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.
Halloween is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
It has always been extremely difficult for me to get into Jason Voorhees and the Friday the 13th series. I never found the hockey mask killer to be all that frightening and I found his films to be redundant exercises in sex, violence, and stupidity. The only film in the Friday the 13th series that I sort of liked was the original 1980 film, the one where Jason’s mother was the psycho chopping up hornball camp counselors. With Hollywood remaking every horror film under the gravestone, it came as no big surprise that Friday the 13th would be getting the unholy treatment. While I figured the film would be lousy, I sort of thought that maybe Hollywood would shake the series up a bit. When they handed the film over to Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes and director Marcus Nispel (the guy who gave us the semi-entertaining Texas Chain Saw reboot), it was obvious that this was going to be a major train wreck. Well folks, my worst fears were confirmed. The 2009 remake of Friday the 13th is absolutely awful in every way, shape, and form. Only once or twice is the film actually clever and show a brief glimpse of what could be if Bay wasn’t behind the film. I really don’t expect much out of these throwaway post-Halloween slashers but my God, at least put in some effort. I expect a little more than glossy guts, bare breasts, and steamy sex.
Friday the 13th 2009 picks on June 13th, 1980, with a terrified camp counselor beheading the crazed mother of Jason Voorhees, who went on a killing spree after her handicapped son drowned at Camp Crystal Lake. The film then jumps to present day with a handful of backpacking teenagers searching the woods just outside of Camp Crystal Lake for some marijuana that was planted weeks earlier. After they set up camp for the night, they are soon stalked and killed by a hooded maniac with a machete. One of the girls in the group, Whitney (Played by Amanda Righetti), is not slaughtered but captured by the hooded killer and taken prisoner. Six weeks pass and authorities are still unable to come up with an explanation for the strange disappearances of the teens. Meanwhile, another group of teenagers, Trent (Played by Travis Van Winkle), his girlfriend Jenna (Played by Danielle Panabaker), Chelsea (Played by Willa Ford), Bree (Played by Julianna Guill), Chewie (Played by Aaron Yoo), Lawrence (Played by Arlen Escarpeta), and Nolan (Played by Ryan Hansen), arrive in town for a weekend at Trent’s summer cabin just outside of Camp Crystal Lake. The group bumps into Clay (Played by Jared Padalecki), who is frantically searching for his sister Whitney. As they explore Camp Crystal Lake, the group stumbles across the same hooded figure, who now wears a hockey mask. As they dig into the events that happened at Camp Crystal Lake, they make the horrific discover that this strange man may be the legendary Jason Voorhees (Played by Derek Mears).
If you can believe it, director Nispel and Bay are not content with giving us just one group of teenagers to hate. They feel the need to give us two groups of annoying clichés that are begging to be killed by the machete-wielding psycho Jason. They do all the typical things that teens in these movies love to do. They wander off by themselves in a drunken stupor or marijuana haze, they hook up with each other in graphic sex scenes that reportedly made Mr. Bay very upset, and they talk to each other about the dumbest shit imaginable. I am well aware that these stupid teenagers are part of the appeal of these types of films but it would have been so refreshing to see them using common sense for once rather than aimlessly wandering around a dimly lit tool shed packed with more weapons than Jason could dream of. The film also has the same faux-gritty look that Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had, sleek and screaming a big price tag. The big budget look would be okay if the film had some sort of ominous atmosphere but it sort of comes off like a nu-metal music video with strategically place fog machines stuck in moss. I guess the one positive you can find here is that at least the filmmakers don’t resort to a shot-for-shot rehash and instead decide to make something that stands apart from what came before it. Yet even this is flawed because Jason only appeared briefly in the original Friday the 13th. This is more of a combination of Friday the 13th Part 2 and Part 3, with actors and actresses that look like they would be more comfortable modeling for Abercrombie & Fitch.
