Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: The Complete List



Click the blue links to see detailed reviews of all 150 films decade by decade.

1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
2. The Golem (1920)
3. The Phantom Carriage (1921)
4. Nosferatu (1922)
5. Häxan (1922)
6. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
7. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
8. Faust (1926)
9. The Cat and the Canary (1927)
10. The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

11. Dracula (1931)
12. Svengali (1931)
13. Frankenstein (1931)
14. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: Addition 30

Every day this October, I'll be adding a film to Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies to bring the list up to 150. This year's final addition is:

150. The Cabin in the Woods (2012- dir. Drew Goddard)

Even those familiar with Joss Whedon’s penchant for yanking the carpet from beneath his viewers will be sent loopy by The Cabin in the Woods. In the quite brilliant script he co-wrote with director Drew Goddard, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other cult T.V. favorites establishes the usual slasher movie clichés only to draw attention to and subvert them. I know, I know; Scream did that very same thing some fifteen years earlier. But it didn’t do it like The Cabin in the Woods does it. Scream was clever because it finally acknowledged the silly decisions and sillier archetypes common to slasher pictures. The Cabin in the Woods is genius because it explains why those clichés exist, and the explanation is a stroke of such unfettered imagination that it makes the appearances of massive force fields, a merman-fixated scientist, a murderous unicorn, and a universe-annihilating god fist completely logical. Like the Evil Dead films, which it references often and lovingly (keep an eye out for that “angry molesting tree”!), The Cabin in the Woods works as both incisive parody and visceral horror. The one thing it lacks—and this is highly unusual for a Whedon creation—is empathy. The writer is usually a master of manipulating his viewers into caring about his daffy characters. The ones in this film are stereotypes by nature: the stoner, the slut (well, sort of), the jock (well, maybe), the virgin (ummm, not quite, but for all intents and purposes…). The thinness of these characters certainly serves a plot function, but it also makes the film feel a little hollow since we don’t get quite as broken up when they’re dispatched as when, say, Buffy died that one time, or when she died that other time, or when she died all those other times. What The Cabin in the Woods lacks in emotional depth, it more than makes up for in intellect, originality, and a menagerie of geek-pleasing references to 90 years of Horror cinema.

See this piece in context as part of Psychobabble’s Essential Horror Movies of the 2010s here.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Diary of the Dead 2012: Week 4

I’m logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews every Monday in October (as was the case last year, I’ll only be discussing movies I haven’t reviewed elsewhere on this site). I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.


           
October 22

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011- dir. Troy Nixey) ***½

For the most part I was pleasantly surprised by this remake of a 1973 TV movie, perhaps because I never saw the original. Little Sally and her folks move into a rundown mansion infested with tiny demonic tooth fairies. Sally’s explorations through the house reminded me a little of Coraline, and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark shares that film’s willingness to show kids in real danger. Unlike Coraline, this movie is probably too scary and violent to actually show to most kids. My biggest problem is that we see way too much of the CG monsters. And why would they cast a girl who looks exactly like Katie Holmes to play Holmes’s stepdaughter? The filmmakers really missed an opportunity to make Holmes Sally’s biological mother, but then they couldn’t have taken advantage of all those “kid adjusting to new mommy” clichés.

           
October 23

Lisa and the Devil (1974- dir. Mario Bava) ****

Mario Bava’s Lisa and the Devil finds tourist Elke Sommer taking her room and board at Alida Valli’s haunted mansion. Telly Savalas is a satanic butler and there’s a weeping phantom with a taste for chocolate sprinkles. Lisa and the Devil is a sometimes bloody, sometimes romantic, sometimes darkly comic, always incomprehensible Old Dark House yarn. Everyone is totally nuts, but Savalas takes the cake. In other words: it’s fab.

October 25

Bay of Blood (1971- dir. Mario Bava) *½

I kept waiting for this proto-slasher tedium to become a Mario Bava movie, but it never did. The master just wasn’t trying when he dashed off this crap about a killer stalking the woods around a bay. If this is the movie that inspired the pathetic Friday the 13th, then it’s utterly unforgiveable. Half-a-star for an effectively gross shot of a live octopus crawling on a corpse’s face.

The Raven (1935- dir. Louis Friedlander) ****

Early in The Raven, we learn that sadist Bela Lugosi is so obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe that he actually built an actual pit and an actual pendulum in his basement. No doubt, Chekhov’s pendulum is going to be put to use by the end of this film, but first Dr. Bela has to become obsessed with a pretty patient and give Boris Karloff a bad facelift. We also get to hear Lugosi recite the title poem, which has to be some sort of cultural landmark. He clearly had a great time playing this role. Plus there’s the rare opportunity to hear Karloff do his famed Frankenstein growl without the flattop make up. Louis Friedlander is not in the same league as Universal’s best directors—Whale, Browning, Ulmer, Freund—but he tosses together a nice potboiler of macabre and jolly schlock.

October 26

The Premature Burial (1962- dir. Roger Corman) ***½

The Premature Burial is similar to so many of Roger Corman's Poe pictures in that it takes a story that was already sketchy on the page and stretches it as thin as is imaginable. But, goddamn, does it ever look fantastic! Corman was a master of aesthetic and atmosphere, and The Premature Burial provides the opportunity to spend 80 minutes in cobwebby crypts and foggy graveyards. Where else would you rather be?

October 27

Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971- dir. Seth Holt/Michael Carreras) **

Sorry, but Valerie Leon in a super sexy Egyptian princess get up is not enough to raise this Stoker adaptation from the dead. Leon suffers on-and-off possession from long-entombed Princess Tera and people start dropping dead. There's some languid investigating and some exploitative gore and lots and lots of talk all adding up to very little. Seth Holt died of a heart attack while directing this movie and Hammer head Michael Carreras took over. 


Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932- dir. Robert Florey) ****

Another Halloween season approaches its finale and Diary of the Dead shudders to a close with a screening at the lovely Landmark Loews in Jersey City. Poe mostly gets tossed out the window for Universal's bizarre adaptation of Murders in the Rue Morgue. Instead, Bela Lugosi is a particularly mad scientist who somehow seeks to prove the theory of evolution by injecting women with gorilla blood. It sounds silly, but plays out sadistically and Karl Freund's background in German Expressionism oozes through his disturbed cinematography. The intentional humor is strong too, particularly in a gag in which three men give their interpretations of monkey language. 

