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Jaws (1975)

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.

Grade: A+

Jaws is available on DVD. It hits Blu-ray this August, a must purchase for any fan of cinema.

Black Christmas (1974)

by Steve Habrat

If you feel like taking a break from all the holiday cheer of the Christmas season, pop in director Bob Clark’s subtle and ominous Black Christmas. You won’t regret it. Well, maybe you will if you are watching it alone at night with nothing but a Christmas tree lit and no one else at home to keep you company. One of the more muted horror films of the 1970’s, Black Christmas is all about sounds, creaky halls, dimly lit bedrooms, faint holiday tunes emitting from radios, soft cinematography, heavy breathing, and some of the most abhorrent and creepy phone calls ever made. You will also find it hard to believe that the guy who made this also went on to make that other holiday classic A Christmas Story and the teen sex romp Porky’s. Miraculously never conforming to a typical slasher flick, mostly from the addition of the hard-boiled detective striving to solve the baffling disappearances, phone calls, and deaths taking place around a mostly deserted sorority. It’s a left of center choice to watch around the holidays because, lets face it, who really wants to get lost in a horror film during the most wonderful time of the year? Isn’t that what Halloween is for?

During a boozy Christmas party one evening, a strange man wanders around a sorority home, ascends a trellis, and climbs into the attic. Soon, a strange phone call interrupts the party and Barb (Played by Margot Kidder) grabs the phone to provoke the vulgar call. Turns out, this is not the first time this sorority has received an enigmatic call like this. The call is all heavy breaths, strange moans, and graphic threats aimed at the girls. This must all explain why the caller has earned himself the nickname “the moaner” amongst the girls. At first, we are lead to believe that this is one of the girl’s boyfriends pranking the skittish chicks but Clark plays this straight and it’s a little too effective when we learn that it’s for real. Soon, one of the girls, Clare (Played by Lynne Griffin), meets a truly grisly demise while she packs her bags to leave for a trip home. The next day, Clare’s uptight father Mr. Harrison (Played by James Edmond Jr.) arrives to take her home but her absence begins to frighten him. He goes to the sorority housemother Mrs. MacHenry (Played by Marian Waldman), Clare’s boyfriend Chris (Played by Art Hindle), and the pregnant and conflicted Jess (Played by Olivia Hussey) to help him locate his daughter. As they team up with the police and a dead body is discovered in a park near the sorority house, the eerie phone calls grow more disturbing and the body count begins to rise.

It’s really quite a shame that Bob Clark didn’t stay in the horror genre because this man is really on top of what makes a film scary. While Black Christmas has plenty of gore to spare (Not the type you’d find in Saw, mind you), mostly everything is oblique. A hook goes through one person’s head but it’s heard before we get a shadowy glimpse of it; another is stabbed do death with a phallic-looking crystal unicorn head. It’s a symbolic rape sequence that I’m sure impressed Hitchcock. Even the killer, Billy, is rarely shown, only once do we get to briefly see his face, but it is concealed with crafty shadows and one beam of light revealing a lone wild eye. We are consistently put in the killers POV, which is actually even more chilling than just seeing him lurk around the sorority house. I found myself filling in his thoughts, what he looked like, and constructing my own monster in my head. I also painted in the gore with my own imagination, with very little help from Clark. He doesn’t underestimate his audience and kudos for that!

Clark also makes glorious use of sound in this film, having the killer call the girls and make gargled sexual threats, perverted groans, and lisping whispers, efficiently making your skin crawl. The effective is enhanced by the juxtaposition of faint Christmas tunes calling in the background. The first time we actually see the girls get a call, the camera never cuts away from the girls. Instead, Clark slowly pans through the group of girls as they huddle around the phone and listen, repulsed by the sounds, their eyes conveying the hope that this is truly just a group of boys playing a prank. In all frankness, I hoped the first call was a prank too, just due the vulgarities uttered to the girls. The big reveal about the phone calls is carefully handled, a demented reveal that would give anyone home alone the willies.

