The Quiet Ones (2014)
by Steve Habrat
Over the past four years, the once-glorious production company Hammer Films has been slowly trying re-establish itself in the horror genre. From the 1950s through the early-1970s, Hammer enjoyed financial and critical success with gothic horror films such as The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, and many more terrifying classics that have amassed legions of devoted fans over the years. By the late-1970s, Hammer’s popularity had started to diminish, and the company slowly faded from the public’s eye. After many years of silence, Hammer Films returned in 2010 with Let Me In, a spooky remake of the celebrated 2008 Swedish film, Let the Right One In. Between 2010 and 2012, Hammer released two smaller films before returning to the mainstream with The Woman in Black, another eerie release that suggested that the company still had a few terrifying ghouls kicking around in their cobwebbed crypts. After another two-year wait, Hammer continues its comeback campaign with The Quiet Ones, a stale haunted house thriller that clumsily attempts to run with the countless other “found-footage” horror movies that have been quickly churned out. Though The Quiet Ones may not be as scary as recent supernatural offerings like Insidious, The Innkeepers, The Conjuring, or Oculus, the film is executed with plenty of chiaroscuro elegance, and it reveals that star Jared Harris was born to be a member of the Hammer family—one that consisted of gentlemanly greats like Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Oliver Reed.
The Quiet Ones picks up in Oxford, 1974, with Professor Joseph Coupland (played by Jared Harris) enlisting the help of a student cameraman by the name of Brian McNeil (played by Sam Claflin) to help with an unorthodox experiment being conducting on campus. The experiment involves a young girl named Jane Harper (played by Olivia Cooke), who believes that a nasty spirit by the name of Evey has possessed her. It turns out that Coupland rejects theories about the supernatural, and that he is convinced that he can cure Jane through advanced scientific methods. After the university unexpectedly cuts funding for the experiment, Brian, Coupland, and his two student assistants, Krissi (played by Erin Richards) and Harry (played by Rory Fleck-Byrne), travel to a secluded country mansion where the group can work without disruption. Things get off to a relatively uneventful start, but soon, Jane’s condition worsens as Coupland draws out the sinister forces within her. As the spirit of Evey grows more and more dangerous, Brian discovers a horrific secret about Jane’s past that will change the course of the experiment and threaten the lives of everyone involved.
With The Quiet Ones, Hammer reveals that they are well aware of the gimmicks that have been dominating the horror market for the past several years. Scattered about the film is Hammer’s trademark gothic set design and gloomy atmosphere weighing heavily on the action. Frankly, the film gets far flashing Hammer’s calling card, and you get the impression that if director John Pogue had solely committed to the gothic blueprint, The Quiet Ones would have been an old-fashioned success. After all, Hammer found an audience with a taste for undead ghouls, Frankenstein monsters, and gentlemanly vampires in the ‘50s, a time when atomic monsters, extraterrestrials, and giant bugs were the hot ticket at local movie palaces and drive-ins. What would prevent it from working in the smartphone age? Sadly, where The Quiet Ones drops the ball is with the application of the “found footage” approach that has been sweeping through American horror movies. While it is exciting to think that Hammer is attempting to modernize itself a bit, it quickly becomes obvious that it’s here simply to allow Hammer to run with the current big boys of horror. What is even more frustrating is the fact that the filmmakers are clearly experimenting with this technique and had absolutely no idea how to apply it properly. It’s painfully clumsy and only twice does the film milk any suspense from this approach. However, the impact of both sequences is softened by cheap jump scares that just come off as lazy and pathetic. You mean to tell us that Hammer—a company that made some seriously silly, low-budget junk work splendidly in their heyday—couldn’t devise any new or creative ways to make the audience tremble with fear?!
While the throwaway “found footage” gimmick and the jump scares keep The Quiet Ones from standing out in the crowd, the film does reveal that Jared Harris could very well be Hammer’s new Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing. He is charismatic and gentlemanly, yet he is capable of awakening an inner slumbering madman when poked hard enough. Late in the film there are hints of Cushing’s unhinged Dr. Frankenstein, as he resorts to extreme measures to carry out his sinister work. Harris really charges up the film even in its slower moments, and he is able to largely cover for the more amateurish performances from the rest of the fresh-faced cast. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’s Sam Claflin is probably the best of the young talent as Brian, the group’s skeptical cameraman who slowly develops feelings for the tortured Jane Harper. He’s a vanilla hero—that no one can deny—but he succeeds in remaining watchable for the duration of the film. And then we have Olivia Cooke, who physically channels Christina Ricci’s Wednesday from The Addam’s Family. Her performance is a glob of clichés as she hovers over a creepy doll and plucks its hair out, or stares blankly through sleepy eyes and rambles on about Evey, the spirit who has called her body home. The weakest links are undoubtedly Erin Richards, who stumbles her way around the feisty hippie Krissi, and Rory Fleck-Byrne, who’s Harry is present only to add slight bits of exposition for the cutting-edge methods the group is experimenting with.
While Harris puts forth considerable effort to salvage The Quiet Ones, more damage is done through the film’s lackluster finale, which crashes and then literally burns right in front of our eyes. The script finds the team of screenwriters—which includes Pogue, Craig Rosenberg, Oren Moverman, and Tom de Ville—looking back and paying tribute to Hammer’s satanic/occult offerings from the mid-1970s. The ghosts of films such as The Devil Rides Out and To the Devil a Daughter clank and bang around in the darkness, but the climax can’t match the sleazier thrills of those memorable releases. One the positive side, the film’s cinematography looks fantastic, and the chiaroscuro wash keeps you from drifting off into the abyss of boredom. In true Hammer fashion, The Quiet Ones is also extremely tight and low budget, which allows the film to remain in the tradition of their early horror work. Overall, it’s a thrill to see Hammer’s name back on the big screen, but The Quiet Ones ends up being a step backwards for a company that had made considerable strides in re-establishing themselves. You can’t fault them for attempting to appeal to the new generation of horror fans, but they should be embarrassed that they didn’t attempt to bring anything new to this supernatural séance.
