by Steve Habrat
Over the past four years, the once-glorious production company Hammer Films has been slowly trying re-establish itself in the horror genre. From the 1950s through the early-1970s, Hammer enjoyed financial and critical success with gothic horror films such as The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, and many more terrifying classics that have amassed legions of devoted fans over the years. By the late-1970s, Hammer’s popularity had started to diminish, and the company slowly faded from the public’s eye. After many years of silence, Hammer Films returned in 2010 with Let Me In, a spooky remake of the celebrated 2008 Swedish film, Let the Right One In. Between 2010 and 2012, Hammer released two smaller films before returning to the mainstream with The Woman in Black, another eerie release that suggested that the company still had a few terrifying ghouls kicking around in their cobwebbed crypts. After another two-year wait, Hammer continues its comeback campaign with The Quiet Ones, a stale haunted house thriller that clumsily attempts to run with the countless other “found-footage” horror movies that have been quickly churned out. Though The Quiet Ones may not be as scary as recent supernatural offerings like Insidious, The Innkeepers, The Conjuring, or Oculus, the film is executed with plenty of chiaroscuro elegance, and it reveals that star Jared Harris was born to be a member of the Hammer family—one that consisted of gentlemanly greats like Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Oliver Reed.
The Quiet Ones picks up in Oxford, 1974, with Professor Joseph Coupland (played by Jared Harris) enlisting the help of a student cameraman by the name of Brian McNeil (played by Sam Claflin) to help with an unorthodox experiment being conducting on campus. The experiment involves a young girl named Jane Harper (played by Olivia Cooke), who believes that a nasty spirit by the name of Evey has possessed her. It turns out that Coupland rejects theories about the supernatural, and that he is convinced that he can cure Jane through advanced scientific methods. After the university unexpectedly cuts funding for the experiment, Brian, Coupland, and his two student assistants, Krissi (played by Erin Richards) and Harry (played by Rory Fleck-Byrne), travel to a secluded country mansion where the group can work without disruption. Things get off to a relatively uneventful start, but soon, Jane’s condition worsens as Coupland draws out the sinister forces within her. As the spirit of Evey grows more and more dangerous, Brian discovers a horrific secret about Jane’s past that will change the course of the experiment and threaten the lives of everyone involved.
With The Quiet Ones, Hammer reveals that they are well aware of the gimmicks that have been dominating the horror market for the past several years. Scattered about the film is Hammer’s trademark gothic set design and gloomy atmosphere weighing heavily on the action. Frankly, the film gets far flashing Hammer’s calling card, and you get the impression that if director John Pogue had solely committed to the gothic blueprint, The Quiet Ones would have been an old-fashioned success. After all, Hammer found an audience with a taste for undead ghouls, Frankenstein monsters, and gentlemanly vampires in the ‘50s, a time when atomic monsters, extraterrestrials, and giant bugs were the hot ticket at local movie palaces and drive-ins. What would prevent it from working in the smartphone age? Sadly, where The Quiet Ones drops the ball is with the application of the “found footage” approach that has been sweeping through American horror movies. While it is exciting to think that Hammer is attempting to modernize itself a bit, it quickly becomes obvious that it’s here simply to allow Hammer to run with the current big boys of horror. What is even more frustrating is the fact that the filmmakers are clearly experimenting with this technique and had absolutely no idea how to apply it properly. It’s painfully clumsy and only twice does the film milk any suspense from this approach. However, the impact of both sequences is softened by cheap jump scares that just come off as lazy and pathetic. You mean to tell us that Hammer—a company that made some seriously silly, low-budget junk work splendidly in their heyday—couldn’t devise any new or creative ways to make the audience tremble with fear?!
While the throwaway “found footage” gimmick and the jump scares keep The Quiet Ones from standing out in the crowd, the film does reveal that Jared Harris could very well be Hammer’s new Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing. He is charismatic and gentlemanly, yet he is capable of awakening an inner slumbering madman when poked hard enough. Late in the film there are hints of Cushing’s unhinged Dr. Frankenstein, as he resorts to extreme measures to carry out his sinister work. Harris really charges up the film even in its slower moments, and he is able to largely cover for the more amateurish performances from the rest of the fresh-faced cast. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’s Sam Claflin is probably the best of the young talent as Brian, the group’s skeptical cameraman who slowly develops feelings for the tortured Jane Harper. He’s a vanilla hero—that no one can deny—but he succeeds in remaining watchable for the duration of the film. And then we have Olivia Cooke, who physically channels Christina Ricci’s Wednesday from The Addam’s Family. Her performance is a glob of clichés as she hovers over a creepy doll and plucks its hair out, or stares blankly through sleepy eyes and rambles on about Evey, the spirit who has called her body home. The weakest links are undoubtedly Erin Richards, who stumbles her way around the feisty hippie Krissi, and Rory Fleck-Byrne, who’s Harry is present only to add slight bits of exposition for the cutting-edge methods the group is experimenting with.
