Blog Archives

It’s almost here….

Hello boys and ghouls,

It’s almost here! We are just a few days away from the kick-off of the Halloween Horror Movie Spooktacular and I couldn’t be happier about it. It will be 31 days of non-stop horror with YOU choosing the horror classic that gets reviewed on Halloween day. If you glance over to the right, you will see a poll embedded that allows you to cast your vote. Oh, you don’t see the horror film you want reviewed? Send me an email and I will add it to the poll. Remember, voting ends OCTOBER 20th, so make sure you get those votes in so I can make sure to re-watch the winner before the 31st. So, who’s ready to get spooky?

-Theater Management (Steve)

The Unholy Beast Has Risen! Anti-Film School’s 2nd Annual Halloween Horror Movie Spooktacular

Lock your doors! Board up your windows! Arm yourself! Say your prayers! And grab a crucifix! That’s right, boys and ghouls, the 2nd annual Halloween Horror Movie Spooktacular is lurking around the corner!

If you’ve been wondering why Anti-Film School has been a little, um…. DEAD the past few weeks, well, it is because I have been busy in my lab creating a monster. For those who are new to the Horror Movie Spooktacular, well then you are in for a ghoulish treat! Starting October 1st, Anti-Film School is taken over completely by horror movies for 31 days. For those 31 days, you will be treated to horrifying features, reviews, and a whole slew of guest contributors from the darkest depths of Hell. On the 1st, you will also notice a new poll posted, one that asks you, the reader, what classic horror film YOU want reviewed on Halloween. That’s right! YOU control what gets posted on Halloween. Last year, it was a savage battle between The Evil Dead and The Shining, with The Shining emerging victorious.

Last year, you were treated to reviews by Charles and Corinne, but this year, I am unleashing SEVEN terrifying new guests that will have you shrieking in terror. For one week, these seven guests will be haunting Anti-Film School and counting down the five films that scare them. So, without further ado, here is the guest line up:

OCTOBER 13th:  Anti-Film School’s UK contributor CRAIG THOMAS

OCTOBER 14th:  Canadian cult/horror critic GOREGIRL of GoreGirl’s Dungeon

OCTOBER 15th: The Droid You’re Looking For funny-man JOHN LARUE

OCTOBER 16th: GuysNation creator ROB BELOTE

OCTOBER 17th: Horror diva EVA HALLOWEEN of The Year of Halloween

OCTOBER 18th: Author, Nightmirrors coordinator,  and Graveyard Radio host RAYMOND ESPOSITO

OCTOBER 19th: Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights coordinator BUBBAWHEAT

In addition to these ghoulish guests, you can expect more Universal Movie Monsters, Hammer Horror Monsters, Haunted House Week, Invasion of the Remakes, a few new horror movie reviews, and, yes, more Halloween safety! So, boys and ghouls, tell your friends and make sure to get in on all the terror! I hope you are ready because I assure you that this year’s Halloween Horror Movie Spooktacular will be more horrific than last year’s.

– Theater Management (Steve)

NOTE: Artwork credit goes to the very talented EVA HALLOWEEN. THANK YOU, EVA!! 

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

by Steve Habrat

You know a film means business when an innocent little girl is brutally gunned down while trying to get an ice cream cone in the film’s opening moments. Hell, if a little girl can get killed that early on, then that means anyone can get bumped off next! Welcome to the world of 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13, the second feature length film from John “Halloween” Carpenter. Regarded as the film that launched Carpenter’s career and viewed by many critics as one of the best exploitation films of the 1970s, Assault on Precinct 13 is one mean, unflinching picture of violence that would have been right at home in a dingy theater on 42nd Street. Partly inspired by the Howard Hawks 1959 western Rio Bravo and George Romero’s 1968 debut Night of the Living Dead, Assault of Precinct 13 is perhaps one of the most unusual crime thrillers you are ever likely to see. A complete product of its time, Assault on Precinct 13 is an appropriately gritty and bleak vision of urban decay that the police are virtually powerless to contain. The film also appears to be extremely aware of how lucrative the horror film was during the 1970s, as Assault on Precinct 13 is infested with surprisingly thrills, chills, and gore that is a little too unsettling.

Assault on Precinct 13 begins with a handful of members of the ‘Street Thunder’ gang getting ambushed and gunned down by several LAPD officers. The next morning, a group of gang warlords all swear a blood oath of revenge against the police of Los Angeles. Meanwhile, newly promoted CHP officer Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Played by Austin Stoker) is assigned to take command of the old isolated Anderson precinct building, which is closing its doors for good in the morning. Later that evening, a prison bus that is carrying three dangerous inmates stops by after one prisoner becomes ill on their trip to Death Row. It turns out that the bus is transporting the well-known convicted murderer Napoleon Wilson (Played by Darwin Joston), who is extremely dangerous and unpredictable. As the night goes on, a terrified citizen comes bursting into the station mumbling about the death of his daughter. Bishop discovers that several heavily armed gang members have followed the man to the station. These gang members open fire on the station with powerful silenced automatic weapons, killing many of the people inside the station. Unable to get help due to the disconnected phones, Bishop is forced to join forces with Wilson, secretary Leigh (Played by Laurie Zimmer), and another prisoner named Wells (Played by Tony Burton) until help arrives to contain the relentless waves of gang attacks.

