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Reader’s Choice Halloween Review: Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Halloween III-Season of the Witch #1

by Steve Habrat

After striking box office gold with 1978’s slasher classic Halloween and finding more success with 1981’s follow-up, Halloween II, John Carpenter and Debra Hill thought there was potential to turn the Halloween series into an anthology. Acting as producers, Carpenter and Hill recruited Tommy Lee Wallace and Nigel Kneale to come up with a screenplay that didn’t contain Michael Myers or Laurie Strode. Leaning more towards science fiction than straight up horror, the result was 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch, an imaginative but ultimately middling exercise in terror. Directed by Wallace, Halloween III: Season of the Witch’s biggest mistake was cutting the popular Michael Myers character out of the action and replacing it with a mad toymaker who uses Halloween masks to sacrifice children. Since it’s disappointing release, Halloween III: Season of the Witch has earned a cult following despite being considered the worst entry in the Halloween series by Halloween fans. Truth is, Halloween III has its heart in the right place, and the desire to break away from the stab-and-slash formula that the filmmakers applied the first time around is commendable, but the film seems slapped together and it’s poorly acted. To make matter worse, the film never even comes scaring the viewer the way the original Halloween did. Only once or twice does it actually get a little spooky, but the rest of the time it’s falling into unintentional comedy territory.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch begins with Harry Grimbridge (played by Al Berry) getting chased down by mysterious men is suits. He finds help from a kindly gas station attendant, who immediately takes him to the nearby hospital. As the doctors try to evaluate Harry’s condition, they discover that he is clutching a Halloween mask and that he keeps babbling about unnamed individuals who plan on killing everyone. The doctors leave Harry in a room to rest, but he is soon discovered by one of the suited men and brutally murdered. Just as the man is trying to escape, Dr. Dan Challis (played by Tom Atkins) encounters the individual and chases him down. Before Dan can stop him, the man gets into a car and kills himself through self-immolation. A few days later, Dan meets Harry’s daughter, Ellie (played by Stacey Nelkin), who tells Dan of her father’s store, which sold popular masks made by Silver Shamrock. Sensing that something isn’t right with the Silver Shamrock company, Dan and Ellie head to the Silver Shamrock factory in Santa Mira. Upon their arrival, they notice that town seems almost abandoned and those who remain seem strangely cheerful. Making things even more suspicious, the entire town is filled with surveillance cameras. It doesn’t take Dan and Ellie long to learn of Conal Cochran (played by Dan O’Herlihy), the suspicious head of the Silver Shamrock Corporation. After touring the Silver Shamrock factory, Dan and Ellie grow convinced that something strange is going on with the Halloween masks, and that the company may be plotting something sinister on Halloween night.

Attempting to draw its scares from the witchy side of the Gaelic holiday Samhain, Halloween III takes its terror to epic levels that weren’t even dreamed about in Halloween and Halloween II. What made the first two Halloween films such a hit was the idea that the horror could be taking place just up the road or a street over. It was striking in suburbia—the heart of America where kids scamper happily to school and Dad goes to work from 9 to 5. To make it even spookier, it appeared to be the boogeyman and he was reluctant to stay dead. Halloween III captures none of this and instead opts for blunt force violence, synthesized jump scares, and clashing science fiction to give us a few sleepless nights. There are suited androids that leap out from the shadows and there are more than a few gruesome deaths, but the problem is that it seems to be completely misunderstanding what made the original film scary. The original film didn’t need to rely on jump scares or graphic gore—it was scary because it seemed completely plausible. Computer-chipped Halloween masks, irritating jingles, and Stonehenge just don’t make the spine tingle like a white-masked maniac appearing out of nowhere and stabbing a screaming teen to death.

