Monthly Archives: October 2012

Reader’s Choice Halloween Review: Halloween (1978)

by Steve Habrat

If you are looking for seriously scary horror movie, look no further than John Carpenter’s independent 1978 slasher classic Halloween. If you want to be reduced to a quivering ball of flesh, this is the film that will do it. Trust me. Considered an “immortal classic” by critics and horror fans and celebrated as the most successful independent feature of all time, Halloween is the film that practically wrote the slasher rulebook and showed us all how teen terror was done. Spawning countless imitators, a slew of lackluster sequels, and two good but not great remakes, Carpenter delivers a film surging with a threatening atmosphere and a movie monster so iconic and terrifying, a small glimpse of Michael Myers makes most people slightly uncomfortable. While most of the terror is milked from the borderline supernatural antagonist, there is plenty of unease in that iconic theme, the one with the frantic and paranoid synths that announce the arrival of the boogeyman. And then there is Jamie Lee Curtis as the virgin heroine, the one who is always just narrowly making it away from the relentless evil prowling the shadows of suburbia. And how can I forget that terrifying last shot, the one that is followed by a series of shots of suburban homes sitting in silence as Carpenter visually suggests that this terror can happen in any home, on any street, and in any living room. I think you get the idea.

Halloween begins on October 31st, 1963, in Haddonfield, Illinois, with a young Michael Myers (Played by Will Sandin) returning from a night of trick r’ treating, grabbing a butcher knife, and the brutally murdering his older sister, Judith (Played by Sandy Johnson). Immediately after the murder, Michael’s parents arrive home and discover what he has done. The film then speeds a head to October 30th, 1978, with Dr. Samuel Loomis (Played by Donald Pleasance) making his way to Smith’s Grove Sanitarium with nurse Marion Chambers (Played by Nancy Stephens) to pick up Michael Myers and take him to a court hearing. Upon their arrival, they discover the patients of Smith’s Grove have broken out of their rooms and are wandering the grounds. In the confusion, Michael steals a car and speeds off towards Haddonfield. With Dr. Loomis is hot pursuit, Michael steals a pair of coveralls and a Halloween mask, arms himself with a butcher knife, and returns to his childhood home. Meanwhile, nerdy high school student Laurie Strode (Played by Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends, Annie Brackett (Played by Nancy Kyes) and Lynda Van Der Klok (Played by P.J. Soles), gear up for a night of Halloween shenanigans with their boyfriends. As Michael prowls Haddonfield, he encounters Laurie and her friends and he proceeds to stalk them into the evening. As night falls, Dr. Loomis and Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Played by Charles Cyphers) race to track down Michael before he can claim several new victims.

In my humble opinion, Halloween unleashes the most terrifying psychopath killer ever to grace the screen next to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Leatherface. Michael silently peeks out from bushes and appears outside of Laurie’s window only to disappear in the blink of an eye. He remains in the shadows, waiting for the proper moment to lash out at his teenage prey, which he enjoys toying with before they meet the end of his knife. After one death, Michael carries the body of the victim from the backyard around the side of the house and up the front porch steps. It’s an unsettling image made all the creepier through the otherworldly background noises lifted from the 1951 science fiction classic The Thing. Through the spacey sound effects, Carpenter hints that Michael may not be human at all but a supernatural force sent to disrupt the peaceful and sleepy order of suburbia. None of our characters are safe as the settle in with popcorn and beer to enjoy scary movies and hook up with their doomed boyfriends. If the otherworldly screeches and whistles aren’t enough, wait for the scene where Lynda’s boyfriend Bob leaves to grab a beer, only to bump into Michael lurking in the shadows. After horrifically killing him and then examining the body (wait until you see that head tilt), Michael fittingly disguises himself as a ghost wearing Bob’s glasses, enters the bedroom where Lynda is waiting, and then strangles her to death. A ghost going in for the kill, only to disappear into the dark like he was never there at all. That, my friends, is why Michael is scary as hell.

When Michael isn’t busy stealing the show, Curtis and Pleasance do a fantastic job with their little corners of Halloween. Curtis is the ultimate scream queen as the uptight Laurie, the poor, incorruptible soul who is the unfortunate target of pure evil. She is immensely likable and vaguely sympathetic, constantly making us wish she would just let loose a little bit with her friends (she sort of does in a scene where she shares a joint with Annie). When it comes time for her to flee from Michael, she smartly fights back when she can, even nabbing Michael’s knife at one point and jabbing it into his ribcage. And then we have Pleasance as the grim Dr. Loomis, who is constantly reminding us that Michael isn’t a man at all but evil on two legs. I dare you not to get chills when Loomis and Sheriff Brackett stumble upon a mutilated dog and Loomis murmurs, “he got hungry.” I seriously think that Pleasance gives the best performance in the film. You also can’t help but love Soles and Kyes as Laurie’s free spirited friends. Kyes is especially entertaining as the mouthy Annie, who is constantly pushing Laurie to ask out her crush.

With a creepy monster in place and superb acting from everyone involved, its up to Carpenter to deliver on the iconic scares and he sure is up to the task. The opening sequence of Halloween, in which Carpenter’s camera acts as the POV of young Michael as he makes his way up to his sister’s room, will have your arms covered in goose bumps. This scene appears to be one continuous shot but Carpenter actually expertly masks a number of cuts within the scene. It is a sequence that I’m sure Hitchcock would approve of. And how about that end chase? The one that has Laurie locked in a closet with Michael hacking his way in as Laurie frantically looks for something to arm herself with. Hell, Carpenter creeps us out in broad daylight as Laurie shuffles home from school, only to be silently pursued by the Shape. Halloween does have a number of minor flaws that really show as the years pass. Some of the dialogue is dated and if you look closely in one particular scene, you can even spot a few palm trees. And then there is that fact that Michael has been locked up since he was a young boy but yet he knows how to drive a car. And I still think that Tommy Doyle (Played by Brian Andrews) is sort of an annoying character as he constantly babbles on whines about the boogeyman. Don’t worry, you’ll be too freaked out to even notice these goofs. Overall, Carpenter’s Halloween is a massively influential horror film that refuses to be topped. It ranks as one of the scariest films I have ever seen and it is a triumph of independent cinema. If you are one of four people out there who have never seen Halloween, do yourself a favor and add it to your movie collection. Good luck getting Michael Myers out of your head.