Hope your Halloween is terrifying... and not hurricane terrifying.


Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: Addition 29

Every day this October, I'll be adding a film to Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies to bring the list up to 150. Today’s addition is:

149. The Woman in Black (2012- dir. James Watkins)

Fans of Britain’s most venerated house of horrors couldn’t help but be thrilled by news of its return in the late ‘00s. That excitement may have quickly turned to disenchantment, because like so many resurrected corpses, Hammer came back wrong. The new generation of producers didn’t quite seem to know what to do with the valuable property. Following a toe-in-the-water web series called “Beyond the Rave”, the first new Hammer feature to see release was a stalker picture set in hipster Brooklyn called The Resident. Aside from the winking presence of Christopher Lee, this hackneyed piece of lint couldn’t have been more out of step with the Hammers of old. The folk horror throw back Wake Wood was closer to the mark, though slight. A remake of Let the Right One In was well made, but pointless when the body of the superior original wasn’t even cold yet. After five years of trial and error, Hammer finally returned with a picture that would have made the Carreras family proud. James Watkins’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost story The Woman in Black is a return to the creep shows of old. While the lack of dime-store blood and heaving bosoms is decidedly un-Hammer-like, the period setting, Gothic desiccation, and Daniel Radcliffe’s fey performance ably fill all the baggage that comes with the studio’s name. Radcliffe is a solicitor charged with settling the paperwork of the unappetizingly christened Eel Marsh House. His arrival at the crumbling old manor sets off an extended sequence that recreates the sensation of walking through a really scary carnival spook house more accurately than perhaps any other film— right down to the ghosts that slide out of the darkness as if on tracks. Watkins does not let a cheap trick pass him by, from faces that materialize out of the shadows to rocking chairs and doors that swing of their own volition to loud bangs to close ups of the creepiest antique doll collection in the world. We let him have his clichés because they all work so marvelously well. That nerve-wracking passage alone would make the film essential. However, The Woman in Black is also bolstered by a strong central mystery that doesn’t cop out on its specter’s malevolence and what may be the most macabre happy ending in ghost story history. Welcome back, old friend!

See this piece in context as part of Psychobabble’s Essential Horror Movies of the 2010s here.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: Addition 28

Every day this October, I'll be adding a film to Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies to bring the list up to 150. Today’s addition is:

148. The Skin I Live In (2011- dir. Pedro Almodóvar)

Themes of sexuality and identity have always been integral to the films of Pedro Almodóvar. In La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In), he plumbs them once again from Thierry Jonquet’s novel Tarantula. The results are far more twisted than even the earlier dark comedies and dramas for which Almodóvar is known. The film takes both the transgressions of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Antonio Banderas’s unsettling intensity way, way beyond the pale. Banderas is Dr. Robert Ledgard, a scientist developing a form of indestructible artificial skin. The gorgeous Vera (Elena Anaya) is his seemingly willing, yet existentially despairing, guinea pig. Their relationship seems like a conscious echo of the father and daughter of Eyes without a Face. It is hardly so clear cut, much like the chronologically choppy first half of the film, which leaves the viewer bewildered but anticipative of how the jigsaw pieces will fit together. When they do, they do vengefully, and we realize the horrific extent of Ledgard’s madness and the even more horrific cause of it. The film’s scenes of physical violence are not as shocking as the psychological implications. Almodóvar forces us to empathize with both a mad scientist capable of particularly demented vengeance and the vile, misogynist/rapist who wreaked havoc on his life and complicates matters further by presenting a completely unexpected—and seriously unhealthy— relationship between the two. Most viewers will find this material very difficult to digest, but Almodóvar’s fearlessness in tackling it is heroic, as are Banderas and Anaya’s performances. The director called The Skin I Live In “a horror story without screams or frights.” While that may be true, it will haunt and disturb viewers more profoundly than most typical horror fare ever could.

See this piece in context as part of Psychobabble’s Essential Horror Movies of the 2010s here.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: Addition 27

Every day this October, I'll be adding a film to Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies to bring the list up to 150. Today’s addition is:

147. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010- dir. Jalmari Helander)

Jusso (Jorma Tommila) is incensed to learn the reindeer he planned to harvest are already dead, because someone cut a hole in the fence intended to keep wolves from the herd. Just a short while earlier, Jusso’s young son Pietari (Onni Tommila) had cut that hole to spy on a local excavation site. Very naughty. Pietari is worried, not because his family now has nothing to eat, but because Christmas is approaching, and we all know what happens to naughty boys on Christmas. Or do we? Pietari would probably heave a massive sigh of relief if he suffered the traditional lump of coal in his stocking. However, the real Santa Claus ain’t your merry, ho-ho-ho-ing Santa. Rather, he’s a giant horned beast who tortures bad kids come December 25th. And guess what’s just been unearthed in a Godzilla-sized block of ice at that excavation site? Jalmari Helander delights in playing with horror and action-movie clichés in the aggressively original Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. An ominous advent calendar ticks off the days to Christmas like the date cards in The Shining. Pietari thumbs through terrifying pictures of Demon Santa like Roy Scheider poring over shark attack photos in Jaws. A creepy, face-biting old man arrives naked as The Terminator. The frozen beast evokes The Thing. That’s all fine and clever, but Helander does not merely use his retro references to please genre fans with recognizable images. He uses them to orient viewers as we navigate a world beyond anything we recognize; where Christmas elves are full-frontally naked old men with murder on their minds and a small child leads his elders into battle and resigns himself to suicidal self-sacrifice and the heroes end the picture as slavers and our main monster is used as a great, big shaggy dog. That last matter leaves Rare Exports with a slightly disappointing aftertaste, but it remains an innovative item essential for horror fans tired of the usual slicing and dicing and desperate for a seasonal alternative to Miracle on 34th Street.

See this piece in context as part of Psychobabble’s Essential Horror Movies of the 2010s here.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Review: 'Who I Am' by Pete Townshend

Pete Townshend may be the most literate and self-scrutinizing Rock star, so he is particularly suited to composing an autobiography. Even when writing about ostensibly fictional characters like Tommy and Jimmy the Mod, he’d essentially been telling his story in song since the earliest days of The Who.