Halloween III-Season of the Witch #2

With Wallace flubbing a good majority of the scares, it’s up to stars Tom Atkins and Dan O’Herlihy to do the heavy lifting in Halloween III. Genre star Atkins is his usual heroic self as Dan, a doctor with a broken marriage, a drinking problem, and thing for flirting with nearly every single woman he meets. Naturally, Atkins is likable and we do root for him to stop Cochran from carrying out his evil plot, but he never gives a performance that matches his work in 1980’s The Fog. O’Herlihy is easily the best here as Cochran, the demented toymaker who is all smiles and warm promises when he meets with his fans, but is sinister and scowling when he is challenged by anyone attempting to stand in his way. As far as the rest of the cast goes, Nelkin gives a flat and unexciting performance as Ellie, Grimbridge’s daughter who strikes up a steamy relationship with Dan as they investigate Silver Shamrock. Ralph Strait stops by as Buddy Kupfer, a cheesy, roly-poly salesman who has been pushing large amounts of Cochran’s Halloween masks. His character would honestly disappear from your memory if it weren’t for the scene in which his family is treated to a sneak peek of what Cochran is planning on doing Halloween night.

While there is quite a bit to frustrate the viewer in Halloween III: Season of the Witch, there are a few parts that horror fans just won’t be able to resist. Much like the original Halloween, Halloween III features a synthesizer score from Carpenter that will surely send a few shivers. Then there is the gore, which is sure to satisfy the gore hounds that have come to see arteries spurt in creative ways. One character has their head ripped off their body, another has their skull crushed, and there are also the scenes in which we get to see just what Cochran masks can do to those who wear them. While the explanations are a bit hazy, the masks appear to melt the heads of those who are wearing them. As if a mushy melon wasn’t enough, we then get to see slimy snakes and bugs crawling out of the melted mess. These little demonstrations are probably the most horrific aspect of Halloween III! Overall, while you can’t blame Carpenter and Hill for wanting to take their series in a new direction, Halloween III: Season of the Witch is still an uneven departure from the original formula. The script features numerous plot holes, it’s not very scary, and a majority of the performances will roll off your memory. However, Wallace is game to spring some nasty visuals and the chilling final note of the film is sure to get to you. Oh, and good luck getting that Silver Shamrock theme out of your head. In the end, Halloween III: Season of the Witch is like digging through your pillowcase after a long night of trick or treating. It’s a mixed bag.

Grade: C

Halloween III: Season of the Witch is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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Ghoulish Guests: Eva Halloween’s Five Favorite Movie Monsters

As any lover of horror will tell you, picking a short list of favorite monsters is no easy feat. The most classic movie monsters are those with an element of tragedy; the ones who evoke empathy as well as horror.  While I love the classics and admire the craft required to create a sympathetic monster, I don’t know that I can call them my favorites. To be my favorite, a monster must be truly frightening, something that makes you want to hide under the bed, if only you could be sure that there wasn’t something much, much worse lurking, just out of sight, down there. To help narrow the field to these most terrifically terrifying fiends, I’ve drawn from five fears of children and childhood to give you my favorite monsters of horror.

1. Creepy Kids

By subverting the notion of children as harmless innocents, creepy kids make for extraordinary effective monsters. Whether made evil by external intervention, as in The Exorcist or Pet Cemetery, or simply born bad like little Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed, these children of horror are more perceptive than you, more devious, and without a single moral objection to your violent demise. Playing upon mankind’s perceived biological imperative to protect children, these monsters ruthlessly twist any act of mercy and care into a lethal mistake. The best of these (and my first favorite) is Samara from 2002’s The Ring. Rachel, our protagonist, sees poor Samara as a tragic figure, murdered by her own mother simply for being too different. Except no. She’s actually a sea monster rape-baby who gleefully wants to burn awful images into your mind until you die. She doesn’t “just want to be heard,” Rachel. She just wants to kill you.

Aidan: What happened to the girl?

Rachel: Samara?

Aidan: Is she still in the dark place?

Rachel: No. We set her free.

Aidan: You helped her?

Rachel: Yeah.