TRAILER TUESDAY! Halloween Edition
Wicked Witches: Suspiria (1977)
by Steve Habrat
One of the most famous directors working within the horror genre is without question Italian filmmaker Dario Argento. Starting out as a film critic, Argento moved on to developing the story for Sergio Leone’s 1968 spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West before finally settling behind the camera in 1970 to create his own “giallo” thrillers and horror films. It’s safe to say that he had quite the career before 1977. After delivering a handful of well-received and expertly crafted horror outings (1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1971’s The Cat o’ Nine Tails, and 1975’s Deep Red), Argento released Suspiria, which has gone on to become the most popular film of his directorial career. Considered by many (including me) to be one of the scariest motion pictures of all time, Suspiria is best described as a glammed up horror film drenched in neon lighting and set to one of the most unforgettable scores in movie history. It’s extravagant beyond belief as it transports the viewer into a surreal funhouse of witches and demons waiting to cast their ghastly spells on anyone who stumbles upon their secrets. While spots of Suspiria are beginning to show their age, the film still stands as a terrifying work of genius, featuring a number of death scenes and demonic surprises that remain beautiful and brutal in all of their flamboyant fury.
Suspiria begins with American ballet dancer Suzy Bannion (played by Jessica Harper) touching down in Germany to study at a prestigious dance academy in Freiburg. After arriving very late at night, Suzy is turned away from the school doors by a mysterious woman on the intercom. Before hopping back in her taxi, a young blonde girl bursts through the door, shouts a message to someone standing just inside the door, and then bolts off into the night. Perplexed, Suzy makes her way into town to check into a hotel for the night. The next day, Suzy arrives back at the school to meet with vice directress Madame Blanc (played by Joan Bennet) and head instructor Miss Tanner (played by Alida Valli). Madame Blanc and Miss Tanner take Suzy around to meet some of the students and figure out living arrangements. After several attempts to get Suzy to live at the school, Madame Blanc and Miss Tanner agree to let Suzy live off campus with a student named Olga (played by Barbara Magnolfi). The next day, Suzy has a bizarre run-in with the school cook, who appears to cast a spell on Suzy that causes her to fall ill. After fainting the middle of her class, Madame Blanc and Miss Tanner move Suzy’s belongings into the school and insist that she stay in a dormitory under their care. After several more strange occurrences, Suzy and her new friend, Sara (played by Stefania Casini), begin to suspect that the school may be a front for a coven of witches.
Argento opens Suspiria on an extremely intense note, with a surreal double murder at the hands of a hairy demon that always remains just off screen (a smart move on Argento’s part). After the demon brutally stabs one girl to death to the point where the audience catches a glimpse of her still-beating heart, she is then dropped through a stained-glass skylight and left to hang in the middle of the grand lobby. Her horrified friend, who has been frantically banging on doors in an attempt to get her seemingly non-existent neighbors to help, happens to be underneath the skylight when the shards of glass plunge to the ground, leaving her a sliced up mess. We’ve stepped into a nightmare world complimented by demonic “la-la-la’s,” chiming lullaby bells, and hair-raising shrieks of “WITCH” by the progressive Italian rock group Goblin. The architecture and the lighting schemes are all embellished, with harsh splashes of red and blue illuminating the screen like Satan’s lava lamp. It’s a surprisingly pretty smear of color and horror that warns us that we have left the comforts of the real world far, far behind. Despite being in the middle of a massive apartment complex, there is no one around to save these girls from this rampaging force signified by Goblin’s chilling electronic score. You’d think that all this commotion would draw the attention of someone, but we’re on our own in this glowing witchcraft realm. This is only the beginning, as Argento plans to keep us feeling hopeless for the entire duration of the film.
Argento guides the dreamlike horror from the baroque apartment complex to the glittery walls the ballet dance school. With its exterior painted up in bright red and decorated with gold gargoyles, the school possesses a menacing look in broad daylight—it’s a satanic castle dripping with blood and crawling with demons. Inside, the walls are either glittery blues or glowing reds, with slanting windows, a gold staircase railing that seems to be melting on the heads of our characters, and some of the ugliest wall art you may ever see. It’s a world where maggots suddenly rain from the ceiling, disembodied raspy breathing can be heard behind a curtain, and random rooms packed with razor wire patiently wait to claim their next victim. You have to marvel at the amazing set design, even if it is an interior decorators worst nightmare. The surreal supernatural atmosphere also roars to life within these halls, the camera taking the POV of a creeping force that is brought to life through Goblin’s alien score. When an unseen tormentor with a straight razor terrorizes one character through the school halls, no student dares peak their head out of their dormitory to see if their help is needed. Is the whole school in on this? Is this attack a dream? Argento gives no clear explanation other than there are forces beyond our understanding at work here and sudden death lurks just around the glowing red corner. And somehow, that makes the events all the scarier.
With the set design and vivid lighting schemes stealing most of the thunder, you almost have to see Suspiria twice to pay attention to the near perfect performances. Jessica Harper is delicate and subtle as our curious heroine who notices that something is amiss about her new school. She wanders cautiously through the halls and dodges the wandering teachers keeping an eye out for anyone who dares snoop around. Bennet puts on a caring face as Madame Blanc, the vice headmistress who seems to overflow with motherly concern for her students. Alida Valli wears a frozen forced grin as the stern instructor Miss Tanner, a woman who undoubtedly has a nasty side just waiting to emerge at the right time. Stefania Casini is full of theories and suspicion about the rumored directress that is supposedly away from the school. Flavio Bucci turns in a sympathetic performance as Daniel, the blind pianist who is booted from the school after his seeing-eye dog is accused of attacking Madame Blanc’s young nephew. Well-known genre star Udo Kier also turns up in a small role as Dr. Frank Mandel, who provides Suzy with a bit of unnerving background knowledge about her new school.
With such a stunning opening that packs blood-curdling gore and scares, you’d think that Argento wouldn’t be able to top his magnificent commencement, but he does every single step of the way. Halfway through the film, you will gasp in horror as one character is attacked in a wide-open square, and the climax of the film will have you watching through your fingers as Suzy pushes deep into the bowels of the school to confront a coven of witches. With the suspense turned up as high as it will go, Argento then springs not one, but two monsters on us that will certainly have your knees knocking together. As far as flaws go, the most glaring would have to be the dubbing that was added in post-production. There is one moment near the end where the dialogue shoots high for evil, but it doesn’t have the impact that it should. Overall, other than the spotty dubbing in a few places, Suspiria is a shining example of demonic horror done by a man who knows how to simultaneously make you cringe in pain and shriek in horror. The Goblin score sticks in your brain like a splinter and you won’t be able to peel your eyes off the flowing string of shimmering images that are presented to you. Suspiria casts a wicked spell that will haunt you for weeks.
Suspiria is available on DVD.