Black Christmas offers up an abundance of rather complex characters for a slasher film.  The heroine here, Jess, is pregnant and has decided on an abortion. She seems like a driven gal, one who refuses to be controlled by any dominating and controlling male force, especially her seemingly sophisticated but volatile boyfriend. She is with out a doubt a product of the Feminist Movement. She rejects pleas of marriage and shows more interest in furthering her education and career than dropping out and raising a child. The housemother Mrs. MacHenry is a sneaky alcoholic who apparently never married and the lush Barb seems to be following in her footsteps. She would rather have an independent love affair with a bottle than a man. Barb is also extremely off putting and direct, two traits that make her hard to root for. She has a shocking disinterest for figuring out what happened to her sorority sister and would rather crack open a can of beer than be bothered to really help anyone. The inclusion of Mr. Harrison as the old-fashioned conservative father was also a nice touch to all these empowered women. He is portrayed as a nerdy, timid, and stern man who needs these stronger women to lead him along.

Black Christmas was remade in 2006, but it made the inevitable mistake that all recent horror films do and tried to give everything a longwinded explanation, sucking all the fear out of the premise. In 1974, there is no explanation for why this is all occurring. Perhaps this is the film that inspired John Carpenter to unleash Michael Myers on the horror genre. It applies the same stationary camera shots of empty hallways, darkened bedrooms, and quite snowny neighborhoods where ordinary people live out their lives. Evil can be anywhere and strike at any moment. Even the police can meet grisly ends without a seconds notice. It has the same faceless killer who could very well be the boogieman. I also found myself drawn to the patient storytelling and the way Clark lets the terror unfold almost naturally. Maybe more prominent that we are willing to admit and an overlooked gift to horror, don’t be afraid to unwrap the gift of Black Christmas come the holiday season. It’s a gift that will keep on giving. Fear, that is.

Grade: A-

Horrible Bosses (2011)

by Steve Habrat

Let’s be honest, the premise of Horrible Bosses, a revenge-fantasy comedy that places three Average Joes at the center of an intricate plot to off their bosses a la Alfred Hitchcock’s Stranger’s on a Train could strike a chord with many casual moviegoers. Why? Because who HASN’T had a boss that has made their lives a living hell! It’s an amusing “What if?” that provides some minor laughs in the dead heat of the summer and a surprisingly small picture going toe to toe with films like Transformers, Harry Potter, and Captain America. But the film has a charming underdog persona that many can’t quite ignore (It also happens to feature an all-star cast!) and leaves you hoping it will be remembered once it’s long gone from theaters. I say this because the film walks the fine line between classic dark comedy and comedy-no-one-will-remember-in-a-year territory. I consider it a blue-collar comedy that pours it’s blood, sweat, and tears into all the shenanigans to make you laugh but sometimes it comes up a bit short. It’s a shame it might get lost in shuffle.

Every summer has a sleeper hit that audiences pass on via word of mouth. It ends up making a boatload of money and it usually turns out to be a comedy. We’ve already had a 50/50 summer when it comes to comedy and, frankly, comedy has been very uninteresting for quite a while. We had Bridesmaids which was a surprise smash and was a breath of fresh air. Two weeks later, the guys of the Hangover crashed the party and left everyone with a bad taste in their mouths. We’ve also seen Bad Teacher, one that was heavily hyped but largely written off by many and Zookeeper, another dud chucked out by Happy Madison. Now we have the often witty, sometimes disappointing Horrible Bosses, in which three nice guys decide they’ve had enough of their tyrannical bosses and decide to off them for each other. By killing each other’s, they are spared a suspected motive by the police and they end getting off punishment free. It’s a bit of a tired premise and really isn’t that inspired of an idea, but it will resonate! Especially if you take the dry asides of Jason Bateman (Arrested Development), the screeching insanity of Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and smart-ass narcissism of Jason Sudeikis (SNL) and pair them up against the sadistic Kevin Spacey, man-eating Jennifer Aniston, and the under-used coke addict Colin Farrell.