Grade: A+

Halloween is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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That Old Haunted House: The Changeling (1980)

by Steve Habrat

Around the same time that I discovered The Amityville Horror, the mother of one of my close friends found out I was looking into ghost movies and haunted house thrillers. One day, while I was over their house, she lent me The Changeling on DVD. She told me it was one of the scariest movies she had ever seen and that it was a really engaging detective story. With anticipation levels high, I dashed home to watch director Peter Medak’s take on the old haunted house genre. While just as understated as most of the classic haunted house movies, The Changeling has such a bleak and depressing atmosphere that really weighs on the viewer. It can be terrifying of it wants to be, especially when it borrows that famous banging from The Haunting, but it really leaves the viewer an emotionally wreck. Credit could also go to the wonderful George C. Scott, who plays the grieving composer who lost his family in a snowy car accident while on a vacation. The Changeling also holds us close as it cleverly blends in a sharp detective story that certainly has a fascinating if a bit messy payoff when it all comes together at the angry climax. Needless to say, the film was certainly an improvement over The Amityville Horror. It still doesn’t feature a massive demonic pig, which is a huge disappointment but I got over it pretty quick.

While on a snowy getaway, kind composer John Russell (Played by George C. Scott) watches helplessly as his wife and daughter are run over in a horrifying car accident. Following their death, John moves to dreary Washington State and rents a seemingly deserted mansion to try to work through the tragedy. After a few nights in the massive Victorian mansion, John begins to experience strange occurrences which include a terrible banging noise from somewhere in the house at exactly 6:00 am. After a particularly disturbing encounter with an apparition, John soon confides in his realtor, Claire Norman (Played by Trish Van Devere), who urges him to investigate the bizarre activity. As John brings in multiple paranormal investigators, he realizes that some of the activity could be linked to wealthy United States senator Joseph Carmichael (Played by Melvyn Douglas). But as the occurrences continue, John’s mental state and grief is pushed to the limit, especially when the ghost begins to make reference to John’s deceased daughter.

I am reluctant to share too much of The Changeling’s plot, mostly because the anticipation of what will happen next within the story does keep you on the line for nearly two hours. Director Medak applies a slow-build pace that heightens the terror with each little creak, bang, and chandelier shake. Things really get spooky when the characters are stalked through the mansion halls by an old rickety wheelchair that chases them down multiple flights of stairs. While I can say that Medak doesn’t particularly bring anything new to the haunted house table, he does construct some seriously disturbing encounters with the supernatural pest driving John bonkers. The standout sequence is undoubtedly a séance sequence, where the ghost manifests itself through a medium and forces her to write out a number of cryptic messages that plead for help from John. If I were John, I’d think about packing up my suitcase and getting the hell out of that house right then and there. Alas, John doesn’t and he gets in too deep with the angry spirit. Adding to the terror is the lonely, isolated, and broken atmosphere that hangs over John’s head like a black raincloud. It adds so much emotion to the story that it is almost hard to resist The Changeling’s pull.

Easily the best part of The Changeling is Scott as the grieving composer who is trying to piece his life back together. The one touch that I absolutely loved about John was that he doesn’t fall to little pieces when the paranormal activity kicks into high gear. He almost seems detached from it and, dare I say, relieved when it starts because it almost seems to distract his painful thoughts that have etched themselves into his weary face. At one point, he weeps in bed only to have his private moment of sadness clipped short by a loud clanking sound that distracts him from his inner pain. There is almost a love story that develops between John and Claire, the understanding realtor who steps into this paranormal mystery willingly. The two have great chemistry and I was really rooting for a romance between the two but grief just seemed to stand in the way. Douglas is wonderfully cool as Senator Carmichael, who flat out refuses to have his family’s name tarnished by the investigation launched by John. John Colicos shows up as Captain DeWitt, who casts a suspicious eye on John and his stories.

One of the superior cinematic ghost stories, this Canadian horror gem does find its conclusion getting a bit bogged down in the answer-heavy final frames. My one other complaint I have with The Changeling is the silly ghostly voice that echoes through the hallways of the spooky mansion. It seems manipulated and almost a little too friendly, like John is being terrorized by Casper. Despite these two flaws, there is still plenty of dread and unease in The Changeling, making it one that sticks with you long after it ends. Your stomach will fall every time John enters the house after going out. He stops in the doorway, looks around like he is surveying for any apparitions peering down on him, and then slowly eases himself through the rest of the house. You’ll tremble when a ball that belonged to John’s daughter comes bouncing down the grand staircase right to her father’s feet. And I dare you not to leap off your couch when that seriously wicked wheelchair wheels in for the kill. Overall, The Changeling remains stationed just outside the long list of horror classics and I’ve never been able to figure out why. It is a must for those who love character driven terror and it is blast for those who love a good shock. It may not reinvent the haunted house but The Changeling certainly knows how to make the familiar scary as hell.

Grade: A

The Changeling is available on DVD.

That Old Haunted House: The Amityville Horror (1979)

by Steve Habrat

I’ve always been fascinated with The Amityville Horror and the real-life story of the Lutz family. In high school, I even convinced my English teacher to let me write an essay on the story and do some research into what took place in that legendary home. While the story told by the Lutz family may have been fabricated, the DeFeo family murders that took place in 112 Ocean Avenue, Long Island still chilled me to my core. Naturally, while I was writing the paper, I also took a trip to the local video store to rent director Stuart Rosenberg’s 1979 film The Amityville Horror, which was based on the book of the same name by Jay Anson. While The Amityville Horror 1979 is infinitely better than the 2005 remake, the film is still plagued by a number of plot goofs that are extremely hard to ignore. Also troubling is the lack of a thrilling ending and the fact that the Lutz family, at least the cinematic Lutz family, never seems to be in grave danger as they make their hasty escape from that evil home. Still, The Amityville Horror 1979 does have some pretty snappy performances, especially from James Brolin as the axe wielding George Lutz, who seems to be loosing his sanity each day he remains in the home, and Margot Kidder as Kathy Lutz, George’s loving wife who has to watch her family fall apart at the hands of cranky poltergeists.