While Harris puts forth considerable effort to salvage The Quiet Ones, more damage is done through the film’s lackluster finale, which crashes and then literally burns right in front of our eyes. The script finds the team of screenwriters—which includes Pogue, Craig Rosenberg, Oren Moverman, and Tom de Ville—looking back and paying tribute to Hammer’s satanic/occult offerings from the mid-1970s. The ghosts of films such as The Devil Rides Out and To the Devil a Daughter clank and bang around in the darkness, but the climax can’t match the sleazier thrills of those memorable releases. One the positive side, the film’s cinematography looks fantastic, and the chiaroscuro wash keeps you from drifting off into the abyss of boredom. In true Hammer fashion, The Quiet Ones is also extremely tight and low budget, which allows the film to remain in the tradition of their early horror work. Overall, it’s a thrill to see Hammer’s name back on the big screen, but The Quiet Ones ends up being a step backwards for a company that had made considerable strides in re-establishing themselves. You can’t fault them for attempting to appeal to the new generation of horror fans, but they should be embarrassed that they didn’t attempt to bring anything new to this supernatural séance.
by Steve Habrat
In 2009, Hollywood revived the supernatural horror film with Paranormal Activity, the “found footage” hit that spawned four lucrative sequels. While the Paranormal Activity series has rapidly descended into a bloated cash grab, the upside is that it shifted America’s attention away from the torture porn craze and the disastrous Saw franchise. Since 2009, the ghostly scares of Paranormal Activity have drifted into other, better horror movies that have scared the pants off moviegoers, and audiences just haven’t been able to get enough. Most recently, the biggest hit has been last summer’s The Conjuring, the retro haunted house blockbuster that turned out to be one of the spookiest horror movies of recent memory. Now, less than a year after The Conjuring haunted movie theaters, comes director Mike Flanagan’s Oculus, a micro-budgeted effort that boasts a clever script, careful pacing, and some hair-raising moments of terror that don’t rely on loud blasts of music to send you to the ceiling. While some impatient viewers may find the mind-bending Oculus way too slow for their instant gratification taste, the snail’s-pace at which the film moves really mounts the tension and allows the filmmakers to play with the viewer’s mind.
Oculus begins in the present day, with twenty-one year old Tim Russell (played by Brenton Thwaites) being released from a mental institution after serving eleven years for the murder of his father, Alan (played by Rory Cochrane), after he witnessed him murder his mother, Marie (played by Katee Sackhoff) and attempt to kill his older sister. Simultaneously, Tim’s older sister, Kayie Russell (played by Karen Gillan), has been tracking down an ominous mirror that had once hung in their father’s home office, and that is believed to have caused a string of bizarre mental breakdowns and deaths everywhere it has hung. Desperate to prove that Tim was innocent of the murder, Kaylie devises an experiment to prove to the authorities that their father didn’t just snap—that there are supernatural forces that emerge from the mirror and drive anyone nearby out of their mind. Reluctantly receiving help from Tim, Kaylie begins trying to prove her theory about the mirror and the murder, but the supernatural forces appear to be laying dormant, at least at first. As the night goes on, reality begins to distort, ghostly apparitions appear, secrets from that horrific night are uncovered, and the sibling’s sanity is pushed to the breaking point.
Much like The Conjuring, Oculus is far from a lazy horror film. It doesn’t simply rely on loud noises or fake-out scares to get a jump from the audience. (There isn’t one loud bang or deafening musical cue to be found.) It has faith in its visual scares, which range from roaming apparitions with eyes like mirrors to more standard gore fare like ripped out fingernails, oozing C-section scars, and one character accidentally biting into a light bulb rather than the apple that they were previously snacking on. Nearly all of it nabs the groans that it is out to elicit, especially every single scene involving some sort of fingernail mutilation. (Flanagan must have a thing for it much like Italian horror director Lucio Fulci had a fetish for eye mutilation.) While the visual scares do have spunk, the distorted realities and unraveling mysteries that make up the center of Oculus are what really have the audience gripping their armrests. Flanagan masterfully flits between past and present, allowing the events of both to mesh together to the point where the audience isn’t sure what are the mirror’s demonic tricks and what is reality. What makes it even more nerve-racking is the fact that it remains strictly in the confines of Russell home. There is nowhere to run except up the stairs, and there is nowhere to hide except for the bathroom or the closet.
