by Steve Habrat
Over the past few years, the horror genre has slowly been clawing its way out of the grave and unleashing a small-but-scrappy string of winners that packed something the genre was seriously lacking—genuine scares. In between disposable Saw sequels, rancid torture porn, painful found footage rip-offs, and countless remakes that can only be labeled as unnecessary, horror fans were rewarded for their patience with above-average genre keepers like Insidious, The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, The Cabin in the Woods, You’re Next, and The Conjuring, which kept hopes high that there would soon be a film that managed to generate the true, pulse-pounding fear of such classics as Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Exorcist, and Night of the Living Dead. In the span of just three short months, horror fans have gotten their wish with back-to-back efforts from two fresh cinematic voices. I am referring to Australian director Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows. Emerging from the shadows of the indie film community, Kent’s prickly demonic bedtime story has earned nearly unanimous praise from critics and has been promoted by a true master of terror, Exorcist director William Friedkin. And Mitchell’s teen nightmare has gained momentum over the past weeks through positive word-of-mouth for its shocking ability to create an almost overwhelming sense of paranoia and dread.
First, let us take a look at The Babadook, which tells the tale of Amelia (played by Essie Davis), a grieving widow who has her hands full with her disobedient young son, Sam (played by Noah Wiseman). One evening, Sam comes to Amelia with a mysterious pop-up book called ‘The Babadook,’ eager to hear the tale of a monster that knocks three times and then refuses to leave. Amelia reluctantly reads the eerie bedtime story to her erratic seed, but soon after shutting the book, a horrifying force begins tormenting the duo and manifesting as a ghastly entity hell-bent on driving Amelia and Sam out of their minds.
Buzzing with the spirit of such silent black-and-white classics as Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, this demonic thriller is a surprisingly thoughtful dissection of grief and the toll it can take on one’s psyche. Kent certainly doesn’t go to great lengths to mask the film’s shadowy depth, but it’s difficult to fault her for this because it forces you to get emotionally invested in the film. Those accustomed to horror films that simply make you jump by blasting the music or coaxing a character to leap out of the dark for a fake-out scare may find The Babadook’s slow-burn approach to be tedious, but I assure you that as Kent gains momentum, she delivers scares that cut like one of the Babadook’s jutting claws. This leads me to the monster, which the viewer only glimpses in brief flashes as it scampers in and out of the light, hiding its DIY tailoring and elevating ghoul’s lingering impact to the stuff of legend. When the lights are out, I guarantee you’ll shiver as you think back upon its spiderlike form and it’s raspy growls that ring out from all corners of Amelia’s home.
Performance wise, The Babadook features Oscar worthy turns from it’s small but very capable cast. Davis is a whirlwind of agony and grief as Amelia, the brokenhearted widow who clings to memories of her dead husband. Early on, it’s not hard to empathize with this exasperated mother, who is constantly trying to wrap her fragile mind around Sam’s horrible behavior. The young Wiseman excels at getting underneath the skin of both the audience and Amelia in ways that not many child actors can. At times, he can be even more uncompromising and terrifying than the film’s big, bad monster. Don’t be fooled by the initial character sketches that Kent slips the audience, as their personalities smoothly shift for a divisive finish that will leave some holding their breath and others rolling their eyes.
After you’ve gasped at Kent’s expressionistic night terror, compose yourself for Mitchell’s It Follows, which tells the story of teenage Jay (Maika Monroe), who finds herself smitten with a mysterious older boy. After a bizarre sexual encounter that leaves the beautiful blonde quivering half naked in the front yard of her suburban Detroit home, Jay realizes that this boy has passed on a mysterious force that will follow and attack until it is passed on to another partner. With the help of her colorful friends, Jay has to face down the force—which can manifest as anyone—before its too late.