Assault on Precinct 13 longs to be a western and it doesn’t make any attempts to conceal that fact. The film pairs an outlaw and a lawman together, forcing them to set aside their differences to make one more heroic last stand. The film is basically Rio Bravo given an urban facelift and loaded with a hell of a lot more gore (and less Dean Martin). Yet Carpenter isn’t content with just producing a modern day western. He borrows aspects from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and molds the film into a hair-raising siege film where countless silent antagonists try to force their way into the station to brutally murder the terrified individuals inside. Even Carpenter’s protagonist, the African American Bishop, is eerily similar to the gently reassuring Ben from Night of the Living Dead. The film has been called one of the ultimate exploitation films from the 1970s, one that is absolutely unforgiving and extreme. A little girl is horrifically gunned down after being in the wrong place and the wrong time. Several police officers meet a messy end, seemingly powerless to stop this senseless onslaught. There are very few rays of hope in this unpredictable beast, especially as the small group’s numbers rapidly dwindle at the hands of the cold, emotionless killers.

The real shock of Assault on Precinct 13 is how natural the acting is, free flowing as Carpenter’s camera follows the actors along. Stoker is the star of the show here, playing the unassuming good guy who just wants everyone to make it out alive even as he is sometimes powerless to make sure this happens. What is also surprising about his character is how quickly he trusts Wilson, which adds to his appeal. Wilson, on the other hand, seems grossly misunderstood and you get the sneaking suspicion that he isn’t as viscous as he has been made out. Even still, in the scenes that he gunning down countless charging gang members, he wears a beaming grin on his face as bodies go tumbling through the air. Yet for all the joy he seems to find it taking lives, he never once seems threatening to the innocent people around him. Burton’s Wells is a guy who has had a long, hard life that was riddled with bad luck that doesn’t appear to be changing. Zimmer’s Leigh is one tough chick whose skills with a gun would make One-Eye from Thriller-A Cruel Picture smile. There is also a faint spark of attraction between her and Wilson, which, much like the events around them, is hopeless to pursue.

Assault on Precinct 13 does hit a few bumps in the dialogue department but everything else is so good that you will be willing to overlook them. Much like some of Carpenter’s best work, Assault on Precinct 13 is such a great film because it is heavy on atmosphere, especially the beady-eyed capriciousness that one cannot easily shake. It also allows us to get to know our characters, especially the ones we immediately presume to be bad which gives the film a bit of depth that is highly unusual for an exploitation film. Most characters in these films aren’t given much personality, making us indifferent when they ultimately bite the dust. Ultimately, Assault on Precinct 13 ranks up there as one of Carpenter’s finest and most satisfying films in his body of work. This is an explosive, tense, grainy, and very mean urban thriller that is all the better because it lacks escapist polish. This is one that exploitation fans will want to revisit again and again.

Grade: A-

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Escape From New York (1981)

by Steve Habrat

In the stretch of films that John Carpenter made from 1978 to 1982, Escape From New York may be my least favorite of the films that also included Halloween, The Fog, and The Thing. It is these four films that are perhaps the most prolific films of his career (I should also throw in Assault of Precinct 13 and Big Trouble in Little China) and all have their own respectable cult following. Escape From New York is probably his most eccentric film in this stretch, one that broke the horror mold that he was falling into. Escape From New York ventures into science fiction and action territory (Carpenter explored science fiction with his debut film Dark Star in 1974) and the result is a fairly mixed bag of masculine 80’s clichés, inconsistent action sequences, and sputtering suspense. Still, I am willing to forgive in most of these areas but the one that really hurts is the lack of a suspenseful atmosphere that I feel Carpenter did so well. He would return to form, thankfully, in with his 1982 science-fiction chiller The Thing. There would be some magic found in Escape From New York, this first pairing of Carpenter and Kurt Russell, a match made in badass heaven.

Escape From New York invites us into a dystopian world where, in 1988, crime rose 400%, causing the U.S. government to construct a giant wall surrounding New York City that turns the greatest city in the world into a sprawling maximum-security prison. The year is 1997 and Air Force One has crashed into the dangerous streets of the prison, streets that are crawling with psychos and criminals. The President (Played by Donald Pleasance) was on his way to a three-way summit meeting between the U.S., China, and the Soviet Union for a discussion on nuclear fusion, a meeting he is desperately needed at. Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Played by Lee Van Cleef) enlists the help of scowling ex-soldier turned criminal Snake Plissken (Played by Kurt Russell), who is facing a life sentence behind the city walls. Hauk tells Plissken that if he retrieves the President in twenty-four hours, he will pardon Plissken of his sentence. Plissken reluctantly agrees and travels into the grungy wasteland where he finds himself facing a relentless army of bloodthirsty criminals who all want him dead. Along the way, he runs into some old acquaintances and faces off against the sinister Duke (Played by Isaac Hayes), who plans to use the President as his key to freedom.