While none of the acting is worth mentioning, the film does take an interesting approach to Jason. More territorial maniac than supernatural specter, Jason dashes after these morons with such ferocity that Nispel and Bay were almost able to convince me that Jason is a neat character. He lumbers out of the dark suddenly and he sets traps for the kids to walk blindly into, which was a nice touch for Mr. Voorhees. Nispel and Bay also cram in a new explanation on how Jason found that legendary hockey mask, a sequence that is both painfully stupid and cheesy fun at the same time. It was one of the only scenes that I actually sort of enjoyed. The other was a fleeting glimpse of Jason showing some sort of emotion as Whitney, his sobbing prisoner, pleads with him and says his name. He stops for a moment and studies her, almost backs off for just a brief second, only to stomp away and hunt more teens. I was actually intrigued by the moment because it made me think that maybe all Jason wants is someone to be kind to him rather than wave him off and ignore him like he was all those years ago. Just as quickly as we saw the potential to give a bit of depth to the character, it was gone.
The main draw to Friday the 13th is going to be the elaborate kill sequences but this poor excuse of a film can’t even get that aspect right. Every death scene is a massive let down because there is very little creativity behind the camera. Only one kill made me sit up and take notice but then the scene switches and the intrigue fades. Nispel makes sure he throws in that famous “ch-ch-ch-ch… ka-ka-ka-ka” whispered in the score but it is only here or there and it never sends chills like it wants to. The acting is awful and predictable, with terrible dialogue handed to only marginally talented young thespians. It has been reported that Bay walked out of the premier of the film due to the unflinching sex scenes that Nispel includes but I wonder if he just wasn’t embarrassed by how awful the movie is. That really says something when Michael Bay walks out of the movie. Overall, it doesn’t build upon the dying slasher genre like it could have and it does very little for the gasping Friday the 13th series. My advice is stick to the original trilogy because at least they were sort of fun and atmospheric. And they didn’t have involvement from Michael Bay.
Friday the 13th is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
While Rob Zombie tried his damndest to put his own fresh spin on the Halloween series while also staying true to the original story in his 2007 remake, you could tell that Zombie was on a short leash. It felt like he was holding something back, whatever that something was. Initially, Zombie swore he would not make a sequel to his remake but after the studio threatened to make a sequel without him, he agreed to slip back into the director’s chair to prevent someone else from desecrating his vision. Personally, I felt his vision was complete and that it really didn’t need a sequel but you know how Hollywood is. Apparently, they wanted to ignore the period he placed on the end of his film. In 2009, Zombie unleashed the deranged funhouse Halloween II, a meaner, bloodier, and busier follow-up that has to rank as one of the most unusual slasher horror films I have ever seen. Even more hit or miss than his 2007 reboot, Zombie attempts to mix exploitation gore, surreal black and white horror, and Michael Myers together and the results are… interesting. Halloween II finds Zombie off his leash and fully embracing that something that he was holding back. That something, it turns out, is full on brutality and countless nods to the classic horror that inspires him.
Picking up just moments after the first film ended, Laurie Strode (Played by Scout Taylor-Compton) is found wandering the streets of Haddonfield with a gun in her hand. Badly injured and in severe shock, Laurie is taken to the emergency room where her wounds are cleaned and mended through ear splitting cries for her family and friends. A year passes and Laurie, now a punk rock rebel who suffers from horrific dreams, is under the care of Sheriff Lee Brackett (Played by Brad Dourif) and shacking up with fellow survivor Annie (Played by Danielle Harris). As Halloween approaches, Laurie’s dreams begin to hint that Michael Myers (Played by Tyler Mane) may not be dead at all. Fueling Laurie’s fears is the fact that the authorities never found a body. Meanwhile, Michael has been searching for his long, lost sister and finding encouragement from the apparition of his deceased mother (Played by Sheri Moon Zombie). To make matters worse, Dr. Samuel Loomis (Played by Malcolm McDowell), who is no longer the good doctor he once was, is capitalizing on the massacre that ripped the small town apart.
While Halloween II has been panned by critics and dismissed by fans as being one of the worst films in the Halloween series, I have to say that I actually found the film fairly entertaining even if it is gleefully repulsive and slightly unfocused. I will agree that the plotline of the film is a mess and that things don’t tie up like Zombie wants them to but the film has such a striking visual approach that it was easy for me to dismiss many of the flaws. I loved the gothic, dreamlike sequences that Zombie uses to cut up his grainy, foul-mouthed slasher exercise. I actually found them to be quite spooky and glaringly Zombie, something that was severely lacking in the 2007 remake. I also really liked the look of Michael in this film. Minus a pair of bloodstained coveralls and half a mask, Michael is filthy dirty and proud of it. Another new touch is Michael’s loud grunts as he brutally stabs to death countless more victims who bump into him. It certainly is a new take on the character and it does deviate from what we have become used to but that is why I like it. While I still prefer silent, coverall-clad Mikey, this one still makes my skin crawl in a good way.