Who I Am is important because it sets the fiction aside from the fact, and as is always his way, Townshend’s honesty drives the narrative. At times, this can be utterly enlightening, as when he pores over his childhood, his strained relationship with ex-wife Karen Astley (can she be the most patient woman in Rock & Roll history?), the ordeal of the child pornography investigation that is now an unfortunate addendum to any book about the man, and his serious difficulties with drugs and booze. Townshend’s willingness to let us in on the less savory aspects of his life can be a problem too. As The Who’s grandest years fell behind him, he immersed himself in the kind of self-destructive and promiscuous behavior that must have been harrowing to live through but feels rote when reading it in a Rock star memoir. This is how much of the ’80s and ’90s plays out in Who I Am, but hey, that was the guy’s life, clichéd or not. And Pete does skirt cliché by discussing the multitude of women in his life not as sexual conquests but as romantic obsessions. He really seemed to love them. Still, you can’t help but feel terrible for Karen.

Who I Am is not all ugly truths. Pete Townshend has a history of curmudgeonly behavior and putting his foot in his mouth. Having spent more than a decade writing this book, he comes off as more measured and kinder than he has often presented himself in the press. He doesn’t seem to have much bad to say about anyone but himself, which is heartening. There is a lot of love in Who I Am. The “acknowledgements” section of most books is usually inessential. In this one, it rounds out the narrative touchingly, as Pete retraces the major players in his story, tells us what they’re doing now, and expresses his deep feelings for these people. He saves one of his final messages of love for us, the fans. It is brief but beautiful, as well as a somewhat unnecessary gesture since he’d already given us the gift of this intimate and thorough look into his life. Thanks, old friend.

Bonus: the book ends on page 515! Does that qualify as an Easter egg?

Get Who I Am at Amazon.com here: 

Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: Addition 26

Every day this October, I'll be adding a film to Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies to bring the list up to 150. Today’s addition is:

134. House of 1,000 Corpses (2003- dir. Rob Zombie)

Boy oh boy, did critics loathe House of 1,000 Corpses when it was finally released in 2003 after three years in limbo. There’s really no mystery why it is so hated by reviewers (as of this writing, it has a 17% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.com) and so loved by the cult it has earned. The script is abysmal, like something written by a nine-year-old who thinks idiotic lines like “Little Dick Wick, played with his prick, don't his smell just make you sick?” might pass for wit. The performances are mostly grating. The editing is a mess. There is a complete absence of logic in the “plot.” It’s as if Rock star Rob Zombie understood it was unlikely he’d ever get the opportunity to make another picture, so he cluttered all of his ideas into this one. And that’s where House of 1,000 Corpses slithers away from the critics and stalks toward the cultists. The film is a pop-culture fever dream, a mosaic of 70 years of Horror cinema. Taken as a whole, it is incomprehensible. Within that whole are shards of ‘30s monster movies, ‘50s T.V. horror hosts, ‘70s grind house, and ‘80s slasher flicks. There are bits and pieces pulled from childhood Trick-or-Treating adventures, Beistle Halloween decorations, Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, E.C. Comics, creepy Max Fleisher cartoons, cheapo spook houses, Alice in Wonderland, ghost stories, urban legends, and nightmares. Juvenile references to a Dr. Zaius doll and Disney socks are here simply to stimulate the viewer’s juvenile nostalgia zone, creating an experience that can’t quite be explained but resonates deep within anyone like Zombie who grew up in the ‘70s consuming a steady, sugary diet of “Groovie Goolies” cartoons and late night showings of House of Frankenstein on local T.V. House of 1,000 Corpses is a drooling love letter to Horror written by a super-fan so awed by the genre he can barely put together a coherent sentence. Just the kind of thing critics don’t understand but horror cultists cherish.  

See this piece in context as part of Psychobabble’s Essential Horror Movies of the 2000s here.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: Addition 25

Every day this October, I'll be adding a film to Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies to bring the list up to 150. Today’s addition is:

133. 28 Days Later (2002- dir. Danny Boyle)

28 days after getting creamed by an oncoming car, bicycle courier Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a London hospital. He returns to the streets to find them deserted by all but a clutch of red-eyed maniacs intent on nothing but dismembering him. When he runs into the slightly more amenable Selena (Naomie Harris), Jim learns what went down in his absence, and it isn’t pleasant. The film most responsible for the ‘00s zombie revival isn’t really a zombie movie. The monsters in 28 Days Later aren’t walking corpses but “infectants”: living folks suffering from a bad case of “the rage virus.” Despite the medical explanation for their monstrousness and their un-zombie-like speed, the infectants are certain progeny of Romero’s living dead. Director Danny Boyle makes this clear with a shopping-spree scene that can only be viewed as an homage to Dawn of the Dead and the military criticism that is inseparable from that of Day of the Dead. Indeed, two-thirds into the movie the infectants are portrayed as the reluctant monsters they are and a company of soldiers take their place as the film’s true villains. These guys don’t need any virus to display the rage, violence, decadence, stupidity, paranoia, and desperation to remain in control that sustains them. Justifying their plan to rape Selena and teenage Hannah (Megan Burns) as a means to perpetuate the human race springs from the same logic as murdering civilians to counter terrorism. Boyle’s disgust with his soldiers is palpable, and though they drive our hero Jim to an act of repellent violence, the director does believe humanity is worth saving. 28 Days Later also mirrors Day of the Dead with its last minute ray of hope. It’s a welcome twist since Jim, Selena, Hannah, and her dad Frank (Brendan Gleeson), our band of survivors, are essentially good people who care about each other in a world that— as the bloody opening montage reminds us— had been out of control for a lot longer than the past 28 days. Boyle’s use of crude digital photography lends a degree of realism to the proceedings, even as he mines nightmares with his jarring edits, odd angles, and weird split screens, as when a man’s mouth floats in the upper corner of the frame as the camera lingers on the London skyline. 28 Days Later ignited a new strain of zombie films that ranged from the wonderful (Shaun of the Dead) to the abysmal (its own sequel 28 Weeks Later), even making way for Romero to get back on the zombie bus with Land of the Dead in 2005. For that alone it would be one of the most important horror films of the new decade, even if few of its own progeny rose to its quality. 