It’s almost impossible not to read Escape From New York as a faint satire of the crime that ran rampant in New York City in the 1970’s into the 1980’s. The 1980’s and early 1990’s saw some of the worst of the crime. Escape From New York saw itself released in 1981, right in the midst of the flurry of crime and right at the start of the Regan Presidency. Escape From New York has a heavy military and police presence within the film, masked soldiers prowling the tops of the prison and helicopters swooping in to shoot and kill any prisoner that looks like they are attempting an escape. When the film is mirroring the uncontrollable crime of New York City and Regan’s focus on military expansion, Escape From New York is witty, cynical and, yes, tense in some respects. You do feel uneasy because you don’t really know the terrors that lie beyond those walls and there is the paranoia of war right around the corner. Even the early scenes, where Carpenter keeps many of the psychos in the shadows are a bit unsettling, but then he turns the lights on and allows the sun to come up to chase all those demons out of the shadows and into the sewers.

Escape From New York does do a good job at creating a dystopian world that is admirable in the attention to detail. While watching it, I could completely see this grungy vision of New York City being completely plausible for the time in which it was released. Plissken is warned not to venture into the subways or into certain parts of the city by its wary prisoners, the one’s with hints of good within them. Shadowy silhouettes scamper through the streets, evocative of homeless street dwellers calling the grime caked darkness home. The effects are also quite impressive, especially when you keep in mind that the film was made for a whopping six million, which by today’s standards wouldn’t get you far at all. At times, it is a bit obvious that Carpenter is filming miniatures and a sequence involving a glider tumbling down the side of the World Trade Center looks a bit dated, but outside of that, the film has aged very well.

Escape From New York would not be the classic that it is considered if it didn’t have Kurt Russell in the lead as Snake Plissken. Plissken is almost always as cool as a cucumber, his voice just above a whisper as he tiptoes around the littered streets with an intimidating machine gun. Plissken practically becomes the definition of the strong silent type, even when he is thrown in a wrestling ring with a gigantic brawler who is looking to pull Plissken’s head from his body. It was this film that revealed the peanut butter and jelly pairing of John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, Carpenter dreaming up perfect one-liners for Russell to mumble before he aims a gun or throws a punch. The writing would really take shape in The Thing, the film that contains one of Russell’s greatest one-liners, but Russell sure gets to have some pokerfaced fun here (Hauk: “Plissken? Plissken, what are you doing?” Snake: “Playing with myself! I’m going in!”). Escape From New York also features a few other Carpenter alums, Pleasance as the half-hearted President and Adrienne Barbeau as the curvy and dangerous Maggie. Harry Dean Stanton, who would go on to appear in Carpenter’s 1983 film Christine, has some fun as the shifty Brain, who betrayed Plissken in the past.

Escape From New York leaves the viewer wanting more and not particularly in a good way. I wanted more development of Isaac Hayes’ Duke, a villain we mostly only hear about and when we see him, he never really strikes fear into our hearts. Lee Van Cleef’s Hauk just jogs around from behind computer screens to a helicopter and back again. Stanton and Barbeau both seem to be having some fun in Carpenter’s wasteland, Barbeau overjoyed to be reunited wit her The Fog director, but their characters aren’t really elaborated on, only there to keep Plissken on his toes. Escape From New York belongs to Russell and he is the one who will lure you back behind the walls of the New York City maximum-security prison for repeat viewers. The film is also notable for its satire and political commentary, touches that elevate the film above a mindless science fiction/action throwaway. I would have liked the story to develop a little more, for Plissken to explore a little more of New York City and bump in to a few more baddies. Yet there is enough bloody action to keep us occupied in our visit to this nightmare world and, for those who have never seen it, it is worth seeking the film out to be introduced to the man that is Snake Plissken. I guess that is enough for me to recommend the Escape From New York. If only it had that signature tense Carpenter atmosphere but I guess a guy can dream, right?

Grade: B-

Escape From New York is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Maniac (1980)

by Steve Habrat

I honestly do not think I have ever seen a film that has been as grainy and gritty as Maniac, the splatter film told from the perspective of the pudgy schizophrenic Frank Zito, a man who prowls the shifty streets of early 1980s New York City and kills women. The film, often evocative of the Son of Sam murders from the mid 1970s, out grains films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a film that came shortly after Maniac but is far superior. You practically need a tetanus shot and two baths after you have watched this thing. Pretending that is it shining light on a deranged and shadowy mind, Maniac lacks any real depth, acting as just a random string of scenes where Frank stalks, murders, and maims his victims. After each segment, director William Lustig changes the setting, the victims, and then presses the repeat button. Maniac’s case is not helped out by the sneaking suspicion that this slightly seems like a fetish flick.