Newlyweds George (Played by Brolin) and Kathy (Played by Kidder) Lutz purchase a seemingly peaceful Dutch Colonial home in Amityville, New York. The couple, along with Kathy’s three children, instantly falls in love with the home despite the gruesome murders that took place a year earlier. As the family moves in, Father Delaney (Played by Rod Steiger), a friend of Kathy, comes to bless the home. Shortly after Father Delaney begins his blessing, flies attack him and a booming, disembodied voice commands him to “GET OUT!” Father Delaney flees from the home without explanation and is slowly consumed by madness and plagued by bizarre demonic forces. Meanwhile, the Lutz family begins to have strange experiences in the house, each more terrifying than the last. To make things worse, George suffers a drastic shift in personality. He is testy and has a fascination with the axe that he uses to chop firewood. As the events in the home become increasingly more violent, Kathy begins to take a closer look at the history of the home. She also begins battling for George’s sanity.

Released by an independent studio, The Amityville Horror 1979 surprisingly has plenty of special effects and visual shocks ready and waiting for the viewer as they tour this legendary house of horrors. The opening sequence of the film, with Ronald DeFeo, Jr. marching through the home in the middle of a nasty thunderstorm and gunning down his family is certainly an eerie sequence. It is ripe with splashes of gore and heavy with an unshakeable evil atmosphere that cuts deeper with each crack of thunder and flash of lightning. Director Rosenberg has a difficult time topping his stellar stage setter and struggles to recreate that same atmosphere when the supernatural kicks into high gear. The film then snowballs into a flurry of slamming doors, disembodied voices, oozing ectoplasm, homicidal madness, and even a giant demonic pig with very little pay off. While the events are certainly creepy, the film botches a major plot point involving George Lutz’s striking resemblance to Ronald DeFeo, Jr. Don’t hope for any elaboration on this plot point because the film drops it just as quickly as it brings it up. Ignore the plot holes and just tremble at the black sludge oozing out of the toilets! Someone call a plumber.

Despite an uneven plot, the cast fully commits to the project, especially Kidder and Brolin, who appear to be having a pretty good time. Brolin has a nice time shifting from shaggy family man into perpetually freezing psycho who could snap at any minute and chop his family up with an axe. Kidder, who was coming off the high that was Superman, is a treat as religious housewife Kathy. The duo has chemistry, enough that it can cover for some of the other screw-ups in the script department. Steiger is over-the-top fun as Father Delaney, who falls apart from his memorable ghostly encounter in the home. His crowning moment comes when he is struck blind during a hair-raising church service sequence. Natasha Ryan ups the horror as Kathy’s young daughter, Amy, who has the creepiest imaginary friend on the planet. At times, Rosenberg seems well aware that children can be immensely disturbing so he works Ryan in any time he can and urges her to bring up “Jody,” her spirit chum who has a commanding hold on the young girl. Irene Dailey also shows up as Kathy’s Aunt Helena, a nun who gets physically ill from stepping inside that horrific home.

There is no denying that the build up crated by Rosenberg is actually scarier than the noisy climax. Once again set in the middle of a storm, the Lutz family decides to make a break for it as the ghosts unleash absolute hell on them. Walls ooze blood, doors slam, and the chandelier threatens to fall to the floor as they all speed walk to the family van only to realize that they have forgotten the family pooch. Brave George decides he is going back into the house alone and that he is going to venture down into the basement, where more horrors I will not reveal here have been discovered. The problem with the climax is that you never really fear for George as he makes his way through drippy funhouse. I was actually more afraid for the dog than I was for George. The film does have a creepy score composed by Lalo Schifrin will certainly send a few more chills your way and even aid in the creation of a sinister atmosphere. Considering an independent studio released the film, The Amityville Horror went on to be one of the most successful films of 1979. I’m sure it had plenty to do with the fact that the film was really wearing the “based on a true story” tagline on its sleeve. Overall, The Amityville Horror isn’t nearly as scary as you hope it will be but it does have a handful of jump scares that never cease to get you. The film is well acted, it has a nice build up, and it does have one hell of an introduction. Now if we could just ignore those glaring plot holes and that bunk ending.

Grade: B-

The Amityville Horror is available on Blu-ray and  DVD.

That Old Haunted House: The Legend of Hell House (1973)

by Steve Habrat

If Robert Wise’s The Haunting is too tame for you, you’re in luck because there just happens to be a haunted house film that has plenty of gore and ghostly sex to please the edgier horror fan. That film happens to be John Hough’s 1973 film The Legend of Hell House, a film that is quite similar to The Haunting in the plot department but separates itself through the use of color and racy subject matter. While I personally do not find the film as creepy as Wise’s masterpiece, The Legend of Hell House has a suspenseful first act, one with slowly manifesting ectoplasm, supernatural intercourse, and tumbling chandeliers (those are the worst) but then collapses in its second act with corpses in hidden rooms and a seriously scrappy black cat (those are pretty bad too). Based on the novel by Richard Matheson, the man who brought us the classic vampire tale I Am Legend, The Legend of Hell House is never as understated and as slow building as The Haunting and it comes up short because of it. It can’t wait to show off a few special effects and throw a few of the snippy actors and actresses through the air. At least the film packs a hell of a séance sequence doused in vibrant red lighting and stunning exterior shots that conceal the house behind rolling walls of fog. It’s scenes like this that inject quite a bit of atmosphere and allow the film to receive higher marks.

The Legend of Hell House introduces us to physicist Lionel Barrett (Played by Clive Revill), who is sent to the legendary Belasco House, the “Mount Everest of haunted houses” to research the paranormal activity that is said to go on in the house. The Belasco House was originally owned by Emeric Belasco (Played by Michael Gough), a sadistic millionaire giant who enjoyed toying with the occult and may have even murdered people within the walls of the home. It is said that Emeric mysteriously disappeared after a brutal massacre at the lavish compound and was never heard from again. Barrett sets out for the home with his wife, Ann (Played by Gayle Hunnicutt), medium Florence Tanner (Played by Pamela Franklin), and Ben Fischer (Played by Roddy McDowall), another jumpy medium who has investigated the Belasco House before with another paranormal research team and was the only survivor of the previous investigation. As they explore the house, Lionel reveals to the team that he has created a machine that is able to rid the house of any nasty paranormal activity. Things become complicated when Florence becomes convinced that Emeric Belasco is not the one haunting the house but is actually his son, Daniel. As the group attempts to communicate with Daniel, madness begins to plague the group, possession is a daily occurrence, and repulsive horrors turn up behind doors that have been sealed many years.