Hammer Horror Series: Twins of Evil (1971)
by Steve Habrat
By the late 60s and early 70s, Hammer Films was beginning to loose some of the popularity that the studio once enjoyed. They started trying to compete with the wave of exploitation horror that was beginning to emerge, which led to the studio cranking up the sleaziness in their pictures. In 1971, one of Hammer’s final triumphs would be director John Hough’s Twins of Evil, the third installment in the Karnstein Trilogy, which also featured 1970’s The Vampire Lovers and 1971’s Lust for a Vampire. Steamy, seedy, extravagant, and violent, Twins of Evil is a hugely entertaining horror film that retains Hammer’s gothic visual style while upping the amount of sex, nudity, and graphic violence for a crowd craving some exploitation insanity. Starring an aging yet wickedly sharp Peter Cushing and the beautiful former Playboy Playmates Mary and Madeleine Collinson (who also happened to be real life twins), Twins of Evil is a thrilling combination of the vampire film, satanic horror film, and witch-hunt thriller, all expertly balanced by screenwriter Tudor Gates. It’s also extremely atmospheric and loaded with Hammer’s beloved castles, heavy fog, crucifixes, tangled woods, and rotting cemeteries.
Twins of Evil introduces us to innocent Maria (played by Mary Collinson) and rebellious Frieda (played by Madeleine Collinson), two identical twins who have traveled to the town of Karenstein to live with their uncle, Gustav Weil (played by Peter Cushing). As it turns out, Weil is the leader of a local witch-hunting group called the Brotherhood, who tracks down young girls who have been accused of witchcraft and burns them at the stake. As the twins settle in to their new home, they happen to hear about a wealthy local by the name of Count Karnstein (played by Damien Thomas), who is well known for practicing the dark arts and coming from a family of Satanists. One evening, Count Karnstein plays host to a satanic cult, and through a barbaric ritual, they happen to contact the spirit of Countess Mircalla (played by Katya Wyeth), who proceeds to turn Karnstein into a vampire. The next day, Karnstein is travelling through town when he bumps into Frieda, who has become smitten with Karnstein’s evil reputation. That evening, Frieda accepts an invitation to Karnstein’s castle, where she gets turned into a vampire and tortures a young girl with Karnstein. After Frieda attacks a member of the Brotherhood, Weil captures his niece and is forced to lock her up until he can decide her fate. His plans change when a local schoolteacher by the name of Anton Hoffer (played by David Warbeck) approaches him about the possibility of vampirism running rampant through the town.
Easily ranking as one of the most fun horror films that Hammer Films ever released, Twins of Evil is an exotic breed of vampire film. The first half is a witch-hunting horror film ripe with hair-raising scenes of Cushing’s Weil ruthlessly running down young girls, tying them to a stake, and burning them to a crisp. Though the film has a heavy B-movie vibe, Hough doesn’t hold back exploring the senseless brutality of these witch-hunts. After finding a man dying in a foggy graveyard from a vampire bite, Weil and his Brotherhood attack the first girl they spot wandering through the woods and drag her off to face a cleansing fire. It really makes for some alarming glimpses of religious extremity at its absolute worst. For a stretch, Hough lays off some of the witch hunting in favor of a satanic horror film set to growling organs, hooded high priests, human sacrifice, and a cry for Satan that would make the climax of Rosemary’s Baby blush. Hough uses the satanic pit stop to glide straight into vampire mayhem that is simultaneously bloody and sexy. The true strength of the film is the way it seems to be able to switch subgenres on us in the blink of an eye.
Performance wise, the actors and actresses seem to have been encouraged to have as much fun with the material as humanly (or inhumanly) possible. Cushing is at his absolutely cheesiest (that is meant as a compliment) as the perpetually serious Weil, an antihero willing to burn an innocent victim at the stake just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. You’ll loathe him at first, but as the film progresses, you’ll be forced to admire the way he sticks to his beliefs. As far as the Collinson twins are concerned, they actually prove to be a pair of competent actresses for a pair of Playboy Playmates. The standout of the two would be Madeleine as the wicked Frieda, who enjoys flirting with the dark side. Hough seems pressured into showing off their bodies for the camera, something that I’m sure Hammer insisted on considering they have Playboy Playmates in the main roles, but the Collinsons don’t seem to mind too much. Damien Thomas gives a vile turn as the satanic Count Karnstein, who grins and snarls through a pair of vampire fangs and shrugs his shoulders in boredom over a satanic ritual that fails to impress him. He can pull off seductive, creepy, and charismatic like a real professional. David Warbeck also holds his own as the kindly schoolteacher Anton, who basically becomes the true hero of Twins of Evil.
While Hammer’s earlier horror films were stone-faced and relentlessly somber, Twins of Evil seems to have a sense of humor about itself. The soundtrack—while exceptional—is wildly over the top, resembling something you might have heard in an Italian spaghetti western. Its all mighty trumpets and ominous organs blasted for maximum effect. Visually, Hough sticks to Hammer’s gothic calling card, but at times he seems to be really laying it on thick, especially in the early scenes when stuffs a gigantic crucifix into a handful of shots. Then there are the overdramatics and the not-so-subtle symbolism that chew on the screen. Cushing screams and shakes his fists at the sky while yelling, “God has sent me TWINS OF EVIL!!,” and during a steamy make-out scene, one character suggestive strokes a nearby melting candle. These winking moments could have been a bit distracting, but Hough has a way of making them strangely charming. Overall, while it certainly drives a stake right through the heart of subtlety and its strongly self-aware, Twins of Evil is still a scrappy little horror movie with plenty of blood, sex, and nudity to go around. It’s a smooth blend of multiple subgenres that all compliment each other quite well in the end. Twins of Evil ranks as one of Hammer’s strongest films in their horror vault.
Twins of Evil is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Lords of Salem (2013)
by Steve Habrat
Rob Zombie could be one of the most polarizing individuals working in the horror industry. The mere mention of his name in a conversation can elicit either groans or praise, depending on that person’s taste in horror. Whether you love him or hate him, it’s undeniable that the man leaves a strong impression. It’s been four years since Zombie’s Halloween II, his reluctant sequel to his grisly 2007 remake of the John Carpenter slasher classic Halloween, and it’s been eight years since he unleashed The Devil’s Rejects, what is considered by many to be his unholy masterpiece. With his creative juices following again, Zombie now gives his fans The Lords of Salem, a static departure from his usual brand of hillbillies-from-Hell horror. Clearly drawing inspiration from early Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrick, and Kenneth Anger, Zombie makes one of the most ambitious films of his career and you have to hand it to him for attempting to show a bit of range outside of the handheld grittiness that he was limiting himself to. The Lords of Salem is overflowing with overcast atmosphere and it packs plenty of shock scares that thankfully aren’t accompanied by a deafening musical blast, but the final stretch of the film is weakened by a flurry of satanic images that would have seemed more at home in a heavy metal music video rather than a serious-minded horror film about the Salem witch trials.