The premise of Maniac is quite simple. Frank Zito (Played by Joe Spinell) is a sweaty, overweight psycho who stalks women, murders them, and then scalps them. He shacks up in a tiny apartment in an unidentified burough of New York City. His tiny apartment is crammed with an assortment of weapons he uses to dispatch his prey along with countless creepy mannequins. Frank likes to dress the mannequins in clothing, nail the scalps he has collected to their heads, and sleep with them. Frank also engages in conversations with himself, usually acting as both himself and his deceased prostitute mother he is obsessed with. While out on a walk one day, Frank has his picture taken by a beautiful but utterly clueless photographer named Anna (Played by Caroline Munro). Frank tracks her down and instead of simply killing her, the two strike up a bizarre relationship that is unfathomable. When it seems that Frank has found love and may turn himself around, he begins repressing his urges to kill and it is only a matter of time before they break through the charismatic persona he is hiding behind.

One of the two parts that works in Maniac is the odd relationship between Anna and Frank. This adds some desperately needed anxiety to the film, we the viewers finding ourselves on the edge of our seat waiting for Frank to strike. It’s a clever move from writers C.A. Rosenberg and Joe Spinell who play on our fear that something is about to happen. It is also the only thing resembling a budding plot in Maniac, which is more concerned about getting to all the violence. The violence here has to rank as some of the most extreme you will ever see in a motion picture (aside from Cannibal Holocaust, Romero’s zombie flicks, and the work of Herschell Gordon Lewis). Credit should go to make-up and effects guru Tom Savini, who dreams up some truly nasty stuff that makes even the hardened viewers queasy. One scene, a sequence that has to be one of the most memorable moments in horror movie history and the most redolent of the Son of Sam, has Frank blowing the head off one victim at close range with a double barrel shotgun. It goes far beyond graphic, sickening, or shocking. It is downright fucked up in conveniently used slow motion.

The other part that clicks in Maniac is the supernatural finale the film tacks on, making Frank’s last victim himself. He ends up succumbing to his own inner demons that wield his own weapons and giggle while they close in. Frank lacks much profundity and he is fairly simple to figure out. He shows flashes of repentance and scolds his own actions when he kills. While he is on the prowl and stalking his prey, he lets out grunts and growls that sound animal and orgasmic. It is ultimately the path of the paranormal that gets the juices flowing in Maniac, enveloping us completely into Franks distorted and damaged mind, allowing us to see through his eyes rather than just tagging along side while he takes lives. While the real world stuff is unsettling, it is Frank’s world that provides the much needed spooks.

Almost cinema-vérité in execution and shot with what had to be the oldest camera the director could find, Maniac exploits the seedy and decaying look of later 70’s and early 80’s New York City. You never really feel comfortable or truly safe in Maniac. I kept wondering where a police officer was, why that woman was walking alone, and who else was lurking in the shadows waiting to stick me up for my wallet. The film does an excellent job transporting the viewer but the lack of any protagonist trying to catch Frank is Maniac’s demise. Instead of drawing the film out with countless scenes of torture and prolonged death sequences, maybe they could have thrown in a hard-boiled detective racing to find the killer before he claims another life. All we get an out-of-place overhead shot of what is supposed to be a helicopter looking for Frank and quick glimpses of newspaper headlines that declare there is a maniac on the loose. Furthermore, no character outside of Frank is properly developed so when someone meets a messy end, it’s just unpleasant. It doesn’t affect us on any emotional level like it should. For as hard as it tries, Maniac ends up being surprisingly below average but don’t count out the finale, which has a few tricks, decomposing corpses machetes, handguns, shotguns, and switchblades up it’s flannel sleeve.

Grade: C-

Maniac is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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-

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

by Steve Habrat

Before Jack Skellington and Sally were mall goth heroes, they were a magical pair of claymation figures who just wanted to experience the joy and wonder of Christmas.  Before all the heavy metal covers and the 3D conversions, their world was even more tempting, never needing an update and forever remaining timeless. The best of the claymation bunch, The Nightmare Before Christmas was a childhood favorite of mine, favored more around the time when Jolly Old Saint Nicholas plops down the chimney than my other favorite holiday. I always thought this film does capture the hypnotizing quality of Christmas, the one that makes us feel like children again. It really gels when Jack finds himself is Christmas Town, gaping at snowmen, elves, Christmas lights, and children snuggled in their beds. It painstakingly tries to re-establish that Christmas is about awe, not about the material fixation that now comes with the most wonderful time of the year. The film, which is the brainchild of producer Tim Burton (No, he did NOT direct this!) and director Henry Selick, is teeming with some of the most creative and bizarre animated characters ever captured on camera, and they do not feel like they are stretched or insipid.

