Wicked Witches: Black Sunday (1960)
by Steve Habrat
Throughout the late 1950s and into the 1960s, gothic horror was alive and well in Europe. In the United States, interest in vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein monsters faded in the wake of World War II and the atomic bomb. American horror movies moved on to mutated fiends, aliens from outer space, giant bugs stomping on small American towns, femme fatales, film noir, and Norman Bates slashers. Sure, Roger Corman released a few gothic drive-in Edgar Allen Poe tales starring Vincent Price, and there were a handful of witch-hunting films, but the emphasis was on monsters made through radiation, not in the pages of a Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley book. Europe was a completely different story. The British film company Hammer Films cranked out a number of classic gothic horror films, exploding in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein and continuing their run well into the 1970s. It seemed that Italy also had an interest in the gothic horror film, or at least Italian cinematographer turned director Mario Bava did. In 1960, Bava released Black Sunday (aka The Mask of Satan), a gorgeous gothic masterpiece centering on evil witches and bloodthirsty vampires coming back from their 200-year-old graves. Since its release, many critics have described Black Sunday as being a cross between a Hammer horror film and a classic Universal Studios horror film, an accurate description indeed. Featuring exquisite black and white cinematography, chilling sound work, unmatchable set design, an iconic performance from genre star Barbara Steele, and one of the most terrifying resurrection sequences in horror history, Black Sunday sits proudly near the top of the best Italian horror films of all time.
Black Sunday begins with a witch named Asa Vajda (played by Barbara Steele) and her vampire partner Javuto (played by Arturo Dominici) being sentenced to a gruesome death by Asa’s brother. Before the pair is left to burn, Asa’s brother orders that the mask of Satan be nailed to the faces of the condemned so that the world will forever know their true wickedness. Before they are executed, Asa puts a curse on her brother’s descendants and promises to return from the grave to have her revenge. Two centuries later, Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (played by Andrea Checchi) and his assistant, Dr. Andre Gorobec (played by John Richardson), are traveling through the same area where Asa and Javuto are buried. While passing through the eerie forest, one of their carriage wheels is damaged, leaving them stranded near Asa’s ruined tomb. While they wait for the wheel to be fixed, they decided to investigate the ruins to see what they can find. While poking around, the doctors find Asa’s coffin, which has a window displaying the horrible mask that was nailed to her face. Just as the men are about to leave the tomb, Dr. Kruvajan is attacked by a giant bat, which leaves a nasty cut on his hand. In the process of the attack, a few drops of blood make it into Asa’s tomb, resurrecting the evil witch and reigniting her fury. She telepathically resurrects Javuto, who sets out to find her brother’s descendants and make them pay.
If you were convinced that Hammer and Universal were the undisputed kings of gothic horror, Black Sunday is guaranteed to change your mind. There is not one scene in Black Sunday that doesn’t have some sort of gothic image to haunt your nightmares. There are cobwebbed tombs, dead forests, silhouetted castles, lifeless swamps, cracked graveyards, and crosses in every character’s hand. It’s full of the usual stuff, but the gothic style has never seemed so evil and dead as it does here. In Hammer and Universal’s offerings, there were at least a few glimpses of life, maybe a few late autumn leaves stuck to a branch or a babbling brook, but not in Black Sunday. It appears Asa’s curse worked its way into the trees, soil, and even the castle stones, leaving a perpetually parched and still wasteland where nothing will ever grow. It’s extremely creepy and it looks absolutely amazing in Bava’s lush black and white cinematography. You’d think that when compared to Hammer’s color releases, Black Sunday would be overlooked due to being presented in black and white, but the lack of color only adds to the hopelessness of the surroundings. It also adds extra menace to the shadowy castle hallways and rotten tombs, where candelabras flicker and tapestries hang down like fangs waiting to snap.
While Black Sunday may be celebrated for its gothic style, the film is also loaded with spectacular performances, particularly from Barbara Steele in a dual role. As Asa, Steele is in completely command of the film as she curses, and manipulates anyone who dares look in her direction. When we first see her tied to the stake waiting to be burned, her beauty throws us. We hear her brother condemning her for these terrible actions, but her innocent eyes hold us in doubt. Could she really be responsible for what they say she is? Don’t be fooled, as her true nature soon rears its ugly head. When Steele isn’t projecting pure evil as the vengeful witch, she is showing us her softer side as Katia, a striking descendent of Asa’s brother. Her performance as Katia doesn’t hit quite as hard as Asa, as she is basically asked to sit by her father’s bedside, look worried, or play the damsel in distress, but it’s still strong where it counts. Arturo Dominici gives a strong and silent performance as the equally wicked Javuto, Asa’s vampire partner who carries out some of the dirty work for the witch. When he speaks, you will be turned to stone. John Richardson’s Dr. Gorobec basically becomes the hero and love interest of Katia, Andrea Checchi’s Dr. Kruvajan becomes hypnotized servant to Asa, and Antonio Pierfederici’s Priest demonstrates a very creative and gruesome way to dispatch a vampire.
Despite the long list of positives, Black Sunday still has a few minor flaws that are difficult to ignore. First is the dubbing, which opens the door for some less-than-graceful dialogue. Unlike some of the trashier Italian efforts that would come much later, Bava makes an effort to have the English dubbing match the movement of the character’s mouths. It’s a success in that regard, but there are times when you wish that the film had been subtitled. Another minor problem with the film is the score, which slightly conflicts with Bava’s stunningly grim imagery. The music for the American version of Black Sunday was provided by Les Baxter, who delivers a score that captures none of the gothic atmosphere that flows forth from the screen. Still, the complaints are trivial when compared to both of the terrifying resurrection sequences, the unblinking gore, our first glimpse of Katia, or the chilly opening execution. They are all glimmers of absolute brilliance. Overall, as stylish, eerie, and grotesque as they come, Black Sunday is an astonishing directorial debut by the legendary Mario Bava. To this day, his images still retain their hair-raising power, and Steele’s Asa still stands as one of the most evil forces to ever haunt a movie screen.