As far as Scout Taylor-Compton goes, her Laurie has undergone a strange shift in character since we last saw her. No longer as buttoned up as she was in the remake, the dark side hinted at has been unleashed and boy, is she grungy. Her shift is unusual, there is no doubt about it, but I feel like Zombie could have found another way to convey that she has embraced more of a darker side after her encounter with Michael. She hangs out with a duo of punk rock chicks that work in a local record shop but these friends are left severely undeveloped and only there to meet the sharp end of Michael’s knife. If you think Laurie’s shift in character is out of left field, wait until you get a load of Loomis. Acting like an arrogant jerk, Loomis is a hot shot flirt who makes big money off of ugly tragedy and it is the complete opposite of what we saw in the first film. I hardly believe that Loomis would have such a drastic shift in his character after getting beaten up by Michael but I guess anything is possible. Dourif is still great as Sheriff Brackett and Danielle Harris works hard as the still-shaky fellow survivor Annie. Sheri Moon Zombie is also back as Michael’s ghostly mother, who encourages her son’s killing spree from the other side. It honestly feels like a way for Zombie to work his wife into the mix but her presence does give Halloween II the unique feel it possesses. Just like Halloween, Zombie throws in a number of B-horror fan favorites including Margot Kidder, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, and Richard Riehle.
Throughout Halloween II, Zombie also applies the psychological ‘White Horse’ theory, which he defines at the beginning of the film and then spends the next two hours cramming it down our throats. While I admire Zombie’s attempt to give the film a little psychological depth, he just goes overboard trying to convince us the film is smart. The film does have a seriously eerie opening sequence set in the quiet halls of a hospital while The Moody Blues moan in the background. It superbly pays tribute to the original Halloween II while also working double time to set itself apart from that film. The hospital sequence also features an awesome cameo from Octavia Spencer, who dies extra gruesomely. Steeped in bloody, tie-dyed visuals and unashamed to wear its inspiration on its sleeve, Halloween II comes out just ahead of its predecessor as far as I’m concerned. It feels more original and, dare I say, much more personal than the first film. I personally feel that this film solidifies Zombie’s place on the list of directors to pay close attention to. As he sharpens his skills as a filmmaker, I feel like he will really come up with something that is stunning visually and truly imaginative in the story department. All he needs to do is scale back on the repulsive dialogue and slow down. You can’t quite shake the feeling that Halloween II was rushed and that Zombie was under a lot of pressure to get this thing out. Overall, it certainly isn’t perfect but it is fun to see Zombie set himself apart from the formulaic pack.
Halloween II is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction/horror classic Alien is a film that truly understands how showing very little can scare us beyond belief. Taking place aboard the claustrophobic spaceship Nostromo, Scott terrorizes his audience by leaving basically no place for the crew to run, no place to barricade themselves in to wait out the sudden attacks by this slimy creature, and no weapon that can banish the beast to the fiery depths of Hell. While on the outside Scott has made a claustrophobic nightmare of narrow hallways and futuristic gunmetal wires, it is what Scott is doing on the inside that really gets under the viewers skin. Scott has made a film in which he reverses the sexual roles within the film. We don’t have some macho male hero to root for in Alien, one who resembles a bodybuilder with a buzz cut. Instead we have Sigourney Weaver’s feminist hero Ripley, a tough and stone-faced chick who finds herself being the last one standing against a goopy phallic creature that burst forth from a man’s chest.