Where The Babadook slithered out from horror’s lavish, black-and-white beginnings, It Follows draws its inspiration from the slasher films of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. You’d swear that the film is a long lost John Carpenter effort that sat overlooked on the shelf for nearly thirty years. As Mitchell’s camera hoovers around the decaying streets of Detroit, Michigan (another recent horror film that makes great use of the rundown Motor City is Only Lovers Left Alive), you’re left paralyzed from constant paranoia as the shape shifting monster can come lumbering towards our gang of protagonists at any given moment. When you’re not chewing down your fingernails and developing an ulcer from the expert tension wrung from each frame, you’ll be marveling at Mitchell’s retro visual and audio style, from the hazy, early ‘80s fashion that the gang sports, to the rusted cars (one kid rolls around in a Cutlass), classic public-access horror films the seem like they should be introduced by Vampira or Zacherle, and winking Halloween synths that compose the soundtrack. These broad strokes and well-placed touches manage to set It Follows apart from the mainstream horror bunch and mold it into a true work of fine art. Yet they also give the film a timeless feel, which compliments the film’s enduring subject matter (the fears that promiscuity can bring). There is no doubt in my mind that many exiting the theater will be furiously attempting to peel back the film’s onion-like layers.
As if you needed any more reasons to fall all over It Follows, Mitchell’s film is populated with a cast of kids who have some major chemistry. Each and every one injects a quirky spin that sets them apart from the countless other boring teens that shriek and sob as the monster closes in. Furthermore, none of them seem written in simply to up the body count and increase the film’s amount of splatter. Much like The Babadook, It Follows isn’t overly concerned with blood and guts. There are a few gross-out moments, and Mitchell doesn’t shy away from graphic nudity, but this sick puppy ends up being a beast at sending your anxiety through the roof. The only flaw I can find is the film’s wobbly climax, which finds our gang attempting to lure the force to one of the freakiest rec centers I’ve ever seen. Here it seems that Mitchell shifts into cheese territory, and in the process, he leaves bits and pieces of the action unexplained. Still, he redeems himself with a final shot that will leave many peering over their shoulders on the way home.
With both The Babadook and It Follows, horror sees two films that look back to the classics of past decades. Both Kent and Mitchell pay their respects, as they should since they have drawn their inspirations from the films that continues to haunt our dreams. Yet both directors pull off the impossible—they create unique offerings that are suspended in time. They are both fresh, exciting, buzz-worthy, and, most-importantly, sincere visions that will have us checking under the bed and peering out the blinds just before settling in for a night’s sleep. What makes these two masterpieces even more special is the way they will continue to win over generations of horror fans to come. I feel confident enough to say that I think these films will climb the ranks and sit proudly next to such classics that gave birth to them. So, to Kent and Mitchell, I say bravo. I will cherish these works for years to come. Grade: A
by Steve Habrat
There was a time when I thought that James Wan was a hack. In 2004, he failed to move me with his industrial indie Saw, the film that was responsible for igniting the torture porn craze that gripped the horror genre for a solid five years. While I’ll acknowledge that Saw offered a few clever surprises and a seriously wicked piece of rusty headgear, the film felt like a wannabe Seven that lacked the gloomy urban goth of David Fincher’s grotesque classic. It didn’t help that it was followed up with a string of pale and uninspired sequels (Wan only directed the first film) that stretched the premise to the breaking point. Wan offered up two more exercises in mediocre brutality (Dead Silence, Death Sentence) before he really made something worthwhile. In 2011, he made me a believer in his talent with his fiendish funhouse horror movie Insidious, a near perfect thrill ride that was tripped up by an overkill climax and a ghoul that looked like Darth Maul from Star Wars. It appears that Insidious was just a warm-up. A little over two years later, Wan returns to the horror genre with The Conjuring and he means business. The Conjuring doesn’t find Wan reinventing the haunted house horror movie formula, but it does find him at the top of his game and delivering the knock-out punch that horror fans have been waiting years for. Yes, this film is genuinely scary, folks.
The Conjuring picks up in 1971, with Roger (played by Ron Livingston) and Carolyn Perron (played by Lili Taylor) moving their happy family to an old farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island. As the Perrons settle in to their rural palace, the family begins experiencing a number of strange occurrences. At first, their youngest daughter talks about a new imaginary friend, they hear eerie noises throughout the home, their dog is terrified to come near the house, birds fly into the windows, they find strange bruises on their bodies, and they wake up every morning to find their clocks frozen at 3:07 AM. As the activity increases and becomes more malevolent, the petrified Carolyn approaches local paranormal investigators Ed (played by Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (played by Vera Farmiga) Warren about coming to their home and investigating the activity. At first the Warren’s are a bit hesitant, especially after their last case, which took a severe toll on Lorraine, but upon arriving at the Perron house, they uncover the home’s grisly past and quickly come to the realization that this may be their most horrific case yet, especially when the supernatural forces begin fighting back.