Black Sunday is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Hammer Horror Series: The Brides of Dracula (1960)
by Steve Habrat
In 1957, British film production company Hammer Films crossed the pond and spooked American audiences with The Curse of Frankenstein, a bloodier and far less buttoned-up interpretation of Mary Shelley’s classic novel. A year later, Hammer would follow up that Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee vehicle with another Cushing/Lee horror outing in the form of Horror of Dracula, arguably one of the finest vampire films ever made. Many have argued that the ultra-gothic Horror of Dracula is a much better film than The Curse of Frankenstein, mostly due to Lee’s commanding performance as Dracula. Despite what side you fall on, these films are the reason that Hammer Films became as popular as they did. In 1960, the company decided to make a sequel to Horror of Dracula. While Lee wasn’t game to come back for seconds (he wouldn’t return until Dracula: Prince of Darkness), the studio moved forward with The Brides of Dracula, another horror film that is perfect for a crisp October evening. Sexually charged, gory, and packing one hell of a satisfying finale, The Brides of Dracula only slips due to Lee’s absence. In the wake of his performance in Horror of Dracula, there was no way that the blonde baby-faced David Peel was going to be able to match his evil.
The Brides of Dracula begins with a young French schoolteacher by the name of Marianne Danielle (played by Yvonne Monlaur) traveling to Transylvania to take a new job at the Lady’s Academy of Bachstadt. After being left in a pub by her carriage driver, Marianne is invited to stay with Baroness Meinster (played by Martita Hunt), a wealthy local that the villagers seem very uneasy about. Upon arriving at Baroness Meinster’s castle, Marianne catches a glimpse of her son, Baron Meinster (played by David Peel), who is in chains and said to be insane. Marianne soon meets the Baron, who pleads with Marianne to unlock the chains around his ankle and let him go free. Marianne finds the key and frees the Baron, who then proceeds to confront his mother. All the action scares the innocent Marianne and she dashes off into the night, only to be discovered the next day by the kindly Dr. Van Helsing (played by Peter Cushing). Marianne attempts to recount her story, but she has a difficult time remembering all the details. Van Helsing agrees to escort Marianne to her new school, but on their way they make a pit stop to investigate the body of a young dead girl. Van Helsing discovers that she has two bite marks on her neck, which he immediately recognizes as the mark of the vampire. After Van Helsing witnesses the young girl claw out of her grave at night, he begins racing to track down and dispatch any vampires in the area. His quest leads him to the Baron Meinster, who is determined to find Marianne and make her his bride.
With a title like The Brides of Dracula, you’d immediately assume that ol’ Drac would make an appearance somewhere in the picture. For those who are getting their hopes up of catching a glimpse of Lee’s iconic vampire, you’re about to be very disappointed. Heck, the head vampire is barely even mentioned, only coming up twice throughout the entire film. With the role of head vampire vacant, Hammer recruited David Peel, who seems to be having plenty of fun in the role of the Baron, but he just can’t quite rise to the level of the baritone Lee. He swishes his cape around like a kid looking at his new Dracula costume in the mirror and he curls his lips to reveal his plastic fangs, but he’s almost too good-looking to really make your knees knock together. In an attempt to capture Lee’s crazed, bloodshot look, director Terence Fisher cuts to close-ups of Peel’s bulging eyes, but it’s just not the same. Far more memorable are the brides, who basically only watch as Van Helsing tussles around a windmill with the Baron. They may not be all that threatening, but just their ghostly appearance alone certainly sticks with the viewer. They call to mind the three terrors that snuck around Bela Lugosi’s castle and stalked Renfield in Universal’s Dracula.
While Peel’s performance may not have the impact that Lee’s did, Cushing and Monlaur certainly don’t disappoint as the heroes. Monlaur does most of the heavy lifting early on as Marianne, the beautiful schoolteacher who tries to do the right thing, but unleashes evil in the process. Her innocence and kindness makes us root for her when the Baron starts closing in to make her his bride. Cushing reprises his role as the relentless vampire hunter Van Helsing, a hero who seems capable of slipping out of the nastiest situations imaginable. He becomes almost a fatherly figure to the young Marianne, who enthusiastically tells him about her marriage. Like a proud father, he beams with delight—only to slowly become more horrified as she reveals who the man is that will be taking her hand. There is plenty of warmth in Cushing’s performance and you will find yourself holding your breath when Peel’s fangs bear down on his neck. Hunt’s Baroness Meinster is a mysterious piece of work as the Baron’s mother, who doesn’t seem too alarmed when he son finally comes calling. Also on board here is Andree Melly as Gina, Marianne’s jealous roommate who gets turned into one of the dreaded vampire brides.
In true Hammer fashion, The Brides of Dracula is heavy with misty forests, gothic castles, and moonlit graveyards—all things we have come to expect from the studio that successfully revived the classic monsters. Even the opening credits appear as bloody scribbled with a desolate castle looming ominously in the background. Director Fisher, who was the man behind Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein, seemed to be getting more and more comfortable with the gothic aesthetic, as his frames are almost overflowing with crosses, coffins, knotted trees, and withered late falls leaves. In addition to the Halloween-heavy mood of the film, The Brides of Dracula also features a sequence in which Van Helsing shows off an extremely painfully way to treat and get rid of a vampire bite. Using a hot poker and some holy water, it really shows the fight that lies deep within our hero. Overall, with the ever-game Cushing at the wheel and Fisher working double time to make sure each and every scene is as atmospheric as it can be, The Brides of Dracula turns out to be an entertaining and solidly spooky sequel from Hammer. Come to catch a glimpse of the brides and stay for the thrilling windmill face-off.