Alien follows the crew aboard the commercial towing spaceship Nostromo, who are currently hauling twenty million tons of mineral ore back to good old Earth. The crew soon discovers what they believe to be a distress call from a nearby planetoid, causing them to take a detour to check out what exactly is the signal is. When they land on the craggy, windy, and gloomy planetoid, Captain Dallas (Played by Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (Played by John Hurt), and Navigator Lambert (Played by Veronica Cartwright) discover a strange ship that contains several bizarre eggs. One egg breaks open and the organism inside attaches to the face of Kane. On board the Nostromo, Warrant Officer Ripley (Played by Sigourney Weaver), Science Officer Ash (Played by Ian Holm), and Engineers Brett (Played by Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Played by Yaphet Kotto) fear allowing Kane back on the ship, but Ash is excited about the discover of this new alien life form. As they begin attempting to dissect the organism, they realize they are dealing with something extremely dangerous. Without warning, a new life form bursts from Kane’s chest, fleeing into the ship and rapidly growing to a gigantic size. As the crew is bumped off one by one by the hungry creature, they have to quickly figure out how to get this bloodthirsty alien off their ship and make it home alive.
Perhaps my favorite trait that Alien possesses is the way Scott blends the alien in with the Nostromo itself. I always found it so eerie the way the alien would suddenly pop out, having been in plain sight but we the viewer oblivious to the fact that it was right in front of us. It gives Alien the feel that this twisting labyrinth of a ship is coming alive and claiming victims one by one. My two favorite sequences have to be when Captain Dallas faces the alien in a tight space, the alien’s arms shooting out of the darkness but appearing almost like a tangle of wires and hardware until we see its gaping jaw as it goes in for a penetrating kill. My other favorite scene is when Ripley is in the escape pod in the final minutes of the film, the alien crouched in the fetal position inside a darkened crevice. The creature’s phallic head resembling part of the ship until it suddenly moves and roars at Ripley. Talk about a neat effect!
The alien itself, conceived by artist H.R. Giger, ranks as one of the most iconic movie monsters in the long history of the genre. Show a picture of it to anyone and they can instantly identify what the creature is. The beast, which is kept mostly in the shadows throughout Alien, is a true marvel, one that is a skin crawling vision while also having a faint phallic look to it. The creature grows more horrifying with each small reveal that Scott places strategically throughout the runtime of Alien, revealing the entire beast at the climax but blasting it with strobe lights, a blue glow, and blurred camera angles to keep some layer of mystery to it. Scott doesn’t simply use the alien to scare us, but applies it as a thought provoking monster that is used to make comments on the male fear of childbirth (as a baby, it is flesh colored and vaguely erect, burst forth in a shower of gore fro Kane’s chest) and used to make a comment on the battle between the sexes. At the end, the empowered Ripley strips down to just her underwear and an ill fitting t-shirt as the phallic alien, with a stinger that resembles an erect penis shooting from its mouth, bears down on her. It’s a classic sequence that is both memorable for its events and the underlying subject matter, suggesting attempted rape and penetration.
Any discussion of Alien would not be complete without praising the work of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, the empowered, no nonsense heroine who finds herself being the last woman standing in the battle between the crew and the alien. She is unrepressed and liberated, finding herself in charge of the ship in the wake of the deaths of the two men who ranked above her. Yet even from the first time she is introduced to us, she overshadows the men, all who seem slightly weak and unable to protect themselves from this monster bearing down on them. One male victim just stares in horror and disbelief as it shoots its erect stinger out of its mouth at the wide-eyed pile of flesh. Yet Ripley never falls apart, instead owning every scene she is in, even when she is placed next to Cartwright’s Lambert, who is reduced to shrieks and tears when the alien closes in. She is one tough broad and she is proud of it. Looking at the time in which Alien was made, released in 1979, right in the midst of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Ripley stands for tough and uncompromising feminism, looking this phallic monstrosity in the face and refusing to back down from it. She was a far throw from the female cliché that ran rampant in mainstream horror films at the time, the ones who ran away from the monster, the caricatures that Lambert appears to represent.
Alien is an incredibly powerful and thought provoking exercise in horror. It is an industrial mash-up of futuristic science fiction and dramatic slasher horror. Much has been made about the sexual undertones, many critics pointing out male fear of rape and penetration, the most recognizable being the fear of childbirth with the show stopping chest burst sequence, a scene that is glaringly obvious. Each and every scene has an epic gusto that tears right through it, yet each scene works in synch with the next, culminating in a strobe-like burst of seething feminism. The cut-off feeling, soggy claustrophobia, and lack of a thorough explanation of the alien all make Alien a classic among the science-fiction horror genre. Alien ultimately turns out to be B-movie material approached with an A-list touch and an extreme confidence in itself. This is an intelligent must-see horror masterpiece from the heyday of the genre.
