An Un-Scary 80s and 90s Horror Helping!
By Kristin Battestella
Do you want to see something really scary? These cult classics of decades yore provide varying degrees of scares, spooky, sinister, and nostalgia better served for drinking game delights and evenings when you take the ominous none too seriously. Look out!
Amityville 2: The Possession – Very good zooms, askew camera perspectives, and haunted house phantom forces highlight this 1982 AIP sort of prequel starring Burt Young (Rocky), Rutanya Alda (Mommie Dearest), and James Olson (Rachel, Rachel). Though a touch toward campy at times, the possession makeup and demonic bodily designs are seriously creepy, and the somewhat stereotypical family dynamics and abuses are no less disturbing and sinister as the household terrors increase. Unfortunately, the latter half of the picture inexplicably dispenses all the fine atmospheric build and turns into a wannabe Exorcist clone with bureaucratic church officials, red tape corruption, and inexplicably poor policing. What the heck happened? After such pleasingly juicy family fears, the finale goes for all the nonsensical cheap thrills, and as a result, the Amityville franchise timeline is completely miffed. This so-called prequel never reveals itself onscreen as such – in fact, it looks decidedly dated eighties, further confusing the supposedly real world happenings and horror movie liberties that already both make yet ruin this film series. Is this installment an account of the DeFeo Family from the Murder in Amityville book or not? If you leave the history out of it and forget the legalese meets exorcism ending, this is an excellent haunted house picture. For all its first half good, it’s a pity someone behind the scenes dropped the ball on this one. I don’t want to be so split on it, but this movie just unravels itself.
Kingdom of Shadows – Of course, this 1998 70 minute documentary narrated by late great Oscar winner Rod Steiger (In the Heat of the Night) isn’t suppose to be scary but informative, and with early silent evidence and obscure footage, writer and director Bret Wood (Hell’s Highway) details the foundations of horror onscreen. The black and white visuals, cinematic screams, ominous scoring, and swift editing make for a fun eerie feeling, but the tone here is a touch too esoteric or highbrow thanks to a confusing, even ridiculously wordy approach. What’s trying to be said about the sex, demonic depictions, sadomasochism, and torture of uncensored silent film? Analysis on early religion and science as evil take up too much time, and these heavy segments aren’t meant for younger viewers. Fortunately, there is quality horror education in the F.W. Murnau talk and good versus horror clips from “The Golem” and “Faust” along with famous topics like Jekyll and Hyde, Frankenstein, and Lon Chaney’s monstrous roles. The audience here, however, has to be one already familiar with movie history and horror film – the sole focus on silent movie making macabre combined with the lofty voiceover, necessary subtitles, and philosophical structure requires a finite niche indeed. Counterpoint interviews and expert discussion would have broken up the academia, and a resolution showing how these early beginnings translated into future horror cinema would have set off the silent spooky. For fans of foreign horror and often unknown early cinema, this is a nice treat – but it also makes a great atmospheric party showing on mute!
Phantoms – Sisters Rose McGowan (Charmed) and Joanna Going (Inventing the Abbotts) arrive in a sleepy Colorado town turned deadly and join Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia), Ben Affleck (Argo), and Liev Schreiber (Scream) against evil in this 1998 barely R rated adaptation of Dean Kootz’s 1983 novel. We get right to the creepy ghost town suspense with fine simmering discovery, eerie bodies, subtle gore, and no technology or communications – it’s nice to see women thinking on their feet amid the unknown, too. Old time ringing phones, jump buzzers, and more fun sounds create shock moments and ironic use of Patsy Cline classics adds to the discomforting uses of light, dark, mysterious messages, and severed hands. The brooding, character piece direction and in camera action in the first half of the film is quite effective compared to today’s herky jerky in your face every minute awe and hype. Unfortunately, the ensemble atmosphere turns somewhat stupid once the cowboy hat wearing, too young, laughable, and woefully miscast Affleck arrives. Folks begin shooting at nothing and running off alone – I half expected Affleck to break character and ogle over the delightfully Cushing-esque O’Toole. Is this a small thriller or military action? We’ve seen other better small town invasion SF/horror, and the middle section here unravels with anonymous deaths, gruesome cool, and inexplicable monsters. We’re supposed to care when the initial players disappear for entire segments only to return for a redundant science versus religion, preposterous under siege battle of wits finale? So long as you don’t take the faux Lovecraft feelings too seriously or think too much on the smart but ridiculous techno babble, one can enjoy the early mystery and ultimately outrageous finish here.