While the slow pace is sure to bore the pre-teens in the back row, where the yawns really stem from are the lifeless performances from our leads. Gillan’s Kaylie hurries around with wide eyes and muttering cryptic remarks to her husband about how everything will be all right once she confronts this mirror. Things improve slightly with Thwaites, who tries to rationalize the events that took place eleven years earlier, but he largely disappears into the sea of new up-and-coming actors all looking to be the next Taylor Lautner—who he shares a mild resemblance with—or Robert Pattinson. Together, Gillan and Thwaites are a ball of forced trauma, as they carry out rehearsed bickering over the mirror and it’s rumored supernatural powers. To make things worse on the two leads, they manage to be overshadowed by the younger versions of themselves, portrayed strongly by Garrett Ryan and Annalise Basso. Then there is Rory Cochrane’s terrifying turn as Alan, the sibling’s deranged, cherubic-faced father who wanders around the home aiming a pistol and warning the children, “I have seen my demons and they are many. I have seen the devil and he is me.” He’s an overwhelmingly dark and erratic presence as the mirror’s spirits guide him around the shadows and seduce him into evil. Rounding out the main cast is Sackhoff’s Marie, the distraught mother who is convinced that Alan is having an affair and who predictably drowns her sorrows in bottle after bottle of wine. Her performance does have some bite (despite her missing teeth) when she endures Alan’s torture, which includes chains and a broken plate.
What ultimately sets Oculus apart from a good majority of horror movies today is the way it resists the temptation to constantly pay homage to classic supernatural horror movies that came before it. It’s not bogged down by tips of the hat, which usually tickle those in the audience with extensive knowledge of the horror genre. (I confess to be one of these individuals that is charmed by a sly homage or geeky reference.) This reluctance to constantly pay tribute allows the flow of the film to remain uninterrupted and leaves Oculus feeling strangely refreshing in a genre that thrives on name familiarity. The film also excites through its brainy script, co-written by Flanagan and Jeff Howard, who really understand that confusion and disorientation can really up the tension levels. It’s a constant guessing game with Oculus, and it becomes increasingly absorbing as it unfolds. Where Flanagan and Howard go wrong—and you have to wonder if there wasn’t studio pressure here—is with the climax of the film. It leaves the door wide open for a sequel, and it hints that the studios are crossing their fingers for another cash cow series that will make money on (*gulp) name familiarity. Overall, it’s plagued by a handful of flaws and it may not be quite as scary or entertaining as James Wan’s The Conjuring, but Oculus is still a shrewd little horror movie that suggests that director Mike Flanagan is a talent to keep an eye on.
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.
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.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Before 1981, John Landis was far from a horror director. He hit it big with 1978’s Animal House, a college sex comedy that was all about chugging Jack Daniels and having a good time. He followed up Animal House with 1980’s The Blues Brothers, another comedy smash that seemed to suggest that Landis was sticking to the comedic track. However, in 1981, Landis revealed that he had a bit of range as a director with An American Werewolf in London, a horror film heavy with dark chuckles. As far as the horror side of An American Werewolf in London is concerned, the film isn’t nearly as scary as you’ve been led to believe. Over the years, there have been many lists ranking the scariest films of all time, most of which feature An American Werewolf in London, but the film seems to be a victim of its own hype. Despite not being overly spooky, the film still features several unsettling nightmares that surprise with the sledgehammer-to-the-head extremity and a transformation sequence that still manages to astonish first time viewers. The most charming aspect of An American Werewolf in London is undoubtedly the dark humor that Landis weaves together with his loving nods to Lon Chaney Jr.’s 1941 classic The Wolf Man.