The Nightmare Before Christmas ushers us to Halloween Town, a place where all the typical Halloween ghouls reside and emerge every year to give us the willies. Halloween Town finds a leader in the bony Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King who is growing weary of the same old traditions every year. With his ghost dog Zero, Jack wanders off into the woods and stumbles upon a portal to another holiday dimension: Christmas Town.  Bursting with excitement and inspiration, Jack hurries back to Halloween Town and fills in the locals about what he has seen. Jack and the monsters vow that they will give “Sandy Claws” a break for the year and they will put on Christmas. As Jack’s plans slowly fall apart and his idea grows more and more dangerous, it’s up to the lonely Sally, a ragdoll zapped to life by a mad scientist, to try to convince Jack to leave Christmas to the residents of Christmas Town. Across Halloween Town, the sinister Oogie Boogie has plans of his own for Santa Claus.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a true work of art, one that works simply because it carries off the viewers imagination. It did mine when I was young and I still smile today when I see the film. The 3D conversion the film underwent was rewarding because we get to see the fine details to Halloween Town. The film was the brainchild of Burton and watching the film is like stepping into the mind of Burton himself. The inspired characters also make the visit to Halloween Town beyond memorable. There are mummies, a trio of glammed up vampires, a two-face politician, witches, the boogieman, and a band of devious and merry trick-or-treaters. There are nods to the classic Universal Movie Monsters while also opening the door to a brand new world. Seriously, the film commences with a door being opened and ghosts coaxing us into the darkness. It’s really quite exciting.

As far as musicals go, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a stand out as far as I’m concerned. This film gives us some of the most ingenious, cleverly written musical numbers you will see in an animated film. Just get a load of that opening introduction as the monsters all introduce themselves. It’s a horror fans dream come true and anyone who appreciates the value of lyrics will be head over heels with delight. You will be tapping your toes along with it. The song, “This Is Halloween”, is now a goth anthem, even getting a makeover from heavy metal artist Marilyn Manson a few years back. Other standouts include the dreary “Sally’s Song”, Jack’s inquisitive “What’s This”, and the trick-or-treater’s bickering “Kidnap the Sandy Claws”.

There are some minor flaws to be found in this film. The love story between Sally and Jack is a bit wobbly. It never really gets off the ground and we mostly see the love from Sally’s side. Jack seems relatively unconcerned with her and barely notices her presence at times. The film is a bit short, abruptly wrapping up just when things are really starting to grip us. Oogie Boogie only really shows up at the end, a character that is the very definition if cool. What aids us in overlooking the minor bumps is that the characters are just so nifty. Jack has become an iconic animated hero and you’ll be overloaded on cute when you meet his playful pup Zero. The Mayor of Halloween Town will keep the kiddies chuckling, especially when his mood alters and his face changes. Santa Claws is also quite creative, a huge red blob of a man, a version of him that only Burton could think up. Sally is a hopeless romantic and we feel her sorrow. The most astonishing aspect is the complexities in Jack. He’s a control freak and at times a bit domineering, yet we root for him to see the error of his ways. Perhaps that is meant to force us to reflect on our own approach to Christmas. Have we missed the point of this Holiday? Are we any different than Jack? According to Burton and Selick, not really.

The Nightmare Before Christmas may prove to be a bit too eerie for some young viewers, but with films like Corpse Bride and Coraline (Also directed by Selick) on the market, that’s up for you to decide. It’s a shame that goth kids have marked it as their own, as there really is something for everyone to enjoy within the film. I think that Jack stands for much more than as the leader of the gothic nation. He represents our ignorance, our fascination with all things magical, and is the face of a truly poignant redemption story. He even symbolically rises from ashes near the end of this film. I think he represents more than the kids who shop at Hot Topic think. This film also cast its spell over me as a kid and I’m glad I had the chance to see it before the recent surge of popularity. Eye opening and intricate, with treasures abound, The Nightmare Before Christmas sweeps us off our feet, much like the season it is a testament to. An undeniable family classic.