Screamtime – There seems to be very little information online about this 90 minute 1983 anthology, and its very dated British on the streets low budget vibe will turn off some. The framing story is also fairly dull with bad dialogue and wooden acting, but the obligatory boobs pop out soon enough and that nostalgic charm can help heaps. It’s a top loading VCR! Those huge glasses! Puppetry and homely Robin Bailey (I Didn’t Know You Cared) anchor Tale 1 “That’s the Way to Do It” along with his pressuring wife Ann Lynn (The Vise). He clings to his childlike profession and the pace is slow to build beyond the family strife, but dizzyingly good killer perspectives, dark angles, and violent bludgeons overcome some of the laughable elements. It’s a familiar concept; sure, however several solid shock moments and the innate creepiness of Punch and Judy dolls make up the difference. For the Second Story “Dream House,” expected but suspenseful creaking sounds and household scares such as creepy kids, flickering lights, a conveniently non-functioning flashlight, and ominous bloody bathwater make for interesting jumps and twists. Is this ghosts, gaslighting, or hysteria? Though slightly dull to start and similar copycats like Psychosis are fairly recent, there’s a pleasingly effective downward spiral here. Next “Do You Believe in Fairies?” presents seemingly classy old ladies Jean Anderson (The Brothers) and Dora Bryan (Last of the Summer Wine) telling their thieving handyman about evil fairies and murdered lovers. Although there’s more of the same freaky dolls and gnomes, this is a quiet but crazy set piece with a mystical wink and some scares. Everything here is a little too humorous and this should be tighter in getting to the juicy of each tale – the woeful frame story breaks up the demented atmosphere, too – but the now period designs and spooky anticipation make for a relatively good time here.
The Twilight Zone: The Movie – Narrator and original Twilight Zone alum Burgess Meredith leads this 1983 anthology starring Dan Aykroyd (Ghostbusters), Albert Brooks (Defending Your Life), John Larroquette (Night Court), and many more. From the traditional opening titles to tapes stuck in the tape deck, old TV theme songs, and one hulky boob tube, the nostalgia and sentimentality is here for older audiences who appreciate the reflective charm. Though still relevant with nice wartime designs, foreign language uses, and intensity to match its disturbing social analysis, “Time Out” is a little too heavy handed compared to Rod Serling’s original subtly. The bigotry from the late Vic Morrow (Combat!) is upsetting, yet we feel for him as he learns his much-warranted lesson in a most unfriendly past. “Kick the Can” also makes statements on bitter ageism and a second chance at youth but keeps its whimsy thanks to Scatman Crothers (The Shining). The twist is obvious in this retelling and old folks playing can be silly, but that’s kind of the point, too. Kathleen Quinan (Apollo 13), Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and Bill Mumy (Lost in Space) lead “It’s a Good Life” and its bizarre family analysis endears with its freaky funhouse style. Some of the effects become annoying and compromise the would-be black comedy commentary, but there are precious few scares here. Fortunately, with its fun thunder, lightning, music, excellent editing, airplane fears, and apprehensive shocks, the highlight “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” remake starring a perfectly panicky John Lithgow (3rd Rock from the Sun) in the famed William Shatner role is still superbly relatable. While there are no bridging stories pigeonholing the reworked plots from longtime TZ writers Richard Matheson and George Clayton Johnson and Melissa Mathison (E.T.) and Jerome Bixby (Star Trek), the suspense and/or lighthearted attempt to capture the varied spirit of the unforgettably superior series is woefully uneven. Though speculative and thought provoking, the scary claims are definitely misleading, and the rug is taken out from under any momentum because we know how these remakes end. Directors John Landis (Animal House), Steven Spielberg (hello), Joe Dante (The ‘Burbs), and George Miller (Babe) feel late on the scene. Thanks to the tragic behind the scenes helicopter accident this try hard homage becomes an unnecessary, shoddy, and latent blockbuster vanity project. Sure, it looks great on blu-ray and can be enjoyed by those who’ve somehow never seen The Twilight Zone, but most of this is too dated for young audiences and too tainted for older viewers to appreciate.