Embracing more the macabre freedom that was surging through the veins of the horror film, The Legend of Hell House doesn’t settle on just telling us about the morbid back-story of the Belasco House. It dares to show us a little bit of the sleaze that took place and even enjoys some bloodletting from time to time. We hear about vampirism, orgies, alcoholism, mutilation, necrophilia, and cannibalism, just to name a few. Sounds like a kicking party, right? This is a film with plenty of sexuality boiling to the surface as characters plead with other characters for sex while even the shadowy spirits are getting busy. Most of it is unintentionally hilarious, especially when one character offers herself up sexually to a ghost (I dare you to watch that scene with a straight face). Despite some of the silliness, the film never seems to loose its grip on the gothic mood that creeps about it. The outside of the house is downright terrifying and certainly a home I would never dream of going in. The cherry on top is the black cat that waits in the fog outside, the ultimate Halloween touch. The interior of the home is crammed with shadows and hidden rooms that spit out decaying corpses and discolored skeletons. It’s all earth tones, which give the whole place a rotten feel, appropriate for what took place inside.

The Legend of Hell House does feature some pretty good performances, especially from Roddy McDowall as the spooked medium who refuses to help out. Only there for the large some of cash he was promised, McDowall’s Fischer is an irritating and prickly geek with oversized glasses who has to man up in the final moments of the film. I would never expect his character to suddenly become as brave as he does but that is part of the fun of his character. Revill plays Lionel much like every other head of a paranormal research team. He is deadly serious and always just a tad bit dry as he drones on about scientific theories. His wife Ann, however, suffers from a severe case of ennui and sexual repression, something the spirits of the Belasco House prey upon instantly. Wait for the scene where she tries to seduce Fischer. Rounding out the main players is Franklin as Florence, who seems vaguely similar to The Haunting’s Eleanor but also drastically different. She appears to be connected to the house and also a bit reluctant to leave. She is really put through the ringer as a nasty demonic kitty claws at her bare skin and a ghostly presence wishes to get busy with her. Franklin does get the film’s creepiest moment, a séance sequence that is lit entirely by harsh red lights. And keep a look out for Michael Gough as a very still Emeric Belasco.

While there are plenty of flashy moments strewn about The Legend of Hell House, it does take a page out of The Haunting’s playbook and does spend a good chunk of time allowing its character to really develop. They argue and fight much like they did in The Haunting but they are never allowed the depth that Wise’s characters were. There is no question that Edgar Wright’s fake trailer Don’t, which appeared in 2007’s Grindhouse, was inspired by the film. All it will take is a quick glimpse of the outside of the Belasco House and you will see what I am talking about. The second half of The Legend of Hell House is what really derails the film. The last act twist is sort of silly and doesn’t shock us nearly as much as it wants to. Despite how cheesy it may get, you can’t take your eyes of McDowall and his suddenly tough medium who was such a pain in the ass before. Overall, The Legend of Hell House is a fun little erotic spin on The Haunting and visually it is something to behold. The heavier use of special effects have caused the film to age poorly but as a lesser-known horror film of the 1970s, it actually manages to be a fun little ghost party. There is no doubt that you can do better but for those on the search for something they haven’t seen before on Halloween night, The Legend of Hell House may be just what the goth doctor ordered.

Grade: B

The Legend of Hell House is available on DVD.

That Old Haunted House: The Haunting (1963)

by Steve Habrat

I think that most critics and horror fans would all agree that Robert Wise’s 1963 chiller The Haunting is the king of haunted house films. Adapted from the novel by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting is a psychological spookfest that immensely enjoys developing its characters before it slow burns into a seriously terrifying blaze of unhinged madness and supernatural bangs. Reluctantly to get flashy with its special effects, Wise keeps The Haunting down to earth with only ghostly whispers just in the other room, shadowy faces crawling across the wall, and a buckling door, all of which scare the viewer more than a ghostly specter manifesting ever would. While it certainly won’t go over big with the blood and guts crowd, Wise crafts an arty and classy character study that certainly pushed the envelop for its time. While The Haunting didn’t initially blow me away when I first saw, repeated viewings and readings on the film have deepened my appreciation of Wise’s vision. The understated style of the film was the ultimate shock for me, that Wise was able to scare us so badly while barely lifting a finger. You’ll never hear knocking the same way again.

The Haunting begins with a lengthy back-story of Hill House, a sprawling mansion that has seen its fair share of suicide, death, and horror over the years. The film then speeds ahead to present day with Dr. John Markway (Played by Richard Johnson), a paranormal investigator, searching for supernatural evidence at Hill House. He has invited three other guests, Hill House inheritor Luke Sanderson (Played by Russ Tamblyn), psychic Theodora (Played by Claire Bloom), and supernaturally sensitive Eleanor Lance (Played by Julie Harris), to join him in his search. As the group settles in, they are given the history of Hill House and taken on a tour of the massive structure. While most of the occurrences are debunked instantly by Dr. Markway, the night unleashes horrors beyond the group’s imagination. To make things worse, Eleanor begins to loose her grip on reality and becomes convinced the house wants her to stay. Things go from bad to worse when Grace Markway (Played by Lois Maxwell) shows up to make sure her husband isn’t having an affair.

Right from the get go, Wise makes sure we know that Hill House is the star of this show. The house is certainly a character here as Eleanor constantly complains that the house is watching her and that it is demanding that she stay there forever. While it seems to have some ghostly spirits wandering its halls, the house itself appears to spring to life as doors swing shut, horrific banging can be heard echoing through the halls, and faces appear in the walls. We don’t need the characters to tell us that the house is evil, all we have to do is take a look around. The real beauty of The Haunting comes in the way it handles its supernatural inhabitants. There is no elaborate monster waiting to leap out of a darkened closet or damp basement and there is no doorway to Hell waiting under the stairs. It just seems like it is a home stuffed with bad energy and that is creepy enough for me. A good majority of the time, I wondered if the home was truly haunted or if one of the other guests had a sick sense of humor and was just out to give Eleanor a heart attack. For a while, Wise allows us to believe that I must say it adds a bit of comfort before he really allows his spirits to have their hair-raising fun.