The Brides of Dracula is available on DVD.
Halloween Guest Feature: Five Films That Scare… Goregirl
Here is a little information on Goregirl:
Canadian broad who has had a lifelong obsession with horror films. Perpetually working on a screenplay, avid collector of soundtracks, belt buckles and wigs. You can find me on WordPress: http://goregirl.wordpress.com/, YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/goregirlsdungeon or follow me on Twitter: @ggsdungeon.
Goregirl’s Top Five Scariest Italian Horror Films
Nothing can whip me into an excited frenzy like finding an Italian horror and/or thriller I haven’t seen. I have hungrily devoured Italian horror titles like a rabid Ms. Pac-Man. It is getting more difficult these days to find films I haven’t seen. I am particularly fond of the Giallo of the 1970s. The word Giallo is Italian for “yellow”, which refers to the common coloring of cheap pulp fiction novels. The term “Giallo” is used to describe Italian literature and film that contains elements of crime, mystery, horror, thrillers or eroticism. I never miss an opportunity to talk about Italian horror! Italian horror generally speaking tends to be plot heavy with copious twists and red herrings and while the mood can be positively electric I don’t think I would classify most of these as “scary”. Coming up with five was more difficult than I anticipated. I wanted to insure five Italian directors were represented so I allowed myself just one title per director. After much inner debate I chose the following five horror films hailing from Italy that provide not just thrills but also chills…
THE BEYOND (1981)
Directed By Lucio Fulci
I could easily have filled this entire top five with Lucio Fulci films! His brilliant entries Don’t Torture A Duckling, Zombi 2, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and The Psychic all deserve high praise. I chose Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond. In my opinion The Beyond is Fulci’s scariest, creepiest and goriest effort. The premise of The Beyond sees one of the seven gateways to hell being breached. This gateway lies beneath a hotel the main character inherits. Crazy shit happens, some of it’s illogical but every last bit is a fascinating, visual treat. People are nailed to walls, eaten by tarantulas, melted by acid, and of course there is classic Fulci eye trauma! And there are zombies! Beautiful, rotted wonderfully vial zombies! Don’t worry about a perfect logical narrative; just let the nightmare wash over you! The Beyond is classic Fulci at his gory best, but I can not recommend more highly checking out any of the aforementioned Fulci flicks!
BLACK SUNDAY (1960)
Directed By Mario Bava
Mario Bava is another favourite director whom I struggled to choose just one film for. Certainly his fantastic anthology Black Sabbath, the brilliant Kill Baby Kill!, the masterful The Girl Who Knew Too Much or his magnificent Blood and Black Lace would have all been great choices. I went with what is perhaps Bava’s best known film; Black Sunday. The stunning Barbara Steele takes on dual roles as Princess Asa Vajda and Katia Vajda. It is a wonderful richly gothic tale of a witch put to death by her own brother who returns 200 years later to seek revenge on her descendants. “The Mask of Satan” (which also happens to be one of its alternate titles) once pulled from the face of our witch makes for some grotesque visuals! Black Sunday was one of my dad’s favourite films and it absolutely terrified me as a child. While Black Sunday doesn’t quite have the same effect on me after 20ish viewings I think it is still one of Bava’s creepiest and most beautiful films.
Directed By Sergio Martino
No list of Italian films is complete without an entry from Sergio Martino. Anyone with even a casual interest in Italian horror probably knows the names Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava and Dario Argento but the lesser known Sergio Martino made several epic entries through the seventies. My favourite film by Martino is definitely The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh starring the gorgeous and sexy Edwige Fenech; Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I have the Key and The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail wouldn’t be far behind. I love these films but I would be hard pressed to say any of these are “scary”. Martino’s most frightening entry is Torso. College students are being murdered and the only clue to the killer’s identity is a scarf. A group of lovely ladies take refuge in the Italian countryside only to find themselves the killer’s target. The good old balaclava; headwear of thieves and serial killers alike! Torso has a balaclaved baddie, amazing scenery, plenty of skin and some impressive brutality! The final chase scene between the surviving female and the murderer is intense and exciting. Torso is gritty, sexy, suspenseful, violent and it has a great soundtrack to boot.
Directed By Dario Argento
What can I say about the great Dario Argento? The man knew how to construct a violent and visually stunning film. Argento’s Deep Red, Tenebre and Suspiria have long been personal favourites. Deep Red will always be my number one but for the “scary” category I would have to go with Suspiria. Suspiria takes place in a prestigious dance school where shenanigans of a supernatural nature are afoot. There is a feeling of unease established from the moment new student Suzy Bannion arrives at the school that doesn’t let up until the final credits. Its beauty is quite remarkable but is only one of its impressive qualities. Suspiria is claustrophobic, intense, suspenseful, thrilling and features some very impressive murder sequences! Suspiria is like an adult fairy tale and its impressive setting and props add a whimsical and yet terrifying sense of dread. Its brilliant soundtrack courtesy of Goblin is one of the best horror film soundtracks ever created! Performances are excellent across the board from Jessica Harper who plays Suzy, Stefania Casini who plays her friend Sara and great turns from classic actresses Alida Valli as Miss Tanner and Joan Bennett as Madame Blanc. Suspiria is part of Argento’s “three mothers trilogy” and I can not recommend enough also checking out Inferno, his second of the trilogy. Suspiria is a beautiful nightmare.