Aidan: Why did you do that?

Rachel: What’s wrong, honey?

Aidan: You weren’t supposed to help her. Don’t you understand, Rachel? She never sleeps.

2. Scary Dolls

Psychologists recognize automatonophobia as the fear of anything falsely representing a sentient being, including robots, dolls, and ventriloquist dummies. Perhaps, like creepy kids and evil clowns, dolls make for terrifying monsters by representing the juxtaposition of the joyous things of childhood with the looming inevitability of death and decay. Scary dolls are like creepy kids, but littler, creepier, and therefore more likely to be tucked into hidden spaces, watching you.  Watching and waiting…

Although horror offers plenty of scary dolls to chose from, including the disturbing Dolly from Dolly Dearest and sinister Hugo from Dead of Night, the eponymous dolls from 1987’s Dolls win in a multi-way tie for my favorite scary doll monster on sheer horrifying volume alone. Killed and imprisoned in toys to pay for their crimes, these dolls might be sympathetic if they weren’t so completely full of malevolent, unrepentant mischief, fully committed to killing you, even if it takes their tiny doll hands all night to do it.

3. The Monster in the Closet

That thing that’s lurking under the bed. Or possibly in the closet, or in the dark at the bottom of the basement stairs, where the light doesn’t quite reach. These monsters, easily dismissible in the light of day, gain a terrifying immediacy and presence in the dark, when you feel the sudden, irrational imperative to gauge the leap between the light switch and the relative safety of your bed.

“Daily Doodle by David Michael Chandler”

Well represented by Lovecraft’s Night-Gaunts and The Whisperer in the Darkness, my favorite Monster in the Closet can be found in Stephen King’s short story The Boogeyman, which asked, “Did you look in the closet?” and left me unable to sleep alone for an entire summer. Since the latest short film version of the story hasn’t been released yet (and we don’t acknowledge the 1982 full length atrocity of an adaptation), I’ll use Drew Daywalt’s 2010 short There’s No Such Thing  to illustrate my choice. Sleep tight, kittens.

4. Evil Clowns

Clowns were once considered gentle buffoons, the perfect choice to entertain crowds of children. Now we know better. As a society, we have recast clowns as monsters, lurid freaks and crazed killers, their painted-on smiles intense grins of maniacal joy. In The History and Psychology of Scary Clowns, Smithsonian Magazine notes that no less an authority than Andrew McConnell, English professor and coulrophobia historian, credits Charles Dickens with introducing the idea of the clown as a secret, sinister monster, “an off-duty clown…whose inebriation and ghastly, wasted body contrasted with his white face paint and clown costume.”

Whatever the reasons clowns make for fabulously frightening movie monsters, there are no shortage of candidates for a favorite. However, when it comes to childhood fears, the 1982 classic Poltergeist hits the nightmare trifecta of monster in the closet, something under the bed, and a scary clown that really, really, wanted to see you dead.

5. The Monster that Doesn’t Need an Explanation

As children, we fear many things that do not have a name. Some, horrifying abominations that defy definition, become no less repugnant as we age. These monsters push at the boundaries between dimensions, shrugging off all normal rules of physiology and rationality. The very alienness, the wrongness, of these creatures is exactly what makes them so completely terrifying. My favorite monster in this category needs little introduction and bears no explanation – the thing from John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing. Sure, it was based on a novella and there was an attempt at an extraterrestrial back story, but there’s really no amount of explaining that can rationalize a whip-mouthed spider dog monster that wants to be inside you. Monstrous, abhorrent, and viciously single-minded, this monster simply is. Best start running now.

To check out more from Eva Halloween, click here to visit her spooky website, The Year of Halloween.

TRAILER THURSDAY! Halloween Edition

“Between midnight and 1 A.M., it will find you…” Check out the trailer for John Carpenter’s seriously creepy 1980 campfire tale The Fog. It’s frightfully perfect for a dreary October day.