Alien is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
It is a damn shame that the double feature ode to exploitation trash of years past Grindhouse flopped at the box office. It is an even bigger shame that most audience members didn’t even try to comprehend what it was that directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino were trying to sell to the audience. The flop turned Grindhouse into a cult classic that, in a way, I’m glad avoided the mainstream and has basically been forgotten by most average moviegoers. More fun for fans of cult cinema. Grindhouse is one of the coolest movies of recent memory, a slaphappy revelry filled with blood, guts, zombies, fast cars, hot chicks, nudity, fake trailers, werewolves, Thanksgiving killers, machete wielding Federales, and more. Can you really argue with any of that? I didn’t think so. The way I see it, Rodriguez and Tarantino came up with an incredibly original idea, harkening back to the grimy double features of the 70’s and 80’s, and in the process, they tried to make going to the movies an event again. How people missed the point of having a little fun at the movies is truly beyond me.
The first half of this bonanza belongs to Robert Rodriguez and his gooey zombie flick Planet Terror. After an opening Go-Go dance from Cherry Darling (Played by Rose McGowan), the rural Texas town that she calls home suddenly is overrun with a nasty virus that turns the citizens from normal people into “sickos”, who crave human flesh. Teaming up with her ex-boyfriend El Wray (Played by Freddy Rodriguez), the syringe shooting Dr. Dakota Block (Played by Marley Shelton), and a slew of others, the group attempts to escape the deadly outbreak but they end up stumbling upon more than safety from the “sickos”. The second half of Grindhouse belongs to Quentin Tarantino and his car chase film Death Proof, which follows a group of hip gals who are involved in the making of a movie. They soon find themselves being tormented by a deranged stunt car driver named Stuntman Mike (Played by Kurt Russell), who enjoys killing young girls with his “death proof” muscle car. Stuntman Mike meets his match when some of the girls begin to fight back against him, turning the tables on the maniac and forcing him into a fight for his own life.
Being a double feature, no portion of Grindhouse is ever a drag but the case could be made that Tarantino’s Death Proof slams on the breaks of this speed demon. The madness hits white-knuckle territory in Planet Terror, which goes for the throat right from the very beginning. It easily outshines Death Proof and is entertaining from the opening Go-Go dance right down to the melting penises at the climax. That does not mean that I dislike Death Proof. Oh no, I absolutely love Death Proof but I feel like it should have been the first film shown and followed up by Planet Terror, which cranks things up to the max. To be honest, I hate separating the two films but it is almost impossible to evaluate Grindhouse without evaluating the films as separate pieces. I do, however, view the entire film, complete with fake trailers, to be one whole movie. It drives me crazy that the films were split up upon their initial release to DVD. I don’t think they hold up well on their own and they desperately need each other for support.
Rodriguez and Tarantino go to great lengths to replicate a night in an old movie palace on 42nd Street. They both digitally went in and scratched the prints up, making them look like two films from the 70’s that were discovered in a filthy theater basement. Rodriguez throws in a gag with a missing reel, creating a massive jump in his film that is added at just the right time. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror brings to mind the Italian zombie films that were favorites among grind house theaters in the late 70’s and early 80’s. He has continuously said that he found inspiration in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and he throws in a nasty little nod to the film at the end. He also throws in nods to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, Hell of the Living Dead, and more, none being left out of all the excitement. He also creates a new cult legend with Cherry, who ends up having one of her legs replaced with a machine gun. It is a nifty nod to Evil Dead’s Ash, who is also forced to replace a severed limb with a deadly weapon.