Directed By Lamberto Bava
Lamberto Bava is the son of the great Mario Bava. While I enjoyed Lamberto Bava’s Macabro, A Knife in the Dark, and Delirium, in my opinion Demons is definitely Bava’s masterpiece. There have not been many effects-intensive creature creations from Italy so for that reason alone this film is special. There are however a lot of other reasons Demons is special. The premise is a simple one; a group of people are given passes to a screening of a horror film and become trapped inside the theatre with a bunch of demons. Demons is very high-energy, it doesn’t let up for a second. The gore is plentiful; the effects are outrageous and occasionally gag-worthy. Most importantly, Demons has some really freaking cool looking demons! The transformations are fantastic; polished nails being pushed out in favor of nifty new gnarly claws, teeth pushed out to upgrade to some nice big pointy ones. It is a beautiful thing! Demons definitely has its campy qualities but it only adds to its charms. Demons insane finale involving a dirt bike, a sword and a helicopter falling through the roof is not to be missed! If you enjoy Demons, there is also a sequel you can sink your teeth into. Demons 2 isn’t as good as the original, but it certainly has its moments! Demons is an orgasmic, goretastic joy!
by Steve Habrat
Throughout my film courses at Wright State, one of my professors (who will remain nameless in this review) argued that Steven Spielberg’s 1975 thriller Jaws was not an important motion picture but rather the bane of their very existence. He rarely had a kind word for the film (or Spielberg himself) and it was just downright perplexing. On the one hand, there could have been bitterness there because Jaws was such a commercial success, the first summer blockbuster marketed on a large scale and he was stuck on the smaller scale art house fare, reluctant to give anything with an explosion in it a chance. On the other hand, he could have just been in love with his own pretention and too stubborn to realize that Jaws had some very important things on its mind, mainly reflecting the Watergate scandal that gripped the nation at the time and exploring class relations among its three main protagonists. My professor liked to argue that Jaws, and the imitation blockbusters that followed, chose not to deal with real world consequences to the violent actions within the films themselves, glossing over the cold hard truth. He is wrong, folks. Jaws DOES deal with some real world grief, fear, and the heaviness in the heart of everyman hero Brody. And if what is going on underneath all the mayhem isn’t clever enough, Spielberg makes a film that is an absolutely flawless example of how to perfectly build suspense and follow through with a delivery that will have the viewer’s heart in their throat. Maybe Jaws isn’t such a piece of garbage after all…
Considering everyone and their mother have seen Jaws at least once, I won’t dive into too much detail about the plot. Jaws opens with a group of free-spirited teens partying on the beach. Two of the drunken teens slip away and decide they are going to go skinny-dipping. The boy passes out while in the process of undressing but the girl makes it into the water, only to find herself getting tugged around by an unseen predator that proceeds to rip her to bits. The next day, police chief Martin Brody (Played by Roy Scheider), who has just moved from New York City to the scenic New England island of Amity, finds the remains of the girl on the beach. The medical examiner concludes a shark killed the girl, prompting Brody to close the beaches down, just when the summer crowds are starting to pour into Amity. Overruled by the mayor, the beaches reopen with the promise that there is nothing to fear in the water. Pretty soon, two more people are dead and Brody quickly brings in Marine biologist Matt Hooper (Played by Richard Dreyfuss) to help find the shark swallowing tourists whole. Brody and Hooper join forces with a blue-collar professional shark hunter Quint (Played by Robert Shaw) and they board his rickety boat the Orca, setting out to find and kill the predator before more people are killed. They soon catch a glimpse of what they are going up against and they quickly realize that they are going to need a bigger boat.
No matter how tough you think you are, Jaws, which is based on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name, has at least one moment that will send you flying out of your seat. Yes, it is a rollercoaster ride caught on film but Spielberg keeps us on our toes for the entire runtime of the film. He is aided by the iconic score by John Williams, which adds to the stomach-knotting tension found woven through Jaws. I dare you not to jump when you get your first good look at the aquatic beast that rears up to show off its pearly white fangs. You’d be lying if you said your pulse didn’t quicken when Brody, who is well aware a shark killed the girl, sits helplessly on the beach while people pour into the water for a cool-off. Each playful shriek has Brody inching closer to the edge of his beach chair. I guarantee that you mimic him each time you watch the film. All of this suspense is aided by the fact that we don’t see the shark until more than halfway through the film and this glimpse is one of those reveals where if you blink, you’ll miss it. By keeping the monster off screen, our imagination runs wild with, “How big is the shark?” “What does it look like?” “Are our heroes equipped to do battle with this monster?” Between the score, the concealment of the shark, and the slowly rising tension, Spielberg crafts a film that still sends people fleeing from it to this day while the brave ones who remain scream their heads off.
While Jaws may be a big budget studio picture, Spielberg refuses to dumb the entire project down and treat us like blithering idiots. Jaws is eager to address the Watergate scandal, which the country was still trying to wrap their heads around at the time. Tricky Dick’s resignation was still fresh in the mind of most American citizens and the fear that we may not even be able to trust our own leaders is touched upon in Jaws. Throughout the first half of the film, the honest everyman Brody is pitted against Mayor Larry Vaughan (Played by Murray Hamilton), a liar done up in flashy suits who jumps on television to reassure the edgy tourists that there is nothing to fear in the waters of Amity. He breathlessly tells Brody that he can’t close the beaches down because the citizens of the area depend on the money that the tourists bring in. As the body count racks up, the slippery politician is caught up in his fib that everything is okay and out of disgrace, he allows Brody to hire Quint to track down the shark. The film uses Vaughan’s dishonesty to infuse the film with some stinging grief that really sticks with the viewer. The mother of one of the victims approaches Brody and scolds him for opening the beaches when he was aware that there was a shark in the water. This confrontation shakes Brody to his core and his character is never the same again. He seems quieter and a bit dazed as a result, seeking refuge in a bottle of wine.