An American Werewolf in London introduces us to David Kessler (played by David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (played by Griffin Dunne), two Americans backpacking through the English countryside. David and Jack decide to rest at a small pub called The Slaughtered Lamb, were they are met with an icy greeting from the locals. As they settle in for a drink, David and Jack notice a five-pointed star carved into the wall, which they immediately inquire about. The locals instantly ask them to leave, warning them to stay on the main road and to beware of the full moon. Confused, David and Jack leave, but they soon find themselves off the path they were warned to stay on. Things get worse for the two backpackers when they begin hearing faint growls and menacing howls circling around them. Suddenly, a wolf leaps at them from the darkness, killing Jack and severally wounding David. Three weeks later, David wakes up from the attack in a London hospital, where he learns about the death of his buddy. Over the course of a few days, David seems to be recovering nicely from the wounds that he received, but when he drifts off to sleep he suffers from horrible nightmares. Things get even more bizarre for David when the deceased Jack comes to visit him in the hospital and explains that a werewolf attacked them. Jack warns David that he must kill himself before the next full moon, or he will be responsible for more deaths. Soon, David is released from the hospital and begins shacking up with Alex (played by Jenny Agutter), a beautiful nurse that he struck up a romance with while bedridden. Things seems to be getting better for David, but the rotting Jack returns to warn him of the beast lurking inside.
An American Werewolf in London begins spooky enough, with a sudden attack that certainly gets the viewer’s heart pounding. As David and Jack wander around a darkened field, growling noises and anguished howls ring out all around them. The misty suspense erupts when a hairy blur comes shooting across the screen to leave our backpacking heroes a shredded mess. Landis manages to keep up the supernatural eeriness with David’s terrifying nightmares, which are all hilariously extreme in their own way. One dream finds a naked David sprinting through the forest when he suddenly leaps at a deer and rips its head from its body. Another dream finds David morphing into a demonic beast in his hospital bed as Alex cares for him. His final dream finds David at home with his family when several monstrous Nazi soldiers come bursting in to gun down everyone in the home. After these impressive little explosions of terror, Landis falls back on his skills as a comedic director, allowing us to find the humor in things like David waking up nude in a zoo after a night of werewolf mayhem. We get to chuckle at David’s attempts to get clothing, all of which are cleverly awkward. There is also some humor to be found in the gruesome visits from Jack, who picks up a Mickey Mouse action figure and makes it wave at David. I doubt Walt Disney would have found that one funny!
With its sense of humor finely tuned, Landis gives An American Werewolf in London even more personality through its make-up effects, which went on to nab an Academy Award. There is certainly no shortage of gore to be found, especially in the final moments when werewolf David causes chaos in Piccadilly Circus. There is a massive car pile-up, which results in bodies being thrown about like confetti over the finale. Buses run over people, heads go smashing through windshields, and a police officer’s head is ripped clean off by David’s fangs. Then there is Jack, who over the course of the film decomposes right in front of our eyes. Early on, his wounds are undeniably vicious as shards of skin dangle from his neck and blood covers about eighty percent of his body, but as the film continues, he begins to turns a greenish color and his eyeballs pop out of his skeletal head. All of this make up work doesn’t even compare to what Landis has planned for us about halfway through the film. As the full moon takes to the sky, we get to see David’s transformation up close and personal. Through Rick Baker’s amazing effects, we see thick sheets of hair poking through the skin, David’s hands and feet stretching into paws, fangs poking through the gums, and his face sprouting a snout. It’s all done through practical effects and only a handful of cuts. This sequence alone makes An American Werewolf in London essential viewing for cinema buffs or those who can appreciate the art of special effects.
As far as the performances go, everyone does a fine job with their respective roles. Naughton is spot on as the freaked-out David, who grapples with how to properly deal with his new curse. Does he end it all or does he find an alternative solution? He’s certainly gifted in the comedic sequences, especially the scene that finds him sprinting through a zoo in nothing but his birthday suit. Dunne hams it up as the talking corpse Jack, a “meatloaf” that drops by every now and then to remind David that something awful is waiting to emerge. Agutter is pleasant as the beautiful nurse Alex, a gal who finds herself quickly falling for the cursed David. John Woodvine is also on hand as David’s doctor, Hirsch, who gets to play detective after hearing David say that it was a wolf that attacked him. When it comes to An American Werewolf in London’s biggest flaw, it is difficult to ignore the abrupt ending, which cuts off on raw nerve emotion. You’d like to see what happens next, but Landis just slams the book shut on us and tells us to scram. Overall, while it favors laughs over screams, An American Werewolf in London is still a shrewd little werewolf horror film. It makes wicked use of music, the special effects will boggle the mind, and it features some marvelously set piece around London. It’s just a shame that the abrupt climax will leave you howling with disappointment.