Grade: A-

The Nightmare Before Christmas is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

by Steve Habrat

Although it is not technically a genre of cinema, the “grind house” film has become something of it’s own breed. I don’t mean the recent underground fascination with them. The fascination with this trashy form of film sparked out of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s 2007 cult hit Grindhouse and 2010’s follow up Machete. Or how about this year’s Hobo with a Shotgun? I’m also fairly convinced you’ve seen the commercials for recent video game House of the Dead, which oozes with sleaze and depravity, the type that ran rampant in grind house theaters. The influence from those down and dirty pictures from the late 1960’s to the late 1980’s is everywhere and some do not even realize it. One of the most notorious films that played in “grind houses” was the unflinchingly graphic rape/revenge romp I Spit on Your Grave, a film that is the true definition of the word vile. And yet in a way it’s hard to totally dismiss the film because it puts in overtime to earn the reputation that it has. Released in 1978 and the brainchild of Israeli director Meir Zarchi, I Spit on Your Grave can be viewed from many different angles. It could be seen as a female empowerment flick, a criticism of masculinity, or just gleefully exploitative. Stemming from a movement in cinema that I absolutely love, I Spit on Your Grave was one of the toughest films to get through, featuring a gang rape sequence that is agonizingly long and revealing. It pushes the viewers buttons and after witnessing what our delicate protagonist goes through at the hands of four animalistic hillbillies, you can’t help yourself but root for her to exact revenge on her tormentors. You’ll feel this way even if you loathe the film.

Jennifer Hills (Played by Camille Keaton) is a short story writer who ventures to the country to shack up in an isolated lakefront home to work on her first novel. Jennifer appears to be a much more liberal woman, sporting silky, transparent sundresses that illuminate her near perfect figure, also showing the viewer she is not wearing underwear. She stops off at a rundown gas station and meets three local males. She chats innocently enough with the gas station attendant Johnny (Played by Eron Tabor). She also meets the shirtless duo that is Stanley (Played by Anthony Nichols) and Andy (Played by Gunter Kleemann). After arriving at her secluded getaway, she is greeted by the mentally challenged grocery store delivery boy Matthew (Played by Richard Pace), who is an innocent, friendly virgin. Matthew takes a liking to the flirty Jennifer and he runs off to tell his savage pal Johnny, who encourages Matthew to pursue Jennifer. When Matthew doesn’t, Stanley and Andy pluck her from her home while she sunbathes, drag her out into the woods, and proceed to gang rape and beat her. They then tell Matthew to kill Jennifer. Matthew shakily fakes her death and several weeks later, Jennifer heals and returns to exact revenge on the savages who violated her and terrorized without mercy.

I Spit on Your Grave has to be one of the most hated films ever made, one that enraged critics and audiences upon its release (For a good seething review, check out Roger Ebert’s famous take on the film) and one that still upsets to this day. It stuns me that this film is sold at Best Buy where a younger viewer can easily obtain it. In an interview on the DVD, Zarchi says he was inspired to make this film after his real life experience of stumbling upon a woman who had been raped and aided her in getting help. It’s good to know this tidbit of information, partly because it relieves the viewer of the suspicion that this film was made out of some sick fantasy. Zarchi’s camera does seem infatuated with Keaton’s physique. He shows every angle of every unmentionable; giving the film it’s exploitative ambiance. Any excuse to get her in the nude is fully embraced here. The grind house films were heavily interested in gratuitous nudity and explicit sex, some of these films branded with an X rating. And just like the multiple grind house films before it, it brings along its fair share of gore and voyeuristic violence. One misconception of grind house cinema is that all of these films were hyper violent. This is true to an extent, as some boasted jazzy, hardcore titles that made lots of promises but never really delivered the gore that audience’s lusted for. Two prime examples would be 1978’s Halloween, which was a grind house slasher film that lacked little to no gore and 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which contained very little of the red stuff. I Spit on Your Grave has plenty to satisfy the gore hounds.

Weighed down by infinite amounts of hammy acting, mostly from its male players, Keaton is the one that really brings the fire. She does her best to avoid being reduced to a hot piece of flesh. She’s a broken ass kicker that is ready to bring the wrath of God upon the monsters that crossed her. Her crowning moment comes during the shocking castration scene, where she lures one of the men into a bath with her and while fooling around, she reaches under the bathmat and pulls out a hulking blade and, with one clean cut, severs the man’s own weapon. She then gets out of the tub and leaves the bathroom, locking the door from the outside as he shrieks in pain and at the act done upon him. She then puts on a classical record, sits down and relishes in the agony just behind the bathroom door. She stares off just past the camera, her eyes conveying a cracked soul yet illuminated with the burning flame of revenge. Who could blame her? Later, she burns the man’s clothes and as she does, she is illuminated in red, a color that engulfs the entire project. Dark red has been said to symbolize rage, determination, and wrath, all which Jennifer brings down on the men. Earlier in the film, light red and some pinks dominate, which symbolize friendship, passiveness, and love, which all radiate from Jennifer. The color scheme is very film school, something that would seem at home in a student film, yet it is probably one of the artist qualities that I Spit on Your Grave has.