When Hill House isn’t busy stealing the show, Wise keeps his camera aimed at the splendid Harris and Johnson. Harris is unforgettable as the emotionally fragile Eleanor, who falls apart at every little bump or whisper. She is incredibly naïve and repressed as she longs for the affection of Dr. Markway. Johnson never ceases to amaze as quickly tries to explain away all the activity that is taking place around Eleanor. He probes her inner demons and really digs deep into why she seems so emotionally unstable. Bloom holds her own as the lesbian psychic Theodora, who pines after the worrywart Eleanor. Wait for the scene in which a loud banging noise has Eleanor jumping into bed with Theodora. You’ll see why it raised a few eyebrows at the time of its release. Tamblyn is mostly a background player, a hard-drinking playboy who seems more interested in turning Hill House into his own private Playboy mansion rather than really getting to the bottom of anything substantial. When his fear claws its way to the surface at the end, he sure does make us feel it. The only one who I can honestly say is underused is Maxwell as John’s suspicious wife, Grace. Her character seems like it is only there to create more pandemonium but it sure is effective pandemonium. I just would have liked to see more of her.

I can’t praise The Haunting enough for showing us just how effective the tool of atmosphere can really be. Atmosphere is everything in a horror film and The Haunting has plenty to go around, that I can assure you. There is no doubt that the lengthy character development at the beginning is exhaustive but it pays off when the tragic climax freezes our blood. Wise adds another supernatural layer by the way he uses his camera throughout the course of the film. At one point, the camera zooms from the highest point of Hill House down to the face of Eleanor. Wise also twists and turns his camera while shooting the interior of the house, almost distorting it in small ways and making it seem otherworldly. Released in 1963, there is no doubt that the vague sexual repression and explicit lesbianism struck a chord with viewers. Intelligent and eloquent, The Haunting rightfully earns its spot among the horror elite. It dares to show us that very little can actually be quite a bit, something that more horror directors should pay attention to. Overall, The Haunting is one of the scariest, most unsettling films of the 1960s, one that rewards with multiple viewings and continues to terrify to this very day.

Grade: A+

The Haunting is available on DVD.

That Old Haunted House: House on Haunted Hill (1959)

by Steve Habrat

You have to love William Castle. Even if he produced B-movie schlock, the man knew how to sell a cheese filled idea. Luring audience members in through gimmicks (buzzers on the theater seats during 1959’s The Tingler, a $1,000 life insurance policy should someone die of fright in 1958’s Macabre), Castle giddily scared the pants off people through marketing alone. Despite the flashy promotion, Castle did direct a number of fairly substantial horror films that have stood the test of time and earned a respectable cult following. One of those films happens to be 1959 haunted mansion film House on Haunted Hill, the Vincent Price funhouse that features several moments that will have you dashing off for a change of underwear. Flawed but certainly a whole bunch of fun, House on Haunted Hill is nothing but an excuse for five strangers to walk into a supposedly haunted house and simply explore the spooks it has to offer. When it sticks to this premise, the film is a horror gem but when it decides to tack on its messy final twenty minutes, things don’t turn out so well. Still, you can’t argue with that skeleton backing a shrieking woman into a vat of acid. That, my friends, is why we see horror films.

House on Haunted Hill introduces us to eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren (Played by Vincent Price) and his wife, Annabelle Loren (Played by Carol Ohmart), who rents out an old mansion that is said to be haunted and then invites five strangers to join him for a night of terror. The guests include Lance Schroeder (Played by Richard Long), Nora Manning (Played by Carolyn Craig), Dr. David Trent (Played by Alan Marshal), Watson Pritchard (Played by Elisha Cook Jr.), and Ruth Bridgers (Played by Julie Mitchum), all who appear to have never met Fredrick and Annabelle before. The group is told that whoever can last the night in the home will receive a check for $10,000. The group is given the history of the house, which includes gruesome murder and mutilation, and then they are taken on a tour. As some of the guests break off from the group, the ghosts begin to reveal themselves and certain guests hint that they may not be random strangers at all.

Like a tour through a Halloween haunted house, Castle hurls one pop-up scare at us after another. Blood drips down from the ceiling, a chandelier comes crashing down on the guests, ghosts float outside of windows, skeletons walk, severed heads wait in trunks, and a witchy ghoul emerges from the dungeon. It’s in this stretch that House on Haunted Hill isn’t exactly heavy with plot but dares to have a cheeky and spooky good time as the characters are scared half to death. Heavy doses of camp are added through the otherworldly score and Vincent Price as he richly sells the ghostly encounters. There are several moments where Castle has Price almost directly address us about the terror playing out in the twisting hallways and cobwebbed dungeons where vats of acid boil and bubble in anticipation for the victim that tumbles in. The home feels just cramped enough to gives us a claustrophobic chill yet big enough to assure us that terror could easily be hiding somewhere and just waiting for the right moment to leap out and scream “BOO” right in our face. It’s loaded with atmosphere on the inside and the outside certainly makes an imposing statement is it stands proudly in the dark.

Much of the success of House and Haunted Hill lies on the shoulders of Price, who brings his usual macabre purrs to the spook show. Only Price was morbid enough to play a character that has stuck around with Annabelle, his fourth wife who has tried to poison him. He takes great pleasure in the horror around him, chewing through a smile as he passes out guns tucked into little wooden coffins as party favors. You’re a mean one, Mr. Price.  Ohmart’s Annabelle is just as devious, the lady who came up with this eerie party idea. She brings her own devilish charm to the soirée and she takes terror to a whole new level as a walking skeleton stalks her through that old basement. Cook is great as the scared stiff Pritchard, the alcoholic owner of the home who fully believes that spirits wander the halls. Craig is one hell of a scream queen as Nora, who is consistently tormented by the ghosts or perhaps even one of the other party guests. Her run in with a ghoul is cellar has got to rank as one of the most shocking scenes in a horror film.