Proudly sporting the “based on a true story” badge, The Conjuring finds Wan refusing to hide behind this fatigued gimmick. He could have peppered his film with the same old lazy jump scares and then argued in an interview that the film is scary because it supposedly really happened, but he resists at nearly every single turn. There are loud bangs and there certainly are plenty of sudden jolt scares, but for each easy “gotcha,” Wan balances it out with a nerve-frying moment of bloodcurdling intensity. He starts out small, with faint bumps, thumps, footsteps, and bangs that would make Robert Wise smile. He then graduates to poltergeist activity, with the Perron girls getting yanked out of their beds while they sleep, doors slamming on their own, people getting thrown across the room, and Carolyn getting violently shoved down the cellar stairs. When Wan shifts his attention to the full-on manifestations, The Conjuring takes a bit of a hit, mostly because the spirits seem a bit too familiar. They have the usual gray skin, blackened eyes, and dusty period clothing, all something that you might have spotted in Insidious. A few of them are eerie, especially the young boy that appears in the music box mirror, but for the most part, you wish that Wan would have left them in the shadows. Thankfully, they don’t take too much away from the film.
While the first half of The Conjuring acts as a chilly ode to haunted house classics like The Haunting and The Amityville Horror, the second half of the film becomes heavily indebted to demonic horror films of the 1970s like The Exorcist. While nothing comes close to the horror we saw in William Friedkin’s classic, The Conjuring certainly doesn’t go soft on us. The climax is usually where these types of horror films collapse on themselves, mostly because the filmmaker is under the impression that they have to outdo themselves and bring the story home with a deafening bang. Wan was certainly a victim of this on Insidious with his maroon nod to famed Italian horror director Dario Argento, but on The Conjuring, he fights the urge to go over the top. The climax here is fabulously tame, with only a few special effects that keep us from totally buying into that whole “based on a true story” thing. There is some bloody barf, nasty burns, and demonic howls that even Linda Blair’s Regan would chuckle at, but Wan never lets the film slip. He puts several innocent lives at stake and he even threatens the sanity of our heroes, who have already been pushed to the brink once before. I’ll be damned if you won’t be holding your breath.
While Wan’s expert direction certainly makes The Conjuring a winner, the film’s stars do a remarkable job seeming natural and authentic for the camera. Taylor is spot on as the sweet Carolyn, a loving housewife who oozes affection for her family. She shares many wonderful moments with Livingston’s Roger, a down-to-earth nice guy trucker who is powerless to protect his family. Taylor and Livingston work overtime to make us really like them and their hard work pays off when the spooks come knocking. While Taylor and Livingston hold their own, they take a back seat to Farmiga and Wilson, who elevate their real life paranormal investigators to horror movie heroes for the ages. Farmiga is on fire as Lorraine, a levelheaded clairvoyant who fights the urge to scream bloody murder when one of the manifestations gets right in her face. She is immensely likable, especially when her motherly affection comes forth. Wilson’s Ed doesn’t emit the warmth that Farmiga does, at least not at first. It takes some time to dig into him, as he is perpetually all business in his lectures and interviews, only softening when his young daughter comes calling. Rounding out the cast is Shannon Kook as the Warren’s techie assistant Drew, who gets a chance to play hero at the end of the film, and John Brotherton as Brad, a skeptical local cop here simply to add a bit of unnecessary comic relief.
While there certainly are a few little things that The Conjuring could have done without, the film is just way too strong where it counts. The scares are not always accompanied by loud music queues and there is a heavy reliance on atmosphere to keep us on the edge of our seats. The terror is consistently held and the moments that threaten to become cliché are thrown off to keep us uneasy about what Wan will do to us next. The Perron household is convincingly done up to seem old and aging, all yellowing walls, big heavy doors, and long hallways shrouded in shadows. The outside seems frozen in a perpetual autumn, complete with a blackened pond out back, dead leaves blanketing the ground, and a gnarled tree that was perfect for a satanic suicide. It is clear that Wan understands that the house itself is as much of a character as the flesh and blood ones we are invested in. The nods to past horror classics are all slyly placed and Wan even dares to work in a tip of the hat to Alfred Hitchcock’s apocalyptic masterpiece The Birds. He does effectively play with the “found footage” craze a bit, giving it a retro edge that feels oddly fresh. Overall, The Conjuring is carefully crafted in vein of 70s horror films (get a load of that gloriously retro opening credit sequence) and offers up enough moments that will sear themselves into your nightmares for the rest of your life. In a time when the horror genre finds itself unsure over how to scare the audience silly, Wan reminds it that simplicity is key.