The Fog Poster

Reader’s Choice Halloween Review: Halloween (1978)

by Steve Habrat

If you are looking for seriously scary horror movie, look no further than John Carpenter’s independent 1978 slasher classic Halloween. If you want to be reduced to a quivering ball of flesh, this is the film that will do it. Trust me. Considered an “immortal classic” by critics and horror fans and celebrated as the most successful independent feature of all time, Halloween is the film that practically wrote the slasher rulebook and showed us all how teen terror was done. Spawning countless imitators, a slew of lackluster sequels, and two good but not great remakes, Carpenter delivers a film surging with a threatening atmosphere and a movie monster so iconic and terrifying, a small glimpse of Michael Myers makes most people slightly uncomfortable. While most of the terror is milked from the borderline supernatural antagonist, there is plenty of unease in that iconic theme, the one with the frantic and paranoid synths that announce the arrival of the boogeyman. And then there is Jamie Lee Curtis as the virgin heroine, the one who is always just narrowly making it away from the relentless evil prowling the shadows of suburbia. And how can I forget that terrifying last shot, the one that is followed by a series of shots of suburban homes sitting in silence as Carpenter visually suggests that this terror can happen in any home, on any street, and in any living room. I think you get the idea.

Halloween begins on October 31st, 1963, in Haddonfield, Illinois, with a young Michael Myers (Played by Will Sandin) returning from a night of trick r’ treating, grabbing a butcher knife, and the brutally murdering his older sister, Judith (Played by Sandy Johnson). Immediately after the murder, Michael’s parents arrive home and discover what he has done. The film then speeds a head to October 30th, 1978, with Dr. Samuel Loomis (Played by Donald Pleasance) making his way to Smith’s Grove Sanitarium with nurse Marion Chambers (Played by Nancy Stephens) to pick up Michael Myers and take him to a court hearing. Upon their arrival, they discover the patients of Smith’s Grove have broken out of their rooms and are wandering the grounds. In the confusion, Michael steals a car and speeds off towards Haddonfield. With Dr. Loomis is hot pursuit, Michael steals a pair of coveralls and a Halloween mask, arms himself with a butcher knife, and returns to his childhood home. Meanwhile, nerdy high school student Laurie Strode (Played by Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends, Annie Brackett (Played by Nancy Kyes) and Lynda Van Der Klok (Played by P.J. Soles), gear up for a night of Halloween shenanigans with their boyfriends. As Michael prowls Haddonfield, he encounters Laurie and her friends and he proceeds to stalk them into the evening. As night falls, Dr. Loomis and Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Played by Charles Cyphers) race to track down Michael before he can claim several new victims.

In my humble opinion, Halloween unleashes the most terrifying psychopath killer ever to grace the screen next to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Leatherface. Michael silently peeks out from bushes and appears outside of Laurie’s window only to disappear in the blink of an eye. He remains in the shadows, waiting for the proper moment to lash out at his teenage prey, which he enjoys toying with before they meet the end of his knife. After one death, Michael carries the body of the victim from the backyard around the side of the house and up the front porch steps. It’s an unsettling image made all the creepier through the otherworldly background noises lifted from the 1951 science fiction classic The Thing. Through the spacey sound effects, Carpenter hints that Michael may not be human at all but a supernatural force sent to disrupt the peaceful and sleepy order of suburbia. None of our characters are safe as the settle in with popcorn and beer to enjoy scary movies and hook up with their doomed boyfriends. If the otherworldly screeches and whistles aren’t enough, wait for the scene where Lynda’s boyfriend Bob leaves to grab a beer, only to bump into Michael lurking in the shadows. After horrifically killing him and then examining the body (wait until you see that head tilt), Michael fittingly disguises himself as a ghost wearing Bob’s glasses, enters the bedroom where Lynda is waiting, and then strangles her to death. A ghost going in for the kill, only to disappear into the dark like he was never there at all. That, my friends, is why Michael is scary as hell.