While the ending may subtract some of the supernatural creeps that flow freely throughout it, House on Haunted Hill still is a creaky winner in the haunted house subgenre. The scenes where the characters directly speak to the audience are immensely silly and certainly haven’t aged well at all. It actually causes the film to loose some momentum but it is blatantly Castle. At the time of the film’s release, Castle asked theaters to install an elaborate pulley system that would send a skeleton gliding over the heads of the audience members. I still think it would be very cool if theaters showed the film and included that Castle gimmick. It would certainly make for a nifty piece of nostalgia. Overall, House on Haunted Hill has zero depth but it does develop its characters quite nicely and it delivers scares at just the right time. It has plenty of camp throughout, which makes it perfectly safe for the kiddies to enjoy on Halloween night after trick r’ treating. In the end, the film belongs to Price and the disturbing reveal of his character in the final seconds of the film. For those who wish to get into Castle and really have some fun with his work, House on Haunted Hill is a great starting point. Be warned, this one may scare the pants right off of you.

Grade: A-

House on Haunted Hill is available on DVD.

Haunted House Takeover!

Hey boys and ghouls,

With only a few more days to go in Anti-Film School’s Halloween Horror Movie Spooktacular, I am shifting things from horror remakes to good old fashioned haunted house movies. This is, after all, the time of the year when the spirits make themselves known and roam free. So readers, let us celebrate the things that go bump in the night. Just make sure you leave a night light on…

-Theater Management (Steve)

Attack of the Remakes! The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

by Steve Habrat

Tobe Hooper’s grubby 1974 horror outing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ranks as one of the scariest films I have ever seen. Hands down. It is downright terrifying and manages to make us queasy even though it has very little gore to speak of. In 2003, Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes decided that they were going to remake the film, a decision that would open the remake floodgates and shower the film market with a slew of senseless horror remakes that absolutely no horror fan was begging for. With music video director Marcus Nispel behind the camera, Bay unleashed his sleek and gory update that comes at you like a speeding demon. Truth be told, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 is not that bad of a film. It’s actually sort of fun and it has plenty of personality and style. It has a must see opening sequence shot in shaky black and white, a crime reel that is chillingly authentic as John Larroquette somberly explains the back-story. It opens the movie with a bang. What comes next is a fairly mundane but excessively flashy exercise in teen slashers elevated by the presence of R. Lee Ermey and, surprisingly, Jessica Biel. It’s the excess and Nispel’s reluctance to leave anything to the imagination that ultimately keeps The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 from reaching the levels of terror that the original does. Oh, and cannibalism would have helped too.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre begins on August 18th, 1973, with five teenagers, Erin (Played by Jessica Biel), her boyfriend Kemper (Played by Eric Balfour), Andy (Played by Mike Vogel), Morgan (Played by Jonathan Tucker), and Pepper (Played by Erica Leerhsen) passing through Texas on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. While making their way along the desolate highway, they happen upon a distraught hitchhiker (Played by Lauren German), who quickly climbs into their van, rambles about a “bad man,” and then shoots herself in the head. Terrified, the group stops off at the nearest gas station to call the sheriff. The sheriff convinces the group to meet him at a local abandoned mill, where he will come and pick up the body. The group waits for hours but the sheriff is a no show so Erin and Kemper decide to travel to a nearby farmhouse to try to contact the sheriff again. The home seems to belong to a cranky amputee named Monty (Played by Terrence Evans) but as Erin and Kemper linger at the home, they begin to suspect that Monty may not be the only person lurking around the decrepit home. Their suspicions are confirmed when they are chased down by Leatherface (Played by Andrew Bryniarski), a gigantic psychopath who enjoys dispatching his victims with a chain saw and then removing their faces so he can wear them as masks.

Since Michael Bay and Platinum Dunes insisted that this film exist, I can at least give it credit for the fact that it isn’t a shot for shot remake of the brilliant Hooper original. It is bold enough to play around with the premise and up the number of nutcases from four to seven, making the whole film seem a bit more dangerous. While upping the number of psychos is a positive, Nispel and Bay do everything in their power to strip Leatherface of the horror he once possessed. And, lets face it, it takes a lot to make a psycho with a chain saw only slightly creepy but apparently Nispel and Bay were up to the challenge. Looking like your crazy uncle in an expensive Halloween costume, Leatherface looks like he is wearing a rubber zombie mask that tried to smile but couldn’t. Only once do we see him wear another face and there doesn’t seem to be any of the eerie cross-dressing that the character liked in the original. It would have been nice to see him in that famous suit with a woman’s face covering his own but I guess you can’t always get what you want. Nispel and Bay also give him a new origin story, one that just comes off as silly. Things really got shaky when old Leatherface decides to peel off his mask and show us what it underneath that rotting flesh. I’ll tell you this much, it isn’t very spooky and actually sort of laughable.

While Nispel and Bay certain screwed up the monster, they fair better with just about everyone else. I still think that Biel does a great job as Erin and she rightfully earns our sympathy, especially as things really get bad. She’s no Marilyn Burns but she is alright in my book. Balfour is also pretty strong as Kemper, a guy just trying to do the right thing for his girlfriend. Another standout amongst the group of teens is Tucker’s shaggy pothead Morgan, who always has just a little too much to say when he shouldn’t. Out of all the teens, I actually liked him the best. Leerhsen and Vogel are okay but they never really grab us like Biel, Balfour, and Tucker. Then we have the merry Hewitt family, led by R. Lee Ermey’s deranged Sheriff Hoyt, a mean son of a bitch who drools chewing tobacco and giggles at the suffering teens. He is here in full force blasting hilariously sick and twisted one-liners right into the faces of his victims. Marietta Marich is also pretty terrifying as the matriarch of the Hewitt family, Luda Mae Hewitt. She rules the family with a rusted fist, demanding that Leatherface lumbers into the family room and get one of the sobbing victims out of her sight. It is such a cold and cruel scene, one that ends with one character suggesting that their victim should stay for dinner, one of the better nods to the original film.