In Death Proof, things are a little more polished and clean, a bit strange when it set against the crude Planet Terror. Packing very few scratches but having chuckle worthy skips in the film; Death Proof is more of a slow build experience. It’s pure Tarantino, featuring tons of drawn out conversations while the camera circles the actors and actresses like a shark. Death Proof ends up a battlefield for Russell and costar Zoe Bell, who plays stunt girl Zoe. Bell, who was a stunt double for Uma Thruman in Kill Bill, shows off her acting skills and ends up almost stealing the show from Russell, who gets to radiate bad boy charisma every time that camera is turned on him. When Tarantino waves the checkered flags and begins the rough car chases, he proves himself to be a master when it comes to adrenaline pumping action sequences. Death Proof ends up borrowing from such films as Vanishing Point, the slasher genre, and is vaguely evocative of Faster, Pussycat… Kill! Kill! and Thriller: A Cruel Picture, allowing the film to morph into an exotic beast all its own.
Grindhouse would not be complete without the four spectacular fake trailers that have been tacked on and they end up surpassing the greatness of the two films. Tarantino and Rodriguez invited fellow exploitation enthusiasts Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), and Eli Roth (Hostel) to cook up some fake trailers and the results are sheer bliss for horror and exploitation fans. When I initially saw the film, my favorite was easily Roth’s Thanksgiving, which almost pushed the film into an NC-17 rating and it’s not hard to see why. It is so depraved and outrageous, it left me crossing my fingers that they would make it into an actual movie. In the multiple times that I have seen the film since seeing it at the local theater, I have grown like Wright’s Don’t the best. It is hectically comical and bizarre, actually turning out to be pretty frightening despite how weird it is. Zombie leaves his mark with the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink Werewolf Women of the S.S., a nod to Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S. Zombie’s trailer does pack one hell of a big surprise so do not even think about underestimating it. Rodriguez also contributes to the madness with Machete, which opens Grindhouse with a bloody bang, letting us know that Machete “gets the women and kills the bad guys”. Keep your eyes peeled for an awesome cameo from Cheech Marin.
Grindhouse is without question one of my favorite movies of all time. It is the embodiment of why I go to the movies and why I dedicate myself to them. It was nonstop entertainment and lunacy for three fucking hours! I smiled the entire time and happily went back to the theater for seconds and heavily considered thirds. It is a shame the film flopped at the box office, poorly timed with its release (Easter weekend) and languidly marketed, many scratching their heads over the trailer. It didn’t reach a wide audience because mainstream viewers were not in on the joke, missing the point that it was a double feature and the film was purposely bad. As a whole, Grindhouse has a spark that cannot be duplicated and in its wake, there have been a lot of imitators and a minor spike in interest in cult classics and exploitation sleaze. With the spike in interest, it is hard to say that Grindhouse was a dud and hasn’t lived on past its release, rallying new fans everyday to the wonderful trash cinema of past years. The beauty doesn’t stop there, as Grindhouse can also serve as a learning tool, one that introduces viewers to a specific era in cinema and sheds light on an era that was largely forgotten when the movie palaces closed their doors and the drive-ins disappeared. Despite all the intentional mistakes and low budget cheese, Grindhouse is a rare modern film that is perfect, making it a must-see cult-classic.
Grindhouse is available of Blu-ray.
by Steve Habrat
I honestly do not think I have ever seen a film that has been as grainy and gritty as Maniac, the splatter film told from the perspective of the pudgy schizophrenic Frank Zito, a man who prowls the shifty streets of early 1980s New York City and kills women. The film, often evocative of the Son of Sam murders from the mid 1970s, out grains films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a film that came shortly after Maniac but is far superior. You practically need a tetanus shot and two baths after you have watched this thing. Pretending that is it shining light on a deranged and shadowy mind, Maniac lacks any real depth, acting as just a random string of scenes where Frank stalks, murders, and maims his victims. After each segment, director William Lustig changes the setting, the victims, and then presses the repeat button. Maniac’s case is not helped out by the sneaking suspicion that this slightly seems like a fetish flick.
The premise of Maniac is quite simple. Frank Zito (Played by Joe Spinell) is a sweaty, overweight psycho who stalks women, murders them, and then scalps them. He shacks up in a tiny apartment in an unidentified burough of New York City. His tiny apartment is crammed with an assortment of weapons he uses to dispatch his prey along with countless creepy mannequins. Frank likes to dress the mannequins in clothing, nail the scalps he has collected to their heads, and sleep with them. Frank also engages in conversations with himself, usually acting as both himself and his deceased prostitute mother he is obsessed with. While out on a walk one day, Frank has his picture taken by a beautiful but utterly clueless photographer named Anna (Played by Caroline Munro). Frank tracks her down and instead of simply killing her, the two strike up a bizarre relationship that is unfathomable. When it seems that Frank has found love and may turn himself around, he begins repressing his urges to kill and it is only a matter of time before they break through the charismatic persona he is hiding behind.