The men of I Spit on Your Grave are the scum of the earth, even the mentally challenged Matthew. It is revealed that Johnny has a wife and two children, which makes his act even more disgusting than it already was. Even the men that seem honest and true are animals and capable of inflicting horrible acts. Andy and Stanley both leap around the woods like primates, hooting and hollering with glee in their wanton dance. Yet when Jennifer bears down on them, wielding an axe, they both quiver and cry, stammering, “It wasn’t my idea! Johnny made me do it!” The “It wasn’t my idea!” is an excuse thrown around quite a bit in I Spit on Your Grave, saying that men never truly want to own up to their actions. Matthew’s death is the only one leaving us feeling disheartened, as he is a character who is somewhat unaware of his actions and who tried to do the right thing when the gang rape was taking place. It does not excuse all of his behavior, as he stills has blood on his hands too.

I Spit on Your Grave was remade in 2010, further driving the underground fixation with genre trash. The remake of the film never shook me up and was a largely overlooked upon release. A sign of the times if I have ever seen one, highlighting the desensitized attitude that has been driven into American audiences. The 1978 I Spit on Your Grave is still a much more shocking film, partly because the remake has echoes of torture porn and Saw coursing through its dirt caked veins.  Love it or hate it, it still marks the viewer, never allowing them to forget what they have seen. I found the film had a major artistic handicap, resorting to said film school techniques, all which prance around and bellow thoughtful. It’s definitely an empowering film to women, even if the excessive violence is up for debate. As a piece of grind house cinema, it ranks among the best of them, wallowing in all the filth that made this genre what it is today.

Grade: B-

I Spit on Your Grave 1978 is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

The Shining (1980)

by Steve Habrat

You never forget seeing The Shining for the first time. You never shake the images of a pair of young girls coaxing Danny to “come play” with them. Or how about Jack crashing a ghost party and plotting with a dead waiter on how to dispose of his shining son? One of my favorites is the looping shot of a sea of blood pouring out of an elevator door that slowly opens. The walls and halls will run red with blood, murder, insanity, and terror. And “Heeeerrrreeees JOHNNY”? In many ways, The Shining is the definitive haunted house film, one that Stephen King criticized for not following his famed story line for line. Under the obsessive and perfectionist direction of one of the greatest directors to ever make films, Stanley Kubrick constructs and delivers a labyrinth of bone-rattling images and a slow burn narrative that will stay with you even if it does not follow the horror author’s epic tale. It will freeze your blood.

The greatness of The Shining is often overshadowed by the iconic performance from Jack Nicholson, who checks in to the Overlook Hotel as Jack Torrence, who on the surface appears to be a content family man, a teacher and writer who is exhaustively searching for inspiration on a new project. He applies to be the caretaker for the said hotel, tickled by the idea of complete seclusion. Churning below the surface is a raging alcoholic who has hurt his young song Danny (Played by Danny Lloyd) in the past after a night of heavy drinking. Jack’s loyal, cooing wife Wendy (Played by Shelley Duvall) also accompanies Jack to the hotel, rendered breathless by the natural beauty of the structure, which is also said to be built on an Indian burial ground. In the job interview, Jack is informed that there have been ghostly encounters in the lush hotel and a few years previous, another caretaker seemed to snap from cabin fever and went on a killing rampage, chopping up his two young daughters and his wife, then proceeding to stick a shotgun in his mouth and blow his own head off. Jack waves off the story, but soon after arriving, Danny has a telepathic conversation with the head chef of the Overlook, Dick Hallorann (Played by Scatman Crothers). Dick explains to Danny the significance of this gift, called “shining” and explains to him that he is also sensitive to the paranormal. As the family stays the harsh winter in the hotel, Jack begins to slowly loose his grip on reality and he begins to embrace the anger that lurks inside of him. The ghostly apparitions also start making themselves known, terrorizing Danny at every turn. As the winter storm howls outside, Wendy begins devising a plan to get Danny and herself to safety, away from dangerous Jack who seems to want to join insidious ghosts who reside at the Overlook.

When watching a film by Kubrick, it’s easy to recognize that Kubrick himself is in complete control of what we are seeing. Every shot has been labored over and has been methodically illustrated, seeing only what we are meant to see, and it signifies something, sometimes that thing is only known by Kubrick himself. Sometimes the shot seems to be a psychological photograph; sometimes it’s dabbling with the surreal. Whatever the shot is, it is always orderly. There never seems to be input from any other individual. It’s strictly Kubrick’s mind at play. The surreal order is creepy in itself, suggesting normalcy, but it’s the ghostly visions that pack the icy punch. They are the grotesque, unseen side to order. Take the scene in room 237, where a nude woman emerges from the bathtub and embraces Jack. The bathroom posses a clean, grounded look, only strange because of it’s uncanny color scheme. She waltzes toward him and kisses the deranged Jack. When he glances at the mirror, he sees the beautiful woman is actually a rotting corpse of an old woman cackling at Jack’s horror. Kubrick suggests here and throughout The Shining that normalcy is always mirrored by unpredictable horror. There are two sides to everything. What we perceive as common and what stares back unseen.