by Raymond Esposito
Echoes in a Quiet Room
When Steve asked me to write an article for Anti-Film School, I was honored. When he said, the topic was “my” top five horror movies I thought, “Perfect. Two things that I love…horror and my opinion. I can write that in about ten minutes.” It took me almost five weeks…not to write the article but to choose the movies. For a horror fan and dark fiction author, asking me to pick my five favorites is like asking me to eat a single potato chip…I can do it, but it’s really difficult. There are, after all, so many great horror scenes spread out across so many movies. The challenge loomed even larger when I considered all those scenes that filled me with dread, but didn’t actually belong to a horror film. Take for example, Saving Private Ryan. It’s a war movie true, but there is one scene in that film that disturbs me more than most horror scenes I’ve watched. Near the end of the film an American soldier fights a Nazi. The Nazi gets the upper hand, pins the American’s arm and so begins the short struggle with a very large knife. The American soldier pleads while the Nazi slowly impales him all the while softly whispering. I always skip it. I’ve watched hundreds of other knife scenes that had no effect on me, but this one is different. Perhaps because there is nothing more frightening than watching another human plead for their life – not in screams of horror, but in the soft voice of reality.
So that was my dilemma. How does one decide the “best” or the “scariest”? Is it based on how many times one jumps in fear? Do you have to spend the entire film cowering in your seat? Does it matter if you were five or forty-five years old when you watched it? Can a movie from the seventies scare anyone these days? These were all difficult questions I needed to consider. I mean I can’t just “rank” things without a proper criteria – that’s anarchy. I spent a number of weeks contemplating these and many other questions. It was a quest not for my five scariest movies, but for the criteria to reduce a list of at least twenty five choices. (Steve said be creative, but I was certain he didn’t mean go ahead and make up my own rules.) Five. I needed just five.
Resonance. That was my final criteria. I decided it did not matter when the movie was made, how old I was when I saw it, or even if it was the overall scariest movie. It had to be a film that resonated long after I watched it. And resonate in a “bad way.” By that I mean I had to find myself in situations where I remembered the movie and maybe ran a little faster up the stairs, or closed the door a little quicker…and locked it, or actually decided not to do something because I remembered “that scene.” Now that level of fear may seem a little extreme for a forty six year old guy who writes horror stories. All I can say, in my own defense, is that an active imagination is both a gift and a curse. I feel sorry for people who are so pragmatic that a horror film could never scare them or those who can dismiss the darkness as just the world without light…people with imaginations understand that the darkness is so much more than just daytime’s counterpart. Those pragmatic souls may lead a braver life than me, but I don’t think they’re having as much fun. When it comes to horror, well I’m still ten years old.
Resonance. Like that scene from Saving Private Ryan. That helped. It brought my list down to eight films. Did I want to cheat? Hope that Steve would overlook my three “extra” films? Maybe he just threw out a number and didn’t really care about the actual count. I considered it. I realized however that not all eight films ranked the same in their resonance. I mean, The Strangers left me as enraged over the characters’ stupidity as I was filled with dread. That single line from the darkened doorstep, “Is Tamara here?” was creepy but it’s not like it made me pause each time the doorbell rang (well maybe for a couple of weeks.) The randomness of why the killers choose that couple, “Because you were home,” certainly confirmed my belief that the world can be dangerously random, but hey, that’s why I have a gun and a 135 pound dog. So The Strangers didn’t feel like top five material. So seven it was. And while I’ll admit I was a big fan of keeping the lights on after that opening scene of Darkness Falls, today it is hard to recall why I found it so frightening…it no longer resonates in emotion or in memory…so I was down to six.