An American Werewolf in London is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
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: Is she still in the dark place?
Rachel: No. We set her free.
Aidan: You helped her?
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.
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.
by Steve Habrat
A year before English director Robin Hardy’s tasteful and intelligent 1973 horror film The Wicker Man, fellow English director Ray Austin released Virgin Witch, a sleazy exploitation film that surely pleased midnight audiences craving some non-stop sex and nudity. Featuring slightly above average acting, enthusiastic editing, and playful camerawork, Virgin Witch is a fairly handsome B-movie that doesn’t miss a chance to show off for the viewer. Considering the film falls into the exploitation category, you might be thinking that Virgin Witch also contains some extremely graphic violence to go along with all the sex and nudity, but the film is actually a bloodless affair. It also happens to be devoid of any real attempt to scare the viewer, as clearly the emphasis was on the steamy side of things rather than the satanic rituals presented to us in lighting schemes that could very well have inspired the neon glow of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Despite all the skin on display, Virgin Witch quickly reveals that it is light on plot, stretching its rickety storyline to the breaking point and spreading it thinly as possible. It buries it underneath heaping piles of panache and close-ups of pretty faces, but after about a half-hour, it’s clear that the story doesn’t intend on developing itself much further.
Virgin Witch introduces us to Christine (played by Ann Michelle) and Betty (played by Vicki Michelle), two unemployed sisters who leave a restrictive home and shack up with Johnny (played by Keith Buckley), a free-spirited fellow who enjoys flirting with every girl he meets. Desperate to find a job, the beautiful Christine has an interview with a shady modeling agency run by Sybil Waite (played by Patricia Haines), who quickly takes a liking to the desperate girl and offers her a modeling gig at a remote castle in the English countryside. Despite the virginal Betty’s unease about the job, the girls venture to the castle where they meet a young photographer named Peter (played by James Chase), castle owner Gerald Amberly (played by Neil Hallett), and several other mysterious locals. While exploring the castle, Betty stumbles upon a room that appears to be used for satanic rituals and Sybil begins questioning Christine about her belief in the supernatural. It soon becomes clear that Gerald and Sybil are the high priest and priestess of a coven of witches, and that they intend to use Christine in one of their rituals. Christine partakes in the ritual and after a wild night, she decides that she wants to join the coven. She begins trying to talk Betty into joining, but she also has another sinister plan which involves taking Sybil’s place as high priestess.
Virgin Witch immediately lets the viewer in on what it has on its mind in the very first frame of the film. This puppy is all about the female form and it comes at you like a speeding bullet with psychedelic images of nude girls posing for the camera. Unlike some exploitation films that would simply glare statically at all the flesh, Austin spins his camera around, flips it, slides it, and pushes it in for fast close ups that lend the film a bit of personality. It actually allows it to become a bit more than just a Halloween issue of Playboy in cinematic form. As far as the sex goes, it’s nothing too racy and its dropped right into the scenes that are supposed to be freaky. Austin fills the set with red and green mood lighting as he presents extreme close ups of two characters getting busy on a satanic alter, all while the other members of the coven dance around like grinning school children. It’s not scary or suspenseful and it’s far from erotic. It’s almost sort of goofy in a way, especially when he cuts to the spinning members who look like they took too much acid at psychedelic rock concert. To be honest, there is barely any effort put in to making the film scary—the only attempts to make us jump are a few surprise jolts and an image of a satanic mask that keeps rearing its ugly mug.
While much of the action drifts towards silly, the actors and actresses work double time to sell each and every scene with a straight face. Real life sisters Ann and Vicki Michelle are certainly talented enough, but they aren’t asked to ever challenge themselves. When the action slows, they simply shed their clothing and strut around for the camera. As for the evil Christine, Austin uses camera tricks to give a bit of menace to the performance. He zooms in on Ann’s eyes, which is supposed to signify that she is starting to become our antagonist and that she wishes to cast an evil spell in Sybil Waite. Vicki’s virginal Betty acts the voice of reason to Christine’s free spirited nature, but the script fails to give her much to do, so she basically wanders through the film. Chase’s Peter is fairly strong as the photographer there to show off Ann’s naked body. Surprisingly, he adds a bit of legitimate romantic depth to his character that most wouldn’t have dared to even bother with. Haines has a cold side as Sybil, a lesbian witch who is overjoyed when Christine gives herself over to the coven. Hallett is restrained as Gerald, the laid-back high priest of the coven who gets to have his way with Christine. Buckely rounds out the cast as Johnny, a massive flirt who suspects that Christine and Betty may be in danger.