See this piece in context as part of Psychobabble’s Essential Horror Movies of the 2000s here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Review: The Criterion edition of Rosemary’s Baby


Along with Psycho and Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby was one of the crucial American horror films of the 1960s. A deeply unsettling and incredibly entertaining film, Roman Polanski’s parental horror is also significant for its attitude about supernatural fear films. It envelops the viewer in sincere terror only to pull back at the last minute to chuckle at all this demonic nonsense from the corner of its fanged maw. Living Dead would become the midnight movie phenomenon in the seventies, but Rosemary’s Baby better established the ironic tone of cult films.

Widely regarded as one of the very best of its genre, Rosemary’s Baby has simply been dying for proper treatment on DVD. Having already produced luxurious discs of Polanski’s Knife in the Water, Repulsion, and Cul-de-sac, Criterion was the natural choice to give Rosemary’s Baby a rebirth. When the company asked Facebook users for suggestions for future releases last year, I voted for Rosemary’s Baby. So naturally, I’m thrilled by Criterion’s new reissue of the film.

Criterion consistently delivers the finest remastering and packaging a film could receive, and Rosemary’s Baby is no different. It sounds and looks pristine while still retaining the earth-toned haze that makes it the perfect late-sixties time capsule. A bonus disc offers a 1997 radio interview with Rosemary’s Baby novelist Ira Levin, a feature-length documentary about jazz artist and soundtrack composer Krzysztof Komeda (featuring Polanski), and most appealing to fans, a 47-minute documentary on the making of the film. New interviews with Polanski, Mia Farrow, and producer Robert Evans carry the doc, which is also interspersed with enticing behind-the-scenes footage of Mia Farrow doing some hippie-ish clowning on set and producer (and thwarted director) William Castle’s cameo. According to Polanski, the original cut of the film was four hours, so it’s too bad deleted scenes weren’t available for this release. But my only real gripe is that the discs do not come out of the case easily. Every time I pulled one out, I was shocked I didn’t snap it in half! That would have been a terrible shame considering how fine these disc are.

Get the Criterion edition of Rosemary’s Baby at Amazon. Com here: 

Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: Addition 24

Every day this October, I'll be adding a film to Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies to bring the list up to 150. Today’s addition is:

130. The Others (2001- dir. Alejandro Amenábar)

The mass of horror films that populated the genre’s 2000s revival sought to recapture the visceral thrills of Dawn of the Dead or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Others is just as referential as 28 Days Later or Saw, but its source would not be sucked quite so dry throughout the decade. Alejandro Amenábar’s ghost story stirs the cerebral chills of The Innocents, and the parallels are not quite as subtle as the product. We have Nicole Kidman channeling Deborah Kerr’s unease as the mother of a precocious girl (Alakina Mann) and her weird little brother (James Bentley). With the arrival of an outsider (Fionnula Flanagan) comes a rush of terrible secrets revealed in an old dark house setting. A more recent influence must have been The Sixth Sense, as The Others builds to a twist delivered with the punch of “The Twilight Zone” instead of the ambiguity of The Turn of the Screw. Yet like Henry James’s novel and Jack Clayton’s film, concealing secrets is such a motivator throughout the entire film that the climactic twist never feels gimmicky. Amenábar keeps everyone half hidden in inky chiaroscuro. Kidman’s Grace Stewart spends the film locking doors and shutting curtains, lest a ray of sunlight fall on her wan children. She instructs the new housekeeper that her “children sometimes have strange ideas, but you mustn’t pay any attention,” which is as much a comment on the ghosts the children believe haunt their house as the themes of child abuse that are far more unsettling.  

See this piece in context as part of Psychobabble’s Essential Horror Movies of the 2000s here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Review: 'Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween'

With a publication date of October 31, Lisa Morton’s Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween is arriving a little late to enjoy this Samhain. That’s too bad, because this study of our favorite holiday is neat seasonal reading. She tracks Halloween from its Celtic roots to its modern place in the cinema, the TV set, and the aisles of Spirit Halloween Stores. Though compact, Trick or Treat presents a satisfying bagful of trivia about the origins of our most enduring seasonal icons (scarecrows, black cats, devils, bats, etc.) and our least enduring (the Halloween horse? Decorations of brown, yellow, and white? Jack-o-Lanterns carved in cucumbers? No thanks!). She also goes deep into the worldwide appropriation of Halloween, as well as tangentially related celebrations such as Guy Fawkes Day and Dias de los Muertos. The book is perhaps a bit too academic for its deliriously fun subject matter, but Morton’s love of the holiday still creeps through.


Get Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween at Amazon.com here:


Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: Addition 23

Every day this October, I'll be adding a film to Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies to bring the list up to 150. Today’s addition is:

126. Lost Highway (1997- dir. David Lynch)

At the same time American horror was losing altitude, David Lynch’s career was too. Regarded as a golden boy during the five-year period that saw him release the masterful Blue Velvet, win the Palme d’Or for Wild at Heart, and revolutionize television with “Twin Peaks”, Lynch fell hard after a stretch of poorly received projects that included Fire Walk with Me and the short-running TV series “Hotel Room” and “On the Air”. Several years lagged before he regained his excitement for filmmaking. Inspired by the recent O.J. Simpson trial, in which the accused murderer was acquitted to carry on with an apparent absence of remorse, Lynch reunited with Wild at Heart novelist Barry Gifford to write Lost Highway. Lynch’s first— and, to date, only— movie to be explicitly marketed as horror (“A 21st century noir horror film,” the copy read), Lost Highway monitors jazz musician Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), who suspects his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) of infidelity. After experiencing a blackout in which he hacks her to pieces, Fred ends up on death row. Terrified of the inevitable and horrified by the crime he can’t even remember, Fred takes a mental escape route in which he “becomes” the younger, better looking, freer mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). This being a David Lynch film, the real and the psychological exist on the same plane, and Fred’s transformation is presented as an actual occurrence possibly initiated by a demonic, string-pulling “Mystery Man” (Robert Blake). Lost Highway was an unusual film for Lynch at the time, trading in his trademark bucolic setting for seedy, smoggy Los Angeles and eschewing the timelessness of his recent films for a style reeking of the late ‘90s, from its gothic music-video sensibility to its Trent Reznor helmed soundtrack to its completely distracting cameo by (yeesh) Marilyn Manson. The film also suffers from cold characters and a sleazy aftertaste his other sex-and-violence soaked films avoided because of their more empathetic characters. Nevertheless, a lesser David Lynch movie is still a David Lynch movie, which means there is still much greatness to witness in Lost Highway. The director builds the picture on one of his spookiest ideas: Fred and Renee’s discovery of a succession of videotapes filmed outside and inside their home without their knowledge. The Mystery Man is another terrifying villain in the Killer BOB mode. Most importantly, Lost Highway established the theme of psychological transformation that Lynch would perfect in his best film since Eraserhead, Mulholland Dr., and explode in his most experimental one since that debut, INLAND EMPIRE.  