I turned to the three films competing from my long spent youth. One was a keeper because it changed me so fundamentally that it had to be number one. The other two presented a real problem. The first film stayed with me for years and I can still recall that fear. Forty years later the “idea” still resonates. The other by and far was the scarier film and if I wanted to be popular, this would be the choice. The Exorcist should be on anyone’s list of scary films, but for me it would be number six because as crazy as it sounds, The Omega Man gave me more nightmares than the young Linda Blair and her friend Captain Howdy. It resonated longer and broader too. The hooded “white” people. Those crazy eyes. Jumping from windows onto Heston’s car and that primal requirement to “get inside before the sun set” were all the perfect fodder for my five year old imagination…and eight…and ten. Perhaps it was the combination of my age in 1971 (5), the fact that I saw it at a drive-in, and that my brother and I kept the scare alive by taking turns screaming… “Watch out for the white people,” while locking each other out of the house at sunset or in the dark basement. Today it can’t hold up to new films…but when I was five…oh boy!
So nine hundred and something words later I arrive at my top four. Number four is a little odd, for two reasons. The first is that once they cleaned up the film quality for DVD, the effects were sort of lost…I mean the gore looked fake.. The second, and bigger issue, is that following The Evil Dead were the Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness and both films turned the original into a sort of “horror-comedy trilogy.” This was not how I felt in my first viewing of The Evil Dead and I don’t believe Sam Raimi intended it as a comedy. Nonetheless, my seventeen-year-old self loved this movie and I still do, at least in memory. It stayed with me for a long time. Partly because of that “demon in the basement” scene…that is one of my primal fears…basements. But mostly because of the texture of the film and those cackling demons. Demons can talk, they can scream, hell I don’t care if they sing, but that damn giggling…that’s creepy and I want it to stop.
The film Paranormal Activity is more dividing than a presidential election. Audience opinion on Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 56%, which demonstrates that this film has only two camps…love it and hate it. The biggest criticism I hear from the haters is “it was stupid.” I’m not sure what that means, but perhaps they wanted more special effects. Maybe they needed to “see” the demon. Granted this low budget Indie only used a bag of flour and an old photo, but for me it comes in firmly in the number three position. It resonated. I jumped several times during the film and actually felt something I don’t often experience during horror films…fear. Sometimes it’s what we don’t see that frightens best. Years later I still worry that I may awake to find my wife standing over me in the darkness (I’m not worried that she’ll be dragged down the hall because I see that as my escape opportunity.) I thought about setting up a camera to assuage my fear but then thought, “wait I saw that movie…everybody dies.” We have an attic hatch in our laundry room. It’s a low ceiling attic, more like a crawl space and I’ve never been up there. I have no desire to come face to face with a spider in a place that I can’t run. (I have no facts to support that spiders live in our attic, but it’s prudent to err on the side of caution.) Sometimes at night when I pass that dark laundry room, I think about that hatch. I wonder if there is a photo of someone I know sitting amongst the installation. I often pick up my pace as I pass and try to keep my eyes forward, but at times…it’s just so difficult not to steal a glance.
Six months after I saw my number two film I was in a hotel traveling on business. Every now and again I get it in my head to take the stairs just to burn a few extra calories (I pretend twenty steps will offset that coffee cake muffin I ate). On this particular night, I took the two flights up to my room. It was a well-lit and well maintained stairway at the Hilton. Absolutely nothing to conjure thoughts of creepiness. Halfway up I remembered The Grudge and thought, “this is exactly why people die in horror films you idiot…now run!” I don’t often take my own advice, as my pragmatic self can be a real f-in kill-joy, but that night I did. Later… after I locked the door, turned on all the lights, checked under the bed and in the closet, and pulled back the bathtub curtain (don’t invite trouble leaving that closed) … I felt foolish for running up those stairs. The Grudge had so many great moments. Probably the “under the covers” scene was the worst, followed closely by “meow boy” and “whatever the hell that mouth noise was.” I still like to think about it from time to time. It doesn’t scare me as much today, but I can still remember how much it did frighten me. It still resonates at least in memory.