When Michael isn’t busy stealing the show, Curtis and Pleasance do a fantastic job with their little corners of Halloween. Curtis is the ultimate scream queen as the uptight Laurie, the poor, incorruptible soul who is the unfortunate target of pure evil. She is immensely likable and vaguely sympathetic, constantly making us wish she would just let loose a little bit with her friends (she sort of does in a scene where she shares a joint with Annie). When it comes time for her to flee from Michael, she smartly fights back when she can, even nabbing Michael’s knife at one point and jabbing it into his ribcage. And then we have Pleasance as the grim Dr. Loomis, who is constantly reminding us that Michael isn’t a man at all but evil on two legs. I dare you not to get chills when Loomis and Sheriff Brackett stumble upon a mutilated dog and Loomis murmurs, “he got hungry.” I seriously think that Pleasance gives the best performance in the film. You also can’t help but love Soles and Kyes as Laurie’s free spirited friends. Kyes is especially entertaining as the mouthy Annie, who is constantly pushing Laurie to ask out her crush.

With a creepy monster in place and superb acting from everyone involved, its up to Carpenter to deliver on the iconic scares and he sure is up to the task. The opening sequence of Halloween, in which Carpenter’s camera acts as the POV of young Michael as he makes his way up to his sister’s room, will have your arms covered in goose bumps. This scene appears to be one continuous shot but Carpenter actually expertly masks a number of cuts within the scene. It is a sequence that I’m sure Hitchcock would approve of. And how about that end chase? The one that has Laurie locked in a closet with Michael hacking his way in as Laurie frantically looks for something to arm herself with. Hell, Carpenter creeps us out in broad daylight as Laurie shuffles home from school, only to be silently pursued by the Shape. Halloween does have a number of minor flaws that really show as the years pass. Some of the dialogue is dated and if you look closely in one particular scene, you can even spot a few palm trees. And then there is that fact that Michael has been locked up since he was a young boy but yet he knows how to drive a car. And I still think that Tommy Doyle (Played by Brian Andrews) is sort of an annoying character as he constantly babbles on whines about the boogeyman. Don’t worry, you’ll be too freaked out to even notice these goofs. Overall, Carpenter’s Halloween is a massively influential horror film that refuses to be topped. It ranks as one of the scariest films I have ever seen and it is a triumph of independent cinema. If you are one of four people out there who have never seen Halloween, do yourself a favor and add it to your movie collection. Good luck getting Michael Myers out of your head.

Grade: A+

Halloween is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

And the winner is…

Hello boys and ghouls,

Hope you’re enjoying the Spooktacular and all the creepy posts you’ve seen so far. I encouraged you all to choose the horror film you want reviewed and that is exactly what you did. The film you chose is John Carpenter’s immortal classic Halloween. So, be prepared to have Michael Myers knocking on your door on October 31st. Enough small talk, lets have another quick word on Halloween safety and then its back to the horror reviews!

Attack of the Remakes! Halloween (2007)

by Steve Habrat

I think everyone remembers where they were when they learned that there was going to be a remake of John Carpenter’s 1978 flawless horror classic Halloween. I remember I was at my best friends house playing around on his laptop when we happened upon the news. We were in shock, unable to process the fact that there was going to be a remake of one of the scariest films of all time. While half not surprised that Hollywood was going to tinker with a great thing, it still made me sick to my stomach because I figured they would hand the film over to some John Doe director who would screw it up royally. My anger turned to intrigue when I learned that the film was being written, produced, and directed by shock rocker turned filmmaker Rob Zombie. Rob Zombie! While I was a fan of the 2005 splatter flick The Devil’s Rejects, I was so-so with his day-glow Texas Chain Saw Massacre wannabe House of 1000 Corpses. Well, opening weekend came and me and my chums piled into a car and headed to the local theater to check out Zombie’s remake and I must say, we were all fairly impressed with what we saw. Just as nasty, mean, and brutal as I figured it would be, Zombie’s Halloween was actually a surprisingly eerie slasher film that was equally parts new and familiar at the same time, striking just the right balance. It also helps that Zombie populated his dingy remake with a slew of familiar B-horror faces that would make most gore hounds grin from ear to ear. But the most astonishing thing of all remains the fact that the film isn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. Whew!