What we are really here for is the terror, and yes, we could deconstruct Kubrick’s nightmare all day, debating what everything means. The film will cause a few sleepless nights the way Kubrick springs terrifying visions on the viewer. Sometimes, he only shows us a terrified face, eyes bulging, rolling back in the head, accompanied by blasting rattles and shrieking musical blasts. It’s jump scares without being cheap. We don’t expect it, but Kubrick isn’t interested in simply startling us. While watching a documentary on the making of the recent horror film Insidious, James Wan discusses his use of jump scares in his film, arguing that while the film is heavily reliant on this technique to frighten, the way he applies it is always followed through. There is no gotcha moment or hollow spook. A ghostly visit, a strange specter, or any other apparition that creeps us out always accompanies the blast of music. There is never the fake scare where someone’s boyfriend jumps from behind a corner, doorway, etc. Part of me thinks he lifted this technique from Kubrick, who always blindsides us with an unnerving image. Two little girls block Danny from riding his big wheel through the twisting halls of the Overlook. There is a sudden flash of the girls dead in the same hallway with blood splattered all over the walls. You can’t argue that Kubrick surprised and then followed through.

The Shining is also bloodcurdling because of Nicholson’s ranting, flailing performance. He’s all unhinged grins and bogus reassurance that he doesn’t want to hurt Wendy; he just wants to bash her brains in! Talk about making every hair on your body stand at attention. He lumbers through the hallways, dragging an axe and hacking at doors to locate and chop up Wendy. Danny, in a trance-like state wields a knife and writes REDRUM on doorways. The fright comes from every angle as Wendy desperately attempts to hold everything together. Pretend everything is normal! But how can you when your son croaks, “REDRUM” and shows you a glimmering blade? The film climaxes in an iced over chase through a fogged hedge maze that, once again, mirrors the characters journey through the Overlook structure. It’s a maze of panic, madness, and bereavement.

The Shining makes exquisite use of its secluded location, promising no way out for the characters that inhabit it. The twist ending also promises to give the viewer the willies while turning the wheels of the brain. It’s an obsessive nightmare that is perfect to watch on Halloween. It has it all: deranged killers, ghosts, ghouls, corpses, and more. It’s Kubrick’s funhouse after all, and boy can he construct a house of horrors. He proved that he could do every genre and do it professionally and with confident expertise. A classic of the genre, massively influential, and a must-see for Nicholson’s performance, The Shining is a true, visionary work of art. It stands as a psychological puzzle that may never be solved and that is rewarding on multiple viewings. It reveals more and more each time you sit through it. That is filmmaking at its finest. Ranking as one of the scariest movies I have ever seen, The Shining is as warped and chic as horror gets. Grade: A+

Martin (1976)

by Corinne Rizzo

I don’t like scary movies. I am not interested in the thrill of axe murderers chasing a pretty lady down the street or guys that live under your bed and infiltrate your dreams. Corn syrup and red food coloring, gore and guts, never did it for me and still don’t, which is why I didn’t mind George Romero’s Martin so much.

Sure, George Romero isn’t known for good clean fun, but the one thing I could always tolerate about his films is that the gore is almost playful. The blood, bright red and reminiscent of paint, the prey/predator dance always has some edge to it where the viewer is left saying something along the lines of “really?” or “wait, why are they still alive?” And Martin follows in this pattern.

The film follows what appears to be a young man suffering from a family curse of the nosferatu. Though Martin’s case of vampirism is a technical one of syringes and razor blades instead of your typical Dracula slow moving and mundane.  Martin, while appearing to be in his mid twenties, is also quite ancient. Romero sneaks these details in through simple conversation with a radio station and Martin’s cousin Christina, who is no stranger to the idea.

While the plot and premise of the film are an updated version of a classic tale, what is most attractive about the film is its eight millimeter quality. The frames and colors are grainy and tinted, which, intended or not, is one of the best qualities of the film. Of course, it may just be a default of the time and place in which the movie was created. Certainly not a hi-def, saturated color experience. But it lends an authentic and dated look to the film which parallels Romero’s approach to his paint red blood.

Another twist to the film that lends itself to Martin’s vampire tendency is that it is seen as more of a mental illness than any hocus pocus type family curse. Christina, Martin’s cousin tries to talk him into going to a hospital or seeing a doctor. Martin is stand-offish  and quiet. Awkward at best. So the neighborhood sees him more as someone with a disorder, maybe something along the line of Asperger’s Syndrome. No one really questions it and one friendly neighbor even finds it endearing.

A thorough examination of the film would delve deep into the sexuality of the film, the history of the vampire and so on, but what is important about the film is that a legendary director of timeless zombie films has taken a stab at the origination of the zombie, according to some schools of thought, exposing the vampire: An undead and immortal being who can only be conquered under some extraneous effort.

At first the film grossed me out. I have no tolerance for these gory horror flicks that over use violence for the sake of entertainment, though there is a threshold to which I can tolerate these things and Martin keeps it just below that line.

Grade: B+