tone for Corman’s decidedly comedic reading of Poe’s chilling stories. Vincent Price’s scenery-sucking prissiness as Fortunato Luchresi is a delightful counterpoint. Like their characters, Lorre and Price spend the piece trying to one up each other. But instead of proving who is the more sensitive oenophile, the actors vie for the status of biggest ham in the galaxy. Lorre doesn’t stand a chance, but watching him go nose-to-nose with Price is part of the fun. So is a nightmare sequence in which Price and Joyce Jameson play keep-away with Lorre’s head. Corman’s camerawork will give you the bed spins. He’d yuck it up with Edgar again, loosely adapting “The Raven” the following year, but “The Black Cat” sets the bar too high for that bird to clear.

(episode begins at 2:50)


3. “The Drop of Water” from Black Sabbath (1963- dir. Mario Bava)

A master of high-contrast back and white nightmares, Mario Bava also made extraordinary use of vivid colors, as he did in his 1963 portmanteau Black Sabbath (Tre volti della paura, which translates as The Three Faces of Fear). Visually striking, Black Sabbath also gets a good deal of mileage out of Boris Karloff’s roles as narrator and vampiric star of “The Wurdalak”. That lengthy episode is the centerpiece of Black Sabbath, but the one that most terrifies viewers is “The Drop of Water”. It’s a classic tale of greed begetting vengeance from beyond the grave as a Nurse decides to swipe the gaudy ring of a recently deceased medium. Bava builds tension with the title dripping faucet and delivers the heart-stopping goods when the dead woman springs to life to terrorize the thief with her horrible, horrible rictus. The grinning corpse looks like the rubber dummy it is, yet that face is so awful and the suspense that precedes its appearance is so intense that all phoniness is forgiven.




4. “The Woman in the Snow” from Kwaidan (1964- dir. Masaki Kobayashi)

Kwaidan means “ghost story,” and Masaki Kobayashi delivers some artful ones in his 1964 portmanteau. “In a Cup of Tea” manages to make the reflection of a phantom face in a teacup deeply unsettling (was David Lynch influenced when he pulled the same trick with a coffee mug in the final episode of “Twin Peaks”?). Even better is “The Woman in the Snow”. A man lost in a storm crosses a spirit who kills his traveling partner with her icy breath. She allows him to live on the condition that he never, ever speaks of their encounter. Toru Takemitsu’s invasive score heightens the terror of the traveler’s meeting with the beautiful yet corpse-like spirit, but the most powerful moment arrives when the traveler inevitably betrays his promise. In an instant, the life he built in the ten years following that fateful night implodes. Tragic and scary, “The Woman in the Snow” is a chilling reminder that sometimes it’s best to keep your big, fat mouth shut.



5. “And All Through the House” from Tales from the Crypt (1972- dir. Freddie Francis)

Coming from the greatest purveyors of horror portmanteaus, Amicus Productions’ Tales from the Crypt is the most consistently strong creep show on this list. Even the weaker episodes (“Poetic Justice”, in which some jerks drive Peter Cushing to suicide, and “Blind Alleys”, in which the cruel director of a home for the blind receives his ironic comeuppance) are redeemed by good performances and disturbing situations. The quality of Crypt has much to do with its fine cast and Freddie Francis’s stylish direction, but boffo source material is the film’s true ace in the hole. E.C.’s horror comic line is a rich treasury of punchy, satisfyingly twisty tales perfect for adaptation into brief episodes. The best of these is one in which Joan Collins bashes her husband with a fireplace poker on Christmas Eve only to find herself on the other end of murder when a Santa-suited psycho starts stalking her. She’s then taxed with hiding her hubbie’s corpse while sidestepping that satanic St. Nick. It’s a tense and terrifying ten minutes twitching with nice touches, such as the husband’s blood-splattered newspaper denoting his death. A potent opener to the very best horror portmanteau from the most prolific portmanteau production company.



6. “Drawn and Quartered” from The Vault of Horror (1973- dir. Roy Ward Baker)

This follow up to Tales from the Crypt takes its title from another E.C. comic even though its episodes were all culled from Crypt and the non-supernatural Shock SuspenStories. Though not as unswerving as its predecessor, The Vault of Horror still delivers its share of shock and suspense. The gruesome finale finds Tom Baker as a bitter artist holed up in Haiti who strikes a nefarious deal with a witch doctor. The artist’s canvasses now possess the power to maim and kill. He puts this to use immediately, painting portraits of the various critics who’d disparaged his work in the past, then poking out the images’ eyes, tearing off their hands, and giving them magic-marker bullet holes. Naturally, all this carnage ends with the kill-crazy artist getting what’s coming to him in horrific fashion. Imaginative, nasty, and lacking a single virtuous character, “Drawn and Quartered” captures the true E.C. spirit.