Halloween 2007 introduces us to young Michael Myers (Played by Daeg Faerch), a ruthlessly bullied boy who already suffers from deranged tendencies. Michael shacks up with his stripper mother Deborah (Played by Sheri Moon Zombie), her deadbeat boyfriend Ronnie (Played by William Forsythe), his older sister Judith (Played by Hanna R. Hall), and his baby sister, only finding affection from his loving mother. On Halloween night, Michael finally snaps from his relentless torment and brutally murders a school bully, Ronnie, Judith, and Judith’s boyfriend Steve. With no recollection of the murders, Michael is taken into custody and sent to Smith’s Grove Sanitarium where is put under the care of kindly Dr. Samuel Loomis (Played by Malcolm McDowell). As the years pass, Michael becomes more and more fixated on papier-mâché masks that he makes in his cell. Dr. Loomis begins to suspect that Michael uses the masks to hide from both himself and the world. Fifteen years pass and Michael (Played by Tyler Mane), now a hulking adult, has stopped speaking to everyone. On the night before Halloween, Michael escapes from his cell and begins making his way back to Haddonfield to find his baby sister, now named Laurie Strode (Played by Scout-Taylor Compton). As Dr. Loomis rushes to contact the authorities, the body count rises as Michael ruthlessly searches for the only person he loves.

The argument has been made that Zombie misunderstood what made the original Halloween such a terrifying experience. It was the fact that we didn’t know anything about Michael or why he is killing anyone who crosses his path. Over the years, he has become known as the “Shape,” the Boogieman walking among us in complete silence. With Halloween 2007, Zombie is forced to dive into Michael’s background and in the process; he explains literally every single aspect of the character. We learn why he wears that legendary mask, what made him snap, that he demonstrated psychotic behavior before he went on his killing spree, and that he is pretty close with that old Dr. Loomis. All of this is complimented with heaping amounts of gore and profane dialogue that does get a bit ludicrous at times. Trust me, I’m no prude but at points you can’t help but picture Zombie hunched over a computer straining to think of the most repulsive dialogue he can. He certainly succeeds. Even though Zombie explains everything, I argue that he had no choice but to explain away the character. What else was he going to do? Hardcore Halloween fans would have grumbled if he would have done a shot for shot remake and thankfully, he didn’t resort to that. I give Zombie credit for daring to try something new with the character and taking a peak behind that legendary mask rather than doing what has already been done. I can certainly say that he does make Halloween his own to an extent because he leaves the ending relatively the same.

The acting of Halloween 2007 ends up being a mixed trick or treat bag of sugary sweets and bitter sours. Sheri Moon Zombie is better at the big-hearted mommy than I ever thought she’d be. She is sort of hit or miss with me but here she proves that she possesses some dramatic depth even if she is forced to spit out cliché lines of dialogue. I really enjoyed her bickering and fighting with Forsythe’s abusive boyfriend Ronnie. He was a real piece of work but he doesn’t stick around long. Faerch is so-so as little Michael, a little too forced but he is creepy when he finally slips into madness. Tyler Mane plays Michael Myers exactly how you would expect him to. He cocks his head from side to side but he stabs, hacks, and slashes just a little more violently than he did in the 1978 original. McDowell was a welcome presence as Dr. Loomis, an interesting choice to play Michael’s psychiatrist. McDowell gives it his all and he comes out with the best performance in the film. Then there is Scout Taylor-Compton as the slightly annoying Laurie Strode, a buttoned up teen with a dark edge according the skulls on her black hoodie. There isn’t really anything that particularly stands out about her and that is precisely her problem. She does prove to audiences that she is a hell of a screamer and her cries of terror could wake the dead. Kristina Klebe and Danielle Harris are on board as Lynda and Annie, Laurie’s friends who lack the fizzy magnetism that they had in the original film but they provide a little eye candy. Brad Dourif is second to McDowell as the skeptical Sheriff Lee Brackett and boy, does he come close to stealing the film from the good doctor. For fans of B-horror, keep a look for cameos from Ken Foree, Udo Kier, Danny Trejo, Clint Howard, Sid Haig, and Sybil Danning, to name a few.