The three amigos, Nick (Bateman), Dale (Day), and Kurt (Sudeikis) enlist the help of a professional killer in Mother Fucker Jones, played by the dead-pan Jamie Foxx. They slam their heads together and they embark on a bumbling journey to expel their demonoid bosses from planet earth. The usually sticky situations follow and they are mostly all amusing. They sneak around their intended victims homes, accidentally get high on cocaine, stupidly leave their DNA everywhere, and drool over a lingerie clad Aniston as she deep throats a popsicle, a banana, and a hot dog. It’s good to see a fresh line-up of comedians like we have here, but they seem a bit new to the scene, in all honesty. They try to ad-lib with the best of them but sometimes it’s a bit forced and amateur, especially from Day who relies on his bat-shit crazy persona he crafted for his character on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He rattles off some winners and delivers some stink bombs that are intended to shock the audience into belly laughs. The most laughs come from Bateman, who delivers some zingers (One about fleeing to Canada will have you in stitches), Foxx who demonstrates extraordinary comedic timing (His explanation of how he got the name Mother Fucker will have you covering your mouth), and the largely ignored Colin Farrell, who delivers countless one liners that will leave you quoting for weeks (Wait until you see his outtakes!). Sudeikis fails to grab many of the chuckles and he passes himself off as a second rate Nick Swardson, who is funnier anyway. The casting could have been a bit stronger without his character. Spacey is clearly having fun but his character descends too far into downright evil territory. I know we are supposed to hate him but c’mon!! Aniston has some eyebrow-raising moments, mostly when she shows up almost nude in one particular scene and fires off more racy innuendos than any character in a Judd Apatow picture. She surprisingly churns out one of her better performances since Office Space. Julie Bowen (Modern Family) also shows up as Spacey’s wife but she is basically ignored in all the chaos.

There isn’t much to say in the way of Horrible Bosses. It’s charming even if it’s consistently raunchy and it’s hard to dislike it. There are clever gags and the film does not overstay it’s welcome by any stretch. It was a nice breather from all the explosions and superheroes that have been zipping around theaters. But I think that filmmakers could have poured a bit more time into this film. It’s a bit rough around the edges and appears rushed at times. You are left feeling that all the events that took place in the film were minor and insignificant. You want to rally behind it but sometimes it’s impossible to do just that. When all is said and done, it never really feels like these horrible bosses have had it stuck to them. Further, it falls short of the sleeper status that I thought would surely follow in its wake. Overall, it grasps at comedy greatness but comes up with comedy goodness. Don’t worry though; it will still have you chuckling to yourself as you punch the clock the next morning.

Grade: B-

Horrible Bosses is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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.

The 25 Horror Films That Have Scared Steve… Pt. 3

by Steve Habrat

Here are four more of the films that freak me out. Enjoy! And feel free to comment with your own favorites. I love from hearing from out ghoulish readers!

14.) The Exorcist (1973)

It’s not the scariest movie of all time. I think it’s more of the hype that surrounds the film than anything else. But The Exorcist is one hell of a wickedly good horror film. It’s really quite amazing that this film continues to scare the living hell out of people almost forty years after it’s release. What makes the film so effective is its lack of hope and the absence of a true hero at the heart. Sure, little Reagan puking pea soup churns the stomach. And I’ll agree that the anxiety of waiting for the Devil to flare up in his “sow” becomes unbearable by the end. But it all boils down to the lack of light at then end of this dark, dark tunnel. While it would be criminal to leave it out of the top horror films of all time, I really think the film has been made out to be something its not. It’s the superstition that I think frightens people away more than the actual film does. But as a film, it ranks as one of the most powerful of all time. Loaded with enough jaw dropping performances to fuel a dozen horror films, The Exorcist has left its mark on the horror genre. It set the bar high for demonic horror and all these imitators can do is swipe at its knees.

13.) Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Savage in execution, Night of the Living Dead pins you up against the wall with it’s cinema-vérité-esque, is-this-really-happening approach, and then proceeds to take a big bloody bite right out of you. It’s grainy black and white cinematography, claustrophobic atmosphere, and, at the time, it’s never before seen gore catapults George Romero’s first installment in his zombie series to the front lines of the horror genre. Utilizing it’s Who is worse: the zombies or the survivors? to brutal effect also brings another distressing quality to an already incredibly austere film experience. Dismissed upon first release, it stands as one of the heavyweights of the atomic age paranoia, the idea of turning normal people into bloodthirsty cannibals rather than giant mutated ants, blobs, or wasp women had to have audiences fleeing in terror. The best part is that it still sends people fleeing in horror and the weak stomachs grabbing for the barf bags.