Heidi LaRoq (played by Sheri Moon Zombie) is a recovering crack addict living in Salem, Massachusetts. She shacks up in a small apartment with her landlady Lacy Doyle (played by Judy Geeson) and she works at a local radio station as a DJ alongside Whitey (played Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman (played by Ken Foree). One day, the station’s receptionist presents Heidi with a wooden box that contains a record by a mysterious band called The Lords. Heidi, Whitey, and Herman decide to play the mysterious record on the air, but as the hypnotic music grinds out, Heidi begins to suffer from horrific hallucinations. The music captures the attention of local historian Francis Matthias (played by Bruce Davison), who believes that the music may have a link to a coven of witches that were referred to as The Lords of Salem and hunted by Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne (played by Andrew Prine) in 1696. As the days pass, Heidi’s visions grow more and more disturbing, but things get even more bizarre for Heidi when Lacy’s suspicious two sisters, Megan (played by Patricia Quinn) and Sonny (played by Dee Walace), suddenly arrive at the apartment complex.
Abandoning the bludgeoning violence that he has become known for, Zombie takes a radical new approach to The Lords of Salem. The film begins with a filthy flashback that finds a coven of witches led by Margaret Morgan (played by Meg Foster) huddled around a campfire in the nude and howling about Satan. It’s shrill and graphic, but then Zombie instantly abandons this assault in favor of hushed pacing that hums with evil. The weather is gray, the leaves suggest that it’s October, and the ghostly specters that haunt Heidi slowly make themselves known. The spirits are revealed when Heidi walks slowly past her bathroom or when she flips the light on in a darkened room, but they are not accompanied by some loud soundtrack cue to make us jump. Zombie simply lets their sudden presence alone creep us out and it is very effective. As the film inches along, the hallucinations become more and more severe, one of the most disturbing being a satanic sexual assault in a church that finds a priest coughing up black sludge and Heidi catching a glimpse of a faceless ghoul walking his pet goat through a cemetery. It’s some seriously wicked stuff that is just extreme enough to work.
The biggest change in Zombie’s aesthetic is the use of static cameras in place of the gritty handheld camerawork that House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects, Halloween, and Halloween II all applied. There are crisp outdoors shots that called to mind some of the early moments of The Exorcist and there are prolonged symmetrical shots that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Kubrick film, a director that Zombie heavily admires. At times, the story and even a few shots near the middle of the film were reminiscent of Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, especially the inclusion of the three sisters who may be up to no good just down the hall. The end of The Lords of Salem is where Zombie begins to loose his handle on things, as he fires a string of psychedelic satanic images that would make experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger smile. These acid washed images are loaded with faceless priests clutching dildos, Heidi riding a goat, a demonic dwarf waiting at the top of a grand staircase, a satanic rocker groping the dreadlocked gal, and images of Christ’s face contorting into the face of the devil himself. These images will shock those who are easily offended, but as they unfold before us, they start to resemble a music video rather than anything we would have seen in Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. They complete destroy that atmosphere of doom that Zombie worked so hard to build up but he doesn’t seem to care because he thinks they look great.
As far as the performances go, Zombie manages to capture some downbeat work from a slew of cult actors and actresses. His previous four films were loaded with a cast of colorful psychos who all cursed like sailors and looked like unused extras from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This is not necessarily the case for The Lords of Salem, as these characters all seem to be a bit more grounded than anything he has ever come up with. Sheri Moon Zombie steps up her acting game as Heidi, the recovering drug addict that is seemingly on the right path to happiness. Watching her slip into a world of madness is harsh, but Zombie wants it that way. Jeff Daniel Phillips gives a softer performance as Whitey, Heidi’s love interest that just can’t seem to find a way into her life. Ken Foree is laid back cool as Herman, the smooth-talking DJ that really seems to serve no purpose at all to the story. It seems like Zombie included him in the film simply because he is a big fan of Foree’s work. Geeson shows some serious menace as Lacy, Heidi’s secretive landlord, Patricia Quinn is frizzy intensity as the palm-reading Megan, and Dee Wallace’s Sonny is peculiarly seductive. Rounding out the main cast members is Davison’s Francis, a concerned acquaintance who may be too late to save Heidi’s soul, and Meg Foster as the cackling hell spawn Margaret Morgan, who bares rotten fangs right in the viewer’s face.
Despite some of the drastic shifts, The Lords of Salem isn’t without Zombie’s cinematic fingerprints. The soundtrack is filled with classic rock like The Velvet Underground, Mannfred Mann’s Earth Band, and Rush, all which heavily compliment the retro 70s feel of the picture. Budget restraints seem to have prevented Zombie from actually setting the film in the 1970s, but you can tell he desperately wanted to, as every character is dressed like they stepped out of that era. While it is a bit spare, there are several fits of Zombie’s stomach churning violence. A witch licks amniotic fluids off a newborn baby, one character’s head is smashed into hamburger meat, and a gruesome birth accompanies the neon evil at the end. Overall, Zombie has claimed that The Lords of Salem is his final trip into horror and if this is true, it finds him bowing out on a confident and frankly refreshing note. It is a bit more mature even if the final moments give way to strobe light silliness that wouldn’t even shock your grandmother. The Lords of Salem is all about atmosphere and scares that will curl your spine.
The Lords of Salem is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Attack of the Remakes! The Omen (2006)
by Steve Habrat
If there is one thing in this world that makes absolutely no sense to me, it is when Hollywood decides to remake a classic horror film and do a shot-by-shot redo of the film. We saw it happen with Gus Van Sant’s color remake of Psycho and we all know how THAT one turned out (if you can believe it, one of my film professors though it was brilliant…). In 2006, Hollywood got the bright idea to revisit director Richard Donner’s 1976 demonic thriller The Omen, one of the best horror films to emerge from the heyday of gritty, blood-under-the-nails horror. The film may have been one of the countless imitators made in the wake of such demonic horror films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist but The Omen remains one of the titans of this subgenre because of its lingering post-Watergate chill and its bleak inverted-crucifix conclusion that practically leaves your heart pounding out of your chest. Basically, the original is a must for die-hard fans of horror. I can’t say the same about the absolutely pointless and flat post 9/11 update. Made to be released on 6/6/06 (I’m being serious), The Omen 2006 attempts to use horrific current events (9/11, Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami) as its gloomy backdrop but then does little else new or exciting with the story. If you’ve seen the original, you’ve seen this one. Absolutely nothing has been changed.