As Christine’s plot to take Sybil’s place as high priestess kicks in, Austin makes a brief attempt in the last ten minutes to get your pulse pounding. What results is a darkened chase through the castle’s gardens that basically features a bunch of screaming. The smidgeon of suspense is neutralized when Betty and Johnny make a run from the castle, collapse nude in the woods, and Betty whispers to Johnny that she wants him to take her virginity right then and there. Never mind that they were just being threatened by a coven of witches! It’s scenes like this that make it nearly impossible to take the film seriously or view it as a serious horror effort. While Virgin Witch holds up visually, some of the sound work in places makes it difficult to understand what the characters are saying and the thick English accents don’t make it any easier. I’m never one to complain about accents in movies but this one tempted me to turn on the subtitles more than once. Overall, Austin approaches the project with plenty of zest and he does turn Virgin Witch a visual winner, but as a serious horror film, it’s a massive failure. If you’re in the mood to watch a bunch of people run and dance around in their birthday suits, this is the film for you, but if it is sheer thought-provoking terror you seek, it’s best to start looking for a different coven of witches.
Virgin Witch is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
By the late 60s and early 70s, Hammer Films was beginning to loose some of the popularity that the studio once enjoyed. They started trying to compete with the wave of exploitation horror that was beginning to emerge, which led to the studio cranking up the sleaziness in their pictures. In 1971, one of Hammer’s final triumphs would be director John Hough’s Twins of Evil, the third installment in the Karnstein Trilogy, which also featured 1970’s The Vampire Lovers and 1971’s Lust for a Vampire. Steamy, seedy, extravagant, and violent, Twins of Evil is a hugely entertaining horror film that retains Hammer’s gothic visual style while upping the amount of sex, nudity, and graphic violence for a crowd craving some exploitation insanity. Starring an aging yet wickedly sharp Peter Cushing and the beautiful former Playboy Playmates Mary and Madeleine Collinson (who also happened to be real life twins), Twins of Evil is a thrilling combination of the vampire film, satanic horror film, and witch-hunt thriller, all expertly balanced by screenwriter Tudor Gates. It’s also extremely atmospheric and loaded with Hammer’s beloved castles, heavy fog, crucifixes, tangled woods, and rotting cemeteries.
Twins of Evil introduces us to innocent Maria (played by Mary Collinson) and rebellious Frieda (played by Madeleine Collinson), two identical twins who have traveled to the town of Karenstein to live with their uncle, Gustav Weil (played by Peter Cushing). As it turns out, Weil is the leader of a local witch-hunting group called the Brotherhood, who tracks down young girls who have been accused of witchcraft and burns them at the stake. As the twins settle in to their new home, they happen to hear about a wealthy local by the name of Count Karnstein (played by Damien Thomas), who is well known for practicing the dark arts and coming from a family of Satanists. One evening, Count Karnstein plays host to a satanic cult, and through a barbaric ritual, they happen to contact the spirit of Countess Mircalla (played by Katya Wyeth), who proceeds to turn Karnstein into a vampire. The next day, Karnstein is travelling through town when he bumps into Frieda, who has become smitten with Karnstein’s evil reputation. That evening, Frieda accepts an invitation to Karnstein’s castle, where she gets turned into a vampire and tortures a young girl with Karnstein. After Frieda attacks a member of the Brotherhood, Weil captures his niece and is forced to lock her up until he can decide her fate. His plans change when a local schoolteacher by the name of Anton Hoffer (played by David Warbeck) approaches him about the possibility of vampirism running rampant through the town.