When Jaws isn’t making us feel Brody’s pain, Spielberg is allowing us to really get up close and personal with the three different protagonists. Middle class Brody wanted to escape the violence of New York and live a peaceful life only to stumble into more violence where he least expected to find it. His reveal is most certainly a reflection of the violence that America was still trying to recover from throughout the 70’s. Quint is a blue-collar WWII veteran who likes to poke fun at Hooper, who has a college degree and happens to be wealthy. The group bickers with one another and they have a hard time working together at first but they are able to put aside their difference over drinks and lengthy explanations about past experiences. Quint and Hooper, who butt heads the most, are able to level with each other by comparing their scars, first physically and then psychologically. Quint’s reveal is the standout, a deeply disturbing account of being stranded in shark infested waters at the tail end of World War II. Then, to celebrate their understanding, they engage in drinking and singing, only to be yanked away from bonding by their aquatic nemesis. This bonding sequence happens to be one of my favorite scenes in the film. I love it when Spielberg cuts to the outside of the boat and up pops our antagonist, a common enemy for the uncommon trio.
Perhaps one of the most influential thrillers next to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (my professor’s favorite film), Jaws hits gold with its equal parts action, adventure, horror, thrills, and comedy, all while giving us three characters we grow to deeply care about. Unlike Spielberg’s later work, Jaws doesn’t have such a happy ending to soothe us. He is bold enough to kill off one of the protagonists, a shock to someone who is only familiar with his projects that came in the wake of Jaws. He also doesn’t shy away from graphic violence, a staple that was immensely popular in the horror films of the 1970’s. To say that Jaws isn’t a classic film worthy of study just because it was the film that “invented” the summer blockbuster and was heavily marketed by the studio is ridiculous. While marketing Psycho, Hitchcock used a gimmick that forbid anyone into the theater once the film had started. This gimmick is okay but the marketing for Jaws was a major crime? Maybe I’m the only one who sees something wrong with that argument. Jaws remains one of the best American movies ever made by a big Hollywood studio, one of the best thrillers of all time, and the quintessential summer blockbuster. An undisputed classic that will make you never want to visit the beach or go into the water again.
Jaws is available on DVD. It hits Blu-ray this August, a must purchase for any fan of cinema.
The 25 Horror Films That Have Scared Steve… Pt. 4
by Steve Habrat
Here we are, boys and ghouls! We have made it to my top 10 scariest movies of all time. I hope I have introduced you to a few horror movies you haven’t seen or heard of and tackled a few of your favorites as well. So without further ado, these are my top 10 favorite horror films that have curdled my blood, given me goose bumps, made me a little uneasy to turn out my bedside lamp at night, and made me consider shutting the films off.
10.) The Evil Dead (1981)
The ultimate sleepover horror flick! With a budget barely over $375,000 and a handful of no name actors, first time director Sam Raimi tore onto the directorial scene with The Evil Dead, a gruesome little supernatural horror film that follows a group of teens as the travel to a cabin in the woods for a weekend of drinking a few beers and hooking up. Once secluded in the cabin, they stumble upon a book called, naturally, The Book of the Dead, and they, of course, read from it. The book just so happens to release an ancient force that possess all who stand in its way, turning the teens into bloodthirsty, demonic zombies. Stopping to consider the budget, the special effects here are a true marvel, even if they are dated and the sound effects will give your goose bumps more goose bumps. While Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn and Army of Darkness descended into campville one of the most amazing parts of The Evil Dead is the fact that it refuses to offer any comedic relief. The most grueling aspect of the film is that by the end, our hero Ash has to face the terror all by his lonesome. Absolutely unyielding once it gets moving and savagely in-your-face, The Evil Dead will without question fry your nerves.
9.) Suspira (1977)
Italian director Dario Argento created perhaps one of the most visually striking horror films to date. Suspira is scary decked out in bright neon colors. Following a young American woman who is accepted to a prestigious ballet school in Europe where it may or may not be under the control of witches is the real deal. The film begins with easily one of the most intense murder sequences ever filmed and it should almost be criminal with how well Argento builds tension and suspense within it. While mostly scaring you through supernatural occurrences and basically becoming a mystery film, Suspira leaves its mark with images that sear in well-lit rooms. Nothing ever happens in the dark in this film, and usually its what we do not see that is the scariest. And to deny the fact that this film is a breath of fresh air to the horror genre would be utterly absurd. The best advice I can give is just wait until the end of the film. You will be left pinned to your seat.
8.) Psycho (1960)
When it comes to unforgettable movie monsters, give me Norman Bates over Freddy or Jason any day. Everyone is familiar with what is perhaps the most famous and scariest of all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, this film literally could be the closest to perfect that any motion picture will get. The score is unforgettable. It breaks the rules by killing off its main star in the first forty minutes. It keeps you guessing until the very end. It WILL terrify you by its sudden outbursts of brutal violence. And seriously, who is not familiar with the shower sequence? Still not convinced? See it simply for Anthony Perkin’s performance as mama’s boy Norman Bates. I guarantee he will find his way into your nightmares. Remarkably, the film lacks all the crows’ feet of aging as it still manages to be one of the scariest horror of personality films to date. While it was needlessly remade in 1998 to disappoint results, the original is a true classic in literally every way. Psycho breaks all the rules of horror, and leaves the viewer disoriented and wowed all at once.