For those who are not familiar with The Omen, I’ll provide a brief plot synopsis. After American diplomat Robert Thorn (Played by Leiv Schreiber) is told that his newborn son died shortly after birth, the distraught Robert grapples with how to break the news to his wife, Katherine (Played by Julia Stiles). The hospital’s priest suggests that Robert adopt another newborn child whose mother died during childbirth and has no other living family member. To spare Katherine the pain, Robert accepts this offer and the Thorn’s raise the child, Damien, as their own. Five years pass and Robert is made Deputy Ambassador to the Court of St. James and the Thorns begin a new, lavish life in London. Everything is great for the Thorns but soon a serious of bizarre events begin to surround Damien (Played by Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick). After a horrific suicide at Damien’s fifth birthday party, Robert is approached by Father Brennan (Played by Peter Postlewaite), who claims to have information on Damien’s birthmother. As the events grow more and more disturbing, Robert is forced to humor Father Brennan and he begins searching for more information on the boy. He gets help from a spooked photographer named Keith Jennings (Played by David Thewlis), who may be marked for death. Meanwhile, a mysterious new nanny named Mrs. Baylock (Played by Mia Farrow) has come to the Thorn household and begun watching over Damien, protecting him at any cost.
Directed by John Moore, The Omen 2006 is shot like a gothic music video and frantically edited together to imitate a strobe light. It’s incredibly stylish and symbolically obvious (the color red surrounds Damien everywhere he goes) to the point where all you can do is roll your eyes. The death scenes are overly grisly and amped up to outdo the chilling sudden demises found in the original film. The sets look like leftovers from David Fincher’s Seven and when an ominous mood fails Moore, he just clouds up the sky and allows a little thunder and lightning to make things creepy or simply dims the light in places where he shouldn’t. He also falls back on shaky camera shots in the hopes that it makes the scene just a tad more interesting. Outside of exploiting real life disasters as the rise of the antichrist, Moore and screenwriter David Seltzer inject a series of bizarre hallucinations and nightmares suffered by Katherine. They are composed of blinding reds and whites as demons in ceremonial robes stalk Katherine in baroque bathrooms and red clad Damien waves a noose around. These scenes are brought to us in rapid fire flashes that are accompanied by loud bangs on the soundtrack, which Moore assumes automatically makes them scary. To the jittery horror viewer, this may all be extremely terrifying but to those of us who are seasoned veterans, it’s all very cheap and lazy.
If the movie itself isn’t dull enough, the acting doesn’t really do much to spice things up. Schreiber and Stiles are grossly miscast in their roles and look laughable compared to the original’s Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. Schreiber looks stuffy and uncomfortable trying to prevent the rise of the antichrist while Stiles seems too young and bored as she sulks after their demon seed. Davey-Fitzpatrick could rank as one of the worst child actors to hit the screen in quite some time. He fails to really shake us up like he should. Moore instructs him to glare at everyone like they refused to buy him a toy he so desperately wanted. Things really get laughable at the end when Moore asks him to turn from distant child into thrashing demon. He looks like he is throwing a phony temper tantrum and it is downright awful. Postlewaite works his ass off as the perpetually terrified Father Brennan but there is just too little of him to really save this junk heap. Thewlis is likable enough as Jennings, a photographer who captures some sinister photographs. He makes up for the stiff and out-of-place Schreiber but the two just don’t have the chemistry that they should. Rounding out the main players is Farrow, who seems to be having a devilishly good time as Mrs. Baylock. She gives the film the suspense and unease that it so desperately wants.
As if the lack of any surprises and lukewarm performances wasn’t enough, The Omen is littered with glaring screw-ups in the script. Near the climax of the film, Robert receives news that someone very close to him has mysteriously died and upon learning that news, Robert tells Keith that he wants Damien dead. In the next scene, Robert goes to see a mysterious priest who instructs him on how to kill the child. As the priest explains the ritual, the distraught ambassador becomes sick to his stomach and claims that he cannot kill a child. Perhaps he forgot his previous statement? There are plenty more “What the hell?” moments like this to be found throughout the film so make sure you are prepared. As someone who admires the original film and appreciates its slow build-up, I say skip this utterly pointless remake and seek out the original. Somehow, it is more realistic and it’s all the more chilling due to its gritty presentation. If you are determined to see the modern interpretation, well, I suppose if you are in the market for a nap, this one will help put you to sleep.
The Omen 2006 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
While watching Don Coscarelli’s 1979 horror film Phantasm, it is truly hard to believe that Coscarelli was only 23-years-old while he was making the film. Treating the horror film as high art, Coscarelli’s Phantasm is a remarkable vision for a young mind and there is a sense of calm control as the film builds to its spacey climax, but the real clincher is the doom-tinged sense of dread that continuously washes over the viewer as events snowball into something much more sinister. Phantasm indeed gets by and earns praise for its nightmarish imagery aided by moaning organs that give these images a vague gothic facade, but Phantasm seems like just a collection of images that Coscarelli found scary with very little coherence connecting them. Coscarelli attempts to link these images with a hit-or-miss plot that is only sporadically articulate with some repellent hints of pretention thrown in. With artistry and atmosphere doing all the work, we are able to forgive the flaws in the story but another distracting element manifests in some of the questionable acting, an aspect that Coscarelli doesn’t seem very confident in as a director. Still, Phantasm has the spooks and for that, it shouldn’t be missed, especially if you’re a fan of gritty horror from the 1970s. It also has the Tall Man and you should be very afraid of the Tall Man.
Jody Pearson (Bill Thornbury), a 24-year-old musician, is raising his 13-year-old brother Mike (Played by A. Michael Baldwin) in a small southern California town. The two boys lost their parents at an early age and they have been taking care of themselves ever since. Close family friend Reggie (Played by Reggie Bannister), a sincere family man who happens to be the neighborhood ice cream vendor, checks up on Jody and Mike from time to time just to make sure they are doing okay. Out of fear that Jody may leave, Mike follows Jody every time he leaves the driveway. One day, Mike follows Jody to a funeral where the both catch a glimpse of a strange dwarf-like figure creeping around the cemetery. Mike also happens to catch a glimpse of the local mortician (Played by Angus Scrimm) picking up a coffin as if it weighed nothing and tossing it into the back of his hearse. Mike quickly tells Jody about what he saw but Jody simply waves him off. After Mike follows Jody and a girl to the same graveyard one evening, Mike is attacked by the same dwarf-like figure. The attack leads Jody to believe Mike and the two boys, along with Reggie, begin to investigate the cemetery, but they soon regret their investigation when the mortician begins attacking them with an army of alien dwarfs and an array of futuristic weapons. Things really get dangerous when the boys discover that the mortician may come from another dimension.