Easily ranking as one of the most fun horror films that Hammer Films ever released, Twins of Evil is an exotic breed of vampire film. The first half is a witch-hunting horror film ripe with hair-raising scenes of Cushing’s Weil ruthlessly running down young girls, tying them to a stake, and burning them to a crisp. Though the film has a heavy B-movie vibe, Hough doesn’t hold back exploring the senseless brutality of these witch-hunts. After finding a man dying in a foggy graveyard from a vampire bite, Weil and his Brotherhood attack the first girl they spot wandering through the woods and drag her off to face a cleansing fire. It really makes for some alarming glimpses of religious extremity at its absolute worst. For a stretch, Hough lays off some of the witch hunting in favor of a satanic horror film set to growling organs, hooded high priests, human sacrifice, and a cry for Satan that would make the climax of Rosemary’s Baby blush. Hough uses the satanic pit stop to glide straight into vampire mayhem that is simultaneously bloody and sexy. The true strength of the film is the way it seems to be able to switch subgenres on us in the blink of an eye.
Performance wise, the actors and actresses seem to have been encouraged to have as much fun with the material as humanly (or inhumanly) possible. Cushing is at his absolutely cheesiest (that is meant as a compliment) as the perpetually serious Weil, an antihero willing to burn an innocent victim at the stake just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. You’ll loathe him at first, but as the film progresses, you’ll be forced to admire the way he sticks to his beliefs. As far as the Collinson twins are concerned, they actually prove to be a pair of competent actresses for a pair of Playboy Playmates. The standout of the two would be Madeleine as the wicked Frieda, who enjoys flirting with the dark side. Hough seems pressured into showing off their bodies for the camera, something that I’m sure Hammer insisted on considering they have Playboy Playmates in the main roles, but the Collinsons don’t seem to mind too much. Damien Thomas gives a vile turn as the satanic Count Karnstein, who grins and snarls through a pair of vampire fangs and shrugs his shoulders in boredom over a satanic ritual that fails to impress him. He can pull off seductive, creepy, and charismatic like a real professional. David Warbeck also holds his own as the kindly schoolteacher Anton, who basically becomes the true hero of Twins of Evil.
While Hammer’s earlier horror films were stone-faced and relentlessly somber, Twins of Evil seems to have a sense of humor about itself. The soundtrack—while exceptional—is wildly over the top, resembling something you might have heard in an Italian spaghetti western. Its all mighty trumpets and ominous organs blasted for maximum effect. Visually, Hough sticks to Hammer’s gothic calling card, but at times he seems to be really laying it on thick, especially in the early scenes when stuffs a gigantic crucifix into a handful of shots. Then there are the overdramatics and the not-so-subtle symbolism that chew on the screen. Cushing screams and shakes his fists at the sky while yelling, “God has sent me TWINS OF EVIL!!,” and during a steamy make-out scene, one character suggestive strokes a nearby melting candle. These winking moments could have been a bit distracting, but Hough has a way of making them strangely charming. Overall, while it certainly drives a stake right through the heart of subtlety and its strongly self-aware, Twins of Evil is still a scrappy little horror movie with plenty of blood, sex, and nudity to go around. It’s a smooth blend of multiple subgenres that all compliment each other quite well in the end. Twins of Evil ranks as one of Hammer’s strongest films in their horror vault.
Twins of Evil is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Way back in the early 2000s, I can distinctly remember several of my friends whispering about shock rocker Rob Zombie directing a horror film that was so scary, the studio was thinking about shelving the project all together. Being someone who liked Rob Zombie’s music and was a fan of horror movies, I was instantly intrigued by just what the horror-obsessed rocker would come up with. Finally the day came when House of 1000 Corpses was released to the public and believe it or not, I never took a trip to the theater to see the movie. I finally saw House of 1000 Corpses during the summer of 2005, right before I went to see Zombie’s second feature film The Devil’s Rejects. I had read the largely negative reviews of film and I had even talked with a few people that had seen it and simply shrugged their shoulders at it, so when I rented the film, I had insanely low expectations as it began. As the film sped through its brief eighty-eight minute runtime, I found myself actually impressed with several segments of House of 1000 Corpses and chuckling at some of the blatant tips of the hat to other classic horror movies (everything from The Creature from the Black Lagoon to The Munsters to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is in there). It certainly was an inimitable vision from a man who had infinite amounts of potential as a horror/cult filmmaker. It was a blood soaked sampler of all the horror films that Zombie loved, but a number of disjointed moments and cheap jolts kept the film from truly striking fear in the viewer’s heart.