7.) Straw Dogs (1971)
Never heard of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 home invasion film Straw Dogs? Well, you have now and you have no excuse not to see it. As an added bonus, it stars Dustin Hoffman! I noticed that on many of your favorite horror films that you have sent me, you listed the 2008 film The Strangers. While The Strangers is creepy, Straw Dogs is flat out gritty, unrepentant viciousness. A nerdy math professor and his wife move out to the British countryside where they are looking to enjoy a simple life of peace and quite. Their pursuit of happiness falls short when the couple becomes the victims to bullying by the locals. The bullying soon boils up to a vicious rape and an attack on the couple’s home that leads to one hell of a nail-bitting standoff. Many consider it a thriller, but this is flat out horror in my book. The film becomes an exploration of the violence in all of us. Yes, even the ones we least expect. We never see the violence coming from the mild mannered math teacher. Even worse, it leaves us with the unshakeable notion that this horrendous violence lurks in all of us. Another great quality of the film is the fact that it will spark conversations after viewing it. What would you do in that situation? Would you allow yourself to be the victim or would you stand up and fight for what is yours? Sound simple? Straw Dogs is far from simple. It will etch itself into your mind.
6.) Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
Nosferatu is on here twice?!?! Sort of. Nosferatu indeed deserves its place among the greats but Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre is without question the greatest vampire movie of all time. It drives a silver dagger right through the heart of all the vampire flicks out there (Take that Twilight!). Part remake, part valentine to F.W. Murnau, part Dracula; this is an undeniably sweeping horror film. Who would have believed that a slow motion image of a bat could make the hair on your arms stand up? Elegant and astonishing beautiful, one could recommend the film on the cinemamatogrphy alone. This interpretation of Nosferatu abandons the name Count Orlok and instead is Count Dracula. The appearance of Count Dracula is almost identical to Count Orlok but the rest plays out like Dracula. The film features what could be one of the most mesmerizing performances ever caught on film with Klaus Kinski’s interpretation of Count Dracula. He is at once heart breaking and threatening. The film’s apocalyptic images are spellbinding. The score is the stuff that nightmares are made of. The acting is top notch. The scares are slight and real. This is the scariest vampire movie ever and one of the most underrated horror movies ever made.
5.) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The glaring problem with the 2003 remake of this disturbing 1974 classic is that the 2003 remake was more concerned with being a sleek experience rather than a gritty and realistic slasher flick. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre does a fantastic job making you feel the Texas heat, as this movie is an absolute scorcher. On top of that, the film uses surprisingly little gore and still manages to gross you out to the point of you seriously considering becoming a vegan. What makes the film so traumatic is the fact that it does not only contain one monster, it has several. There is basically no escape from the dreaded, chainsaw wielding Leatherface and his merry band of cannibals. The film also throws another monkey wrench into the equation: one of the main characters is in a wheelchair. Yikes! The final chase of the film seems like it was ripped right out of an old newsreel and it has such a realistic tone that the atmosphere actually overrides the horrific murders. I recently read a quote from Stephen King about his favorite horror films and I have to admit that I heavily agree with him. He says “One thing that seems clear to me, looking back at the ten or a dozen films that truly scared me, is that most really good horror films are low-budget affairs with special effects cooked up in someone’s basement or garage.” If this quote applies to any horror film, it would be Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Amen, Mr. King!
4.) The Shining (1980)
As far as supernatural horror movies are concerned, Stanley Kubrick’s version of the Stephen King book The Shining is the first and last word in haunted house movies. Combining hallucinatory images, a mind-bending story, and a horror of personality all into one Frankenstein’s monster of a film. Kubrick tops it all of with a big bloody bow. Jack Nicholson is at his bat-shit crazy best as Jack Torrence, a seemingly normal writer who, along with his family, are employed as the winter caretakers at the secluded Overlook Hotel. With the hotel cutoff from customers, the ghosts start coming out to play. They posses Jack’s young son Danny (REDRUM!). They torment Jack to the point where he grabs an axe and goes on a killing spree. If you have not seen this, see it just on the grounds of Jack Nicholson’s outstanding portrayal of a man slipping into homicidal madness. It is probably one of the most epic horror movies I’ve ever seen, and one of the most visually jarring. I really do not think there is anything creepier than twin girls standing in the center of a long hallway and inviting Danny to “come play with” them. The Shining leaves the viewer to figure it all out at the end. But damn does it end with some blood soaked fireworks.
3.) Dawn of the Dead (1978)
George Romero’s follow up to his 1968 zombie freak out wears the king’s crown in the land of zombie movies. This one has it all, folks. It’s dismal, gory beyond anything you could ever imagine, intelligent, shocking, and freaky as all hell. Picking up right where Night of the Living Dead left off, we are thrust into a world of chaos. I will warn you that the first half hour or so of the film is so overwhelming; you may need to take an intermission after it just to gather yourself. Romero is launching an all out assault on the viewer, testing them to see how much they are able to take. But he hasn’t even gotten going yet. Hell, the opening is actually tame compared to the gut-wrenching climax. Romero does lighten the mood a little in places because the film would be unbearable if he never did. The plot centers on four survivors who flee from war-torn Pittsburgh to an indoor shopping mall to escape the panic that has seized hold of America. This panic, of course, comes in the wake of the dead returning to life and eating the flesh of the living. They live like kings and queens in the land of consumerism, which also leads to their ultimate downfall. Greed takes hold and soon the army of zombies gathering outside is the least of their concerns. Featuring some of the most heart stopping violence to ever be thought up and some truly tense moments, Dawn of the Dead may actually cause you to have a heart attack or, at the very least, a panic attack.