When a film touches a “primal” fear, when that film changes how you experience an activity, when it can transfer to any body of water…that is the ultimate definition of “resonates.” Before the summer of 1975 I was a water rat. We lived in Connecticut about thirty minutes from the beach and I loved the ocean. At the age of nine, I was certainly aware of sharks, but seldom thought about them beyond science class. After Jaws my love of the ocean was forever tainted. Besides being frightened of the sea, my nine year old self began to question the safety of ponds and lakes…and swimming pools. Several times I had a dream that my bed had been washed out to sea and the waves kept threatening to toss me into that dark green water where Jaws waited. I guess being in the ocean is like that attic crawl space…not much chance of escape. I live in Fort Myers Florida now and still go to the beach and I still swim in the warm gulf. Never though without consideration that perhaps at that very moment, a black-eyed death is charging silently towards me. And all these years later I still take a quick look at the deep end of my pool before I get in, I pretend I’m checking for snakes (they get in sometimes) and in part I am, but in truth I’m also looking for that fin. Jaws may not be a horror story in the classic sense, but its attack on primal fears, the way it forever changed my thoughts on the ocean, and for being an iconic symbol, it earns its place as number one on my list.
So those are my top five horror films…with some creative cheating to add the others…and it is what I love about the genre. It’s a personal experience – some things scare universally but most just individually. I don’t believe special effects cause fear. I’m not even certain it is the monsters on the screen. I believe the truly haunting moments, the terrifying things are just a reflection of the stuff we brought with us to that movie. The dark little thoughts our imaginations create and our rational minds work to hold at bay. And when every so often, if we’re lucky, a story stirs those fears, we hear the sounds like echoes in a quiet room, and they whisper to us… Yes, I understand.”
A little about Raymond:
American novelist, Raymond Esposito lives multiple lives. He is a husband, father of five, the executive vice president of an international professional services firm, proprietor of the website Nightmirrors.com, and when time allows, the voice of Graveyard Radio. His debut novel, “You and Me, Against the World,” is book one of his Creepers Trilogy and provides his own spin on the zombie apocalypse.
To purchase “You and Me, Against the World,” click 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)
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!!
by Steve Habrat
Before the unnecessary 1998 remake of Psycho, a film that certainly was not begging to be remade, the 90’s saw the altar of George Romero desecrated by make-up artist turned director Tom Savini’s utterly pointless carbon copy of Night of the Living Dead. To this day, every time I sit through it, I can’t help but ask “why?” To be fair, I suppose we are still asking that very question today, as we’ve seen every classic remade or re-envisioned. Astonishingly, Romero is listed as an executive producer here, further making this finely tuned machine even more enigmatic especially today due to his outward disapproval of the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. Tom Savini’s Night of the Living Dead slips up from its perfect execution, maddening tweaks to the story, and, well, the use of color. The film is vacant of any real terror and it seems touched by Hollywood, especially the electric guitar and synthesizer score that distractingly bellows over the arguing between the iconic characters. What made the 1968 Romero classic such a landmark was it’s rough around the edges presentation, never shying away from what it really was: an unapologetic horror film with attitude. Savini misunderstands that the film itself posses the anger and the characters were there simply to guide it along its path. Here, Savini makes every character angry, while the studio grabs the film by the hand and leads it along, leaving it’s furious independent sensibilities behind to be eaten by the make-up heavy undead.
Night of the Living Dead ’90 has no place in the era that it was made. It wasn’t a time that was gripped by panic, fear, violence, and uncertainty. Stripped off all its political and social relevance, there is no reason for the dead to walk other than for Hollywood to showcase their latest special effects. The storyline for Savini’s contribution is basically the same, a dysfunctional brother and sister, Johnnie (Played by Bill Moseley) and Barbara (Played by Patricia Tallman), take a road trip to visit their deceased mother’s grave. Upon arrival, several ghouls instantly attack them and the irritating Johnnie imitation bites the dust. Barbara frantically makes her escape to an remote farmhouse where she bumps into zombie killing juggernaut Ben (Played by Tony Todd), testy Harry Cooper (Played by Tom Towles), Harry’s cooperative wife Helen Cooper (Played by Mckee Anderson), and the young Tom (Played by William Butler), and his frizzy haired girlfriend Judy (Played by Katie Finneran). The bickering group attempts to board up and defend the farmhouse from the restless corpses who lurk outside. The group soon falls victim to their own unwillingness to work together, forcing them to make a desperate final effort to survive until morning.