Going heavy on the fantasy, Phantasm does seem a bit too mystical for the late 1970s, when things were grounded in gritty realism with just faint hints of supernatural forces at play. Even the demonic offerings from that time seemed just a little too real for most people to handle, even to this day. Phantasm gets really bizarre, especially when other dimensions and alien grave robbers emerge from the darkness. Still, Coscarelli keeps things properly grounded when he can and the grainy film used to shoot the picture adds that familiar feel of watching some disturbing home video footage that was packed away for many years. At times, Phantasm can be unintentionally hilarious, from the Jawa-like dwarfs that dart around the graveyard to a scene involving the cheapest looking red-eyed insect you have ever seen. And yet you can’t fault Phantasm for any of this due to the small budget that the filmmakers are forced to work with. There are a number of shocks that do work, from a scene involving the hood being ripped off a dead dwarf that reveals yellowish ooze pouring out of its mouth to a scene involving a flying sphere that latches on to the head of one victim and turns his brains to goop. The sphere scene initially earned the film an X rating but the X was soon changed to a more accessible R.
Then there is the acting, some of which is okay and some of which is really awful. The most iconic performance in Phantasm is without question the Tall Man, the super-strong mortician that stomps around and terrorizes the boys. He twists his face into some of the most deranged expressions and his eyes will reduce you to quivering jelly. When he appears, you know things are not going to end well for the person he is going after. The two leads, Jody and Mike, are saddled with delivering some truly awful dialogue and at times, they even seem a bit unsure of the actions they have been asked to perform. Jody is easily the cheesiest as he tries to deliver macho one liners that hit the ground with a splat when they leave his mouth. Mike is asked to just run around and repeat over and over that he is not afraid as baddies leer at him in the dark. Reggie is a little better but he isn’t on the screen long enough for us to ever really invest in his character. Then there is the really peculiar scene that has Mike visiting an old Fortuneteller (Played by Mary Ellen Shaw) and her granddaughter (Played by Terrie Kalbus), which has them asking Mike to stick his hand in a black box that bites. These characters add to the hypnotic mystery of the film but their presence is a bit inexplicable when we look at the big picture. I guess it was all about foreshadowing?
In addition to some creepy imagery, Phantasm does have one hell of a memorable score, perhaps one of the best to ever come out of the horror genre. The score actually covers for some of the sillier aspects of the film and it is guaranteed to give you goosebumps, especially if you choose to view Phantasm after dark. As the film reveals more and more about its paranormal grave robbers, the terror that the film was working hard to build deflates right before our eyes. Coscarelli does give us a brief glimpse of this alternate universe, one where the sky is burned blood red and hooded dwarfs slave away in a barren desert. We don’t get much of an explanation for this alternate universe and we only catch a quick glimpse, which allows the film to recover and keep the dread high. At times, the film slips into non-linear montages that do catch you off guard, mostly because they come at a time when we think we have everything figured out. Once again, it is effective in the way it throws us off but I wish certain moments would have made a little more sense. The film also has some incredibly precise editing, which is extremely effective in the opening cemetery sequence where hooded ghouls are just barely glimpsed. Overall, Phantasm isn’t perfect but you can’t help but admire it on the grounds that this was made but a 23-year-old with some serious proficiency. It may not rank as one of the best horror films to emerge from gritty age of horror, but it sure works hard to make sure you remember it when the lights go out.
Phantasm is available on DVD.
To the Devil a Daughter (1976)
by Steve Habrat
If you took Reagan from The Exorcist, the demon children from Earserhead, Rosemary’s Baby and It’s Alive, and the chanting score from The Omen, mixed all of them up with Christopher Lee, you’d have 1976’s To the Devil a Daughter, Hammer Film Productions’ last venture into the realm of supernatural terror. Probably best known for dialogue clips that were used on heavy metal band White Zombie’s Astro Creep: 2000 album and for a sequence where then 17-year-old star Nastassja Kinski treats us all to the most awkward full frontal nude scene ever put on screen, To the Devil a Daughter isn’t one of the best productions that Hammer ever delivered to horror gurus but it certainly isn’t the worst from the British horror company. Based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley, director Peter Sykes thinks his film is a high art offering within the demonic horror realm but what he doesn’t seem to pick up on is the fact that he is basically making a veiled exploitation film knock off of The Exorcist with only a small handful of effective scares. The film is pretty gross, delusional, convoluted, and, at times, borderline pornographic but it still manages to paint a number of jarring images to make it worthwhile for anyone who fancies a bloody horror flick. Just make sure you go in with a notebook so you can jot notes down because the plotline here is an absolute mess.
To the Devil a Daughter introduces us to Catherine Beddows (Played by Nastassja Kinski), who believes she has been raised in a Christian convent called “The Children of the Lord.” It turns out that this convent is actually a satanic coven, which is led by the sinister Fr. Michael Rayner (Played by Christopher Lee), created for the worship of Astaroth. On the day that Catherine was born, her father, Henry (Played by Denholm Elliott), made a deal with Rayner that would allow him to give Catherine over to Astaroth on her eighteenth birthday. Now filled with fear and regret, Henry seeks out the help of occult writer John Verney (Played by Richard Widmark), who may be the only one who knows who to protect Catherine from Rayner and his associates. As Catherine’s behavior grows more and more bizarre, Verney begins to suspect that he is dealing with some very dangerous and determined people. Soon, the bizarre events turn into grisly murder and horrific hallucinations, leading Verney to brush up on his knowledge of Astaroth and prepare himself for a battle with Rayner.
Vaguely creepy and ever so slightly off-putting, To the Devil a Daughter never really flat out terrifies you like say Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist but it does have a fair share of impressive moments. Still, the film is thrown off by some poor pacing and a head scratching final showdown between Rayner and Verney, a scene that you expect to be more of a nail biter than it actually is. Throughout the film, Catherine suffers hallucinations of a strange, Eraserhead/It’s Alive-like fetus that is covered in red slime and looks sort of like an alien, another creepy addition but one that is never fully developed so we understand just what the hell it’s supposed to be. The film also suffers from some unintentional humor in certain spots, especially a scene where an ally of Verney’s is killed and Verney’s only response is “DAMN YOU” before passing out. To make things even worse, the film has one of the messiest scripts that you will ever come across, half the film making zero sense at all. It is frustrating because when the film shows some coherency, it is actually a pretty eerie demonic horror offering, one that could have edged its way to the front of the demonic horror pack. There is also the random orgy thrown in to the middle of the movie, another strange flashback/hallucination/repressed memory that has Christopher Lee stripping down his birthday suit while frantic editing shows us graphic sex scenes. Well, The Exorcist never had the balls to throw that at us!