While cannibalism is only hinted at here and there, it is largely absent from this entry in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series. If you didn’t know it played a big role in the original, you’d have no idea it was even present in this one. Nispel does take great care in constructing the Hewitt home, a massive, decaying structure gloriously backlit when the sun sinks from the sky. Some of my favorite images in the film are the ones where Nispel’s camera peeks out of the trees and stares cautiously at the house, almost like it is going to spring to life and attack. The set design on the inside of the home is even more painstaking and ornate as the camera pans over rotting corpses, demonic dolls nailed to the wall, and leaky pipes that could very well be oozing blood. While some of the chases are sort of fun and that scene with one character getting his leg cut clean off by Leatherface’s roaring chain saw are nifty, you can help but find yourself longing for that grainy cinematography and that hazy, late summer atmosphere that drips with death and decay. I longed for a scene that would disturb me like the original’s twitching death, where a character that was just clubbed over the head with a mallet thrashed and twitched as his brains oozed from his head wound. I wished for the dinner party scene, the one where Marilyn Burns shrieked in terror as the Sawyer clan tormented her over a plate of human BBQ. And the film didn’t end with that terrifying image of Leatherface doing his “dance of death” in blazing Texas sun. There is nothing razor sharp like that here. Looks like Bay and Nispel removed the chain from this one.

Grade: C+

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Attack of the Remakes! A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

by Steve Habrat

It may be blasphemous as a die-hard fan of horror to say this but I’ve never particularly cared for Freddy Kruger. I know, I know, how can I dislike one of the most iconic slashers every projected on the big screen? I guess I saw Wes Craven’sA Nightmare on Elm Street at an older age and Freddy Kruger just came off as a clown in a Christmas sweater. I was so used to seeing campy versions of him that I was never really able to get swept up in the love of the character. Considering Leatherface, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees had all undergone the remake treatment, Freddy Kruger was expected to be next monster off the horror remake assembly line. Infinitely better than the Friday the 13th remake but still an artificial bore, A Nightmare on Elm Street does find Freddy Kruger shedding his comedic aura and retreating to the ominous shadows that spit him out and I couldn’t be happier about that. It was great to see someone other than Robert Englund step in as the iconic burn victim and put a fresh spin on the character, something that was greatly needed. Handed over to music video director Samuel Bayer, he works hard to earn the respect of Craven and the fans of the original but the problem is that Michael Bay is on board as a producer and it is incredibly obvious considering the lack of mood and abundance of rubbery special effects.

A Nightmare on Elm Street begins in the Springwood Diner where Kris (Played by Katie Cassidy) meets up with her sleep-deprived boyfriend Dean (Played by Kellan Lutz), waitress Nancy (Played by Rooney Mara), mutual friend Quentin (Played by Kyle Gallner), and Kris’s ex-boyfriend Jesse (Played by Thomas Dekker). It turns out that Dean is afraid to go to sleep because when he does, he dreams of a horrifically burned psychopath who launches gruesome attacks against him. After Dean appears to cut his own throat, the teenagers begin to investigate the ramblings of their deceases friend. As their search continues, they discover that they all may have known each other longer than they thought. They also uncover information about a deceased gardener named Freddy Kruger (Played by Jackie Earle Haley), who was believed to be a pedophile. As this information comes to light, Kris, Nancy, Jesse, and Quentin begin to suffer from the same bizarre dreams that Dean complained about. These dreams are particularly horrific for Nancy, who was always Freddy’s favorite. While more and more teens die of unusual circumstances, Nancy and Quentin race to figure out a way to pull Freddy from the dream world and into the real one so that they can destroy him.

While director Bayer and Bay do very little to rework Craven’c classic story, they do tinker with Freddy’s back-story, which has him a full-on pedophile rather than a child killer with a knife-glove. This swap does make your skin crawl when he creeps out of his hissing boiler room toward one of his victims. Funny enough, Freddy’s favored boiler room was something that could have undergone a bit of a change. It worked okay in the original film but it would have been cool to see Freddy’s lair undergo a bit of a change to match the character’s back-story and appearance. As far as looks go, Freddy certainly looks horrific even if he is largely kept in the shadows for much of the movie. I have to give the filmmakers credit for keeping the monster largely in the dark because that does ratchet up the spooks but when Haley is reveled in the hellish glow of his boiler room, the effects applied to his face look sort of obvious and, dare I say, cheap. The rest of the dream world that takes hold when the characters doze off look familiar, like music video sets reused with buckets of fake blood thrown around. Bayer tries to make them creepier by throwing in little girls who jump rope, play hopscotch, and chant, “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you!” Frankly, I found these scenes to feel more staged than surreal.

Surprisingly, the performances are much better than in the previous Platinum Dunes offering. I certainly think that the casting of Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy Kruger was inspired and he does attack the role with his fangs bared. He ditches the countless one-liners and instead growls loudly over the soundtrack. The flashback sequence that finds him without all the prosthetics and CGI is effectively creepy, mostly because anything dealing with pedophilia is creepy. Then there is Rooney Mara as Nancy, a promising up-and-comer that seems well aware that she is better than the movie she is in. The filmmakers twist Nancy into an angsty teenager who hides away in her room with headphones crammed into her ears and huddles over her paintings she enjoys doing. It seems like Bayer had a hard time trying to work her in front and center in the film, as she almost seems secondary to Kris in the opening sequence. About a half hour in, Mara is the star of this bloodbath, which in turn perks the film up. Cassidy and Dekker are forgettable as disposable teens there simply to die by Freddy’s favored glove. Gallner puts in 110% as Quentin, an equally angsty teenager who has feelings for the arty Nancy.

Considering A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 is largely drawing from the original film’s storyline, the film lacks any real surprises, which is immensely disappointing. While Bayner certainly has plenty of gore to go around, I found some of the violence to be watered down a bit, a shocker because I figured that the filmmakers would fall back on it. There still is no question that the concept is bright but failure to take it in a new direction stalls the film almost instantly. Let’s be honest here, Bay is certainly not the most creative in the story department. Predictability hangs low over our heads as characters we figure are going to get the knife do and twists we figure are coming fail to get the gasp they are hoping for. Then there is the ending, which I was less than impressed with. It consists of Freddy tossing Nancy around a room while he utters repulsive lines of dialogue her way. Having a monster lick the face of the freaked out heroine can only make us squirm so many times before it seems recycled. Much like Friday the 13th, Bayner tacks on a GOTCHA! moment before fleeing off into the end credits, but it feels like a cheap shot jolt. Overall, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 is a lousy film because it never gets off the ground. It feels like it was shot on Hollywood sets with tasteless CGI painted over it to make it more interesting. It never scares us although it does repulse us with its subject matter in a few places. It only grabs a recommendation for Haley’s commanding performance.