12.) The Birds (1963)

Auteur Alfred Hitchcock’s apocalyptic nightmare The Birds is a concept that if you were to be told about it today, you would probably assume would be the hokiest film concept you’ve ever heard. In Hitchcock’s hands, you will never look at a bird the same way ever again. And those special effects will make your jaw hit the floor. Patient and calculating in nature, The Birds slowly builds upon one disastrous attack after another. Just check out the mounting tension when Tippi Hedren sits outside a school house and a lone raven lands on a swing set just a few yards away. Then one raven turns into twenty, then forty, then hundreds. I dare you not to start clutching the armrest of your seat just a little harder during that scene. And when these attacks finally erupt, they will make cower behind your couch. While its slow pace might drive some viewer away from it, when the shit hits the fan, you start to feel the dread of the characters. When will the birds attack again? How are they going to keep them out of the house? This is one that will cause you to yell at the screen more than once. Hitchcock weaves it all with devilish glee and elevates a simple B-movie concept to another level.

11.) 28 Days Later (2002)

            Sure, Danny Boyle may have made the feel good film of 2008 (Slumdog Millionaire), but his 2003 apocalyptic vision 28 Days Later will scare the living shit right out of you. I’m becoming convinced that Boyle can perfect any film genre he wants! While widely known now, it still has to be the most artful vision of the end of the world ever dreamed up. It elegantly pays respect to the apocalyptic horror genre and through it all, Boyle brings a new brainchild to the table: running zombies. I should warn you, these zombies are absolutely terrifying. Flailing and snarling like demons and spewing bloody vomit, they are called infected and they have redefined the term zombie. While it mostly is an intimate portrait of survivors wandering a post apocalyptic Britain, the film manages to lure you in with it’s chilling shots of abandoned London. Boyle also makes stunning use of the atmosphere and he makes us feel the distressing isolation. The film becomes about finding love in the face of annihilation but the path it chooses to take is one that will shake you to your bones. I promise, if you have not seen 28 Days Later yet, it’s unlike any horror experience you have had. You will be left speechless by its beauty and rattled by its relentless intensity.

Creep on back tomorrow for the final entry in this Feature and see the final top ten. In the meantime, click on the Halloween pin-up girl above to be taken to our tiebreaker poll. The voting closes at midnight tonight. HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

Bates Motel (1987)

Maude isn't the old lady in the window...

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)…

Grade: F

Psycho (1998)

Sorry, Anne. Portia de Rossi is way hotter.

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.

Sorry, Vince. You're just too cool for Norman.

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

Collect three sequels, get the fourth one free!

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.

Grade: C

Tomorrow…ugh, Gus van Sant’s Psycho remake.  Although, this is a pretty sweet trailer.

Psycho III (1986)

by Charles Beall

I'd like you to take a guess where my hands are right now.

Psycho III was a mandatory sequel, much like all the Halloweens, Friday the 13ths, and Nightmare on Elm Streets of the mid- to late-1980s.  However, mandatory does not equate to necessary and Psycho III (as well as its predecessor) does not escape this label.  However, if we are going to have it, we might as well make it a good one and I believe that there was one person who had this belief: Anthony Perkins.

As I stated in my review yesterday, Psycho II wasn’t entirely a bad movie, per se, but an uneven one.  So when the call to Tony Perkins came from Universal about the plans for another installment of Psycho, I believe he thought that it should be done right this time around.  And who better to direct a film such as this than Norman Bates himself?  The end result is actually a film that stands on its own (albeit in the shadow of the original) and I feel the credit is all due to the direction of Perkins.