I can say that despite the number of flaws to be found in To the Devil a Daughter, the acting is outstanding, a shocker considering this material. Christopher Lee is just the right amount of wicked as Rayner, a gentleman with a razor-sharp edge of evil. Lee was always game to do whatever was asked of him in the Hammer horror films and in this offering, it is no different. Lee’s Rayner is pitted against Widmark’s Verney, a sly and informed hero who needs to be one step ahead of his demonic enemy. It has been said that Widmark was difficult to work with on set and that he loathed this production but you would never guess by his performance. He is always top notch and nothing less, even when he has to battle a demonic windstorm with nothing but a rock. Then there is Kinski as Catherine, an innocent but erratic force in the middle of the film. One moment, she is a whispery and naïve child but the next moment, she is a howling banshee who is a witness to pure evil. Denholm Elliott is superb as a wounded father who has no one else to turn to. The end of the film frames him as a withering soul seeking shelter in a chalk pentagram. Anthony Valentine and Honor Blackman also nab honorable mentions as David and Anna, friends of Verney who end up aiding him in his quest to stop Rayner.
While I have sounded like I really disliked To the Devil a Daughter, there are several scenes that made the hair on the back of my neck stand at attention. A scene where a rope is dangled over a phone to get a character to hallucinate a snake coiled around their hand was pretty effective and the film also has one hell of an unnerving suicide scene. The most shocking comes when a woman, who is about to give birth, has her legs bound together so the demon seed can claw its way through her belly (yes, you read that correctly). It was easily the most intense sequence of the film and without question the most unforgettable. Another creepy moment comes when Catherine, who is caught in a murderous trance, wanders the streets of London as people who pass look on in bewilderment at her bizarre behavior. The film also has some wonderful gothic structures to marvel at and compliment the supernatural events. Still, the messy screenplay, convoluted plot, and the trippy end battle leave quite a bit to be desired. As far as the climax is concerned, I still have a hard to believing that the forces of evil could be vanquished with a rock. Overall, if you are a Hammer horror enthusiast or one who really gets the willies from demonic horror films (I know there are those of you who really fear this stuff), To the Devil a Daughter is a horror film that you shouldn’t miss. The rest of us will be re-watching The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Omen and when we get sick of those, maybe we will join you.
To the Devil a Daughter is available on DVD.
Evil Dead II (1987)
by Steve Habrat
I’m going to sound like the stickler here but I’m just being honest, I really don’t care much for Sam Raimi’s 1987 free-for-all Evil Dead II, a loose remake/reimagining of 1981’s low budget The Evil Dead. Brash, frivolous, and gallingly noisy, Evil Dead II never really justifies its existence outside of setting up for 1992’s Army of Darkness. I guess I’ll never understand why Raimi wanted to fiddle with a good thing, reimagining The Evil Dead as a horror comedy, shoving in as much slapstick as he possibly can, and sucking all the terror out of the experience. I detest the glossier finish on Evil Dead II and the bigger budget feel to the project. The film is nothing but a continuous stampede of special effects and gags, only a few hitting their mark and the rest just splattering the audience with black goo. It truly breaks my heart because this film is legendary in the horror genre, praise coming from fans and critics alike and when I saw it all those years ago, I was extremely let down, especially after being taken aback by The Evil Dead. I’ve given the film multiple chances over the years and my disappointment is still firmly in tact. What am I missing?
Evil Dead II hits the restart button and begins with a small introduction/explanation of The Book of the Dead. After a zippy, special effects heavy intro, Ash (Played once again by Bruce Campbell) and his girlfriend Linda (Played by Denise Bixler) retreat to that dreaded cabin in the woods for a romantic getaway. This time, they are not accompanied by a handful of other friends looking to have a good time. As soon as they arrive, Ash stumbles upon a recording of spoken passages by an archeologist from The Book of the Dead, which naturally when played wake up that moaning unseen force lurking in the woods and opens up all the occupants of the cabin to demonic possession. Linda gets possessed early on, leaving Ash to battle the forces of evil by himself. Soon, the archeologist’s daughter Annie (Played by Sarah Berry) and her research partner Ed (Played by Richard Domeier) arrive at the cabin with recently found missing pages from The Book of the Dead. Two tobacco-chewing locals, Jake (Played by Dan Hicks) and Bobby Joe (Played by Kassie Wesley DePaiva), who are familiar with the several trails that lead to the secluded cabin, accompany Annie and Ed. When the new group arrives, they quickly start working on a way to stop the evil forces from preying upon the cabin and possessing those inside.
Evil Dead II hits the ground running in the first few minutes and then moves at the speed light for eight-four minutes, never stopping once for a break. I’m not opposed to Raimi’s banshee-out-of-Hell approach with the sequel but it is such a far cry from the original, I was left wishing for the slow build of the first film. The film also dares to venture outside the cabin to other places (an air strip, a brief flashback to the archeologist finding The Book of the Dead), diminishing the out-of-the-way anxiety that hovered over the original film. The sad part of all of this is Raimi could care less if he is scary this time–he just wants to shock the viewer repeatedly, making us jump out of our skin by the relentless power of everything in the frame. His camera does more darting around, loud howls and bangs are turned up to twenty on the soundtrack, fake blood is sprayed everywhere, and his monsters have grown in number. The film is so excessive, it almost borders on gluttonous.
Then we have Ash, our all-to-eager hero from the first film who returns to be even more of a macho hard ass. Campbell embraces a more physical style of acting, aiming for slapstick rather than rattled, cautious terror. He fights with his possessed hand, he mutters chuckle worthy one-liners line “Groovy”, dashes through the cabin screaming bloody murder, and is showered in more fake blood than you can ever imagine. Campbell is a talented guy and a joy to watch as he is clearly having the time of his life dispatching demons with a chain saw, but I liked him better when he was an everyman, scaled back realistically to a genuine normal guy with no where to run. Evil Dead II is the film that builds him up into the unstoppable horror hero that he is, with severed hand replaced with a chain saw and packing a sawed off shotgun to shatter heads. He is a complete riff on the macho hero of the 1980’s, even loosing one of his shirtsleeves to show off his built arms, his face always covered in sweat and perfect gashes, and a girl always super glued to his arm. Campbell does end up being the highlight of Evil Dead II, his character actually becoming more of a classic than the film itself.