Grade: D+

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Attack of the Remakes! Friday the 13th (2009)

by Steve Habrat

It has always been extremely difficult for me to get into Jason Voorhees and the Friday the 13th series. I never found the hockey mask killer to be all that frightening and I found his films to be redundant exercises in sex, violence, and stupidity. The only film in the Friday the 13th series that I sort of liked was the original 1980 film, the one where Jason’s mother was the psycho chopping up hornball camp counselors. With Hollywood remaking every horror film under the gravestone, it came as no big surprise that Friday the 13th would be getting the unholy treatment. While I figured the film would be lousy, I sort of thought that maybe Hollywood would shake the series up a bit. When they handed the film over to Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes and director Marcus Nispel (the guy who gave us the semi-entertaining Texas Chain Saw reboot), it was obvious that this was going to be a major train wreck. Well folks, my worst fears were confirmed. The 2009 remake of Friday the 13th is absolutely awful in every way, shape, and form. Only once or twice is the film actually clever and show a brief glimpse of what could be if Bay wasn’t behind the film. I really don’t expect much out of these throwaway post-Halloween slashers but my God, at least put in some effort. I expect a little more than glossy guts, bare breasts, and steamy sex.

Friday the 13th 2009 picks on June 13th, 1980, with a terrified camp counselor beheading the crazed mother of Jason Voorhees, who went on a killing spree after her handicapped son drowned at Camp Crystal Lake. The film then jumps to present day with a handful of backpacking teenagers searching the woods just outside of Camp Crystal Lake for some marijuana that was planted weeks earlier. After they set up camp for the night, they are soon stalked and killed by a hooded maniac with a machete. One of the girls in the group, Whitney (Played by Amanda Righetti), is not slaughtered but captured by the hooded killer and taken prisoner. Six weeks pass and authorities are still unable to come up with an explanation for the strange disappearances of the teens. Meanwhile, another group of teenagers, Trent (Played by Travis Van Winkle), his girlfriend Jenna (Played by Danielle Panabaker), Chelsea (Played by Willa Ford), Bree (Played by Julianna Guill), Chewie (Played by Aaron Yoo), Lawrence (Played by Arlen Escarpeta), and Nolan (Played by Ryan Hansen), arrive in town for a weekend at Trent’s summer cabin just outside of Camp Crystal Lake. The group bumps into Clay (Played by Jared Padalecki), who is frantically searching for his sister Whitney. As they explore Camp Crystal Lake, the group stumbles across the same hooded figure, who now wears a hockey mask. As they dig into the events that happened at Camp Crystal Lake, they make the horrific discover that this strange man may be the legendary Jason Voorhees (Played by Derek Mears).

If you can believe it, director Nispel and Bay are not content with giving us just one group of teenagers to hate. They feel the need to give us two groups of annoying clichés that are begging to be killed by the machete-wielding psycho Jason. They do all the typical things that teens in these movies love to do. They wander off by themselves in a drunken stupor or marijuana haze, they hook up with each other in graphic sex scenes that reportedly made Mr. Bay very upset, and they talk to each other about the dumbest shit imaginable. I am well aware that these stupid teenagers are part of the appeal of these types of films but it would have been so refreshing to see them using common sense for once rather than aimlessly wandering around a dimly lit tool shed packed with more weapons than Jason could dream of. The film also has the same faux-gritty look that Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had, sleek and screaming a big price tag. The big budget look would be okay if the film had some sort of ominous atmosphere but it sort of comes off like a nu-metal music video with strategically place fog machines stuck in moss. I guess the one positive you can find here is that at least the filmmakers don’t resort to a shot-for-shot rehash and instead decide to make something that stands apart from what came before it. Yet even this is flawed because Jason only appeared briefly in the original Friday the 13th. This is more of a combination of Friday the 13th Part 2 and Part 3, with actors and actresses that look like they would be more comfortable modeling for Abercrombie & Fitch.

While none of the acting is worth mentioning, the film does take an interesting approach to Jason. More territorial maniac than supernatural specter, Jason dashes after these morons with such ferocity that Nispel and Bay were almost able to convince me that Jason is a neat character. He lumbers out of the dark suddenly and he sets traps for the kids to walk blindly into, which was a nice touch for Mr. Voorhees. Nispel and Bay also cram in a new explanation on how Jason found that legendary hockey mask, a sequence that is both painfully stupid and cheesy fun at the same time. It was one of the only scenes that I actually sort of enjoyed. The other was a fleeting glimpse of Jason showing some sort of emotion as Whitney, his sobbing prisoner, pleads with him and says his name. He stops for a moment and studies her, almost backs off for just a brief second, only to stomp away and hunt more teens. I was actually intrigued by the moment because it made me think that maybe all Jason wants is someone to be kind to him rather than wave him off and ignore him like he was all those years ago. Just as quickly as we saw the potential to give a bit of depth to the character, it was gone.

The main draw to Friday the 13th is going to be the elaborate kill sequences but this poor excuse of a film can’t even get that aspect right. Every death scene is a massive let down because there is very little creativity behind the camera. Only one kill made me sit up and take notice but then the scene switches and the intrigue fades. Nispel makes sure he throws in that famous “ch-ch-ch-ch… ka-ka-ka-ka” whispered in the score but it is only here or there and it never sends chills like it wants to. The acting is awful and predictable, with terrible dialogue handed to only marginally talented young thespians. It has been reported that Bay walked out of the premier of the film due to the unflinching sex scenes that Nispel includes but I wonder if he just wasn’t embarrassed by how awful the movie is. That really says something when Michael Bay walks out of the movie. Overall, it doesn’t build upon the dying slasher genre like it could have and it does very little for the gasping Friday the 13th series. My advice is stick to the original trilogy because at least they were sort of fun and atmospheric. And they didn’t have involvement from Michael Bay.

Grade: F

Friday the 13th is available on Blu-ray and DVD.