See this piece in context as part of Psychobabble’s Essential Horror Movies of the 1990s here.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Diary of the Dead 2012: Week 3

I’m logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews every Monday in October (as was the case last year, I’ll only be discussing movies I haven’t reviewed elsewhere on this site). I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.

          
October 15

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976- dir. Nicholas Gessner) **½

An anti-Semitic landlord is trying to force Jodie Foster and her mysteriously absent dad out of their house. The mystery is pretty easy to figure out in the first few minutes of The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, so there’s no suspense. Not much horror either. Foster and Martin Sheen as the landlord’s pedophile son are very good, but this flimsy, talky tale adapted from Laird Koenig’s play should have stayed on the stage.

Captive Wild Woman (1942- dir. Edward Dmytryk) *½

Mad doctor John Carradine makes a were-gorilla in this fifth-rate Universal horror. With a half-baked premise yanked from The Island of Dr. Moreau, Captive Wild Woman is mainly a dubious excuse to watch were-cinema’s most racist transformation sequence and footage of circus animals mauling each other that had already appeared in The Big Cage a decade earlier. Plus costumer Vera West should have lost her job for making Evelyn Ankers wear that stupid hat.

October 16

The Giant Claw (1957- dir. Fred F. Sears) **½

A test pilot spots a UFO and planes start falling out of the sky. A classic “War of the Worlds” scenario, you guess? Nope. This isn’t the sort of UFO that’s full of anal probe-armed little green men. It’s the kind that looks like a giant turkey. The Giant Claw does a decent job of establishing an air of mystery, so when we finally see the big bird that is our monster, it feels like the punch line to a joke we didn’t realize was being told. This is one shitty, shitty monster, but once it reveals itself, all you want to do is bask in its magnificent crappiness. So it’s frustrating whenever we return to the human protagonists, even when they’re swapping hilariously awful lines about “atomic spitballs.” The Giant Claw should have been wall-to-wall bird! Still, the time we spend with the “flying nightmare” is to be cherished.

October 17

Beyond Re-Animator (2003- dir. Brian Yuzna) ****

Herbert West has spent thirteen years in the clink since his unholy escapades in Bride of Re-Animator. The brother of one of his monster’s victims is West’s latest protégé, and— guess what?— their experiments go horribly, horribly wrong. Soon everyone in the prison has been monsterized, and that includes the rats. Beyond Re-Animator is a groovy final chapter with great effects (the jawless creature and a sort of living gelatinized man are fabulously grotty creations) and there are plenty of the wacky gags we demand from Re-Animator movies.

I Bury the Living (1958- dir. Arthur Band) ***

Ever since Richard Boone took over the family cemetery business, the plots have been filling up with uncanny speed. Boone fears he’s been causing the deaths by sticking pins in a voodoo map, but the cause is a lot more earthly and predictable. Despite a disappointing ending, I Bury the Living earns points because its bizarre premise is very original, though it might have been better suited to an episode of “The Twilight Zone” than a feature film (particularly if it had played out differently). Director Albert Band’s disorienting camerawork is very cool, but the great makeup artist Jack P. Pierce is wasted here.

October 18

Paranormal Activity 2 (2010- dir. Tod Williams) ***

Paranormal Activity is one of the scariest recent horror movies because of its ambiguity and originality. Yes, the found footage gimmick had been pretty well exploited in the ten years following The Blair Witch Project, but Oren Peli’s film was the first with the bright idea of moving the horror into the home. The first sequel in what is now a franchise is less effective for several reasons. It loses realism by casting familiar character actress Sprague Grayden in a lead role, and it loses ambiguity by getting further into the Featherston family’s demonic history. The big twist? Great Grandma Featherston may have made a deal with the devil so her great grandson-in-law could become—steel yourself—the Burger King. Oh boy. Still, as far as exploitative retreads go, Paranormal Activity 2 is entertaining enough and even manages a couple of good jolts. It also boggles the formula a little by setting the first one in daylight, though we have to wait an hour for it. Cheap jump scares are no substitute for the original’s insidious dread.

October 19

Homicidal (1961- dir. William Castle) ***½

William Castle jumps on the Psycho gravy train and pulls the neat trick of combining Norman Bates and Marion Crane into a single character. Castle does his darnedest to maintain the ruse, but it’s tough to not figure out where the story’s heading. Of course, Castle is always more about style than story, and as usual, his style is an ace blend of legit technique, B-cheese, and almost accidental creepiness. Homicidal was the last in Castle’s streak of terrific pictures begun with House on Haunted Hill. After this his inspiration dried up with a lame remake of The Old Dark House.

October 20

Paranormal Activity 3 (2011- dir. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman) ***

In Paranormal Activity 3 we travel back to 1988 when the Featherston sisters were little girls and their grandma was mixing and mingling with the devil. In contrast to the somewhat lethargic second part, the jumps, jolts, bangs, and shadows are nearly non-stop in part three. This picture is something the original most certainly wasn’t: a cheap (as opposed to inexpensively produced), special effects-flaunting fun house ride. It’s a pretty good one: dumber than part two, but a little scarier. The rotating camera is a nice touch, but everyone except the babysitter looks like a 2011 hipster in this ’80s period piece. Could’ve used more hairspray.

The Headless Horseman or The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1922- dir. Edward D. Venturini) ***

This early version of Washington’s Irving’s timeless ghost story isn’t bad, with Will Rogers doing decent comic work as Ichabod Crane, and there’s a hilarious sequence in which parishioners keep falling asleep during a preacher’s long-winded sermon. Yet even at a mere 70 minutes, it exemplifies how “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” simply doesn’t lend itself to feature-length adaptation. The original story is too perfect to be expanded and rewritten, as it was in Tim Burton’s infuriating version, and it’s too simple to be treated faithfully without becoming tedious, as Edward Venturini’s film often is. Way too much time is spent with Ichabod’s students. The entirety of “Danse Macabre” played on the soundtrack during the psalmody lesson scene alone! The horseman is no great shakes either. In his unintentionally funny first appearance, he has noticeable difficulty mounting his steed. Some horseman! When his identity is revealed after the climactic chase, the climax is rendered completely anticlimactic.  Disney’s animated short is still the greatest version by several miles.