Zombie also makes the wise choice of including the iconic Halloween score, sped up and layered with a few more electronics by Tyler Bates. He adds a few new little synthesizer warbles here and there while paying tribute to the little electronic jolts that Carpenter threw into his film. Zombie applies (unsurprisingly) a grainy and aged look to the film with costumes and sets that are reminiscent of the late 70’s and early 80’s with a gloss of modern caked on. Where the original Halloween sees little to no gore at all throughout its runtime, Zombie brings buckets full of blood and guts to his hillbillies-from-Hell party. I will warn you that the film is exceptionally brutal and grotesque so be prepared and plan accordingly. While I do feel Zombie’s exhausting explanations do take away from some of the horror, I still have to give him credit for staying true to the original film’s story while also daring to add on a fairly engaging prequel. Is the film perfect? Oh no, it certainly isn’t. If someone asked me if I wanted to watch Zombie’s film or Carpenter’s, I’d go with Carpenter’s classic in a heartbeat. Overall, Halloween 2007 could have been much worse but it actually turns out to be a pretty entertaining slasher film with a filthy, razor-sharp edge. I’ll take this ugly beast any day over most other tired and hollow remakes.

Grade: B

Halloween 2007 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

by Steve Habrat

Ever since I first laid eyes on the trailer for Panos Cosmatos’ science fiction head-trip Beyond the Black Rainbow, I was just dying to see it. Well, my friends, that day finally arrived and I have to tell you, if you consider yourself a fan of cult cinema and midnight movies, this is a film you have to see. It will be a dream come true. Heavily indebted to early David Cronenberg films, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch’s surreal horror, and blippy John Carpenter scores, Beyond of the Black Rainbow is a film that takes control of your senses and refuses to let them go. While you can’t even begin to pretend to know what the film is about, Beyond the Black Rainbow is something else to look at, a film that fills you with terror one minute and then guides you into ethereal tranquility the next, all in the matter of five minutes. Composed of haunted performances that look like holograms from Mars, a nerve frying analogue synth score, and quasi-futuristic visuals drenched in a neon glow, Cosmatos spews out a maddening and frightening nightmare that Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey may have if he dared to dream at all. I just warn those who are willing to approach the film, do so with an open mind and remember that none of this will truly add up in the end.

Set in an alternate 1983, there exists the Arboria Institute, a psychiatric complex that promises to fill its clients with pure happiness. This futuristic complex is run by Dr. Mercurio Arboria (Played by Scott Hylands), a guru-esque figure that appears in a promotional video at the start of the film. It is here at the Arboria Institute that the orphaned Elena (Played by Eva Allan) has been imprisoned and heavily sedated by the perverted Dr. Barry Niles (Played by Michael Rogers), who seems to get sick enjoyment out of tormenting the young girl. As Barry begins to loose his grip on his sanity, Elena, who seems to posses certain mental powers, decides to try to escape the confines of her neon prison. As she wanders the seemingly deserted hallways of Arboria, she stumbles across a bizarre, bloodthirsty mutant and wandering alien-like Sentionauts. Soon, the deranged Barry learns of Elena’s escape and he sets out after his prized patient, willing to do anything to get her back.