2.) Hellraiser (1987)
If demonic horror scares you, then you are going to want to stay far, far away from Clive Baker’s Hellraiser. What sights the soul ripping Cenobites have to show you. What ghastly sights indeed. Bursting at the seams with some of the most unsettling images that any horror film has to offer, Hellraiser simply has it all. It has monsters for the monster crowd. It shows glimmers of the slasher genre. It satisfies the gore hounds thirst for blood. It offers up a wickedly original storyline. Following a man who ends up possessing a box that can expose you to the greatest pleasures imaginable is a pretty unnerving experience. There’s a dead guy in the attic that an unfaithful wife has to provide with male bodies so he can regenerate. There are four time traveling demons that rip apart their victims with chains. A daughter is desperately trying to unravel her father’s death. Did I mention it has lots and lots of monsters? The best part of seeing the first film in the Hellraiser series is that you get to see the Cenobites, who could very well be some of the creepiest antagonists that have ever haunted a horror film. They slink through the shadows and send icy chills up your spine. When Pinhead, or “Lead Cenobite” proclaims that they are “Angels to some and demons to others”, he is not kidding. Are they the four horsemen of the apocalypse, given the films left-field apocalyptic ending? Could be. Undeniably vicious and oddly hypnotic, the film will scare the living daylights out of you and replace those daylights with the darkness of Hell.
1.) Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
During the class that I took on the horror genre in college, we discussed that the scariest movies of all are the ones that posse an unwavering realism. I seriously think that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is the embodiment of this argument. Raw, powerful, disturbing, and a searing knock out, this is without question the most terrifying film I have ever seen. You will be locking your doors and possibly adding another lock for extra good measure. The plot of the film centers on Henry who is soft-spoken exterminator who also happens to be a serial killer. Henry happens to be staying with his friend Otis, who is currently on probation and works at a gas station and also sells pot on the side. Otis has also allowed his sister Becky, who is a stripper looking for a new start in Chicago, to shack up with the two bachleors. Soon, Otis learns of Henry’s grotesque hobby and quickly decides he wants in. Henry takes him under his devil wings and the two descend into the night to prey on innocent victims. The uncanny, fly-on-the-wall vérité approach elevates the film to the territory of the unbearable. Every explosive murder is chillingly real. Every line of sadistic dialogue is muttered in a disconnected tone. The film also chills you to the bone because there is never a character to truly root for, a character to take comfort in. The closest we get to a hero is Becky, but mostly because we fear for her safety. We know she is incapable of stopping the maniacs. While the violence will shock you, and trust me it is some absolutely grisly stuff, the fear of the violence and unpredictability of it all will wear away and you will be left with the fear that this could actually happen. There are actually people out there who could be capable of doing this, and I could be next if I just so happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a masterpiece of the horror genre and it will leave you thinking about it for weeks.
I hope all of our readers out there have enjoyed our 31 days of Halloween special- Anti-Film School’s Halloween Horror Movie Spooktacular- and will come back next year for more horror, thrills, and chills. I have personally had a blast doing this as Halloween is my favorite holiday and has been since I was in a diaper. Enjoy the next few days of horror movie posts and the review our readers chose. Have a terrifying Halloween, boys and ghouls! I know I will.
Bates Motel (1987)
by Charles Beall
There is a little-known (and thankfully little-seen) TV-movie/pilot based on the Psycho franchise called Bates Motel. This was to be an anthology-type series, much like The Twilight Zone, with plot lines revolving around the guests who check into a refurbished Bates Motel for the night. The movie aired on NBC in 1987 and thankfully was never picked up for series.
This movie is BAD. No, I take that back- “bad” would be a compliment. This movie is UNWATCHABLE. Yes, I know I have said I like to give movies a fair shake but this one does not deserve it. The plot revolves around a freakshow named Alex (Bud Court) who inherits the Bates Motel from his friend in the asylum, Norman Bates. When he is released, Alex wants to reopen his friend’s motel and help rebuild its image. How noble! With the help of a sincerely fucking annoying tomboy named Willie (Lori Petty), Alex proceeds to reopen the Bates Motel, but, Mrs. Bates (who is now named Gloria! WTF?!) will have none of that. So, “scary” shit happens, the motel is reopened, a girl tries to kill herself in the bathtub, blah, blah, blah.
As I stated, this movie is unwatchable. Sincerely, this is a horrible, horrible movie that doesn’t even deserve to be aired on midnight television. It doesn’t even deserve to be called campy- you have to earn that. This movie does not deserve to exist; it is lazy, stupid, and an insult to the brand of Psycho. You can check it out on YouTube if you’d like, but be aware, this is 90 minutes of your life that you will sincerely be pissed you wasted.
I’ll leave the last word to Anthony Perkins (from the excellent documentary The Psycho Legacy)…
by Charles Beall
I don’t like Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho, yet I respect it. We can bitch and moan about the sanctity of remaking a classic and the hollowed ground Van Sant trampled on, but that won’t get us anywhere. Psycho ’98 is an experiment, pure and simple, as to whether or not a great film can be remade shot-for-shot (albeit with a few teaks) and it still have the same impact, Van Sant has proved that it cannot. His experiment was a success.
I find it hard to review this Psycho; it has the same plot as the original and has the same, well, everything. In a necessary documentary on the DVD, Van Sant states that he looks at the screenplay of Psycho as any other classic written work that can be performed, much like a Shakespeare play. The actors are all different, and I give him kudos for thinking out of the typecast. However, we the audience are at an unfair advantage (and are unfair to judge Van Sant) because the original is so engrained in our minds that it is literally impossible not to compare this film with the original.
So there you have it- I don’t know what to say about this Psycho. As a film, it doesn’t work because we know and love the original; it is comparing apples to oranges. But, you have to respect the experiment that Van Sant performed. It is interesting, and quite indeed fascinating, but it just does not work.
Grade: D+ (but an A for effort!)
Tomorrow, we wrap up the Psycho franchise with a made-for-TV movie that I do not find fit to wipe my ass with: Bates Motel.
Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990)
by Charles Beall
There is a good movie in Psycho IV: The Beginning that is dying to get out, yet never does. The premise (for the fourth film in a series) is promising: what was life with Mother like? The problem is that there is a lot of good material here, but the film is so campy that you can’t take it seriously.
It is interesting to look at the progression of the story of Norman Bates through the Psycho series. We know that the original Psycho is a more “serious” film“ (albeit with a lot of dark humor), as is Psycho II, and to an extent, Psycho III, but this installment walks a fine line of seriousness and camp, falling into the latter category. This is a shame, because with Psycho IV, we have a screenplay by Psycho’s original screenwriter Joseph Stefano, another spirited performance from Anthony Perkins, and enthusiastic direction from Mick Garris. What went wrong?
The film starts off with a solid concept. Late night radio host Fran Ambrose (the amazing and underrated CCH Pounder) has a show dealing with boys who kill their mothers, and of course, a now married and “rehabilitated” Norman Bates calls in. This is an instance where the movie flails between the serious and camp. There is potential and Pounder and Perkins take their roles seriously, yet the direction of Garris seems to take the performances to a campier level. Through his phone call, we meet Normans’s mother (the hot Olivia Hussey) through narratives about their life together, with young Norman played by Henry Thomas of E.T. fame. I give credit for Garris for choosing Hussey to play Mrs. Bates; she is gorgeous and not at all the image one would think of for Mrs. Bates. However, Hussey camps up her performance and I believe it is because of Garris’ direction.
That isn’t to say that Psycho IV isn’t well-made. The film is bursting with color, giving an idea of life back in the era at the time of the original film. But, much like Norman Bates himself, this film is at war with itself. It doesn’t know how to treat its material, and instead of being firmly on one path, the movie straddles the serious and the campy, leaving this viewer satisfied to an extent, but disappointed at what could’ve been.
Tomorrow…ugh, Gus van Sant’s Psycho remake. Although, this is a pretty sweet trailer.
Psycho II (1983)
by Charles Beall
One must approach 1983’s Psycho II with an open mind. That is, there will never be a worthy follow-up to Psycho; that film exists and there is nothing that can top it. However, one can wonder what Norman Bates has been up to since his dirty little secret was discovered and that is precisely what Psycho II attempts to accomplish.
The film was released in 1983, a decade wrought with slasher films. Indeed, Psycho II arrives right at the tail end of the beginning of the gore decade and you can see it trying oh-so-hard not to be a slasher movie (but more on that later). What we have here is a film that respects its predecessor, but also tries to break out of its shadow by imitating the film it is trying so hard not to be (but really, really wants to).
The film starts off with the original shower scene, easing into the main titles while looking at the famous Bates mansion. Totally pointless, if I do say so- if you’re trying to break away from the original, you don’t start off your film with one of the most iconic scenes in film history. The shower sequence serves no purpose to the audience. What image comes to you immediately when you hear Psycho? A shower? Precisely. One must trust the audience.
As the catchy tagline so cleverly states, it has been 22 years since Norman Bates was incarcerated and we are witnessing his parole hearing as Psycho II truly opens. Bates (awkwardly played again by the legendary Anthony Perkins) has been deemed “restored to sanity” by the State of California and he is hereby released. “But what about his victims, don’t they have any say?” asks Lila Loomis (played by a deliciously bland Vera Miles), presenting a petition to the courts against his release. Her argument doesn’t hold up, and boy is she angry!
Norman is escorted back to his house on the hill by his psychiatrist (Robert Loggia), where he is immediately haunted by, you guessed it, Mama Bates. As part of his release, Norman is now employed at the diner down the road (the one Norman suggest Marion go to on that stormy night?) as a cook’s assistant. There he meets a waitress named Mary (an annoying Meg Tilly) whom he strikes up a friendship with. After a falling out with her boyfriend, Norman invites her to stay at his motel for the night, free of charge. She reluctantly agrees and walks home with Norman, eventually ending up spending the night in the house after Norman gets into a fight with the motel manager (an awesome Dennis Franz) that has been keeping an eye on the place.
This is the basic setup of Psycho II and it is one of the reasons why it works- to an extent. We are focused on a core group of characters, and there are really only two for the bulk of the film, Norman and Mary. The premise is promising, as Norman begins to receive calls from Mother and he slowly feels that he is losing his grip on reality. Mary attempts to be his rock (or pretends to attempt to), which brings a more human aspect to Norman than we have ever seen before. Perkins is such a brilliant actor, and even though some of the dialogue written for him is weak, he tries his best to humanize Norman in a way that hasn’t been seen before. The slow pacing of the film allows the character to develop even more, drawing the audience into the conflicted mind of Norman Bates. Then, of course, there is the twist that is a bit obvious, yet still clever for a film such as this (a sequel to a classic horror film).
Unfortunately, the film begins to unravel in the final act and the bodies begin to pile up as demanded by the 80s “horror” genre. Then, something totally comes out of left field, something so absurd that it nearly brings down the entire film (but obviously sets it up for Part III).
Psycho II is indeed admirable. Its intentions are of the purest form; director Richard Franklin respects the source material and tries his best to make it a solid mystery/psychological thriller like its predecessor. However, the ending to the film seems tagged on at the last minute and brings down everything the film was so sincerely trying to attempt.
Psycho II is not a worthy follow-up to the original Psycho– there will never be a film that can accomplish that. However, if you throw all of your preconceived notions aside and give it an honest chance, you will be pleasantly surprised if not disappointed at what could have been.
Grade: C+ (but an “A” for effort!)
Tomorrow, Norman Bates is back to normal, but mother is off her rocker…again. Check in, relax, and take a shower with the directorial debut of Anthony Perkins, Psycho III.