Evil Dead II never allows our minds fill in the blank and this is what causes it to trip over itself. Everything gets explained, from The Book of the Dead to even that terrifying force lurking in the woods (you get to see it here). Perhaps if The Evil Dead never existed, I might have different feelings for Evil Dead II, maybe more accepting of its horror comedy act. The film is well made and well executed from a technical standpoint; the effects are pretty good but just severely out of place. I just can’t figure out why this film is hailed as being scarier than The Evil Dead. I don’t think there are many scares to be found throughout the film. Maybe it is the fact that it continuously assaults the viewer every step of the way, but even then, I think the film comes off as more irritating the bloodcurdling. Overall, Evil Dead II is mildly enjoyable and worth taking a look at just to see what everyone raves about. But if I want to see something that is going to send me hiding behind my couch, I’ll take the original any day of the week over this nutty circus.
Evil Dead II is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Evil Dead (1981)
by Steve Habrat
As far as low budget film projects go, Sam Raimi’s original The Evil Dead is wildly successful with stirring up some hair-raising creatures from Hell with not much at all. I’ll never forget seeing The Evil Dead for the first time in my basement with one of my childhood pals. He came over to hang out for the afternoon and he brought with him The Evil Dead, a film he had just recently seen for the first time and that he was just dying for me to see. I had heard more talk about The Evil Dead II and that it was the best in Raimi’s Evil Dead series, acting as the most terrifying out of all his installments. To this day, I will never forget watching The Evil Dead for the first time. It scared the hell out of me in broad daylight. I went on to see The Evil Dead II several years later, and I have to say I am in the camp that believes that Raimi’s original is the best in the series. Not only does it impress me that he accomplished so much with so little, but I prefer the film’s solemn approach to the slapstick comic approach he used in the second film. Shot on the fuzzy 16mm format with only 150,000 smackaroos, The Evil Dead stands tall on its no-nonsense premise and plunking our hero Ash in the horror all by himself. Talk about a nail biter.
The Evil Dead follows five Michigan State students, Ash (Played by Bruce Campbell), Linda (Played by Betsy Baker), Scotty (Played by Richard DeManincor), Shelly (Played by Theresa Tilly), and Cheryl (Played by Ellen Sandweiss) who are traveling to a secluded cabin for a weekend of fun. When they arrive at the cabin, they begin exploring the chilly basement and stumble upon The Book of the Dead and a companion tape of readings from the book. The group plays the recordings for a little harmless fun, unknowingly unleashing a growling, unstoppable force that begins to posses them one by one and turns them into deformed homicidal maniacs. As the group slowly shrinks, Ash finds himself pitted against forces beyond his comprehension and drastically searching for a way to save what is left of his friends.
The Evil Dead is a film that refuses to crack a smile, or perhaps maybe I have never seen it. Many see this film as coated with a thin layer of black humor. I have to disagree, at least when it comes to the original film. The Evil Dead is resourceful with the little it has to work with, relying heavily on the idea that no help is coming and these kids are on their own. Not since George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead has a horror film genuinely made me feel like the characters are hopelessly doomed to meet a grisly end. Further effective is the way Raimi makes us buy this isolation and sense of being cornered. Raimi careens his camera around the woods at white-knuckle speeds, establishing that there is some form of monstrous force lurking in the thick wall of trees that confine the cabin. What that force is exactly is never fully revealed, Raimi smartly leaving us only horrified reactions for his actors as they flee this force’s wrath. Raimi escalates the horror of this unseen force with ingenious sound mixing, a chorus of angry moaning and demonic growling steamrolling over trees and barreling full force at whoever is standing in front of it.
Much of the anguish of watching The Evil Dead stems from the idea that Ash faces evil all by his lonesome. Raimi understands that when we are by ourselves in the dark, our mind begins to play tricks on us. What was that creak? What is outside lurking in the dark? The Evil Dead relentlessly exposes us to this, slamming the viewer with long, drawn out periods of white noise with the occasional pop. It gives our hero the willies and it will give you at least a few sleepless nights. Raimi presents Ash as an all around good guy with the greatest intentions. He gives Linda a necklace to signify his affection for her, making things all the more gut wrenching when Linda gets possessed. Yet we find ourselves head-over-heels for Ash because he is all we have to grasp to. He has to transform from affectionate/sensitive boyfriend into a macho hero to keep himself alive until dawn.
The brilliance of Raimi’s effort can be found in the way he marries the effect of realism with the sensationalism of watching highly wrought special effects. Raimi effectively manipulates location better than most directors I have seen, using a valid cabin that is the furthest thing from a lavish Hollywood set. He further allows the viewer to get to know every room the cabin has to offer, forcing the viewer to feel as if they are staying the weekend with the kids. This place feels strikingly familiar, like the cabin that belongs to your friend’s parents or your fun uncle. Nothing feels staged with the inside of the cabin. It allows the viewer to feel like they are watching someone’s old home movies that were long forgotten. Raimi fuses this with the idea of sensationalism within motion pictures themselves. When Raimi unleashes his demonic monsters, they are beyond intricate and garish. There is so much going on with their make-up; it is impossible for the viewer to process it all in one sitting. Raimi’s hat trick is revealed when they meet their demise, the ghouls not just dying from a smashed cranium or severed head. Oh no, Raimi goes for overkill, an approach that bombards the viewer visually, showing us entrails leaking out of entrails and pus spewing out more pus. The film is understated and overstated from one second to the next, a stroke of absolute genius that is always hand in hand.
To this day, The Evil Dead still ranks as one of the scariest films I have ever seen and I seriously doubt it will ever fall of the list. On Halloween 2010, I had the chance to show the film to two friends of mine who had never seen it. I can now understand why my friend brought The Evil Dead over to have me watch all those years ago. It’s a blast to see people’s reactions to it on the first viewing. My friends had the most astonished looks on their faces when the credits rolled, like someone had just walked into their home and punched their beloved kitten. Yet the terror is everlasting in The Evil Dead, even if you have seen it multiple times. It still makes your skin crawl and your stomach do somersaults when Ash braves things by himself. It is a happy marriage of extreme and simple, making a wise choice to keep playing things straight and never allowing us to get too relaxed with it. In my eyes, The Evil Dead is Raimi’s horror masterpiece, one that has been often imitated (Cabin Fever) but can never, ever be duplicated (The Evil Dead II). It remains to this day a titan of the horror genre.
The Evil Dead is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.