One of the two parts that works in Maniac is the odd relationship between Anna and Frank. This adds some desperately needed anxiety to the film, we the viewers finding ourselves on the edge of our seat waiting for Frank to strike. It’s a clever move from writers C.A. Rosenberg and Joe Spinell who play on our fear that something is about to happen. It is also the only thing resembling a budding plot in Maniac, which is more concerned about getting to all the violence. The violence here has to rank as some of the most extreme you will ever see in a motion picture (aside from Cannibal Holocaust, Romero’s zombie flicks, and the work of Herschell Gordon Lewis). Credit should go to make-up and effects guru Tom Savini, who dreams up some truly nasty stuff that makes even the hardened viewers queasy. One scene, a sequence that has to be one of the most memorable moments in horror movie history and the most redolent of the Son of Sam, has Frank blowing the head off one victim at close range with a double barrel shotgun. It goes far beyond graphic, sickening, or shocking. It is downright fucked up in conveniently used slow motion.
The other part that clicks in Maniac is the supernatural finale the film tacks on, making Frank’s last victim himself. He ends up succumbing to his own inner demons that wield his own weapons and giggle while they close in. Frank lacks much profundity and he is fairly simple to figure out. He shows flashes of repentance and scolds his own actions when he kills. While he is on the prowl and stalking his prey, he lets out grunts and growls that sound animal and orgasmic. It is ultimately the path of the paranormal that gets the juices flowing in Maniac, enveloping us completely into Franks distorted and damaged mind, allowing us to see through his eyes rather than just tagging along side while he takes lives. While the real world stuff is unsettling, it is Frank’s world that provides the much needed spooks.
Almost cinema-vérité in execution and shot with what had to be the oldest camera the director could find, Maniac exploits the seedy and decaying look of later 70’s and early 80’s New York City. You never really feel comfortable or truly safe in Maniac. I kept wondering where a police officer was, why that woman was walking alone, and who else was lurking in the shadows waiting to stick me up for my wallet. The film does an excellent job transporting the viewer but the lack of any protagonist trying to catch Frank is Maniac’s demise. Instead of drawing the film out with countless scenes of torture and prolonged death sequences, maybe they could have thrown in a hard-boiled detective racing to find the killer before he claims another life. All we get an out-of-place overhead shot of what is supposed to be a helicopter looking for Frank and quick glimpses of newspaper headlines that declare there is a maniac on the loose. Furthermore, no character outside of Frank is properly developed so when someone meets a messy end, it’s just unpleasant. It doesn’t affect us on any emotional level like it should. For as hard as it tries, Maniac ends up being surprisingly below average but don’t count out the finale, which has a few tricks, decomposing corpses machetes, handguns, shotguns, and switchblades up it’s flannel sleeve.
Maniac is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
During the heyday of slasher horror flicks, when Freddy, Jason, and Michael roamed movie theaters slashing the throats of helpless, horny teens everywhere, the 1981 gem The Prowler was overlooked and lost in the sea of exploitation imitators. It is a shame because The Prowler is far scarier and better than any given Freddy or Jason romp. Sure, its premise of a crazed WWII veteran who received a “Dear John” letter during a tour of duty and then goes on a killing spree when he returns home is the stuff exploitation films dream of, but it is actually an invigorating direction with a killer introduction and some seriously wicked gore effects by FX wizard Tom Savini. If you consider yourself a fan of the horror genre in anyway, you need to get your claws on The Prowler. You are in for a real treat.