House of 1000 Corpses begins on October 30th, 1977, with four teenagers, Jerry Goldsmith (Played by Chris Hardwick), Bill Hudley (Played by Rainn Wilson), Mary Knowles (Played by Jennifer Jostyn), and Denise Willis (Played by Erin Daniels), traveling the Texas back roads in search of wild roadside attractions and macabre local legends. The group stops off at Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen, where the meet the fast-talking Spaulding (Played by Sig Haig) himself. While exploring Spaulding’s funhouse, he sparks the group’s interest in the local legend of Dr. Satan, who is supposedly responsible for the mysterious disappearances of the area. The group suckers Spaulding into giving them directions to the area where Dr. Satan is supposed to reside and while traveling the back roads, they pick up beautiful young hitchhiker Baby (Played by Sheri Moon Zombie), who claims to live nearby. As the group nears Baby’s house, their tire is blown out, forcing them to take shelter at Baby’s rundown farmhouse. Shortly after arriving, the group begins meeting various members of Baby’s family including her mother, Mother Firefly (Played by Karen Black), her half-brothers Rufus (Played by Robert Mukes) and Tiny (Played by Matthew McGrory), her adopted brother Otis Driftwood (Played by Bill Moseley), and her Grampa Hugo Firefly (Played by Dennis Fimple), all of whom are gearing up for creepy Halloween festivities. As the hours pass, the group begins to fear that they may not be permitted to leave the Firefly home alive.
It really won’t take the viewer long to figure out that Zombie has lifted the plot from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and then fed it a heavy dose of LSD. After the acid has kicked in, it feels like Zombie pried its eyes open with the device from A Clockwork Orange and forced it to zone out on endless hours of Universal’s classic monster movies, episodes of The Munsters, forgotten television horror hosts, and stock footage of seedy peep shows and the Manson family. It then spirals into a kaleidoscope of warped images and repulsive shocks that hint at other, better midnight exploitation movies, B-horror cheapies, and real-life serial killers. You could honestly fill a review with all the movies that Zombie pays tribute to. Yet there is something strangely admirable about how Zombie wears these influences on his sleeve. It’s clear that he absolutely loves these movies, he just has a hard time funneling all of these references into one cohesive idea. Instead, he just shoots all over the place, eager to spring redneck funhouse shocks on us while also unleashing a group of underground ghouls that look like they would be more at home on stage with him during a rock show rather than a scruffy horror outing. It really should have been one way or the other.
What has really lured the cult audiences to House of 1000 Corpses are the eccentric cast of creeps drawn up by Mr. Zombie. By far the best character in the entire film is Haig’s Captain Spaulding, a cackling madman clown who never seems to be at a loss for words. A word to the wise, never get the idea to hold up his flashing little roadside attraction. Another classic character would have to be Moseley’s Otis Driftwood, a foul-mouthed hillbilly maniac who takes charge of every situation and dispatches his victims in the most brutal ways imaginable. Together, Haig and Moseley ride off into the Texas sunset with the entire picture. Karen Black will make you uncomfortable as the dotting Mother Firefly, a woman who stands firm behind her Halloween traditions. Sheri Moon Zombie’s Baby will have you gritting your teeth as she chuckles like a deranged schoolgirl. You can tell that Moon Zombie is pretty inexperienced here and that she has a lot of growing to do as an actress. Meanwhile, Wilson and Hardwick are likable enough as Jerry and Bill, but Hardwick (yes, THAT Chris Hardwick) ends up falling into the amateur category when going up against the infinitely more talented Wilson (yes, THAT Dwight Schrute). Jostyn and Daniels are pretty forgettable as heroines Mary and Denise and weirdly, Zombie asks us to root for Daniels in the final twenty minutes. Tom Towles (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Night of the Living Dead (1990)) also memorably shows up in a small role as Lieutenant George Wydell.
I honestly don’t think that House of 1000 Corpses is a terrible horror movie. It really isn’t. It just isn’t nearly as scary as it was hyped up to be and it tries to pay tribute to way too many horror movies. It almost feels like Zombie feared he would never have the opportunity to make another film so he overstuffs it. The film would honestly have fared better if someone had convinced Zombie to drop the whole Dr. Satan thing and leave the mutant monsters on the cutting room floor. I won’t deny that they look really cool but it just doesn’t mesh with the rest of the film. However, there are enough spirited performances, quotable lines of dialogue, and eerie surprises (that cop-execution sequence really stands out) to balance out the weaker spots. Overall, Zombie has a vivid imagination and it truly is a start for him, but you just can’t shake the feeling that Zombie is much, much better than all of this. Either way, you won’t ever forget entering the House of 1000 Corpses.
House of 1000 Corpses is available on Blu-ray and DVD.