October 20

Creepshow 2 (1987- dir. Michael Gornick) **

Lazy, witless sequel to George Romero and Stephen King’s 1982 portmanteau, which wasn’t so great to begin with. The opening segment about a vengeful wooden Indian is completely clueless about its own racism. The second episode is about a killer puddle of Castrol. It’s scarier than it sounds, which isn’t saying much since it doesn’t sound scary at all. In the finale, a woman is dogged by a hitchhiker she ran down while driving home from a date with a man whore. The one saving grace is the fun animated wraparound, which pays tribute to the great horror comics of the ’50s.

The Moth Diaries (2011- dir. Mary Harron) **

Mary Harron cashes in on the teen vampire craze with The Moth Diaries. It isn't as pea-brained as Twilight (what is?), but its glum self-seriousness is tiresome and its postmodernism isn't terribly clever. Harron is a good filmmaker, but there is no evidence of her skill in this movie. And though a film about teenagers doesn't just have to be for teenagers, The Moth Diaries is not a movie for adults. Outsider kids might like it.

Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: Addition 22

Every day this October, I'll be adding a film to Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies to bring the list up to 150. Today’s addition is:

118. Child’s Play (1988- dir. Tom Holland)

By the end of the ‘80s, the already limited slasher genre had sufficiently painted itself into a corner. Uncountable numbers of teens had been macheted to death at various summer camps. Halloweens, Christmases, Prom nights, Birthdays, and Mother’s Days had been ruined by knife-wielding nutters. Even the genre’s savior, Freddy Kreuger, had pretty much run out of ideas. So, what next for the slasher genre? Jam a stick of dynamite up its bum and light the fuse, that’s what. Tom Holland reveals—no, revels in—the silliness of slasher conventions with Child’s Play. Our killer has now been reduced to a child’s doll, but this is no dead-eyed horror like “The Twilight Zone’s” Talky Tina. Chucky is too full of personality and nasty, Kreuger-esque humor to be scary… even if those My Buddy and mechanical Teddy Ruxpin dolls that inspired him were pretty unsettling. Chucky comes into being by appropriately asinine circumstances: Detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon) hunts serial killer Charles Lee Ray (the great Brad Dourif) to a toy store where the gunshot murderer pulls a little voodoo hooey and transfers his soul into a Good Guy doll. An obnoxious kid (Alex Vincent) gets the Charles Lee-infused doll for his birthday; mayhem ensues. And in that mayhem lies the walloping fun of Child’s Play, as we see the doll go kill-crazy, framing the 6-year old for his crimes. No wonder the kid takes to slapping Chucky around during cinema’s most hilarious police interrogation scene. Chucky’s attacks veer from the mundane (bonking a babysitter on the head with a hammer and tripping her out the window) to the astonishingly resourceful (cutting the brakes of the detective’s car and strangling him with the clipped brake cables!). Holland also gets in some good jabs at our consumerist culture and the toy companies that prey on kids by convincing them they simply will not be complete without the latest lump of plastic and stuffing. Holland makes a good point, but if you’re watching Child’s Play for economic criticism, you’re missing the point.

 See this piece in context as part of Psychobabble’s Essential Horror Movies of the 1980s here.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: Addition 21

Every day this October, I'll be adding a film to Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies to bring the list up to 150. Today’s addition is:

115. Near Dark (1987- dir. Kathryn Bigelow)

More elastic than its reputation for rote slashers and lumbering monsters might indicate, horror has often blended well with other genres. Thus far we’ve seen horror-sci-fi (The Quatermass Xperiment; Alien), horror-fantasy (King Kong; Viy), horror-comedies (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein; Young Frankenstein), avant garde-horror (The Fall of the House of Usher; Eraserhead), horror-period dramas (The Hunchback of Notre Dame; The Queen of Spades), horror-social interest films (The Stepford Wives; Dawn of the Dead), horror-war movies (Gojira; Day of the Dead), horror musicals (The Wicker Man), horror-religious pictures (The Phantom Carriage; The Exorcist), and horror-children’s movies (Something Wicked This Way Comes; Gremlins). Rarer is the use of western clichés in the horror film. “The Twilight Zone” had melded the genres a few times in episodes such as “The Grave” and “Mr. Garrity and the Graves”. There were D-grade offerings like Curse of the Undead and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. However, this genre-melt did not win a truly worthy feature until 1987’s Near Dark. The problem with combining the western with horror is that both have such distinct stylistic criteria that combining them can result in unintentional silliness: a cowboy with vampire fangs. Kathryn Bigelow gets around such issues by moving her tale from frontier times to the present day ‘80s (complete with awful synth-laden pop songs). So cowboy hats, horses, a band of rugged outlaws, and a climactic showdown blend more naturally with the fangs, gore, and deaths-by-sun we expect from vampire flicks. The film follows Mae’s (Jenny Wright) initiation of Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) into her band of roving vampires. Caleb’s reluctance to kill causes tension in the gang, something they could do without as a police posse closes in on them, leading to the inevitable desert showdown that peaks the film. Bigelow further spices the plot with an affecting romance between Caleb and Mae, and one of cinema’s most unlikely bloodsuckers, the ruthless tot Homer (Joshua John Miller), who intends to turn Caleb’s little sister Sarah (Marcie Leeds) into his vampire playmate. Bill Paxton gives one of his most memorable performances as the totally unhinged Severan, and Bigelow exercises her expertise with violent action.  