While many may be turned off by the agonizingly slow pace of Beyond the Black Rainbow, those who have found enjoyment in Canadian body horror auteur David Cronenberg’s early work (Rabid, The Brood, Videodrome, and even Scanners) will be hooked right from the beginning. There are hints of Kubrick everywhere, from the visual symmetry of the futuristic architecture of Arboria to the unnerving score that could be a mash up of John Carpenter’s score from The Fog and the famous jingle from A Clockwork Orange. Cosmatos transitions from scene to scene in slow fade-outs and fade-ins, at times seeming almost abstractly poetic and lyrical but always smacking us with splashes of bright red, orange, and white. There were moments where I felt the film was intentionally trying to alienate itself from me, which in turn drew me even more to it, almost like a moth to blinding light. At times I would be hit with a wave of severe boredom to be suddenly steamrolled by a wave of traumatic terror and panic, yet I always felt paranoid right from the beginning. I felt like I was being forced to sit patiently until something really awful happened and soon enough, it does. Trust me, you won’t be ready for it but yet the awful events that play out do nothing to give us closure, meaning, or simple elucidation. Before the film slips into slasher mode at the end, Cosmatos confirms my paranoid shakes at the beginning with the face of Ronald Reagan taking to the television to warn of looming nuclear attacks from the Soviet Union, adding a backdrop of apocalyptic doom to the throbbing digital chill.

While the visuals take center stage in Beyond the Black Rainbow, there has been quite a bit made over the performances from the leads. The performances are incredibly contemplative and muted, especially Eva Allan as Elena. While Elena is mostly seen and only heard once, she gives a remarkable performance that marinates in emotion right before our eyes. When she wanders the landscape outside the Arboria Institute, Elena is so fragile and lost, she almost resembles a fallen angel that is trying to find her way in an alien world. She is the soothing calm of Beyond the Black Rainbow while Rogers, who looks a bit like Christian Bale, is the creeping wickedness in a bad wig. He is absolutely terrifying as Barry, a character that I just wanted to be away from with at least a hundred miles between us. The end of the film has him wandering about in a trance-like state with a hellish dagger that looks like a fang snatched from the Devil himself. While we know he has a screw loose when we first see him, the screw completely falls out when he suffers a trippy flashback to 1966 and hangs with his mentor, Dr. Arboria. Hylands is marvelous as the doped up guru who is rotting away in front of a giant television screen that is filled with serene images. There is also Marilyn Norry as Rosemary Nyle, Barry’s wife who always seems to be trying to shake herself out of a prescription med coma and Rondel Reynoldson as Margo, an Arboria Institute employee who seems to be completely oblivious to what is going on in the halls of Arboria.

While the film never made a lick of sense, I still can’t seem to shake Beyond the Black Rainbow from my mind. The film feels so much like a dream that you almost question whether you have actually seen it or if it was something you imaged. Funny enough, Cosmatos has said that the film stemmed from his childhood, when he would wander a local video store and study the covers of horror films. He was never allowed to see these horror films but he would imagine what they were like when he would go home. I could only imagine the warped film he would make if he had seen them. I can promise you that Beyond the Black Rainbow will terrify you, especially if you watch it in the dead of night with the volume cranked up to the max. For me, Beyond the Black Rainbow just missed unhinged genius by the abrupt ending that seems almost like a sick joke (maybe it was meant to be a sick joke). I will honestly say that the ten minute black and white flashback sequence scared the living hell out of me and I watched this sucker in broad daylight. Another touch I really liked where the scratches that can be found on the Blu-ray picture. They may have not been intentional but they definitely add to the abstract retro terror, making the film seem like an undiscovered relic from 1983. While it may not be everyone’s mind trip, Beyond the Black Rainbow certain makes an impression on those who choose to experience it. If you find yourself in the target audience, I highly recommend it. Just be warned, you are in for one hell of a freak-out that you won’t soon forget.

Grade: A-

Beyond the Black Rainbow is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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.

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-