(episode begins at 5:45)


7. “Amelia” from Trilogy of Terror (1975- dir. Dan Curtis)

It’s likely no one would remember this made-for-T.V. showcase for the acting talents of Karen Black and the short stories of Richard Matheson had the scribe not scripted the final episode. Black plays Amelia, a woman simply delighted with her purchase of an ugly little Zuni fetish doll. “He Who Kills” comes complete with a tiny scroll explaining how he is imbued with the actual spirit of an actual tribal hunter. The little guy is activated when he loses his gold chain. Then the hunt is on. All memories of the mediocre episodes “Julie” and “Millicent and Therese” disappear as He Who Kills attempts to do just that in Amelia’s apartment. This adaptation of Matheson’s story “Prey” would be memorable if only for the taught hunt, but a terrifying twist ending packs a wallop that causes “Amelia” to cross into the realm of classic.



8. “They’re Creeping Up on You” from Creepshow (1982- dir. George Romero)

There wasn’t a horror comic called Creepshow, but George Romero’s portmanteau pays more loving tribute to Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror than either of the movies of those names. He uses colored lights and animated transitions and frames to give the film the look of a comic book. The two-dimensional characters and morality plays are equally E.C.-esque. Take Upton Pratt (E.G. Marshall), a loathsome corporate cockroach with a mad case of mysophobia (fear of germs). His hermetic penthouse becomes a hellhole of poetic justice when actual roaches swarm from every pipe in the place. By the end, Pratt’s pristine, white apartment is black with creepy crawlers. Then, suddenly, they’re gone. Where did they go? The answer is one of the most repellant instances of ironic punishment in horror history.



9. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" from Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983- dir. George Miller)

The idea of updating episodes of Rod Serling’s T.V. classic for the big screen was not necessarily a bad one, but there’s no denying that Twilight Zone: The Movie is a half-baked anthology. The varying visions of its four directors rendered the content inconsistent. A tragedy on the set of John Landis’s “Time Out” (already troubled because of a heavy-handed original script lacking the charm and finesse of Serling’s heavy-handed scripts) cast a pall over the entire project. Passing out of a period of back-to-back-to-back great films, Steven Spielberg succumbed to schmatlz once and for all with his adaptation of “Kick the Can”. Joe Dante’s “It’s a Good Life” is better, daringly diverging from the original’s story and supplying some fantastically cartoonish visuals and plenty of neat “TZ” in-jokes, but the ending is muddled. George Miller’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is the most faithful of the bunch, although its tone is drastically revised. Richard Donner’s original was a slow build to a frenzied climax. Miller’s begins in Crazy Land and remains there for the duration of the piece. John Lithgow’s sweat-drenched performance as flight-o-phobic John Valentine matches Miller’s chaotic pace. Despite the consistently heightened tone, there’s still a pay off when Lithgow sweeps his curtain aside to reveal the needle-toothed gremlin. Its a far more frightening creation that the original’s, which looks like a teddy bear with the face of the doctor from “Eye of the Beholder”.



10. “Quitters, Inc.” from Cat’s Eye (1985- dir. Lewis Teague)

Although dated in some aspects, Cat’s Eye is one of the best portmanteaus, because like Tales from the Crypt, its resources are A-list. Lewis Teague brings to life two short stories from Stephen King’s Night Shift and one original tale by the master, who also scripted the film. All three episodes are witty and well acted and likely to satisfy anyone’s yen for mid-‘80s nostalgia. Without a doubt, the king of King’s script is “Quitters, Inc.”, a black, black comedy in which James Woods takes extreme measures to stop smoking. Alan King is at his sleazy best as the gangster-like mastermind behind the title clinic, which uses threats of mutilation, rape, and electrocution to help clients kick their nasty habits. It’s a delightfully mean-spirited piece with Woods convincingly conveying the visceral anguish of the tobacco withdrawal that impels him to put himself and his loved ones in mortal danger. You’ll never hear “96 Tears” the same way again.



Best Wraparound

Dead of Night (1945 dir. Basil Dearden)

A weak wraparound doesn’t necessarily sink a great portmanteau. Tales from the Crypt, with its all-too predictable confrontation with the Crypt Keeper, and Cat’s Eye, with its cat running around, prove that. Conversely, an overall weak portmanteau can feature a fab wraparound, as Twilight Zone: The Movie and Dead of Night certainly prove. In fact, with these two particular films, it is their wraparounds that viewers seem to remember with the most fearsome fondness. “You wanna see something really scary?” is enough to send shivers up the spines of those who saw Twilight Zone at an impressionable age. No matter what age you are, the Dead of Night wraparound is petrifying. Basil Dearden, who also directed the brief “Hearse Driver”, handles Walter Craig’s (Mervyn Johns) encounter at a house party in the English countryside. Craig listens patiently as each guest tells his or her scary stories, experiencing uncanny chills through it all. He has good reason to feel uneasy, as all of those horror tales reprise in a concerted attack on him at the film’s climax. Craig moves from scene to scene as if trapped in some nightmarish labyrinth until coming face to face with Hugo the Dummy in the film’s most traumatizing flourish. A last minute twist finishes the film in a fog of dread. Next episode, please!

(wraparound begins at 1:30)
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