See this piece in context as part of Psychobabble’s Essential Horror Movies of the 1980s here.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Monsterology: The Lugosi Vampire

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, we’ve been looking at the history of Horror’s archetypal monsters.
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“I bid you… velcome…”

Suave and imposing and dapperly attired in evening wear, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula was a far more explicit link between sex and death than any movie monster before him. His portrayal is often pinpointed as ground zero for our modern conception of the vampire, the one that sexily sexes up teenage girls in books written just for teenage girls (they weren’t made for you grown ups, so stop reading them!). As described by Stoker, Dracula was certainly sexual (if being breast-fed blood by a man is your idea of sexy), but physically, he was pretty grotty. Stoker’s Dracula was a gaunt, dome-headed creep with a unibrow, “rank” breath, and hairy palms (sexy!). While Lugosi may not make girls who swoon over Robert Pattinson pee their pants, he was in his day, quite the heartthrob. Tall, dark, European, and bearing an undeniable charisma, he even caught The It Girl in his thrall, enjoying a brief affair with Clara Bow after she saw him own the stage in Horace Liveright’s production of Dracula.

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                                                             The It Girl.

Lugosi was keen to keep his refined features unobstructed by fangs or furry applications when he brought his vampire to the screen for Universal. Film historians love to speculate about how Dracula might have looked had Lon Chaney lived long enough to portray him. They often imagine a count more along the lines of the terrifying pseudo-vamp Chaney played in London After Midnight, with his buggy eyes and razor teeth. Maybe he would have looked something like Max Schreck’s even scarier bald, rat-like count in Nosferatu. Or maybe Chaney would have gone to the source text and based his creature on Stoker’s hairy-palmed menace. Driven by vanity— and perhaps unconsciously recognizing a powerful image when he created one— Lugosi would have none of this. Lugosi’s Dracula just looked like Lugosi, not even sporting the exaggerated widow’s peak he’d wear in Mark of the Vampire, the 1935 remake of London After Midnight.

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Lugosi's seductive gaze in Mark of the Vampire; Chaney goes "Boo!" in London After Midnight.

Following Nosferatu and London After Midnight, Lugosi’s Dracula must have seemed like a radical rewrite of the vampire. However, there had been dashing, even beautiful, vampires even before Stoker’s novel was published in 1897. The genre’s first significant fiction was Dr. John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” (1819). Dr. John began his story at that same fateful Swiss getaway that saw Mary Shelley conceive Frankenstein. Despite a ghastly pallor, the “form and outline” of Lord Ruthven’s face are “beautiful” and “many of the female hunters… attempted to win his attentions, and gain, at least, some marks of what they might term affection…”  The cutesy-pie named Varney in James Malcom Rymer’s Varney the Vampire (1847)—with his “dreadful eyes,” “horrible” face, and “hideous” teeth— was more akin to the creature Stoker would create, but the title character of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871) was “pretty, even beautiful,” and up for some lesbian action intended to titillate readers also invited to condemn her “unnatural” desires; that way everyone could get their rocks off while still feeling morally superior.

Lugosi was not the first good-looking, sexually attractive vampire, but he refined the vampire concept so powerfully and pervasively that he nearly negated the very option that these creatures could be anything less than Playgirl-ready. The ugly vampires of cinema future usually paid explicit homage to Max Schreck (Reggie Nalder’s Kurt Barlow in Salem’s Lot, Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht). More commonly, we could expect super hunks like Christopher Lee, Louis Jordan, Frank Langella, and Gary Oldman to don the cape. Perhaps Anne Rice put the final nail in the ugly count’s coffin, opening the crypt door for Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt to take vampire attractiveness to absurd extremes in Interview with the Vampire, and paving the Borgo Pass for Robert Pattinson’s dreamy-weamy Eddie “Munster” Cullen in Twilight.

So should Lugosi be praised or condemned for so assuredly re-vamping the vampire for generations to come? Well, it is what it is, and maybe sexing up the vamp is not even his greatest crime, for he is responsible—unintentionally, of course—for thick, Hungarian accents intoning “I vant to suck your blaahd!” or simply “Blah!” or other such nonsense that appears nowhere in Tod Browning’s film. Without Lugosi, there would be no Groovie Goolie Drac, no Count von Count (“Von bat! Tooo bats! Ha, ha, ha!”), no Count Chocula (“Vith chocolate flavored sweeties!”), and no Count Blah (“Blah!”).

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What Lugosi hath wrought.

Yet Dracula, has not suffered by such parodies. Only Sherlock Holmes rivals him as the character most often depicted on screen. The count remains un-alive and well in the 21st century, goofing around in the current cartoon Hotel Transylvania and ready to re-sex y’all as embodied by sexy sexer Jonathan Rhys Meyers in a T.V. series slated to air on NBC next year. While the timelessness of Stoker’s novel must take some credit, Lugosi’s equally timeless portrayal of Dracula is just as responsible for the character’s unbelievable longevity. That’s quite a supernatural achievement.

Bela Lugosi was born 130 years ago today.

Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: Addition 20

Every day this October, I'll be adding a film to Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies to bring the list up to 150. Today’s addition is:

109. Day of the Dead (1985- dir. George Romero)

George Romero rounds out Horror's best series since Universal's Frankenstein cycle with Day of the Dead. Neither as scary as Night of the Living Dead nor as entertaining as Dawn of the Dead, Day makes the social commentary stowed in the earlier films its reason for being. A quartet of zombie apocalypse survivors ends up in a compound where scientists bent on curing the zombies and military men bent on annihilating them are butting heads. Because Romero's tone is a lot less satirical than it was in his previous film, his message's ham-fistedness is not as easy to swallow. The soldiers are so crude, stupid, and psychotic that Day of the Dead plays out like Military Corruption for Dummies. Romero's portrayal of science is more nuanced. Played by the likable Richard Liberty, mad Doctor “Frankenstein” Logan causes his zombie charges to suffer in a sincere effort to better them. A scene highlighting his crazed disregard for their physical wellbeing is juxtaposed with a genuinely sweet one in which he tries to humanize his prize pupil, Bub, by playing Beethoven for the zombie and teaching him to work a cassette player. Romero understands that science can be an agent of great evil and great good. The revelation that the zombies have the ability to learn allows the director to take a greater interest in his monsters, which had been little more than roving killing machines in the first two movies. In the tradition of the golden age of monster movies, Howard Sherman's Bub is a lot more sympathetic than most of the human characters bickering around him. With budding makeup star Greg Nicotero lending Tom Savini a hand, the zombies are more convincing than the blue-faced creeps of old too. The gore effects are top of the line all the way as guts unravel from a zombie's ribcage, a guy gets impromptu arm surgery, and several dudes are literally torn to pieces. It's a bit of a looong build to the inevitable zombie fiesta, but the ambiguous, oddly hopeful ending is satisfying. Two decades later, George Romero would revive his living dead for a new round of films. While Romero’s politics would remain sharp through his 21st century zombiethons, the filmmaking was less satisfying. Non-completists would do just fine to stop with Day of the Dead.  