The Prowler begins with a vintage newsreel that shows soldiers returning home aboard a boat called the Queen Mary. A voiceover declares that while the homecoming is a happy event, some of the soldiers returned depressed and heartbroken from receiving a “Dear John” letter from their beloveds on American shores. The film then bounces to the 1945 graduation dance in Avalon Bay where Rosemary (Played by Joy Glaccum), who recently sent her boyfriend a “Dear John” letter, arrives with her new boyfriend Roy (Played by Timothy Wahrer). The two slip away to a secluded gazebo where they begin necking. Suddenly, the power is cut in the gazebo and the lovers find themselves brutally slain by a killer in unnerving combat gear. The film speeds ahead 35 years and finds Avalon Bay setting up for the same graduation dance. Despite the fear that the murderer may return, Sheriff George Fraser (Played by Farley Granger) departs on a fishing trip and leaves his steadfast deputy Mark London (Played by Christopher Goutman) in charge. As the dance gets underway, the combat clad murderer descends on the dance and begins racking up a body count. With the help of his crush Pam (Played by Vicky Dawson), Mark desperately tries to figure out who this prowler is before any more innocent victims meet their demise.
Director Joseph Zito makes a mature and atmospheric hack-and-slash romp that isn’t as concerned with how many naked girls he can squeeze into his runtime. Sure, there is the gratuitous nude scene but he practices infinite amounts of self-control, focusing more on delivering a proficiently made whodunit complete with a nod to the Psycho shower sequence. Yes, The Prowler holds the conservative mentality of all eighties slasher movies that, yes, if you have sex, plan on having sex, or fool around in any way, you will find yourself gutted by a pitchfork wielding nut job. But maybe it was the expert acting (the young cast is surprisingly strong for a film that seems to have been made on a shoestring budget), a creepy killer, and shifts into extremely gruesome violence that keep The Prowler afloat.
Zito also stages a well-rehearsed chase sequence to finish off the film, a climax that gives way to two major twists, one including the shocking reveal of the combat clad prowler. Gore guru Savini also lets loose and fills the screen with splashes of blood from sawed off shotgun blasts, bayonets to the throat, a pitchfork sealing two embraced lovers in each other’s arms for good, and an exploding head. I guess blowing one head up in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead didn’t quench that thirst. And how about that killer? A faceless killer who rivals Michael in the boogeyman department when he has his mask on! In a way, it is a disappointment when we do discover who the killer is because it removes some of the fear that this could be anyone causing the chaos. In the recent horror film book Shock Value, critic and author Jason Zinoman argues that once events are explained and there is a meaning given to the horror on the screen, the film looses its fear factor. In a slight defense of The Prowler’s reveal, once you process it, it is actually quite chilling that this person could be the one responsible for it. Either way, the reveal is a blessing and a curse.
The Prowler does have some moments where it takes a big bite of cheese. A scene right before the big reveal has to be one of the most gauche and uncomfortable scenes to watch. Zito must have been having an off day when he shot and edited the scene together. The scene features two characters staring at each other with smiles on their faces. They must have forgotten that there is a person who has just been blown away by a sawed off shotgun lying right next to them. I know that I would either be in hysterics or sick to my stomach from the grizzly scene. There is also an agonizingly slow scene where the killer flings his pitchfork around a room in search of Pam. Either the killer is enjoying dragging his work out or Zito was desperate to drag the runtime of the film out.
The good outweighs the bad in The Prowler and the result is a creepy exercise in boogeyman slash. It may be no deeper than the pool one victim meets their demise in and the beginning may be depressing, but The Prowler is high art compared to some of the installments in the Freddy and Jason franchises of that came out around the same time. If one were to watch it in the dark by themselves, this would make for a pretty good freak-out. I wish the film would get a bit more recognition than it does, as Zito has made more of a rewarding mystery than a teen fright movie. At the time, the film must have been a godsend of an option to Friday the 13th Part II or My Bloody Valentine, two slasher films that were doing their best to ruin the subgenre that same year. Love it or hate it, The Prowler puts a unique spin on a genre where the knives have long since rusted over. Pray that Hollywood never discovers it and remakes it.
The Prowler is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
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.
Friday the 13th (1980)
Do YOU want to see Friday the 13th reviewed on Halloween? Well, you may only see it once, but click on the poll link under Category Cloud to vote for the classic slasher from 1980. This is YOUR chance to to control what gets posted on the site. Start casting those terrifying votes now, the poll closes on October 20th!
NOTE: Anti-Film School does not claim ownership of the attached trailer.