About the only contribution this film makes to the annals of the horror genre is a profession approach to the source material versus what Romero, then a novice filmmaker, produced in 1968. Everything here is a notch more ornate, which makes the events seem preposterous and inane. Some of the zombies border on demonically possessed human beings much like what was found in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. They wear cloudy eye contacts and have yellowed skin. Some have their stomachs sewn up while other animated corpses loose their garments due to the slits cut into the back of the clothing so they could be easily dressed. It looses the “they are us” echoes that resonated through the original. The film attempts to drive the “they are us” idea home, giving the line to Barbara who slips it in at climax. Romero’s zombies were never this intricate, making the ghouls assaults all the more unfathomable. What has happened to these individuals? These are our families, friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc. Here, they seem like filler background characters. They are the furthest things from “us”. The ghouls resemble Halloween decorations you toss out into your front yard.
If the fact that you are sitting through the remake of Night of the Living Dead is maddening enough, the acting will send you through the roof. No one in this film brushes a subpar performance, with characters that find themselves frenzied who shouldn’t be and characters making drastic turns in their personality. Barbara, who in the original film was sent to a state of shock and never fully returns, snaps out of her catatonic state and becomes a pistol packing sex symbol. It’s awkward. Ben is all melodramatics, shrieking to the heavens when he dispatches a contorted zombie heap. Why would he be kneeling out in the front yard shouting at the sky? You’re going to attract more zombies, you dumb ass. Ben also appears to be looking for a fight in this version. I preferred him as the calm and collected individual who pushed back only when he was pushed far enough. Helen Cooper remains largely the same given she is only a minor character and Harry is still his difficult self. He insists everyone stay in the cellar and refuses to help board up the windows. Judy and Tom, the confused youths caught in the middle of the warring pairs, act like dimwitted hillbillies. Judy is always blubbering yet somehow she pulls it together to drive the getaway truck to the gas pump on the property. Don’t get me started on the alteration made to how the truck is engulfed in flames. In 1968, it’s an accident. In 1990, it’s just plain stupidity.
Night of the Living Dead 90 is amusing for all of the references to the 1968 original. The alterations still make reference to the original film, the most obvious is the scene where Harry and Helen’s daughter Sarah (Played here by Heather Mazur but made famous by Kara Schon) rips her mothers throat out with her teeth opposed to dispatching her dear old mum with a cement trowel. As she eats at her mother’s neck, blood splatters across the cellar wall where a cement trowel hangs. It doesn’t help that Sarah resembles as large colonial doll done up like a vampire. It’s not nearly as traumatic as the original death scene. The film also relies on more gore to keep the horror fans glued to the action. There are more infected wounds on the zombies, more gunshots to the head that end with a shower of brains leaking down their foreheads, and charred bodies are munched on. The original only showed brief glimpses of the savagery, mostly leaving the truly vile stuff to the imagination. Savini, who was a photographer in Vitenam and did gore effects for Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead opts the sadism to be up close and personal.
This film is largely forgotten for a reason. I’d bet money on the fact that many do not know a remake of the Romero classic exists. This film lacks any attention-grabbing camera work, every shot remaining immobile. Romero may have been a new kid on the block in the filmmaking neighborhood, but he filled his work with artistic camerawork and some fairly bizarre Dutch tilts at inimitable times. Romero knew how to creep us out and make his film an atypical nightmare. There is none of that here and it’s as if Savini was reading from a “How To” book on filmmaking. It’s a simple wide shot, medium shot, close-up, repeat. He never takes a risk and the only brush with risk is the nod to Dawn of the Dead at the end, in which Barbara joins a merry gang of hillbillies hunting the ghouls and making a party out of it. The film is also sluggishly edited together, another departure from Romero’s classic. He applied frantic, pithy editing that bordered on visual nails on a chalkboard. It honestly made me squirm the first time I saw the original. It added another layer of intensity. This film wouldn’t know intensity if it bit it on the ass. Night of the Living Dead ‘90 is flat, artless, and minimal, banished to the murky depths of horror for good reason. Hopefully, it never rises up like on of its undead protagonists to see the light of day or the black of night again. Grade: D-