See this piece in context as part of Psychobabble’s Essential Horror Movies of the 1980s here.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: Addition 19

Every day this October, I'll be adding a film to Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies to bring the list up to 150. Today’s addition is:

108. Cat’s Eye (1985- dir. Lewis Teague)

Stephen King’s novels always got a lot of attention from Hollywood producers. Creepshow provided the first opportunity to adapt some of his shorter works, but the better realized portmanteau is Cat’s Eye. The film benefits from King’s own adaptations of two of his very best truncated tales (both culled from the Night Shift collection). “Quitters, Inc.” is 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. The second episode, “The Ledge”, is almost as good, finding crime lord Kenneth McMillan forcing cuckolding-Robert Hays onto the ledge outside his penthouse for a nightmare walk around a skyscraper. Simpler than “Quitters, Inc.”, this is the film’s most nerve-wracking sequence, particularly if you suffer from acrophobia. McMillan gives a performance worthy of a “Batman” villain. The final episode is the film’s sole original piece, and “The General” is a charmingly grim fairytale about a house cat’s duel with a troll for the soul of Drew Barrymore. Cat’s Eye is dated in some respects. Alan Silvestri’s synth score is pure ‘80s cheese. The troll costume is great, but the special effects used to shrink him into scenes with Barrymore are weak. The wraparound in which Barrymore’s apparition goads the cat through each sequence is goofy. But as far as portmanteau’s go, Cat’s Eye is the most consistent, all three episodes being witty, well acted, and likely to satisfy your yen for mid-‘80s nostalgia. Plus, you’ll never hear “96 Tears” the same way again.  

See this piece in context as part of Psychobabble’s Essential Horror Movies of the 1980s here.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: Addition 18

Every day this October, I'll be adding a film to Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies to bring the list up to 150. Today’s addition is:

98. The Brood (1979- dir. David Cronenberg)

Horror films are often spawned from anger, whether it’s Romero’s political angst or Hitchcock’s barely repressed sexual aggression. Few are as upfront about their anger as The Brood. While fighting for custody of his daughter, David Cronenberg conceived this nasty item in which an abusive mother (Samantha Eggar) falls under the thrall of Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), a therapist peddling half-baked regression methods at his prison-like compound. Even as his followers declare him a genius at his absurdly theatrical public sessions (which foretell talk show therapists like Dr. Phil), his former patients range from the pathetically dependent to the physically ravaged. His masterpiece of misguided psychology is Nola Carveth, who literally gives birth to anger, which manifests as monstrous, murderous mockeries of the young daughter she abused. The Brood is troubling both for the usual horror elements of violence and monstrosity and for Cronenberg’s livid jumble of ideas. He lays waste to cod therapists and the toll of custody battles, coming to the precipice of misogyny in the final showdown, a recent divorcee’s wish-fulfillment indulgence. With his absurd science, monster toddlers, and climactic Grand Guignol birth scene, he also flirts with outright silliness. Yet the blatantly personal nature of the film keeps it rooted and makes clear that Nola is not a representative of her entire gender. Any silliness is also resoundingly quelled by Cronenberg’s punishing pessimism, as he examines how one troubled person can emit waves that destroy the people closest to her or him and how the cycle of abuse persists over generations.  

See this piece in context as part of Psychobabble’s Essential Horror Movies of the 1970s here.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: Addition 17

Every day this October, I'll be adding a film to Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies to bring the list up to 150. Today’s addition is:

 87. Deep Red (1975- dir. Dario Argento)

Dario Argento bridges Italian giallo (graphic, lurid crime stories) and pure horror with Deep Red. David Hemmings is Marcus Daly, a music teacher with a P.I.’s curiosity who gets sucked into investigating the murder of a medium when he witnesses her getting smashed through her apartment window. The murders are absolutely awful, particularly that initiating one. If you’re at all squeamish about broken glass, you may find it nearly impossible to watch. Argento intensifies such scenes by presenting them from the killer’s perspective with roaming, first-person shots, making the viewer feel uncomfortably complicit in the violence. Deep Red is also beautiful. Argento’s obsession with vivid color doesn’t end with the buckets of Sherwin-Williams blood spilled throughout the picture. Nor is the horror all of the graphically gross sort. The children’s song that is the killer’s calling card is way eerie in the tradition of the Rosemary’s Baby theme. A mechanical puppet makes an appearance for no other reason than its extreme creepiness. Argento gives us some much-needed breaks from the tension by introducing an appealing romance between Marcus and reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi). Though Argento cops out a bit in the end, their charming arm-wrestling match is a playful subversion of ‘70s cinematic sexism. Argento also introduces a red herring that seems expressly designed to tease his audience’s homophobic assumptions. Of course, Argento has always been more bent on administering visceral thrills than enlightenment. In his goal to do so, he makes one major misstep by having Goblin score the film with agitated prog-funk that totally shatters the mood whenever it starts farting from the soundtrack. Argento’s taste in music is often questionable, but good taste is not really paramount in a flick full of throat gouging, decapitation, and bathtub boiling.  

See this piece in context as part of Psychobabble’s Essential Horror Movies of the 1970s here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Review: 'Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard'


Part oral history, part coffee table photo book, Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard is all awesome. Writer Matt Taylor and memorabilia maven Jim Beller assembled a lush tribute to the sharky blockbuster busting with recollections from the Martha’s Vineyard locals who appeared before and behind the camera and a slew of amazing archival materials. There’s a current shot of the somewhat desiccated bust of Ben Gardener that made movie goers toss their popcorn and their cookies in 1975 and an even more incredible biography of Gardener-portrayer Craig Kingsbury, a guy once arrested for drunk driving an ox cart. His defense against the charges is both rational and hilarious. Indeed, Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard is a really funny book because the Martha’s Vineyard crowd is such a colorful bunch and the production was wrought with disasters that can only be portrayed comically in the hindsight of Jaws’ phenomenal success. Plus, there’s a photo of the real Mary Ellen Moffet! She broke my heart.

Originally published in 2011, Titan Books has just released the second edition of Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard with an additional sixteen pages of great stuff. Get it at Amazon.com here:

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