What we have in Psycho III is an amateurish, yet brave film that attempts to stand above the crop of slasher sequels it is a member of.  The film picks up about a month after the events in Psycho II, but even before we get into the mundane and quiet existence of Norman Bates, we are treated to an interesting prologue.  In fact, Norman Bates doesn’t show up until about fifteen minutes into this 90-minute film.  Over a black screen, we hear the words, “there is no God!” screamed out by a distressed nun named Maureen (Diana Scarwid).  She is kicked out of the convent after a Vertigo-esque incident and hitchhikes with a guy named Duke (Jeff Fahey), with the two of them (via separate means) eventually ending up at the Bates Motel.  Also thrown into the mix is a pesky reporter (a poorly-written part played too over-the-top by Roberta Maxwell) who is on to Norman and the suspicious occurrences that happened in Psycho II.  Again, like its predecessor, Psycho III has a handful of main characters that drive the film’s story and underlying themes without being too overbearing.

Bitch, I'm taking Psycho to another dimension...the third dimension (as in making an attempt to make a decent movie, none of that gimmicky crap that involves a third movie in an unnecessary franchise being in 3D).

An interesting theme that is, I believe, the main drive of this film is the theme of redemption.  Maureen is trying to redeem herself after the events at the beginning of the film and Norman is trying to redeem himself from everything he has become.  They are both trapped in their lives, and much like the connection Norman had to Marion in the original, he has one with Maureen and what is unique about Psycho III is that it expands on the human connection we saw between Norman and Marion.  Norman realizes this connection and tries oh-so-hard to develop it and break free, but, alas, someone is holding him back…

Yes there is gore because this is the mid-80s and a horror film is not allowed to not have it.  Yet one may be surprised about how tame Psycho III is and how legitimate it tries to be as an exploration of the mind of Norman Bates.  Those who are killed are not the main characters (at least in the run-up to the finale) but are rather filler for the demands of audiences who thirst for buckets of blood.  Take out the murder scenes and what you have is, at its core, a psychological character study.  As I stated earlier, Anthony Perkins is really the only one who knows Norman Bates, and much like his on-screen counterpart, it was hard for Perkins to break away from this typecast.

Psycho III is incredibly personal; Norman is wrestling with his identity and trying to break away from his past.  However, he will always be Norman Bates.  I believe Tony Perkins felt the same way and tried to convey his innermost feelings about playing Norman Bates through the character of Norman Bates.  What comes to mind when you hear the name Anthony Perkins?  Yep, Norman Bates.  Both the actor and the character are trapped, for lack of a better term, with this persona and whatever they try to do, they can never break free.

Wait, so tell me this again. You're going to remake the original in twelve years and have Vince Vaughn fill my shoes? WTF, dude!

The ending to Psycho III, while at face value is corny, is actually quite tragic.  Norman cannot break free of Mother.  Anthony Perkins can’t break free of Norman Bates.  Norman is humanized in this film to an extent that we have never seen a villain in film played before.  There is a force that has taken hold of him, but he just isn’t strong enough to break away, and when you think he has, Mother just shows up again.

Psycho III is the best of the Psycho sequels for the sheer fact that it was directed by, essentially, Norman Bates.  Perkins feels for the dilemma Bates is in he because he too is typecast in the real world as the psychopath.  This unique aspect is what makes Psycho III work regardless of its flaws (and there are quite a few).  On the surface, it is seen as just another horror sequel, but deep down, it is actually a moving film about trying to break free of the demons that haunt us and the redemption that so many aspire to receive, but ultimately fail to achieve.   All of the credit goes to Anthony Perkins who, unfortunately, did not direct another film; he was a legitimate talent behind the camera and it is unfortunate that he was unable to direct again.  However, I hope that viewers delve into Psycho III and sincerely listen to what Perkins is trying to say.  One may see a slasher film, whereas I see an autobiographical piece of a character and the actor who plays him.

Grade: B+


Tomorrow, we milk the Psycho franchise even more with the made-for-TV film Psycho IV: The Beginning to find out what Mother was really like (she was actually kind of hot!)

Psycho II (1983)

by Charles Beall

It could be worse...Vince Vaughn could have the lead!

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!

Now, what happened the last time I went sneaking about this place?

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).

"God, I hope my mother doesn't walk in," thought Norman

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.